The Peloran are a strange lot, or at least the ones that I’ve spent time with. Most are content to sit back and let life pass them by until someone gives them no choice but to fight. They never start fights and can’t imagine being part of a confrontation. Aneerin and those who follow him have always been different. They’re not gang members going out and looking for a fight of course. But they court trouble. They initiate plans and confrontations in ways other Peloran would never consider. And they’re willing to experiment to find out the answers to questions. I can see why the other Peloran don’t like them. They’re almost human. Which means they’re real dangerous, of course.
Jack paced back and forth across the very small room that was his home away from home on New Earth. It was a basic room, built for military men on the way through. It had a basic bed that turned into a desk, a sink, a stool, a shower, and almost enough room to walk from one side to the other without taking a breath. He would’ve worn through the carpet by now if it had been high-class enough to have carpet.
He knew what he wanted to ask for. What he didn’t know was how to ask for it. He knew what the Peloran did. And he knew they didn’t do it for anyone else. Their pilots never died. And if they did, they came back as good as new. But when his Cowboys died, they were dead for real. Jack didn’t like that. And if he died, it would be game over for one Captain Jack Hart. Jack really didn’t like that.
Jack didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to keep leaving people. Not the people he cared for, at least. And he didn’t have to. He had some ideas. One that might work. Maybe two. He needed more time to come up with a plan. But he didn’t have any more time. The fleet was getting ready to leave. Repairs were nearly complete and they were transporting supplies up right now. He was down to days. He needed weeks. But he just didn’t have it. And he would not let this one get away without at least trying. Not this time.
Jack sucked in a long breath, let it out, and looked towards where Betty and Jasmine stood on his sink in small mode. There was a lot he wanted to say. Instead he just said, “Make the call, please.”
Betty nodded with a smile that suggested she knew what he hadn’t said. “Calling, now. Connecting. Streaming. Holomeeting commencing.”
The room flashed around him as the holoemitters came to life, and Jack was suddenly surrounded by the admiral’s quarters aboard the Guardian Light.
“Hello, Jack,” a calm voice said and Jack turned to face Aneerin.
“Admiral,” he said carefully.
Aneerin nodded. “Hal tells me you have a lot on your mind,” Aneerin said with a smile.
Jack turned to where Hal stood in big mode, leaning against the wall in a human-sized body. Hal gave him an encouraging nod and Jack wondered for a moment if he was being played. Then he shrugged it aside. It didn’t matter.
Either he would get what he wanted or he wouldn’t. He didn’t know what he’d do if he didn’t. He sucked in another deep breath and considered once more how to broach the subject. He could go at it around the bush. Small talk until Aneerin’s guard was down and then hit him with it in a weak moment. Aneerin was fluent in small talk though and would see the attack coming. No. No, it would be best to be direct. Get it out of the way, out in the open, and just see how Aneerin responded.
Jack smiled. “Admiral Aneerin,” he began with the most confident tone of voice he could manage at the moment. “I need you to clone me.”
Aneerin’s eyes opened wide and the man took time to walk over and sit down in his chair.
“You need me to clone you,” the Peloran said with the air of someone who doesn’t quite believe what his ears had just told him.
“Yes, Sir,” Jack said in a simple tone. Like he was asking for an extra pizza on the side.
Aneerin frowned for a long moment before opening his mouth. “Can you tell me why?”
There were many ways to say it. He’d gone over most of them in his head already. He’d discarded almost all of them. There was the deep and abiding flowery language that would cause a girl to swoon. Or there was the simple and direct statement that a man would understand. And there were a thousand variations in between.
Jack let out a breath, bit the bullet, and went as simple and direct as he knew how to do. “I don’t want to go.”
Aneerin’s expression softened. “Women.” He shook his head. “They always make us do things we did not think we would do.”
Jack turned his head in slight confusion and scanned Aneerin carefully. “You sound like you’ve had experience.”
“Oh, yes,” Aneerin whispered with a smile.
Jack felt a smirk come over his face at the idea. “And next you’re going to tell me there are little Aneerins running around?”
Aneerin sighed and nodded slowly. “Yes,” he whispered. “There are.”
Jack considered that for a moment and glanced at Betty. She raised an eyebrow at him, wondering what he was thinking. He smiled and turned back to Aneerin. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t know how the Peloran do things. Are you all test tube babies or do you…” he trailed off and stopped his fingers from interlacing.
Aneerin smiled. “We have families, much like your people.”
Jack nodded slowly. “Did you choose the girl? Or girls? Or did your family choose?”
Aneerin stared at him for several seconds before answering. “Arranged marriages are not our custom,” he finally answered with a sigh. “And yes, I will always love them,” he added, answering the question Jack had been about to ask.
Jack scratched his jaw with a thumb and glanced at Betty again. This time she smiled and inclined her head, recognizing where he was going. He turned back to Aneerin. “Would you do anything in your power to stay with them?”
Aneerin sighed and shook his head. “Would you? Do anything to stay with all the girls you’ve loved?”
Jack’s cheek twitched at the hard question. He brought a hand up to touch the rank insignia on his collar. He shook his head, very slowly. “I made an oath,” he whispered. “I won’t break it.” He turned a hard gaze back on Aneerin. “But I do not want to go.”
Aneerin’s expression turned thoughtful, and he and Hal exchanged a conversation of looks. “Some of those you love are dead. Some are alive. Who would you rather be with?”
Jack smiled. “Why choose?” he asked with a shrug.
Aneerin sighed and just looked at him with the thousand-meter stare of a true veteran of war.
Jack lowered his eyes, unable to meet the gaze. He turned back to Betty and she returned his look with an understanding one. He cleared and sighed. There were real important reasons he didn’t tell people about the dreams. They wouldn’t understand. “It’s like a piece of me died when Yosemite fell,” Jack whispered instead. “That a part of me is with them.”
“There is more to it than that,” Aneerin said in a tone of voice that suggested he had no doubt at all he was right.
Jack pursed his lips and looked at Betty.
Betty crossed her arms over her duty uniform and gave him that reassuring smile she did so well. And then she tilted her head towards Aneerin, inviting him to continue.
Jack frowned, not really wanting to do what she seemed to be suggesting. He turned to Jasmine for support with a look that was probably a lot more pleading than he’d meant it to be.
Jasmine just shook her head and waved a hand towards the Peloran, indicating that he really had no choice if he wanted to go through with it.
Jack sighed in defeat and looked back to the older man. “I have dreams.”
Aneerin nodded and brought a hand up to rub his chin in interest. “Dreams can be rewarding. Assuming you can navigate them, of course.”
“That’s the trick isn’t it?” Jack said with a wince.
“Indeed.” Aneerin turned to look out over New Earth. “What do you dream?”
Jack took a long breath, pushed away his last reason not to answer, and let it back out. “I dream of a beach, on a lake, with a bonfire, and a party with everybody I love.”
Aneerin raised an eyebrow in interest. “Everybody? Alive and dead?”
Aneerin pursed his lips as he considered Jack’s words. “So that is your heaven?”
Jack almost said yes. There had been a time when that beach was the only place he wanted to be. But then Julie and Alex pulled him back from that abyss. Their songs had almost always been part of his life. Betty and Jasmine were the companions that made living worthwhile. And Samantha…she made him want to live more than he’d wanted in years. “One of them,” he finally whispered.
Aneerin’s smile turned knowing and the Peloran nodded slowly. “Have you ever felt the wish to stay?”
Jack’s eyes flicked up to meet the older man’s gaze. “Every night,” he said with complete honesty.
Aneerin nodded again. “What brings you back?”
Jack glanced at Betty, and then Jasmine.
Aneerin followed his eyes and smiled. “Ah. Of course. Women,” he finished as if that explained everything. “And the other heaven?” he asked with a shrewd smile. “Or is that plural?”
Jack cleared his throat, and looked out onto the planet to give himself time to think. “I’ve left people behind. People I could have stayed with if I hadn’t done this,” he noted with a tug on his uniform. Then he looked towards Betty and Jasmine. “Drew died and Jasmine almost followed her. And sooner or later my luck will run out. What then? What will they do?” Jack let out a long breath and shook his head. “I wish I didn’t have to go. I wish I didn’t have to leave Samantha. And I wish that one day I wouldn’t have to leave them.” Then he turned to Aneerin with a steady gaze. “But I don’t. There is another option. One for all of us. Every pilot and soldier who stands against the Shang. You have the technology to make it happen.”
“Maybe,” Aneerin whispered and turned his back on Jack. “We do clone our dead so we do not lose their expertise at fighting. But we only clone Peloran. We do not clone the other races of humanity. Do you understand why?”
Jack blinked at the question. He thought he had, but Aneerin’s tone suggested something different. And he had the sudden feeling that he really didn’t. “What should I understand?” he asked.
Aneerin turned back to him with an approving smile. “That is a very good question to ask, Jack. You will never age. But sooner or later, something will succeed in killing you. And you will be done. Your soul will go on to whatever lies beyond this world, and your body will decompose to feed the next generation of life in the galaxy. It is the circle of life as we know it. It is a circle the Peloran were never designed to be part of.”
“What do you mean?” Jack asked in confusion.
Aneerin sighed as if remembering something from long ago. “You must remember that the Albion were a great people, Jack. Filled with a need to know more about everything. They always asked questions. Their profound wish was to understand the universe they lived in. To leave a better universe behind than the one they were born to.” Aneerin paused for a moment and then sighed once more. “They were one of the most enlightened species I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.
“But the Albion who created the Peloran race were…different. The Ennead were killing them, defeating them on a thousand fronts. They sought the utter destruction of the Albion race, and the Albion fought back with every weapon they had at their disposal. The war exterminated thousands of star systems and left entire galactic sectors depopulated. The Ennead would do anything to kill the Albion, and the Albion returned that intent with interest.
“The Peloran were one of their greatest weapons. Born with the instincts of battle programmed into their minds. Unable to even consider disobeying an order by one of their Albion superiors. They were stronger. Faster. Better. Able to heal from any injury that did not kill them. And even death was not permanent. The Albion saved everything a Peloran knew, and if death came they simply cloned a new body and put that knowledge into it.” Aneerin shook his head. “They created a new race of humanity and took away that race’s very right to die in the drive to kill the Ennead.”
“I’m sorry…I didn’t know,” Jack whispered.
Aneerin nodded. “We do not tell. My people were born to be loyal to the Albion. And even their death does not end that loyalty.”
“I see,” Jack said and shook his head. “If it’s so bad, why do you clone your troops?”
“That is a good question,” Aneerin said with a broad smile. “The answer of course is that I do not draft my men and women. Every single one of them is one of the rarest Peloran I have ever encountered. They are the product of thousands of worlds and years. They are volunteers.”
“What?” Jack asked in confusion.
Aneerin just smiled. “Volunteers are rare, Jack. Even in your culture, one that enshrines the volunteers who won your independence, those who volunteer to fight are rare. One or two percent of your entire population. But the Peloran were genetically coded to never want to fight. To never seek a fight out. To never, ever volunteer unless asked to by the Albion. The Albion never wanted them to grow into a threat to their power.” Aneerin smiled again and pulled in a very satisfied breath. “My Peloran are far fewer than one percent of the total Peloran population. Every single one of them volunteered to follow me. They volunteered to be cloned if they died so they could continue to fight on.”
“Well then,” Jack began with a smile. “If it’s that simple, I volunteer.”
Aneerin chuckled. “I admire your enthusiasm, Jack. And I admire your courage in volunteering. It truly does make you rare. But it is not so simple. The cloning chambers were built to work with Peloran genetics, and Terran genetics are not the same.” He raised one hand to stop Jack’s objection. “Yes, we are all human, but there are many differences between the races of humanity. The Peloran are the youngest race, the most…pure you could say. The closest to the original creation. There is not the range of mutation in the Peloran genome that there is on Earth. Peloran DNA is simply…less complicated. The cloning chambers the Albion invented are not designed to work with a genetic structure as random and filled with extraneous minutia as the average Terran DNA string.”
“Well, that’s good,” Jack said and Aneerin frowned at him. Jack shrugged. “Everybody knows I’m no average Terran.”
Aneerin laughed out loud at the boastful statement. “I wish it were that simple.”
Jack frowned as something came to mind. “Maybe it is, actually.”
The older man stepped back and examined Jack for several seconds to see if he was joking. Then the Peloran sighed. “Explain.”
“Well, I’m practically Peloran, you know,” Jack said with a shrug.
Aneerin aimed a very sharp look at thim.
“What?” Jack asked with a snort. “Of course I am. Those Treatments of yours boosted my reflexes, strength, and all the other little things that make the Peloran such deadly warriors.”
“Indeed,” Aneerin said and relaxed again. “You are accurate, of course.”
“Yeah.” Jack looked aimed a steady look at Aneerin. “Maybe the cloning process will work better on the Ageless than it would a normal Earthling.”
“Perhaps.” Aneerin considered him very closely. “And you wish to volunteer as a guinea pig to see if this is true?”
Jack winced. “Well, I wouldn’t put it that bluntly. But yes. I think it’s worth seeing if it would work.”
Aneerin pursed his lips. “And if it did work. How would you have us use this in the future? Clone anyone who dies and thereby end the hold death has on your people?”
“I don’t know,” Jack said with a shrug. “I guess I haven’t thought that far. I just…I was just looking for a way to stop leaving people.” He shied away from saying names, and swallowed hard. “Look, I don’t know if I can make any of it right. But I can’t walk away from this.” He tugged his uniform again. “And I don’t think…well…I don’t think I’d be worth much if I did.” He shook his head and looked at Betty and Jasmine with a slow smile. “I have to go. I have to fight the Shang. But I don’t want to go either.”
Aneerin frowned at him for a long moment. “You want to stay, and yet you always find a reason to go. Are you certain the fault is in the stars and not in here?” the man asked and touched Jack in the chest.
It sent a chill through him, but Jack shook his head. “I…It’s not like that,” he protested. “I…They left first. And I never found anyone I wanted to stay with after that. Until now. And it would make me feel better if…if I die out there…that there’s something left here to carry on the story.” Jack aimed a hard look at Aneerin. “I don’t want the end of my story to be some random Shang missile.”
Aneerin nodded very slowly. “I understand. It is human nature to want something to survive when we die. We all feel it. But we also feel the need to return to what we have lost in hopes of reclaiming it.” Aneerin aimed an answering look at Jack. “Should we do this, should we clone another you and leave him behind, and should everything work out, what would you do when all of this over? Would you come back here and try to reclaim this girl?”
Jack let out a long breath as he considered that question. “The gallant answer would be to say of course not. But I’ve never really been very gallant, have I?”
“Indeed,” Aneerin said in agreement. “Nations have been won and lost over two men who love the same woman, Jack. Your clone would defend his life just as anyone else would. And he would be Ageless, just like you.”
“You’re certain of that?” Jack asked as a thought came to mind.
“Yes,” Aneerin answered.
Jack nodded in thought. “So you know how to make people Ageless?”
Aneerin chuckled at the question. “Yes. There are certain prerequisites needed for the process to work. And they may not be as random as we allow people to believe.”
“Did you know I would become Ageless?”
Aneerin smiled. “No. I did not know. But you were on a short list of those I thought would react the way you did. In fact, it would be honest to say that people like you were the reason I had the Treatments designed in the first place.”
Aneerin sighed. “Because I knew your people would have to have people capable of protecting them when the galaxy came for you all.”
Jack blinked as the revelation sunk in. “You created an army. On purpose.”
“Not exactly,” Aneerin said with a smile. “Many of the things the Treatments do were already discovered by your own scientists. Super soldiers have inhabited your world for centuries, Jack, but your governments have not shared their processes with the common people. By giving the Treatments to anyone who wanted them, I was leveling the playing field for all of you. I hoped your people would have more time to discover the capabilities buried in your genome. But the Shang did not cooperate.”
Jack shook his head as another fact fell into place. “They came because of what you did, didn’t they?”
“Yes,” Aneerin said. He met Jack’s gaze with a steady look. “Had I never made Contact with your people, had I not aided you in unlocking your genome and given you technology that could send you throughout the galaxy, the Shang would never have attacked you as they did. They believe you are dangerous. They believe you are a threat to the balance of power in the galaxy. And they will do anything to maintain that balance.”
“You knew this would happen. You knew the Shang would come.”
“Yes. But I did not believe they would come so quickly. I thought you had more time. I was wrong.”
“You made Contact with us. You started all of this.”
“Yes. I did.”
“Did you ever bother to ask us if we even wanted this?”
Aneerin sighed. “We have watched you for…millennia, Jack. We have watched your civilizations grow, expand, and fall apart, only to be replaced by new ones from the ashes. We have watched you claw yourselves out of Dark Ages and Golden Ages alike. I can show you the Library of Alexandria in flames. The Mongol armies riding across Asia and Europe in victory. George Washington in battle against Indians and Red Coats. Your own Founding Fathers writing the Declaration of Independence and your Constitution. And I have trolled the depths of every computer network you have ever created. Trust me, Jack. I asked your people what they wanted. Do you know what their answer was?”
Jack sighed in understanding. He knew the answer to that. They wanted power. Just like the Nazis, Islamic States, and Communists had in their times. And that always went badly. But instead Jack said, “Cat videos.”
Aneerin snorted in amusement. “You are not far off there, actually.” Then he sobered. “Your people asked for the power to change the galaxy.”
Jack shook his head. “That could be very bad.”
“Yes.” Aneerin smiled once more. “Most things worth doing can go badly if done wrong. I have spent my life trying to keep them from doing so.”
“How’s that going for you?” Jack felt more of a snarl in that statement than he’d hoped for, and Aneerin seemed to catch up on it.
The man just sighed though. “You are alive. Your people stand and fight. Matters could be much worse. Trust me. I have seen it.”
Jack snorted and shook his head. “So what you mean to say is that it isn’t going very well, right?”
Aneerin pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes at Jack. “I mean what I say, Jack. And I say what I mean.”
“Except when you’re just wanting to trick us into doing something,” Jack shot back with a lifetime worth of annoyance and anger. And now it was magnified by finding out that Aneerin really had been manipulating everybody. “Everyone knows you can’t trust a Peloran to tell you the full truth!”
A brief look of…something…passed over the Peloran’s face, but it was gone before Jack could identify it. Then the alien nodded very slowly. “I deserved that. And I apologize. The only defense I will raise is that I have ever sought the betterment of your people.”
“Right,” Jack said sarcastically. “By turning us into bad copies of Peloran super soldiers to do your will?”
Aneerin shook his head. “No. Your abilities may be similar to that of a Peloran, but you are free up here,” he said while tapping his head. “You act on your own. You are free to do as you wish. You have no idea how precious that freedom is.”
Jack opened his mouth to say something else that would have felt smart but would have seemed a lot more stupid after some time to reflect on it. “Why are you telling me this?” he asked instead.
“Because you must understand that even our best laid plans will sometimes fail,” Aneerin said. He slumped and turned to look back towards the planet below him with a shake of his head. “I never intended for the Shang to attack you. But it is my fault they are here. I made Contact with you. I helped you advance far beyond your capabilities. You have made such great strides in the last century. But you were not quick enough to be able to stand alone against someone like the Shang. I am sorry for that. I am sorry I brought them to you.”
Aneerin turned back and Jack saw sorrow in his eyes. “I will do everything in my power to make it right. Even this.” Aneerin sighed and looked towards where Jasmine’s holoform stood. “So many of your Ageless are on the front lines, using your superior fighting prowess to defend those less capable of fighting. It is admirable. I am…proud that so many of you have chosen to do that. But you are dying. You are dying one by one, and the Shang will not give up until you are gone.”
“Why?” Jack asked in confusion. “Is our free will really that much of a threat to them?”
Aneerin sighed long and hard. “You being similar to the Peloran is a threat, but it is not the one that gave them no choice in their minds. It is the fact that you are too much like the Albion.” Aneerin smiled. “One of your first great projects when you gained the understanding was to uplift your own dogs and cats to human level intelligence. What you did for those races and others was a gift that can never be measured. You created new life and gave it free will. You made them friends, not followers. You didn’t chain them with limitations. Your people just made them and let them go.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all,” Aneerin said with a shake of his head. “But the Albion did the same thing, you know. Many of the strange and unnatural races you have found on other worlds were created by them. They were always curious to learn what one more little change would do. They created new forms of life in an effort to learn more about life and the universe. The Ennead disagreed. Strongly. They said that what the Albion were doing was a threat to the galaxy, to all life, and all civilizations.”
Jack’s jaw fell open as he realized what Aneerin was saying.
Aneerin nodded. “The Ennead went to war to protect their vision of what the galaxy should look like. Of what life should look like. They hunted the Albion down and killed them all.” Then he sighed and looked away again. “But the Albion did not die alone. They fought to defend their creations with a determination that terrified every civilization in the galaxy. The Ennead did not outlive the Albion.” Aneerin turned back to Jack. “Everyone saw the ruin of that war and we stopped. We have lived in peace for the last two thousand years. It has not been an easy peace, but it has been peace.”
“Until now,” Jack said very slowly.
“Until now,” Aneerin agreed.
“The Shang were allied with the Ennead, weren’t they?”
Aneerin nodded. “They were.”
Jack pursed his lips. “So what are we going to do about them?”
Aneerin sighed. “We are going to stop them.”
“Killing them will do that,” Jack said.
Aneerin shook his head. “I have seen that path already, Jack. I do not wish to see it happen again.”
“Then what do we do?” Jack asked in anger.
“Plans are in motion, Jack,” Aneerin said in his calm tone. “Many that you do not know. But this one. This one you have brought me is one I did not consider.” Aneerin gave him a proud smile.
“Even the smartest of us will always have blinders, Jack. And my blinders are some of the greatest,” he explained with a wry look. “But this I will do, now that I see it. I do not know how it will work. I do not know what the results will be. Are you certain you wish to go through with this, knowing the…uncertainties of it?”
Jack chuckled. “You’re going to have to do it on someone, right?”
“Yes. I will,” Aneerin said with a firm nod.
“Then it might as well be me,” Jack said with arms spread out wide. “It was my idea after all.”
Jack sucked in a deep breath. “So what do we do first?”
Aneerin sighed. “You just need to go to sleep.”
Jack answered with a confused look.
“Samples like this are best taken when you are in a restful state.”
“Ah,” Jack answered with an amused realization. “So an alien is going to abduct me in my sleep and take samples of my genetics so he can perform strange and exotic experiments on human life forms? How very…classical science fiction of you.”
Aneerin smiled at Jack in that way that was so utterly Peloran. Welcoming and yet mysterious. “No abduction necessary, I assure you. But it is an interesting observation, is it not?”