Jack propped his feet up on the desk of his office as the freighter began final descent onto Barlon Industries Spaceport, maneuvering thrusters flaring, and the ground drew closer on the holodisplay in the wall. Across the desk from him, Vihon sat in the only other chair in the room, watching the display with his ever-present intense gaze. As usual, his posture matched the gaze, making him look like a snake ready to strike at the first opportunity, as compared to Jack’s totally relaxed style.
“My orders have come in,” Vihon said in the intense tone Jack was also accustomed to, especially when Vihon was feeling tense. He’d relaxed a lot during the last month, but it looked like he was going back to his old ways already. It was probably for the best. After all, you had to protect yourself somehow. “I am being transferred back to the Corporate Offices.” Jack nodded in acknowledgement. They’d not talked much about why either was here, content to fight side-by-side as they had in the past, but now Jack knew his suspicions were correct. Vihon really had been sent here to spy on him. “What do you want me to tell them?” Vihon asked as the freighter slipped below the 100-meter holomarks in the sky above the landing pad.
“That I’m trustworthy,” Jack muttered casually as he considered Vihon’s words. In a way, Jack missed this life, but he’d lived on the other side of the fence for too long to be content with this now. He wanted a life again, one he was in control of. One he could be happy with. Proud of. “My squadron as well,” he added. “That we can be graduated into higher levels of responsibility.”
“So that is your game.”
“I’m not playing a game,” Jack noted as he shifted his feet around on the desk.
“So what are you doing?” Vihon asked as his eyes shifted to spear Jack.
“The same thing we did twelve years ago,” Jack muttered, watching Vihon carefully to see his reaction. “Somebody here is working for the Shang again. And I think I know who.”
“What happened?” Vihon asked suddenly and Jack paused for a moment before shrugging. He knew Vihon wasn’t asking about the present.
“I fell,” he whispered slowly. “I died. Or might as well have died,” he finally noted after a long pause.
“Did he do it?” Vihon asked and Jack sighed.
“If he did, it would be my responsibility to return the favor,” Jack responded carefully, absentmindedly rubbing his right shoulder. “A responsibility I would have put off for far too long.”
“Very well,” Vihon whispered as he nodded in agreement. “I will do as you wish. Good luck.”
“You know I don’t believe in luck,” Jack returned with a smile.
“Silly me,” Vihon said with a matching smile as the freighter dropped between the walls of the landing bay and finally rested gently on the pavement. Then he stood up, looking for all the world like a snake uncoiling, and turned to leave. “Call me if you need anything else,” he added before opening the door and walking out.
The door closed and Jack lowered his head, resting his chin on his chest sadly. Vihon grew up in the Corporation, never knowing another life, never seeing what it was like outside. Always wanting to be part of a team. His world had no meaning if he didn’t have a family to protect, probably the reason he was in Barlon now. Jack finally swung his feet off the desk and unfolded himself to stand up loosely. If Vihon wanted a family to protect, Jack would give him that family again. He had no other choice now.
Jack shrugged, stuffed his hands in his pants pockets, and left his office, running into Cat as she watched Vihon leave. “So what next?” Cat whispered as she turned to look at him, leaning against the freighter’s bulkhead.
“We get off this freighter and stay dirt side for a while,” Jack muttered casually and moved to walk past her.
“For how long? Where?”
“I don’t know,” he answered as he stopped. “And hopefully here at the spaceport.”
“It’ll be good to be off the freighters,” Cat whispered softly and smiled.
“We’ll be watched pretty closely,” Jack muttered. “Can you act loyal?”
“Yeah. We all can. We’ve had practice,” Cat returned sadly. “But I want one thing clear.”
“If anyone tries anything with me or Mask out there. I won’t take it. Not again,” she snarled and he nodded slowly, recognizing the nervous tick that showed she was still scared deep down.
“Barlon regulations say you are to do anything I command,” Jack intoned carefully, looking her in the eye. “If anyone asks, I ordered you and Mask to make sure you were ready for whenever I wanted any extra curricular activities. And that you are authorized to use full force in following those orders. Is that ok?”
“Yeah,” Cat whispered as she leaned back against the wall, shutting her eyes. “Thanks for understanding.”
“Any time,” Jack responded, patted her shoulder reassuringly, and walked on down the corridor, following Vihon off the grounded freighter. Security was no longer his concern as Spaceport Security could handle that, and Jack had three days of time off. He had serious plans for those three days.
And they all included slacking off, sleeping in, and watching holovids.
Two weeks later, Jack walked off a skybus and onto the New Portland boardwalk with Vanessa on his arm. Two weeks of solid drills and bringing yet another new pilot up to specs had left him and the entire squadron ready for a break. Walking down the boardwalk, they passed dozens of stores selling everything from swimsuits to candy and Jack relaxed as he ambled along. Then he heard cheering from the grand stand and looked out to see a surfer flying off a wave in a maneuver Jack would have sworn was impossible mere months ago.
Before he met Andrea. He smiled sadly as she came down and landed on the water, only to turn back into the wave to go at it again, surfing like a mad woman. It had to be her. She was the only person he’d ever seen who performed those particular maneuvers. But he’d never seen her attacking the waves like that.
He blinked as she dove down again harder than he’d ever seen, ripping through the wave with an uncompromising purpose that brought a gasp to the crowd. Arnam could live underwater, but if she smashed her head against anything down there, she would be just as dead as any normal Terran. Her board shot out of the wave into the air, Andrea riding it like a Valkyrie taking flight, and then flipped in midair before coming back down for another flawless landing.
He felt the hand gripping his tighten slightly and turned to look at Vanessa. They were here on vacation as far as Barlon knew and couldn’t afford to shake up their cover for any reason. So there was no way he could possibly talk to Andrea, even assuming she didn’t tell him to go play chicken with a battleship. All he could do was watch her surf, and what he saw frightened him like few things ever had. He sighed sadly as she finished her performance with a mammoth jump and a maneuver he couldn’t even follow.
The crowd erupted in applause and Vanessa leaned over to him, putting her lips to his ear. “I’m sorry,” she whispered and Jack simply nodded.
“You and me both,” he muttered back quietly, counting on the AI’s superior hearing to pick it up. “Let’s go,” he continued, stepping away hastily. “I don’t want to watch any more of this.”
“So what do you want to do next?” Vanessa asked as she followed him with her arm still wrapped around his, playing her cover perfectly. To everybody on the boardwalk, they looked like a perfectly loving couple.
“To end this now,” Jack returned, his casual tone and posture covering up the tension and fear ripping through his heart. “I want to go home,” he added and Vanessa nodded, knowing he didn’t mean their old living quarters at the spaceport, or the new and larger quarters outside the spaceport.
“Do we have what we need?” she asked and Jack’s shoulder’s slumped.
“We have enough. We can do it.”
“Then lets go,” Vanessa whispered into his ear again, making it look to anyone watching like she was saying sweet nothings into his ear. He smiled in response, contributing to the illusion. Someone was most likely monitoring them after all, and he didn’t want them wondering why they weren’t acting like man and wife. It could be most awkward if they found out she was an AI.
Even if he had heard rumors of such relationships being real, there was no way he wanted them running tests on her to find out her origin. That could be…awkward.
If he was lucky.
They left the stands behind, walking down the crowded boardwalk, passing shops on either side as they moved towards the skybus terminal on the other end of the boardwalk. From to time, playing her part perfectly, Vanessa pulled him into a shop to look at the wares. She tried on multiple outfits, most of them revealing a significant amount of very nice skin, and he had to remind himself she was an AI and his partner. But he sat in numerous benches or seats, smiling at her and nodding casually as she asked him questions, chattering away perfectly with her part. Sat while his memories played the time he spent here with Andrea over and over again.
After she swung back into the dressing room with a particularly revealing swimsuit, even by New Portland standards, he felt a gaze on his back, the hairs on his neck standing straight up. He turned casually, loosely pulling his limbs around to look behind him and then froze for a moment. Two black orbs simply stared at him and he let out a long slow breath. Then he caught the flicker of her membranes opening and closing over her eyes in disbelief, along with the flaring of her gills. She was pissed.
“Good surfing out there!” he exclaimed loudly, trying not to let his cover slip and wondering how she’d recognized him. Wait. She was an empath. He fought his panicked feeling to do…something…looking to anyone else like he was happy to see his hero. But she would feel it all. How much he wanted to just get this over with. How scared he was that he would drop his cover upon seeing her. How much he wanted to do it. And the simple cold hard fact that he couldn’t. Lives deepened on it. He saw her face soften as his thoughts roiled and he pulled in a single tortured breath. “I’m like your greatest fan. I hope you win the next one,” he said, forcing his voice to sound joyful. She was a hero in the flesh. Very nice flesh. He fiddled through his jacket and found a piece of paper and a pen, stood up and walked towards her, forcing himself to walk like a fan. “Could I get you to sign this for me?” he asked in a fanboy’s voice and saw her eyes soften again. She took the paper and pen, her hand brushing his and he felt like it was burning as he forced away the urge to take her in his arms.
“Who should I sign it too?” she asked and his breath caught in his throat. He couldn’t say his real name now. He had to use his cover, but that wouldn’t be real. He needed it to be real so badly.
“Lucky,” he whispered suddenly, and smiled victoriously. They called him that because it was who he was. It was real. It was him, not his cover. She smiled, recognizing the small victory he’d managed and signed it before giving it back. Their hands brushed again and he fought the urge to grab it. To hold it. His heart pounded as she leaned in close and pecked him on the cheek.
“For luck,” she whispered and turned to leave, “accidentally” brushing up against him again. The fire of her touch rushed through him as she turned to look at him again. The way her gills flared again, she felt it too. “I’ll win it,” she finished calmly before nodding towards the shopkeeper and walking back out the way she’d come in. Jack let out a long breath as he turned back around to look at the dressing room. Vanessa came out a moment later in her normal clothes as he held his right hand tight to his stomach, holding the note so tightly it was white.
“Let’s go,” he muttered shakily, hoping beyond hope that anybody watching would think it was hero worship, and Vanessa smiled at him just like her programming said, not letting any hint of what she’d heard happen into her expression, before turning to walk up to the shopkeeper to buy the last swimsuit she’d tried on. He simply sat there as she paid, trying to keep his hand from shaking as it held the note he wanted to read more than anything.
That night, he slept fitfully, unable to relax as the day and months before flashed through his mind. He never should have gone to the boardwalk. It was a mistake. He should have known better. Over and over, the thoughts ran through his mind as he fought himself. He didn’t want to go through with it anymore. It was over. Everything. It was just too much. It wasn’t worth it anymore. He was too old for this. He just wanted to disappear again. Go back home.
“I understand,” a voice whispered as he lay on the edge of consciousness, curled up in a ball. “I don’t like it, but you’re doing the right thing,” she continued and he recognized the voice.
“Andrea,” he muttered softly in his dream as he felt her chin nuzzle his neck. “I just want to go home,” he added, fighting the urge to turn over and grab her, terrified that she was just a dream and would disappear.
“Then do it do it now, in your dreams,” she whispered and he felt her arms wrapping around him. “I’ll be with you here. Just sleep.”
“Ok…” Jack trailed off, rested his head under her chin, reached to hold her arms tight to him in desperation, and felt true sleep finally come in her arms.