They say the best way to fight is to help someone walk into a trap you set for them. Then you can defeat them on your own timetable. Me, I’ve never liked other people’s timetables. I plan to live forever, so I make it my business to mess with any plans that seek to derail mine. I guess you could say that I’m just not a very obliging trappee. I will always fight to break out of your trap. I pinky promise.
The starfield was afire with the blaze of dying missiles. They died by the hundreds, exploding as they reached the line of death drawn by the point defense networks of the Western Alliance’s Third Fleet. Missiles, lasers, and gravitic cannons reached out, blotting the Shang attack from the stars with merciless abandon. Anything less than Third Fleet would be taking damage already, and maybe worse. Jack frowned at the thought.
“You know what comes to mind when I look at all that?” Jack asked.
Betty sighed and raised one eyebrow at him. She knew him too well. “Don’t say it.”
Jack aimed an impish smile at her. “It’s a trap.”
“You said it,” she returned with an exasperated sigh.
Jack shrugged at her. “I couldn’t resist.”
“Well, you should have.”
Jack chuckled at her and looked back to the wall of death. If there was one thing that spectacular waste of missiles was good for, it was making a real eye-catching example of modern art.
“At least we’re good enough to take it,” Betty continued, dismissing the threat with all the contempt a computer could bring for someone who started a battle they could not win.
“Yeah,” Jack said, his tone doubtful. Eye-catching. Something about that had his subconscious in a whirl. He just didn’t know what.
“What?” Betty asked in a worried tone.
“I don’t know.” Jack frowned and tried to nail down the odd feeling. It’s not like they were in danger. With the fleet arrayed for battle, no conceivable missile barrage could possibly break through. Even after he broadened his horizons to the idea of conceivable after seeing the current attack. Third Fleet was the largest collection of warships he’d ever seen assembled. There was just no way to break them.
That they could see.
The thought came fully formed in Jack’s mind and he returned Betty’s gaze. She cocked her head to the side, aware of the change in his demeanor. Jack considered the idea for a second and then nodded.
“Guys?” he asked, looking towards where the other Avengers spat lasers and missiles at the incoming Shang wave.
“You feeling it too, boss?” Ken asked in a strained voice.
“There’s something not right here,” Jesse added, trying hard to maintain his cool outward demeanor.
“I feel like we’re being sucker punched,” Cat snarled.
“We just blocked it,” Swan said in a very calm voice that showed just how hard she was trying to keep from lashing out at something. Anything.
“So where’s the next attack coming from?” Snake asked, every bit the lawyer looking to weasel out of a bad situation. Well right now Jack would happily be a weasel. They didn’t get sucked into jet engines after all.
“Good question,” Jack said and began studying the plots around him, trying to figure out what their subconscious was telling them. He had a feeling that he needed to be elsewhere but didn’t know where.
It was one of the many things that gave his people an advantage over every normal human born on Earth since the dawn of time. The Peloran Treatments, given free of charge to every child, improved the power and intelligence of the body’s immune system and made sickness a literal thing of the past. The treatments also slowed the aging process through some process Jack didn’t understand. The closest explanation he’d ever figured out was that they somehow maintained a backup set of directions on how each cell in the human body was supposed to look. It kept the cells from degrading over time, and expanded the standard human lifespan into the centuries. But Jack’s cowboys were another cut above most humans. Like ten, maybe twenty thousand humans on the entire Earth, their bodies had reacted far outside the norm.
Jack was twenty-five when he took the final treatments, and a decade later he was still exactly twenty-five years old. A century from now, he would be twenty-five, and in a thousand years, if nothing got around to killing him, his body would still be twenty-five years old. He would never age another day as long as he lived.
And that wasn’t the only advantage he’d gained. He was stronger and faster than he’d ever been before the final treatments, and he’d been a very fit man in his youth. He couldn’t jump tall buildings in a single bound, bullets hurt real bad, and a train would run him right over, but no natural-born human could ever match him in any athletic contest. He could beat Olympic champions without breaking a sweat, which was why they banned those like him from any and all gentlemanly sports.
He could see farther, smell more, and hear sounds no normal human could. And he’d picked up a sixth sense that was hard to explain to anyone else. Only the Ageless truly understood. But it was like he could feel danger before it arrived if he listened. He couldn’t even explain it to himself because no word he’d grown up with covered the idea. But he’d learned to trust that feeling and right now he felt it real strong. He shouldn’t be where he was. Something was coming and something was going to hurt him. Maybe all of them. And then he saw it.
“There,” he said, pointing at a display. “What do you guys see?”
“Nothing,” Betty answered, her tone mystified.
The other Cowboys swore in a variety of very creative ways as they caught it too.
“Exactly.” Jack turned to Christine. “And what do you see?”
Enterprise’s cyber glanced at the display and frowned. “Oh, slag,” she swore as she got it too.
“So we’re not imagining things,” Jack whispered before grabbing the stick and throttle. “All Cowboys, maintain delta formation on my lead,” Jack ordered and spun the stick left. The universe swung around them, stars turning into lines for an instant. Then the Shang missiles were behind him, and the long, rectangular hull of the Enterprise filled his vision. The one hundred meter wide opening in her bow allowed him to look straight down the throat of her vast hangar bay all the way to the identical opening in her aft. He watched a single squadron of Marauder bombers lumber out of her aft while another squadron of Hellcats launched straight towards his part of the fighter screen. Engines the size of light cruisers lit the outside of Enterprise’s armored flanks with a blue fusion glow as she maintained formation with the rest of the American task force. She was a beautiful ship, but Jack didn’t have time to admire her. He slammed the throttle forward, engines burned to full power and seventy-two Avengers left the wall of fighters supporting the fleet defense grid.
Santa Isabel’s cyber appeared on his console with an angry expression. “Why are you abandoning your post?” she growled.
“The Shang are about to stab us in the back,” Jack answered and pushed the stick forward, sending the Cowboys diving under their carrier’s kilometer-long bulk.
“What? Why? How?” the fleet flagship’s cyber asked in confusion, obviously having trouble coming up with any more coherent questions. Or maybe she just wanted it to look that way. Or maybe she just wanted him to answer without waiting for all the pointless long form American language to get out of the way.
“Nothing,” He answered her third question with a grim look. “Just a gut feeling,” he added and pulled the throttle back. The Cowboys came to a stop, their wedge now protecting Enterprise’s vast engine section from an enemy none of them could see but knew had to be out there.
The cyber cocked her head to the side and just looked at him. She obviously wasn’t accustomed to that answer. Then she shared a look with Enterprise’s cyber, followed by another glance towards Betty and Jasmine. The cybers were communicating far faster than any words he could follow and he was pleased when the flagship nodded at him.
“Very well. Proceed as you will,” Santa Isabel’s cyber said in a firm tone. “I will inform the grand admiral.”
Jack winced. “We need to redeploy the entire fleet, you know.”
She shook her head. “It’s taking every ship we have to stop those missiles.”
“I think that’s the point,” Jack said with one eyebrow raised at the cyber.
She blinked. “I see. Yes.” The cyber shifted back and forth on her feet, looking momentarily taken aback. But she was a quick girl. “I will do what I can,” she promised.
“That’s all I ask,” Jack said with a shrug.
“Good luck,” she ordered and faded away.
Christine frowned and looked around. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope you’re wrong.”
Jack chuckled. “Trust me, so do I.” Then he shrugged and Enterprise’s cyber shared a glance with Betty.
Her lips pursed in distaste. “You just usually aren’t.”
“You know, we might want to think about leaving,” Jack said with a raised eyebrow.
She snorted. “Have you tried yet?”
Jack frowned at the mere idea of running out on warships that needed his protection. “No,” was all he said though.
Christine folded her arms under her impressive breasts and shook her head. “Well, several of our ships have. They report a stellar mass blocking the translation to hyperspace.”
Jack looked around at all the displays and frowned. They were lightminutes from the nearest star, far outside any interference it could give. “Where?”
“That is a very good question.” Christine drummed her fingers on her forearms. “We’re trying to ascertain that, literally as we speak.”
And then the feeling finally hit him where it counted. “Oh, frak me.”
Christine raised an eyebrow at him. “I don’t think that’s an appropriate request.”
Jack snorted. “Sorry. I mean…this really is a trap. They’re holding us here.”
“How?” Christine asked in a serious tone.
“I don’t know,” Jack said with a helpless shrug. “I don’t understand gravitic science, but if I wanted to kill an enemy, I’d make sure they couldn’t run and then shoot them to death from a safe range.”
Christine made a show of examining the displays showing the continuing missile salvo dying short of their wall of battle. “Your logic makes distressing sense. Even if your language skills need help.”
“Hey now. I work real hard to sound this smart,” Jack said with a smirk.
“I know,” she returned with a hopeless sigh.
A display blinked and he saw Durango and Arizona turning away from the wall of battle. The American battleships swung their massive armored prows away from the incoming Shang missiles and moved towards his position to face empty space. They looked something like hammerhead sharks with massive armor plates angling out on either side of their nose to protect the rest of the ship from taking damage. Large spinal gravitic cannons and capital lasers pointed out of the thick armored plates, ready to fire on anything they saw, and banks of missile launchers ran down their lightly armored flanks to the massive engines that held them in position. Smaller cruisers, destroyers, and frigates brought their armored wedges around as well, and moved to protect the battleships’ vulnerable flanks from anything that would threaten them. For a moment it looked like they were abandoning the wall in chaos, but the Spanish Armada quickly spread to fill in the holes.
Durango’s cyber appeared on his console, a smile on her lips. She looked similar than Santa Isabel’s cyber in many ways, easily as Hispanic as the Spanish cyber. But there was something indefinably American about her. He didn’t know what it was, but it was there. He liked it.
“Hey, Amparo,” he welcomed her with an open smile. “Welcome aboard.”
“So, you come this way often?” Jack asked.
Amparo shook her head with an exasperated smile. “We’ve been considering your thoughts. They make sense.”
“So you pulled an entire task force out of the wall?” Jack asked.
Amparo paused to look at him carefully. “You did say we needed to redeploy, didn’t you?”
“I did.” Jack shrugged. “And I’m happy to have you. I’m just…surprised.”
Amparo raised one eyebrow at him. “Don’t be. I never much liked the wall of battle. I’m built to face my enemies head on and these British walls hamper my mobility.”
“You are a graceful and elegant instrument of war compared to those wallers back there,” Jack noted with a wink.
Amparo cocked her head to the side with a knowing look in her eyes. “Flattery, Captain Jack?”
“Truth,” Jack corrected.
“Contact!” Betty shouted and he turned to see more missiles boiling out of what looked like a big empty hole in space. Nothing special at all was there moments ago. Now it was a bristling cauldron of spewing death headed in their general direction.
“Wow,” Jack whispered as the numbers began to register.
“Yeah.” Betty scowled at the displays. “I hate it when you’re right.”
“Me too.” Jack paused for a moment and let loose with something he’d learned in an entirely different way since joining the Marines. “Oh Lord, for what we are about to receive, may we be truly thankful.”
“Amen,” Betty and Jasmine chorused.
Jack interlaced his fingers, cracked his knuckles, and placed his hands back on the controls. Things were about to get busy. He scanned the displays, calculating speed, distance, and time for the missiles to reach his fleet. Unlike the bombardment coming from the other side, this was a single large volley with no follow up missiles. The Shang had obviously been hoping to hit them by surprise. Well, that wasn’t going according to their plans. Still, it was thousands of missiles and they were going to hurt no matter what he did. He shook his head, not liking what he needed to do.
“Open fire at two lightseconds, spread across the entire front.”
Amparo frowned. “You’re not going to get many hits like that.”
Jack nodded. It would take the sunlight reflected from the surface of the missiles two seconds to travel to his fighters and his laser attacks would take another two seconds to return. His cybers needed to guess where the missiles would be four seconds in their future, over one hundred thousand kilometers from where they looked like they were, to have a hope of hitting them. It was, in a nutshell, impossible to expect any reliable hits at that range.
“I’m not looking for hits,” Jack replied with a smile.
Amparo raised a disbelieving eyebrow at him.
Jack chuckled. “Oh, I wouldn’t mind some, but I won’t demand the impossible.”
“Then why are you wasting the ammo?” Amparo asked.
“Not wasting. Paying for time. The more time we buy, the more time the wall’s point defenses have to shoot them,” he explained with a wave of his hand behind them.
Amparo frowned at him. “So how do we buy time?”
Jack shrugged. “I’m hoping that when the AIs on those missiles detect our incoming fire they’ll start up some serious evasion routines.”
“Which will slow down their forward progress and buy us time,” Amparo finished for him with a nod. “We wouldn’t fall for it.”
“It’s a bit of a shot in the dark,” Jack said with a wink.
Amparo groaned. “You have a horrible sense of humor.”
“I know.” Jack opened his hands, palms up, and gave her an urchin’s grin. “But it was funny.”
“No.” Amparo let the word drag out and crossed her arms. He was getting used to that response.
“Well, I thought it was,” Betty interrupted.
“See?” Jack smiled at Amparo. “She thinks I’m funny.”
“Not really,” Betty corrected with a smirk. “But a broken clock is right at least once a day.”
Jack winced and opened his mouth to say something pithy when he felt the fighter shudder. All three gravitic cannons opened up, shooting a twisting cone of gravity towards the incoming salvo. Both missile banks began firing continuously and their laser arrays pulsed at maximum rate. A glance at one display showed their capacitors actually dipping down from the energy drain, and he held on tight.
The other Avengers and the entire American task force around him opened fire as well. Jack aimed a raised eyebrow at Amparo.
“So? Just because I mock you doesn’t mean you don’t have good ideas,” Amparo answered his silent question.
“What was that?” Jack waggled his eyebrows at her. “I didn’t quite hear you.”
Amparo cleared her throat and gave him The Look that meant he was treading on thin ice. And if anybody knew the dangers of thin ice it was a native-born son of Northern Minnesota. “Don’t be fishing for compliments in waters deep enough to drown you when you find out you’ve hooked a whale.”
Jack chuckled and waved a hand towards the wall. “They are whales. You on the other hand are a graceful and deadly shark.”
Amparo measured him up one side and down the other. “Doesn’t that make me more dangerous?” she finally asked.
“I laugh at danger,” Jack answered and punctuated it with a laugh.
Amparo just rolled her eyes and looked at Betty. “Tell me you didn’t pick him for his sense of humor.”
“Hey!” Jack protested.
“I would never be that stupid,” Betty answered innocently.
“You wound me,” he said with an indignant sniff, but relaxed back in his seat to watch the engagement.
“You’ll heal,” Betty whispered as their missiles disengaged engines within seconds of launching. They didn’t have the fuel to maintain a burn over two lightseconds of space, but if they drifted on momentum they could wait until they reached attack range to light their drives up again. It was a cheater’s way of getting more range out of the missiles. And as Jack had always maintained, if you weren’t cheating you weren’t trying to win.
He saw the slight puff that accompanied a handful of Shang missiles dying and smiled. The race was on. Then the displays began to flash and he saw thousands of incoming Shang missiles begin to swerve. “Yippie ki-yay!” Jack crowed and didn’t care one bit that every direct-fire weapon they had was now missing by tens of thousands of kilometers, if not more.
“It really worked,” Amparo said in a shocked tone.
“Hey,” Jack protested. “I thought you said it was a good idea.”
“I most certainly did not say that,” Amparo returned, both eyebrows raised this time. “I just implied that sometimes you might have them.”
“Oh,” Jack answered and chewed his lip for a bit. “So. Is this one of them?”
Amparo gave him another measuring look before answering. “Maybe,” she finally whispered. “But we’re burning through a lot of ammo.”
Another missile puffed out of life as they passed under one lightsecond away, but the vast majority of their weapons were still going wild.
“It does no good in the bins,” Jack answered the battleship.
Amparo just snorted and shook her head. “True. Sometimes I wonder if you’re truly as stupid as you act.”
“As long as they underestimate me, I’m happy,” Jack said with a wink.
Then the first of his missiles came to life, spewing blue fusion flames into space. All around them across the front, hundreds of missiles rocketed into action and streaked into the teeth of the nearest enemy missiles. Jack winced at the timer counting down the very few seconds left but watched the Shang missiles die by the hundreds to his counter-fire. They were moving slower now, arcing through grander and more evasive maneuvers impossible for the cybers to project with their lasers, but more and more missiles began to track them.
Balls of light signaled the end of gravitic power plants torn apart, a roiling wave that rushed towards them like surf against the beach. Jack winced again at the thought. Sand tended to do rather badly on an individual basis when it came to ocean waves after all. And one Captain Jack did not intend to be washed away like one of them.
He watched the wavefront bare down on the far too thin line of fighters and warships guarding the fleet’s rear. At least his tactic had slowed the missiles’ approach and given them some time to adjust. The Cowboys were beginning to put an appreciable dent into the number of missiles but there were simply too many of them. He began to feel more like that grain of sand than he wanted to as he watched more and more missiles get within half a lightsecond of their formation.
Then the wall of British dreadnoughts and Spanish battleships opened up with the point defense on their near flanks and it felt like the end of the world. Lasers and beams of twisted gravity passed by, and sometimes through, the American formation. Missiles streaked by, filling space with a thin mist of dissipating exhaust gases.
“Give me countdown on those missiles,” Jack ordered and flexed his fingers.
“For us or the fleet?” Betty asked.
“Got it,” Betty answered and one of the displays filled with a number. Five. Well, that was just lovely. He’d really been hoping for more time. Not expecting, but hoping.
“Cowboys, break on my signal.” Jack glanced at Betty and she nodded in understanding. This was going to get hairy in a very bad way.
“They’re gettin’ awful close, boss,” Cat transmitted, her voice filled with concern. Explosions filled the space before them and hundreds more Shang missiles died. But the firestorm continued to move closer and Jack knew that they did not have enough point defense to get them all.
“They’re gonna get closer,” Jack returned as the gravitic cannons thrummed again, stabbing into the missile swarm. He thought he saw them rip apart dozens of missiles but there were still thousands more. He felt like he was trying to a plug a leak in the Hoover Dam with a tube of superglue.
“I don’t like them getting closer,” Cat announced and Jack chuckled. He placed his fingers back on the stick and throttle as their missiles and lasers went to continuous fire, laying down a stream of death that sent scores of missiles into oblivion. It was nowhere near enough.
“Break,” Jack ordered and pulled the controls to the left. Thrusters flared and the formation of Avengers exploded into a chaotic mess of individually maneuvering fighters. Or so the complicated maneuver was designed to look to outside eyes. In reality it was a complex plan designed by the collective intellect of seven cybernetic intelligences, randomized by six Marine fighter pilots, and thrown into the teeth of the enemy missiles by seventy-two Avenger-class starfighters. The AIs inhabiting the Shang missiles never saw it coming.
The Avengers scattered, spinning to sweep over two hundred gravitic cannons across the missile swarm. Over a hundred missile batteries spat their vengeance as fast as they could reload and over five hundred lasers sent coherent beams of deadly light through the exhaust gases filling space. Missiles died by the scores, by the hundreds, but nothing could stop the missile swarm from engulfing them.
Everywhere Jack looked he saw and felt missiles, exhaust, explosions, and death. There was no safe place to be but he let his mind go blank and just moved whenever he got the urge to move. He had a lot of urges to move and his hands twitched on the stick and throttle. Missiles exploded all around them and a warning light alerted him to the near hits clawing at their deflection grid. Another display came up, showing armor damage on the port wing. An Avenger ahead of him exploded and another missile flew by close enough he could have stepped onto it if he’d wanted to.
And then they were through the storm, scattered Avengers spinning to keep firing on the missiles. Jack let out a shaky breath, glancing at the displays to see several Avenger drones missing. All piloted Avengers still lived though and he licked his lips in relief.
“Bad touch!” Cat shouted. “That was a bad touch!” she repeated, and Jack examined her fighter on one of the displays. Her armor was riddled with holes and it looked like her main laser turret had been completely stripped off. The displays showed very few of his Cowboys had avoided damage and nearly all of their deflection grids were fluctuating or completely gone.
If the Shang missiles had been focused on killing his fighters, they would have been in some serious trouble. No. They probably would have been dead. Jack was honest enough with himself to recognize that fact. Then he put the thought aside and turned to examine the results of the rest of the Shang barrage.
Atmosphere and wreckage wreathed the American task force, radiating from almost every ship. The displays showed that every ship had taken at least one major hit and some appeared heavily damaged. Flames spewed from Durango’s flank, the very oxygen in her air burning from the assault. The air ran out as he watched, the supply either cut off or exhausted, and the flames sputtered away as he continued scanning the task force. They hadn’t lost any ships. He frowned at the realization. That many missiles should have killed ships.
And then his mind caught up to his eyes. The Cowboys hadn't been the target. The American task force hadn't been the target. The wave of missiles still lived, whittled down to a quarter of its original size, but it had passed them all by. The thousand remaining missiles bore down on the four British dreadnoughts anchoring Third Fleet’s center like the heaviest hammer in all the worlds.
“Ah, hell,” Jack muttered as the British point defenses laid down a final wall of death that swept missiles away as if slapped by the hand of God.
But there were too many missiles, too few point defense batteries even on those behemoths, and too little time for them to kill more than a few hundred. The remaining Shang missiles entered attack range, the first hundred or so rending deflection grids in their last act of existence. Another hundred poured in through the open grids to rip armor apart. The final hundred or so missiles smashed into the heavy warships, seeking any weakness their brothers and sisters had generated.
Flames wreathed the wall of battle and Jack held his breath, hoping he’d done enough. He almost prayed but doubted the man his parents believed in would have much time for someone suddenly asking for favors out of the blue. He knew he wouldn’t and settled for licking his lips as he watched the dreadnoughts writhe in the grip of the Shang sneak attack.