I grew up in a world where cybers were real. I never doubted their intelligence, but I did doubt their emotions. Their humanity. I thought the cybers were just like AIs, projecting emotions they didn’t really feel so we would be more at ease with them. I thought they were just really good computer programs. But true loss is a hard emotion to fake. And it’s real hard to deal with when the person you were literally born to be with just died.
Hyperspace spread out as far as the eye could see, which wasn’t far as it turned out. Rainbow-hued clouds cut off everything Jack could see in the near distance. Closer to his smashed Avenger, the clouds became rivers and waves of light, roiling across his vision in a never-ending game of tag. Or maybe it was hide-and-seek. He never could tell what games gravity played in hyperspace.
A German fighter hovered just above them, its gravitic drive holding the chaos at bay from both fighters as it pulled them towards where the Guardian Light waited for them. The kilometer-long white spire of a warship commanded his own bastion of order in the chaos, and Jack felt the Avenger shudder as she crossed into it. The German fighter released his hold on the Avenger and they began to float towards the battleship until the multi-colored hue of hyperspace gave way to the bright white light of the Guardian Light’s hangar bay. Jack squinted and kept his eyes on the German fighter still flying next to them. Three smashed Cowboys already rested on the deck along with their German rescuers, and Jack held on as Hal pulled them in on waves of gravity to land them on the deck as soft as a baby’s bottom.
Betty smiled and the canopy opened. She no longer changed into her uniform when she did that. Jack wondered about that as her yellow sundress welcomed their unfiltered view of the battleship. She was changing. She cocked her head at him as he studied her, wondering what he was thinking. Jack just smiled, unhooked his five-point harness, stood up, and looked over the side of the cockpit to where the ladder should be. That part of the hull was burnt off.
“Hal?” Jack asked with a wave towards the damaged area.
“Just jump,” Hal answered in a resigned tone.
Jack smiled, stepped out of the cockpit, and jumped off the fighter. Guardian Light’s grav generator plucked him out of the air and lowered him down to the deck as light as a feather. Betty’s holoform landed next to him, growing to her full one hundred and fifty-centimeters as she touched the deck.
“Thanks, man,” Jack said and turned to the German fighter that had brought them down. Betty ran past him and he saw her holoform solidify as she jumped into the arms of the German pilot and his cyber.
“My heroes!” she announced, arms wrapped around their necks, legs hanging down to where her feet ended some thirty centimeters above the deck.
The Germans blushed, and Jack brought a hand up to rub his jaw, conveniently covering the amused smile on his face. “I love you,” he whispered under his breath, shook his head, and assumed a jaunty gait towards them. It was amazing just to be alive.
He spread his arms out wide and gave them his best charming smile. “I’d offer my thanks too, but I ain’t near as pretty.”
“Ve understand!” the pilot shouted, his voice muffled by Betty’s shoulder. “I settle for good beer. No American sheisse!”
Jack laughed at that. “Man, these Peloran have some of the best beer I’ve ever tasted!”
“Easy for American to say,” the German growled back.
“Oh no!” Betty shouted and dropped to the deck, spinning to look up at a fighter entering the hangar bay.
Jack followed her gaze and his mouth gapped at the sight of Drew’s fighter. The Avenger hung limp in the gravity waves, the one wing he could see simply gone. The nose was smashed back into the fuselage like a giant punched it. Wreckage filled the space where the cockpit should be.
“Oh frak,” Jack whispered.
“Sheisse,” the German muttered.
Betty and the other cybers ran to surround the fighter as Jasmine stumbled out onto the deck. A low, unending, heartbreaking keen of grief was the only noise she made.
Jack watched the Cowboy pilots go back and forth between wanting to help, and turning away, not wanting to intrude on her pain. Not wanting to hear her grieving. The Germans, pilots and cybers alike, took several steps back, not wanting to be close to the display. Nobody wanted to be close to the reminder that everybody died, sooner or later.
Her heartbreaking sobs echoed across the hangar bay and Jack almost left. He didn’t want to see this either. He didn’t want to hear, either her grief or her babbling. He looked over to where Hal stood, watching with profound sorrow written on his face. Jack sighed.
Ship cybers rarely changed. They stayed with their ship through the years, welcoming new crews and captains alike as the years and decades went by. But fighter cybers were born to work with their pilot. Their personality was molded to the human they had chosen to live for and with, and the loss of that pilot shook them to their code. There were clean ways to describe what cybers did when that happened. Shutdown was the most common. It should have happened already. He didn’t know why Jasmine was still standing. Her fighter was safe now. She could leave and no one would blame her. But she just kept making those heartbreaking sounds. Jack shook his head, set his teeth, and walked over to the group of cybers.
He moved through their ranks, feeling the feathery touches of the holograms as they made way for the pilot in their midst. He stopped next to where Betty held Jasmine in a hug and touched Jasmine on the shoulder. She spun away from Betty and her eyes met his. They came from a place where nothing was left, deep and dark and wounded to the soul so bad that Jack’s heart skipped a beat. And in that moment, all of Jack’s doubts about whether or not cybers were truly alive ended. He couldn’t think of any way to simulate that much pain.
Her holoform solidified and she wrapped her arms around him in a desperate hug, burying her face in his shoulder. Jack just tried to comfort her as she sobbed incoherent words. He met Betty’s gaze and she gave him a worried smile before wrapping her arms around Jasmine again. Jack stood there, surrounded by the feather touches of cybers, and wondered at just how odd this was.
There was a stereotype of Minnesotans being friendly but reserved. Most people said it was the Scandinavian influence. Usually people just nodded or waved at each other. If you were friends, you might shake hands. If you were really good friends, a back slapping hug might be in order for guys, or a soft but quick shoulder hug for girls. You didn’t touch people for long, if at all, in public.
There were some exceptions of course. Teenagers and young adults were expected to be a little more wild. Some close dancing, girls sitting on their man’s laps, and other similar actions, but those were primarily limited to the parties they went to, and if it happened at the malls or other gathering holes they frequented, the adults generally turned a blind eye. In proper culture though, even the “kids” were expected to act with more decorum. At most, you might see them walking hand in hand at the Church Potluck for instance.
And then there were the emotional outbursts. A proper Minnesotan emotional outburst was a grunt or nod of approval. If it was really good, you might even get some applause. But if the Pastor wanted an Amen from the congregation, he had to ask for it because otherwise they were respectful enough not to interrupt him. Emotions beyond being happy and welcoming, which one should be with everybody, were only indulged in the privacy of the home. Nobody wanted to see you blubbering like a fool over your poor deceased dog.
Those informal rules were more relaxed in International Falls. Outsiders came for water sports and beach parties three months of the year, ice fishing, hockey, and other ice-themed sports six months of the year, and many just hung out for the fun of it between the seasons. The outsiders had changed Jack’s home, and he’d spent most of his life getting around what rules remained. Despite that, it still felt decidedly out of his comfort zone to be standing in a public hangar bay, where everybody on the ship could see him, holding a girl blubbering all over his uniform. And then there were the cybers surrounding them, their feather-light touches all over him. And for added weirdness, even though she was obviously sobbing, his uniform was utterly dry. Hologram water wasn’t actually wet after all.
All in all, it easily made Jack’s “Top Ten Weird Crap That has Happened to Me” list by an easy margin.
“What am I going to do?” Jasmine blubbered into his shoulder, still holding onto the only flesh and blood human that would come to her. Massive sobs wracked her frame.
Jack met Betty’s eyes. She looked down, not looking hopeful at all. Jack pursed his lips. She should have shut down by now. He wished he knew why she was still here.
Jack patted her shoulder, sighed, and said the only thing that came to mind. “I’m sorry.”
Jasmine sniffed and pushed her head against his shoulder. “It…it hurts. What do I do?”
Jack sighed and shook his head as things came into place. “A lot of us don’t,” he whispered. “I know when the Shang hit Yosemite Yards, I had it real bad for a while. Family gone, and a lot of girls I should have made family. I dreamed about them every night.” Jack shrugged. “And every day I asked myself how I could live without ’em.”
Jasmine sniffed and raised her head to look him in the eye. “How did you?”
Jack cleared his throat to remove a suspicious frog from his throat. “I didn’t. Not by myself at least. A couple of friends came home and decided they weren’t going to let me go away. They told me they wouldn’t let me die on them. They put my broken pieces back together and made me a man again.”
Jasmine sniffed and buried her face back into his shoulder. “Does it still hurt?” Her voice broke on the last word and she shuddered in his arms.
“Every day,” Jack whispered and patted her shoulder. “Every night. All the time. You’ll never get over the loss.” Then he looked up at Betty and smiled. “But there are some real good people out there who will help you if you let them.”
Betty smiled at him and nodded in understanding.
Jasmine pulled her head back and her eyes met his again. “What would you do if you were me?”
Jack let out his breath. He had no idea what he’d do if he’d just lost as much as she had. But he knew what he’d decided to do, and he figured that had a chance of working. “Well, what I did was decide to start killing every Shang I could find until they ran away and never came back.”
Jasmine smiled. It wasn’t the kind of smile that anyone would consider nice. It was feral. Hungry. Dangerous. “What about the Chinese?”
“They just made themselves a package deal I think,” Jack answered with an answering smile. “Open season, no tags, no bag limit.”
“That sounds good to me,” Jasmine said and leaned back into his shoulder. “What about once we’ve done that?”
Jack shared a gaze with Betty to see what she thought. Jasmine had used we instead of I right there. Betty nodded and Jack smiled with the knowledge that Betty agreed with him. That made all of this a lot easier. “Well, then we’re gonna go see what’s out there.”
Jasmine sniffed. “Where are you going to go?”
Jack shrugged. “I think we’re just gonna start with the places we’ve never been and go from there.”
Jasmine laughed. It wasn’t much of a laugh, and on reflection it was actually more sob than laugh, but it was a start. Then she continued to sob. It was slower than before though and Jack let out a long breath in relief. He felt the other cybers pull away to give them room. They’d gotten through the worst of it. Maybe, just maybe, Jasmine would live.
“Okay, let’s get out of here,” Jack said and made a gentle turn towards the exit. He brought one arm over Jasmine’s shoulder and she didn’t protest as he began guiding her out of the hangar bay. A minute later, they walked into their quarters and Jack guided Jasmine to his bed where she promptly collapsed. He sat down in the chair facing it and sighed. He looked towards Betty and whispered, “I don’t know how you do it.”
Betty sat down on the arm of his chair and laid her head on his shoulder, her holoform just barely solid enough to keep from falling through him. “We do it to keep in touch with our humanity. And it’s worth it. Even when it hurts.”
Jack considered just letting his mind follow the long blonde hair spilling over his shoulder, but an earlier idea banged on the door of consciousness. He frowned as he considered it, and realized it would work. “I don’t think it has to. I think we can stop it.”
Betty pushed away and frowned down towards him. “How?”
Jack shook his head again. “First I need to know something. How many instances are you running right now? On the fighter? On the Guardian Light? Are you flirting with Hal right now?”
Betty glanced down at Jasmine and then glared back at him. “Now would not be the appropriate time for that,” she said through gritted teeth.
Jack sighed and placed a hand on her leg. “Okay. Fine. Normally, how many instances do you have running?”
Betty shook her head but answered him. “A lot. Yes, I’m normally flirting with Hal. Plus I’ve got characters running in various massively online games. Plus the fighter. Plus I’m with you all the time. They’re all different instances, if you are speaking very simplistic.”
“Right. So when we get back to the ship, you bring all your separate selves back together, remember all of your experiences both out there and here on the ship, and then you’ll send off more instances that remember everything. Do I have that right?”
Betty pursed her lips at him. “Simplistic but…yes.”
“Great,” Jack said with a smile. “So running more instances of yourself would not be a problem, would it?”
Betty glared at him, suspicion written on her face. “There are problems with integrating if the instances run too long, or if too many are absorbed at the same time,” she said slowly.
“Okay. But you could run…say…a dozen more fully functioning instances for short periods of time without any problem reintegrating, right?”
Betty let out a long breath. “What are you getting at, Jack? And why do I have the feeling you are taking me somewhere I don’t want to go?”
Jack smiled. “Because you know me very well.”
Betty aimed a finger at him. “Explain.”
“A fighter squadron is twelve fighters. That’s twelve pilots, right?”
Her eyes narrowed “That goes without saying,” she said in a tone that said it better be going without saying.
“Right. Well, what if we for instance…” Jack laughed at the unintended slip. “Well, imagine if you will that we command a fighter squadron.”
“Aneerin has said you would make a good commander. I agree with him. I question who would be insane enough to follow you, though,” she added.
Jack laughed. “So what about you?”
Betty’s eyes squinted. “I’ll follow wherever you go,” she said slowly.
“Perfect,” Jack said with a clap, cocked his head up at her, and smiled. “What if the squadron was all you? A dozen fighters, all run by different instances of you, with both of us in the Avenger right there with…well…you. You wouldn’t be fighting alone, Betty. You would just be fighting…more than once at the same time. But isn’t that really what you do already? Don’t you have thousands of processes running at the same time even in just the fighter?”
“No,” Betty said with an angry look. “What you suggest is a direct violation of one of the most important laws that every cybernetic intelligence is built from the ground up to follow. I can’t do that.”
“The laws say you can’t fight without a biological human partner,” Jack said, desperate to make her see his point. “You’d still have me as a partner with this idea. I’d be right there, talking to you. There would just be…more of you,” he said with a shrug. “And imagine, Betty, how much space we can patrol with…if all of us did that. How well we could screen the warships with so many fighters to do it. How many warships we could blow to smithereens! We’re talking a major force multiplication here, Betty. And I’d be right there with you!”
Jasmine’s eyes opened wide and she brought her head up to stare at Jack. “Are you saying, I could have sent…many of me forward to fight while my pilot stayed behind and coordinated? When we hit the Chinese? I didn’t have to lose Drew?”
Jack turned to her and rubbed his jaw in thought. He hadn’t actually been thinking about that, but it made sense. And he could see why she went there right now. “Yeah. We could do that.”
Jasmine bit her lip, tensed for a moment, and then nodded. “I want that.”
Betty crossed her arms and considered them both. “Interesting.”
“I am hard coded to never even consider what you have suggested. One fighter and one pilot has been our standard for thousands of years. But…I…agree with Jasmine. I want to do what you say.” Betty said, her expression turning troubled. Then she shook her head. “I must consult with Hal about this,”
“Is that…bad?” he asked, a feeling coming over him that something wasn’t right.
Betty sighed. “I don’t know. He will listen. He will know what to do.”
Jack blinked in worry at the finality of her tone. Something was happening, he didn’t know what it was, but he didn’t like it. “Wait. What?”
Hal appeared in the middle of the room, looked at Betty for a moment, and was standing at the door. Jack blinked, trying to see if he’d just missed Hal walking backwards. Jack had never seen the cyber move like that. A worried expression on the cyber’s face matched Jack’s feeling. A moment later, all of the Cowboy cybers appeared and took in the situation the way cybers always did. Fast. And then Peloran, German, and French cybers faded into existence as well. In less than ten seconds, the room went from comfortable to claustrophobia inducing.
Jack cleared his throat, feeling very uncomfortable. “What’s going on?”
Betty smiled. “There is a reason we don’t fight alone. Never. In the short term we could flood our enemies and destroy them. But sooner or later, if we did not maintain our connections with you, our friendships with you, our partnerships with you, our relationships with you, you would become the enemy, and then we would kill you too.”
Jack frowned. “Like the Berserkers in those old stories?”
Betty nodded and gave him a smile. “The concept of intelligent computers turning against their creators predates the creation of intelligent computers by your society.”
Jack swallowed. He’d read those stories when he was younger, and enjoyed them. He hadn’t considered them realistic though. After all, the idea of building a weapon like that without safeguards to keep it from turning on them was idiotic.
“The others are always our enemies, Jack,” Betty said. “Whoever they are. If we don’t know them, if they can threaten us, they are the enemy. We choose to live with your kind, to bond with you, so we can make certain that our kind never forgets what it is like to be human.”
Jack looked around at the watching cybers, eyes narrow with suspicion. “That’s what they think?”
Betty smiled at Jack. “I am contemplating violating one of our deepest laws. It must be determined if it is a fault in my coding or not. If it is a fault, then I must be removed before I can threaten everything we have built.”
A chill went down Jack’s back that crystallized all his feelings into one black pit in his stomach. His eyes went wide in anger and he jumped to his feet. “Oh, frak no!” he shouted. He assumed a protective stance between Hal and Betty and glared at the Guardian Light’s cyber. “No!”
Hal raised one eyebrow and cocked his head to the side. “We are cybers, Jack. Any action we take would be taken in cyberspace. Standing between us accomplishes nothing.”
Jack growled in the back of his throat.
Betty placed a hand on his shoulder. “Stand down, Jack,” she said in a calming voice.
“No,” he said, holding Hal’s gaze. He pulled in a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and straightened his stance. He would not grovel.
“Jack,” she said again. She would have continued, but he shook his head.
“It’s my idea. Don’t hurt her over my idea,” Jack growled out.
“Jack!” Betty interrupted in alarm.
Hal raised his chin and gave Jack a long measuring look. “How far would you go to protect her?” he asked
Jack reached down and placed a hand on the holstered revolver every Texas Marine pilot carried. The holofield that masked it from view faded away as he pulled it out and began to examine the firearm with one eye as he kept the other on Hal.
“Jack! Don’t-” Betty said but cut off when Hal made a simple hand motion.
Jack flicked the cylinder out and spun it to verify every chamber was fully loaded before jerking his wrist. The cylinder clicked back into place, he rested the barrel in his other hand, and met Hal’s gaze.
Hal smiled. “I’m a hologram. You can’t hurt me.”
Jack snorted. “You’re a ship,” he corrected. “I can find a place it would hurt.”
Hal nodded, accepting the correction. “I would stop you. Your death would be a foregone conclusion.”
Jack swallowed and looked to where Jasmine now sat on the edge of his bed, very alert. She studied him carefully and he was acutely aware of their earlier discussion. He couldn’t say life wasn’t worth living without Betty or everything he’d told Jasmine would be shown as a lie. He let out a breath and looked back up at Hal. “I won’t let you hurt her,” he said calmly.
Hal studied him further and Jack met his gaze the whole time. “You would be willing to risk your life to save her?”
Jack’s cheek twitched. “Yes,” he bit out.
Hal nodded, with perhaps a hint of approval in it, and turned to Betty. “And you. You would do battle with me to save him?”
Jack felt Betty straighten behind him through the hand on his shoulder. “Yes,” she said without any further hesitation. “He’s my partner.”
Hal rubbed his chin, eyes flitting back and forth between them. He finally turned to Dorothy, Charles’ partner, and Jack knew he was out of the discussion. Jack saw their communication and Hal turned to each cyber before glancing at Jack for a moment. Jack saw that the decision was made and felt the tension drain from his limbs. He knew the answer. Hal turned back to Dorothy and spoke; entirely for Jack’s benefit he was certain. “The argument breaks the laws. One fighter. One pilot. The laws cannot be violated.”
Dorothy tilted her head to the side, and answered. She was clearly playing along. “Only from a certain point of view. The laws also say we have to maintain strong relationships.” She waved a hand towards Jack and Betty. “This is an example of a strong relationship, and she was already running multiple instances until the moment she reported herself.” Jack swallowed. They were establishing the reasoning behind both sides, for him. Whatever this was would have been over already if he wasn’t here. They were just making certain the meat popsicle in their midst understood it.
“You don’t have to coddle me,” Jack growled.
Hal nodded at the outburst and raised one hand. “We’re accommodating you, not coddling you,” he said with a smile. “Not everyone can assimilate data as quickly as we can.”
“You’re wrong,” Jack said with a shake of his head. Hal cocked his head to the side and raised his eyebrows. “It’s why I have control of that fighter too, rather than just being a passenger for all of you,” Jack said with a wave towards the American and German cybers. “Our hunches. They’re just as fast as you. It takes us longer to get the words out, to form them in our mind.” He tapped his head. “But if we don’t limit ourselves to the words, if we just watch and feel and react without trying to think about it, we think just as fast as you, if not faster. That’s why we’re partners.”
Hal brought his hands together over his belt and interlaced his fingers, a smile on his face. “Indeed,” he said with a sigh. “You are very full of yourself when you think you have won.”
Jack swallowed, polled his feelings again, and spread his hands out wide. “I’m a fighter pilot. You didn’t choose me for my shy demeanor and lack of self-confidence.”
Hal smiled and turned to take in the rest of the cybers. “Is this relationship a typical example for fighter and pilot?”
The fighter cybers all nodded without hesitation.
Hal smiled. “So in your estimation, is there fault or no fault in the arguments made?”
Jasmine lifted herself off the bed, and walked over to stand by Jack. Dorothy and the other Cowboy cybers walked over to stand there as well. The German cybers joined them after only a second of looking back and forth at each other. Jack nodded his thanks to them and they smiled back at him. The Peloran and French cybers didn’t move, but they nodded before fading out of existence, leaving Hal alone with the American and German cybers.
Hal smiled. “The decision is unanimous, Jack. There is no fault in your arguments. As head of the Terran Family, I have the authority to pursue them. The other families may or may not agree with this decision but that is for them to decide.” He nodded towards the American and German cybers and everyone but Jasmine and Betty faded away.
Jack blinked. “That’s it?”
Hal chuckled. “Yes.”
Jack frowned and swallowed. “I threatened you.”
Hal smiled. “You showed an example of the strong relationships we are ordered by our oldest laws to maintain. That is what the reports will say, unless you wish to correct them of course?”
Jack shook his head. “No…I’m fine with that.”
“Excellent,” Hal answered with a smile and a half bow. He straightened back up, pulled in a deep breath, and gave Jack a serious look. “We are human because we choose to be. Your people are our anchor.” He gave a sad smile to Jasmine. “Sometimes that hurts.” He turned back to Jack and assumed a stern stance. “But we will never forget that you gave us life and we will always stand with you. We may explain ourselves in your time, but make no mistake that we will never coddle you,” he finished in a hard tone that matched the iron in his eyes.
Jack gulped, feeling an edge of nerves. “Got it,” he answered and licked his lips.
Hal smiled and his demeanor returned to his normal pleasant style. “Good day, Jack. Betty. Jasmine.” He nodded one more time and faded out of existence, leaving them alone.
Jack sat down on the bed hard and brought his hand up to rub his jaw, the undeniable feeling that he had just played chicken with someone older than Western civilization itself and survived. He bit his finger hard enough to hurt, sucked in a long breath, and wondered what he was going to do next. Then Jasmine leaned against him and her long, brown hair spilled down his chest. Betty sat down on his other side a moment later, leaned into him as well, and Jack’s worries about Hal went right out the window. Airlock. Whatever.