If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life it’s this. The enemy never waits for a convenient time to show up. If you’re not ready for him, expect him to arrive early. If you are ready for him, expect him to arrive whenever he gets around to it. And if he’s a she you can just throw the schedule right out because you’ll never guess it. The point is they get to try to win too. It’s how life works. Never count on having time to prepare for them. They will show up when it is least convenient for you if they are even halfway competent. The Shang were always at least halfway competent.





The beach stretched as far as the eye could see and waves washed up the sand in a steady rhythm. A bonfire crackled and girls danced. Jack sat in sand still warm from the day’s sun and enjoyed everything about the perfect day.


The voice didn’t belong on the beach and he ignored it.


He was at peace and the voice belonged to a world at war. He ignored it.

“You need to wake up.”

“No I don’t,” he answered and focused on the pretty girls dancing around the fire.

“The Shang are attacking.”

Jack shut his eyes, lowered his head, and let out a long breath. Then he opened them again onto the room with the bed.

Betty stood next to it and looked down at him. “How are you?”

Jack sucked in a long breath and felt his body protest the action. He still hurt everywhere “How long?”

“Two hours.”

Jack groaned. Two hours since the last meal. And he didn’t know how long since the Chinese takeout. A few hours maybe? And how long had he slept before that? He was pretty foggy on time at the moment, but he knew one thing for certain. He had not had enough sleep or food to heal yesterday’s gunfight up. Then what she’d said when he was dreaming hit his forebrain and Jack sat up straight despite the screaming of his body.

“The Shang?”

Betty nodded. “They’re here. All military personnel are being recalled immediately.”

“Frak,” Jack intoned and came to his feet. Then he felt lightheaded and had to slam a hand into the wall to keep from falling over as his stomach growled. The empty pit demanded more energy to continue the healing process. “I need sugar.”

“Check the table,” Betty said as she waved her hand towards the end table. A bowl of inviting candy and a happily bubbling coffee maker covered it.

“That works,” Jack said and stepped over to grab a handful of the candy. The sugar rush hit him like a train and he gasped as he chewed them down. Then he grabbed the coffee pot and drank it straight. The caffeine hit and he felt more instant energy flowing through his veins. It wasn’t going to last long considering how fast his metabolism ran but it was enough to jumpstart him and get him moving. He put the coffee pot back in its cradle, grabbed another handful of candy, and walked over to snatch his uniform from the floor. He slipped into it and began putting his mind on the problem. “Show me.”

“I thought you’d never ask,” Betty returned and the holoemitters on Jack’s uniform hummed. A representation of space around New Earth appeared and he examined the Shang battle line out just beyond The Red Line that denoted the closest point a ship could safely transit into or out of hyperspace. The defenders held inside the line and weapons fire crackled back and forth between the two forces. It only took a quick look to verify that the Shang had brought enough firepower to overwhelm the defenders in a matter of minutes. And that wasn’t right.

“Where’s Second Fleet?” Jack asked in confusion.

“That is Second Fleet,” Betty answered with a wince.

Jack turned to look at her in disbelief. “That’s a battleship and some heavy cruisers. That’s a vanguard …where’s the rest of it?”

Betty winced. “In the new Third Fleet.”

“Frak,” Jack whispered and started seeing where this was going. “And where’s the new Third Fleet?”

“Classified,” Betty said in a tone of voice that showed even she didn’t know.

Jack let out a long breath and shook his head. “Which means, ‘not at Alpha Centauri’ if I’m hearing you right?”

“You’re reading between the lines very well,” Betty answered.

“Well, this just got a lot more fun,” Jack said and took another look at the defenses. They would not hold much longer. And then an idea began to tickle the back of his mind. “Get me Captain Thompson, Admiral Lashley, and Holly.”

Betty crossed her arms and cocked her head to the side. “Thompson’s a little busy at the moment.”

“Tell him Captain Wyatt needs him,” Jack explained and walked out of his room to make his way back towards where he remembered the eating room and the kitchen beyond it resided.

“I don’t know what you have planned,” Betty whispered as her holoform walked alongside him, “but Admiral Lashley’s more busy.”

“I don’t either,” Jack said with a conspiratorial shrug. “Tell him it’s an emergency.”

Betty gave him one of her looks that said she was questioning his sanity. “He already has an emergency to deal with.”

“Tell him I need a warship.” Jack gave her the smile reserved for those of just cause and pure hearts. “And I know he’s got a spare one hanging around.”

“Right.” Betty sighed as they stormed through the room he and Katy had devoured the eggs and meat in and Jack’s nose told him more meat was cooking ahead of him. “And Holly?”

“Ask her if I can borrow her squadron,” Jack said as he pushed through into the kitchen to the welcome sound of sizzling meat. His stomach did a flip at the thought of real food and he had to grab a counter to steady himself. Three sets of eyes stared at him but he only had eyes for the sausage links on the frying pan.

“They’re about to leave orbit to deal with the bad guys,” Betty said in exasperation as he crossed the distance between the door and the frying pan in less than a second.

“Just get her for me,” Jack demanded and grabbed a link out of the pan. It sizzled and sparked and he yelped as the hot grease tried to burn his skin. He blew on the link and his hand as he juggled it into the other hand. And then that one complained. He spent the next several seconds juggling the link back and forth and blowing on it until it stopped trying to get revenge on the man who was about to devour it. Once it had finally given up the fight he tossed it into his mouth and chomped down. Hot grease squirted out and burned the inside of his mouth, but he managed to keep from yelping again. Then he swallowed it without chewing in direct contravention of his mother’s teaching, and felt his stomach explode at the fresh infusion of energy to be burned. Oh, that hurt so good.

“Fine,” Betty whispered in a tone of voice that said it was everything but fine and shook her head. “I’ll see what she says.”

Jack reached for another sausage link but a fast metal spatula intercepted his hand with a stinging whack. He yelped and cradled the wounded hand as the spatula whipped around and stopped so close to his nose he had to cross his eyes to look at it. Then he focused on the bright blue eyes glaring at him over it.

“You mind your manners and sit down,” Julie ordered.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack answered without hesitation and moved to sit down at the small kitchen table. He met Malcolm’s eyes with a rueful look before his stomach growled again. One sausage link had just made it aware there was food out there, waiting to be eaten.

Malcolm turned and opened his mouth to say something, but Katy walked in next and made a beeline for the frying pan. She yelped as she snapped up a sausage link, juggled it, and finally gulped it down with another suppressed yelp. Then froze as the quivering spatula froze in front of her face.

“Sit,” Julie growled.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Katy squeaked and did as she was told, taking the seat next Jack.

Finally Ken strode in with lustful eyes aimed at the frying pan but the quivering spatula bopped him on the nose before he could snag a link.

“Did you grow up in a barn?” Julie snapped   “God! Are all of the Cowboys this bad?”

“Naw,” Jack said with a smile and waved Ken over to the table. “Some of us are from Dixie. You should see them tear into a bucket of fried chicken.”

“Hush, you,” Julie ordered as she aimed the spatula at him like a battleship clearing her main guns.

“Yes, Ma’am.” Then Jack turned to Malcolm to change the subject from the spitting and oh-so-eatable sausage links on the stove. “So, you said you had a warship?”

Malcolm smiled and shook his head. “I have a carrier.”

“Okay. What kind?”

“An old Republic,” Malcolm said. “With some fighters. All refitted with Peloran tech.”

Jack nodded slowly. The Republics had been good old ships, but the long march of gravtech had ground them down into retirement decades ago. “How many fighters and what kind?”

“Forty-eight Blackhawks.”

“Blackhawks?” Jack asked with a doubtful look. They had been retired decades ago too.

Fully upgraded with Peloran tech,” Malcolm emphasized. “They can take down warships in squadron strength.”

“Really?” Jack asked in surprise. Even when they’d been in their prime Blackhawks had never had the firepower to take down warships. “You’ve tested it?”

Malcolm shrugged. “In simulations.”

“Right,” Jack said with a dubious tone. Simulations were never as good are real life. But the Peloran had done a number on his Avengers. Why not the Blackhawks too?

Movement to the side caught Jack’s attention and he turned to see Julie walking over with a serving plate overflowing with hot sausage links. Jack’s mouth instantly began to water and then he saw Alex with another serving plate piled high with scrambled eggs. They barely had time to back away before the three Cowboys began shoveling the eggs and meat into their faces as fast as they could chew. Faster actually as Jack realized when he had to stop to beat himself on the chest a couple times to get a too-big piece of sausage to start following the laws of physics again. Malcolm just slid his chair back and watched as the Cowboys devoured the energy rich food.

Jack slowed down after a minute when his stomach stopped screaming at him. He had enough food down there to start thinking again.

“Betty. Show us the battle,” he ordered and shoveled some eggs onto his plate.

“Okay,” Betty said in his ear and a holofield appeared over the table. New Earth hovered near the top of the table while friendly green blips fought angry red blips at eye level near a solid red sphere that marked the end of any safety in hyperspace. Jack did not like what he was seeing. He recognized those maneuvers and that meant they were running out of time. But he needed fuel to run on and he needed time to get everybody else on board with the idea pulsing in the back of his mind.

“We don’t have time to get to the base,” Jack said and munched down on a link. “Can you bring the Avengers over here? Hover them over the street so we can walk and go?”

“We’re on it,” Betty said and then nodded towards an empty space next to the table.

Holly flickered into existence right there with a “You wanted me?”

“Every waking minute,” Jack answered without missing a step and gave her very best smile.

Holly sighed. She looked like the perfect stereotypical New Japanese schoolgirl, long blonde California hair and bright blue eyes set in an Asian face. And she looked as cute as a button while wearing a perfectly standard white United States Navy uniform. Jack was certain that the Navy had specifically designed its uniforms to be as non-cute as possible, but somehow Holly turned that idea on its head. Through all of that she still managed to give him a look that was all business. “We’re a little too busy right now for your Captain Jack act.”

“I’ve got a plan,” Jack said and stabbed another sausage link. “I’ve got one warship already.”

“Carrier,” Malcolm corrected.

“Whatever. I need more. Your squadron to be specific,” Jack finished with a quick bite of the sausage and the taste nearly sent him to heaven.

Holly shook her head. “Jack, we’re about to go kill every last one of those Shang warships.”

“Actually,” Jack began, speared another link with his fork, and aimed it at Holly, “they’re going to kill you.”

Holly raised her eyebrows at him. “Excuse me?”

“They’re going to kill you,” Jack said and waved a hand towards the ships even now lifting from the surface to join the defense. “And every other ship that goes up there to fight them.”

Holly looked at the display with a doubtful expression. “How do you know?”

Jack pointed at the red dots. “Because those are the same Shang that we faced at Epsilon Reticuli and they have a very smart commander.”

“How do you know?” Holly asked with narrowed eyes.

Jack swallowed a mouthful of eggs and sighed. “Because the feel of their maneuvers matches what I saw at Epsilon Reticuli.”

Holly shook her head again. “They feel the same?”

“That’s what I said,” Jack said as Olivia walked into the kitchen with a careful pace.

Holly actually blinked at him in disbelief. “You want me to tell my captain to disregard the carefully laid plans of the second most important system defense network in the entire Western Alliance because you have a feeling about the guys we’re fighting?”

Jack stabbed another sausage and pointed it at her as Malcolm sprang to his feet. “A bad feeling.”

“God, Jack!” Holly shouted and shook her head. “You are so full of yourself.”

“They’re pulling you into a trap, Holly!” Jack shouted back and slammed one hand on the table hard enough it cracked in protest. “Trust me! I saw this at Epsilon Reticuli!”

Holly sighed and raised her hands in surrender as Olivia sat down with a grateful look towards Malcolm. “Okay. I’ll talk to him. But no promises.”

“That’s all I can ask,” Jack said in a more calm tone. “Just please compare what you see to the records we brought back. You’ll see it too.”

“I’ll look,” Holly said with a nod of her head and her holoform went out of focus to show that her attention was elsewhere.

Then Admiral Lashley flickered into existence next to her. “Captain? You know I’m busy defending a star system right now?”

“Yes, Sir,” Jack said with a sigh as he mentally switched gears to work with someone who was more bureaucrat than warrior. “I’m sorry, but I need a ship.”

Lashley shook his head. “I can’t help you, Captain. It’s impounded. They’d have my career.”

“That’s fine. I don’t need your help.” Then Jack smiled and hoped that Betty had managed to get the last person on the line. “Thompson. Want to take a ship?”

“I’d love to,” Captain Thompson said as his holoform appeared next to Lashley.

Lashley ground his teeth and glared at the new arrival in their conversation. “I can’t approve this, Captain.”

Jack sighed, rubbed his temple, and put the fork down. This was not going to be easy. “The Shang are sucking us into a trap, Sir.”

“What?” Lashley asked in disbelief.

“They aren’t pushing us right now,” Jack said and pointed at the red dots again. “They’re just sitting there, drawing in as many ships as possible. Don’t you see that?”

Lashley frowned for a moment, looking at displays only he could see. Then he looked back to Jack with narrowed eyes. “What do you think it means?”

“That once they think they have enough of us, they’ll spring the trap,” Jack said and sprung his own little trap. “I saw it at Epsilon Reticuli. But we can suck them into our trap instead.”

Lashley leaned back and just stared at Jack for a second. “What trap?”

Jack waited for all the holoforms to focus on him and swallowed. This was going to be the point of no return. If they didn’t agree, things were going to go real bad. “One light carrier, two heavy cruisers, and a squadron of destroyers and frigates supporting them.”

There was dead silence for almost five seconds.

“What part of ‘I can’t help you’ don’t you understand?” Admiral Lashley finally exploded.

Jack pointed at the planet hovering just above the table. Then he pointed at all the red and green dots in the upper part of the display. “They’re sitting on the Red Line, Admiral. They’re trying to trap us. They’re trying to suck us in and kill us. Focus all sensors on that region, compare them to the records we brought back, and see for yourself.”

Lashley just glared at him. “All the sensors?”

Jack shrugged and just happened to wave one hand towards the orbital yard where Los Angeles was docked. “Well we know they aren’t there. We might as well focus our sensors on the threat, right?”

Lashley lowered his head and rubbed his temple. “I see nothing, I know nothing.”

“Exactly. And get the defense ships to fall back,” Jack suggested with his best cajoling tone. “Act like they’re retreating. Like they can’t hold the line. Suck the Shang into the gravity well.”

“I thought they were trying to pull us out of the gravity well,” Lashley said in confusion. “Why would they come in?”

Jack licked his lips and cleared his throat. “They’re Shang, Sir. They know they’re superior to us. They always have. Show them proof they have us on the ropes and they won’t be able to help themselves. They’ll follow us in and complete the kill before we can reinforce.” Then he pointed to a spot in space halfway between the Red Line and the planet. “Get them there, Sir, and we’ll kill every last one of them.”

Lashley studied the display for several seconds before asking the question that Jack knew he had to ask. “What’s there?”

Jack smiled. “In fifteen minutes, Sir, me. And they’ll never see me coming.”

Silence reigned again. And then Holly sighed. “My captain approves of the plan. We’re with you.”

Jack barely refrained from shouting out in triumph as he finally got one of the things he needed to make this whole crazy plan work.

“Fine. I’ll divert the sensors,” Lashley said with a shake of his head. Then he aimed a threatening finger at Jack. “Be there in fifteen minutes, Jack. Fifteen minutes.”

“Yes, Sir,” Jack said as Lashley’ holoform disappeared. Then he turned to Malcolm. “I’m counting on you to get that carrier online.”

Malcolm cleared his throat and looked nervous for the first time since Jack had met the man. “Actually she’s never flown anywhere on her own. I haven’t had time to secure an AI capable of running a ship that large.”

Olivia crossed her arms and just looked at the man. “Why would you want an AI for that?”

“Because it’s a lot easier to create an AI than recruit a cyber,” Malcolm said honestly. “And it’s not like I planned to take her into battle anytime soon.”

Olivia cocked her head to the side and smiled. “Well, I might be able to help you there. I happen to know a cyber looking for a new ship right now.”

Jack turned to Olivia and Thompson’s holofield. “Do you think you can get Los Angeles and that carrier flying?”

“Absolutely,” Olivia answered.

“Yes, Sir,” Thompson added and a chill went down Jack’s spine. He didn’t get “Sirred” very often, especially from someone like Thompson. Thompson nodded to say he meant it and then his holoform faded out.

“See you there,” Olivia said and pointed at the spot in space on his display before turning to leave the room. When Malcolm didn’t immediately follow she stopped and pointed at him. Then she pointed at herself and Malcolm sprang into action.

They left and Jack turned to look at Ken and Katy, wordlessly asking for their approval. He hadn’t asked them if they agreed before just putting his mouth into gear and railroading everybody. He wondered if they would correct him now. They didn’t.

“You’re injured,” Jack said with a nod and came to his feet in a smooth motion that almost didn’t hurt. “You should stay here and heal up.”

“Like Hell,” Ken growled and came to his feet as well. He nearly managed to suppress a grimace of pain while doing it.

“Sorry, Boss, but you aren’t getting rid of us that easy,” Katy added and pushed herself onto her feet. Then she gave him a wan but determined smile.

Jack shook his head at them. He had to give them a chance to get out of this, even if it meant violating one of the cardinal rules he’d been taught. “Stay here and take time to heal. That’s an order.”

Ken shook his head in a bemused way and glanced at Katy. “And here I thought he was smart enough not to make orders he knew would be ignored.”

“He’s pretty dumb sometimes,” Katy added with a chuckle.

Jack rubbed his temple and groaned. “You don’t need to do this.”

“Yes we do,” Ken said with iron determination.

“You’re stuck with us,” Katy said with a shrug. “Learn to deal with it.”

Jack snorted. “I’ve been trying to for years.”

“Just makes you a slow learner,” Katy joked back.

Jack was trying to think of a comeback for that when Betty’s holoform flickered into the middle of the room with a smile. “The Avengers are here. We’re ready to fly.”

“And that’s our cue to leave,” Jack said with a glance towards Julie and Alex. Words came into his mind, things he’d wanted to say for years, but he pushed them away. He couldn’t just say that and leave after all. And promising to return was no promise at all when it came to fighting the Shang. And besides, they deserved better. He forced that line of thought out of his mind and gave them his best smile. “Don’t worry. The Shang’ll never know what hit them.”

“And here I thought you always told them before you opened fire,” Alex returned with a raised eyebrow and crossed arms.

“Well…not always,” Jack answered with a wince. “Just on days when I’m feeling particularly lippy.”

“And today?” Julie asked with a look of uncertainty.

Jack froze for a second and then shook himself back into action. He had to go. Now. And he didn’t have time to think of the right words to say. He didn’t know if there were any right words for this. “I…I don’t know…but I have to go.”

“Then go,” Alex said with her still crossed arms and a too-calm voice.

That froze Jack again. He didn’t want to go. He wanted to stay forever. He never wanted to leave. But he had to. After years of being angry with them for leaving, now it was his turn to walk away. And if the Shang had anything to say about the matter never come back. And nothing could make that better. No words he could think of. Well, no words he could say right now without sounding trite. So he just nodded and turned to walk away.

He motioned for Ken and Katy to follow and they stepped into line behind. It was a silent march through the halls of the building and Jack barely saw any of it. He just knew which way to go thanks to the contacts that relayed Betty’s directions. Finally they stepped out into a massive entrance area and Jack stopped in his tracks. The wide boulevard outside the doors was filled with people looking up at the three massive fighters floating in the air.

“Make us pretty,” Jack ordered under his breath.

“On it,” Betty said and he felt his suit’s holoemitters power up.

He turned to see Ken and Katy’s sunken eyes and slack skin disappearing under holographic faces of their own that belonged on recruiting posters.

“Shiny,” Katy whispered and spread her beautiful hands out with admiration.

“Yup,” Jack said with a smile. “It’s official. We are way too pretty to die now.”

“Speak for yourself, Sparkles,” Ken grumbled. “I’m handsome.”

“That’s fine too,” Jack said and strode towards the doors. “Now let’s do this.”

The people outside moved away from the doors, giving the three Cowboys room to walk into the street, and the telltale sound of cameras clicking came to his ears. Their photos would be hitting the networks in instants, and soon everybody would know they’d come out of this theater. Well, so much for hiding where they’d spent the night now.

Jack looked up at the Avengers floating above them, making the boulevard appear small with their massive bulks.

“Ready?” he asked with more trepidation than he wanted to admit feeling.

“Always,” Katy answered confidently.

“Ditto,” Ken added.

“Wait,” Betty whispered in his ear and an arrow on his contacts suggested that he turn towards the theater. He did in time to see Julie and Alex step out. No. Not Julie and Alex.

The girls who stepped out of the theater wore clothing he’d seen on a thousand screens. They looked nothing like the girls he’d just left in that kitchen. They were stars who belonged on stage and this was their attire. Taylor and Jennifer crossed the sidewalk as the crowd took pictures, stepped in to hug him, and kissed his cheeks in perfect unison. The crowd went wild and Jack’s heart pounded so hard he nearly collapsed right there. Then they stepped back and did the same thing to Ken. Katy came last to another lusty cheer from the crowd, and then T&J stepped back one last time with smiles that said they knew exactly how shiny they were.

“You come back to us, Cowboys,” they said in perfect harmony.

Jack smiled. They were amazing. They were everything he’d ever hoped they would become. And here they were, owning the worlds on a stage made of asphalt with less than minutes to prepare. They were better than amazing. And Jack had no idea what to say. He wanted to take them up in his arms and kiss them thoroughly enough to make the cameras blush. He wanted to profess neverending love. He wanted to stay. But he couldn’t do any of that.

Then Captain Jack smiled his very best smile and tipped the brim of his cowboy hat towards them. His answer was all stage and propaganda, made for the benefit of those who would hear on the networks. T&J had given him an audience larger than he’d ever had, and Captain Jack could not turn his back on something like that. Not when it could be used to help the War effort. “There’s no power in the universe that would keep us away.”

He saw Julie and Alex smiling at him from behind the masks they wore for the public, and Jack gave them one he hoped they would remember. Their slight nods told him they did, and then they glanced upward. They were right. It was time.

Jack turned to Ken and Katy with firm nods. They nodded back and then all three looked up at the Avengers in the air overhead. They flexed their knees, they jumped, and gravitic generators aboard the fighters grasped them in the air. Jack felt the air on his face as they flew up like the Big Blue Boy Scout and Friends. The generators placed them atop their fighters and they stepped down into the cockpits. One part of Jack’s mind knew that’d just made one hell of a propaganda video that would be all over the networks within minutes.

The rest of him sat down and buckled his five-point harness as the canopy came down and the Avenger began to move away on gravplating. The cockpit latched, wonderful canned air pushed the smell of New Earth out of his nose, and the Avenger pulled straight up to face away from the city. Other fighters and ships lifting up from spaceports all around the city filled the sky, and he nodded in approval as the three Avengers joined them.

Then the main engines came to life, acceleration pushed Jack back into his seat, and the air brightened as they burned up through the lower atmosphere’s interference. The sunslight of the Alpha Centauri trinary star system assaulted his eyes as they gained altitude, and then it darkened as the air began to thin until it went pitch black all around them. That revealed the stars and Jack’s eyes scanned for the familiar constellations. Alpha Centauri was near enough to Earth that most of the constellations still looked right, but some were a bit odd. And of course he’d grown up only seeing the constellations of the northern sky where constellations like the Southern Pleiades were unknown. He smiled as he looked at those stars for a moment, and then his eyes turned to see the light reflecting off New Earth.

It was a beautiful planet from this far up. Too bad it smelled so bad. And that gravity was just too much. And it was too hot. Jack wondered how the people lived there. Well, he wasn’t going to have to worry about that anymore. He was off to War again.

Jack pulled his eyes down to the console where a twenty-centimeter tall Betty sat with a smile and his favorite yellow sundress. She looked good like that. She watched him with an attentive gaze and he let out a long breath. It was time. “Set a beam for Hollywood.”

Betty nodded and the Avenger swung around to aim for the higher orbitals where Hollywood’s squadron awaited them. “Course set and locked in.”

And then it was time to sit back and relax as they boosted away from New Earth and towards the battle to come. They had some Shang to kill.