The Audacious Affair
A Jack of Harts Short Story By
Copyright © 2020 by Medron Pryde
Cover background designed by Stephen Huda under contract
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Printed in the United States of America
First Printing, October 2020
The Audacious Affair
Jack Hart’s fingers danced over the guitar strings and a song everybody recognized filled the British Commonwealth dreadnought’s pilot ready room. The pilots belted out the bawdy lyrics as they played cards, reveling in the true meaning of the song. From their perspective.
It wasn’t Jack’s fault that they were wrong. He was playing a great American patriotic tune.
Lance Evans dueled him with another guitar, representing the home team. The brown-haired wing commander had long since proven himself a guitar player equal to every challenge the visiting American blond had dealt out, and they were proud of him.
In their minds at least. Jack happened to think they were wrong on that point too.
Katy Reynolds danced around them, her blonde tresses whipping in every direction as music flowed from the fiddle in her hands. She could play the violin, but Jack thought she truly shone on the fiddle. And today her bow recreated an amazing rendition of a guitar grinding through the chords that separated the other two.
She was truly talented in so many ways.
Other pilots played everything from harmonicas to beer bottles they’d gallantly emptied purely so they could take part in the musical entertainment. The selfless sacrifices men made to bring joy to their fellow pilots was nearly enough to bring a tear to the eye.
Betty’s long blonde hair draped over his shoulder as she held the music in front of him. Jack couldn’t read a single note. He’d played by ear and feel his entire life, but the words were nice to have. The British could be a bit difficult to understand when they were feeling particularly boisterous. And today was a good day for being boisterous.
They were bringing The War to a short and victorious end today.
Jack had absolutely nothing to do with starting the party a little early.
He just enjoyed standing next to pretty blondes. Or redheads. Or brunettes. He was an equal opportunity kind of guy. The only drawback now was that Betty’s holographic body wore the duty uniform of a United States Marine. She looked way better in a sundress. Most girls did if he was being honest. But they were still on duty, so she wore the duty uniform.
The universe was so unfair at times.
Another holoform in a matching uniform leaned against a bulkhead on the other side of the bay, surrounded by the far differently dressed British Commonwealth pilots crowded around her. Jasmine listened with a smile on her face, and her brunette hair bobbed in time to the whispered and not-so-whispered attentions of her various and sundry admirers.
She had the local boys wrapped around her fingers.
Jasmine’s smile grew deeper in answer to one of them, and her brown eyes twinkled as she turned to whisper back. One hand even rose up to tap his chest with a feathery touch of hard light.
A hint of red colored the boy’s fair complexion.
Jack stopped himself from frowning at the boy. Age was hard to measure these days with all the anti-aging drugs going around, but this boy acted young in a way that just poured off him. He projected a kind of earnest innocence, like he’d just left home to see the worlds.
Worlds at War.
Jack wasn’t any kind of old-time veteran or anything, but he’d seen a few good fights out here since the Shang kicked everything off. He’d seen people die. People he loved. People he’d really hoped he might add to that list. He wasn’t certain he would ever have that earnest innocence again, and he found himself missing its absence.
The sheet music shook in front of him and Jack turned his attention to the holoform holding it.
“Nice boy,” Betty mouthed with a knowing smile.
“He better not make her cry,” Jack returned and started giving the music all the attention it deserved again. Or the words at least.
“I’m more worried about her making him cry,” Betty whispered in his ear.
Jasmine glanced in their direction and shook her head at their byplay.
That was when the alarms began to ring. Color-coded lights flashed their warnings all over the bulkheads.
Jack frowned and tried to place them. His first thought was battle stations, but the timbre and frequency wasn’t right. It wasn’t red alert either. That was Star Trek, not real life. It didn’t match any of the alarms he was used to, though this was a British warship. He tried to run through all the alarms he’d gone over upon arrival, but none of them were ringing a bell.
So to speak.
A holoform slowly formed in the middle of the bay, the cloudy core of her body coming first. Arms and legs faded into existence around her, and a face surrounded by long black hair sharpened as her holoform solidified. Then her British uniform snapped into focus as the holoprojectors finished building her up and she turned to face her audience.
“Action stations,” Emily said in a thick upper crust English accent. “All pilots to your action stations. This is not a drill. Repeat. This is not a drill.”
Lance brought his hand up to swing a finger around in an attention-snatching motion. He aimed it towards the hangar bay, and the other pilots followed his silent order without hesitation.
“What’s up?” Jack asked. He flicked a switch on his guitar, and it folded into itself until it resembled a deck of old-fashioned cards. Jack slipped it into his breast pocket and came to his feet.
The cybernetic intelligence of the British dreadnought HMS Audacious turned her black-eyed focus on the American residing in her bowels.
“I do not know,” Emily said. “My sensors detect nothing abnormal, but Admiral Aneerin told us to prepare for battle, so prepare for battle we will.”
Jack glanced towards Lance and Katy with a questioning gaze. Both appeared to be in their mid twenties or thirties at first glance, much like Jack. But appearances could be deceiving.
Katy’s wisdom-filled eyes put the lie to her young face. She had in fact seen the Peloran make Contact with Earth a century ago. And she was a fifty-year veteran of the United States Space Force. Her mischievous smile was the perfect disguise for all the experience she’d picked up in her long lifetime.
Lance was a far more puzzling case. The British Royal Navy pilot acted as young as he looked, and his eyes betrayed nothing more. They shielded his inner thoughts far more than most people Jack had met, only ever telling people exactly what Lance wanted them to know. The man obviously had training in the finer arts of keeping his own counsel. Sometimes he was a wild partier. At other times he was a cocky pilot. Right now his eyes showed only a wily tactician recognizing the situation they found themselves in.
Admiral Aneerin said they needed to prepare for battle. The Peloran’s sixth sense on that subject had never been wrong, so they needed to prepare for battle.
Lance and Katy nodded in agreement.
“Thanks for the clarification, Ma’am,” Jack said and the three moved as one to follow their fellow pilots.
“Don’t ‘Ma’am’ me,” Emily said with a quelling look. “I’m not the Queen.”
“Sorry, Ma’am,” Jack responded as Betty and Jasmine slipped into step with him. Then he cleared his throat at her raised eyebrow. “Sorry.”
“Bloody Yanks,” she whispered under her breath as her holoform faded away. “Always having to ‘Ma’am’ every lady they meet.”
“Don’t mind her,” Lance said as his raven haired cyber joined them at the entrance to the passageway. “She secretly likes it.”
“I do not,” Emily’s voice whispered from the closest bulkhead. “It’s a violation of protocol.”
“She does,” Lance mouthed with twinkling eyes.
Katy rolled her eyes as her redheaded cyber slipped into position with a knowing wink.
Jack responded with an innocent shrug. He would certainly never purposefully ‘Ma’am’ anyone who’d repeatedly asked him to stop.
Katy sighed and lowered her chin, not believing a single shrug he gave her.
Unless the lady in question secretly liked it, of course. Then he’d ‘Ma’am’ her every time he thought he could get away with it.
And the three of them hurried down the passageway together. Jack’s mind went back to the mad scramble of pilots and cybers on the Constellation when the Shang attacked Fort Wichita. The passageways had been so crowded on the fleet carrier that the cybers were forced to sit on the shoulders of their pilots in small mode to avoid having someone walk through them.
The British dreadnought carried only three dozen pilots, though. That meant they had much more room to flow down the wide corridor separating the pilot ready room from the locker room.
Walking calmly next to five pretty girls was a major improvement in his book. Sure, they were walking pretty fast. Some might say they were even jogging. Jack preferred to think of it as sauntering at a good clip. Officers were never supposed to run. It tended to make everyone else nervous. Edgy. Worried.
Captain Jack of Hart Squadron, Republic of Texas Marine Corps, did not want to worry his fellow pilots unduly. That was why he, Wing Commander Lance Evans, and Captain Kathleen Reynolds sauntered along with measured gates that still managed to keep pace with the other rushing pilots.
They stepped into the locker room to see cybernetic intelligences opening one locker after another so their pilots could begin pulling out flight uniforms. They moved to their lockers at the end of the line and Jack stared into bright blue eyes as Betty caught his attention.
“All fighters are warming up,” she reported as she moved to the side and opened his locker. “We’ll be ready to launch by the time you’re geared up.”
Lance’s cyber stepped back from his locker as well, giving the wing commander room to reach in and forcing Jack to squeeze between the two cybers. Well, it would be more accurate to say that he got to squeeze between them. And it would have been a lie for him to deny that his eyes took a moment to rest on the more pleasing aspects of an impressive rear carriage along the way.
Gwen turned to raise an eyebrow at him, and he shrugged without remorse as he pulled his flight jacket out. She chuckled and shook her head as he slipped into the familiar brown leather. The personal computer woven into it went to work, tightening around his body as he pulled the old-style metal zipper up. The lining sealed to create an instant airtight bond that would protect him from explosive decompression. Then he pulled a pair of gloves on, feeling them seal with the flight jacket as well.
“My fighters are coming online now,” Jasmine reported from behind him.
Jack nodded and pulled the ubiquitous black Stetson used by so many American military units out of the locker. He lowered it onto his head and adjusted it with a tug on the brim. Jack had to admit that he had become a fan of that particular headgear. He smiled at the reflection in the mirror.
Girls loved a man in a fancy hat.
The air flickered between him and the mirror. He nodded in approval once more. The low-powered force field linking the flight jacket to the armored headgear was just powerful enough to keep him from breathing any vacuum he had the bad luck to run into. Pleased with the uniform’s protection, and just how good it looked while providing it, Jack stepped back from his locker to scan the British pilots.
The last of them pulled their flight helmets on and the sound of hissing air filled the room.
And more importantly to one Captain Jack Hart, several of the cybers gave him their undivided attention. Well, all cybers ran on multiple processors at once, so they technically divided their attention all over the place. But their holoforms easily showed that many of them were sparing at least one processor to give Jack a good scan.
He gave them a jaunty smile.
They rolled their eyes in unison before turning back to their pilots.
“Stop flirting,” Lance said with a shake of his head.
“What?” Jack asked in an aggrieved tone. “I was just smiling.”
“With you, that’s flirting,” Katy pounced with a smile of her own.
“They picked the forms of pretty girls,” Jack protested as they stepped away from their lockers. “It would be rude of me not to show my appreciation of their effort.”
“Rude,” Lance said with a chuckle. “Right.”
“I always practice safe appreciation,” Jack rejoined.
“Of course you do,” Katy said with an amused shake of her head.
Lance sighed and turned to his pilots with another wave of his hand to get their attention. “Let’s saddle up!”
“My favorite pastime,” Jack said quietly enough that the other man could ignore it if he wanted to.
“Yee haw,” Katy whispered in response.
The wing commander shook his head in exasperation and followed his pilots into the hangar bay, where three dozen British Spitfires hummed in their launch cradles far above the deck. It was much smaller than the hangar bay on a dedicated carrier like Constellation, but larger than anything Jack had seen on any other ship. Numerous shuttles and landing craft dotted the massive deck, while ground assault tanks and mechs hung off the bulkheads to either side.
And a massive F-12 hyperspace-capable Avenger starfighter dominated everything else around the deck. Her nose was a twenty-meter long angular spire devoid of the smoothed edges most final production models enjoyed. It jutted out of a fuselage as sharp and angular as her nose, and hard-edged engines glowed a bright blue color to show they were ready for action.
She and the others of her kind were prototypes, rushed into service after The War started because they could do something no other American fighter could do - transition between hyperspace and normalspace without the aid of a starship. Many people called them ungainly and ugly, but Jack loved every one of those sharp and hard lines.
“You enjoy this way too much,” Katy said with a shake of her head.
“What?” Jack raised a questioning eyebrow at her.
Katy shook her head and snorted as she peeled off to head towards the much smaller F-7 Hellcat waiting for her under the Avenger’s wing.
The Hellcat’s smooth lines and long curves had been America’s best fighter design for fifty years. She’d seen decades of challengers come and go, claiming they were the next big thing, only to fall to her venerable lines and capabilities one after another. She’d earned her place in American service by fighting and surpassing every Pre-War fighter ever built.
But that was the point. She was a Pre-War design, and the times they were a-changing.
Jack doubted the Avengers would be the culmination of that change. They truly were too large to be proper starfighters, but they were the agents of change. The age of starfighters that could not enter hyperspace on their own was coming to an end, and the Avengers proved that every day this War dragged on. So was her Hellcat, now that he thought about it. Peloran upgrade kits could do some fantastic things.
He watched Katy climb up her Hellcat’s ladder and smiled at the other set of fantastic curves on display.
She glanced back, shook her head, and slid into the cockpit with the ease of long practice.
Jack turned away to see an admiring expression on Lance’s face as well. Jack chuckled at the other man.
“She’s a certified Ace, you know,” Jack said as fighter after fighter lifted off the deck. “Killed six Shang from the seat of that fighter during the Battle of Fort Wichita. And that was before she got the Peloran upgrade kit.”
Lance turned back to Jack and cleared his throat.
“Bottom line,” Jack said over the growing sound of engines and fighters coming off the deck around them. “Do not underestimate Katy.”
Lance nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“You do that,” Jack said with another chuckle and turned to his Avenger. “Betty?”
“Ready,” Betty answered.
Jack flexed his knees and jumped into the air. Even he couldn’t jump very high in the standard one-gee gravity of the British dreadnought, but that didn’t matter. The jump was more for looks than anything else, and his Avenger’s gravitic generator snatched him from the air to lift him up far higher than he could have jumped. It deposited him smoothly into his open cockpit, and he sat down with ease. He was no short man by any measure, but the Avengers were built big, and the cockpit had plenty of room for even his long legs. He quickly reached for his five-point harness and began clicking it into place around him.
Betty and Jasmine’s action figure-sized holoforms floated in under the closing canopy, and their uniforms began fading out of focus. A far more comfortable yellow sundress faded back in around Betty as she placed one elegant foot down on the console. Ratty blue jeans, a dirty grey tank top, and a smirk did for Jasmine’s long and lanky frame.
“Oh, that is much better,” Betty whispered and patted her dress down with an approving smile.
“And by God, it’s good to be out of those spook suits,” Jasmine whispered as she ran her fingers through her now very unregulation hair.
“You do look better out of uniform,” Jack returned with a wink.
Betty raised an eyebrow that spoke volumes at him.
Jasmine aimed a mischievous look his way and pulled her hair away from sparkling eyes. “Yes, we do.”
He matched the mischievous look he was so very happy to see on her face today and waggled his eyebrows. “Don’t let me keep you from experimenting.”
“Spoilers,” she said with a waggle of one finger. But she shook her head with humor.
“Ah, but you have such fine spoilers,” Jack said and let his eyes trace down her shapely holoform. Then he scanned back up to her face where another amused expression awaited his wandering eyes.
“Be careful,” the cybernetic intelligence whispered. “You could give a girl the wrong ideas.”
“Or the right ones,” Jack countered with a wink.
She aimed a long and careful look at him.
He recognized the doubt in her eyes and didn’t blame her a bit. Her pilot was dead. Drew died in battle, but in a world where cybernetic partners shut down rather than live without their pilots, Jasmine hadn’t. She lived on, and it was a strange and terrible world without the pilot she’d been born to fight with. The woman who had made her complete.
Jack knew she could leave at any time. She could shut down today or just decide to pursue another life. There was nothing to keep her here, fighting, not anymore. And maybe today would be the day she decided she was done.
“What am I going to do with you?” she finally whispered.
He could hear the temptation of that decision in her voice.
“Well, that’s a good question,” Jack said with an outrageous waggle of his eyebrows. “I may have some ideas, if you’re willing to listen.”
Jasmine laughed out loud, and the joy of it filled him with happiness once more. It was the sound of someone who’d decided that maybe today was not a good day to die.
“Of course you do,” she whispered, and a wry smile colored her face.
A green light came on to interrupt their conversation. It was his time to launch. Jack glanced at the displays to make certain the other fighters had cleared out of his way. It would be a shame to run any of them over because a light told him he could.
The hangar was clear. He shared a smile with Betty.
She nodded and lifted them off the deck with a gentleness that belied their size.
Then Jack slammed the throttle forward, and their Avenger clawed her way out of HMS Audacious and into the naked space that was her natural habitat.
Audacious was different from any warship Jack had ever flown out of. She was long, tall, and narrow compared to other starships, though an impressive girth beefed up her middle section. That was where most of her primary systems and crew resided, behind as much armor as the dreadnought could carry. Hundreds of small weapons turrets hung off her every flank, giving them impressive fields of fire, and sensor nets spread out like sails all around her to pull in as much sensor resolution as possible.
And above them all, the British Commonwealth’s holographic White Ensign flapped in the nonexistent breeze of airless space. Admiral Williamson’s flag flew beneath it, telling everyone who ruled this particular piece of space.
All four dreadnoughts flew in a close formation, ready to destroy anything that entered weapons range of the British Commonwealth’s Second Fleet. Battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and frigates spread out around them in a nearly-spherical formation of progressively-smaller ships further from the center. They numbered over a hundred warships strong, making them the largest force in the entire system by far.
The surviving Shang and Chinese warships huddling in the shadow of Xin Shi were certainly no threat to them.
The fleet held position just under four lightseconds from the colony, well out of effective planetary weapons range. The ships could easily dodge any fire the powerful surface and orbital defenses sent their way.
The planet was not so fortunate, and what was quickly becoming known as the New Washington Winter Contingency had everybody just a little bit trigger happy. There was a reason for the Lunar Treaties that had kept the nations of Earth from bombarding each other into new Ice Ages. The Shang had violated them on Earth, and now at New Washington, and the Americans were out for blood.
Which was one reason the British had come to broadcast a warning to the Chinese. Surrender the Shang that bombarded New Washington, or the Americans would come calling next. It was one last chance to end The War before it escalated any further.
Jack hoped with all his heart that the mission succeeded. Well. Maybe not all his heart. He would be lying to himself if he didn’t admit that he would be happy to shoot as many Shang as it took. But the Chinese hadn’t bombarded New Washington. They hadn’t hit Washington DC or brought Yosemite Station down over the western half of America.
He was perfectly willing to let them off the hook. All they had to do was give up the bloody Shang who’d started all this bloodshed. That was all they had to do.
Jack whispered a prayer that they would do that. Not that he’d talked to God much in recent years. One might say he’d gotten a bit out of practice in that. But it wasn’t like he was coming in out of the blue and asking God to give him something. This was a regular public service. If they backed down, he wouldn’t have to kill them all. Get to kill them all. Yeah. Opening fire would make him real happy. That made him a regular Good Samaritan right now.
But it did not seem like the Chinese were ready to listen to anybody, be they God or Man.
Admiral Aneerin thought there was danger coming. The Peloran thought they were going to have to fight here. The alien said that they were not done yet.
Jack closed his eyes and breathed in and out slowly. He cleared his mind and tried to listen to the still small voice that warned him of danger. It was one of the more interesting aspects of being Ageless.
The Peloran Treatments Aneerin had brought with him slowed everybody’s aging process, but one time in a million they froze it altogether. The lucky man or woman never got sick again in their life and sported the ability to survive any wound that did not instantly kill them. Cuts? Gone in minutes. Bone break? Give it a day or three. Lost limb? Those could take a week or four to regrow.
Jack even knew two people who’d lost everything south of their neck during a car accident on their first date. They’d been close enough to an emergency room to get hooked up to life support before the blood loss killed their brain. Mastered online wargaming in the year it took them to regrow all the bits they’d lost. Gotten married, too.
Mechs of War had paused for a day so everybody could celebrate without worrying someone would sneak attack their home planet. That had been a fun bash, right down to the happy couple walking under an honor guard of mechs with raised swords. Largest online wedding in history according to Guinness.
Jack had been verified guest number five oh one. Part of The Mighty One Thousand who’d stormed Holy Terra herself a few weeks earlier. That had been another fun bash, of a completely different kind.
His membership in that elite group had been made largely possible because of the sixth sense the Ageless got that warned them of danger before it arrived. No one could dodge a bullet. But if you could see where it was going to shoot you, you could step out of the way before the bad guys fired. Jack had used that advantage in game even before he realized what he was doing.
Which was a direct violation of the game’s terms of service. Jack was not one bit ashamed of himself for that.
And he was not ashamed of himself when he narrowed his eyes and focused on a region of space outside the British formation that screamed of danger to that barely-understood part of his mind.
“Can we get a focused scan out there?” Jack asked with a wave of his hand in that direction.
“On the way,” Betty said. One of her drone fighters rocketed in that direction on blue fusion flames.
“And get the drones into a tight formation, please.”
“What’s wrong?” she asked, but her drones responded instantly, coming back towards Audacious’s flank. “I don’t see anything out there.”
Jack growled as his fingers continued to twitch. He had to fight to keep his hands off the controls. “Aneerin’s right. Something bad’s headed our way. And that’s where I think it’s coming.”
Betty and Jasmine shared a quick look, and then one of Jasmine’s drone fighters flashed and disappeared. A second later, a display began relaying sensor images of hyperspace, showing it empty of all threats. But hyperspace was a kaleidoscope of gravitic energy that cut sensor ranges down to mere kilometers or less. They needed more eyes to find anything in that soup. More drone fighters flashed out from all over the fleet, and the hyperspace display expanded.
Jack gave Betty and Jasmine a questioning look.
“We’ve still got nothing,” Betty said with a growl of her own.
Then the displays lit up with alarms, as controlled gravitic surges bloomed into life beyond the furthest reaches of their sensors.
“Rainbow red!” Betty shouted over all allied frequencies. “Bogeys incoming!”
Jack frowned as he considered her report. He’d gotten good marks in the book portion of the training, but the training had been fast and furious. It just wasn’t second nature to him yet. Rainbow red was… hyperspace event… imminent. And bogeys were unknown spacecraft.
Which made a lot more sense to him now as he scanned across the displays. One after another showed the rainbow colors of hyperspace spraying out all over normalspace, far outside normal weapons range.
Ship after unknown ship slammed into their realm of existence. First five, then ten, followed by twenty. Then scores danced in the rainbow light, and hyperspace boiled all around them in a torrent of energy that battered the very fabric of normalspace.
Everything clicked in that second and Jack finally understood everything his subconscious mind had been trying to tell him. The Western Alliance was here. The Chinese were here. There was only one other major nation on Earth and beyond that could field a fleet that size. Discounting aliens, of course. And these weren’t aliens. He didn’t know how he knew that, but these were Earthborn humans.
That left only one possibility.
“The Russians are coming,” Jack said in a grim voice.
Betty’s drone fighter approached close enough to see through the hyperspace jamming and the displays filled with information, ship classes flashing by almost faster than Jack could read.
“You’re right,” Betty said with a sad smile. “So how are we going to get out of this?”
There were some things that Jack needed help to understand. But watching the information propagate across the displays, filling them with information about the entire Russian fleet, he knew this was one instance that he really didn’t need help with. There were a lot of Russians ships out there, and more were coming each second. Way more than he wanted to fight if he had a choice.
“Well, maybe we can mix things up a little and talk our way out of this,” Jack said. He chuckled at the disbelieving looks they gave him.
“Admiral Williamson is already trying that,” Betty reported. “No response. Though that might be due to hyperspace blindness.”
Jack nodded in understanding.
The transition from hyperspace to normalspace tended to do Bad Things to improperly shielded electronics. In all two centuries of star flight, no sensor or camera had ever recorded what happened in that blink, that flash of light between hyperspace and normalspace. It was like the ship disappeared and reappeared and there was nothing in between the two, nothing to connect them. AIs had gone insane trying to analyze it. Which was a pretty trick when they weren’t properly alive to begin with.
The lucky people who watched it with their eyes open didn't remember anything at all. The others… were not so lucky.
When he’d traveled to Luna as a child, Jack had been curious and reckless enough to override the safety glass and watch them arrive. Five hours later, he’d still been seeing reflections of… whatever it was that a ship went through. That had been… a long time ago… and he still could not accurately describe what exactly it was he’d seen in that moment. He couldn’t find the words.
Not even the thoughts. It had been amazing and terrible at the same time. He didn’t even know if he accurately remembered it all, or if it was just his mind trying desperately to recognize something, anything, in something that was inherently unrecognizable. It was beyond his ability to imagine. Like colors he could barely hear, or sounds he could almost see. It was… wrong on a level that hurt sanity.
So now he closed his eyes during transitions for safety, security, and peace of mind.
Those otherworldly energies ran up and down the skin of ships making the transition. That was almost certainly part of the flash of rainbow light. It could overload sensors of any kind if they were not properly shielded and caused static discharges throughout the ship. In the early days of star travel, all crewmembers wore insulated uniforms during the transition to protect them from the deadly effects.
The Peloran had shown the Western Alliance how to shield against those effects better, but they'd never helped the Russians in that way, and so that nation lagged behind the technological curve. They built powerful ships, strong ships, rugged ships, but ultimately the Russians lacked the technical sophistication the Western Alliance took for granted. They made up for that with the simplest of Russian expedients.
Quantity truly did have a quality all its own.
As static electricity flowed up and down the Russian warships, blinding every sensor they had, the Russians did what the Russians always did. They bypassed the problem. Fighters insulated inside their hangers during the transition launched into space to see what was out there. Their sensors were not as powerful as the Russian warships, but they launched hundreds of fighters, and those fighters transmitted everything they saw back to their motherships.
And probably everything they heard.
Jack let out a long breath, came to a decision to do something a lot of the higher ups probably wouldn’t like, and hit the transmit button anyways.
“This is Captain Jack of Hart Squadron, Marine Corps Fighter Attack Wing 112, the Cowboys,” he spoke over the open frequencies. “The Shang have violated the Lunar Treaties and bombarded civilian targets on Earth and beyond. We’re only here for them. We have no quarrel with you. If you turn around right now, we’re good. But if you insist on walking in all guns blazing, you will regret it.”
Jack released the transmit button and leaned back in his seat, hoping his challenge would make a difference. Doubting it would. But he had the image of a loudmouthed Cowboy to uphold.
A display lit up with an amused Russian face.
“Cowboy,” the man said in a thick Russian accent. “This is Captain Dmitry Kasparov of Ascalon.”
Jack smiled back at the man. It was good to see he’d gotten the attention of at least one captain. Maybe more.
“We have outflanked you,” the Russian continued with a smile that suggested it was not good. “Your threats are empty. Why do you insist on such theatrics?”
So the man was completely disregarding his points about the Shang. That meant his government wasn't going to accept that narrative. That was not good. Still, Jack might be able to make another point stick.
“Because sometimes theatrics make for the very best threats,” Jack answered and nodded towards the man. “Though I would call this more of a promise, you understand.”
The Russian chuckled at him. It was hard to describe in words, but it was a very Russian chuckle, filled with the stoic and fatalistic humor those people were famous for. Almost dark, but that was too simple a word for the emotions that Russian chuckle projected.
“What do you expect to gain from this… promise?” the Russian asked.
“Nothing, right now,” Jack answered truthfully. “Especially since your government seems to have made its decision. But I promise you… I promise all of you… that if you open fire on us today, I will make it my life’s work to make your government regret it or die trying.”
The Russian nodded very slowly.
“It is a worthy promise,” The Russian said with a grim smile. “We shall see if the foe is as worthy.”
The display winked out, dispelling any further doubt that they were going to have to fight their way out of this.
Powerful engines came to life and the Russian ships surged forward amidst the lingering waves of rainbow energy still dancing in normalspace. They parted the rainbows to reveal long and angular hulls that reminded Jack of flying bricks. They projected brooding natures and simple effectiveness, much like his own Avenger. These were not starships designed to look beautiful and shiny. They were built for war, and they were coming for it today.
Betty waved at another display, showing fifty Shang and Chinese warships accelerating out of orbit. The flat, saucer-shaped craft climbed up out of the gravity well and Jack let out a long breath. It was a pincer move, and the British were well and truly in the center of it all.
It was no surprise to anyone when the Russians opened fire on Betty’s drone fighter. She did a very good job of dodging the vast majority of the weapons fire, but when thousands of weapons opened up on a single target, dodging ninety-nine out of a hundred meant that “only” dozens generated solid hits. They shredded the drone in seconds.
“Well, this is fantastic,” Jack growled and shook his head. “How long before the Brits can dive?”
“Five minutes.” She did not seem happy with that number. Jack ran the numbers in his head and pursed his lips. The British couldn’t get back out in time to avoid action.
“Then I guess we’ll be shooting us some Ivans today.” Jack breathed in and out, focusing his attention on what would come next. “Jasmine. Recall your scout back to point defense formation.”
“On it,” Jasmine said, and her drone fighter flashed back into normalspace to join the others.
“Cat. Get in closer,” Jack commanded after another quick glance at the sensor plot.
“Snuggling up as ordered,” Katy said. Her Hellcats quickly slid into a tighter formation around both of them.
“Promises, promises,” Jack whispered under his breath.
Then he reached over and ran his fingers over another display. He tabbed through several playlists until he found the one he wanted. A smile lit his face as he tapped it to life. The sound of dueling guitars filled the cockpit, and Jack leaned back as all was right in his world once more.
The British responded to the coming threat in time to the music, fighters and destroyers deploying between the capital ships and the Russians. The Cowboys slotted into defensive positions along the wall, and Jack reached for the control stick. A quick twist spun them around to face the incoming Russians as the guitars climaxed and fell into silence.
“Could you bring everything up please?” Jack asked as the drum solo began. The displays showed a number of their weapons greyed out, and that just would not do.
Betty aimed a satisfied smile at him.
“Since you ask so nicely,” She began in a soft tone. The displays showed their laser turret dropping down out of the nose, followed by the four laser barrels deploying from it. “Lasers online.” Three gravitic cannons extended from the wings and nose. “Gravitic cannons online.” Missile pod covers rolled back into the main fuselage and the pods rotated back and forth to verify they were operational. “Missiles online. All weapons operational.”
Jack shivered. “Oooh, you say the nicest things.”
Betty laughed as the twin voices of T&J finally began to sing.
Taylor and Jennifer according to most people now. They’d been Julie and Alex when he met them. His fingers strummed invisible strings in time to the guitars beneath their voices, and his mind filled in the third part that was always missing in their songs. The part that made them complete. Not that they sounded bad without it. Other instruments and background voices filled the holes perfectly enough to take T&J to the top of the charts, but he always heard the holes in the songs and remembered what it had been like when he filled them.
They’d always written their songs for three guitars and voices, but now filled in the missing part with their band and background singers to perfection. He loved to listen to those songs over and over again, so he could analyze them and build the part that would make them complete. That would allow three voices, three guitars, and absolutely no power of any kind to play them on a beach in front of a blazing bonfire and a dancing crowd. The way it always should have been.
The way he’d wanted it.
They just wanted more than that. Now they had it. Now they filled football stadiums and showed all the military boys what they were fighting for from USO stages.
Jack breathed out and let the song take him away from all his worries and all his problems. He grabbed the controls and every conscious thought he had just went away. He was one with the music and one with his fighter. He was one with the moment, living on instinct in time to the very best musicians in all the worlds. In his own very biased point of view.
The Russian Federation opened fire in perfect time to the music that was now his life. Missiles exploded from their flanks, boiling out in an ever-expanding stream of flame reaching out towards the British Commonwealth fleet.
Jack felt as much as saw the Russian missiles meet British counter-missile and laser defense batteries. Betty ducked their fighters through a complex random pattern to make them hard to hit. Their lasers strobed out to destroy incoming missiles. Jasmine’s drone fighters joined the deadly ballet, weaving in and out of Jack’s path with a precision that still amazed him.
Not one missile made it through, but the steady Russian advance continued.
Jack moved the stick again and again. Sometimes it was the music that made him pull his fighter up. Sometimes it was the feelings of danger that made him shift to the side. Sometimes he just wanted to duck a bit for no reason at all. Betty and Jasmine’s evasive maneuvers were impressive, but they were computers. Even the best cybernetic intelligences had patterns, and every enemy sought to deduce them. Jack was one hundred percent organic, and so he twitched just a little bit whenever he felt the whim, adding his own organic randomness to the evasive maneuvers.
The British added more to the chaos in the form of a full missile broadside.
Russian fighters flew in behind another enemy missile salvo.
Jack shifted the fighter to port to avoid as many of the incoming missiles as possible without leaving their position in the defensive wall. Betty and Jasmine’s lasers chattered away at them, sweeping the missiles out of space without remorse.
British fighters cut through the holes in the missile salvo and slashed into the Russians. Flurries of destruction spread out in every direction.
Betty and Jasmine fired up their gravitic cannons. They pierced the furball of snarling fighters like dozens of tiny knives, and five Russian fighters exploded or ripped apart.
The massive British missile salvo closed in on the Russian fleet like the harbingers of death.
The Russian point defense network tore them apart without mercy.
The Russians continued their inexorable advance, and the missiles on both sides drew closer before the overtaxed defense networks shot them down. Katy’s fighters reoriented and poured more counter-missile fire into the Russian attack. Her launchers wouldn’t be able to keep that rate up for long. The incoming missiles exploded short of Audacious and her closest escorts, though many of the destroyers and smaller warships surrounding them suffered hits that left them streaming wreckage.
“Keep it up, Cat,” Jack said as the best music in all the worlds took him where the enemy missiles weren’t.
“I’ve got your back, Boss,” Katy responded.
Missiles passed back and forth between the two fleets in a never-ending stream of explosions, and the Russians closed to within a lightsecond. Massive spinal gravitic cannons opened up, stabbing into the British fleet. They missed the wildly evading warships, unable to accurately track their movement through that much distance and time. The British returned fire with larger numbers of broadside-mounted gravitic turrets. Beyond ripping apart some unlucky missiles, they achieved similar accuracy as the Russians.
Modern gravtech vessels were simply too maneuverable to hit with a mere lightspeed weapon at such ranges.
Jack flicked the controls to the side. A missile passed by a second later, somehow having penetrated the anti-missile fire of an entire fleet. Audacious’s inner point defense grid picked it off moments later.
Betty locked onto a distant Russian target before opening fire with all three gravitic cannons, and her drones followed suit. Jasmine’s drones joined the gravitic smackdown, sweeping space around the Russian cruiser with lances of twisted gravity. Maneuvering thrusters kept their target moving in random directions, but one gravitic cannon managed to sweep over the Russian. The Russian deflection grid practically ignored the attack at their current range, stopping it without so much as a twitch in power levels.
“Good hit,” Jack complimented the two cybers sitting on his console.
“Too bad it didn’t hurt them,” Betty growled back as their lasers flashed, intercepting more incoming missiles.
“Don’t worry, they’ll get closer,” Jack said, his tone grimmer than he’d meant it to be.
Betty grimaced. “Yeah, not worried about that.”
“They seem rather determined on that point,” Jasmine added.
Jack winced as a Russian gravitic cannon smashed into a British destroyer. The ship’s deflection grid flashed for an instant before failing, and the gravitic beam ripped clear through the ship itself. A gravitic turret caught by the assault overloaded and exploded, slashing the destroyer from stem to stern, and then another followed it. The destroyer snapped in half. It began to drift out of formation, streaming atmosphere and wreckage in every direction.
“Yes, it would appear that they are,” Jack said in a grim tone. He pulled the throttle to the side, engaging the thrusters that sent them sliding to port in time to the whine of a steel-stringed guitar. A swarm of missiles came flying by a second later, trying desperately to claw their way to him. Most of them fell to the laser turret. The rest charged towards Audacious, and the warship’s inner defense grid tore them apart.
Another swarm of missiles flashed past him from behind, boiling out to meet more incoming Russian missiles in a roiling wave of explosions.
Jack moved them to the side once more with one eye on the displays. The Russians were closer now. A quick glance at the displays showed the Chinese and Shang closing the range as well. They were building up enough speed to shoot past the battle in less than a minute if they kept accelerating. Sometimes that was all you needed.
He glanced over at another display showing the British and Russian fighters engaging each other between the two fleets. The Russians were slower and less accurate, but had heavier armor, weapons, and numbers on their side. That advantage was telling. The British fighters were beginning to fall back towards the fleet in disarray, one or two at first, and more as the seconds went by.
“Hey, Wolf,” Jack said, trusting Betty to transmit his words to the Cowboys’ commander. “Should we be doing something about those fighters?”
“Do not worry, Hart,” Major Charles Hurst responded. “Everything is going according to plan.”
Jack raised an eyebrow as he studied the displays, then swung them around on a whim. “It looks to me like our boys are about to break and run.”
“Exactly according to plan,” was Charles’ response. He sounded pleased.
“Ah,” Jack whispered as he connected the dots in his mind. “Right. Got yah.”
He jammed the throttle over, and the Avenger shot to starboard. A lance of twisting gravity passed through where his fighter had just been, close enough to flash his deflection grid entirely out. Jack whistled at how close that had been.
“You okay?” Charles asked, his voice betraying concern.
Jack winced and glanced at a display that showed stress fractures on the port wing. “Yeah. They singed me a bit but we’re still flying.”
“Then keep it up. We are about to be busy.”
“Got it, Wolf,” Jack finished, paused for a bit and pulled up on the throttle, sending the Avenger straight up. Missiles came screaming past the Avenger’s reforming deflection grid as lasers chattered at them. The gravitic cannons spoke again, playing across their Russian cruiser with two beams this time.
The Russian shrugged them off with ease. Several British cannons hit it a second later, and the Russian’s deflection grid flickered. It held, but it was only a matter of time before they would start hitting it for real.
As if on cue, three Russian destroyers bracketed a British cruiser. They ripped her nose off with one lucky hit. Jack winced. Those Russian gravitic cannons were powerful, possibly even more powerful than the Peloran cannons. The British deflection grids didn’t seem capable of stopping them. That was going to lead to serious troubles once the Russians found the range.
“Here they come,” Betty said.
Jack shifted his eyes back to the display showing the fighters.
The British Spitfires broke and fell back en masse. Engines flared and they quickly escaped the deadly knife-fighting range the engagement had begun in. Their acceleration sent them back towards the British warships with the Russians in hot pursuit.
The Russian drives burned white hot as they tried to keep up with their foes, but those heavy fighters could not match the acceleration of the smaller Spitfires. They settled for reforming their scattered squadrons. Then they led the Russian fleet into a far more decisive firing range. Close combat.
Close combat measured in space, at least.
“Still going according to plan, Wolf?” Jack asked.
The Russian gravitic cannons and missiles scored hits on several British ships. Another destroyer came apart. The Russians had yet to lose a single warship. Their fighter formation was doing its job well. And then there were the Chinese and Shang approaching firing range from the planet.
“Yes, Hart,” came the patient response.
Jack chewed his lip for a moment as he studied the displays. “Is it too early to say the plan sucks?”
“Yes,” Charles answered, a hint of grim amusement in his tone. “It is.”
The displays showed a situation going from bad to worse. The countdown blinked three minutes before they could even consider diving out of the battle. They needed to do something quick if they were going to stop this from turning into a disaster. He could feel it in his bones.
“Great. Tell me when it’ll stop sucking, please.”
“Right now, actually,” Charles returned.
Betty shifted, unfolding and then crossing her legs the other way to get his attention. “We’re getting priority targets now,” she announced, nodding towards the appropriate display.
Jack followed her motion and smiled as lights propagated across the display. “Nice,” he muttered.
“So glad you approve,” Charles said with a chuckle.
Jack looked at Betty and she gave him an innocent smile. He hadn’t meant for her to transmit that bit. She shrugged.
He sighed and held his gaze on Betty. “Just tell me when.”
Betty relaxed and looked at Jasmine. They shared a quick smile. It was time to get serious.
“Cowboy One to all Cowboys,” Charles said in a clear tone as the British fighters continued to retreat from their foes. “Break from defensive positions in three… two… one… break!”
Jack slammed the throttle forward. Nearly two hundred Cowboy fighters and drones moved as one. They exploded away from the British battleships and dreadnoughts they protected to accelerate past the fleeing Spitfires. The plots cleared, and for the first time absolutely nothing flew between Jack and the enemy. Jack licked his lips and flicked the stick to the right in time to a wicked guitar lick he recognized. This T&J cover was of an ancient rock and roll song they’d all loved as kids. It hit all the right buttons for kids growing up in Northern Minnesota. It did the same now, as he deftly evaded the enemy missiles and laser turrets spat death at them.
Then the British fighters stopped running. They spun around in unison and paused a moment to finalize their firing solutions. Smoke and flame spilled out of their launchers. More missiles filled space, and their powerful targeting systems lashed the enemy. Fusion-powered blue flames lit off, and they streaked out in search of every missile’s ultimate mission.
Mutually assured destruction.
“Fire!” Charles shouted as the wavefront of missiles roared past them.
Jack’s Avenger vibrated as their missile pods joined the assault. Their lasers switched to constant fire, strobing targets as quickly as they could cycle without overheating the systems. All three gravitic cannons erupted, and Jack’s balance shifted to the side as the very fabric of space and time rebelled against the unnatural weapons. Every Cowboy fighter and drone around him joined the attack. They filled space with missiles, roiling gravity waves, and a steady stream of lasers that promised utter destruction to their foes.
Deflection grids flickered and failed, lasers melted armor, and the Russian fighter formation staggered under the assault. Then the missile swarms arrived, and even the best displays in the universe couldn’t have accurately shown how many found targets and how many lost them. Jack’s couldn’t even count how many Russian fighters died in that coordinated strike. The hole that opened up in the Russian formation was easy to see, though. The Russians scattered, trying to escape the focused fire, and for the first time since the battle began they left the Russian warships without a solid screen.
“Charge!” Charles ordered.
Jack shifted them to the side for a moment to avoid a phantom threat he felt the serious need to avoid. Then he slammed his throttle forward in time to the screaming vocals of the very best singers in all the worlds.
“We come from the land of ice and snow,” Jack mouthed as the Cowboys charged through the hole, gravitic cannons shifting to focus on the Russian cruisers behind the wall of destroyers. The British Spitfires followed them in, and the Russian deflection grids flickered with the strain of twisting all those attacks away. Missiles swept past the destroyers and into the cruisers. Their explosions strained deflection grids up and down the cruiser wall.
A dozen Russian cruisers reeled under the concentrated assault, atmosphere and debris belching out of their shattered noses. And a single gravitic cannon achieved a very lucky shot, sending a beam of focused gravity down the Russian spinal gravitic cannon’s barrel, deep into the warship that housed it. It was nowhere near powerful enough to destroy the cruiser, especially at over half a lightsecond away. But it ripped the grav cannon’s internal shielding apart. The powerful gravity generators lashed out in an orgy of self-immolation that broke the cruiser’s back. One gravity whip caught an escort destroyer holding position near the cruiser. It sliced the engine section away like a hot knife going through butter, and space filled with more atmosphere and debris.
“Ouch,” Jack whispered as the destroyer began to drift out of formation. “That’s a messy way to go.”
“And that’s why the Peloran keep their grav cannons outside their big bad battleships,” Betty returned with a disapproving shake of her head.
Jack frowned as Russian return fire washed over the British fleet. Most of the gravitic cannons missed, but five more destroyers and a cruiser fell out of formation, their flanks ripped away by the powerful beams. Then their missiles dove in and exploded all around the British ships, gravity itself ripping holes in many of the deflection grids. The British were taking a real pasting. They needed more help.
“So where are they?” Jack asked. He raised an eyebrow at Betty and pulled the throttle up.
“Coming,” she said as their fighter followed his command.
A gravitic beam passed beneath them and continued into deep space.
Jack glanced over at the display showing the Chinese and Shang closing with the British fleet. Red globes around each showed the effective weapons ranges of each fleet. The globes flashed faster as the two forces approached.
“Uh oh,” Jack whispered.
The globes flashed once more before going to a constant burn as the two fleets opened fire on each other in near-unison. The Chinese and Shang weren’t powerful enough to have done much against the British alone. But together with the Russians, they were about to make this a very difficult battle.
“Very soon now,” Betty said with a grim smile.
Jack swallowed as the Russians grew closer. “Aneerin’s plan?”
Betty nodded at the Chinese, then at the Russians. “Never strike an enemy until someone else has their full and undivided attention.”
Jack cleared his throat, watching the British fleet taking fire from both flanks. Point defense missiles and lasers struck out, taking down hundreds of incoming missiles at a time. But even the best defenses could not stop all of them. Explosions wreathed the British deflection grids. They couldn’t take that punishment much longer.
“I think we’ve got their attention now,” Jack said, trying to hurry things up with his voice.
A series of flashes filled the displays near the Chinese and Shang fleets.
The displays cleared to show over forty new ships deployed on the far side of the Chinese fleet. They were very much in weapons range. Flags appeared on the displays one after another, and Jack whistled as he recognized them. German, French, American, and even British, he examined the ship classes and names carefully. Aneerin’s task force had arrived. Each of those warships had been fully-upgraded with Peloran technology so they could keep up with Aneerin. Now Western Alliance fighters that were nearly a match for Jack’s Avengers boiled out of their launch bays and dove directly into the fight.
Lasers, gravitic cannons, and missiles struck their unsuspecting enemy’s flank like the hammers of gods.
Jack whistled as fire from the British and Aneerin’s task force wreathed the Chinese and their alien allies with far more destruction than they could possibly shrug off. Then more flashes caught his attention.
Six bone-white spires flashed out of hyperspace on the Russian flank. They charged the far more numerous enemy as if they didn’t have a care in all the worlds. Each Peloran warship measured hundreds of meters long from pointed nose to their aft hangar bays, and golden runes ran up and down their hulls. They lacked the massive and obvious engines of Earthbuilt ships, but a diffuse blue glow filled space behind them. Glowing weapons rings surrounded them, connected to their primary hulls by spokes that almost made them look like bicycle wheels. Bicycle wheels with more big guns hanging off them. The gravitic cannons attached to their outer edges measured hundreds of meters long in their own rights.
Those gravitic cannons opened up, ripping into the Russian flank, and ship after ship simply came apart under the assault. The Peloran squadron flew through the Russian formation, so close that even their broadside rail guns found targets.
The Russian attack faltered in that instant. They spun around, seeking to hit the Peloran with their main cannons.
The Peloran maneuvered far too quickly for such clumsy weapons to hit them. They darted back and forth like graceful eagles harrying clumsy Russian bears. And the Russian hulls reverberated with the drum of Peloran weapons smashing their deflection grids flat.
The Russians were not helpless, though. Their missile turrets spun far more quickly than the ships could, and targeting sensors lashed their attackers with grim determination. Then rippling explosions of fire and smoke obscured the Russian ships from sight.
Gravitic explosions wreathed the Peloran warships like a halo.
“Scatter and attack!” Charles ordered.
Jack watched the other Cowboys pull away for a second before returning his gaze to the Russian fleet. He was nearly on them. He glanced up at Betty.
She smiled back. She was ready.
Jack flexed his hands, cracked his knuckles, and wiggled his fingers. He pulled in a deep breath, relaxed, and placed his hands back on the stick and throttle. This was it. All that mattered was himself, Betty, Jasmine, and the… six remaining drone fighters maneuvering around his Avenger as they penetrated the Russian fleet.
A flash filled the displays. He winced. Five drones.
Jack twitched his hands to the side in time to the strumming guitars, and the drones corkscrewed around his fighter. The delicate dance of avoiding the hail of point defense missiles and plasma cannons played all over his displays. All while the other, far more interesting, dance of making themselves far more interesting targets than his lone fighter sucked Russian point defense fire away from him.
His cockpit lights dimmed. The gravitic cannons laid down another line of twisted gravity. Missile and laser turrets twitched and fired.
A single Russian cruiser writhed under every gun he commanded. Missile swarms and rapid-fire laser streams wreathed it with destruction. The Russian deflection grids flickered in and out. Gravitic cannons tore massive rents clear through the grids, and the ship’s AI desperately tried to fold new grids into the collapsing ones before they fell completely.
It was another delicate dance, but Jack had the very best cybernetic intelligences on his side. No Russian AI in existence would ever match those two girls.
Jack’s weaving fighters shot past the endangered starship, spinning their noses around to stay on target. They fired again and again, far faster than the capacitors could maintain, and Jack glanced over to see his power levels cratering. But gravitic cannons sank deep into the cruiser’s armor, lasers boiled more and more of it away, and missile explosions tore the weakened plates apart.
Point defense missiles and plasma filled his vision, and one of his drones exploded nearly in his face. It had taken a shot meant for him. Then he was past his target and the fighters continued their spin to aim all of their weapons at its vulnerable engines. Focused gravity, lasers, and missile salvos stabbed into them without mercy.
The Russian cruiser staggered out of formation with at least one engine burning in the night. Most of the others sputtered or went dark altogether.
Jack pulled his eyes away from that amazing sight to study his displays. They highlighted seventeen Russian ships. Half of them were the expanding icons of destroyed ships. The other victims of the Cowboy assault sported the icons of belching debris, roaring fires, and escaping atmosphere. Jack nodded in approval.
But it hadn’t been a one-sided attack. The displays showed they’d lost almost half of their drone fighters against the Russian point defense batteries. That was a small price to pay for the damage they’d inflicted. Drone fighters were cheap compared to the cost of starships.
“Come around for another strike,” Charles ordered.
Light beams appeared on the displays, showing Jack the proposed course. He nodded towards Betty and Jasmine, and they smiled in response.
They spun with the nearly one hundred other Cowboy fighters and drones, sweeping around to attack the rear edge of the Russian formation. He scanned the displays to see that the Peloran were gone, probably having returned to hyperspace to prepare for another attack. The Russian fleet’s escort formation was in disarray, though their largest ships continued to trade fire with the British fleet. More British warships fell victim to the massive gravitic cannons, but their fire was now taking its toll on the Russians as well. Titanic explosions ringed both fleets and the displays flashed with more damaged and destroyed starships.
Flashes of light heralded the return of the six Peloran warships in the heart of that destruction. They slashed into the Russian fleet with devastating precision, but the Russians were ready for them. Nearly a dozen Russian ships managed to generate target locks on the Peloran, and one of the destroyers shuddered. Over a dozen Russian ships belched atmosphere and debris in return though, and the entire Russian fleet looked like it was ready to break.
Jack smiled. Aneerin was doing it again.
Then space flashed again. Hyperspace poured from a dozen and more portals, and ship after ship snapped into normalspace with their weapons flaring. These were no Russian warships, blinded by their own emergence signatures.
They were aliens.
Jack’s jaw clenched as the displays cleared to show him twenty-eight Roderan starships firing a single titanic strike into the mere six Peloran warships. Their fire tore through the deflection grids and ripped armor and weapons off the bone-white hulls. Peloran gravitic cannons exploded in one titanic flash of rainbow light after another, and when they faded the Peloran were nowhere to be seen.
Jack licked dry lips and watched the Roderan fleet for any clues about where they were going to go next.
The Roderan fleet tore another series of holes into hyperspace and slipped back out before his very eyes, leaving their section of normalspace empty again.
“They got away,” Betty answered in a strained tone. “I picked up the dive signatures. But they took heavy damage. The Roderan hit them hard.”
“Well, that’s fraking fantastic,” Jack whispered.
A display flashed and HMS Audacious turned her bow into the Russian fleet. Her massive engines flared to life and a beam of light shot out of her bow to chart a course straight into the devastated Russian fleet. Conqueror, Centurion, and her smaller cruiser and destroyer escorts accelerated with her, leaving most of the British fleet behind.
The music in his cockpit swelled again. It was time to do something. “Hey, Wolf?”
“I see it, Hart,” Charles said and another beam of light appeared to chart a course linking up with Audacious. “All Cowboys. Follow your beam.”
Jack glanced towards Betty and Jasmine.
They smiled, and their Avengers swung onto the new course.
Admiral Williamson wasn’t going to charge in alone today.
Jack mouthed the chorus again and bared his teeth. Nobody would call his expression a smile.
Jack twisted his stick and thrusters flared them around a few pieces of tumbling wreckage. Jack slammed the throttle forward, and engines roared tongues of blue fusion flame behind him. They accelerated towards the British vanguard, and Jack smiled with approval as their point defenses engaged every incoming enemy missile.
Jack found the Spitfire he was looking for at the very head of the vanguard. No surprise there. He tapped a button on his communications display to start transmitting. “Hey, Lance, old buddy. You’re looking a little lonely out here.”
“Not lonely at all,” Lance answered a second later, and his smiling face appeared on one of the displays. “Ivan’s giving us a warm welcome, in fact!”
“What did I tell you about trusting Russian vodka?” Jack asked as the range closed, pulling the throttle back to match speed with Lance’s squadron.
Displays flashed as Betty logged them back into the British networks. A whole new universe of fire plans and point defense options filled his cockpit. Laser turrets and missile pods realigned, thrusters burned to shift them into optimal angles, and gravitic cannons hummed to life as their capacitors achieved maximum power.
“Don’t,” Lance said with a chuckle. “It can give you a real headache in the morning.”
And then Jack’s little squadron of Avengers fired in time with the British vanguard. Grav beams and missiles reached out to smash one Russian ship, and wreckage filled his vision. Pieces of former warships drifted around them. Surviving point defense lasers fired at each other in fitful spurts of otherworldly destruction. Jack accelerated them through the flashing wreckage, trusting the deflection grids to deflect anything too small to dodge, trusting Betty to avoid anything too large to deflect, and really hoping none of those point defenses took a personal disliking to him.
“We have incoming fighters,” Betty reported, pulling his attention away from wreckage.
Jack glanced at the displays to see nearly a hundred Russian fighters closing with them.
“Ignore them,” Jack ordered and focused on the battleship he wanted so very much dead. “Stay on target.”
“Staying on target,” Betty acknowledged.
They shot out of the wreckage in time to the screaming duet of rock and roll guitars and opened fire with every weapon they had left. They lashed the battleship with gravitics, missiles, and a stuttering stream of laser pulses from every cannon.
The Russian battleship continued firing on the British fleet as if it didn’t even feel his assault. The massive spinal gravitic cannon flared bright and tore a destroyer apart.
Another salvo of missiles shot past him from behind, rippling into the battleship’s flank, and Jack glanced at the displays to see Katy’s Hellcats right behind him. Another display flashed and Jack watched Jesse’s and Ken’s flights bank in from the flanks to send the gravitic beams and missiles of nearly thirty fighters and drones into the battleship.
The Russian battleship staggered again and again as the Cowboys ripped into it. Armor and weapons turrets flew off, atmosphere and wreckage belched out of dozens of deep wounds, and the battleship tried to maneuver to escape its tiny foes. And that was when a full broadside of British gravitic cannons smashed into it, ripping the warship open from stem to stern. When the bombardment finally ended, it was little more than some more wreckage to fly through.
That was when a gravitic ripple sent the displays screaming and Jack frowned as space itself began to… bubble. It was the only thing it reminded him of. Except space couldn’t actually bubble. Space was… space. It didn’t ripple like that.
An alien ship faded into normalspace, twisting and bubbling with the space around it. It was a Roderan battleship, its engines at maximum power as it tried to escape whatever had caught it. But it remained stuck in place, rippling and bubbling with the fabric of space until the ripples themselves washed it away. The twisting and bubbling faded after a few seconds, leaving behind clear and calm space as if nothing had happened.
It made for a real disquieting sight.
“And that’s how you do it,” Betty said in a pleased tone of voice.
Jack licked his lips again, a shiver going through his spine. He’d hoped he was just seeing things, but her pronouncement told him he hadn’t. It also told him she knew what it was.
“What the frak was that?” he demanded as he swung them to port, lining them up on their next target.
“Hyperspace bomb,” Betty answered, firing gravitic cannons at the Russian cruiser. “We’re gonna want to avoid that spot for… oh… a few centuries.”
Jack gulped as he tried to grasp her words. “What’s that suppose to mean?”
Their drones joined in on the cruiser, ripping its deflection grid wide open before firing a salvo of missiles. She shrugged. “The hyperspace wall will be a bit… unstable for a while.” She nodded towards where the ship had rippled. “You don’t want to go there.”
Jack licked his lips. He let out a long breath. Their lasers stitched across the cruiser, boiling armor, weapons, and other fiddly bits off their target’s hull. “I’ve… never even heard of something that does that.”
Betty actually paused to look a little bit worried. “Yeah. They haven’t been used since the Albion and the Ennead blew each other away.”
“Oh,” Jack whispered, his mind racing. “So… you expect me to believe that Aneerin just happened to have some of these bombs lying around?
Betty gave him a very serious stare and crossed her arms. “Oh Jack, no one just ever happens to leave hyperspace bombs lying around.”
Jack returned her stare for a long moment. Then an idea came to mind and he frowned as he considered it. “These things could be real useful in the right situation, don’t you know?”
Betty frowned in return. “That’s… not the reaction I expected from you.”
“I’m full of surprises today,” Jack said and nodded towards one of the Russian destroyers.
“True,” she returned with a smile and shifted her gaze to his target. The gravitic cannons opened once more, smashing into the destroyer holding one the edge of their formation. It shuddered under their attack and tried to twist away.
“So what use are you thinking of?” Jasmine asked with a pensive look on her face.
Jack shrugged as Cat’s Hellcats poured their fire into the damaged destroyer. “Not entirely sure.”
Jasmine aimed a doubtful look at him. “You said ‘the right situation.’ What situation is that?”
“So I did,” Jack chuckled and watched the destroyer come apart. He nodded towards it. “These guys are here, messing up our whole plan to deal with the Shang, because they were able to come on in and mess with us. What if they couldn’t do that? What if the wall was… well… not stable enough to go through? Because we made it that way?”
“You’re talking about a hyperspace jammer, right?” Betty asked very slowly. Then she turned them to focus on a Russian cruiser with another salvo of gravitics and missiles.
“Yeah, I suppose I am,” Jack returned as the cruiser shrugged their assault off. Then one rather major possibility for that came to mind, and he gave both cybers a hard look. “It sure would make the kind of secret attack they used to take down Yosemite Station a lot more difficult.”
Betty and Jasmine shared looks of agreement for a moment before sighing in unison.
“The Albion and Ennead blew up everything from planets to stars back in the day,” Betty said.
“But even they never managed to make a hyperspace jammer work right before killing each other,” Jasmine added.
The Russian cruiser shuddered as Conqueror bracketed it with gravitic and missile fire that shredded its deflection grids and sank deep into its armor.
“So they were working on it?” Jack asked as Betty and Jasmine’s fighters took advantage of the weakened defenses to pour more fire into the cruiser.
“I don’t think we’ve seen anything they weren’t working on,” Betty returned.
“They couldn’t control it,” Jasmine explained. “They could cut entire systems off from hyperspace, but they couldn’t turn the effect back off when they wanted to. It was permanent. Most of their research died with them, and nobody’s tried to perfect it since.”
Jack pursed his lips as the cruiser died before them and another target glowed to life on their displays. It felt like there was no end to these guys.
“It sure would be nice to be able to protect our worlds from that kind of threat,” he said.
“That it would,” Betty returned and fired their gravitic cannons once more.
Jack felt the need to be elsewhere. The song shifted to a new part, and he slammed the throttle to the left, sending their fighters sliding to the side on screaming thrusters. Point defense lasers engaged the incoming missile swarm, taking out all of them short of his fighters. Jack frowned in confusion. That wasn’t worth an emergency slide.
Then the blast of a spinal gravitic cannon from a Russian battleship missed him by… the amount of space they’d just slid through. Space folded next to him. Stars moved and starships disappeared or bent into other ships. Light itself roiled around the power of a miniature black hole, and everything beyond that line of death shifted or disappeared altogether.
It thundered on to hit a British cruiser directly in the nose. The cruiser writhed as the gravitic assault drove through her from stem to stern in an unending wave of destruction. Nothing but wreckage remained in its wake.
Jack licked his lips. That had been far too close for his comfort. He glanced at Betty and Jasmine. Their faces betrayed an ashen pallor. That was funny. He didn’t think he remembered ever seeing them like that.
Thank God he’d gotten out of the way of that blast.
He returned his attention to where Audacious, Conqueror, and Centurion commanded the very heart of the Russian fleet. Plasma, missiles, and gravitics sleeted off their flanks like a thunderstorm. Smaller cruisers and destroyers reeled away as armor and internal systems shattered under the relentless Russian assault. But Audacious and her closest escorts rode the torrent of destruction as their ruined sensor nets spilled into space around them.
Admiral Williamson’s flag still flew over Audacious.
The Russians clearly knew that one ship was their true enemy. If they could kill it, they could shatter the British vanguard that had driven itself into their very heart like a dagger. The Russians had to kill it first, before they could get back to shooting the rest of the fleet.
But Audacious took all their pounding and responded with hundreds of gravitic lances, laser salvoes, and missile swarms. She broke the backs of several Russian cruisers and destroyers all on her own. Conqueror and Centurion simply added to the destruction surrounding them, targeting another battleship with everything they had.
The Russian battleship convulsed as fires and explosions ravaged its flanks. Its escort destroyers burned or exploded around it. Entire fighter squadrons simply disappeared.
It was a madhouse of mutually assured destruction. Two fleets clawed at each other like tanks at ten paces. Ship after ship fell out of formation or died. The larger warships they were supposed to protect writhed in agony.
The British vanguard was losing, but each second they held the Russians was another second bought for the rest of the fleet.
Another display flashed for his attention. Jack focused on it as a Russian frigate swung around to send a salvo of missiles towards them. Jack pushed forward on the stick, trying to dive under the missiles. They tracked him though, arcing to keep on target. He slammed the throttle forward, T&J screamed in his ears, and the Avenger’s engines flared behind him. They shot forward and their lasers pulsed away, picking off missile after missile. The lasers and acceleration weren’t enough though, and the missiles continued to arc towards him.
Jack pulled in a deep breath, clamped a grip on the controls, gritted his teeth, and pulled the throttle up, hoping to get inside the missiles’ turning radius. The fighter rose on flames of maneuvering thrusters, but the missiles just kept tracking.
Then another salvo of missiles streaked in and shredded the Russian missiles.
“You should be more careful, Boss,” Katy said as her reduced Hellcat squadron swooped back into formation around what was left of his Avengers.
Jack took a second to swallow before putting a big smile on his face. “With the Big Bad Cat watching my back, who needs to be careful?” he returned in a far more nonchalant tone than he felt.
“You say the nicest things, Boss” Katy purred.
In that instant, a British battleship far behind them flashed and disappeared.
It wasn’t part of this maelstrom of destruction. Jack wondered why the Russians had hit it. But then another followed. And another.
They were diving into hyperspace.
Jack looked at the displays. Flashing zeros filled the countdown.
They’d bought the fleet the time it needed to escape.
Cruisers, destroyers, and frigates flashed out of normalspace one after another, filling the area with the multicolored waves of hyperspace energy. More battleships followed, leaving behind only wreckage, stray atmosphere sucked out of gushing wounds, and a final salvo of missiles that streaked towards the Russians. One dreadnought after another followed their kin to safety until only one remained in the very center of the Russian fleet.
HMS Audacious held position for one second, laying down laser and gravitic fire that flayed one Russian ship after another wide open. Russian missiles and plasma made her armor run like water as she held for another second. Another wave of missiles exploded out of the dreadnought and targeted her tormenters. More Russians careened out of what was left of their formation.
Then hyperspace opened wide and sucked the dreadnought out of the fight.
Only her own wreckage marked that she’d ever been there.
And a few dozen Avengers, Hellcats, and Spitfires.
Surrounded by a Russian fleet that had just run into a meat grinder named Audacious.
And that was when Jack realized there was a problem. The Avengers and Hellcats could dive into hyperspace whenever they wanted.
Thank God for Peloran upgrades.
But the Spitfires were the best in Pre-War British design and construction. They did not have hyperdrives.
“Wolf?” Jack asked.
“I see it, Hart,” Charles answered. A beam appeared on the displays running out through the Russian fleet’s devastated flank. “Cowboy One to all fighters. Follow your beam to our evac point. Maximum acceleration. Now. Now. Now.”
Every surviving fighter shot out of the fading corona of hyperspace left behind by a retreating dreadnought and passed under the Russian guns like drag racers atop blue fusion flames.
“Lance,” Jack said as he pulled the throttle back to neutral. “You could have told me this was a suicide run.”
Jack spun his stick to the left, swinging his Avenger around with momentarily quiet engines. Betty and Jasmine’s surviving drone fighters echoed his actions and came about to face the Russian fleet before he pulled the throttle all the way back to light their engines up again.
“You didn’t ask,” Lance returned in an unflappable manner. “Someone had to plow the road.”
Blue fusion torches now lit space ahead of him as he accelerated away from the Russians. They’d lost a little bit of space on the other fighters, but now all of his lasers, his missile pods, and his gravitic cannons faced the Russian fleet. A glance at the appropriate display showed him that the capacitors were charging back up above thirty percent, but it would be longer than he liked before the generator could top them off again. They’d burned way too much power in the heart of that fleet, but they hadn’t had a choice.
“You should really get out of here before their sensors clear enough to get a good lock on us, though,” Lance continued.
“Not going to happen,” Jack said and glanced towards his missile display. They were nearly bingo on ship killers, and their point defense loads were below critical levels. They still had a few electronic warfare salvos, but then he was going to be down to rude gestures and insulting their mommas. Well, he would always have lasers and gravitics, but those pesky capacitors were still charging back up to nominal loads.
“Besides, we’ve got friends on the way,” Jack added.
“This area’s too hot, Jack,” Lance said.
The Russians opened fire on the escaping fighters to emphasize that point.
“Even your jeep carriers would be target practice for those big Russian guns.”
Jack’s lasers began to fire pulsed blasts of light into the missiles’ paths, and he smiled as all the other Cowboys joined in.
“Our friends are smaller than jeeps,” Jack retorted as a few, careful point defense missiles joined them. They were stopping the incoming missiles, but more came every second, and he simply didn’t have enough power or ammo to keep this up much longer.
And more Russian ships were coming around to bring all their remaining weapons to bear. Especially those big spinal guns.
Then hyperspace tore open. A couple dozen ships twice the length of his Avenger flashed into existence behind him. The C-4 Galaxy-class armed transports simply held formation for a moment as sensors cut through the hyperspace jamming.
Jack licked his lips in anticipation. Unlike his depleted fighters, these boys had full ammunition bays and capacitors. They were ready to rock and roll.
Then the Galaxies opened fire with every weapon in their arsenal. Gravitics tore one missile after another off their attack path, lasers burned others into ash, and missiles flew out to meet their ultimate nemesis in battle. An enemy missile. They chewed into the oncoming missiles with a precision that opened a momentary hole in the entire assault.
“And that would be our friends,” Jack said with a glance towards his displays. “Say hello to the Desperados.”
“I hear somebody’s got an awful big need for a ride out here,” a strong Texas accent cut into the chatter as the Galaxies opened their rear hatches to reveal utterly empty internal cargo bays.
Lance’s surprised gaze met Jack’s.
“Well? What are you waiting for?” Jack asked with a smile. “Get your butts inside so we can all get out of here.”
Lance just nodded. His Spitfires spun on puffs of flame before shooting towards the Galaxies on their main fusion torches. They made their approach far quicker than was safe, especially considering the kind of firepower the Galaxies were laying down on the incoming missiles. One of the Spitfires lost an entire wing to a gravitic beam that passed through it to snuff a missile out of existence. Another lost an engine to a stray laser blast. Armor exploded off others to random hits. Atmosphere vented and weapons overloaded.
And then the Spitfires screamed into the open cargo bays with breaking thrusters scorching every interior surface. The fighters crashed to a stop hard enough to crush nose assemblies, snap wings off, and cause the Galaxies themselves to shudder. But they were built to take a licking and keep on ticking.
“Looks like we made it, Boss,” Katy whispered as the Galaxies closed their cargo hatches and prepared to leave.
“That we did,” Jack answered with a smiled. Which meant he had one last thing to do.
He smiled and pressed the transmit button again. “This is Captain Jack of Hart Squadron, Marine Corps Fighter Attack Wing 112. The Cowboys. Do not forget my promise.”
The Galaxies tore one hole after another in the fabric of time and space and slipped down the rabbit hole into hyperspace.
Katy smiled at him from her display.
Another display opened to show the same Russian from earlier, looking far more haggard than before. Smoke and flames flickered behind him, and he gave Jack a grim smile.
“This is Captain Dmitry Kasparov of Ascalon,” the Russian said with a grim nod. “I remember. It was a worthy promise, from a worthy foe. Cowboy.”
“Cowboy One to all Cowboys. Dive in three!” Charles shouted from yet another display.
Jack smiled at Betty.
She nodded as they corkscrewed away from the Russian fleet with Katy’s Hellcats following in close formation.
“Until next time, Captain,” Jack said.
“Two!” Charles continued to count down.
A quick look at the displays showed the rest of the Cowboys doing the same and Jack nodded.
“Until next time, Captain,” Kasparov echoed.
“One,” Charles said.
Jack and Kasparov nodded towards each other one last time.
“Dive! Dive! Dive!”
Jack closed his eyes.
The world flashed through his eyelids.
He opened his eyes to see all the colors of hyperspace swirling around them. Only the wakes of other fighters and drones disturbed the natural gravity waves.
Jack met Katy’s gaze and they exchanged smiles. Another display showed her surviving three Hellcats slipping into formation with his Avengers. They were a greatly diminished force, but he would still put them up against any enemy squadron they might face.
A beam of light appeared on the displays, and their engines came to life once more. Avengers and Hellcats followed the beam to get away from their entry point and any potential pursuit.
Jack leaned back in his seat, reached over, and turned off the music. His best girls had gotten him through another battle. All of them.
Now he just had to figure out what was next. They could have ended The War today. Now… now the Russians were involved. And so were the Roderan.
“That was rather theatric of you,” Charles said in a repressive tone.
“You know me,” Jack said into the silent cockpit. “Just had to get the last word in.”
Charles shook his head and chuckled. “There are many who do not approve of your theatrics.”
“And you?” Jack asked.
“I used to know a man like you.” Charles paused as if lost in thought.
“Handsome?” Jack supplied in a questioning tone. “Loyal?”
“Cocky,” Charles returned. “Irreverent.”
“Sounds like a man after my own heart,” Jack said with a smile.
“You would have been friends,” Charles said. Then he shrugged.
“What happened to him?”
“He was killed.”
“Oh.” Jack didn’t know what to say to that. “I’m sorry.”
It wasn’t enough. Not even close to enough.
Charles smiled. “He would have approved of your theatrics.”
“And you?” Jack asked again.
“He was like both of us,” Charles said very quietly. “Full of advantages few can understand. Advantages that we have long flaunted for fun and games. People think us frivolous and spoiled. He wished to prove them wrong. He made many such theatrics as you do.”
“Did you approve?” Jack asked.
“He lived up to them. All the way to the end,” Charles pronounced with all the power of an heir to one of Earth’s great families. Then he simply held Jack’s gaze.
Jack blinked for a moment before nodding slowly. “I understand, Sir.”
“Good. We may yet succeed in saving all the worlds, not simply those we were born into. Does that not sound like a worthy goal to you?”
Jack turned his gaze as the Peloran ships came into view and shook his head. The Roderan had done horrible damage in the few seconds it took them to dive out of the battle. But they still lived.
Jack sighed. “It certainly sounds rather audacious to me.”
He glanced at the displays to see the British fleet limping along behind him. Audacious still lived, like all the other dreadnoughts, and Admiral Williamson’s flag still flapped in the streams of hyperspace. But every surviving ship looked like they’d been through hell, with atmosphere still leaking from rents in their hulls. They’d lost at least half of their cruisers and destroyers, and many of those that remained would probably spend months in drydock. The British fleet lived, but they wouldn’t be forcing an assault any time soon.
“Yes.” Charles nodded. “Audacious in more ways than one.”
“Count me in,” Katy said.
Both men snapped their eyes towards her. Then back to each other. Neither had realized she was still tied into their channel. Jack looked towards Betty. The cyber just smiled at him, like the proverbial cat that had just caught the canary. He turned back towards Charles once more with a questioning look.
Charles sighed in resignation. Obviously his cyber had given him the same look.
Which meant both of their cybers wanted Katy on the inside.
Katy smiled. “I wouldn’t miss this for all the worlds.”
Then another display blinked. Jack examined it to see a formation of British, French, German, and American warships fade into sight out of the waves of hyperspace. Aneerin’s task force had escaped as well.
Forty ships in all, they cut through hyperspace like sharks on the hunt. He saw wounds on their flanks and bows, but they were far less grievous than those the British carried. It was a small force for sure, but after the devastation visited on the major fleets in the last few months, those forty warships were probably the most powerful concentration of operable starships remaining in all the Core Worlds.
Which was a depressing thing to consider. It meant that smaller hypercapable forces like his Cowboys were going to be a lot busier in the months to come.
Jack turned back to scan between Charles and Katy. “Together?”
“Agreed,” Charles said and nodded.
“Awesome,” Katy returned and relaxed back into her seat.
Jack looked towards Betty again.
She turned to Jasmine. The two cybers shared a glance before looking back to Jack. Their supporting smiles were all he needed. Well. Maybe not everything.
Jack aimed a long look at Jasmine, asking her without words if she was truly up for this.
Jasmine nodded firmly and without reservation.
Jack cocked his head at Betty, asking if she had any second thoughts.
She smiled in answer.
Jack placed a hand next to each cyber and felt the reassuring feathery touches of their holographic hands move to rest on his. For the first time in a long time, he felt… at peace. Truly at peace. He was where he was supposed to be, with the people he needed to be with, doing what needed doing.
The two cybers patted his hands in unison. There was agreement in their eyes.
Jack sucked in a long breath and froze. He couldn’t think of anything to say. Well. He could think of lots of things. It was just that none of them felt right for a moment like this. He should be saying something big, something powerful, something that he could remember years in the future and know it had been important. The very best movie heroes always did something like that.
But inspiration failed the real-life Jack in his moment of need.
So he let his breath out, relaxed back into his pilot’s seat, and looked at the friends who shared the fighter with him.
Their smiles told him it was enough.