Everyone one of us has a world we love more than any other. That has always been the beach for me. Add a guitar, a bonfire, and some pretty girls and that’s my definition of heaven. Always has been. I’ll play around in just about any world, but I don’t fit in all of them. Never have. Never will. I’ve always considered that a good thing. I grew up on the edge of civilization where rugged individualism was prized. We celebrated our differences there and invited people from every world to spend money in ours. But different worlds can sometimes collide in unexpected ways.
Jack looked out on the well-dressed college students filling the Pav with their expectant looks. They weren’t friends, he doubted they ever would be, but they were friendly. That had surprised him. He’d expected them to dislike him after what he did to their fellow student. He’d underestimated the decency of the student body in general though, as they’d left their fellow student a pariah for his attempted drugging and welcomed Jack to their parties ever since.
He really hadn’t expected to play in public again, and yet here he sat on a chair on stage, at their request. It wasn’t a secret that the fleet was leaving soon, and Samantha had bragged about his singing far more than he really liked. But that left him no real choice. He strummed the acoustic guitar and the sound echoed off the bar’s far walls. The sound of fingers on strings monopolized their attention, and the whispered murmurs faded away into near silence as he began to play a familiar tune. On New Earth it was a popular drinking song. It had different words back home in Minnesota.
The words he knew tumbled out, the song one of joy and celebration and fun. He sang of a beach on a lake, moonlight glinting off the waves. He sang of a bonfire, friends singing and dancing and drinking around it. He sang about dancing with girls, and fighting with jealous boyfriends. He sang about karaoke girls, and drinking way too much. He sang about fistfights and howling at the moon.
He strummed the guitar through it all, holding onto the tune like an old friend and using its familiar sound to pull him through the song. The song had been popular for many years back home, sung in celebration of life. Jack sung it as a memorial to lost friends, closing his eyes part way through the song, and the melancholy in his voice took it over. His mourning filled the room through to the final strum of the guitar.
Silence ruled the room and Jack opened his eyes to see young men and women staring at him. New Earth had seen nothing like Yosemite, but in that moment he saw they understood the loss. A silence filled the Pav, and he’d seen enough of them to know that this was one of the good ones. It stretched on, the audience reliving the emotions of the song, and Jack came to his feet in the thunderous silence. He hung the guitar in the place reserved for it and stepped away, each fall of his boots echoing across the room.
Jack stepped off the stage with a tip of his cowboy hat and ambled into the well-dressed crowd as they began to murmur. He chose not to focus on their words, granting them the privacy their hushed voices craved, and cut through the crowd to sit down at the table he shared with Samantha.
Samantha smiled and patted the arm he laid on the table in a proud manner. “I said you could do it,” she whispered low enough that it barely carried to his ears over the growing murmurs.
Jack shrugged. “Never said I couldn’t. Just that I don’t like singing for strangers.”
Samantha held his hand. “And who are all of these people?”
Jack sighed. “Not strangers anymore, I suppose. Your friends. So I suppose they’re somewhere in between for me.”
Samantha cocked her head to the side and chewed her lip. “Is it really that simple?”
Jack nodded. “Nothing simple about it really. But New Churchill College is the world you live in. If I can’t be comfortable in it, I don’t have any place in it,” he finished with a reassuring smile.
Samantha stretched a hand out and grasped his with an approving smile. “You always say the right thing,” she whispered.
Jack patted her hand with his free one. “I try.”
Samantha pulled in a long breath, gave him an examining look, and one side of her mouth curled upward. “Would you like to continue trying on the way home?”
Jack’s eyes widened in interest. “Why, Ma’am, I thought you’d never ask,” he said as he rose to his feet with all the grace he could muster in New Earth’s heavy gravity, and offered to help her to her feet.
She accepted his help. He was certain she didn’t need it, but it gave him an excuse to rest his hand on the waist of her simple black dress. A shock ran through both of them as his hand touched her and her smile turned flirtatious. “Well, lead on, Sir,” she returned and leaned into him.
They made their way towards the door, the crowd filling the Pav making way for them without protest. They stepped into the night and Jack looked up to see that even the second sun was beginning to fall towards the horizon. They’d been in the Pav for many hours this evening. Considering how long it took Samantha to talk him into finally performing, he supposed that wasn’t a big surprise.
Jack bestowed his best charming smile on her. “Would my Lady prefer a ride in a car or a walk through the city?”
She raised her eyebrows and looked up through her red bangs at him. “Well, I’m thinking it would take longer to walk home, right?” she asked with a pat on his arm.
Jack’s every hair stood on end with anticipation and he realized that getting her home was foremost on his mind. He bent down to whisper in her ear. “Excruciatingly longer.” He felt a shiver run through her body and gave her a beaming smile.
She patted his arm again, sending his heart jumping into his throat. “I vote for a walk then,” she said with a sly smile. She truly had the ability to throw him for a loop whenever she wanted to.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he answered with all the air of a gentleman, pulled in a deep breath, and turned to escort her towards home. They walked down the sidewalk, his arm wrapped around her body, hand resting on her waist in a very familiar way that was decidedly ungentlemanly. She didn’t protest.
They made some small talk on their way, about the trees lining the streets, the architecture of the buildings on either side, and even the cars that swooped down out of the sky to park in front of the stores outside the college campus. They talked about people and dogs too, pointing out the old dogs from the uplifted dogs. Sometimes it was easy to see the intelligence behind their eyes, sometimes they did a perfect job of acting like an old dog, even fooling the other dogs. He understood why they did it. It was their way of keeping in touch with their world, so they wouldn’t forget where they came from.
And that was it. He blinked at the realization. For the first time, he truly understood why cybers did what they did, and that understanding filled him with determination. He let out a long breath and examined Samantha again.
She recognized the shift in his feel and her emerald eyes lifted to return his gaze. “Yes?”
Jack smiled at her. “Well, there’s been something I’ve been thinking about for a while,” he finally said.
She smiled back, mischievous glint in her eyes. “I know,” was her only answer.
Jack sighed. She could be difficult when she knew she had the upper hand. Which was most of the time, as it happened. “First, I need to ask you…if you could be in two places at once…if you could follow both your duty and your…wishes…would you?”
Samantha blinked before resting her head against his chest again. “I don’t know. Could you be clearer about the situation?”
Jack glared at her. “You’re not going to make this easy, are you?”
Samantha chuckled and shook her head. “If easy’s what you want, you’re taking the wrong walk.”
Jack sighed and nodded. “True” he whispered and pulled in a long breath. He let it out again, set his jaw, and met her gaze. “Look, I’m leaving and there’s nothing I can do to stop that.” Then he smiled as words came to mind. “If there was no War, I would stay right here, though.”
Samantha shook her head. “If there was no War, you never would have come here.”
Jack nodded and squeezed her in a comforting manner. “True.” She was completely correct. He would still be at home without Yosemite, still just enjoying life on the lake. He’d never felt an urge to leave Earth before. Not even Minnesota. After all, what reason was there to leave paradise?
After nearly a minute of silence, Samantha sighed again, pushing herself against his body. “What’s your real question, Jack?”
Jack smiled and let out a long breath. “Do you want me to stay, Sam?”
Samantha sighed and he felt the helplessness in her posture. “Yes. And no.”
Jack squeezed her again. “Why?”
Samantha shrugged and shook her head. “I…I don’t want you to go, Jack. But…I don’t want you…abandoning your brothers either.”
Jack let out another long breath and patted her waist. It was the answer he’d been hoping for. “What if I could stay here…and go too?”
Samantha stiffened in his arm for a moment before her eyes lifted to meet his again, confusion on her face. “How?” was the only word that slipped from her lips.
Jack just smiled. “Betty?”
A hologram of Jack appeared, walking on the other side of her.
Samantha looked at the hologram, then turned to Jack with a raised eyebrow and an unamused expression. “You’re going to fly off to war and leave me with a hologram?” she asked in a very pointed manner that demanded an explanation quickly.
Jack cleared his throat. “Um…no. Though I see where that came from.” He let out a long breath and bit the bullet. “There’s this Peloran technology that…well…you know how good they are at analyzing brain waves? Finding parts of the brain that don’t work right and fixing them?”
Samantha nodded. “One of my classmates was born…brain damaged. He gets straight A’s now.”
Jack nodded. “Exactly. Well, reading and fixing isn’t all they can do.” He pulled in a deep breath. “They can also save them.”
Samantha blinked and cocked her head to the side again. “Save them?”
Jack smiled. “Every memory, every emotion, everything that makes us human, they can save it all. And they can grow new bodies to house them.”
Samantha’s eyes flicked back and forth as she considered that idea. “Why haven’t I heard of this before?” she finally asked.
Jack shrugged. “Because the main thing they use it for is to bring back soldiers who have died in battle.”
“And we’ve never seen them fight until now,” Samantha whispered with a frown.
“Exactly.” Jack cleared his throat then. “The thing is, they’ve never done it on a Terran. There are differences in our genetics and they don’t know if it will work or not.”
Samantha stopped walking and looked up at Jack with wide emerald eyes. “Why are you telling me this, Jack?”
Jack swallowed and cleared his throat again. “Well, I’ve been talking with the Peloran and they might be willing to give it a go.” He licked his lips, betraying his nerves. “If they are, would you be interested?”
She studied him carefully and placed her free hand on his chest. It felt like electricity running over his skin and his heart raced. All of his attention was focused on her and she was the only point of existence in all the worlds that meant anything in that moment. She was all he saw.
She opened her mouth. A cry of shock escaped it as somebody ripped her away from him.
The world slowed down as adrenalin spiked through Jack’s system.
His focus screamed far beyond normal and the whole universe snapped into existence. He scanned the shadows on the edge of the sidewalk in a moment. He saw two people before him, but the shadows were empty of any other souls. He ran the last few seconds through his mind, sight and smells and sound, and only the ragged hearts of three individuals existed. He could differentiate the smells of three bodies and assorted nearby animals. Rats. Cats. Dogs. And rain. It was going to rain soon. The important part was that the third person had no backup. His mistake.
Jack focused on the mugger who still moved back with a hand wrapped around Samantha’s neck and the other bringing a gun around towards her. A pistol. Jack reached down to grab the man’s rising wrist with one hand. He took control of the gun and lashed up with the palm of his other hand, shattering the mugger’s nose. The mugger uttered a muffled cry of pain as he released Samantha, cut off when Jack struck his throat. The mugger gasped in pain and blinked his eyes against the stars in them. He needed to breathe, but couldn’t remember how. Jack pushed Samantha out of the way and brought a knee up into the man’s groin, forcing a silent cry of pain from the man’s tortured throat. Jack stepped back, kicked him in the knee, and watched the man fall to the ground in a gurgling, bleeding mess of shattered and flopping limbs.
Jack pulled the man’s fingers away from the gun, being careful not to touch it with his fingers. He really didn’t want to leave fingerprints after all. A swift kick of his boot sent the pistol skittering away to a safe direction, away from everybody involved.
The threat was ended.
The world sped up again as Jack let out a long, cleansing breath.
He stepped over to where Samantha had fallen on the sidewalk and went down on one knee. “Are you alright?” he asked and moved a hand to touch her.
She shivered away and he noticed the horrified look on her face. “You…broke…him,” she whispered in shock.
Jack let out a long breath, pulled one in, and let it out again, controlling the adrenalin rushing back into his system. “He would have shot you,” he finally whispered.
She looked past him to where the man lay on the sidewalk, three of his limbs bent in ways no arm or leg should bend. “You could have stopped him,” she whispered. “You didn’t need to do…” she trailed off, unable to come up with any words.
“Yes I did,” Jack said in a calming voice. “He was a threat. An enemy.”
She waved a hand at the shivering body, trying to breath. “He’s just a kid!”
Jack let out another long breath. “He had a gun. I couldn’t afford to see the kid.”
Samantha pulled up her knees, wrapped her arms around them, and shivered. “I thought you could be a nice man,” she whispered in a broken tone.
Jack felt the verbal knife sink in deep and shivered. He shook his head quickly and stood up straight. “I’m sorry you had to see that,” he said, feeling something he’d rarely felt in his life. He didn’t know what else to say.
Jack could feel the distance between them, could see the romance of an officer and a scoundrel colliding with the truth of just how ugly fighting could be in her mind. At least he’d spared her from seeing a dead man, but she probably wouldn’t forget the way the mugger gasped for breath for a long time.
Jack sucked in a long breath and let it out again. He nodded in understanding. He slipped one hand in his pants pocket and the other thumb into his belt. She didn’t want to be touched by his world, and he took pride in never touching a girl against her wishes.
He turned away from her and stepped back, giving her the space she wanted. And then he scanned the surroundings with pursed lips. They were safe, with no one else near enough to even see that anything had happened. He kept watching anyways, scanning around with all of his senses. He would not be caught unawares again.
“Yes?” she asked from the speaker in his ear in a tone of support.
“Please call 911.”
Jack smiled. It was good to have a partner he could count on. “Thanks, Betty.”
“Always.” Her tone said she truly would always be with him.
He smiled in thanks. “You should probably leave privacy mode, too. They’ll want to ask you what happened.”
The holoemitters on his uniform hummed to life and Betty flickered into being next to him. She scanned the surroundings, saw Samantha and the mugger on the sidewalk, and turned her head to meet his gaze. “Well, you’ve had an interesting night I see. What should I remember?”
Jack pulled in a long breath and whispered, “Everything that happened tonight.”
Betty nodded in understanding and he saw her eyes flicker as she accessed the information that had been protected by privacy mode. Then she smiled and looked at Jack. “It was a good song. You should sing more often.”
Jack shrugged and she put both hands on her hips in a gesture that said she wasn’t going to take no for an answer. Then her gaze went down to the mugger still whimpering on the ground. “Good moves.” Sirens began to wail in the background and she smirked. “He won’t be doing that again.”
“I sincerely hope not,” Jack answered and stepped over to lean against a wall. Betty echoed his move and they waited for the police to arrive. The police always had questions when would-be muggers tripped over their own feet this badly. He blinked as another thought came to mind. “Could you call her father too? I don’t think she wants me taking her home tonight.”
Betty aimed a sad smile at him and whispered, “Already done.”
Jack closed his eyes in relief. “Thanks, Betty.”
He heard the holoemitters screaming as she used all the power they had to touch his shoulder with a physical hand. Then she leaned in close and whispered into his ear, “I’m not going anywhere.”
He reached up to place his hand on hers. “Thank you,” he whispered as his other hand reached for the scarf hanging around his neck.
It was Samantha’s scarf. He wondered if he had any right to wear it anymore.