They say that every thing that does not kill you makes you stronger.  If that is true, than I must be Hercules by now, considering all the things that have failed to kill me.  The Shang tried real hard, but I got away.  A lot of other people didn’t, many of them far better people than me.  I try to remember them all, but there are so many.  So I toast to absent friends and go on with life.  It’s the ultimate way to cheat death.  Live.




Hyperspace swirled around Jack’s Avenger, rainbow currents of gravity bringing every color under the stars to his eyes in one crazy kaleidoscope of chaos.  The fighter’s gravity generator held the chaos at bay, forcing a bubble of calm around them.  But outside that sphere of serenity, hyperspace pooled and eddied, flowing around dozens of surviving fighters.  Frigates and destroyers created larger pools of calm, though more than one hung dead in space, the currents of hyperspace already beginning to pull them away from the rest of the task force.  They were going to have to get their gravitics back up if they planned to move under power.  Of the nine cruisers that left the wall of battle, only Los Angeles remained, proudly proclaiming her lordship over hyperspace with a vast calm sphere around her.

The British destroyer Eclipse appeared before him, flowing down a rainbow stream.  She was heavily wounded, her starboard broadside ravaged by the final Shang missiles.  Jack could see through her armor, and air continued to leak out of the deep wounds reaching into her central spine.  But she lived, and a half-dozen sturdy Harriers maneuvered around her in a defensive formation, obviously intending to keep her that way.

Gabrielle flickered back into his cockpit and let out a long sigh of relief.  “We made it,” she whispered.

“I never doubted it,” Jack returned with all the sincerity he could muster.

“That’s sweet of you,” Gabrielle said, shaking her head the whole time.  “But you know how dicey that was.  Thank you,” she finished, holding his gaze until he nodded in acceptance.  “Good.  Now, we need to form up so we can get out of here.”

Jack glanced at the displays showing the names of the disabled ships.  “What about Harrington, Clark, and Vargas?” he asked, waving a hand towards the destroyer and frigates.

“That’s where I come in,” Gabrielle answered with a smile.  In time with her smile, Los Angeles moved out of her gravitic stream, gravity generator expanding her control over hyperspace.  She swooped down on Harrington, engulfing the smaller destroyer with her field, and then tractor beams lanced out to lock her into place.  The cruiser’s engines burned blue, and she pulled the destroyer over to first one frigate, and then the other.  In less than a minute, Clark and Vargas hung off Los Angeles’ flank, anchored in place by more tractor beams.

“Are you sure you can handle that much dead weight?” Jack asked.

“Oh, don’t be silly,” Gabrielle returned.  “They’re not dead.  Their engines can help me out, and I can hold the field around them for as long as I need to.”

“If you say so,” Jack noted in a doubtful tone.

“I do say so,” Gabrielle said, her voice hard and determined.  The edge of desperation tinged it, and Jack winced.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack answered very quickly, not wanting to worry the warship any further.

“Better,” she growled, then looked up to examine the entire surviving task force.  “All ships, form on Los Angeles, match course and speed, and follow me,” she said in her command voice.

The fusion engines of Los Angeles, Harrington, Clark and Vargas came to life at once, filling hyperspace with their blue flames.  Their gravitic bow wave crashed through the hyperspatial currents, creating a wake that expanded behind her.  The rest of the surviving fleet, starships and fighters alike, moved into the slipstream the cruiser created, and Jack felt them diving deeper into hyperspace, leaving Epsilon Reticuli and normalspace behind them.

Jack scanned the displays, studying them to see what had survived the final charge into the Shang force.  Three British starships, with perhaps twenty Harriers swarming around them, brought up the task force’s rear.  The destroyers Eclipse and Assault were the only true warships remaining of their squadron.  Recovery was a medical frigate, only mounting a point defense network because the Shang had long since proven that the Red Cross meant nothing to them.  Jack frowned at the three ships.  There was something not right there, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

He shook his head, and scanned over to look at the American ships.  The destroyers Adams, Hernandez, and Garcia held position just behind Los Angeles, their gravitic wedges merging with the cruiser’s wake to strengthen it.  Hammond, Vega, Perez, and Mendoza held position between the destroyers and the British, their smaller gravity generators unable to significantly impact the wake around them.  But those frigates were optimized for point defense against both missiles and fighters, making them a very important part of the task force.  Jack frowned.  This wasn’t a task force any more.  At most, it was a reinforced squadron, and he wasn’t certain he’d be even that optimistic if he were the station commander seeing them show up.

At least some fighters had managed to get out with them.  Before The War, that would have been impossible he knew.  His thirty-two surviving Avengers were the first hypercapable fighter ever designed.  But the Peloran had gone all-in when it came to helping the Western Alliance upgrade their existing technologies in the last two years.  Third Fleet had benefited the most from those upgrades, and every single one of their fighters were hypercapable now.  Around forty Hellcats and ten Mexican Azcarates held position around the starships.  Five times that number of fighters had started the battle.  It was a horrendous loss ratio, though a quick glance at the displays showed that two-thirds of the pilots still lived.  He’d lost Snake too, but his other pilots began to report in via the displays and he nodded slowly in approval.  They’d lost far more Avengers than he wanted, but they’d managed to get Los Angeles out.  Jack was impressed.  She took a lot of killing to make it stick.

Gabrielle smiled as if following his train of thought.  “Jack, I’m giving you a landing beam to Los Angeles.  Please follow it.”

Jack raised an eyebrow.

“Captain Wyatt has ordered a full briefing and she wants the fighter commanders to report in person.”

Jack shook his head.  “I don’t even know where to land!  Avengers won’t fit in your bays.”

Gabrielle laughed.  “You’re right.  Multiple Avengers won’t, but I can squeeze one of you in.”

Jack cleared his throat.  “I have five piloted Avengers here, and another twenty-seven cybernetic Avengers that are going to need a place to refuel and rearm.  We can’t hoof it all the way to Serenity on our own power.”

“I know,” Gabrielle growled.  “We’re going to have to do some tricky maneuvers to keep all the fighters working.  Now will you please come to the briefing?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack returned, feeling a bit harassed.  Gabrielle looked triumphant and Jack turned to Betty who just smiled at him.  “Betty?”

“On it, Jack,” Betty answered, interlaced her fingers, and cracked her virtual knuckles.  Then she wiggled her fingers, bringing thrusters to life and moving their fighter towards Los Angeles.  It was smooth sailing in the cruiser’s wake, the normal chaos of hyperspace suppressed by the generators of the squadron carving their way towards the large gravitic wave linking the massive Epsilon Reticuli system to the much smaller Serenity.

Betty slowed their fighter as they came up behind Los Angeles, and then moved them towards the hangar bay on the end of her hull.  It was truly small, only designed to support six Hellcats, and Jack winced as the size of the hangar bay registered.  It truly was far too small for his comfort.  Betty slowed to a crawl and poked her long nose through the energy field holding the atmosphere in.  It distorted around the Avenger, and he saw it ripple as his cockpit moved inside.  The rest of the Avenger followed, making the single Hellcat in the bay look truly miniscule by comparison.

Jack let out a long breath.  The Hellcats had been in service for decades, designed and optimized for naval duty.  Avengers on the other hand were maybe three years old, proof-of-concept craft designed to show that America could build a hyperspace-capable fighter.  The gravitic cannons and lasers had been an afterthought, added because the military demanded weapons on even a prototype.  The powerful generators and capacitors designed to rip through the barrier separating normalspace from hyperspace could power multiple gravitic cannons and laser arrays without breaking a sweat.

No one had expected them to deploy on anything other than the testing ranges.  They’d never been meant for deployment at all, but Jack had somehow been lucky enough to be in the first squadron designated to test them.  Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 112, the Cowboys.  They’d helped kill multiple Shang cruisers at the Battle of Fort Wichita, and garnered the attention of the Peloran admiral in charge of defending Earth.

Admiral Aneerin had requested they be reassigned to his battleship to supplement his fighters, and Jack had been under the Peloran’s command ever since.  He’d landed on carriers, battleships, dreadnoughts, battlecruisers, and even a German heavy cruiser almost as large as a battlecruiser, all ships with large enough hangar bays to support his massive fighter.  Los Angeles’ tiny hangar bay, designed to support a mere half-squadron of Hellcats, was by far the smallest bay he’d every tried to land in.

Not that he was actually doing anything.  It was Betty’s job to squeeze herself into the bay, and Jack held his breath.  The massive wings slid inside the bay, with less than a meter a clearance.  The fighter came to a stop, the nose just short of the forward blast shield, and it came down for a landing, filling nearly the entire bay from front to rear.  Jack looked down, and in a testament to how large the Avenger was, the single Hellcat fit like a glove next to the nose of his fighter.

“There,” Betty said with a smile.  “Fits like a glove,” and Jack wondered if she’d guessed his line of thought well enough to repeat it on purpose.  Probably.

“Yup,” Jack returned, looking at the tight confines of the hangar around them.  “Just be careful about flexing yourself.  I wouldn’t want you breaking something.”

“Oh, it’s sweet of you to worry about me,” Betty said, a twinkle in her eyes.

“I’m not,” Jack returned with a teasing grin.  “The ship on the other hand…”

“I heard that,” Gabrielle growled.  “Trust me.  I can handle anything your puny fighter can dish out.”

“And the trash talking begins,” Jack said with a chuckle, motioning for the cockpit to open.  It began to lift away, and he tapped the buckle of his five-point harness.  The harness retracted into its housing, leaving him free to stand up and vault out of the fighter.  Betty’s gravity generator snatched him and dropped him safely to the deck where he landed with a spry step, head turning to scan the landing bay.

His eyes stopped on a square-jawed, blond, young man in a black leather flight jacket walking towards him.  The man wore a pair of aviator sunglasses dark enough to keep Jack from reading the age in his eyes.  The raven-haired cyber standing next to him wore the same outfit, right down to the shades and the navy blue scarf hanging from their necks.  The names Hunter Roberts and Mercedes appeared on his contacts, and Jack nodded in approval.  The names fit the looks.

“Damn,” Roberts said, looking way up at the Avenger as he walked towards them.  “That is a big bird.”

“She is beautiful,” Jack answered, projecting just a hint of challenge to the man.

Roberts shook his head in acknowledgement of the jibe.  “So, I gotta ask.  Why?”

“Because she’s the best fraking fighter ever made,” Jack answered, waggling his eyebrows at the man’s Hellcat.

Roberts snorted.  “Hah,” he said and waved towards his smaller fighter.  “She can do everything your old hulk can and takes less space doing it,” he added, nodding towards the cyber standing next to him.

“Old?” Betty growled next to Jack and he raised a hand to touch her shoulder.  He felt the slight shift in the air where her holoform stood almost more as an energy field than as anything solid.  The holofield gathered air molecules into a tighter density before color shifting them to the point that they looked like a real person standing there.  But that was still very little compared to normal air, and Jack stopped when he felt the barest edge of her holoform.  It wouldn’t be nice to wave his hand around inside her.  She got the message though, and her jaw snapped shut.

“Now, now,” Jack answered Roberts with a smile.  The Hellcat might be able to dive into hyperspace, but it certainly couldn’t do everything an Avenger could.  “We’ve got way more firepower than you do.”

Roberts chuckled.  “You can barely squeeze one Avenger into a hangar designed to support six Hellcats.  I think six Hellcats can outmatch you.”

Jack cleared his throat and shrugged.  He looked at Betty, who was glaring back and forth between the other pilot and his cyber.  “Well, you’d definitely outgun me,” Jack said, trying to stave off an argument.  He looked back and forth between the two fighters and shook his head.  “But I’ll take quality over quantity any day of the week,” he added with a wink.  Roberts opened his mouth to call him on it and Jack chuckled.  “Wanna shoot it out and see?  Simulated of course,” he finished with another wink.

Roberts chuckled again and took Jack’s outstretched hand.  “Challenge accepted.”

“Oh good,” Gabrielle said as her holoform appeared next to them.  “Are you done spraying testosterone all over my deck?  If so, can we come to the bridge now?  The captain’s waiting on you,” she finished with a pointed look at Jack.

Jack looked over to Roberts with an amused look, and the man just smiled back at him.  It was almost like the man was daring him to be smart with her, while at the same time declaring his utter refusal to do the same.  Well.  Los Angeles was his home, so Jack supposed it made sense for the man to take the stance he did.

“Well, never let it be said I kept a lady waiting,” Jack said with a smile and turned to Gabrielle, gesturing towards her to lead the way.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes and turned to lead him out of the hangar bay.  Jack followed her out through the hatch that opened before her, Betty, Roberts, and Mercedes on his heals.  The room on the other side was small enough to feel cramped when the hatch closed behind them.  Then the floor beneath them began to vibrate and the lift took them away from the hangar bay like a shot.

The two or three hundred meter trip to the main bridge in the heart of the warships took only a few seconds, and the lift came to a stop, hatch opening onto the bridge.  They filed out and Jack looked around, the contacts swimming with names and positions for each of the men and women on the bridge.  He stopped when his eyes lit on the captain and smiled at her.  The brunette looked strong, and grey eyes betrayed a determination to match the rest of her.  She stared at him for several seconds, obviously taking his measure.

“Major Hart,” Captain Wyatt said, giving him the courtesy promotion required when any captain other than The Captain was onboard a ship.

“Captain Wyatt,” Jack agreed with a smile.

“You’re Ageless,” Wyatt declared.

“Guilty as charged,” Jack answered, wondering what had betrayed him.

“I’ve never met one of your kind before,” she continued, her mouth sketching a doubtful thought.

“I’m not surprised,” Jack said with an easy smile.  People didn’t always like being around someone as physically superior as the Ageless, and he’d learned long ago to downplay the advantages his genetics gave him.  Except of course for times like when the car ran over that girl back home.  The people of International Falls had quietly accepted the fact that he’d lifted it off her, filed it away, and continued to treat him as they always had.  Of course, he’d been a bit of a rogue, so that wasn’t always good.  Fathers of attractive young ladies had been more than happy to continue racking shotguns in his general direction, but they’d never actually shot him.  Winged him maybe, but even Jack couldn’t blame them.  He would have shot him too back then.  “There’s not many of us,” Jack continued, looking Captain Wyatt in the very grey eyes.  Not many was saying it mildly.  There were maybe five thousand Ageless in all the United States of America.

“I’ve heard that Ageless grow up lazy,” Wyatt challenged.  “Never take things seriously because it all comes so easy to you.”

Jack pursed his lips, wondering if she was truly distrustful of Ageless or just testing him.  He chose to assume a mix of the two, and stepped into the verbal minefield with care.  “We don’t grow up Ageless,” he said.  “It’s sorta something that slides up on us without warning after we grow up.”

She nodded very slowly.  “But did you grow up?”

Jack cleared his throat and glanced at Betty.  She just smiled as if thinking it was a very good question.  Well.  There wouldn’t be any help from that peanuts gallery.    “Why do you want to know?” he asked.

Wyatt’s expressive face frowned at him.  “Because I want to know if I can trust you.”

Jack felt Betty bristle beside him this time and he lowered an open hand to hush her.  He kept his eyes on Captain Wyatt though and forced his voice to sound as sincere as possible.  “You can trust me to the ends of the worlds.”

Wyatt sighed.  “That’s easy to say.”

“Aneerin trusts me,” Jack said, and instantly hid a wince.  It wasn’t one of the best arguments he’d ever given for why someone should trust him.

Wyatt cocked her head to the side, the questions on her face even more evident.  The questions, and the doubt.  “But can we trust him?”  And that was why it wasn’t the best argument.

“Permission to speak frankly, Ma’am?” Jack asked.

Wyatt smiled and spread both arms out wide.  “I would expect nothing less.”

“I’m here because Admiral Aneerin smelled a trap.”  Jack shook his head.  “Well, we found a trap, and one he never saw coming.  I lost a Cowboy getting you out.  I lost half of my fighters.  The last time we took casualties like that, his Peloran Battle Squadron got ripped apart beside us.  And I think this trap was meant to finish him.  We both know how he fights.”  He waited for her to nod again before going on.  “That jammer was designed to neutralize his tactics.  I think it would have succeeded.  And I think you only got out because Aneerin sent us to help you.  Because he trusted my people to help you out of a situation he told your entire fleet to avoid.”

Wyatt met his gaze for several seconds.  “I see,” she finally replied.  “Thank you.”

Jack beamed a happy smile at her.  “My pleasure, Ma’am,” he said, tipping his hat towards her.

Wyatt sighed and shook her head.  “Would you care to join me in the briefing room?” she asked, the question not disguising the iron-bound order in the voice at all.

“At your leisure, Ma’am,” Jack answered, glancing to the side to see what the cybers thought.  Betty gave him a proud smile, while Mercedes and Gabrielle had more measuring looks in their eyes.  They hadn’t yet come to a verdict on him.  Well.  That was fair.  He hadn’t come to a verdict on them either.

They entered the briefing room to see around twenty people waiting for them.  Holoforms all, they represented the captains of the surviving warships, and commanders of fighter squadrons still in action.  For the survivors of an entire American task force, they were a motley lot.

“Thank you for making this briefing,” Captain Wyatt said to the others and a shaky ripple of laughter moved through the room.  “We will remember those who didn’t when we have time,” she added with a firm nod, and the others returned her gesture.  “Now, I need to know if you are ready to make way for Serenity immediately.  Not the readiness reports, but your actual on-the-bridge feelings.  Are your ships and crews ready for the trip?”

“My crew’s ready for anything that gets us away from this system,” Hammond’s captain said, and another ripple of nervous laughter filled the room.  “I almost had a mutiny on my hands after giving the order to hold formation on you in fact,” he added, far less humorously.  The laughter ended, and Wyatt nodded very carefully.

“Does that go for the rest of you?” she asked and Jack leaned back against the wall to listen to the ship captains give their reports.  None of them were good.  The task force had lost two-thirds of her ships in a few short minutes, and nearly all of their cruisers.  The various destroyer and frigate commanders knew they would have been dead if the Shang weren’t gunning for the more powerful ships, and that had them frightened.  But, they were holding on.  That had to count for something.

“Very well,” Captain Wyatt finally said in her command voice.  “Set your courses for Serenity and prepare to leave within ten minutes.”

“Hang on,” the captain of Eclipse protested, and all eyes in the room turned to the man.  Jack frowned, something about the man rubbing him wrong.  “We need to determine the commander of this task force,” the man continued in a clipped tone, and Jack saw several raised eyebrows.  “I suggest-”

“I suggest that no suggestions are needed,” Captain Wyatt cut him off.  Silence reigned in the briefing room until she opened her lips again.  “I am the senior commanding officer,” she finished in a tone that brooked no argument.

The man’s eyes blazed.  “With all due respect,” he bit out.

“Is that what you are giving me?” Wyatt asked.  “Respect?”  The unvoiced part of that question cut through the briefing room like a chainsaw.

Eclipse’ captain saw the danger and shook his head.  “Captain,” he began again, this time far more careful of his tone.  “Admiral Bainsworth is on Recovery at this time.”

That captured every eye again.  “Excuse me?” Wyatt asked.  “Did you just say that Admiral Bainsworth, commander of the entire British task force of Third Fleet, is here, right now, without the rest of his force?”  The question hung in the air like the sword of Damocles, and Jack knew the question going through every mind in the briefing room.

“Why was the admiral not with his command?”

Eclipse’ captain swallowed at the unvoiced question.  “He was injured when Valiant took fire,” the captain explained hastily.  “It was deemed necessary to evacuate him and his staff immediately, and this force was the first exit route available.”

“Hang on,” Jack said, unconsciously echoing the Brit as he smelled a rat somewhere and tried to track it down.  “Your people thought this task force was a…safe escape route for an injured admiral?”

He could have heard a pin drop in the silence filling the briefing room, and the sound of the British captain’s swallowing came far too clearly.  “It was the…first escape route…available…” the man said, licking his lips nervously.

“And they didn’t think any more would be available?” Jack pressed, a sick feeling growing in the pit of his stomach.

The other captain cleared his throat awkwardly.  “I…am not privy to fleet command-level decisions,” he finally said, his protest sounding hollow to every ear.

“What in Hell did we leave Third Fleet facing, Captain?” Jack spat out, anger flashing through him.

“Major Hart,” Captain Wyatt said in a hard voice.  He throttled his anger, turned back to her, and saw the unbending will behind those eyes.  “I will ask the questions.  Understood?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack answered, his teeth gritted in protest.  But he didn’t delay, and he didn’t quite protest in a way she had to take notice of.

“Good,” she returned, nodding at the swiftness of his response, if not his joyful obedience.  “Now,” she began, turning back to the British captain, “Captain Alexander.”  The British captain’s eyes flicked to hers as quickly as Jack had responded to her iron tone.  “What do you know?”

“Nothing,” Alexander returned with a shake of his head.  “I was ordered to escort the admiral and his staff out.  I was not told why.”

“Did you have any suspicions?”

The British captain let out a long, unwilling breath.  “They seemed…uncertain of the safety of Third Fleet.”

“I see,” Wyatt said, her voice even harder.

“We have to go back,” Jack blurted out, almost without realizing it.  Enterprise needed him.  The response was so instinctive, he didn’t think twice.  His eyes scanned the other people in the room and saw the same response in the other fighter pilots.  They’d all left people behind, and every last one of them was willing to jump right back in without even thinking.  He could have kissed them.  Even the guys.

But the ship captains stared at him, and he saw the horror in their eyes.  They’d gotten their people out, against all odds.  They’d just escaped overwhelming firepower by the skins of their collective teeth.  And he could see in their eyes the outrage, and the fear under it, at the jumped up fighter pilot saying they had to charge back into that Hell.  He wasn’t certain if any if them would follow an order to charge back into that at the moment.  Jack could have kicked himself.

“Major.  Hart.”  Captain Wyatt uttered the words separately, emphasizing both the rank and the name with an Ice Age’s worth of cold, and Jack met her eyes again.  There was no fear in them at all.  There wasn’t even anger.  That surprised him.  She sounded angry.  Very angry in fact.  But that anger didn’t reach her eyes.  What did was determination to use every opportunity she had.  And she saw an opportunity in his slip.  “Did I stutter, and somehow suggest that I was anything other than in command?” she said, her voice still arctic-cold.  But the eyes added something else.  He couldn’t read it, but knew in his bones she had a plan.

“No, Ma’am,” he returned, once again without pause, and watched the ship captains relaxing in the corner of his eyes.  The fighter pilots bristled though.  They were all made of different cloth than the ship captains.  Pilots always were.  Once again, Jack could have kissed them.

“Good,” Wyatt said with a curt nod towards him.  Then she turned back to the captains.  “We leave for Serenity, now.”

“This is a joint task force of the Western Alliance,” Alexander protested.  “Command authority clearly falls to the senior military commander.  Admiral Bainsworth—”

“Is not here,” Wyatt interrupted, giving the man a knowing look.  “I suppose you would argue that as long as this continues, command should devolve to one of his captains?”

The sound of Alexander’s jaw snapping shut came like a thunderclap in the silence that followed her charge.  She smiled as he tried to come up with an answer, and then shook her head.

“This is an American task force, operating under American orders.  I am the senior American commander, and I will maintain command.  You may convoy with us if you wish, but we have a mission to perform, Captain Alexander.”  Wyatt cocked her head to the side and raised an eyebrow.  “Am I clear?”

The British captain nodded jerkily.

“Good,” Wyatt said, her voice hard as stone, and turned to Gabrielle.  “Set course for the Epsilon Reticuli-Serenity Run and initiate at your discretion.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Gabrielle answered and went to work.

Jack scanned the other captains, seeing approval in the American faces and resignation in the three British officers.  The fighter pilots looked annoyed, as if they’d just missed out on another good fight, but they nodded towards Jack, and then to Wyatt.  Then the pilots and captains began to flicker out, one at a time, until only Wyatt, Roberts, Jack, and their cybers remained.

“Well done, Captain,” Jack said in approval, waiting to see if he’d read her right.

“Thank you,” Wyatt answered.  She examined him for several seconds before continuing.  “I could not have done it without you.”

Jack cleared his throat.  “Thank you,”

“Can you tell me the error you made?” Wyatt asked, raising both eyebrows.

Jack scowled.  “If you’d ask the pilots, I didn’t make one,” he returned, feeling his goat stand up and want to kick something.

Wyatt chuckled.  That caught him off guard, and he cocked his head to the side in confusion.  “Yes.  You got their attention quite well,” she conceded.  “I meant your mistake with the ship captains.”

Jack winced.  “Yes.  I…didn’t…”

“You didn’t think before you opened your mouth?”

“No, Ma’am.”  Jack hated to admit the mistake, but he throttled the angry goat, and took her statement as gracefully as he could.  He deserved it.

Wyatt nodded in approval of his honesty.  “Rule One of command is to never give an order that will not, or can not, be followed.”

“Yes, Ma’am.  Though to be fair, Ma’am, the pilots were with me.”

A curious smile filled her face, and she nodded slowly.  “Yes, Major, they were.  You fighter pilots are truly a strange lot.”  She shook her head and sighed.  “But I do not believe Admiral Aneerin sent you all this way to charge into a battle that is almost certainly already over, one way or the other.  Do you?”

“No, Ma’am,” Jack answered through gritted teeth.

“Yes,” Wyatt whispered.  “He is always careful of which fights he engages in, isn’t he?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack answered again, hearing Aneerin’s voice in his head.

“Never willingly engage in a fight guaranteed to end your ability to fight the next fight, unless it is indeed your very last fight.”  Aneerin had waged both war and peace for two thousand years, and had not yet found that last fight.  He would be disappointed if Jack found it in a mere two.

“Good,” Wyatt said, and nodded towards Betty.  “Now go take care of your people, Major.  I do believe you have a situation.”

Jack turned to see Betty nodding in agreement.  “Yes, Ma’am,” Jack said once more, saluted Captain Wyatt, and turned to leave the briefing room.  Moments later, they were back on the lift, alone this time, and Jack aimed a set of raised eyebrows at Betty.

Jasmine flickered into being beside them, shaking her head.  “It’s Natalie.  I’m trying, but she isn’t doing good.  We’ll lose her if we can’t do something,” she reported.

Jack nodded very slowly, considering their options.  He needed to do something.  He just didn’t know what.  The lift opened into the hangar bay again, and he saw android avatars at work, reloading both Hunter’s Hellcat and his Avenger.  Jack froze, taking the sight in and feeling an idea somewhere.

It clicked.  He considered the idea, turned it around inside his mind, and finally nodded.  It just might work.

“Get me Recovery,” he ordered, and strode onto the hangar deck with renewed purpose.  He did indeed have people to take care of.