I was a little con artist as a kid, always looking for ways to fool adults and impress the pretty girls with my exploits. It was all harmless fun back then. It got a lot more serious during The War. The Shang. The Chinese. Charles’ family. Even the American military if you look at it the wrong way. Or the right way. I conned them all in the end. I had to. They gave me no choice. They didn’t like my people. My family. Nobody messes with my family.
Jack woke up alone, the echoes of dreams still fluttering in the back of his mind. Some were no fun at all. Like the one involving him, Katy, and Olivia running through dark alleys. Others were amazing. He particularly liked the fragments of one that involved him, Julie, and Alex not running away from anything. He looked around to see torn sheets, feathers spilled out all over the bed and floor, and even some blood. He looked down and saw the bandages were long gone, strewn all over the floor and bed. It looked a lot more like a running away night now that he thought about it.
Jack closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. At least part of the dreams had been real. He must have been flailing around a lot to do this much damage. He opened his eyes again to see the broken lamp on the floor. He glanced up to see the empty nightstand it had been on and sighed. The girls were going to kill him.
He heard the uniform begin to hum and looked up to see Betty standing in the middle of the room. She made a show of looking around at the devastation before giving him a broad smile. “Good morning.”
Jack grunted in response. “What’s good about it?”
“You’re alive,” Betty said.
“Good point. That is better than the alternative,” Jack said and rolled off the demolished bed. He eyed his uniform where it lay, a cord running from it to a power outlet in the wall, but Betty cleared her throat.
“The bathroom is over there,” she said with a wrinkled nose. “Might I suggest a shower?”
Jack glanced at her for a moment, and she gave him a meaningful look. He bent his head down and sniffed. Yup, that odor was one hundred percent Jack on the run. He sighed, picked his shorts off the floor, and followed her suggestion. It only took a moment to switch the shower from sonic to water mode, and one more moment for him to realize that hot water hurt when it hit his still healing wounds. He actually let out a yelp of pain on first contact, and spent the rest of the shower scrubbing himself very gingerly.
He stepped out of the shower once that chore was done and examined himself in the mirror. He was noticeably thinner than before, his eyes sunken into his head and his jawbone visible under loose skin like he’d been on a starvation diet for weeks. His wounds were still bright red and puckered, but they were closed enough to keep stray infections from getting into his body. It was sobering to count them up. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been shot that many times. He looked like death warmed over.
“Are you coming out or just admiring yourself?” Betty asked from the bedroom.
Jack blinked and shook his head. “Coming,” he said and pulled his shorts on. Then he left the bathroom to make his way to where his uniform lay. He pulled the cord from the wall and it retracted into the pure white fabric automatically. The smart cloth had done its job over night, knitting itself back together and bleaching all the blood and other stuff out. He doubted even his old drill instructor would have seen anything wrong with this. Which of course meant the old man would have just invented something to find.
Jack smiled and started pulling the pants on. Then he swung the shirt around and promptly pulled a muscle. Jack sat down on the bed, his eyes full of tears, and waited for the pain to lessen enough that he could make a coherent thought. His first thought was to wonder who was keening in pain. It sounded like a little kid whining about stubbing his toe. His second thought was the realization that he was the only one in the room.
He silenced himself with supreme effort, gave Betty a wan smile, and pulled the shirt on far more carefully. The cowboy boots were harder. He had to reach down, slip his fingers into the loops, and pull each one onto his feet. That hurt. A lot. He blinked the stars out of his eyes before slipping the jacket on, and then looked around for his cowboy hat. It was on the floor. Far away from the bed. Oh joy. He was not looking forward to bending over to pick that up.
Betty smiled and stepped over to the hat. She looked down at it and Jack felt his uniform’s holoemitters click into higher gear. They began to vibrate and the background sound that was usually just at the edge of hearing intensified. Then Betty bent her knees and swooped down in a single smooth motion to lift the hat off the floor. She straightened back up, walked over to him, and placed the hat on his head with a smile.
“There you go, space cowboy” she said as the holoemitters dropped back to their normal power output.
“Thanks,” Jack said with far more feeling than he probably should have. It wouldn’t do to admit that he was some helpless invalid. Then he came to his feet in a smooth motion. Usually it would have been to look shiny and debonair. Today he just didn’t want to pull anything. He nodded, took a deep breath, and turned towards the door. “Shall we?”
“Lead the way,” Betty answered with a smile.
Jack pursed his lips. “Actually, do you think you could?” Betty cocked her head to the side in confusion. “I don’t know the way.” His stomach growled and he looked down. And that was when the different kind of pain in the pit of his stomach registered. “But I think I know where I need to go.”
Betty laughed and stepped towards the door. It opened and Jack followed her out into the hall. They stepped into a small cafeteria a minute later and Jack looked around. Olivia sat at a table alone, looking more tired than Jack felt. But her eyes widened in shock and he knew what she was seeing. Death warmed over.
“Ma’am,” Jack said with a nod. “How are you?”
“I’m alive. And that’s Olivia to you,” she finished with a smile.
“You’re looking good, Olivia” Jack said with an answering smile.
Olivia rolled her eyes. “I look like death warmed over.”
“No, that’s what I look like,” Jack corrected. “You just look a little chilled.”
Olivia snorted and shook her head slowly. “It feels like I should look a lot worse. I mean they only got me a couple times. And my uniform took most of the damage. But I feel like they were hammering on me all night.”
“We’re not really meant to fight in these uniforms,” Jack said as he pulled on his. “They’re just emergency measures in case things go ti…belly up.”
Olivia raised one eyebrow at him before sighing. “I think they saved our lives.”
“I think you’re right.” Jack shrugged.
“Thank you, Jack,” Olivia said.
Jack smiled. “My pleasure, Olivia.”
She nodded and then turned as a noise came from her left.
A door opened and Katy walked through with a smile. It was a wan smile and he could see the loose skin hanging from a normally much rounder face. Her body was burning every reserve it had to repair her damage too. But at least she was smiling.
Then he frowned as he realized he’d left her behind. But now she was here. Just her though. “Where are the others?”
Betty smiled at the question. “Jasmine and Natalie are in the workshop right now. Their bodies took a lot of damage.” Then she shrugged. “And the girls weren’t nearly as prepared on that front as they thought they were. They’re having to do a lot of scrounging to get bits working again.” She smiled at Jack’s worried look. “But don’t worry. They’re mostly good. Combat effective if we need them. It’s just the fiddly bits they’re trying to get right now.”
Jack cocked his head to the side, wondering what the fiddly bits might be. Then he shook his head. He really didn’t need to know that. As long as the girls were combat effective, that was good enough for him.
Betty shrugged. “He’ll be coming along shortly. He’s good.”
Another door opened and they looked to see Julie and Alex walk into the room with large serving plates full of steaming food that made Jack’s mouth water. They placed them on the table and Jack’s eyes devoured the heaps of scrambled eggs, diced ham, cheese, peppers, onions, and other stuff he didn’t know the names of.
“Eat all you want,” Julie and Alex said with a smile and stepped back.
Their stomachs growled at the food and Jack and Katy shared a wry look. “Challenge accepted,” they said in unison and sat down to begin scooping massive spoonfuls of the food onto their plates.
Julie, Alex, and Olivia watched with wide eyes as they began devouring the food at lightning speed. The food exploded into his stomach and Jack felt his body eagerly go to work on the new nutrients. He stopped for a moment to drink down a glass of water and then proceeded to shovel more eggs and meat into his mouth. They finished their first plates at the same time and filled them back up again.
Alex shook her head in amazement. “He told us you’d need a lot of food, but this is ridiculous. How do you afford to eat?”
Katy paused with one spoon in front of her lips and smiled. “Why do you think I joined the Space Force? I let Uncle Sam pay the bills.” Then she returned to eating like she was afraid it would disappear if she didn’t shovel it down fast enough.
Julie, Alex, and Olivia turned their attention to Jack and he paused. “What?” he asked through a mouthful of food. Then he swallowed in response to their upraised eyebrows. “I just make it a policy not to get shot every other day,” he added with a shrug and then shoveled another spoonful of meat and eggs into his mouth.
The girls served themselves after that, but they only ate a small fraction of the heaping pile of food before Jack and Katy finished polishing it off. Jack found himself looking at the plate and wondering if he should lick it off for any stray protein that might still be lingering on it. Then he looked up to see the same idea in Katy’s eyes. And then he felt a gas bubble come up from his stomach and belched. It was long and loud and made him feel much better as he relaxed back in his chair to see three sets of eyes staring at him. Which was when Katy echoed his belch and smiled as she relaxed too.
“That was good,” she whispered and leaned back against her chair. “Got any more where that came from?”
Jack chuckled as the three sets of eyes opened wider.
“She’s joking,” he said with a smile. “We’re actually kinda full right now.”
“Speak for yourself,” Katy groused. “I could eat a cow.”
“Mostly full,” Jack corrected and patted his stomach. He could feel it asking for more food already, but they needed to give their bodies time to digest this food first. “Give us an hour though and we’ll be needing another round.”
“An hour?” Julie asked in amazement.
“Maybe half an hour,” Katy said with another look at the empty plates.
“An hour,” Jack said with emphasis. It wasn’t healthy to eat too much food too quickly and they’d already pushed that line just in this meal.
She sighed and gave him the point.
Then he turned back to Julie and frowned. Somebody knew exactly what they needed and had made certain the girls were prepared. “Who told you what we’d need?”
“Malcolm,” Julie said quickly.
“He’s the man that helped you last night,” Alex added.
“The man in the suit,” Jack said and nodded in understanding. “Where is he?”
“Wondering when you were going to ask,” another voice said from behind the door Katy had come in from. Then it opened to reveal a tall, thin man with a long, angular jaw. Short, black hair topped his head, and hard, black eyes met Jack’s gaze. He wore a black suit with matching black tie that looked cut from exactly the same pattern as what he’d worn the night before. It might even be the same one, depending on how smart the cloth was. “I’m Malcolm McDonnell, and I’m very pleased to meet you two.” He looked over to Katy and nodded, and then turned to Olivia. “And especially you.”
Ken followed the other man into the room and Jack barely recognized the sagging skin and sunken eyes that looked at him from a face that wasn’t much better than a deaths head. Ken had been hurt more than any of them, and it was going to take time for his body to recover. Jack and Ken exchanged nods of greeting and encouragement. Jack’s said it was good to see him again. Ken’s said that he’d spent enough time with the man to know he was good people.
“You look good,” Jack lied.
“You look like Hell,” Ken returned with a smile.
Jack snorted and turned his attention back to Malcolm. The other man grabbed the open chair next to Olivia and deposited his lanky frame into it as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Jack knew the act well. He’d used it enough times. He leaned back again to study the other man.
“Jack?” Julie said with one raised eyebrow.
“Aren’t you going to introduce yourself?” Alex added.
“What? I’m sure he already knows who I am,” he said and looked to see Malcolm smiling at him.
“Jack.” Julie wasn’t asking this time.
Jack sighed and gave in. “Jack Hart. Cowboy,” He said and reached up to tip the brim of his hat towards the man.
Malcolm nodded in acceptance of the name.
“Jonathan Michael Christensen,” Julie said in a very old fashioned voice. “You be nice to the man that saved your life.”
“I am!” Jack protested back at her. “I told him my name! What more do you want me to say?”
“’Thank you’ might be a good start,” Alex supplied.
Jack looked at her for moment and she jerked her head in Malcolm’s direction. Jack sighed and turned back to the other man. “Thank you,” he said.
Julie and Alex sighed as if he was hopeless. Malcolm did not smile. Jack could see the smile pulling at the edge of his lips, but the man kept it down and managed to keep his expression calm. But the twinkle in the man’s eyes was just unable to hide the amusement the man was feeling at Jack’s predicament.
“You’re T&J,” Ken said in a surprised tone.
Julie and Alex nodded back at him. “Our friends call us Julie and Alex,” Julie said. “And who are you?”
“Ken Banno,” Ken said with a smile and a small bow. “Cowboy. At your service.”
Jack placed a hand on Julie’s shoulder. “Julianne Taylor Hansen.” He placed his other hand on Alex’s shoulder. “Alexandra Jennifer Thompson.” And then he smiled. “Otherwise known as T&J.”
Julie aimed a dirty look at him.
“You can call us Julie and Alex,” Alex said and removed his hand from her shoulder.
Ken sat down across from them, glanced at the empty serving platter, and began to shake his head.
“What?” Julie asked.
Ken chuckled. “You’re in love with a Cowboy.”
“Mmmm.” That was Alex. Short and to the point. She didn’t need to say which song that came from. It had topped the charts a year ago.
Ken looked at Jack and sighed. “You’ve been holding out on us.”
“A gentleman does not kiss and tell,” Jack intoned in a grave voice as he shook his head.
“And when did you become a gentleman?” Katy asked.
“When I became an officer, of course,” Jack answered with an innocent smile. “Haven’t you heard that they hand out the papers together?”
Katy gave him a doubtful look before turning to Malcolm. “I’m Katy Reynolds. Cowboy. Thank you for helping us last night.”
“It was my pleasure,” Malcolm answered her.
“Olivia Wyatt,” Olivia said in a cool tone to the man sitting next to her. “What do you want?”
Malcolm smiled. “Straight to the point. Charles was right.”
“About what?” Olivia asked with a cocked head.
“He said I’d like you.”
Olivia pursed her lips and studied him for several seconds. “And how do you know him?”
“We grew up together. Rather to the disappointment of his father I might add,” Malcolm said in a way that Jack instantly recognized. This was an old time rascal dressed up in a nice suit. “And he told me to look out for you when you arrived. Charles. Not the father. Which was a very good thing, because you seem to have developed some enemies.”
“They will regret that,” Olivia said.
“Of that I have no doubt,” Malcolm answered with a nod. “But in the meantime, we have some strategizing to do.”
“No disrespect,” Jack started with a wave of his hand, “but why should we trust you? You haven’t even given me the secret handshake yet.”
“Jack!” Julie reprimanded.
“There is no secret handshake,” Malcolm said with a smile. “Though that was a nice try.”
Jack pursed his lips and nodded. The green outline surrounding Malcolm’s body pulsed twice on his contacts to remind Jack that Betty had already vetted Malcolm. Still, one could never be too careful.
“Maybe I didn’t tell Charles about it,” Jack said and held his hand out.
Malcolm looked at the hand and then back up to Jack’s eyes. Then he stuck his hand out and placed it in Jack’s.
Jack squeezed. He wasn’t a knuckle cruncher and never had been. But he’d grown up in farming, fishing, and hunting country, where real men shook hands and meant it. He felt the citified little limp hand in his and forced himself not to grimace. Then the hand stiffened, shifted just a bit, and squeezed back. It wasn’t a knuckle cruncher grip either, but Jack had felt that handshake before. It was a stronger handshake than most people could copy, and it told Jack something very important. Malcolm McDonnell was Ageless. It appeared the man did know a secret handshake.
Jack nodded at Malcolm and released his hold on the man’s hand with a smile. “So. What’s our first order of business?”
Malcolm smiled. “Well, for one I suggest that we go to a little place I know that has amazingly good food before you three gluttons start gnawing on the table legs.”
Jack frowned. “I don’t know. I’m not really up to another fight right now.”
Malcolm laughed. “Oh, you don’t need to worry about another fight right now. Trust me. Every gang on New Earth has heard about yesterday by now. Not a one of them wants to even look at the contract that is out on your heads.”
“And what if they send someone who knows what they’re doing next?” Katy asked.
Malcolm smiled and steepled his fingers together. “Well, in that very unlikely event, I happen to know the…upstanding and completely law-abiding businessman who happens to…protect this neighborhood and the restaurant I am thinking of. Nothing happens in his neighborhood that he is not aware of. You will be…quite safe as long as you remain in this area of…expertise.”
“We weren’t very safe last night,” Jack said.
Malcolm shrugged. “The neighborhood you were in was not under his watch last night.”
Jack frowned. “Last night? What about now?”
Malcolm smiled. “There has been some…management turnover in some of the…local business organizations in the last few hours. I can assure you that there will not be a repeat of last night’s performance.”
“I don’t know if a certain family will like that,” Jack said very carefully.
Malcolm chuckled. “An organization that can remain unnamed for now paid a lot of money to kill you all. And they lost a lot more than money when you failed to accommodate their wishes. Trust me. You just did more damage to their influence on Alpha Centauri than anyone has done since the first colonization ship arrived.”
“Well, they did a lot of damage to us, too,” Jack said with a wince.
Malcolm shrugged. “Yeah, we’re not going to be admitting that. Can’t let anybody think we Ageless can be taken down by random street hoods, can we?”
“They had automatic rifles and rocket launchers. They were not random street hoods.”
“Oh Jack.” Malcolm affected a wounded expression. “I assure you that there is no mention at all of such heavy weapons used in the police reports. Just like there are no indications that any fictional interstellar conspiracies of ancient and powerful families were trying to eliminate one of their rivals.”
Jack watched Malcolm waggle his eyebrows and then they shared a snort.
“I suppose we wouldn’t want the people to worry, would we?”
“Of course not.” Malcolm smiled at everybody in turn. “And that is why all of us are going to make a point of going out there and showing off for the cameras. Myself, a businessman of some repute. You are of course Cowboys, famous for breaking the Chinese and Shang at a hundred worlds.”
“Less than that actually,” Jack corrected.
“Allow me to wax poetic, will you?”
“Of course,” Jack said with a sigh.
“As I said, a hundred worlds. And the hero of Serenity, come to relax after her selfless defense of our sister world.”
“I thought the official story was less flattering,” Jack said.
“Sure, GNN’s got the story they run with.” Malcolm chuckled. “But they don’t have the viewership they once did. FNT thinks it smells like cover up and they got one of their head reporters on the case. I think you might remember her. She used to be a religion correspondent.”
“Faith,” Jack whispered as he remembered their first interview. She’d held back from hitting him with the question her superiors had wanted her to hit him with, and he’d refrained from destroying her goody-goody gumdrops reputation in return. And then GNN had dumped her for not stringing him up like a dead fish on air. “She’s a good girl.”
“That she is,” Malcolm said with a smile. “And she came to bat for you on this. She’s been drumming the Serenity story since the first reports came in. And you should see the tear she’s been on since she found out you were involved in last night’s shoot out. She’s even throwing around words like ‘conspiracy,’ and the fact that Cowboys got targeted too…well…let’s just say you are the number one trending news story on New Earth this morning. Everybody wants to talk to you, and no one will dare try to hurt any of you for the foreseeable future for fear of proving that hypothetical conspiracy that has absolutely zero evidence going for it right now.”
“So all we need to do to avoid getting killed is…dodge the first attempt?”
Malcolm gave a harsh laugh. “Pretty much. Life sucks sometimes, huh?”
“Tell me about it.” Jack shook his head. “So which story do we go with? Random street hoods or conspiracy?”
Malcolm chuckled and his smile could have melted butter. “Neither. We don’t know. And it would be presumptive of us to say anything before the investigation is completed.”
Jack laughed. “That’s a good one. I like it.”
“It has the advantage of being mostly true,” Malcolm said with a wink.
“Fine,” Jack said and brought a hand up to cover his mouth. The yawn came almost without warning, powerful enough it brought tears to his eyes and felt like it would snap his head off at the jaw bone. And that was when he realized he was starting to slow down again. His body had all the food it needed and now it demanded more healing sleep. “I think I need to take a rain check on that restaurant though. My body just made me another appointment with a bed.”
Malcolm frowned and looked back and forth between the three Cowboys. Then he shrugged and waved towards the bedrooms. “Fine. You’d never fool them right now anyways. But we need to get out and on this before the newsies realize you’ve been down for too long. And you need to make a statement.”
“I know.” Jack let out a long breath and stood up carefully. He really didn’t want to pull another muscle. “This getting shot business is no kind of fun, though.”
“Tell me about it,” Katy chimed in with a groan as she came to her feet as well.
“Can we avoid it in the future please?” Ken asked with a groan.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Jack said and they walked back towards the bedrooms. Dressing rooms. Whatever they were. Jack really didn’t care. They had a bed and a bathroom. That was really all he needed. And he needed the bed badly enough that he fell asleep before his head hit the pillow.