We all lose something amazing at least once in our lives. And when that happens, we have to choose between curling up in a ball and crying, or celebrating everything we still have. I’ve never been the kind to curl up and cry, so I find myself a party. I find some people who want to dance, I find some good music, and I find myself something to celebrate. That’s life to me. Living it is the ultimate celebration of that gift.
Jack held on tight as the gleaming white cigar-shaped shuttle fell through the clear air. He really hated being a passenger now. It didn’t make sense, of course. A cyber flew the shuttle, just like it was Betty who actually flew their fighter, but a primal instinct born in him in the last few months just wanted to grab the controls anyways. But they were sealed in the piloting compartment while he was a mere passenger. So he gripped the armrests of his seat with knuckles going white with the strain.
“Relax, Jack,” Betty said into his ear. The shuttle was too small for the cybers to have their own seats, so only the nine remaining Cowboys sat in them. The cybers sat on their shoulders in small mode, most of them around twenty centimeters in height if standing. Jack was the only one to have two of them, one on each shoulder. He thought of all the stories of a good angel on one shoulder and a bad one on the other and almost smiled.
“You’ll blow a blood vessel if you keep this up,” Jasmine added, putting in her vote for good angel.
“So I’m a bad back seat rider,” Jack returned, not about to tell them what he was thinking.
“More like impossible,” Betty whispered, giving her a vote on the bad angel column.
Jack rolled his eyes and held on tight. The shuttle came to a stop with a slight bump and he sighed in relief. He sucked in a deep breath.
“We are here, and no one died on the way down,” Charles said with a smile. “Check your uniforms before debarking. I want everybody to look good out there.”
“Oorah,” The Cowboys responded with some chuckles.
Jack checked his Dress Whites for any wrinkles, pulled them tight, and sucked in a deep breath. He ran his hand over the ribbons on his left breast, one for Fort Wichita, Fort London, Alpha Centauri, and a few more the civilians thought would make the overall fruit salad look better. He pursed his lips and shook his head. Six months ago, he’d been one of those civilians. Now…he shook his head again, reached up and grabbed the white cowboy hat off its hook and placed it on his head.
He looked around to see the other pilots similarly ready, and they began to file out towards the exit. As each one approached the exit, the cyber on his or her shoulder jumped down to the deck and grew to full height, wearing the full Dress Whites of the Texas branch of the United States Marine Corps in perfect imitation of their pilots. He idly wondered what it must look like to anyone watching outside as more and more people walked out of the small shuttle. He didn’t even notice he was humming the clown car song until the other Cowboys began to laugh.
“Shut up, Jester,” Ken whispered and elbowed Jack hard enough to hurt.
“No need to be rude,” Jack answered and made a production of rubbing his wounded chest.
Ken just snorted as Sara jumped off his shoulder and they walked out into the sunslight of the Alpha Centauri trinary star system. Charles shook his head and waved for Jack to follow his wingman out. Jack responded with an innocent shrug and Charles rolled his eyes.
Then Betty and Jasmine jumped off his shoulders and grew to full height as they landed. They walked out with white cowboy hats shimmering into existence and Jack followed with a wry smile on his face. This had to look impressive out there. Either that or really silly. He wasn’t completely certain which.
He stepped outside and looked up at the twin suns in New Earth’s blue sky. One was yellow while the other was orange. He shook his head. Two suns were just wrong. There was a third star in the system too, but he couldn’t see it at the moment. He could see New Washington, the smaller and warmer planet inside New Earth’s orbit, in the sky just above the horizon. It had been the second Alliance planet colonized outside the Terran system, America’s statement that they could build one on their own. While New Earth was the center of Alliance activity outside the Terran system, New Washington was the greatest concentration of purely American power. And here he was on New Earth instead.
Jack shook his head and turned away from his study of the sky to see Charles and Dorothy leave the cigar-shaped shuttle. The hatch closed behind them and the empty shuttle rose up into the air on silent waves of gravity. Jack heard the slight hum of the holoprojectors in his uniform come to life, taking the load of giving Betty and Jasmine form from the departing shuttle’s projectors. He smiled and watched the shuttle rotate to point straight up before flashing into the sky with an acceleration rate only a craft that could control gravity itself could manage. Jack dropped his eyes again to look at Charles and saw the man frowning up after the shuttle. Jack walked over and stopped next to his commanding officer.
Charles took in a deep breath and lowered his gaze to meet Jack’s “Jester.” Something in his demeanor suggested that small talk wasn’t on his current to-do list.
Jack ignored the to-do list as usual. “Old home week?”
Charles cocked his head to the side and narrowed his eyes. “My family has business interests here. Why?”
Jack shrugged. “Just wondering if you’re off to visit them?”
Charles shook his head and turned away from Jack. “Cowboys!” he shouted to all the soldiers on the landing field. “Be back here in thirty-six hours. Be ready to fly. Liberty begins…now.”
The Cowboys shouted a hearty “Oorah!” as one.
Then the four Cowboys around the massive Jay Lovato turned as one with their cybers and began making for the terminal. His two flights had survived the fighting fully intact so far and the whole lot of them looked ready to celebrate.
Jack looked around at the other four Cowboys still standing around. Christian Mack flew off Charles’ wing and didn’t look ready to leave the man yet. Jesse James had been Drew’s flight leader and wasn’t looking like he was in the mood to have fun at the moment. His cyber stood close, comforting him as much as she could. Jack turned to Ken, waited for the man to meet his gaze, and then flicked his eyes towards Jesse.
“Got it, Boss,” Ken whispered with a smile and turned to walk over and wrap an arm around the farmer’s bulky shoulders. “I need a drink. You wanna join me?”
Jesse muttered something under his breath as the much smaller California Japanese man dragged him off. He didn’t struggle though, and Jack supposed that was a good start. Christian and Charles joined him in watching the two men and their cybers walk away in a much quieter fashion than Jay’s group had done.
“No,” Charles finally said as they disappeared into the terminal.
Jack blinked. It took him a second to realize Charles had finally answered his question about going to see family. “Why?”
Charles sighed. “I have something more important to do.” He looked up after the departing shuttle again, now a pinpoint of light so far up even Jack’s eyes could barely see it.
“Ah.” Jack smiled, wondering what troubled Charles, but determined to enjoy his first liberty since joining the Cowboys. “Good call then. I’m sure you wouldn’t want old Aunt Bessie’s Fruitcake.”
“Oh no!” Charles said, perhaps a little too quickly.
“Well, if you’re interested, you can always go shopping with us,” Jack offered both Charles and Christian with a wave towards Betty and Jasmine.
Christian visibly shuddered. “I think we’ll pass on that.”
Jack spread his arms out wide in a “how bad could it be?” gesture. “Come on, man, share the danger? We’ve flown into certain death together. This can’t possibly be that bad…”
Christian shook his head and gave Jack a wicked smile. “Accompanying women on a shopping trip is a fate worse than death. We’ll mourn your passing”
Jack held his hands out in a calming gesture. “Hey, they’re cybers. No bags to carry.”
Christian shook his head again and kept aiming the wicked grin at Jack. “Good luck with that.”
Jack shrugged and turned to walk away. He stopped cold, a grim feeling coming from somewhere, and spun back to Charles and Christian. “Hey, if something important comes up, call me,” he said in a momentarily sincere tone.
They examined him for a moment before Charles nodded. “Thank you for the offer. I will keep it in mind. Now go enjoy your liberty.”
“Yes, sir!” Jack shouted back with a jaunty salute, and turned to amble away, determined to have fun. He stepped between Betty and Jasmine, reached his arms out to grab each of them around the waist, and hesitated just long enough for them to signal their acceptance before pulling them along with him. “Come on, girls. We’ve got some fun to track down.”
“Yes, Jack,” they chorused in matching amused tones.
Jack smiled as they strode towards the terminal, determined to project his best party man persona. “So, seriously girls. Why are we going shopping again if we’re trying to have fun?” he asked, just looking for something to say.
Betty smiled and gave his shoulder a light slap. “It’s called ‘retail therapy,’ Jack.”
Jack rolled his eyes. “Right.” Jack did not go shopping. He never had. Shopping implied that he might fail. He went buying.
Betty shook her head. “I’m serious, Jack. It’s a very real form of therapy. There are studies that prove it.”
Jack laughed. “Let me guess. Funded by Target?”
Betty and Jasmine echoed his laugh. “Touché,” they said in unison and the terminal doors opened before them. The scent of real pine Christmas trees and the sound of Christmas carols greeted them as they walked in.
Jack’s stride faltered, and he blinked. He swallowed and shook himself. It was all so familiar.
“What?” Betty asked in worry.
Jack cleared his throat, feeling far too awkward. “My house…smelled and sounded like this every Christmas…before.” Before the Shang came. He licked his lips, wondering if it had really only been six months.
Betty squeezed the hand around her waist with her feathery touch. “I’m sorry.”
Jack cleared his throat again and squeezed her back, gentle enough not to break through her holoform. “I…I miss ’em.”
“I know,” Betty whispered. “Are you good?”
Jack blinked again, took a deep breath, and felt the regret and loss try to take away his confidence. But he was on liberty. He was with his best friend in the universe, and with another friend who needed someone to make her feel better. That did it. He would not drag Jasmine down with his melancholy.
He’d earned the name Jack in parties all over northern Minnesota. He knew how to act like he was having fun good enough to fool even himself. And he would have fun today. He willed Jack back up and felt the old comfortable persona snap back into place. He stood up straight again and gave the Christmas-themed terminal a jaunty smile. Jack had two beautiful girls in his arms and a whole planet to play with. Nothing was going to stop him from having fun.
“Actually,” Jack said and looked back and forth between the two lovely ladies standing next to him. “I’m fantastic. Shall we allons-y?”
Five hours and one sunset later, Jack shook his head with a rueful smile.
“Something wrong, Jack?” Betty asked with a knowing smile.
Jack snorted as they walked down a street lined with Christmas lights and wreaths. He really should have known better. “Oh, just wondering how it is I’m stuck carrying bags while shopping with cybers.”
“Well, we can’t carry them. And all of these after-Christmas sales are just too good to let go,” Betty said with a shrug that said there was no question about that.
Jack gave her a quick glance. “And now we know the real reason you don’t have physical bodies,” he said with a deadpan delivery.
Betty laughed. “Touché. So what do you want to do now?” she asked with a tap of a finger on his shoulder, adding another point to the bad angel competition.
Jack glanced at Jasmine with a smile. “Well, I’m always up for a good party.”
Jasmine smiled back and looked down at the bags he carried. She bit her lip and hesitated. “Drew wasn’t a big partier,” she whispered.
Jack stopped short and examined her carefully, pursing his lips to the side. “That just means we have to find the right party,” he finally said.
Jasmine’s eyes widened.
Jack smiled. “Trust me. I’m an expert at parties.” He clicked his tongue. “Drew was a shy one. That means you don’t want to be the center of attention where we go, right? You don’t want to stand out? Afraid you’ll be noticed?”
Jasmine shifted her head to the side for a moment before nodding.
Jack turned to Betty. “We need a night club. Dark with spotlights. Good driving beat for dancing. Crowded. One of the places where people go to be anybody but themselves. Anything like that around here?”
Betty smiled. “There’s a cyberclub two blocks that way,” she said with a wave of her hand.
Jack chuckled, wrapped his arms around the two cybers, and turned to walk them in the direction Betty pointed. “Trust me, Jasmine, you will love a cyberclub. They have full hard light holoprojectors. As good as Guardian Light’s projectors. And they’re programmed to let you be anything you want to be.” He aimed an exaggerated leer at her. “I’m thinking you’d look awesome as one of Santa’s elves and no one would know who you are.”
Jasmine gave him a look that said she was tempted and feeling guilty about being tempted at the same time. Jack chuckled. He’d met more than his fair share of girls like that back home.
“It’ll be amazing, Jasmine. The best party you’ve ever been to,” he said with a tempting smile.
Jasmine shook her head but gave him a smile. “Okay, okay. I’ll do it,” she said with a laugh.
“Excellent!” Jack exclaimed and strode down the sidewalk with a jaunty step that said he was both the luckiest and the best man alive.
They’d barely made it a block when a young kid that couldn’t have been over eight years old walked up to them, dragging a woman who was probably his mother after him, and stopped to look up at them.
“Hey, mister! Are you a Cowboy?” the kid asked.
Jack smiled. “Yes, I am.”
The kid gave him a serious stare. “Did you really kill those Chinese alone?”
Jack gave Jasmine a quick glance before answering the kid. “Yes, we did.”
The kid continued to examine Jack with all the intensity that a child could muster. “Can I be a Cowboy when I grow up?”
Jack looked at his mother and saw her momentary terror. He smiled and squatted down, all his weight on the balls of his feet, to rest on his heels. He let go of the bags and held out his hand for the kid to take. “Hey, kiddo. I’m Jack. What’s your name?”
The kid pulled in a deep, proud breath. “I’m Brian,” he announced.
“Well, tell you what, Brian. Study good in school, get good grades, and apply yourself. If you can get yourself a cyber, contact me and I’ll help you out.”
“Is that what you did?”
Jack looked to see Betty smirking at him.
“Not exactly,” he admitted.
“But we were really scraping the bottom of the barrel for pilots when we found him,” Betty said.
“Hey!” Jack shouted in an outraged tone, and mentally chalked another point for bad angel. Or maybe two.
The kid giggled. “You’re funny.”
Jack cocked his head to the side and smiled. “We try.”
The kid pulled a holo out of his pocket and it expanded to show a picture of the original twelve Cowboy pilots and their cybers smiling at the camera. “Can I get an autograph?”
Jack smiled. “Sure, kiddo.” He grabbed a pen out of a pocket, placed it in the holo, and signed his name. The signature appeared in the holo, blazing into existence in a golden flame that burned to black to hover beneath his picture.
“Cool,” the kid exclaimed. Then he looked up at Jasmine, back to where she stood in the holo, and to her again. “Where is your pilot?” he finally asked.
Jasmine took in a deep breath. “She died killing the Chinese,” she pronounced in a sad tone.
“Oh,” the kid said and walked over to hug Jasmine. “I’m sorry.”
“So am I,” Jasmine answered and hugged the kid back.
The kid pulled back and gave her a look far more mature than he had any business making. “When I grow up, I’m going to be your pilot,” he said with complete confidence.
Jasmine smiled at him. “As long as you study,” she answered and patted his shoulder.
Jack unfolded himself back up to full height and stepped over to the boy’s mother. “He sounds determined.”
The mother sighed. “Five weeks ago, he was determined to be a firefighter. He even has the helmet on his wall. Before that, it was a policeman. Before that, a race car driver.”
“So you don’t think this will stick?” Jack asked.
“I hope it doesn’t,” she answered, her voice desperate.
Jack looked to where the kid and Jasmine continued to talk in low tones. “I understand.”
“Do you?” she asked, sounding derisive.
Jack gave her a long look before answering. “I’ve lost a quarter of my squadron in a matter of months. If this war goes on another year…” He trailed off and shrugged.
The mother’s face fell, and she looked contrite. “Oh.”
Jack gave her a sad smile. “Exactly.”
“I really hope he changes his wish,” she said, sounding even more desperate.
Jack sighed. “So do I.”
Jasmine brought the boy back to his mother, laughing with him over a private joke. “Brian is a truly precious boy,” she said.
“Yes, he is,” the mother answered and hugged him close.
“Mom!” the boy protested, pushing away from her.
Jack smiled and an idea hit him. He pulled the cowboy hat off his head. “Here, kiddo,” he said and placed it on the kid’s head where it fell down to cover his face.
“Thanks!” Brian said in amazement and reached up to grab his new favorite toy.
“Keep it safe,” Jack ordered.
Jack looked to the mother, standing in shock and fear at his action. “I really do hope he picks another career, but we should all stand behind him, whatever he chooses.”
The mother blinked and her mouth trembled, but she nodded and pulled her son in close again, despite his indignant protests. “Thank you,” she said and walked away, holding her son by the wrist to keep him with her.
“That was real sweet,” Betty said.
“Yeah, sometimes I try,” Jack said with a shrug and turned away. “Now, where was that club again?”
Betty gave him a sly smile and pointed him towards it.
“Excellent,” Jack said, picked the bags up again and smiled. “Ladies first,” he finished with an elaborate half-bow.
Betty and Jasmine shared a giggle before turning to walk away, hips swaying. He sauntered after them, a smile on his face as they turned the corner. Jack felt the dull beat of music in the distance and the foot-stomping bass vibrated from the pavement to his spine. He moved with the beat and caught up to the two girls with a smile.
“I think we found a live one,” he said between beats. “You ready?”
Betty just smiled at him. Yeah. She was always ready. He turned to Jasmine.
Jasmine looked down for a moment. “I think so.”
Jack smiled at her. “Goin’ as you or doin’ a disguise?”
Jasmine cleared her throat and looked nervous. “I’ll try me.”
“Good,” Jack whispered.
Jasmine gave him a confused look. “I thought you said I’d look good as an elf.”
Jack chuckled back. “I did. You’d look good as a lot of things, but I think you look best as you.” He shrugged. “The only question’s whether you’re comfortable with that or not.”
Jasmine stopped and stared at him for several seconds. He wondered if she really was thinking as long as she seemed to be or if she was just acting out what was to her a long consideration. “I don’t know,” she finally said. “But I’d like to try.”
Jack nodded in approval. “And that’s the first step.” He glanced at Betty and she smiled, grabbed Jasmine by the arm, and pulled her towards the club. Jack followed in their wake, and they moved in rhythm to the music.
The bouncer saw them coming and opened the door for the visiting soldiers without a pause. They walked in and checked their bags at the desk, the clerk giving him a sympathetic smile. Jack shrugged good-naturedly. He dropped his burden, straightened his collars, ran his fingers through his hair, and flowed towards the dance floor with the music. He turned to Betty and Jasmine, saw them hesitating, and smiled. He grabbed their hands and pulled, stepping back onto the dance floor. They merged with the hundreds of dancers on the floor, moved with the music, stepped between strobing lights, and became part of the party celebrating the end of the year.