There are few things as amazing as coming home after too long away. Seeing again what you know and love, what you left to protect, can be the most fulfilling thing in all the worlds. But home rarely stays the same while we are away. Sometimes we see it and wonder if what we lost is worth what we won. And sometimes home does not welcome us as much as we hoped it would while we were away.
Jack liked his dreams. He’d had enough of them over the years to almost learn how to control them. He could certainly influence them, and could generally do what he wanted. Though the other people in his dreams didn’t always react the way he wanted them to. He could never figure that one out. If they were dreams, and were in his head, shouldn’t they react the way he wanted them to? But too often the pretty girls just smiled and told him to take a hike. It was bloody unfair.
On the plus side, he usually knew he was dreaming. There was just a feel to his dreams that marked them different from his waking life. He couldn’t define the difference but it was there. He smiled at the amazing redhead that had his undivided attention. She was…What was she doing? Was she a redhead or a blonde? Jack sighed as the dream went out of focus. He was waking up. Life was just so unfair. He tried to hold onto the dream, but it splintered out of his mental grasp as he became conscious of the real world. He’d been so happy too. Jack frowned as he remembered sorrow. And warning. Had she been a brunette? What had the warning been about? Jack couldn’t remember.
He blinked and his eyes focused on the white naval uniform in front of him. It wrapped around a very nice looking young lady and he stared as his mind began to wake up. Odd facts came to mind. Long red hair spilled over narrow shoulders. Striking grey eyes peered at him. She was far too young for him. But she was a cyber so age didn’t matter.
Those were all fleeting thoughts that flitted through his mind as his brain crawled its way into full wakefulness. His first true conscious thought was to realize that he’d been staring at her very shapely chest for a long time. Several seconds at least. Way, way too long. He pulled in a deep breath and rotated his eyes up to meet the gaze of the brain of the heavy cruiser Los Angeles.
Gabrielle smiled back at him. “Pleasant dreams?” she asked in a tone of complete innocence.
Jack scanned left and scanned right. He was in the main observation lounge. The chairs looking out over hyperspace were comfortable enough to fall asleep in. He looked out and saw the river of multicolored gravity whipping back and forth in front of the cruiser as it tried to stay on course for the nearest star.
Jack had traveled enough in the last two years to recognize a few systems by sight. He’d heard of spacers who could name every major colonized system by feel. Jack couldn’t, but he’d been in and out of this little run enough times to recognize it in a heart beat. The rapids between Alpha Centauri C and the Alpha Centauri binary system flowed around them, a lightyear of corkscrewing gravitic twists that pulled ships down quicker and quicker the nearer they got.
It took him a second to realize how close they were. “We’re here,” he croaked through a throat that had been asleep for far too long. It came out as an intelligible creak of vocal chords and he coughed and cleared his throat. “We’re here,” he repeated towards Gabrielle’s confused face.
She smiled in understanding and nodded. “We just passed the first buoy. Twelve hours before we expected it.”
Jack blinked. Twelve hours. That wasn’t too bad. They’d crossed two dozen lightyears in just over a week as Einstein’s universe told time, probably. Last night had been four days on board ship, which felt about right. Twelve hours early was pretty good considering they were surfing a rogue gravitic wave swirling through the depths of hyperspace linking the Alpha Centauri trinary star system with the single distant star humanity had named Serenity. Twelve hours off was a bullseye.
The first buoy. Jack frowned as that registered. They were…maybe half an hour out. Probably less. Maybe fifteen minutes depending on how far the buoy had drifted since the system traffic cops launched it. He needed to get into space.
“Guess I should go,” Jack whispered.
“Guess you should,” Gabrielle returned with a smile.
“I don’t want to go.” Jack frowned at the view of hyperspace ahead of them and tried to make sense of his feelings.
“Do you ever?” Gabrielle gave him an amused look.
Jack shrugged. “Sometimes. But is this going to be one of those times?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “I don’t know. I hope so.”
Jack sighed and wondered once again what kind of welcome they were going to receive. It should be a heroes welcome, after the Battle of Serenity. But did Charles’ family truly have enough pull to change that? Jack hoped he was wrong. Jack hoped they didn’t. But the warning knell of his dream still rang and Jack didn’t think he was going to enjoy this day.
“I suppose we should get going and see what we find,” Jack said and let out a long breath as he unfolded his long and lanky limbs from the chair. He came to his feet in a smooth motion and Gabrielle stepped back.
“May it be better than we fear,” she said with a smile.
“From your lips to God’s ears,” Jack whispered and squeezed past her to make for the hatch.
“And here I thought you didn’t like asking for help from on high?” Gabrielle returned.
Jack stopped at the hatch and pulled in a long breath. Sometimes he almost wished he could believe. But it had been a long time since he had. And he wasn’t about to ask for help from someone he hadn’t prayed to in years. “I don’t,” Jack said with a shake of his head. “But if you have any inroads on that market, Olivia could use all the help she can get.”
“And you think He would listen to me over you?” Gabrielle asked as she followed him out of the observation lounge.
Jack shrugged and strode down the corridor to the nearest lift. “If I were Him, I would every time,” Jack said with a flirtatious wink.
“I’m not sure that’s how it works,” Gabrielle said as the doors opened before them to reveal an empty lift.
They stepped in, the doors closed, and Jack wondered at the situation. He flew through hyperspace in a starship powered by alien technologies, named after angels who served a God who may or may not have created humanity, with a cybernetic mind that most certainly had been created by that humanity. And here they were, calmly discussing the existence of that God like there was nothing better to do.
“I don’t know how it’s supposed to work,” Jack said as the lift shot down through the center of the starship. His parents had. But they were dead and he lived on. “And honestly, I’m not sure it does.”
“You wouldn’t be the first to ask that question,” Gabrielle said and the lift came to a stop a moment before the doors opened.
“Thanks for the talk, Gabbie,” Jack said and stepped out into the massive hangar bay. Then he paused and looked back towards her. “And be careful.”
“Why?” Gabrielle asked.
Jack shrugged, wishing he could remember that last dream. “I don’t know. I’ve just got a bad feeling about this.”
“We’ll be careful. Now get out of here,” Gabrielle whispered and the doors shut.
He turned and the hangar bay stretched out before him, large enough to play football in. The American game, not the European crap. Well, he supposed one could play European football, but why? A single Hellcat fighter, his Avenger, and numerous Marine shuttles filled the bay in all three dimensions. They hung from the overhead and filled the deck as people scurried around them. It was time to fly and he watched them performing last second work to make everything ready.
Jack strode across the deck, maneuvering around a Marine tank, to find the man directing a fair part of the work. He was built short and stocky and looked like a brick would lose a contest of stubbornness with him. A thick beard that would have been decidedly non-regulation had Los Angeles still been flying the American flag above that of Texas covered a dark expression. Jack fervently hoped it was not aimed at him in any way.
“Major Thompson,” he said and saw the man’s expression lighten as his voice registered.
“Major Hart,” Marine Captain Damon Thompson returned with a smile, giving him the same honorary promotion. There could only ever be one captain aboard ship after all. The Navy was real particular about that little ritual. Something about getting confused about who was who in the middle of an emergency. Jack doubted anyone would ever mistake a Marine captain for a Navy captain, but he was willing to take the courtesy promotion. He doubted he’d ever get the promotion any other way considering how unhappy the brass was with his previous promotions.
Jack turned to the other man and smiled. Hunter Roberts wore old aviator shades and a matching sheepskin jacket. A square jaw and muscular shoulders made him look like a recruiting poster for the navy’s Top Gun program. “Roberts.”
“Hart,” Roberts returned with a nod.
Jack made a show of looking around as Los Angeles’ Marines continued to scramble around them. “Are we ready?”
“We’re the only fighters left on deck,” Roberts reported with a smile.
Thompson added his own smile to the discussion. “All Marines prepared for HALO drop.”
“Doors?” Jack asked into the open air.
“Opening now,” Gabrielle’s voice said and the massive armored hatches covering each flank of the hangar bay began to retract. Hyperspace’s madly roiling colors appeared, stretching as far as the eyes could see out of each side of the starship, and Jack smiled at the sight. It was one of the most beautiful things in all the worlds, and he never tired of watching it. “We are approaching the Red Line,” Gabrielle announced. “Prepare for surface action in ten…”
She continued to count down as the three shared smiles. Thompson grabbed the side of a tank and shouted over the klaxons that accompanied the countdown. “I love watching this!”
“Me too!” Jack shouted back and latched onto a shuttle. Roberts just nodded and echoed his action.
Gabrielle’s countdown reached zero and Jack felt time come to a stop. Hyperspace disappeared and he gazed out on nothing for an eternity that was over faster than he could blink. Then stars appeared in the darkness and an explosion of rainbow light washed out in every direction as the heavy cruiser Los Angeles rose out of hyperspace and arrived in the Alpha Centauri star system. More explosions betrayed the arrival of other starships and escorting fighters, bathing normalspace in more rainbow light.
It was odd, watching this from inside the hangar bay. Jack rarely got a chance to do that. He was usually out there, securing the flanks of the fleet, watching for enemies. But Hollywood had everything under control out there, so he got to watch from the security of a hangar bay and just enjoy the sights while talking to people who’d been born just like him. It was odd, but Jack thought he liked it.
He shook his head and smiled as Los Angeles began to vibrate beneath him. Her main engines were powering up and they would be approaching New Earth soon. And then he had a feeling that Olivia would be playing the part of a Christian facing lions in the Roman Coliseum. Well. Not quite. There’d been no Devil Dogs to protect their flanks in the old days. That thought made Jack snort in wry amusement, which forced him to explain his amusement to Thompson and Roberts. And they laughed out loud at the absurdity of Devils protecting Christians from Romans. Their eyes told him they’d be right there next to him. No words needed on that count.
“Let’s rock and roll,” Jack said in response and they exchanged a final nod before turning to their respective craft. Jack strode towards his Avenger with a smile and looked up at it. “You ready, Betty?”
“Always,” her voice said through his earbud and he chuckled.
Then he jumped and her gravity generators lifted him up to land next to the opening cockpit. He stepped down off the hull into the pilot’s seat. It only took moments to lock the five-point harness in place around him as the canopy closed and the cockpit came to life with a mix of physical and holographic displays. The fleet was out there, spreading out to protect the heavy cruisers from any threat. Hellcats and Avengers swarmed around the starships, linked into their combat networks with laser turrets searching for incoming missiles.
Further out he could see that there was no threat for them to fight, but he smiled in approval at just how well the fleet deployed. Of course he would expect nothing less of a force that sailed with Aneerin. That man had a tendency to get into fights that nobody had any business getting into, and those who kept up with him learned the hard way to be cautious and alert at all times. Hollywood’s little fleet had obviously learned their lessons in how to survive Peloran-style warfare. Then he frowned. Given the information they were bringing back about that new Shang weapon, that particular style of warfare might just be ending. If they couldn’t use hyperspace to dive in and out of battle things were going to seriously change.
Jack shook his head to clear it and sighed. That was a matter for the future. Right now they had to survive their first homecoming dance.
Jack turned to look at the displays showing the Marine landing craft and saw them ready to launch. That was good. He finally turned his attention to where Betty’s twenty-centimeter holoform sat atop the fighter’s main console. She nodded to tell him they were ready as well, and he let out a long breath.
“Let’s get out of here,” he ordered and she nodded.
“Getting us out of here,” she reported and the Avenger rose off Los Angeles’ deck with a silent smoothness Jack loved. He enjoyed a good loud sports car when he was having fun, but this was business. And the Avenger slipped out of the hangar bay on puffs of maneuvering jets with only the slightest vibration of the gravitic generators reaching his senses.
The black, star-filled sky of Alpha Centauri quickly surrounded him and Los Angeles drifted further away with each passing second. Hollywood floated a few kilometers beyond her and Jack smiled at their identical lines. Those two starships were true sisters and he hoped they would get to fight together in the future.
A display blinked and he saw twelve Marine craft launch out of the bay to take up station off Los Angeles’ starboard bow. Captain Thompson was ready. Good.
“Olivia’s not going to approve,” Betty said in a low voice.
“I’ll be happy to hear that disapproval after she lands in one piece,” Jack returned.
Betty frowned. “You really think she’s in danger here?”
“Aneerin thought so.” Then he shook his head. “And I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
Betty cocked her head to the side. “Still?”
“Yeah,” he acknowledged and chewed his lip. Then he looked to the display that showed the Pennsylvania Star Fleet squadron. “They haven’t been shadowing us all the way home because they love her.”
“Surely you don’t think they are a physical threat?” Betty asked.
Jack took a moment to study them and shook his head. He felt no threat from them. But they were connected to the threat. He felt that in the back of his mind like an itch that didn’t want to go away. They weren’t a threat, but they knew somebody who was. Maybe. If he was getting any kind of a handle on whatever roamed around in his subconscious and told him to get out of the way of something that was about to kill him. Jack let out a long breath. “Maybe it’s just a bad dream, but I’ve felt like a shoe was about to drop since I woke up.”
“I see.” Betty frowned and made a show of looking around. “I have warned the fleet of your misgivings.”
Jack brought a hand up to rub his temple. He hadn’t told her how much that meant to him. She never questioned his feelings. She just accepted them, even when he had no evidence of any kind to back them up. That more than anything else, even being right more times than he wanted to be, kept him from thinking he was going insane.
“Bad juju?” a voice said and he turned to see Katy on one of the displays.
“Yeah,” Jack whispered and she nodded in agreement.
“Ditto over here,” Ken said from another display with a slow nod.
Jack frowned. They were all in agreement. He didn’t like that. He really wanted an uneventful homecoming. He looked at New Earth as it grew before him and just didn’t want to go down there. But he didn’t have much choice. Olivia had to go down, so he had to go down. Aneerin had asked him to protect her and he wasn’t about to let the old man down.
“I guess we’re just going to have be ready for anything then,” Jack said in a tone that betrayed his reluctance.
“Yes you will,” another voice said and Jack turned to see Gabrielle’s holoform sitting next to Betty. A display showed a shuttle leaving the bay and Gabrielle pursed her lips. “Take care of my captain,” she ordered.
“I’ll bring her back alive,” Jack promised and then hid a wince. He hated making promises he might not be able to fulfill. “If anyone can.”
“Thank you,” Los Angeles’ mind said with a smile and faded back out.
Jack saw the shuttle turn and begin approaching New Earth. He gauged the display for a second, nodded and ran his fingers over it. He charted escort paths with three quick flicks of his wrist, nodded towards Betty, and she moved them to cover the shuttle. Katy and Ken accelerated towards the flanks, drone Avengers moved into position around them, and within seconds a dedicated point defense network of twenty-one Avenger-class starfighters surrounded the shuttle. Thompson’s Marine battalion slipped into the formation next to complete the job of making that one boat the best-protected craft in the entire Alpha Centauri star system.
“Commence HALO drop,” Jack ordered. They dove into the atmosphere and Jack saw the heat of reentry consume the formation with long tails of fire. Thirty-four flames in all, they shot down towards Landing City and Jack smiled. It was time. “Engage the fireworks.”
“Engaging fireworks,” Betty acknowledged and every Avenger began spitting flash-bangs and confetti designed to confuse sensors. Heat reactive panels exploded away from the Marine craft and fluttered away in random trajectories. Marine jeeps and bikes ejected next, filling the air around the falling Navy shuttle with more targets, and the Marine craft dove straight down as they spewed more sensor-disrupting debris. Marines bailed out last, their combat armor designed to protect them from the riggers of High Altitude Low Orbit drops. The sky above Landing City filled with fireworks that had to be an amazing sight for the citizenry. They had no idea it was deadly serious.
“Landing in five…four…three,” Betty began to count and Jack saw the craft pull up and slow down. Shuttles and tanks deployed wings to catch New Earth’s thick air and mechs sprouted arms and legs as they approached the ground. The Marines came out of the aerodynamic poses with rifles in their hands and the sensor-thrashing debris of a combat drop fell all around them.
“Two.” The Avengers pulled up, their wings deployed for maximum drag, and Jack felt the gravitic generators vibrating as they fought the full freefall of the largest fighter ever built.
“One.” Jack felt the gee forces pushing him into his seat and relaxed as his old trainers had taught him.
Silence ruled the cockpit and Jack hitched himself back up to look around. All twenty-one Avengers hovered above the tarmac, pointing in seemingly random directions as their turrets spun back and forth looking for targets. Every other Marine craft was on the ground while the landing shuttle hulls transformed before his eyes into something more like miniature fortifications to surround the Navy shuttle. Weapons turrets aimed in every direction, looking for something to kill. The tanks and mechs held the tarmac around the ring of shuttle-forts, while the Marines deployed gravchutes that arrested their fall at the last moment. They stepped lightly onto the tarmac and swung their weapons with practiced ease.
It was as perfect a HALO drop as Jack could remember being a part of.
“Open up,” Jack ordered and hit the release on his five-point harness.
“Opening up,” Betty acknowledged and the canopy raised up to give him his first breath of fresh planetary air in a week. He wrinkled his nose. Alpha Centauri’s smell was a warm, thick, and very acquired taste that Jack had never acquired. And it was hot. Oppressively hot to a man who’d grown up in Northern Minnesota and then spent the last two years on climate-controlled starships. It was thick with moisture like it wanted to rain, but he knew from previous experience that the planet was just teasing him. And when it did get around to raining it would be a real doozy of a storm. Hopefully he could get out before the weather hit.
Well, time to do the whole planetary meet and greet and act like he loved the place. Jack smiled at Betty, pulled himself up onto the Avenger’s hull, and looked down. They floated a few meters above the ground. Good. Jack stepped off the fighter and fell to the ground. Grav generators grabbed him on the way down and he landed as gently as the Marines had. Then New Earth’s heavy gravity made itself known and Jack groaned as the extra kilos weighed him down. He could have gone without that feeling forever.
He grunted, reminded himself that he loved the planet, and turned to see Captain Olivia Wyatt step out of her shuttle with a frown on her face.
She aimed a doubtful look at Jack. “I don’t remember authorizing an assault on a friendly military installation.”
Jack gave her his best disarming smile as he watched Ken and Katy dropping out of their Avengers. “Just some friendly practice, Ma’am.”
She scanned the tarmac with one upraised eyebrow.
Jeeps and bikes accelerated away from her shuttle, some with Marines on them and others in autonomous mode. Tank turrets spun and mechs stomped around with weapons fully deployed and operational. Avengers floated overhead, laser turrets spinning in search of targets. Marines held weapons at the ready, though a quick look from Jack’s eyes verified that their safeties were on. Captain Thompson approached from one angle with his rifle at the ready, while Katy and Ken came with revolvers on their hips. Jasmine and Natalie’s robotic avatars landed on the tarmac with far heavier rail guns hanging from their shoulders. Jack smiled and turned his gaze back to the subject of all this work.
To any outside observer, American Marines had just conquered Leif Erikson Spacebase’s tarmac without a single shot fired. It was a very unsubtle statement of their stance when it came to one Captain Olivia Wyatt.
“Friendly?” Wyatt asked and gave him a very pointed look.
“Absolutely,” Jack said with his best Cheshire smile.
“Very friendly,” another voice said and they turned to see a man walking through the perimeter of Marines.
Jack’s contacts tagged a name over the man. Rear Admiral Davion Lashley, commander of Leif Erikson Spacebase. So the base rated a rear admiral now. That was good. He brought his hand up to salute the man and suppressed an approving smile as the other Cowboys echoed him. Captain Wyatt held her salute until the admiral returned it and everybody relaxed just a bit.
Lashley gave Wyatt a smile. “Any military maneuver that does not result in weapons fire is by definition a friendly maneuver. Though I would have appreciated more warning.”
Jack affected an innocent look and turned to where Betty’s holoform stood. “I was sure I asked you to inform them the moment we left hyperspace.”
Betty smiled back. “And I did. Leif Erikson Spacebase was fully aware of our plans long before we launched.”
Admiral Lashley frowned at the two and then shook his head. “Freya?”
The base’s cybernetic intelligence flickered into existence next to the man with a smile. “Would you like the report on the planned practice session now or later?” she asked with an innocence that was all but impossible to ignore.
Lashley rubbed his temple and sighed. Then he looked up to Wyatt again. “Do you ever have the feeling that our subordinates think it better to ask forgiveness than permission?”
“They ask forgiveness?” Wyatt returned without hesitation.
“Good point.” Lashley gave Wyatt a smile and then turned a doubtful look towards Jack. “I understand this is not the first ‘training maneuver’ you have performed at Leif Erikson Spacebase.”
Wyatt turned to Jack with a raised eyebrow. “Something you would like to tell me?”
Jack shrugged as if to say it was nothing important. “Not especially, Ma’am.”
Wyatt gave him “the look” and he sighed.
“The first time I was here this was a sleepy little base housing a single fighter squadron and filled with many empty buildings.” Jack shrugged again. “I would have been shirking my duties if I hadn’t found some use for them,” he finished with an innocent smile.
Wyatt rolled her eyes and sighed. And if she whispered “Marines” under her breath, Jack could at least pretend that he didn’t hear it. Then she opened her mouth to say, “Thank you for meeting us, Admiral Lashley.”
“My pleasure, Captain Wyatt,” Lashley answered with a crisp nod and turned to wave a hand back towards the headquarters building. “If you will follow me please?”
“Of course,” Wyatt answered and began following him back through the ring of Marines.
Jack strode after them without any hesitation and whispered, “I’ve got this,” just loud enough for Betty to pass his message on to the others.
Lashley stopped and turned back to Jack. “I appreciate what you are doing here, captain.”
“Then please appreciate that Aneerin is concerned,” Jack said before the man could continue.
Lashley frowned and looked back at the Marines. “Aneerin is not in my chain of command,” he said very slowly.
“But he is in mine,” Jack returned. “And his instructions to me were very clear.”
Lashley scanned the Marines again before nodding. Then he turned once more and walked all the way to the headquarters building without another interruption. Jack and Wyatt followed the admiral past several rings of local Marine guards without being so much as looked at twice. Jack approved of their security, but felt more naked with each ring they passed. He squashed that paranoia though. They were all one big happy Marine family. Right? They wouldn’t have to shoot themselves out. Of course not.
They finally entered Admiral Lashley’s office and the older man sat down behind a desk with a wave of his hand towards the single chair across from him. Jack noticed the pointed suggestion that there should only be one person here and waved Wyatt towards it with a smile. She nodded her thanks and took it as Jack scanned the office walls. Pictures of family and friends filled one entire wall. Young children on stage playing ridiculous vegetables, older children playing Pilgrims and Indians, and two very nice looking young ladies wearing graduation gowns. Another wall proudly displayed awards for everything from being a good litter picker upper to meritorious conduct during the Battle of Fort Wichita. That got Jack’s attention. That’d been a bad one, and this man had been there. Jack turned away from the office walls to examine the man and caught an appraising gaze looking back at him.
“Did you learn what you expected?” the admiral asked.
Jack scanned the walls once more and shrugged to hide the feeling he got from them. This was an ambitious man who had risen to two-star rank in the United States Navy on merit. And he very much valued the political connections that would help him rise to three-star rank. Jack didn’t know what that meant for the man’s future actions, but it helped to get a feel for the man. Still, it wouldn’t do to say that out loud. “I try not to judge a person’s character until I’ve seen them act on it.”
Lashley smiled in approval. “Good man.” Then he turned to Captain Wyatt, steepled his fingers, and got to the business everybody knew he had to get to. “You have made some powerful enemies, Captain Wyatt.”
And that told Jack that he’d been right to worry. He felt the other shoe hovering in the air, ready to drop. This was not going to be the happy go lucky homecoming he’d hoped for.