I’ve met a lot of people in my life. Usually, if I don’t like them right away, I never will. If I like them off the bat, I usually always do. Most people are quick to read. The interesting ones are those who I can’t figure out right off the bat. Sometimes I’ll engage them just because I want to know who they are. Sometimes the person I end up meeting improves my faith in the human races. Sometimes they don’t.
Jack leaned against a wall with arms and legs crossed, scanning the studio and the studio audience waiting for the show to start. Jasmine and Betty leaned against the wall on either side of him, while Charles and Dorothy stood across from them in the small offstage run. Their Texas Marine Dress Whites shown bright in the light spilling off the stage, even though they weren’t all planning to be on the show. They made an impressive sight walking down the halls.
“It will not be much longer,” Charles intoned in a careful manner, keeping his voice low. “Are you sure you are ready?”
Jack smiled. “I was born ready.”
Charles raised a single eyebrow at Jack. “I am serious. If you do not feel comfortable, we can cancel right now.”
Jack shook his head. “No need. The network agreed to the conditions.”
Charles grumped. “And then picked her for the interview?”
Jack shrugged. “Backing out would look bad for us.”
Charles chuckled. “That does not mean I like it.”
“Me neither,” Jack answered with a smile. “But seriously, Sir, Betty and Jasmine have done their homework. I can end the interview whenever I need to without making it look like I’m ending the interview.”
The opening music of the Landing Report filled the studio, and they turned to the stage. It was the oldest and most prestigious newscast on New Earth and Jack just didn’t know why they wanted to interview a Cowboy. He knew what they said. They wanted to interview one of the Americans who saved New Earth, to get to know who would leave their home to fight out here. They wanted him on the primetime newscast, for everyone in the system to see. They wanted to show the people a real American hero. That is what they said.
And then they handed the interview to their religion consultant rather than one of their main anchors. That was what had him confused. And that was why he’d asked Betty and Jasmine to scan the nets for anything he could use on her if he had to. They’d come back with some interesting information. He would keep that in his back pocket, just in case he needed it. But he would work with her as long as she was willing to work with him. He would find how willing she was soon.
The former Miss Universe contestant walked onto the stage wearing a smile and a suit that accentuated all of her curves while still looking business-like. She had the reputation of a good, clean, Christian girl to maintain after all. The religion correspondent waved at the studio audience and they cheered back as she sat down behind the news desk. She looked at the cameras and the applause faded away with the music, leaving the most prestigious stage on New Earth to her.
“Thank you for tuning in tonight,” she said in a clear soprano tone that carried through the studio without any need of amplification. It was a beautiful voice actually, one that had done well in the competitions in the past. “I am Faith Hendriks, speaking for…the Landing Report, and it is a pleasure to be here, on today of all days.”
Jack had to hand it to her. She did sound real sincere. He wondered if she was putting on an act or if she meant everything she said.
“One month ago,” Faith continued, “two major war fleets attacked New Earth. Our brave navy destroyed both fleets, with the help of the Peloran and a brave group of American fighter pilots,” she said through lusty cheering and applause from the studio audience. “Today we have a guest you will not soon forget! He is a fighter pilot who has faced down the Shang and the Chinese in multiple star systems, and come back looking for more to kill,” she announced and the cheering erupted again. “He is…a real American Cowboy!”
Jasmine and Betty rolled their eyes. Jack just chuckled at the campy introduction, tipped his cowboy hat towards them, and walked out onto the stage with a jaunty gait, a beaming smile, and a waving hand. The studio audience ate it up and their applause followed him all the way to the desk. He placed a hand on the chair and smiled at Faith. “May I?”
“Of course,” she returned in a whisper and waved for him to take the chair. As he sat down, she returned her focus to the cameras and the studio audience. “It is my pleasure to introduce you to Captain Jack…” she paused as she squinted at the teleprompter and blushed. “I’m sorry…how do you pronounce your last name?”
Jack smiled at her, wondering why she’d not taken the time to learn that behind his mask. “The way it’s spelt, Ma’am.” He turned his smile on the audience. “My momma always taught me to help people sound it out.” His smile turned humorous. “And if I learned one thing, it’s to listen to my momma,” he finished with a chuckle. The studio audience laughed and applauded him and he could see he had captured them. They liked him. That would be worth a lot if he needed it.
Faith looked at the prompter again for nearly second before looking back to him. “Can I just call you Jack?”
Jack’s smile grew and he rubbed his chin with a thumb. “Well, if we’re going for Christian names, can I call you Faith?”
Faith chuckled and shook her head. “I wish I could tell you that you’re the first to ask me that question.”
Jack winked at her. “Old joke?”
Faith sighed in response. “As old as I am.”
“Oh,” he whispered, emoting the perfect slice of surprise for the audience. “A very young joke then,” Jack said with another wink and the audience laughed again.
Faith just shook her head and gave him a demure smile. “Why, thank you.”
Jack spread his hands out wide and shrugged as if he spoke nothing but the truth.
“Well, enough about me,” she said with a self-effacing smile towards the audience. “I would love to know what you think of New Earth. Is this your first time here?”
Jack laughed. “Oh yes. First time. And let me tell you, my muscles ache every night what with this crazy gravity,” he said towards the audience with a wink and an affected old-man slump. They laughed back as he knew they would. “And I’m still learning how to drink your air here,” he added and feigned an attempt to catch his breath. The audience’s laughter redoubled at his antics. “Seriously, you are real supermen here,” he finished and the audience applauded his appreciation.
“Yes, New Earth is no place for the weak of heart,” Faith said, trying to bring the interview back under control. Then her smile grew. “And speaking of hearts, I understand you’ve found someone special here on New Earth. I would love to know who this mystery girl is,” Faith gushed.
Jack held his smile in place, but the urge to do something very ungentlemanly filled him for an instant. He had no intention of bringing Samantha into this. And it wasn’t like she was really a mystery either. Everybody on the campus knew them. “I’m very sorry,” he said to Faith before turning to the audience again with a large smile. “But I can not comment on that rumor. I learned long ago that nice young ladies appreciate a man who does not kiss and tell,” he added and waggled his eyebrows towards them. They laughed and he turned back to Faith with a smile on his face, inviting her to move on to her next question.
“How very gentlemanly of you,” she answered his smile. “I’m sure she appreciates that.”
Jack answered with a simple shrug and a wave of one hand just to keep things moving.
Faith took in a deep breath and filled the silence quickly. “Well, as I said, it truly is an honor to have you here, especially as it is one of the last days you can be here. I understand that your squadron is shipping out to War again. What can you tell me about what you’ve been doing to get ready?”
Jack kept his eyes wide and friendly by force of will alone. She’d just broken the agreements wide open. He wondered what the network was thinking with this, but he held his smile and answered gamely. “Well, as to that, Ma’am, I can not speak. What with The War and all, I can’t really discuss military maneuvers. ‘Loose lips sink ships,’ right?” he asked the audience and they gave him a round of approving claps.
She seemed chastened by that comment. “Of course. I’m sorry. Can you tell us how you got here?”
Jack chuckled, back on ground he was willing to answer. “Well, it’s no secret that we were chasing that Chinese fleet that hit you back before New Year’s. Your navy was doing a real good job of holding them off by the way. It was our pleasure to give all those brave sailors a helping hand.”
“Oh, you’re being too modest. The way I hear it, your fleet broke the back of the Chinese navy. I understand the Cowboys destroyed a naval squadron on your own in hyperspace, an impressive feat I must say.”
And just like that, she dove back into detailed military information. “Well, Ma’am, I of course can’t comment on that. Military maneuvers during Wartime and all that,” he said with a glance towards the audience. They mumbled in support, aiming uncomfortable looks her way.
“Of course, of course,” Faith said, mollifying the audience with her practiced smile. “But isn’t that how you got your second cyber? Her pilot died in that battle, right?”
Jack smiled and decided it was time to redirect her with a half-answer. “Well, Ma’am, as to that, no pilot ever gets a cyber. Fighter pilots are lucky enough to be chosen by a cyber who wants to be our partner.”
Faith smiled and pounced on his answer. “And here you are, lucky enough to have been chosen by two cybers,” she said with a wave of her hand towards where Jasmine and Betty stood on the wings. “How do you do it?”
Jack leaned back into his chair and aimed a smile at the audience. “Clean living and a healthy conscience,” he announced with a self-deprecating wave of a hand.
The studio audience laughed at him.
He turned back to Faith to see a faint glare on her face. She hid it well, but he could see the signs. She didn’t like how he continued to avoid her questions. He smiled back at her, showing that he was perfectly happy to answer any question that didn’t cross the lines.
She responded quickly. “So what’s it like having two cybers?”
Jack sighed and turned to look at Betty and Jasmine on the wings. They cocked their heads to the side, intensely interested in his response. He smiled, sucked in a deep breath, and turned back to Faith. “Have you ever had a friend who you could talk to about anything or anybody on all the worlds? A friend you can trust without hesitation, who will stand with you no matter what? Someone who will join you in a ridiculous practical joke on another friend right here, or a damn fool idealistic crusade on the other side of the known galaxy? One who will never lie to you, who sees who you really are, all your strengths and your weaknesses, and who still has your back no matter what?”
Jack cleared his throat, realizing he’d gone on a bit more than he planned. He scanned the studio audience, sitting in utter silence, and realized he’d hit a chord with them. He looked at Faith and saw in her eyes that she would never answer his question. Her smile held, and most people would just see her waiting for him to continue, but he could see he’d hit her. She didn’t have a friend like that. In that moment, he pitied her.
Jack smiled. “That’s who a cybernetic partner is.” He turned to the audience with a mischievous wink. “I’ve heard it said that a friend smiles and tries to talk us out of getting into dangerous situations. A best friend skips along beside us with a baseball bat, singing ‘someone’s gonna get it,’” he finished in a sing-song child’s voice.
Jack paused for the audience’s laughter and turned to look at Jasmine and Betty again. They smiled back and he knew he’d calculated correctly. He looked at the audience again and shrugged. “Well, they carry monogrammed baseball bats.”
Faith aimed a pleased smile at him, but he caught the glint of something in her eyes that suggested…a hunter. “It sounds like you’re saying they’re the best thing that ever happened to you.”
Jack paused a moment, wondering where she was going with that question. It seemed…aimed at something. A part of him wanted to stop right there and then, end the interview and get out, but he had to keep playing to the studio audience while he figured out what her game was. “Well, it’s the people we connect with that make our lives fantastic, that make us the best we can be.” Jack smiled. “Assuming they’ve got our best interests at heart of course.”
Faith nodded in approval. “That is the important question.”
Jack saw the shift behind her eyes and knew she’d gotten wherever she wanted to be.
Faith turned to the audience with a calm smile. “To those of you who watch my show, you know that whenever I interview someone, I always like to ask what faith they follow. Our faiths motivate us after all.” She turned back to Jack and he believed he understood what an antelope felt when a lion licked its lips in his general direction. “Who do you believe has your best interests at heart, Jack? What faith motivates you to do what you do?”
Jack licked his lips at the question. He tried not to think about that kind of stuff. But he’d expected that question from her, so had come mostly prepared. “Well, my parents were holy rollers. They believed that God did miracles and talked to us and everything. We went to all those churches where people dance in the aisles and shout alleluias and all that. I met a lot of nice people in those places.”
Faith cocked her head in interest. “And is that what you believe?”
Jack shrugged. “I don’t know. You see I believe that a lot of the people were more interested in the ‘Thou shalt not’ parts of the Bible than they were in the ‘Thou shalt do’ bits.” Jack shook his head and winked at her. “Honestly, I like doin’ a lot more than not.”
Faith frowned and considered his words for a few seconds before asking her next question “So, have you walked away from your parents’ faith?”
Jack shook his head again. “Not really. I don’t know. Maybe.” Jack sighed. “We had a disagreement in priorities. My priority was doin’ to others as I’d want them doin’ to me. I guess I never did react well to being told what not to do. By anyone.”
Faith shook her head. “However did you survive your first drill sergeant?”
Jack laughed. “Well, as to that, Marines have drill instructors,” he corrected with wry smile. “And me and the Gunny came to a mutually beneficial arrangement.” At her surprised looked he waggled his eyebrows. “I accepted that the Gunny was always right, and he let me live.”
They laughed together, and the audience joined in. He noticed the loudest laughter coming from a group of military men in one corner. It was good to have someone on his side here.
Faith sighed and leaned in towards him. “And from those humble beginnings, you became a Cowboy?”
“He did good with those of us willing to listen.” Jack spread both arms out wide and cleared his throat. “Which I suppose even I can be once you whack me enough times.”
Faith looked at him as if she was actually interested in him for once. “Would you mind telling us how you became a Cowboy?”
Jack leaned back and considered the question for a moment before answering. “Well, after the Gunny proclaimed me capable of pulling my own boots on without adult supervision, I got sent down to the Marine training center in Corpus Christi, Texas. It’s pretty much the location where we were doing the advanced training. Fighter pilots in our cases.”
There was that look of genuine interest again. “By ‘we’ you mean the Ageless that were just volunteering after Yosemite?”
Jack smiled at her. “Yes. Most of us had never served in the military. We had everything from accountants to tour guides in my class.” Jack spread his arms out wide again and winked again. “And some partiers too.”
Faith shook her head with a rueful smile. “Never underestimate the partiers, right?”
Jack laughed. “They can be real scary when you spill their beers.”
She paused again, considering him for a moment before asking. “Did you expect to be in a famous fighter squadron?”
Jack rubbed his chin in thought for a few moments. “Yes and no.”
Faith looked confused. “Why both?”
Jack shrugged. “On the one side, we’re Ageless. That makes us very rare and very visible. But loath as I am to admit it, fighting is a lot more about knowing how to fight than it is just having a natural talent for it. The military in general didn’t think we really had the…killer instincts to be real warriors. And they were right.”
Faith actually looked outraged at the statement. “But you’re one of the best squadrons!”
Jack laughed again. “Most of us were on our second month since we volunteered.” He shook his head. “Oh, we’d done boot camp and we’d been through an insanely fast class on basic space fighting and how to work with cybers and stuff. But you have to understand that before The War the military spent two years training pilots, at least. And most of us never would have thought of doing anything like that. Only two of us were combat veterans.”
Faith looked down at the notes on her desk. “You mean Colonel Johanson and Major Randalf?”
Jack nodded. “Yes.”
She returned her gaze to him, really curious again. “They weren’t Ageless, were they?”
Jack shook his head. “No. They were veterans and real good trainers. They drilled us hard, and we learned how to fly the rivets off those Avengers under them. They got us into shape and when it came time they got us into position to make a difference.”
She nodded as she began to understand something that had passed her by before. “You’re referring to Fort Wichita. They died leading you into battle to save the Peloran squadron, right?”
Jack smiled. “They’re the heroes. They’re the warriors. We just did what they taught us and we survived. The rest was…well it was an impressive battle.”
She glanced down at her notes again. “Yes, I hear that the Constellation is still undergoing repairs after that one.”
Jack cleared his throat, working hard to keep his eyes from flashing in anger. Once again she was talking about military deployments. Looking her in the eyes, he knew she understood. She was doing it on purpose, but this time she had the presence of mind to look regretful. “Well, Ma’am, I can’t really say anything about that of course. What with The War going on and all.”
She nodded in understanding. “Of course. I’m sorry. What can you say about the carrier you served on for…how many months was it again?”
Jack chuckled and decided to avoid the question with grace. “Well, Ma’am, Connie’s a real classy lady. She’s a beautiful ship and I love her. She always made me feel welcome on her decks. It was a pleasure to serve on her, and I hope when she sees this she knows how much I miss her. She was the first place that ever felt like home to me after Yosemite.”
Faith smiled in understanding and he thought he caught a part of her sense changing. “How many homes have you had in your life?”
Jack returned her smile. “Few enough that I treasure each one.”
Faith laughed with good grace, accepting that she wasn’t going to get an answer there either. “Okay. So what’s it like growing up Ageless?”
Jack shrugged and rubbed his chin. “Well, we don’t actually grow up Ageless. We grow up like anybody else, go to school like anybody else, and get jobs like anybody else. Though we have found some traits that most Ageless share.”
Faith paused for a moment, and Jack could tell he’d derailed her from what she’d been planning to ask. “What traits?”
Jack smiled. “Well, most of us don’t grow up as the football star or head cheerleader,” he said with a chuckle. “A lot of us are kinda special, in ways that parents really hoped we wouldn’t be in the past. We sometimes see things other people can’t see, or do things other people don’t do. Sometimes we’re just a bit hyper, sometimes we’re the kid who has a compulsion to turn left the same number of times they turn right, and sometimes we see the things that go bump in the night.”
Faith frowned. “Things that go bump in the night?”
Jack laughed. “The monster under the bed, or in the closet. The spirit that keeps opening and shutting the doors in the house.”
Faith cocked her head to the side. “So you believe in ghosts?”
Jack shrugged. “I don’t know what I believe,” he said in a soft tone and shook his head. “But I know this. Back in the old days, the people in charge pumped the kids full of drugs so they could be ‘normal’ like everybody else. But then they couldn’t think anymore. They…lost themselves. I can’t think of anything worse to do to somebody than that.”
Faith stared at him, looking like she was afraid to ask the next question. “Have you seen or heard things that others can’t?”
Jack chuckled and gave her a wide smile. “I do every time I get into a fighter.” He paused and turned to the studio audience, seeing that they were breathless, waiting for his answer. “Space. Freedom,” he finished and saw amusement run through it. And agreement. And some disappointment.
Faith stared at him and in her eyes he saw a question that she thought would hurt him badly. He had some ideas of what it could be. He’d seen enough hacked up “interviews” over the years to know the tactics they used when they wanted to make someone look bad. So he watched and waited for her to commit. She surprised him though when she blinked, pushed the question away, and shook her head. “Are you going to answer my question?”
Jack scanned her, interested by what he saw in her stance. She didn’t feel as assured of her position as she had when the interview started. But he didn’t know what she wanted. She met his gaze with eyes that looked uncertain for the first time. He let out a short breath, pushed his chair back, and rose to his feet in a fluid motion. He stepped over towards her and held a hand out.
She gave him a confused look, but raised a hand to his. He pulled her up, raised a hand to cover his lips, and whispered into one ear as she came to her feet. “Do you really want to know the answer to that question, or are you just looking for ammunition to use against me for whoever pulled the strings to get you this interview?”
He stepped back with a grand gallant gesture for the crowd, grabbing their attention and giving her a second to respond. He kept an eye on her, watching shock and worry running through her eyes. Her face kept her perfect smile and she moved with him naturally, the perfect actor that kept anyone else from seeing that it wasn’t real. But he could tell he’d hit a nerve, he’d found something close to the truth.
Finally, she answered his question in a whisper so low even he almost missed it. “I want to know,” she said out of unmoving lips. Her eyes met his gaze and for the first time in the entire interview, he truly and completely believed what she said. He breathed in, breathed out, and decided that he didn’t need to destroy her career after all.
He smiled at her. “Ma’am, I never answer a question like that on the first date,” he said and the studio audience laughed at her shocked expression.
“Well played,” she whispered under her breath, her eyes looking at him in approval. Then she turned to the studio audience with her blazing smile. “Then we’re just going to have to bring him back for another…interview, don’t you think?” she asked and the audience applauded and cheered.
Jack smiled back at them and tipped his hat, acknowledging their approval. He’d been hoping to win the audience and been worried he would have to destroy a career. He looked down at Faith with a broad smile. He’d never expected to get her on his side. Though how much she was on his side was a good question. At least she wasn’t opening fire on him. He could work with that to start with. The rest would come in time. And there was far more to her than what met the eye. That could be a very good thing in the future. It could also be very bad, but there was always that old saying about hope springing eternal.