The Thunderbird Affair
A Jack of Harts Short Story By
Copyright © 2018 by Medron Pryde
Cover background designed by Stephen Huda under contract
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Printed in the United States of America
First Printing, December 2018
The Thunderbird Affair
Fingers played over an acoustic guitar and an old, familiar song filled the Avenger’s cockpit as it drifted through the outskirts of the system scientists still called Psi Tauri. The song came from the shores of a hometown lake he hadn’t seen in five years. It had been longer still since he and two girls who’d meant more than life to him had last played it together.
They played a different version now. It was more polished, and an entire band played behind them on the galaxy’s largest stages before screaming crowds of a hundred thousand or more. They’d gone out and made their dreams a reality, and he was proud of them for that.
But a part of him would always wish they’d never left.
He played the old version with a single acoustic guitar, meant for only the closest of friends to hear, and the music soothed his soul. It was a song that reminded him of sunlight and sand on fresh spring mornings. Memories of relaxing in cool water on midsummer nights flitted through his head. There was singing and dancing around a crackling bonfire under bronze autumn sunsets. They’d been kids living life to the fullest as they rushed to make the most of their youth and enjoy the first flowers of adulthood before winter's cold set in.
But winter had its own joys for kids who didn’t quite want to grow up. The smell of wood-burning fireplaces and young ladies cuddling close to stay warm filled his memory. Nights spent ice fishing with the boys as they huddled in their shacks tickled his mind. And then there were the days they skied on fresh morning snow under skies so clear the air seemed cut from crystal. It was a love song for his Northern Minnesota homeland, and a remembrance of the golden age he wished could have gone on forever.
They'd all been innocent in that golden age, living each day with all the energy they had and looking forward to the next one. They’d never noticed the storm fronts on the horizon. They’d missed the thunder rumbling in the distance.
His best girls had lived in the sun of peace and calm with the rest of their friends in that immortality common to the young, then left to follow their dreams. He was happy they hadn’t been home to see the sky come tumbling down on everybody. It meant they still lived, unlike so many of their mutual friends.
But that day had proven one thing to everyone.
There were cool and unsympathetic minds who regarded Earth’s colonies with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against them.
Jack opened his eyes and came out of his fugue state of fusion with the guitar that had become his world. His fingers had stopped moving in response to Betty’s single word, but he remembered every note he'd played. They were dark and foreboding, foretelling pain and suffering to come.
His eyes snapped to Betty as he suddenly understood.
Betty sat atop the Avenger’s main console in her favorite yellow sundress, her blue eyes sparkling under long blonde hair that complemented her pale skin. She was the very model of the Scandinavian beauties he’d grown up with, and he’d seen many girls looking back at him with similar smiles.
“Someone’s always coming.”
“Someone bad,” Jack said as he tried to explain everything he’d felt while playing. “They're coming to hurt us.”
“Us personally?” a third voice asked as another small form appeared on the console. Her brown hair and eyes came into focus first, followed by her darker Hawaiian face and body. A set of blue jeans and a grey tank top snapped into being at last, and Jasmine aimed her questioning gaze at him.
“Or the system?”
“Us,” Jack said and then frowned as something about that statement wasn’t quite right. “Though we aren’t the target. We’re just…in the way.”
“I see,” Jasmine said, making a show of contemplating the information. “Do you have any feel for what direction they’ll be coming from?”
Jack pursed his lips for a long moment, closed his eyes, and tried to concentrate. But the still small voice he was listening for was a fickle friend. It might have had something to do with a young man named Jack who’d always had other priorities and hadn’t ever spent nearly enough time listening for it.
He let out a long breath, pointed his finger out at about two o’clock, and waved it back and forth to take in the region of space between one and three o’clock.
The Peloran Treatments gave most Earthborn humanity centuries of life and good health, but in one-in-a-million cases the result ended up far more interesting. Those rare individuals didn’t age at all. They were stronger, faster, and could heal from any wound, no matter how grievous, as long as it didn’t kill them all the way. And they got a type of sixth sense that warned them when danger was coming. It was like trying to smell colors or feel sounds to those who didn’t have enough practice, and from what others had told him, it took centuries of practice to perfect. Jack’s entire lifetime was measured in decades, though he looked like a particularly well-preserved Pre-Space twenty or thirty-something.
He was Ageless. He would show the exact same face to all the worlds until the day he died.
He really didn’t want that day to be this day, so he smelled very carefully for the colors or sounds or whatever it was that he was sensing. And then he breathed in as he felt it. Maybe. Hopefully. Well, Aneerin had always told him to trust his feelings, so he opened his eyes and followed the aim of his outstretched arm into the depths of space beyond the system the American colonists named Sunnydale.
Jasmine nodded and the Avenger’s displays showed her eleven fighters shifting formation around his single fighter to defend it from any threats coming from that direction.
Then Jack frowned again as something tickled the back of his mind. “Don’t open fire until we can confirm their identity.”
“You’re not sure they’re coming to hurt us?” Jasmine asked, her raised eyebrow and crossed arms speaking volumes.
“Oh, someone’s coming to hurt us.” Jack was confident about that, but there was that odd tickle that made him question it. “But…maybe not everyone’s coming to hurt us.”
Jasmine and Betty exchanged a long look before nodding, and Jasmine’s holoform faded away again. Betty smiled at Jack, leaned back on the console, and crossed her legs as if she didn’t have a care in the world. And to that lovely sight, Jack put his fingers back on the guitar and closed his eyes.
He returned to playing the light and happy love song the way it was meant to be played.
Once more with feeling.
The song became his world again, and he walked through the memories he relived every night in dreams. Not that any of it was exactly the way he remembered. He could make different choices in dreams, after all. Some where better. Some where worse. But all of them were worth the journey as he sought for what he should have done all those years ago.
Jack opened his eyes once more and glanced at Betty for a moment. He didn’t know how long he’d been playing this time, but his tingling fingertips told him it had been a long time. Then the sight behind her caught his attention and his jaw dropped.
Hyperspace flickered and rippled, sending out whips of rainbow light in every direction as it fought normalspace for dominance. Jack couldn’t count the number of ships he’d seen entering or leaving hyperspace, even with his boots off, but very few of them had generated a lightshow this impressive. The ship emerged from hyperspace slowly, like a great whale feeling its way to the ocean surface, taking care to keep from breaking anything like a hapless ship that might be too close.
Jack wondered at the thought that had wandered through his mind as he watched the ship come into focus. One last blast of petulant hyperspacial rainbows flashed out in protest before falling back to where they belonged, leaving Jack alone with one of the largest ships he’d ever seen in his life. His eyes rebelled against the visual scale of the ship, unwilling to admit that its apparent size could be accurate. It couldn’t possibly be that large.
But then he began to pick out individual weapons turrets on the ship’s flanks and it almost began to make sense. And if he thought of those engine pods and other odd protuberances of similar size running up its flanks as heavy cruisers that were just bolted on, he began to understand the true size of the leviathan. It wasn’t as large as Columbia, but Jack had seen very few ships larger than this new arrival.
Jack looked away from the massive ship to see Betty and Jasmine looking at him in expectation of the order he should really be giving right now, especially since he’d told them not to fire until he gave it.
He glanced down to one of the displays to see a giant “unknown” message blinking on it. So this ship wasn’t in any of their databases. Interesting.
But another glance up to the ship reinforced his original feeling. It was awe-inspiring, but it was not a threat.
“It’s not them,” Jack said, before feeling the oncoming storm strengthen in the back of his mind. “But they are involved. Or they will be. Or something like that.”
Jasmine and Betty exchanged another long look before turning back to him.
“Do you want to talk to them?” Betty asked in a soft tone.
“Or shoot them,” Jasmine said, her tone a bit harsher.
“No,” Jack said, and the single word felt good to that same inner voice that was screaming louder and louder that danger was coming.
He glanced at the display showing six courier drones flying behind them.
“Update the drones. Flag ‘Bogey White’ and ‘Bogeys Yellow.’ Send one.”
Betty and Jasmine nodded to each other and seemed to relax as the drones began to flash between “Bogey White” and “Bogeys Yellow” on the display. Unknown starship in the area. Hostile action improbable. Unknown starships in area. Hostile action probable.
Jack’s eyes flicked over to watch the drone with his own eyes. It turned, flashed out through the rainbow, and Jack’s message to Sunnydale was on the way.
Which meant it was time to deal with these boys. Jack pulled in a deep breath and began speaking once more.
“Attention incoming vessel. You are entering restricted Western Alliance space. Identify yourself or you will be fired upon.”
The face that appeared on one of his displays was not what Jack expected. It was a bird. It looked like a bird similar to a raven had mated with a human in a way that reminded him of Egyptian mythology. It certainly had the shoulders of a human, with what looked like the beginnings of normal arms rather than wings. And then it began to squawk. Or caw. Or whatever birds did when they opened their beaks and started screeching at each other. Only this one was screeching at him, and Jack had no idea at all what it was saying.
Until a cool, English-accented voice began to speak. Not an American accent. It was English, from the island of Britain. And it was one of the better English accents he’d ever heard. It was a surreal moment for a native of Northern Minnesota to be confronted with an intelligent bird with a translator that spoke perfect British English. Right down to the stiff upper lip that was all but synonymous with the idea of British at war.
“I am Wing Commander Mathias of Red Wing, First Expeditionary Watch. We have come as we promised.”
Jack looked at Betty in confusion, wondering what was going wrong in his world. And why, once again, new aliens showed up speaking the bloody English language. Couldn’t they speak American for a change?
Betty shrugged to say she had no idea. Then she stopped and brought a display up with a picture that looked amazingly similar to the bird in front of him. Lines flashed below it for his attention.
Race name: Branan.
Betty cycled through the report with quick flashes of important information and Jack’s eyes froze at the name of the British scout ship that found them at Betelgeuse nearly a century ago. The pilot’s name flashed and Jack’s jaw fell. He knew that man. He’d joined the Cowboys a month ago, and never said a thing about meeting these birds.
“Why are you here?” Jack asked, hoping to mask his confusion.
“We have come in answer to your call,” the Thunderbird said as if that explained everything. “We are here to help you fight the Shang.”
“And why do you want to do that?”
The Thunderbird turned and peered at Jack with one searching eye. It was amazingly discomforting to have an intelligent bird looking at him like that. Not that he’d ever enjoyed any bird giving him that particular eye, though it had usually only been birds who were annoyed with him because he wasn’t giving them the treats they believed rightfully belonged to them. Why else did a human walk onto a beach with food in his hand, if it wasn’t to render onto the birds what is the birds’?
“You do not know who we are, do you?” the Thunderbird finally said, and though it might charitably be called a question, it was honestly much more of a declaration.
Betty flashed the display again with a timestamp, and then zoomed out from Betelgeuse to show the extent of their colonization. They’d been in space over two thousand years, colonized several nearby star systems via slower-than-light starships, and had a larger population base than all of Earthborn humanity could boast. Then she flashed up one more data point and everything fell into place.
They were children of the Albion, just like the Peloran.
“I’m sorry,” Jack said with a shake of his head. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of you before today, but my fighter knows you. You’ve…come a long way.”
“Your people gave us hyperspace,” the Thunderbird explained with what could charitably be called a wry sense of humor. Assuming the translator program’s voice was correctly converting the chirps and caws coming at it.
“We would travel much farther to repay the debt we owe you.”
“I see.” Jack rubbed his jaw and looked out beyond the ship, gauging his feelings. They were still coming.
Whoever they were.
“And would you stay right where you are for now?”
“Why would you wish that?”
“Because you’ve got friends coming right behind you, and I want to know who they are.”
The Thunderbird blinked. It aimed one beady eye at him again, and Jack thought he could feel its mind chewing on that problem. Or would it be more accurate to say that a bird’s brain would peck at a problem?
It was interesting questions like that that could keep a man up late at night.
“I assure you, we have no friends nearby,” the Thunderbird finally declared.
Jack listened to the statement. He replayed the Thunderbird’s words in his mind, hoping for a word or two from that still, small voice.
His instincts told him that the statement was completely and utterly true. The birds had no involvement in what was coming behind them. Not as far as they knew, at least.
That was good enough for him. Jack began to spread his arms out wide in welcome, only to notice that he was still absentmindedly playing his guitar.
Well. That was awkward.
But he could probably use it. So Jack pressed a button on the side of the guitar, and watched it fold into itself. Then he gave the bird his very best smile and placed it in his breast pocket with panache.
“Then allow me to welcome you to Sunnydale. I am Captain Jack of Hart Squadron, Republic of Texas Marine Corps Fighter Attack Wing 112, the Cowboys.”
The bird was certainly impressed with the guitar trick, and Jack was just starting to feel his groove get into place. This bird seemed to enjoy a good show, and Jack loved to play to all the crowds.
But it’s body language changed as Jack uttered the last word. It looked almost like a double take. Jack wondered if these birds reacted to surprise in the same way humans did. The bird’s expression changed in less than a second, from a generally pleased look to an open-beaked expression of what had to be shock. And pleasure. Like it had realized something had happened that it wanted very dearly but had never expected so easily.
Assuming Jack was accurately reading any of them at all. There was always the chance it meant, “I’ve got gas” to this overgrown bird.
Maybe the bird was just happy to have a shiny new bauble to admire, but Jack couldn’t miss the feeling that it was perched on the edge of its seat now, and far more interested than it had been a few moments ago.
“It is good to meet you, Captain Jack of Hart Squadron. Cowboy. You should know that your people’s exploits have made cowboy hats a popular affectation back home.”
Jack blinked as he tried to picture birds wearing cowboy hats. It hurt his sanity just a little bit.
Then hyperspace split open with another series of rainbow explosions and ten new ships came into normalspace about two lightseconds away. They were outside effective weapons range, but Jack felt a warning alarm begin to clang in the back of his mind.
These people were dangerous to him.
“You’re certain these are not your friends, Wing Commander?”
“I am certain, Captain.”
A display blinked to show him that their sensor emissions matched standard Shang systems, and their size matched standard Shang destroyers.
“Well, then,” Jack said and flexed his fingers in preparation for the fight to come. “I suppose you won’t mind if I shoot them up a bit?”
“Not at all. Might I inquire if you wish help?”
Mathias seemed sincere.
But Jack was naturally suspicious of coincidences like a deep space rendezvous between more than two groups of people when a party that wasn’t him claimed to not know about the third. Things like that just weren’t common, and he did not want to rely on something as nebulous as a feeling that said party was as nice and trustworthy as they claimed.
“Oh, please,” Jack said with all the breezy confidence he could project. “There’s only ten of them. I’ve got them outnumbered all on my lonesome.”
Then hyperspace opened up a second time and ten more destroyers exited hyperspace near the first.
“You were saying?” Mathias asked with what looked like far too much amusement in his eyes for Jack’s peace of mind.
“That quality matters much more than quantity, of course,” Jack said, though he didn’t like this one bit. Where twenty Shang destroyers went, cruisers often followed, and he didn’t have enough starfighters to take down a serious cruiser force in addition to the destroyers.
“Of course,” Mathias returned, and Jack thought the Thunderbird’s translator program was far too good at adding that ironic tone to its words.
Then ten cruisers came out of hyperspace, and Jack frowned as adrenaline began to rush through his system. He didn’t have anywhere near the firepower it would take to stop a task force of that size.
He would normally fall back while calling for support and just continue to keep them under observation until the main fleet arrived to deal with the interlopers. But the Thunderbirds were a complication to that plan. He doubted they could accelerate fast enough to pull away from the lighter Shang ships if they had to run.
“We stand by to aid you at your discretion,” Mathias said in what could have been an “I told you so” tone, but Jack might have been imagining that.
Jack looked towards the display showing the five remaining courier drones. “Send ‘Warning Red’ and ‘Bandit Thirty’ immediately.”
Betty nodded and the drones began to flicker between “Warning Red” and “Bandit Thirty.” Hostile action imminent. Thirty confirmed hostile starships.
One drone flashed into hyperspace and disappeared. His second message was away.
Then he turned back to Mathias and all the suspicions he still harbored about what was going on. His instincts told him the great big bird was on his side. He didn’t like running on instinct. But sometimes the gut was all you had, so he smiled.
“It comes to mind that I might break a sweat sending them packing all on my lonesome, and I’d hate to do that.”
Mathias met his gaze with an open beak and eyes betraying amusement. “That does sound disturbing.”
“And after the trip you’ve just taken, you’re probably looking forward to shooting something,” Jack said in a leading manner.
“Our talons are wet with anticipation.”
“Right,” Jack said as the Thunderbird’s response sent his mind skittering off in rather unpleasant directions. “That sounds disturbing.”
“I am told the Shang find it disturbing as well.”
Hyperspace exploded once again as more ships burst forth into normalspace. Jack glanced at a display as it counted them off. Five. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty.
Jack licked his lips as the count rolled past twenty-five. So the first ten destroyers had probably been intended to suck him in. They were bait for the fighter squadron the Shang expected to find out here. But the Thunderbird ship had caused them to call in their buddies. And now a second full task force was coming to help.
The Shang must have a lively appreciation for how dangerous the Thunderbird dreadnought was if they were tasking sixty warships to deal with it.
“It seems they respect you,” Jack said in a wry tone and Mathias twitched. It might have been an aborted smile, or whatever passed for a smile in a bird, but the Thunderbird followed it with a shrug that seemed all too human.
“I could do with a little less respect and far more underappreciation of my capabilities,” Mathias finally replied.
“I hear you,” Jack said and shook his head. “You wouldn’t happen to have any other ships floating around here to act as support, would you?”
“I am sorry to say that our other aeries are fighting the Shang back home,” Mathias said. The Thunderbird seemed to make a show of studying the incoming ships on his own displays before giving him a firm nod. “But if you will afford me permission to deploy for flight operations, I believe we can provide sufficient talons for your purposes.”
“And the reason you haven’t already done that?” Jack asked as he raised one eyebrow towards where Betty and Jasmine sat. They cocked their heads in interest and waited for the bird’s response.
“I did not wish to alarm you.”
“Ah,” Jack said and exchanged a long look with the two cybers. They glanced at each other for a moment before nodding at him.
It made sense from their perspective. It did from his as well, so he reflected that it might even be true. And there was the little fact that his instincts weren’t screaming at him that the bird was lying through his teeth.
The main question in his mind was what exactly it meant for a ship that size to “deploy for flight operations.” Considering their bird-like nature, his first assumption was that it meant deploying fighters. The name “aerie” supported that conclusion, but there was always room for miscommunication when translating languages. And it would take a lot of fighters to match the firepower of sixty Shang warships and the fighter screen they were busy deploying right now.
Still, Mathias seemed confident. Jack’s instincts weren’t telling him to distrust that confidence, so he figured he’d give it a shot.
“Well,” Jack began with a smile and a shrug. “Feel free to…deploy for flight operations at your discretion.”
“Thank you, Captain Jack,” Mathias said, and then turned to caw at someone next to him.
They’d obviously been ready to deploy at a moment’s notice, because four massive blisters half a kilometer long separated from the dreadnought mere seconds later. Jack blinked as engines came to life and he realized those blisters were warships in their own right that had been limpeted to the dreadnought’s flanks.
Then he noticed what else they did as dozens of fighters began launching through the open holes those warships left behind in the dreadnought’s flank.
They doubled as armor for the hangar bays.
“Well, that’s a pretty trick,” Jack said as he shifted his gaze to Betty and Jasmine to see what they thought of it. They agreed with matching shrugs and nods as they studied the four cruiser-sized warships moving into a defensive formation around their parent ship.
And that was when twelve more blisters, each over a hundred meters long, separated from what Jack now realized was a mothership.
Or an “aerie.”
A nest that could deploy ships to go into combat. He wondered if that meant the mothership wouldn’t fight on its own, but then a display zoomed in to show him what had lain hidden by the smaller destroyers.
Jack whistled as dozens of heavy weapons turrets ran out and tested their traversing gear to make certain they were ready for combat. So the Thunderbirds intended to fight with that ship too.
That gave him one massive dreadnought, four ships about the size of Earth cruisers, twelve more probably equivalent to destroyers or frigates, and what was starting to look like at least a hundred fighters to stand against twenty Shang cruisers and forty destroyers.
He wasn’t certain that was going to be enough.
“You know, there’s a question I always had as a kid while watching cartoons,” Jack said to cover his unease. “I wondered why the bad guys didn’t just shoot the good guys while they were in the middle of their fantastic pre-battle transformation sequences. And yours was pretty fantastic, let me tell you.”
“Thank you,” Mathias answered with a nod. “I often had the same question myself at that age. Though I might state that it is standard operating procedures to deploy for flight operations long before the enemy has entered weapons range. If I were sloppy enough to allow them so close, I would deserve to be shot.”
“Good point,” Jack said with a nod of agreement.
Mathias made a noise that seemed almost like a snort. Maybe a chirp. Whatever it was, Jack was reasonably certain of the bird’s amusement as he turned to study one of his displays.
Then Mathias nodded and returned his gaze to Jack.
“All talons are deployed and ready for flight operations. Do you wish to take beak position?”
Jack knew that was a great honor among the warriors of many cultures on Earth. He wondered if that was true of the Thunderbirds, or if it was just a chance for them to get behind him and shoot him dead.
Jack took a moment to consider that thought, checking for the still, small voice of warning. The voice was silent. They were no threat to him. So it had to be a serious request on the part of Wing Commander Mathias.
“It would be my honor,” Jack said with another nod towards the Thunderbird.
“The honor is yours,” Mathias returned in a tone of deep ritual.
Which meant Jack had probably guessed right. He scanned the displays once more before looking toward Betty.
“Are the jammers in position?”
“Jammers are ready to fire at your order,” Betty answered with a smile.
Jack nodded and flexed his fingers. Sunnydale played host to some of the most advanced gravitic jamming generators in Western Alliance deployment. Only the Terran and Alpha Centauri systems could sport anything better. They disturbed the flow of hyperspace, like rocks in a shallow stream, so the Shang could not repeat their opening strikes on Earth. No ship could transit the wall between hyperspace and normalspace if hyper was sufficiently disturbed, and the jammers placed all over the Sunnydale system created some intensely dangerous rapids. The kind of dangerous that would probably attract some of the thrill seekers who played laser tag with the Shang, with real lasers, because normal life was boring.
The Shang were just outside the furthest edges of the outer jamming zone, which normally meant they could leave whenever they wanted to. But Sunnydale’s jammers were mobile, and a quick glance showed that several of them now surrounded the Shang ships. They were ready to engage at a moment’s notice and keep these particular Shang from getting away.
Jack placed his hands on the controls and pressed the throttle forward. Engines flared and Jasmine’s fighters maintained their protective formation as he moved them towards the front of the rather impressive wedge of Thunderbird starships and fighters. They turned as one with him to face the sixty Shang warships.
Jack gave Betty and Jasmine a mischievous smile.
They sighed in unison as they recognized his inner jester on the rise, and they gave each other long-suffering looks. But Jack refused to spare them from his inner wit.
“Thunderbirds,” Jack said with his best imitation of a circus announcer, and slammed the throttle forward all the way to the stops as he said a single word. “Go.”
Betty and Jasmine rolled their eyes in unison and Jack couldn’t help but laugh as the entire Thunderbird fleet reacted to his order. Engines flared, filling space with red flaming jets, and the seventeen Thunderbird starships and their supporting fighters accelerated towards the Shang fleet. They began to rotate around Jack’s Avengers, weaving in and out from each other in an elaborate pattern of evasive maneuvers designed to confuse the Shang targeting systems.
Jack nodded in approval as Jasmine’s fighters started to counter rotate against the Thunderbird pattern, adding an extra dimension of complication for an enemy trying to track the combined movements of the entire fleet.
Jack smiled, relaxed back in his seat, flexed his fingers, and began to reduce his breathing to a slow and measured beat. He tapped a display and driving music filled his cockpit.
T&J’s dueling harmonies belted out the opening lines of “We need a Cowboy!” The rhythm seeped into Jack’s bones, his breathing synced with the song, his maneuvers followed his breathing, and his eyes opened wide to truly see everything around him with all his senses.
The Shang fleet had deployed in a standard bombardment pattern, the twenty cruisers in the center. The forty destroyers and two hundred fighters formed a spherical defensive grid around them, protecting the bulk of the fleet’s firepower with their own point defense networks. That they would die to protect their charges was simply standard Shang doctrine, and they had learned long ago to never leave their flanks exposed. That left them unable to focus their defensive fire in any single direction, but a fleet that large could probably deal with anything the Thunderbirds could carry. They could certainly stop any missile salvo Jack’s Avengers could dish out.
The Thunderbird destroyers and cruisers formed a flat shield in front of their aerie ship, along with Jack’s Avengers and over a hundred other fighters. It was a powerful offensive and defensive formation, that could probably deal with any missile swarm those cruisers could dish out. But it would leave the massive mothership vulnerable to any flanking attack.
There would be no flanking attack for now. Which meant they were in position. They were ready.
Nearly two hundred thousand kilometers separated the two fleets. It took just over half a second for light to travel between Jack and the Shang so he could see where they were, and another half second for his lasers to travel to the Shang, which meant that Betty and Jasmine would have to guess where the Shang would be over a second in the future if they were to have any chance of hitting them. A second was a very long time in a firefight, when nanoseconds could be the difference between life and death.
Even the best cybers, and Jack had the very best examples of their race on his team, had trouble pulling that off.
But Jack needed to know what his new friends could do. So even though the range was long and the targeting difficult, it was time to take the gloves off.
He touched an icon on one display, zooming in on one of the Shang cruisers. It was a flat, circular disk, saucer-shaped, and it spun on its central axis per standard Shang tactical doctrine. Any laser that tried to burn through a Shang cruiser’s armor would constantly find fresh armor between it and the fragile inner spaces.
It was an effective strategy, but enough weapons fire could kill a Shang cruiser if it arrived on target and on time. Jack tapped the ship’s image again and looked at Betty and Jasmine.
They nodded in affirmation. They were ready to send every weapon they had at that particular cruiser. Good.
“Thunderbirds. Weapons free.” Jack placed both hands back on his flight controls and stared at the Shang ships in the distance. They were not going to enjoy what he was about to do to them, and he had a few, short words he could aim in their general direction. A pithy little phrase for saying “goodbye” he’d learned in the last few years of dealing with real military minds.
For certain definitions of that term.
“Alpha Mike Foxtrot,” Jack said and bared his teeth in an expression nobody would call a smile.
Then gravity twisted sharply to the side as Betty fired all three of their gravitic cannons. Each one emitted a “beam” of twisted gravity hundreds of gravities strong and mere centimeters across that would cross the space separating him from the Shang in just over half a second. The Avenger’s eight laser arrays fired in full pulse mode a split-second later, and Betty followed that with a salvo of micro missiles from their twin missile packs. Jasmine’s eleven Avengers filled space around them with more death and destruction and Jack felt the vibrations go through his starfighter as Newton’s third law of motion made its lessons clear.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
The Shang were about to learn that lesson real good if Captain Jack of Hart Squadron had anything to say about it.
And then the Thunderbirds opened fire with dozens of capital-scale gravitic cannons that shook the very fabric of space around them. Powerful lasers and missiles thundered out in their wake and even their fighters joined in to lay down their own web of destruction.
Jack nodded in appreciation as his fighter’s displays showed him just how much energy they were sending down range. The Thunderbird’s weapons were certainly impressive. Easily as powerful as anything the Western Alliance could deploy. The question was how effective they would be.
That question took over a second to answer as their combined attack of gravitic and laser weapons traveled to the Shang and the light traveled back to tell of its effect. Only then did Jack see just what the Thunderbirds could do.
His own fire had hit a fraction of a second first. More accurately, it had missed first. It was an impressive lightshow, but beam after beam of gravity and laser fire missed the wildly-evading Shang cruiser with depressing regularity. Betty and Jasmine’s combined efforts managed to hit the cruiser with two gravitic beams and a few dozen laser pulses from a couple of their laser arrays, but the cruiser deflected those shots with contemptuous ease and continued on its way.
Then the Thunderbird salvo arrived. Most of it missed, but enough of the Thunderbird gravitics hit to thoroughly ruin their target’s day. The Shang deflection grid simply ceased to exist as Thunderbird gravity generators overrode their control of gravity.
Lasers arrived before the generators could rebuild the deflection grid, and Jack watched the cruiser’s armor boil under the assault. It melted and flowed, and atmosphere exploded out into space as bulkheads failed under the assault of an entire Thunderbird wing. There was no fanfare of explosions or brilliant lights when it finally happened. The cruiser simply came apart and began dissipating its wreckage across the system.
It happened so fast that the crew never could have known they’d been hit.
The remaining fifty-nine Shang warships did not take their compatriot’s death well. Displays flared as missiles exploded into space. They moved out to intercept the incoming Thunderbird missiles, and space filled with explosions as dozens of missiles died. Point defense lasers engaged those that survived, passing through the exhaust of outgoing missiles so thick that the lasers were actually visible against the darkness of space. They burned dozens more out of space, and the survivors of the Shang’s double-layered defenses were simply not enough to make a difference. Some missiles managed to break through everything and tear at deflection grids. A few even managed to penetrate those and ravage armor.
But there were too few to matter. The Shang task forces sailed on as if they didn’t even notice the paltry missile fire.
Then a salvo of anti-ship missiles exploded out of their cruisers’ tubes and accelerated toward the Thunderbirds. And where the Thunderbirds had fired mere dozens of anti-ship missiles, the Shang fired hundreds. They came on like a wavefront of destruction, and Jack’s Avenger vibrated to the steady beat of counter-missiles streaking out of his twin launchers to meet them. Jasmine’s Avengers and the Thunderbirds did the same, filling space with missiles whose only goal in their very short lifetimes was to find another missile and die with it.
Explosions washed across the front of the Shang missile salvo, and hundreds of them died. But hundreds more swept onward, swooping down towards the Thunderbird fleet with blood in their optical sensors.
Jack’s Avengers met them with laser arrays in full point defense pulse mode and cut a swath through the missile salvo’s heart, but they couldn’t stop more than a tithe of the remaining missiles alone. Then the Thunderbirds opened fire, and Jack got to see how they fought Shang missile swarms on terminal approach.
The Thunderbird fighters lacked any missile launchers at all, much like Jack’s Avenger when it first flew against the Shang attackers. But the vaguely bird-shaped fighters swung their wings forward and fired enough lasers at the incoming missiles to make most New Japanese anime look inadequate by comparison. The Shang missiles that broke through that fusillade of laser fire fell victim to the point defense lasers of the Thunderbird starships.
Jack had to admit that Wing Commander Mathias had a point. He did have enough ships to deal with sixty-odd Shang warships.
Which was actually a bit of a problem, because if they had this fight as in hand as it appeared, his instincts should not be screaming to him that he was about to die. That was disturbing enough that Jack turned to Betty and Jasmine with a frown.
“This is too easy.”
“Your danger sense is still tingling?” Betty asked with pursed lips.
“It’s singing like a fat lady at the end of the opera,” Jack answered as another salvo of gravitic and laser fire shot out towards the Shang task forces, with more missiles on their heals.
Betty and Jasmine just looked at him with doubtful expressions.
“What?” Jack shrugged at them. “I’ve seen enough Bugs Bunny to know what that’s like.”
Betty and Jasmine rolled their eyes in perfect unison as their missiles went down range and forced Shang missiles and lasers to shoot them down. Which just happened to reduce the number of weapons trying to kill him.
Captain Jack heartily approved of anything that did that.
Two cruisers and the pair of destroyers directly ahead of them died to the fleet’s combined gravitic and laser salvo, and Jack pursed his lips. The missiles streaking back and forth continued to die long before they could do any real damage, so Jack never even had the urge to dodge anything. Nothing was surviving long enough to threaten him, but the back of his mind kept screaming at him.
Danger. Danger. Danger. Death was coming for him.
Jack scanned his displays for several seconds as his Avengers and the Thunderbirds closed the range with the Shang.
The mothership and her cruisers shattered three more cruisers, while the smaller ships and fighters smashed a half-dozen Shang destroyers from the defensive shell into paste. And every missile fired between them continued to die short of their targets. Jack looked at the Shang fleet again and considered just how ironic it was that his Avengers were little more than an afterthought in this battle between two powerful fleets.
The Shang outnumbered the Thunderbirds, but it was the Shang who were losing ships far too quickly to maintain their position. They had to know that they would lose the field soon. But they weren’t retreating. They were holding the line and taking their lumps.
They had a plan.
Captain Jack did not tend to appreciate Shang plans when they concerned him. So he looked away again, searching for the source of his worry. And then he found it as the Thunderbirds burned through five more Shang cruisers and a dozen destroyers. The Shang could not possibly stand any longer, but they didn’t have to. Jack felt it in his bones as he looked to starboard.
They were coming.
“Thunderbirds,” he said before they could fire another salvo. “Turn ninety degrees to starboard and prepare to receive enemies with welcoming wings.”
“There is no one there,” Mathias said with what looked like a bird version of a frown.
“Trust me. There will be,” Jack said and Mathias nodded.
The Thunderbird formation turned away from the shattered Shang fleet, though they continued to fire on them with their portside weapons. They held most of their weapons in reserve as they searched for the incoming enemy, but their remaining fire continued to ravage the survivors.
“Move some of the jammers thataway,” Jack ordered with a wave to starboard.
Betty nodded and crossed her arms as she went to work.
The twenty destroyers that arrived moments later were obviously expecting to arrive without warning and open fire on a fully-engaged fleet. It was equally obvious that they had very good intelligence on which side was where, because they came out of the rainbow whips of hyperspace with a salvo of missiles exploding from their tubes. The first ten cruisers to follow them did the same.
Jack had to approve of just how well they’d set up the ambush.
“Well, well,” Mathias said, as his ships focused all of their fire on the new arrivals. “It appears as though this is a trap.”
“They’re Shang,” Jack said. That was all the explanation necessary. His fighters thrummed as they sent another salvo towards the remains of the first Shang fleet. “Traps are part of the territory with them.”
Mathias turned to aim one large bird eye at him as half of the new task force died under their guns. “I meant you. You knew they were coming all along. You used that knowledge to turn their trap into your trap.”
Jack frowned as he watched two of his cruisers die. “I didn’t know they were coming. I just had a feeling.”
“So the rumors are true.” Mathias studied him for another second before nodding. “You do fight like the Peloran.”
Jack smiled and shrugged. “What can I say? I learned from the very best.”
“Yes. You did.” Mathias gave him a swift nod. “It is an honor to fly with you, Cowboy.”
Jack tipped the brim of his Stetson towards the bird. “The honor’s all mine, Thunderbird.”
More rainbow whips of hyperspace appeared before they could continue. Another Shang task force accelerated out of hyperspace with missiles flying.
Mathias turned away from the pickup to look at his own displays.
“Excuse me,” Mathias said. His holoform disappeared again as the Thunderbirds began firing on the newest arrivals.
Jack frowned as he glanced at the two Shang fleets. The Shang had put over a hundred ships into the system so far, and even if they lost half of them, there would still be enough to kill everybody right here. He watched the Thunderbird defenses bring down more missiles, but they were getting closer now before dying. The Thunderbirds wouldn’t be able to keep this up for long.
Jack slammed the throttle forward and his Avengers accelerated towards the first fleet at maximum thrust. Jasmine and Betty gave him surprised looks.
“Someone needs to take the pressure off our new friends,” Jack said with a shrug. Then he let out a long breath as he considered his next order. It didn’t feel safe, but his instincts told him he was all out of safe options. “Go to maximum fire rate. Don’t worry about burning out the capacitors. Just keep firing.”
Betty and Jasmine shared a look before Jasmine crossed her arms and nodded.
“I’ve got your back,” she said with a smile. Her Avengers shot forward on plumes of blue fusion flame and slid in front of his fighter to better shield it from the fire that would soon be incoming.
“You say as you move in front of me,” Jack said as they began firing gravitic and laser weapons in full point defense mode. His tone was dry enough to appreciably lower the water line of a Great Lake.
“Well, if you’d just be smart enough to turn around and go the other way, I would have your back,” Jasmine said. She raised one eyebrow at him and harrumphed impressively as their missile racks began to fire a continuous stream of small missiles.
Jack turned to Betty for support, but she just shook her head and raised her hands in a gesture that said “I’m with her,” as clearly as any words could have managed.
Jack sighed, wondering what he’d done to deserve two cybernetic intelligences like this.
“And don’t give us that ‘Oh woe is me,’ look, either,” Jasmine said as she shook her head. “You know we’re right.”
Jack shook his head and frowned. She was right in one way. They had faster reflexes than he did, faster than anyone limited by biological bodies could have. They could dodge faster and shoot more accurately than just about anybody.
But she was wrong, too.
Even the best cybers couldn’t match the pure randomness of a biological human. And none of them could match the more special abilities shared by the Peloran and their Earthborn cousins. The Peloran had been designed with supersoldier reflexes and instincts they never boasted about. The Ageless were an accident, but those same reflexes combined with the cybers’ speed turned a mere squadron of Avengers into a threat that even a much larger force of warships could hardly afford to overlook. An Ageless pilot had only to use his, or her, instincts to avoid the hail of fire that enemy ships could lay down while the cybers shot them full of very big and deadly holes.
Jack smiled at that thought. It made it seem so simple. The only thing he’d needed to do to become a Cowboy was convince a cybernetic intelligence to be willing to face death and life with him. The only thing. Such a simple, little thing. But everything about his life had changed when Betty chose him.
Betty cocked her head to the side as his gaze fell on her, and a slight smile colored her lips.
He smiled and turned his focus towards Jasmine.
Fighter cybers didn’t generally survive the loss of their pilot. They shut down and never woke up again, rather than live on without the person they’d been born to fight with. But Jasmine had survived. Jasmine had lived on, and become every bit as much a part of his life as Betty. Jack let his gaze rest on her holoform for a moment, the memory of the moment she’d chosen to live flitting through his brain.
It had probably been the hardest thing she’d ever done.
Jasmine sighed and pointed forward with one hand, telling him to get his mind back where it belonged.
Their gravitic beams and lasers smashed through the deflection grids protecting two more cruisers, leaving them torn and smashed but still in fighting shape. Jack shifted his eyes to watch his missiles streak through the hole in the destroyer shell to tear the Shang apart without mercy. Which brought the Shang they faced down to only twelve cruisers and thirty-five destroyers.
That made things about as simple as his whole relationship with the two best girls in the galaxy. Jasmine was good, but she wasn’t good enough to take on that many Shang alone.
“Sorry, but you’re stuck with me,” Jack said with a smile. “Desperate last stands are good story fodder, but I’m not going to let you inspire anyone with another of those.”
“Me?” Jasmine asked innocently.
Then Jack’s instincts screamed as the first Shang missile salvo to specifically target him came flying in out of the black. The warning shook him with its intensity. He was in death ground as Sun-Tzu had called it. The missiles would find him. They would kill him, unless he left it, now.
His eyes scanned nearby space, seeking a momentary refuge.
He reached out with his instincts, looking for a place where the missiles wouldn’t be, just for a nanosecond.
He found it.
He slammed the throttle to the left, and his maneuvering thrusters sent his Avenger flying to port at maximum acceleration.
Jasmine’s fighters spun around him, spitting point defense lasers into the teeth of the enemy attack. Shang missiles died by the scores, by the hundreds, but still they rushed onward like a tsunami coming ashore.
Missiles spat out from twenty-four missile launchers on twelve Avenger-class starfighters and rushed to meet their enemies. Some strobed with enough energy to make stars jealous, seeking to blind the incoming missiles. Others called out with the clarion calls of Avenger starfighters, trying to sucker the missiles into attacking them instead of the real fighters. Some exploded into chaff designed to damage or deflect their targets. And yet more of them exploded in nuclear fireballs or created their own miniature black holes in the face of the Shang attack.
It was amazing how many missiles a good point defense network could take down, and a squadron of Avengers at full fire rate was a fantastic point defense network.
It hadn’t hurt that his slide to port had managed to avoid the heart of the Shang missile salvo. But the outer fringes of that massive attack were even now clawing their way around to keep him in target. Lasers and missiles from a dozen Avengers tore them out of the sky, but there were too many missiles to stop them all.
He watched them come closer. Nothing he had could stop them all.
Another massive salvo of lasers came in from starboard and washed over the incoming missiles without mercy, erasing them from the universe.
Jack turned his head to look towards the source of that salvo and a zoom window cleared a portion of the Avenger’s canopy. It showed him a squadron of Thunderbird fighters swooping in, their wings fully deployed and spitting lasers like avenging angels.
The feeling of imminent doom faded, and Jack took a moment to study his new very best friends in all the worlds. They had very possibly just saved his life, after all. They’d earned that title.
The fighters themselves looked far more like birds now that he got a closer look at them. He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised by that. His displays lit up, showing him the information Betty and Jasmine had gathered on the fighters so far. Their nose housed a gravitic cannon making them dangerous to starships, while the long, mobile wings carried enough lasers to…well…erase a Shang missile salvo in one go. Each fighter’s body held the cockpit and a power generator better than anything Earth had put into a Pre-War fighter if the readings were accurate.
The Thunderbird fighters were much smaller than his Avengers. That was normal. Every fighter he’d ever seen was smaller than an Avenger, but these might even be smaller than a Hellcat.
But measuring a threat by its size was one of the oldest mistakes a man could make. The story of David and Goliath would prove that to anyone willing to learn.
“Do you need a little help?” a Thunderbird asked from one his displays. Jack turned towards the new face as the translator’s voice registered. It was very roguish, something Jack might hear on a city street while holding a knife and suggesting that someone else might want to step away.
So the Thunderbirds must be able to pick their translator’s voice, and they probably had several to choose from. Maybe more than several. That suggested interesting things about how widespread those translators must be. And how often they were put to use.
“Looks can be deceiving,” Jack said with a forced airy confidence, even as those thoughts crossed his mind. Betty and Jasmine fired his gravitic cannons and lasers once more, and the Thunderbirds join in with almost perfect synchronicity. Jack nodded in approval at that concentrated fire. Someone on the other side was going to be in for a world of hurt.
“But I’ll accept any aid you’re willing to volunteer.”
“I figured you’d say that,” the Thunderbird said with just a slight amount of street cockiness in his words.
Well. Two could play that game. Jack shrugged. “Makes you a real smart bird.”
“Says the hairless ape.”
Jack laughed out loud at the description and aimed a finger at the display the Thunderbird stared out of. “That’s Captain Jack to you.”
The Thunderbird laughed. It looked like a momma bird tilting her head back to regurgitate a worm for her chicks to eat, but the bird’s humanoid torso gave all the indications of a very hearty laugh.
“And you may call me Flight Commander Owain,” the Thunderbird finally chirped at him.
No. From a bird that large, it was definitely a caw.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Flight Commander Owain,” Jack said, tipping the brim of his Stetson towards the other pilot.
That was when hyperspace opened again. Another Shang taskforce spilled out, firing more missiles at the Thunderbird starships as the rainbow whips lit them from every angle.
Jack shook his head. This was ridiculous. No Shang would deploy a hundred and fifty warships for a mere raiding run. That made this a major invasion of the Sunnydale system.
And that meant Jack had a far more serious situation than he’d thought on his hands.
He glanced at the display of his four remaining courier drones and nodded in Betty’s direction. “Update to ‘Invasion Red’ and ‘Bandit One Five Oh.’ Send immediately.”
Betty nodded and the drones began flashing “Invasion Red” and “Bandit One Five Zero.” Invasion imminent. One hundred and fifty confirmed hostile warships.
One courier drone crawled into a tiny hole of undisturbed hyperspace left open for just this purpose and disappeared in a flash of rainbow light.
The cockpit lights dimmed as his powerful gravitic cannons sent three more beams of twisted gravity towards the Shang. They dimmed further as the lasers sent another salvo, and a glance showed their capacitor levels dropping below fifty percent. His fighter thrummed around him as another stream of missiles followed in their wake, and another glance showed their ammunition levels below sixty percent.
They wouldn’t be able to keep this rate of fire up much longer.
Jack forced a smile and returned his gaze to the communications display. “How long have you been doing this kind of thing?”
“Killing Shang? No longer than you have,” Owain said, moments before they saw the results of their handiwork.
Two of the Shang cruisers took direct hits from multiple gravitic beams that tore their deflection grids apart. The follow-up lasers burned deep into their spinning hulls, but it was the missiles that completed their destruction, pouring in through the rents in deflection grids and armor alike to explode deep inside the ships. They disintegrated, and Jack turned his focus to the pair of destroyers trying to close the breach in the defensive shell that Owain’s Thunderbirds had targeted in time to see them come apart.
It was a good fire pattern.
“They came for us around the same time they came for you,” Owain continued with an approving look.
“Why did they attack you?”
The Thunderbird laughed again. “We’re genetic abominations. Perversions of the natural order. That’s all the reason they need to want us dead.”
Jack caught a glimpse of coruscating rainbow whips bursting into normalspace as he spoke. Another twenty destroyers appeared. Ten more cruisers exited hyperspace behind them, already launching more missiles towards the beleaguered Thunderbirds.
Jack could only shake his head.
The Shang had sent nearly two hundred warships. Jack’s Avengers and all of the Thunderbirds put together couldn’t possibly stop this, no matter how many Shang they killed.
Even the ready forces in system might not be able to stop this many ships.
He glanced over to the appropriate display to verify his recollection and Betty flashed the numbers in bright red to make certain he recognized the situation. One Peloran and one American battle squadron comprised the entire current ready roster. It was expensive in time, men, and materials to maintain a full readiness watch, so most of their ships currently floated in orbit with most of their systems at standby or shut down entirely.
Which mean those two squadrons were it. Those were the only starships the Alliance had to blunt this attack.
One Peloran battleship, two cruisers, and six destroyers. Joined by six American battleships with their usual cruiser and destroyer escorts. So probably one cruiser squadron and two or three destroyer squadrons. Make it thirty or forty warships. They would tear a hole through the Shang fleet even larger than he and the Thunderbirds would.
They would probably win. Maybe. Unless the Shang deployed more ships before they arrived. If that happened, the Alliance ready reaction forces would lose.
Jack shut his eyes and polled his inner instincts. He was in death ground. More Shang were coming and anyone who tried to hold the line would die.
The Shang would gain a foothold in Sunnydale.
Jack let out a long breath. It was time for the decision he had fervently hoped he would never have to make.
The Shang could not be allowed a foothold. No matter the cost.
Jack sucked in a long breath of air that seemed suddenly stale.
He glanced at Betty and she gave him an understanding smile. She knew what was coming. She knew the plans better than he did. She knew all the contingencies. But he was in command. They were his responsibility.
“Update to ‘Rainbow Red. Bandit One Eight Oh. More enemies incoming.’ Send immediately.”
Betty crossed her arms and nodded. The drones began to flash “Rainbow Red” and “Bandit One Eight Zero Plus.” Hyperspace event imminent. One hundred eighty confirmed hostile starships. More enemies incoming.
One drone squirreled away into another flash of rainbow light.
A display flashed for Jack’s attention. He turned to see damage projections across the Thunderbird fleet. They could no longer stop all of the incoming missiles, and Betty mapped far too much damage penetrating to the armor for them to hold much longer.
Then the communications display flashed and Jack looked up into the eyes of Wing Commander Mathias.
“Our shields are collapsing,” Mathias said. “We can not hold the line.”
Betty and Jasmine killed another cruiser as he met Mathias’ gaze. Three destroyers followed it as the Thunderbirds nailed them, but that was all in the background.
It was unimportant next to the destruction raining down on the Thunderbirds. He saw it in Mathias’ eyes, and recognized in that moment that the Thunderbirds were truly human in every way that mattered.
They were human, and they would die if he demanded they hold the line.
Jack glanced towards Betty with a questioning eyebrow.
“The last jammers will be in position in ten seconds,” she said with a smile.
Jack nodded in approval before turning back to Mathias. “Bugout your one-eighty. Maximum thrust. Now.”
“Disengaging now,” Mathias answered with a relieved look as the massive engines powering the Thunderbird ships filled space with red fire. They accelerated backwards, opening the range to the Shang beachhead that was becoming more and more of a foregone conclusion.
Only Jack’s Avengers and Owain’s starfighters held their position, pouring another salvo of weapons fire towards the shattered ruins of the first Shang fleet.
Jack frowned as the Thunderbird warships filled space behind him with red, roaring flames, seeking open, safe space. His eyes fell on his starfighters. They were all that kept the Shang from cutting off the Thunderbird retreat. Not that the Shang would survive cutting the Thunderbirds off.
But the Shang could slow them down long enough for the other, larger force to catch them. That could not be allowed.
No matter the cost.
“What about us?” Owain asked with a grim look. He recognized the situation too, even if he didn’t understand all of it.
Jack watched another cruiser die and nodded very slowly. He polled his instincts and they agreed.
They had to leave now. But if they left, the Shang task forces would accelerate to follow.
Jack let out a long breath before he spoke a single word.
Jasmine smiled at him and raised a single hand.
“Say no more, Jack,” she said, blew him a kiss, and turned to fade out of his cockpit.
All of her Avenger-class starfighters exploded forward in a blaze of blue fusion fire and accelerated towards the Shang task forces. All but one of the Thunderbird fighters followed them, red exhaust plumes adding their own light to the suicide run charging down the Shang’s collective throats.
“Don’t!” Jack exclaimed, turning towards the display Owain’s beady gaze looked out of.
The Thunderbird just shook his head, and another display showed that the communications signal came from the sole remaining fighter holding formation with his own last Avenger.
“They are Second Life fighters. Much like your own.” The Thunderbird let out a long breath. “They will give their lives for us First Lifers and consider it a good trade.”
“I see,” Jack said as he considered the meaning of those words. Then he shook his head. He didn’t have time to worry about that right now, so he waved his left hand.
“We need to exit stage left. Now”
Jack rotated his stick to the left and the Avenger spun on blue flames to face the fleeing Thunderbirds. He slammed the throttle forward, and more fusion fire slammed him into his seat as the engines passed the red line. Red flames caught his attention and he saw Owain’s starfighter holding formation next to him. So they could keep up with an Avenger running for its life. That was good.
Jasmine’s Avengers fired missiles behind him at far beyond the maximum sustained rate, risking complete meltdown of the tubes to send as many missiles as she could into the Shang formation. Shang fighters held tight to their ships until the last second as she dove down through the destroyer shell, etching patterns of laser death into the universe.
Jasmine’s and Owain’s starfighters dove through that hail of death, and it blotted them from the sky, one after another and another. But no point defense network the Shang had left could stop them entirely. Only a few Avengers and Thunderbirds survived the last desperate point defense volleys, but they were enough.
They spun on their axes as they penetrated the Shang formation.
The first Shang fleet had never expected to be punished so badly by the defenders. Their point defense networks had been shredded by loses, and their computers were still trying to fill all of the holes that made. The surviving Shang warships could only function individually, their finely honed fleet coordination a faded memory.
Every single one of those Shang warships had suffered in the battle. Their deflection grids had been damaged to the point of collapse, their main missile batteries couldn’t effectively hunt targets as tiny as starfighters, and their point defense missiles couldn’t penetrate the Avenger’s defenses. Their energy reserves had been exhausted stopping missiles that had leaked through every defense they had to ravage their armor. They were a weakened and depleted force, their destroyer shell had been broken too many times, and none tasked to plug the holes were in position when the fighters broke through and charged the surviving cruisers in the heart of that formation.
They were simply not ready for that final attack.
The Avengers were the largest starfighters Earth had ever built. They’d been a test bed for the first, almost fighter-scale hyperspace drive, and they’d been built with enough capacitors to power that extravagant energy hog. The designers had taken one look at that energy budget, and nearly wet themselves with the idea of how powerful the gravitic cannons and lasers powered by that could be. So they’d strapped more guns on the Avenger than any other fighter. And the Peloran had upgraded them with better and more powerful generators, capacitors, and weapons when The War came upon them all.
The resulting Avenger-class starfighter looked like it had been designed from the ground up to kill starships. And their smaller, Thunderbird cousins looked like they’d been cut from the same cloth. The Terran and Thunderbird fighters sent enough power to open rifts in the hyperspace wall directly into their weapons array.
Gravitic beams and laser salvoes strobed like ancient lighthouses shining into the storm-wrought darkness as they spun through the Shang cruisers. Capacitors burned white hot as they fed the ravenous weapons that scythed through the weakened Shang ships without mercy. Nuclear reactors pushed far beyond their safety protocols screamed their warnings, but the fighters spun through their deadly dance.
Capacitors melted under the pressure, and systems failed as the power feeding them came to an end. Other capacitors exploded, sending shrapnel tearing through the delicate fighters. Wounded and overloaded nuclear reactors vented their plasma into space, or lost containment entirely. Fighters disappeared in the temporary glow of dying stars.
They faded to reveal the broken and shattered wreckage of alien spacecraft drifting in whatever direction their last, desperate, maneuvers had sent them before they died. A few Shang fighters and destroyers remained, but they seemed stunned at the destruction filling what had been the heart of their formation. They spun aimlessly, looking for an enemy to fight, but nothing remained of the Terran and Thunderbird fighters that had devastated them.
“I’m sorry,” Jack whispered to the cyber who had sacrificed so much for him. But he didn’t have time for more.
He had to act. Now.
“Jammers are in position.”
Jack returned his focus to the second, larger Shang fleet. It too had taken so much more damage than it could have expected, but it would still overwhelm him, the Thunderbirds, and all the other defenses the Sunnydale system could field in such short notice. The Shang knew that. He knew that. Everybody with eyes to see knew that.
But there was one thing the Shang did not know. It was the one thing Jack relied upon now.
The Shang had arrived close enough together in time and space to provide mutual support, but each of those arrivals had stressed the wall between hyperspace and normalspace. He and the Thunderbirds had mauled them with gravitic weapons, and that did Bad Things to the wall as well. It wasn’t normally enough to mean much, but today was not most days.
Jack nodded as every instinct told him it was time to act. It was now or never.
Hyperspace was a messy and chaotic place. Gravity lashed it and bound it from untold numbers of stars, and only the best ships dared its trackless depths. It was a treacherous place to go, and sometimes even more dangerous to leave. A ship that tore a hole through the wall that separated normalspace from hyperspace would always bring a piece of hyperspace with it.
That rainbow glow of dissipating energies flowed as more Shang ships arrived. Jack shook his head as they made hyperspace reverberate like a bell with their arrival.
The hyperspace jammers he’d first run into at Epsilon Reticuli operated by making the wall too hard to break. They reinforced the gravitic stability that a star or major planetary body created, and made it impossible to enter or exit hyperspace. The Shang had used jammers like that to trap Third Fleet so they could demolish it with their conventional weapons.
But the new jammers deployed around Sunnydale were subtly different. Rumor had it that a mad scientist had come up with the idea for them when he asked himself the very dangerous question, “What is more destructive than gravity itself?” Scuttlebutt said he was one of the more popular professors at Brown University, because his most interesting experiments usually started with the words, “Hold my beer and watch this.”
Jack was willing to bet the development of these new jammers had involved spilling a lot of beers before he got them working just right.
The cascading torrent of gravity created by the new jammers weakened sections of the wall where the Shang had already transited. It crashed into holes opening even now, as more Shang ships arrived to bolster the invasion fleet. Hyperspace followed them out with a light brighter than anything Jack had ever seen in a transit before.
This was far more than the kind of minor lightshow that usually happened, a finger of hyperspace spraying out whenever a starship broke the surface, making its presence known to the normal galaxy. Each ship had created ripples like rocks skipping across a pond, and there’d been two hundred of them. All those ripples reverberated with each other, fracturing the wall between normalspace and hyperspace until his jammers blew it wide open.
Now hyperspace erupted into Einstein’s universe, boiling out to wash over the very fabric of normalspace and everything inhabiting it.
Jack watched the hyperspace tsunami with a mixture of awe and horror and wondered what the people caught in those waves of roiling gravity must be thinking. He prayed that they didn’t have time to understand what he’d done to them. He wanted to call it all off, but he made himself watch for five seconds. Ten seconds. Fifteen seconds, as hyperspace tore at the very fabric of normalspace.
Jack’s mind flashed back to the ancient men who’d cracked the first atom and watched their first atomic weapon explode.
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” He finally knew what the man meant.
Twenty seconds passed and Jack could take no more.
“Closing,” Betty said in relief and ordered the jammers to go back to their standard operating mode. They began reinforcing the wall between hyperspace and normalspace. Hyperspace retreated slowly, violently, fighting back to escape the cage the jammers were building around it. It lashed out like an enraged leviathan, and normalspace reverberated like a drum. But the jammers kept on working to mend the damage they’d caused, and hyperspace grew ever smaller and weaker. And when the last, fitful flashing of energy waves faded away, there was nothing left to tell anyone that over two hundred starships had once been there.
Jack pulled in a depth breath and relaxed back into his Avenger’s seat.
It was over.
He noticed T&J still singing a rousing anthem about heroes and tapped the display to silence them. He didn’t want to them to see him right now. It was stupid, he knew. They were just a recording. They couldn’t know what he’d done. But he didn’t want any part of them seeing what him right now.
Two Thunderbirds looked at him from the communications display, their beaks hanging open in shock and awe. Wing Commander Mathias was the first to shake himself into coherence.
“You used us as bait, Captain Jack.”
“Yes,” Jack said and gave the bird a long, measuring look. “I did.”
The bird blinked at the admission, then uttered the words that admission made obvious.
“Many of my people lost their First Life today because of you.”
“Yes.” Jack nodded in agreement. He could feel his subconscious still wondering what that term meant, but he didn’t care. They’d died. Because he’d asked them to stay. The bird was right to blame him.
“I am sorry for that,” Jack said with as much sincerity as he could managed at the moment.
“Why did you do it?”
“Well, at first, I hoped we could stop them.” Jack shrugged that option away as clearly as the Shang had when they dropped over two hundred ships in system. “Then I hoped we could hold them long enough for reinforcements to arrive. We all knew that wasn’t going to happen in the end, right?”
Mathias measured him for a long moment before nodding.
“Good. I’d hate to think one of us was living in a fantasy.” Jack let a dark chuckle escape his lips and looked out towards space. “After I came to that conclusion, I just hoped we could hold them long enough to do…that.”
“Was…that…what our instruments said it was?”
Jack turned back to the bird with a piercing gaze. “I don’t know. What did they say it was?”
Mathias met his gaze with stubborn intensity. “That you brought subspace into realspace. That you destroyed the great barrier and used it as a weapon to devastate your enemies.”
“That sounds like a pretty good summation.” Jack smiled at the bird.
“That is a great and terrible weapon to wield,” Mathias noted with great gravity.
“Yes. It is.”
Mathias blinked once more at Jack’s simple admission. “Did you know it would do that?”
Mathias shook his head in what might just be amazement if Jack was reading him right.
“You are a dangerous man, Captain Jack.”
Jack scratched his chin and considered that for a moment. Then he grunted in amusement.
“Not exactly the epitaph I want on my tombstone.”
Mathias’ eyes narrowed. “And what would you prefer it to say?”
“That I was a nice man,” Jack said, spreading his arms wide.
The Thunderbird cocked his head to the side and what had to be a thoughtful expression crossed it. “Might I ask why you were playing that song when we arrived?”
Jack looked over at Betty, who gave him the innocent smile that said she’d been broadcasting his impromptu music session again. Jack sighed. “Because it’s one of my favorite songs?”
“Why is that?”
“It reminds me of the time when being a nice boy was actually something I could try to be.”
Betty gave him a look that said he’d never tried to be a nice boy back then.
Jack shrugged in her general direction, asking for some leeway on the definition.
“Are you their Jack?” Mathis asked with a speculative look.
“I don’t belong to anyone,” Jack reacted as he swung his gaze to lock back onto the Thunderbird. Then he sighed at the Thunderbird’s wide-eyed look and nodded very slowly.
“Yeah, I suppose I am.” Then his eyes narrowed as another thought came to mind. “But how do you know about them?”
The Thunderbird laughed at the question. “We have made it a practice to import your entertainment networks so we can better understand your people. Your T&J have proven rather popular in certain markets. I may in fact be a charter member of the T&J fan club.”
Jack smiled at the Thunderbird and gave him a conspiratorial look. “I assure you, my charter is much older than yours.”
“I do not doubt that,” Mathias said, after what might be construed as a chuckle. “Do you think you could introduce me to them?”
“Yes, I think I could arrange that,” Jack said and wondered at the vagaries of a universe where the members of two races could bond over the music they had in common.
That was when hyperspace opened once more and a bone-white spire a kilometer long sailed out on rainbow wings of energy. The weapons ring was deployed for battle, with hyperspacial energy crackling off it in all directions, and four massive gravitic cannons scanned space for an enemy to kill.
Golden runes flowed up and down the long hull, and Jack frowned as he tried to read them. Peloran was one of the more difficult languages to read in use anywhere. It was made up of odd runes whose meaning varied, depending on the order they were in, or even in how they linked to other runes. It made comprehension difficult, but he blinked in surprise as he recognized the starship’s name.
Arriving in time to help sweep up the trash. Not that Jack had left much trash around this time. Hyperspace didn’t like to give up its prizes, after all. But it would be nice if Aneerin showed up on time for a battle one of these days. Jack’s internal instincts told him he was being unfair. Aneerin always seemed to turn up in time for the battles where he was needed. And Jack hadn’t needed him this time.
More importantly, even Guardian Light could not have turned the tide in this battle.
Jack knew that. A corner of Jack’s mind maybe even understood that.
He just wished the old man had a little less faith and a lot more underappreciation of what Jack could handle.
Jack pulled in a long breath and returned his gaze to the Thunderbird.
Mathias accepted his gaze with interest, wondering what Jack was going to say next.
“Another introduction I think I can arrange. Would you like to meet Admiral Aneerin of the Peloran Confederation? If I’m guessing correctly, and I normally do, he came a long way to talk to you.”