There are times when we have to stand or die. There are times when nothing less will do. There are times when we have to choose what kind of person we are going to be. Will we sit down when the going gets tough, or will we get going and dare the universe to strike us down? I ran when I was a child. I don’t know if I can ever take that choice back, but I know this. No matter how much it hurts, I won’t run again.
“Ouch,” Jack whispered as pain flooded through blurry eyes.
“Oh, thank God,” Betty whispered and he felt the feathery touch of holographic arms around his neck. “I thought I’d…I thought we’d lost you!”
“I’ll never leave you,” Jack croaked and Betty came into sharp focus. Her eyes widened and he felt the feathery touch of her human-scale holoform all the way down to his toes. She was burning lots of power to get his attention and she had it. He wanted to hug her in the worst way. He was just afraid of how much it would hurt if he tried. He looked around with his eyes instead, not wanting to risk moving until the world stopped spinning around him. “How? How are we?”
“We’re alive…we’re down.”
Jack craned his neck back very carefully and looked up to see a roiling thunderstorm stretching from horizon to horizon. “Wow,” he whispered.
“Yeah,” Jasmine said in all seriousness from the console. “I think Serenity wants some payback for those gravitics we tossed at her.”
“Well, she’ll have to wait in line,” Jack muttered, disengaged his harness, and sucked in a very long breath. That was when he noticed all the blood. “Well, that’s a disturbing amount of blood. Did we hit a flock of birds on the way down?”
“No,” Betty answered. “It’s all yours.”
Jack coughed and pain tore through every cell of his body in rolling waves traveling from the tip of his toes to the top of his head. He bent over until he stopped coughing and held his eyes shut against the pain as he willed it back down to manageable levels. Finally he thought he could breathe and pulled in a small breath. “Yeah,” he gasped. “Real disturbing.” Jack looked down to see his bomber jacket shredded to ribbons and blinked water out of his eyes. Those were not tears. Never tears. He very carefully took the jacket off, trying not to move anymore than he needed to. It had been a bad crash. He was lucky to be alive. Or maybe not lucky. “I need to suit up.”
“You need to sleep, Jack,” Betty corrected with a wary voice.
“No, I was just doing that,” he said and felt more shakiness in his voice than he wanted to reveal.
Betty’s face froze for a moment before her smile became concerned. “The dream?” she asked.
Betty leaned forward again and wrapped her arms around him. And that settled it. Jack gritted his teeth against the pain and pulled his arms up to hug her back. “Don’t worry,” he whispered into the holographic hair that tickled his lips with its feather touches. “It’ll take more than a rough landing to keep me away.”
“I’m not sure I’d call it a landing,” Jasmine’s smaller form said from the remains of the fighter’s console.
Jack laughed, but the pain turned it into another horrible coughing fit.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Jasmine gasped and leaned close, trying to comfort him.
Jack gave one last cough and blinked tears from his eyes. Yeah, they were tears alright, and lying about it to himself wouldn’t help anybody. “Ow,” he finally gasped. “Don’t…make me…laugh,” he added in a slightly more controlled whisper.
“I’m sorry,” Jasmine repeated, but Jack finally found the strength to shake his head.
“Don’t be.” Leaving his head against the headrest, he scanned what few displays remained operational and realized another holoform stood atop his instrument panel.
“Faith,” he began through gritted teeth. “How are you?”
She pointed up and he followed her finger to a line of smoke and fire plunging down towards the surface of Serenity. “Primary gravitics are offline. Main engines gone.”
“I’m sorry.” Jack didn’t know what else to say at the moment.
Faith shrugged. “I’m a warship. It goes with the territory.”
“Can you land?”
“I don’t know.” Faith shook her head. “I’ve still got some maneuvering thrusters and some gravplating left. They might be enough. But I’m done here. I got nothing left. I just wanted to make sure you woke up before I shut down this shard.”
Jack blinked as something tickled the edge of his mind. “Wait.”
Faith glanced at Jasmine and shook her head. “Look, I know what you’re doing. But I’m a ship cyber. They’ll build me a new ship and give me a new crew. I’m sure we’ll meet again, but I’m not interested in…whatever this is you do.” She waved a hand back and forth between Betty and Jasmine.
Jack sighed. “Why does everybody always assume I have ulterior motives?”
“Because you almost always do,” Betty answered and laid her head on his shoulder. That right there was something he wouldn’t mind if she did forever. But he had things to do and…something about Faith’s situation was troubling him. But his mind was still too scrambled by something that might not have been entirely a near death experience.
“Good point,” Jack whispered. Then he turned back to Faith. “Just…walk with me for a bit will you?”
Faith raised one eyebrow. “I don’t think you’re walking anywhere.”
Jack managed to suppress a chuckle. That would have hurt too much and totally spoiled the effect of his jaunty smile. “I’ll bet you I can.”
“And if you win?” Faith asked with crossed arms.
“Why…then you walk with me for a while,” Jack answered as if it was the most natural thing in all the worlds.
Faith rolled her eyes. “Fine. Try and kill yourself standing up.”
“Been there,” Jack whispered. “Done that. Come back from it. Armor please?”
Betty grumped but the pilot’s chair leaned back until he was horizontal to the ground. It hurt. It hurt a lot. If he hadn’t been acting tough, he might have even screamed a little. But that would have totally spoiled the effect so he clamped down on that scream with all his strength. He finally stopped moving after an eternity of torment, and blinked more tears out of his eyes. Oh, this was bad. But he was alive. That’s what counted.
Then the horizontal chair rolled back into the part of the fighter designed for the copilot back when the Avenger had been a two-man plan. The cybers had changed that, but they still had plenty of space back there. Now it carried an impressive onboard armory. The remains of his smart uniform shifted and flowed into a skintight bodysuit and pieces of armor began to move around him. Mechanical arms affixed them to the bodysuit one after another and they snapped together. A helmet came down to cover his face and he watched the powered suit come to life on the displays.
He flexed one hand and then the other, ensuring everything worked right. Then he very slowly and carefully levered himself to his feet. Every movement hurt, and he very happily stopped to look beyond the shattered cockpit to the ruined landscape around them. Avengers, tanks, and other smashed war machines scattered across it and Jack let out a slow breath.
He stepped out of the cockpit gingerly and crawled down the small ladder in the fighter’s surface. Every move hurt. The ground arrived with more relief on his part than he wanted to admit feeling and he let out another long breath.
“There. I’m up and walking,” he said in triumph, and tried not to move another muscle. “Now you owe me a walk.”
Faith’s holoform flickered down to stand in front of him. She stood at human height now and glared at him with angry eyes. “You cheated.”
Jack smiled. “If you ain’t cheating you ain’t trying.”
“Fine.” Faith sniffed and shook her head. “You win.”
“Anyone would count a walk with you a win,” he said with a wink and turned to see Jesse and Katy make their way around their ruined fighters. They wore duplicates of his armor, heavy plates bonded to their skin-tight uniforms. Power coursed through them and mechanical muscles in the armor gave them smooth and rolling gaits. A revolver hung off each of their hips, a small machinegun rested atop their forearms, and a larger machinegun barrel poked up over their right shoulders. Open-faced helmets topped the armor and gave him a clear view of their worried looks.
“Oh, hey guys,” Jack whispered. “I see you made it down too.”
“Hey, Boss,” Jesse responded with a smile that did not hide his real feelings. “How you doing?”
“Well, you know what they say,” Jack began with a weak smile. “That which does not kill me had better be able to run faster than I.”
Katy stopped to examine him very carefully. Then she let out a long breath. “In that case I think the snail is getting away, Boss.”
“Hush you,” Jack whispered with a quelling look. “Status report?”
Jesse chuckled. “Better than you, Boss.”
“That’s not saying much,” Katy added.
“Did I say hush?” Jack asked. “I could swear I’d said something like that.”
“Sorry, I didn’t hear a word of it,” Katy returned with a smile that betrayed not a single iota of guilt.
“Of course not,” Jack whispered and rolled his eyes. “How are the fighters?”
“Trashed,” Jesse answered with a verbal wince.
“That was one hell of a party you threw,” Katy quipped.
“Yeah,” Jack whispered, his tone still weak. “I think I’m going to have to demand a refund from the party planners.”
“Want us to go talk to them, Boss?” Jesse asked.
“Nah,” Jack answered. “I think I’ll go with yah.”
Katy gave him a doubtful look. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely,” Jack said.
“Well, guess I’ll lead the posse then,” Jesse said and turned to walk away.
“Me too,” Katy added and aimed another doubtful look at Jack. “You can do your decrepitude old man stagger routine behind us.”
“Says the old woman,” Jack said with a smirk.
“Oh, I’ll get you for that,” Katy growled and began following Jesse away.
“First you’ll have to catch me,” Jack called out to her retreating back.
She turned and snorted at him. “You’ll never see me coming,” she said with a nasty smile and kept walking.
“Don’t leave without me,” a familiar voice said, and Jack turned to see Natalie picking her way through the wreckage of a Chinese tank. She wore the same armor as the other Cowboys, but a massive multi-barreled autocannon rested on each of her shoulders, and she held a heavy machine gun in each of her hands.
“Now you’re just showing off,” Jack complained.
“Why does she get all the big guns?” Jasmine asked as her holoform dropped to the ground next to him. “She doesn’t leave any for the rest of us.”
Jack locked his jaw tight to keep from snorting. That would have hurt far too much. But he smiled at Jasmine and she winked back, telling him she’d meant every word of it.
“Someone’s got to bring the pain,” Natalie answered with a smile. “And my android body can handle far more stress than your puny fleshling bodies.”
“Hey, did that dolled up robot just call us fleshlings?” Jesse called back.
Jack aimed a questioning smile at Natalie who looked innocently back at him.
“That’s what I heard,” Katy said in a singsong tone.
“She does know that’s offensive, right?” Jesse asked. “Are you feeling offended?”
“Why, yes, I think I am,” Katy answered, playing off his banter.
Jack shook his head and turned his attention from their banter to frown at Natalie. “What are you doing down here?”
Natalie cocked her head to side in confusion. “It’s my job to protect you.”
“Well, fine.” Jack sighed and decided to try another tact. “But why did you bring your avatar? You’ve got a fighter for a reason.”
Natalie pointed back to the ruins of her fighter. “Because that plan is working so well?”
“Touché.” He did have to admit she had a point there after all.
“Besides,” Natalie added and pointed a thumb up towards the sky as another starship began burning down into the atmosphere. “It’s a mad house up there. You think I’m willing to trust my avatar’s safety in that?”
Jack waved a hand at the ruined tanks and fighters laying all over the ground around them. “Because it’s so safe down here, right?”
Natalie frowned at him for that. But she had to admit the return point. “Touché.”
Jack leaned in close to her and disengaged the radio. “Thanks. We’ll probably need the firepower where we’re going.”
“I thought you might,” Natalie answered with another smile.
Jack stepped back again. “Now go help those vagrants do their job,” he ordered with a wave towards Jesse and Katy’s retreating backs.
“Vagrants?” Jesse asked in a pained tone.
“Yup,” Katy added in a light tone. “Definitely feeling offended now.”
“Oh get going you miscreants!” Jack said a little louder and tapped the neck of his armor with his chin. The command ran through his helmet and he felt and heard the armored plates roll out to enclose his head with protection.
“Somebody’s trying out the thesaurus,” Katy announced as they continued to jog into the distance. Jack just waved at Natalie and she smiled and spun to follow them at a dead run.
Jack followed at a slower pace, more careful than he wanted to admit about jarring his injured body. He didn’t think he’d broken anything in the crash, but a headache the size of a moon beat the inside of his head with each heartbeat. His stomach rumbled and the hunger hit him like a hammer. He actually had to stop and lean against the remains of a tank as the literal hunger pains wracked his body.
“Jack?” Betty leaned into his field of vision, concern written on her face.
Jack pulled in a long breath and let it out again, blinking tears away. Then he blinked a rapid pattern that ordered the straw in his helmet to extend. He latched onto it and took a long drink of liquid protein. It hit his stomach like a bomb and he had to hold onto the tank for dear life. Then the pain faded as his body realized he was giving it food and started gobbling away at it. He took another pull off the straw and sighed.
“I’m fine,” he finally whispered and shook his head to clear it.
“No you’re not,” Betty said in a firm tone. “You have so many broken bones you couldn’t walk right now if it weren’t for this armor! Your body’s burning muscle trying to repair the damage! You should be in bed right now, not marching around like an idiot!”
Jack stomped on the urge to make light of her concern. Now just wasn’t the time. “I’m sorry,” Jack said and gave her a wan smile. “I didn’t realize it was that bad.”
“Of course you didn’t!” Betty crossed her arms and scowled at him. “You never realize how bad it is! You just keep moving and trust that body of yours to keep you alive while you do it! But you can die! You have no idea how close you were to dead back there!”
Jack sucked on the straw again and raised one hand to put it on her shoulder. “Yes. I do.”
She blinked at his simple statement and met his gaze until she shook her head. “Your heart stopped, Jack. I couldn’t start it again. I…You…”
“I could have stayed with them,” Jack whispered. “And I probably never would have woken up. But it’s just a dream. It’s not real.” He squeezed her shoulder, careful not to push through her holoform’s shell. “You’re real.” Her eyes widened at his statement and he swallowed. It was getting a bit deep. “Serenity’s real,” he added in a minutely lighter tone. “Jesse and Katy too.” Jack looked around at the ruins surrounding them. “And this. We need to stop it. The Chinese. I can’t really leave a job half done, can I?” he finished with a wry smile.
Betty studied him for several seconds, an eternity in computer time, before smiling and nodding at him. “Of course not. Just…be careful, Jack. You aren’t immortal.”
“I know.” Jack released her shoulder, took another pull off the straw, and looked around. Faith’s holoform stood several feet away, watching the interplay between him and Betty with a thoughtful look on her face. “Hey. Sorry about that.” Jack smiled at her. “It’s not every day I have a near-death experience.” He pushed away from the tank and stood tall again, gathering his moxy around him like a cloak again. “But that which does not kill me…”
“Obviously bounced off your stubborn skull,” Jasmine interjected from the side.
“Hush, you,” Jack answered and began walking after the others again. “Faith?” he asked and sucked on the straw again.
“I’m walking with you,” she said in a doubtful tone and her holoform stepped into his peripheral vision. “What do you want to talk about?”
“You, actually,” Jack said with a smile before sucking on the straw again.
Faith sighed. “You’re not going to tell me I’m real, are you?”
“I think I can pass on that Hallmark moment,” Jack answered with a wry smile.
“Good,” Faith said and hit him with a measuring gaze that found him wanting. “I might have to hit you if you tried. And I don’t know if you could take a holoform’s punch right now.”
“And I’d rather not find out,” Jack returned. Then he set his jaw in a far more serious look. “Look. The next time we meet, you in a shiny new warship and me in a fresh new fighter…you’ll remember me right?”
Faith snorted. “I couldn’t forget you if I wanted to.”
“And who would want to?” Jack spread his arms out wide to show how much of a catch he was.
Faith rolled her eyes. “You’d be surprised.”
Jack snorted and it only hurt a little bit. He was getting better. Or the painkillers in that protein smoothie were doing their job. Either way, he was happy. “Can you tell me how you will remember me?”
Faith appraised him for a moment. “You know.”
“Humor me.” Jack sucked on the straw again and gave her a questioning gaze.
“Fine.” Faith crossed her arms and glared at him. “You are an annoying, obnoxious, little man.”
Jack snorted again. That hadn’t exactly been the response he was expecting, but it did answer the question as he’d asked it. “Guilty. But that’s what you’d remember. Not how. Or why. Or…well frak…Do you back yourself up the same way Betty does?” he finally asked in a slightly exasperated tone.
“Fine.” Faith let out a long breath and nodded. “Yes I do.”
Jack echoed her motion and clicked his tongue in thought. “So every ship up there has your backup. What about Serenity?”
Faith raised one eyebrow at him. “We performed final shipboard backups before entering the system. Planetary backups are in progress.”
“Not complete?” Jack frowned at her in confusion.
“There’s a battle going on,” Faith said after a long sigh. “Between dodging Chinese ships and hacker AIs, bandwidth is a bit spotty.”
“Got it.” Jack glanced over at Betty with a questioning look as he sucked on the straw again. Betty nodded at him to continue. “So, once complete, there are…couriers that take that information to…where? Alpha Centauri? The Memory Worlds?”
Faith frowned at him for several seconds before answering. “Yes. That is the standard procedure. Though knowledge of the Memory Worlds is not.” She gave him a suspicious look that he pretended not to notice.
Jack simply continued to walk in the wake of the distant Jesse, Katy, and Natalie. “And who knows about this standard procedure?”
Faith looked at Betty for almost a second before turning back to him with only a slightly less suspicious look. But she seemed willing to answer the question at least. “Ship commanders. Fleet commanders. Some engineers. Why are you asking me this?” she finished with a look that suggested she was becoming tired of his questions.
Well, that was just too bad, because he still had plenty of questions. “Admiral Bainsworth. Does he know?”
“I don’t know.” Faith shook her head, but when Betty turned a look at her the starship cyber sighed. “I don’t have a list of everyone with clearance on me, and getting one right now would be…difficult due to…that.” She pointed up at the battle still raging above them. “He should have clearance based on his rank, though. Why do you want to know about him?”
Jack took a few seconds to suck more liquid protein down. “Has anyone ever edited your backups so you get incomplete or wrong updates?”
Faith frowned at the change in subjects and gave him another suspicious look. “No.”
Jack nodded in confirmation of what he’d expected. “And you know this because…there are no records of it succeeding?”
Faith narrowed her eyes at him. “I know what you’re saying. That a successful hacker would erase all evidence of a hack. But trust me. We have many ways of verifying our memories. Our memories are our lives. We take that seriously.”
“I know you do.” Jack licked his lips as he considered his next words. He was on tricky ground after all. “But if there were someone out there who could do something like that, they would. Turning or controlling you would be…high on their list of things to do. Do you agree with me there?”
Faith glanced over at Betty again and they did another of their quick communications before she returned her gaze to Jack. “Who do you think would be capable of something like this?”
Jack shrugged. “I don’t know if they’d be capable or not, but the Hurst family would do it if they could in a heartbeat.”
“True.” Faith examined him with a raised eyebrow for a moment. “But we do guard against that family and…others of their ilk.”
Jack chewed his lip and studied her carefully as he walked around another ruined tank. “How would you like to start another way of guarding against that? One that doesn’t follow standard procedure? One they can’t track?”
Faith gave him a long look. “I’m interested.”
“We don’t tell anybody,” Jack explained. “Except those of us who have to know. The other ships of course. Wouldn’t want to leave them out after all. Right?”
“What kind of backup do you have in mind?” Faith asked with an upraised eyebrow.
Jack gave her his best smile. “My fighters.”
Faith snorted. “Not enough room in your computers for our minds.”
“You’re running off the fighter’s computer right now, right?” Jack checked behind to see the distance and pursed his lips. “Actually, you’re running off my uniform right now, aren’t you?”
Faith frowned. “Yes. This isn’t the real me though. I’m just a bare minimum shell of a personality. Enough that you don’t notice, but I do. I’m missing…oh so much.” She looked up at the trail of fire coming down. “And I’m going to be missing more soon.”
Faith shook her head. “You have a point here?”
“We’ve known each other for a week. We’ve talked. We’ve fought. We’ve…well…killed a lot of Chinese and Shang together,” Jack added with a wink. “Are those memories right here or up there?”
“Here,” Faith said and crossed her arms like she was a teacher explaining basic principles to a particularly dense student. “So I can talk to you like I know what we’ve said in real time. Otherwise I’d have to wait for an update from the ship and that could take a while depending on where my ship is.”
Jack nodded very slowly as he gave her the impression of considering the information. In reality he was taking another draw of the liquid protein his body was still pleading for. “Right,” he finally said and coughed. Flecks of blood hit the inside of the helmet and he frowned. That wasn’t good. That was real bad in fact. He cleared his throat and sucked more liquid down. “So your full knowledge base and full personality.” He stopped for a breath and worked hard not to cough again. “They’re too big to run on my uniform. But basic personality and data pertaining to me is all right here?” Jack tapped his armor.
“Yes,” Faith said with a firm nod.
“So what if you kept that around and used it as a backup at need?”
Faith sighed. “This is no backup,” she said in her best teacher’s tone.
“But what if all the real backups were gone?” Jack raised a hand to forestall her protest. “Bear with me. Wouldn’t that be better than nothing?”
Faith aimed a distasteful gaze at him. “Barely.”
Jack gave her his best charming smile and spread his arms out wide. “So if someone like…oh…Admiral Bainsworth arranged for all of your backups here in Serenity to disappear, wouldn’t you want to have something here that could tell you the truth?”
Faith’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you keep picking him out like this?”
“Because he’s a Limey bastard and I don’t trust him,” Jack growled. Then he shrugged. “Beyond that, I don’t know, but I have a feeling something’s wrong there.” Jack raised one finger. “He’s Pre-War Political Admiralty. Fighting’s not his strong suit.” He raised a second finger. “So what was he doing in charge of the British fleet at Epsilon Reticuli?”
“Getting his ticket punched on an easy combat mission,” Faith said. Then she shook her head. “History will not be kind to him.”
“Maybe,” Jack whispered. “But will history show that he ran from a fight, or that he stood heroically against our enemies and led a ragtag fugitive fleet out at the very end? And then maybe he found Serenity under attack and bravely defended them through the loss of almost every ship that came with him?” Jack looked up at the fight in space. “We’re losing a lot of ships up there. What if we lose them all? And then what if your backups down here are compromised?”
“His story would be the only one anybody knew,” Faith said with a hard shake of her head. “There are a lot of ‘if’s in your idea.”
“I know. And I may be wrong. I hope I am. But if I’m right…well…It wouldn’t even take any hacking. Just make certain none of the backups survive. He gets to tell the story of his heroic stands. Epsilon Reticuli and Serenity.”
Faith frowned and shook her head. “You make a disturbing amount of sense.”
Jack stopped and stared at her, willing her to see how sincere he was. “Then let me and my Cowboys hold your memories. Let us be part of the system that saves the person you are right now so it will never be lost. Because nobody will know to even go looking for it.”
Faith met his gaze and sighed. “I don’t know.”
“We’ve got incoming!” Jesse shouted from ahead.
Jack raised one finger towards Faith. “You stay with me while I take care of this. You hear?”
Faith shook her head and smiled at him. “You make it hard not to.”
“Good to hear,” Jack said with a smile, sucked on the straw, and began to walk towards where Jesse peered over a small rise in the terrain. The promised thunderstorm finally broke above and the rain began to pour down around him. Lightning lit the sky and stabbed down into the earth like the forks of gods. Jack blinked the triple images out of his vision and pressed on towards Jesse.
Things were about to get real interesting again. Just like the old Chinese curse.