When I grew up, there weren’t many cybers around. We were a vacation community, a place to get away from all the hectic worlds. We had AIs but that's about it. Nothing really advanced. I met my first cyber on a school trip to the Minnesota State Capitol. She said that we’re all human. We’re all created equal. We have the same rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I didn't really believe her. I didn’t understand them back then, but I think I do now. At least a bit. I try to let that understanding lead my actions.
The Avenger’s cockpit locked shut, sealing Jack into the home his fighter had become once again. It was odd. Before Yosemite he’d never set foot in a real fighter. He’d played simulations of course. Who hadn’t? But now that he’d lived the real thing, he recognized just how limited those were. They lacked the two people that had made him better over the last two years for one thing.
Betty and Jasmine flickered into existence atop the console, their uniforms already fading away. A sundress came into focus on Betty and Jack took a moment to smile as the color registered. Pink. Then Jasmine’s grey jeans and blue tank top appeared and Jack’s smile grew. So this was going to be an experimental day. He gave them two thumbs up and got down to business.
“She’s coming in now,” Betty answered and looked to the side as another form began to appear above the displays.
The name Emily came into focus first, followed by a soft face topped with brown hair. Then her torso, arms, and legs came into focus. The standard white and black British naval uniform snapped into existence in time with the scowl that covered her face. “Captain Hart,” she said in a frosty tone. She was obviously not happy about the recent briefing. That just made this more challenging.
Jack gave her his best winning smile and spread his arms out wide. “Ah, you’re just the ship we need.”
The cyber’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What do you want?”
“Why, only your expertise.” Jack said in a bright tone. “I hear you’re the best.”
Emily crossed her arms over her white uniform shirt, recognizing the flattery for what it was and not trusting him at all. “I do not have all day.”
Jack swallowed and sucked in a deep breath. She was not going to make this easy. Oh well. If it was easy, anyone could do it. With that thought filling his mind he dove into his attempt to save a friend. “I’ve got a cyber that lost her pilot. She’s still kicking, but without something to make her want to stay she won’t much longer.” The other cyber nodded in pained understanding. “Can you build her an android avatar for me?”
Betty and Jasmine gasped on either side of him and Recovery’s cyber frowned. “Doesn’t that go against American regulations?”
Jack shrugged. “Sorta, maybe, maybe not.” He sighed at her knowing look. “Look, her pilot is dead. That’s an automatic release from her military contract. And besides you’re British. You don’t have to follow American regulations if you don’t want.”
Emily’s frown deepened. “So you let Wyatt give us the heave ho when you don’t need us and now you ask me for a favor? Why should I help you?”
“You’re not helping me,” Jack answered quickly, hoping to stave off her decision before it was made. “You’re helping a fellow cyber recover from a soul-wrenching loss,” he said, making sure to emphasize the name of her ship.
The emphasis was not lost on the cyber and she pursed her lips at him. She didn’t like him using her name against her, but he could see her thinking about it. So Jack played another card. “She’ll die without you. Will you help me save her?” Jack paused a moment to gauge her reaction and then played one more. “I'll owe you one. Please?”
Emily’s suspicious eyes locked onto him, gauging the sincerity of his words. He looked right back at her so she could see that he really meant it. Yes. An American was humbly asking for help. And putting himself in her debt. He would let her chew on that for a moment.
Emily finally nodded. “Very well. Give me her information and I will do what I can.”
“Excellent. We’re on the way over right now,” Jack said with a nod towards Betty.
“Wait a second,” Recovery’s cyber said in surprise.
“You’re a real life saver,” Jack said over her objection and Emily’s jaw nearly clicked shut. Her eyes narrowed as the Avenger slipped out of Los Angeles’ hangar bay. He’d boxed her in with that comment and they all knew it. Still, she wasn’t done.
“You can’t fit inside my hangar bay,” she pronounced with finality. She sounded and looked like God, pronouncing a law of nature.
“We’ll walk over,” Jack rejoined with a smile, dodging the law she laid down. The Avenger vibrated around him as the main engines came to life, and they accelerated away from Los Angeles.
She crossed her arms again and raised an eyebrow. “If you can walk over here, I can make an android avatar for her.”
“Sounds like a date,” Jack answered and smiled at Betty.
Betty just rolled her eyes and swung them around Adams. She weaved their fighter between Mendoza and Vargas, and the engines came to full standard power, shooting them towards the three British ships at the end of the formation.
“I don’t see you walking yet,” Emily said, head cocked to the side.
“I didn’t say I’d walk the whole way,” Jack returned as they passed Eclipse and Assault. The engines reversed, sending blue flames ahead of them into hyperspace, and the Avenger slowed to match speed with the medical frigate.
Emily frowned at him. “You tricked me.”
“I did no such thing,” Jack returned, his voice filled with innocence. Betty smiled on the console and brought them around to match course with Recovery. “And now, I do believe it is time for me to walk,” he added, examining the outside of the frigate. She was tall and thin, narrowing to points fore and aft. Her thick middle section would be where most of her living quarters were, and one of her hatches should be just…about…there. He smiled as he saw it. “Betty?” he asked.
She nodded and spun the Avenger so he could look straight “up” at the hatch, and he heard the air sucking out of the cockpit. The force field linking his cowboy hat with the collar of his uniform snapped into existence, and he took in a deep breath of canned air. It smelled stale. Even the best uniforms money could buy couldn’t get rid of that smell, unless they resorted to perfumes that one Captain Jack was not prepared to entertain. A man had to put his foot down somewhere after all.
Once the air pressure in the cockpit read zero, the canopy opened to space and Jack smiled for a moment. Then he disengaged his harness, swung his feet around to brace against the bottom of his chair, and looked up again. An old story came to mind about kids fighting in zero gee like this. Their mission had been to defeat the other team and exit through their gate to end each training match. There was a saying one of them had come up with to put his kids in the right perspective. “The enemy gate is down.”
Jack felt his perspective shift and he was no longer beside the medical frigate. He was no longer looking up at it. He was ready to fall towards it. He smiled and kicked off. Betty gave him a boost from her gravity generator and hyperspace opened around him. He was alone in hyperspace, drifting with no ship around him. The roiling waves of gravity filled his view until they faded away in the distance, even making Los Angeles indistinct at the head of the formation. He fell towards Recovery and once again wondered why they called it space walking. He certainly wasn’t doing any walking at the moment.
He felt Recovery’s gravity generators grab him, slowing his approach towards the target hatch, and nodded in approval as he contorted his body in a quick spin. The hatch opened, he fell in and stretched his body out again to slow his spin. His boots turned on magnetic fields, he flexed his knees to absorb what momentum he still had, and the boots kept him from bouncing off the current floor. The hatched closed and warning bars told him it would be a wall in a few seconds. It was customary to walk over to the future floor with careful steps after a space walk, but Jack hated doing things the way he was expected to.
So he kicked his heels together three times, waited for the magnets to turn off, and did a back flip. He hugged his knees to his chest and luxuriated in the feeling of zero gee as he spun until it was time to extend his legs. Then he shot them out, looking for the deck as gravity came back on, and hit the floor with the balanced stance of long practice and flexible definitions of up and down. The sound of air rushing into the airlock came to his ears until his contacts reported full pressure around him. His personal force field cut out and Recovery’s air came to his nose.
Jack pulled in a deep breath and nodded in appreciation. Every ship had a different smell, some pleasant, some not. He had to admit that this one was not the worst. He could pick up the taint of disinfectants and other medications in use. She was a medical frigate, so that went with the territory. But he also picked up the smell of true, living flowers and other plant life designed to mask the hospital odor.
The inside hatch opened, and Jack stepped in to see Emily waiting for him in all her full-sized glory. A quick glance proved it was her true android avatar, not a holoform, and Jack smiled. It seemed he rated her personal attention.
“I’m here,” he said, spreading both arms wide. “How goes the avatar-creation process?” he asked, waggling both eyebrows at her.
“Faster than you ever thought,” Emily returned with a pointed look and turned to lead him down the corridor. “I have an avatar on the bench now. All I need is her specifications to begin the final personalization phase.”
“Wow. You are quick,” Jack said, making sure to sound approving. “Betty?” he asked.
Instead of nodding she looked to the side with a worried look. Jack followed her gaze to see a holoform flashing into existence in time to a slight increase in the hum coming from his uniform’s holoemitters. Black hair appeared first, followed by a disapproving face. The rest of Natalie’s body came into focus and Jack pursed his lips when he saw that she was most definitely not in uniform. Casual black jeans and a floral-pattern blouse covered her frame, clashing with the harsh face.
“No, Jack,” were the first words out of her mouth. “I know what you’re trying to do and the answer is no,” she added.
“Oh come on,” Jack mollified with raised hands, but continued to follow Emily. “I have faith in you. You’ll get the hang of a new body real quick.”
Natalie shook her head as her holoform walked with him. “Not that. That’s easy.”
“Then you’re halfway to recovery.” Jack waggled his eyebrows at her in amusement.
Natalie shook her head at the bad pun. “I was born to be with him.”
“Yes.” Jack let out a long breath and proceeded to give her a bit of serious advice he doubted she would like. “Move on.”
Natalie’s lips pursed into a thin line. “You have no idea how hard that is.”
“I do, actually,” Jack corrected.
Natalie lowered her eyebrows at him in doubt. “How?”
Jack looked away for a moment, gathering his thoughts. “Were you alive when the Shang attacked?”
“No.” It was a simple statement but Jack remained silent, waiting for her to elaborate. Finally she sighed and continued. “Louis volunteered after the strikes. But my mother told me everything.”
Jack sighed. “I saw it. Live and in full color. Me and my dad were fishing when the missiles started raining down on Washington. And I watched the missiles striking Yosemite Yards. My dad couldn’t see so well, but I got eagle eyes.”
Jack cleared his throat. “So I watched Yosemite fall. I didn’t actually see it hit California, of course. Curvature of the Earth and all. But I could see where the pieces were falling. I saw them spreading out. I saw them coming our way. I lived in Northern Minnesota. One of the bigger pieces landed in the Boundary Waters, not far from my hometown.”
“I’m sorry,” Natalie whispered.
Jack shook his head. “I’m not finished.” He met her gaze and held it. “Me and dad got home as fast as our boat could take us. We got there before the wreckage hit. Barely. I opened the storm cellar and mom, dad, and me went down. We almost made it.”
Jack cleared his throat and looked away to see that Emily was standing in front of an open hatch. He wondered how long she’d been standing there, and how long they’d all been filling the corridor. She smiled at his confusion and motioned for him to enter. He followed her request and stepped into a small robotics bay with a single table in the middle. An androgynous, base model android lay on it, waiting to be completed for the intelligence that would fill it.
“You don’t need to continue,” Natalie said, shaking her head. “I’ve read the report.”
“You haven’t read what’s never been in a report,” Jack said and looked back to her. “I saw the wave of water rip the front of our house apart. We were still on the stairs when it hit us and shoved us into the cellar. I broke some bones but I remained conscious.” Natalie nodded once more. “So I was awake to see my dad take his last breath. And then…over the next few days I watched my mom die a piece at a time, because she just couldn’t imagine life without the man she loved.” Natalie blinked and Jack nodded. “She went to sleep one night and just never woke up.”
“The coma,” Natalie whispered. “It wasn’t because of physical wounds?”
“No. It wasn’t,” Jack affirmed. “And she’s never coming back. They can keep that body alive as long as they want to, but she’s never waking up. She doesn’t want to live without him, and as much as I’d like to I can’t blame her for that.”
“But you did.”
Jack looked over at Betty and she just smiled at him, a calming presence in the whirlwind of his memories. “Yeah. I did. I tried just talking to her. I really did. I hoped she’d come back for me. But she wouldn’t. By the end I was screaming at her. I shouted horrible words. I think part of me wanted her to wake up so she could wash my mouth out with soap.” He laughed with a dark humor and shook his head again. “I did not have a good bedside manner.”
“You were stressed,” Natalie said.
Jack shook his head. “I was broken. Just like you feel right now. The doctors were ready to call the shrinks on me, but a couple friends took me away and put me back together again.”
“T&J?” she asked.
“Julie and Alex,” Jack corrected with a wry smile. “I knew them long before they used that name.”
Natalie nodded very slowly. “So you really are their Jack?”
“I don’t belong to anyone,” Jack answered reflexively. He sighed in response to Natalie’s raised eyebrows and brought a hand up to rub his forehead. No. She was right. A part of him would always belong to them. “Yeah. I suppose I am,” he moderated.
“And what are they to you?” Natalie asked, the seriousness of her question filling her tone with compassion.
Jack set his jaw against the flood of emotions and just breathed in and out. Then he cleared his throat, removing the lump from it so he could talk again. “They’re the reason I’m alive today,” he said, dodging the deeper question she’d asked. She gave him a look that said she knew he was dodging and he continued before she could ask again. “They cut their tour short to do some benefit concerts and picked me up along the way. They forced food into me when I didn’t want to eat. They forced me to put on clothes and walk around like a human being.” He chuckled at the memory. “They even forced me to get up on stage and sing with them a few times.” Jack stopped and looked at Betty again. She held his gaze and nodded very slowly. He swallowed, feeling the shame of what he’d done again. “And they did the single greatest kindness just about anyone’s ever done for me.”
“What?” Natalie asked.
Jack turned to meet Natalie’s gaze with a sad smile, and admitted to doing one of the few things in his life he truly regretted. “They didn’t believe me when I said I hated them. When I screamed at them to leave me alone.”
Natalie’s eyes opened wide and he nodded.
“I’ve been about as low as a man can be and still stand back up again. I thought I lost everything that mattered. In a way, I did.” He shrugged. “I lost myself. But they didn’t leave me alone. They made me stand up every day. They made me live. And now I’m here.” Jack pursed his lips. “I’d be a real poor excuse of a human being if I didn’t try to pay that forward.”
Natalie examined him for a long moment. “So this isn’t about me,” she finally said in a soft tone. “It’s about you and them?”
Jack chuckled and shook his head. She frowned at him and he waved his humor away. “No, you’re right. It’s all about them.” Jack smiled and met her eyes. “My life has been all about them since I met them. First I sang with them. Then I lo…” Jack’s voice trailed off as he couldn’t finish the word. “Liked them,” he said instead. Betty and Natalie shared a knowing look but Jack tried to ignore them. Five more words hung on his lips. He held them back, examining them from every angle, making sure they felt right. They did. Making sure he could say them. His eyes flicked over to Betty. She smiled at him. Then she nodded. Jack smiled back and realized he could. And it was a lot easier than saying the other thing. “Now I fight for them,” he said with a smile.
Natalie cocked her head to the side. “I thought you volunteered to kill Shang.”
Jack spread his arms out wide. “I did. I guess I’m better now.” He glanced at Betty again and she nodded, encouraging him to continue. He let out another long breath, dug real deep, and returned his gaze to Natalie. “Fighting and killing isn’t really the answer. Not in the end. It’s what we leave behind when we’re done. I want to give them worlds without war. So they can sing for people other than just rowdy soldiers looking to forget the fighting for a few hours.”
Natalie nodded like she knew what he meant. Louis had probably wanted to forget the fighting too. They’d never talked about that. Jack chewed his lips for a moment, and then smiled at her.
“They saved me. I know I’m a poor substitute, but I’ll try to do the same if you’ll let me. I won’t let you go alone. I’ll walk beside you through everything that follows. And I’ll carry you if you can’t walk,” he finished with a fervor he hadn’t realized he felt.
Natalie smiled. “I’ve read that poem, you know. It’s beautiful.”
“Yes, it is,” Jack answered and smiled at her. “It was about footprints on a beach; of course I had to learn it.”
She was silent for several seconds, and Jack wondered what could possibly be holding her attention for that long. Her mind ran at the next best thing to lightspeed, using distributed processing that allowed her thousands of thoughts at once, and yet here she was, thinking in silence. It had to be big. Finally she opened her mouth.
“Would he really do that for me?” Her lips actually quivered.
Jack frowned. “I said I’d be there. I meant it.”
“Not you,” Natalie said with a shake of her head. “God. If he exists. Would he do that?”
Jack blinked as the enormity of her question hit home. And Jack was not comfortable even thinking about that question.
“I’m not the best person to ask,” Jack answered with a shake of his head. “I haven’t done the whole religion thing in a long time.”
“But you used to,” she asked with pleading eyes. “Didn’t you have an answer then?”
Jack shook his head. “I had more questions when I was done than when I started. I’m sorry.”
Natalie place a hand over her heart and aimed an anguished look at him. “I’ve calculated every possibility I can think of, and all I see is pain and loss ahead of me. If you want me to try this, you need to give me something more.”
Jack met her tear-filled eyes, and knew there was nothing he could say to stop her. He just wasn’t the right person for this. And for a moment, he felt profoundly guilty about that. He shook his head to tell her that he had nothing.
“Jesus loves the little children,” came out of his lips. He frowned in surprise as he thought about that song for the first time in a long time. And then he recognized the message in it.
“What?” Natalie asked in confusion.
Jack smiled, realizing that maybe he did have the right words for her after all. “It’s a song I learned as a kid.”
Natalie cocked her head to the side in thought. “Yes. I know the song now. Why do you quote it?”
“Red, brown, yellow, black, and white,” Jack recited carefully, meeting her questioning gaze. “They are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the worlds,” he finished with a smile.
“I am no child,” Natalie mused.
Jack rubbed his jaw. “True,” he admitted with a shrug. “But Christianity is chock full of allusions and roundabout ways to say things.”
“True,” Natalie echoed. “So what does it mean to you?”
Jack pulled in a long breath as he considered the words again. He was pretty certain his first feeling was right. “The original song came from long ago, back when races of man were divided by skin colors. Back when my nation still used some of them as slaves in fact.”
“Oh,” Natalie whispered and frowned in thought.
“Exactly,” Jack said with a smile. “Colors don’t matter now, but we have new racisms. Terran. Peloran. Shang. Cyber. But we’re all human. Isn’t that what you always preach?”
“Yes,” Natalie said very slowly.
Jack nodded. “I read the whole Bible from beginning to end when I was young, and from what I read I think God would agree.”
“But you don’t believe,” Natalie whispered, her tone asking why it should make a difference.
“I don’t know what to believe anymore,” Jack corrected with a shake of his head. “But if he’s real then he loves you. And that’s the best answer to your question I can give.”
“If,” Natalie said with a shake of her head. “That’s a big word to spend a life on.”
“People have spent a life on less than that,” Jack returned and shrugged.
“I just don’t know if I can.” Natalie said after a few seconds.
“Neither do I,” Jack returned, his tone frank. Natalie blinked at him in surprise. “Life is strange,” he continued with a smile. “Some people become stronger under pressure, under questions that shake the very foundations of life we believe in. Some people fall apart.” Jack shrugged, indicating himself. “I didn’t cover myself in glory there. Jasmine stood up and did good though,” he added and Jasmine flickered into existence to the side so she could nod towards Natalie.
“I don’t know if I can follow that path,” Natalie whispered.
“Neither did I,” Jasmine returned before Jack could come up with a response. “But Drew made me promise to try. Did Louis ever talk to you about it?”
“No,” Natalie answered. Her lips quivered before she said another word. “He was going to live forever,” she added with a helpless shrug and half a sob.
Jack looked at Betty and they exchanged a long look. He knew that feeling well. Wanting to live forever was a powerful wish for someone that didn’t age.
“You knew him better than any of us,” Jasmine continued, a melancholy inflection in her words. “Would he have wanted you to live or die?”
Natalie let out a long breath before answering. “He wanted me to live.”
Jasmine smiled at the other cyber. “Then there it is. You owe it to him to try. At least give it a shot.”
Natalie shook her head. “But I don’t know how.”
Jasmine turned back to Jack and smiled. “I took it one day at a time,” she whispered and her raised eyebrows told Jack it was his turn to rejoin the conversation.
Jack reached inside his shirt and pulled the dog tags out to look at them. A small holo of his face snapped into being over them, his service number, name, and rank scrolling beneath it. His full name, not the shortened version he’d earned over the years. Jonathan Michael Christensen. A name he didn’t know if he could ever live up to. But if the name could do some good, maybe that would help. He took the dog tags off and met Natalie’s eyes. “Will you take these?”
She frowned at the chips of electronic metal and silicon. “Why?”
“Because in our darkest hours we all need a reminder that other people care about us,” he said, looking deep into her eyes so she would know he spoke the truth. “Maybe this can be that for you. It won’t stop you from shutting down. Hell, I’ll hold your hand as you go if you choose that route in the end. All I ask is that you give these back to me first.”
“You mean, all you ask is that I face you and tell you I’m giving up?” she asked, a faint note of accusation in her voice.
“Well, I wouldn’t put it like that,” Jack said and cleared his throat.
She smiled, letting him know that she’d caught his evasion. Then he saw power flooding through her holoform and felt his uniform’s holoemitters flicker as she shifted her programming into Recovery’s systems. The ship’s more powerful emitters gave her substance to match her form and she reached out to take the dog tags from his hand. “That would be a very hard thing to do I think,” she said very slowly.
“Harder than living?” Jack asked.
She shook her head. “I don’t know,” she answered truthfully. “But I think I want to find out.” Then she looked towards the hatch. “Now get out of here. I don’t want you gawking at my new body. At least not until I decide what I’m going to wear,” she added with fragile humor.
It was humor though. She was trying. “Yes, Ma’am,” Jack said to Natalie, cleared his throat of what most certainly could not have been a sob of relief trying to escape, and gave her his best debonair bow. Then he waved a determinedly gallant arm towards Betty and Jasmine, a questioning look in his eyes. “Shall we?” he asked.
They smiled in unison.
“Excellent,” he continued and raised an eyebrow towards Emily. “Might I take a tour of your beautiful ship, my lady?”
“Of course. Follow me,” Emily said with a smile as a holoform split away from her android avatar.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack answered and followed the holoform through the hatch, Betty and Jasmine on either side of him. It wasn’t precisely a good day. Too many people had died for that, but now was not a good time, and a British ship was not the right place to grieve for them. So he reminded himself that they’d survived and saved a few lives along the way. It wasn’t perfect, but he would take that over the alternative any day of the week.
They followed Emily down the corridor and through another hatch. Jack stopped in his tracks upon seeing the far bulkhead.
“I thought you might like the view,” Emily said in a satisfied tone.
“Shiny,” Jack whispered back without taking his eyes from the sight. Hyperspace covered the entire outer bulkhead, rainbow rivers twisting and turning all around them. He could see the American warships ahead of them, moving towards a much larger torrent of energy. He watched Los Angeles dive into the raging gravitic current with the other American ships on her heels. Jack sucked in a deep breath as Recovery and her destroyer escorts followed the Americans into the Epsilon Reticuli-Serenity Run. Gravity parted around them, they kicked up their proverbial skirts, and left Epsilon Reticuli behind as they accelerated to one hundred times the speed of light and beyond.
They had a new destination now, and Jack hoped it would live up to its name.