We took a drubbing at Epsilon Reticuli but we blew their trap to kingdom come and got out.  Then we had to make for Serenity.  Serenity had yards to repair our ships, heavy defensive fleets, and powerful orbital forts.  She was a Western Alliance Core World, an immovable fortress in the stars, a safe haven in even the most dangerous of wars.  We would be safe when we got there.  We’d escaped the trap and were home free.  There was nothing to worry about, right?





He awoke with a yawn so powerful it stretched from the tip of his nose to the curled end of his toes.  Tears filled his eyes and he stretched his left arm and right leg as far as the limbs would go.  Toes and fingers quivered in time to each other and electricity ran up and down his spine.  Finally he collapsed back into the small bed and luxuriated in the feel of freshly moving muscles.  Then he stretched the other leg until it quivered and moved his right arm up to give it the full early morning treatment.

The stretching exercise ended when his right hand hit something.  Someone.  He froze, wondering what someone else was doing in his bed.  Then the faint smell of chamomile registered.

Jack smiled and laid a hand on Natalie’s bare leg.  The boy who earned the name Jack had awoken to many crowded beds so that part at least was old hat.  The last two years had changed Captain Jack Hart’s priorities, but this was one girl he would never kick out of his bed.  Well, she was sitting on his bed rather than lying in it if he was being honest.  He might be tempted to embellish a bit in his memoirs though.  Waking up next to a beautiful young lady sounded so much better in a story after all.

Jack opened his eyes to see a flower-print sundress stopping just above his hand looking like a refugee from a fashion show.  Not that he’d watched many fashion shows since Julie and Alex left to follow their dreams.  Jack swung his eyes up to Natalie’s raven-black hair and the starkly beautiful face that could have shamed even the best Russian models.  He’d loved watching Russian models running around in the wild back in the day.  She raised an eyebrow at him and he had the feeling she knew every thought in his head.

“Well, hello beautiful,” he said with a winning smile and patted the cybernetic intelligence’s android leg.  It was a true body rather than the holoform most cybers used when dealing with their pilots.  Not that she would ever have the opportunity of speaking with her pilot ever again.  Jack pushed that thought away and kept his smile warm.  He wasn’t about to try to bring her down this early in the morning.

“Hello, Jack,” she answered with an amused smile.

“What brings you here this beautiful morning?” he asked shamelessly and she chuckled.

“Well, you did have an alarm set for an hour out of Serenity.”  Her expression bespoke genuine humor with him.  She was in her best mood since Epsilon Reticuli.

“Ah,” Jack muttered and cleared his throat of early morning phlegm, determined to keep thoughts of that battle off his face.  “You volunteered?”

“I drew the short straw.” Natalie teased.

Jack affected a wounded look and placed a hand over his heart.  “Oh, you wound me.”

Natalie just laughed again.  “I somehow think you’ll get over it.  But you should hurry.”

Jack wiped drool off his cheek and made a production of rolling his shoulders out of their sleep.  “Well, I do need a shower,” he said, looking up at her with a raised eyebrow.

Natalie smiled at the suggestion   “Then I suppose I should leave you alone to deal with that.”  She leaned forward and came to her feet with a single smooth motion that brought her out from under his hand.

He reached out and grabbed her hand though.  She stopped and met his suddenly serious eyes with a questioning look.  “How are you?” he asked.

She sighed at the question he asked every day.  “I’m better today than yesterday.”

“Any day you can wake up saying that…”

“Is a good day,” Natalie finished what had become their daily tradition.

Jack aimed a serious nod towards her.  “That’s right.”

Natalie sighed.  “Now you really do need to hurry,” Natalie said with another smile.  “Unless you want to explain to Captain Wyatt why you’re late,” she added with a wicked glint.

“Oh!” Jack exclaimed and rolled out of his bunk in a smooth procession of wind milling limbs that sent his blanket into the air above them.  He’d nearly made it to the small head, and the blanket was settling back down on the bunk, when a single word stopped him in his tracks.


He turned to see Natalie giving him a soft look.  “Yes?”

“Thank you.”

Jack nodded and tipped an imaginary hat towards her.  “My pleasure, Ma’am.”

She shook her head in amusement and left his tiny cabin.

He stood there alone, thinking on those simple words.  A few days ago, she’d been ready to shut down forever.  Now she was thanking him.  That was an amazing change and he couldn’t move as he considered just how important it was.  Maybe she was truly ready to live now.  Just maybe.

“Jack?” Betty’s voice asked from thin air, springing him from his trance.


“Shower?” the cyber he truly belonged to asked in a pointed tone.

Jack blinked.  “Right,” he said and turned to deal with that.

Jack splurged on a hot water shower instead of the sonic showers most people used.  Sonics did Bad Things to ears as sensitive as his, so he watered up, toweled off, and stepped out of the tiny head to find his uniform waiting for him, pressed and cleaned overnight as he slept.  He nodded approval, grabbed the Republic of Texas Marine Corps service shirt, and slid into it with a smooth motion.  Service trousers came next, with a decidedly non-regulation deer head belt buckle staring out of the regulation belt.  He stepped into his black cowboy boots next, hearing the faint jingling of not-quite-decorative spurs.

Finally he stuffed himself into the brown leather flight jacket and dropped the regulation black Stetson on his head.  Fingers ran through the Peloran-regulation length long blonde hair that stuck out from beneath it with pleasure and a shake of his head.  A quick examination of his reflection in the mirror met with approval.  A member of the Texas Marine Corps Fighter Wing 112, the Cowboys, always had to be ready to give the right impression to all the pretty girls first thing in the morning.  And as all the best movies put it, he looked marvelous.

A cybernetic holoform flickered into being next to him and stared at the reflection.  She always looked best on of her blonde hair and blue-eyed days.  It was how he’d first met her and it just looked right to him.  He turned to examine her vaguely Scandinavian features more closely than the mirror allowed and smiled at her.  Her digital form stood in stark contrast to the analog world around them to his sensitive eyes.  Even the edges of her yellow sundress seemed to stop far more suddenly than anything he’d seen in the northern Minnesota nature he’d grown up with.

The cyber turned towards him and in that smile he saw oh so many of the girls he’d grown up with.  His heart actually skipped a beat as he saw her.  Natalie was beautiful.  Very few would disagree with that.  But Betty was something else entirely.  She was his.  And he was hers.  She’d pulled him out of the hate-filled months that followed the fall of Yosemite Yards and the end of his world.  And now she kept him moving every day.  She was the perfect companion.

Betty nodded in approval and looked towards the hatch with a questioning eyebrow.

“Yeah,” he answered her wordless question and squeezed around her to walk out of his tiny cabin.  The corridor was full of crewmen making their way to stations in the early shipboard morning.  Serenity was near and the well-rested crewers all had their stations to go to.  A flash of color caught his attention and a smaller version of Betty appeared on his shoulder.  Now that they were out of his cabin her twenty-centimeter small form wore the same service uniform he did, with the exception of the skirt that looked much better on her than it would on him.  Jack reached up to place a hand on his shoulder next to her and a doll-sized hand soon rested on it.  They exchanged a quick gaze and walked through the rabbit-warren of corridors with the ship’s crew.

He found a lift and filed into it along with several other crewmembers.  They filled every spare centimeter of the small space and Jack glanced at Betty with a raised eyebrow.  She nodded in confirmation that she had already informed the lift of their destination.  He turned his head to smile at the other members of the crew.  Several of them smiled back, though as usual they didn’t know what to make of him.

Like most naval crewers they were, well, naval personnel.  He was different from them in three ways.  First he was a Marine, trained in one of the hardest boot camps in creation to inflict physical mayhem.  They were trained to operate computer displays on a starship.  Secondly he was a fighter pilot.  He fought the enemy alone in a tiny fighter while they served with hundreds of their fellows on a heavy cruiser.  At best he could count on the support of other fighter pilots and craft, but fighters always engaged the enemy on the knife-edge of combat between life and death.  Warships rarely engaged in the kinds of close combat that fighters gloried in.

Finally he was one of the literal one in a million members of the human race whose body had reacted in the rarest of ways to the Peloran treatments.  He moved faster, he could lift more, and “eyes of the eagle” had more truth than hyperbole in his case.  And while his nose did not compare to a bloodhound he could smell far better than many dogs.  He could quite literally smell the tension in the lift.

In another life that ended with the Shang strike that brought Yosemite Yards down all over his hometown, Jack had been just one of many college slackers studiously wasting his potential.  He’d studied liberal arts, music, and girls, and not at all in that order.  Now he was a Marine.  He spent most of his time wearing the façade of the college slacker he’d perfected in that other life, but everyone in the lift knew he wasn’t that harmless.  He wasn’t one of them.

He was a Marine.  He was a fighter pilot.  He was a gengineered, even if by accident, super soldier.  And his shoulder-length hair branded him a Cowboy, member of the only American fighter unit that actively served under Peloran command.  He was different from them and even those who smiled back at him betrayed a hint of nerves in their smell, their stance, and their eyes.

The bridge proved one of the lift’s first stops and four crewers stepped out into the roomy compartment, Jack following almost precisely on their heals.  He felt the relief running through the remaining crew behind him as the lift door closed and watched the new arrivals stride over to vacant stations.  But the smell of stress heightened rather than went away.  Jack scanned the bridge to see every duty station was filled and another quick glance showed they were operating at a heightened alert status.  They weren’t at general quarters but his eyes flicked over consoles filled with warnings and questions.  Something odd was going on.

Betty made a show of looking around and jumping off his shoulder.  She grew to normal size on the way down and he heard the holoemitters in his uniform powering up to take the extra load of her larger form.  She shook her head and ran her fingers through her hair with a satisfied air.

“Much better,” Betty intoned.

“Absolutely,” Jack said as two figures caught his attention in the middle of the bridge.  The first was a redhead.  Every time he saw her he remembered all the redheads he’d known in his life.  Gabrielle surpassed all but a handful of them with ease.  The cybernetic mind of the heavy cruiser gave him a smile from atop her holoform’s petite frame and he tipped the brim of his hat towards her with an answering smile.  Then he turned to face the tall and lean captain standing next to her.  “Captain Wyatt.”

“Major Hart,” the brunette answered, giving him the courtesy promotion tradition dictated.  There could only be one Captain aboard ship after all.  If the proverbial animal excrement ever hit the rotary oscillators there could be no confusion at all when a crewman shouted for her.

“You wanted me?” Jack asked, his smile projecting wry humor.

She sighed quietly enough he could pretend he didn’t notice but loud enough his ears couldn’t miss it.  Then she looked around the bridge for a moment, brown hair bobbing as she took in bridge crew.  “Could you join me in my briefing room?”

“Said the spider to the fly?” he asked with a wink.

Her amused smile made it all the way to her grey eyes as she turned to walk into the small room next to the bridge.  He followed her through the hatch, Gabrielle and Betty on his heels, to see Hunter Roberts and Mercedes already waiting for them.  The warship’s integral pilot and cyber wore matching flight jackets and mirrored aviator shades over physiques Top Gun Academy recruiting posters looked for.

“Roberts,” Jack said towards the square-jawed pilot.  “Mercedes,” he added with a nod towards the much finer-featured cyber.

“Hart,” Roberts answered with a smile and nodded towards Captain Wyatt.

“So what’s with the powwow?” Jack asked and turned back towards her.

“Serenity’s buoys are silent,” Roberts said with a worried look.

Jack frowned.  “Are we in the right spot?”  He’d never studied hyperspace any more than the average person before The War started, but there was one undeniable point about it.  Time in hyperspace and normalspace just worked different.  Seven days had passed since they left Epsilon Reticuli but there was no way of knowing how much time those who lived in the universe that Einstein knew had seen go by.  Gallivanting between stars on meandering rivers of hyperspatial gravity tended to make tiny little matters like time and space far more complicated than any computer could accurately calculate.

To combat that problem, most major star systems anchored buoys along the major hyperspace routes to contact approaching starships.  They transmitted time and space updates, or updated system maps since nobody wanted to bounce too close to something the size of a planet or star.  Even local news, like which planetary celebrity had last been photographed skinny-dipping after a drunken party, was usually sent.  Jack had been particularly looking forward to that last bit since Serenity had some very flamboyant actresses.

“We’ve confirmed our location via normalspace,” Wyatt said nodded towards one of the displays on the wall that showed a screen full of stars.  “We should have passed the first buoy fifteen minutes ago.”

“Frak.”  Jack glanced a question towards Betty and she nodded to confirm the captain’s description of their situation.  “What are you thinking?”

“I’m hoping an equipment malfunction,” Wyatt said in a tone that betrayed very little hope at all.

“That’s what I thought.”  Jack shook his head and examined the holofield hovering over the briefing table.  It showed the fourteen surviving starships of their squadron arrayed around the heavy cruiser Los Angeles.  He focused on each of them, considering the information that came into existence over each one.  The Battle of Epsilon Reticuli had damaged all of them to one degree or another, but they’d repaired much of it in the last week.  All of the external armor had been repaired though many of them still reported internal damage the fabricators hadn’t fixed yet.  American fabricators still weren’t up to Peloran standards and it just took time to do things.

Jack adjusted his view to check the distance between the fleet and the star’s gravitic disturbance and had to agree.  They should have picked up the buoys minutes ago.  That meant they’d either malfunctioned or they weren’t there.  And Core Worlds buoys rarely malfunctioned.  “You want us to scout ahead and find out what’s up?”

“Are you offering?” Wyatt asked the question that was far more serious than it would be in most circumstances.  Jack’s Cowboys were quite literally not under her command after all.

Jack looked at Betty and she nodded.  “Absolutely,” Jack said with a wide smile.

“Thank you,” Wyatt said with a genuine smile on her face.

“My pleasure, Ma’am,” Jack answered with a brisk salute and began to turn away.

“Good luck.”

“Always, Ma’am,” he said and tipped the brim of his cowboy hat towards her.

Then he and Betty stepped out of the briefing room, walked through a bridge full of people diligently scanning their displays for any information they could find, and stepped into the lift.  It began to move and he waggled his eyebrows at Betty.  “This is Captain Jack to all Cowboys,” he said, trusting her to retransmit his words to those Cowboys on the other ships of the squadron.  “Get to your fighters and get ready to fly.  We’ve got some scouting to do.”

“They’re getting ready,” Betty said with a smile.

“Giving out orders before I do again?” Jack asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Of course not.”  Betty’s smile turned innocent.  “They were merely suggestions.”

“Oh, of course.  Suggestions.”  Jack said with finger quotes as the lift opened up into the hangar bay of a Los Angeles-class heavy cruiser.  It was large.  Cavernous even if Jack wanted to borrow ten-dollar words for the purpose.  Over one hundred meters across, with fighters and Marine craft anchored to both the overhead and underfoot decks, the hangar bay was never silent.  The fevered activity of men and women performing last minute checks on their craft made it look like a particularly annoyed anthill now.  Naval Hellcat fighters and Marine Garm assault shuttles pinged their final pre-battle readiness in a steady chorus.  Here or there came the annoying buzz of something failing and technicians quickly piled onto those craft.  They were in a race to bring the squadron up to full battle readiness.

Jack glanced at Betty and she nodded.  She was ready.  He turned to the right and ran, weaving between fighters, shuttles, and boxes of spare parts on his way to the single largest craft in the entire hangar.  Over forty meters long, the Avenger-class “fighter” was the largest craft of her type ever built as far as Jack knew.  The first fighter capable of hyperspatial transmissions on their own, the Avengers simply had larger engines, more powerful generators, heavier armor, and more weaponry than any other fighter ever made by Terran hands.

And one Captain Jack Hart had the honor of flying one of the first twelve fighters to serve in the Texas Marine Corps.  Not that all twelve still flew.  Even the Cowboys took losses.  Especially the Cowboys took losses.  There was an old saying about being given more than your fair share of impossible missions if you finished more than your fair share of impossible missions in there somewhere.  And impossible missions tended to generate body counts.  Like Epsilon Reticuli.

Jack firmly closed his mind on that gloomy thought and rounded another shuttle to see his Avenger.  Betty’s Avenger.  Their Avenger.  Whatever.  He shot past a surprised technician at full run and jumped as hard as he could.  It was a good jump.  He was pretty certain it would have cleared ten meters if he were in the Olympics.  Not that he would ever be allowed to participate in them.  The Avenger’s gravity generator snatched him out of the air, forever erasing any chance of getting an accurate measurement on that particular jump, and sucked Jack up towards the upper hull of the fighter.  He arced back down to place his feet carefully inside the cockpit, just as he’d practiced hundreds of times before.  The natural pull of artificial gravity reasserted itself, and he sat down to the sound of sighing leather all around him.

“Reactor online, sensors online, weapons online, all systems nominal,” Betty reported in a husky tone, her twenty-centimeter holoform landing on top of the console beneath the closing cockpit.

Jack smiled in appreciation.  “Oooh, that’s nice.  Do it again.”

“The Cowboys are assembling,” she responded in the same tone.

Jack sighed.  “Then I suppose we should join them,” he said and locked his five-point harness together with practiced motions.  Then he flashed his eyes across the displays to confirm their status and nodded in approval.

“By your command,” Betty said and shed her service uniform in an explosion of electronic pixels radiating out from her holoform.  When it cleared, the yellow sundress she preferred hung off her form and she smiled.  Jack returned the smile, but most of his attention was on the multicolored chaos of hyperspace outside the hangar.

They slid out through the energy barrier to see the endless wonders of hyperspace stretching out in every direction.  The Avenger spun in place, maneuvering thrusters flaring, to face towards where the other Avengers assembled for what he dearly hoped would be an uneventful arrival.  He scanned the displays, noting the destroyers and frigates surrounding the single heavy cruiser, and the three British ships hanging well behind the squadron.  Small fighters flew around the warships, keeping a watch for enemies trying to sneak up on them.

The Avenger vibrated around them, breaking his attention away from the formation as their engines came to life, and they shot away from the heavy cruiser.  The displays blinked for his attention, and he saw Jasmine’s three surviving Avengers move out of Los Angeles’ shadow to fly with him.  Jasmine’s blue jean and tank top-clad holoform flickered onto the console next to Betty and they exchanged a smile.  “Nice to see you again,” Jack said to the cyber.  “How we doing?”

“Ready to blow something up,” Jasmine answered with a wicked smile.


An Avenger shot away from one of the destroyers and he squinted to examine the starship.  She was Harrington, one of the new Austin-class destroyers that were making all the waves lately.  Her massive armored hammerhead sported weapons powerful enough to kill even enemy capital ships and armor capable of absorbing or deflecting even the most powerful of capital weapons.  She was an impressive little ship.

His eyes shifted to the Avenger and Kathleen Reynolds’ name appeared.  Jack smiled as more Avengers banked in to surround her fighter and accelerated towards his position.  A console blinked for his attention and he turned as Katy’s face appeared.

“Cat Flight here,” the blonde said in a voice that perfectly portrayed the boredom of a veteran pilot looking for something to excite her.  She made it a point of pride to never let anyone know if she was afraid of anything.  It was one of the things he loved about flying with her.   “I suppose it’s time.”

Jack shrugged and echoed her calm demeanor.  “Yup.  Time to go out and get bored,” he answered with a confident smile that he wished was more than skin deep.  Serenity was one of the major Alliance Core Worlds, as secure as any world in this mixed up War could be.  But if he wanted to cut a fleet off from the Core Worlds support, he knew where he would put his ships.  Smack dab on a straight-line course between Epsilon Reticuli and Alpha Centauri.  He would have Serenity covered, and maybe some others.  But definitely Serenity.  And now the buoys were missing.  He had a bad feeling about this.

“A nice, quiet reentry?” Katy asked.

“Have I ever given you anything less?”

Katy snorted.  “Guns drawn it is.”

“Absolutely.”  Jack turned to the other displays to see the other Avengers assembling around them.  All the colors of the rainbow played over their hulls and Jack smiled as the thirty-two remaining Cowboy fighters formed a wedge before the American warship squadron.

The very fabric of hyperspace dragged at the ships, even when riding a gravitic stream, and the telltale blue glow of fusion engines kept them moving resolutely towards Serenity.  The gravitic streams ducked and weaved through hyperspace, pulling the Avengers with them in what looked like a random series of rolls and dives.  It created a complex and random pattern of chaos at the very point of the American formation.  Jack watched his fighters follow the streams and could almost feel a rhythm to it all.  There was an ebb and flow to their movements that Jack could almost recognize, like hyperspace itself represented a much larger current that he couldn’t quite see.  Jack had to admit that whatever it was made the whole sight appear impressive.

“We are approaching the Red Line,” Betty announced.

“Deploy scouts,” Jack ordered.

Five Avengers responded to his order by firing their engines and filling hyperspace with brighter blue fusion torches.  They dissipated quickly in the streams of gravity flowing ahead of them, but the fighters slowed and seemed to recede at the same time.  They held their position in their streams, but seemed to move further away.  Sometimes Jack really hated hyperspace.  Trying to understand it hurt the brain.  The cybernetic fighters moved towards the wall that separated hyperspace from the Einsteinium universe, carefully trying to avoid taking any more energy than they needed.  And then they faded away entirely, dropping off every sensor Jack’s fighters had access to as they rose into normalspace.

A second later, the displays began to come to life with views of the Serenity star system.  Peloran technology at work.  They’d long known how to transmit messages directly between normalspace and hyperspace, giving them perfect real time intelligence on the other side of the wall if they could send a probe.  The scouting Avengers played the roll of probe for Jack, punching a signal filled with their sensor readings back to the Avengers who followed them in hyperspace.  It was as valuable for Jack now as it had been every time he saw the Peloran take advantage of it.  Valuable but not comforting at all.  Angry red symbols filled the displays.

“Oh, frak,” he swore.

Dozens of Chinese cruisers, destroyers, and frigates filled the system, and the wreckage of dozens more told the tale of a bitter battle for Serenity.  Nearly two-dozen assorted destroyers and frigates pounded a fort just inside the Red Line from Jack’s force, and he could see the fort was falling fast.  Floating wreckage marked where the outer forts had been, and the near orbit defenses were just gone.

“I’m getting friendly signals,” Betty reported.  “They’re squawking for help on all frequencies.  Serenity has lost all orbital defenses.  Invasion is…right now.”

“Frak,” Jack swore again.  “Captain Wyatt?”

Her holoform appeared on the console almost immediately.  “Yes?”

“That’s a lot of ships,” Jack reported, knowing she had to be seeing the same data he was.

“Yes, it is,” she said, her tone angry.  “We have to do something.”

Jack didn’t hesitate so much as a second even as he knew it was crazy.  The Chinese outnumbered them two to one, and that was before the damage they’d taken at Epsilon Reticuli.  But Serenity was an Alliance Core World, a bastion of economic and industrial might, home to hundreds of millions of people from every nation in the Alliance.  It had to be defended.  “I know.”

“Impossible!” another voice interjected into the conversation and the displays revealed Admiral Bainsworth.  The commander of the entire British fleet at Epsilon Reticuli, he now commanded a single medical frigate and two destroyers staying as far away from the American squadron as they could without losing contact.  “We have vital military intelligence that could affect future prosecution of The War!  We must take this information to Alpha Centauri without delay.”

“This is not a delay,” Wyatt said in a harsh tone.  “This is a star system.”

“No single system is worth the outcome of the entire War, Captain,” Bainsworth emphasized her rank.  “I order you to make for the New Earth-Serenity Run at maximum speed.”

Wyatt just smiled back at him but her eyes were hard as iron.  “We’ve been over this before, Admiral.  This is an American squadron.  I command here, not you.  You may hold your ships back and watch if you wish, but this squadron will defend all Alliance worlds from attack.  Serenity will not fall.”  Her hand chopped down in a motion that severed Bainsworth’s spluttering connection and she turned to Jack.  “Captain Hart.  Will you please explain it to them?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”  Jack tipped his hat towards Wyatt and scanned the displays one last time.  Everybody was ready.  Good.  “All Cowboys, clear for surface action in three…two…one.”

Betty smiled and said “Now” as the hyperdrive powered up behind them in the Avenger’s core.

“Yippie ki-yay,” Jack whispered the age-old battlecry as the world of wildly flowing colors turned pitch black for an instant that felt like it would never end.