I have lost friends before. Some dead. Some gone. I grieve their absence. I regret what they never saw. I regret what we all lost together. I remember them always, and there are oh so very many of them. I haven’t always been able to mourn them the right way. Sometimes I just don’t have the time to think about that. Danger is near, so I keep moving, I keep fighting. Because I have better things to do than die.
Hyperspace swirled around Jack’s Avenger, rainbow currents of gravity bringing every color under the stars to his eyes in one crazy kaleidoscope of chaos. The fighter’s gravity generator forced a bubble of serenity into the stream around them, but hyperspace pooled and eddied outside it. Frigates, destroyers, and other fighters created pools of their own calm, though more than one hung dead in the currents of hyperspace already beginning to pull them away from the rest of the task force. They were going to have to get their gravitics back up if they planned to move under power. Of the nine cruisers that left the wall of battle only Los Angeles remained, proudly proclaiming her lordship over hyperspace with a vast calm sphere around her.
The British destroyer Eclipse flowed down another rainbow stream to appear in front of them. Eclipse had avoided the worst of the Shang assaults, but the final Shang missiles had ravaged her starboard broadside. Jack could see through her armor and air continued to leak out of the deep wounds reaching into her central spine. But half-a-dozen aerodynamic Harriers maneuvered around her still-living frame in a defensive formation obviously intended to keep her that way.
Gabrielle flickered back into his cockpit and let out a long sigh of relief. “We made it,” she whispered.
“I never doubted it for a second,” Jack returned with all the sincerity he could muster.
“Then you obviously didn’t understand the gravity of the situation,” Gabrielle said with a shake of her head.
“You think I picked you by accident?” Jack asked with a smile. “You’re a survivor. I trusted you to find a way out.”
“Really?” Gabrielle returned with a confused look. Jack nodded. “How?”
Jack snorted. “If I knew how all of this sixth sense stuff worked, I could make a fortune on the book deal. All I know is, I picked you because it felt right. And now we know why.”
“Thank you,” Gabrielle said and shook her head in mystification. “But now we need to form up and get out of here.”
Jack glanced at the displays showing the names of the disabled ships. Harrington, Clark, and Vargas. “What about them?” he asked, waving a hand towards the destroyer and frigates.
“That’s where I come in,” Gabrielle answered with a smile. Tractor beams lanced out from Los Angeles and snatched Harrington out of her gravitic stream. More tractor beams reached out for Clark and Vargas, and soon all three ships hung off Los Angeles’ flank, anchored in place by the pure brute power of an American heavy cruiser's gravitics.
“Are you sure you can handle that much dead weight?” Jack asked.
“Oh, don’t be silly,” Gabrielle returned. “They’re not dead. Their engines still work perfectly. And I can keep hyperspace at bay for as long as they need it.”
“If you say so,” Jack noted in a doubtful tone.
“I do say so,” Gabrielle said in a hard and determined voice. An edge of desperation tinged it though and Jack winced.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack answered very quickly, not wanting to worry the warship any further with the doubt that was still percolating in his mind.
“Better,” she growled and looked up to examine the entire surviving task force. “All ships, form on Los Angeles, match course and speed, and follow me,” she said in her command voice.
The massive fusion engines belonging to Los Angeles, Harrington, Clark and Vargas came to life in tandem. Their gravitic bow wave crashed through the hyperspatial currents and created a wake expanding behind her like a ship at sea. The rest of the surviving starships and fighters of the task force moved into the slipstream the cruiser created. And then Jack felt them diving deeper into hyperspace to leave Epsilon Reticuli and normalspace far behind them.
Jack studied the displays to see what had survived the final charge into the Shang force. Three British starships, with perhaps twenty Harriers swarming around them, brought up the task force’s rear. The destroyers Eclipse and Assault were the only true warships remaining of their squadron, but the medical frigate Recovery mounted a point defense grid because the Shang had long since proven that the Red Cross meant nothing to them. Jack frowned at the three ships. There was something not right there, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
He shook his head and scanned over to look at the American ships. The destroyers Adams, Hernandez, and Garcia held position just behind Los Angeles, their gravitic wedges merged with the cruiser’s wake to strengthen it. The frigates Hammond, Vega, Perez, and Mendoza held position between the destroyers and the British, their smaller gravity generators unable to significantly impact the wake around them. But they were optimized for point defense against both missiles and fighters, making them a very important part of the task force. Jack frowned. This wasn’t a task force any more. At most it was a reinforced squadron, and he wasn’t certain he’d be even that optimistic if he were the station commander seeing them show up.
At least some fighters had managed to get out with them. That would have been impossible before The War. His thirty-two surviving Avengers were the first hypercapable fighters ever designed. But the Peloran had gone all-in when it came to helping the Western Alliance upgrade their existing technologies in the last two years. Third Fleet benefited the most from those upgrades, and every single one of the fighters that had left Alpha Centauri was hypercapable. Around forty Hellcats and ten Mexican Azcarates held position around the starships. Five times that number of fighters had started the battle. It was a horrendous loss ratio, though a quick glance at the displays showed that two-thirds of the pilots still lived. His own Snake was dead but his other pilots began to report in via the displays and he nodded slowly in approval. They’d lost far more Avengers than he wanted but managed to get Los Angeles out. Jack was impressed. She took a lot of killing to make it stick.
Gabrielle smiled as if following his train of thought. “Jack, I’m giving you a landing beam to Los Angeles. Please follow it.”
Jack raised an eyebrow.
“Captain Wyatt has ordered a full briefing and she wants her fighter commanders to report in person.”
Jack shook his head. “You can’t tell me you have enough room in your bays for all my Avengers.”
Gabrielle laughed. “You’re right. But I can squeeze just you in.”
Jack cleared his throat. “I have five piloted Avengers out here, and another twenty-seven cybernetic Avengers that are going to need a place to refuel and rearm. We can’t hoof it all the way to Serenity on our own power.”
“I know,” Gabrielle growled. “We’re going to have to do some tricky maneuvers to keep all the fighters working. Now will you please come to the briefing?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack returned, feeling a bit harassed. Gabrielle looked triumphant and Jack turned to Betty who just smiled at him. “Betty?”
“On it, Jack,” Betty answered, interlaced her fingers, and cracked her virtual knuckles. Then she wiggled her fingers and brought their thrusters to life to move them towards Los Angeles. It was smooth sailing in the cruiser’s wake, the normal chaos of hyperspace suppressed by the generators of the squadron carving their way towards the large gravitic wave linking the massive Epsilon Reticuli binary star system to the much smaller Serenity.
Betty slowed their fighter as they came up beside the six hundred meter long bulk of the Los Angeles. Her starboard engines filled the sky above and below as they moved in close. Her rows of missile launchers that launched escape pod-sized ship killers jutted out of the hull ahead of them. The flat rear of the armored wedge that protected them from enemy fire blocked part of his view of hyperspace forward. Being this close to a heavy warship of the United States Navy brought home just how small he was.
Jack turned to look at the open hangar bay doors that revealed a hundred meter long maw he could see through into space on the other side of the ship. Marine tanks, shuttles, and other craft filled the center of the bay, anchored to the deck or upside down to the overhead. There was not a single unused surface in the bay, except for those that were supposed to carry the cruiser’s squadron of Hellcats.
Jack winced as the vertical dimensions of the hangar bay opening registered. It was far too small for his comfort. Betty slowed them to a crawl relative to Los Angeles and he felt the jerk of their engines rotating to lay flush with the fuselage, decreasing their height by several meters. Then she engaged maneuvering thrusters and squeezed them between the two open doors and the energy field holding the atmosphere in. It distorted around the Avenger and he saw it ripple as his cockpit moved inside. The rest of the Avenger followed, making the single Hellcat on that side of the bay look truly miniscule by comparison.
Jack let out a long breath. The Hellcats had been designed for naval duty. They were tiny little things, built to fit in places where space was at a premium, and that had kept them in service through decades of technological revolutions. Avengers had never actually been designed to fly off any ship at all, though. No one had expected them to deploy on anything other than the testing ranges, and so they were large, bulky, and angular. But the Shang destruction of Yosemite Station and Washington D.C. had changed everything. In the last two years he’d landed on carriers, battleships, dreadnoughts, battlecruisers, and even a German heavy cruiser almost as large as a battlecruiser, all ships with large enough hangar bays to support his massive fighter. Los Angeles was by far the smallest ship he’d ever tried to land in.
Not that he was actually doing anything. It was Betty’s job to squeeze herself into the bay and Jack held his breath. They had mere meters of clearance above and below, but Betty held them in place like a champion. The fighter finally came down for a landing that filled nearly the entire space designated for Hellcat parking. Jack looked down and, in a testament to how large the Avenger was, saw the single Hellcat fitting like a glove next to the nose of his fighter.
“There,” Betty said with a smile. “Fits like a glove,” and Jack wondered if she’d guessed his line of thought well enough to repeat it on purpose. Probably.
“Yup,” Jack returned, looking at the hangar around them. “Just be careful about flexing yourself. I wouldn’t want you breaking anything.”
“Oh, it’s sweet of you to worry about me,” Betty said, a twinkle in her eyes.
“I’m not,” Jack returned with a teasing grin. “This ship on the other hand…”
“I heard that,” Gabrielle growled. “Trust me. I can handle anything your puny fighter can dish out.”
“And the trash talk begins,” Jack said with a chuckle, motioning for the cockpit to open. He tapped the buckle of his five-point harness and it retracted into its housing, leaving him free to stand up and vault out of the fighter. Betty’s gravity generator snatched him and dropped him safely to the deck where he landed with a spry step, head turning to scan the hangar bay again.
His eyes stopped on a square-jawed, blond, young man in a black leather flight jacket walking towards him. The man wore a pair of ancient aviator sunglasses dark enough to keep Jack from reading the age in his eyes. The raven-haired cyber standing next to him wore the same outfit, right down to the shades and the navy blue scarf hanging from their necks. The names Hunter Roberts and Mercedes appeared on his contacts and Jack nodded in approval. The names fit the looks.
“Frak,” Roberts said, looking way up at the Avenger as he walked towards them. “That is a big bird.”
“She is beautiful,” Jack answered, projecting just a hint of challenge to the man.
Roberts shook his head in acknowledgement of the jibe. “So, I gotta ask. Why?”
“Because she’s the best fraking fighter ever made,” Jack answered, waggling his eyebrows at the man’s Hellcat.
Roberts snorted. “Hah,” he said and waved towards his smaller fighter. “She can do everything your old hulk can and takes less space doing it,” he added, nodding towards the cyber standing next to him.
“Old?” Betty growled next to Jack and he raised a hand to touch her shoulder. He felt the slight shift in the air where her holoform gathered air molecules close together and color shifted them to look like a real person standing there. But it was still air and Jack stopped when he felt the barest edge of her holoform. It wasn’t polite to wave hands around inside other people’s holoforms. But she got the message and her jaw snapped shut.
“Now, now,” Jack answered Roberts with a smile. The Hellcat might be able to dive into hyperspace now, but it certainly couldn’t do everything an Avenger could. “We’ve got way more firepower than you do.”
Roberts chuckled. “You can barely squeeze one Avenger into an area designed to support six Hellcats. I think six Hellcats can outmatch you.”
Jack cleared his throat and shrugged. He looked at Betty, who was glaring back and forth between the other pilot and his cyber. “Well, you’d definitely outgun me,” Jack said, trying to stave off an argument. He looked back and forth between the two fighters and shook his head. “But I’ll take quality over quantity any day of the week,” he added with a wink. Roberts opened his mouth to call him on it and Jack chuckled. “Wanna shoot it out and see? Simulated of course,” he finished with another wink.
Roberts chuckled again and took Jack’s outstretched hand. “Challenge accepted.”
“Oh good,” Gabrielle said as her holoform appeared next to them. “Are you done spraying testosterone all over my deck? If so, can we come to the bridge now? The captain’s waiting on you,” she finished with a pointed look at Jack.
Jack looked over to Roberts with an amused look and the man just smiled back at him. It was almost like the man was daring him to be smart with her, while at the same time declaring his utter refusal to do the same. Well. Los Angeles was his home. You always stuck up for your home.
“Well, never let it be said I kept a lady waiting,” Jack said with a smile and turned to Gabrielle, gesturing towards her to lead the way.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and turned to lead him out of the hangar bay. Jack followed her out through the hatch that opened before her, Betty, Roberts, and Mercedes on his heels. The room on the other side was small enough to feel cramped when the hatch closed behind them. Then the floor beneath them began to vibrate and the lift took them away from the hangar bay like a shot.
The main bridge was less than a hundred meters from the hangar, deep in the heart of the warship, and the lift came to a stop in seconds, hatch opening onto the bridge. They filed out and Jack looked around, his contacts swimming with names and positions for each of the men and women on the bridge. He stopped when his eyes lit on the captain and smiled at her. The brunette looked strong, and grey eyes betrayed a determination to match the rest of her. She stared at him for several seconds, obviously taking his measure.
“Major Hart,” Captain Wyatt finally said, giving him the courtesy promotion required when any captain other than The Captain was onboard a ship.
“Captain Wyatt,” Jack agreed with a smile.
“You’re Ageless,” Wyatt declared.
“Guilty as charged,” Jack answered, wondering what had betrayed him.
“I’ve never met one of your kind before,” she continued, her mouth sketching a doubtful thought.
“I’m not surprised,” Jack said with an easy smile. Many people didn’t like the Ageless and he’d learned to downplay the advantages his genetics gave him long ago. Except of course for times like when the car ran over that girl back home. The people of International Falls hadn’t quite questioned him on his “adrenaline rush” and continued to treat him as they always had. Of course he’d been a bit of a rogue, so that wasn’t always good. Fathers of attractive young ladies had been more than happy to continue racking shotguns in his general direction, but they’d never actually hit him. Winged him maybe, but Jack didn’t count those misunderstandings. Jack looked directly into Captain Wyatt’s grey eyes. “There’s not many of us,” he said. He did not say that there were perhaps as many as five thousand Americans on Earth who could claim to be Ageless. And most of them were fighting The War now.
“I’ve heard that Ageless grow up lazy,” Wyatt challenged. “Never take things seriously because it all comes so easy to you.”
Jack pursed his lips, wondering if she was truly distrustful of Ageless or just testing him. He chose to assume a mix of the two and stepped into the verbal minefield with care. “We don’t grow up Ageless,” he said. “It’s sorta something that slides up on us without warning after we grow up.”
She nodded very slowly. “But did you grow up?”
Jack cleared his throat and glanced at Betty. She just smiled as if thinking it was a very good question. Well. There wouldn’t be any help from that peanut gallery. “Why do you want to know?” he asked.
Wyatt’s expressive face frowned at him. “Because I want to know if I can trust you onboard my ship.”
Jack felt Betty bristle beside him this time and he lowered an open hand to hush her. He kept his eyes on Captain Wyatt though and forced his voice to sound as sincere as possible. “You can trust me to the ends of the worlds.”
Wyatt sighed. “That’s easy to say.”
“Aneerin trusts me,” Jack said, and instantly hid a wince. It wasn’t one of the best arguments he’d ever given for why someone should trust him.
Wyatt cocked her head to the side, the questions on her face even more evident. The questions and the doubt. “But can we trust him?” And that was why it wasn’t the best argument. Not everyone trusted that man.
“Permission to speak frankly, Ma’am?” Jack asked.
Wyatt smiled and spread both arms out wide. “I would expect nothing less.”
“I’m here because Admiral Aneerin smelled a trap.” Jack shook his head. “Well, we found a trap, and one he never saw coming. I lost one of my Cowboys getting you out. I lost half of my fighters. The last time we took casualties like that, his Peloran Battle Squadron got ripped apart right beside us. And I think this trap was meant to finish him. We both know how he fights.” He waited for her to nod again before going on. “That jammer was designed to neutralize his tactics. I think it would have succeeded. And I think you only got out because Aneerin sent us to help you. Because he trusted my people to help you out of a situation he told your entire fleet to avoid.”
Wyatt met his gaze for several seconds. “I see,” she finally replied in a cryptic manner.
Jack wasn’t sure how to continue, but he listened to his instincts and smiled. “Yes, Ma’am,” he said with a tip of his hat. It wasn’t much as continuations went, but he just had a feeling he needed to wait for her.
Wyatt pursed her lips and nodded very slowly. “Would you care to join me in the briefing room?” she asked, the question not disguising the fact that she expected him to want to join her. Or else.
“At your leisure, Ma’am,” Jack answered, glancing to the side to see what the cybers thought. Betty gave him a proud smile, while Mercedes and Gabrielle had more measuring looks in their eyes. They hadn’t yet come to a verdict on him. Well, that was fair. He hadn’t come to a verdict on them either.
They entered the briefing room to see some twenty people waiting for them. The holoforms represented the commanders of the warships and fighter squadrons that had survived Epsilon Reticuli. They were a small and motley lot.
“Thank you for making time for this meeting,” Captain Wyatt said to the others and a shaky ripple of laughter moved through the room. “We need to make for Serenity immediately. I called you here to find out if your ships are ready. I don’t want readiness reports, but your actual on-the-bridge feelings. Are your ships and crews ready for the trip?”
“My crew’s ready for anything that gets us away from this system,” Hammond’s captain said and another ripple of nervous laughter filled the room. “I almost had a mutiny on my hands after giving the order to hold formation on you, in fact,” he added, far less humorously. The laughter ended, and Wyatt nodded very carefully.
“Does that go for the rest of you?” she asked and Jack leaned back against the wall to listen to the ship captains give their reports. None of them were good. The task force had lost two-thirds of their ships in a few short minutes, and nearly all of their cruisers were expanding fields of wreckage in Epsilon Reticuli. The various destroyer and frigate commanders knew they would have been dead if the Shang weren’t gunning for the more powerful ships, and that had them frightened. But they were holding on. That had to count for something.
“Very well,” Captain Wyatt finally cut through his inner thoughts with her command voice. “Set your courses for Serenity and prepare to leave within ten minutes.”
“Hang on,” the captain of Eclipse protested and all eyes in the room turned to the man. Jack frowned, something about the man rubbing him wrong. “We need to determine the commander of this task force,” the man continued in a clipped tone and Jack saw several raised eyebrows. “I suggest-”
“I suggest that no suggestions are needed,” Captain Wyatt cut him off. Silence reigned in the briefing room until she opened her lips again. “I am the senior commanding officer,” she finished in a tone that brooked no argument.
The man’s eyes blazed. “With all due respect,” he bit out.
“Is that what you are giving me?” Wyatt asked. “Respect?” The unvoiced part of that question cut through the briefing room like a chainsaw.
Eclipse’ captain saw the danger and shook his head. “Captain,” he began again, this time far more careful of his tone. “Admiral Bainsworth is on Recovery at this time.”
That captured every eye again. “Excuse me?” Wyatt asked. “Did you just say that Admiral Bainsworth, commander of the entire British task force of Third Fleet, is here, right now, without the rest of his fleet?”
The question hung in the air and Jack heard the question going through every mind in the briefing room. The question that nobody said out loud. “Why was the admiral not with his command?”
Eclipse’ captain swallowed at the unvoiced question. “He was injured when Valiant took fire,” the captain explained hastily. “It was deemed necessary to evacuate him and his staff immediately, and this force was the first exit route available.”
“Hang on,” Jack said as he smelled a rat somewhere and tried to track it down. “Your people thought this task force was a…safe escape route for an injured admiral?”
He could have heard a pin drop in the silence filling the briefing room, and the sound of the British captain’s swallowing came far too clearly. “It was the…first escape route available…” the man said, licking his lips nervously.
“And they didn’t think any more would be available?” Jack pressed, a sick feeling growing in the pit of his stomach.
The other captain cleared his throat awkwardly. “I…am not privy to fleet command-level decisions,” he finally said, his protest sounding hollow to every ear.
“What in Hell did we leave Third Fleet facing, Captain?” Jack spat out, anger flashing through him.
“Major Hart,” Captain Wyatt said in a hard voice. He turned back to her and saw the unbending will behind those eyes. “I will ask the questions. Understood?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack answered, his teeth gritted in anger.
“Good,” she returned with a nod at the swiftness of his response, if not his joyful obedience. “Now,” she began, turning back to the British captain, “Captain Alexander.” The British captain’s eyes flicked to hers as quickly as Jack had responded to her iron tone. “What do you know?”
“Nothing,” Alexander returned with a shake of his head. “I was ordered to escort the admiral and his staff out. I was not told why.”
“Do you have any suspicions?”
The British captain let out a long, unwilling breath. “They seemed…uncertain of the safety of Third Fleet.”
“I see,” Wyatt said, her voice even harder.
“We have to go back,” Jack blurted out, almost without realizing it. Enterprise needed him. The response was so instinctive he didn’t think twice. His eyes scanned the other people in the room and saw the same response in the other fighter pilots. They’d all left people behind and every last one of them was willing to jump right back in without even thinking. He could have kissed them. Even the guys.
But the ship captains stared at him with horror in their eyes. They’d gotten their people out against all odds. They’d just escaped overwhelming firepower by the skins of their collective teeth. And he could see in their eyes the outrage, and the fear under it, at the jumped up fighter pilot saying they had to charge back into that Hell. He wasn’t certain if any of them would follow such an order at the moment. Jack could have kicked himself.
“Major. Hart.” Captain Wyatt uttered the words separately, emphasizing both the rank and the name with an Ice Age’s worth of cold, and Jack met her eyes again. There was no fear in them at all. There wasn’t even anger. That surprised him. She sounded angry. Very angry, in fact. But that anger didn’t reach her eyes. What did was determination to use every opportunity she had. And she saw an opportunity in his slip. “Did I stutter, and somehow suggest that I was anything other than in command?” she said, her voice still arctic-cold. But the eyes added something else. She had a plan and she needed him to trust her.
“No, Ma’am,” he returned, once again without pause, and watched the ship captains relaxing in the corner of his eyes. The fighter pilots bristled though. They were made of different cloth than the ship captains. Pilots always were. Once again, Jack could have kissed them. And there were a few he would have been happy to kiss more than once.
“Good,” Wyatt said with a curt nod towards him. Then she turned back to the captains. “We leave for Serenity, now.”
“This is a joint task force of the Western Alliance,” Alexander protested. “Command authority clearly falls to the senior military commander. Admiral Bainsworth—”
“Is injured,” Wyatt interrupted, giving the man a knowing look. “Though I suppose you would argue that as long as he continues to be injured, command should devolve to one of his captains?”
The sound of Alexander’s jaw snapping shut came like a thunderclap in the silence that followed her charge. She smiled as he failed to deliver an answer and shook her head.
“This is an American task force, operating under American orders. I am the senior American commander and I will maintain American command. You may convoy with us if you wish, but I have orders to follow and a mission to perform, Captain Alexander.” Wyatt cocked her head to the side and raised an eyebrow. “Am I clear?”
The British captain nodded jerkily.
“Good,” Wyatt said, her voice hard as stone, and turned to Gabrielle. “Set course for the Epsilon Reticuli-Serenity Run and initiate at your discretion.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Gabrielle answered and went to work.
Jack scanned the other captains, seeing approval in the American faces. A mix of resignation and indignation colored the faces of the British officers though. The fighter pilots looked annoyed, as if they’d just missed out on another good fight. They nodded approval towards Jack, followed by reluctant agreement with Wyatt. Then the pilots and captains began to flicker out, one at a time, until only Wyatt, Roberts, Jack, and their cybers remained.
“Well done, Captain,” Jack said in approval, waiting to see if he’d read her right.
“Thank you,” Wyatt answered. She examined him for several seconds before continuing. “I could not have done it without you.”
Jack cleared his throat. “Thank you,”
“Can you tell me the error you made?” Wyatt asked, raising both eyebrows.
Jack scowled. “If you’d ask the pilots, I didn’t make one,” he returned, feeling his inner contrarian goat stand up and want to kick something.
Wyatt chuckled. That caught him off guard, and he cocked his head to the side in confusion. “Yes. You got their approval quite well,” she conceded. “I meant your mistake with the ship captains.”
Jack winced and throttled the angry goat. “They didn’t take my idea so well, did they?”
“No, they did not,” Wyatt said and sighed. “A long ago captain taught me a valuable lesson when I was a very young executive officer. It was my first day on the job and I had made an error. He told me that the first rule of command is to never give an order that will not, or cannot, be followed. And then he proceeded to show me in excruciating detail exactly how I had violated that rule. It was not an enjoyable day for me, but I learned from it.”
“You know the pilots would have followed my orders,” Jack said with raised eyebrows.
A curious smile filled her face, and she nodded slowly. “Yes, Major, they would have. You fighter pilots are truly a strange lot.” She shook her head and sighed. “But you only have to worry about your own lives when you go into battle. That gives you a clarity that ship captains do not enjoy. Captains have to look out for dozens or hundreds of their crew who trust them to make their sacrifices worth it. And is charging into a battle that is almost certainly already over, one way or the other, truly a good way to spend their lives?”
“No, Ma’am,” Jack answered through gritted teeth.
“No,” Wyatt whispered and prepared to say something more.
Then his earbud came to life and Betty said, “We need to go. Now.”
Jack turned to look a question towards her holoform at the wall.
“It’s Natalie,” she explained and a chill went down in his spine. He hadn’t forgotten her, but he had allowed her situation to slip out of the forefront of his mind.
“Ma’am,” he began with a look back towards Wyatt. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to take care of something now.”
Wyatt frowned and turned a look towards Gabrielle. Her own earbud carried the cyber’s words and Wyatt gave Jack a firm nod after a moment. “You are excused, Major.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack said once more, saluted Captain Wyatt, and turned to leave the briefing room. Moments later they were back on the lift, alone this time, and Jack let out a long breath. “How bad is it?”
Jasmine flickered into being beside them, shaking her head. “I’m trying, but we’ll lose her if we can’t do something,” she reported.
Jack nodded very slowly, considering their options. He needed to do something fast. He just didn’t know what. The lift opened into the hangar bay again and he saw android avatars at work, reloading both Hunter’s Hellcat and his Avenger. Jack froze, taking the sight in and feeling an idea somewhere.
It clicked. He considered the idea, turned it around inside his mind, and finally nodded. It just might work. And it could mend some ruffled feathers at the same time. Two birds with one stone was a lofty goal. A worthy goal.
“Get me Recovery,” he ordered and strode onto the hangar deck with renewed purpose.