The Gemini Affair
Copyright © 2017 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, April 2017
They were three lightyears short of Gateway when the overstressed grav sensors finally gave out. The alarms woke Jack from a dead sleep, and he rolled out of his bed with windmilling arms. He snapped his eyes open to consult a wall panel and the display told him the grim truth in an instant.
“Well, that’s just shiny,” Jack muttered in disgust. “Betty, please tell me you updated the Pleiades Cluster map when we were on Bosphorus?” he asked, hoping she wouldn’t say, “I told you so.” They really should have stopped for repairs there. But people paid a premium for fast deliveries, and he wanted that bonus.
“Of course,” Betty answered with a voice dripping in sarcasm that said, “I told you so” just fine as she appeared next to him.
Jack turned and looked right through her. She was her normal blonde haired, blue eyed, Scandinavian beauty today, and her favorite yellow sundress would have had a young Jack drooling back on the lakes of Northern Minnesota. But he could see the hard edges where her digital body didn’t quite mesh with the analog world around her, and the bulkhead was just barely visible through the slightly harder light created by their ship’s holographic emitters.
“Can you display it, please?” Jack asked the cybernetic intelligence who truly flew his ship.
“Of course,” she answered with a laugh and a three-dimensional star map filled the air in front of him.
Jack cringed as he saw it and remembered once more why he disliked the Pleiades Cluster. It was a region of space less than a hundred lightyears across with over one thousand stars crammed into it. That might not sound too bad at first, but the outer regions of the cluster weren’t much more dense than open space. It was when you got close to the center that things got crowded.
Betty’s map showed a region of space only ten lightyears across, and hundreds of stars filled it from top to bottom and side to side. And just to make things even more fun, one or two hundred of them were a fuzzy brown that denoted their classification as brown dwarves. They were tiny little stars that didn’t put out enough light to be easily seen, so their approximate locations on the map were…approximated far too vaguely for Jack’s comfort. Their gravitic effects on hyper were much less than a normal star, which made them harder to detect, but bouncing too close to one was still a death sentence for any ship.
And this ship’s grav sensors had packed it all in and taken a permanent vacation. They'd probably said some bad things about a certain person named Jack as they walked away, too. The kind of stuff that gets censored from stories meant for polite reading.
Betty displayed their plotted course to the Gateway, and Jack groaned. Their least-time course went right through way too many of those fuzzy brown icons.
“Okay. New plan,” Jack said as his inner greedy pig squealed in protest. “Get me a course that stays away from all those brown dwarves, and still comes down on Gateway from above the ecliptic.”
“Got it,” Betty said and went to work. Without the gravitic sensors, she had to plot her route on the map in her memory. Then they were going to have to follow that course using dead reckoning while effectively wearing a blindfold so they couldn’t see if they went off course. And there was always a chance that some object had been missed and would meander on into their path of travel and end the trip real quick.
It was a…suboptimal way to fly the not-so-friendly skies of a major star cluster.
Jack watched the nearly-straight line of their course begin to duck and weave as it sought a safe course. The map zoomed in as the new course got closer to the Alcyone system and the multiple stars that orbited its center of gravity.
Most star systems had one or two stars in the center, with various planets and other debris orbiting them in a flat circle that looked like a dinner plate. There was rarely much of anything above or below the plate. Alcyone added multiple stars orbiting the gravitic center, some with their own planets, strange tide-locked zones with asteroid fields in them, and several stars that scientists still argued over including in the Alcyone system or not. And some of those stars put some serious English into their travel paths as they curved above and below the ecliptic like drunken sailors on their way home from liberty.
That did Bad Things to hyper.
Hyper was built on the crisscrossed rainbow-like rivers of gravity linking the stars of the galaxy together. Starships could follow them from star to star much faster and safer than if they were to go out into the open black, and they’d been the only way to travel in the beginning. Modern grav sensors allowed humanity to fly wherever they wanted, if at a cost in speed. But they also gave starships better handling on the gravity streams, increasing the maximum effective speed they could acquire.
Most of those streams were open for use by anybody who wanted to. But the Pleiades Cluster was home to one of the craziest hyperspace rapids in known space, with untold numbers of streams converging and splitting without warning. You could make all the course plans you wanted, but hitting the wrong stream or eddy could send you three systems and half a lightyear off course before you even realized you were going the wrong way. So the locals planted buoys, patrolled the best streams, and gave incoming transports directions on how to safely arrive at Gateway. All they asked was a moderate tax for their services and the right to inspect cargo on the way through.
The trick was, they only asked because they were polite. If you didn’t agree, you didn’t get to use their routes. And if your cargo happened to be on the official proscribed lists, you didn’t get to use their routes. There were elements of Jack’s cargo that were on the official proscribed lists, so he wasn’t using the official routes. There were always ways to sneak through the Pleaides, Alcyone’s outer star systems, and get close to the system center.
Having a working grav sensor made that a lot easier. But they had good maps.
Those should work.
Jack smiled as Betty plotted a route coming in from above and the map zoomed in to show the innermost part of the Alcyone system. Two massive blue giants commanded that region, orbiting the exact gravitic center of the system, and the gravitic equilibrium point of the entire Pleiades Cluster.
Betty’s course dove down towards Gateway and Jack nodded in approval.
“Let’s enter norm twenty lighthours short of Gateway,” Jack said, and smiled as the course backed up and stopped well above the inner system. “We can do a full scan there and get our bearing for final approach.”
“Course plotted,” Betty announced and let out a long, virtual breath. “It will delay our arrival.”
Betty shrugged. Time passed differently in hyper than it did in the universe Einstein had lived and died in, and even the best scientific minds of the modern era failed to fully understand it. Gravity loved playing everybody for fools.
“Could be a few hours. Could be a day. It all depends on how rough the ride is.”
Jack shook his head. “It can’t be helped. I’d rather arrive late than not at all.”
“Agreed,” Betty said. “Shall I engage?”
“Yeah,” Jack said and his inner greedy pig gave him one final pleading squeal. But Jack showed it no mercy. “Make it so.”
Betty smiled, and their starship turned away from their previous course to take the far less dangerous path that should get them to Gateway without any unhappy surprises.
Jack fervently hoped a day without unhappy surprises wasn’t too much to ask of the universe. The universe answered his unspoken question two days later.
Jack smiled as he stepped onto the bridge and his eyes went straight to the main display where black clouds stained the normally rainbow-colored hyper. He walked over to the command chair in the center of the bridge and sat down, eyes shifting to a display showing the speed of light. It dropped under one percent faster than in norm as they rose “up” towards the wall that separated norm and hyper. The charts said nothing was out this far from Gateway, which meant they should be safe, assuming they didn’t run into a stray asteroid.
“We’re approaching the wall now,” Betty announced as she walked into his field of vision.
“Just get our bearings and dive back in.” He began tapping his fingers on the arms of the command chair. He had a bad feeling about this.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered.”
Jack rolled his eyes at her playful tone as a quick pulse of the hyperdrive ripped a hole in the wall and Vagabond rose up into norm, hyper on their tail. The two realms exploded into each other, bathing them in a rainbow of visible radiation. Then the drive gave up its hold on hyper, the wall sealed itself, and norm began to recover from hyper’s momentary invasion. Jack barely noticed the flare.
Alarms came to life around him, loud enough to wake the dead.
“Contact! Contact!” Engines growled and Jack felt a momentary press of gravity before the inertial compensators synced with the acceleration. They needed work too.
“Three ships behind us.” Betty brought them up on the holographic display on the bridge’s forward bulkhead. “Target One is a standard freighter, ten thousand kilometers away.”
“What?” Jack asked in shock. When Betty started measuring distances in kilometers, they were far too close. And ten thousand kilometers was like tanks at ten paces. Nobody had a good day when ships had disagreements at that range.
“Target Two and Three are three lightseconds out, with deflection grids online,” Betty continued to report, ignoring his question. “I have no visual on them.”
Jack shook his head. “What are they doing here?”
“I don’t know,” Betty said with a straight face. “Maybe smuggling?”
Jack sighed as the charge went home. “Touché.”
“Target One is attempting a targeting lock!”
“Get us out of here!” Jack zoomed the display in on the offending ship. Their new enemy looked like one of a dozen tramp freighter classes in use throughout the Terran Sector at first glance, a primary ship core surrounded by cargo pods. A large hyperdrive surrounded by standard reaction drives dominated the rear of the ship.
“Engaging electronic warfare and performing evasive maneuvers,” Betty shouted.
Vagabond began to move back and forth around Jack, the inertial compensators not completely able to mask Betty’s evasive maneuvers. He was really glad he didn’t get sick on roller coasters.
“Deflection grid coming online. Hyperdrive charging.”
Jack relaxed back into his seat and waited. Freighter weapons couldn’t break through their grid before they could accelerate out of range. Then the ship jerked, metal and composites screamed in pain, and he felt their engines die as the hammer of a god tore through them.
“We’re hit!” Betty reported. A display on one wall showed the hit that had torn the engine section on the rear of the ship apart. The enemy had a gravitic cannon. They were not a standard freighter.
Another blast tore into them, this time hitting the forward command section, and Vagabond began to spin as she lost all power.
Jack rolled his eyes back, his inner ear protesting the new movement pattern, and wondered if the damage was as bad as it felt.
“Deflection grid is collapsing,” Betty said. “Main generator is gone. Grav generators inoperable. Primary and secondary maneuvering drives offline. We’re dead in the water, Jack.”
“I see.” Jack frowned and stared at the display showing all the damage they’d just suffered. They were helpless. The enemy he didn’t even know had torn his ship apart with a mere two shots. But they hadn’t killed him. His eyes narrowed at the next thought coming to mind.
“What about our cargo pods?”
Jasmine flickered into existence next to him. Her shark-like smile came into focus first, followed by her long brunette hair. Then her favorite blue jeans and grey tank top appeared and Jack knew this was another traditional day. He never complained about traditional days.
“They left all of the cargo pods alone, Jack,” Jasmine said with a smile that promised they would regret that. “I think they wanted our stuff.”
Jack gave her a wicked grin as he realized the error their enemy had made.
“Well, then. Seeing as how they just fired first, you wanna take the gloves off?”
“I wanna take a lot more off than that,” Jasmine growled in fury.
“Promises, promises,” Jack whispered.
“What was that?” Jasmine asked with a dangerous glint in her eyes.
“I think it was an order to launch all fighters,” Jack said with an innocent smile.
“Right,” Jasmine muttered with narrowed eyes, but then she nodded and flickered back out of existence.
Jack rose out of his command chair to look at Betty. “Send a full datadump to Gateway. Give them everything we’ve got.”
“On it,” Betty said. “They’re so gonna regret this,” she added in the angriest tone he’d heard from her since the time a planetary guard patrol frigate scanned her right down to her nanofibers. She’d nearly started spitting bolts when he voiced his admiration of her control runs.
“I feel yah.”
He stepped out of the small bridge, wobbling slightly with his inner ear’s continued protests. He grabbed the sides of the ladder, letting the ship’s gravity pull him straight down towards his fighter.
His feet hit the deck with a resounding clang, and he stepped over to the open cockpit that was all he could see of the fighter where it was nestled up against the underside of Vagabond’s nose. He stepped down into the cockpit, sat down, and secured the five-point harness around him.
Betty stepped onto the command console before him and her holoform shrank down to the size of an action figure that could fit in a boy’s hand as the canopy came down to seal them in. Then she smiled and said, “Reactor online. Sensors online. Weapons online. Defenses online. All systems nominal.”
Jack chuckled as she quoted the startup sequence of his favorite Mechs of War game, right down to the “make love to me” tone of voice. Jack sighed in fond remembrance of hundreds of hours spent blowing up virtual mechs and scanned the mix of physical and holographic displays surrounding him. The information flowing across them verified her words and more. The two distant contacts were closing the range, and Jack gritted his teeth. They were going to make him fight his way out of this. Oh well. Their funeral.
“Ready?” Betty asked.
“Launch,” Jack ordered.
“Launching,” Betty announced, and their Avenger shuddered as it fell away from Vagabond at the maximum burn their maneuvering thrusters could manage. He looked up to see the long train of their Privateer-class freighter come into full view and he saw the damage they’d taken with his eyes for the first time. The engine section was torn apart completely, individual engines hanging off the end of the ship by stray cables or less. And Vagabond’s main wedge-shaped body was peeled open from just behind the bridge to the rear hatch where she linked to the cargo pods.
Those had been two very well targeted shots. Somebody knew what they were doing over there. They just didn’t know enough to realize how deep they’d stepped into it.
Jack smiled and placed his left hand on the throttle and his right hand on the stick. He slammed the throttle forward, and four fusion torch drives sent them screaming towards the enemy freighter on tongues of blue flame. Their enemy recognized the danger too late, but Jack gritted his teeth as it launched far more missiles at him than a peaceful freighter had any business carrying around. But they’d already proven that they were no peaceful freighter. The displays filled with far too many red lights denoting missiles for his mere eight point defense lasers to deal with.
Then the displays blinked again as the twelve Avengers that had filled two of his cargo pods swooped in from all directions. They had a silhouette unique in human space, with a long and narrow nose running back to a thick and blocky main body. Stubby wings jutted out from the body with large engines attached to each. They were large, ugly, and ungainly to the eyes of many, but they moved to interpose themselves between Jack and the freighter with a smooth grace and formed a perfect point defense grid.
The Avengers had been mere prototype when they were first created nearly a century ago. They’d been larger than any previous fighter because they were the first to mount an integral hyperdrive. Hyperdrives themselves weren’t very large, but the United States of America had still been learning how to miniaturize everything that made them work.
The elongated nose had been filled with the gravitic penetrators and covered with the tuning sensors that allowed them to breach the hyperspace wall. But breaching that wall was an energy-intensive process, and no reactor that could fit on a fighter was powerful enough to do that. So the engineers had packed her thick body to the gills with enough energy capacitors to power the hyperspace gear.
It had been a truly ungainly affair at first, but when the alien Shang attacked, Jack, Betty, and their fellow Cowboys had taken the first prototypes into battle. They’d survived, thrived, and kicked the Shang’s asses out of this corner of the galaxy.
Now, a century later, the Avengers were just as large and ungainly looking, and many people had asked him why the Cowboys hadn’t upgraded to a newer fighter. The answer was simple. Everybody knew the Cowboys flew Avengers. They were practically the symbol of the Cowboys now, and when anybody saw an Avenger they thought of the Cowboys. That made them a powerful psychological tool.
But there was also a simpler reason. You could pack a lot of newer and better offensive and defensive systems in the space once taken up by the obsolete equipment they’d been designed for. Modern lasers, gravitic cannons, missile launchers, and powerful deflection grids made the modern Cowboy Avengers the most dangerous fighters in the galaxy.
And the idiots on that freighter had picked a fight with a Cowboy. This was going to be a bad day for them.
Jasmine flickered into existence next to Betty and smiled as she reported the status of the fighters she commanded. “All fighters are fully operational and ready to engage the enemy, Jack. Shall we?”
“We shall,” Jack answered as over one hundred point defense lasers opened fire on the incoming missiles. The freighter’s attack evaporated far short of Jack’s thirteen Avengers. “But let’s try to take her intact. They were nice enough not to shoot up our cargo pods. Let’s return the favor.”
“Yes, Jack,” Betty and Jasmine said in perfect unison, and the Avenger shuddered as her missile arrays deployed from their main fuselage. Covers rolled back to reveal the many small tubes, the arrays spun back and forth to test their range of motion, and then they finally locked onto the freighter.
His displays flashed red with multiple target locks.
Jack smiled and passed his hand over a control that started his favorite music. You had to have the right soundtrack playing when you made the bad guys pay, after all. The very best singing duo in all the worlds, at least in Jack’s completely-biased opinion, began to sing about bad boys. Jack chuckled.
“Fire,” Jack ordered to the tune of T&J’s screaming guitars. All thirteen Avengers spat scores of tiny missiles towards the freighter. The missiles spread out in their standard fire plan to split the freighter’s defenses, but the freighter’s AI had been ready with better defenses than most smugglers.
The first wave of over two hundred missiles were primarily dazzlers, screamers, and chaffers that filled space with electronic and physical countermeasures designed to blind or counter those defenses. They dove towards the freighter, and its point defense lasers engaged them.
But a full squadron of Avengers could take out warships. The freighter shot down dozens of the missiles, which was better than most ships could have managed, but it wasn’t enough. Space erupted in electronic and physical jamming, and the freighter’s sensors screamed in agony.
The second wave slashed in behind the countermeasure wave as the freighter spewed chaff, dazzlers, and screamers of its own. The defensive jamming blinded many of her attackers, and the savaged point defenses managed to shoot down more, but over a hundred missiles managed to make it through everything she had. They died just short of the freighter’s deflection grid by their own hand, using their gravitic warheads to generate hundreds of gees of gravitic sheer. They tore at the freighter’s defense grid, and sucked many of the defensive jammers into their tiny event horizons.
Then Jack smiled as he saw them assault the deflection grid itself, tearing at its control of gravity with their own power until it fluttered around the freighter like a ragged cloak.
It continued to throw more active defenses into space as the third wave of missiles charged in, but those missiles had gotten their first good look at the freighter. They saved their targeting data and homed in on sensors, point defenses, gravitic arrays, maneuvering thrusters, and main engines without mercy. Some were lured off their targets, some ran into chaff and simply came apart, and others fell victim to the point defense lasers. But nearly two-thirds of them entered terminal attack range, and their explosions marched across the freighter’s outer hull. Smoke and debris obscured the ship for several seconds, and Jack leaned back in his command chair as it dispersed to reveal the helpless freighter before him.
“Betty?” Jack asked with a glance towards the cyber’s holoform.
“Enemy combat and mobility systems neutralized,” she reported, and then nodded slowly as she continued her scan. “My boarding shards have successfully hacked their computers and taken over all internal systems. The crew was on the bridge when it was breached. Hull integrity is mostly intact. There is minimal atmospheric leakage. Repair systems are moving to deal with critical damage.”
“Good job, girls,” Jack praised and turned his attention to a display showing the two further ships. “And them?”
Betty frowned. “They’re accelerating towards us.”
“Any communications signals?”
“Nothing I can detect.”
“Well, that’s fantastic,” Jack muttered and released his controls as he considered the situation. Two ships, obviously moving together, hiding behind deflection grids, and not talking to him. And using tight-beam communications between themselves, since he didn’t believe for a minute they weren’t talking to each other after witnessing what he’d just done to the ship they were here to meet. That suggested they had ill intent towards the random individual who had just crashed their clandestine rendezvous.
“Jack, I’m picking up continued atmospheric leakage off the cargo pods,” Betty said with a frown.
“What?” Jack asked with an answering frown of confusion.
“The pods are pressurized,” Betty continued. “One standard atmosphere based on the dispersion.”
Jack’s frown intensified. “What are they hauling?”
“I don’t know.” Betty pursed her lips. “Shipboard systems have no connection with the cargo pods.”
“None?” Jack asked in disbelief.
“Nothing at all,” Betty confirmed. “There is no physical computer link of any kind between them. And nothing in the computer logs telling me what is in the pods. If the crew knew what they were hauling, they didn’t record any of it.”
Jack furrowed his brow in deep thought. It wasn’t unheard of for shipments to be security-locked so even the transporting ship didn’t know what was on them, but security this deep wasn’t common either. It might just come from some paranoid rich people or corporation that didn’t want anybody learning the secrets they were transporting. But it didn’t feel like it.
Jack looked back to the two ships approaching them and his mental hackles rose. He didn’t like how this felt.
“Give me a full scan of those pods,” Jack ordered. “We need to know what we’ve just walked into, here.”
“Give me a second,” Betty said and went to work.
Jack relaxed back in his seat and considered the situation for a moment. Avengers were too small to be equipped with conventional probe launchers, but their missiles were designed to carry multiple types of warheads. And if there was one thing Avengers had, it was ample ammunition storage bays compared to any other fighter built. Which meant they could do little things like carry non-combat munitions for their launchers.
Betty finally nodded and smiled at him. “Ready to launch probes.”
“Launch,” Jack ordered, and a moment later their fighter quivered as she launched several missiles towards the freighter. The missiles made the trip quickly and slowed to a stop just outside the cargo pods, where their newly-armed probes began doing their jobs.
Jack let out a long breath and returned his attention to the two approaching ships.
He frowned. “Are they seriously not talking to us?”
“Not a peep,” Betty answered.
“No IFF, right?”
“They’re running under full emissions control, Jack. No IFF.”
“That’s just downright unneighborly. It’s rude to fly around not telling people who you are.”
“Our IFF isn’t exactly accurate,” Betty reminded him.
“Yeah, but that’s just part of the game. We all know we’re lying, so it’s not really lying. But this…they’re bloody silent! And that’s just rude.”
Jack turned his attention to Jasmine. “Take up a guard position please. I don’t like these jokers.”
“On it,” Jasmine acknowledged, and her twelve Avengers moved to interpose themselves between his fighter and the two ships. They continued to maneuver randomly in all directions, making them virtually impossible to hit at the current range. One could never be too careful, after all. “You think they’re armed?”
“They just watched us destroy their buddy in five seconds flat,” Jack muttered. “If I weren’t armed to the hilt, I’d run from us right now.”
“Yeah,” Jasmine said with a dark look towards Betty. “We were sorta thinking the same thing ourselves.”
“So what do you think?” Jack asked. “Armed merchants like this, or dedicated warships?”
Jasmine gave him a very long look. “We just unveiled ourselves as a full squadron of Avengers. No armed merchant is going to want to tangle with us. Even two.”
Jack nodded. “So warships it is. Modern or retired?”
Jasmine looked towards Betty, who shrugged after a few seconds.
“It’s hard to tell from this distance, but the readings I’m getting off the deflection grid suggest…retired. I’m thinking something War Era, though I could be wrong.”
Jack nodded again and narrowed his eyes at the display their bubbles of twisted gravity filled. “What about their size?”
“Small,” Betty said with a firm nod. “Smaller than us. I’m expecting something the size of a destroyer. Or maybe a very light Pre-War cruiser.”
“So they carry fighters?” Jack asked.
Betty and Jasmine exchanged another cryptic look before Betty nodded back at him. “Probably. I’m guessing they’ve got two squadrons of fighters over there. Maybe more, depending on what kind of refits they’d had.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t close the range with us without that,” Jack said and pursed his lips in thought. “Sounds like Hellcats to me.”
“That’s awful speculative, Jack,” Jasmine said with a worried look.
“I know,” Jack returned. “But if the ships are War Era, the fighters probably are too. Especially if these are as small as you think. Not many modern fighters can fit on those old little guys.”
“True,” Betty chimed in. “But we really don’t know.”
“I know,” Jack repeated. “But assuming those are two old warships…let’s say Austins. Then let’s assume they’ve got all their War Era weapons and their Hellcats. Maybe add some modern updates. What do you think our chances are?”
Jasmine scowled. “They’d be a lot better if Vagabond could maneuver.”
“Two dozen Hellcats with modern updates would be a real problem for us,” Betty added and shook her head.
“And that’s not even counting the warships themselves,” Jasmine said. “The smart tactical move would be to run while we can.”
Jack nodded. It would be the smart move. Avengers were hypercapable and his cargo wasn’t important enough to die for. But he still had one question, and he aimed a hard look at the freighter that had fired on them.
“Not without knowing what’s in those cargo pods.”
“Yeah…I know,” Betty said and let out a long sigh.
“Betty?” Jack asked as he saw her deflate.
“They’re hauling people, Jack,” she reported.
“Frak,” Jack swore and lowered his head. “Let me guess. This isn’t an official prison transport?”
“Not considering the people I’m seeing.”
“Who you got in there?”
Betty shrugged. “Major media personalities from all over the sector. I’m seeing movie stars, musicians, politicians, and more. They’re from too many systems to have all been arrested.”
“No. But, Jack…these are really famous people. You’ve met some of them.”
Jack frowned and rubbed his jaw for several seconds as he looked back to the two approaching ships. “If they were missing, we would have heard it on the news, right?”
“There’s no way this many missing celebrities wouldn’t be major news.”
“So this ship and these people shouldn’t be here,” Jack said and sighed.
“No, Jack. They shouldn’t.” Betty aimed a sad look at him. “I’m sorry, but we don’t know enough to make sense of this.”
“And you know how much I hate a mystery,” Jack muttered.
“So we aren’t going to make the smart tactical move, are we?” Jasmine asked in a resigned tone.
“Got it,” Jasmine said and made a show of a pre-combat stretch. “So how are we going to handle this? Shoot first, or talk first?”
“Talk first,” Jack returned and shook his head. “Let’s see if we can make them want out of this.”
“I don’t think they’re in a talking mood,” Betty noted.
“Me neither, but we can always try. And who knows? Maybe it will make them back off if they know who they’re dealing with.”
Betty and Jasmine aimed doubtful looks at each other.
“Launch a communications relay and transmit on all frequencies, all directions, full power. Make sure Gateway gets this.”
“And on a second tightbeam, send Gateway every byte of information we have on everything that went down here.”
Betty nodded again and a single missile launched. It flew away for several seconds and then slowed to a stop. A moment later, the communications relay in place of the normal warhead came to life and a display blinked to tell him it was ready to transmit.
Jack pulled in a deep breath, and relaxed back in his seat again. “This is Captain Jack of Hart Squadron, Cowboy, to unidentified starships. I do not need your assistance. This ship fired on me as I was peacefully making my way to Gateway. I claim it as my rightful salvage. I will take everyone on board to Gateway and turn them over to the appropriate authorities. You can go on about your business. Have a nice day.”
“Transmitted,” Betty said as Jack let his breath out once more.
“And we let that cat out of the bag,” Jasmine added. “You know, it’s not always a smart idea to tell them who they’re dealing with.”
“I know, but it’s just neighborly to give them a chance to live,” Jack said with a frown. Then he gave Betty a questioning look, and she shook her head. No response. Fantastic. “Continue transmitting on a loop, and update the data package as we learn more.”
Betty nodded in acknowledgement.
“Now let’s see about stopping these guys.”
“We’ll probably be outnumbered and outgunned,” Jasmine said.
“So we’ll need to do this fast.” Jack turned to Betty with a smile. “Are Vagabond’s guns still online?”
“Yes,” Betty answered. “But they killed the reactors. We’re only going to get one shot.”
Jack sighed. “Okay then. Vagabond takes out one of those ships. We take out the other one.”
“And the fighters?” Jasmine asked with a doubtful look.
“Maybe losing both warships will convince them to play nice,” Jack said with a shrug.
“And if they don’t?”
“Then we deal with them, too.”
Betty and Jasmine exchanged another dubious gaze.
“If you have any better ideas, I’m all ears.”
Betty and Jasmine shook their heads reluctantly.
“Then I guess that’s that,” Jack said, relaxed back into his seat, and tapped the music control. T&J began asking where all the cowboys had gone as the two ships closed the range. He let time slip away as their melancholy tones filled his world.
Then a laser beam lanced out from one of the ships and speared through their communications relay. The relay exploded, their message cut off in mid-word, and Jack sighed once more as Hellcat-class starfighters began launching from the ships.
“Well,” Jack said and shook his head.
“I don’t think they want to talk,” Betty said.
“Launch another relay, set it to tight beam to Gateway only, and continue dumping all information we get to it,” Jack ordered. Betty nodded as she rearmed another missile body. Then it launched, came to a stop, and powered up to transmit towards the inner system. It would take the better part of a day for the signal to arrive, but he would give them all the information he could about what was going on out here. Jack nodded and turned to Jasmine.
“Prepare to engage with all lasers and missile tubes.”
Jasmine nodded and Jack turned to Betty again.
The enemy Hellcats spread out into squadron formations and closed the range, while maneuvering to keep long-range shots from hitting them. It was a good, basic avoidance routine Hellcats had been performing for a century and a half. There were better fighters in service now, but the Hellcats had been real good back during The War. The Avengers had been better, but these guys outnumbered them two to one.
Just how hard this battle was going to be was going to depend on what tech package they had. His Avengers carried the very best systems the Cowboys and their Peloran allies had ever developed. These Hellcats could be anything from Pre-War models to last year’s push package that gave them better electronic warfare systems and had finally tracked down the targeting glitch in the starboard laser cannon. Jack really hoped it wasn’t that one. He’d put that glitch to good use over the years.
The issue was, he wouldn’t be able to tell what he was facing until they got a better read on the fighters. So Jack watched and waited for the Hellcats to give up some clue of their nature as they approached, and nodded to Betty to bring them into the constantly rotating formation of Jasmine’s Avengers.
“I’m picking up active targeting radar,” Jasmine announced as the Hellcats flew inside one lightsecond of them. “Looks like a Technicron Actitrax Mark XII or XIII.”
“Wasn’t the Mark X they last one they used?” Jack asked.
“In the official upgrades,” Jasmine said with an annoyed look.
“Which makes these homegrown upgrades,” Betty noted. “They could have anything.”
“Fantastic,” Jack muttered. “I love not knowing what to expect.”
And that was when the Hellcats began firing missiles from their wingtip launchers. Displays flashed crimson all around Jack as hundreds of the small, guided projectiles began flying towards Jack’s squadron on plumes of blue fusion flame.
“Then you’re going to love what happens next,” Jasmine returned with a smirk.
“Mmmm?” Jack asked with a raised eyebrow.
“We’re getting radar emissions from Raytheon targeting packages,” Betty announced.
Jack blinked in confusion. “I thought Raytheon and Technicron didn’t play well together. Something about…missing data packets or something?”
“That’s right,” Jasmine said with a nasty smile. “These guys aren’t fighting with a full deck.”
“And we’ve got a plan,” Betty added.
Jack chuckled at the wicked amusement in their eyes. He might have asked for an explanation in most cases, but now probably wasn’t the right time for that. Missiles moved faster than words after all. So he just relaxed and said, “Then make it so.”
The two cybers nodded to each other as they flushed the missile pods on either side of their main fuselages. Hundreds of small, friendly missiles accelerated towards the incoming enemy barrage, and Jack watched to see what the ladies had planned. A third of the missiles broke formation and fanned out as they approached the incoming missiles. Then they exploded in a flash of chaff, visual and electromagnetic dazzlers, and even a handful of old school mini-nukes that generated thermal blooms powerful enough to hide a sun behind. For a few seconds, at least.
The enemy missiles were simply gone when the blasts faded away, while the other two thirds of his missile swarm continued to close on the twenty-four Hellcats. He watched them react to the eradication of their first missiles by spreading out and firing another salvo of missiles. These were aimed at his own missiles though, and he smiled at how quickly his girls had put them on the defensive. Half of his surviving missiles moved forward to meet the defensive fire, and repeated their tactics with more chaff, dazzlers, and nuclear fire.
The last third of his missiles dove into that cauldron of fire. He glanced at his displays to see them enter terminal attack range. The Hellcats launched a third wave of missiles to stop them, but the onboard seekers couldn’t distinguish Jack’s surviving missiles from the manmade hell before them. And the electronic systems on the Hellcats that could still see couldn’t talk to the missiles fast enough to guide them in. They spoke different computer languages, and it took too long to translate even at computer speeds.
Jack’s missiles flew right by them without any harassment and bore down on the Hellcats. Last ditch point defense lasers went to full fire rate, and the Hellcats rent half of the missiles into tiny little slivers of what had been some of the deadliest weapons known to man.
But nearly one hundred of his tiny anti-fighter missiles made it through the last-ditch point defenses, and the Hellcats shuddered under the attack. Deflection grids flickered as gravitic warheads generated miniature black holes to tear at their control over gravity. Other missiles exploded in front of their targets like shotgun shells and peppered them with thousands of tiny pellets. Another mini-nuke went off between two fighters, and though it couldn’t penetrate their deflection grids, it did blind them to the quartet of missiles that came in next.
They attacked one of the fighters, two gravitic warheads tearing at the last remnants of its deflection grid. The last two missiles passed through the shredded defenses, and standard explosions bracketed the Hellcat. It came apart without any further warning than that.
Jack blinked and scanned across the other displays. They showed one more Hellcat had died, and two more had lost their deflection grids. Well, that could be bad. For them.
Jack caught Betty and Jasmine’s attention and smiled.
They returned his smile, and the Avenger shuddered as all eight laser barrels twitched onto target. Thirteen Avengers fired over one hundred lasers at maximum pulse mode, enveloping the space around their two targets. The Hellcats tried to avoid the incoming fire. They’d already begun evasive maneuvers before Jack even recognized their problem, but lasers were quite literally lightspeed weapons.
The Hellcats had no warning at all that they were coming until they arrived, and then it was a lifetime too late. What they didn’t cut clean through, they superheated to unbearable levels, and when that heat reached the fuel tanks for their maneuvering thrusters, the Hellcats converted themselves into billowing explosions.
“And that’s four of them,” Jack said with an approving nod. “Good job, girls. Now let’s do that again.”
Betty and Jasmine gave each other high fives and began preparing to do it again when the enemy’s next attack arrived. Like his lasers, the attack arrived without any warning at all. Two massive, focused beams of twisting gravity shot through his formation, tearing at the space all around them with thousands of gravities of gravitic sheer. One of Jasmine’s Avengers fell into a beam and ceased to exist as it was compacted into a fraction of its original size. Four beams of laser light built to burn capital ships down arrived at the same time, cutting through his formation like knives. And though his deflection grids managed to turn their power away from his fighters, the lasers burned far too much of his electronic counter measures into ash. Then his displays showed him twenty massive capital missiles exploding from the two warships.
“And they’ve got Austins,” Jack said unhappily. The Austin-class destroyers had been part of the Fleet 2300 Project, the first series of American warships to incorporate every new alien technology they’d managed to dig out of the Peloran at the time. They’d been good little warships when The War came upon everybody, and it probably would have ended rather differently without them. They were a century old now, and few major militaries still used them, but system defense fleets and corporate security forces loved them because they were cheap and easy to keep upgraded with new tech packages. This wasn’t the first time Jack had faced them down, but he really hated doing that. More than a few of them had been friends back in the day, and he felt a little disloyal cutting them up just because the people who owned them now wanted him dead.
“As we suspected,” Betty returned with a sigh.
“Kill the one on the right, now,” Jack ordered and Betty nodded with a regretful look.
“I’ve got this,” she said, and their mangled Privateer-class freighter came to life one last time. The single powerful gravitic cannon in her nose powered up and struck back at the targeted destroyer without warning.
Deflection grids collapsed as its gravitic sheer tore them apart, and a barrage of laser fire followed. The Privateers had been built to kill capital ships at need, just like the Austins, and they’d done their jobs just as well during The War. It was sad to see them killing each other now, but it would be sadder to die out here. So Jack watched his ship pour enough gravities to wound a dreadnought into a mere destroyer without any mercy at all. The destroyer never had a chance. It came apart on his displays and Jack shifted his attention to the other destroyer.
It never hesitated either. The Austin’s four main engines spun it around on columns of blue fusion flame, and the gravitic cannon spoke in anger again. Twin lasers followed, and their target was helpless. Vagabond was already wounded and unable to maneuver. Her deflection grids had no power to even try to deflect the incoming fire, and the concentrated gravities sucked her into their maw in the blink of an eye.
Jack let out a low moan. He’d killed his ship when he’d ordered that attack. He’d executed his home without hesitating, all to give him a chance of survival. And he simply didn’t have time to mourn her loss properly, or she would die for nothing. But even knowing that, it still took Jack a moment to recover.
Then he slammed the throttle all the way forward and cleared his throat. “Jasmine, I need six of your fighters to keep those Hellcats off our backs while we hit that Austin.”
Jasmine blinked and shook her head. “I can’t kill twenty Hellcats with six Avengers, Jack. I’m good, but not that good.”
Jack gave her a sad smile. “I know that. But six Avengers can buy us the time we need to kill that Austin.”
Jasmine hesitated for a moment as their twelve remaining Avengers charged the swarm of Hellcats, spitting missiles and lasers for all they were worth. They dodged the incoming capital missiles by splitting around them while lasers blinded their seeker heads. Anti-fighter missiles destroyed each other in orgies of mutual destruction, and lasers crisscrossed space between the two fighter forces as T&J dueled each other with screaming guitars. And Jasmine nodded in agreement as six of her Avengers shot forward to meet the enemy. One of them died to a salvo of missiles, but they killed two Hellcats first. Then the five remaining Avengers scattered in every direction, pulling two or three Hellcats after each of them.
Only four Hellcats held formation ahead of Jack’s half squadron, and he pushed his throttle down while pulling the stick back to send his force powersliding below them. Missiles peppered the Hellcats with gravitic turbulence and nuclear flares. The Avengers rolled back to keep their noses pointed at the Hellcats, and lasers linked the two forces as they passed by each other. The Hellcats spun to follow and two of Jasmine’s Avengers turned to charge down their throats. Jack pulled the throttle back up and continued the vertical spin until he was facing the Austin again. Then he slammed the throttle forward and he and the last three Avengers accelerated towards the Austin at maximum power.
The destroyer’s crew realized their danger too late. They’d been suckered into turning their flank to him when they killed the Vagabond. Austins were powerful ships, but like most American warships they were built to face their enemy head on. Massive armored hammerheads protected their prows from enemy fire, but their flanks were far too lightly armored to survive in the kind of broadside engagements the British considered civilized. The Americans had long known the truth about war, though. There was nothing civilized about it. So Jack’s last four Avengers dove in for a perfect shot on their prey’s weak flank.
“All weapons,” Jack ordered and met Betty’s gaze. “Fire.”
The Avengers had been designed to kill capital ships in squadron strength before anybody knew The War was coming. Jack only had four left to perform his attack run, but destroyers were awful small capital ships. And the original Avengers only had two main cannons, while his Avengers carried three of the most powerful gravitic cannons ever fitted onto a fighter. He’d focused far more fire on an enemy capital ship in his time, but four fighters were what he had right now, so four fighters were what he used.
The gravitic cannons on either side of his cockpit powered up first, shooting their beams of focused gravity towards the Austin. The cannon in his nose opened up next, following the first two in. Then the other three Avengers opened up with nine more beams of focused gravity and linked all four fighters with the destroyer for one moment in time. Each beam only generated hundreds of gravities of gravitic sheer, unlike the single massive cannon the Austin carried. But he had twelve of them, and they struck the lightly-armored destroyer’s flank without warning. They cut through her deflection grid and tore into her armor, ripping hull plating and atmosphere into space. Then nearly three dozen lasers began firing at maximum pulse mode and boiled the destroyer’s flank. By the time the missiles arrived, the destroyer had already been mangled beyond recognition. Gravitic, nuclear, and standard chemical warheads tore at the tiny, wounded warship, and it disappeared behind a wall of fire.
Jack spun away from the dying ship and slammed the throttle forward again. He was almost in time. An Austin-class destroyer was built around the most powerful weapon she could carry. The gravitic cannon was heavily armored down her entire forward spine, designed to take unbelievable punishment while maintaining control over the gravity it twisted into a weapon. But it had taken too much punishment, too quickly, and from too many angles for it to maintain containment this time. The destroyer tore apart as it lost its hold on thousands of twisted gravities, and the very fabric of space shuddered. Whips of gravity lashed out in every direction, and the Avenger holding Jack’s port wing disappeared in the blink of an eye.
Jack pulled the throttle to the right in reflex and the Avenger powerslid away from the raging gravity well that had once been a warship. His eyes scanned the displays, just in time to see the last of the Avengers sent to hold the Hellcats off go down in a hail of missiles and lasers. But she took another one down with a salvo of gravitic cannons that tore the Hellcat apart even as the Avenger died. That left six surviving Hellcats to face his three Avengers.
Jack licked his lips and looked towards Betty with a question in his eyes.
She shook her head. “They aren’t answering our hails, and they aren’t standing down.”
“Then I suppose we’re going to have to do this the old-fashioned way,” Jack grumbled.
“Actually, I’ve got an idea,” Betty said with a mysterious smile. “Get to the freighter and I think I can cover you.”
“Works for me,” Jack said with a shrug, swinging the Avenger around with his stick and accelerating them towards the freighter.
The Hellcats spun to intercept them, and gravitic cannons and missiles filled the space between them with death. Two Hellcats came apart, but they managed to hit the Avenger covering his starboard wing with a salvo of missiles that sent it spinning away, trailing debris and sparking like a mad scientist’s research lab.
Jack glanced at the approaching freighter and knew he wasn’t closing the range fast enough. They would never make it there together. He glanced at Jasmine and she nodded. Her last Avenger peeled off and charged the four Hellcats with all weapons firing as fast as they could cycle. Faster, actually, if he was reading things right. She was burning her systems out in the hopes of doing as much damage as she could before the inevitable happened.
One Hellcat exploded as the others scattered around the mad charge, and then she pounced on a second one with a well-placed salvo of lasers that slipped in through a ragged deflection grid. But the other two Hellcats finally managed to bracket her with missile and laser salvoes that tore the Avenger apart.
The last two Hellcats turned to pursue him, and more missiles streamed towards his fighter. Point defense lasers picked them off one by one, but his deflection grid fluctuated as leakers broke through everything. Warheads tore at the grid. The Avenger shuddered. Damage alarms flashed crimson around him.
And then he was under the freighter and out of their line of sight. He pulled back on the stick and powerslid up the other side of the freighter at maximum acceleration as the Hellcats followed him on plumes of blue fusion flame. He glanced at the damage displays once and shook his head. That was bad. Real bad. He would never escape them now. Well. If this was a day to die, he wouldn’t die running.
Jack slammed his stick to the side, and the Avenger screamed. He could feel her tearing herself apart around him as she spun to face her tormentors, flushing missiles as fast as they could reload. Then the freighter’s surviving point defense network came to life, and the Hellcats swooped back into Jack’s line of sight. They ran into a blistering crossfire of lasers and missiles. The unprepared Hellcats writhed under the twin assaults that swamped their point defense lasers. Their deflection grids shuddered, rippled, and then collapsed as missiles tore at them. Missiles and lasers poured through the failing defenses. Twin, massive fireballs filled Jack’s vision. They left nothing but spreading wreckage behind when they faded away.
Jack blinked and looked at Betty in surprise.
Betty just smiled and acted like saving her pilot’s life was all in a day’s work. Which, if he was being fair, it probably was.
“Well,” Jack said and laid a hand on the display that brought an end to T&J’s latest hit song. Silence filled the cockpit and he smiled at Betty and Jasmine. “That was exciting.”
“I could do with a little less excitement in the future,” Betty returned and looked around at all the complaining displays in sorrow.
Jasmine sat down and let out a long breath.
“So, what’s our status?” Jack asked as he began studying the displays in earnest.
“I’ve got eight fighters completely destroyed and four in various stages of smashed,” Jasmine reported. “All disabled. I don’t think repair is possible with what we’ve got left.”
“You did good,” Jack said with a sad nod, and then turned a questioning look at Betty.
“We’re out, too,” Betty answered. “Half our systems are shot, including the hyperdrive. And I wouldn’t trust the inertial compensators past one hundred gees. There’s an odd harmonic in the system right now. Honestly, most of the systems that aren’t dead are acting odd. We got a nasty power surge when the hyperdrive went.”
“So, we’re not going anywhere.” Jack aimed a speculative look at the only surviving starship in the area. “What about that hunk of junk?”
Betty gave him a very long look.
“We shot to disable it,” Jasmine said for her. “So it wouldn’t run.”
“Right,” Jack muttered and nodded. “So no hyperdrive there, either.”
“We’re stuck here until Gateway gets our signal and sends somebody out to investigate,” Jasmine said.
“But not here,” Betty added with a wince. “Life support is one of the systems that’s acting up right now. I want you off before it gets worse.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack responded to the order in her tone.
“Now sit back, relax, and I’ll take us in,” Betty added and began pulling their Avenger around.
Jack tried to relax. He really did. But the creaks and groans of the battered Avenger turning were enough to make anyone who’d spent time in space nervous. It was a long, slow deceleration down to relative zero, and another long and slow acceleration back towards the wounded freighter. And it finished with another deceleration that would have tested the patience of a saint. There were few people who would accuse Jack of being a saint with a straight face, and he would have flatly disputed their words if he heard them.
So he and Jasmine were playing one of the more entertaining variations of poker when they limped to a halt outside the freighter two hours later. Jack looked up from his cards to examine the pockmarked surface of the ship that had started this whole mess by being where it shouldn’t have been. And shooting him. He couldn’t forget that little bit.
“Can we get inside that hangar bay?” Jack asked as he palmed the cards and slipped them into their box. It went into his pocket as Betty answered.
“Not usually.” Betty looked to the right. “But they shot enough of me off that I think I can fit now.”
Jack followed her gaze to see where the wing just ended several meters short of where it should have been. “Give it a shot.”
“On it,” Betty acknowledged, and slid them into the bay with gentle precision.
Jack let out a long breath and truly relaxed for the first time in hours.
They were safe.
“My driving’s not that bad, is it?” Betty asked with mock hurt.
“Not at all,” Jack answered with a bright smile. “Just happy to get out and stretch my legs.”
He motioned for Betty to open the canopy, and she nodded as it cracked open. It lifted up, and he climbed out to look down at the deck below. Then he stepped off like usual and waited for Betty’s gravitics to catch him.
He had a moment to panic in realization that they were acting up too as he fell the five or so meters to the deck. He bent his knees and hips, waited for the deck to hit him, and then threw himself forward as he dropped one shoulder. He managed to roll over onto his back and used the momentum to come back onto his feet in something like good order. And then he stopped, heart beating rapidly enough to put a piccolo solo to shame.
“What? No superhero pose on landing?” someone asked and Jack really hoped he’d made that look like he planned it.
“No, those hurt way too much to do if I’m not getting paid,” Jack answered. He turned to investigate the source with the smoothest composure he could manage under the circumstances. Then he blinked as the face registered.
“Nelson? Dean Nelson?”
The writer smiled and spread his arms out wide. “In the flesh. Though you can just call me Dean. Otherwise you make me sound like one of those Bond boys.”
“Right,” Jack said and shook his head. “So how did they get you?”
“No idea.” Dean looked around the interior of the hangar bay with a musing look. “I woke up one day, and here I was. Then today, you and your Betty show up and kick their asses. Thanks for that, by the way.”
“My pleasure.” Jack examined him for a long moment. “So…you the one in charge here?”
“I am now. Your Betty opened up all the cargo ponds and let us out. We’ve been organizing ever since, and I guess people listen to me,” Dean finished with a bemused shrug.
Jack snorted at the man whose columns circulated in every major newspaper in the Terran Sector. “Well, you do have a reputation.”
“Says the Jack of Harts,” Dean said with a raised eyebrow.
Jack shrugged. “Nothing lies like a reputation.”
“Too true,” Dean said with a nod and a smile. “Too true. Now, would you follow me, please?”
“It would be my pleasure,” Jack said and followed the writer out of the hangar and into the main ship. He saw more people he recognized in the corridors, and they each took a moment to thank him. He aimed a long look at Dean after a particularly nice young soap opera star kissed him on both cheeks.
“The…passenger list on this ship is…impressive.”
Dean frowned at the bulkheads. “Yes, it is.”
“How do you think they managed it?” Jack asked, wondering how much thought the writer had put it into this mystery.
“I have not yet ascertained that,” Dean answered in what seemed like an annoyed tone.
Jack gave him a long look. “I would have expected to hear about someone like you missing.”
“Yes.” Dean paused for a moment as he stopped at a cross corridor, and then turned down the one to the right. “I expect you would have.”
“That goes for everybody here, you know,” Jack said and caught the other man’s gaze. Dean frowned again as a pair of major network news reporters stopped to give Jack a handshake and a kiss on the cheek.
“Yes. It is quite the mystery, is it not?” Dean said as they walked away, and then turned down another corridor.
“So, are we going someplace, or is this just a random tour so I can see all the people?” Jack asked as he followed the other man.
“Oh, there’s nothing random about our course,” Dean returned with a knowing smile. “But seeing people along the way was part of the plan.”
Dean looked around and laughed. “Because nothing about this whole messed up ship feels right. I don’t feel right. I don’t know why, but there’s something wrong here. Something wrong with me. Something wrong with everyone. I needed you to see the same thing I’ve been seeing. Because somebody needs to figure this out. And I’m hoping the Jack of Harts can do it.”
Jack shook his head. “I told you, I’m not my reputation.”
“None of us are.” Dean stopped and pointed at the hatch before them.
“But for them, I’m hoping you will be.”
Jack peered at the hatch for several doubtful moments before looking back towards Dean.
“Who are they?”
Dean shifted his shoulders back and seemed to stand up straighter.
“The two people who wanted to meet you at the hangar bay.”
Jack frowned at the other man.
“Then why didn’t they?”
Dean gave him a long look before answering.
“Because I talked them out of it.”
“Why would you do that?” Jack frowned as the man’s words echoed in his mind. “Oh. You want me to do something about this.”
“Yes. I do.”
“Haven’t I done enough already?” Jack spread his arms wide, taking in the entire ship and her unlikely passengers. “You’re free, thanks to me.”
“But don’t you want to know why we’re all here in the first place?” the writer asked.
“Not really,” Jack lied and turned to walk away.
“If you walk away now, you’ll always wonder if you could have helped them,” Dean pronounced in the tone of a man hurling laws down from the mountaintop.
Jack froze and aimed a baleful look at the man. “Don’t leave me in suspense. Just tell me who they are and I’ll decide what I’m going to wonder about.”
“People you’re willing to die for.”
Jack frowned at the other man. “There aren’t many people in the galaxy I’d die for, you know.”
“Yes.” Dean smiled and shrugged. “I know.”
“So what makes you think I’d die for them?”
Dean Nelson, the writer of a thousand columns, more than a few of them about the Cowboys, gave Jack a sad smile. “Because you have died for them.”
Jack shivered and sucked in a long breath. One of the problems with the cloning process was that you never remembered your death. Or maybe it was a gift. Jack didn’t know. All he knew was that sometimes he’d really like to know why he chose to give his life for something. Because every time he came back, he wondered if he could live up to the man he’d been last time. It was hard to know the answer to that when you didn’t even remember what happened.
“And I’m hoping that you’re going to want to help them enough that you’re going to want to get back to work and find out what’s wrong with all of this.”
“You sure do know how to prime a mystery,” Jack said very softly as his eyes focused on the hatch.
“It goes with the territory of what I do,” Dean responded and walked away.
Jack looked at the hatch for several seconds before finally saying one word. “Betty?”
“Yes?” she answered in his ear.
“Who are they?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
Jack let out a long breath as he considered that. Then he shook his head. “You want me to go through that hatch?”
“Will you come with me?”
“I see.” There weren’t many people in the galaxy he would die for. There were fewer people that Betty would step out of the room for. That left very few possibilities, but two of them floated front and center in his mind’s eye. “I just saw them a few days ago. They can’t be missing.”
“Just open the hatch, Jack.”
Jack fidgeted as he considered the hatch and the people beyond it. She knew who they were. Dean Nelson knew who they were. He turned his head to scan the other people standing far away down the corridor. They kept looking towards him and then away, like they wanted to approach but something kept stopping them. They knew who was here too. And they were giving him space. Everybody knew except him.
No. That wasn’t true. He knew too. He just didn’t know how it could be possible. It was…wrong. Just like Dean had said.
Jack looked down the corridor again to see all those famous people standing in it, and he knew the other man was right. This ship shouldn’t be here, with all these people. But it was.
“I love you,” Jack whispered into the silence that surrounded him. It wasn’t much, but it was all he could think to say at the moment.
“I know,” Betty answered with a smile in her voice. “Now get in there.”
Jack stepped forward and the hatch opened to allow him into the room.
“Jack!” two girls shouted and threw themselves at him as the hatch closed behind him.
He caught Julianne Taylor Hansen and Alexandra Jennifer Thompson in his arms as the blonde and brunette sirens stormed back into his life like a good Canadian blizzard. They’d gone by the names Julie and Alex back before they went and got famous, when the sandy beach was their concert hall, and the moonlit lake their background. Most people knew them as Taylor and Jennifer now, music stars extraordinaire on the galaxy’s greatest stages. Or maybe just T&J. They sang the songs of lifetimes, and Jack would have been a far different person if he’d never met them.
“We knew you’d come,” they whispered as they held onto him for dear life.
“I always do,” Jack mouthed as he tried to figure out what was going on. This was impossible. “How long have you been here?”
“I don’t know,” Julie whispered.
“Feels like weeks,” Alex added.
Jack sighed. They were wrong. They had to be.
“Tell me about Bosphorus,” he said, hoping they would give him the right answer.
“Bosphorus?” Julie asked in confusion.
“Good crowds there,” Alex said and pulled back to look Jack in the eyes. “Why you asking?”
Jack shut his eyes. They didn’t remember meeting him on Bosphorus.
That wasn’t a good sign. “Tell me about Gemini.”
“Jack?” Julie began.
“What is this about?” Alex finished.
Jack let out a long breath. They didn’t know. God help him, they didn’t know, and he felt his world shift around him. It had finally happened. Maybe. Unless he was wrong about everything that was wrong about this ship.
It was possible, wasn’t it?
“Can we talk about it later?”
They looked at him with narrowed, suspicious eyes. “Why?”
Jack sighed, and gave them the most honest answer he could think of. “Because it’s going to be a day before Gateway can respond to what happened out here, and I can think of way more fun things to do than tell you everything I think’s wrong about this ship.”
“Oh?” Julie said and exchanged a long look with Alex. Then they nodded.
“What do you have in mind?” Alex asked with a sly smile.
Jack shrugged. “Me. You. A shower built for two.”
Julie sigh, and if she whispered something that sounded suspiciously like “Men,” Jack could pretend he hadn’t heard.
Alex just shook her head. “Good luck. They don’t build showers that big on this hunk of junk.”
Jack winced and gave them a regretful smile. “Drat. Foiled again.”
“Don’t worry,” Julie began.
“I’m sure we can think of something,” Alex finished and they leaned up close to hold on tighter again. He would have given them forever to stop that.
“Thank you,” Julie whispered.
“For finding us,” Alex finished.
“Always,” Jack whispered and held the two girls that couldn’t possibly be here, right now, tight enough to tell himself that they really were. Somehow.
Unless they weren’t.
They stood still for a long time before they found something else to do.
Jack’s eyes opened at the whispered word in his ear and he looked around to bring the room back into focus. It was the same one they’d shared all day, and one bulkhead held a massive smart panel that showed him the Pleiades Cluster in all its glory. It paled next to the two girls sleeping on either side of him.
“It’s time,” Betty continued in his ear. “Gateway has received our message. They will send someone to investigate soon. You need to tell them. Now.”
Jack nodded and placed his hands on the smalls of their backs. And then he began to massage them. Julie and Alex woke up slowly, groaning and stretching in time to his slow movements.
“Jack?” Julie whispered when she finally reached wakefulness.
“Don’t stop,” Alex finished for her.
“We need to talk,” Jack said.
Two sets of eyes opened wide and looked straight at him.
“That’s usually,” Julie began.
“Our line,” Alex finished.
Jack would have been happy to stop, but they deserved to know what was wrong. “It’s important.”
They stared at him for several seconds.
“This is what’s been bothering you,” Julie whispered.
“Are you finally ready?” Alex asked.
“Not really,” Jack answered and snorted in surrender. “But you deserve to know.”
“Keep up the backrubs,” Julie ordered.
“We’ll listen,” Alex finished and they laid their heads on his chest again.
Jack smiled and dug in a little harder, hearing them squeal just a little bit. And then it was time to tell them.
“I briefed you on Project Gemini decades ago. I gave you the codes to verify you were the one and only Alphas.”
“Alphas?” they asked in unison.
Jack let out a long breath and started from the beginning. “You know the Peloran were designed, right? They were created as supersoldiers and cloned into an army.”
Julie and Alex nodded without looking up at him.
“Good. Well, now they use that technology to achieve effective immortality. When they’re killed, they grow new bodies and implant their last backed-up memory scans. They wake up without any memory of dying, but they were the person they had been before. When they granted us access to that tech, we designated ourselves the Alphas. The person who was born like any other human, rather than cloned. Most of us have died since then, so we’ve had to expand the definition a bit.
“I’m the Alpha for the Jack line, for instance, even though I’ve died…God…way too many times. The point is, I have codes that cannot be copied in any memory scan that prove I am the Alpha. Every other Jack has a unique set of codes, our proofs that we are who we say we are if we should ever have a question,” Jack finished with a shrug.
“We don’t know our codes, do we?” Julie whispered.
“You don’t even remember hooking up on Bosphorus a few days ago!” Jack returned with a laugh that was far too close to a sob for his comfort.
“What a minute,” Julie said and looked up at him in confusion.
“Do you meaning hooking up?” Alex interjected and brought her index fingers together with a speculative look. “Or hooking up?”
Jack laughed for real this time and hugged them tight. God bless Alex’s sense of humor! Whoever had made them had done an amazing job.
“You’re perfect. Both of you. Absolutely perfect, down to the last dimple. But you’re not authorized clones. They probably used some skin cells or maybe a lock of hair or something else you left behind to get the genetics right. Put that together with high-quality body scans compiled from your music videos, or maybe some other less authorized sources, and they could make sure your bodies were accurate. Those are already floating around the darker networks, so a simple search should find them.”
Julie and Alex looked at each other with distaste, obviously not liking the idea of scans like that wandering around the computer networks.
Perfect, down to the last dimple.
Jack nodded in agreement as he considered what someone might do with scans that good. They were illegal on most planets, but that didn’t matter much in the real worlds. And it certainly wouldn’t stop people willing to make two living girls like this, if they had the cloning technology to make it work. He swallowed and shied away from that thought.
“They didn’t have access to your mind scans, at least. So they went through all of the public data about you, and made minds that would do the things they know you did…but…they don’t know everything. There’s a lot of stuff we’ve done over the years that’s never made the news. But most people who would want something like this wouldn’t care about any of that.”
That was when he felt them stiffen as they came to the same realization he’d made hours ago.
“We’re living toys,” Julie snarled.
“For rich men to buy,” Alex pronounced very slowly, spitting each word out as a condemnation against all mankind.
Jack blanched at the venom he heard from his sweet girls.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We don’t know anything right now.”
Julie gave him a very dark look. “Can you think of any other reason?”
“For all this?” Alex finished with a wave towards the rest of the slave ship.
“No,” Jack admitted. “And I agree with you. But we can’t jump to any conclusions on this! We need to investigate and find out who’s responsible.”
“They were going to make us slaves,” Julie said very slowly.
“Did they make more of us?” Alex asked at the same time.
Jack shook his head in defeat. “I just found you. I don’t know anything, yet.”
“But you’re going to find out,” they both said, and their eyes bore into his.
“Yes,” Jack answered without taking time to think about it. And looking at them, it didn’t matter that they weren’t the girls he’d grown up with.
He would do anything for them.
They cuddled up to him, and it felt so real. They really were perfect on so many levels.
“Thank you,” Julie whispered.
“For finding us,” Alex finished.
“They’re here,” Betty whispered in his ear, and the smart panel on the bulkhead flashed for a moment. Then it shifted to the view of a kilometer-long gleaming white cylinder that was a Peloran battleship as it dissipated the rainbow energies of hyper. The weapons ring had already deployed for combat around the main cylinder, and four massive gravitic cannons commanded nearby space to behave. Or else. Golden runes flowed down her flanks from one end to the other, and his practiced eyes flowed over the Peloran letters that spelled out the name.
“What are you doing here?” Jack asked of the ship. That man had a positive gift for showing up when things were getting crazy. Jack really hated that. Was a nice, quiet life really too much to ask?
“Who’s here?” Julie asked.
Jack considered the slave ship for a long moment, the people aboard her. It seemed that a quiet life really was too much to ask right now. So he said one word.
“What’s he doing here?” Alex repeated his question.
Jack could only think of one reason. If Aneerin was here, this was bigger than he thought. And he already thought it was bad. So Jack did what he always did when the going got tough. He gave the girls in his arms his very best smile and dredged up the old friend that had spread his reputation all over the galaxy.
“Well, I’m Captain Jack of Hart Squadron, Cowboy extraordinaire,” Jack answered with an outrageous waggle of his eyebrows. “When I call for the cavalry, you can rest assured that only the very best cavalry answers the call.”
Alex threw a pillow at him.
“He’s asking permission to come aboard,” Betty said in his ear.
Jack licked his lips as he considered for a moment.
Then he smiled. “You wanna go with me to greet Aneerin?”
Julie’s smile glowed at him and she sprang to her feet in a whirlwind of limbs and blankets. “I’d love to!”
Alex echoed her imitation of a windmill and gave him a pointed look. “Me too. I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
And then Julie took a look at their rumpled clothing and promptly dragged Alex off to the bathroom, where she shut the door behind them.
Letting him out of their sight.
Jack shook his head and came to his feet, stretching his long legs all the way to the tips of his toes. Then he stepped over to where his white cowboy boots lay on the floor. He slipped his fingers through the loops and pulled them on, one by one. Then he plucked at his rumpled white pants to make sure they looked good, and stuffed his white shirt back down into them. He found his white tie on the end table and slipped it back on, making sure it hung right. Then he retrieved his white jacket from the chair one of the girls had thrown it over. He slipped into it with one smooth motion and tugged it straight with all the gravitas of Captain Jack as Julie and Alex stepped back into the room, looking absolutely perfect.
He turned admiring eyes on them and drank them in properly for the first time all day. It was amazing just how much Betty and Jasmine looked like these two girls, right down to the yellow sundress and blue jeans. He’d thought that an amazing coincidence when he was younger. He’d died more times than he wanted to admit in the decades since, and he was a lot less gullible now, so the returning realization that they’d patterned themselves after these two girls humbled him once more.
“Jack?” Julie asked as she saw the look in his eyes.
“What are you thinking? Alex finished for her.
Jack aimed an appreciative smile at them. “Just thinking how I must be the luckiest guy in all the worlds, to have such amazing companions in mine.”
Julie picked his white cowboy hat off the floor where one of them had tossed it, and smiled as she came over to place it atop his head. “You, Sir, are a flatterer,” she pronounced slowly, leaning in close.
“You, Sir, can keep talking like that all day long,” Alex added and straightened his tie before joining her cousin in his arms.
Jack let out a long breath and wished they could stay like that forever. But he couldn’t. None of them could. “Betty, I need you to set up a message relay through the Guardian Light.”
“Done,” Betty said in his ear.
“And I need a detailed information packet of everything we know to go with it.”
“Thank you,” Jack said and held the two girls that had meant everything to the teenage boy he used to be. And were one of the few people in the worlds that Captain Jack would die for, even if they weren’t technically the girls Jack had grown up with. They looked up at him, and he smiled.
Then he sucked in a long breath and said what he’d been dreading all day long. The words that made everything he’d found on this ship too real to ignore. The words that demanded he become the man he hadn’t been in a very long time and get back to work.
“This is Captain Jack of Hart Squadron to all Cowboys. This is a Priority One message. Case Gemini. I repeat. Case Gemini. It’s in the wild. Someone’s using it. We need to find it. We need to stop it.
“Let’s rock and roll, people.”