We sometimes get too caught up in trying to keep from dying that we forget to live. I promised myself a long time ago to see and recognize everything that makes life worth living. To pursue joy, enjoy beauty, and all those other little fortune cookie statements. Life is about looking back and seeing all the amazing times you had. It is looking forward to all the sights you have yet to see. I plan to live forever, but I live as if I might die tomorrow. Because tomorrow is never promised.
He squinted his eyes against the storm beating upon the beach. Rain soaked him to the bone and hit the still-hot coals of the bonfire with a long continuous hiss. Wind blew his long, wet hair all around him while choppy waves attacked the beach with abandon. He stood alone on the beach, the party long gone as the smarter people fled before the storm.
But he remained, wishing he knew why. The party was gone, so why was he still here? He didn’t know. He just knew he didn’t want to go. It was hard not knowing what he wanted. It was a familiar feeling. He’d had it before but couldn’t remember when. He couldn’t remember much at all at the moment.
And here he was with storm water running down his face and quenching the memory of every party he’d ever had. He ran fingers through his hair and drew it back from his face so he could see further into the storm. The double decker pontoon that was sometimes there was nowhere to be seen now. Not that he would have wanted to see it on a lake as choppy as this one was today. Only a fool stayed out under a storm like this.
So what was he doing here? He couldn’t remember. No. That wasn’t quite right. He didn’t want to remember. There was an intangible difference between the two, but he knew which side of the line he fell on today. Tonight? He wasn’t sure. The storm was so heavy he couldn’t even tell if it was night or day. That was something. He hadn’t seen more than a handful of storms that powerful in his lifetime. They were the kind that brought tornadoes. Not the little ones. The big ones that hit entire towns and left nothing but kindling behind. This was a killer storm.
He shouldn’t be out here. He should be home. But there was no home. His home was gone. Destroyed. He couldn’t remember when that happened, but he knew it was gone and his family with it. Everyone was gone. He was alone. Rain came down in sheets driving across the beach and he heard the storm calling to him. It called him to stay forever. Well. That was easy. He couldn’t think of where else he wanted to be.
A flash of red appeared in the storm and he watched it come closer. It whipped in the wind like a pennant as it approached, and a black dress came into focus beneath it. Long legs followed with a confident stride through the sand and he heard a familiar voice wafting in on the wind.
Jack frowned and studied Samantha for a long while. He finally asked her, “What are you doing here?”
“You invited me here,” she answered with a shrug that said it explained everything.
It didn’t. Jack’s frown deepened. “I thought you didn’t want anything to do with me.”
Samantha sighed. “I’m sorry. I was wrong.”
“Why should I believe you?” Jack asked and lightning flashed in the storm clouds.
Samantha looked up at the sky in worry and licked her lips. Then she looked back down towards him. When she spoke it was with deepest calm. “I’ve never lied to you.”
Jack grunted and turned to look back out onto the storm over the lake, letting his silence tell her what she could do and where she could go. First Julie and Alex. Now Samantha. He was sick and tired of being left behind like yesterday’s garbage.
“Jack,” Samantha whispered and stepped close to lean into him. She pressed the curves of her body into his and the perfumed scent of the ocean wafted off her neck. “I won’t leave you again. We don’t ever have to be separated again.”
He would have done anything to hear those words yesterday. Today he knew they were a lie. Well. Not a lie. She didn’t lie to him.
Samantha leaned in closer, reached up to pull his jaw towards her, and kissed him. Supernovas exploded behind his eyes and he lost all conscious thought. He opened his eyes an eternity later to find her sharp green eyes looking deep into his soul. And that was when he knew without a shadow of a doubt. He’d wondered in the past. Now he knew. He could stay. He never had to go again.
The storm raged as he smiled at Samantha. Then a flash of yellow caught his attention and he turned to see another woman walk out of the storm. Her blonde hair and yellow sundress whipped around her in the chaotic wind currents, and her bright blue eyes speared him all the way through.
“Don’t listen to her,” Samantha hissed into his ear. “She doesn’t want us to be together.”
Jack’s jaw twitched at the warning, but he already knew it. Why else would she be here, after all?
“Hey, Jack,” the blonde said over the storm.
“Betty,” he answered in the best calm voice he could master as he held one arm around Samantha.
Betty looked around at the storm-tossed beach. “Things are looking pretty rough here.”
“I think I can manage,” Jack answered in a cautious tone.
Betty smiled. “I know you can.”
“Then why are you here?”
Betty aimed a hard look at Samantha. “Because nothing you have here will ever be real.”
“It can be real enough,” Samantha purred in his ear.
“Can it?” Betty asked with a shake of her head. “Are you really willing to settle for a dream?”
Jack frowned towards Betty. But instead of answering her, he asked a question of his own. “Who are you? Really?”
Betty stepped close to him and grabbed both collars with long and slender fingers. “Someone who cares enough about you to never turn my back on you. No matter how far away you run.”
Jack gritted his teeth and glared at her. “I don’t run away from anything.”
Betty shook her head in sorrow and patted his shoulder. “You’ve been running every day since they left.”
A cold chill ran down Jack’s spine. He wanted to say she was wrong, but he knew she was right. He’d been running from one girl to another since Julie and Alex left. But Sam was different. Wasn’t she? Yes. She was. She…she could be the one.
Betty smiled again. “You don’t ever have to run again, Jack. But you do have to walk,” she finished and held her hand out towards him.
“You don’t have to do anything she tells you, Jack!” Samantha shouted and shouldered Betty aside to stand directly in front of him. “Stay here, and I’ll take care of you,” she purred and leaned into him. He could feel every memorized curve under her black dress and knew she could do exactly what she promised. She’d never lied to him. Neither of them ever had.
Jack sighed and wrapped his arms around Samantha. Then he met Betty’s gaze. “You are not Betty.”
“No. I am not,” Betty said with a serene smile.
“Then why should I follow you?”
The woman who was not Betty laughed out loud. It was one of those crystal clear laughs that tinkled off the surrounding terrain and could brighten even a springtime early morning storm in its full fury.
“You’ve never followed me anywhere, Jack,” Betty said with a tragically beautiful smile. Then she held her hand out to him. “But we can walk side by side if you want.”
Jack frowned at the proffered hand. “No bribery?”
“Nothing but the truth, Jack,” Betty said with a smile that could break hearts. “I will never leave you alone.”
Jack held Samantha tight and aimed a bullish look at Betty. “Sometimes a little bribery can be nice.”
Betty sighed. “No dream is ever as good as the reality.”
“Well, maybe the dream is all I’ll ever get,” Jack said in a bitter tone.
Betty’s eyes narrowed and her stance stiffened. “If you truly believe that, then you should stay here and never wake up. If you’re too afraid to risk rejection, then you should hide in here forever.”
“Ouch,” Jack whispered. “That’s kinda harsh, don’t you think?”
Betty cocked her head to the side. “That’s life, Jack. I never said it would be easy. I only said it would be worth it.” Betty held her hand out again. “You’ve spent years running from it. Your own life and the consequences of your choices. Can you honestly tell me that you really loved it?”
Jack frowned and gave her an angry look. “They left! I wasn’t going to run after them! So I did the best I could!”
“Do you really believe that?” Betty asked with a shake of her head.
Jack opened his mouth to say, “of course,” but he stopped himself. She was right. There were a lot of things he could have done differently if he’d been concerned with doing his best. Most of the things if he was being real honest. He’d taken the easy route.
Betty nodded as she saw the recognition in his eyes. “You have unfinished business, Jack. Wouldn’t you like to see how it goes?”
“He’s already seen how it goes,” Samantha broke in before Jack could answer. “No good deed goes unpunished, you know.”
“I wasn’t asking you,” Betty said to the other woman without ever taking her eyes off Jack. “He’s the one with the choice to make.”
Jack shook his head and disentangled himself from Samantha. Then he turned and walked to the edge of the beach where the storm-tossed waves crashed into it. “I loved them,” he voiced into the wind.
“You still do,” the woman who was not Betty whispered beside him.
Jack snorted. “But I love her too.”
“And you can have her right now,” the woman who was not Samantha said from his other side. “What do you really want? I can make it all real for you.”
“But only in my dreams,” Jack whispered and shook his head slowly.
“Live your dream, Jack,” Samantha said into the storm.
“Dreams are an integral part to life. But they are not all of it,” Betty said as the waves lapped over her sandaled feet. Then she smiled at Jack. “So who are you, Jack? A man content to hold onto part of life? The easy part? Or are you a man who demands all of it?”
Jack sighed and looked back towards the pile of wet wood that had been a bonfire. His imagination supplied the pretty girls dancing around it with the sound of guitars playing to the beat of drums. “It really was a dream, wasn’t it?”
“It was everything you wanted,” Betty whispered. “Are you still the boy who wanted that?”
Jack’s mouth twitched at Betty’s question. Then he sighed and shook his head. “No. I guess I’m not.”
“Good,” Betty whispered with a smile.
“We’re not done,” Samantha’s low and husky voice said. Then she tapped his forehead with one elegant finger. “I’ll always be here. Until the day you die.”
“I know,” Jack said and smiled at her. “See you tonight?”
“Always,” Samantha whispered, turned away, and swayed sensually back into the storm.
“She is good,” Jack whispered in amazement.
“She’s bad, actually,” Betty corrected with a frown.
Jack chuckled. “Just like I like them.”
“No.” Betty patted his hand and began leading him towards the lake. “Just the ones you allowed yourself to like after they left.”
“True.” Jack sighed. “How is it that you know me so well?”
Betty smiled and tapped his forehead right where Samantha had. “I’m in here, silly. I know everything you know, and you never did master the art of lying to yourself.”
“But I’m really good at ignoring my own good advice,” Jack muttered.
Betty laughed again and the storm began to fade. “You are an expert at that.”
“Who are you?”
Betty stopped again and grasped both his hands in hers. “What do you want me to say, Jack? That I’m a figment of your imagination? Or maybe an undigested bit of beef? Or your guardian angel?”
Jack let out a low growl and snapped, “I’d like you to tell me the truth!”
Betty drew him close and leaned her forehead against his. He felt her there, close against him, but it was different from when Samantha had touched him. It was intimate without being sensual. “I have never lied to you, Jack. And I never will. But before I answer, I must know what scares you most. The idea that it takes a figment of your imagination to pry you awake every morning? Or the idea that I am not a figment of your imagination at all?”
“What does it matter?” Jack asked as he looked into the fading storm. “They’re both one way trips to crazy town.”
Betty laughed again and the storm went away entirely. The lake was calm and quiet, like the storm had never been there at all. She tapped his nose and stepped away to face the lake as a rainbow began to appear. “True. But there’s a difference between living there and driving through at skyway speeds.”
“Well, I guess I always did prefer to drive,” Jack said with a smirk as the rainbow grew to fill the whole sky.
“Jack?” Betty said next to him and he turned to look at her once more as the rainbow washed over her face. “It’s time to wake up.”
The rainbow filled his vision and everything faded away.
“Jack? It’s time to wake up,” Betty said and he opened his eyes as the dream faded away.
She’d been in the dream. He thought so at least. It was fading so quickly. That was a shame. He felt like he’d made a decision in it. It would be nice to remember what it was. But he had more important things to do than worry about the dreams.
“Hey,” he said with a smile.
“Hey, yourself.” Betty smiled back and he knew it was the real Betty.
He blinked in confusion. Well, of course it was. Who else would she be? Why would he even question it?
“You have a visitor,” Betty continued and turned towards the door to his room.
“Right. Got it,” Jack said and rolled out of bed. He looked around and spotted a tank top and exercise shorts. A minimally clothed and very decent Jack sat down on his bed seconds later and dangled his legs over the edge with a smile on his face.
The door opened. He exchanged glances with a very familiar face. His own.
“Well, this is a rather unique situation,” Jack whispered and waved his clone in.
The other Jack smiled and stepped in to find a seat. “Very unique.”
Jack frowned and chewed his lip, wondering if the man sitting before him really was a true copy of everything he was or “good enough for government work” as the old saying went. “So, are you really me?” he asked, one hand rubbing his chin. “Or just some real good simulation?”
The other Jack laughed. “Oh, that question is so far outside my pay grade.”
Jack frowned, clicked his tongue in thought, and considered another question. It might work. “You have my memories?”
“Oh yes,” the other Jack returned with a waggle of his eyebrows. “And I love every moment of them.”
Jack chuckled. “I do have some good ones, don’t I? Or is it more accurate to say we do now?”
“Hey! I’m a beach bum, not an English major,” the other Jack protested.
“True,” Jack said with a nod. The other Jack seemed to have his mannerisms down very well. Jack furrowed his brow in thought and considered the other Jack again, wondering if the man knew why he acted like that. “Do you remember Kimberly, the pianist?”
The other Jack gave him a doubtful look and a raised eyebrow. “You mean Katrina? The gymnast?”
Jack smiled. “Oops. My bad.”
The other Jack aimed a knowing expression at him. “Well, if we’re talking about those memories, what about Trina, the water ballerina?”
Jack laughed and shook his head, his mind twisting through memories to find the girl he was certain the other man meant. “Don’t recognize her. But there was Trixie from water polo.”
“Ah yes. Of course. Silly me.” The other Jack winked at him.
Jack sighed. “Didn’t she run off with that guy named…something with a G?”
“Garth.” The other Jack snorted then. “Too bad about that.”
Jack smiled and nodded. Then he got serious. “What about Julie and Alex?”
The other Jack froze for a second. He took a deep breath and shook himself out of it before staring directly into Jack’s eyes. Jack saw the pain there. And everything else that went along with them. The other Jack finally said three words. “Yeah. I remember.”
That settled it for Jack. This other Jack had his memories, his feelings, and his mannerisms. At least as far as he could tell. “Betty? Jasmine?”
Betty and Jasmine flickered into existence on either side of his bed. “Yes, Jack?” they asked in unison.
Jack smirked at the other Jack who responded with an amused wink.
The other two cybers rolled their eyes. “Really?” Betty asked.
Jack aimed an innocent shrug her way. “I was just wondering what you thought.”
Jasmine and Betty looked at each other before nodding. “He fits you to a tee,” Betty said.
“I agree,” Jasmine added in her own two cents.
The other Jack smiled and spread his arms out wide. “See Jack? Now you’ve got some competition worth competing with.”
Jack snorted and shook his head. “Bring it on, Mini Me.”
Betty sighed and rolled her eyes again. “Oh Brave New World, that has such people in it,” she whispered, and Jack could have sworn he heard the echoes of the redhead that made him audition for a part in that ancient Shakespearean play. He looked at the other version of himself and the man winked at him, obviously having made the same connection. Good.
“Oh, I do love the Tempest,” Jack said, imagining that amazing redhead on stage with him.
The other Jack let out a long sigh. “Me too. Definitely, me too.”
Jack chuckled and shook his head. “But is it for the same reason I do?”
“Absolutely,” the other Jack answered, almost looking affronted. “Miranda was…was…” the other Jack trailed off, obviously searching for words.
“Her, oh her, so perfect and so peerless, created of every creature's best,” Jack filled in for the other man, only slightly blemishing the lines he’d learned all those years ago. Or that they’d learned.
“Indeed,” the other Jack responded with a satisfied smile. “Too bad she liked Ferdinand.”
Jack sobered and pulled in a deep breath, remembering the conniving little art major who played that part. Of course, he was willing to admit he was biased. “Yeah. What a waste.”
Betty laughed from the corner of the room, forcing both of them to turn to look at her. “Was there any girl you didn’t lust after?” she asked, shaking her head in mock disgust.
“Admire,” the other Jack corrected, raising one hand to wave an admonishing finger at her.
“And flirt with,” Jack added with a wink.
The other Jack pursed his lips, doing an amazing job of acting like he was pondering the matter. “If they could think themselves out of a paper bag.”
Jack chuckled. “Oh yes. Must have brains.”
Betty snorted. “That doesn’t put you on a high pedestal you know? Zombies like brains too.”
“Yes, well,” Jack said with a sniff. “Zombies are slow and clumsy while we…”
“Are swift and graceful,” the other Jack finished for him and came to his feet to give her a debonair bow.
“Oh God,” Betty said with a look of horror. “You’re finishing each other’s sentences now. Please make it stop.”
“What? Are we two much of a good thing?” Jack asked with a smirk and two raised fingers.
Betty rolled her eyes and groaned. “Not the bad puns too?” she said in a helpless tone. “Jasmine? A little help here?”
Jasmine flickered into existence and affected a heroically gallant stance between them and Betty. “Now, boys, please stop torturing her.”
The other Jack sighed theatrically and exaggerated a shrug. “I guess this much awesome is just two much to bear,” he said with a wink.
Jasmine snorted. “Well, something is at least.”
“Okay. That’s it,” Betty barked, jamming her hands on both hips with a disgusted look. “If someone doesn’t end this I’m ending it. And you won’t like the way I end it. Capiche?”
“Completely,” the other Jack said with a bow and turned to himself.
Jack had to shake his head to make that particular observation make sense. The American language didn’t have nearly enough ways of thinking about this particular concept to make sense. They were going to need to develop something if this caught on.
“I’m afraid we’re going to have to cut this short,” Betty said to the other Jack and looked towards the door. “We have work to do, and you need to get a checkup.”
“Of course,” the other Jack said with a wry grin and another bow. Then he turned to Jack and sighed. “It almost seems a waste. I could be such a good fighter, but I’m the one staying on one of the most heavily defended worlds in the galaxy, while you…”
“While I will get the glory for kicking the Shang’s asses across the galaxy,” Jack finished for him with a cocky tone and an airy wave of his hand. “Don’t worry, we all play our parts in War. Men like you collect scrap metal for The War effort while better men kick alien ass,” he finished with a merciless wink.
“Oooh,” the other Jack returned with an appreciative chuckle. “Epic burn. You know this means war, right?”
Jack shrugged. It was the least he could do after all. God knew somebody needed to keep his ego in check. Even if that someone was him. Jack blinked as he realized just how weird that train of thought was. Not to mention the situation. The other Jack’s eyes twinkled in recognition of the…unique situation they were in.
“Good luck, Jack,” the other Jack said with a smile and gave Jack a sloppy salute.
Jack sighed and nodded. A dozen and more snarky comments about playing with Samantha came to mind. Then he remembered last night and the gut punch left him breathless.
“What?” the other Jack asked as he slumped.
Jack shook his head and the crushing weight of the vacuum in his life that had been Samantha made it hard to answer. He sat down hard. “Sorry, man, I fraked up,” was all he could think to say.
The other Jack frowned in concern. “What happened?”
Jack shrugged and told him everything. The mugger. His reaction. Her reaction. Her father taking her home. Jack left behind.
“Whoa,” the other Jack whispered and shook his head. “It’s Julie and Alex all over again. What do we do?”
Jack sighed and gave the other man a helpless shrug. He felt like he was running away. “I have to go. The fleet’s leaving for the Pleiades tomorrow. We’re packing up today. I’m sorry, but I just don’t have any time.” Then Jack shrugged once more. “And I don’t think she’d listen to me if I tried.”
The other Jack nodded very slowly and looked away. “Yeah. I understand.” Then he shook his head. “You know…I don’t know. What do I do then?”
“Something we won’t look back on with regret,” Jack whispered.
“Yeah,” the other Jack said in understanding. “That I might be able to do.”
“Good luck,” Jack said and gave him a lazy salute.
“Good luck,” the other Jack returned and took a last look around at what had been their room for the last month. Then he turned and left. The door shut behind him and left Jack alone with Betty and Jasmine.
“Well, that was…unique,” Jack muttered. It had been hard, but part of him thought it should have been harder. He knew he wouldn’t have reacted nearly so well to someone else sabotaging his relationship with his girlfriend. Assuming his clone could claim that of course. He groaned. This line of thinking was going to give him a headache.
“It gets more unique,” another voice said and Hal’s holoform flickered into existence. The Peloran cyber shook his head. “He is not what we were hoping for.”
“Why?” Jack asked with a furrowed brow. “He seemed okay to me.”
“He is perfectly fine,” Hal said and let out a long breath. “For a Peloran.”
Hal shrugged. “The cloning process made a one hundred percent Peloran body for him. He has your memories, but all of the genetic imperatives of a full Peloran.”
“Oh,” Jack whispered. “That isn’t what we were hoping for.”
“Indeed,” Hal said with another shake of his head.
“So that’s why he didn’t tear my head off.”
“So what comes next?”
“That is a very good question,” Hal said. “We will need to observe him for some time to find out the answer to that.”
“So what can I do to help?” Jack asked and met Hal’s gaze.
“Nothing,” Hal answered. “The best thing you can do is nothing. Leave him alone. Give him a chance to live whatever life he can without your interference. That is the best gift you can give him.”
Jack met Hal’s gaze for several seconds before nodding and taking in a deep breath. “Okay. I guess we should get to work then. The Shang aren’t going to kill themselves, after all.”
Hal smiled at Jack’s bravado. “Indeed. I do believe they will need some help from us on that point.”
“Then it’s a good thing I’m a real helpful guy,” Jack said in a grim tone and came to his feet.
It was time to get to work.