When I was a kid, the only things that interested me were girls and partying with friends.  We never thought about war.  Who would ever attack us?  The answer of course was the Shang.  After that, we all volunteered, expecting a Short, Victorious, War against the alien menace.  Instead, we got War Without End.  You learn the measure of friends in times like those.  True friends stand beside you, and you beside them, in the eternities of boredom and instants of terror that defined The War.




“Two pair,” Swan said with a smile and dropped her cards on the table.

Jack Hart scowled at the two kings and flung his cards down in disgust.  The other four Cowboys groaned as well, scattering their failed hands on the table, and Lieutenant Dawn DeMarco gathered up her winnings.  The bottle caps clattered against each other, and Swan bestowed a look on her opponents that reminded Jack of her namesake.  She sat tall and erect, a true daughter of the Outer Colony world Camelot, and even her standard Marine duty uniform couldn’t shroud the lithe beauty of her frame.  She surveyed the field of battle before her, and then turned the eyes that were much older than her twenty-some year old face to challenge the other Cowboys.  “Another hand?” she asked.

Jack chuckled and swept the cards up with a deft motion.  He began to shuffle, smiling as their eagle eyes watched to make certain he didn’t load the deck in anyone’s favor.  He chuckled again and shook his head.

“What?” Cat asked from her side of the table, peering at him suspiciously.  He met her gaze, fingers flickering between the cards in a blur as they passed between his hands.  Captain Kathleen Reynolds was night to Swan’s day, unruly hair forever rebelling from any attempt to control it.  She had the undeniable rumpled air of the young college student she’d once been, stepping out of the Iowa barn she’d grown up with.  Her eyes were just as old as Swan’s though, and Jack knew they had over a century of flight time between the two of them.  Jack wondered again at the vagaries of the universe that left him of all people in command of a pair of such veteran pilots.

Jack snorted and glanced towards the rest of his pilots.  Fox, Crane, and Snake had each lived about as long as he had, though they’d grown up a lot faster than he.  Jesse James owned a farm in Kansas, though there was the hint of a rogue in his eyes set in his weatherworn face.  The face of Buckaroo Banno was plastered all over the California surfing magazines, first as a surfer and then as the owner of surfing stores, but Ken was a Free Japanese through and through.  When the time came to fight the Chinese conquerors of the homeland he’d never seen, he and his people had volunteered with amazing determination.  And while Louise Mattioli’s long, slender limbs branded him a native Martian, his slick, back hair gave him the look of a lawyer.  Appropriate since he was a lawyer in his day job before The War.  The Peloran had given them all very fitting callsigns.

“It’s just good to have the band back together,” Jack said with a waggle of his eyebrows and the cards fluttered from one hand to the other.

“I’m just glad to have space to stretch out in again,” Snake returned, eyes scanning the ready room as if looking for a lawsuit he could file.  No.  Jack had to give it to the man.  He didn’t actually live up to the stereotype of the soulless lawyer, but everybody still gave him a hard time.  He gave just as good as he got.  But this time, he truly wasn’t looking for a lawsuit.

Jack followed the man’s gaze, eyes running over the snarling wolf symbol hanging on the bulkhead.  It belonged to the Texas Marine Corps Fighter Attack Wing 112, renamed the Cowboys hundreds of years ago.  His eyes flittered over to the flag of the United States of America hanging on one bulkhead.  It was a familiar flag to him, thirteen stripes for the original Colonies that founded America, and forty-nine stars for the States that led America out of the Second Great Depression.  Above it, the single star Republic of Texas flag had looked odd to him when he first volunteered, but the Lone Star flag had grown on him in the last two years.  “I do love Cowboy Country,” he echoed Snake’s assertion.

The other Cowboys stopped examining his hands to look around their ready room.    All but two hatches opened into the personal sleeping quarters pilots enjoyed onboard carriers, while everything a squadron needed to be ready to fly filled the room itself.  A small wet bar on one wall gave them access to any drink they wanted, as long as it had no alcohol.  A theater they usually used for playing movies, complete with amazingly comfortably recliners, filled most of the room, while the table they sat around was officially a map of the carrier deck, showing the location and readiness of the hundred-some fighters currently embarked on her.

It made a real nice poker table for a half dozen pilots who hadn’t seen each other since the Alpha Centauri Campaign.  Jack, Jesse, and Ken had met down in Texas after volunteering to fight the Shang, quickly becoming fast friends, and he could read them like a book.  Swan, Cat, and Snake had joined the Cowboys during the Alpha Centauri Campaign, to fill out losses in the original Cowboy Squadron, which he supposed was why he thought of them by their callsigns.  But he’d learned to read them too, and he saw contentment in all of his people’s faces.  They were happy to be back together too.

Even if it meant taking the long trip out to Epsilon Reticuli.  Jack suppressed a scowl at that thought, wondering again why the Alliance was gathering so many warships so far from the heart of the fighting.  Oh, there were some good Chinese colonies to hit out here, but he couldn’t think that any of them rated the entire Third Fleet to take down.  But Western Alliance leadership wanted to show the Chinese and their Shang allies that they were still in The War to win all the marbles.  Jack knew Admiral Aneerin had tried to talk them out of it, but they were adamant.  Which was where Jack and his little half-squadron of Cowboys came in.  Aneerin wanted someone he trusted on the spot if everything hit the fan, and if that was the excuse it took to get the band back together Jack would smile and run with it.

Which he did as he began to shoot the cards out to his pilots’ waiting hands, angled so no one could read them, even him.  The Cowboys gathered up their cards with supple fingers careful to keep the faces away from their fellow players.  Eyes widened, eyebrows raised or lowered, and Jack smiled as he dropped the deck and pulled his own cards up.  He pursed his lips and furrowed his brow, putting on a show of thinking about his cards.  He could work with the two jacks.  Maybe.  Faking his people into thinking he either had nothing or everything was all just part of the game.

“Are you sure you didn’t load them?” Cat asked in disgust and Jack gave her a smile that could have melted butter.

“How could I possibly have done something like that with you watching my every move?” he asked her with practiced innocence.

“Cards could,” Cat declared and aimed a finger at Jesse.

Jesse shrugged in response to her use of his old callsign and the cards in his hand seemed to teleport into his other hand after a mere wiggle of fingers.

“Which is why you leave it to models of honesty like me,” Jack said piously, picked up one of his few remaining bottle caps, and tossed it into the center of the table.  The other Cowboys rolled their eyes at him, but he examined his hand as if he couldn’t see them.  It was all part of the game after all.

Cat was fingering her large pile of bottle caps in deep thought when an alarm filled Cowboy County with blaring dissonance designed to wake the dead.  Jack froze for a second in complete and utter surprise.  The alarm had only one meaning, but it was impossible.  Nobody in their right minds would actually attack a fleet as large as this one.  Then the poker table exploded into motion as all six Cowboys came to their feet in unison.

Cybernetic intelligences flickered into existence next to each Cowboy’s locker, and Jack aimed a quick glance at the blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman standing next to his.  Betty’s Scandinavian features would have fit in perfectly with all the cousins and other girls he’d grown up with in northern Minnesota.  To most people she looked as real and solid as anyone else, but the improved eyesight that came with his very rare reaction to the Peloran Treatments watched small particles of air drifting through her body.  That, and the sharp edges of her body were a dead giveaway as to the nature of her holoform.  Once again, he wondered if the imperfections of the holoform were a limitation of the technology, or a clue the cybers left on purpose for their partners.

“The Shang are attacking,” Betty said, her voice coming from his earbuds rather than her lips, and the locker opened on powered hinges.

“They’re braver than I thought,” Jack muttered in a voice soft enough that it would not bother the other pilots as they conversed with their cybers, and reached into the locker for his flight jacket.  He slipped into the familiar brown leather, feeling it adjust to his body as the personal computer woven into it went to work.

“Not really,” Betty said with a shrug.  “Another long range missile attack.”

“Just that?” Jack asked with a snort and pulled the old-style metal zipper up, feeling the lining beneath it seal into an airtight bond.  “Any excuse to make us do a little work” he muttered and pulled a pair of gloves on, which instantly sealed with the flight jacket to protect him from the vacuum of space that he really hoped to never feel.  Jack reached in to pull the black Stetson out of the locker and lowered it onto his head, adjusting it with one final tug on the brim.  He was aware that numerous State Guards from Canada to the Mexican States, and in fact the United States Armored Cavalry, wore the ubiquitous headgear, but he had a completely different reason for totally approving of it as he smiled at the reflection in the mirror.  Girls loved a man in a fancy hat.  A man had to keep his priorities in mind after all.

The air flickered between him and the mirror and he nodded in approval.  The low powered force field linking flight jacket and the armored headgear was just powerful enough to keep him from breathing any vacuum he had the bad luck to run into.  Pleased with the uniform’s protection, and more importantly with just how good it looked while doing it, Jack stepped back from his locker to scan the other Cowboys.  Every locker slid shut as the pilots of Jack’s half squadron echoed his motions, and he nodded in approval.

“Let’s rock and roll, people,” he ordered and strode towards nearest hatch.

“Oorah,” the Cowboys returned the old Marine affirmative with relish.

Jack smiled as the hatch opened and they hurried into the short corridor running out of the ready room.  The six pilots and six cybers filled the small area before the next hatch opened to allow the roar of engines to wash over them.  To that familiar sound, Jack and his Cowboys stepped out onto the busy hangar deck of a fleet carrier in the United States Navy, the United States Starship Enterprise.

It was an amazing sight every time he saw it.  The far bulkhead was over a hundred meters away.  He’d actually seen football games played across them as publicity stunts back before The War.  On either side of him, the hangar deck ran half a kilometer away, and fighters, shuttles, and repair bays were assembled across the entirety of that massive deck.  The dull roar beating against his ears heightened to a scream and the Ready One squadron rocketed out through the energy screen in the carrier’s bow.  Jack’s eyes followed the Hellcats out for a moment, then dropped to follow the progress of other Navy pilots spilling out of their ready rooms.  They would be the other Ready Five squadrons.  Technically his Cowboys were on Ready Five status at the moment, capable of launching within five minutes of the orders going out.  Not that they ever took that long of course.

He turned away from the massive length of the hangar deck, nodded towards the other Cowboys, and strode over to where his fighter waited with Betty at his side.  The F-12C Avenger towering above him was something like thirty meters of long, narrow nose attached to a ten-meter angular hull that housed the engines, weapons, and defensive measures designed to keep them all alive.  Engines the size of buses glowed as they warmed up, and laser pods twisted in their sockets.  A laser turret under the nose spun back and forth, testing to make certain it had full rotation, and missile pods twitched on each massive wing.  Avengers were the largest fighters ever built, more a proof of concept for a hyper-capable fighter than anything else.  Many considered them too large to be a proper fighter, but The War had thrown them into service and the Cowboys had been first to fly them.  They’d become a tradition since then, and the size just meant they could carry more weapons than any other fighter ever built.  Jack liked that, and the cockpit originally designed for two people gave him plenty of room to stretch out in and feel comfortable.

“Betty?” he asked, eyes running up and down their fighter.

“Ready,” she answered with a dry chuckle.

He flexed his legs and jumped up towards the fighter.  He was still going up when the fighter’s gravitic generator snatched him in midair.  Gravity ceased to exist as far as he could tell and he drifted to the lip of the cockpit to land with a dancer’s grace.  He dropped onto his cockpit seat and looked up as Betty flickered into existence atop the main console, barely twenty centimeters in height now.  They shared a smile as the cockpit began to close, and his hands secured his five-point harness with a series of rapid-fire clicks.

The canopy locked in place with a much louder click and Jack glanced up with a smile as Betty’s uniform faded out of sight.  In it’s place, a decidedly un-regulation yellow sundress appeared and she smiled.  “There.  That’s better,” she pronounced in a satisfied tone.

“Much,” Jack agreed, sparing a second to watch her sit down and cross her legs.  At her upraised eyebrow, he chuckled and scanned the displays reporting their fighter’s readiness.  All displays showed green and Jack nodded in approval.  Betty always was good at making them ready to fly.  His eyes ran over another display and he nodded at the confirmation that the other five fighters of his small squadron were ready too.  And it hadn’t even been two minutes.  “So much for Ready Five,” he said with a chuckle.

“What can I say?” Betty asked.  “I’m good.”

“The best,” Jack replied without pause and winked at her.  “Hey, Christine,” he said into the open air.

A blonde holoform flickered into the air before him and smiled.  “Hello, Jack.  How are you?” Enterprise’s cybernetic intelligence asked.

“I had the start of a winning hand,” he complained.

“Well, we’ll just have to see if we can make up for that,” Christine returned, her head shaking with a wry smile.

“Sounds like a plan to me.  Can you beam us out?”

“Absolutely,” Christine answered with a nod.  At her command, a holographic beam appeared on the canopy, showing him a course through all the fighters and assorted other equipment littering the fleet carrier’s hangar bay.  “You’re the first of the Ready Fives.  Good luck,” she finished, a serious expression on her face.

“Thanks,” he whispered and gave her a nod.  “All Cowboys, take flight and follow your beam,” he ordered with a nod towards Betty.

Betty nodded at him through the murmured responses his Cowboys gave him, and their Avenger lifted off the hangar bay’s deck.  The fighter rose up to the beam, paused a second as the other fighters caught up, and then blue fusion flames lit the hangar bay.  Jack leaned back as the six fighters rocketed through the bay, shooting past entire squadrons of fighters and scrambling figures in less than the blink of an eye.

And then they were in open space, utter darkness split only by stars.  He turned to see the bright light of the Ursa Major Star Cluster shining on hundreds of starship hulls arrayed around him.  It was an amazing sight, the largest fleet ever assembled by the Western Alliance.  Hell, it was probably the largest fleet assembled by anybody from Earth, and it was all here.

The displays came to life, showing icons belonging to the hundred ships of the Spanish Armada, along with another fifty British ships.  One hundred fifty more ships showed up with the flags of the other Alliance member nations from Africa to America.  Jack watched Enterprise, Durango, Arizona, and nearly three-dozen smaller American icons fill the plot around him.  Dozens of fighters flitted between the American warships, and beyond them hundreds more nearly filled space around the rest of the fleet.  And they were still waiting for the Ready Five and the Standby Squadrons to launch.  There would be thousands of fighters once every ship managed to launch.

Somebody was about to get a major pasting.  They just had to wait a few minutes for everybody to come out and get ready to fight.

Jack smiled for a moment, and then the smile died as the plot continued to propagate out beyond the mammoth fleet to show the gigantic wave of missiles swarming in from all directions.  Angry red dots filled the displays as the wavefront of destruction approached, and for a moment Jack’s mind refused to accept the numbers they displayed.  No one could fire that many missiles at once.  No one.

But the displays refused to reset to more rational numbers and Jack swallowed.  “Ah, frak,” he muttered, realizing that someone really was going to get a pasting.  And it might just not be the people he wanted.

“All Cowboys, form up and…frak,” he licked his lips as he failed to come up with a good idea.

“Yeah,” Betty whispered.  “I cut the transmission off before you ran out of words, by the way.”

“Thanks.”  He swiveled his head to see the five other Avengers taking up position off his wings and let out a low whistle.  The sight of nearly six-dozen more drone Avengers swooping in from above filled him with more relief than he cared to admit at the moment.  The drones spent most of their time in space, only landing if in need of repairs or maintenance.  The constant flight time took a toll on their systems, but it gave the fleet an impressive amount of firepower ready and waiting to react instantly.  Now that firepower was all his.

Another holoform flickered into being next to Betty and Jack smiled at the new arrival.  Standard procedure called for each pilot to be paired with a single cybernetic or artificial intelligence who would stay with him or her until death.  It was a partnership closer than most marriages Jack had ever seen, and after nearly three years he understood the meaning behind Betty’s every raised eyebrow, cocked head, or pursed lip.  He might play stupid on the subject, but she’d used them on him enough that he understood her better than all but two girls he’d ever known.  Though the jury was still out on just how much he truly understood anybody of the opposite sex.

But the point was, he and Betty understood each other well enough that they could predict what the other would want to do before they did it.  That synergy made a dedicated pilot and cyber team into the deadliest combatants to take fighter craft into battle in the known history of the human race.  Cat and Blaze had killed six Shang fighters at the Battle of Fort Wichita in the old Hellcat they’d flown at the time.  Jack and Betty had accounted for far more Shang lives, but they’d had an Avenger, so it wasn’t a fair comparison.  Drew and Jasmine had been there right beside him in another Avenger, and the dozen fighters of Cowboy squadron had torn apart entire Shang warships with their concentrated fire.

And then Drew died at Alpha Centauri.  Most cybers died with their pilots.  They always had backups and could survive even total destruction of their fighter by simply booting up their last backup.  But few cybers wanted to live a life without the pilot they were literally born to be with.  The brunette flickering into existence next to Betty wearing faded blue jeans and a grey tank top was made of far sterner stuff than most cybers though.

“Jasmine,” Jack said with a smile as her eleven drone fighters slotted into position around him.

“Jack,” the cyber returned, lips quirked.


Jasmine’s smile turned predatory.  “Oh, we’re so green.”

“Good.”  He looked at Betty and she nodded back.  “Well then, let’s rock and roll.”  He placed his hands on the controls, and spun seventy-two Avenger-class fighters and drones to face the oncoming wavefront of incoming enemy missiles.  “This is Captain Jack of Hart squadron, Marine Fighter Attack Wing 112, to fleet command,” he intoned with a nod towards Betty.  She nodded, indicating that she was transmitting.  “The Cowboys are ready for action.  Where do you need us?”

A fourth cyber appeared on his console, and Jack had to suppress an amused smile at just how crowded it was getting in the cockpit.  She was brown haired, brown skinned, and looked like an extra from a Zorro movie.  That wasn’t a surprise.  She was after all the brain of the Santa Isabel, flagship of the Spanish Armada, and by association the entirety of Third Fleet.  “Cover the carriers,” she ordered in Spanish-accented English.  Not Spanish-accented American which sounded entirely different, but Spanish-accented English.  It was an odd mingling of foreign accents that almost confused his ears.  But by God he could listen to her read the dictionary all day long and never grow tired of it.  “We need to protect them while the rest of the fighters launch,” Santa Isabel continued, and Jack nodded.

“Will do,” he answered and turned back to Betty.  “Cowboys, did you hear the lady?”  Betty smiled as his squadron-mates answered in the affirmative in rapid succession.  “Assume defensive pattern bravo,” Jack ordered and returned his gaze to Santa Isabel’s cyber.  “Good luck.”

Santa Isabel smiled back.  “God be with you, Captain Hart,” she returned in a far more formal tone before fading away.

Jack turned back to Christine.  “Slot us into your defense grid, please?” he asked with raised eyebrows.

Enterprise’s cyber nodded in agreement and one of the displays flashed to show the fleet’s collective point defense grid reaching out towards the oncoming threat.  “You’re part of the grid now.”

Jack looked to Betty and she smiled in agreement.

“Good.”  Jack reached out to tap one control and his favorite T&J song filled the cockpit.  Well, his favorite song for going into battle at least.  He had other favorite songs for other times, but this one had driving rhythms and a good screaming melody that merged into the battles that often raged around them.  He felt their twin voices suffuse into his bones, and for a moment he was a young man, plucking his silly little guitar while they sang the golden chords that would net them a major record deal.

He opened his eyes again, felt his heart pumping in time to the music, and was as much at peace as he ever was.  He placed his hands back on the stick and throttle, breathed deeply, and scanned the displays.  One showed a squadron of Hellcats leaving Enterprise.  Another showed the incoming wave of missiles.  On another, the frigates and destroyers on the edges of the fleet opened fire.

Missiles, lasers, and gravitic cannons fired, and there were so many missiles in the attack that they couldn’t dodge.  Missiles died by the hundreds, but they kept coming.  For a moment, Jack was watching the Shang strike on Yosemite Station again, the day his world ended.  He watched Yosemite fall, ravaging the western United States, and he watched his father die.  He stopped, the past and present colliding so completely he couldn’t find his way out.


The one word snapped his eyes back into focus on Betty.  She smiled, and he saw in her eyes she knew.  She understood.  And she would always be here to help.  He held onto that knowledge as the music of T&J filled his ears and mind.  They sang of roaring thunder, crashing lightning, and the end of innocence, and he felt the soundtrack of his life lift him up, back onto solid mental footing.  The missiles came, and he flexed his fingers, knowing in his bones that it was time.  “Yippie ki-yay,” he said in a voice that was far too shaky for his wishes.

If the cybers heard, they ignored it and the seventy-two Avengers of Jack’s little half-squadron opened fire with every weapon at their disposal.  Missile pods ripple-fired scores of seeking warheads into space, laser turrets pulsed into the teeth of the enemy attack wave, and gravitic cannons stabbed deep into it.  Around them, dreadnoughts, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, fighters, and even carriers added their own fire to the point defense grid, and he sucked in a deep breath.

It was an amazing sight.

Three hundred warships, and the better part of a thousand fighters faced the missile swarm, filling space so completely that outgoing missiles exploded from friendly fire.  Normally invisible lasers stabbed through the gases of destroyed or expended missiles, fully visible to human eyes.  The roiling wavefront of death filled the sky with light, and hundreds of Shang missiles hit the grid.

“Take that,” Jack snarled as the combined point defense grid of the greatest Alliance fleet ever assembled stopped the Shang missile strike cold.  There would be no repeat of Yosemite today.