There are times when I realize that everything I’ve known about life is wrong. When everything I know about an entire race is wrong. The Peloran are a very calm race, always nice from what I’ve seen, always courteous and careful. Send them into combat though, and that is when you see what the Albion designed them to be. Utterly fearless warriors capable of looking death in the face and smiling back. I don’t know about the fearless part for me, but I smiled right with them.
“Oh fra….” Jack started to say as T&J ground out a song of war and death. The universe outside his fighter turned on its side as every weapon in the squadron fired at once and his mouth went dry. Over a hundred grav cannons, fourteen of them massive capital ship versions, ripped into the Shang’s flank. Hundreds of missiles followed them in, causing more breaches in the deflection grid with their waves of explosions. Kinetic lances flashed through the holes and impacted at relativistic speeds, causing shockwaves of vaporizing metal that reverberated the ship as if hit by nuclear warheads.
With the deflection grid largely breached, the laser turrets on warships and fighters alike began to play across the entire length of the ship at maximum rapid-fire rate. Jack didn’t know how many lasers fired at the ship, but he could count the thirty-six that the Cowboys fired, and that was from only nine fighters.
Peloran battleships carried around eighty fighters he knew, with the smaller ships carrying far fewer. All told, a full squadron of Peloran ships would usually have at least three hundred fighters of various classes, from light interceptors to heavy anti-ship fighters. The five Peloran ships weren’t a full squadron of course, but they should carry two hundred between them. After casualties, he figured maybe seventy heavy fighters remained for the five ships. Another fifty light interceptors boiled out of their launch tubes, and the laser arrays of every fighter went to rapid fire. At an educated guess, he figured there were probably somewhere between three and five hundred lasers firing from the fighters alone.
And of course there were the five warships. He flew close enough to the Guardian Light that he could see the warship’s point defense lasers physically moving along the runes to their firing positions on the forward hull of the massive battleship. The Peloran were leaving their flanks exposed for a single devastating strike, he noted with a corner of his mind. At full capacity, the Peloran battleship was rated for three hundred point defense laser arrays, while the other ships had impressive arrays of their own. Of course their point defense networks had been mauled in the previous fight. Still, he thought as many as five hundred lasers bridged the gap between the Peloran warships and the Shang flagship.
Kinetic lances were a visible blur of motion followed by an explosion of debris. Missiles were, too, for that matter. Grav beams weren’t technically visible in their own right, but like a black hole they sucked everything around them into their beams. Every spare piece of garbage in orbit rushed into the beams that somehow managed to be darker than space. On its own, that would have been impressive. But when the better part of one thousand lasers fired across the distance of a mere kilometer in a kilometer-wide strobe pattern, Jack saw something he’d never known was even possible.
Lasers were not visible. Not even as visible as a grav beam. But their effects most certainly were visible. Armor designed to absorb damage from a hundred different types of punishment covered the ship, though the grav cannons and kinetic lances had already pierced it in many places. Still, most of the armor remained when the laser barrage initiated. The armor had not been designed to take the entire weapons output of the better part of a Peloran Battle Squadron at point blank range. The armor melted under the assault, turning white hot and pouring away from the ship into the gravitic beams. As the armor flowed away, the lasers burned further in and deck after deck melted or evaporated into gas. Usually the gas would have inhibited the lasers’ effectiveness, but the gravitic beams sucked that in too, and the lasers continued to dig deeper and deeper into the ship.
Puff after puff told the tale of another deck evaporating under the assault until they reached the core of the Shang ship where its primary power generators rested, usually protected from any conceivable assault. The generators exploded, breaking the back of the Shang dreadnought, and spewing wreckage out in massive waves of debris. The lasers melted or vaporized the debris, the gravitic beams sucked it in, and the dreadnought simply came apart, each piece melting or evaporating and falling into the very visible gravitic beams.
Jack had no words for it. He’d never imagined anything like it. No book or lecture on war had prepared him for combat so devastating in such a short amount of time. He’d never imagined he would be close enough to see it with his own eyes, without any magnification at all from the cockpit systems. And he’d never imagined in his deepest darkest fantasies just how much he would enjoy it.
And then he did have a word. It was just one word, a word he’d learned in Texas that fit the situation perfectly. It was a very long word. “Yeeeeeehhhhaaaaaawwwww!”
The Peloran Battle Squadron sailed into the disintegrating dreadnought, flames filled his vision, and Jack hauled the stick to the side. Debris scattered everywhere, bouncing off deflection grids, and Jack and Betty flitted back and forth and up and down as they sought a safe route through the hulk of an exploding warship.
And then the other Shang finally reacted. It had taken them time, far more time than he’d expected. Of course, when he took the time to consider it, it made sense. Who would have been insane enough to surface inside a Shang fleet formation after all? He suppressed a mad giggle of delight at the shock they must have felt. They ignored the British in the distance now, and all of their missile fire slashed in towards the Peloran Battle Squadron, including a certain Avenger that Jack and Betty flew. He felt for a moment like he was in the bright center of the universe, the focus of everything that lived, as the missiles swarmed in, and he twitched to the side to avoid them. Many impacted with the debris of what had once been a dreadnought. Other missiles navigated the debris and smashed into Peloran warships, and the deflection grids flickered. The Peloran ships’ point defense filled space before them with a wave of exploding missiles. None made it through from that direction. The missiles from every other vector came in without any active defense though, dodging and weaving through the debris of the former flagship. Many hit the debris, and explosions surrounded the squadron. But wave after wave of Shang missiles found their way through the ruins and exploded, ripping the Peloran deflection grids apart with gravitic interference.
The Shang lasers opened up then, seeking to do to the Peloran what they had done to the Shang flagship. Shang debris and Peloran armor melted and vaporized under the assault, atmospheric gases belching out into space. Already badly wounded by the earlier fighting, Jack watched the Peloran ships writhe under the assault. He licked suddenly dry lips, knowing they couldn’t take this assault. They just couldn’t. The only good thing, if it could be called a good thing, was that they were surrounded. Every Peloran weapon had struck one side of one target, while the Shang ships fired on multiple Peloran ships, from all sides. The damage they took was horrendous of course, but it had to burn through all of the armor on all sides, not simply the armor on one vector.
The Avenger jerked and screamed around him and he winced against the pain in his ears. Stars exploded behind his eyelids and he blinked them away. “Ow! Ow! Ow!” Betty shouted, beating her body against the flames that covered their fighter with her hands. He held on tight as the fighter spun away from whatever had hit them, his eyes locked on Betty. She froze and looked up at him with wide eyes. “Oh, Jack,” she whispered.
Jack felt something else smash into them and he recoiled from the explosion.
Jack opened his eyes and felt his fingers on a guitar. He strummed it as two soprano voices on either side of him sang a favorite song about beaches and sun and fresh lake breezes. Jack sang the accompanying duet about beer and girls. Put beer and girls in anything and it got better after all. The crowd agreed, cheering the singers on as they danced on the beach. He could only assume the beer agreed as well. It didn’t protest their singing, at least.
The sun was gone below the horizon, but warmth still radiated off the sand and he drove his bare feet down into it. The familiar two-meter bonfire lit the beach, driving back the chilly wind coming in off Rainy Lake with waves of heat that warmed the skin with each flicker of flame. He breathed deep between verses, enjoying the warmth on his bare chest. He held his seat on the wooden stool, strummed his guitar, and sang on.
Jack cocked his head to the side in confusion as he realized the very joyful song about beach parties had taken on a melancholy tone. He didn’t know why. It was a happy song, and it had been every time they’d song it before. Now it felt…sad. Julie and Alex strummed their guitars in a minor key, making it more solemn than normal. He didn’t know why, but he followed them to keep things in tune. The boys and girls drinking and dancing around the bonfire didn’t seem to notice the melancholy though, having as much fun as they always did on Friday nights.
They continued to sing, strumming their guitars, and watching the party go on. A beautiful young lady with blonde hair and a yellow sundress fluttering in the twin breezes off the lake and the fire walked out of the crowd towards them. Jack recognized her in a moment and nodded his head. He didn’t break the song though. If he did that, the party would end, so he kept it going behind her.
Betty walked up to him, turned to look at the party, and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I thought I’d find you here,” she whispered.
Jack smiled in between phrases, and sang on. He scanned the crowd and saw all of his friends there. There drank Big John, the muscular man you always wanted at your back when furniture needed moving. There danced Chris, the wiry man you always wanted nearby when you started a fight. The University of Minnesota’s starting quarterback, Jesse, sat on a log with a girl in each arm laughing at his jokes. His delivery was actually good enough he could have a real future there if he tried. Dave tossed another log on the fire, causing it to blossom up into the night and highlight the numerous burn scars on his body. He was the one you always wanted around if you had to start a fire. He loved fire.
Sarah danced up a storm on the edge of the beach where the waves rolled up to her ankles, her long hair flying wild in the firelight. She was from International Falls and had been to dance school since she was seven. She wasn’t the strongest girl out there, but was real good at bringing a crowd to its feet when she wanted to. Julie stood by the coolers, her spine arching back as she finished another glistening bottle, drinking another boy into the sand. She came from a farm, and while she looked soft and huggable, she could throw a right hook that would send the boy that mouthed off to her into next week.
Jack sang on, wondering why he felt so sad when he was right here, in the one place in the world he loved the most. Partying with so many good friends with so much good music and literal crates of good beer on an awesome beach with a pyromaniac-fed fire. It was heaven.
“You know why you’re sad,” Betty whispered in his ear.
He jerked, almost losing the song, but held it and the party went on. She didn’t belong here. He looked at her and read the understanding in her eyes. She’d never been to the parties. She didn’t belong at the parties. They weren’t her world. In fact, he’d never seen her here at all, even in his dreams since…the thought skittered away and he frowned. He had to fight to hold onto the song.
“You don’t belong here either, Jack,” she added with a sad smile.
He felt a shudder of dread go through him, and almost lost the song again. Somehow, he continued to sing, and the party lived on. His friends continued to have fun. He looked away from Betty and tried to feel like he was part of the party. It just didn’t work though. No matter how hard he tried, he felt like he was on the outside looking in. Only the song, the intertwining of his voice with Julie and Alex, and the guitar in his hands felt real.
Betty stepped behind him, moved close, and placed both hands on his shoulders. He stopped singing at the realization that she felt more real than the guitar.
The song went on, the party went on, his friends continued to have fun, and he cocked his head to the side in wonder as he realized he was on the outside now, looking in at the him who was singing. He looked down to see empty hands, and back up to see the other him playing the guitar between Julie and Alex. He felt Betty bend over until her lips hovered next to his ear.
“I understand why you want to be here,” she whispered. “If I’d grown up with this, I would too. It really is a wonderful life.”
Jack watched himself sing and willed a beer bottle into existence. He lifted it up and watched the fire reflect off the water drops on its side. He popped the top, leaned back into her body, and chugged it down. It was great. The best beer he’d ever had. No. It wasn’t. He lowered the bottle and frowned at it. He’d just drunk the best beer he’d ever had a few minutes ago. He concentrated with a scowl and leaned back to take another chug. A thick, honey sweet beer flowed from the bottle and he finished it with relish. “We could stay here,” Jack said after lowering the bottle, not entirely certain what he meant. Somehow though, he knew it was true. If he decided to, he would never have to leave this party again. The party of his dreams forever.
“Is this truly all you want?” Betty asked.
For a split second, the party flittered out of focus and Jack had to fight to bring it back. “Why?” he asked. “What could possible be better than this?”
Betty sighed and let out a long breath that tickled his ear. “Us,” she whispered.
The bonfire disappeared and he saw both of them standing on an observation deck on a starship, looking out over the Earth far below them. He shook his head, and the party came back into focus. “We could be us right here,” he answered, focusing on the him who still sang. He concentrated and Betty faded into view in front of him. She belonged there, just as much as he did. They could both live forever in the party, never looking back to anything that might hurt them.
“Yes, we could,” Betty said in his ear. “We could settle for this if you wish. But we could be so much more out there.”
“Why?” Jack said, feeling the world want to shift below him again. Stars and fire filled his view for a moment, but he shook his head and the party returned. “Why should we? This is what we want in the end, right? So why bother? We can just…take it now.”
“Is this what you want, Jack?” Betty asked with a sad sigh. “I know a part of you does. That’s why your dreams always come here. But another part of you wants so much more than this. That’s why you wake up every morning.”
The bonfire shattered and faded and both of them sat in a ship, flying through the heavens to anywhere they wanted to go. His heart leapt for joy in his chest at the idea of being free to go wherever he wanted. The ship faded and flames and stars filled his eyes again. He looked away and the bonfire came back, but this time the party seemed further away than before. He could still return if he wanted though. But something about this was harder. More final. He would have to close all the doors behind him to join the party again. And somehow, somewhere, he knew he wouldn’t wake up if he made that decision.
Jack frowned and turned his head to look at Betty. He felt afraid and he didn’t know why. “What happened?” he asked.
She bestowed a beaming smile on him. “That is a question you should never stop asking,” she said and he felt her joy slip into him until she gave him a hard look. “But you know what happened.”
Jack’s heart quailed at the thought and he took a step back towards the party in reflex. It came closer into focus and he realized he was more than afraid. He was terrified. “Do I?” he asked, trying to keep the terror from his voice. Her look of complete understanding and acceptance told him he’d failed utterly.
“Of course you do.”
The party flickered but he shook his head and the party came back into view. All of his friends, everything he’d lived for all of his life, right here. It was all for the taking. All he had to do was take the step and he would never have to leave again.
He didn’t take the step. He met Betty’s gaze. He trusted her. She smiled and opened her mouth again. “It’s never easy to face what we don’t want to face.”
Jack chewed on his lower lip. “So what don’t I want to face?”
Her smile turned grim. “Your death.”
“Oh! I thought we’d lost you!” a voice interrupted and Jack turned to see Julie bouncing away from the cooler towards them. He frowned and realized she’d always been there. His eyes flicked over to the Julie playing next to the other him, faded and washed out like the rest of the party. Then he turned back to this Julie, bright and vibrant as she stepped out of the party and into his part of…the dream? “We’re here! The Boundary Waters, Jack!” she shouted, and the moon shown down on the water as far as the eye could see, glinting starlight on its surface. This truly was paradise. “Fish and love and life and the party, Jack! This is what makes life worth living, Jack!”
He let out a long breath as he followed her words. He could live forever, right here, and never miss a thing. He never had to risk anything again. And there was so much more than just the party. The party flickered away and he saw so many things flashing around him. He and friends fished in the Boundary Waters. His mother and father sat on the porch of their house. More scenes flashed through and he felt the wish to stay and live it all fill him. Everything could be his, no fear, no loss, if he just stayed here.
“All you have to do is give up how amazing you could be in life,” Betty said, interrupting his vision of perfection. “This is what you know, Jack,” she said with a wave towards the party and Julie. “Out there is what you have never imagined,” she added with a wave of a hand towards the lake and explosions filled the sky. “What is beyond that moment, Jack? Do you want to know?”
“What do you want, Jack?” Julie asked and sat down on a freshly created wooden stool next to him. “Something you could lose in a second? Or something you could have forever, right here? All of us? Your friends?”
Jack shook his head and hesitated. They were both right. That was why he dreamed this dream every night. But this wasn’t a dream. He wasn’t asleep. He blinked as the realization hit him like a ton of bricks.
“Come with me and find out what’s out there,” Betty said with a smile and held her hand out for him to take.
“Stay with me and live forever,” Julie answered, leaned into him, and planted an electric kiss on his mouth. Jack froze as his mind exploded. Everything but Julie disappeared in the blink of an eye and he reached out to pull her close without hesitation. They fell onto the warm sand, Julie landing on top of him. Blonde hair spilled around him, the sent of strawberries floated in the air, and fire consumed him as he felt the rush of tongue on tongue.
And then he froze as ice flowed down his spine. The fire faded and he knew in that instant he was truly dead. For the first time in his life, he looked Julie in the eyes and didn’t want to fall asleep in her arms. If he did fall asleep right now, with her, he wouldn’t wake up again. He lifted her carefully, separating their lips, and she cocked her head to the side, confused. “What? Don’t you want this?”
Jack let out a long breath and gave her a sad smile as he remembered their life. “More than you know. But you left.” He saw the hurt in her eyes, the smell of strawberries faded, and the party came back into focus with his understanding. He lowered her into the sand next to him, pulled his hands out from under her shirt, disentangled his legs from hers, and with an iron purpose pushed himself back up onto his feet, never taking his eyes from her. She scrambled to her feet as well, straightening her shirt, and watched him, a look of stunned rejection on her face. He waved a hand towards the him playing the guitar. “You left me. The real you. You wanted fame and fortune and Nashville. I never did. All I wanted was you. Right here.”
Julie smiled at him and ran electric fingers up his arm. “Then you can have me. Right here. Right now.”
Jack reached up to stop her hand with a firm grip. Then he leaned forward and rested his head on hers. “That would have been enough then. Now I want more.”
She took a step back, stood tall, put a hand on her hip, and examined him for several seconds before saying anything more. “Well, I can offer more if you want.”
Alex popped into being next to her and smiled. “How about me?”
Then Sarah appeared with another smile. “Or me?”
“Hell, we’ve got a whole party here,” the three chorused, their voices hard and arms outstretched. The bonfire exploded to twice its height behind her. “Why pick and choose?” they asked and every girl at the party turned to walk towards them. “I can give you anything you want, Jack.”
He understood in that moment that every word she spoke was truth. He also understood one other point. His voice was clear and calm when he spoke to Julie alone. “You’re not Julie.”
Julie smiled. “Oh, I’m so much better than Julie.”
Jack turned and examined Betty from head to toe with a quick glance. “And you’re not really Betty.”
Betty smiled and gave him a slight nod of approval. “You got me.”
Jack turned back to Julie. “You’ve got a good pitch by the way.” He rubbed his chin. “Up until the end at least. The fire’s a bit much. And you just can’t do Julie.” Julie’s eyes flashed in anger, and Jack chuckled. “I really would have done anything for her. But you’re not her,” he finished and turned to stare at the him on the guitar for a long moment.
Julie’s eyes blazed with passion, and she placed one hand on his shoulder. “I can be her! I can be anyone you want! Stay here now, Jack. Live with us forever.”
Jack smiled back as calmly as he’d ever smiled in his life. “No.”
Julie’s face twisted with anger at his rejection, and all three girls snarled at him. “You can’t run from me, Jack!”
Jack felt his smile grow wider and he chuckled. “I’ll never run from you.”
Alex and Sarah disappeared, Julie blinked, and the anger faded from her face. She took a step back, studied him again, and shook her head. “I misjudged you,” she whispered. “I thought you were a boy.”
“I was,” Jack said and looked at the him playing the guitar. The other him stopped and they shared a long gaze. He checked out Julie and Alex on their guitars and they met his eyes too. They would be together forever in his dreams. He knew that. They knew that. But they all knew it was just a dream. They smiled at him, he nodded and they faded away.
Julie moved in to touch him, raised herself on tiptoes, and looked him in the eyes. “I’ll be watching you,” she said, her breath warming his lips. “I’ll be waiting for you.” Then she and the rest of the party faded away.
Jack let out a long breath and spun in the sand to face Betty. “Well. I know who she was. But who are you?”
Betty smiled back. “I’m the one who didn’t misjudge you.”
Jack chewed his lip. “Actually, she nailed me perfect.” He frowned at the spot he had been playing the music from. “He would have stayed. But I’m not him anymore.”
Betty smiled. “So who are you now?”
Jack frowned and turned to see a ray of multihued light appear, the end of a rainbow illuminating the beach and the waves. He concentrated and a set of Republic of Texas Marine Corps Dress Whites appeared on his lanky frame. He looked down to see them illuminated by the rainbow’s light. The gold buttons and stripes gleamed, and he brought a hand up to feel the metal globe, covered by an eagle and an anchor. He straightened his tie and tipped the hat towards Betty with a wry smile.
“I’m a Cowboy. Beyond that, I don’t know. Would you like to help me find out?” Jack asked, feeling more alive than he’d ever felt in his life, bathed in a rainbow’s light. He breathed in the fresh air after an early morning rain and held his elbow towards her.
“I would love to,” Betty answered in an approving tone and slipped an arm inside his.
“Well then, I suppose we should get back to livin’,” Jack said, and they walked into the rainbow together.
Jack’s eyes snapped open and he saw the multi-hued light of hyperspace. He gasped in pain and heard a whistling of air that filled any spacer with dread.
“Jack!” Betty shouted. “Can you hear me?” she shouted again. He focused his eyes on her hologram. Her sundress flapped in the wind. Red globules of blood swirled around her.
That was bad. Very bad. They were losing air.
He pulled in a deep breath, his lungs struggling against the thin air, and he saw spots. “I can hear you,” he said, his voice hoarse.
She raised one arm and pointed to his left. “I can’t fix it, Jack!” she shouted. “I don’t have any power left!”
Jack glanced to the side and saw the fractured canopy where something had hit them. His forehead throbbed and he brought a hand up to touch it. The pain spiked, his eyes watered, and his fingers came away covered in blood. He was hurt.
A ruined ship flew by and Jack cocked his head to the side and watched it. Another ship flew by. And another. Jack blinked in confusion. No. All the ships were the same ship. His fighter was spinning. He blinked again, his mind in a fog of pain and oxygen deprivation, and he tried to remember what he had to do.
“Jack!” Betty shouted and he turned to look at her. She pointed down towards his feet. “Get the kit!” she shouted.
Jack’s brain connected with her words and he reached down to rip the panel next to his feet open. He pulled a small clamshell kit out, raised it to his lap, and flipped it open. A clear mask on top gave him a faint hiss of air when he covered his face with it. He blinked, pulled in a deep, relieving breath, and pulled a patch out of the kit. It was a small patch of soft grey cloth, but when he threw it against the spiderweb, it felt vacuum on the other side and turned white hot. He felt a wave of heat as fibers in the cloth heated it up to the melting point, and the patch fused with the canopy, sealing the atmosphere in.
“Thanks,” Jack whispered through the mask, and gave Betty a weak smile. “It’s good to be back.”
She looked confused for a moment, but then shook her head. “I’m just glad you woke up when you did.”
Jack chewed his lip, looking at her for any hint that she knew about…the bonfire. Nothing. “Yeah. Me too,” he finally answered, mentally chewing on the bonfire and the party. And on the not-Julie and the not-Betty. He wondered if he was right on who they were. But that was crazy talk. Just his mind in a fog.
He looked out at the multicolored hues of hyperspace and saw the Peloran ships spin by again, spewing atmosphere into it. All five of them drifted as if dead in space, their outer hulls completely burned away. The beautiful golden runes running from stem to stern were wiped away, the armor that protected them vaporized, only strips of it remaining in a few places, somehow still attached to surviving structural ribs that were themselves ripped and melted out of shape. He could only see three dozen heavy Peloran fighters screening the entire squadron.
Aneerin’s face appeared on the communications panel, looking far older than he had in the room with all the wonderful food. “We have done what we can,” Aneerin said slowly, his voice sounding very tired. “Return to base now and we shall repair,” he ordered.
Jack swallowed as he watched all five ships rotate and begin to accelerate away from the location of the battle. A handful of tractor beams reached out to latch onto drifting fighters, including their own, and Jack felt them stop spinning and accelerate after the battleship. Jack shook his head in disbelief. “What does it take to kill them?” he whispered in awe.
“They’re warships,” Betty answered as if that explained it all.
Jack yawned, feeling the rush of adrenaline from the battle fading away.
“You should sleep,” Betty said in a soothing tone. “Hal will take care of us now.”
Jack yawned again and nodded carefully. “Okay,” he said, let out a long breath, and closed his eyes. The pain lessoned instantly and he sighed in relief. His last waking thought was that hyperspace looked a lot like a rainbow. But it really hurt to look at it.
A bonfire came into focus on a beach, with boys and girls dancing and two girls singing. Jack smiled in his dream and stepped into the party. He straightened his tie and searched for the blonde in a yellow sundress he knew he would find there. The other blonde was there too, just as she promised, but she smiled and kept her distance. The party would fade again when he woke up, but that didn’t bother him. This was a dream. It was all a dream.
He smiled and went out in search of the real Julie and Alex. He found them on the beach this time, lying in the wet sand where the waves lapped against the shore. They smiled as he sat down between them. Their clear, soprano voices spoke as one. “Hello, Jack.”
“Hey, girls,” he answered with another smile that said all was right in his dreams.