The survivors of Epsilon Reticuli were the best of the best, not merely the luckiest. Oh, luck had a part in getting us out, but we don’t rely on luck. We train hard, we fight hard, and then we party hard. Usually in that order. We hit Serenity like a hammer. The Chinese never saw us coming. They outnumbered us by way more than I was comfortable with, but we were not some rag tag fleet fleeing certain death. We were a well-oiled machine that had dealt that death before we dove for home.
The Avenger-class starfighter’s nose glowed bright as it pierced the wall separating hyperspace and normalspace. She passed through the wall into the star-studded darkness, radiating hyperspatial light in every color of the rainbow. The very fabric of time and space convulsed around the fighter and four more of her kind exploded into existence around her with rainbows of their own. Displays lit up with their status reports, indicating they had pierced the wall with no damage and were ready to fight. More colorful light shows tore at the space around them and hyperspatial energies from another twenty-two starfighters heralded their arrival to the entire star system.
It was an impressive display.
Another five Avengers held formation far ahead in stealth mode, making as unimpressive a display of holes in space as they could. Low-powered whisker lasers sent high-band scouting updates of the Chinese fleets to the newly arrived Avengers and screens flashed with far more data than the pilots could process. The roving eyes of the pilots could see enough though. The fort inside the Red Line wouldn’t last much longer. Deflection grids hung in ragged shreds from constant missile fire and lasers boiled armor off in wide swaths. The wreckage of warships and station modules floated around the fort, some boiling away as they were caught by the massive energies flung back and forth between the Chinese fleet and the Alliance fort.
Then the fort bracketed a Chinese frigate with a quartet of gravitic cannons that tore it apart and only twenty attacking starships remained around the fort. The cannons moved onto another target, and it was time to make their entrance known. Like anyone had missed it. Still, it was always polite to introduce oneself before commencing to kicking the enemy’s collective ass to the other side of the galaxy.
“Hello boys,” Jack said and glanced towards Betty with a smile. “This is Captain Jack of Hart Squadron, Republic of Texas Marine Fighter Attack Wing 112, the Cowboys, to all Chinese combatants in this system.” It was a long introduction but Jack imagined that the longer it took him to deliver it in his jaunty tone the more time his enemy had to realize they were seriously fraked. The Chinese wouldn’t run. It wasn’t how they were wired. Not yet at least, but there were short-term goals and long-term goals to look at. And in the long term he wanted them to crap their pants and run away every time they heard one of his fellow Cowboys arrive.
In the short term he was happy to just use his jaunty tone to see if he could drive them into doing something stupid. The Chinese had a chip on their shoulders the size of a star system after what they saw as centuries of European dominance. Nothing would annoy them more than another Westerner dismissing them as irrelevant. “Surrender now and I might let you go back home to your little Zen rock garden things again. Or die. Your choice.”
“I’m so glad you don’t talk to me like that, Boss.” Jesse’s face appeared on one of the screens and Jack chuckled. The two had been together since flight school and knew each other better than their own families. They were family in every way that mattered.
“What can I say? I’m still trying to make you think you’re a smart guy,” Jack said with a wink.
Katy’s lips pursed into an “oooh” shape and she gave Jack a thumbs up on her screen. “Smart guy or smart aleck?”
“Bite me.” Jesse aimed the comment in her direction with a raised finger and a smile.
Katy rolled her eyes. “Sorry. Didn’t bring my magnifying glass today.”
“That’s okay,” Jesse said and winked. “I didn’t realize you were blind as a bat.”
“Eyes forward, people,” Betty’s holoform said and waved at one screen.
Jack looked to it to see several small frigates with fighter escorts pulling away from the battered fort and beginning to accelerate towards them. They coalesced into an effective battle formation as Jack watched and he grunted. It would be so much easier if they just surrendered.
Jack sighed. “Well I did ask for that, didn’t I?”
“With bells on,” Katy said with a dark chuckle.
“That’s us Cowboys,” Jesse chimed in.
“Always in high demand,” Jack finished for him. Katy rolled her eyes at both of them. “You receiving, Gabbie?”
“I am receiving,” Los Angeles’ cybernetic mind answered in a garbled tone from the other side of the hyperspace wall. “They are crossing the Red Line on our screens. Do you confirm?”
“Yes, I confirm. They are crossing the Red Line,” Jack said formally after a quick glance at the screen in question. There wasn’t enough bandwidth on the channels that crossed the wall to joke around.
“Brace yourselves,” Gabrielle said. “We are coming.”
“Music to my ears,” Jack replied softly.
“What was that?”
Jack thought he picked up a suspicious tone through the interference but he wasn’t certain. “Nothing,” he answered in a voice as clear of guile as the driven snow.
“Right.” Yes, that was a doubtful tone there. “Incoming,” she announced and Jack began looking around.
Then normalspace exploded in the middle of the Chinese formation, multicolored tendrils of hyperspace reaching out to rock every ship. Two frigates careened away from the sudden mass, crushing multiple fighters in their haste, and bounced too close to a third frigate. Deflection grids ground against each other and failed, leaving two of the ships momentarily vulnerable to any attack. Fighters scattered in every direction to avoid the chaos and the Chinese formation simply came apart.
The energy faded quickly, revealing the bulk of a single destroyer. Jack glanced at a display showing it and smiled at the name. Harrington. Talk about sending the right girl for the job. The Austin-class destroyer was a proud product of the Fleet 2300 Project that had pulled America to within hailing distance of the technical capabilities they needed to fight a conflict the size of The War. Her 215 meters started with a forward wedge carrying most of her heavy firepower and enough armor to deflect capital ship weapons. A fighter bay capable of carrying a full squadron of Hellcats rested right behind the forward wedge where it had maximum protection. The long and lean engine section dominated her aft with advanced enough tech to push her further into hyperspace than any American destroyer ever built. The Austins were designed to be fast, agile, and deadly, and Harrington lived up to that reputation within a second of surfacing into normalspace.
She remained motionless for a moment, surrounded by scattered minnows, and then her spinal gravitic cannon came to life. The twisting vortex of gravity designed to punch holes in capital ships tore through one frigate’s tiny deflection grid like it was nothing. And then it proceeded to rip the ship itself apart just as easily. In less than a second it simply ceased to exist as anything other than spare parts.
Then the weapons turrets on both flanks twitched into action, filling space with the exhaust of missiles clawing for Chinese warships. Deflection grids failed and explosions tore at the shocked frigates. Laser turrets came to life and began to melt armor as he watched. Then Harrington spun in place under the power of her massive engines and two heavy laser cannons pulsed into the shattered and melted frigates without mercy. Lasers designed to burn through capital ship armor vaporized the frigates lightly-armored hulls and bored deep into their internal systems. Atmosphere belched out of failing bulkheads, fires clawed out into space, and debris scattered from dead and dying warships.
The Chinese frigates didn’t go down without firing of course. Even caught unaware by Harrington’s arrival, they still had time to fill space between them with weapons fire. But frigates were designed to kill fighters, and Harrington’s defense grid was built for jousting with capital ships. Point defense batteries chattered at maximum speed and clawed dozens of missiles out of space. The deflection grid easily shrugged off the few shots that made it through, leaving the destroyer virtually untouched.
It was an amazing sight. Wreckage that had once been half a dozen Chinese warships spread out and away from the unwounded American destroyer as she turned to face the other Chinese warships. That made it his turn to act again.
Jack raised one finger and smiled at Betty before opening his mouth. “This is Captain Jack of Hart Squadron again. That was one of my ships. Do you want to see the rest of my ships or are you ready to raise those nice little white flags for me?”
Harrington’s cybernetic mind flickered into being on the console with one eyebrow raised and opened her mouth. “Your ships?”
“Hey, Faith,” Jack said with an unrepentant smile. “Just acting the part.” He winked at her. “I’m even feeling a little thespian.”
Faith made a show of looking around the cockpit. “Funny. I don’t see anybody else in here. Little or not.”
Jack gave her a thumbs up but gamely stayed on target. “Wanna help?”
Faith shook her head and waved her hands around. “Hologram. Can’t feel things.”
“Come with me to a cyber bar and I’ll make you feel something,” Jack said with a wink.
Faith laughed. “You promise?”
“Scout’s honor,” Jack answered and raised his hand in the traditional Boy Scout salute.
Faith raised both eyebrows in disbelief. “You were a Boy Scout?”
Jack shook his head and sighed. “Why is everybody so surprised to hear that?”
“Must be the sterling character you show,” Betty interjected with an amused smile.
“Hush, you,” Jack said with a scowl, but the twinkle in his eye put the lie to it. “Can’t you see I’m having a conversation here?”
“Well excuse me.” Betty rolled her eyes at him. “I just wanted to be sure you knew that the rest of those ships are closing on us. Wouldn’t want you to miss it with all the flirting.”
Jack cleared his throat. “Well of course I know,” he said and scanned the displays again to see what he’d forgotten to notice while he was flirting. They were approaching all right, and far too quickly for his peace of mind. He frowned for a moment as ideas flashed through his mind, and then he turned a crooked smile back towards Faith. “Wanna run away with me?”
Faith examined him for a moment before responding. “What do you have in mind?”
Jack pointed at the fourteen destroyers and frigates closing on them. “Back away from that, please?” Jack asked. “Make it look like you’re running like a…”
“Scared little girl?” Faith completed for him.
Jack cleared his throat but wasn’t about to give up. “Well, I would never say such a sexist and derogatory comment about a strong young lady like you.”
“Right,” Faith said with a raised eyebrow.
“I didn’t!” Jack protested.
“But you thought it,” she said behind pursed lips.
“Sure!” he gave in with a shrug. “And then I thought better of it once my mind caught up to my mouth.”
Faith narrowed her eyes and examined him like a particularly questionable used suit and then made a show of looking at the oncoming ships. “And you? Are you going to run too?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” Jack answered with a wide grin. “How else are we going to bait our little trap?”
“Our trap?” Faith asked in confusion.
“Well, you are the biggest and most beautiful piece of the trap.”
Faith rolled her eyes at him. “You’re lucky. My captain agrees with you.” She turned to look towards the ship and the destroyer’s engines began burning at full power, driving her backwards and away from the Chinese.
“With what?” Jack asked. “This being our trap or…?”
Faith smiled back towards him again. “Yes. Now aren’t you going to run?”
“Right.” Jack nodded towards Betty. “This is Captain Jack to all Cowboys. Turn around and run away from all those big bad warships heading our way. And make it look like we’re running away.”
“That shouldn’t be too difficult,” Jesse chimed in and his fighters began falling back and away from the approaching ships.
“Running away, aye Captain,” Ken transmitted and his Avengers turned as well. Dawn’s fighters followed him two seconds later, peeling away from the oncoming ships and passing through Jack’s formation like wraiths.
“My turn, Boss?” Katy asked, her eight fighters still holding position around his.
Jack studied the approaching destroyers and frigates for a moment before deciding that it felt right. “Your turn,” he returned and the fighters broke away. They passed him on blue fusion flames and began receding away after the destroyer.
Jack flexed his fingers and waited.
“Jack?” Betty looked at him with a concerned look.
“Not yet.” Jack let his eyes go out of focus and he just watched the oncoming squadron. It was too small to be a real fleet after all.
“Boss?” Katy asked in concern.
“I’m on it,” Jack said and glanced at the sensor display. It still didn’t feel right.
“I think you should be going, Boss,” Katy said in a more stubborn tone.
“Just one more bit,” Jack returned and glared at the oncoming ships. There was something wrong. And then he saw it. Frak.
“Now, Betty!” he shouted and twisted the stick around.
“Running away now,” Betty reported and they spun on plums of blue flame. A moment later the main engines kicked in and gravity kicked him in the backside as they went to full burn.
“What are you doing, Boss?” Katy asked in a very concerned voice.
“Getting a little too full of myself actually,” Jack answered with a wince. The Chinese couldn’t accelerate as fast as him, but they had built up an impressive amount of speed before he turned away. And now he knew what was wrong. They were accelerating far faster than any Chinese destroyer he’d ever seen before. So were the fighters. The Chinese had come out with some new engine upgrades the powers that be didn’t know about. That wasn’t good.
“I’m plotting intercept in twenty seconds.” Katy appeared on one of his consoles looking far more serious than usual.
Jack gritted his teeth. “Yeah, that’s about right.”
“But they shouldn’t be doing it.” Katy’s voice betrayed her annoyance at the Chinese for doing something they shouldn’t be doing.
Jack responded with a dark chuckle. “Tell me about it.”
“Hang in there. We’ll come back for you.”
“No!” Jack ordered. “Maintain course and acceleration. Prepare to come about on my order only.” He talked right over her objection this time with a look towards Betty. “Gabbie! You seeing this?”
“I am receiving,” the cybernetic mind of Los Angeles answered. “I see fourteen starships and numerous fighters accelerating faster than rated maximums and crossing the Red Line on our screens. Do you confirm?”
“Oh yeah. They are definitely going faster and they are so crossing the Red Line right now,” Jack said and realized his heart was racing. He’d fraked up. He should have noticed their acceleration profile earlier. They’d caught him flatfooted and showing off. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
“I also see approximately forty fighters catching you in ten seconds. Do you confirm?”
“Confirmed,” Jack growled and swung them around to bring their weapons to bear on the Chinese again. They were still too far away to see anything other than spears of light, but the canopy expanded each one so he could see it clearly. Even the fighters got their own little images showing where they were in relation to the warships and that relation was far too close for him. “Can you do something about it?”
“The squadron is in position,” Gabbie crackled. “Prepare to receive reinforcements in strength.” The last word was barely intelligible through the static that filled the frequency as rainbows exploded off the Chinese flank. Space itself shuddered and rippled as gravity pulsed under the assault of three American destroyers.
Adams, Hernandez, and Garcia accelerated out of the fading light on plumes of blue flame and gravitic cannons ripped into the Chinese without mercy. Laser cannons followed the gravitics, passing through smashed deflection grids, and Chinese armor boiled under the assault. Then smaller missiles and lasers clawed out and tore several Chinese fighters apart.
The Chinese reacted quickly, spinning to open fire on the new threats. Their formation shifted and ships pulled up or dived down to rain fire on the destroyers from multiple vectors. They shot past the primary armored wedge and weapons began to impact on the deflection grids covering the softer fighter bays and engine section. A few more seconds of that and the destroyers were going to be in some serious pain.
“All Cowboys, form on me,” Jack said, trusting Betty to transmit his command to the other Cowboys. They spun instantly and began burning towards his location.
“Don’t forget about me,” Faith said and Jack saw Harrington accelerating behind him.
“I’ll never forget about you,” he chuckled back.
“Good,” Faith said with a playful smile.
The five remaining American frigates appeared in another display of multicolored hyperspatial energies, arriving on the far side of the Chinese formation from the destroyers. It was a nearly perfect hammer and anvil attack, with the destroyers playing the part of the anvil. The frigates opened fire with every weapon they had and swamped the already overloaded defenders with missiles and laser batteries. Fighters exploded, frigates careened off course, and even one destroyer spewed flame as several missiles found their mark.
But frigates did not a strong hammer make. They did good for their throw weight and took advantage of a momentary weakness by softening up the Chinese far more than they could have been expected to under normal circumstances. But the Chinese spun their weapons turrets to face them and five frigates stood no chance against the singular focus of over a dozen warships bringing fire from multiple angles.
“Wait for it,” Jack repeated as first Clark and then Vega began to vent atmosphere and fire. They wouldn’t be able to take much more of this.
“Incoming,” Gabbie announced and gave Jack just enough time to grasp the controls before hyperspace flowed into normalspace mere kilometers in front of his nose. The canopy polarized to keep Jack from going blind, but the computer displays remained up so he could watch the heavy cruiser USS Los Angeles surface into normalspace with all the deadly grace of a shark on the hunt. Nearly six-dozen Hellcats came with the heavy cruiser and Jack smiled. Behind him, Harrington’s main engines went to full power and she began to close with Los Angeles. It was time.
“Now!” Jack ordered and slammed the throttle forward. He pulled up and his fighters swept over Los Angeles to find their targets. Katy’s squadron flared off his starboard side and Jesse came up on his port at maximum acceleration. Ken and Dawn passed beneath Los Angeles in a line, and thirty-two Avenger-class starfighters joined nearly six-dozen Hellcats to open fire in unison.
Nearly two hundred gravitic cannons reached out and tore into destroyer or frigate deflection grids. Hundreds of miniature missiles clawed their way towards the Chinese, and lasers pulsed at maximum power to burn down any Chinese missile they found. The Chinese squadron convulsed under the triple assault of the destroyers, frigates, and fighters, their deflection grids shredded and their armor melting.
Then Los Angeles opened up and her twin gravitic cannons hit like the hammer of God. They reached out to grab two Chinese destroyers by the scruff of their necks and tore them apart with gravitic sheers measured in the thousands of gravities. Her six lasers lanced out at the speed of light at six Chinese frigates, burning the defenseless ships alive in seconds. Harrington pulled up and over the heavy cruiser and opened fire on a destroyer closing the range with the American frigates. Her single gravitic cannon tore through the destroyer’s deflection grid and smashed the engines into ruin. Her twin laser cannons burned the frigate escorts and the American frigates renewed their assault. Then a wave of capital missiles swept through the surviving Chinese warships and miniature black holes tore at them for fractions of a second without mercy.
“Cease fire,” Captain Wyatt ordered and every gun went silent.
Jack flexed his fingers and waited, but the remains of the Chinese squadron would never threaten anyone ever again. Fully half of the ships were just gone, nothing but rapidly expanding fields of wreckage. The rest looked more like a dog’s chew toy than warships, ragged edges torn off and spinning away. Holes filled most of them, and atmosphere vented into space. Fires burned and Jack knew they would never move again. They were done.
“That’s my girls,” Jack whispered.
Faith gave him a doubtful look. “First we’re your ships, and now we’re your girls? Someone’s got delusions of grandeur.”
“I prefer to think of it as good taste,” Jack said with a wink and nodded towards Betty.
“Well, we do make a great team,” Faith said with an approving smile as she and the Avengers decelerated to match Harrington’s course and speed again.
“I can’t believe they fell for that,” Captain Wyatt interrupted any further verbal sparring.
Jack laughed at the welcome interruption. “The Chinese were building great walls and gardened cities while our ancestors were living in caves and wearing animal skins.” Jack aimed an amused smile towards the screen she looked out of. “And they are mighty proud of that. Nothing burns them more than when one of us little savages treats them like they don’t matter.”
Captain Wyatt laughed and shook her head. “How did you know that?”
“I paid attention in school,” Jack returned with a hurt look.
Wyatt sighed and looked like she wanted to question his education. Then she shrugged. “Then why did they let us trap them a second time?”
Jack mirrored her shrug. “The Chinese were a peacetime navy until The War started, just like we were. There are still plenty of young, proud, hot headed, Chinese squadron commanders that got their commissions due to politics rather than skill out there. It’ll take a while for us to burn through all of them,” he finished with a wink.
“Good points.” Wyatt looked to the side and nodded before looking out through her camera again. “This is Captain Olivia Wyatt of the heavy cruiser Los Angeles, to all Chinese combatants. Your allies at Epsilon Reticuli have failed. We have returned. Now surrender immediately or you will join them in death,” she finished with a dismissive tone.
Jack smiled. She really was quick. It was nice to work with people who could count to twenty without taking their shoes off. “What do you think?” Jack asked with his gaze on Betty.
Betty aimed a knowing look at him. “She’s way out of your league.”
Jack snorted. “I meant the Chinese. Do you think they’ll fall for it?”
Betty crossed her arms and gave him a doubtful look. “I don’t think so. They probably left their less experienced commanders behind to clear out the forts while the fleet commanders hit the planet.”
“Yeah,” Jack said with a wince. “That’s what I’m thinking.”
“So if they don’t run, this is going to be a real fight,” Betty whispered sadly.
Jack pursed his lips and let out a long breath. “That’s what I’m thinking too.”
“Very well,” Captain Wyatt said from her display. “You choose death.” She nodded and her signal shifted back to scrambled military frequencies. “All ships, assemble on Los Angeles and set course for Serenity. Eighty percent of maximum acceleration, now,” she finished and turned away from the camera.
The heavy cruiser’s engines came to life as her image faded out and Jack raised an eyebrow towards Betty.
Betty smiled. “Accelerating now.” The acceleration pushed him back against his chair with just enough pressure to tell him that they were moving again, but not enough to hurt. The long and steady accelerations were always much easier on the body than dogfights, though nothing made one feel as alive as a dogfight.
Jack glanced across the displays, watching his Cowboys maintain position around Harrington. The destroyer in turn held position off Los Angeles’ starboard flank as the other destroyers moved into position on their own fusion plumes. The Hellcats split up and surrounded their home destroyers or Los Angeles herself as the frigates moved out to the edges of the formation where they could better intercept incoming fighters or missiles.
Jack examined the formation for several seconds, considering its strengths and weaknesses in his mind. Then he nodded in approval. “All Cowboys. Form up off Los Angeles’ bow and prepare to plow the road for her.”
“Got it, Boss,” Katy acknowledged and her fighters began moving immediately.
“All over it, Boss,” Jesse transmitted and followed Katy’s squadron.
“By your command, Boss,” Ken said with a knowing smile and swung his fighters around.
“Keep watch, Crane,” Jack said with a frown.
Ken raised an eyebrow at him. “What is it?”
“Don’t know.” Jack shook his head. “Just…keep a watch. I’ve got a feeling I don’t like.”
“Got it, Boss,” Ken said with a smile. “I’ll keep my eyes peeled.”
Jack nodded towards Ken and turned to Betty. “Let’s move.”
Betty smiled and their engines came to life.
Jack turned towards the display that still showed Harrington’s cyber with a flirtatious smile. “Thanks for the song and dance. It was fun.”
Faith raised both eyebrows at him. “Well, you know me. Always happy to dance with a real Cowboy.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack returned and tipped his cowboy hat towards her. “Now be careful out there.”
Faith just shook her head and laughed. “I’m a warship. I don’t do careful.”
“Then shoot them faster than they can shoot you.”
Faith nodded in approval. “That’s more like it. And back at yah.”
Jack turned away from her display and returned to examining the American squadron as it formed up for war. The far more numerous Chinese fleet waited for them in orbit and he began chewing his lip. This was not going to be an easy battle.
Well, he’d been hoping for an exciting welcome at Serenity. He really had to be careful what he wished for. Sometimes he got it after all.