Authors: Medron Pryde
A Legacy of Harts Novella By
Cover background designed by Stephen Huda under contract
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Printed in the United States of America
First Printing, May 2014
I would like to dedicate this story to everyone who has served in the Armed Forces. It is thanks to all of you that we are here now, to enjoy this form of entertainment in the safety of our homes. I would especially like to thank every Marine aviator of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 112. The Wolfpack in World War II, the Cowboys in recent decades. The Cowboys in this story are named in your honor.
I would also like to thank everybody who has helped me write this story, from those who brainstormed with me, proofread it for me, edited it, created art to bring it to life, or simply declined to roll your eyes when I nattered on about this story I was writing. Whether family or friend, whether I have met you in person or only over the Internet, your help and support is greatly appreciated.
“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 while 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 the unisex standard Marine duty uniform couldn’t shroud the lithe beauty of her frame. She surveyed the field of battle before her and 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 undeniably rumpled air of an Iowa farm girl stepping out of the barn after a long day of work. 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
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 the hint of roguish eyes gave a slight twist to 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 the Samurai Surfing stores, but Ken Banno was a Free Japanese through and through. When the time came to fight the Chinese conquerors of a homeland he’d never seen, he and his people had volunteered with amazing determination. And while Louis Mattioli’s long, slender limbs branded him a native Martian, his black slicked-back hair gave him the look of a lawyer. Appropriate since he
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 credit to the man. He didn’t actually live up to the stereotype of the soulless lawyer but everybody gave him a hard time anyways. He gave just as good as he got of course. 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 looked odd 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. It showed the location and readiness of the hundred-plus fighters and numerous other craft currently embarked on the kilometer-long warship.
It also 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 all happy to be back together.
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 and Russian 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 their enemies that The West was still in The War to win all the marbles. Admiral Aneerin had tried to talk them out of it of course, but they were adamant. This 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, not 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 Country 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 that was impossible. Nobody in their right minds would actually
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 woman standing next to his. To most people Betty looked as real and solid as any human, but the improved eyesight that came with his very rare reaction to the Peloran Treatments watched small particles of air drifting through her long, wavy blonde hair. Her blue eyes held just the barest tint of the navy-grey bulkhead behind her. And the Scandinavian body, which would have looked perfectly at home in his native northern Minnesota, cut into the real world around her with sharp edges his eyes could easily detect. Her body was a 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. She’d never answered his questions on that point.
“The Shang are attacking,” Betty said, her voice coming from his ear buds 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, feeling them instantly seal with the flight jacket to protect him from explosive decompression. 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 towards them with approval.
“Let’s rock and roll people,” he ordered and strode towards the 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 and allowed 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
It was an amazing sight every time he experienced 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 overhead above him echoed his deck’s organization, and people ran around upside down to his perspective but completely and totally comfortable on their deck. No carrier would ever be caught wasting so much flat space when it could be helped.
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 before dropping 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 nearly 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 gravity generator snatched him in midair. Gravity ceased to exist to his senses 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 stepped onto the main console, shrinking to barely twenty centimeters in height in a single step. 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. A decidedly un-regulation yellow sundress appeared in its place and she smiled. “There. That’s better,” she pronounced in a satisfied tone.