All’s fair in love and war. I grew up hearing that. In school. We were talking about girls, you know. We had no idea what real war would be like. I learned a new definition of it during The War. War is not fair. War is not a game. And it is our duty to do everything it takes to come back alive so we can keep fighting another day. To use every trick we can think of to kill the enemy. Because they will do the same thing to us. They will always seek to deceive us. It is only proper that we return the courtesy.
Jack scanned the displays showing his Avenger surrounded by dozens of other spaceships. Ken and Katy held his flanks as they passed up through the stations and forts in the lower orbitals. Waiting starfighters joined their formation with tongues of blue fusion fire and three dozen Avengers clawed their way into New Earth’s upper orbitals. Jack smiled as Jasmine and Natalie flickered into being beside Betty’s small holoform.
“Are you two good?” he asked.
“Absolutely,” Jasmine answered from atop her grey tank top, gaining a smile from Jack. “Ready to kick some Shang ass to the other side of the galaxy.”
“Yes,” Natalie said in a more reserved tone that matched her floral blouse. “Once more into the breach?”
Jack suppressed a wince at the reminder that she was leaving. But he was happy to fight with her whenever she was willing. He placed a hand over his heart and smiled at her. “It would be my honor.”
Then he turned back to scanning the displays and saw the Shang ships in the distance firing on the Alliance defenses. The outer forts burned while the mobile starships fell back towards New Earth where a steady stream of fighters and smaller warships flew out to reinforce the defense fleet. They were holding formation well, though he could see that the Shang were pressing hard all around them. It was only a matter of time before the superior alien weapons would overwhelm the defenders.
Well, he’d just have to see about denying them that time. Jack turned his gaze towards the Peloran yard with a determined grunt. It was built out of old Shang warships captured in earlier battles around Alpha Centauri, and Jack heartily approved of turning those weapons of war against their masters. He was sure they did good work rebuilding damaged Alliance warships after the Peloran reprogramming.
Los Angeles and the old carrier hung close to each other just outside the yard, their maneuvering thrusters still spinning them to face the enemy. Jack focused on the carrier and information began to pop up all around it. She was an old Republic-class carrier all right, constructed not long after Contact. She looked like old Pre-Contact rocket ships with a long cylindrical hull and four massive rockets surrounding the engine section. There was even an old spin section between the main hull and the engines, proving it had been built before the invention of grav plating. Two larger pods hung off each side of the main cylinder and Jack saw the individual hatches designed to flip open to launch the Blackhawk fighters the Republics had been designed to carry. The name Normandy appeared over her and Jack nodded in approval. That was a good name for a warship.
Two longhaired redheads wearing long white angelic dresses flickered onto the console and the name Los Angeles and Normandy floated above them for a moment. Jack nodded in approval. So it really had been Olivia’s plan to put Gabrielle in front of both ships. He could think of worse ideas. He’d thought of worse ideas himself actually.
“Hey, Jack,” they said in unison and Jack realized he had a problem.
They were too identical. One cyber. Two ships. Same look. That was going to be awful confusing. He looked at the one flying Normandy.
“Can’t you…like…wear something different?” Jack asked, hoping he wasn’t crossing a line somewhere. “I don’t know…maybe black or something so I can tell you two apart?”
The two Gabrielles looked at each other for a moment, and then Normandy’s version chuckled as her white dress faded out of existence. The replacement made Jack’s eyes open wide in surprise. The black leather jacket wasn’t precisely military. It was far too fashion runway for that, but it had vague military styling. The black pants ran down to a pair of black leather boots that were just as fashion runway military chic as the jacket was. He had to admit the whole outfit looked good on her. Honestly, anything would look good on her, so he gave her two thumbs up and a big smile.
She smiled back in response and said, “I like it.”
“Me too,” Jack returned with a waggle of his eyebrows before getting onto business. “So…how’s Normandy?”
Normandy’s Gabrielle shrugged. “She’s been in mothballs for decades so she’s got a lot of work to do. She’s still got lots of decks that I wouldn’t want to trust people on. But her engines test out, she’s got real deflection grids, and they even managed to add a gravitic cannon to her nose.” Gabrielle smiled in approval. “I think she can fight.”
“Shiny,” Jack said and turned to the other Gabrielle. “How about you?”
That Gabrielle gave him a more positive smile. “No problems at all. They hadn’t even tried to scrub me from the system yet. It feels good to have people walking my decks again.” Then she frowned. “But I’m a little light on crew. I’m hoping you don’t plan on this being a long fight, Jack.”
“Don’t worry,” Jack answered with a smile. “If this comes off the way it should, it won’t be much of a fight.”
“My favorite kind,” the two Gabrielles said in perfect harmony, and then looked at each other in amusement.
Jack rubbed his temple and hoped to God it wasn’t going to be a long fight. Then he glanced to the displays again to see a large squadron of ships still above them in a higher orbital, barely moving against the background stars. He focused on them and data codes began to appear next to the force.
There were five old Sumner-class frigates and three newer Tuckers. A single old Hamilton-class destroyer had probably been upgraded to be able to fly with the two newer Austins. At his focusing on the older ship, new data codes appeared to tell him that she had been. That deflection grid and gravitic cannon were much stronger than anything a Pre-War Hamilton had ever dreamed of carrying. That was good. They were going to need the firepower. Three Hellcat squadrons and a single squadron of Avengers held formation around the reinforced squadron and the single massive heavy cruiser at the heart of it all.
That was USS Hollywood, sister ship to Los Angeles, and one very tough ship. He’d not flown off her yet, but she’d faced down those three Shang cruisers over Pacifica a year back. That had been a fun fight. For varying definitions of the term fun.
Holly’s holoform appeared on the console with an actual bounce. “Hi, Jack!”
“Hey, Holly,” Jack answered with a smile. “How you doing?”
“Ready to kick some Shang ass,” she said with a pointed look. “All I need to know is the plan.”
“Patience, young grasshopper,” Jack said with a wink and glanced to the displays showing where the fleets were. The defense fleet was still falling back. And…yes…the Shang were following. They could smell blood in the water.
“Jack?” Holly said with more insistence.
Jack met her gaze and realized she wasn’t going to let him get away without telling her. So he let his breath out and laid it out for her. It was a rough plan. Very rough. But it was audacious enough that the Shang would never expect it. He hoped. When he was done, the cybers looked back and forth between each other for several seconds before nodding in approval.
“We agree,” the three ship cybers said in harmony. “Tell us when and we will execute.”
Jack nodded and turned to examine the displays once more. The defense fleet was taking losses. Escape pods from several frigates and corvettes accelerated towards New Earth and safety. The Shang weren’t targeting them. Good. That was one worry off Jack’s mind. A couple destroyers vented air through ravaged armor and the cruiser screen reported heavy deflection grid and armor damage.
He examined the command battleship with a careful eye. She was a British ship of the wall keeping her nose to the enemy as she fell back towards New Earth while lancing out with much smaller but more numerous gravitic cannons the British used. A name popped up in response to his attention. HMSThunderer. He remembered her. She was a good ship. A Shang cruiser quivered under her attack, and then Thunderer jerked, taking the full attention of a missile swarm that managed to sneak through the cruisers’ point defense network and light up at the last second. Jack winced as damage codes bloomed all around her. None were critical, but she couldn’t keep taking that punishment forever. He looked again at the Shang following them deeper inside the Red Line and smiled. They were stepping into the trap nicely. Even if it was a bit hard on the bait. And it was time. He could feel it.
Jack opened his mouth and said, “Now.”
A communications panel came to life instantly and he glanced over to see Olivia there. She nodded and he was about to say something when she cut him off. “This is the flag.”
Jack blinked in surprise once more. They’d given her command instead of Hollywood? When Hollywood had a reinforced squadron under her command. That said something important, but Jack didn’t have time to think about it.
“All ships, launch countermeasures,” Olivia ordered and the squadron began spewing tiny electronic sensors, jammers, and emitters into space all around them. They lashed the enemy with active sensors, and holographic imitations of their ships appeared around every single one.
“Rig for silent running,” Olivia ordered in a tone of iron.
Jack glanced to his displays as he saw the fleet reacting. Gravitic generators made modern combat possible, but they required fusion reactors with more output than anything Pre-Contact Earth had ever put on any of her starships. And nuclear fusion reactions were just a little bit hot compared to the near absolute zero of space. It made it rather difficult to hide a starship. Fighters were easier to hide because they tended to have large battery or capacitor systems and only spooled up their main reactors for hyperspace travel. Or when they felt like opening up with gravitics. And if a fighter was close enough to do that, she had no excuse to still be hiding. But starships relied on their reactors much more than fighters.
The reactors powered down, the gravitic displacement of an entire squadron faded away, and their point defense radars went quiet. The main sensors began to lose lock on every single ship he had and he chuckled. They were making like perfect little holes in space. Only the passive cameras kept the plots accurate, but those would be vulnerable to other kinds of interference.
“Go dark, now,” Olivia ordered and the color shifting smart paint of an entire squadron of warships and multiple starfighter squadrons turned as black as the depths of space, and every ship faded out of existence. Only the holograms and sensor buoys remained, making it look to the Shang like the squadron remained in orbit.
“Commence acceleration…now,” Olivia ordered.
Jack gasped as he felt the Avengers engines mash him into the back of his seat. An elephant sat on his chest and he realized that his injuries still hurt. A lot. He closed his eyes hard against the pain as bones and muscles alike screamed. It built to an agony that radiated out to every tip of his being and he clenched his jaw tight to keep from crying. Teeth ground, toes quivered in his boots, and his hands clenched into white-knuckled fists as his universe became an eternity of pain. And then the elephant walked away.
“Acceleration ended,” a voice said.
Jack’s eyes fluttered open and he pulled in a ragged breath. A stabbing pain assaulted his temples and every bone in his body ached. Those he’d broken on Serenity told him they were still unhappy with him, and all the bullet wounds from yesterday joined in to give him an extra chorus of pain. This hurt a lot more than he’d planned on. Not that he’d really planned on any pain at all while in the safety of his cockpit. He’d forgotten how nice gravitic compensators were.
“Are you okay?” His mind started working enough to recognize the voice as Betty this time.
“Yeah,” Jack said. At least he tried to. It came out more as a pained wheeze than an understandable word though. He cleared his throat, pulled in a long breath, and aimed the steadiest gaze he could muster at Betty. “Yeah.”
Betty and her fellow cybers aimed doubtful glances at each other.
The voice came from one of the displays. He looked down to see a pained expression on Katy’s face. “Yeah?”
“Let’s not…do that again,” Katy said and her voice betrayed how much that had just hurt her too. “Okay?”
“Yeah,” Jack whispered and tried to come up with something witty to say. He failed.
“Yeah,” Jack repeated and licked his lips. Then he put them around his flight suit’s straw and sucked in a long draw of nutrients and energy his body needed. Maybe he could trick it into working a little bit longer. He sucked another long draw and hoped it would be enough. It needed to be.
“Are you sure?” Betty asked.
Jack blinked and tried to remember her question. Then he smiled and pulled in another careful breath. The smile was probably closer to a grimace than he wanted, but he’d take what he could get. “Yeah.”
Betty raised an eyebrow at him.
He’d repeated that word a few too many times lately. He let out his breath and tried to give her a wry smile. He was pretty sure he’d managed it. “Do you think you could…crank up the compensators…when we go live again?”
Betty crossed her arm at his first semi-complete sentence since the acceleration began. “Yeah. I think I can do that.”
“Thanks,” Jack said and began scanning the displays again, his eyes checking their projected course. The entire squadron drifted towards the Shang advance like holes in space, while their countermeasures broadcast the fake position of their ships for everybody to see. Jack checked the course and time and smiled. They would make it right on time as long as Thunderer kept sucking the Shang in.
Jack let out a long breath and shut his eyes again. The stabbing pain in his temples diminished but didn’t go away. This was going to be a long day. “I really hate this.”
“Getting hurt?” Betty asked.
“That’s not much fun,” Jack agreed and shook his head. “I just hate how it keeps hurting.”
Betty sighed. ”Most people do. Pain killers?”
Jack grimaced. They would be a relief but he needed a clear head for this. “No.”
“Just lean back and relax then,” Betty ordered.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack said with a smile and let out a long breath. He shut his eyes and breathed in. He breathed out and willed the pain to go away. It didn’t really work, but he imagined the pain leaving. He breathed in. He breathed out and imagined the pain going again. Then he opened his eyes just enough to scan the displays through his eyelashes. His temples throbbed again, but not as bad as before. His body still hurt, but he held that pain at a distance and focused on the Shang.
There they were. Further inside the Red Line than before. Deep enough into New Earth’s gravity well that it would take significant time to pull back out. A minute maybe? Two? Could he hit them now? How long would it take them to turn around? He suppressed a shrug that would have said he knew the answer to that question too well. These were Shang ships. They didn’t need to turn to change course. One second they were moving one direction, and the next they would be accelerating along a completely different vector. Bloody alien tech. It just wasn’t fair.
The thought that a person flying a fighter full of alien tech came up with that little idea tickled Jack’s funny bone. He spent several seconds keep himself from laughing at it. It would hurt way too much right now. Then he looked back to the Shang.
He needed them deeper into the gravity well or they would get away. And then all of this would be for nothing. He relaxed, breathed in once more, and willed the tension and pain away again. The pain didn’t cooperate, but the tension did exactly as it was told. Jack watched the plots through his veiled eyes and waited for the Shang to fall further into his trap. He checked the space behind him to see the fake ships in orbit still broadcasting their presence for all to see. And the real ships all around him still showed as holes in space that even his Avenger could not have seen more than a few thousand kilometers away.
They were getting closer. Jack knew what that called for. “Cue the music, please.”
Jack shut his eyes as T&J began to sing about love never ending and a traveling soldier. He let his mind follow the intertwining guitar and fiddle, pulled along by the wailing vocals of discordant grief. Jack lost himself in the song until it faded to an end.
Then Jack opened his eyes to scan the displays. The defenders were almost where they needed to be. And the Shang had charged in farther than he’d expected. They had blood in their eye and were closing the range faster than he expected. But his course would still bring them close enough for a good deflection salvo.
“All ships, break and attack in three…two…one…now,” Jack counted down and felt his Avenger’s systems come alive around him. T&J shifted into the drumbeats of war, and he slammed the throttle forward to send them accelerating towards the Shang. Avengers, Hellcats, and Blackhawks accelerated all around him, diving towards the Shang en masse. The warships came to life behind him, destroyers and frigates accelerating with the two heavy cruisers and a single light carrier.
The combined cybernetic intelligences of an entire small fleet went to work and he watched the plot come alive with targeting plans refined by lashing the Shang with full-powered sensor sweeps. A blind man could have felt them coming in his teeth, and the Shang were not blind at all.
They recognized the trap they’d flown into in an instant and reacted the only way they could. They turned from Thunderer and her battlegroup and began accelerating straight towards Jack’s tiny fleet. Betty brought their new path up on the plot and Jack recognized the slingshot maneuver that would spin them out the other side of New Earth’s Red Line long before his force could come around and chase them down. They had exactly one good shot at this.
Thunderer and her ships spun to fire full salvos into the Shang’s flanks. Deflection grids flickered and armor buckled, but the Shang had far too much acceleration for the British battleship to keep them in range for long. But it was bringing the Shang and Jack’s little force directly into each other’s best firing range.
“Oh Lord, for what we are about to receive may we be eternally grateful,” Jack whispered and flexed his fingers.
“Amen,” a chorus of voices said from the communications display.
Jack snorted and glanced at the range again. It was almost time to begin kissing the enemy. He blinked as a thought came to mind. He cocked his head to the side as he considered it and then smiled. It might work.
“Cowboys. Do not fire nose cannons, laser turrets, or missiles. Let’s act like we don’t have all the fun upgrades for now.”
“Roger that,” the Cowboys answered
Jack turned to glance at the Hellcats and Blackhawks. The screens expanded to show what they carried and Jack nodded again. “Hellcats and Blackhawks, do not fire gravitic cannons until we close the range.”
The responses were more mixed from the scattered fighters of half-a-dozen warships. But Roberts of Los Angeles broke into the confusion with a solid “I’ve got you. We’ll hold the gravitics until you authorize full fire.”
The other pilots stopped complaining and Roberts nodded towards Jack from his screen. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Jack chuckled. “Trust me. The Shang are never going to see this coming. Normandy?”
“Yeah, yeah,” the black-clad Gabrielle on his console said in an annoyed tone. “No grav cannon. I got it.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll get you your chance,” Jack said with a smirk and took another look at the sensors. The Shang were still just a bit out of range, but everybody had full ammunition bays and it wasn’t like this battle was going to last very long at the speeds everybody was going. It wouldn’t hurt to let the Shang think he was a little trigger-happy. “Betty, start shooting our gravitics now.”
Betty frowned at the order. He was mixing things up too much at the last second and she just wasn’t tracking them all.
“Just us! Now” Jack ordered.
Betty went ramrod straight and two gravitic beams shot out from Jack’s fighter and lanced through space towards the oncoming Shang fleet.
“Jasmine.” Jasmine jerked at his voice and Jack nodded. “Now!”
Jasmine blinked in confusion but her ten fighters of his squadron opened fire.
“Avengers! Make it ragged. Fire!” The other Avengers opened up, filling space with gravitic turbulence but never having a real shot of hitting the Shang at this range. Then a squadron of Hellcats began firing missiles and Jack smiled. It was Roberts. He was catching on to Jack’s plan. “Roberts! Stop firing!”
The Hellcats stopped firing on his command and Jack chuckled. The Shang were probably wondering who the idiot in charge of fighter operations was right about now. Which meant it was time to add to the chaos. “Blackhawks! Missiles! Ragged! Now!”
Jack watched the Blackhawks begin firing one by one. They looked exactly like four dozen different pilots starting to spray and pray as they just couldn’t resist being left out of a good fight. Jack smiled and turned to Roberts. “Make it rain.”
“Roger that,” Roberts acknowledged and the Hellcats began firing one by one until every fighter in the fleet was slinging missiles at a Shang fleet too far away to hit with any degree of accuracy.
Jack grunted as one salvo actually managed to sneak through everything and hit a Shang destroyer, but its deflection grid took the hits with barely a flicker. No fighter could take down a capital grid alone.
The Shang spun some of their point defense to deal with the missiles though, and Jack nodded appreciatively as Thunderer managed to sneak a few last missiles through the weakened defenses facing them. A Shang frigate spewed air and wreckage and fell out of formation as her engines failed. They tried to spin their point defense back, but then Los Angeles and her sisters opened up with missiles and gravitic cannons. They lanced through space, making the fighter weapons look weak by comparison, and a Shang destroyer’s deflection grid failed when a gravitic beam designed to break battleships tore through the entire ship. The destroyer lost power and acceleration and the Shang formation pulled away without remorse for their fallen comrade.
The Shang brought the rest of their point defense around in time to meet the American missiles and they shot down the few with final target lock. But the Shang were closing the range and now all of their missile turrets faced Jack’s little force. Salvo after salvo of coordinated fire belched their way and Jack winced as point defense lasers and missiles engaged each one as it came. An American frigate lurched to the side as a missile tore her flank open. She held formation though, and two more missiles exploded against a destroyer’s armored forward wedge. The larger ship shrugged the assault off and continued charging forward with the rest of the fleet. Now a steady stream of missiles and gravitic beams linked the two fleets and Jack knew it would only get more deadly as the range closed.
Jack scanned a map of New Earth’s orbitals, glanced at the Shang’s projected course, and tapped the display with one finger. He considered it for a moment, wondering if that was the right place. Yes, it felt right. That just might be the place. “Right there. We need to synchronize fire and open up with everything right there.”
He turned his gaze towards Gabrielle, the one in white, and willed her to agree with him. Her eyes went out of focus as she talked to her captain, and then she shared a questioning look from her black-clad double and Holly. All three nodded and turned towards Jack.
“Our captains agree,” Gabrielle said with a smile. “Expect orders from the flag at the appropriate time.”
Jack smiled at how quickly they were willing to change their plans, even if just a little. Betty gave him an approving nod. Everyone was finally up to speed on what he wanted and they were on board. Fantastic.
But he had to get back to the fight now. Jack flexed his fingers, put them back on the controls, and pulled in a long breath. He let the breath out and pushed his worries away. All that mattered was right now. And right now was safe.
Jack smiled and waited for it to feel unsafe, resting just his fingers on the controls to keep his hands loose. The worst thing he could do was cramp up in the middle of combat because he’d been trying to choke his stick. Then he felt it. Something…bad. He pushed the stick forward and the Avenger dove down towards Los Angeles. He pulled back and the fighter’s nose rose back to the starry sky as a missile passed by overhead in search of whatever might cross its path. But the American counter measures had blinded it and it passed on through where Jack had once been and continued on out the other side of the formation without finding another target.
Jack looked forward again in time to see the point defense batteries reach out and fill the sky with the exploding remains of other Shang missiles. Then space cleared and Jack saw the Shang fleet before them. The view was zoomed in of course, and it was at least half-a-second old by the time the light reached him, but it was the closest he’d yet gotten to these particular ships. The largest of them were a half-kilometer across, short flying saucers that spun to keep any single weapon from burning through their armor. Missile and point defense turrets above and below the main discs spun to maintain their target locks of his warships, and he watched them fire again and again without remorse.
An explosion rocked his fighter and Jack blinked. That Shang missile had gotten way too close for his comfort. That wasn’t good. Then Olivia appeared on the communications panel again.
“All ships, fire for effect in five…” Olivia ordered and every ship stopped firing. Jack felt his missile launchers twitching and the hum of suppressed energy raised the hair on his arms.
Every panel flashed messages about positive target locks generated by cybernetic minds far more accurate than any human trigger finger.
Maneuvering thrusters fired to bring the American warships on target.
His Avenger’s laser turret dropped out of the nose and deployed all four lasers.
The Shang targets hung in the distance like tiny ornaments on a Christmas tree.
“Fire, fire, fire!”
Jack’s fighter shuddered with the launch of both missile packages and all three gravitic cannons opened up. Double the previous number of lasers pulsed out towards the attacking missiles and Jack smiled as they died further out. And then he saw what the rest of the fleet did.
Every missile launcher fired, and hundreds of gravitic beams from every fighter and warship plowed through the scattered chaos of random missiles from previous salvos. They smashed into the Shang and a dozen different deflection grids writhed under the assault. Even Normandy’s single cannon stabbed out and Jack saw a Shang cruiser rock in agony. Then the missiles arrived in a single coordinated wave, and point defenses that had become used to the unorganized chaos of the earlier salvoes utterly failed to stop the organized shot. They shot down many of the missiles, but it was nowhere near enough as the missiles swept into the Shang formation and exploded all over it.
Deflection grids collapsed and gravitic cannons tore deflection grids and armor apart like tinfoil. Laser cannons opened up with enough power to melt cities. Armor and internal structure burned deep into the ships, but the spinning Shang discs quickly brought new armor under the impact points as puffs of atmosphere and fire belched into space. Missiles exploded all over the Shang ships and Jack watched the fires reaching out into space.
Then the last Shang missile salvo entered range and Jack almost froze. Another full salvo pulled out of its shadow and he swore as he realized he wasn’t the only one who had planned a trap today. The double Shang missile salvo washed over the American formation and the point defense grid barely stopped half of them. The rest exploded all around Jack as he madly tried to maneuver out of the deathtrap. Multiple Avengers ate missiles around him and exploded, Blackhawks came apart, and Hellcats spun into pieces after taking near hits.
Warships writhed as explosions scorched their armored wedges and tore into their lightly armored flanks. Three frigates just disappeared from the sensor screen, and a destroyer fell out of formation with all four engines torn off while fires vented from every side. Los Angeles, Hollywood, and Normandy stayed on target, slinging missiles and gravitic beams back in the face of the Shang, but Shang missiles rained down on them with a vengeance.
Engines exploded, jamming and direct strikes shattered sensors, wreckage blocked line of sight, and the Shang ships disappeared from Jack’s displays one by one.