Hello, my name is Jack.  Pilots are a family, and we give each other names, callsigns.  Whether we like them or not, we accept them if we know what is good for us, or our family will give us one we dislike even more.  They tend to reflect our natures.  When the Peloran gave us names, we didn’t much like it.  We already had names.  But as time went by, we began to accept the names they gave us.  You see, they reflected our natures too, even if it took us longer to recognize it.





The colors of hyperspace twisted around each other, the chaos they revealed more deadly to life than any vacuum Jack had ever breathed.  The deflection grids around every ship in the Peloran squadron held the chaos at bay, bubbles of control over gravity exerted by their powerful generators.  For a moment Jack wondered how Tom had piloted through hyperspace without them, then decided he really didn’t need to know.  It would probably make him sick.

The Cowboys pulled away from the gleaming white hull of the Guardian Light, eddies of color in their wakes.  Sixteen fighters in all, over a hundred drones flew to join them, becoming a solid wave of gravity washing over the natural ebbs and flows of hyperspace as they left the Peloran squadron behind.  Jack let out a long breath as he realized they had as many combat craft in all as the Constellation had carried at Fort Wichita, and they weren’t the Guardian Light’s entire complement.

The Cowboys passed through the wall of hundreds of drones screening the squadron and Jack shook his head in wonder.  A few months ago, the Peloran would never have trusted so many cybers in command of their own fighters, with no genetic Peloran to mind them.  And no matter the words they chose to dress it up as, it came down to trust.  But he had to hand it to Hal.  In the last month, the head of the Terran family of the cybers had truly gone all out in his decision to “test” the fully cybernetic drones.

Jack examined the console of his fighter, where the small holoforms of the cybers controlling his eight surviving drones lounged around on imaginary chairs.  It left the console very crowded, but as they weren’t fighting at the moment, he was happy to see them interacting with each other.  And of course they interacted with him, helping to keep them grounded to their genetic creators.  He wondered if that was really needed anymore.  He couldn’t imagine Betty, Jasmine, or any of their copies ever going Berserker on humanity.  Of course, they were born to be partners, so that might shift matters.

Jack wondered what a cyber not born to be a partner would be like.  He wondered if, after thousands of years of living with humanity, of so carefully making certain that they wanted to be human, if it was even possible for one of them to be born that didn’t.  He’d learned to trust them in the last handful of months, implicitly and without reservation.  They’d been created to be friends, not servants, and that imperative went so far that he doubted they could ever leave it behind now.

They truly were friends.  Jack had grown up in a world where cybers were rare, unknown, and otherworldly.  In northern Minnesota, they simply had not been normal.  Now he lived in a place where cybers outnumbered genies at least a hundred to one.  They were everywhere.  There were so few genetic Peloran on the Guardian Light that if you met someone outside the pilots’ countries, he or she would almost always be a cyber.  They did repairs, they fought, and they died hundreds of little deaths while defending their friends, and all they asked in return was the chance to interact, to be friends.

Jack smiled at the thought and nodded, eyes scanning Betty, Jasmine, and their copies.  Each one was different from their parent or sister, whatever you considered them, and yet similar.  They wanted friendship.  He somehow doubted that humanity had anything to fear from them.  Ever.  Not as long as humanity continued to be friends.

Betty cocked her head to the side and raised an eyebrow at him.  “What are you smiling about?”

“Life,” he returned without a pause.

She pursed her lips, eyes showing that she was considering his answer very carefully.  “That’s an awful big thing to be thinking about.”

“Yes, it is.”  Jack shrugged.  “What can I say?  We might be going into battle.  It makes me think about the important things in it.”  He looked at her, played his eyes over the other cybers, and then returned his gaze to her with another shrug.

“Ah,” she answered with a smile.  “The important things.”

“The things that make it worth living,” he added with a wink.

Betty laughed, her smile one that said she knew what he was doing.  “And now you’re just flattering,” she said with a shake of her head.

“Nothing but truth,” he returned, a hand raised over his heart to show his sincerity.

Betty shook her head again.  “You can be impossible, you know?”

Jack waggled his eyebrows.  “The difficult I do on command.  The impossible at will.”

She smiled and leaned back, letting him get away with his bravado this time.

Jack relaxed back in his seat as well, pulling in a long breath and letting it back out.  In the comfortable silence that followed he returned to watching the other cybers at their rest.  He really hoped they wouldn’t have to do anything today.

“Jack?”  Betty asked and he turned to look at her again.  She looked embarrassed.


“You know those upgrades we were talking about?”

Jack raised an eyebrow, deciding not to pry it out of her.  He just waited, knowing his sense of time and her sense of time would force her to break the standoff first.

She cleared her throat.  “The missiles, the extra grav cannon, the lasers?”

Jack smiled.  “I also remember better armor and shields,” he supplied.

“Yes.”  She looked bashful, her gaze falling away from his face.

He considered her body language for a long moment.  It spoke volumes, and his slight suspicion woke up into full-blown knowing.  “Betty?”

“Yes?”  She looked over at the other cybers, her body language suggesting that she wanted to join them and disappear.

Jack pursed his lips and held his gaze on her.  “Did you upgrade our fighter without telling me?”

“Maybe.”  She looked at him, then shifted her eyes away from him again.

Jack sighed.  He could keep grilling her and keep getting evasive answers, or he could just sit back and accept it.  Not that he would really complain about having more weapons of course.  And from one point of view, it was her body.  He smiled at the thought and shook his head in acceptance.  “So how much of it did we get?”

Betty’s expression brightened with joy.  “Oh, everything.  We’ve got the improved armor, the laser turret is back, another grav cannon, and we actually made the missile launchers work,” she finished with an expression betraying pure ecstasy.

Jack frowned in thought.  “So, just curious, but how much of the ship we got on Earth is actually left?”

Betty made a show of tapping her chin and considering the question.  “Um…you’re sitting in it,” she finally answered with a bright smile.

Jack snorted.  “Well, at least we kept the best part of it,” he said with a wink.

Betty sniffed.  “Men.  Always thinking the place to sit down is the best.”

“Hey!” Jack protested.  “Never forget the fridge.  You didn’t forget the fridge, did you?”

Betty smiled.  “Oops.”

Jack covered his heart with one hand.  “You wound me,” he whispered in a pained tone.  “Where am I supposed to keep my beer?”

“You don’t drink beer,” she said with a raised eyebrow.

Jack sniffed.  “Maybe because I don’t have a fridge to keep it cold?”

“So maybe you’ll never have a fridge in our fighter,” she returned with a hard glare that spoke far more eloquently than her soft tone.

At that moment, Dorothy flickered into existence on the console in the same small mode that the other used, wearing the long black Victorian dress that was her preferred clothing.  Jack shifted his gaze to her, wondering if all of the cybers dispensed with their uniforms once inside their fighters.  Every one he’d seen so far did.  She looked back and forth between them with an appraising eye.

“What are you two quarreling about today?” she asked in a pointed tone.

Jack snorted.  “She won’t install a fridge for me,” he answered, pointing a thumb at Betty.

Dorothy smiled towards Betty.  “Good girl.”

Jack grunted in disappointment that she was taking Betty’s side.  He crossed his arms and made a performance of acting put upon.

“Thank you,” Betty said with a knowing smile.

Dorothy turned her full attention to Jack, assuming a posture that said she was all business now.  “Do you know the Vanguard?”

Jack cleared his throat as his body made an approximation of coming to attention while still strapped into the seat.  His mind ran over the word she said like a name, considering what she meant.  Only one thing came to mind.  “The British dreadnought?”

“Yes,” Dorothy answered with an approving smile.  “Charles wants your division protecting her.”

“Got it,” Jack said and aimed a sloppy salute at her.  “Thanks Silver,”

“Go get ’em, Jester,” Dorothy returned with a smile and flickered back out.

“Bring ’em up,” Jack said with a nod towards Betty.

She waved a hand at a display and he examined the ships making up the British Second Fleet’s Third Battle Squadron.  He reached out and grabbed the holographic representation of the Vanguard in one hand, spinning it around to look at her far flank.  He nodded, reached towards another display to grab his flight, and pulled it over onto the Vanguard.  He released the dreadnaught and grabbed one of her escorting battleships, the Thunderer.  He examined it for a bit before grabbing Jessie’s flight and bringing them together.  Finally, he reached for Ken’s flight and dragged it to the Ajax, last of Vanguard’s larger escorts.

“Does that look good to you?” Jack asked as he saw a British scout fighter fly out of a particularly bright gravitic wave into view of the Cowboys.  The British fleet wasn’t far away.

She considered the assignments for a moment before nodding.  “That should work well.”

“Good.  Division please,” he requested as they passed by the fighter.

“Division on,” Betty answered.

“OK boys and girls.  You get the idea?”

“Stay tight on your six, right?” Katy asked.

“Always,” Jack answered with a chuckle.

“Sounds to me like you want the easy job for yourself while we protect the weaklings,” Ken added.

“I don’t know if I’d call a battleship a weakling,” Jessie interjected.

“Good point,” Ken answered.  “We’ll keep the BBs safe, Boss.  You just make certain nobody kills Vanguard if the balloon goes up.”

“I’ll do my best,” Jack said, suppressing a smile as the first British destroyer screen came into view ahead of them.  “Now let’s get in and see what we can do,” he ordered, grabbed the throttle and stick, and pushed the throttle forward, watching in approval as the other fighters held pace with him.

“Roger that,” Jessie returned.

“Got it, Boss,” Ken added

“All over it,” Katy transmitted to his console.

“Break now,” Jack said and penetrated the British formation, passing escorting corvette, destroyer, and cruiser squadrons waiting in hyperspace.  Fighter squadrons road the gravitic waves, weaving with them as the much larger warships simply drifted through them.  Jack frowned, wondering what they were waiting for as the Cowboys approached the battleships and dreadnoughts at the heart of the British fleet.  Then he shrugged.  It honestly didn’t matter much to him.  His job was to sit back and wait, much like those fighter pilots behind him riding the waves, until the big guns decided it was time to bring the pain.

“Jack?” Betty asked and he glanced at her, then down to the display she was eying.  He saw the comm. system blinking, ready to transmit, and smiled at the not-so-subtle hint that he really should be talking to one of those big guns right now.

“This is Captain Jack of,” he paused as he looked at the icons blinking in one of the displays, showing them the transponder symbol of a Hart.  Betty smiled and nodded, urging him on.  “Hart Flight to the HMS Vanguard,” Jack finished, trying not to sound too awkward about it.  “Aneerin has volunteered us to escort you in.”

A man appeared on one of the displays, wearing the uniform of a British admiral, arms clasped behind his back.  The officer looked like a shop owner considering how much candy Jack was going to steal from him.  “We have received word from Aneerin regarding your orders.  Are all of your fighters truly hyper-capable?”

Jack smiled at the question.  “Yes, Admiral.  The Peloran have upgraded the Hellcats as well.”

The British admiral sighed.  “Very well.  Please hold our flanks while we recall our fighters and clear for surface action.”

“Roger that,” Jack answered and nodded to Betty.

She cut the transmission with a smile.

“Mischief, did you hear that?”

“Listening in, Boss,” Katy said as her face appeared on a display.

“Good,” Jack nodded towards the display.  “Time to get off my six and do some real work.”

She aimed an affronted look at him.  “What?  Keeping up with you isn’t enough?”

“I’m afraid not,” Jack returned with a chuckle.  “We all have to work for our living today.”

Katy sniffed.  “Actually, I rather hope all we have to do is sit around and watch today.”

“A woman after my own heart,” Jack said, covering it with a hand.

Katy winked.  “Don’t you know it?”

“I’ll cover starboard,” Jack said with a chuckle.

“Guess that leaves port for me then?”  She raised both eyebrows at him.

“Got it in one,” Jack answered.  “Now let’s move,” he ordered and brought the Avenger around to the Vanguard’s starboard flank.  Betty’s drones spread out to cover the approaches to the British battleships, grav drives holding them in formation despite the buffeting of the gravitic waves.  His eyes flicked over to see Katy’s Hellcat and drones disappearing behind the massive dreadnought.

He scanned his sensors, watching the British fighters power up and begin to move.  This was the most contentious part of any hyperspace assault, when the fighters that could not surface into normalspace either remained deployed to screen the fleet or slipped into their mothership to be carried up.  Fleet commanders had to choose how many fighters to leave behind or take with them, and if they brought them all home before surfacing a well-timed counterattack from their targets could devastate the fleet.

Jack smiled as Aneerin’s plan sunk in.  He’d sent the Cowboys so the British could recall all of their fighters, giving them that much more firepower in system once they entered normalspace.  Jack had to hand it to the old man.  He never showed his cards to the table and always looked for an advantage.  Jack nodded very slowly as he considered that he would have to watch the old man.  He would have to learn from the old man.

“Jack?” Betty asked and he turned to see her staring at him with a curious expression.

He shrugged in response.  “Just realizing that I’m going to have to pay attention to the sneaky old bastard more than I thought.”

Betty gave him an amused smile.  “Just realizing?”

“So sometimes I’m a bit slow,” he returned with a snort.

“A bit?”  Her smile turned impish.

Jack raised an eyebrow at her.  “Hush, you.”

Betty jerked her head to the side and Jack shifted his gaze to look at the display she pointed out.  The British grav drives had come to life, and the fleet began to drive forward, crashing through the grav waves on their way to the Chinese world of Xin Yin.  Jack smiled as the Avenger kept pace with the Vanguard, riding the shockwave spreading out from the dreadnought’s bow.  All around them over a hundred battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and corvettes plowed through hyperspace, shredding the natural currents of the grav waves in their passage.  It was like nothing Jack had ever seen before.

He let out a long breath, relaxed back into his seat, and kept an eye on the map display.  It showed the fleet in all its glory, spread throughout all three dimensions, and the Cowboys’ drones interspersed between the ships, watching and waiting for any approaching enemies.  No red blips appeared.  Either they were catching the Chinese by surprise, or it was a trap.  Jack blinked at the thought and glanced over at Betty.

She returned a questioning look, wondering what his shift meant.

And then the comm. display began to flash, showing the order to surface and it was past time to consider anything.  Jack nodded, closed his eyes, and the universe flashed.  He opened his eyes to see the British fleet all around him, fighters boiling out of the motherships at maximum acceleration.  Sensor drones deployed with them, stretching out to scan normalspace for enemies.

The display filled with Chinese forts and warships inside the Lunar Treaty Limit.  Nearly twenty forts held the approaches to the planet, with up to twenty warships supporting each.  They were smaller warships though, mostly destroyers designed with point defense in mind to support the forts.  Against the British fleet arrayed outside the limit, they would be little more than a speed bump.  Deep inside the limit, the remains of the Shang and Chinese fleets that attacked New Washington licked their wounds.  Less than one hundred warships, many of them could barely move, let alone fight.  Those capable of fighting would only delay the inevitable if this came down to a fight.

Everybody had to know that any conflict would prove disastrous for the Chinese.  But a niggling concern wiggled its way into Jack’s brain, and he frowned as the British fleet did not move.  Something wasn’t right and he didn’t want to be here any longer than necessary.  “Why aren’t we moving?” he finally asked.

Betty aimed an odd look at him.  “They’re talking.  Demanding the Chinese stop harboring the Shang.  According to plan.  Do you want to listen?”

“I don’t know,” Jack answered in a low tone.  The tips of his fingers began to vibrate, drumming the edge of his seat with a worried rhythm.  He scanned the displays, looking for anything that could be causing him so much unease, as he tried to act like nothing was wrong.  “Is it is interesting?”

Betty followed his actions, her face beginning to betray worry as well.  But she kept up the act.  “Well, that depends on what you consider interesting.  The legal arguments pertaining to why the Chinese cannot harbor the Shang due to their violation of the Lunar Treaties, despite the fact that the Shang did not sign them, are actually very fascinating.”

“Great.”  Jack rolled his eyes.  “The bureaucrats are going to war.  I think I’ll pass on listening in.”

“Your loss,” Betty returned, momentarily brightening in reaction to his jocular tone.  “The Chinese counterarguments are very inspired.”

Jack’s eyes narrowed as he focused on a region of space outside the British formation.  “Can we get a focused scan out there?”

“On the way,” Betty answered without pause, and he saw one of her drones rocket out in that direction.

“And get the drones into a tight formation please.”

“What’s wrong?” she asked, but her drones responded instantly, coming back towards the Vanguard’s flank.  “I don’t see anything out there.”

Jack frowned and let out a long breath.  “Neither do I.  But if I were planning a trap, that’s where I’d come in.  Catch us between the proverbial rock and hard place.”

“There’s more to it than that,” she said in a low voice, demanding an explanation.

Jack growled as his fingers continued to twitch.  He had to fight to keep his hands off the controls.  “I feel like a missile’s headed our way.  I don’t want to be here.”

Betty nodded and one of their drones flashed and disappeared.  A second later, a display began relaying sensor images of hyperspace, showing it empty of all threats.  Of course, with sensor range in hyperspace being so pitifully short, someone could be a few thousand klicks away and be effectively invisible.  More drones throughout the fleet began to flash out, and the hyperspace display expanded.  Jack gave her a questioning look.

“You’re not the only one with bad vibes,” she explained with a shrug.  Then she shook her head.  “But there’s just nothing out there that we can find,” she added with a growl of her own.

Then the displays lit up with alarms and Jack stared at them as ship after ship after ship flashed into existence.  They appeared by the scores and fighters swarmed out of carriers and other larger warships as the unknown fleet recovered from the shock of surfacing into normalspace.  Jack frowned, wondering who could have a fleet that large after the destruction of the last few months.  He glanced over to see Betty’s drone not yet close enough to get a good scan.  And then it clicked.

“Oh frak,” he whispered as ships continued to flash into existence, filling out the incoming formation.

“Jack?” Betty asked.

“The Russians are coming,”