When I was a kid, the only things that interested me were girls and parties. We never thought about war. Who would ever attack us? Then the Shang struck Yosemite Yards and dropped them all over the western half of the United States. We all volunteered after that, expecting a Short, Victorious War against the alien menace that had seriously underestimated us. Instead we got War Without End. You learn the measure of friends in times like those. True friends stand beside you, and you beside them, in the eternities of boredom and instants of terror that fill a War.
“Two pair,” Swan said with a smile and dropped her cards on the table.
Jack scowled at her two kings and flung his cards down in disgust. The other four Cowboys groaned as well, scattering their failed hands on the table while Lieutenant Dawn DeMarco gathered up her winnings. The bottle caps clattered against each other, and Swan bestowed a look on her opponents that reminded Jack of her namesake. She sat tall and erect, a true daughter of the Outer Colony world Camelot, with a lithe beauty even the unisex standard Marine duty uniform couldn’t shroud. She surveyed the field of battle before her and turned the eyes that were much older than her twenty-some year old face to challenge the other Cowboys. “Another hand?” she asked.
Jack chuckled and swept the cards up with a deft motion. He began to shuffle, smiling as their eagle eyes watched to make certain he didn’t load the deck in anyone’s favor. He chuckled again and shook his head.
“What?” Cat asked from her side of the table, peering at him suspiciously. He met her gaze, fingers flickering between the cards in a blur as they passed between his hands. Captain Kathleen Reynolds was night to Swan’s day, unruly hair forever rebelling from any attempt to control it. She had the undeniably rumpled air of an Iowa farm girl stepping out of the barn after a long day of work. Or a night of far too much fun. Her eyes were just as old as Swan’s, though, and Jack knew they had over a century of flight time between the two of them. Jack wondered again at the vagaries of the universe that left him of all people in command of a pair of such veteran pilots.
“It’s just good to have the band back together,” Jack said with a waggle of his eyebrows and the cards fluttered from one hand to the other.
“I’m just glad to have space to stretch out in again,” Snake returned, the slightly too-large eyes and oversized head of a native Martian scanning the ready room as if looking for a lawsuit he could file. Appropriate since Louis Mattioli was a lawyer in his day job before The War. Jack had to give credit to the man, though. He was a lot nicer than the stereotype of the soulless lawyer would suggest.
Jack followed the man’s gaze, eyes running over the snarling wolf symbol hanging on the bulkhead. It belonged to the Texas Marine Corps Fighter Attack Wing 112. They'd been founded as the Wolfpack during the Second World War, then moved to Texas and changed their name to the Cowboys, but they kept the old symbol in memory of their roots. His eyes flitted over to the flag of the United States of America hanging on one bulkhead. The larger single-star Republic of Texas flag hung above it, bringing up the old joke about everything being bigger in Texas. “I do love Cowboy Country,” he echoed Snake’s assertion.
The other Cowboys stopped examining the shuffling cards in his hands to look around their ready room. Twelve hatches opened into the personal sleeping quarters pilots enjoyed onboard fleet carriers like Enterprise, while everything a squadron needed to be ready to fly filled the room itself. A small wet bar on one wall gave them access to any drink they wanted, as long as that wasn’t alcohol. A screen they usually used for playing movies dominated another wall, while the amazingly comfortable recliners filled most of the room. The table they sat around was officially a map of the kilometer-long rectangular carrier deck. The location and readiness of the dozen or so fighter squadrons and numerous other craft currently embarked on the warship peeked out from under the cards and bottle caps. It made for a real nice poker table for a half-dozen pilots who hadn’t seen each other since the Alpha Centauri Campaign.
It was good to be together, even if it meant taking the long trip out to Epsilon Reticuli. Jack suppressed a scowl at that thought, wondering again why the Alliance was gathering so many warships so far from the heart of the fighting. Oh, there were some major Chinese and Russian colonies to hit out here, but he couldn’t think that any of them rated the entire Third Fleet to take down. Western Alliance leadership just wanted to show their enemies that The West was still in The War to win all the marbles, and they were looking for something to hit. Admiral Aneerin had tried to talk them out of it, but they were adamant. This was where Jack and his merry band of Cowboys came in. Aneerin wanted someone he trusted on the spot if everything hit the fan, and if that was the excuse it took to get the band back together Jack would smile and run with it.
Jack snorted and glanced towards Fox and Crane. Jesse James owned a farm in Kansas, though the hint of roguish eyes gave a slight twist to his weatherworn face. The face of Buckaroo Banno was plastered all over California surfing magazines, first as a surfer and then as the owner of the Samurai Surfing stores, but Ken Banno was a Free Japanese through and through. Jesse and Ken were his oldest new friends in this new Post-Yosemite world. They’d met during the rushed pilot training designed to throw new pilots into reactivated fighter units like the Cowboys, and Jack could read them like an open book. They were ready to fly, ready to fight, and ready to party, whichever came first, second, or last.
Swan and Cat had joined the Cowboys during the Alpha Centauri Campaign to fill out losses in the original Cowboy Squadron, which he supposed was why he thought of them by their callsigns. They were hard to read in the way of most girls. It hadn’t stopped Jack from playing with them all his life, but he couldn’t say he’d ever really understood them. And those two girls were decades older than him, with all the experience they needed to hide the emotions they didn’t want to show.
Snake was easier to read. Louis Mattioli had grown up on Mars before moving to Alpha Centauri while Jack was still mooning over lost girls. He’d reacted to the Peloran Treatments like the majority of humanity, getting an enhanced immune system and a longer life out of the deal. But now he took the little super soldier serum Charles Edward Hurst had pulled out of some deep, dark part of the Hurst Family research division. Experience showed that most people grew resistant to it after a few weeks or months, but Snake just grew quicker and more deadly with time.
Jack smiled and felt content. Happy. They’d been tooling around in ones and twos for the last two years, supporting squadrons and task forces that needed a little extra punch. And maybe a reminder that the Peloran were on their side. He was happy to get the band back together, and if he was reading the others right, they were too. Even if the six of them made for a small band.
Jack began to shoot the cards out to his pilots’ waiting hands, angled so no one could read them, not even him. The Cowboys gathered up their cards with supple fingers careful to keep the faces away from their fellow players. Eyes widened, eyebrows raised or lowered, and Jack smiled as he dropped the deck and pulled his own cards up. He pursed his lips and furrowed his brow, putting on a show of thinking about his cards. He could work with the two jacks. Maybe. Faking his people into thinking he either had nothing or everything was all just part of the game.
“Are you sure you didn’t load them?” Cat asked in disgust and Jack gave her a smile that could have melted butter.
“How could I possibly have done something like that with you watching my every move?” he asked her with practiced innocence.
“Cards could,” Cat declared and aimed a finger at Jesse.
Jesse shrugged in response to her use of his old callsign and the cards in his hand seemed to teleport into his other hand after a mere wiggle of fingers.
“Which is why you leave it to models of honesty like me,” Jack said piously, picked up one of his few remaining bottle caps, and tossed it into the center of the table. The other Cowboys rolled their eyes at him but he examined his hand as if he couldn’t see them. It was all part of the game after all.
Cat was fingering her large pile of bottle caps in deep thought when an alarm filled Cowboy Country with blaring dissonance designed to wake the dead. Jack froze for a second in complete and utter surprise. The alarm had only one meaning, but that was impossible. Nobody in their right minds would actually attack a fleet as large as this one. Then the poker table exploded into motion as all six Cowboys came to their feet in unison.
Cybernetic intelligences flickered into existence next to each Cowboy’s locker, and Jack aimed a quick glance at the woman standing next to his. Betty looked as real and solid as any human to most people, but the improved eyesight that came with his very rare reaction to the Peloran Treatments watched small particles of air drifting through her long, wavy blonde hair. Her blue eyes held just the barest tint of the navy-grey bulkhead behind her. And the Scandinavian body, which would have looked perfectly at home in his native Northern Minnesota, cut into the real world around her with sharp edges his eyes could easily detect. Her body was a holoform. Once again he wondered if the imperfections of the holoform were a limitation of the technology, or a clue the cybers left on purpose for their partners. She’d never answered his questions on that point.
“The Shang are attacking.” Betty’s voice came from his earbuds rather than her lips, and the locker opened on powered hinges.
“They’re braver than I thought,” Jack muttered in a voice soft enough that it would not bother the other pilots as they conversed with their cybers. He reached into the locker for his flight jacket and slipped into the familiar brown leather. He felt it tighten to his body as the personal computer woven into it went to work.
“I don't know,” Betty said with a sigh. “It might be just another long range missile attack.”
“Really?” Jack asked with a snort and pulled the old-style metal zipper up, feeling the lining beneath it seal into an airtight bond. “Then why the full alert?” he asked and pulled a pair of gloves on, feeling them instantly seal with the flight jacket to protect him from explosive decompression.
“More missiles this time,” Betty said. “Enough that it made the fleetmind nervous.”
“Got it.” Jack reached in to pull the black Stetson out of the locker and lowered it onto his head, adjusting it with one final tug on the brim. Numerous State Guards from Canada to the Mexican States, as well as the United States Armored Cavalry, wore the ubiquitous headgear as part of their standard uniforms. Jack had never worn them before going to Texas, but he had to admit that he had become a fan. He smiled at the reflection in the mirror. Girls loved a man in a cowboy hat. A man had to keep his priorities in mind.
The air flickered between him and the mirror and he nodded in approval. 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 more importantly with just how good it looked while doing it, Jack stepped back from his locker to scan the other Cowboys. Every locker slid shut as the pilots of Jack’s half squadron echoed his motions, and he nodded towards them with approval.
“Let’s rock and roll, people,” he ordered and strode towards one of the two hatches that didn’t lead into personal quarters.
“Oorah,” the Cowboys returned the old Marine affirmative with relish.
Jack smiled as the hatch opened and they hurried into the short corridor running out of the ready room. The six pilots and six cybers filled the small area before the next hatch opened and allowed the roar of engines to wash over them. To that familiar sound, Jack and his Cowboys stepped out onto the busy interior hangar deck of a fleet carrier in the United States Navy, the United States Starship Enterprise.
It was an amazing sight every time he experienced it. The far bulkhead was over a hundred meters away and rose fifty meters to the overhead. He’d actually seen football games played across the decks as publicity stunts back before The War. This deck ran for half a kilometer to his left and right to the bow and stern where the stars twinkled. Fighters, shuttles, and repair bays packed the deck from side to side and end to end. The overhead above him mirrored his deck’s organization, and people ran around upside down to his perspective but completely and totally comfortable on their deck.
The dull roar beating against his ears heightened to a scream and the Ready One squadron rocketed past him and out through the energy screen in the carrier’s bow. Jack’s eyes followed the Hellcats on their way to open space for a moment before dropping to follow the progress of other Navy pilots spilling out of their ready rooms and towards their Hellcats. They would be the other Ready Five squadrons. Technically his Cowboys were on Ready Five status at the moment, capable of launching within five minutes of the orders going out. Not that they ever took that long, of course.
He turned away from the massive length of the hangar deck, nodded towards the other Cowboys, and strode over to where his fighter waited with Betty at his side. The F-12C Avenger towering above him was nearly thirty meters of long, narrow nose attached to a ten-meter angular hull that housed the engines, weapons, and defensive measures designed to keep them all alive. Engines the size of buses glowed as they warmed up, and laser pods twisted in their sockets. A laser turret under the nose spun back and forth, testing to make certain it had full rotation, and missile pods twitched on each massive wing. Avengers were the largest fighters ever built, more a proof of concept for a hyper-capable fighter than anything else. Many considered them too large and ungainly to be a proper fighter, but The War had thrown them into service and the Cowboys had been first to fly them. They’d become a tradition since then and the size just meant they could carry more weapons than any other fighter ever built. Jack liked that, and the cockpit originally designed for two people gave him plenty of room to stretch out in and feel comfortable.
“Betty?” he asked, eyes running up and down the sharp lines of their fighter.
“Ready,” she answered with a dry chuckle.
He flexed his legs and jumped up towards the fighter. He was still going up when the fighter’s gravity generator snatched him in midair. Gravity ceased to exist to his senses and he drifted to the lip of the cockpit to land with a dancer’s grace. He dropped onto his seat and looked up as Betty stepped onto the main console, shrinking to just the right size to fit in his hand in a single step. They shared a smile as the transparent canopy began to close and his hands secured his five-point harness with a series of rapid-fire clicks.
The canopy locked in place with a much louder click and Jack glanced up with a smile as Betty’s uniform faded out of sight. A decidedly un-regulation yellow sundress appeared in its place and she smiled. “There. That’s better,” she pronounced in a satisfied tone.
“Much,” Jack agreed, sparing a second to watch her sit down on top of the main console and cross her legs. He chuckled at her upraised eyebrows and then looked down to scan the displays wrapping around him that reported their fighter’s readiness. The mix of physical and holographic displays showed green and Jack nodded in approval. Betty always was good at making them ready to fly. He ran his eyes over another display and nodded at the confirmation that the other five Cowboys were ready too. And it hadn’t even been two minutes. “So much for Ready Five,” he said with a chuckle.
“What can I say?” Betty asked. “I’m good.”
“The best,” Jack replied without pause and winked at her. “Hey, Christine,” he said into the open air.
Another blonde holoform flickered into the air next to Betty and smiled. “Hello, Jack. How are you?” Enterprise’s cybernetic intelligence asked.
“I had the start of a winning hand,” he complained.
“Well, we’ll just have to see if we can make up for that,” Christine returned, her head shaking with a wry smile.
“Sounds like a plan to me. My Cowboys are ready. Can you beam us out?”
“Absolutely,” Christine answered with a nod. A holographic beam appeared on the canopy at her command, showing him a course through all the fighters and assorted other equipment littering the fleet carrier’s hangar bay. “You’re the first of the Ready Fives. Good luck,” she finished, a serious expression on her face.
“Thanks,” he whispered and gave her a nod. “All Cowboys, take flight and follow your beam,” he ordered with a nod towards Betty.
Betty nodded at him through the murmured responses his Cowboys gave him and lifted their Avenger off the hangar bay’s deck. The fighter rose up to the beam, paused a second as the other fighters caught up, and then blue fusion flames lit the bulkheads. Jack leaned back as the six fighters rocketed down the enclosed tube of the hangar bay, shooting past entire squadrons of fighters and scrambling figures in less than the blink of an eye.
And then they were in open space, utter darkness split only by a starfield alien to eyes that grew up on Earth. He turned to see the bright light of the Ursa Major Star Cluster shining on hundreds of starship hulls arrayed around him. It was an amazing sight. Both the stars and the largest fleet ever assembled by the Western Alliance. It was probably the largest fleet assembled by anybody from Earth, and it was all here.
The displays blinked and began to show a hundred icons belonging to the ships of the Spanish Armada and another fifty for the British. One hundred fifty more ships showed up with the flags of the other Alliance member nations from Africa to America. Jack watched Enterprise, Durango, Arizona, and nearly three-dozen smaller American icons fill the plot around him. Dozens of fighters flitted between the American warships and hundreds more beyond them filled space around the rest of the fleet. And they were still waiting for the Ready Five and the Standby Squadrons to launch. There would be thousands of fighters once every ship managed to launch.
Somebody was about to get a major pasting. They just had to wait a few minutes for everybody to come out and get ready to fight.
Jack smiled for a moment, and then the smile died as the plot continued to propagate out beyond the mammoth fleet to show the far more gigantic wave of missiles swarming towards the fleet’s starboard flank. Angry red dots filled the displays as the wavefront of destruction approached and Jack’s mind refused to accept the numbers they displayed. No one could fire that many missiles at once. No one.
But the displays refused to reset to more rational numbers and Jack swallowed. “Ah, frak,” he muttered, realizing that someone really was going to get a pasting. And why they’d called everyone out to the party.
“All Cowboys, form up and…frak,” he licked his lips as he failed to come up with a good idea.
“Yeah,” Betty whispered. “I cut the transmission before you ran out of words.”
“Thanks.” He swiveled his head to see the five other Avengers taking up position off his wings and let out a low whistle. The sight of nearly six dozen drone Avengers swooping in from above filled him with more relief than he cared to admit at the moment. They hadn’t used drones when The War started. There’d been a bias against giving cybers or AIs total command of any weapon platform back then. There still was now, in fact, but necessity was the mother of invention. Fighters were easy to build and pilots took a long time to train. The Cowboys had started using drones to throw more firepower at the Shang, and the rest of the Alliance was in the process of catching up to their example.
Standard procedure called for each pilot to be paired with a single cybernetic or artificial intelligence who would stay with him or her until death. It was a partnership closer than most marriages Jack had ever seen, and after nearly three years he understood the meaning behind Betty’s every raised eyebrow, cocked head, or pursed lip. He might play stupid on the subject, but she’d used them on him enough that he understood her as well as almost anybody he’d ever known.
They could literally predict what the other would want to do before they did it. That synergy made a dedicated pilot and cyber team into the deadliest combatants to take fighter craft into battle in the known history of the human race. Cat and Blaze killed six Shang fighters at the Battle of Fort Wichita in the old Hellcat they’d flown at the time. Jack and Betty had accounted for far more Shang lives, but they’d had an Avenger, so it wasn’t a fair comparison. Drew and Jasmine had fought beside him in another Avenger, and the dozen fighters of Cowboy squadron had torn apart entire Shang warships with their concentrated fire.
Now that they augmented their numbers with drones, the cybers simply expanded the number of fighters they flew and gave each pilot and cyber team control of twelve fighters. It was a truly amazing amount of firepower for a single pilot to be in command of. He watched the drones slotting in around the piloted fighters with approval and turned to smile as a new holoform appeared on his console. She was brunette to Betty’s blonde, wore faded blue jeans and a grey tank top to Betty’s yellow sundress, and her feet wore nothing at all compared to Betty’s white sandals.
Jasmine could have retired when Drew died at Alpha Centauri. She had been literally born to fly with Drew and the pain of losing such a partner had nearly ended her. It drove most fighter cybers to shutting down permanently rather than live without their partner. But Jasmine was made of far sterner stuff than most cybers. She’d chosen to live. She’d picked a new partner and made Jack’s relationship with the cybernetic families something that just might be unique.
“Jasmine,” Jack said with a smile as her eleven drone fighters formed up around the single fighter he and Betty commanded.
“Jack,” the cyber returned, wry lips quirked under her long brown hair.
Jasmine’s smile turned predatory. “Five by five.”
“Good.” He looked at Betty and she nodded back. “Well then, let’s rock and roll.” He placed his right hand on the control stick, his left hand on the throttle, and spun seventy-two Avenger-class fighters and drones to face the oncoming wavefront of incoming enemy missiles. “This is Captain Jack of Hart squadron, Marine Fighter Attack Wing 112, to fleet command,” he intoned with a nod towards Betty. She nodded, indicating that she was transmitting. “The Cowboys are ready for action. Where do you need us?”
A fourth cyber appeared atop his console, and Jack had to suppress an amused smile at just how crowded it was getting in the cockpit. She was brown haired, brown skinned, and looked like an extra from a Zorro movie. That wasn’t a surprise. She was after all the brain of the Santa Isabel, flagship of the Spanish Armada and the entirety of Third Fleet. “Cover the carriers,” she ordered in Spanish-accented English. Not Spanish-accented American which sounded entirely different, but Spanish-accented English. It was an odd mingling of foreign accents that almost confused his ears. But by God he could listen to her read the dictionary all day long and never grow tired of it. “We need to protect them while the rest of the fighters launch,” Santa Isabel continued and Jack nodded.
“Will do,” he answered and turned back to Betty. “Cowboys, did you hear the lady?” Betty smiled as his squadron-mates answered in the affirmative in rapid succession. “Assume defense formation delta,” Jack ordered and returned his gaze to Santa Isabel’s cyber. “Good luck.”
Santa Isabel smiled back. “God be with you, Captain Hart,” she returned in a far more formal tone before fading away.
Jack turned back to Christine. “Slot us into your defense grid, please?” he asked with raised eyebrows.
Enterprise’s cyber nodded in agreement. One of the displays flashed to show the fleet’s collective point defense grid reaching out towards the oncoming threat and zoomed in on Enterprise, oriented bow-on to the enemy. He watched Ken and Swan’s squadrons moving to Enterprise’s port side while Jesse and Snake moved to starboard, spreading out to form an angled wall of fighters guarding their carrier’s flanks. Jack and Cat filled out the forward point of the three-dimensional defensive wedge, lasers and missiles scanning for enemies to shoot. “You’re part of the grid now.”
Jack looked to Betty and she smiled in agreement.
“Good.” Jack reached out to tap one control and a T&J song filled the cockpit. This one had driving rhythms and a good screaming melody that merged into the battles that often raged around them. He felt their twin voices suffuse into his bones and for a moment he was a young man, plucking his silly little guitar while Julie and Alex sang their golden chords. Long before the corporate big wigs ever imagined the creation of T&J. The good old days.
He opened his eyes again, felt his heart pumping in time to the music, and felt peace radiating out from him. He placed his hands back on the stick and throttle, breathed deeply, and scanned the displays. One showed a squadron of Hellcats leaving Enterprise, shooting out between Jack and Cat’s squadrons on fusion-blue flames. Another showed the incoming wave of missiles. The frigates and destroyers on the edges of the fleet opened fire on another display.
Missiles, lasers, and gravitic cannons fired and there were so many missiles in the attack that they couldn’t dodge. Missiles died by the hundreds but kept coming. For a moment Jack was watching the Shang strike on Yosemite Station again, the day his world ended. He watched Yosemite fall, ravaging the western United States, and he watched his father die. He stopped, the past and present colliding so completely he couldn’t find his way out.
The one word snapped his eyes back into focus on Betty. She smiled. Her eyes said she knew. She understood. She would always be here to help. He held onto that knowledge as old friends filled his ears and mind with the sound of their voices. They sang of roaring thunder, crashing lightning, and the end of innocence. The soundtrack of his life and a cybernetic partner that knew him well enough to make certain it played just right lifted him back up onto solid mental footing. The missiles came and he flexed his fingers. It was time. “Yippie ki-yay,” he said in a voice that was far too shaky for his wishes.
If the cybers heard the quaver they ignored it, and the seventy-two Avengers of Jack’s merry little band of Cowboys opened fire with every weapon at their disposal. Missile pods ripple-fired scores of point defense warheads into space, laser turrets pulsed into the teeth of the enemy attack wave, and gravitic cannons stabbed deep into it. Dreadnoughts, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, fighters, and even carriers added their own fire to the point defense grid and he sucked in a deep breath.
It was an amazing sight.
Three hundred warships and the better part of a thousand fighters faced the missile swarm, filling space so completely that outgoing missiles exploded from friendly fire. Lasers stabbed through gases of destroyed or expended missiles so thick that the normally invisible beams shone bright to every human eye in the fleet. The roiling wavefront of death filled the sky with light and hundreds of Shang missiles hit the grid.
“Take that,” Jack snarled as the combined point defense grid of the greatest Alliance fleet ever assembled stopped the Shang missile strike cold. There would be no repeat of Yosemite today.