Some people think being able to fight is the ultimate testament to being alive.  Other people think avoiding conflict is our highest calling.  Me?  I’ve always been a lover, not a fighter.  But I’ve learned something in my life.  Some things are worth fighting for.  Some things are worth dying for.  Some things are worth never giving up on, no matter how hard they become.  When we realize that is when we can become the best that we can be.  That is when we live our best life.





“Squadron point defense network is online and operational,” Betty announced as one of the displays blinked.  “All laser batteries ready to engage enemy missiles.”

Jack glanced at the rapidly approaching Western Alliance colony world Serenity, and the Chinese fleet holding station over it.  They weren’t running.  He didn’t blame them for that.  He doubted he would run either if he outnumbered himself by as much as the Chinese did.  They had nearly as many cruisers as the Americans had ships, though they were only half the size of Los Angeles.  And the destroyers and frigates were similarly outclassed by the larger American warships.  But the Chinese had almost sixty warships, with half of them being true threats to the American ships.  The rest were frigates, but enough of them could take down a real warship.

The primary American advantages were the heavy gravitic and laser cannons each mounted.  They were designed to destroy enemy warships, and no Chinese cruiser could ever survive a sustained bombardment from them.  The Chinese lacked those cannons, but they had more missile launchers on those sixty ships than most American fleets.  They could overwhelm the American point defense network and swamp the warships with miniature black holes capable of destroying their deflection grids.  And then it was just a matter of using direct fire laser turrets to burn the American warships in space.

That was why it was standard doctrine for fighters to escort larger warships, and why they always used their laser turrets to supplement the point defense networks.  It took a lot of laser turrets and point defense missiles to stop a proper Chinese missile swarm.  And Captain Jack Hart had seen far too many warships die the death of a thousand cuts that one of those entailed.  He really didn’t want to see that today.

He narrowed his eyes as one of the displays twitched.  He expanded it with a wave of his hand and frowned.  “Is that what I think it is?”

Betty’s small holoform glanced at the display in question, and she frowned as well.  “The Chinese are deploying landing craft.”

“Frak,” Jack whispered and pointed at another small craft leaving one of the larger cruisers.

“A tank,” Betty returned in a shocked tone.  Then she waved her hand over the displays and more of them flashed.  “And this isn’t the first wave.”

“Frak,” Jack repeated.  “This isn’t just a raid.”

“It’s an invasion.”

“Scan the Serenity military nets,” Jack ordered.  “How are they handling this?”

Betty pursed her lips and went to work.  It took her entire seconds, though Jack knew most of that was just the seconds it took for communications with the planet.  Finally she shook her head.  “Chinese orbital bombardments have destroyed all of the planetary forts,” she reported.

Jack shook his head.  Serenity’s defenders would never be able to hold against that many attackers without the forts.  Which meant they needed help.  “Gabbie?  We’re gonna need to deploy the Marines,” he said and waited for her form to flicker onto a display.

Gabrielle sighed after doing so.  “We won’t be able to support them with orbital fire until those warships are defeated.”

Jack smiled.  “Well, that’s what a HALO assault is for.”

“In the middle of all that?” Gabrielle asked doubtfully.

“Ask Major Thompson.”  Jack gave Los Angeles’ Marine captain the customary promotion aboard ship even though he wasn’t actually on board now.  He was talking to someone who was on board after all.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes and shook her head.  “He’s already asking for permission.”

“I guess that settles it then.  What does Captain Wyatt think?”

Gabrielle shook her head.  “She doesn’t like it.”

“But we’re going to be doing it?”

Gabrielle scowled at him.  “Yes.”

“Sounds like a downright fun eight-second ride,” Jack said with a smile.

Gabrielle shook her head.  “Marines are crazy.  You understand that, right?”

“Of course.  Why do you think I volunteered?”

“Very well.”  Gabrielle smiled again.  “May God go with you.”

“Hey now,” Jack protested.  “Don’t be jinxing a perfectly fine cakewalk with suggestions that I’ll need that much help to get out alive.”

Gabrielle laughed and faded away.

Jack frowned for a moment, considering what to do now that the plan was in place.  HALOs were never easy, no matter what he said to anyone else, even in the best of times.  And a full-scale naval battle was not the best of times.

His fingers ran across a familiar display and his cockpit filled with music.  T&J sang a song of defiance and his mind calmed down until he could see everything.

He needed fighters to protect the Marines all the way down, but he also needed to leave behind some fighters to protect Los Angeles.  He certainly could not trust the Navy Hellcats to do that job after all.  He nodded slowly and looked at Ken Banno’s force.  Ken had six Avengers and Dawn still had five to take into battle.  Eleven Avengers should be enough to keep Los Angeles safe.  “Hey, Crane?”

“Yeah, Boss?” Ken returned.

“You and Swan need to protect Los Angeles.”

“Roger that, Boss,” Ken said with a curious look.  “What’s up?”

“Funny you should ask,” Jack said with a chuckle.  “Cat, Fox, we’re gonna play some HALO.”

“That’s my favorite game,” Jesse chimed in.

“As long as you remember to wear your suit,” Katy rejoined.

“Bite me,” Jesse growled, though Jack had to admit it was all his fault.  One shouldn’t take a leisurely stroll through space in your birthday suit and then expect to avoid getting made fun of for the rest of your life after all.

Jack looked at Ken’s display.  “You’re in charge now.”

“Roger, Boss,” Ken said in acceptance and began spouting off orders.

Jack leaned back as his pilots continued to bicker, heckle, accept orders, grouse about orders, and all the other things that other Alliance soldiers always found crazy.  Jack just focused on the displays showing the ground actions and considered his options.  The invasion had probably started the night before, maybe a few hours earlier.  The Serenity Defense Force was doing its best, but ruined war machines and torn landscapes showed the path of the Chinese advance.

The Chinese were close.  All the ground forts were destroyed, and the only thing that kept Landing City safe was the powerful deflection dome covering it.  The Chinese bombardment had not yet managed to penetrate it, and the Landing City Defense Grid had shot down every attempt to fly in.  But if their ground forces could get into the city they could take the dome down from the inside.  If the Chinese still held the orbitals when that happened, there would be nothing left to save in minutes.  The Marines needed to be quick about it.

Jack relaxed and let his mind wander, using his eyes to follow the advancing red dots corresponding to Chinese troops.  He looked for patterns that would betray leadership in the ranks, and barely noticed his hands twitching on the controls.  Chinese missiles swept in to be shot down by the squadron’s point defense network, but he continued to study the ground action.  He trusted Ken Banno with his life.  There was no need to waste any of his concentration worrying about his competence now.  No need and no reason.

He returned to studying the ground on the displays again and chewed his lip.  He wasn’t certain, but he thought he knew where to shoot first.  The clues were subtle, but the delays in maneuver were there.  Some troops were waiting to take orders while others reacted faster.  Those probably had high-level commanders in their midst.  Other clues were there too.  Some commands reacted better to ambushes and traps.  Others moved through the defenders more quickly.  He ran his eyes across the displays, highlighting the ones he thought controlled the chain of command with rapid blinks.  He focused on the ones he really wanted dead and the displays accepted his ocular commands, highlighting each target in turn.

Missiles thrummed from their Avenger, their gravitic cannons fired, and Jack glanced up to see the Chinese fleet directly ahead of them, taking dozens of hits.  Then he blinked as he realized he was actually seeing those ships without any magnification.  The Chinese scattered in every direction, wildly trying to avoid the American squadron charging through their formation.  American ships spun and fired gravitic cannons at point blank range, ripping Chinese destroyers and cruisers apart.  Missiles flickered back and forth to shred deflection grids and lasers melted armor off by the ton.  It was tanks at ten paces and he saw Los Angeles shudder from a hit on her forward wedge that nearly ripped the starboard side off.

Then they were through the Chinese formation, aft ends towards Serenity as their engines slowed them down to HALO speeds.  Most of them at least.  The destroyer Garcia went into a flat spin with two of her four engines in flames.  Jack watched her fall down towards the planet far too fast and hit the atmosphere.  Her faltering deflection grid glowed for a moment, and then the destroyer skipped off like a rock in a pond and careened away from the battle, shedding armor and pieces of internal structure as her systems shut down one by one.  That was not going to be a nice place to be over the next few hours.  Assuming they had that much time.

Jack averted his eyes.  He spent another second or so thinking, studied the targeting displays for another, and then nodded.  It was as good as he was going to get in the time he had.

“You ready, Betty?” he asked.

Betty smiled at him.  “Ready.”


“I’m always ready,” she said with a wink.

“Promises, promises,” Jack whispered and turned to the displays showing Jesse and Katy.  “Fox, Cat, follow my lead.  It’s time to behead this beast.”

“Got it, Boss,” they answered in unison.

Jack glanced at Betty again before saying, “Major Thompson?”

It took a few seconds for the Marine captain to answer, but when he did it was with the sound of competence that said there was no reason to fear.  The Marines were here.  “Thompson here.”

Jack smiled at the voice and equally calm face on his display.  “You got my targets?”

“In living color.  I concur.”  Then several more dots began to flash on the displays.  The other Marine’s face cracked with an amused smile.  “Though you missed some.”

“Right,” Jack muttered and studied the new dots.  Try as he might though he just could not see what made the man suspect them.  “Yeah, You got me there.”

Captain Thompson chuckled.  “Ground combat’s my specialty, not yours.  But you did good to get what you did.”  Then the man frowned and waved a hand at several dots on the flanks.  “But why did you pick those?”

Jack glanced at them and shrugged.  “I don’t know.  They just…feel dangerous.  I don’t know why.”

The other Marine nodded for a moment as he studied the displays on his craft.  “Then we’ll just have to make sure to double tap them on the way down.”

“Absolutely.”  Jack chuckled.  “You ready?”

“Never been readier,” Thompson said and his head turned as he began shouting out orders to his Marines.  Jack heard the faintest echo of responses and saw approval in the Marine captain’s face.  ”We are launching in three…two…one…now!”

Jack watched Los Angeles’ flanks practically explode as the Marines made their appearance.  Dozens of craft shot out from the warship with engines on fire, turned to hug her outer hull, and dove towards the planet at maximum acceleration.  Most of them were fake, nothing more than drones using holoemitters to look like real Marine craft, but he couldn’t pick them out from the handful of real craft in their midst.  And he had to admit that it made the Marine assault look real impressive as it began to tear into the atmosphere.

Jack pulled the stick around, peeling the nineteen Avengers of his force away from the fleet, even as he saw Harrington take a hit amidships.  His eyes froze on the ship and the displays cooperatively zoomed in on her, showing the ghastly wound in high definition.  He watched Harrington take more hits as the entire Chinese fleet focused on her, each one pushing her further down into the gravity well.  She kept her armored wedge facing the center of their formation and her engines flared to a maximum burn that would be clearly visible to anyone looking up from the planet.  She was fighting for her life and the Chinese fleet redoubled their efforts.  Missiles and lasers careened off her armored wedge, but a few bit in and tore away at the armor as her deflection grid began to collapse.  And while the core of the fleet battered her wedge, the Chinese flankers tore into her lightly-armored flanks.  American destroyers simply weren’t built for this kind of fight and the Chinese took full advantage of that fact.  Finally a hit smashed one of her engines into ruin and Jack knew she was going down.

“I’m not sure I can pull out of this one,” Faith said from her display in a sad tone.

“Just do your best,” Jack whispered and held on tight to the controls as Betty forced them into Serenity’s atmosphere, engines burning the thickening air around them.  Their engines rotated close to the wing to reduce drag and maneuvering fins deployed to give them better control in the planetary soup.  This wasn’t his first time fighting in the soup, but he didn’t like it.  He was a starfighter pilot after all.

The air around them filled with thousands of burning meteors coming down all around them.  Some were pieces of falling ships he knew, maybe even some from Harrington.  Some were Marine craft or fighters like him.  The rest were the drones breaking apart into smaller hunks of metal full of electronic warfare AIs whose job it was to make the Chinese think that they were the true threat.

“Incoming, incoming, we’ve got incoming!” Betty shrieked as hundreds of missiles turned into thousands as hidden launchers made their presence known.  Red dots filled the display with their angry threat and Jack swallowed.  The Chinese had been ready for them.

“Frak me,” Jack whispered as the missiles charged into the teeth of the Marine assault.  Then he swallowed again and blinked.  He didn’t have a choice.  “Open fire all weapons,” Jack ordered, and the nineteen Avengers under his command fired fifty-seven gravitic cannons, ripple fired missiles from thirty-eight launchers, and brought one hundred and fifty two lasers up to maximum rate fire.  Enough firepower to rip battleships apart streaked down into the fragile face of a populated world and Jack held on for dear life.  Gravity twisted before them, bending even the air to their power, and the streaks of focused power became visible to the naked eye as they linked the Avenger and the most dangerous ground targets far below them.  They stabbed into Serenity, tearing her surface apart, and smashing the Chinese offensive.

Men and machines screamed as gravity itself turned sideways, upside down, or inside out at the same time.  Some were caught without warning and never had time to utter a word before being sucked into the tiny black holes.  Some felt their worlds shift sideways and flew through the air, watching with terror-filled eyes as death claimed them.  Then the beams of twisted gravity shut off and a shockwave of subatomic grit expanded out from their primary targets.  Those that still lived were thrown away like toys, skin or armor evaporating under the subatomic assault.

Even many of the Chinese missiles fell to the gravitic assault, and Marine point defense chattered away at the missiles that survived.  Thousands of missiles fell before entering attack range, and most of those that survived targeted the decoys.  But the Chinese used gravitic warheads and weren’t afraid to use them in atmosphere.  Decoys ceased to exist across the advancing Marine front, and the planet’s very atmosphere convulsed under the massed twin assault of competing gravity generators.

Jack felt the world go crazy as other missiles made it through the jamming and the point defense to attack the true Marine craft dropping towards the surface.  One missile struck a Garm with a full platoon on board and sucked them into a growing vacuum of nothing, but he saw a few men and women tumbling away towards the ground on their own thruster power.  An Avenger slipped into the event horizon and disappeared and another spun away spraying debris in every direction.  One missile bounced off a far-more capable Barghest’s defense grid before the tank dove down deeper into the atmosphere.

There were so many incoming missiles that Jack’s instincts screamed nothing but danger, danger, danger.  His entire world was filled with nothing but coming death, and Jack realized that he may have just finally bitten off more than he could chew.  Maybe he should have asked for more help.  Maybe Ken or Dawn could have tipped the balance.  Or maybe he’d saved them by leaving them in space.

Then Jack’s Avenger screamed around him as a missile finally found him.  A ravening black hole opened beside them, and he jammed the throttle forward, hoping to escape before it could grab them.  Their starboard wing disintegrated, sucked away in an instant.  Then their nose ripped off and Jack felt wind on his face.  The canopy tore off, parts of it missing him by less than a cat’s whisker, and he felt the Avenger dying around him.

The gravitic pull faded away, the missile’s last gravitic assault dying to a lack of energy, and the Avenger dropped like a stone towards the ground.  Jack worked the controls as they spun but it was no good.  Everything was dead.

“Frak me,” he whispered again and glanced to the console where Betty and Jasmine stood unmoving in the gale force winds battering their holoforms.  They’re clothes and hair rippled in the wind, and he smiled at the effort they made even now to fit in to the real world.  They met his gaze and smiled back.

Then the ground rose up to meet them, metal screamed as it tore, and pain erupted throughout his body.  Then darkness claimed him.

Something crackled nearby.  It wasn’t him.

Warmth touched his cheek.  It wasn’t fire.

Water lapped against…something nearby.  It wasn’t a leak.

Jack opened his eyes and sucked in a deep breath.  He didn’t hurt anymore.

A bonfire burned in the darkness.  Sand stretched as far as he could see in the light on three sides.  Waves shimmered in the firelight on the fourth side.  The familiar scene came into focus one piece at a time.

He heard music and turned to see Julie and Alex playing their guitars.  It was their senior year of high school again.  They hadn’t left for Nashville yet.  He hadn’t refused to go with them yet.  They sang so beautifully it hurt the soul.  A third guitar leaned against the chair between them and he knew all he had to do was take it.

Schoolmates danced around the bonfire like they always had.  They played water polo in the lake.  They relaxed on the double decker pontoon.  It was always the same.  It was always that one perfect moment he wished he could get back.

“You always come back here,” a familiar voice said.  He turned to see a familiar head of red hair.  He would have done anything to wake up seeing the sun through that hair back then.  She’d been the most beautiful girl in school and she’d known it.

“What are you doing here?” he asked as he tried to remember why he was here.

“I’m here for you,” she answered simply, and the smile that every boy in school thrilled for covered her face.

“Oh.”  Jack frowned, remembering all the times he’d wanted that smile.  And when she’d told him he could get it.  “Has Hell finally frozen over?”

“Do you want it to?” she asked, spreading her arms out wide to emphasize her very best assets.  “All you have to do is want it.”

“But is that all you really want?” another familiar voice asked.

He turned to see a blonde in a yellow sundress standing with her toes in the sand and remembered something.  “You’re not Betty.”

She bestowed a proud smile on him.  “Nope.”

He turned to the redhead.  “And you’re not Kelly.”

She ran her fingers through long red hair and sucked in a large lungful of air.  She had…very healthy lungs.  “I could be,” was all she said in words, but every twist of her body promised so much more.  His high school self would have jumped all over her and never looked back.  He knew that.  She knew that.  That was why she always came back.  And it was why she was always wrong.  He didn’t like the person he’d been that year.

He turned back to the woman who was not Betty.  “Am I dead?”

The blonde sighed.  “Do you want to be?”

“Do I have a choice?”

The redhead laughed.  “Everybody has a choice, Jack.”

“What about the real her?” Jack asked, looking at the woman who couldn’t be Betty.  “What about Jasmine and Natalie?”

The blonde shook her head.  “I’m here for you, Jack.  Only they can answer those questions.”

“Is this real?  Or a dream?”

“Why can’t it be both?” the redhead asked, running her hands down her sides.  “Come on.  You can have everything you ever wanted here.”  Then she waved a hand towards the bonfire.  “Even them if you fancy that.”

Jack looked at the bonfire, towards the two girls who sang like angels.  They’d gone on to do such great things with those voices.  T&J was a success despite his worst fears.  He’d stayed home and wasted his time with girls that weren’t worth a half of them.  He turned his back to the woman who looked like Kelly and looked at the one who could almost be Betty.  “No.  I can’t.”

Betty gave him an approving smile.

“So, who are you, really?”

Betty’s smile turned more amused.  “Maybe we’re your conscience.”

Jack raised an eyebrow at her.  “Funny.  You don’t look like a cricket.”

Betty leaned in close.  “Fairy tales aren’t real, Jack.  This is.”  Jack raised one eyebrow at her and she chuckled.  “For certain measurements of reality.”

“Fine,” Jack said and rolled his eyes.  “If this is real, who are you?”

Betty winked.  “Maybe we’re your guardian angels, just trying to get your attention because you keep ignoring us.”

Jack laughed and waved one hand towards Kelly.  “Even her?”  He glanced back in time to see her sticking her tongue out at him.  He snorted and turned to Betty again.  “Or maybe you’re just a figment of my imagination.”

“That’s right,” Betty said with another of her smiles and leaned away again.  “We’re just an undigested bit of beef.”

Jack looked back to Julie and Alex as they continued to make beautiful music.  They sounded amazing together.  They didn’t need him.  They never really had.  But he’d loved them so much.  He could have them again here, and it would be perfect.  A dream come true even.  But it would never be truly real here.  Jack sucked in a long breath and let it go.

Jack turned back to Betty, at peace with his decision.  “I lost them.”

“I know,” the blonde said with an attentive expression.  “What are you going to do about it?”

“Find them.”  The answer came without hesitation and Jack knew he would have to live up to it somehow.  It wouldn’t be easy, but the best things never were.

“They’ve moved on,” the redhead said with warm lips at his ear and ran electric fingers up his spine.  “Why pine after the past when you can have everything the present has to offer?”

Jack just shook his head.  “Because the past was worth it,” he said to the redhead, “and settling for less in my future would be giving up.”  He gave her a pointed look.  “Kelly was always second best at…best.”

The woman who could almost be Kelly hissed.  “You have no idea what I’m capable of, boy.”

Jack just shook his head again.  “Can you kill me where I stand?”  The redhead blinked in surprise at the direction question.  “Or can you only talk me into killing myself?”

Her mouth flopped open.  “I…never…”

“Please,” Jack interrupted with a smile.  “This is a dream.  It’s always a dream.  It’s an amazing one, but I know the score.  The moment I decide to stay here is the moment I die for real.”

“You will die,” the redhead said very seriously.  “Everyone does.  You can die screaming and fighting, in pain as you are torn apart, or you can die in peace, with everything you ever wanted.”  She spread her arms out wide to encompass all the things in this dream he could have.  “Which do you choose?”

“I choose to live,” Jack said with a smile.  “Because today is not a good day to die.”  He turned away from her and saw the smile on the woman wearing Betty’s face.  “Shall we?”

“I can’t go with you,” Betty said.  “I’m just an undigested bit of beef that will fade away the moment you wake up.”

Jack sighed.  “You speak well for a momentary bit of indigestion.”

Betty smiled and leaned in close to his ear.  “Maybe your subconscious has learned how to speak better than you care to admit.”

“Touché,” Jack said and his gaze returned to Julie and Alex.  All he could do for a moment was stand in place as their angelic voices washed over him.  “I really do love them.”  It felt good to say it.  It felt good to admit it to himself.

The blonde woman tilted her head to the side and studied him.  “Did you ever tell them that?”

Jack swallowed.  He almost didn’t answer, but it was a question he had to answer.  For himself if not for her.  “I didn’t know what love was back then.”

The almost Betty pursed her lips and smiled.  “Have you learned what it is now?”

Jack stared at the woman who looked so much like Betty and smiled.  Her eyes opened wide at his frank gaze and his smile turned very serious.  So often he had this dream and never wanted to give it up.  So often he awoke to the shivers, feeling once again the loss of his youth.  Today he looked forward, and for once he was truly happy to have dreamed this dream one more time.  It wasn’t a joyful torture today.  It was a promise.  It was a memory.  It was so much more, but today he relished the idea of leaving it behind.  Real life was better than a dream after all.  “Yes,” he said and tipped his hat to the person who could almost be as good as the one he’d sworn to ride into battle with.

Then he opened his eyes for real.