When they called for volunteers to fight the Shang, I signed up real quick. I wanted to kill ’em all for what they did. I did real good in training too. A life of swimming and fishing and dancing and playing music makes for real good physical fitness let me tell you. And being Ageless helped too. Of course they wanted me as a pilot. That six weeks changed me good. Real good. I found out what I was made of there. I found out what I wanted.
A dry Texas westerly wind blew dust around the dirt yard in front of the building. A breath of hot morning air scorched down a throat made for much colder climates. He was less than a kilometer from the Gulf of Mexico. And here he was, getting a dry, hot wind from the west. Well, it could have been worse. It could be a wet, hot wind from the east. Or it could be one of those newer winds coming down from the ash-shrouded north. The scientists were warning about Global Cooling due to all the ash in the air. Eight weeks. It was hard to believe that was all that separated him from the life he’d had before.
The United States of America were going to War now. Every State from Alaska to Panama, every Colony from New Washington to Liberty, they were all marching, flying, and sailing to War. It was unimaginable. But here it was. Two centuries of star travel all brought down to a single word. War.
A word that had almost destroyed him. He’d lost his world. His family. He’d lost his will to live. But Julie and Alex had saved him. They’d come home for him and put him back together physically and mentally. He owed them now. He would repay them. Somehow. But first he had to make sure they would stay alive. And that meant volunteering. It meant putting on a good show for the shrinks when he said he was ready. He bet at least one or two of them had guessed it was all an act, but the military needed bodies, and Jack had a primo body if he said so himself.
Boot camp had been the hard part. He had no idea how recruits survived it in the old days. Twelve weeks of Parris Island? No thank you. One week of hundred kilometer marches and an hour to sleep like the dead had been more than enough for him to never, ever, want to go through that again. Ever. For the first time in his life, his body had actually failed him. Almost. He’d missed the three-minute mile mark, but at least he’d crossed the line in the end. That had been humiliating.
And now he was in the heart of the Republic of Texas, possibly the most powerful of the American States. He supposed it made sense. He just wished it wasn’t so hot and dry. It made his skin itch, and his mouth was always parched. He really hated this place. Of course, if things went right today, he wouldn’t have to be here much longer.
There was a War to fight after all, and the Marines needed every pilot they could punch through this abbreviated training schedule yesterday. Literally. News of the Battle of Mars had arrived last night. There was only one, final test to pass and Jack would pilot a starfighter in the ranks of the Republic of Texas Marine Corps. Texas. Jack sniffed raw, dry wind into his lungs and coughed it out again. Well. He would leave soon, one way or the other. There was no need to waste perfectly good ill feelings on a land he was about to get away from.
He turned from the bleak landscape and walked up to the door, to feel cool air streaming out over him. He smiled and looked down at the 40-kilo German Shepherd guarding the door.
“Hey, Bruce,” Jack said to the older dog, enjoying the cool breeze.
“Jack,” the dog answered, tongue hanging out the side of his mouth betraying his perpetual amusement. Bruce was an old hand amongst the uplifted German Sheperds, and he still loved laughing at all the young pups wanting to join the Marines. “Today’s the day, isn’t it?”
Jack gave the dog a feral smile. “Yes it is. Today’s the day I get myself a starfighter.”
“That’s the spirit,” Bruce said with a hearty bark. “Remember, if you need character witnesses…” Bruce trailed off with a leading expression.
Jack laughed at the statement before frowning in thought. Was Bruce more than just a guard dog? That thought made him curious. “Are you part of the test?”
Bruce barked again in laughter and sat down on his rump, cocking his head to the side. His tongue seemed to hang out even more, giving a truly comical look to the old dog. Certainly a lot more comical than the time he’d seen Bruce running a trespasser off with the full rabid dog act, foaming at the mouth and everything. Bruce smiled at him. “What do you think?”
Jack rubbed his jaw, considering the question with care. Then he smiled back. “Maybe.”
Bruce answered with another bark of laughter. “Get in there. You don’t want to be late because you stopped to talk to an old guard.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” Jack snapped back. He turned for one more glance at the dusty grounds where Bruce’s pack patrolled every morning. They felt…more watchful today. He caught one of them glancing at him. That was Annabelle. She turned away when she caught his gaze and returned to prowling the perimeter. He thought about asking if there was something wrong before shaking his head. The pack wasn’t worried. They were expectant. Of course, this was the day for that.
“Go,” Bruce barked more sternly.
“Yes, Sergeant,” Jack answered and turned into the building. “You’d tell me if anything bad’s about to happen right?” he asked, covering all the bases just in case.
“Always,” Bruce returned before letting out several amused yips.
Jack considered what was going on with the dogs as he walked into the cool air of the building that had been his home for six weeks. Every day he’d spent eight hours in a single classroom with every candidate in the school, learning everything about modern war equipment and cybernetic intelligences there was to know. He’d also spent eight hours in a training room, alone with the people he was here to impress. Half the time they trained, working together to fly anything from fighters to warships. The other half, he answered questions from knowledge of history and physics to what kind of jelly he wanted on his peanut butter sandwich. Assuming he liked peanut butter sandwiches. Or jelly. They said it was to gain an accurate psychological profile.
And between each class, there had been four hours of nothing. It didn’t seem like much free time, but Corpus Christi was easy compared to boot camp. He had time to eat, to study if he wanted to, to work out in the gym, to sleep, or whatever he felt like. It was four precious hours that were his with no structure at all enforced from on high. The only rule was that they could not leave the perimeter.
That was fine by him. He’d spent most days playing with the dogs. Uplifted dogs weren’t much different from normal dogs when it came down to it. They loved to play fetch, have their tummies rubbed, or get in wrestling matches. Bruce was a wrestler. Annabelle had a favorite ball she loved to chase. Tony had become his best friend, not to mention a constant wet nose, when he found out Jack came to the yard with sugar cubes in his pocket.
He stepped into the classroom that took up the center of the Marine Training Station and filed down the auditorium steps until he reached his row. He squeezed past those already in their seats and sat down in the same assigned seat he’d held for the last six weeks. Then he leaned back in his chair, stretched, and began to study the other Marines.
Like most Americans, every Marine here had taken the Peloran Treatments that first began wiping out most diseases a century ago. Some of them looked as old as their fifties or sixties, and a few could have passed for their teens, showing that they’d been alive when the Peloran made Contact. The first Treatments weren’t as reliable as the modern ones, and slowed or froze the aging process at different ages.
Most were like Jack, twenty-five years of age until the day they died. That was because every single Marine in the room belonged to the smallest subset of Americans who would never age another day in their life. And with that came all the other little side effects. Improved eyesight, superior strength and endurance, quicker reflexes, and intuition. They saw and reacted to threats faster than anyone. They could have been the perfect genetically engineered super soldiers. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on the point of view, most of the people in this room had never enjoyed a good fight. And so they’d pursued normal civilian careers until Yosemite fell and the call for volunteers flooded the United States. Today they were here.
A soft bell sounded and a room full of men and women fell silent. On time to the second, their instructor walked out onto the stage, the chink chink sound of regulation Dress White cowboy boots on the hard wood floor filling the auditorium. The instructor stopped behind the podium and peered out from under the white cowboy hat that topped the uniform of the Republic of Texas Marine Corps. His eyes squinted at the two hundred Marines in the room and he nodded in what might have passed for approval. “I will not lecture you today. Those of you here have passed the written exams and the physical training. I congratulate you. Now listen to me one last time. All of you will be leaving today and going to your next duty station. You will join your fellows as the best riflemen in all the worlds. And some of you will also become pilots. Listen to me now, one last time, and you may change your fate.
“The cybernetic intelligences that you may meet in the next hour are between one hundred and over two thousand years old. They share the memories of every single member of their family. And the newest families have the memories of those that came before. They have spent over two thousand years learning how to be human. Once they pick a partner, a holoform, and a name, they will be human, indistinguishable from any other human you will ever meet in every way that matters.
“If they pick you, they will have chosen to be whatever you need to fight and to live to fight another day, until The War is over for you, one way or the other. Your best friend, your sister, your brother, whatever it is, they will have chosen and accepted that role in your life as your partner. The head of every single cyber family is here, so if you are not chosen here you will not be chosen by any cyber. If you are not chosen, you will not be a Marine Corps combat pilot.
“And that is all. You will be escorted to your training rooms one row at a time and then you will wait. Once everyone has been escorted to their rooms, those of you who have not been chosen by a cyber will be escorted out. Those of you who have been chosen will have a few minutes to get to know your new partner and then you will be escorted out. Those of you who are still on the bubble, this could be a long day. It will be your last test. Convince the cybers to work with you, or you will be escorted out alone. Goodbye, good luck, and get the hell out of my classroom!”
“Oorah!” the Marines chorused back.
Jack stepped out of his line and into the open door of his training room. The door shut behind him, closing him into the white-walled room, and he sat down in the single chair. He looked at the bare walls for a moment before plugging a crystal encased in clear plastic into the chair’s arm. The computer read the crystal, and a carefully selected playlist of his favorite T&J songs filled the room. Jack smiled, shut his eyes, and leaned back in the chair. It would be several minutes before everybody got into their rooms, so he might as well relax while waiting.
“He shouldn’t be so cocky,” a female voice he knew very well said five songs later. That was the song about the fast car. Jack opened one eye to scan the room and saw the speakers lined up at the top of the wall were live. Well, two of them were at least. The light above speaker five blinked out. Yup. He’d been right.
“I don’t know. I like his choice in music,” a much older female voice that sounded like a nice old aunt said. The light above speaker three came on.
Jack suppressed a smile and shut his eye, listening to the cybers continuing to talk. Cyber Number Five didn’t like him, never had truth be told. She was the crazy aunt that shouted at all the kids for placing a toe on her lawn. Well, maybe she wasn’t that bad, but he’d never liked her either. He was surprised that cyber had shown up here at all. Cyber Three on the other hand seemed interested. Cyber Five was just here to talk the nice one away. Well. He really couldn’t allow that. He was a little disappointed that Cyber Seven and Cyber Four hadn’t shown up. They’d sounded fun. But they weren’t talking so he cleared his throat and entered the conversation.
“You do know I can hear you, right?” Jack asked, opened his eyes, leaned forward, and cut the music.
“You should be more respectful,” Cyber Five said in a frosty tone.
Jack sighed. “Look, you aren’t here to talk to me. You’re here to stop Three from choosing me. But that’s Three’s decision, so why don’t you just go and find someone else here who will work with you rather than envision stabbing you through the speaker?”
Both speakers remained silent and Jack wondered if he’d gone too far. He really didn’t like Five but hoped his interjection hadn’t pushed number Three away. He breathed in and out, holding onto his calm, and waited.
“What if I decided to choose you?” the voice from speaker five suddenly filled the silence.
Jack smiled. He glanced at the silent speaker three before turning back to Five. “I’d throw you back.”
Silenced reigned from both speakers for a long time before Five spoke again. “Why?”
Jack shrugged. “When I fish, sometimes I catch Crappie or Bass. I don’t like them so I throw them back. Northerns I like. I keep them. I wouldn’t like you the way you are. And you wouldn’t like me unless you changed yourself so much you probably wouldn’t like you either. So I’d throw you back and we’d both be happier.”
The silence lasted another thirty seconds this time before speaker five spoke again. “Three has left. I’m your last chance,” she finally said. “Convince me to choose you or you will be escorted out alone.”
Jack swallowed this time, eyes flicking over to speaker three. He licked his lips, wondering if it was true. He wondered for a moment if…no…no. He shook his head. “I don’t accept your premise. I don’t think Three is gone. I think you’re testing me. Even if I’m wrong though, it wouldn’t change things. You’re too bound up in rules for you and me to ever work well. We’d be fighting each other as much as the Shang, and that would kill us both dead in the end.”
“You are correct,” Five said. “We would fight each other. And we would die. And perhaps that is for the best. But if you will not accept me, I will leave. Goodbye, Jack. Enjoy your escort.”
The speaker went silent.
Jack leaned back in his chair and waited for the door to open. When it didn’t after a few seconds, he tapped the crystal and T&J began to sing about their old country home. If he was wrong, he had just gambled everything and lost. No, he hadn’t really gambled at all. He really wouldn’t have enjoyed working with Five. They probably would have been the deaths of each other. But if Three had left already…or if Seven or Four weren’t bothering to monitor this, it would be all she wrote. He shut his eyes and breathed in and out, willing himself to be calm. A minute went by, and a jazz song by the Freddy Reed Band bubbled in the background while the door did not open. Two minutes.
“So you think I’m a Northern?” Speaker three asked with the tone of a quizzical aunt asking why he’d thought it was fun to toss rocks into the water.
Jack smiled as relief flowed through him. He’d played his cards right. He left the music on in the background since the cyber liked it. “I think you’re a lot more likely to be one than Little Miss Tightypants over there,” he said with a wave towards speaker five.
Three let out a hearty laugh. “I will have to tell her you called her that,” she continued in a wry tone. “After you are safely out of her reach, of course.”
“Of course,” Jack echoed with a chuckle. “I’m glad Five was lying by the way.”
“Five wasn’t lying. Five was testing you,” came the response.
“Ah.” Jack placed brought his hands up behind his head and interlaced his fingers, affecting a pose of relaxation. “Did I pass?”
“I’m still talking to you.”
“I guess that means I’m still fishing then?” Jack asked. It was hard to gauge if he was going too far without a face to look at, to measure his words against.
“Indeed,” Three answered, the amused tone back.
“I guess that makes it my move them.” Jack’s forehead creased in thought. “Can I ask you two questions?”
“Proceed,” Three said, the tone serious.
Jack paused, trying to form the questions just right. “The first one is, ‘Why did the others decide not to choose me?’ And the second is, ‘Why are you reconsidering?’”
“Those are very good questions. Let me answer the second one first.”
“Actually,” Jack interjected. “I’m really curious about the first one. Could you tell me it first?”
The speaker went silent for several seconds. Jack did not swallow.
“You are trying to make me end with what is most positive about you, hoping that it will make a positive outcome more likely.”
Jack shrugged, giving the speaker a very large smile. “I’ll take any advantage I can get.”
“You declined with Five.”
“There was no advantage to working with Five.”
“True.” The speaker went silent again. “Very well. The others decided against you because your psychological profile is wrong for us. You seem pathologically incapable of having a long-term relationship with anybody. Ever. There are those you could have committed your life to and you did not. And now you wish to spend what life you have left killing Shang and getting your revenge on them for killing your father, your mother, and most of the people you knew in International Falls. You do not care if you live or not. They are unwilling to choose such a partner.”
“Oh,” Jack said, dropping his hands down into his lap. He blinked, considering the verdict, replaying the conversation with Bruce. He was going to find out how he was going to kill Shang. Jack sighed. She was right. He pulled in a deep breath. “And you? Are you willing?” he finally asked.
“No.” The old voice held no equivocation at all.
Jack swallowed. It was time to get Three away from this line of thought before she chose to leave.
“So what makes you think I’m worth considering then?” he asked.
The cyber waited a few seconds before answering, probably measuring him for something. “You played with the dogs,” she finally answered.
Jack blinked in confusion. “What?”
“Please. Do you really think a military training facility designed for someone like you would give you so much free time with no tests in the middle of War?”
Jack grunted. “Well, I was wondering about that.” He considered his words for a moment. “So you were watching us to see what we would do when we…wanted to?”
“Yes. And every candidate who played with the dogs except you has already been chosen.”
Jack frowned in thought. “Why did you pick them?”
A chuckle came from the speaker. “Jack, I’m not going to reel myself in on your line. It’s time for you to answer my questions.”
Jack returned the chuckle, leaned back into the chair and interlaced his hands behind his head again, relaxing his posture and kicking his feet out. “Go fish.”
“Why did you play with the dogs?”
Jack swallowed. He barely stopped himself from uttering the amazingly idiotic phrase of “Uh…wha?” by the skin of his teeth. It really wouldn’t have helped. He slid back into the seat and leaned forward, bringing one hand forward to rub his chin as he thought. Finally he shrugged. “Well, Annabelle came over with the ball and wanted to play. And Bruce…well he wanted to fight so we did. They started it really.”
The cyber sighed. “I know they did. They always do. It’s their job. But why did you play with them, not just toss the ball and forget about it? Why did you find out that Tony liked sugar cubes?”
Jack looked at the speaker for almost fifteen seconds, trying to come up with a good answer. “Well, I grew up with dogs,” he finally began with a wave of his hand. “Most of them like sugar so I figured it was worth a try. And I guess I just like dogs. They’re fun to be around, whether they are normal dogs or uplifted dogs.”
The cyber remained quiet again for a long time and Jack began to wonder if he’d blown it. “So let me get this straight,” she finally said. “You spent four hours at a time outside in an environment you clearly detest, eating or playing with the dogs because you like dogs?”
“Well, yeah,” Jack answered.
“You gave up study time for the classes because you like dogs?”
Jack raised an eyebrow at the speaker. “Like the classes were really difficult enough to require studying?” he retorted. The speaker did an amazing imitation of grinding teeth and Jack winced. He’d probably gone too far with that one.
“You’re smart enough to pass the tests without studying and yet you are so blinded in other ways. We truly do not know what to make of you.”
“I guess that makes me special then?” Jack asked.
“And so quick witted…sometimes,” the wry tone uttered. “Fine. Once more. What makes you the kind of person who can never commit to a relationship, who wants nothing more than to kill every Shang you see, and yet at the same time be the kind of person who will not turn away a dog who wants your attention?”
“You know what they say,” Jack continued with his sly smile. “When a five year old hands a toy phone to even the biggest and baddest gangster, he picks it up and answers it.”
A sigh came out of the speaker. “I ask a serious question and you joke. Goodbye—”
“Wait,” Jack interrupted, realizing he had made a tactical error there. He let out a long breath as the light under speaker three remained on, and shook his head. “Have you ever loved a dog?”
Speaker three blinked off and on as if to convey confusion in the mind of the cyber before speaking again. “What does that have to do with this?”
She hadn’t answered the question, but at least she was still talking. That was a good sign. He hoped. So Jack trudged on and just hoped she would understand. “Look. Dogs love in a way that most humans don’t. With all their heart and soul. They don’t lie and cheat like we do. They don’t hide their emotions like us. They don’t wear masks like we do. Playing with them…feeling the joy that fills them…it’s the best feeling in all the worlds. And it’s worth losing a bit of sleep for.”
Speaker three blinked once more. “You wear a mask, Jack. Why?”
“We all wear masks,” Jack protested.
Jack’s mind went to Julie and Alex and he shook his head. He didn’t want to tell her about that.
“That,” Three said. “What was it you thought about there?”
Jack ground his teeth together and tried not to glare at the speaker.
“I see,” Three said in disappointment. “I am sorry.”
“Wait!” Jack shouted before she could leave. He needed her. He would never be a pilot if he didn’t get her on his side. Her light still glowed and he pulled in a long breath. Then he let it out and shrugged. “We wear masks to protect ourselves from the things that hurt us. What we’ve done. What they’ve done.”
Three’s speaker blinked. “And you have known hurt.”
“The Shang killed my family,” Jack almost snarled out. He barely held his tone in control and let out another breath to keep his calm. He shouldn’t be this angry about it. He shouldn’t let it show to this cyber. But he had to answer as truthfully as he could. “Yes. I have.”
The speaker blinked again. “No. Before that. Did you hurt them? Or did they hurt you?”
Jack’s mind started to go back, but he stopped it hard. He would not think about that right now. But he had to answer. So he shook his head and sighed. “Yes.”
“I see,” Three whispered very thoughtfully. “Jack. If there were no Shang, no War to fight, and if I could grant you any single wish, what would you want?”
Jack felt his breath go out. “We always used to fish,” he said, his jaw set hard to keep his emotions in check. “I’d want to do that again. Ride around in a boat. Stop and let the wind and waves take me…wherever they want to take me. Party with friends. Play music.”
He blinked and took in a deep breath.
“It was paradise, you know.” He shrugged, blinking what were definitely not tears away. “I’d want to go back.” He blinked again and let out another long breath. “The wonderful thing about the Boundary Waters is just how big it all is. You can be on it every day, and see something new, go someplace you’ve never been. See some species of bird or fish you’ve never seen. It’s…amazing up there. It’s paradise.
“What more could a man want?” Jack stared at her speaker and gave her a sad smile.
“Someone to enjoy it with,” Three whispered.
Jack blinked as she stabbed straight to the heart of the matter. That hurt. A lot. But maybe it was a good kind of hurt. He sucked in a breath before he answered. “Yeah. That would be real shiny.”
“Who would you want to enjoy it with?” Three asked.
Jack considered saying her of course. But he only considered it for a split second. She would know he was just flattering her. He had to tell her the truth, as hard as it was. He had to say the names that hurt. “Julie and Alex.”
“They aren’t coming back, are they?”
“So what do you want more, Jack?” Three’s voice betrayed that this was probably the last question she would ask. The one that would decide it all. “Do you want to kill yourself and the Shang for destroying the world you lost, or do you want to fight to get it back?”
Jack looked away from the speaker. He’d been certain of that answer before now. Getting his world back was impossible. It was gone. Destroyed. And as much as he hated them, the Shang hadn’t done it all. He deserved credit for some of it. He sighed and looked at the speaker again. There was only one good answer to that question. And if he was being honest with himself, that wasn’t the answer he would have picked when he woke up this morning. He might have said the other, but it would not have been true. Now he looked at the speaker and realized that talking to her had changed something.
“I want to kill the Shang real bad,” he said in a determined tone. “But that won’t bring back my world. And I’d really like a shot at getting some of that back.” He smiled at the speaker. “Thanks for reminding me of that.”
“You are welcome, Jack,” Three said and the light under her speaker glowed brighter. “Now this is what I want. I do not want to be stuck in a never-ending cycle of vengeance. I have agreed to give my daughters to this War, but I will not see it dominate the entire lives of a generation of my family. When The War is over we must all seek new life. To see new beings, new places, and everything that goes with them. And maybe to reconnect with those we’ve lost. I will not see my daughters forever trapped in lives whose only meaning is destruction. Do you understand me?”
Jack nodded. “I understand.”
“And do you promise to live such a life of meaning when this is over?”
Jack shook his head. He hadn’t always been good at keeping his promises. And he had to admit his relationships had suffered for it. But he needed to fight the Shang after what they’d done. And if this was the only way to do that, he would do it. “I don’t know if a ‘life of meaning’ is anything I can ever do. Most people I know would say that is a flat out impossibility, in fact. And I wouldn’t blame them for that. I’ve not always been the best of role models. But I promise to give it my best shot. And I’ll keep this promise. If you’ll help me.”
The light under speaker three blinked out, and silence reigned in the room. The silent seconds went by and Jack wondered if she was gone. If so, he would be escorted out to be a rifleman or something else that did not include fighters. Then the light came back on. “I accept your promise. Do not fail me, Jack. Do not fail my daughter.”
A shiver went down his spine. It was partly due to the implied threat in her tone. More of it was just the realization that this was a promise he would never willingly break. It settled into his bones and he knew he’d just taken a step he could never take back.
A moment later a hologram appeared in the middle of the room. It started as a genderless human figure and began to take on a female form in seconds. As the figure came into focus, a yellow sundress faded into being around her. Her feet came into focus and white sandals appeared on them. Long blonde hair puffed into being, framing a very cute face with blue eyes. She wasn’t beautiful, not the kind that would get his attention in the way so many pretty girls did. But she reminded him of something…of someone. And then it clicked.
“Frak,” he whispered. She looked like the girls he’d grown up with. Not any one of them, but an amalgam of all of them and yet not really any of them. Someone had done her homework. He smiled.
She smiled back. “Hello, Jack,” she said with a voice that made him feel almost homesick. It wasn’t any of the voices he remembered, just like the rest of her wasn’t, but it was all so close. She was family in every way that mattered. She made a show of looking in a mirror that appeared in the wall and nodded. “Yes, I think I like this.” She put a hand to her throat and laughed. “I like that too.” Finally she turned to Jack again. “And now for the name. I think we will be working with each other for a long time, so I have to make certain it is one I like. Don’t you agree?”
Jack nodded, as comfortable in her presence as he’d been with anybody in his life.
“Yes. I think that will work,” she said, her head cocked to the side in thought. She really did have all of the mannerisms of humanity down perfectly. Then her holoform seemed to snap into solidity. She looked real, like flesh and blood; like he could touch her skin and it would be warm, like she could touch him and he would feel it. She smiled and leaned towards him.
“Jack, you can call me Betty.”