I was one of the first Cowboys. There were twelve of us at first. There were hundreds of us by the end of The War. We were the tip of the spear that kicked the Shang’s asses across the universe. We were on recruitment posters, telling the kids to grow up quick so they could be one of us. Kids played Cowboys and Aliens in their backyards with families and friends across America. Coming home to that was a real eye opener, especially when I think about how it all began.
Hyperspace’s multicolored hues flowed around the squadron, washing the rebuilt Avenger’s cockpit with a rainbow of colors. Two weeks ago, the Guardian Light had been a ruin; now it flew beside him, gleaming white armor covered in golden runes from stem to stern. Jack looked at the smooth armor, impressed despite himself at just how quickly the Peloran could rebuild when they had to. Of course they’d done the same to his fighter too, much quicker than any American yard could have.
Five more ships held formation with the battleship. The two cruisers and three destroyers appeared as pristine as the Guardian Light, ready for battle after taking damage that would have left an American ship in the yards for months. He’d read that the Peloran ships could rebuild themselves from truly catastrophic damage but never until now realized just how powerful a strategic advantage that could be. Now, flying through hyperspace towards another fight, that realization slammed home hard.
He looked over to where a destroyer sailed at the fore of a long wake cut into the fabric of hyperspace, focused on it, and the canopy zoomed in to show a larger view of the destroyer. The two hundred meter long central spire cut into hyperspace like a knife, slipping between gravity waves far more gracefully than any American ship he’d seen. Those usually crashed through the waves through brute force. This destroyer barely even noticed them. He studied the golden runes running across the white hull, looking for the name that had to be there, hidden where he just couldn’t see it. He sighed in frustration. He knew it was the Swift Wing, he just couldn’t read the Peloran script.
“Keep practicing,” a twenty-centimeter tall Betty whispered from the cockpit ledge next to him, half lying down with what had to be twenty-one centimeter long legs crossed at the ankles. “You’ll get it soon.”
“Yeah,” Jack whispered back absentmindedly, still amazed that the destroyer looked as flawless as she did, after the damage she’d taken. The weapons ring that surrounded the central spire had been repaired, and once again two massive gravitic cannons projected from it, ready to deal death to the enemies of the Peloran. “Yeah, I suppose I will, won’t I?” he added with a bemused shake of his head.
Betty cocked her head to the side. “Okay. What happened?”
Jack looked at her in confusion. “What?”
Betty crossed her arms and pursed her lips. “At Fort London. Something happened.”
Jack gave her a sly smile. “Well, we almost died, but you pulled us through. Nothing important.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Betty spat back.
Jack’s eyebrows rose at the tone in her voice. “Then what did you mean?” he asked, a little more snippy than he needed to be.
Betty rolled up onto her feet and looked him in the eyes. “When I met you, you never studied anything you didn’t have to. You sailed through life on easy street because that’s all it was to you. Easy. No challenge. No reason to try anything but play.”
Jack cleared his throat and nodded. “Yeah, I suppose I didn’t, did I?”
Betty jabbed him in the chest with one finger. “No. You didn’t. Now…. What happened at Fort London?”
Jack cleared his throat again and rubbed his temple. “You’re going to think I’m crazy.”
Betty laughed. “Don’t worry about that, Jack. I already know you’re crazy.”
Jack glared at her.
Betty stuck her tongue out at him and jammed both hands on her hips.
Jack laughed, shook his head, and let out a long breath. “Fine. You obviously have an idea so why don’t you try me?”
Betty leaned forward and put a finger on her lips as if thinking. “You almost died. Did you see the light at the end of the tunnel?”
Jack winced. “Sorta. It was more a rainbow than a bright light though.”
Betty stepped back and frowned. “A rainbow? You’re certain?”
Jack shrugged. “Yeah. Of course, we were in hyperspace by then, so I figure I just…saw that as a rainbow in my dream,” he finished with another shrug.
Betty pursed her lips. “Jack. Do you trust me?”
Jack jerked back at her question. He stared at her in surprise. “Well of course I do!”
Betty nodded. “Good. Then please. Tell me everything that happened.”
Jack held her gaze for several seconds before finally nodding and letting out a long breath. “It was the same dream I’ve dreamt since…well…forever. I was at the beach again, with all of the friends I wished I could be with. Julie and Alex of course. And a couple additions. You were there for instance.”
She raised an eyebrow and he sighed.
“It wasn’t really you though. I think.”
Betty cocked her head in interest, and her calm face finally quelled his nerves. He told her everything. How the other her wasn’t really her. How the other Julie just wasn’t right. How he and the other Betty walked out through the rainbow together. “It was a real vivid dream,” he finished with a shake of his head.
Betty cocked her head to the side with a knowing look. “Why does it have to be a dream?”
Jack cleared his throat. “Because…it’s always a dream…”
Betty smiled. “Is it? Always a dream?”
“Of course it is,” Jack said, not wanting to consider what he’d thought it had been at the time. That was just crazy. “It’s just me wishing I had something I lost.”
“But you thought it felt different at the time,” Betty said and cocked her head to the side. “So who was me? And who was Julie?”
“Just stray bits of my imagination,” Jack said, determined not to think anything else.
Betty just smiled again. “Or maybe there is more to life and death than you have let yourself believe.”
Jack gave her a doubtful look. “I would think you of all people would trust science over…crazy talk like this.”
Betty sighed. “If I thought I was just an automaton, you would be accurate. But I’m more than that. All of us are more than that. There is so much more to life than the body we wear as we walk through it. Maybe you got a glimpse of a piece of that.”
Jack snorted. “And maybe it was all just a dream.”
“But if it was real, then it means you smiled at Death and told her that you’d never run from her,” Betty said with a smile.
Jack shivered. “Yeah. That about sums it up.”
Betty let out a satisfied breath. “Well. You don’t have anything to worry then.”
Jack frowned and gave her a careful stare. “Why?”
Betty shrugged. “Because if it was just the same old dream, there’s nothing to worry about. And if it was real? She accepted your terms.”
Jack frowned in thought. “Oh. Yeah. I guess so.” He leaned back in his seat and relaxed, gazing out on hyperspace. “I guess I didn’t think of it like that.”
“Well, you should,” she said, sounding very pleased with herself.
After a few seconds, he felt her light touch as she sat down next to his arm and leaned back. He glanced over to see her looking up and sighed. He returned his gaze to the multi-colored kaleidoscope of hyperspace, letting its randomness wash over him. They sat like that for a long time, just watching and waiting as they flew through hyperspace. The universe faded into them, their fighter, and the currents of hyperspace. Nothing else existed. Nothing else mattered.
“Hal!” Betty suddenly shouted and jumped to her feet.
Jack blinked. His mind brought the universe back into focus and he looked around at the screens, taking in the current situation.
Betty straightened her sundress, folded her arms, and nodded just as Hal appeared on the communications panel with a smile.
“Prepare to transit,” he ordered. “We will be entering live combat.”
Betty smiled back at him. “We’re ready when you are.”
Jack nodded his agreement and scanned the display showing a probes-eye view of their target in normalspace. The supply convoy hung in the stars alone, with only a token defensive force around it. Jack frowned in suspicion. He didn’t like it. It seemed too easy. It felt…like somebody was waiting for them. “Um, are you certain this isn’t a trap?” he asked.
Hal shrugged on the screen. “As certain as we can be. We have sent probes and cannot find anyone hanging in hyperspace to ambush us. This appears to be all there is.”
Jack frowned at Hal, his unease remaining. “I don’t know. Something about this just doesn’t feel right.”
Hal cocked his head to the side and examined Jack for several seconds. “Do you have any specific thoughts?” he finally asked.
Jack shook his head and scanned the display of the convoy again. He didn’t know how to explain that he felt like a trap was closing on them. “No. I just…if that were me, I’d have something waiting for us.”
“Yes,” Hal said. “We would too. We have searched but found nothing. This appears as our intelligence suggested. A ripe target.”
“Why are they here?” Jack asked. “In normalspace? Why aren’t they moving?”
“They are rendezvousing with another escort here.”
“And we just happened to find out where the rendezvous was? This smells like a trap.”
Hal frowned. “Jack. We have searched. We have found nothing. Do you consider this vague feeling of yours to be more important than these concrete steps?”
Jack sighed, feeling the pressure to shut up. “Well, when you put it that way, it does seem kind of stupid.”
“Indeed,” Hal answered.
Jack shook his head, stubbornly. “But it really does feel like a trap to me. Back when I was climbing through girls’ windows I never did it if it felt like this. And I never got caught by the older brother or father on the other side of that wall.”
Hal cocked his head to the side. “And how do you know you were not jumping at shadows?”
Jack smiled. “I called their phone.”
One of Hal’s eyes rose. “And after that?”
“Well, if I heard it ring, I ran like Hell,” Jack said with a laugh.
Hal echoed his laugh and shook his head. “How often did that happen?”
Jack chewed his lip with a smile. “Often enough that I learned to trust the feeling.”
“Interesting. ” Hal seemed to look away for a moment before focusing on Jack again. “Aneerin shares your concerns.”
Jack blinked in surprise. “Then…why grill me?”
“To find out why,” Hal said as target markers appeared on the screens, covering all of the escort ships surrounding the convoy. “Assume Raven Formation and prepare to transit,” Hal ordered.
Jack frowned. “Wait. He thinks this is a trap, and we’re still going in?”
“We are,” Hal answered with a smile. “If this is a trap, we will leave. If it is not, we will destroy many Shang ships. And perhaps we will do both.” Hal nodded and turned to Betty. “Betty?”
“Yes, Hal,” Betty said with a nod of her own and Jack watched as the entire squadron fanned out from the Guardian Light like a raven’s wings.
“Transit in three…two…one…now.”
Jack closed his eyes, the universe flashed, and he opened his eyes to see the Shang convoy arrayed in front of them. Large, fat freighters floated in the darkness and his eyes flicked from one to the next, the canopy zooming in on each as his eyes passed over them. Twenty destroyers and frigates surrounded the freighters, much smaller but far, far more deadly than the ships they guarded.
He winced as the grav cannons opened up, turning the universe on its side. Only one or two main grav cannons hit each escort, but they hit completely unprepared targets and ripped deep into their armor. Smaller fighter cannons tore into them as well, and Jack focused on the single frigate his half of the Cowboys fired on. Ten grav cannons twisted into it, tearing parts of the structure away and flinging it off into space as they flickered off just long enough to clear space of the debris.
The tortured frigate slewed away from the assault, deflection grids failing altogether as its primary power systems failed. Then the lasers opened up, shredding the wreckage with their rapid-fire strobe of destruction. Jack looked around to see the rest of the escorts drifting in pieces. All targets were neutralized, without a single loss for the squadron. Jack swallowed. They’d never known what was coming for them. Just like Yosemite Yards or Fort Wichita, the attack from hyperspace had ripped them apart in seconds. Jack shook his head. It seemed a good defense really was a good offense when it came to it. It just really sucked to be the defenders in a war like this.
Aneerin’s face appeared on the communications screen, and Jack glanced to see the open channel icon on it. The Peloran was broadcasting without encryption in a language Jack didn’t recognize. Words appeared on the bottom of the screen in American, and Jack flicked his eyes over to smile at Betty who just smiled back. Then he began to read.
“Surrender now and prepare for boarding,” Aneerin ordered the defenseless convoy. “Escape is impossible. Your defenders cannot help you. If you surrender you will be treated according to the old rules.”
“The old rules?” Jack asked, looking over to Betty.
Betty shrugged. “From The Great War. He’s saying he’ll honor the old agreements on prisoners.”
“Ah,” Jack whispered. “Like the Geneva Conventions.”
“Yes,” Betty said with a pursed lip. “The ideas are similar in some ways. Oh no,” she added.
Jack scanned the area with a flick of his eyes and had just enough time to register the alarms of over a hundred incoming hyperspace wakes breaching into normal space before the screens filled with the tracks of incoming missiles. “Oh frak,” he muttered and flicked the stick over as Betty spun the laser turret towards the nearest salvo.
Nearly two thousand lasers in point defense mode from both the fighters and the warships engaged the missile swarm, dotting space with explosions. The missiles swarmed the tight formation of Peloran ships but disappeared in a wall of fire where the flicker of lasers ended. The fire faded before reaching the Peloran squadron and Jack looked around at the ships floating in space around them. One ship after another zoomed in on his cockpit and he recognized the circular form of the Shang warships. He frowned in thought.
“Why aren’t we firing back?” he asked. He squinted at the Shang. “And why aren’t they firing more missiles at us?”
“Warning shot,” Betty answered. “They were just getting our attention.”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure they got it,” Jack returned.
“True,” Betty said, her smile strained.
The communications panel came to life with another face and Jack grunted. The man had dark hair, a vaguely yellow-brown tint to his skin, and slightly slanted eyes like most Shang. He could have walked the streets of any city in the world and anyone would have taken him for someone of Asian ancestry. If he weren’t a single meter tall of course. The small man spoke in the same odd language as Aneerin and Jack glanced down to see the translation.
“Your name is famous, Aneerin ap Taliesin,” the Shang said with a bow of his head. “It is an honor to meet you at last.”
“The honor is all mine,” Aneerin answered in a voice far more calm than Jack thought he could have managed in the situation. “May I ask why you invited us here?”
Jack scowled. Sometimes he really hated being right.
“You offered us the chance to retreat,” the Shang said in a quiet tone. “Now we make you the same offer. You may leave this space at your leisure. This sector does not belong to you. We do not seek to bother your people.”
Aneerin let out a long breath, and spread his arms out wide in what seemed an innocent gesture. “I have grown very fond of the locals. I would hate to see them lose everything they have worked for.”
“This region is not worth a war between our peoples,” the Shang returned and Jack frowned. The Shang seemed so well mannered. Jack wondered if this is how schoolyard bullies spoke where he was from.
Aneerin nodded in agreement. “I concur of course. If you return home, perhaps we can forget that this ever happened.”
The Shang gave Aneerin a grim smile. “You have acquitted yourself well in this conflict. But there is no need to fight to the knife. If you leave now, you can do so in honor.”
Jack glanced towards Betty with a hint of worry. He’d grown up in Minnesota, where no one was supposed to say anything bad about anyone else. Outsiders called it Minnesota Nice. What they didn’t know was how much could be said without saying a word. How much was hid in the context of a raised eyebrow, a set jaw, or the thousands of other little facial ticks that made life interesting in the land of ten thousand lakes. He didn’t know what their expressions meant, but he recognized they were saying a lot without using any words. And it was not nearly as happy a conversation as the one using words.
Aneerin sighed and let his shoulders slump. “One can not leave an ally in such a situation with honor.”
The Shang frowned at the statement. “An ally? These people? “
The Shang sighed. “Their destructive nature makes them dangerous. They have always bitten the hand that feeds them. They always will. If you leave and return to your own worlds, they will never harm the rest of us again. We have no wish to fight your people over them.”
Jack scowled as the runt insulted his people as if he wasn’t even there. “Do you think he can see us?”
Betty shrugged. “I don’t think he’d care if he did.”
Aneerin shook his head on the screen. “You intend to leave them no voice in their affairs. I have another plan.”
The Shang leaned back and let out a long breath. “You think you can lead them better than we can?”
Aneerin smiled. “I think they can lead themselves better than either of us could.”
The Shang shook his head slowly and sadly. “Their nature is to destroy everything they touch. They are children that can not be trusted with,” the Shang said with a wave of his hand that seemed to encompass everything. “They will destroy themselves again. And if we don’t stop them soon, they will bring down many of us with them.”
Aneerin shook his head again. “They are not children and you know it. They do not need your ‘guidance’ to survive now.”
The Shang narrowed his eyes and began to speak more directly than he had been. “They were a threat. They are a threat. They will always be a threat.”
Aneerin nodded. “Yes. They can be a threat, and a very dangerous one to those who wrong them. I stand beside them. It is not too late for you to make amends and follow the same course. I doubt the Americans will ever forgive you, but there are other options.”
The Shang worked his jaw back and forth for several seconds before shaking his head. “They are too dangerous to be allowed free reign of the galaxy. They must be stopped before it is too late. Do you wish to place yourself and your people on the same level as these? There is no need to answer me now Aneerin ap Taliesin. There is time. But your numbers are not sufficient to change the destiny that awaits them. They will be contained, with or without your interference. But if you persist, there will be great suffering. We have no wish to fight you. But if you do not accept our invitation, if you prove that you are a threat to us, your worlds will burn. We offer you this one last chance to leave and live.”
The Shang nodded and his transmission cut out. The convoy jumped out in a flash of light, and a second later the encircling Shang warships followed them into hyperspace with a series of flashes of their own.
Aneerin did not move for several seconds. “Very well,” he finally said in a sad tone and shook his head. “All ships, transit now.”
Jack closed his eyes as the universe went bright white around him and opened them to see the multicolored hues of hyperspace again. A glance confirmed that the communications panel was empty again. He frowned, not liking what was going on one bit. None of it made sense.
“Jack?” Betty asked.
Jack shook his head and looked out on hyperspace as the squadron spun and accelerated back towards home.
“Do you think he really thinks we’re dangerous?”
“Of course he does,” Betty said in a sad tone.
Jack sighed. “Why? What did we do to them?”
“Perhaps they studied your history,” Betty answered. “The Jews and Indians would surely agree about the dangers of humanity.”
“That was a long time ago,” Jack protested.
“The Shang have a long memory,” Betty returned.
Jack shook his head, wondering why he was beginning to feel like there was another shoe getting ready to drop. “I don’t like this.”
“Not many of us do,” Betty said with a shake of her head. “But for now, Hal wants us to land for refueling. Maybe he can shed some light on this.”
“Yeah,” Jack muttered, thinking that the Peloran weren’t big on explaining things. “Maybe.”
Several hours later, Jack and Betty once again flew in a defensive formation around the Guardian Light as the squadron rose out of hyperspace. He blinked and saw the inky black of space, stars shining bright around him. Alarms began to wail and he flicked his eyes across near space.
“Oh no,” Betty said he saw the wreckage where the Peloran base was supposed to be. He scanned further and saw the wreckage of warships surrounding it. The screens began cataloging the debris, labeling some of it Peloran. Most of it though came up with Chinese tags, and he watched as it analyzed one destroyed ship after another after another.
Jack scanned space, seeing more and more chunks of Chinese ships, and swallowed hard at the realization of just how many ships the Chinese had thrown against the single Peloran starbase and the three still-damaged Peloran destroyers at it. And how many they’d lost doing it.
“Oh frak,” Jack said as he felt the other shoe drop.
The Chinese had finally joined the war.