Hello, my name is Jack.  The Cowboys were the first of our kind.  The first Americans to fly off Peloran warships.  The first to use hyper-capable fighters.  The first to do a lot of things.  People remember that.  They don’t remember what we were before we became Cowboys.  Just that we were Cowboys.  That we still are.  That we always will be.  And that’s the real kicker.





Jack pulled in a long breath, feeling the cold air burn down into his lungs, and watched the ruins of new Washington’s capital begin to freeze.  He peered into the darkness created by the dust-shrouded sky and shivered again, hunching his shoulders inside his leather flight jacket against what was actually becoming cold, even to his northern Minnesota bones.  Betty flickered next to him, cold weather gear replacing her service uniform when she came back into focus.  She glared at him with one eye and he got the hint.  It was getting colder by the minute, and the sound of boots crunching on rocks testified of Charles’ decision to find some warmth.

Jack turned to Tom, shivering next to him, with a smile.  “So what do you think?”

“I think it’s fraking cold,” Tom answered through chattering teeth.

Jack sighed.  “I meant about what Charles had to say.  Do you really think the government would be party to anything like this?”

“Oh.  That.”  Tom exhaled a long breath that crystallized in front of his face.  “Yes.”

Jack nodded slowly, considering the simple answer in every way he could.  It just didn’t make sense.  He’d never experienced anything to make him think the government would do anything like that.  “Why?” he finally asked.

Tom sighed and shook his head.  “Because I’ve seen it before.”

Jack stepped away from the older man and raised an eyebrow.  “Really?”

Tom gave him a sad smile.  “Do you know what life in America was like in 2150?  Or 2170?”

Jack shook his head.  “No.  I don’t.”

Tom pulled in a deep breath and looked towards the ruined capital.  “I do.  I lived it.  It was a hopeful time, everybody looking to the stars as the way to end all of our problems.  And then I left to explore the farthest reaches of space.  It took us twelve years to make it to The Wall.  And then we spent over twenty years studying it, before we finally found a way through to Tau Aurigae.”

Jack frowned in confusion, not recognizing the name.

Tom smiled.  “That was the old astronomical name for Independence.”

“Ah,” Jack whispered in understanding and shook his head in annoyance.  “Stupid science names.  I swear they make them complicated so nobody but them can remember.  It’s like that new colony from a couple years back.  Jen’s World?”

Tom nodded.  “You mean Omicron Ursae Majoris.”

“See?” Jack returned with a chuckle.  “I mean, who but a freak of nature could ever remember a name like that?”

Tom smiled and spread his arms out wide, placing himself as an example.

Jack snorted.  “You piloted a rocket ship through The Wall without a cyber before you were Ageless,” he said, ticking off each point with a raised finger.  “You Sir are a freak of nature.”

Tom snorted back.  “And you should learn to respect your elders.”

Jack waved the jibe away.  “But you really should look at names.  Independence.  Paradisia.  Pacifica.  Jen’s World.  These are all names that make me want to go see what they’re like.  Omnicon Ursa Majority not so much,” he finished, purposefully mispronouncing the words for effect.

Tom gave him a curious look.  “How does Jen’s World make you want to go see it?”

Jack answered the question with a mischievous smile.  “It’s all in the name.  Jen.”  He twirled a finger in the cold air.  “She must be some fine lady to get a whole world named after her.  I’d like to meet her.”

Tom rolled his eyes.  “Do you ever think of anything other than girls?”

Jack shrugged, wondering what else would be worth thinking about.  “What?  And get all mopy, secretive, and suspicious like him?” he asked with a wave towards where Charles had disappeared into the shuttle.

Tom looked towards the shuttle.  “Have you ever had a position of responsibility?”

Jack made a production out of shuddering in horror.  “I have been held responsible for a lot of things, but I do try to avoid being responsible as much as possible,” he finished with a wink.

Tom rolled his eyes and shook his head.  “Don’t worry about it.  I hear it was named after the founder’s five year old daughter.”

Jack blinked as all of the pictures in his mind of some sweet young thing devolved into a little girl.  “Eww.  Please tell me you’re joking.”

Tom laughed.

Jack scowled at him, not certain if he should take the man seriously or not.  “You.  Not funny,” he said, wagging a finger back and forth.  “So where did this topic come from?”

Tom smiled and turned to look at the ruins again.  “I was telling you of the trip to Independence.”

“Oh right,” Jack noted and followed Tom’s gaze.  “On the geriatric rocket ship.  Gotcha.”

“Yes.  That.”  Tom sighed and rubbed his forehead.  “We left Earth in 2170, arrived at Independence in 2205.”

Jack cocked his head to the side and nodded.  “The year the Peloran made Contact.”

“Halleluiah!” Tom shouted.  “You actually learned something in school!”

Jack smiled and decided to play along with the man.  “Well, after taking history five times it was bound to seep in through osmosis if nothing else.”

“What?” Tom asked in an amazed tone.  “Five times?  Why?”

Jack let his smile grow and let Tom have it with both barrels.  “Well, you see…there was a girl.”

Tom raised an eyebrow.  “Who failed four times?”

Jack cleared his throat.  He really didn’t need to give Tom that ammunition after all.  “Girls,” he finally clarified.

Tom groaned.  “Why do I even ask?”  He shook his head.  “Don’t answer that.”  He sighed.  “Look, the Peloran wanted to talk to us, so we stayed.  Most of us did.  They offered transport to Earth to anyone who wanted it, but most of us stayed.  I didn’t end up getting back to Earth for another twenty years.”

Jack whistled, trying to imagine what twenty years away from home would be like.  Especially after thirty years already out.  “That’s…a long time.  Why?”

A crooked smile took over Tom’s face, making Jack instantly suspicious.  “Well, I wanted to see my daughter grow up.”

“You dog,” Jack said with a chuckle that turned into mist before him and a shake of his head.

“I never said diplomacy was the only reason I stayed,” Tom answered with a shrug.  “Even on a Peloran courier I would have been gone for months and I just didn’t want to miss that much of her life.”

Jack nodded in understanding.  “Good call.”

Tom smiled.  “It was.  But it made things interesting.  By the time I finally did get back to Earth it was…over fifty years after I left.  I saw first hand the revolution that gravtech brought to us.”  Tom pursed his lips and blew out a lungful of air that froze in mid air.  “It was amazing the difference between what we were before and what we were when I returned.  How much we’d grown, how much we’d gained.  How much we’d lost getting there.”

He shook his head and looked up into the dark clouds above them.  “They couldn’t see it.  They’d lived through it changing.  But me, I could see the little café on the corner that used to make the best ice cream coffee that was now a gravboard dealership.  Little things like that, all over.  Progress had taken over in so many places.  And the people acted different too.  The adults were afraid of the fighting going on in the Outer Colonies, and in awe of the Peloran.  And the children spent all day hovering around with their friends instead of playing video games.”

Jack snorted in amusement.  “Be careful,” he joked.  “From a diehard beach bum, that last bit sounds fun,” he noted with a wink.

Tom shrugged with a smile.  “It wasn’t all bad.  The kids really did love the new techs and they were the ones that integrated them into their lives.  But the adults were scared, despite everything the government tried to do to pacify them.  I could see it the first time they realized what Juliet was, rather than who she was.”

Jack glanced at Juliet and she gave him a sad smile.  He understood that.  His little corner of the Earth had never been overly fond of cybers either.  They were strange Peloran introductions, which automatically made them subject to approval before being allowed to intrude on the border town.  But he’d learned a lot in the last few months.  “I’m sorry.”

Juliet answered with a graceful nod.  “Thank you.”

Tom gave her a light touch, and Jack recognized the fondness of lifelong friends.  Then he pulled in a breath and coughed, his lungs protesting against the falling temperatures.  “Whew,” he whispered.  “It’s getting seriously cold out here.”

Jack shrugged and made a production of rolling his shoulders around inside his flight jacket.  “A bit nippy,” he answered with a smile.

Tom rolled his eyes.  “Look, I really need to get inside, so if you’re done playing crazy Minnesotan…”

Jack nodded, keeping his eyes on the ruins of the capital.  “Go in if you want.  I don’t want to leave them alone yet.”

Tom shivered but held his position for several seconds before nodding.  “I understand.”

Jack smiled.  “I asked what you thought of Charles’ ideas.”

“Yes you did,” Tom said with a sigh.  “When I left, America looked to the stars in wonder.  When I returned, they watched bread and circuses and reality holos that tried to keep them dumb.  The corporations and unions bought legislatures to pass ten thousand page bills that nobody read and only served to shovel money into the hands of the already rich.  I lost my faith in our government and returned to Independence to help make something better.”

Jack scratched his chin, considering the words.  Something about that didn’t sound right.  “So you lost your faith, but immediately decided to do something about it?”  He aimed a long look at Tom.  “Are you sure that’s a lack of faith?”

Tom shook his head and chewed his lower lip.  “Fine.  A lack of trust then?”

Jack sampled the words against his thoughts and nodded.  Trust sounded more right.  “Works for me.  Did you do what you set out to do?”

Tom chuckled.  “Oh yes.  It’s amazing how hard it is for successive generations to ‘reinterpret’ what their Founders meant, when those same Founders are there to explain that their writings mean exactly what they say.  And that we still mean it.”

Jack echoed Tom’s chuckle.  “That had to stick in their craw.”

“Oh, it did,” Tom said with a smirk.  “Still does.  But we will never forget again.”  He looked out at the ruined capital.  “And things they are a changing.”

Jack nodded in agreement, but caught the note of uncertainty in Tom’s feelings.  “Obviously.  Though I gather you mean something different?”

Tom shrugged, showing confusion.  “Yes.  I think.  I don’t know.”  He pulled in a long breath and gave a pensive shake of his head.  “Could be good.”  He nodded towards the ruins.  “Could be bad.”

Jack followed the gaze with a sad sigh, wondering again how many had not survived this bit of change.  “A bit of both, probably.  With more of the bad than we’d like.”

Tom sighed in regretful agreement.  “Ain’t that the way it always is?  Our worlds will be irrevocably changed before we have a chance to return.  We may not even recognize them.”

Jack pulled in a long breath, remembering the writings of hundreds of years of Marines coming home from war.  They all talked of the change back home when they returned.  It was always like that.  “Welcome to the life of a Marine,” he whispered, trusting in Tom’s hearing to pick it up over a fresh gust of freezing wind.  Tom’s reaction surprised him.

Tom just shook his head and snorted.  “You know the funny part?  I’m not actually a Marine.  Hell, I’m not even military.”

Jack frowned.  “But…I saw your service record.  It goes back…decades.”

Tom smiled.  “I was President of Independence.  That made me the Commander in Chief of the military.  If you’d look closely, you’d see it was a Presidential Commission.”

Jack blinked, reconsidering what he remembered from reading the service record.  “But…you had a Distinguished Service Medal.”

Tom gave him a pained look.  “They just wanted me to look good after the fact.”

Jack cleared his throat and raised an eyebrow at Tom.  Now he knew the man was understating his actions.  “They gave you a Commendation Medal for engaging the enemy against impossible odds.”

Tom winced and glanced at Juliet.  She shook her head, letting him know he was on his own.  “They were first generation Blackhawks.  There were only five of them, and I had Juliet.  It really wasn’t a fair fight.”

Jack sighed and shook his head.  “They gave you the Space Force Cross for sinking the enemy battleship…with a Blackhawk.  And saving several hundred civilians while doing so.”

Tom scratched his forehead.  “Well, that might be a bit overstated.  They were the ones that fired the cruise missile.”  He smiled at Juliet.  “We just found it a more deserving target.”

Jack chuckled.  “The report says you flew between the missile and a passenger liner, screaming at it with everything from radar to blinking lights, then led it on a merry chase through defensive fire, into point blank range of the battleship, before cutting all transmissions and trying to get out of the blast radius.  And earned the Purple Heart when you failed to.”

Tom rolled his eyes at that one.  “We got a bit cooked but it wasn’t anything serious.”

Jack shook his head and looked at Juliet.  “No offense, but they don’t give Purple Hearts for fighters that got a bit toasty.”

Juliet smiled back.  “A near strike cracked the canopy and he breathed vacuum for three minutes.”

“Traitor,” Tom whispered but Juliet just smiled back, looking insufferably pleased with herself.  “Juliet did most of the work,” Tom began to explain with a shrug.  “I was just along for the ride.  It was nothing like what your Mischief did.”

Jack chuckled and his mind went back over his new wingwoman.  “Yeah.  Mischief.”  She’d shot down six Shang fighters at Fort Wichita in an old Hellcat, after fifty years flying in the Space Force.  Of course her partner helped here a bit.

Tom chuckled again.  “Did she ever tell you why she volunteered to join the Cowboys?”

Jack nodded.  She’d been real clear on why she wanted to join in the interview after all.  “She wants to fly Avengers.”

“Exactly,” Tom said with a smile.  “She didn’t leave Space Force.  Not in her heart at least.  She joined the Cowboys so she could fly Avengers.  This is no longer just a Marine fighter squadron.  It is the first fully operational squadron to fly Avengers.  And it is the only American squadron flying off Peloran warships.  More will want to join us.”

“I guess we’re just that good, huh?” Jack said with a chuckle.

Tom smiled.  “I guess we are.  Jack, can I ask you a question?”

Jack spread his arms out wide.  “Shoot.”

“Do you think the Peloran are better than us?  That we’re inferior to them?”

Jack pursed his lips, took a step back, and gave Tom a very long look.  “Absolutely not,” he finally said in a very firm tone.

Tom smiled.  “Good.  You know many people think the Peloran are our superiors?  People we should follow?”

“I never have subscribed to that one,” Jack returned with a shake of his head.

“Me neither.”  Tom chuckled.  “Even when I saw that kilometer long warship hovering over our heads in the sky, I never felt inferior.  I saw it and my first thought was…’damn…I wanna fly that.’  And that’s what we need to show everybody.”

Jack pursed his lips, thinking that Tom meant something other than what it sounded like.  “That we want to fly Peloran warships?” he asked anyways, wondering how Tom would respond.

Tom raised an eyebrow at Jack.  “That we’re Cowboys,” he said in an exasperated tone.  “We stand next to the Peloran as equals.” He looked towards the ruins again, shaking his head.  “If we win this War, if we survive to the end, no one will remember that you were a Marine, that she was Space Force, or that I was the first pilot through The Wall.  They’ll remember that we were Cowboys.  We should make that mean something.”  Tom shivered.  “But now, I really need to get back under cover.  It’s getting damn cold out here.”

Jack nodded and watched Tom walk away for a while before turning back to the ruins of New Washington’s capital.  He considered what Tom had to say for a long time, Betty standing next to him as always.  She really was a good partner.