Hello, my name is Jack.  I was one of the first Cowboys.  We were ten then.  We were hundreds by the end of The War.  We were the tip of the spear that kicked the Shang’s asses across the universe.  We were on recruitment posters, telling the kids to grow up quick so they could be one of us.  Kids played Cowboys and Aliens in their backyards with families and friends across America.  Coming home to that was a real eye opener, especially when I think about how it all began.



Cowboys and Aliens


Hyperspace’s multicolored hues flowed around the squadron, washing the rebuilt Avenger’s cockpit with a rainbow of colors.  Two weeks ago, the Guardian Light had been a ruin; now it flew beside him, gleaming white armor covered in golden runes from stem to stern.  Jack looked at the smooth armor, impressed despite himself at just how quickly the Peloran could rebuild when they had to.  Of course they’d done the same to his fighter too, much quicker than any American yard could have.

Five more ships held formation with the battleship.  The two cruisers and three destroyers appeared as pristine as the Guardian Light, ready for battle after taking damage that would have left an American ship in the yards for months.  He’d read that the Peloran ships could rebuild themselves from truly catastrophic damage but never until now realized just how powerful a strategic advantage that could be turned into.  Now, flying through hyperspace towards another fight, that realization slammed home hard.

He looked over to where a destroyer flew, focused on it, and the canopy zoomed in to show a larger view of the destroyer.  He studied the golden runes running across it’s white hull, looking for the name that had to be there, hidden where he just couldn’t see it.  He sighed in frustration.  He knew it was the Swift Wing, he just couldn’t read the Peloran script.

“Keep practicing,” a twenty-centimeter tall Betty whispered from the cockpit ledge next to him, half lying down with what had to be twenty-one centimeter long legs crossed at the ankles.  “You’ll get it soon.”

“Yeah,” Jack whispered back absentmindedly, still amazed that the destroyer looked as flawless as she did, after the damage she’d taken.  “Yeah, I suppose I will, won’t I?” he added with a bemused shake of his head.

Betty cocked her head to the side.  “OK.  What happened?”

Jack looked at her in confusion.  “What?”

Betty crossed her arms and pursed her lips.  “At Fort London.  Something happened.”

Jack gave her a sly smile.  “Well, we almost died, but you pulled us through.  Nothing important.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Betty spat back.

Jack’s eyebrows rose at the tone in her voice.  “Then what did you mean?” he asked, a little more snippy than he needed to be.

Betty rolled up onto her feet and looked him in the eyes.  “When I met you, you never studied anything you didn’t have to.  You sailed through life on easy street because that’s all it was to you.  Easy.  No challenge.  No reason to try anything but play.”

Jack cleared his throat and nodded.  “Yeah, I suppose I didn’t, did I?”

Betty jabbed him in the chest with one finger.  “No.  You didn’t.  Now….  What happened at Fort London?”

Jack cleared his throat again and rubbed his temple.  “You’re going to think I’m crazy.”

Betty laughed.  “Don’t worry about that, Jack.  I already know you’re crazy.”

Jack glared at her.

Betty stuck her tongue out at him and jammed both hands on her hips.

Jack laughed, shook his head, and let out a long breath.  “Fine.  You obviously have an idea so why don’t you try me?”

Betty leaned forward and put a finger on her lips as if thinking.  “You almost died.  Did you see the light at the end of the tunnel?”

Jack winced.  “Sorta.  It was more a rainbow than a bright light though.”

Betty stepped back and frowned.  “A rainbow?  You’re certain?”

Jack shrugged.  “Yeah.  Of course, we were in hyperspace by then, so I figure I just…saw that as a rainbow in my dream,” he finished with another shrug.

Betty pursed her lips.  “Jack.  Do you trust me?”

Jack jerked back at her question.  He stared at her in surprise.  “Well of course I do!”

Betty nodded.  “Good.  Then please.  Tell me everything that happened.”

Jack held her gaze for several seconds before finally nodding and letting out a long breath.  And he told her all of it.  The party.  The other her.  Kelly.  And walking out through the rainbow.  “It was a pretty vivid dream,” he finished with a shake of his head.

Betty cocked her head to the side with a knowing look.  “Why does it have to be a dream?”

Jack cleared his throat.  “Because…well…really…it can’t be real.  If it was…”

Betty smiled.  “If it was real, then it means you smiled at Death and told her that you’d never run from her?”

Jack shivered.  “Yeah.  That about sums it up.”

Betty let out a satisfied breath.  “Well.  You don’t have anything to worry about then.”

Jack frowned and gave her a careful stare.  “Why?”

Betty shrugged.  “Because if it was a dream, there’s nothing to worry about.  And if it was real?  Well…she accepted your terms.”

Jack frowned in thought.  “Oh.  Yeah.  I guess so.”  He leaned back in his seat and relaxed, gazing out on hyperspace.  “I guess I didn’t think of it like that.”

“Well, you should,” she said, sounding very pleased with herself.

After a few seconds, he felt her light touch as she sat down next to his arm and leaned back.  He glanced over to see her looking up and sighed.  He returned his gaze to the multi-colored kaleidoscope of hyperspace, letting its randomness wash over him.  They lay like that for a long time, just watching and waiting as they sailed through hyperspace.  The universe faded into them, their fighter, and the currents of hyperspace.  Nothing else existed.  Nothing else mattered.

“Hal!” Betty suddenly shouted and jumped to her feet.

Jack blinked.  His mind brought the universe back into focus and he looked around at the screens, taking in the current situation.

Betty straightened her sundress, folded her arms, and nodded.  Hal appeared on the comm. panel with a smile.

“Prepare to jump,” he said.  “It will be live combat.”

Betty smiled back at him.  “We’re ready when you are.”

Jack nodded his agreement and scanned the display showing a probes-eye view of their target in normalspace.  The supply convoy hung in the stars alone, with only a token defensive force around it.  Jack frowned in suspicion.  He didn’t like it.  It seemed too easy.  It felt…like somebody was waiting for them.  “Um, are you certain this isn’t a trap?” he asked.

Hal shrugged on the screen.  “As certain as we can be.  We’ve sent probes and can’t find anyone hanging in hyperspace to ambush us.  This appears to be all there is.  Don’t worry.  We aren’t in any danger here.  Trust me.”

Jack frowned at Hal, his unease remaining.  “I don’t know.  Something about this just doesn’t feel right.”

Hal cocked his head to the side and examined Jack for several seconds.  “Do you have any specific thoughts?” he finally asked.

Jack shook his head and scanned the display of the convoy again.  He didn’t know how to explain that he felt like a trap was closing on them.  “No.  I just…if that were me, I’d have something waiting for us.”

“Yes,” Hal said.  “We would too.  We have searched but found nothing.  This appears as our intelligence suggested.  A ripe target.”

“Why are they here?” Jack asked.  “In normalspace?  Why aren’t they moving?”

“They are rendezvousing with another escort here.”

“And we just happened to find out where the rendezvous was?  This smells like a trap.”

Hal frowned.  “Jack.  We have searched.  We have found nothing.  Do you consider this vague feeling of yours to be more important than these concrete steps?”

Jack sighed, feeling the pressure to shut up.  “Well, when you put it that way, it does seem kind of stupid.”

“Indeed,” Hal answered.

Jack shook his head, stubbornly.  “But it really does feel like a trap to me.  Back when I was climbing through girls’ windows I never did it if it felt like this.  And I never got caught by the older brother or father on the other side of that wall.”

Hal cocked his head to the side.  “And how do you know you weren’t jumping at shadows?”

Jack smiled.  “I called their phone.”

One of Hal’s eyes rose.  “And after that?”

“Well, if I heard it ring, I ran like Hell,” Jack said with a laugh.

Hal echoed his laugh and shook his head.  “How often did that happen?”

Jack chewed his lip with a smile.  “Often enough that I learned to trust the feeling.”

“Interesting. ”  Hal seemed to look away for a moment before focusing on Jack again.  “Aneerin shares your concerns by the way.”

Jack blinked in surprise.  “Then…why grill me?”

“To see if you stick by it,” Hal said as target markers appeared on the screens, covering all of the escort ships surrounding the convoy.  “Assume Raven Formation and prepare to jump,” Hal ordered.

“Yes, Hal,” Betty said with a nod and Jack watched as the entire squadron fanned out from the Guardian Light like a raven’s wings.

“Jump in three…two…one…now.”

Jack closed his eyes, the universe flashed, and he opened his eyes to see the Shang convoy arrayed in front of them.  Large, fat freighters floated in the darkness and his eyes flicked from one to the next, the canopy zooming in on each as his eyes passed over them.  Twenty destroyers surrounded the freighters, much smaller but far, far more deadly than the ships they guarded.

He winced as the grav cannons opened up, turning the universe on its side.  Only one or two main grav cannons hit each escort, but they hit completely unprepared targets and ripped deep into their armor.  Smaller fighter cannons tore into them as well, and Jack focused on the single destroyer his half of the Cowboys fired on.  Ten grav cannons twisted into it, tearing parts of the structure away and flinging it off into space as they flickered off just long enough to clear space of the debris.

The tortured destroyer, slewed away from the assault and the first salvo of missiles slashed in, ravaging it further.  Then the lasers opened up, shredding the wreckage with their rapid-fire strobe of destruction.  Jack looked around to see the rest of the escorts drifting in pieces.  All targets were neutralized, without a single loss for the squadron.  Jack swallowed.  They’d never known what was coming for them.  Just like Yosemite Yards or Fort Wichita, the attack from hyperspace had ripped them apart in seconds.  Jack shook his head.  It seemed a good defense really was a good offense when it came to it.  It just really sucked to be the defenders in a war like this.

Aneerin’s face appeared on the comm. screen, and Jack glanced to see the open channel icon on it.  The Peloran was broadcasting without encryption in a language Jack did not recognize.  Words appeared on the bottom of the screen in American, and Jack flicked his eyes over to smile at Betty who just smiled back.  He glanced back at the screen to read it.  “Surrender now and prepare to be boarded,” Aneerin ordered the defenseless convoy.  “You cannot escape us.  You cannot outfight us.  Surrender and you will be treated according to the old rules.”

“The old rules?” Jack asked, looking over to Betty.

Betty shrugged.  “From The Great War.  He’s saying he’ll honor the old agreements on prisoners.”

“Ah,” Jack whispered.  “Like the Geneva Conventions.”

“Yes,” Betty said with a pursed lip.  “The ideas are similar in some ways.  Oh no,” she added.

Jack scanned the area with a flick of his eyes and had just enough time to register the alarms of over a hundred incoming jump points when the screens filled with the tracks of incoming missiles.  “Oh crap,” he muttered and flicked the stick over as Betty spun the laser turret towards the nearest salvo.

Nearly two thousand lasers in point defense mode from both the fighters and the warships engaged the missile swarm, dotting space with explosions.  All around the tight formation of Peloran ships, the missiles moved in like a wall of fire where the flicker of lasers disappeared.  The wave front faded away short of the Peloran squadron, and Jack looked around at the ships surrounding them, floating in space.  One ship after another zoomed in on his cockpit and he recognized the Shang warships.  He frowned in thought.

“Why aren’t we firing back?” he asked.  He squinted at the Shang.  “And why aren’t they firing more missiles at us?”

“Warning shot,” Betty answered.  “They were just getting our attention.”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure they got it,” Jack returned.

“True,” Betty said with a smile.

The comm. panel came to life with another face and Jack grunted.  Like most Shang, the man had dark hair, a vaguely yellow-brown tint to his skin, and slightly slanted eyes.  He could have walked the streets of any city in the world and anyone would have taken him for someone of Asian ancestry.  The man spoke in the same odd language as Aneerin and Jack glanced down to see the translation.

“Your name is famous, Aneerin ap Taliesin,” the Shang said with a bow of his head.  “It is an honor to meet you at last.”

“The honor is all mine,” Aneerin answered in a voice far more calm than Jack thought he could have managed in the situation.  “May I ask why you invited us here?”

Jack blinked.

“You were right,” Betty said in a tight tone.  “They were waiting.”

Jack winced.  “I wish I weren’t.”

“You offered us the chance to retreat,” the Shang said in a hard tone.  “Now we make you the same offer.  Leave this space.  This sector belongs to us.  Leave it and we will not bother your people again.”

Aneerin let out a long breath, and spread his arms out wide in what seemed an innocent gesture.  “But it is such a nice little region of space,” he answered.  “I have grown very fond of the locals.  I would hate to see them lose everything they have worked for.”

“This is a backwater,” the Shang returned.  “It is not worth a war between our peoples.”

Aneerin beamed.  “Oh, I heartily agree with you.  So why don’t you return home and we can act like none of this ever happened?”

The Shang gave Aneerin a grim smile.  “We all know your nature, Peloran.  You will not fight for them to the knife, so end this charade and return home now before more blood is lost.”

Aneerin sighed and let his shoulders slump.  “I’m afraid that this time, you have attacked an ally.  We can not stand down.”

The Shang laughed out loud at the statement.  “An ally?” he said in amusement, still chuckling.  “These people?  They are too destructive to be a true ally.  They will always bite the hand that feeds them.  Dispense with this ridiculous charade, Peloran.  Leave and return to your own worlds, and we will make certain they do no harm to the rest of us.  We have no wish to fight your people over them.”

Jack scowled as the man talked.  “Do you think he knows we’re here?”

Betty shrugged.  “I don’t think he’d care if he did.”

Aneerin shook his head on the screen.  “You intend to harness them.  I have another plan.”

The Shang leaned back and blinked in astonishment.  “You?  You think you can lead them better than we can?”

Aneerin smiled.  “No.  Of course not.  I think they can lead themselves better than either of us could.”

The Shang laughed again.  “Are you serious?  They destroy everything they touch!  They are little better than children!  They can’t be trusted with…this!” the Shang said with a wave of his hand that seemed to encompass everything.  “They will destroy themselves again!  And if we don’t stop them soon, they will bring down more of us with them!”

Aneerin shook his head again.  “They are not children and you know it.  They do not need your ‘guidance’ to survive now.”

The Shang narrowed his eyes.  “They are a threat.  They will always be a threat.”

Aneerin nodded.  “Yes.  They can be a threat, and a very dangerous one to those who wrong them.  I stand beside them.  It is not too late for you to make amends and follow the same course.  I doubt the Americans will ever forgive you, but there are other options.”

The Shang worked his jaw back and forth for several seconds before shaking his head.  “They are too dangerous to let loose.  They will be contained.  The only question, Aneerin ap Taliesin, is whether you wish to place yourself and your people on the same level as these people?  Do not answer me now.  Think about it, carefully.  We will contain them, with or without your interference.  But if you fight us, all of your people will bleed for them.  We have no wish to fight you.  We never have.  But if you do not stand down, if you prove that you are a threat to us, we will burn your worlds down around you.  Leave this space.  We offer you this one chance to leave and live.  If you do not take it, you will suffer the same fate as the Albion.”

The Shang nodded and his transmission cut out.  The convoy jumped out in a flash of light, and a second later the encircling Shang warships followed them into hyperspace with a series of flashes of their own.

Aneerin did not move for several seconds.  “Very well,” he finally said in a sad tone and shook his head.  “All ships, jump out now.”

Jack closed his eyes as the universe went bright white around him and opened them to see the multicolored hues of hyperspace again.  A glance confirmed that the comm. panel was empty again.  He frowned, not liking what was going on one bit.  None of it made sense.

“Jack?” Betty asked.

Jack shook his head and looked out on hyperspace as the squadron spun and accelerated back towards home.

“This doesn’t make sense.”

“Aneerin won’t abandon you,” she said in a reassuring tone.

Jack snorted.  “Not that.  That,” he said with a wave of his hand behind them.  “We just killed twenty Shang destroyers, and they didn’t even hit us once in return.  That doesn’t make sense.”

“Oh,” Betty whispered.  “I see what you mean.”

“I don’t care how important they think that message was, no one sacrifices anything if they don’t think they’ll get something out of it.”

“Well, maybe he just expected the Peloran to back off once he gave them the choice.  We always have since the Great War.”

Jack pursed his lips in annoyance, barely noticing her mixed language on the Peloran.  She still wasn’t certain if she was Peloran or Terran and sometimes flipped her words in a single sentence.  “Maybe,” Jack said with a shake of his head.  “I just have this feeling that we haven’t seen the last of this.  There’s something…” he trailed off.  He had the undeniable feeling of another shoe hanging in the air, ready to drop.

“Well, I hope you’re wrong this time,” Betty said with a shake of her head.  “For now, Hal wants us to land for refueling.  Maybe we can talk to him about this.”

“Yeah,” Jack muttered.  “Maybe.”



Several hours later, Jack and Betty once again flew in a defensive formation around the Guardian Light as the squadron jumped out of hyperspace.  He blinked and saw the inky black of space, stars shining bright around him.  Alarms began to wail and he flicked his eyes across near space.

“Oh no,” Betty said he saw the wreckage where the Peloran base was supposed to be.  He scanned further and saw the wreckage of warships surrounding it.  The screens began cataloging the debris, labeling some of it Peloran.  Most of it though came up with Chinese tags, and he watched as it analyzed one destroyed ship after another after another.

Jack scanned space, seeing more and more chunks of Chinese ships, and swallowed hard at the realization of just how many ships the Chinese had thrown against the single Peloran starbase and the three still-damaged Peloran destroyers at it.  And how many they’d lost doing it.

“Oh crap,” Jack said as he felt the other shoe drop.  The Shang actions finally made sense.  The Chinese had finally joined the war.