I will always love an early morning rain. Oh Dark Thirty has some of the best storms and best rains you’ll ever see. The temperature drops, a cool wind comes in, and the rain starts to fall, cleaning off the grime of a long day. When the sun rises on a beautiful clean world, it’s all because of the rain. And I will always love to stand there, reveling in the power of nature to begin anew, every day.
It was a dark and stormy night.
Jack sighed as the words from an ancient story traveled through his mind. The lightning was certainly lighting the sky, and the rain was coming down in sheets so bad even the dogs weren’t chasing the cats out there. Which was a good thing. Jack hated the smell of wet dog. The odd thing was, it wasn’t night at all.
The storm clouds had rolled in off the ocean some time after what passed for midday on New Earth, bringing a darkness with them as deep as night. Only the lights of Leif Erikson Spacebase illuminated the sheets of rain powerwashing the base and Landing City in the distance. Not that he could see the nearby city through the clouds and the rain.
He could barely see the landing field, where the spider-like shuttles sat with their ramps closed against the weather. The skies were devoid of traffic due to the storm, but at least the last of the trucks had been close enough to finish their route via surface streets. They now huddled beneath the shuttles, waiting for the storm to end before they packed the shuttles with the last of the supplies the fleet needed to set sail.
Looking out on the base through the windows of the main administration building was an amazing sight. Jack whistled as a pair of figures ran through the rain, the flaps of all-weather coats held nearly straight out by the wind. The figures grasped their cowboy hats to keep them from flying off, but Jack didn’t know how much actual protection those gave when the rain fell sideways. The doors slid open and a spray of rain flew into the building along with the two figures.
“Holy frak!” Jay bellowed at the Cowboys arrayed throughout the main entrance of the administration building. “It is fraking wet out there!”
“Tell us something we don’t know!” Jesse answered with a laugh and clapped the towering Indian on the shoulder.
Jay shook himself away from Jesse, took off his coat, and hung it on one of the many pegs next to the door where it continued to drip water. Jay removed his cowboy hat long enough to shake himself some more, spraying the inside of the administration building’s main entrance with salty water before placing it back on.
“Chief!” Jay called out, turning to Charles. “Everybody’s good out there.”
Charles shook his head slowly. “They’re staying?”
Jay shrugged. “They’re happy. As long as the wind don’t go over a hundred they’re staying.”
Charles let out several tsks and shrugged. “Fine by me, then. We offered.”
Betty walked over and tapped Jack’s shoulder. “Samantha’s on the way,” she whispered.
Jack frowned in surprise and turned to her. “What? Here?”
“Yes,” Betty whispered with a nod. “She’s coming.”
“Why?” Jack asked as his brain tried to come to terms with the whiplash of the last few days.
Jasmine stepped up with a shake of her head as if she were talking to a particularly dim child. “Maybe she wants to see you.”
“Yeah, well,” Jack whispered and his jaw set in mixed determination and anger. He hadn’t done anything wrong. It just wasn’t fair. But of course life wasn’t always fair. He turned away and began walking towards the stairs. “Maybe I shouldn’t see her.”
“Jack!” Jasmine shouted through the speaker in his left ear so loud he cringed. “There’s a girl driving through a hurricane to see you! If you don’t go out and talk to her I’ll…I’ll…” she trailed off and he turned back to see her standing in place, quivering in anger.
He smiled at her. “You know, it sorta takes the threat away when you can’t come up with a threat.”
Jasmine glared at him.
Jack sighed and looked at Betty.
She smiled and tilted her head to the side. She didn’t say a word, but she didn’t have to. Her expression told him that she trusted him to make the right decision.
He just didn’t know what that decision was.
He shook his head and looked at Jasmine. “And for the record, it’s not a hurricane.”
She stuck her tongue out at him.
“Be careful,” he growled back. “You’ll get stuck that way.”
Betty placed a hand on his shoulder and he turned to meet her gaze. She still trusted him. And she wanted him to go meet Samantha.
Jack sighed and reached a hand up to touch the scarf hung around his neck. The scarf Samantha had given him. Frak. “Okay, okay,” he said with a nod and turned towards Charles. “Hey, Chief!”
Charles turned to him with a questioning gaze. Dorothy leaned in and said a few words. Charles turned to look out at the storm buffeting the base. Then Charles smiled and nodded towards him. “All Cowboys!” he shouted, raising a hand to call everybody closer to him. “It appears we have a bit of a storm here.”
The assembled Cowboys laughed at the understatement, slapping each other’s backs.
“Due to the storm, Leif Erikson Spacebase is to all intents and purposes shut down for the duration. We will not be flying. I am therefore placing all Cowboys on liberty until the storm breaks.”
“Oorah!” the Cowboys shouted back in enthusiasm.
Charles chuckled, shook his head, and eyed Jack with a smile that said he was never going to forget the reason for his next order. “Now whatever you do, do not do anything that will get me called.”
The Cowboys from Earth laughed and slapped Jack on the shoulders. The new recruits from New Earth didn’t look certain if they should laugh or frown. They were new after all, still getting their feet wet. Literally at the moment.
Betty smiled at Jack and walked over to the coat hooks on the wall. Jasmine followed and they pulled their virtual all-weather coats off their virtual coat hook.
Jack extricated himself from the backslapping Cowboys and walked over to grab his all-real all-weather coat. He paused to watch the girls pull their coats on with a smile, until they glared at him. Then he averted his eyes and slipped into his with all due speed.
“Where’re you going?” Jay bellowed as he stomped over. “It’s wetter than my grandfather’s rain dances out there!”
Jack paused and cocked his head at the Indian in confusion. “I thought you did rain dances when you were asking for rain?”
Jay laughed and waggled his eyebrows. “Grandfather got fast answers.” He aimed a finger at Jack. “And you’re changing the subject!”
Jack shook his head. “You’re crazy to think a rain dance brings rain!”
Jay poked him with a finger the size of a sausage. “You’re crazy to doubt it without ever seeing it.” He stepped in between Jack and the door with a smile. “And I’m not getting out of your way until you tell me what’s so God-awful important out there.”
Jack rolled his eyes. “In case you missed it, the Chief just gave us liberty.”
Jay chuckled and leaned towards him. “At your urging,” he answered, poking Jack in the chest. “The rest of us are getting a game in. You’re running off. Why?”
Jack’s eyes followed the big man’s gaze and he sighed again. It was a good question. He wished he knew the answer. “Maybe I enjoy standing in the rain.”
“Hah!” Jay erupted. “That’s not rain! That’s a flying lake!”
“Well, that’s perfect, cause I grew up on lakes!” Jack retorted.
“He’s got a girl waiting for him,” Jasmine interrupted the argument with an impish smile.
Jack spun his glare to shoot daggers in her.
A booming laugh washed over him and Jay slapped him on the shoulder hard enough it almost knocked him off his feet.
“Hey! Watch the bones!” Jack growled back. “I like ’em where they are!”
Jack felt his hat come off his head and Jay’s other hand ruffled his hair like he was a kid. “Hey boys!” Jay bellowed. “The girl’s finally comin’ for him!”
“Oorah!” the other Cowboys shouted and came over to ruffle his hair or slap his back. Jack weathered their expressions of approval with all the composure he could muster until Jay finally placed the hat back on his head and patted his shoulder again.
“See?” the larger man asked. “That wasn’t hard at all.” With that, he stepped out of the way and waved his hands for Jack to continue.
Jesse and Ken stepped up on either side of him, shaking their heads.
“You really going out in that?” Jesse asked in a skeptical tone.
Jack looked at Betty and Jasmine who both nodded before shrugging and said, “What else am I going to do?”
Jesse shook his head slowly. “You’re a stronger man than I.”
Jack snorted. “It’s not that bad out there. But remember this moment the next time Mary tells you to do something crazy.”
“Not gonna happen,” Jesse said with a shake of his head. “Me an’ her know who’s in charge.”
Jack looked around Jesse to see Mary glaring at her pilot. Jack tipped his hat to her with a big smile and she nodded back.
Jesse gulped. “Say, you need a wingman?” he asked in a hurried manner.
Jack snorted and patted Jesse’s shoulder. “You know what? I think I got this covered. But thanks for the generous offer,” he finished, gathered his courage, and stepped towards the door.
The door slid open, letting in the howling wind and the water it drove before it. Muffled curses came from behind and Jack smiled as he stepped out into the downpour, holding his cowboy hat down to secure it to his head. The rain drummed into his all-weather coat, running off the ends to pour onto his boots where it met the water running across the base pavement. The rain drenched his face in less than a second, and in that moment he realized that it really was that bad.
He paused for a moment, considering his options as the Marines cursed him from behind. He could turn back around right now and…and his buddies would never let him live it down. He blinked into the rain and realized that the storm itself was the answer. She was weathering this to see him. The least he could do was meet her at the gate.
He pulled in a deep breath through his nose, to keep from swallowing a solid wall of water, and plunged out into the storm battering the base. The wind picked up in the street, but it was steadier than the whipsaw of wind around the building, and much easier to walk in. He focused through the rain and walked down the deserted street with a determined smile, Betty and Jasmine on either side of him.
It actually felt oddly refreshing, like an early morning storm coming off Rainy Lake. It was much stronger, though. It also tasted of salt, and he could tell he was going to need a shower to get that off him. And the salt made it smell wrong too. Still, it reminded him of those storms, and he frowned as they passed through the base like ghosts.
They sloshed up to the main gate and stopped just inside the arms. There they waited, the wind and rain running over and down them. The guard shack opened and one of the local Marines stepped out to see what was going on. The Marine saluted them and they returned the gesture.
“Can I help you, Sir?” the Marine shouted through the downpour
Jack shook his head with a smile. “Someone’s coming in to see me,” he shouted back.
The Marine gave a wondering look down the road. “In this?” he asked in a disbelieving tone.
“Women,” Jack returned with a shrug and steadfastly ignored the glares Jasmine and Betty aimed at him.
The Marine snorted. “Yes, Sir.” He looked down the road again. “You good here, Sir?”
“I’m good,” Jack answered with a smile.
The Marine nodded towards the shack. “I’ll just wait in there, then,” he shouted and turned back to it. “Just wave at me if it’s your people!”
Jack nodded, the guard shack door closed, and they waited alone again. He wondered what he would say. She’d left. Now she was coming back. But he would be leaving tomorrow if the storm let up. She knew that. So why was she coming back? He chewed his lip and wondered what he was going to say to her.
It wasn’t long before car lights appeared in the storm, highlighting rain on the main road outside the base. Betty pointed at the car with a nod, telling him that it was the one. Not like there were any others out there. Jack waved at the guard in the shack as the car turned onto the military road and slowed to a stop outside the gate.
The passenger side door opened and a figure that Jack recognized with ease, even under the trenchcoat, stepped out. The rain plastered red hair to her face and she brushed it to the side. She stepped between the arms of the gate and walked up to stop before him.
He forced a smile and spread his arms out wide. “Good evening, Sam.”
Samantha made a show of examining the storm plastering them. “You have a strange definition of a good evening, Jack.”
Jack sighed and shook his head very slowly. “You’re here. That’s all it takes.”
She raised her eyebrows at him and took another step closer. “You never give up, do you?”
“You’re the one standing here,” he returned with a tentative smile.
“So are you,” she said, cocking her head to the side with a matching expression.
He sucked in a deep breath and uttered the single word that he could never take back once he said it. “Always.”
Samantha blinked, her mouth hung open, and she wiped the rain of her face with one hand. “God!” she finally shouted in exasperation. “I don’t know why I bother! You always have one of your quips ready!”
Jack sighed and kept his eyes on her until she met it. Then, making certain she could see the truth of his words in them, he finally answered her. “And I mean every word.”
Her eyes widened and she chewed her lower lip for a moment before shaking her head. “Okay. Fine! You want to be Mister ‘I Cannot Tell a Lie,’ I’ll take you up on that! Why did you destroy that mugger the way you did?” she finished with a shout.
“He was a threat,” Jack answered with a shrug. “He had to be broken or he would have threatened more people in the future if I’d let him get away with it this time.”
Samantha shook her head and chewed her lip some more. “So is this how it’s going to be then? You looking for threats everywhere and trying to stop them?”
Jack sighed and considered her question. He had to go. He didn’t want to. And she was such a temptation to stay. His heart wanted to but he couldn’t. “I don’t know.”
“What did you do before the Marines got you?”
“Honestly, I ran away from most of my fights.”
She shook her head again and gave him a worried look. “So where does…this…leave us?”
Jack swallowed and gave her a helpless shrug. “You left last night.”
“God!” she shouted with an angry shake of her head. “Damn you!” she shouted and punched him. It wasn’t any little girl punch he’d ever had before. She’d grown up in ten percent higher gravity than he had, and when her punch landed, it hurt.
He winced and continued before she could stop him. “I have to go tomorrow. I’ll be gone. What do you want?”
She grabbed the scarf she’d given him, pulled him down with strong arms, and kissed him hard with electric lips and blazing eyes. The shock ran through his body from head to toe, standing every hair on end. He responded to her kiss and the urgency of it morphed into fire that burned through them both so hot that the rain itself must have evaporated. The moment stretched out into an eternity until she pulled away to take a breath. Jack opened his eyes to see they were still drenched to the bone with the salty ocean spray. His mouth hung open as he tried to catch his brain back up to the moment.
“That’s what I want!” she shouted and punched him again. “Bastard!”
Pain snapped through his body and Jack felt himself driven back a step. He snapped his mouth shut and felt thankful for the rain flowing over them. It masked the tears of pain. She was much stronger than he’d given her credit for. He hadn’t realized she’d been holding back so much. He licked his lips, examined her panting face for a long moment, and knew he had to walk back into the minefield if he didn’t want that to be their last kiss. He didn’t.
He forced a smile, pushed the pain from his mind, and stepped in. “I don’t know, Ma’am,” he said in a calm voice, barely loud enough to carry over the sound of the storm around them. “I’m all for the kissing, but I’m not so sure about the freestyle street fighting.”
Samantha panted, her anger fading as she looked into his eyes. “You…you…never give up, do you?” she asked in a wondering tone.
“I never have,” Jack answered and made his decision. He wasn’t gone yet. He didn’t have to go if she didn’t want him to. Not yet at least. “I’m on liberty until the storm ends. If this is what you want, I got a while to not go away.”
Samantha shook her head for a long time, her mind racing behind her eyes. “Really?” she asked in a tone that gave him no leeway at all for his normal bravado. “You think you do?”
Jack swallowed, considered his feelings for any hesitation on the matter, and smiled. “I do.”
She met his gaze for several seconds, studying him before coming to her decision. She turned towards the car and waved it away. The car spun and drove away into the stormy night, leaving her alone with him. Then she wrapped an arm around his. “Okay.” She let out a long breath and smiled at him. “You’re on the clock, so make it count.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he answered and began to walk down the street as she hugged his arm tight enough he was afraid he was going to have to worry about blood circulation. They made their way across the base, huddled together against the wind and rain, passing deserted parking lots and darkened buildings. They stopped at the edge of the base and watched the trees swaying back and forth in the wind. Leaves fluttered by them, branches snapped, and once Jack pulled her back around a corner seconds before an entire tree limb flew by.
They leaned against the side of the building and sheltered from the wind. She ran her hands down the scarf and he enjoyed the feel of her body against him.
“This is what I want,” she whispered barely loud enough for him to hear. “I want to enjoy music and nature and life. We’ve done that.” Then she put a hand on his heart. “But you enjoyed breaking that man last night. And I don’t want that.”
He let out a long breath and knew she was right. He had enjoyed hurting the mugger. “I understand. But I have to fight. I have to go. I signed up. I gave my word.”
“But do you have to enjoy it so much?” she asked in concern.
“Maybe not,” Jack whispered. “But I don’t want to do something I hate, either.”
She brought a finger up and touched his lips to silence him as another curtain of rain drummed past the edge of the building. “Maybe we should find some shelter,” she said into his ear.
He felt her warm breath and had to fight to maintain his calm. He licked his lips and then returned her gaze. “Does my lady have a preference of shelters?”
She looked up at him with an impish smile. “Surprise me.”
“Your wish is my command,” he returned and guided her away from the edge of the base. They dodged more flying branches, rolling garbage cans, and other storm-driven trash along the way, before finally reaching his quarters.
He shut the door against the wind and rain, and looked around at the small room. The opposite wall was drenched by the brief storm, and water puddled on the floor. His personal stuff was gone, packed up for return to the Guardian Light, but the bare furniture remained, a small table, a chair, and a bed, all of which folded into the wall when not in use.
“Not exactly the Taj Mahal,” Samantha whispered as he slipped the trenchcoat off her shoulders to reveal her white shirt and black shirt. Despite the protection, her clothing was drenched, and Jack forced himself to breathe as he hung her coat up next to the door. He stripped his own all-weather coat and hung it over hers.
“Home sweet home,” he finally answered and looked up at the clock on the wall. “For one more night,” he added and pulled the chair out of the wall. It clicked into place and he waved for her to take it. She sat down with a smile and he pulled the bed out of the wall, feeling it thunk into place. Then he sat down, his feet touching her in the tight confines of the room, and leaned forward to examine her.
Her red hair had been tangled by the wind and dripped all over the floor. Any trace of makeup she might have been wearing was gone, peeled off by the storm, leaving behind only the base woman. Wet and bedraggled by the storm, she was the most beautiful creature he could imagine.
“I love you,” he whispered.
Her bright green eyes sparkled and she placed a hand on his cheek. “I love you, too,” she whispered and leaned forward to kiss him.
Jack groaned in pain and limped out into the morning light an eternity later to see the sun glinting off the storm-cleansed buildings. Tree branches and leaves littered the street in front of them, and a car lay on its side against a building across the street. The storm had left its wreckage behind and now it was time to go.
Samantha stepped out after him, straightening her damp and rumpled shirt with firm hands. She was seriously strong. He was pretty certain he had at least one cracked rib, maybe more, and he didn’t want to think how many of his muscles were pulled or torn. He knew for a fact that his shoulder had popped out once. That had been fun putting back in place. He probed his mouth with his tongue, tasting blood and, yes, noting a loose tooth.
“Not bad for a puny Earthling,” Samantha whispered with a sly smile.
“Heh,” Jack returned, trying really hard not to laugh. It hurt to laugh. It had been a truly amazing storm, in more ways than one.
Betty flickered into being next to them and nodded to Samantha with a sad smile. “Liberty’s up, Jack,” she announced in a matching tone. “Five minutes to assemble.”
“Thank you,” Samantha whispered to the cyber. Betty flickered away again, and Samantha turned Jack towards the administration building with a firm hand. “Let me walk you back. Wouldn’t want you to fall down and hurt yourself,” she added with a wink.
“Heh,” Jack repeated, still trying very hard not to laugh. “Very funny. I think I might be safer falling down.”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “Well, if you’d rather,” she said and started to step away.
“No!” he retorted without hesitation, holding her fast. “No.”
She gave him a knowing smile, stepping in closer to hold her body tight against him. Then she began walking towards the administration building, stepping through puddles in the street that glinted in the new sun, while avoiding the tree branches. They walked in silence until the finality of the administration building rose above them and Jack swallowed.
Samantha stopped, looking up to the building with a sad shake of her head. “Will I see you again?”
Jack smiled. “As long as I have anything to say about it.”
“And if you don’t?” she asked, a worried look on her face.
Jack laughed and sucked in a deep breath. “Then me an’ God are gonna have some words on where my heaven is.”
She gave him a soft smile. “I thought you didn’t believe.”
“If He can get me back here, I’ll give Him the benefit of the doubt,” Jack returned with a shrug and a wink.
Samantha shook her head, sighed, and reached up to pull him down by the scarf again. She stopped him, centimeters from her lips, with one of her patented mischievous smiles. “You really are never going to give up, are you?” she asked, her warm breath playing across his face.
Jack pulled in a deep breath, filling his nose with the scent left after the water washed away all the perfumes. He loved that scent. “No, Ma’am.”
She nodded in approval and patted his arm. “Then…” her voice faded away and she cleared her throat. She released her hold on him, reached for his neck, and tugged on the scarf she’d given him. “Bring it back.”
Jack almost saluted her on the spot. “Yes, Ma’am,” he said, acknowledging the order.
She smiled in approval, turned him to face the administration building’s door, and pushed him forward. He did not resist and did as she ordered. Beside him, Betty and Jasmine flickered back into existence and followed him into the building where the Cowboys were to assemble one last time.
The War was waiting for them all, and it was past time to get back into it.
His eyes adjusted to the relative gloom inside the building, and he saw that he was the last to arrive. Then the lusty cheers started, reminding him that the walls were clear. He groaned as Jay walked up to give him a hearty slap on the back. The other Cowboys followed his lead, and once they realized Jack was genuinely in pain, they redoubled their efforts to congratulate him on his luck with crocodile smiles. Oh, of course they did.
They were real bastards. Jack smiled and weathered the abuse without complaint, though. They were his bastards, after all. He would remember them all. And paybacks for something like this…well…there was a word for that, and as Jack weathered their friendly ribbing, sometimes literally, he made mental notes, his mind already planning his sweet, sweet revenge.