From the day mankind first banged a couple sticks together to form a rhythm, music has been one of the most important parts of living for us. It mourns with us when we’re sad, it makes us laugh when we’re happy, and it helps us love when we’ve met the man or woman of our dreams. Music helps make life worth living, and without it the worlds would be a much less interesting to live in. Least that’s my point of view.
Jack leaned against the side of the old classic Camaro. He’d picked it up for a song and dance a day before and was beginning to think he’d been too cheap. The engine coughed and the radio kept playing random movie quotes. It was annoying, but it was a nice looking car that he could lean against with one hand in his pocket and the thumb of the other tucked in his belt. A pair of sunglasses filtered out the bright light of twin suns and his Marine Dress Whites gleamed as he made certain his body looked relaxed and smooth. It would never do to let her think he was nervous, after all.
The front door of McEntyre House opened and Samantha walked out, her red hair shining so bright under the suns that it looked afire. A loose black skirt and a white blouse fluttered in the breeze, an alternating blue scarf that matched the one she’d given him adding color to the ensemble. A white cowboy hat topped her head and he breathed in and out several times before even considering an attempt to say anything.
She stepped down the stairs with a flirtatious gait and he commanded his heart to be still. It ignored him as usual. She stopped in front of him and held her hands behind her back, promoting some of her more impressive features. “So what’s the verdict?” she asked with an impish smile that set off her freckles.
Jack made a show of flopping his mouth open and close, giving her the best compliment he could think of. Amazed silence.
She accepted the compliment with a wry smile and brought a hand forward to pat his arm. “Mission accomplished,” she whispered.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he answered with a waggle of his eyebrows and held an arm out for her.
She took it and he pushed himself away from the car with the other. He opened the passenger door and helped her into the sports car with the most helpful hands he could arrange. Then he scanned up and down her body, making a show of verifying all of her clothing was in the car before shutting the bright yellow door. She waved a finger back and forth at him as he walked around the car, almost as if she didn’t believe he’d just been helping. He answered with his very best innocent look, opened the driver’s door, and slid in next to her.
He spread his arms out wide and smiled. “Your carriage, my lady, awaits your command,” he said with a sigh as the Camaro lifted up and began slowly moving down the driveway with a thrumming engine that wanted to go fast.
Samantha shook her head in amusement. “Betty, could you drive us to the Pav, please?”
“Of course, Samantha. The Pav,” Betty answered from the speakers and pulled out of McEntyre House’s gate. Once on the street, the car’s engine revved up to a low growl and pulled up to accelerate into the air. It only coughed once, though that was one more cough than Jack really wanted.
He furrowed his brow in thought. “What’s the Pav?”
Samantha laid a hand on his arm. “It’s your kind of place. A bar at the college where people play music. Music and pretty girls, whenever and whoever wants to play.” She patted his arm. “You should know what that’s like.”
A beach and a bonfire came to Jack’s mind. His fingers strummed invisible guitar strings for a moment and he chuckled. “Yeah, I think I do.”
Samantha gave him a knowing nod. “Lots of students play there. Big bands too, on special occasions. Sometimes on no occasion without warning.”
Jack smiled in understanding. “It’s one of those hole in the walls where they like to test new songs sometimes huh?”
Samantha patted his arm again and looked up at him with a sly smile. “You should play.”
Jack chuckled and shook his head. “I’ll pass.”
Her eyes took on a concerned look. “Why? You’re good.”
Jack shrugged. “I play for friends. Not strangers.”
Samantha leaned against him and lifted her hat to look up at him through her bangs. “You could play for me.”
Jack chuckled and patted her arm. “I already do. There’s an advantage to dating a girl who has musical instruments strewn throughout the house.”
Samantha gasped in exaggerated horror. “Strewn you say? Strewn! Every instrument is placed in the perfect spot! How dare you suggest it is haphazard in any way!”
Jack smiled. “I’ve met your father.”
Samantha blinked. “Oh. Right.” She patted his arm in approval. “Good save.”
“I do try,” he said as the car nosed down towards the street in front of a parking lot. Jack scanned their surroundings as they slowed to a hover, pulled into the parking lot, and found a spot between two luxury cars that looked like they were at least a hundred years old. “Wow,” Jack whispered as he opened the door carefully. He needn’t have bothered. The door stopped on its own well short of scratching the other car. Though it did give an ominous creak as it came to a stop.
Samantha gave the car a questioning look.
Jack shrugged. “It’s vintage.”
Samantha shook her head in amusement. “Maybe too vintage?”
“Very possible,” Jack said with a nod and slid out of the car. He moved around the car quickly and opened the door for Samantha. Even though she really didn’t need it, she accepted his help in getting out with a pat on the arm and slipped her arm through his when he crooked it out for her.
They made their way out of the parking lot and onto the college grounds arm in arm. Jack felt an undeniable amount of pride as she guided him through the crowd of students. He scanned them all, wondering why all the men wore black suits of varying cuts and styles. He focused carefully and saw that while many looked store bought, some were tailored to match their owners expertly. He scanned the ladies as well who wore different black skirts or dresses and white blouses where necessary, depending on the vagaries of whatever style it was they liked to wear. Almost all of them were tailored to the stitch.
Jack nodded in approval of the care some parents took to clothe their kids. Only the alternating blue school scarves, like the one hanging over his Dress White uniform, broke the black and white dress. He would stand out like an albino penguin on parade in there.
“We don’t have school uniforms here,” Sam said with a mischievous smile. “But we do have a dress code. Very relaxed, I assure you,” she finished with a wink.
“This is relaxed?”
“Mmmhmm,” she answered with a nod. “Compared to primary and secondary school, this is really relaxed. We had uniforms.”
One of Jack’ eyebrows raised in interest. “Oooh, I have got to see that.”
Samantha slapped his arm and chided him with a waving finger.
Jack laughed. “So why the uniforms and the…spook suits?” he asked with a wave of his free arm towards the other students.
Samantha hugged his arm. “Jack, if you want to be taken seriously, dress well. Don’t people treat you differently in your uniform than they did before?”
Jack shrugged. “Well, people respect the military. I wasn’t military before.”
Samantha smiled. “And people respect a man in a suit. It’s a uniform in every way that this is,” she said and patted his Dress Whites. “Dress well and people will think well of you.” She waved her free arm towards the other students. “Every single one of these people are doing something with their lives, Jack. They’re studying to be scientists and business owners and so many other things. They’re planning to make things that will make the worlds better!” she finished with an upraised arm.
“Why?” he asked. “We’ve got beautiful worlds. Why can’t we just enjoy our lives?”
Samantha shook her head. “And wait for someone like the Shang to come take them away? Jack, without people like these, studying and figuring out how to build the new technologies, we already would have fallen.” She sighed and he saw she didn’t like what she was about to say. “If everybody who went to college majored in parties and girls, we’d be slaves right now. It’s because of people who take life seriously that we can defend ourselves. Jack, I’m proud that you volunteered to fight them. But what would you be doing right now if they hadn’t come?”
Jack smiled back at her and pulled in a deep breath. People had talked like that to him all his life, and he’d long since stopped letting it bother him. “I’d be living a life I love, Sam. What more can any of us ask than that?”
Samantha shook her head. “You always talk about that life as if it is the best you’ve ever had.” She bit her lip for a bit and shook her head again. “But what about me? What about Betty and Jasmine? Charles and Jay and all the other guys and girls you talk about? Would you really rather give all of us up and go back to that?” she asked, her voice breaking at the end.
Jack froze in place, nearly pulling her off her feet. He pulled in a deep breath, let it out, and just stared at her for several seconds as the emotions raged through him. He took his sunglasses off and slipped them into a pocket of his uniform so she could see his eyes clearly and finally nodded. “Every morning I wake up. I do it because you are here. And Betty, and Jasmine, and all the others. I’d never wake up otherwise.”
Samantha blinked in confusion. “What?”
Jack shook his head to clear it and ran his free hand through the hair on the side of his head. “Sam, every night I’m back there when I sleep. I dream of the party and everybody I’ve ever loved back in that place every night. And I know that if I chose to I could stay with them forever.” Her eyes went wide in shock and he nodded. “Every morning I choose to wake up and leave it behind.” Jack cleared his throat. “Sometimes…Sometimes I really wish I could stay.”
Samantha’s lips trembled and he saw fear in her eyes. “Then why don’t you?”
Jack sighed. “Because the people I knew back then aren’t the only people I dream about.” He patted her arm. “I dream about everybody I love.” He smiled and let out a long breath. “And the days I most want to stay, those are the days the people I love now talk me into giving this life another try.” He shrugged one more time. “I hope that’s a good enough answer.”
Samantha pulled her arm out of his and brought both hands up to cradle either side of face. She stared him in the eyes and he saw that it was. “Jack,” she began and trailed off. She shook her head and he smiled. She cleared her throat. “Jack, you’re going to take me home tonight.”
Jack’s smile broadened. “Yes, Ma’am.”
Samantha continued to hold his face in her hands and held his gaze. “And tomorrow morning, you will have a reason to wake up.”
Jack’s smile relaxed and he nodded in her hands. “Yes, Ma’am,” he whispered with a sigh.
She gave him one swift nod, ran her hands down his scarf, and turned to slip her arm back in his with a firm motion. “Now we should go in before they fill up,” she said in a firm voice and waved her free hand at the building in front of them.
Jack looked up to see the name “The Pav” written in large letters above the twin doors held wide open enough that two individuals arm in arm could walk through with ease. He cleared his throat, breathed in, breathed out, and reminded himself to enjoy the moment. Today had been a good day to wake up to.
They walked into the bar to the music of a band on the stage and Jack scanned to find all of the exits as usual when entering an unfamiliar building. One never knew when an exit might come in handy after all. A few people sat at the bar, nursing drinks held in their hands, and several more danced on the cleared dance floor. A few of the dancers were couples, though most were just groups of ladies having fun. It was the usual assemblage of characters on a dance floor.
Jack and Samantha walked up to the bar and ordered their drinks. Jack chose something local, willing to try anything once.
“Hold your drink at all times,” Samantha warned as the bartender slipped it to him.
“Why?” Jack asked as he did exactly as told and picked it up.
“We penny here,” Samantha explained.
Which was no explanation at all of course. Jack looked around in confusion. “What’s that?”
Samantha sighed. “If you set your drink down, someone might drop a penny in and then you’ll have to save the queen from drowning by drinking the whole glass.”
Jack blinked and looked around for any coins on the bar. He found one and focused on it, seeing the Queen’s face on it. “Oh. Right. Remind me to get water after this.”
Samantha laughed. “That’s cheating.”
Jack chuckled. “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t winning.”
Samantha patted his chest. “You really don’t believe in following the rules, do you?”
Jack shook his head firmly. “Nothing good’s ever come out of following them for me. But I’ve always profited from breaking them. Assuming no one’s hurt of course.”
“Of course,” she said and reached for the drink the bartender slid her way.
Jack looked away to scan the interior of the bar, this time really studying the dance floor and stage. Both were made of real wood if he was seeing it right. An unused piano and drum set filled much of the stage, while a man with a guitar sang about how some poor man’s wife cheated on him with his dog and stole his best friend. Or maybe it was the other way around. The singer wasn’t the best Jack had ever heard and mumbled some of his words. The guitar playing was good, though, so he was willing to cut the guy some slack.
“Hey! I picked my drink up!” Samantha’s outraged voice shouted.
Jack turned back to see a man in a scarf like theirs standing far too close to Samantha and he mentally lashed himself for letting his attention waver.
“Too late, sweetheart,” the man said. “It was on the bar when I tossed the penny.”
Samantha stepped right up to the man and Jack saw the bristling anger in her posture. “No it wasn’t!”
The man gulped, but stood his ground. “Yes, it was,” he growled and Jack saw the man step forward and bring a hand up towards her. And that was it.
Jack lashed out faster than most people could follow, latched onto the man’s throat, and pulled him away from Samantha. He held the man high enough that the man had to stand on his tiptoes to keep from choking.
“Let go of me!” the man squeaked in outrage and Jack felt the crowd watching him. He only had a few seconds to finish this before they would do something. And most likely they would do something to the person they didn’t know. Him.
Jack cocked his head to the side. “Did you toss the penny after she lifted it?”
“No! There’s rules and I’m following them,” the man said in an outraged squeaked.
Jack’s eyes narrowed at the response and he shook his head as he heard the man’s heart racing. He focused and detected a bead of sweat on the man’s temple. He felt the man breathing hard. “Kid, you just lied to me,” he said in a calm conviction meant to bring the crowd to his side. “And trust me, I know you did. So why don’t we try this again? Did you, or did you not, toss the penny in a drink its owner made clear was not participating in the game?”
The man licked his lips in fear and Jack could tell he had the crowd around them wavering. “I did not!” the man lied again. “And what…what do you care?” the man squeaked. “You’re not from around here!”
Jack had to give it to the man. He was good at rabblerousing, and he felt the crowd slipping back away from him. He would have to move quick.
“Why should I care if you slip a micky into my girlfriend’s drink?” Jack asked and was rewarded by confused silence from the crowd. He’d used a term they didn’t understand here. Jack sighed. They spoke English here. Not American. God bless the diversity of language. A few people understood though, and he heard them explaining. He heard a wave of outraged gasps as the charge made it through the crowd. Maybe he could salvage this after all. It was time to strike. “You trying to get lucky tonight? You picked the wrong girl.” That they all understood, even the man in his hand.
The man swung his arm out towards the drink and Jack lashed out with his free hand to grab the man’s wrist, tight enough to make the man squeal in pain. “No spilling the evidence,” Jack said and felt the crowd turn dark around him. He’d just accused one of their own of a very bad crime and was graduating to full on multiple joint locks. If he was wrong, he was going to be in trouble. Looking at the man’s desperation though, he was pretty certain he wasn’t wrong.
“Barkeep!” Jack bit out. It wasn’t the right word here he knew, but he figured whatever the guy was would get the reference and the adrenaline in his system was really making it hard to focus on using whatever words were used here. The big burly man pouring drinks for everybody rumbled over and glared at Jack. Jack looked down at the drink still in Samantha’s hands. “Do you have the equipment to test that?”
The bartender followed his eyes and looked back at Jack. “Yes, Sir,” he rumbled, reached beneath the bar, and pulled a small wand out. He slipped it into the drink and the end promptly turned bright red. An alternating wail of alarm filled the silent club and Jack felt the crowd’s rage shift from him to the man he held.
The man lashed out with his free arm and his legs, trying to scratch and kick Jack in places he really didn’t want to be hurt. He deflected the arm with one elbow, and twisted to deflect the kicks as well. He wrapped one leg around both of the man’s legs, pinned them together, and brought the man down on the floor hard enough that his head thunked on the wood floor. The man’s eyes rolled up in his head and he fell unconscious.
Jack disentangled himself and rose back up to his feet with a slow and purposeful motion. He tucked a thumb in his belt and slipped his other hand into a pocket, making a show of being non-confrontational towards anybody. He didn’t need a fight, and didn’t want a fight. Though the chances of anybody fighting with him over that pile of filth were pretty much nil. Still, it always helped to make a show of the fact that you weren’t looking for one.
He smiled at Samantha. “Well, I can see what you mean about watching your drink here,” he quipped.
She pulled her hand from the drink and the bartender took it, placing it well behind the bar for safekeeping. “That’s…not normal,” Samantha said, her voice quivering very slightly.
Jack scanned the crowd quickly, noting that they were following the conversation closely. He would have to make certain not to insult them in general. “I would gather that. Still, it only takes one predator to hurt a lot of people.” He felt the crowd agree and begin to disperse. He’d timed the words just right to diffuse them, with her help setting it up of course.
“Jack? Where did you learn to do that?”
Jack shrugged. “Military trains us to do a lot.”
Samantha shook her head. “No, I’ve seen military moves. Those weren’t military. Where did you learn them?”
Jack raised an eyebrow and his smile turned proud. She really was a smart one. “I trained some a few years back, learning to control and…coexist with my body and all that mystical mumbo jumbo the dojo hojos practice,” he said with a sly grin.
She ran her fingers up the scarf hanging down his chest. “And your reaction times. Where did you learn them?” Emerald eyes stared at him. “You were moving before he was.”
Jack pulled in a long breath, buying time, and let it out again with a shrug. “People twitch and jitter before they move. If you know what to look for, you can have a good idea what they’re about to do. I was just reacting to where he planned on going.”
Samantha walked her fingers onto his collar with a smile. “Maybe. You’re a pilot.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he answered with a proud smile.
Her eyes betrayed a shrewd and suspicious mind working on overtime. “How old are you?”
Jack sighed, this time in acceptance. She had finally come to the right conclusion. “Not very,” he whispered back. “I really don’t look much younger than I am right now. Maybe in a century it’ll be noticeable, but not yet.”
Samantha nodded and brought both hands up to wrap them around his neck. “So you don’t age at all, do you?”
He bent down and tickled her ear with his breath. “No, Ma’am.”
She giggled and slapped his arm. “Stop that.” She chewed her lip for a moment. “So how long?”
Jack shrugged. “I took the last of the Peloran Treatments a decade ago. They started noticing I got the really shiny side effects a few years later.”
Samantha nodded slowly in thought. “And that’s where you got your reactions.”
Jack shifted from one foot to the other. “Well, to be fair I always had good reactions. But they did start getting better after that.”
“And that’s why you always make such a show out of being casual and easygoing? You don’t want to move too fast by accident?”
Jack sighed. “People don’t like people moving that fast. And only panicked moms or raging weightlifters should be lifting cars.” He shrugged. “Master Richardson taught us to blend in so people would see…us…not…what we can do.”
Samantha bit her lip for a moment as she examined him. “Did they know, back home?” she finally asked.
Jack nodded slowly. “It was an open secret. Everybody knew, nobody talked. But when something needed doing that no one else could do, I’d get a call.” Jack smiled. “I always came. The goodwill was worth its weight in missed shotgun blasts,” he finished with a wink.
She sighed. “And I think I finally see why you love that other life so much. You could have been a Peter Pan forever.”
“Ah, but he was just a Lost Boy,” Jack said and sucked in a deep breath. “That Jack never wanted to grow up. That Jack knew how much it hurt to lose everything he cared about and he never wanted to care that much ever again. So he didn’t.”
Jack spread both arms out wide and gave her his very best smile. “Life is easy when you play your way through it.”
Samantha nodded and looked towards the empty band stage. “I see why you love it,” she repeated.
“I miss it,” Jack corrected. “There’s a difference.”
Samantha looked back to him with a frown. “You don’t want it back?”
“What? And miss this?” Jack smiled and pounced down to kiss her. Her body melted into his and time seemed to fade away around them as he focused on the only important thing in all the worlds. Her.
He didn’t know how much later it was, but some time after that he felt it was time to come up for air. He pulled away and scanned the room, looking for whatever it was that had caught his attention. It didn’t take long to spot Betty in full Marine Dress Whites at the far end of the bar standing in front of two peace officers and another cyber. The two cybers looked at each for a second, communicating at cyberspeeds, and the other one glanced at him with a smile before turning to the peace officers. Jack concentrated and their words came into focus through the background babble.
“The man on the ground tried to drug her drink,” the cyber reported with a wave of her hand towards Jack and Samantha. “The Marine stopped him, very gently I might add based on the camera feeds. He did nothing wrong. We should arrest the unconscious one now.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” one of the officers said and both began moving through the crowd.
Jack smiled at the men and stepped back, bringing Samantha with him to clear the officer’s way. The officers tipped their hats in thanks and Jack returned them with a tip of his own cowboy hat.
“I could have taken care of him you know,” Samantha whispered in his neck as the officers picked the unconscious form off the floor.
“Yes, I know. But this was best.”
Samantha looked up at him with a curious look. “How so?”
Jack shrugged. “Wrong or right, if you made the scene you would be remembered as the student who made a scene. I on the other hand am an outsider here. I took the attention of the room so it is me they will remember, not you.”
Samantha nodded in approval. “Do you always think that far ahead?”
Jack chuckled. “I wish. I just do what feels right and hope I’m right when I’m done. That explanation was totally 20-20 hindsight,” he finished with a smile.
Samantha examined him for several seconds. She was about to say something when the next act came on stage. Her eyes sparkled at the sight and Jack turned to see what the excitement was about.
His brow furrowed in interest at the first three musicians. One carried in a bass violin taller than she was and two others sat down at the drum set and piano that seemed permanent parts of the stage. Three more walked on after them, one with a saxophone and two with trumpets. Jack cocked his head to the side, trying to figure out how that combination of instruments would sound. He’d never seen anything like it before.
A seventh person walked onto the stage as the drums began to beat out a rhythm. The final arrival carried no instrument and made her way to the microphone as the bass violin joined the drums, rapid pulls on the bow filling the bar with its deep resonance. The piano began to play, mixing in with the other two instruments and Jack blinked as he tried to figure out where this was going. Then the trumpets and saxophone began to wail and his jaw dropped in amazement. Finally, the singer joined in, singing some crazy lyrics about cats dancing on Mars.
Jack shook his head in amazement as the college students took to the dance floor with a relish. He turned his focus on the saxophone and marveled at the way its player made the instrument sound. He listened as they flew through the musical chords in seemingly random direction, with individual instruments taking front stage whenever they felt like it.
The bass violinist made a show of stepping away from her instrument and twirled it to the cheers of the dancers. The drum player performed a quick solo of crazy drumming, and the twin trumpets stepped forward to run up and down the scale in a crazy intertwining melody that Jack could barely follow. The pianist came to his feet, kicked his bench back, and took center stage for almost half a minute, banging away a tune Jack had never heard before. It all went by so fast that Jack had trouble just categorizing what he was hearing. It was some kind of jazz music, but he’d never heard anything like this before.
In the end it was the saxophone that trapped him though. The saxophonist’s fingers blurred across the keys as she stepped forward and took the stage for a few seconds. The wail of the saxophone pulled Jack’s heartstrings with a longing that reminded him of the first time he strummed a guitar. The solo ended and the saxophonist faded back to let the trumpets take over again.
Jack took a deep breath and shook his head. “Whoa,” he whispered and turned to look at Samantha. She returned his look with curiosity written on her face. “I have got to learn how to play that.”
One of Samantha’s eyebrows raised, her lips pursed, and Jack realized he could have said that better.
“The saxophone,” he clarified quickly. “It’s beautiful!”
Samantha shook her head in amusement and patted his arm.
Filled with the music, Jack took a long sliding step away from Samantha and held out one hand in a wordless request for a dance. She answered in kind, took his hand with a knowing smirk, and they followed the other students onto the dance floor.