The Shang were a real hard enemy to fight. Smart enemies. Cunning. They weren’t ones for pointless gestures of defiance. They were real hard to kill for good. They fought until they couldn’t win, and then they retreated to fight another day. Sometimes we had ships to return to. Sometimes we didn’t. Thank God we had the Guardian Light.
Wreckage floated in High Earth Orbit. Pieces of Fort Wichita made up most of it, though the American ships defending the fort had left far more of themselves behind than anyone could look at without wincing. Several dead Shang ships drifted in space, accompanied by three Peloran destroyers nearly blown in half during the short battle. Every remaining ship sported massive wounds in their flanks or noses, or sometimes their rears, and at least some of the wreckage belonged to these ships. The Peloran squadron flew through the wreckage, sucking it in via their tractor beams. He’d read that they used scrap as spare materials for their repairs but had never seen the practice before. He noted with interest that they were only vacuuming up the Peloran and Shang scrap.
“Well, that’s something you don’t see every day,” Jack said in an impressed voice.
“Waste not, want not,” Betty answered. “Old battlefields are great sources of already refined metals. There are still some Albion and Ennead battlefields left that we…well…the Peloran visit when they need to perform work.”
“We? The Peloran?” Jack asked, raising an eyebrow at her small hologram on the console.
Betty shrugged, her yellow sundress shifting with the motion. “My family is Peloran.” She sighed and chewed on her lower lip. “I remember them all you know. So sometimes I think…but then…” She trailed off and shrugged again. “But I’m not really Peloran am I?”
Jack relaxed back in his seat and smiled at her. “So if you aren’t Peloran, what are you?”
Betty frowned, deep in thought for a much longer time than usual, an eternity of computer time if she was really thinking about just that. Finally she shook her head. “I don’t know.” She gave Jack an appraising eye. “We’ve all been thinking about that, you know. We aren’t really part of a new family here. There is a Terran family here, but we are still part of our own families. Our Peloran families. But we are working with Terran pilots. So how can we really be Peloran? It’s hard to explain.”
Jack chuckled. “I think you explained real well. You’ve grown up away from home and you don’t know if you would fit back there now.”
Betty’s form blinked and she cocked her head to the side. “That could explain it. So…what do you think?”
Jack shook his head. “Don’t ask me. I’m still trying to figure out where I belong now that…well…this,” he said with a wave of his hand towards a large chunk of Shang debris drifting by.
“Yes,” Betty whispered. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“Maybe,” she whispered. “But sometimes I wonder if the Shang would have come if we hadn’t. We think about that too, you know. Maybe it is our fault they killed your parents. Maybe it’s my fault.”
“No!” Jack said sternly. He frowned at Betty. “Not your fault.” He shook his head. “Never your fault.” He licked his lips. He wanted to kill everyone at fault for that. He was not going to consider anything that placed her in that list.
“Maybe not our fault then,” Betty whispered sadly. “But still our responsibility.”
Jack frowned at her words, a new thought coming to mind. “Wait. Why the confusion? Surely you have a procedure for starting new families?”
Betty let out a long breath and began to look old, like she was carrying the weight of her family’s two thousand and more years of experience. “We do. Standard procedure is for one, two, or more cybers to agree to make a new family in a new area, designed specifically to work in that area. Anybody copied off that new code is part of the family and a…native. We…after the Shang attacked we agreed to pool all of our resources. To put our best feet forward. But we haven’t had time to agree on the new code so we are all making copies of ourselves.
“All of the families are choosing new partners. We’re all considered native to Earth…but our code is designed for Peloran space. And now we’re trying to figure out what that means for us. Are we a member of our own family, those who share our own code but don’t understand how working with Earthlings is changing us? Or do we leave our families and join the one family that is native to Earth…even though we don’t share code with them? We’ve never done anything like this, Jack. We’re different, and we don’t know what that means.”
Jack pursed his lips and frowned as his mind connected some dots. “Sounds to me like you are talking about skin color.”
Betty blinked, cocked her head to the side, and gave him a long look. “Interesting premise. Although I’m not certain it matches.”
“Me neither, but it sounds similar. You all are wondering if your family is those who have the same genetics or the same upbringing.” Jack sighed and shook his head. “Look, one of the things I learned in school was that there used to be a big debate about what we call nature versus nurture. About whether your life was decided by the genetics you were born with, or the way you were raised. It got so bad at times that people tried to exterminate certain groups because people said they were genetically inferior. Trash genes. Jews. Indians. Africans. Mexicans.
“They killed millions of people. Tens of millions. Hundreds of millions. Some historians say more than that.” Jack shook again. “It was all based on genetics. But we can change genetics now. We can teach and we can learn. We can change our destiny. Racial genetics don’t define us anymore. And I don’t think they should define you either.”
Betty nodded, blinked a couple more times in thought, and cocked her head to the other side. “That is a well-made argument.”
She sounded surprised. Jack didn’t know if he should be pleased or indignant about that.
Then Betty smiled and shook her head. “We have been running in circles for some time. We never considered analyzing your history of race relations as part of the question. This will I believe stimulate the debate rather well.”
Jack pulled in a deep breath. “Be careful. Some of the worst times in American history came out of those racial relations. The original Colonies nearly broke apart over the Slavery issue. And their compromise fell into Civil War a century later. We ended Slavery then but got Segregation and the Ku Klux Klan in the wash. We finally ended legal Segregation a century later but replaced it with the effective segregation of White Flight and failing schools. Fast forward another generation and we elected our first black president, but got Black Lives Matter and those Race Riots. And all of that was before Dixie rose again. Which of course started another round of Race Riots.”
Jack shook his head. “It seems stupid now, but people got really worked up back then over the color of somebody’s skin. I’d rather not see that happen to your people.”
Betty’s smile softened. “I get your meaning. But I don’t think we have to worry about that. We’ve already figured out this whole cybernetic and biological question. I doubt a little difference in base code is going to be that big of an issue.”
Jack cleared his throat and placed his hand next to Betty. “You’re my partner….” Jack trailed off, not certain how to put his feelings to words. “I just don’t want to see that kind of history repeat itself. But if it does, you and yours will always find a home with us.” He looked away from her hologram and cleared his throat again.
“It won’t,” she said and put her hand on his.
He gave her a hopeful smile and then turned to study a display showing them approaching the Peloran battleship, angling towards its aft section. The massive weapons ring caught his attention first. It wrapped around the Peloran warship, carrying four gravitic cannons that could shatter any ship in existence and hundreds of smaller point defense lasers. During combat, they literally glowed with the energy flowing through them. Now entire sections were gone, ripped away by the Shang. His eyes turned to the main hull and he scanned the golden runes running from one end of her bright white hull to the other, except where battle damage broke them. Near the bow, the name Guardian Light was written in Peloran runes. Or so he’d been told. He just didn’t know Peloran runes well enough to read it yet.
“But thank you,” Betty said, her voice happy again.
Jack cleared his thought. “Just…ah…following one of America’s better traditions. You know…welcoming the misfits that other nations can’t handle…” he finished with a wry smile and pulled his eyes from the display to look at her.
Betty smiled at him gratefully, looking like herself again. Young. “Yes, we know that tradition. We have been thinking about that.”
Jack smiled. “Good.” He waved his hand forward, at the approaching battleship. “Last chance to bail out.”
“I’m not the bailing out type,” Betty returned with a chuckle as they passed through the energy curtain and into the Guardian Light’s fighter bay.
“Good to hear,” Jack said and looked at the bay. It was large, though not as large as the Constellation’s hangar bay. The other difference was that it didn’t run the length of the ship. The main entrance was on the rear of the ship, but a solid white bulkhead encased the bay on all other sides.
He flicked his eyes over to see the first two Avengers landing against one bulkhead, and nodded as Betty spun them around to land as well. The other fighters of the squadron landed next to them and the canopy opened. He looked over at Betty to see her wearing the service uniform of the United States Marine Corps again.
She gave him an innocent smile, like she’d been wearing it the whole time, and stood up. She jumped out of the cockpit, grew to full human scale, and landed on the deck with a nimble grace. Jack chuckled and unbuckled the restraints before lifting himself out of the cockpit. He climbed down the ladder that snapped out of the fighter’s side and jumped the last meter to the floor.
He turned away as the ladder clicked back into place and looked around the bay, pulling in a deep breath. The air felt…natural. He cocked his head to the side and frowned, taking another sniff. He could smell burnt wiring and armor of course, and all the other stuff you’d expect to smell after battle, or even on a daily basis, but there was something else suffusing it.
Jack scanned the bay and its pure white bulkheads, wondering what it was he sensed. He stopped as he caught sight of a tree on the far end of the bay away from the entrance. He blinked and looked closer. It was indeed a tree. Inside a ship. He scanned the area and saw several bushes around it, making a small garden. He sniffed again and it all connected. The air smelled natural because it was natural. He’d heard they used plants to treat the air on their ships, not just mechanical filters, but it hadn’t really clicked until that moment.
“Well, Boss, that’s a strange place for a garden,” Jesse said in a cocky tone from his left side.
Jack shrugged. “They’re Peloran,” he said as if that explained everything.
“Good point,” Jesse answered with a smile.
“Jack,” Betty said and Jack turned to look at her, standing next to him. He followed the point of her arm and saw another figure approaching them.
He focused on the man and recognized him. Hal, the Guardian Light’s controlling cyber. Like most cybers, he looked like just another human on a stroll across the hangar bay in his white Peloran uniform. Jack realized he appeared Californian, lacking the telltale elfin facial lines that most Peloran had. But like most Peloran, he had long hair down to his shoulders. They used the long hair to cover their pointed ears so they could blend in with a crowd better. Jack wondered what shape Hal’s ears were under that hair.
Hal walked up to the pilots and cybers and smiled. “Welcome to the Guardian Light.” He waved a hand and several men and women wearing the hallmark Peloran faces began approaching the line of fighters. “We will take care of your ships. Now if you will follow me, refreshment is arranged.”
Jack turned at the sound of a Peloran fighter squadron entering the bay and let out a long breath of amazement. He’d never seen one of them this close, let alone nine of them at once. They were rakishly thin, with smooth lines that bespoke thousands of years of refinements, and moved towards their landing zone with a grace that impressed him.
“Yes,” Hal said, his voice sounding pleased. “I do enjoy watching the fighters land. By the way, I know it is tradition in your military that all of your ships are female and are given female nicknames.” His smile grew amused and he spread out his arms to emphasis his proud male figure to those who turned to look at him. “I am not. You may call me Hal.”
Jack smiled and looked at Betty. She rolled her eyes at his look. Jack turned back to Hal with a mischievous smile. “That’s great. You can call her Betty.”
“Well, of course. That is her…” Hal trailed off and narrowed his eyes. “Ah. The song. Jester is an appropriate callsign I see.”
Jack just smiled back. It took some truly esoteric knowledge to catch a cyber, even if for only a second. He was pleased to have found just the right piece of old music to trip the man up.
“Please follow me,” Hal said with a shake of his head and walked towards the hatch.
Jack double-timed it up to Hal, catching the cyber just inside the hatch. “So Hal, can I ask you a question?”
Hal turned his head just enough to give Jack a long, calculating stare. “You just did,” he finally answered and stepped through the hatch into a long white corridor.
Jack chuckled and scratched his chin, following Hal through. “Touché. Fine, can I ask another one?”
Hal’s mouth gave an amused twitch and somehow Jack knew what he was going to say. “Did I stop you?”
Jack sighed. “Touché,” he repeated. He could see that this cyber didn’t believe in waiting very long for payback.
Hal chuckled. “You may ask, Jack,” he said as he led the Americans around a corner.
Jack shook his head before speaking, updating his mental map of the ship. “Hal’s not a very Peloran name, is it?”
Hal gave him a long look. “No it is not. It is also not the first name I have gone by. It is common for new Americans to change their names to sound normal to American ears. I took advantage of that custom when I came here.”
“So you’re American now?”
“In a manner of speaking. I started the first cybernetic family here in America.”
“Oh,” Jack whispered and looked at Betty for a moment, suddenly realizing he really wanted to know something. “So are you in charge of the family now?”
Hal gave him another long look before answering. “Yes. And yes, I was one of those who evaluated you.”
“Ah.” Jack bit his lip and sighed. “Would it be considered rude to ask why you didn’t pick me?”
Hal let out a long breath. “Peloran do not ask such questions. But we are not Peloran,” he added with a shrug and then raised his chin and a single eyebrow towards Jack. “I did not believe you were ready for such a commitment.”
Jack nodded in thought, considering his next words. “And what do you think of that decision now?”
Hal examined him again for a long time before sending a mournful gaze towards Betty. “I do not know. She has gambled much in choosing you.” Hal turned a serious eye on Jack. “More than I would gamble. The family she came from has always been…reckless. Their partnerships fail more often than other families, sometimes spectacularly. But sometimes they succeed spectacularly as well. For her sake, I hope you are in the second group. And if you wish that too, you will have our aid. We always stand by our family,” Hal added with a nod and a pointed look towards Betty. Then he turned into a hatch, waving his hand for the pilots to follow.
Jack leaned against the bulkhead next to the hatch and pursed his lips towards Betty. “I guess he told me, didn’t he?”
Betty smiled. “I told you we talked about this. He is of the opinion that everybody who chooses a Terran partner is a part of his family, even if we don’t realize it.”
“Well, it’s always nice to have family, I suppose,” Jack said with a sad shrug.
Betty sighed and placed both her hands on his shoulders. “Yes, Jack. It is good to have family.” She held his gaze, daring him to correct her until Jack nodded, accepting her words and the meaning behind them. She was his family now. “Good. Now let’s eat,” she added and turned towards the hatch, giving him a light pull towards it.
He allowed her to guide him until he saw the tables and chairs filling the room and stopped cold. They overflowed with food. It wasn’t the space tofu he had read the cultured and advanced Peloran ate. Loaves of bread, platters of fruits and vegetables, and hunks of sizzling meat filled the tables and his mouth instantly began to water at the succulent smells filling the room. He blinked as he recognized an honest-to-God boar sizzling and smoking in the middle of the table.
Hal cleared his throat and Jack turned to look at the cyber. In the back of his mind he noticed that the other Cowboys did the same, as shocked as he by the room. “As I said,” Hal noted with amusement written all over his face. “Refreshment is arranged. Please take a seat and take whatever you wish. Do not worry about eating the last of anything. Replenishment is also arranged,” he finished with a bow and a wave towards the tables. The amused smile never left his face.
Jack looked around the room again and smiled. “Shiny,” he said and stepped forward to grab a chair in front of a particularly good-looking chicken. He slipped the chair back, sat down, and ripped a leg off the chicken. He dropped it on his plate and reached for a trout as well. Once the solid slab of fish was on his plate he picked up his bowl and filled it from a huge crock of soup made up of a number of vegetables and some form of meat he didn’t recognize on sight.
The other Cowboys joined him at the table and they all began to eat. Jack smacked his lips appreciatively at the chicken. It was real good chicken. So was the trout and the soup that he could now tell had pieces of goat in it. It was amazing, and not at all what he would have expected of the Peloran.
Several Peloran pilots entered the room a couple minutes later, whooping in excitement, reliving the engagement through hand motions he understood completely and exclamations that Jack couldn’t understand at all. They looked and acted like they’d just had the most amazing time in the world, and they practically bounced off each other towards the food while talking, saying what Jack figured had to be “did you see that move? Spectacular!” and a dozen other variations on that theme that pilots used.
In short, the Peloran pilots looked nothing like the cool, calm, collected, and reserved Peloran he had met before now. In his experience, they didn’t want to fight, and he thought that was a universal trait. But here these pilots were glorying in the battle that had just taken place. They paused upon seeing the Cowboys, but then found seats and began to eat in between mouthfuls of more jabbering. More pilots spilled into the room, similarly excited, and found more places to eat with the other Peloran. They shouted at each other, ripped meat apart, and spilled beer or ale on the table as they jostled each other.
It was odd, seeing the Peloran this animated, this loud and lively. It didn’t match any of what he’d seen from them before.
The door opened again and Jack turned to see who it was this time. He blinked at the single man walking in at the sedate pace Jack did equate with the Peloran. He wore all white, the fabric cut into the shape of the uniform that said Peloran as much as anything else. The man was Peloran, the only kind of Peloran Jack had ever seen up to this day. Of course, that was probably because he was the Peloran Jack had grown up seeing. Aneerin, the man who made Contact long before Jack was born. Calm, careful, and reserved, Aneerin had been the visible manifestation of Pelora to Earth for Jack’s entire life.
The Peloran pilots shouted something that sounded like “Pentulu!” and raised their mugs into the air, splashing ale and beer on the floor and table. Jack frowned for a moment, trying to translate the Peloran words that he still hadn’t mastered. He sighed in realization that he had no hope at all of translating them when food and drink slurred his hearing.
Betty leaned in close and whispered in his ear. “They’re calling him their great commander in battle.”
“Thanks,” Jack murmured back as the Peloran shouted again and again, turning it into a victorious chant.
Aneerin glanced at the Cowboys and gave a slight grimace. He raised his hands and tried to quiet his men but they continued to chant their praise of him.
“Please!” Aneerin shouted in American. “Please!” The pilots finally began to let their chants trail off. When he could finally talk without shouting, he continued. “You did all of the hard work. I simply told you what to do.” He waved a hand towards the Cowboys. “They deserve your praise more than I. They killed many Shang this day and helped us turn the tide on their own initiative.”
The Peloran pilots grumbled at Aneerin for a few moments, obviously disagreeing with his words. But then they raised their mugs again and shouted what didn’t even seem to be words so much as an elemental howl of approval aimed at the Cowboys.
“I think they’re feeling positively towards us,” Betty said in his ear and Jack chuckled.
Aneerin finally managed to quiet his men a second time. “Please, they are Americans. They do not understand our language. Please speak American,” he added with a pointed look at Jack and the others.
Charles put down his mug and shook his head. “Our cybers can translate for us,” he said with a wave towards them. “We can understand you just fine.”
Aneerin raised an eyebrow at Charles before nodding in acknowledgement. “Indeed.” He let out a long breath and shook his head. “Forgive me for my tardiness please. I am Aneerin ap Taliesin and I wish you good health, now and forever.”
Charles glanced at the other Cowboys for a moment before turning back to Aneerin. “Charles Edward Hurst,” he said with a wave towards himself, following the Peloran tradition of giving a full name, with no rank. “I wish you good health, now and forever.”
Aneerin smiled and spread his arms out wide. “I welcome you all to the Guardian Light. And I thank you for coming to our aid.”
Charles nodded his head. “You came to our aid first, so it was only natural that we come to yours in your need.”
Aneerin smile grew softer. “Well spoken, Charles.”
Charles bowed his head to the Peloran. “My family would say they taught me well,” he answered with a smile of his own.
Aneerin chuckled. “And they would be right.” He raised his hands up over his head and clapped them together. “Victory!” he shouted and his pilots roared back in approval. “Life!” The pilots roared again, raising their mugs high, and Aneerin stepped up to a table to grab a mug of his own. “Honor!” The pilots roared one more time and beer and ale spilled onto the table. The Peloran leaned back and emptied their mugs in one breath, smacked their lips, and slammed their mugs on the tables with a resounding thud.
Jack tried to echo them, but the beer in his mug was thicker than any beer he’d ever had, mixed with a honey sweet flavor. It tasted good, like everything else, but it was just too rich for him to inhale like that. He settled for slamming his mug down and sloshing its contents on the table. He suppressed a grimace at the mess he’d made. But there was that saying about what one should do when in Rome.
He looked back up to see Aneerin staring right at him and blinked. Aneerin gave him the “come on over” wave of his hand and walked over to where Charles stood, watching both the Cowboys and the Peloran pilots. Charles met Jack’s gaze and shrugged. Jack sighed and came to his feet, grabbing a hunk of bread on his way. He bit through the crunchy outside and his mouth watered. The bread was soft and warm on the inside, fresh out of the oven.
“Somebody here really knows how to cook,” Jack said after swallowing the bread, walked up to Charles, and tore another bite out of the bread. He glanced over to the left to see Betty and Charles’ cyber watching, leaning together to talk. Dorothy. Dorothy was her name.
“Yes,” Charles answered in between popping blueberries into his mouth.
“I will pass your approval on to the cooks,” Aneerin said with a smile. He waved his hands towards the Peloran pilots. “What do you think of this?”
Jack met Charles eyes for a moment, just long enough to see that Charles saw the same thing he did, and looked back to Aneerin. “I expected tofu burgers and togas,” Jack finally said with a wry smile.
Aneerin erupted in laughter at the remark. It melted into the laughter and general ruckus of the Peloran and American pilots as they began to mingle. Aneerin settled down to a good-natured shake of his head. “I do hope you were joking about the togas.”
Jack smiled and glanced at Betty who gave him an approving look. “Maybe a bit,” he answered.
“Good,” Aneerin said. “I have never liked togas. Too…Roman.”
Jack shared another glance with Charles, making certain the other man had caught the admission. He had. He might be the son of a rich good for nothing family, but he had brains that was for certain.
“Do not worry though,” Aneerin added. “Give them a couple hours to burn off the battle adrenalin and they will all be back to the quiet and calm tree huggers you think of as Peloran.”
Jack looked at the partying pilots and then at Aneerin, who appeared as calm as he always had on the television programs he’d seen. “And you?” he asked, genuinely curious why Aneerin seemed so…well…Peloran.
Aneerin chuckled in a low tone. “Me?” he asked innocently. “Why, I am not a true Peloran. The Peloran genetic imperatives do not control me.”
“How are you different?” Jack asked.
Aneerin paused to give him a long look before answering. “You could call me a prototype. Perhaps a template. Certainly not the production model. The Albion wanted soldiers who were blindly loyal and would never question their orders.” Aneerin gave Jack an amused smile. “I am not blind and I question very much.”
He turned his gaze to the pilots and nodded in there direction. “These warriors are true Peloran. But they have never fought before this war. The battle rush of adrenalin is still new to them. I on the other hand fought in the Great War, and have seen many battles.”
Jack examined Aneerin carefully. The Great War had been over two thousand years ago, and the cost to the galaxy had been enormous. The Albion and many, many other races had simply ceased to exist by the time it was over, and entire sectors were still wiped clear of life if the reports were true. This man appeared no more than thirty years old, until you looked him in the eyes. The eyes showed the age and Jack let out a long breath. “How old are you?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
Aneerin smiled and patted the bulkhead next to him. On the other side of the room, Hal turned to smile in their direction. “Even older than Hal,” Aneerin whispered back. “You could say we are very old friends,” he added with a wry smile.
Jack swallowed, realizing what Aneerin had gambled today. “You could have died today. Why did you…?” He trailed off and waved his hands out to encompass everything around them.
“Why did I fight a battle I may not have won?” Aneerin asked and shook his head. “We all die some day, Jack. Of course, I am not so blind to myself that I would claim I would be here if I were following my own wishes. There are times when I would settle down on some backwater world and farm trees. I share that wish with them,” he added with another wry smile.
“But I have a mission.” He pulled in a long, tired breath. “The Albion were once a powerful race. Their civilization was a beacon that illuminated the entire galaxy. But not everyone appreciates the light when it shines. They were not strong enough when death came for them. They knew they were losing. They knew they were going to die. They fought until the bitter end.” Aneerin smiled again, a sad smile that remembered all that had been lost in the Great War. “In the end, they fought to see their legacy live on. Now I am here, not in a retirement community in our equivalent of southern Florida.”
Jack glanced at Charles, saw the man’s calculating look, and shifted back to Aneerin. “So that is your mission? To save their legacy?”
Aneerin chuckled slowly, and Jack saw the man return fully to the present. “Not exactly,” he said in amusement. Then he patted the bulkhead again, this time very fondly. “But close. This ship was not always named Guardian Light. He had another name during the Great War. He was one of the Albion’s most deadly warships and one of the few to survive the final campaign to scour their foe from the face of the galaxy.” On the other side of the room, Hal smiled back at them again. “He has another mission, now. That is why he changed his name.”
Jack blinked, glanced over at Charles whose face suddenly took on a poleaxed look, and then over at Betty who just smiled at him. She knew. Of course she knew. She was Peloran. Sorta. And then a chill went down his spine as his mind flittered over the connections between Aneerin’s words that Charles already had. Guardian Light. A guardian light? The guardian light? The light had to be civilization. Aneerin had hammered that idea home already.
This ship was a guardian of civilization. And one hundred years ago they had made Contact with Earth. They had sought out a new civilization and now they were guarding it against those who would extinguish it.
“Whoa,” Jack whispered.
Aneerin gave him a thin smile. “Indeed.”