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The Family Affair

A Jack of Harts Short Story By

MEDRON PRYDE

Copyright © 2020 by Medron Pryde

Cover background designed by Stephen Huda under contract

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Printed in the United States of America

First Printing, November 2020

http://jackofharts.com http://www.facebook.com/jackofhartsonline

The Family Affair

The dream was there, just like every night. The beach. The bonfire. The party with all the kids he’d grown up with in Northern Minnesota. Even his mom and dad, this time. The glorious sunset and sunrise on a lake in summertime. The songs and the dancing. Julie and Alex and him playing about broken hearts and not moving on. It was paradise, surrounded by the best family and friends a boy could ask for. It had been perfect.

But they’d left. They’d wanted to be music stars more than anything, and he’d just wanted to remain in Northern Minnesota. So he’d let them go and they’d become Taylor and Jennifer, worlds-famous music stars. In a world full of mistakes, that was the big one. The one that mattered. The one he always denied he would take back if he had a chance. Even to himself often enough. But he’d never forgiven himself for making it. Not in the back of his mind. They always waited for him in his dreams.

And today they’d sung about losing the best thing they’d ever had. Them. Now it was time to wake up without them again. It would hurt. It would hurt so much. He didn’t have to. He could stay asleep and be with them forever. Here in the dream, he would never have to leave them again. He could be right back where everything was supposed to be. Where they’d made the right choices. Where they were family. Where he didn’t have to get over doing it all wrong. But that was the easy way out.

He looked towards Julie and Alex and they met his gaze with encouraging smiles. It was time. Time to find the real thems out in the real world and finally tell them exactly what he wanted. No more backpedaling. No more face saving. No more joking and beating around the bush. No more running. It was time to do the one thing in all the worlds that he was truly and completely scared of. He had to face them and tell them what he really wanted.

The Julie and Alex of his dreams smiled and waved as rainbow light played over his paradise. He waved back at them and wondered if this was the last time he would dream about them. That almost stopped him. The thought of never seeing them again almost made him go back. But he’d gone too far to go back now. The rainbow engulfed him and his waking mind left them behind.

Jack awoke to a sense of doom ringing between his temples and a ravening hunger filling his belly. Crash landings sucked. Getting shot sucked. High-gee maneuvers with cracked bones, healing muscles, and aching ligaments sucked. Being saved by two girls who had no business risking themselves in his life sucked. His life over the last few days had become the one unending succession of suck his drill instructor had promised him his life would be after he volunteered to help kick the Shang’s alien asses to the other side of the galaxy.

He pulled in an experimental breath. It hurt to breathe. He blinked his eyes open and it hurt to see. The room swam around him. It hurt to be. He groaned and rolled over to see if there was food and found out that, yes, it also hurt to move. The world swam around him and he placed both hands on the bed to hold it in place.

A steaming bento box appeared in front of him and his stomach growled so loud he could hear the sound echoing off the bulkheads of his tiny room. That hurt too, but the promise of nutrients his body required to heal all the damage he’d taken in the last week took over. He grabbed the box in one hand while tossing the chopsticks to the side with the other. He snatched up a fork, speared the steaming teriyaki chicken, and swallowed several strips without even chewing. The food hit his stomach like a bomb, and it gurgled in acceptance of his offering. He proceeded to polish off all the meat in the box in a matter of seconds. He was licking the juices off the bottom of the box when another one appeared in his field of vision.

He finished that box, and his body went to work healing the most serious injuries that remained. A process which also hurt. Sometimes being Ageless could suck. The Peloran had brought some of the best medicines in all the worlds with them when they made Contact. Wiped out disease. Slowed the aging process. Accelerated the healing processes. They’d brought a new world with them, and never asked for a bit of payment for any of it. And here he was, a member of the one-in-a-million club who got the very rarest side effects from all those awesome medical treatments.

He’d become stronger, faster, and harder to hurt than other humans. His body healed any wound that didn’t kill him. Like fracturing every bone in it during a crash landing. Or getting shot more times than he could count without taking off his shoes in two major ground actions. He also had better senses. Eyes of an eagle wasn’t far off. He could hear and smell better, taste things most couldn't, and he could feel. Yes, oh God, he could feel every single nerve in his body as it sucked down the fresh nutrients and burned them to continue the healing process that had been his life for the last week.

That process would be over soon, if he could just stop injuring himself for a few days in a row, and he would go back to looking twenty-five years old instead of like death warmed over. And if he could avoid getting killed, he would look exactly that twenty-five, or maybe thirty, for the rest of his natural life. Maybe thirty-five. Age was rather fluid these days after all, now that most people could live for centuries in good health. He would live in perfect health until something managed to kill him all the way dead.

He was Ageless. And right now, as he devoured a third bento box, which hurt, and felt his body repairing itself, which hurt, he had a particularly good view on what it was like to feel unhealthy. Because even the very best painkillers had trouble keeping up with the kind of metabolism it took to feed a furnace that could heal cuts in minutes, repair bones in hours or days, and regrow lost limbs in weeks. He hadn’t enjoyed that last one yet, so really, all he needed was just a few days of not getting shot.

That wasn’t too much to ask of the universe, was it?

A fourth bento box appeared, and he paused just long enough to lick his lips before going to work on it as well. He began to realize that it tasted good. It smelled good too. And the general pain of just existing was finally starting to ebb. So maybe the painkillers hidden in this food were starting to take hold. Or maybe his body had decided that the critical stuff was working again so it could mask some of the pain.

He was starting to feel human again.

“Good morning, Jack,” a voice said and he looked up to see the cybernetic intelligence that had chosen to be his partner standing before him in the yellow sundress that she tended to wear on the very best days of their partnership. Long blonde hair, friendly blue eyes, and a cheerful face reminded him of the girls he’d grown up with on the Canadian border. She was pretty much the perfect partner.

“Hi, Betty,” Jack said and smiled at his partner. Or at least that’s what he tried to say. It came out more as a croak and he frowned. He worked his jaw back and forth and cleared his throat a time or two. Three times. He coughed once, which hurt enough to bring tears to his eyes, and tried again. “Hi, Betty.”

Betty smiled and handed him the fifth bento box.

“You slept a long time.” Then she shrugged an apology at him. “Maybe a little too long, but you needed the sleep.”

Jack nodded in agreement. Bodies always did their best healing during sleep. It was like that for any human and went a bit double for Ageless. The problem was taking several hours off from eating, which could leave a man dangerously low on the nutrients the body needed to keep those repairs going. Maybe they should have decided to stick him full of nutrient lines, but he hadn’t wanted to wake up, trussed up like a stuffed chicken.

“Thank you,” he said and dug into the fifth bento box of the last few minutes. He polished it off, like its predecessors, and waved off the sixth box as he actually felt just a little bit full. That would pass quickly. But there was no sense stuffing himself on a full stomach. Besides, he needed an update. “How are Katy and Ken?”

“As good as you,” Betty said with a smile. “Eating enough New Japanese cuisine for a dozen men apiece, and still looking like death warmed over.”

Hollywood’s cyber had been plying them with traditional New Japanese food since nearly the moment they’d boarded her after the most recent Battle of Alpha Centauri. Jack’s body had needed the nutrients badly enough that he’d wolfed down the first servings even though they were raw. He may have commented about being willing to wait for her to cook it, and she may have given him some epic side-eye at the comment. But she’d quickly upgraded him to properly cooked food, a fact for which Jack was profoundly grateful, and the starship had kept the hourly deliveries going all night even after he went back down to New Earth.

Jack had a feeling she was trying to buy his affections through food. It was working.

“That’s better than the alternative,” Jack said and very slowly came to his feet. He inhaled deeply and got a strong smell of eau de Jack. He wrinkled his nose and cleared his throat. Then he gave Betty his very best charming smile and said, “Excuse me, but I think I need to take care of something.”

She smiled and he stepped into his temporary quarter’s small, private bathroom. He showered the grime of sleep and healing away and didn’t bother to use the toilet. He hadn’t had much use for that in the last week, what with everything he was eating going straight into the ravening furnace of his digestive system. He slipped into a tough work shirt and snapped it closed up to the neck. Then he pulled on a pair of jeans and the cowboy boots that went with them before looking in the mirror. He hadn’t worn the boots as a young boy in Northern Minnesota, but they had grown on him in recent years. Besides. The ladies loved the good old country boy look. The ones worth his attention at least.

Unfortunately, he did not look good at the moment. The death’s head visage that stared back from the mirror was a result of his system burning fat and even muscle mass to rebuild all the damage he’d inflicted on it over the last week or two. The sunken eyes and cheeks made him look more like World War II death camp survivors than a charming modern-day cowboy, and that simply would not do today.

“Betty?” he whispered and her holoform flickered into existence next to him and smiled.

“Yes, Jack?” she asked.

“Make me look pretty, please.”

Betty crossed her arms and nodded, bringing the personal holographic generator in his clothing online. The image changed to that of the him he normally was, young, strong, and healthy. The way he was supposed to be.

Jack smiled and saw his healthy face smile back at him like everything was right in all the worlds. Then he nodded and finally felt ready for the next thing he had to do.

“And can you message Julie and Alex, please?” Jack swallowed in an attempt to keep the butterflies at bay. “Ask them if they would be willing to meet me today, sometime? Maybe for… dinner?”

Betty smiled with an approving look. “I’ll get right on that, Jack.”

“Thanks, Betty,” Jack said and pulled in a deep breath. Then he stepped back into the quarters he’d slept in last night. Betty’s hardlight-reinforced holoform awaited his return, still holding the bento box in her hands and he paused for a moment, took it with a nod of thanks, and devoured the teriyaki chicken, which tasted absolutely perfect. He even ate the veggies that he normally wouldn’t bother with. They tasted as good as the rest of the meal.

“This is amazing,” he said and carefully placed the mostly-empty box down with all the other detritus of his much-needed breakfast. Then he belched. It was the same thing every time. Get injured. Eat too quickly and swallow a lot of air in the process. Then belch to relieve the pressure and eat some more once his stomach had settled.

“I’ll be sure to tell Holly you enjoyed it,” Betty said and wrinkled her nose at his antics.

“Make sure to tell her she’s my very favorite starship,” Jack said with a smile and bent over to pick his cowboy hat off the small end table.

Betty rolled her eyes at him. “The starship that feeds you is always your favorite starship.”

“True,” Jack said. He held the cowboy hat for a long moment and pulled in a deep breath. He eyed the door to his quarters and licked his lips. There was a lot of pain and fear and life out there, on the other side of that door. He could stay here, take some time off, and heal up. It’s what the doctors had told him to do, so he could even say he was just following orders. The temptation was real.

He flicked his gaze over to Betty again, and she just smiled. Like always.

She would be with him. Like always.

He would never have to face the world alone, ever again, no matter what happened today. She was with him, and that was enough. He let his breath out, nodded, and slipped the cowboy hat on with a jaunty motion.

An old and comfortable friend stepped back into his bones as he strutted towards the door. “And tell her I’m going to steal her chef at the very first opportunity.”

“She’ll shoot you if you try,” Betty warned with a giggle.

That was a good point. If the starship shot him, then she’d have to feed him to make him better again. And she made the very best New Japanese cuisine he thought he’d ever had.

“I’ll think about it,” Captain Jack of Hart Squadron, Republic of Texas Marine Corps Fighter Attack Wing 112, Cowboy, said and sauntered out onto Leif Erikson Spacebase as if he did not have a care in all the worlds.

But the sense of doom still reverberated in the back of his mind. It would be unfair to say he ignored it. He knew what it meant, and how wrong everything could go if he didn’t do this right. Or if he’d just waited too long. But at least knowing brought peace of mind. Jack would do today what he should have done all those years ago and let the cards fall where they may as an old poem passed through his mind.

He had promises to keep and miles to go before he went to sleep.

Jack took a deep breath of the soup New Earth used for an atmosphere, and his joints ached due to the gravity that was far more powerful than what he’d grown up with. He looked up to see Alpha Centauri’s twin suns in the sky, the bright yellow one far outstripping the brightness of the smaller and more distant orange one. Proxima Centauri was out there too, but it wasn’t visible against the other background clutter at the moment. Assuming it was even in the field of view right now. He couldn’t remember where New Earth was right now in her orbital path through the triple star system.

Jack shrugged the idle thought away and turned towards the nice young lady leaning against the wall next to his door. Long brunette hair fell down over a grey tank top covering just enough to be decent, leading to skintight blue jeans wrapped around a shapely rear carriage. She wasn’t on duty and wanted to make that fact clear to everybody who saw her. Brown eyes met his gaze, and he smiled at her.

“Good morning, Jack,” Jasmine said and the breeze blowing against his cheek shifted around her real physical robotic avatar as she pushed herself away from the wall.

“Good morning, Jasmine,” Jack answered, and his eyes followed the way she moved with approval. Her new body had significant differences to the one she’d lost in the recent fighting, most of them designed to make her a more dangerous combat robot. But a network of synthetic muscles and skin that perfectly simulated the biological body any other girl walked around in covered them from even the most prying of eyes. And he had to admit that the whole package looked good on her. His greatest regret was that she hadn’t let him watch her try her new bodies on before making the decision.

“Where to, this fine morning?” Jasmine asked.

Jack studied her for a moment before answering. Unlike Betty, Jasmine had not chosen him. She’d been born to work with another, the very code that made up her personality designed to match and complement the person she was born to be with until they felt as complete together as he and Betty did. And then her partner died. Most cybers shut down when that happened, but Jasmine still lived. She fought with him now, joked with him, walked with him, and every day he hoped that she was happy with that choice.

She smiled to assure him that she was.

Jack nodded and licked his lips, then looked down the wide street towards the squat, armored buildings arrayed on either side of it. He sucked in a long breath and his nostrils flared as he came to a decision.

“Ken, Katy, and Olivia, I think,” Jack finally said.

“I thought you might want that,” Jasmine said and turned to lead him down the wide sidewalk with a beckoning hand. “Follow me.“

He quickly matched pace with her, taking the appropriate place between the street and any pretty girl all gentlemen were required to take.

Jasmine aimed an amused smile in his direction as the holoemitters in his clothing hummed to life and Betty flickered into her accustomed place on his other side.

He shrugged back at Jasmine. She was right of course. He was no gentleman, but he knew how to play one in public.

Jasmine shook her head and led him around the corner, down another block, and yet another corner before reaching their first destination.

Jack paused outside the gate that oozed the style of New Japan in every wooden curve of its architecture. He walked though and up the stone stairs that led through a series of cherry blossom trees guarding either side of the entrance leading off the sidewalk. He could almost feel time rolling back centuries as he walked between them and into the shrine devoted to the polytheist religion, way of life, or whatever it was that had grown up on Old Japan. Now it made its way to the stars with the people of New Japan, and Jack made his way into a small open area far quieter than the base surrounding them. Jack washed his hands at the small purification station and turned in time to see Sara’s holoform flicker into existence between him and the main building devoted to meditation, contemplation, or whatever it was those Japanese who followed the old ways did.

Sara smiled for a moment, and then stepped to the side. Kenichi Banno came out of the shrine’s main building, and the small native of New Japan smiled at Jack from a face hardened by a lifetime spent under the hot California sun. Wiry muscles on his arms and legs bespoke decades of carving Buckaroo Banno-emblazoned surfing boards over and through the California waves, and his permanent suntan made network stars envious. He and Sara fit each other well, as the very best pilot and cyber partnerships often did, while their blue jeans and cowboy boots simply did not fit the shrine at all. But something else in them did, in a way Jack had not seen before.

Jack gave Ken a long look. “You seem… different.”

“I have spent too much time enjoying violence of late,” Ken said with a sigh. “So I spent the night here looking for purification.”

“Did it work?” Jack asked.

“I do feel more at peace now.” Ken peered at Jack for a long moment. “You look different as well.”

“I spent the night dreaming of the family I’ve lost.” Jack sighed and shook his head.

“And this time it worked?” Ken asked.

“Yes, I think it did,” Jack said with a rueful smile.

Ken and Sara shared a quick look and nod before Ken smiled once more. Then he walked past Jack without another word.

Jack shrugged and followed the smaller man down the stairs, out through the gate, and into a base that was far busier and noisier than he’d thought a minute ago. A pair of Hellcat starfighters flew overhead in a lazy flight pattern, banking so he could see the Devilcat emblems on their flanks with ease. VMFA-911. The reserve Marine fighter squadron that flew from Leif Erikson Spacebase. It was good to see them in the air.

Ken stopped on the sidewalk and Jack looked back down to see the calm stare that said their next moves were up to him. Jack frowned, glanced at Betty and Jasmine, and they smiled in acceptance. Jack shrugged and let out a long breath before saying another word.

“Katy?”

“Follow me,” Jasmine said and turned away.

Jack and Ken followed her down the street with sidelong looks of amusement. She led them around a corner and down another street. One more corner brought them to their destination.

Jack’s stomach growled in excitement as the smell of fresh food wafted over on the wind and he glanced at Ken again. Ken licked his lips and nodded in approval, so they followed her into the officers-only dining facility with the Marine Corps emblem hanging over the entrance. It was after breakfast hours, so the O Club was largely empty, but four seated figures caught their immediate attention. The two redheaded cybernetic intelligences came to their feet to clear their chairs and waved the new arrivals over to their still-seated colleagues.

Katy looked younger than Jack, her body closer to the roundness enjoyed by college freshmen or high school seniors. She’d been just one of many blonde high school cheerleaders when the Peloran visited her native Iowa and brought their anti-aging treatments with them. Now tattoos of flowers and butterflies peeked out from under her tank top, and her normally-impish smile was hidden by a mouthful of food.

The much longer and leaner Olivia sat next to her, frozen in the moment of holding a spoon to her mouth. She was seven decades Katy’s junior, but hadn’t taken the final Peloran Treatments until after she’d grown out of the baby fat of youth, so she normally looked far more elegant and mature. Now her long brunette hair fluttered as she swallowed hard and tried not to act like she’d just been caught shoveling food into her face.

Jack waved in their general direction as Ken made a beeline for the bar. Jack shrugged and followed the other man over in time to hear him ask for an emergency chicken wrap. Jack raised a hand to catch the bartender’s attention and the man smiled before reaching under the bar and opening the small refrigerator there. The military had long since adjusted to the sudden hunger pains of Ageless warriors in need of nutrients, and the bartender came back up with a pair of the emergency rations health-nut politicians had approved for general emergency usage. Jack and Ken grabbed them out of his hands and turned as one to walk over to the table their compatriots already occupied.

They looked far more dignified now, much closer to the near century of military experience they shared between them. Major Kathleen Reynolds and her cybernetic partner Blaze of the United States Space Force were certified aces with fifty years experience flying fighters before joining the Cowboys. Captain Olivia Wyatt was the coolly-professional United States Navy veteran who had taken over the failed Fleet 2300 Cruiser project and turned it into the rousing success that made the Los Angeles-class heavy cruiser available in time for the current conflict. And Gabrielle had been the mind of the prototype ship.

Jack and Ken sat down, unpeeled their wraps, and began tearing into them with a fervor fueled by the grumbling of their empty stomachs. They were everything Jack expected of politician-approved healthy emergency rations. Tasteless, chewy, and unfit for human consumption. But his stomach went to work on the much-needed protein, and he tore into it once more with abandon.

Which of course was when the waiter stepped up and asked how he could help.

“Dr. Pepper, pork chops with bacon, and a side of fries please,” Betty said.

Jack raised a thumb in approval as he chewed his wrap.

“Coke, teriyaki chicken, and chicken-fried rice with an extra side of yum yum sauce please,” Sara said, and Ken echoed his motions.

The waiter raised his eyebrows at the two men as if to suggest that while they may be officers and he therefore had to serve them, they were far below the station most of his clientele enjoyed. Then he turned and left to place their orders.

Jack and Ken continued to tear into their emergency wraps throughout the performance, acting oblivious to the man’s obvious disdain for them. Katy and Olivia shared a schoolgirl giggle before returning to the job of polishing off their plates. And then all four leaned back in unison before the wreckage of their meals and sighed.

Jack looked around the table and caught the rueful looks in return. “Well.”

“A deep subject,” Katy said with her familiar impish smile.

“How are you?” Jack asked, steadfastly ignoring her comment.

“Hungry,” Katy answered and snorted. “But I’m still alive, so there’s that.”

Jack nodded and turned his attention to Olivia.

She frowned and waved a hand that encompassed the world around them.

“Pennsylvania’s charged me with cowardice in the face of enemy action, conduct unbecoming of an officer, and the hijacking and theft of a sovereign ship of war during wartime. Other than that, I’m peachy.”

Jack winced in understanding.

It was common knowledge that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania held a grudge against a certain Captain Olivia Wyatt. Most people thought it started with the differing reports of the Battles of Epsilon Reticuli and Serenity. Depending on the source, Wyatt was either an erratic coward who ran and sacrificed most of her fleet to save herself, or a grim-faced commander that led her ships into the face of superior forces to secure victory. Or at least survival.

Jack had escorted her starship during both battles. He knew the truth. He also knew that wasn’t the true genesis of the grudge.

Not everyone appreciated the red tape and failed systems Captain Wyatt and her team cut through to pull the Fleet 2300 Cruiser project from failure to success. Especially those who owned companies that built those failed systems. She had personally cost the Hurst Family of Pennsylvania a great deal of money, and so they had called on their tame government critters to make the impudent naval officer in question pay for her crimes against her betters.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania used their connections to steal her ship out from underneath her. They further demanded that the United States Navy court martial her, using their reports of Epsilon Reticuli and Serenity as proof of her misdeeds. They added the hijacking and theft charges after she took her ship back and used it to fight the Shang attackers here in Alpha Centauri.

It was fortunate for everybody involved, except perhaps the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, that the Alpha Centauri system records included an order to draft USS Los Angeles from her parking orbit for the purposes of emergency system defense.

It was even more fortunate that Captain Olivia Wyatt also officially commanded the small task force that surprised and gutted the Shang invasion fleet. Olivia was a genuine hero on New Earth now, and the stories coming out of Serenity about her heroic drive into the heart of the Chinese invasion fleet added more fuel to her fame in Alpha Centauri.

It was turning into an amazing case of warring narratives that Olivia seemed to be on the winning side of for now. But only a fool underestimated the resources an entire American State, or one of the Great Families of Earth, could throw at a single individual when they decided to destroy someone’s life. And a conviction on those charges still called for the death penalty, so nothing about them was a laughing matter.

So of course, Jack laughed at them.

Olivia pursed her lips at him.

“Look, I know it’s not going to be easy,” Jack said and shook his head. “They are going to lie about you. They are going tell stories about you. They are going to make up everything they can think of to tell other people why you are a horrible person and a worse officer. And they are going to get you fired.”

Olivia winced as he put her fears into words that none of them could take back.

“It’s going to hurt,” Jack continued in a more serious manner. “It’s going to hurt worse than you think it can. You’ve devoted your entire life to doing this and they are going to take it from you because they can. Because you didn’t kiss their asses the right way. Because you succeeded in spite of them. They will never stop lying about you, Olivia, and they will never stop working to hurt you because they can’t abide you succeeding in spite of them. And that is going to hurt until the day you die. Because some people will believe them. And that is just going to suck.”

Olivia let out a long breath and looked at her food with a pained expression.

“Way to lighten the mood,” Katy whispered from her side of the table.

“So frak ’em,” Jack said.

Olivia glared at him.

“Well, not literally,” Jack said and shrugged. “I mean, you have to keep some standards, right?”

Olivia gave him a look that said he better get to the point or he was going to regret it.

“Success is the ultimate revenge against someone like them,” Jack said with a smile. “Winning in spite of their best efforts. And for all their power and influence, Pennsylvania has no say over who we choose to stand with. We are with you.”

Jack waved a hand at the other two Cowboys.

Katy and Ken nodded in agreement.

“And the people behind us are with you,” Jack added. “We believe that you are worthy of the kind of hero worship Serenity and New Earth are expressing right now, and we will give you every opportunity to prove it. And one day, when all this fighting is over, we are going to drive home just how badly they fraked up when they stabbed you in the back.”

“Oorah,” Katy said and waggled her eyebrows at the starship captain.

Ken nodded once more.

Olivia looked down at the table again and let out another long breath.

“Thank you,” she finally whispered. “I know this isn’t going to be easy.”

“The best things in life are never easy,” Jack said, and his eyes went out of focus as a litany of things he’d done wrong passed through his mind.

Then a plate appeared in front of him and his eyes focused on an amazing pork chop and steaming fries. The waiter had already teleported away before he had a chance to thank the man, so he cut into the pork chop and sampled it. His mouth watered at the first bite and he sighed.

“I take that back. Sometimes the best things are real easy,” Jack said, and proceeded to demolish the succulent pork chop in record time. He washed it down with his drink when he was done and smacked his lips in appreciation as his stomach happily went to work on the new fuel. Then he began browsing through the fries as the other reason he’d wanted to talk to these people finally surfaced from the back of his mind. He raised his eyes back up to the two ladies with a speculative look.

They returned his gaze with interest, and Katy at least seemed to be waiting for him to get to a long-expected point. Possibly Olivia as well. Jack glanced over at Ken, who was still polishing off his fried rice with gusto, and the other man spared him a glance that suggested he should get on with it.

Jack sighed and nodded in acceptance. These people could read him like a book. Well. He could still have some surprises in store for them.

“I’m going out there,” Jack said and waved his hand towards the nearest edge of the base. “I need something, for somebody, and was hoping you could help me out.”

“Well, that explains the doom and gloom I’ve been feeling all morning,” Katy said and emitted a relieved sigh. Then she winked towards Olivia. “He’s got girl trouble on the brain.”

Olivia aimed a measuring look at Jack but remained silent.

Jack frowned at the realization that maybe he couldn’t surprise them after all. Then he nodded in answer to the unvoiced question.

Katy leaned forward and bared her teeth in a predatory smile. “Are you scared?”

“Terrified,” Jack admitted.

“Then we have your back,” Katy said with a solemn nod.

Olivia and Ken quickly echoed her action.

“Thank you,” Jack said and smiled at them all.

Then Katy sprang to her feet without warning. She bowed, waved her hands towards the exit, and gave Jack a wink. “We should get a move on before your girl trouble gets more complicated.”

Jack sighed, nodded, and came to his feet as well.

Katy led them out of the O Club like she was leading Jack to an execution and really wanted to see how far his head bounced. Or maybe he was just being pessimistic with all the doom and gloom still reverberating through his brain.

He deftly kept an optimistic face as they made their way towards the edge of Leif Erikson Spacebase. It wouldn’t do to worry the troops after all.

“Jack!” a voice shouted and Jack turned to see someone he recognized walking towards them on the sidewalk just outside the military base.

“Faith!” Jack shouted back and spread his arms out wide in his very best Captain Jack of Hart Squadron act. “I’ve missed you!”

“And I’m still married,” Faith responded with a sly smile. “Happily.”

Captain Jack covered his heart with his hands as if mortally wounded by her verbal dagger. Then he aimed his outrageous smile towards Olivia to begin the introductions. “Faith Hendriks. Reporter. FNT. An honest-to-God honest reporter.”

His hand waved towards Olivia, and he bestowed another fantastic smile on Faith. “Captain Olivia Wyatt. United States Navy. Hammer of Epsilon Reticuli. Hero of Serenity. Protector of Alpha Centauri.”

Olivia sighed.

Faith studied the captain for a few seconds before smiling.

“Not exactly the epitaphs I’ve heard on the major news services,” Faith said. “Though the underground networks are rife with similar statements. We are going to have a lot to talk about when you agree to my interview request.”

“When?” Olivia asked with a raised eyebrow.

“I’m an eternal optimist,” Faith said and turned back to Jack. “Please tell me you have some news for me.”

Captain Jack faded away in the face of her serious, questioning gaze.

“Betty?” Jack asked and waited for her holoform to flicker into existence next to him. “Please summarize Serenity and Alpha Centauri. No classified or sensitive info. Nothing from Epsilon Reticuli. Any public articles you saved from Serenity. Package and transmit to Faith.”

Betty crossed her arms and nodded. “Working on it.”

Jack turned back to Faith. “This is on the record. My name.”

“On the record,” Faith said with an awed expression. “I don’t get many of those.”

“Handle it well, and you’ll get a lot more of them,” Jack said.

“Thank you,” Faith said and then leaned in closer to whisper. “Anything… off the record by chance? Like… maybe… two days ago?”

Jack turned to Olivia with a questioning look.

She met his gaze for a long moment. “Do you trust her?”

Jack glanced back towards Faith and sighed. Then he mentally flipped the question back and forth as he studied her. Did he trust her? He thought he could. She hadn’t betrayed him yet. But did he trust her with the secrets of other people? That was a good question. He looked deep into her eyes and mentally asked the question that mattered.

“Will she hurt me or mine if I tell her?”

The sixth sense that was part and parcel of being Ageless, the sense of danger before somebody aimed a weapon at him, went as calm as lake water on a windless day as he looked at her. She would not harm him or his.

Jack nodded in decision and smiled at Faith.

“Betty?”

“Yes, Jack?”

“Scramble everything. Full privacy screens.”

“On it, Jack,” Betty said and every electronic warfare system in his clothing came to life to scramble any recording or visual systems locked on him.

Nearby civilians squawked in confusion as their personal computers went offline and Jack wondered when he’d started thinking of them as civilians. Then he put that thought away. He didn’t have time for that right now.

“Drop my personal holoform now,” Jack ordered.

“Are you sure, Jack?” Betty asked with a concerned look.

“Yes, Betty. I am.”

“Okay,” she said in a doubtful tone and nodded again. “Dropping now.”

He felt the hologram covering his face shut down. The slightest resistance of its hardlight faded away and he felt the wind on his cheeks just a bit more. Just enough to tell him that the thing making him look pretty was no more.

And then there was Faith’s gasp as she saw the gaunt and starved face that looked like a death camp survivor.

“This is so far off the record that you may want to forget you ever heard it,” Jack said very slowly and firmly. He waited for her to nod in understanding before looking behind him towards where Katy and Ken scanned for threats.

He nodded at them and they looked at each other for a second. Then they sighed and nodded. Their privacy holos dropped a few seconds later as well, showing the same sunken cheeks and eye sockets. They looked like death warmed over. Briefly. But still mostly cold.

Jack swallowed and turned back to Faith.

“They almost got us two days ago. It was a very near thing. And their target was Captain Wyatt.”

Faith looked back and forth between all four of them for several seconds before letting her shoulders droop. She worked her jaw back and forth for a bit as she wondered whether or not she should ask. And then she did. “Who tried to kill her?”

Jack polled his sixth sense one more time, asking again if he should tell her. The answer was as pure as a bell floating over a frozen lake on a clear January morning. So he answered her question. “The Hurst Family.”

Faith’s lips twitched and she shook her head ruefully. “I’m not surprised. Well, I’m surprised to hear someone say it… but not that they did it. If that makes sense.”

“Surprisingly, yes,” Jack answered. “They aren’t the most friendly of people in my experience. You may want to forget I told you.”

His instincts told him she wouldn’t.

“But if you look into this, be very careful, Faith. You don’t want to end up looking like me. Or worse.”

“Thank you for the tip, Jack.” She raised a hand to run it over his sunken cheek. Just to be sure it was real. Then she nodded again. “And the warning.”

A light on her bracelet blinked red for attention and Faith aimed a questioning look at Betty’s holoform. Betty nodded and Faith tapped her bracelet to tell her personal computer the information transfer was expected. The bracelet flashed several times, then turned a solid green for a second before blinking out again.

“Well, it looks like I have a story to write,” Faith said and turned to walk away. “I’ll make sure you get top billing as a source.”

“No need to push on my account,” Jack said.

“I’m not,” Faith said with a wave as she stepped off the base. “Your name in an article always spikes my ratings.”

She walked into the foot traffic with a bounce to her step, and other relevant body parts, that would have sent a teenage Jack into a drooling haze. The much more grown up Jack let out a resigned breath and gamely broke eye contact with that amazing sight to look at Betty.

“Make me look pretty again, please.”

Betty smiled, crossed her arms, and nodded.

Jack felt the holofield flicker back into being and turned to Olivia.

She met his gaze with measuring eyes and Jack waved a hand at the “Gun Free Zone” sign Faith had just walked by.

“I hope you don’t mind if we keep our weapons this time, Ma’am?” Jack asked.

“Please don’t tell Cat she can’t take over a Third World planet today,” Katy said from behind her reformed holofield and batted her eyes at Olivia.

“No,” Olivia answered with a strong shake of her head.

“No?” Katy asked in disappointment.

“I mean, yes,” Olivia corrected with a frown at Katy.

“You do mind?” Jack asked.

Olivia stopped and just looked at them in frustration. “Do you two do this all the time?”

“Never,” Jack said.

“Always,” Katy said at the same time.

Olivia frowned at them and shook her head. “Keep your weapons.”

“Yes!” Katy exclaimed and jumped in the air. “Third World planets, fear me!”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” Jack said. “I’d rather not repeat our last visit.”

“Which is why I’m fine with her terrifying Third World planets.” Olivia aimed a pointed look at Katy.

Jack nodded in understanding and stepped forward to escort Olivia off Leif Erikson Spacebase and into civilian territory. There was no fence or wall. No change in pavement. Leif Erikson Spacebase had been built around the same time as the civilian roads around it, and they had the same age markings. But an indefinable sense of relaxation fell upon him as he entered the civilian world and passed through the crowds of people who thought it was so very much safer than it really was.

He didn’t let their relaxation take him off his guard for a moment as that civilian world passed by him on one street and down another. He passed through the civilian crowds like a phantom, his people moving through his wake with few noticing any of them. New Earth was at peace again, free from the threat of War that had harrowed it just yesterday. Kids flirted and dated, going to movies or just playing on the streets. Adults walked around, window-shopping or just enjoying the breeze coming off the ocean.

Jack remembered when that was his life. Now the weight of twin Taurian Arms revolvers on his hips reminded him that he had left this world behind. He could walk through it. He could spend hours walking amongst them and seeing the world through their eyes, but now he understood that they were not his eyes any longer. He saw the same recognition in Ken’s eyes whenever they met. They were the civilians of the group, the two who had spent their lives at play until this War dragged them in. Now both of them understood that they no longer belonged in the world they had once loved.

They accepted that fact and searched from store to store for just the right thing that Jack needed to hopefully reclaim something else he loved. Even as each glance at his contacts showed no response to his request. One street side eatery after another called to them as the hours went by and their stomachs reminded them that they needed more nutrients to heal their various injuries. It was a never-ending quest to stay ahead of the hunger pains, as store after store tried to sell him things he did not want. Taste after taste was amazing, varied, and worth every moment as the four enjoy their day of civilian life.

Their one getaway from The War that had so defined all their lives in recent years.

He found what he was really looking for in the end, in an out-of-the-way hole-in-the-ground outside one of the more scattered outdoor markets. The smiling man had given him the box, and Jack’s heart had threatened to vibrate through his ribcage as the nerves finally got to him. They still had not answered him.

Jack now held a dripping burger in both hands in a valiant effort to maintain his calm as the sun that mattered rode lower in the sky. He kept his full attention on enjoying the taste and sensation of dripping grease and molten cheese as he chewed at a mouthful of meat and bun. The full pound of perfectly-cooked hamburger was succulent, and the bacon was juicy and tasty enough to make him want to thank God for creating the pig that gave its life for him this day. Or given that this was New Earth, the scientist who had probably injected the petri dish with pig culture to make the ethically-farmed version thereof.

Jack’s contacts flashed for his attention and he rotated his head to scan the incoming fast-moving object. The redhead, complete with freckles to die for, had green eyes that could weaken the knees of any man on command. Not Captain Jack, of course. He was stronger than ten men. He could lift mountains on demand. Redheads were easy peasy. Though this particular one introduced complications that he wasn’t ready for right now.

Captain Jack came to his feet in a smooth motion, setting the hamburger aside for the moment, and gave her his best jaunty smile.

Then the inbound missile leaped into his arms to plant a solid kiss on his lips. She held it for an eternity, her body wrapped around his like a second skin. It wasn’t the same body he remembered. She’d been closer to a girl then, but now her far more womanly curves blew Captain Jack right out of his mind. Her hair swam around him, smelling like the sea. And her lips tasted of… well… something that just Jack didn’t have the brain power to recognize at the moment. She kissed him until the universe went cold around them, and then she came up for air and stars filled his eyes.

“Hey, Cowboy,” the redhead whispered, and the stars twinkled in big, green eyes. “How you doing?”

Jack just stood there, trying to remember which way was up.

“Hi, Captain!” the redhead said and waved at Olivia. “I’m Samantha McEntyre. He’d introduce us, but he’s still trying to work out one plus one right now. Can I call you Olivia?”

“My friends do,” Olivia said with a raised eyebrow.

“Excellent,” Samantha said and smiled. “You can call me Sam, because we are going to be great friends.”

She tapped Jack’s chest and smiled. “You. My place. Eight PM sharp. Got it?”

Jack blinked as he ran his mind over the words, trying to make sense of them. He finally nodded. More because he realized she was waiting for a response than because he really got it. He licked his lips and tried to remember how to breathe. There it was. Breathing was good.

“Good,” Sam said and pointed at Ken. Then Katy. And finally Olivia. “You. All of you. Bring him to my place, because there’s no way he’s gotten it yet.”

She pulled herself up Jack’s torso to lean closer to Olivia. The undulations that required did Bad Things to his attempt to assert calm, but she continued to talk as if she did not care a wit about that. “And you. I mean it. My place. Good food. Nice conversation. No Family business. Understood?”

Jack had just enough brainpower to realize what she meant. She knew that the Hurst Family was behind Olivia’s recent problems, and she didn’t care. God. Sam truly was amazing.

Olivia smiled after a few short moments to consider that as well. “No Family business.”

“Excellent,” Sam said and returned her attention to Jack.

The object of her attention was finally beginning to master the art of moving when she planted another kiss on his lips. She pulled back out, smiled, and extricated herself from Jack’s arms.

Captain Jack was still gone, but Jack finally managed to boot up his brain enough to make an intelligent response.

“Sam.” Well. Intelligible at least. Intelligence was still in doubt.

She stopped and cocked her head at him. “Yes, Jack?”

He sucked in a deep breath and licked the lips where she’d kissed him. Julie and Alex hadn’t responded to him, and Sam would be so much fun to spend the night with. But that was the problem in the end. He’d been running from those two girls when he met Sam the last time. He hadn’t realized it back then. Now he did. It wasn’t fair to any of them to run to her when he had unfinished business to attend to. For good or ill.

Not that he was fully capable of all of that rationalization at the moment. They were passing thoughts, flowing through the mind of a man looking at a pretty woman he still loved. But in the back of his mind, the still small voice he had long learned to trust told him that he was on the right path. He just had to hold true to it.

“I’m sorry, Sam,” Jack whispered with just enough certainty to get the words out clearly. “But I have plans tonight.”

Sam blinked once, and then smiled at him. “Wow. You really are hard to sidetrack.”

“Wha?” Jack muttered in confusion. And with that stellar vocabulary of response, he proved once again, as numerous politicians had over several millennia of human civilization, that intelligence was not required in order to speak.

“Message received, Jack.”

Jack blinked. His mind chugged and stumbled over itself trying to figure out what that non-sequitur meant.

Sam sighed as if taking pity on him. “Tonight. Eight PM sharp. My house. Julie and Alex will be there.”

Jack blinked again. He frowned at her as his mind began to get back up on its proverbial feet. But he was still playing catch up, and only a single word made it out of his confusion. “You?”

“The world’s prettiest delivery girl,” she answered his one word question and struck a pose that reminded him why he’d fallen for her in the first place. Her eyes sparkled as she caught his reaction. “You. Them. My place. You hear me, Cowboy?”

Jack licked his lips. His heart slammed against his chest in excitement. His brain fired in every direction at once as he finally realized they had answered him. And not a single word made it to his tongue as he stood there in mixed pleasure, amazement, shock, and several other emotions he was not currently capable of recognizing. So he fell back on the one thing his drill instructor had trained into him back in boot camp.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Good. Then I gotta jet,” she said and disappeared into the crowd faster than he could react.

Not that he could react very fast at the moment. Or at all. He sat down hard and felt the chair creak under the abuse. He cleared his throat and worked his jaw around. He finally sniffed and turned towards Olivia again.

She gave him a measuring look. “And she is?”

“Girl trouble,” Katy mouthed.

“Hush, you,” Jack said in her general direction before turning back to Olivia while he thought about how to explain it. He took another bite of his burger to buy some time. He might as well start out simple. Because nothing else about that girl was simple. He swallowed and sighed. “I left. She didn’t. I haven’t seen her in… about a year. My time.”

Olivia nodded in understanding. Hyperspace travel did odd things to time and space. You never knew how far you would travel down the twisting currents of gravity to get from point A to point B in normalspace, or how long it would take to get there. And time in hyperspace never seemed to move as fast as the rest of the universe. Spend a year traveling the stars and the rest of the universe might see as much as two years go by. Alpha Centauri had seen fifteen months to his twelve. Nowhere near the worst time dilation he’d read about in school, but he wondered what those extra three months meant to Samantha.

“She seemed… happy to see you.”

“Yeah,” Jack said in surprise. “She did.”

“Jack’s got girls in every port,” Katy whispered.

“That’s a baseless exaggeration,” Jack said.

“True.” Katy smiled. “Sometimes the girl is the port.”

“Hush, you,” Jack growled and took another bite of his taco.

“Are you going to go?” Olivia asked.

“Or the ships,” Katy supplied. “Jack loves the pretty ships.”

Jack swallowed and shrugged towards Olivia. “She did say they’d be there. So… yeah.”

“Are you ignoring me?”

Olivia nodded in understanding. “Julie and Alex.”

“I… asked them out for dinner tonight,” Jack said and stuffed the rest of the burger down. He chewed faster than he probably should have, but his body at least appreciated the gesture of another round of protein. Then he swallowed and looked back towards Olivia. “I… she said she was the delivery girl.”

“She was way more than a delivery girl,” Katy whispered.

“They were testing you,” Olivia said with a firm nod.

“Wha?” Jack asked Olivia, falling right back into the high vocabulary that proved his level of functional intelligence.

“That’s it. You’re ignoring me, aren’t you?” Katy whined.

Olivia chuckled. “Don’t worry. If they were testing the true character of your Paladin-like resolve to seek them out, avoiding all temptations along the way, like an extremely hot old girlfriend, I think you passed with flying colors.”

“Ah,” Jack said in relief. His eyes passed over the table, looking for any other stray nutrients that might be hanging around.

“Or they may have been testing your ability to function in the midst of such womanly temptations,” Katy chimed in. “If so, you totally failed.”

Jack licked his lips and looked at Olivia.

Olivia let out a long breath. Then she shrugged, as if to say that it could be both or either.

“Ken? Can you help me? He’s ignoring me,” Katy asked with an innocent bat of her eyes.

Ken slowly chewed his burger and held his composure well enough to make a Buddhist monk proud. If they could show pride. Which was a sin, or something. So they probably wouldn’t.

“How do you do that?” Olivia asked.

“Mmmm?”

Olivia waved between him and Katy like it was obvious.

And with that return to something like normalcy, Captain Jack finally came back to him.

“Oh. That,” Captain Jack said with a sly smile. “I just think of her as the older sister Mother never let me sell to the circus.”

“Older? Older?” Katy whispered in mock outrage. “That is baseless libel.”

Katy rolled out of her chair and performed several flips in a row before coming to a halt with her arms high in the air. Passers-by applauded her performance, and Katy preened for her adoring fans.

“The circus would kill to have me.”

“And here I’d kill to be rid of her,” Jack whispered.

“I heard that,” Katy said and stuck her tongue out at him.

“You were supposed to,” Jack said and turned his gaze back to Olivia. “I can banter with her with half my brain tied behind my back. Which leaves the vast majority of my brain to paying attention to far more important people.”

Olivia met his gaze with interest as Katy bowed again and again with great sweeps of her hands.

“Like that guy watching us three blocks back,” Jack said with total nonchalance.

Olivia jerked in surprise and started to turn.

“Don’t look,” Jack commanded and Olivia arrested her movement. “You see him, Cat?”

“Yeah, Boss,” Katy answered as she clapped hands with several children. “You didn’t notice him appear while you were playing smoochie face with Samantha.”

Katy sprang away from her fans to make obnoxious kissing noises and faces at him.

“I can’t take you anywhere, can I?” Jack asked.

“Well, if you’d take me some place nice every once in a while, maybe you could,” Katy answered in a singsong tone, finishing with a pointed look at Jack. Then she flitted her eyes towards Olivia.

Jack took the suggestion and leaned back in his chair to examine Olivia with a critical eye that shouldn’t miss a single stitch. Olivia raised an eyebrow at his sudden attention and he wondered if she was blushing. She had far darker skin than he was used to seeing on girls in Northern Minnesota and it masked her blushes most effectively. Besides, it was her clothing that had most of his attention. Well. Maybe half. He had to admit that her civilian blouse and slacks wrapped her up well enough. Which meant that he definitely had to keep more than half of his attention on the clothing. And while it was perfectly serviceable for walking around town, there were some uses it was not optimized for.

“I hesitate to say it,” Jack said and sighed.

Ken met his gaze with a martyred look and polished off the last of his food. He knew their time was up.

“Ooh, yes!” Katy exclaimed as she pranced in place with excitement. “Say it! Please say it!”

Olivia’s raised eyebrow became apprehensive of what he was about to say.

“We’re going to dinner at McEntyre House.”

“He’s going to say it!” Katy whispered in excitement.

Jack let out another long breath and said it. “So we need to go clothes shopping.”

“Yes!” Katy squealed in excitement. “We’re going shopping!”

She actually jumped in the air with glee, and Olivia aimed a baleful look at Jack.

“Oh, don’t act like that!” Katy said. Then she dragged Olivia out of her chair and towards a nearby cluster of the most terrifying and traumatizing torture chambers Jack had ever had the misfortune of being dragged into. Dress shops. “This is going to be fun!”

“I don’t like trying on clothes,” Olivia growled.

“But… that’s… heresy,” Katy said with wide eyes and a tone filled with horror. Then she laughed and kept dragging Olivia along in her wake.

Ken came to his feet with a shrug that spoke volumes and slipped into their wake.

Jack glanced around for the waitress, caught her eye with his very best Captain Jack smile, and thanked her for the good service with a double tap on his shirt cuff that told Betty to leave the girl a tip.

Her eyes went out of focus for a moment as her contacts informed her of the transaction, and then the waitress shook her head. Which made sense. This was New Earth, not an American colony. Tipping wasn’t a required part of custom here.

But Jack was American, so he waved her objection off and came to his feet. She smiled in thanks as he turned to cut through the crowd filling in behind his group. His mind quickly replayed their parting conversation.

“You’ve obviously never had a good fitting,” Katy had said while he was tipping the waitress.

“My clothes always fit just fine, thank you,” Olivia grumbled.

Katy stopped in another excellent bout of mock horror and just shook her head at Olivia.

“A good fitting is a spectator sport, girl,” Katy said and aimed an angelic smile towards Ken. She turned it towards Jack as he slid between two groups of people and rejoined them. “Isn't that right, boys?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” they dutifully answered in unison.

This time Olivia really did blush. She brought her free hand up, waved it in front of Katy’s nose, and said a single word. “No.”

“Yes,” Katy said and started her dragging her on again.

“No,” Olivia repeated.

“No is just yes, upside down,” Katy sang as she dragged Olivia after her. “So turn your frown right side up.”

“You’re mixing metaphors,” Olivia growled in frustration.

“As much as possible!” Katy agreed and dragged the captain into what obviously looked like a promising dress shop to her eyes.

Jack just saw an explosion of frills and pastel colors that left him… concerned.

Jasmine edged past him with a smile to step in, and the other cybers followed with mirthful shrugs to leave them alone on the sidewalk.

“Once more into the breach, dear friend?” he asked.

“I heard that!” Katy shouted from inside the shop.

“You were supposed to,” Jack growled back.

Ken nodded in silent stoicism and followed the girls into the dress shop.

Jack found the interior was every bit as frilly and colorful as he’d feared, and he looked around in mixed amazement and horror at all the fabrics on display. He was long past color overload when the doorbell dinged and he turned to see something rational entering the shop.

A man in an impeccable suit with two garment bags hovering behind walked straight up to Jack and nodded.

“Are you Jack Hart and Kenichi Banno?” the man asked with stoic grace as his eyes flicked back and forth between the two Cowboys.

“We are,” Jack said carefully, wondering what the man wanted with them.

“A delivery for you,” the man said and held out a pad. “Please sign here.”

“What is it?” Jack asked.

“Suits. For a dinner engagement,” the man said. He gave Jack a doubtful study from head to toe. “McEntyre House engaged my services to make you look presentable.”

Betty gave Jack a thumbs up on his contacts to tell him this was on the up and up.

“Ah. Thank you very much,” Jack said and placed a hand on the pad, pressing his finger and thumb tips into the display to give it a good look at his prints. It blinked red several times before glowing a solid green as it accepted his signature.

“Thank you, sir,” the man said, took the pad back, and ran his fingers across it. Then the garment bags floated forward and the man smiled. “Your suits, sirs.”

He obviously considered that the completion of his services, as he turned and left without a further word. Jack and Ken looked back and forth between each other and the departing man in confusion.

“Don’t mind him,” the attendant said. “He always gets cranky when asked to make a special delivery. But he’s worth the price.”

She pointed at the remaining pair of unused changing rooms. “You can use those rooms.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Jack said, and he and Ken moved towards the indicated rooms to find out what they had been saddled with. As it turned out, upon slipping the suit on and looking in the mirror, he realized that the man’s services were worth the price. Whatever the price was. Upon leaving the changing room, he was unsurprised to see that Ken’s suit was also worth the price.

The surprise came upon seeing the girls. Katy had a certain definition of a proper fitting, and it included numerous options. Calling them dresses would have done those concoctions of fabric indulgence no justice at all. Which of course just meant that Katy had to shuttle them through all the options and combinations she could get away with in the time they had. Everything they tried would have looked just fine on them, but she made sure to lead the parade of options out of the dressing rooms again and again for the proper spectator sport she promised.

The cybers took to the arrangement with gusto, trying just as many outfits on as Katy and Olivia, though with considerably more cheer than the ship captain. Olivia simply did not enjoy this particular sport.

Jack understood that with every fiber of his being and chose not to embarrass her with exaggerated praises about her beauty. Not that there would have been any exaggeration involved. Seeing her out of uniform gave him a new appreciation for what he’d been missing. So he steadfastly pulled his eyes off her to roam over the various options the others displayed. Katy earned a wolf whistle or three, to her preening glee, as did others when they obviously asked for it.

But all things must come to an end, and the clock on the wall approached half past seven, forcing the girls to make a final choice. To the great relief of both Jack and Ken who knew it was finally time to get out of this little house of horrors.

They came out with their final choices and Jack absorbed the entire tableau before him. He had to admit that their outfits were worth whatever they were going to pay for them. Every last one of them looked fantastic, and their colors even avoided clashing with each other.

McEntyre House’s cybernetic mind would eat his heart out when he saw them coming. Jack took a second glance at the modest dark blue outfit that hugged Jasmine’s curves like a lover. She winked to confirm that was exactly what she had in mind. He had a feeling that was one mission accomplished.

Then Betty stepped up with a smile, and he turned his attention to her. She had finally picked her standard yellow, but the new floral flowing dress looked far more at home on a formal dance floor than the beach of her standard sundress. It looked amazing on her. She raised an eyebrow at his examination and waved her other hand towards the entrance.

He followed her gesture to see a large limo coming to a landing in the street outside. Jack blinked and aimed a questioning look at Betty. She just nodded and Jack looked back towards the group of fantastic looking people.

“I think our ride is here,” Jack said. Then he turned to the shop’s attendant with a Captain Jack smile and a double tap on his immaculate suit cuff to transmit a generous tip to her. “Thank you so very much for your aid in our desperate times.”

“Our pleasure,” she answered without checking her contacts and waved them out. “Enjoy your party.”

“We will,” Katy said as they walked out.

A real, live, well-groomed human chauffeur opened the door to the limo and waved for them to enter. The ladies went in first, as they should, and Jack waved Ken in afterwards. Then he smiled at the chauffeur, double-tapped the man’s outstretched hand, and stepped up into the limo to look for an open seat.

He found one between Betty and Jasmine, and sat down between their bejeweled forms as if it was the one place in all the worlds he was meant to be. Which of course it was.

The chauffeur quickly moved back to the driver’s compartment and they were soon flying up into the air above Landing City. Jack knew it was an amazing sight out there, but he just leaned back between the two best girls in all the worlds and enjoyed the far more fantastic sight of all the pretty ladies inside the limo. Katy held his eyes for a moment and winked as the limo banked over and dove down towards their destination.

Jack looked out then to see the gate open, and the limo drove through and down the tree-lined lane leading to McEntyre House. It was a grand old building constructed from actual, used-to-be-a-tree wood as they had done back when New Earth was the first and only interstellar colony. The Old World style towered above the open acreage surrounding it, telling the tale of Old Money and sophistication. And the limo came to a stop before the steps leading up to its main entrance like everyone in it belonged there.

The chauffeur exited his cab and quickly came around to open the door once more. Jack stepped out first and made a point of helping each of the others out, along with the chauffeur. The ladies accepted the gallant help of both considerate gentlemen with smiles. Even Ken accepted it with a royal hauteur that suggested it was his just due, and Jack snorted as he slapped the man’s shoulder.

Then they all turned to look up at McEntyre House.

“Jack!” a pair of voices shouted to get his attention. Two beautiful young ladies ran out through the door, down the stairs, and jumped into Jack’s arms without any other warning.

He held Julie and Alex in his arms and just inhaled the classic scents of their hair. Strawberry on one side. Peppermint on the other. Just like the old days. Then he smiled as they laid possessive hands on his fine white suit.

“You picked this?” he asked.

“We did,” Julie said.

“It looks good on you,” Alex added.

“It does,” Jack agreed. Then he let out another breath and drank them in with his eyes. Julie’s long blonde hair and blue eyes that looked so much like Betty. Alex’s brown hair and eyes that so matched Jasmine. They were amazing. As always.

They cocked their heads to the side in response to his contemplative mood.

“Jack?” Julie asked.

“What are you thinking?” Alex finished.

Jack shook his head at their perception. They’d always been so good at reading him. “That you two girls are good for the soul.”

“Keep talking like that,” Julie whispered.

“And we’re going to have to do something about it,” Alex said.

“Promises, promises,” Jack returned.

The girls squirmed out of his arms and waved towards everybody.

“Come on inside,” Julie ordered.

“All of you,” Alex added with a wave towards the others.

And with no further warning or ceremony, two of country music’s most famous singers dragged Jack up the stairs and into McEntyre House. The interior matched the exterior in style, except for the gold and platinum records festooning the walls. Musical instruments in small alcoves hung from hooks or waited for someone to pick them up from stands. It was a fitting home for one of country music’s most famous producers, even if not a single one of those records on the wall were recorded by T&J.

The two girls dragging him through the house had a different producer, but it wasn’t a surprise to see them here. Well, it was, and it wasn’t at the same time. They traveled in the same circles, so of course they knew each other, but it was still surprising that they’d wanted to meet him here. And worrisome. Samantha lived here, and everybody knew he and Samantha had been an item before he left Alpha Centauri.

The sense of doom beat the back of Jack’s mind, but he would not surrender to it. Maybe he was too late. Maybe they would tell him to take a long walk off a short pier, or any of the other trite sayings. Maybe they would be more direct. But first he would say what he should have said all those years ago.

Jack pulled in a deep breath and guided Julie and Alex into one of the alcoves. It was barely large enough for all three to fit, assuming they were friendly, and Jack pressed tight up against them before meeting the steady gazes and silent questions they aimed at him. He licked his lips, feeling the curves of their bodies against him, and prepared to say what he’d practiced. What came out, distracted as he was by certain fantastic physical features they shared, was rather different.

“I dreamed about you last night.”

Julie raised an eyebrow at him.

Alex smirked.

Jack cleared his throat as they made the obvious connection. Not that he’d meant it that way. Well, maybe he had, but that didn’t mean he had to say he had. “We sang and danced. On the beach. Like always.”

“Just sang?” Julie asked in a doubtful tone.

“And danced,” Alex added with a wink.

“How positively scandalizing,” Julie whispered.

“And intriguing,” Alex finished and cocked her head to the side. Then she pulled his right hand up with a raised eyebrow so Julie could see it clearly. “I see you got a new ring.”

“Yeah,” Jack said and sighed. It hadn’t taken her more than a few seconds to beat him off track. “I was wandering around a lot of stores today and thought it looked nice.”

“You were… wandering,” Julie said in a tone that suggested she didn’t believe him.

“And just happened to find a ring?” Alex asked and gave him a smile that suggested he needed a better story than that.

Jack sighed again. There was no turning back, even if he had wanted to. Which he absolutely did not want to do. But Captain Jack had completely deserted him, which left just Jack fumbling around for words he could not find. So he reached into his suit and pulled out the small black box containing that little thing he’d gone off in hunt of today. Well, technically there were two things in it. Each identical except for size. Jack licked his lips and flipped the box open to reveal the two plain gold rings that had taken a lot longer to find than he’d expected. They weren’t wedding or engagement rings. They didn’t have fancy filigree or wrapping. They were just simple gold rings that were perfect matches for the one on his hand.

Their eyes opened wide and he swallowed. The universe had conspired to bring them all here. Today. He’d walked away to fight the bad guys yesterday, and he would tomorrow or the next day, because he had sworn an oath to that fight. But they’d sent him off with a smile, and a kiss, just like the amazing girls they’d always been.

“They’re just little things,” he whispered far more awkwardly than he wanted to. “I… well…”

“Jonathan,” Julie said in a tone that accepted no further dancing around the truth.

“Michael,” Alex added with a grim look of agreement.

“Christensen,” Julie completed his name.

“Shut up,” Alex finished for them both.

Then they grabbed the box in their left hands and held their right hands up to waggle the fingers that were all-to-obviously devoid of rings in front of his eyes. Their eyes met his with a silent order to fix the obvious absence. He licked his lips again and pulled the appropriate rings out to slip them onto the fingers they belonged to. Then he forged forward and finally said what he’d woken up this morning to say.

“I’m sorry. I never should have let you go.”

“We’re sorry too,” Julie said in all seriousness.

“We shouldn’t have left,” Alex said in agreement.

Jack pulled in a long breath and moved to the next step that he had to take. He’d tried to come up with words so many times, but none of them worked. None of them said what he wanted to say. But there was an old song they’d performed at wedding receptions more times than he could remember back in the day. He hated to use words someone else wrote, but his words weren’t exactly stellar today. And sometimes the classics really were the best at saying what needed saying.

“I don’t wanna look back in thirty years and wonder who you’re married to,” Jack said.

Both girls leaned back as far as they could, and their wide eyes met his.

He nodded to tell them he was serious.

“I’m gonna make it clear, for only you and God to hear,” he whispered low enough that even his Cowboys could pretend they didn’t hear him.

The girls’ eyes grew wider and he lowered his forehead until it touched theirs. He felt them swallow in reaction. And in that intimate moment, he finally spoke the words he should have said all those years ago.

“I don’t wanna live without you.”

He heard the words from their lips as well, in the perfect harmony they’d enjoyed all those years ago. Until the day they’d left. The day he hadn’t asked them not to leave. The day they’d all gone wrong.

Julie and Alex pressed their bodies against him and held him tight. It was the only answer he needed, and he hugged them back. He didn’t know how long they stood like that, one body, one soul, connected by flushed skin in an eternal instant that was long enough to devour lifetimes, and too short to fully enjoy at the same time. He didn’t know how long it took for him to see the outside world again, but it slowly came back into focus.

The first thing he noticed was Betty’s voice saying something that nagged at the back of his mind. Then another voice sounded concerned. And that was when Jack blinked and rewound their conversation in his memory.

“Guys, I’ve been trying to contact outside networks, but they aren’t responding,” Betty said.  “I’m getting a basic ping back, but no answer to my requests.”

“I am seeing the same issue on my end,” McEntyre House’s cybernetic mind said. “Every network I’ve tried fails to respond.”

Jack realized the sense of doom was still there. He’d thought it was just him being scared about finally facing Julie and Alex with his true feelings. But now it flared brighter and he turned towards the house’s cybernetic avatar as Julie and Alex held on tight to him.

“Does this happen often?” Jack asked.

“Never,” Norman said.

Jack glanced towards Katy and Ken. The two aimed a hard look at him and then at how closely Julie and Alex hugged him.

“You’re really not going to kick the bum to the curb?” Katy asked the two girls in a deceptively unconcerned tone.

“No,” Julie said and hugged him tighter.

“And don’t call him a bum,” Alex added as she echoed Julie’s action.

Ken and Katy’s eyes tracked back to Jack, their jaws setting in determination, and nodded in agreement. They felt it too. They’d felt it all day, just like him. They’d assumed these two girls would wield his doom. Just like him. Three sets of eyes filled with simultaneous understanding.

“Frak me,” Jack swore and the warning in the back of his mind screamed that they were all out of time.

“Stay inside!” Katy ordered and pulled a revolver out of holo concealment as she and Ken ran outside to scan the horizon.

“Norman?” Jack said and aimed a look at McEntyre House’s mind. “We have trouble coming.”

“Understood,” Norman reported, and a high-pitched wail began to reverberate through the house.

Samantha sprang into the hallway within seconds, holding a crying baby in one arm.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“We’re under attack,” Jack answered.

She just looked at him like his words made no sense.

Mister McEntyre stepped out of his office further down the hall and shouted. “Get in here!”

Olivia grabbed Samantha and pulled her along as she sprinted for the door. Julie and Alex squawked indignantly as Jack threw them over his shoulders like sacks of potatoes and followed the other two into the office Jack both loved and feared. The soothing smell of fire and true paper books wafted into his nose and his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting without a pause. He scanned the room, taking in the dark wood walls and the crackling fireplace. Books filled one of the walls from floor to ceiling and from wall to wall. The painting of a ship dominated another wall, and a beautiful rug covered the center of the hard wood flooring.

What dominated the room itself was the red leather chair in front of the fire, though. This was Mister McEntyre’s domain, and he was king. It was here that Mister McEntyre had very carefully not threatened to chase Jack away from his daughter with the shotgun he kept behind his chair. They’d had a very cordial discussion about how Jack had probably heard that speech before, and Jack had complemented Browning’s beautiful product. And he’d received the man’s message just fine.

Mister McEntyre strode behind his chair, picked up the M-60 automatic shotgun, complete with full recoil suppressor, in one hand, and walked up to the fireplace. He tapped one of the bricks several times in an odd, alternating pattern and the wood, fire, and the entire back of the fireplace flickered out of existence as the hologram cut out. It revealed a tunnel too small to walk into and Mister McEntyre waved them towards it.

“Go,” the older man ordered and turned back towards the door to his office with the shotgun now cradled in both arms. “Take the stairs all the way to the bottom.”

“I should stay with you, Sir,” Jack said and placed Julie and Alex back on their feet.

Mister McEntyre aimed a hard stare at Jack and a cold shiver ran down his spine. “Did I stutter and make you think I didn’t know how to defend my own house, Son?”

“No, Sir,” Jack said and turned to see the girls’ backsides already headed down the tunnel. He bent over without further delay and shuffled through the low tunnel behind them as ordered.

It quickly became a set of narrow, steep stairs that would never pass building codes, driving deep down into the ground beneath McEntyre House. The stairs reached a wide landing with deep alcoves on two sides, before narrowing on the right and continuing on down.

Jack scanned the alcoves, and his contacts highlighted numerous small weapons turrets, sensors, and possibly traps.

“This is amazing,” Julie said. She and Alex paused and looked around in wonder before whispering in unison.

“We never expected this,” Alex said.

“It is impressive,” Olivia said with a look towards Samantha. “But I hope there’s more.”

Samantha nodded and waved towards the downward stair. “Daddy is a bit paranoid.”

Jack and Olivia shared a long look.

“That remains to be seen,” Jack said. A boom that he hoped to God was the sound of a door closing echoed down the stairs. “He does plan on following us, yes?”

“If he needs to,” Samantha said and stepped onto the next flight of stairs headed down. “We should hurry.”

She led them down several more flights of stairs, each separated by a wide landing with more defensive alcoves and traps.

Jack was beginning to agree with her about her father’s paranoia. He remembered the survival bunker in his own home, which was nothing at all compared to this… thing. Underground complex was a far more accurate description of this than a bunker.

The stairs finally opened into a wide cavern with a low, uneven ceiling. It was tall enough to walk in with room to spare, but rocks littered the rough floor. It looked like a natural cavern deep underground, complete with stalactites and stalagmites connecting floor to ceiling throughout, but Jack’s instincts told him that was not entirely true.

Samantha led them across the rocky floor and Jack mentally paced off the distance.

He quickly realized that the cavern was large enough to play football in. Maybe not major league football, but he could see some good arena football games played here if they cleaned all the rocks up. Once again, something felt wrong about that and Jack examined the cavern again. He couldn’t put his finger on what was up with it though. He just knew it wasn’t dangerous to him. He shrugged and continued following Samantha.

She brought them to a massive hatch that rose from floor to ceiling and almost certainly far into the bedrock all around the visible frame. She tapped a sequence onto what looked like a random rock and the hatch split down the middle to open inwards into another corridor.

Jack shook his head in wonder. Paranoia did not begin to describe this complex. He and Olivia shared another hard look and she nodded in agreement. This was far more than either of them had ever expected a mere civilian would build. Even someone rich enough to build McEntyre House.

Samantha walked down the corridor to another door and opened it with yet another, unique, combination to reveal a storeroom filled with shelves. Food and other disaster supplies that Jack recognized from his family’s bunker covered the shelves.

Finally, something down here he could relate to. Though it was still larger than what his father built.

Jack scanned the shelves to see row after row of dry storage. Disaster meal packs, basic grains and beans, cured meats, and other assorted food. Even some grits. Jack snorted. He’d never understood what people saw in grits.

Samantha passed through a door in one wall and Jack approached it to examine what lay beyond. It was a small, by McEntyre House standards. There was a living room, complete with dining table, couch and chairs to relax in, and a full theater setup. A kitchen took up most of one wall, and numerous doors led to probable sleeping rooms or bathrooms.

It was a true blessing to be fantastically wealthy when building a survival bunker under your mansion.

A series of explosions pulled Jack’s attention back to the matter at hand and he strode back out into the rocky cavern. He tapped the holsters on his legs to verify that his revolvers were fully loaded and settled in to await what happened next. More explosions boomed down the stairwell, followed by silence. Then another set of explosions preceded the sound of footsteps. They came down the steps at a run, another massive explosion certainly shook the very house above them and dust came down into the cavern ahead of Katy and Ken.

They coughed in unison and rubbed their eyes as they stepped away from the stairwell.

“How’s it going?” Jack asked with a look towards the stairs.

“We chased them off,” Katy said with doubtful look.

“I sense a ‘but’ in there,” Jack said and glanced towards Ken.

Ken pursed his lips and nodded. “They attempted a stealth insertion. We caught them on the way in.”

“But they had reinforcements ready in case their first strike failed,” Katy growled.

Another explosion echoed down through the stairwell.

“Warbots supported by AI drones,” Ken said.

Katy shook her head. “Tough house, but not up to that challenge. We had to fall back.”

“Mister McEntyre?”

“Here,” Mister McEntyre answered as he stepped out of the stairs. Another boom echoed from the stairwell, this one followed by a rain of rubble down the stairs. “We aren’t getting out that way.”

“But they’ll be coming down that way,” another voice said and Jack saw… himself step out of the stairs.

“Stupid tiny mags,” Mister McEntyre said and made his way through the cavern with practiced ease. The older man continued to mutter about the idiocy of New Earth firearms laws as he shouldered past a stunned Jack to enter the bunker.

Jack only had eyes for the man that looked almost exactly like him.

“Jack?” Olivia asked in a confused tone.

“Call me Jon,” the other Jack said before giving her a wry smile. “It helps avoid any confusion.”

“I’m still confused,” Olivia said and looked back and forth between the two identical men.

Jon chuckled. “I’m a clone. An experiment the Peloran performed to see if they could use their cloning chambers on Earthborn humans. It didn’t work.”

Olivia looked back and forth between the two with a disbelieving look. “It looks like it worked to me.”

“Not exactly,” Jon said. “The problem is that, like most Peloran technology, the cloning chambers were leftover tech from the Albion, who designed them to only clone Peloran bodies.”

“And the Peloran were genetically engineered, not natural,” Jack added. “They don’t have all the junk code and leftover crap we have littering our DNA. They literally have fewer and cleaner genes than we have.”

“And their cloning chambers can’t replicate genes they aren’t designed to make,” Jon said and pulled the hair back from over his ears to display the natural points in them. “I have his memories. But I’m full blooded Peloran on a genetic level.”

Olivia frowned and jumped to the next question. “Complete with their genetic imperatives?”

“Yes. The Peloran cloning chambers are hard coded to insert those. And whoever designed them was a genius.” Jon shook his head and frowned. “A bastard, but a genius.”

“So you really can’t start a fight?”

“No.” Jon smiled very calmly. “But as in most things when it comes to the Peloran, the truth is deeper than that. It’s not just the starting a fight that can’t be contemplated. It’s the fear of fighting that is unimaginable. Peloran love to fight, but can’t start a fight.”

“Good to hear!” Mister McEntyre shouted from the back of the bunker. “Because those guys have certainly started this fight!”

Jack turned to see the rear wall of the bunker opened to reveal an armory. It was the only way to describe the stash of weapons, ammunition, and everything else lining the walls on either side.

“What are you waiting for?” Mister McEntyre asked. “Armor up.”

He was talking, of course, about the things arrayed throughout the rear of the armory that had absolutely no business being in any civilian hands. Two rows of six United States Army Model 31 Tactical Assault Light Operator Suits spread out on loading frames like Leonardo Da Vinci diagrams of the human being. And unless his eyes were deceiving him, these were not the mass-produced standard Model 31s. They were the much rarer Special Forces version. The rocket pack vents were barely detectable behind the helmet, which meant these probably had fully functional gravitic generators and a micro-nuclear reactor instead of the batteries standard Army powered armor used.

“I have to ask,” Jack said and moved his jaw back and forth as Jon strode to the armory to do as ordered.

“If you have to ask, you don’t need to know,” Mister McEntyre said. “Hurry up. If you have training in suits, we’ve got enough.”

“Sounds good to me,” Katy said.

“Count me in,” Olivia added.

“I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” Jasmine said, and they walked into the armory together.

They slipped their dresses off in single, smooth motions that revealed the formfitting combat wear underneath.

A pair of throats cleared, and Jack looked down to see Julie and Alex giving him The Eye.

“What?” Jack asked. “I’m in love, not blind.”

They blinked in unison, and then smiled.

“You were never blind,” Alex finally whispered.

“Yippie ki-yay,” Katy said as the girls spread their arms wide and stepped into frames that began to spin around them.

“Yippie ki-yay,” Ken echoed and followed them into the armory, tossing his suit to the side to reveal an impressive tattoo running down his left arm. Then he stepped into a fourth frame with a shrug.

Robotic avatars stepped into six frames from alcoves behind them, and those frames began to spin as well, applying armor plates to the obviously pre-positioned combatants. Cybernetic holoforms stepped into each one and faded away as their consciousnesses took over the robotic combat suits. Betty’s flashed once on his contacts and he could almost feel her settling into her new mission.

Jon stepped into another suit. Only two remained for Jack to choose from. As soon as he could extricate himself from a pair of lovely ladies. He swallowed and looked back down at them.

“I love you,” Jack said and felt both girls melt in his arms.

“We love you, too” Julie said.

Mister McEntyre cleared his throat and aimed a hard glance towards the suits.

Jack nodded.

Julie and Alex slipped out of his arms and smiled for a moment. Then they darted back in to give him a peck on his cheeks.

“Go get ‘em, Cowboy,” they said in perfect unison and stepped away.

“Yes, Ma’ams,” Jack said to the very best girls in all the worlds and tossed them his cowboy hat. They caught it with deft hands and he turned towards Mister McEntyre. He had to say something to the man, even if it was painfully less than the man deserved. “I’m sorry.”

The older man blinked at him, cocked his head to the side, and frowned. “What for?”

Jack aimed a wave back towards the stairway and the rumbling house above them. “For getting your family involved in all of this.”

Mister McEntyre just looked at him for a moment, and then laughed. “Son, don’t be thinking everything that happens here is all about you.”

“What?” Jack asked in confusion.

“Some of us have developed enemies all on our own,” Mister McEntyre said and clapped him on the shoulder. Then he pushed Jack towards the suits and began stripping his suit off. “What are you waiting for, Son? Suit up.”

Jack shrugged and kicked his cowboy boots off before walking into the armory. He slipped out of his very expensive suit jacket that was not made for fighting and placed it on a shelf. He pulled his shirt and tie off, and then the suit pants that would simply never do in combat. That left him wearing only the boxer shorts that absolutely were designed for combat. He double-tapped the waistband and the smart fabric shrunk to wrap tightly around his form as he stepped into the soft boots of one of the two remaining loading frames as Mister McEntyre took the last one.

Jack’s loading frame whirred and adjusted around him, stretching the suit’s underarmor over his tall frame. The suit’s frame attached the various armor plates to the underarmor, locking them all the way around him where necessary. The boot plates came first, then the legs and arms. The massive plates protecting his torso came next, and finally the helmet lowered itself onto his head. Diagnostic systems came to life on the helmet’s displays and the loading frame spun him around to face the cavern. It locked back into place as the helmet’s systems began blinking green.

“Reactor online,” Betty said as her tiny form appeared in one corner of his display.

“Sensors online,” she added as the sensor displays blinked into being in his vision.

The loading frame planted a pair of M-200 heavy rifles onto his back and both of them blinked green.

“Weapons online,” Betty said with a smile as they went solid green.

“All systems nominal,” she finished with a pleased tone.

“Yippie ki-yay,” Jack said and gave her a smile of his own.

The loading frame released him and Jack stepped out into the center of the armory. He flexed his fingers and rolled his shoulders to make sure everything worked. The suit moved around him like a second skin. A second skin covered in armor plates that could stop a round built to kill a small tank. Each step echoed off the walls with a boom and he scanned back and forth to verify that the girls were out of the way of his crunching steps. Then Jack followed the other suits out of the armory. He took a moment to snatch the holsters from his pile of clothing and attached them to his armor. Then he stepped out into the cavern and watched the bunker’s hatch shut with a clang behind him.

“Did I see an escape hatch back there?” Jack asked and began jogging in place to give the suit more practice recognizing his particular nervous impulses. The cavern shuddered around him and more rubble fell down the stairs on the other side. He scanned across the cavern and a light bulb finally went off in his brain as the suit’s displays highlighted the various rocks, boulders, stalactites, and stalagmites filling the cavern.

None of it was actually randomly distributed like the natural caverns Jack had explored in his youth.

The cavern had been carefully designed and groomed to give any defending force as much cover and concealment as possible against anyone coming in from the stairs. While looking to all the worlds like it was randomly strewn around. It was a good set of defensive works that bespoke more paranoia on Mister McEntyre’s part. Though since they appeared to be going to need it, thinking the man was paranoid might be unfair.

“They’re coming,” Mister McEntyre said and jogged forward through the defensive works. “And yes, you did. There are multiple escape tunnels leading back up to the surface on the outer edges of the grounds. Just in case we can’t hold them here.”

“Good to know,” Jack said and followed the older man. The stairs boomed again and again, and more rubble rolled out of them.

“You stay back,” Jon said with pointed gestures towards Mister McEntyre and Olivia. Then he added gestures toward the suits Norman and Gabrielle commanded. “Protect them. You’re our reserve.”

“Yes, Sir,” Gabrielle and Norman answered and moved to protect them as ordered.

“We’re holding the center,” Jack said with a wave towards Betty and Jasmine’s suits. They nodded in acceptance.

“I’m with you,” Jon said and marched his suit up next to Jack.

Jack nodded, not about to give up the extra firepower at the center.

“You hold the left flank,” Jack ordered with a finger aimed at Katy and Blaze.

“Shiny,” Katy said and pulled first one heavy rifle off her back and then the other. She aimed one at the stairs, followed by the other, and nodded as her armor answered her moves without hesitation. “Nice suit.”

Jon waved towards Ken and Sara. “You hold the right flank.”

Ken nodded and maneuvered his own suit to Jack’s right, sending it through several martial arts moves to test its range of motion. Then he smiled approval and pulled both of his heavy rifles off as he found a good defensive position.

“You seem pretty comfortable around here,” Jack said as he found his own firing position. He pulled both rifles up and rested them on the big rock that gave him a perfect angle on the stairs.

Jon turned to look at him for a moment. “You need to read your mail more often.”

Jack blinked and angled his eyes to the side. Betty appeared on his helmet display to shake her head.

“I’ve been moving around pretty fast since I left,” Jack said. “Looks like some of my mail is still playing catch-up.”

“That explains the lack of replies,” Jon said with a nod. “Samantha found me not long after you left. We’ve been together ever since.”

Jack didn’t know how to feel about that. On the one hand, it was one of the reasons Jon was alive. On the other hand… well… he supposed the other hand didn’t really matter anymore.

“You good?” Jack asked rather than put any of that thought process into words.

“I’m good,” Jon answered. The other man gave him a grin that said he understood every thought that had gone into that question.

“Good,” Jack said and checked to make sure everyone had a good line of fire on the bottom of the stairs, without adding themselves to the line. Then he smiled.

More rubble trickled out into the cavern. Another boom blew a spray of rocks towards them.

His displays lit up with targets as recon drones hovered down through the stairs and into view. The defenders opened up with rifle fire instantly, riddling the drones with rounds that sent sparks and broken pieces of drones in every direction. The displays cleared and Jack stepped to the side to hide behind another boulder. He flicked his eyes over the displays to see the others had done the same.

More drones came into view, but this set was heavily armed. They zoomed around the stalactites and automatic fire raked over the positions the defenders had just vacated.

Jack stuck his rifle over his new rock, saw the aiming reticle highlight his target, and fired a three-round burst. Drone after drone blew back into the staircase, scattering pieces of themselves in every direction. Then Jon pitched a perfect fastball and bounced a grenade off the floor. It rebounded up the stairs before exploding. A dull whump, a column of flame, and the drones ceased to be a threat.

“Nice pitch,” Katy said.

“Thank you,” Jon answered as they moved to hide behind other rocks and reload. “I was hoping to use that in a different kind of game today.”

“Not everything goes according to plan,” Jack said as they waited for the next attack to materialize. Then he cleared his throat and aimed a glance towards Mister McEntyre. “You said something about enemies, Sir?”

“Yes,” Mister McEntyre said with a grunt. “I did.”

“Care to elaborate?” Jack asked. “I mean, I understand how some people feel about country music, but isn’t trying to kill you a bit of… well… overkill?”

Mister McEntyre chuckled before aiming a hard look at Jack. “I grew up in the Socialist Republic of Juneau.”

Olivia gasped in surprise. Katy and Ken sighed in understanding.

“You Ran,” Jack said as understanding filled him.

“And they are here to collect my Life Debt now,” Mister McEntyre said.

“My father wanted me to understand how lucky I was to grow up in Northern Minnesota,” Jack said and shot another drone into tiny little pieces before moving around a stalagmite to find another defensive position. “So we volunteered for the Salvation Army outposts around Juneau. I helped a lot of Runners over the years.”

“So you know the general story,” Mister McEntyre said. “It was a warm day, but a cold night. I nearly died. Many who Ran with me did die. But a man fished me out of the water. Gave me food, clothes, and hope. Gave me money and a new name.”

Jon pitched another grenade into the stairwell. Flame guttered out and more rubble filtered into the cavern.

“He gave me a new life with one hand and one of those Salvation Army Bibles with the other,” Mister McEntyre said. Then he shook his head in disgust. “I haven’t opened it in years. Just been letting it gather dust on a shelf.”

“I think he’d say that he gave you a chance at a new life,” Jack said and waved a hand to encompass the house above them. “And I think he’d say that you’ve done pretty well with it.”

Another wave of drones swooped out of the stairs. They covered the cavern with weapons fire that bounced off every stalagmite and boulder the defenders could use as cover. Grenades thumped out across it. Most hit stalactites and bounced in random locations. Jack’s suit blinked red in several locations to denote shrapnel damage.

“Fall back!” Jon ordered and pitched his last pair of grenades into the attack as he retreated.

The Cowboys echoed his actions, avoiding most of the firepower headed their way. Jack still saw and felt round after round biting into all of them before they could find new cover. Then the grenades went off. The drones dropped like puppets with their strings cut.

“That is exactly what he said until the day he died,” Mister McEntyre said into the thundering silence that followed.

“I’m sorry,” Jack whispered. “He sounds like he was a good man.”

“He was,” Mister McEntyre said. Then the older man chuckled. “And then one day his son walked into my house, hanging on the arm of my daughter, hoping I wouldn’t chase him away with a shotgun.”

Jack blinked as he remembered a scene exactly like that. He turned a questioning gaze towards Mister McEntyre and the older man nodded.

“Your father saved many children in his time,” the older man said in a very grave voice. Then he chuckled again. “I think that makes us Family, of a sort.”

Jack chuckled back and turned to face the stairwell again. “Yes, Mister McEntyre, I think it does.”

“He gave me the name Bruce,” Mister McEntyre said. “And now that you aren’t dating my daughter, I think maybe you should call me that.”

“Not gonna lie, but that feels a little odd, Sir,” Jack said as the high-pitched whine of more drones came down the stairs.

The drones swarmed out of the stairwell, weapons spraying all over the defenders. A fully-functional hexapedal warbot stepped off the stairs behind them.

Jack and the other defenders opened fire once more and rounds bounced off the warbot.

It laid down fire on the defenders in turn, sending a stream of rounds from a half dozen weapons that bounced off their cover. One defender after another ducked into hiding to avoid it. A pair of weapons finally came around to fire on Katy and Ken. They dropped behind their boulders at the last instant to avoid the fire. It kept firing and rounds ricocheted all over the cavern.

Jack frowned. He ran his eyes over the M-200 heavy rifle’s control panel and selected the secondary fire mode. The small reactor behind him spun up to bring the magnetic rail to life. An ominous hum filled the cavern.

The M-200 heavy rifle’s magnetic cannon was designed to kill mechs, tanks, or even a lovecraftian god that dared showed its tentacles in the real world. Jack spent an instant reconsidering how Mister McEntyre had gotten his hands on them. Then he poked the cannon around his boulder. The crosshairs flashed on his target. He pulled the trigger.

The solid slug blew clear through his target and deep into the stairs behind it. Bits of warbot sprayed all over the stairwell and stone splintered behind it.

“Good shot,” Jon said into the silence that followed.

“Thanks,” Jack said and moved to another firing position, keeping his eyes on the shattered drones all around them. And the unmoving warbot now lying against the bottom of the stairs. “Having fun?”

“Absolutely!” Jon said as they waited for the next attack. “Haven’t had this much fun since… well… since I was born.”

“Good to know,” Jack said and licked his lips. He’d seen warbots that looked just like that wandering around Juneau back in the day. Though Juneau hadn’t called them warbots. They’d had a much softer name for them. Something about border defense and customs if he remembered correctly. They didn’t have very intelligent AIs, but there was one thing he clearly remembered about them.

They always traveled in groups.

Jack let out a long breath. The warning in the back of his mind was still screaming. He shook his head. “Because all of this so far has just been the warm-up act. The real assault is coming.”

They didn’t have long to wait. It started with the hum of more flying drones. Then came the sound of metal feet echoing down the stairs. Too many. Far, far too many.

Jack glanced at Ken and Katy. They nodded in agreement.

“Mister McEntyre. Captain Wyatt,” Jack said in a measured tone. “Get the girls and take those emergency tunnels right now.”

He turned to aim a hard look at the older man to say that he was not joking.

“I’m sorry, but that will not be possible,” Norman said and his holoform flickered into existence in the middle of the cavern. McEntyre House’s mind shook his head sadly. “I did not wish to distract you, but our enemy has been most thorough. They discovered all of our exits and closed them two minutes ago.” Norman looked towards the stairs with a nod. “That is the only way out left to us.”

“Fantastic,” Jack growled and let out a long breath. He refused to let it sink in. He refused to accept what the cybernetic intelligence had just told him. There was always a way out. This was not a no-win scenario. Mary Christensen’s little boy would die before he accepted that.

Jack shared another look with Katy and Ken. They nodded in agreement and pulled the second rifle each of them carried off their backs. Then their four suits moved forward as a fire team to hold the stairs. It would be a forward defense again.

Jack glanced across Betty, Jasmine, and Jon, and edged his head to the side. He pulled the second rifle off his back as well, and waited for his suit’s systems to link up and activate it. Then all four of them moved forward to hold Ken and Katy’s left flank.

“Mister McEntyre. Captain Wyatt,” Jack said and nodded as the approaching steps grew louder. He pulled up a map of the cavern with his eyes and stared at a location right behind him until it pinged on the map. “I’m going to need you up here.”

“We’re coming,” Mister McEntyre said. Their four suits arrived in seconds.

“What do we do?” Olivia asked as she stepped up next to the older man.

“We kill them all,” Jack said with a simple shrug.

“And if we can’t?” Olivia asked.

“That’s not an option,” Jack said and smiled at her. Then he jerked his head towards the armored hatch behind them all. “The only way they get past us, is over all of our dead bodies.”

“Yippie ki-yay,” Katy and Ken whispered as the metallic footfalls neared the entrance.

Mister McEntyre nodded in agreement.

Olivia sighed and settled into position to await the oncoming assault.

Ominous hums reverberated through the cavern as one rifle after another charged their magnetic rails.

The violence came without further warning. A half dozen hexapedal warbots and twice that number of hoverdrones swarmed into the cavern and opened fire on the defenders. Most of their rounds careened off the boulders or stalagmites. Grenades bounced off stalactites. They filled the cavern with sparks of light and shrapnel that lit it like neon artwork.

Jack and Jon opened fire the instant they arrived. Magnetic slugs flew downrange to blow through two of the warbots. Katy and Ken added their fire an instant later. Two more warbots fell back before they could fire more than a few moments’ burst into the cavern.

The other defenders fired three-round bursts of lead at one target after another. Drone after drone scattered and sparked into the walls or floor in their death agonies. The last two warbots lasted nearly two seconds longer. Their multiple weapons filled the cavern with sparkling projectiles bouncing off rocks and armor. Until the combined three-round bursts of all the defenders literally tore them apart.

Jack began moving towards another defensive position the moment the last two dropped. A salvo of grenades coming from the stairwell forced him to duck back down behind his cover.

Explosions filled the cavern with light and shrapnel. More warbots skittered out of the opening with their weapons already firing. Pairs of them pinned down each of the defenders. Others moved to flank them. Sara’s suit exploded as she shielded Ken. He shot a magnetic slug through it a moment later. It blew up into a million pieces like some kind of anarchist piece of art.

Katy fell away from her cover at the same time. Most of her right arm, and the rifle still attached to it, flew across the cavern in a spray of blood. More shots tracked her left side, and her other rifle sparked and spat electricity all over the ground as it died. She calmly pulled her revolver off her hip with her left hand and fired five rounds into the warbot that shot her. Explosion after explosion rocked the warbot, sending fragments of disintegrating limbs and body parts spraying in every direction.

Blaze dragged Katy back behind cover with one arm. Blaze fired with the other, smashing another warbot into sparking ruin. Then a grenade made direct contact with her suit. The cybernetic intelligence flew back into a boulder, shedding armor and limbs in her path.

Jack and Jon fired one last set of three-round bursts into the oncoming horde of warbots. Then they switched their rifles to full-automatic fire. Conserving ammunition was no longer an objective. The streams of lead came so fast they strobed like fictional laser beams. Betty and Jasmine joined them and one warbot after another fell back to the walls and boulders in ruins.

Rounds pierced Jack’s left shoulder. He screamed in pain and ducked back behind his cover. A grenade exploded above him and peppered him with shrapnel. Most bounced off his armor, but more pinpricks of pain blazed across his back.

Another explosion rocked the cavern. Ken flew over Jack’s boulder. He crashed into a stalagmite behind him and fell to the ground, limp as a puppet with cut strings.

Jack sprang back up. Both rifles lined up on his targets. Ominous hums vibrated through his body. He pulled the second triggers again. Magnetic rails sent the slugs through two other warbots. And the bots behind them for good measure. Several streams of enemy fire intercepted on Jack’s rifles. They tore the rifles out from his arms and slammed him to the ground. He tasted blood. He looked around and saw the ruined rifles all over the ground.

Jack pulled a revolver off his hip. Thigh actually. But the big iron on his hip always sounded so much more shiny. Jack cleared his mind of unnecessary thoughts like that and pushed himself onto one knee. He pulled the other revolver from its holster. The Taurian Arms Red Bull revolvers linked up to his helmet display with a flash of status symbols. Each showed five .50 caliber high explosive rounds ready to fire.

Jack smiled and sprang back to his feet. Jon nearly teleported to his flank, his rifles ready for the enemy. Betty and Jasmine moved in from either side, and for a moment all four of them scanned the silence of a battle that had reached a point of balance.

Then the warbots flowed around the boulders and stalagmites.

Jack went through all ten rounds in three seconds, blowing clean through one target after another. Betty caught a grenade in the chest and flew back through the air. Another stream of rounds peppered him and a pair of grenades slammed Jack into the ground. It hit him like a sledgehammer. The breath left his longs. Spots filled his vision. He tried to blink them away.

Jasmine shot the offending warbot more times than he could count. She was fantastic, a goddess of war reaping the whirlwind and the slain with equal abandon. Sparkling rounds bounced of her armored helmet.

Jack blinked again. Sparks and flashes filled his vision. It was hard to watch.

Jasmine spun towards another foe. Her rifles flashed and thundered at full rock and roll. Her targets scattered pieces all over the cavern. More rounds sparked off her armor and tore her helmet clean off.

The helmet bounced off the nearest boulder and landed next to Jack. He looked at it for a moment, focusing on the damage that had peeled it open. That would have killed a biological human. But Jasmine’s robotic avatar was far tougher than even his Ageless body.

Jack looked back up to see long, brown hair spilling out over her shoulders like a waterfall. She swam in his vision as she turned on yet more targets. Ominous hums came from her rifles. Dull glows lit her like the goddess she embodied. Sonic booms assaulted Jack’s sensitive hearing.

Her targets fell back from the goddess of war’s twin hammers.

Then another warbot stepped around a stalagmite. Half a dozen weapons opened up on her without warning.

Jasmine’s fantastic new body came apart before his eyes.

More rifles emitted ominous hums. They vibrated through Jack’s body. Set his teeth on edge.

A pull of a trigger. A flash of light. A shockwave of tortured sound and compressed air.

Jasmine’s killer flew back into a boulder an instant too late.

Jon stood alone in that moment. The last man standing. The final line of defense for all who stood behind them.

Two more warbots stepped into view.

Jack tried to warn the man. But speaking was hard. Thinking was hard.

Jon blew one of them apart with the rifle he hadn’t fired at Jasmine’s killer.

The other blew Jon clean off his feet.

The surviving warbot turned away from its defeated foes.

Jack hurt in places he didn’t remember he had places. He sucked in a deep breath. God, it hurt. He had to move. He pushed himself off the ground. His body screamed in pain. His eyes went in and out of focus. He had to move. He didn’t know how.

The still small voice in the back of his mind wouldn’t let him go. He had to move. He needed time to clear his head. He had to move. He didn’t know where.

Move now.

Jack dropped his shoulder and rolled into the pain and confusion.

A grenade exploded behind him. Maybe more than one. It was hard to be sure.

Jack lay on the ground. Safe. Alive. He held a revolver in each hand. Funny. He couldn’t remember keeping them. They were empty. He slapped them back into their holsters.

“Drink up,” Betty said in his ear and highlighted the straw in his helmet.

Jack followed her orders on automatic. His metabolism quickly broke the rush of painkillers down and went to work. There was something else in there. The momentary fog of pain and shock dissipated in a second.

He could think again.

“That’s better,” Betty said and began highlighting what was left of the battle for him. Ken and Katy were still alive, though unconscious. They weren’t going to be up and fighting again anytime soon.

Jon was already back up and running after the warbot flanking Mister McEntyre and Olivia. They were fighting three others, and Olivia fell back as gunfire raked her suit. Jon’s remaining rifle hummed ominously and sent a magnetic slug clear through the flanker. But it cut his legs out from under him with a sustained burst of fire as it died. Jon went down face first with a finality that hurt the soul. The telemetry showed him blessedly unconscious. Not dead.

That left just Jack to cover the last line of defense. To cover those still defending Julie and Alex.

Jack placed his hands back on the revolvers and checked to make sure the holsters had reloaded them. Then he rolled back up onto his feet, pulled the revolvers up, and walked around another boulder. He fired one shot into a warbot trying to flank Olivia. The round went home, exploded inside, and dropped the bot like a bad habit.

Jack jumped behind yet another boulder. He nearly avoided the salvo of gunfire from his flank. It skipped off his armor, but it still hit hard enough to leave a bruise. Then the grenades sailed overhead. More pinprick penetrations and explosive shockwaves slammed him to the ground. He blinked his eyes against the pain and concussion again.

Jack’s vision swam in and out of focus. Four, maybe six, hands pushed him off the ground. He stumbled back up to his feet as a quartet of drones hovered overhead. He aimed both revolvers and blinked to clear his vision. He blew two of them out of the air in the time it took them to recognize his threat. The other two spun towards him. He ducked behind a boulder. They tagged his foot, and it shot out from under him.

Jack hit the ground with a curse, again. This time he was sprawled out too far from any cover to make a difference. And more drones came hovering over to finish the job.

The world shook around him with a series of rapid-fire explosive booms and the drones came apart like so many clay pigeons.

“And stay down,” Mister McEntyre said as he ejected the drum magazine from his shotgun. He grabbed another drum off his belt and slammed it into position. “Thanks for playing bait, Son.”

“My pleasure,” Jack said through gritted teeth and ringing ears. Then he tried to read the battlefield screens. He still couldn’t focus on them.

“That’s the last of them,” Mister McEntyre provided as he and McEntyre House’s personal combat suit took up position to watch the stairwell. “Thanks for hitting the flankers, by the way.”

“My pleasure,” Jack repeated and blinked again. Still nothing. He tried to stand up. A shooting pain in his left leg told him that was not a good idea.

“I have to hand it to you. You Ageless take a lot of killing.” Mister McEntyre shook his head at Jack.

“That’s us. Virtuous of soul and strong of body,” Jack said and tried a nod that hurt enough to tell him that also was not a good idea. “Olivia?”

“I’m fine,” Olivia said in a voice that sounded nothing like fine. “I’ll live.”

The correction sounded far more believable to Jack’s ears. And the still small voice in the back of his mind as well.

“I’ll live, too,” Katy croaked. A series of pained coughs came from where she lay. “Thanks for asking.”

“You’re too mean to die,” Jack said.

“You got that right,” Katy said and cleared her throat. “Hey Ken? You dead yet?”

“Not yet,” Ken responded in a weak but steady tone.

“Hear that, Boss?” Katy asked. “The Three Musketeers are alive and ready to fight.”

“Speak for yourself,” Ken countered. “I need a nap.”

“Let’s reschedule the fight for next week,” Jack said and tried not to laugh. Laughing would hurt way too much right now.

“Roger that, Boss,” Katy said. “Rescheduling works for me.”

Jack pulled himself over to lean against a stalagmite. That hurt far more than it should as well. He let out a relieved breath as he finally leaned back. Then a series of sonic booms rolled over the damaged house.

“Oh, what now?” the Mister McEntyre asked.

“Those are the Devilcats,” Norman said as a holoform flickered into being with a smile. “They’ve neutralized the jamming and are sending drones down now to sweep the area. I’ve logged and categorized them as friendly. And I can now communicate with the outside world again.”

“Call Faith,” Jack said and smiled as the old man looked at him. “If Juneau did this, they’re going to have some tame newsies ready to spin the attack however they want. Getting Faith here immediately to show the aftermath is going to go a long way towards making their jobs more difficult.”

“Calling Faith, now,” Betty whispered in his earbud. “Ah. She was already awake. It seems an attack on McEntyre House is enough to wake up every newsie in the world. And she’s on her way.”

“Thank you,” Jack whispered back. Then he spoke in a louder voice of command. “Tell the Devilcats to let Faith through.”

Norman smiled at him. “Already done. Ah. She’s on the way. Along with a police escort who thinks she is breaking traffic laws.”

“Is she?”

Norman chuckled. “Oh, yes, she most certainly is.”

“So they aren’t so much escorts as pursuing her?”

“Some might mischaracterize it that way,” Norman said virtuously. “But I’m certain the final record will be most clear that they were simply following her to make certain her personage was secure.”

“I’m certain,” Jack whispered with a chuckle. Then winced in pain. “Ow. Don’t make me do that.”

The first of the Devilcat drones hovered out of the stairwell seconds later, their gravplates buzzing lightly.

“Good day,” one drone said in a soft voice as its compatriots began buzzing around to investigate the cavern. “I am VMFA-911 Devilcat RQ-10 Raven Alpha. I come from the government. I’m here to help.”

Jack stifled a laugh at the sense of humor that programmed that greeting into the drone.

“Took you long enough,” Mister McEntyre growled at the drone.

“I apologize for the delay,” the lead drone said as the others examined each of the fallen warbots and the enemy drones, green flashing lights confirming each was down for good. One stopped in front of Jack to scan his identity before a green light flashed in acknowledgement. He saw others doing the same to the rest of the defenders. Then the lead drone hovered into position directly before Mister McEntyre. “Our scans suggest that the battlefield is secure. Can you confirm?”

“Yes,” Mister McEntyre growled.

“Thank you,” the lead drone said. “Devilcat One will be here shortly.”

Then all of the drones hovered back to take up positions around the stairwell.

The hatch at the back of the cavern opened seconds later, and rapid footfalls told the tale of a pair of young ladies running out into the cavern. Julie and Alex soon slid to a stop above Jack and looked down at him for a moment. Worried looks crossed their faces for a moment, and then they smiled.

“Hey,” Julie said.

“Cowboy,” Alex finished.

“Ma’ams,” Jack said.

They giggled. In perfect harmony, as always. God. He’d missed that giggle so much.

Then they went down on their knees and started popping his ruined armor plates off.

“You need to work,” Julie began.

“On not getting hurt so much,” Alex finished.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Jack said as they expertly stripped him down to the formfitting underarmor. It was torn and pierced in far too many places for his comfort, but most of his wounds were already done bleeding. That was always a good thing.

They examined his wounds for a moment before sitting down next to him.

“I guess,” Julie started.

“You’ll survive,” Alex finished and they melted into him.

“This time,” Julie added.

Alex’s silence emphasized that point.

“If you’re here,” Jack whispered. “I’ll always have a reason to.”

Julie and Alex opened their eyes wide.

“That’ll do,” Julie said.

“For now,” Alex added.

Jack just enjoyed their scents and took in the sights. Some he could see from his position. Others appeared on his contacts thanks to the small recon drones. Shattered enemy warbots. Katy and Ken lying on the floor, arguing with each other about which of them was hurt worse. Other ruined suits lying around them all. Mister McEntyre and Olivia leaning against each other in obvious pain, murmuring softly to each other quietly enough that even Jack couldn’t properly hear them. Jon giving him a thumbs up and a great big happy smile that absolutely did not belong on a man missing both legs. Or most of his teeth. Samantha holding their baby in the hatchway, approving eyes flittering around the devastation surrounding them all.

This was one crazy, mixed up family.

A pair of holographic hands touched his shoulders. Betty on his left. Jasmine on his right.

Jack smiled.

It was his kind of family, and that was just fine by him.

2307_thefamilyaffair.txt · Last modified: 2021/02/05 03:25 by medron