Hello, my name is Jack.  Do you know when it is the best time to mount a sneak attack?  I do.  So do the Shang.  You wait for them to be all fat and happy.  Best is right after they’ve won a great victory.  Once they eat, drink, and bed Mary, they’ll be slow to respond when you hit them again.  It does take a particularly calculating mind to write off the first attack wave of course.  It just so happens the Shang are quite calculating.



Hit and Jump


Jack held the best tasting loaf of bread he’d ever eaten.  He tore another chunk out of it and chewed, watching the pilots relive the battle with sweeps of their hands and whoops of exaltation.  The table they sat at or stood over overflowed with amazing ale and fruit and breads and meats.  Jack glanced down at the bread in his hand and swallowed his mouthful.  He had formed a number of expectations from what he’d seen of the Peloran over the years and this room did bad things to most of them.

He shifted his gaze to where Hal leaned against a pure white bulkhead, looking at complete and utter ease in the battleship he controlled.  The cyber watched the men and women who lived on his ship celebrating the fact that they still lived.  A smile came over his face and the cyber glanced over to Jack for a moment before turning back to the other pilots.

“They really are amazing, aren’t they?” Aneerin asked and Jack turned to give the much older Peloran a questioning eyebrow.  “Our preconceptions, I mean.  So much of what we see depends on them, doesn’t it?”  Aneerin smiled again.  “What do we do when they collide with reality?”

Jack frowned and studied the shouting and laughing Peloran pilots, partying in victory along with the handful of other American pilots.  He’d never seen a Peloran party, never realized that the quiet and calm tree hugging Peloran he’d seen on the news and in the movies all his life would party in any way that he would consider a party at all.  Jack took another bite of the bread and considered as he chewed on it.  He glanced over to where Charles stood on the other side of Aneerin, the heir of a vast family fortune who had been to thousands of parties with tens of thousands of people, and caught the other pilot’s thoughtful gaze.  Charles nodded and Jack had the feeling he’d come to the same conclusion.  He was a real smart cookie.

“Well,” Jack finally said with a shrug.  “I suppose I reassess.”  Aneerin’s smile broadened.  Jack shook his head and met the older man’s gaze.  “Though I wonder why you show us this.  You brought us here on purpose; you showed us this on purpose.  You want us to believe that your people are different than what we have been led to believe.  Either you are, or you are playing like you are.”

“You know we can’t lie, Jack,” Aneerin said, spreading his hands out wide.

“Yes, but mislead?” he asked with tight smile.

“Perhaps,” Aneerin returned with sigh.  “Perhaps not.  What do you think?”

Jack glanced at Charles again, measuring where the man stood.  A shadow of a smile cracked his face, telling Jack the man stood with him.  “I think you have a vested interest in making us see your people as something other than the calm and cultured aliens from the great beyond who brought miracle medicines and advanced technologies,” Jack said, cocking his head to spear Aneerin with his gaze.  “And I think we need to find out what that vested interest is.”

Aneerin’s smile erupted into laughter that mixed into the celebration in the room perfectly.  “Ah, Jack,” he said after composing himself.  “I like you.  Never stop asking why people want you to believe anything.  Sometimes it is for your benefit, and sometimes for their benefit.  Understand the reason and you understand the truth.”

Alarms rang out and words in Peloran began to transmit over the speakers.

“Ah.  It appears our conversation is at an end,” Aneerin said with a frown and Hal’s avatar turned to walk towards them.

Betty’s hand appeared on Jack’s shoulder and she leaned in close to his ear.  “They are calling for battle stations,” she whispered as the Peloran pilots dropped their food and drink and ran for the hatch.

A hologram of Hal flickered into existence before them.  “The Shang are attacking Fort London.  The British are trying to hold but they are having issues.”

“These Terran defense squadrons are too small.  It was a mistake for you to rely on the Lunar Treaty,” Aneerin said with an unhappy frown.

“The Chinese and Russians have held to it,” Charles said, disagreeing with Aneerin’s statement.

Aneerin pursed his lips.  “And that’s done you so much good.”

“Actually, it has,” Charles countered.  “They could have finished us by breaking it.  They haven’t.”

Aneerin studied him for several seconds before nodding.  “True.  But if you had more forces at Terra, you could better handle these Shang strikes.”

Charles gave him a smile and a raised finger.  “Turn around, Reverend, because you’re preaching to the choir on that point.”

Aneerin chuckled and turned to Hal’s hologram.  “Can we fight a sustained battle?”

“No,” Hal answered with a definitive shake of his head.

Aneerin turned back to Charles, all calm business.  “Will you fly with us?”

“Of course,” Charles said without hesitation, before aiming a sly smile at Aneerin.  “I have been to many parties on the Isle of Man and would like to do so again.”

Aneerin’s eyebrows rose at the admission.  “Yes.  I have been there myself.”  He paused for a second, his eyes glossed over as he remembered.  He shook his head and returned to the present with a swallow.  “That was some time ago though.  Walk with me please,” Aneerin said and began to follow his men towards the hatch.

Charles waved the other Cowboys over and followed Aneerin towards the hatch.  Jack shadowed Charles and Aneerin.

“How long does it take your fighters to recharge for another jump?”  Aneerin asked.

“Four minutes.”  Aneerin gave him a disbelieving gaze.  “But we have capacitors that hold up to four charges,” Charles added.

Aneerin let out a breath as he considered the information and followed his pilots out of the hatch.  “It’s a hack,” Aneerin said to Hal as he turned left to walk towards the hangar bay.  Jack frowned as he noticed that the Peloran pilots had turned right, wondering where they were going.  “They didn’t put in a generator powerful enough to make a jump, they filled them up with batteries with enough charge to do it.  Now I understand how they managed it.”  He turned back to Charles.  “When you jump into battle, how quickly can you jump back out?”

Charles grimaced.  “Thirty seconds.”

Aneerin winced at the answer and looked up as Hal’s body walked into his hologram.  Jack’s practiced eyes noticed when the hologram faded away, leaving behind the real body as the cyber shook his head.  “What is the absolute minimum?” Aneerin asked.

Charles cocked his head towards Dorothy and she gave them all a tight smile.  “Ten seconds,” Dorothy answered in a cultured voice that chief advisors to powerful and rich families had perfected over the millennia.  “But that is with a ten percent failure rate due to overloading the capacitors during the energy transfer.  We’d be losing a fighter on average with each jump if we did that.”

“How about fifteen seconds?” Aneerin asked, pursing his lips in thought.

“Failure rates go down to four percent.” Dorothy said and gave a slight shrug.  “Probably survivable, if we take time for repairs between attacks.”

Aneerin turned to Hal.  “Can we do it?”

“Fifteen seconds is a long time,” Hal said with a pessimistic shake of his head.  “We will take heavy damage.  Are you certain they are worth it?”

Aneerin gave an unhappy sigh.  “Ten heavy fighters.  Considering our losses in that category, they are heavy reinforcements.  They could guard one of your flanks.”

“True,” Hal said with a frown.  “We can make do.  Perhaps we can even use it to our advantage.  If we stay longer than usual, the Shang may believe we are there to stay and shift their battle line to face us.”

“Indeed,” Aneerin returned with a nod and walked into the main hangar.  “I will leave the particulars to you.”

Jack followed him in and looked around.  It was as large and imposing as before, the massive tree on one end and the flickering energy curtain looking out into a black sky filled with stars on the other.  The great white bulkheads gleamed, and against one of them the Avengers sat, powering up again for battle.  Jack frowned and looked around, realizing that none of the Peloran fighters were still here.

Aneerin turned towards the American pilots as they filed into the hanger.  “Gentleman.  Ladies.  I believe it is time to fight again.”  As if on cue, the lights dimmed for a second and Jack swallowed as he looked out on the crazy quilt of colors that made up hyperspace.  “I’m afraid we have no launch bays that can accommodate your Avengers.  I trust you are willing to launch from here?”

Jack blinked in realization of where the Peloran pilots had gone.  They had launch bays separate from and completely independent of the main landing bay.

“Of course we are,” Charles answered without a pause and waved everybody to their fighters.  He aimed a quick look at Jack, and Jack realized the man had caught that little tidbit as well.

Jack ran off towards his, Betty beside him.  He frowned, considering what all of this meant.

“What’s on your mind?” Betty asked as they stopped at the foot of the fighter and the ladder extruded out of its skin for him.

Jack looked between Aneerin and Hal as he pulled himself up the ladder.  Something was odd but he couldn’t put his finger on it.  “These people are strange.  Deeply strange.”

“True,” Betty answered with a smile.  “Far more alien than you thought from their faces?”

Jack blinked again and froze on the ladder for a moment.  “Yeah.  Alien.  I think that covers it.”  He aimed a long look at Aneerin and Hal, standing side by side like twins, watching the Americans board their fighters.  “Have you noticed they talk very much alike?” he finally asked.

“Well, they have been partners for over two thousand years,” Betty said with a smile and jumped up onto the console as she shrunk down to twenty centimeters in height.  “If we last that long, people will be saying the same about us.”

“God, I hope not,” Jack answered and dropped into his seat.  He winked at her surprised expression and locked his restraints in.  “I like my sexy baritone.”

Betty laughed, a clear soprano sound that tinkled off the inside of the cockpit.  Then she pursed her lips.  “Well, I could change,” she said, her voice dropping down into the baritone range.

Jack rubbed his chin and cleared his throat, feeling uncomfortable with the discussion.  “I think I’ll take yah the way your momma made yah,” he finally said.

Her eyes opened wide, she slipped her hands behind her back, and gave him a pleased smile.  “Nice,” she said in her normal voice.  “Good save.”  She cocked her head to the side.  “And I am ready to fly…now.  Are you?”

“Do you need to ask?”  Jack leaned back in his seat, completely at ease again.

“I suppose not,” Betty said and they floated up off the deck.

He looked out to see the other Cowboys lifting off as well, and a scan of the displays showed their information popping up, confirming their readiness to fight.

“Cowboy Three to all Cowboys,” Charles broadcast.  “Let’s launch.  We’ll be holding the Guardian Light’s starboard flank against counter attack while assisting in offensive operations.”  A beam of light appeared on the displays, showing their route out of the hangar and around.  “Follow my beam,” he ordered and accelerated out of the hangar.

Jack interlaced his fingers and cracked his knuckles as they accelerated out with the rest of the Cowboys and turned hard towards the Guardian Light’s starboard side, pulling into position with a final burst of thruster fire.  He looked around at the small formation of six warships, scanning for the heavy fighters screening their flanks.  There weren’t very many of them.

Hal appeared on the comm. panel.  “We are approaching jump location.”  Another screen came to life, showing him the battle.  The British naval squadron and Fort London were surrounded, taking damage from all vectors, by nearly three times their number of Shang ships.  Fort London seemed fully operational and its impressive point defense was the only thing keeping the squadron alive as far as he could see.

“How long ago is this?” Jack asked, trying to get a feeling for how things might have changed since their last update.

“This is a live signal,” Hal answered with a smile.

Jack blinked.  “What?  How?”  It was impossible to send a message between normal and hyperspace.  They had to be physically transported by a ship or drone.  There was no way to have a live signal.

Hal shrugged.  “It’s complicated.”  He chuckled.  “I’ll show you later if you wish, but for now you can rest assured that this is live.  Now prepare to jump in three…two…one.”

Jack closed his eyes against the flash, opened them and saw the battle laid out before him.  Explosions wreathed Fort London and its mighty multi-layered deflection grid flickered in and out a section at a time.  The destroyers and cruisers around it spewed weapons fire in all directions, supporting the main cannons on the fort.

The Shang surrounded them, firing broadside after broadside of missiles and lasers towards the fort.  British point defense networks shot the missiles down by the scores and the deflection grids twisted the lasers away while the fort’s gravitic cannons played across the Shang ships.  Four British destroyers drifted away from the fight, lights flickering and massive wounds in their flanks.  The fort had obviously not been able to stop all of the missiles.

“Fire,” Hal ordered and a hundred gravitic cannons from the fighters escorting the capital ships opened up, twisting gravity between the two fleets.  Across the Shang flank, deflection grids with most of their energy devoted to holding off the fort’s weapons crumpled when five or more beams focused on one target.  They ripped armor and weapons alike into space, leaving deep scars in the Shang ships.  It was the sixteen heavy cannons mounted outside the Peloran warships’ hulls that did most of the damage though, punching through every deflection grid they hit with thousands of gravities of gravitic sheer.  Sixteen Shang ships belched atmosphere and debris and fell out of formation.  No single ship exploded, but an entire flank of the Shang englobing force faltered.  They shifted power to their deflection grids to protect their wounded flanks from the Peloran and most of the next salvo of grav beams twisted away, spraying in all directions until they faded away.

Missiles and lasers exploded from the Shang ships, charging the Peloran Battle Squadron, and the point defense lasers reached out to shoot them down.  Most of the lasers missed the wildly maneuvering warships and fighters, and the few that hit twisted off into space.  Explosions from incoming missiles wreathed the Peloran squadron, each succeeding wave closer to the deflection grid until the rolling front of explosions filled Jack’s view.

“Jump in three,” Hal transmitted.  Jack saw the deflection grids of the squadron flickering under the assault.

“Two.”  Jack swallowed as their fighter’s grav cannons finished powering up for another shot.


The cannons fired one more time as Jack closed his eyes and the world flashed around him.  He opened his eyes to see hyperspace in all its colors around him again.  He licked his lips and checked the sensors to make certain everybody made it.  They had.

“Congratulations,” Hal transmitted.  “We have completed our first strike.  To those who have never done it before, you have drawn first blood.  May you bleed our enemies well in the future.”  A beam appeared on the displays to another location and the squadron accelerated towards it.  “The good news is that we have badly mauled them and received negligible damage in return.  The bad news is that they know we are here now and they will be prepared for our next assault.  Be ready.  The rest of the battle will not be so easy.”

“Oh joy,” Jack muttered.

Hal raised an eyebrow on the comm. panel but didn’t say anything.

“How are we?” Jack asked, looking to Betty.

She smiled back.  “We’re good.  No issues at all.  I’m rerouting power for the next jump now.”

“Good,” Jack said and flicked his eyes over to the sensor screen to see they were almost at the next location.  He checked the panel showing the battle and noted that the Shang had modified their englobement pattern.  The damaged ships were spreading out into the rest of the formation, while undamaged ships took over their area.  All of the ships had spread their deflection grids out to all sides.  They were still good enough to twist most attacks away, but he saw a grav beam from Fort London spear through one of them and the ship jerked, atmosphere and debris spewing from its flank.

“Jump in three…two…one,” Hal transmitted as the Shang ship struggled to maintain its position in the formation.  Jack closed his eyes, saw the flash of light exploded through his lids, and opened them to see the wounded ship in their sights.

“Fire,” Hal ordered and once again the grav cannons of every fighter in the Peloran squadron came to life.  This time only half of the beams hit their now-wildly maneuvering targets, and the vast majority of those twisted off into space, useless.  Not even one of the Cowboys’ shots did more than twist away from the ready prey, but each gravitic beam the deflection grids were forced to turn away weakened the grids a little bit.  A swarm of breacher missiles enveloped the target area, most caught by point defense and their explosions rolled through space.  A few found their range and exploded, causing deflection grids to further fluctuate.

That was when the sixteen main Peloran grav cannons powered up to life and reached out to grab the Shang.  Once again, only half managed a hit, but every single one that did hit smashed into an overtaxed deflection grid.  The beams cut through and dug deep into their targets, ripping armor away from the hulls and sucking in atmosphere and pieces of ships.  The beams rotated like drills, ripping and pulling on their targets, twisting back and forth, and panned across the ships.

Two of the Shang ships dropped their deflection grids and stopped maneuvering.  That alone caused the grav beams to swing off target, but instead of shifting back to hit the ships again, they faded away.  The two ships were dead in space, their main generators ripped apart.  A third ship, the one speared by Fort London, broke in half under the assault, and the Peloran ceased their assault on it as well to concentrate on true threats.

And of course the true threats had not been idle.  The Shang were prepared for this strike, and even though they couldn’t know where the Peloran would strike from, having sensors on the watch for energy surges, having point defense in position, and more importantly having heavy weapons ready to fire back in all directions turned out to be a useful tactic.  It took pressure off the British, and Jack could tell they were already beginning to pile the push back at the Shang, but it allowed the Shang to pour fire into anything that dared attack them, like a stray Peloran Battle Squadron.

Their first wave of missiles, fired instantly after the Peloran jumped in, washed over the Peloran formation and Jack winced as every deflection grid wavered.  Several Peloran fighters screening the Peloran prows exploded or ripped apart, and the Shang lasers stabbed into the wavering grids, searching for weak spots.  They found them and the lasers slashed into Peloran armor, vaporizing or cutting it off to send it floating away as the Peloran warships slewed away from the assault.  Again and again, the lasers followed the Peloran maneuvers, searching for the weak spots, and Jack closed his eyes as an explosion engulfed one of the Peloran destroyers.  He saw spots of light when it faded away and he blinked before looking at it again.  Its starboard gravitic cannon was simply gone, and its entire starboard side looked like a car door mauled by an angry bear.

“Ouch,” Jack whispered as the wounded destroyer spun its starboard side away from the Shang, taking hits on its fresh port armor.

“Not as bad as it looks,” Betty answered as their gravitic cannon spun up for another salvo into the fleet.  This time one of the beams broke through a weakened grid and ripped into a Shang cruiser.

“Jump in three.” Hal began as more missiles crisscrossed space between the two forces and point defense slashed across the incoming waves.

“Two.”  A massive gravitic cannon ripped through a Shang destroyer and the target exploded.

“One.”  Jack shut his eyes as the Shang missile swarm began to explode all around, flicking his stick and throttle back and forth to make them harder to hit.

A flash of light filled the world, a scream of tearing metal assaulted his ears, Jack opened his eyes, and hyperspace filled his view again.  He sniffed at the smell of burning metal and winced.

“Ow!” Betty said, her hologram recoiling in pain.

“What?” Jack asked, wondering how bad it was.

“Ow!  Ow!  Ow!  That hurt!” Betty repeated, slapping her legs as if putting out a fire.

Jack sniffed at the burning smell again.  “Are…are we supposed to be burning?”

“No!  Ah…no burning.”  Betty looked up at him, froze as if suddenly realizing her hologram was echoing her actions, and gave him a nervous smile.  “Just charring.  We’ll be fine in a few moments.  Just let me nail this down.”

“What is your situation?” Hal asked, obviously for Jack’s benefit.  He probably already had the full download.

“Oooh, just a bit of burn in the capacitors.  Give me a minute to slap together some repairs before we jump back in please.”

“That tearing sound?” Jack asked, eyebrows raised.  “That sounded like more than just capacitor burn.”

Betty winced again, rose up on her tiptoes as if looking back, and pursed her lips.  “Oooh, well nothing deadly or anything,” she said, obviously not wanting to say what happened.  “We just…ah…well…just lost life support.”

Jack froze for a spit second in shock.  “Wait…what?  Life support!”  That was most definitely an important system to keep if he had anything to say about it.

“Oh, don’t burst a blood vein, Jack,” Betty said airily.  “We have canned air that should last just fine.”

Jack’s jaw dropped.  He shook his head and pulled it back up. “Yeah.  Right.  Should?”

Betty shrugged.  “Well, try to breath slowly.  Don’t get excited.”

Jack shook his head again.  His life support, the one thing that kept him alive, was gone and she didn’t want him to get excited about it?  “Right.  That’s like asking a high schooler not to get excited when he sees you in that sundress,” he said, trying to push some humor into his voice.  He really hoped it didn’t sound frantic instead.

Betty smiled and twisted as if modeling for an audience.  “Why, Jack.  This old thing?  I just picked this up off an old crystal I found.”

Jack giggled, and this time he was certain the nerves had gotten through.  He shut his eyes, breathed deeply, let the breath out, and reminded himself to be calm.  He opened his eyes again and looked at her.  “Seriously.  We good?” he asked.

“Yeah, Jack,” Betty answered in a calming voice.  “Just let me finish running new power lines and…got it.  OK.  I can start the charging process now.  Ah…ooh…that’s close.  Hal, can I have another minute please?  I had to back off on my charge.  Nearly burned the lines again.  Either I have faulty power lines or the ten second energy transfer tests under combat conditions were hopelessly optimistic.”

“Oh, you might get more than a minute,” Hal answered with a wince.  “The Swift Wing is reporting problems recharging.”

Jack looked over at the destroyer missing a starboard side.  “That her?” Jack asked.

“Yeah,” Hal said, pursing his lips as he obviously got some new data.

Jack frowned as an earlier concern returned to his mind.  “Was that her gravitic cannon exploding?”

“Yes,” Hal said with a shrug.  “And now you know why we mount them outside the hull.  You know the Albion used to say we had shiny big gun syndrome.  We…redline them for extra damage projection.  Works great unless they have a catastrophic failure or they take damage at an inopportune moment.  We still have a ship to repair afterwards.”

“Right,” Jack said, thinking about the two grav cannons on either side of him.  He looked down to either side where they rested.  “Um…what about my Avenger here?” he asked, feeling more nervous than he had about them.

“Oh, we wouldn’t design them like that,” Hal answered.

“Gee.  Thanks for making me feel better,” Jack said with a scowl.

“Ouch,” Hal said with a larger wince.  “The Swift Wing reports complete core meltdown.  Be ready to translate in a minute.  We’ll be leaving her behind for the next run.”

“I’ll be ready,” Betty answered.

“Just how serious is that?” Jack asked, glancing at the destroyer in question as she began to drift away from the formation.

Hal followed his gaze with a frown.  “Oh…long run, not at all.  I’ve come back from worse.  Short run, she’s dead in space.” Hal said.  “We’re going to have to make sure we get back in time to keep her from dropping into your sun or something real serious of course.”

“Right,” Jack whispered, clearing his throat.  “Like dropping into a sun isn’t serious.”

“Yeah,” Hal said with a wink.  “I think sunbathing is on Tuesday’s schedule.”

Jack couldn’t help it.  He chuckled, hoping it didn’t sound too manic.

“That’s the spirit,” Hal continued.  “Laugh in the face of death.  Make him know he’s your bythad.”

Jack blinked at the unfamiliar word and cocked his head to side.  “Huh?”

“Dog,” Betty supplied, covering her face with her hand, but he caught the amusement in her eyes.

“Right,” Jack said slowly.  “If you two don’t mind, I think I’d like to hold off on my meeting with death for a few centuries or so.”

“An even better spirit,” Hal said with a smile.  His eyes unfocused for a second.  “New information.  Aneerin has decided on a new target.  Follow me.”

“Moving,” Betty answered and Jack felt them accelerate.  He glanced around to see the rest of the squadron accelerating as well, holding position off the Guardian Light’s flank.

Jack checked the screens to see the beam that illuminated their course, then checked to see what was on the other side, and swallowed.  It was a massive Shang battleship, the largest moving space structure he’d ever seen, and a cruiser squadron protected it against any stray attackers.  It was by far the most dangerous part of the fleet surrounding Fort London and he figured there was a reason they’d avoided it until now.

“We’re going after that?” Jack asked in disbelief.

“Yes,” Hal answered.  “It is a worthy target.  Once we destroy it, the Shang attack will falter.”

“But the cruisers alone outnumber us four to one here!” Jack shouted back.

“Jack,” Hal said in a serious tone.  “We are always outnumbered.  It is simply the way things are.  Do not worry.  We have a plan.”

Jack opened his mouth, heard Betty clear her throat, shut his mouth, and looked at her.  She shook her head and smiled.  He let out a breath in acceptance and watched the squadron approach the jump point.

On the other side, the British still held but the Shang flagship hammered them again.  A British cruiser drifted away from the fort, powerless and helpless.  The flagship’s escorts fired with it, smashing the fort’s deflection grids back again and again to dig deeper into the armor.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t give you any more time,” Hal said, looking towards Betty’s hologram.

“I understand,” she returned.  “I’ll make do.”

Hal nodded.  “Jump in three…two…one.”

Jack closed his eyes against the flash of light, opened them, and gasped as he saw the massive Shang warship filling the sky in front of him.  It was less than a kilometer away and he could actually see the individual weapons turrets spinning towards him.  They were too close.  Way, way, way too close for his comfort.

“Chaaaaaarge!” Hal shouted and every weapon in the squadron opened up as the ships accelerated towards their target.

It was at that point that Jack came to the conclusion that the Peloran suffered from a severe case of split personality that had to approach complete insanity.  This day had truly done bad things to his preconceptions about the Peloran race.  One truth he knew for certain though.  Aneerin was not misleading him.  In a very deep way, that terrified him more than the battleship before him bristling with weapons and completely willing to crush him like a bug.