Hello, my name is Jack.  When the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 112 left Earth, there were ten of us Cowboys.  Twenty years later, ten Cowboys came back to Earth.  We’d lost some along the way, and some new ones came along.  New and old alike, we all looked forward to an end to the fighting.  Unfortunately while Wars may end, an end to conflict is a lot harder to find.  And it is a rare aggressor that is honorable enough to declare war.



A Meeting of Minds


Jack straightened the white tie and pulled the white sleeves of his suit tight, making certain he looked presentable.  He’d never been one for suits, but he had to admit that this one looked good.  It was comfortable too, and he’d run through his morning exercise wearing it to make certain he had a full range of motion.  He had to hand it to the girl.  She sure did know how to design outfits that looked good, and were actually wearable in normal life as well.  Assuming flexible definitions of normal.

Jack took a deep breath, and let it out again, feeling the stress of the last few days fade into the background.  He even felt the stress of twenty years of War fade with it.  None of it was gone of course, but it took a step back and he felt lighter than he had in years.  It really was an amazing suit.  Jack stepped back from the mirror with a smile and a tip of a cowboy hat to the handsome devil in the mirror.  Then he walked out of the men’s room, straightening his tie as he went.

He sauntered into the main hall of the Cybernetic Embassy to the Western Alliance, his jaunty gait proclaiming no worries to any who saw him.  He hated to let people in authority think he was impressed by mere power.  Especially when that power was as real as that the cyber families wielded.  Every cyber family represented here had given birth to children who chose to make warships and fighters their bodies, and swore oaths to the member nations of the Western Alliance.  The cybers gave those ships the reaction times of light speed computer hardware and the adaptability of true living beings that allowed them to outfight the dumb ship AIs of the Shang and their allies.

Betty moved away from the wall with a smile, and moved down the hall at his side.  “You ready?”  Her light tone covered the serious words with a tinge of humor, but he could hear the true concern under it.

“Absolutely,” he answered with an amused smile, acting like they both knew was right as rain on a spring day.

She held his gaze for a moment, before nodding with a smile that said she was fine with pretending.  “Then let’s rock and roll.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”  Jack turned the corner and sauntered towards the briefing room with a smile.

Two women flanking a door ahead shook their heads in shared amusement at his arrival.  “Wow,” the closer one said, an urchin’s smile twisting a heart-shaped face under short auburn hair.  “I see someone got a makeover.”  This was the first time he’d seen her out of uniform, and he had to admit that if this was any indication, civilian life suited her.

“That’s…actually a good look,” the cyber next to her said in surprise, looking at Jessica’s blouse and trousers with an appraising eye.  Angela was one of the cybers who liked to experiment with her appearance, usually on a daily basis, and today hot pink wavy hair reached down to her shoulders.

“Gee, thanks,” Jack snorted back at the cyber.  Angela just smiled back, looking innocent as the driven snow.  Of course he’d seen a lot of driven snow, and he didn’t let her fool him one bit.

“Be nice,” Jessica scolded her cyber, but her wink spoiled the words.  “At least this time he’s fashionably late.”

Jack snorted and shook his head.  “And here I was, thinking of actually giving you the number of my tailor,” he said in a hurt tone.  He smiled as her eyes sparkled in interest.  “But I suppose if you wanted to be nicer to me, I could have my people talk to your people.”  He finished with a regretful shrug and a wink.

Jessica pantomimed zipping her lips shut, forcing another laugh out of Jack.  Then she nodded towards the door.  “We really should be getting.  You’re the last to arrive.”

“Got it,” Jack returned and sketched out a quick half bow.  “Ladies first.”

“Why, thank you, sir,” Jessica said with a quick bow of her own, and turned as the door slid open.

Jack followed her and Angela into the briefing room to see the other Cowboys who’d arrived at Earth in the last few days.  Of the ten pilots in the room, including himself, half still wore their uniforms.  That was good.  The young pilots needed some old hands to run herd on them.  Jack smiled at a uniformed-Jesse and stepped forward, arms out wide.  Jesse answered in kind and they locked in matching bear hugs, thumping each other on the backs.  “How you doing, old man?” Jack managed through the thumping.

“Still ready to beat anyone that calls me old,” Jesse returned, giving him a final thump for good measure.

“I’m hurt!” Jack pronounced with feigned dignity.  “First time we meet in years, and the first thing out of your mouth is a threat!”

Jesse aimed an evil smile at him.  “A promise,” he said and thumped Jack one more time for good measure.  Thank God Jesse was missing the left shoulder.

“Oh…well…that’s much better!” Jack returned with a smile, and another thump.  Then he saw another uniform coming around the table at a dead run.  “Excuse me,” he said and stepped back.  Jesse chuckled and stepped out of the way just in time to let a blonde-haired Cowboy fly by.

“Jack!” Kathleen crowed as she tackled him hard enough to drive him into the wall.  He winced as his left shoulder protested the assault, but answered her rib-crushing hug with a vengeance.

“Well, looks like someone’s planning some Mischief for me,” he grunted, emphasizing her callsign with a smile.

She punched him in the ribs for that.  Hard.  But she smiled.  “Very funny, Jester.”

“I always try.”  He managed a wink.

She snorted and stepped away with a shake of her head.  “You know there’s a saying about doing versus trying.”

“Yeah, I think I heard that before,” Jack whispered and turned to tip his hat, which had somehow remained on through Katy’s assault, to the other ladies in the room.  “I really wish I could remember who told it to me.”

She laughed at his wink.  “Just you wait,” she said with a warning finger, but stepped out of the way as a wall walked up behind her.

The massive Navajo Indian everybody called Bull stopped before him and engulfed Jack’s right hand in a paw that made him feel tiny.  And when Jay shook his hand, Jack felt his whole body rise and fall in time to the heroically muscled arm.  Thank God he’d given the man his right hand.  Jay let him go with a nod of approval and stepped away, careful not to hurt the lesser humans in his midst.  Jack shook his head, thinking again that Jay really had missed his calling.  He should be playing the Indian god of war in movies.  Not a soul would question the casting director on that call.

He turned then and saluted Christian, the Cowboy’s newest Major.  Christian was an old hand in Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 112.  He’d been there the day they all saved a Peloran Battle Squadron from a Shang flank attack.  Or so the official record went.  Jack knew that the Peloran had been in better shape than that, but when the President herself ordered you to play up the “Great American Victory at Fort Wichita” you played ball or sat in the dugout.  Unfortunately, Colonel Johanson died in the battle, along with his second in command.

The Peloran had asked for American reinforcements after that, starfighter squadrons to make up their heavy fighter losses.  They offered to upgrade all the fighters on their ships with full Peloran technology, and to give full access to that same technology to the American government for the first time.  Their price was the Cowboys, permanently based on the Peloran warships, and acting commander Lieutenant Charles Hurst remaining in permanent command of the formation.

It was an offer the American government couldn’t refuse.  They’d jumped Charles two full ranks to Major, to give him a rank that matched his command.  They’d jumped Jack and big old Jay two ranks to Captain at the same time, and that had been the death knell for all of their careers.  The Pentagon didn’t like it when the President herself interfered in the natural order of promotions, especially to pilots that would almost never fly on an American ship ever again.  And the Pentagon had a long memory.

So they had been Major and Captains for twenty years, with every promotion opportunity summarily rejected.  It was the little things that counted when superiors wanted to show their displeasure.  In response, as captains and majors and even some higher ranked officers joined the expanding Cowboy detachment over the years, the Cowboys had taken to verbally capitalizing Major and Captain for those who actually commanded the entire force or the detached squadrons.  There might be many majors, but only one Major.

So Jack saluted the second Major the Cowboys had ever had and Christian returned the salute.  It probably wasn’t entirely proper.  Jack was a civilian now, just like Charles.  But he’d never been one to care about being proper, and he’d fought with Christian long enough to know that the man deserved his respect.  And so Jack held the salute until Christian released his and they shared a smile.

Then he finally turned to where Charles and Ken stood side by side, whispering to each other too quietly to hear.  Jack waved at Ken.  He normally would have hugged the man as energetically as he and Jessed had assaulted each other, but Ken was the reason for this meeting.  Jack didn’t know why.  Charles was playing that awful close to the vest, but something was wrong.  Very wrong.  So he waved, and Ken forced a smile to wave back.  It wasn’t a happy smile.

Charles and Jack exchanged nods, and Charles cleared his throat to pull the attention of every Cowboy to him.  “Well, now that we are all here, let us take our seats and commence.”  The Cowboys followed the order without hesitation.  It didn’t matter to any of them that Charles was a civilian now, with no legal authority to order any of them.  All that mattered was that The Chief told them to sit, so uniformed and civilian alike, the Cowboys sat with their cybernetic partners arrayed behind them to watch everything.  Everyone except Ken and his partner.  Charles nodded at the Captain, now retired too, with a wane smile, and sat down.  “Please relay your report, Ken.”

Ken hesitated for a moment, and Sara placed a hand on his shoulder.  Usually, a cyber’s holoform could do little more than a feathery touch, a slight gravitic fluctuation caused by the holoemitters in the clothing of their partner.  But here in the seat of cybernetic power, full hardlight emitters granted the cybers bodies as solid as any physical avatar could match.  The power costs to do it on the city block scale that was the embassy were literally astronomical, but the cybernetic families had the power to burn.  So when Sara placed her hand on his shoulder, Jack saw the shoulder sag under her pressure, and then rise back into place as Ken collected himself.

“We were coming in on the New Earth run,” Ken began to explain.  And as he continued, Jack truly realized for the first time that the President had to have been right.  He looked around at the other Cowboys, and saw the worry in their eyes too.  The report went on and on, complete with visuals in the holofield over the table, and Jack couldn’t hide how impressed he was that Ken made it out of that at all.

“It was a long flight in after that,” Ken finished with a shrug.

Charles cleared his throat, pulling all attention down to him.  “Thank you, Ken.”  He motioned for Ken to take the open chair on Jack’s left and Ken sat with seeming relief.  “Any input?”

Jack sent a questioning look towards Charles.  “Is that what happened to you?”

Charles paused for a second before answering.  “Not exactly.  But there were similarities.”

The slow shuffling of cards from Jack’s right and Jesse raised a hand to Ken.  “We hit nothing strange.  Of course, we were scheduled to come in after you.”  He shrugged.  “Maybe they weren’t expecting you to burn merry hell out of their little ambush.”

Ken nodded slowly.  “That…makes sense.”

Jack turned to Charles again.  “How many others?”

Charles pursed his lips.  “Ten others are…late for their scheduled arrival.”

Katy shook her head from the uniformed end of the table.  “Only half of us made it?  That’s not good.”

“But of the rest of us, they only hit two?” Jesse said with a dissatisfied frown.  “That seems awful sloppy of someone to miss so many of us,” he added with a nod towards the other Cowboys, and then went back to the slow shuffling of cards that helped him keep his mind from wandering.

“Well.”  The rumbling sound came from Jay’s hulking chest cavity.  “We at least didn’t come in on any of the primary routes.  We had a…problem.”

“Our grav sensors broke down,” Winona whispered with a blush from behind her partner.  “I actually had to revert to normalspace and calculate our position by starlight!”

Jack forced a chuckle at her distaste, deciding it was time to lighten the gloomy atmosphere a bit.  “You know mankind has been doing that for thousands of years now?”

Winona sniffed at him, but the sly look she gave him said she knew exactly what he was doing.  And she was willing to play along.  “Well, when you want to set sail in a rickety old leaky wooden boat with the twin pleasures of syphilis and scurvy to accompany you, just ask.”

Jack winced at her riposte, making certain everybody could see it.  “I’ll pass.  And such a low blow for someone like you as don’t need to worry about getting sick,” Jack volleyed back at the cyber.

Winona snorted and shook her head.  “Oh, you’ve never had the joy of catching a Chinese cyberbomb.”  She shuddered.  “That Wang code makes me feel dirty just thinking about it.  Thank God I keep backups!”

A shudder ran though the assembled cybers and Jack extended a single finger at her in the age-old gesture of awarding her a point in their verbal sparring match.  A wave of chuckles ran around the table, and Jack could feel the mood of the room lighten.

Charles raised a hand in the midst of the chuckling to recapture the floor, and the Cowboys gave him their serious attention again, but the gloom of moments before didn’t return.  He smiled at Jack and gave him a slight nod before speaking again.  “Of the ten of us that arrived, only three of us have been hit if you count the attack at his homestead.”  He pointed at Jack.  “That does seem sloppy.  Assuming they have the ability to create a rogue grav wave on command, why would they not have attacked more of us?”  He paused, his eyes unfocused, but no one spoke.  They’d known him long enough to know when he was thinking on his feet.  Or when he was acting like he was so he could get to something he’d already thought out.  He focused his eyes on the room again and pursed his lips.  “How many of you were late?”

Katy waved a finger first, without hesitation.  Jay, Virginia, and Dawn followed her example within a second, eyes scanning to see if anyone else would move.  No one did.

Jack barely suppressed a giggle.  It was too big an opening to resist though.  “Gone shopping?” he asked with his best wry grin.

The ladies across the table glared at him, and then Jesse jerked as if Virginia had kicked him.  Knowing her, she probably had.  And it was probably a hint.

Jesse turned to Jack with a smile.  “Sorry, boss.”  And with no more warning than that, his old friend knuckle-punched him in the shoulder.  Hard.  Yes.  It had been a hint, alright.

Jack winced but held onto his smile.  Jay aimed an amused harrumph at Jack for obviously getting what was coming to him.

“You know, I’m glad you sat on my right side,” Jack returned and rubbed the offended shoulder.

Then Ken jerked, suggesting Dawn kicked him, and Jack’s eyes opened in alarm.  Ken cleared his throat and glanced at the shoulder that was still healing.  Jack raised his arms in surrender to the other side of the table.  “Whoa, whoa, whoa.  I apologize for any insult yah might have taken at my remark,” he said, filling his voice with sincerity.

“And they say corporal punishment doesn’t work,” Katy whispered with a profound shake of her head as the other women chuckled at Jack’s expense.  For that matter, the guys joined them and Jack felt supremely outnumbered at the moment.  On the bright side, they were truly amused, a much better situation than mere minutes ago.

Of course, a Jester’s work was never done.  “Just you wait, my pretties,” he cackled back, his voice shrill, and waved an accusing finger at them.  “I’ll get you yet.”

The men brought hands up to cover their mouths, probably to cover genuine smiles that would have gotten them in trouble, but the ladies narrowed their eyes at him.  And finally, Jessica leaned forward to aim an impish smile at him from directly across the table.  “It occurs to me that I haven’t kicked anyone today,” she said in a sweet voice.  “It might take some practice to get the hang of it back,” she threatened before turning to exchange looks with the other women.  “What do you think, girls?  Three?  Four times to get it right?”

“Oh at least,” Katy returned with an approving smile and the other two nodded.

Jack saw Ken and Jesse push themselves back from the table and knew there was no way they were going to get involved.  Not that he had expected it.  Still, he had fought well.  He brought both hands back up to stall them.  “Okay, okay.  Due to the overwhelming odds I face, and the sure defeat I would suffer, I surrender with abject humiliation.”  It was over the top, and the guys snickered around him, unable to keep their mirth under control.  The ladies just glared at him, but the amusement in their eyes suggested that they hadn’t had time yet to decide if he deserved more serious punishment or not.

Then Charles cleared his throat and took the decision from them.  “We have actual business here you know,” he said and everybody turned to face him, the mirth of the moment fading.  But once again, the room felt lighter, the Cowboys recovering from their collective shock.  The major turned to Ken.  “I and you were hit on time…but Jesse was missed while on schedule.”  He pointed out Christian, and Jessica.  “On time?”  They nodded.  “Where from?”

“New Earth,” Christian answered quickly.  Jesse and Jessica frowned as they looked at him, and then nodded.

“Interesting,” Charles said slowly.  “And all of you after Ken.”  Then he turned to Dawn, who’d arrived only minutes before Ken.  “Where are you from?”


Charles frowned for a long, long series of seconds, before turning to Dorothy.  “Display the full schedule for all of us, and the…delayed…Cowboys, with points of origin and times.”

Dorothy nodded and a display came to life in thin air, showing a three-dimensional map of nearby space.  Earth glowed in the center, New Earth nearby in the Alpha Centauri binary star system.  Further away, the Chinese colonies at Epsilon Eridani and Cygni, and the Russian system of Procyon, glowed an angry red.  No one but the Scout Service went in those areas if they valued their lives.  Pacifica in Epsilon Indi and Paradisia in Tau Ceti glowed the green of friendly, while the South American colony at Groombridge glowed the sullen grey of a neutral polity.  Finally, the British colony of Albion in the Keid system glowed green as well.

Space between the systems filled with pulsing lines denoting the hyperspace routes that all ships took when traveling between them.  They weren’t as straight as they looked due to the currents of gravity that flowed through hyperspace, and there was often a great deal of twisting and turning before anyone got to their destination.  But at the scale of the map, it was accurate enough for their purposes.

Numbers began to come to life in a bright vibrant green around each star, and Jack recognized his number Five near New Earth.  Charles’ One hovered over Albion.  Other numbers came to life as well, referencing the other Cowboys in the room.  Finally other numbers appeared, dim and grey, that belonged to no one here.  Another display came to life above the map, showing the flight information of every Cowboy.  It was a sobering display of information, and Jack let out a long breath.  He knew every single one of them.

“I’m the only one to arrive from Pacifica?” Virginia asked, her jaw slack.

“And I from Albion,” Charles said in cold acceptance as he nodded at her.

“I and Dawn came from Paradisia,” Jay rumbled, his voice flat.

“Ah hell,” Jack whispered as his mind clicked like the proverbial light bulb.  “They’re blockading all the approaches.”

“Indeed,” Charles whispered with a slow nod.  “I believe you are right.”

“But…how?” Katy asked.  Then she winced.  “Not the grav wave.  That can’t be rogue if all of this is true, no matter what it looks like.”  The other Cowboys nodded in agreement.  They’d all seen gravity scramblers used to destabilize hyperspace enough to keep enemies from escaping a battle, but the waves looked artificial.  The grav wave around Earth was an example of that.  But Ken had reported a wave that looked like a natural rogue wave.  “What I mean is, how did they know when to do it?  There’s a lot of traffic coming in.  I don’t think they’d want to stop all the civilian traffic just to get us.”

Charles smiled at her.  “I think you are right there.  That would be too visible and liable to catch attention.”  Then he looked at Jack.  “But they did not need to.  All they needed was the information in your databanks to find out when the rest of us would arrive.  Then they could time their ambushes.”

Jack blinked as his mind skipped over that thought.  That information was too secure for anybody to get it.

But Betty had gotten where Charles was suggesting already.  “I forwarded the information to the Pentagon.”  She looked at the other cybers and they nodded back in agreement.

Charles pursed his lips and considered his next question carefully.  “Did you transmit over the air or by physical transfer?”

“Physical transfer.”

Charles rubbed his chin and scanned his eyes across the other Cowboys.  They all nodded in agreement and Charles sighed.  “Damn.  That means the security leak is in the Pentagon.  Dorothy.” Charles turned to his cybernetic partner, his voice the calm one of command.  “Send three Avengers each to New Earth, Pacifica, Paradisia, and Albion.  Give them all the information we have.  Tell them the routes to Earth are not safe and to transmit the information to further bases.  All Cowboys are to stop where they are, gather their strength, and hold positions until this is dealt with.”

“Yes, Charles,” Dorothy acknowledged the order with a nod, but Charles smiled and raised a single hand.

“And contact our friends in the Scout Service.  Ask them to send some boats with the same messages.”

Dorothy froze for a moment, before nodding.  “In case the attackers are watching us for our reaction.”

Charles’ face took on the smile of a predator.  “Well, if they really are, and if they really do stop our couriers from arriving, would it not be fair of us to let them think they had stopped all of our messages?”  He turned to the other Cowboys with a conspiratorial smile.  “I think it only neighborly that we allow them to think they have succeeded.  Give them a sense of accomplishment,” he finished with a shrug.

The Cowboys chuckled around the briefing table, each one imagining how much fun it would be disabuse their enemies of that particular notion.  Jack imagined a grand old party, with fireworks and music and dancing girls.  Well, the fireworks at least.  He might have to bring his own music.  He’d probably have to leave the dancing girls out, at least until the after party.  But the fireworks he was certain they could arrange would probably make it about the most satisfying party he’d ever been to in his life.