There are easy times in life. There are hard times in life. There are times of peace, and times to make war. I like peace myself. Always have. But there’s no use in going halfway when it comes to war. Win or lose, live or die, they’re just sides of the same coin. And I will never toss that coin randomly. I will stack the deck, I will use loaded dice, and I will do everything else it takes to make certain that the odds are ever in my favor. Cuz if yah ain’t cheatin’, yah ain’t tryin’.
The explosions faded, the wreckage of shattered missiles drifted away, and Jack’s displays cleared to show him the British dreadnoughts anchoring the heart of Third Fleet’s wall of battle. They weren’t the largest ships he’d ever seen, or even the most powerful. That honor went to First Fleet’s Columbia. She was a true jewel of a starship, but the British built their dreadnoughts real tough. They looked an awful lot like the fish he’d grown up catching in Northern Minnesota lakes, with their tall and thin bodies narrowing to points fore and aft, but the massive broadsides carried more weapons turrets than any American ship ever carried. They might be small on an individual basis, but it was an impressive sight when a British dreadnought fired her full broadside at an enemy.
Jack knew Vanguard well. He’d escorted her in battle multiple times during the Alpha Centauri campaign and it hurt to see her torn armor. Air and wreckage streamed from her armored flank, but the displays confirmed she was already beginning to stabilize her deflection grid again. She had power, her point defense grid continued to fire at the main Shang attack, and she continued to maneuver. Jack let out a long breath in relief.
He didn’t know Valiant but still winced atthe pair of dead engines and the open wound that had been her flank. She’d taken the lion’s share of the missiles and she must have lost multiple reactors. The displays showed her deflection grid beginning to lose cohesion. If it kept up like that the grid would fail completely in less than a minute, leaving the behemoth hideously vulnerable to attack.
Victorious and Victory were damaged too, but their deflection grids began reforming as he watched, hazy shells of twisted gravity on his displays. They moved to interpose themselves between Valiant and the Shang missiles getting far too close for comfort, and he saw their point defense batteries going to rapid fire. They would do their duty, giving their wounded sister time to repair her shattered systems or die trying. Jack nodded his head in respect towards the two ships before looking back to Vanguard. The displays showed she was moving the wall of battle forward into a wedge formation, taking the point position herself. That took serious courage.
The punishment those leviathans could absorb and keep fighting was truly amazing but even they were not indestructible. Their smaller escorts were far more fragile. Five destroyers and eight frigates were simply gone, including all of Valiant’s dedicated escorts. Several dozen close-in fighters had evaporated too, though only two pilots had died with them.
He shook his head and scanned the displays concerned with matters a bit closer to home. He was down two Avenger drones. The Cowboys in total had lost eleven fighters, but all of his pilots remained. Thank God for that. It could have been worse. Much, much worse.
He tore his eyes away from the displays to look up at Amparo. “How are you?”
Durango’s cyber winced. “I’ve been better but I’m alive.” Her smile took on a forced appearance and a quick glance at the display showed the torn armor and smashed missile launchers down the American battleship’s flanks.
“I like you alive,” Jack said. “It beats the frak out of the alternative.”
“It sure does.” Amparo sighed and shook her head. “Can I ask you to do something for me?”
“Your wish is my command,” Jack said with an expansive wave of a hand.
Amparo pursed her lips as if worrying about his answer. “I need you to run away.”
Jack almost growled. He did scowl and his eyes narrowed. “Like hell,” he objected, his tone belligerent.
Amparo smiled at the response and nodded. “I hoped you’d see it that way.”
Jack cocked his head to the side in confusion. She was planning something but he couldn’t even begin to think what it might be. “What’s up?”
“We’ve localized the center of the gravitic disturbance,” Amparo answered immediately. “If we can find what is causing it and destroy it, the disturbance should go away.”
“Like a deflection grid without generators?” Jack asked.
“Exactly,” Amparo answered in a proud voice. “In fact, based on how gravity is working around here, we think that’s exactly what it is. A gravitic generator tuned to destabilize hyperspace. Now the problem is that it’s on the other side of whatever is firing those God-awful missile barrages at us,” she continued in a more serious tone.
“Ah,” Jack muttered, sobering as he glanced at a display showing that area. There were a lot of ships there. “That’ll be a tough nut to crack.”
“Exactly.” Amparo smiled at him. “Now in about…sixty seconds, the American task force is going to start running. One ship at a time. All of the small ones. It’s going to look horrible, like the task force is abandoning the wall of battle after taking that barrage on the chin.”
Jack blinked, his mind running over the idea. It had possibilities. “And you want us to run with you?”
Amparo smiled encouragingly. “If you are running towards the outer system, they probably won’t fire on you much.” She shrugged. “Hopefully.”
Jack pursed his lips in thought. “You mean they might want to suggest to other ships that running truly is an option?” He let out a quick breath and rubbed his chin. “Get us all to break up into little packets they can chew up later?”
“That’s our projection,” Amparo answered. “No guarantee of course, but if you can flank them while ‘running away’ you might be able to take out the generator.”
Jack frowned, finally catching on to one thing she’d never said. “I can’t help but notice that you never say ‘we.’”
Amparo sighed. “I was hoping you wouldn’t catch that until later.” She shrugged. “Durango, Arizona, and Enterprise have to remain in the wall of battle. We didn’t have the acceleration to keep up with the cruisers before we ate that missile barrage. We certainly don’t now.”
Jack turned a questioning look at Christine.
Enterprise’s brain gave him a sad smile, already resigned to her inability to move as swiftly as her smaller cousins.
“I see,” Jack said, feeling like if he left them here he would never see them again.
“I trust you, Jack,” Amparo said in a soft voice. “Take out that generator and open a route for us to get home.”
Jack nodded slowly, noting the worry in her voice. He didn’t like it.
“And don’t wait around for us when the bubble drops. Just go,” she ordered.
Jack frowned and started to protest.
“No,” Amparo cut him off. “We’ll be right behind you but we can’t afford to get caught looking for each other in hyperspace. We’ll rendezvous at Serenity in two weeks real time,” Amparo finished.
“I don’t like this,” Jack whispered. “It doesn’t feel right.”
Amparo sighed. “Then ask yourself if this is the best thing you can do right now.”
Jack considered the question, and felt peace fill him again. This was the best thing he could do. He still didn’t like it, but nodded very slowly.
Amparo and Christine shared a quick glance. He wished he knew what they were telling themselves. “That’s what we thought,” Amparo said with another shrug. “So break that generator and get our people out,” she ordered and waited for him to nod in acceptance. “Thank you, Jack,” she finished and faded out of view.
“Christine,” Jack said before the other cyber could follow and she met his gaze. There were so many things he wanted to say in that moment. She was a beautiful ship. She was his home. He was about to leave her behind and despite his feelings that this really was the best plan, he still felt that aching feeling towards her. “Be careful.”
The cyber’s smile softened. “I will.”
Jack knew he should say something profound. Something amazing. Come up with a grand quotation before going to battle. Something memorable. Something school children should learn in the future. “See yah later,” came out instead.
Christine smiled, her eyes conveying complete and total understanding. “You too.” And then she faded away.
Jack punched his chair arm in anger. “See yah later,” Jack muttered in a self-mocking tone. “See yah later. Of all the stupid things to say. What was I thinking?”
“You weren’t,” Betty answered, her smile matching Christine’s. “But she knows what you meant.”
“Yeah,” he whispered before sucking in a long breath. He was leaving their home behind. But he had no choice. He breathed out and breathed in, forcing himself to find peace. Then he smiled and looked at Betty again. “All Cowboys,” he said, forcing his normal carefree tone back into being. “Grab a cruiser and hang on tight,” he ordered, eyes running over the American formation on his displays. As his eyes settled on each one it expanded in his view and detailed vital statistics appeared next to it.
He finished reading the last field of data and raised his hand to point at one of the newer cruisers. She looked like a smaller and more maneuverable cousin to the two massive battleships. Her forward armored wedge was smaller, fewer gravitic cannons and capital lasers pointed out of it, and her flank missile launchers were neither as numerous nor as powerful. But she was designed to endure the fire of capital-class enemies and destroy them with extreme prejudice. She would anchor a task force like this real good. “That one.”
Betty nodded. “She’s a good ship. Good captain too.”
“And the cyber?” Jack asked, detecting the reservation in her tone.
Betty sighed, appearing reluctant to blab on a fellow cyber. She answered after only a short pause though. “Well, she’s a bit crazy.”
Jack scratched his chin and considered the possibilities. “Good crazy or bad crazy?” he asked and Betty raised both eyebrows at him. “There is a difference you know,” Jack added in a defensive tone. Betty rolled her eyes. “What? Crazy axe-murderer,” he said, placing both hands on the left. “Someone who’s just a little different from the rest of society.” This time his hands moved to the right and stayed there.
Betty shook her head and sighed. “Well, she’s different all right.”
“Ooh?” Jack asked with raised eyebrows.
Betty turned a wicked smile on him. “She chose the name of an angel.”
“Oh,” Jack answered with a frown. Of course, she was the cybernetic brain of a ship named Los Angeles, so he supposed it made a certain amount of sense. “Shiny. Which one?”
Betty just smiled and stepped to the side. A new cyber appeared atop the console, standing next to Betty and Jasmine in the standard white uniform of the United States Navy. Long red hair framed a face that would look at home on any college campus, and inquisitive grey eyes gave Jack the feeling he just might end up liking her.
“Captain Jack,” he said, placing one hand on his chest. “And who might I have the pleasure of meeting?”
An amused smile twisted her lips and he caught the lively sense of humor under that face. “Gabrielle,” was all she said.
Jack pursed his lips in thought, and cocked his head to the side. “And here I always thought Gabriel was a he,” he said, feigning confusion.
“The standard presumption of a male-dominated society,” she answered, grey eyes twinkling in amusement.
Jack laughed out loud, slapping the arm of his flight chair. “Touché,” he finally pronounced, granting her a point in their verbal contest.
“Merci,” she returned with a half bow, accepting his point with humility that must have been feigned.
A display flashed for his attention and Jack pulled his gaze away from her to see the display showing each of his five Cowboys. Their fighters and drones held three dimensional flying wedge formations around five cruisers, and one more display showed his fighters doing the same for Los Angeles. Jack nodded in approval. He loved it when a plan came together.
“Well, I do believe we’re about ready to run away to fight another day,” Jack said, forcing a charming smile back on his face as he turned back to her.
“Agreed,” Gabrielle returned and made a show of looking down at the displays on his fighter.
Jack followed her gaze to see a frigate accelerating away from the American task force, engines at maximum burn. He leaned back and watched as a destroyer followed, then another frigate, and then more. Finally, one of the older, Pre-War cruisers broke away. Jack focused on it and the name Dallas came into view. He’d fought next to some of her sisters and knew she could kill Shang as good as any ship he’d seen. The destroyers Harrington and Grayson followed the cruiser out, snuggling up close to the ship they were tasked with protecting.
He looked away from those three ships to see most of the American cruisers and destroyers “fleeing” the wall of battle in a ragged line that looked like the result of perfect panic. Then Los Angeles spewed blue fire from her main engines and began to follow her sister ships. The frigates Clark and Hammond, a dozen Hellcats, and Jack’s Avengers held formation around the larger ship with ease. The wall of battle fell behind, British and Spanish ships screaming a cacophony of orders for the Americans to get back to the wall.
A glance ahead showed another salvo of Shang missiles still moving towards the wall and Jack smiled. No missiles tracked the ragged task force. The Shang were playing the game the way they’d thought. Well, those aliens were not going to enjoy the end game. He frowned as he noticed several British destroyers and frigates pull away from the wall as well, and they began following the American force. He focused on the lead destroyer, but the display zoomed in on one of the frigates instead. Jack raised an eyebrow in surprise until he recognized the name. Recovery. The British were sending their medical frigates away, along with their destroyer escorts. That was an interesting twist. He wondered what the Shang would think about that.
Jack shrugged the curiosity away, relaxed back into his seat again, and watched as the “fleeing” ships continued to accelerate. The wall’s remaining point defense stopped almost all of the missiles, and the missiles they sent back at the Shang continued to prove almost as effective. The Shang had certainly prepared their defenses well. Minutes went by with the American ships slowly reforming into a cohesive squadron that wasn’t quite obvious. The age-old admonition to “fly casual” echoed through Jack’s mind. They were certainly doing that, if anything could be casual about ships running for their lives.
But that appearance was not going to last much longer. An invisible point in space glowed on his displays, telling him when the task force needed to turn. Soon. He glanced at Betty, and she nodded back. They were ready. The countdown appeared, and he shifted his view to Gabrielle.
“You ready?” Gabrielle asked, head cocked to the side in curiosity.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he answered with a smile and placed his hands on the stick and throttle.
“Break!” Gabrielle shouted.
Jack braced and Betty brought their fighter around to face the main Shang formation. The entire American task force, and the few British ships hanging onto the rear, came around as well with plumes of blue fusion fire filling space around them. The entire formation came bow-on to the Shang fleet and Jack wondered if the aliens were surprised. He knew he would be if he were standing in their shoes. Not that he’d ever wear shoes designed for those midgets.
“All ships, commence bombardment on my mark,” Gabrielle ordered.
Jack smiled at Betty who looked smug in return. They were still far outside standard weapons range, far enough out that hits were all but impossible. But that wasn’t the same as totally impossible. And as he’d shown earlier, sometimes it worked to let fly early. He wasn’t sure if this was one of those times, but copying someone’s idea was the sincerest form of flattery.
Jack was feeling real flattered.
“Don’t look so smug,” Gabrielle said with a wry smile. “It’s unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman.”
Jack put on an act of looking around for someone before shrugging. “Where’s the gentleman?”
“Touché,” Gabrielle returned and Jack chuckled. “Now it’s time to find out what they have,” she added, her tone all business again, and Jack’s displays filled with light codes. For a split second it was total gibberish and then he recognized the fire pattern. He smiled in approval. She wasn’t trying to kill anything. She just wanted to scare whatever was keeping Third Fleet here into revealing itself.
“Mark,” Gabrielle transmitted and every weapon in the fleet opened up.
Six-dozen Avengers fired with him, along with an equal number of Hellcats and their Mexican equivalents, and even three-dozen British Harriers. He felt the very fabric of space trembling under the assault. But it was nothing compared to the firepower of twenty American cruisers and destroyers laying down their own salvos of gravitic might. The British destroyers fired as well, and while their turret-mounted gravitic cannons were smaller they had far more gravitic turrets than the Americans had spinal gravitic cannons.
The display was truly amazing.
To add to it, the task force missile turrets went to maximum fire rate, gravitic drivers slinging them away from their parent ships. The missiles came to life, riding tongues of blue flame and coming around to fly towards the Shang formation. Then they turned off their drives and became holes in space. It was odd to see missiles go dark like that and an eerie chill moved up Jack’s spine. There was just something not right about fighting from ranges like this.
Jack finally saw the result of their initial bombardment and nodded very slowly. There was a gravitic hit on a Shang cruiser vomiting air. And the displays showed another target they couldn’t identify coming apart after a primary capital laser cannon sliced through it. Two hits at this range were enough to impress him.
And then the Shang stopped firing on the bulk of Third Fleet and the brief chill in Jack’s spine turned icy. “Well, now I feel special,” Jack muttered under his breath.
“You should,” Betty returned. “I’ve always said you’re special.”
Betty gave him a wry smile. “Are you sure you heard what I said?”
“Every word,” Jack answered and nodded towards the Shang as they fired again. This time the missiles began to close on their formation.
“Oh,” Betty muttered and shook her head. “Right.”
Jack shrugged towards her and returned his attention to the incoming missiles. They were still several seconds out and he glanced over to see their fighter’s gravitic cannons charging for another salvo. It was time and their cannons opened up again. The very fabric of gravity twisted once more as the warships coordinated another massive salvo around him.
Then he saw the first of the American missiles come back to life, spewing blue flames as they streaked in to attack the Shang formation. Point defense networks came to life, blotting them out of the sky by the dozens, but the survivors dove in and exploded in the midst of the Shang fleet. More accurately, they imploded, becoming miniature black holes sucking the smallest atoms in space into them for the briefest of split seconds, before releasing their hold on gravity and spreading the gathered bits of material out to rampage through the Shang force at significant percentages of the speed of light.
Deflection grids flared and failed, armor tore away from hulls, and atmosphere poured from wounded warships. The missiles did what nothing else had been able to do in the entire battle. They penetrated the Shang jamming and gave Jack his first clear look at what the Shang had. He didn’t like the look very much at all.
The forty saucer-shaped cruisers and equal number of escorting destroyers were bad enough, even if Third Fleet would normally be enough to take them down. But now Jack finally knew how they were throwing so many missiles at Third Fleet. This truly had been a trap all along and they’d flown right into it. The fleet shell defended a dozen or so mobile Shang defense stations, small spherical habitation modules with weapons rings spreading out from their equators. Missile turrets and point defense lasers jutted out of the upper and lower edges of the weapons rings, allowing the stations to fire on any threat no matter where it was. They fired their missiles in perfect unison with the Shang warships. He looked at the display showing the first salvo of closing Shang missiles and let out a long breath.
This was going to hurt.
“Hold on tight, people!” Jack ordered. He relaxed, counting down the seconds and feeling the twinge of nerves. Here was a bad place to be. He pushed the throttle to the left and maneuvering thrusters added a port shift to Betty’s evasion maneuvers.
The Shang missiles screamed in, American and British point defense lasers and missiles reaching out to swat them aside. But the mere forty or so American and British warships didn’t have a prayer of stopping all of them. A missile passed by close to starboard, right where Jack would have been if he hadn’t shifted to the side. Two more passed above him, and an Avenger in front of him ate a missile coming straight for his position. The Avenger came apart and Jack let out a relieved breath on confirmation that it was one of the drones.
And then Jack lost all sense of time as he began dodging and weaving, adding his randomness to Betty’s maneuvers. Fighters exploded around him, missiles tore at warships, and the entire American formation scattered and reformed multiple times a second in an attempt to dodge the attackers. A destroyer slid by overhead, gravitic cannon firing in time with the fleet, and three missiles smashed into it, sending it spinning away, spewing debris and atmosphere. A frigate simply disappeared under five missiles and another Avenger exploded off to the side.
More missiles engulfed a cruiser and Jack focused enough to bring up the name. Washington, the only other Los Angeles-class in the fleet, writhed under the assault of missile after missile penetrating her point defense grid. Adams and Hancock threw every missile and laser they had at the incoming missiles, desperately trying to save her from destruction. But one of the missiles must have found Washington’s magazines because one second she was there, taking fire gamely, and the next she exploded without warning. Jack averted his eyes from the death and destruction, and weaved to starboard without thinking.
“That was Snake’s ship!” Betty shouted as a missile tore at their port deflection grid, missing them by meters.
“I know,” Jack said, pushing the throttle down to send them under another quartet of missiles.
“Snake’s gone!” Betty shouted again.
That got Jack’s attention. He scanned the displays, looking for the right one, and gritted his teeth as he saw it. That empty hole in the squadron display should have had Louis Mattioli’s fighter on it. For a second, he didn’t know what to do, the weight of losing another Cowboy freezing him in place. Then he let out a long breath, sucked it in, and let it out again. This was no time for grieving. And Snake’s cyber was going to need something to keep her going right now.
“Jasmine,” he said, and her holoform came to attention on the display. “Get Natalie and keep her in the game,” he ordered. Jasmine nodded and he looked back to the displays showing their remaining fighters. Another Avenger came apart and he winced. “Better yet, bring her into our formation.”
He looked at Betty. She nodded in approval.
“I’m on it,” Jasmine returned and Jack pulled hard to the left, barely in time to miss another missile that would have torn them apart.
A display blinked. He saw five Avengers slide into formation around Los Angeles and nodded in approval. They spat death at the incoming missiles, slotting into the point defense network with ease, and he suppressed a worried look as Natalie’s holoform appeared on his console. She looked like she wanted to bolt.
“There’s still bad guys that need killing out there, Natalie,” he said, looking into her eyes and gauging her current mental health. Her eyes didn’t want to meet his and he felt her desire to leave. “I need you,” he added and pulled up on the throttle as he had another vague feeling that he really wanted to move. This time, six missiles passed underneath him and Los Angeles’ point defense took them apart. Natalie looked too shaken to move on. Jack suppressed a sigh and turned the screws tighter. “They killed him. Don’t you want revenge?” he asked and saw her wince.
Her pilot was dead. Her world had ended. She was technically released from her enlistment, though that officially didn’t take effect until the end of the battle. But not all cybers had waited that long in the past, and he had personally seen entire squadrons come apart when the cyber just cracked. Her eyes locked onto him with anger.
“For Louis,” she said in a strained voice.
“Let’s kill us some Shang,” Jack ordered and hoped she didn’t see how relieved he was.
“Yes, Sir,” Natalie answered with another flash of angry eyes.
That situation taken care of for now, Jack’s attention returned to the larger battle. Point defense lasers and missiles struck out at another wave of missiles, and he dropped them below Los Angeles in time to intercept four missiles trying to sneak around them. Then another explosion to starboard caught his attention and he pulled back. An armored plate emblazoned with the name Monterrey tumbled past his cockpit an instant later.
Jack set his jaw against the mounting destruction and glanced at the displays. They were losing ships, but explosions in the Shang formation told the tales of losses on their side too. The range showed one lightsecond. They were still too far away for even cybers to generate hits on anything beyond a random lucky guess, but they were getting closer. If they could weather the missile storm just a little longer, the Shang would be in for a major lashing.
Then hundreds of missiles came to life and streaked in to attack the Shang without warning. A display blinked a travel path back to Third Fleet’s wall of battle and Jack chuckled as the missiles ripped into dozens of ships and defense stations. The Shang had allowed themselves to focus on the smaller ships of his force and forgotten that Third Fleet still had some tricks up their sleeves. As the Shang redeployed again to guard against that angle of attack, he watched the range incrementing down towards half a lightsecond.
“Initiate fireplan delta in three,” Gabrielle ordered and Jack leaned back.
“Two.” Jack flexed his fingers and shifted his fighter to the side.
“One.” Several missiles passed by, clawing for his fighter, but his point defense lasers picked them off with ease.
“Fire,” Gabrielle ordered and gravity turned on its side.
Every surviving ship in what now looked more like an oversized squadron fired in unison once again. Beams of twisted gravity shot towards the Shang at lightspeed, accompanied by the focused light of massive laser cannons designed to burn capital ships. The barrage lanced out, arriving microseconds after their last wave of missiles washed over the Shang. The gravitic cannons hit the fluctuating deflection grids like the hammers of God, overriding their control of gravity and tearing armor away from their targets. Then the lasers struck and Shang warships began to melt and burn as armor, interior bulkheads, crew quarters, mess halls, assembly areas, and anything that stood between the most vulnerable parts of a warship and outer space ceased to exist as solid matter.
Shang warships spun away, radiating debris and atmosphere, defense stations tore apart, and a larger station finally appeared in the center of the formation. Then Betty dropped a holographic scale over it and Jack gasped. It was the largest Shang structure Jack had ever seen. The habitation sphere alone was nearly a kilometer wide, and the weapons ring was a truly separate structure surrounding it. Only small struts linked it with the main sphere. Then he frowned. There weren’t enough weapons on that ring.
“That’s the source of the jamming,” Betty informed him and a display flashed to show him the gravitic energy radiating from that massive ring.
Jack pulled in a deep breath as it all made sense. That wasn’t a weapons ring. It was the largest gravitic generator he’d ever seen.
“Concentrate all fire on that ring,” Gabrielle ordered.
The remains of their attack force began to spin, bringing the spinal gravitic cannons on target, and Jack flexed his fingers again. It was all coming down to this. The surviving Shang ships and stations fired more missiles at them, and the fleet’s defense grids met them with every missile and laser they had. Space filled with exploding missiles and dying ships and even lasers became visible to the naked eye, burning the debris and gases between the two fleets.
Jack jerked his head around as the St. Paul took several hits on her forward wedge. At first it looked like the heavy armor there had absorbed or deflected the blows like it was designed to do. But then one of her gravitic cannons lost control and gravity went wild, lashing back and forth. The Shang had gotten a lucky shot straight down her throat, and whips of gravity sliced the cruiser apart before reaching out for her escorting destroyers. Heim and Cunningham tried to maneuver away but the wild gravity was too chaotic and too quick for them. One instant they were gamely firing at the Shang station, and then atmosphere spewed out from decks open to space as the pieces of the two brave ships began floating away from each other. There wasn’t even an explosion.
Jack swallowed and shook his head, turning back to the real threat. He just didn’t have time to worry about that now. His eyes were on the station when it began to come apart. A gravitic beam tore a tower away from the massive ring and sent it spinning away into the void. A second after that, missiles began sucking armor off it, leaving behind massive gaps in her protection that the lasers quickly took advantage of. And then another gravitic beam blew clean through the gravity ring and it was the beginning of the end.
Explosions shuddered through the ring, ejecting debris and atmosphere into space that made the lasers glow brighter. They speared the ring one after another, cutting and burning into it, deeper and deeper. Then it lost control of gravity and the entire station just came apart as the very laws of physics ceased to make sense. Gravity whipped out and lashed the nearby Shang ships and stations, cutting them into pieces or sucking them into short-lived black holes. Entire missile swarms disappeared as rogue gravity waves smashed them, and lasers bent and twisted like a drug addict’s psychedelic art project.
It was beautiful. It was terrifying.
“They’ve lost containment!” Betty announced and Jack just nodded as he tried to make sense of a universe gone mad.
“All ships! Dive! Dive! Dive!” Gabrielle ordered, and Jack watched the first destroyer flash away. He doubted they’d even waited for Gabrielle to stop talking before pushing the button.
Hovering next to Los Angeles, atmosphere spewing out of deep rents, Tacoma fired off another volley of missiles and gravitic cannons at the surviving Shang ships, before initiating her hyperdrive. Then his breath caught in his throat as the entire ship went dark. Something had broken over there. Perez and Mendoza filled space ahead of Tacoma with their point defense networks, but they weren’t quite good enough. A single Shang missile smashed into the helpless cruiser and broke her back, sending pieces of her flying in every direction. Ships flashed out around her, seeking the safety of hyperspace, even as other ships exploded and the point defense networks that had protected the task force came apart.
Jack saw another cruiser barreling in towards the gravitic disturbance, her flank on fire. He couldn’t read her name, but a single word hovered in the display next to her. Saltillo. She was another of the beautiful Mexican cruisers, but her beauty was gone, her graceful lines torn apart by Shang weapons. He saw space warp around her and could feel her desperation as she dove for safety. But as other ships flashed out around her the rainbow lights of hyperspace failed to engulf her. The frigates Salazar, Castillo, and a half-dozen remaining Mexican fighters doggedly protected her, point defense lasers and missiles standing defiantly against the Shang missiles seeking to destroy their charge. But then a whip of gravitic energy reached out and wiped them all away.
Jack’s mouth went dry.
Then Los Angeles reached out with her powerful hyperdrive to rip a hole into hyperspace. Energy flowed through the pulsating rent in the fabric of space and the cruiser glowed. It had to have been an optical illusion, but for a moment it looked to Jack like angel wings engulfed her in a protective embrace. And then she disappeared, sinking beneath the surface of normalspace. Clark and Hammond delivered one final volley of point defense missiles before following her into hyperspace on colorful wings of their own.
His eyes snapped forward, watching the last incoming storm of Shang missiles that had somehow survived the chaos. A bare handful of Avengers remained between him and that storm and his eyes ran over Natalie and Jasmine to lock onto Betty. She gave him the smile that said there was nothing at all to worry about. She had everything under control. Then the Shang and all their works disappeared in a flash of rainbow light.