Trouble is always waiting on the other side of the corner to ambush us. Or that’s how it seems to me at least. I never know when it’s going to hit or how hard it’ll be. I just know it’s coming for me. Sooner or later. That’s why I always take every chance I can to make a good memory. I spend time digging into warm sand on sunny beaches. I meet nice young ladies who like to party. I make every day as enjoyable as possible because when the hard times come, those good times will remind me there’s something worth fighting for.
Sun baked his bare skin and burned away the early morning mist. The glow shone through Jack’s closed eyelids to the sounds of people laughing. Waves roared over the breakwaters and surfers performed extreme stunts to the cheers of the crowd. The waves continued on to crash into the beach, sucking sand out from under feet as they retreated. Boys shouted and girls screamed as they fell into the water and laughter followed as they came back up spluttering. Church bells echoed off every building again and again, and people had come and gone all morning. This late in the morning, on the trailing sounds of the bells, they told the tale of late arrivals finally escaping the stuffy buildings in favor of the sandy beaches.
It was a typical Sunday morning in Serenity’s Landing City a month after the Chinese attack that nearly destroyed them all. Jack opened his eyes to the bright sun and breathed in the smell of salty ocean air. He lay on a thick hotel towel that insulated him from the hot sand with its plush weave. It was a good towel, from one of the hotels that valued happy guests over cheap linens, and Jack luxuriated in its soft comfort.
He turned at the sound of a contented sigh to see Jasmine lying next to him in the sand. She was sunning her back in his favorite beachwear, and Jack had to admit it looked good on her. The skin she’d picked had bronzed beautifully under the bright sun, while his pasty white Northern Minnesotan skin wouldn’t know a sun tan if you shook a bottle of tanning lotion on it. He still loved lying in the sun though. Well, it might be more accurate to say that he loved watching all the pretty girls doing it.
Her head turned brunette hair away to fall over her far shoulder and large brown eyes met his gaze. A smile ruled the face that looked at him and he realized she’d caught him staring. Again. Well that was fine. She deserved to be stared at. He met her gaze without a hint of chagrin and she chuckled before lowering her face back into the warm sand. It was a good day for reinforcing a good tan and she intended to take as much time as she could to do that. Jack heartily approved of her choice.
Jasmine was a rare individual, a cybernetic intelligence born to fly a fighter who had lost her pilot. Two years later, she was still alive and kicking, and Jack had adopted her. Or she’d adopted him. He still wasn’t exactly certain on the particulars of their relationship. But she flew the fighter screen that kept him alive in combat. That was good enough to put her in the list of his top three favorite people in all the worlds.
Maybe four. No. Natalie was leaving.
So three people. There was himself of course. One had to have a low opinion of oneself to not be on that list, and Jack was happy to say that he had a real high opinion of himself. Then there was Jasmine. He couldn’t count the number of times she’d saved his life in the last two years. And there was Betty, the cyber that chose him as her partner before she was born. It was pretty much impossible not to put someone literally born to be with him on that list. That made three, and Jack was happy with that number. It was more than most people got if he was being honest, and Jack prized himself on being honest. When he wasn’t trying to hide something of course.
Betty’s holoform flickered into existence next to him on a towel of her own, lean legs disappearing under a thin yellow sundress. Long blonde hair fell down over nearly bare shoulders and striking blue eyes met his gaze. She gave him a sad smile and he knew what that meant. “Sorry Jack, it’s time to go,” she said.
Jack let out a long breath and shook his head with regret. This really was a nice day. It was a shame to cut it short.
Jasmine dug her toes deep into the sand and pushed herself up unto her knees. They sank in a few centimeters and she began brushing sand off her body with careful precision. The real body that could do that was new, and she couldn’t have picked a better one if he’d helped. He’d tried, but she’d been awful insistent that she didn’t want him staring as she tried on new bodies. That had been a shame, but he’d lived through the disappointment. Just as he lived through the disappointment of her turning her back to him now.
Jack waggled his eyebrows at Jasmine in an outrageous manner. “Do you need any help?”
Jasmine turned her head to smile and brushed another handful of sand off. “I think I can handle this on my own.”
“Okay. Just saying, I’m happy to help if you need me.”
“I’ll bet you are.”
“If you don’t get dressed, we’ll be late,” Betty whispered in his ear.
“And that would be a crying shame,” Jack returned in a tone that revealed his inner grouch on the matter. It just wasn’t fair that they should leave on such a perfect day.
“Now don’t be like that, Jack.”
Betty crossed her arms and cocked her head at him in a way that said he knew exactly what she was talking about.
Jack sighed and shook his head. “Katy?” He turned to look at one of the very few people on the beach he’d known before coming the first time.
Kathleen Reynolds looked younger than he did, her body closer to the roundness enjoyed by college freshmen or high school seniors than his had been when he’d taken the last of the Peloran Treatments. Tattoos of flowers and butterflies ran up and down her right side from ankle to neck, broken up only by the thin strings of a bikini. Those tattoos would stay with her for the rest of her life. No one had figured out how to make an Ageless body forget how it was supposed to look. The impish smile on her face came and went in time with her moods though. It was a smile that belonged on the face of a college frat party veteran, and Jack Hart knew his frat party veterans.
But Major Kathleen Reynolds of the United States Space Force had flown fighters for over fifty years, and fifty years before that she’d been a blonde high school cheerleader when the Peloran made Contact. She was an old woman compared to Jack, with the entire experience of a Pre-Space human lifespan hiding behind those amused eyes. And those eyes told him that he was just plain out of luck.
“What?” she asked with a most unladylike snort. “You think I’m going to argue with our cybernetic overlords?”
“Traitor,” Jack growled.
Katy shrugged, rolled off her towel, and sat up. She grabbed a long white t-shirt and slipped it on over her head. It was built for a man and made her look even smaller than she was when she wore it. Then she swung her feet underneath her, dug her toes into the sand, and stood up in a single lithe motion. The shirt fell down to her knees, one shoulder strap fell down to reveal nearly half her arm, and she shook her head at the various people sunbathing. “These people have no idea how good they have it,” she said low enough that only Jack and the cybers could hear. Then she glanced at the bare shoulder that was the same exact shade it had been when she was twenty. “They can actually get a suntan.”
Jack chuckled. “But on the plus side, we don’t have to worry about sunburn.” Jack aimed a theatrical shrug at her.
“Those are the worst,” another voice said and Jack turned to see Ken Banno striding up the beach with a crowd of fans in tow. The small Japanese man had a body hardened by a lifetime spent under the hot California sun. Wiry muscles on his arms and legs bespoke decades of carving Buckaroo Banno’s surfing boards over and through the California waves, and his permanent suntan made network stars envious. He stopped several meters away, turned back to his fans, and drove his surfboard into the sand where it quivered in place. Then Ken spoke in his best California hippy surfer dude voice. “Sorry dudes and dudettes, but it’s time for me to leave.”
Katy scowled at the crowd and then gave Jack a meaningful look
Jack muttered a wordless grumble, but levered himself up to slip into his long, red, Hawaiian shirt that was almost as loud as Ken’s fans. He’d happily worn ones like it most of his life on the Northern Minnesota lakes he loved. During summer. He wasn’t one of those crazy polar bears that did New Years Day plunges into sub-freezing water.
Jack stood up and stepped off the towel as Ken tried to comfort his heartbroken fans. His toes sank deep into the warm sand and he let out another long breath. He truly loved the feel of sinking his toes in sunbaked sand. There was nothing like it in all the worlds. He looked around the beach and smiled at the sight of others enjoying the day. He paused for a few moments to enjoy some of the nice young ladies bouncing around Ken and had to admit he envied the guy sometimes.
He turned back to see Jasmine slipping a thin white sundress on. It swirled around long legs highlighted by the bright sky and she ran fingers through her long hair. The sun gleamed off the white dress so bright it hurt and he turned away to look at Betty. She stood next to him now, and his eyes picked up the edge of her holoform. It was a hard, digital edge against the soft reality of the world around them, a reminder that she didn’t have a real body. He could see it most of the time, but the bright morning sun made it starker than normal today. He wondered what it would be like to really sit next to her on a towel on a beach, to feel her next to him with every sense he possessed. To be able to truly touch her.
Betty cocked her head to the side in a wordless question as she caught the edge of his mood.
Jack smiled and tried to shrug the thought away. It didn’t want to go, so he replaced it with the sight of a beach full of celebrating Serenitians. Every one of those people out there had been on the verge of losing everything that mattered a month ago. Now they played on the beach and started Buckaroo Banno fan clubs as if life was normal. It was proof that life went on. That was what he loved about beaches.
“We should do this more often.”
“Absolutely,” Ken said as he finally walked away from his adoring fans.
“Yes,” Betty returned with a soft voice of understanding.
“It is amazing,” Jasmine said and shook her head. She brushed another bit of sand that was probably imaginary by now off her shoulder and sighed, her eyes scanning the beach and the people on it.
Jack wondered what the sigh meant. Was she happy? Was she sad? She looked happy, but it was hard to tell with her. She’d lost her best friend in all the worlds, and sometimes the grief snuck up and tackled her from behind. Today she looked happy though, and he was willing to bet she wasn’t thinking of Drew. They’d never partied on the beach, so there was little in this place to bring flashbacks of that kind. That was another thing Jack had learned to love about beaches.
“Time’s ticking,” Katy said from behind him and Jack turned to see her leaning her cheerleader’s body against the open hood of a candy apple red Hudson Hornet. She was built along the lines of the rocket ships that had ruled the space lanes a century ago, long and flowing from forward point to the vestigial maneuvering fins. Garages over all the worlds had pictures of classic cars like this and girls like Katy hanging on their walls, but most guys never saw them together with their own two eyes. That made Jack a real lucky guy. Katy raised one eyebrow in their direction. “Are you guys going to keep a girl waiting?”
“No, Ma’am,” Ken and Jack said in unison.
Then Ken walked towards the car with a long stride that tore through the sand.
Jack shook his head, smiled, reached down to grab his towel and cooler, and followed Ken off the beach. He was going to miss burying his toes in that warm sand. But there would be more beaches in his future. It was just a matter of finding them.
Jack placed his cooler under the hood of a much newer sports car. Flat and grey from bumper to bumper, the front trunk actually had some real cargo space. This was a car people could go shopping with, which made many question its sports car pedigree, but Jack loved the car. He’d owned one back on Earth and picked this one up for a song on Serenity. He flicked his towel in after the cooler, Jasmine’s flew in a second later, and Jack slammed the hood down with a reluctant sigh. Then he sucked in a long breath and smiled. “Let’s ditch this popsicle stand,” he said and walked over to lift his car’s door out of his way.
Jasmine did the same on the passenger side and they both sat down quickly as the gull-wing doors closed around them. A holoform of Betty twenty centimeters tall flickered into existence on the dashboard with an approving look around the inside of the car. Then the engine roared to life.
That made Jack smile like a little boy. Most modern cars had silent engines, but no manufacturer would dare build a sports car that couldn’t make a decent roar when the engine started. And the DeLorean Motor Company wanted every one of their drivers to smile when they hit the gas. Jack chuckled and did just that. The engine roared loud enough to send birds flying in every direction, the car jumped forward, lifted off its road wheels, and shot out of the beach’s parking lot like the legions of Hell were on its heels. It was just Ken in real life, but that was close enough.
“I can drive if you want,” Betty offered as they accelerated towards the first light. It flashed from red to green and the other vehicles on the road quickly cleared the intersection.
“I’m good,” Jack returned as they entered the intersection and turned the wheel hard to the left. The DeLorean swung around the corner without breaking, rear end drifting well beyond the turn by the weight of her engine. The engine roared, maneuvering thrusters flared, and the car spun and dove back down into the proper traffic lane with Ken drifting in their slipstream.
“Of course he’s good,” Jasmine whispered with an amused look as the lines on the pavement blurred beneath them. “He gets to drive for once.”
Betty dug both fists in her hips and glared at Jasmine. “What do you mean by that ‘for once’ quip?”
Jack decided it was the better part of valor not to add anything to that and pushed the wheel forward. The car nosed down under a slow moving truck and began skimming a few centimeters above the road. Ken swung out and accelerated, his Hornet’s superior gravplating keeping the vehicle safe even as it flew under the minimum safe altitude of most cars. Jack gunned his gas pedal to match Ken and both cars accelerated past 100 kilometers an hour. They shot past other cars and trucks in the air above them and he chuckled as the road became a sea of green traffic lights as far as the eye could see.
“Jack?” Betty said in a tone guaranteed to get his attention. He glanced at her for a moment to say she had it, but kept his focus on the road ahead. “Traffic control would like to remind you that you are engaging in numerous moving violations.”
Jack nodded and shifted the DeLorean to the left to miss a car illegally parked in the middle of the road. He missed the car by two meters, and the woman standing next to it by nearly a meter, but his eyes flicked over to the mirrors to see her struggling to stay on her feet as their gale-force slipstream whipped her clothing in every direction. Then he looked forward again at the diminishing sea of green lights ahead and the open country laying beyond the last of them. “We seem to have the right of way,” he said in a nonchalant tone as they passed another car above them like it was standing still.
Betty sighed and gave him the “I know you aren’t that stupid” look she was so good at. “Driving over fifty klicks inside city limits,” she said with one upraised finger. “Driving under manual controls inside city limits.” Another finger went into the air. “And driving below the legal elevation inside city limits,” she finished with a third finger in the air. They tore through another intersection, the engine roaring off the buildings and hammering the pedestrians waiting to cross. Betty sighed. “And that was the sound of them adding a noise complaint to the charges.”
“That sounds serious,” Jack said and frowned. Two vehicles were parked dead ahead in the middle of the street. He scanned the traffic flow, found a hole in it, and bounced the DeLorean up into the lowest traffic lane. The car shot over the two vehicles with centimeters to spare and Jack dropped them back to the ground before they caught the truck ahead of them. The mirrors showed hats, scarves, and indignant fingers lifted up high in the air and he chuckled. Ken’s Hornet swung back into place next to Jack and Ken smiled at him through the side window. Jack flicked him a salute and another light flashed by, leaving them a block from the edge of the city.
“You haven’t seen the fines yet,” Betty said in a tone of voice that suggested he wasn’t going to like what he saw. If they were anything like those he’d received in previous weeks, she was probably right.
The DeLorean and the Hornet passed the last car and pulled back up into the traffic lane as they approached the light. Landing City was unlike most cities Jack knew. He was accustomed to cities with tall towers around downtown that sprawled out into shorter offices, stores, and later homes. By the time one hit the edge of a city all you could see was a swath of single-floor homes with gas stations, restaurants, and department stores. That was most cities he knew.
Landing City of Serenity was built inside the crater of an ancient meteor impact though, and her towers stretched from the edge of the city to the center, placing as much living, working, and shopping space as it could inside that compact space. It made it easy to shield the entire crater with a single set of deflection grid generators, and had helped keep Serenity from being too heavily damaged by the recent Chinese invasion. Anything outside the crater had been leveled of course, but the city shields had deflected most of the orbital strikes, and ground troops had held off the invasion itself. The city had survived with only relatively minor damage.
Jack watched the last fifty-floor building pass by overhead, blinked at the last green light, and the two cars shot out into a stretch of open farmland between the city edge and the crater wall that surrounded it. “Well,” Jack said with a smile. “It’s a good thing we’re not driving in the city, isn’t it?” He winked and pulled them up higher to pass over the partially burned fields.
Betty sighed and shook her head.
Jack looked in the mirrors to see a set of flashing lights screaming after them and smiled. Then the mirrors showed him the torn sides of the city’s outer ring buildings. The Chinese artillery had left their mark on the towers, but the fires had been out for weeks. He returned his eyes to the burned fields, and the ruined military vehicles scattered throughout them. The locals had done an amazing job cleaning things up in the last month, but there was months more work ahead of them before they swept up all of the devastation left behind in the wake of the invasion.
The closer they got to the crater wall, the worse it all was. Chinese artillery had reduced even the roads to rubble, and the ruins of jeeps, tanks, and landing craft filled the fields on either side. Jack pulled in a long breath and slowed the car as they approached the wall of earth that had protected the city from long range directed fire. No one in the car spoke as they turned into the small pass that cut through the wall. The remains of a temporary wall made of rock and crumbled pavement still filled part of the pass, but half the road was clear. A member of the Serenity Militia stepped out of a guard shack, long brown uniform coat swirling in the wind that screamed through the pass from outside, and gave Jack a hasty “move along” gesture.
Jack smiled, saluted the man in charge of maintaining traffic control into and out of the city, and drove out into the large open valley outside the crater wall. Hills rose up on every side of the long valley, and from experience he knew the rolling hills went on for kilometers in every direction. They had probably been a beautiful sight too. But now the grasses and trees were burned, and the ruins of Chinese, American, and Serenitian tanks, mechs, and other vehicles littered everything in sight.
Jack frowned as he remembered the last battle fought right here. It had been to the knife, no quarter asked or given by either side, but the Chinese had stopped here. It was amazing how utter devastation and ruin could lay so close to a beach full of people taking time to enjoy the fact that they were still alive on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The work crews would be out in the morning again, and Jack wished them luck in healing their wounded world.
He had other worlds to bring ruin to. That was a sobering thought. Jack cleared his throat and aimed the car at one of the few cleared areas on the field of battle. Spacecraft filled the temporary landing field and more had picked places wherever they could find a few square meters of earth beyond it. The locals would need to clear more room in the morning. They never had enough heavy equipment to do all the clearing they needed.
Jack didn’t feel like taking the road any longer. He cranked the wheel to the right and the DeLorean drifted around with thrusters on fire. Ken’s Hornet followed him off the road as Jack pulled back on the wheel and the car leapt into the air like a scalded cat. They passed over a destroyed tank and Jack dove them back down to swing around a dead jeep. Ken followed and they slewed through the battlefield far faster than anyone would recommend.
It was actually dangerous and Jack felt the adrenalin coursing through his veins like an old friend. Time slowed and even conscious thoughts faded away as Jack turned the wheel on instinct. The two cars ducked and weaved at the speed of reflex, missing obstacles by mere centimeters before they were on to the next piece of wreckage. Then Jack turned the wheel hard to the right, slammed his foot down on the brake, and felt the car come screeching sideways towards his destination.
He reached over, pulled the handle, and stepped out as the gull-wing door opened up. He let his foot hit the ground as the car stopped and came to his feet in a smooth motion. He smiled triumphantly and turned to gloat towards Ken’s car. Instead he saw Ken looking right back at him, and the two glared at each other. It was a tie. Again. Jack snorted and turned towards one of the four spacecraft towering above them.
They had thirty-meter long pointed noses and stocky wings that jutted out on either side of thick fuselages. They were larger than any fighter built by any other nation in all the worlds, designed to punch a hole through the hyperspace wall with tech that wasn’t entirely up to the job. The American designers had used brute force penetrators in the nose powered by massive banks of batteries wrapped around a fusion power plant that took up the entire fuselage to make it work. The weapons and cockpit had been more of an afterthought than anything else. And they’d had power to burn so the engineers tried to find out how many lasers and gravitic cannons they could strap on.
The F-12 Avenger was a prototype that never would have seen real service if the Shang hadn’t attacked. Jack sighed and ran his eyes down her harsh lines again. She was better now. The Peloran had rebuilt her to all intents and purposes. She had more lasers, more gravitic cannons, and real missile launchers now. She was faster, more heavily armored, and had better deflection grids than when he’d flown her into the Battle of Fort Wichita. The F-12C Avenger was a true beast and he loved her for it.
Jack nodded and jumped towards the fighter. The fighter’s gravitics snatched him out of thin air and lifted him up to the top of the fighter where he placed both feet next to the cockpit. It opened wide next to him and he was about to step in when he heard the siren again. It was thin and high pitched, like those he’d heard in European movies. It went back and forth between two annoying tones that reminded him more of a donkey braying than the police cruisers he’d grown up hiding from.
Jack turned to see the police car drop out of the sky. It was a tiny hatchback completely lacking the containment cages of American police cruisers, and reflective stickers flashed painfully bright rays of light in every direction. Jack winced against the duel audio and visual assault as the police car came to a rest next to the two sports cars. The officer stepped out immediately, one hand reaching out to grasp the opening door, and pulled himself onto his feet so he could look up at the four fighters that dwarfed his tiny vehicle. Jack followed his gaze to see Ken, Katy, and Jasmine standing atop their fighters, as ready as he was to step into their cockpits and get out of Dodge.
“You seemed to be in an awful hurry today,” the officer said in a casual tone.
Jack spread his arms out wide and smiled at the man. “We’ve all got places to go.”
The officer looked down at the two sports cars and then back up to Jack. “You are aware that street racing without a permit is illegal?”
“Yes, officer,” Jack said without a pause. “Betty, can you give him our permit?”
Betty flickered into being next to him and gave him a raised eyebrow. Jack inclined his head towards the officer and she rolled her eyes. Then she stepped off the side of the fighter and her holoform made a point of floating down towards the ground next to the officer. Jack heartily hoped she was using the time that bought to hack into the city system and get the permission. Post dated of course.
“Here it is,” Betty said and raised a piece of virtual paper for the officer to read.
The man frowned and looked at the page. Then he brought up the personal computer on his wrist and tapped the number into the virtual keyboard. His frown deepened. “I…didn’t see that before,” he said in a very doubtful tone and looked at Betty. Then he narrowed his eyes and looked at Jack.
Jack just shrugged and gave the man his best innocent smile. Like the permit had been there all along. No last second hacking of computer systems. He was on the up and up and not doing anything wrong. Of course he could always provide a sweetener.
“Do you have any police interceptors?” Jack asked.
The officer’s doubtful look turned confused at the change in subject. “Excuse me?”
“High speed cars,” Jack supplied with a wave of his hand towards the Hornet and the DeLorean. Then he shrugged. “I don’t need them anymore. Betty, do you think we can donate them to the police department?”
Betty put on a show of tapping the edge of her lip with her finger and nodded slowly. “Yes, I think I can.” She stopped and looked up to Jack. “Are you sure?”
Jack smiled and looked at the officer. “Could you use something like these?”
The officer scanned the cars, Betty, and then craned his neck back to look up at Jack again. The man smiled. The man shook his head. The man laughed. The man raised a finger and shook his head again. “Get out of here,” he ordered with a lighter tone than the words required and Jack knew the man had connected the dots.
Betty nodded and smiled. “Done.”
“Just go,” the officer ordered with another wry shake of his head.
“And thank you.”
“Oh, it’s my pleasure,” Jack said with a smile that masked how happy he was to escape without a warrant. Thinking back on it, the street race had been rather stupid. “They’re nice cars.”
“No.” The officer took in the field of battle around them and kicked a piece of Chinese wreckage. “Thank you for dealing with the trash.”
Jack sobered again and nodded very slowly. “Our pleasure. Take care,” Jack said and stepped down into the cockpit.
“Give ‘em Hell,” the officer shouted as the cockpit closed and Jack let out a long breath.
Jack leaned back in the seat and scanned the displays. Katy, Ken, and Jasmine’s fighters displayed ready reports and he smiled. “Get us out of here.”
“Getting us out of here,” Betty returned and their Avenger rose up into the sky. Three more held formation around them as they climbed on silent gravitics. Then all four noses pulled up to face the stars and sixteen fusion engines exploded to life. The blue flames shot them into the heavens and the bright blue sky soon gave way to black space sprinkled with the pinpoints of distant stars. It was a beautiful transition and Jack loved watching it every time.
They accelerated away from Serenity and Jack looked around to see dozens of warships around them. Their icons blinked on the inside of the canopy, names and flags from a half dozen different nations appearing as he stared at each one. Frigates, destroyers, and cruisers filled the orbitals, and even a few battleships held position over Landing City as they waited for another attack that would almost certainly never come. The Chinese were smart enough not to send good money after bad.
Then his eyes rested on the two dozen Avengers in orbit. He smiled and glanced at the communications display. “Hey Fox,” he said with a smile.
“Hey Hart,” came the good-natured response as his picture appeared. The ex-farmer from Kansas leaned back into his seat and gave Jack a nod.
“Take care of this place until someone competent shows up, will yah?” Jack asked, though it wasn’t actually a question.
“Absolutely,” Jesse said with a smile.
“Here,” the other Cowboy said in the formal accent of her native Avalon as she replaced Jesse’s image. She sat prim and proper in her cockpit, and Jack could think of few people more different than those two
“It was good seeing you again,” Jack said with a smile. “Take care.”
“You too.” She let a slight smile break her prim face. “And you too.”
Jack laughed as they shot past the Cowboys tasked with defending Serenity until the new permanent fighter squadrons came in. “Hart out,” he said and the communications panel faded away to give him an unobstructed view of space.
Twelve warships held formation in the distance, the Rising Sun of Free Japan hanging in the display next to them. Another four dozen warships emblazoned with the flag of Pennsylvania waited beyond them and Jack shook his head. One other warship waited between the two formations, the Lone Star of Texas declaring her independence from either force.
It was odd. Five dozen warships had traveled two dozen lightyears from Earth all on behalf of a single heavy cruiser. Charles’ family wanted Los Angeles real bad, and they weren’t about to let her out of their sight. Well, more than one could play that game. And Captain Jack Hart of the Texas Marine Corps Fighter Attack Wing 112, the Cowboys, was happy to play all kinds of games with them.
“Hey Gabbie,” he said as they closed the range to the single heavy cruiser.
A head of bright red hair appeared first, followed by sharp emerald eyes, a lean holographic body, and a long white angelic dress. “Hey,” Gabrielle said. “Good of you to finally show up.”
“You know me. Always fashionably late,” Jack said with a smile. “So have we kept them waiting long enough?”
Gabrielle laughed. “Yes, we have. They had to cut breakfast at a particularly enjoyable restaurant short to get up in time for our official launch window. They’ve been getting downright perturbed over the last few hours.”
Jack sighed with a measure of accomplishment. “Then my job is complete.”
“Mission accomplished,” Gabrielle returned with a very unprofessional salute.
“Shall we allons-y then?”
“Yes,” Gabrielle said. “The captain is getting restless. She wants to go home.”
Jack sobered and pulled in a long breath. “Here’s hoping it’s a good homecoming,” he said with a serious look at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle shook her head in obvious agreement. “From your lips to God’s ears.”
Jack winced. “If the request has to go that high, this is going to be a rough ride.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Last chance to hitch another one.” She met his gaze and he knew it was a real question. She was giving him the option to pull out. No questions asked.
Jack didn’t even spend a second thinking about it. Admiral Aneerin had given him a mission. He was not going to consider walking out on it. Though giving that as his reason would utterly destroy his carefully cultivated reputation. “The roughest rides are the funnest rides,” he said instead and gave her a wink.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and sighed. She might have whispered “men” under her breath, but if she did it was quiet enough that he could pretend he hadn’t heard it. “Come alongside and link up then,” she said with her full voice and an exasperated look.
“Hitch us up, Betty,” Jack ordered and Gabrielle smiled. And shook her head with another look of exasperation. But she smiled first. That was what counted.
Betty shook her head, but she brought the Avenger around and slid up to the flank of the six hundred meter long warship. The other Cowboys synced up with the warship with him, joining the sphere of fighter protection surrounding the heavy cruiser Los Angeles.
Jack scanned the displays as they filled with status information of the other fighters, Los Angeles, and the Free Japanese squadron. Lights turned green one after another as each ship informed the rest that they were ready to dive. He smiled as the entire board turned green.
“Diving in three,” Gabrielle said to all the fighters linked up with her.
“Two.” Jack felt the buildup of energy around him.
“One.” The Avenger’s nose glowed in front of him as energy crackled down it.
“Dive, dive, dive,” Gabrielle ordered and dozens of warships and fighters tore the wall between hyperspace and normalspace wide open.
Rainbows of twisting light washed over Jack and sucked him out of the Serenity star system.