Some confrontations are good. Some are bad. Some make life better when we get through them. Some make life worse. I’ve had good luck with most of mine. And I’ve made some seriously stupid mistakes in others. One or two I’d even take back if I had the chance. But we don’t get that chance. So I remember the cost of doing it wrong, in hopes that I can find the right way to do things in the future. Because we make our lives out of the ways in which we handle all the little challenges in life.
Captain Wyatt leaned forward in her chair and placed both hands on the admiral’s desk. There was not an ounce of compromise or reticence in her demeanor and Jack admired that. He admired it a lot in fact. Aneerin was right. She was good. She was strong. She was exactly what they needed if they were going to win The War.
“I did what I had to do,” Wyatt said without an ounce of contrition. Or weakness.
Lashley nodded in approval. “You realize there will be repercussions?”
“The record will prove me right,” Wyatt said.
Lashley laughed and shook his head. “Which one? The record we already have, or the self-serving one you’ve obviously brought with you?”
Wyatt’s cheek twitched but she maintained her composure. “I bring nothing but the truth with me.
Lashley sighed and leaned back into his plush chair with the air of a man who was just following orders. “I don’t doubt that, but the truth is not always welcome. Or accepted.”
“I see.” Wyatt echoed Lashley’s action, and Jack’s subconscious worrying went into overdrive. “So what is welcome?”
Lashley sucked in a long breath and reached onto his desk to play with a model spaceship on it. Nearly every major fighter and bomber of the last fifty years hovered over that desk, but the one in his hands was possibly the most powerful of them all. It certainly carried more brute firepower than his Avenger, but Jack knew he could take one in a fight. They were pretty dumb and slow compared to his girls.
“What do you know about the Marauder program?” Lashley asked and held the bomber up for Wyatt to see clearly.
“They’re the best small warship killer we have,” Wyatt said without hesitation.
Jack opened his mouth to protest, but Betty placed a hand on his shoulder that told him to remain silent. He sighed and accepted her request.
“How valuable do you think they are right now?” Lashley asked.
Wyatt frowned and looked towards Jack. Jack shrugged, having no clue what Lashley was getting at. She turned back to Lashley. “Given what circumstances?”
The admiral frowned. “Given the losses we took at Fort Wichita, New Washington, and Epsilon Reticuli. Given the news filtering in from the outer colonies.”
“What news?” Jack asked under his breath.
Betty’s twenty-centimeter form flickered on his shoulder and he glanced at her.
“Colonial Fleet has taken heavy losses,” she whispered in his ear.
“So Third Fleet is confirmed destroyed.” Wyatt said, grabbing Jack’s attention again.
Lashley shook his head. “It’s confirmed missing. Aneerin stopped by three days ago to update us. They are gone. We don’t know what happened, but we are assuming that Los Angeles is the last surviving ship of Third Fleet.”
“What about the British medical frigate and her destroyers?” Jack asked.
Lashley’s cheek twitched and Jack would have paid good money to find out why. But the man just shook his head. “They’ve already returned to Earth for a heroes’ welcome.”
Wyatt pursed her lips. “While we are here at Alpha Centauri?”
“While you are here at Alpha Centauri,” Lashley said with a nod.
“So Third Fleet is gone.” She licked her lips in thought. “What about the Ghost Fleets?”
Lashley gave her a half smile. “The last ready reserve ship was returned to active duty a month ago.”
Jack winced at that. Even he’d heard about the scandals with the Ghost Fleet ready reserve. People had literally lost jobs over the forged documents claiming they were ready to set sail at any time. And it was hard to lose a government job.
“I see,” Wyatt said and shook her head. “What about the unready reserves?”
“There’s actually some bright news there,” Lashley said. “Admiral Aneerin delivered a dozen more Shang fabricators to Ghost Fleet HQ a week ago. They should start tearing through the boneyards a lot faster now.”
Boneyards. Jack winced again. They were very carefully not talking about the factories that should be producing new ships. Yosemite Station had been the single largest factory in Terran space the day The War started. Losing it had been a deathblow to America’s industrial output, and it hadn’t done anything good for the rest of the Western Alliance either. And the first Battles of Alpha Centauri had smashed far more of the industrial might in that system than anybody wanted to admit. The two most powerful Pre-War industrial centers in Terran space were effectively gone. And now they were reduced to pulling retired ships out of boneyards. It was a losing proposition no matter how you couched the words.
Wyatt just shook her head. “Those are not enough to replace our losses,” she said and Lashley nodded. Wyatt sighed. “The Joint Chiefs have probably already started discussing cutting the numbers of ships in each squadron so we can keep more squadrons in action. They probably hope to use Marauders to fill out our combat power.”
The admiral laughed. “We just received official notice of their intention to consider those actions this morning. They are ‘welcoming any input as to the advisability of such an option.’”
Wyatt snorted. “So they are covering their posteriors by volunteering you to approve the idea so they can say they were just following your advice?”
“Exactly,” Lashley said and shook his head. “The problem is that we don’t have enough Marauders in service to do that. We don’t have enough right now so we must ramp up production well beyond current levels.”
“You will be happy I’m sure to learn that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania graciously offered to devote several factories to produce more Marauders. All they ask in return is a new flagship to modernize the command and control of their Star Fleet.”
Wyatt frowned and sent a sidelong glance towards Jack. “I assume they have a ship in mind?”
“They do.” Lashley’s mouth twitched in distaste. “They have heard that we are about to cashier a certain naval captain for cowardice in the face of the enemy…”
Wyatt’s jaw clenched at the last sentence and Jack almost jumped to her defense. Only Betty’s hand on his shoulder stopped him.
“I see,” Wyatt said very slowly, refusing to allow Lashley to see her lose her composure. “So what does the Navy intend to do?”
Lashley shrugged. “You said it yourself. We need the Marauders.”
Wyatt let out a long breath. “And the Hursts are willing to hold them back if you don’t play ball.”
“They have never said that,” Lashley said. Then he shrugged and looked away. “And I’m certain they would be offended if anyone suggested any such thing.”
“Sometimes the truth is offensive,” Wyatt said with a voice of steel.
Lashley nodded very slowly. “We awarded your ship and crew a Meritorious Unit Commendation. It was the best we could do under the circumstance. And you will be offered an honorable discharge.”
Wyatt’s jaw twitched, and Jack saw her hold back the urge to shoot to her feet. She remained sitting through a supreme force of will. “You expect me to surrender my rank and ship so easily?”
Lashley sighed. “You can always refuse to accept.” Then he shook his head. “But this is the best we can offer right now.”
“You mean it’s the best you can offer without committing career suicide?” Wyatt charged.
Admiral Lashley leaned back and sucked in a long breath. “There is a saying about the tallest nails getting the hammer. Our political masters do not value those who stand too tall and do not long abide them. Take the offer, captain, or they will break you.”
Wyatt pursed her lips again. “What word is there from Texas?”
Lashley snorted. “Texas said they like your moxy. Very privately. Their official stance is that this is an internal issue of the United States Navy and they want no part of the fight.”
“The Hursts got to them,” Wyatt said and shook her head.
Lashley nodded. “I have heard rumors of certain industrial agreements between Texas and Pennsylvania.”
“They’ll regret this,” Jack whispered very slowly and meant every word of it. They had made an enemy in him and sooner or later he would backfire all over them.
“Do not say that too loudly, Captain Jack,” Lashley said with a stern look. “They have friends in many places who would be happy to report you.”
“Are you one of those friends?” Jack asked.
Lashley averted his eyes and Jack knew the man wasn’t. He began to feel sorry for the man then. A little bit. The man knew the orders were wrong but couldn’t think of a way to survive refusing them. And survival was more important to him than principle.
Wyatt caught his attention with a look and Jack saw that she had made the same assessment. Then she turned back to Lashley and spoke. “What do you expect me to do?”
The base commander swallowed long and hard at her direct question. It was obviously a question he didn’t want to answer. “The Admiralty expects you to walk away…and live whatever life you can make out of this.”
Wyatt pursed her lips. “And what about Los Angeles?”
Lashley looked at his computer and pursed his lips. “You, your crew, and all personnel attached to Los Angeles are now relieved of duty.”
“Like Hell!” Wyatt growled.
“Los Angeles will be locked down until a Pennsylvania Star Fleet AI and crew are shipped in to take command,” Lashley continued as if she had not said a word.
“No,” Wyatt said and leaned back in her chair.
Lashley licked his lips and steepled his fingers on his desk. “Captain Wyatt. These orders come from the Joint Chiefs. You have to follow them.”
“Do I?” Wyatt just met his gaze until he looked away and sighed. “I could push for an open court martial. Put all of this out in the open so everyone can see it.”
Lashley nodded slowly. “Yes. You could. But the Hursts will not blink. If no one blinks, the United States Navy will be caught in the middle, and no matter who wins, we will all lose. And right now we cannot afford that. We have a War to fight. We can’t fight another one at home. Not now. Please. Just….”
“Captain?” Wyatt returned to her feet and looked around Lashley’s office. The very slight twist of her lip betrayed her disappointment.
“Yes, Ma’am?” Jack returned.
“I think we should be leaving now.”
Jack nodded and scanned the office as well. He was disappointed too. He had hoped for much better here. Not expected, but surely he could be allowed to hope, couldn’t he? Well, sometimes hopes were dashed. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“I’m sorry,” Lashley said with a shake of his head. “Just please tell me what you intend to do before you do it.”
“So you can tell your masters?” Jack charged.
Lashley came to his feet with a snarl and slammed both hands on his desk. “I serve the Navy! I need to know what you intend so I can protect the Navy!”
Jack measured the man for a long moment, and then nodded very slowly. The man wouldn’t report them. He simply wouldn’t stand up to those with axes to grind. He supposed he couldn’t entirely blame the man for that. Entirely. Still, he owed the man something for the charge he’d made. “Sorry.”
Lashley let his breath out, shook his head, and sat back down. “I’ve done everything I can. Just…keep me apprised please.”
Jack looked to Wyatt and she gave him a minute shrug. The man hadn’t done everything he could actually. He could see she understood that. But he’d done what he thought he could without risking his career. Once again, Jack couldn’t entirely blame the man. Getting hammered by on high was rarely comfortable.
“You’ll be the first to know,” Jack promised Lashley.
Lashley nodded and Jack and Wyatt turned as one to leave the office.
It was a short walk back out to the tarmac where the Marines still held their ground. Captain Wyatt strode straight through the Marines with her head held high and took the stairs into her shuttle with practiced ease. Jack stopped outside and frowned, considering for a moment if he should go with her. No. If she needed to talk to someone, Gabbie was there. And Wyatt was a strong woman. She didn’t need a babysitter.
“Enter.” The voice sound like neither Captain Wyatt nor Olivia.
“Captain Wyatt,” Jack said in trepidation and stepped up into the shuttle. He saw her as he cleared the hatch and nearly stopped. She sat in a chair, head in her hands, and did not look at all like the Captain Wyatt he had seen so often. Neither did she look like the Olivia he had come to know. She looked smaller.
“I don’t understand you,” she said very slowly.
“What’s not to understand?” Jack asked with a wave of his hands. “I’m pretty simple.”
“You took so much joy in calling me Olivia back at Serenity,” she said with a shake of her head. “Now I’m Captain Wyatt, again. Why?”
Jack sighed and looked around the inside of the shuttle. Then he smiled as the answer came to mind. “Because Captain Jack flirts with just about everybody.”
She sighed and gave him The Look that said she didn’t believe him.
Jack sobered, shook his head, and tried again. “I just…you were the perfect captain of a heavy cruiser. In your element. Busting the balls of anybody who tried to shut you down. My…unique chain of command gave me enough freedom to flirt with you just a little bit without messing up your chain of command.”
“And why would you think I wanted to be flirted with?” she asked in exasperation.
Jack smiled and gave her a wink. “Because I’m an excellent judge of character.”
She let out her breath and turned away, but didn’t correct him. “Fine…so why not now?”
Jack sighed again. “Because the last thing I want to do right now is give you any disrespect of any kind.”
“And using my name is disrespectful?” she asked.
“It was,” Jack said and raised his hand to place his finger and thumb a centimeter apart. “Just a little. Just enough to make you laugh. Or smile. Or shake your head. That’s what I was going for. A little bit of levity is usually a good thing. But not now.”
She peered at him for a long moment before asking the next question. “Why not now?”
Jack licked his lips. This was getting a lot more serious than he liked his conversations. But she needed it. So he gave it to her. “Because I’m with you. You will have any aid I can give you. I don’t have to worry about a career. The politicos already hate me. Any aid at all. I’m here. Whatever you need.”
She met his gaze long enough to see the truth in his words and then looked away. “Then you should call me Olivia.”
“Are you sure?”
She looked at him again. “No disrespect. No flirting. Just friends.”
Jack managed to suppress the instant reaction of any man slammed into the friend zone and smiled back. Then he let Captain Jack out for another slight twist. “I don’t know if I can handle the no flirting thing, but Olivia does sound better on you.”
Olivia shook her head. “You’re impossible.”
“Some have suggested that is my middle name,” Jack returned with a smile.
Olivia smiled back and sighed. Then she changed the subject. “What do I do now?”
Jack blinked and licked his lips. “What makes you think I know?”
Olivia gave him a sad smile. “You always seem to have answers.”
“They’re my answers,” Jack protested. “You usually don’t agree with them.”
“Try me,” Olivia said. Then she looked around the inside of the shuttle and shrugged helplessly. “My answers don’t seem to be working out well right now.”
Jack turned to see Betty standing nearby and she smiled, telling him he had answers. Then she nodded towards a chair, telling him he should give them. Well, that was just great advice. He had no idea what the answers were and really wished she would tell him. She nodded towards the chair again and Jack let out a long breath before sitting down next to Olivia.
“Five years ago I would have just left,” Jack admitted with a sad shrug. “If they didn’t want me I wouldn’t want to be around them.”
Olivia met his gaze and then turned to glance towards Betty. “And now?”
Jack followed her eyes and Betty just smiled at him. He sighed and nodded. “I made a promise to her two years ago. That once I was done with all this I would travel. See things. Live things. I promised that I would stop being just someone that wanted to kill Shang and find a better life.”
“This is the only life I’ve ever wanted,” Olivia whispered and Jack saw the depths of her loss. The Navy was her life in every way that mattered. He could relate to losing a life.
“The Shang took away my life,” Jack said with a sad smile and then looked at Betty. “She gave me a new one. You just need to find yours.”
Olivia snorted. Or was it a sniff? A sniffle? “That easy, huh?”
“Nope,” Jack said and turned back to see her trying to maintain her control. “Nothing easy about it. It’s one of the hardest things in all the worlds to do.“
Olivia shook her head and bit her lip. “This isn’t fair.”
“No it isn’t,” Jack returned with another shake of his head.
“It’s not right,” Olivia added in a voice that suggested she was either on the verge of looking for someone to beat up or to cry on.
“No it isn’t.” Jack looked around the small shuttle and shook his head. He didn’t really want to wager on which way she went. “Would you like to take a walk through the city? Give your head a chance to clear?”
Olivia glared at him with slit eyes. “You think I’m not rational right now?”
Jack swallowed, holding both hands up in a defensive gesture. “I think you’d shoot every member of the Hurst family without an ounce of remorse right now.”
Olivia laughed. “I’d like that.”
“And I’d be standing right next to you.”
Olivia looked at him in surprise and Jack smiled at her.
“I think both of us should take some time to cool off. Walk around some. See the sights.” Jack shrugged and looked around the interior of the shuttle again. “The boardwalk’s a lot prettier than this.”
Olivia snorted and shook her head. “I’m not a beach bunny.”
“Give them a break,” Jack said and forced a wry smile onto his face. “Beach bunnies aren’t all bad.”
“Of course you’d say that,” Olivia said with a snort.
“Maybe the theater, then?” Jack held his hand out towards her. “There should be some good shows on right now. This is New Earth you know.”
“I know.” Olivia sighed and shook her head. “But I’ve never had time for Broadway.”
“Then maybe it’s time for you to take a vacation,” Jack cajoled.
Olivia glared at him again. “They aren’t giving me a vacation.”
“Don’t take what they’re giving!” Jack almost shouted in exasperation. “Don’t give them that satisfaction! Make it your own! Make it something better!”
Olivia just listened to his outburst and then nodded very slowly. “Point taken.”
Jack pulled in a deep breath to regain his composure, gave her his best debonair smile, and glanced at his outstretched hand. “Would you like to go for a walk, Ma’am?”
Olivia shook her head but pulled in a long breath. Then she grasped his hand, came to her feet, and leaned forward to whisper in his ear. “I know you have fun with that ridiculous Captain Jack routine of yours, but if you tried to show real passion like that more often, you might find a more lasting relationship.”
“I tried that,” Jack whispered and shook his head. “It didn’t work out so well.”
“Then what’s this?” Olivia asked and Jack frowned.
This was just him trying to keep her from going off the rails. Then he saw where she was looking and followed her eyes to Betty. Oh. That this. Betty had her head cocked to the side as she smiled at him.
And Jack sighed. “She’s an exception that proves the rule.”
“What rule?” Olivia asked with real curiosity in her expression.
Jack shrugged. “The rule that Captain Jack may be fun for a day or two, but he just doesn’t go for long term commitments.”
Olivia snorted. “You know what they say about people who talk about themselves in the third person, right?”
“That we are…fantastic,” Jack said with a self-deprecating smile and stepped towards the hatch. “Shall we allons-y?”
Olivia shook her head with an amused smile and followed him towards the exit. “That is a horribly grammatically incorrect combination of American and French.”
“But anything that makes a lady smile is automatically correct,” Jack riposted and walked out onto the steps.
“And there you go again,” Olivia said with a sigh.
She might have whispered “Men,” but Jack could pretend he hadn’t heard anything as she took the steps behind with a confidence that looked real good to the Marines waiting outside. They reached the tarmac and Captain Thompson raised one hand and called his men to encircle her. Her reaction was instant and exactly what Jack expected of her.
“Ma’am?” Thompson asked in confusion.
“I will not walk around downtown with a hundred armed men around me,” Olivia declared.
“Ah. Of course,” Thompson purposefully misunderstood and quickly pointed out one squad. The squad in question sprang forward to escort her with eager smiles.
Olivia lowered her head and rubbed it in a longsuffering way. “This is New Earth. I don’t need an armed escort to walk the streets.”
“Ma’am,” Thompson said in a disapproving voice.
“Relax,” Jack said with an airy smile. “I’ve got this.”
Thompson raised one very questioning eyebrow at Jack. To which Jack just smiled and looked for the Cowboys standing nearby. His eyes lit on Katy, Jasmine, and Natalie. “Who’s up for some shopping?”
They didn’t miss a beat before stepping forward with enthusiasm.
Jack’s eyes fell on Ken last. “Ken. Didn’t you tell me you had some shopping to do?”
Ken’s eyes flicked back and forth, and every Marine knew it was bald-faced lie. Men did not tell other men that they had shopping to do. Ever. But the Marines knew what Jack was doing, and so did Ken. “I may have said something like that.”
“Then it’s settled,” Jack said in a bright tone. “We’ll all go shopping together.”
“Jack,” Olivia began in protest.
“Or we can handcuff you to the shuttle,” Jack added nonchalantly.
Olivia stared daggers at him and dug her hands into her hips. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“I would, actually,” Jack returned with a serious look. Olivia opened her mouth but Jack shook his head and held one hand out towards Captain Thompson. “Captain?”
A zip tie landed in his hand, and Jack looked at it with a doubtful gaze. Then he raised his eyes up to Thompson.
Thompson shrugged. “It’s the best we have on hand.”
Jack returned the shrug and turned back to Olivia. She gave him a very old fashioned look. “Do you often think about handcuffing your superior officers?”
“Only when it is appropriate,” Jack said with a smile. “Now…we can go to town together…or you can stay right here on base behind a wall of Marines looking for something to shoot.” Jack turned a questioning gaze towards Captain Thompson to make certain the Marine agreed.
Thompson nodded back.
Olivia sighed but then turned a hard gaze on Jack. “No weapons.”
Jack opened his mouth to protest but she shook her head.
“No. This is Landing City. You know the laws here. We will respect them.”
Jack scowled at her for a long moment before nodding his surrender on the point. “Fine. No weapons.”
Jack reached down and pulled the revolver from right hip. The gleaming silver twenty-five centimeter barrel became visible as it left the concealing holofield and he regretfully placed the weapon on the tarmac after making certain the hammer was locked on safe.
Olivia raised one eyebrow at him. “And the other one?”
Jack clenched his jaw with manifest reluctance, and Olivia crossed her arms with equally manifest determination. Jack surrendered and pulled the second revolver off his left hip and placed it on the ground as well. Then Olivia turned her gaze on Ken and Katy and they did as she ordered with frowns that showed they disliked this as much as he did. Olivia turned her gaze to Jasmine and Natalie, and they placed both of their revolvers on the ground as well.
“Really?” Olivia said and just stared at them.
The two cybers looked at each other, and then placed a belt of grenades next to the revolvers.
“Is that everything?” Olivia pointed one finger imperiously at the tarmac.
Jasmine and Natalie detached their heavy machine guns next and placed them on the ground with an impressive thunk that said just how massive they were. Jack had to smile at that. Their robotic avatars could carry a bit more weight than their merely biological counterparts and they loved to take advantage of that fact.
Olivia looked down at the weapons capable of penetrating armored targets and then gave the two cybers the kind of look a mother gives a misbehaving child. “I can do this all day.”
Jasmine and Natalie exchanged another look, finally surrendered, and began pulling rifles, pistols, and other assorted smaller firearms out of their holographic concealment. When they were done, they’d placed enough weapons on the tarmac to overturn a Third World government.
Olivia looked at the carefully arrayed weapons, looked at the two cybernetic intelligences, and then shook her head. Only a single word escaped her lips as she turned to walk away. “Marines.”
Jack waited for a few moments, watching the Marines as their eyes flicked back and forth between each other. He could tell what they were thinking.
“Oorah,” Jack whispered.
“Oorah,” they whispered back.
Jack chuckled at that and turned to follow Olivia into town.