Hello, my name is Jack.  It was a long War.  A lot of us didn’t make it out.  Many of us that did…well…for a lot of us we really didn’t.  Make it out entirely.  War’s not pretty, and it’s not safe, and it’s real hard to come home after that.  Most of us don’t like talking about it much.  We just try to forget the bad times, remember the good times, and try to make more.  We are prodigal sons come home, praying it is better than we have seen, fearing what we bring with us.



Prodigal Sons


The multicolored spectrum of flowing gravity twisted hyperspace like hundreds of glowing rivers fighting each other for dominance.  Jack watched his ship’s prow cut through the gravity waves like butter on their way to Earth.  The sensors showed no other ships in the area.  Unfortunately, sensor ranges in hyperspace were notoriously short, and he couldn’t deploy his drone scouts while approaching the system.  He didn’t like being blind, but understood Earth’s orders.  They simply didn’t want too many fighters and drones flying around the Terran system so soon after The War ended.

“We’re approaching the Red Line,” Betty announced from his right.

Jack nodded and turned to smile at the blonde holoform of the ship.  “I suppose we don’t want to run agravity do we?”  Rogue gravity waves were always a danger in hyperspace, but the standing gravity waves erected around Earth during The War were a truly vicious type.  Those would rip their ship apart faster than he could blink if they passed the big bad Red Line.

“Probably not,” she returned with a wry smile and crossed her arms under the vaguely Scandinavian face she’d chosen the day she was born.

Around him, the subtle hum of the scout ship shifted as the gravity generators powered up.  The deflection grid expanded away from the ship, creating a bubble of calm in the chaos of hyperspace.  Then the holoemitters around the bridge turned off, plunging the bridge into darkness lit only by a few runner lights in the deck.  Jack heartily approved.  He’d watched the transition with his own eyes once in his life, and still didn’t understand what he’d seen.  But he knew he never wanted to see it again.  He heard the generators pulse, felt the ship shudder, and the holoemitters came back to life, bathing the bridge in a new vista.

Jack scanned the dark starry night spreading in all directions, broken only by the Sun, the Moon, and Earth waiting to welcome her prodigal sons home with open arms.  He smiled at the home of humanity.  It had been years since he’d seen that beautiful blue and green orb, and it seemed like ages since he’d felt her under his feet.  He licked his lips as the longing to come home filled him.

He came to his feet and turned, breaking his eyes from the beautiful sight.  They were not alone in space.  This was the center of humanity’s power after all.  Well, the center of the Terran branch of humanity at least.  His eyes stopped on pinpoints of light in the distance, and tags appeared as they zoomed into focus in front of him, showing warships coming home.  Some carried American flags, while others hailed from the myriad of nations in the Western Alliance that had come to America’s aid when the Shang attacked.  There were even some Chinese and Russian ships in the distance, but they were keeping to the treaty, staying away from the Alliance orbitals.  The War was over after all, and nobody wanted any more incidents.  He hoped.

He turned back to Earth and saw Columbia in the distance.  The largest warship ever built by the American Navy, she blinked her lights at a passing American warship that looked tiny in comparison.  Of course, any ship looked tiny compared to her.  Jack licked his lips and sat down hard.

“So I guess she really is waiting,” Jack whispered, trying to keep his voice under control.

“She said she would be,” Betty whispered and their engines flared with blue light at her command, accelerating them towards Earth and the Columbia.

Jack reached forward, grabbed the ship in the holofield, and pulled her to him.  He smiled as he held the small model in his hand, examining her long lines.  She was a beautiful ship, even after years of fighting in the Hyades Cluster.  He swallowed, remembering all the wounds she’d taken in battle.  There’d been too many to really count.  Some still remained.  He liked to think of them as character builders.  No one would ever look at her and say she was some fresh-faced warship that had never seen battle.  She was a true Veteran of War.

The blue fusion light of engine fire bathed the bridge.  He looked up to see they were slowing as they approached the Columbia and released the small model in his hand to watch the main holofield.  The massive two-kilometer long warship grew to fill Jack’s entire field of view, and he looked up and down the beautiful behemoth, scanning across her guns.  His eyes stopped on the fourth gun on the port side and he wondered if it still had that little hitch in it.  They finally came to a rest off her port side and the engines cut out, leaving the entire ship in silence.

The Columbia’s running lights blinked off and on again, as a brunette mere inches shorter than he flickered into existence in the middle of the bridge, wearing full Navy Dress Whites and a smile.  “Hello, Jack,” Columbia greeted him and walked over to examine the Marine Dress Whites he wore with a critical eye.  “You’re looking good,” the hologram said and brought a hand up to brush his tie.

Jack smiled back and gave her a small head bow.  “And you, Columbia, as always look amazing.”

“Flatterer,” she chided with a shake of her head.

“Nothing but truth,” Jack answered with a beautific smile.

She sighed and placed a hand on his shoulder and the ship’s gravity generators pressed against him, giving it a feathery feel.  “How are you doing?”

“Doing good,” Jack said and made his smile look jaunty.

Columbia sighed again and raised a disbelieving eyebrow at him.

Jack raised his hands in surrender.  “But I been better,” he added in a hasty tone.  “Of course, I been worse too.  Way worse.”

She gave him a feathery pat on his shoulder, concern written on her face.  “If you ever need anything, call me.  OK?”

“Got it.”  Jack brought a hand up and rested it on hers, careful not to press hard enough against the gravity field to fall through her holoform.  “Thanks, girl.”

She gave him a fond smile.  “My pleasure, Jack.  Now shoo,” she ordered with a feathery slap.  “There’s a crowd of people down there that want to welcome the conquering heroes and you are going to give them something good to look at.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack responded, coming to a semblance of attention.

“That’s the spirit,” Columbia said with a laugh and turned to Betty.  “You take care of him.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Betty answered with a nod.

Columbia smiled at her and faded back out.

Jack pulled in a long breath as Betty accelerated them past the Columbia and moved them down towards Low Earth Parking over America’s east coast.  Ahead of them, already parked, hundreds of warships filled the zone, everything but their running lights powered down.  From corvettes to battleships, they parked close enough for the normal human eye to read hull numbers without magnification.  Shuttles zipped through the lines of ships, ferrying American crews down to Old New York and the celebration.

They flew into the lot and came to a stop next to a battleship with the name Puerto Rico on her flank.  She was a good ship if the stories were true, but he’d never seen her before.  His eyes flicked over to the destroyer on their portside and grimaced.  The Fox he had seen before, holding off three Chinese frigates in the Hyades Cluster.  Considering they’d been gunning for him personally, that left an impression.  It was one of the many days he’d been far too close to death for his comfort.

Jack pulled in a long breath to stabilize his nerves.

“Are you going to be OK?” Betty asked, a look of concern in her eyes.

Jack shrugged.  “I hope so.  Just…ah…tell her…” he ran out of words as his eyes ran down the Fox’s flank.  The wounds disfiguring her had been meant for him.

“I already did,” Betty whispered.  “She knows.”

Jack nodded his thanks.  “Keep close will you?” he asked with a bit more nerves than he’d wanted to reveal.

Betty stepped closer and placed a feathery hand on his shoulder.  “Always.”

“Thanks,” Jack whispered, and tried to steel himself for the spectacle that was to come.  “How do I look?” he asked, nervously adjusting his tie.

Betty made a show of scanning him from head to toe, as any human would, despite the fact that her ship’s sensors could see all of him just fine.  “You look great,” she reassured him.  Then she stepped back and spun around so he could get an eyeful of her matching Dress Whites.  “And me?” she asked with a sly smile.

Jack chuckled and said the first thing that came to mind.  “You’ll knock ’em all dead.”

Betty’s smile turned approving.  “Good,” she said and turned to walk out of the bridge.  “You coming?” she asked over her shoulder.

“Yeah, I suppose so,” he answered and followed her out of the bridge into the corridor that ran down the center of the ship.

“Don’t sound too eager,” Betty said with a knowing shake of her head.  “We wouldn’t want anybody getting the wrong idea.”

Jack sighed and turned into an alcove.  “Yes, Ma’am,” he said in an apologetic tone, and stepped into the hole in the deck of the alcove.  Air rushed around him as he fell towards the bottom of the ship, fields of gravity keeping him in the middle of the tube.  Then he felt gravity push against his feet, slowing his fall until he lightly touched the ship’s lowest deck.

He stepped out of the alcove as Betty fell down on his right.  Her holoform didn’t need to do that of course, but he smiled at her careful work to move like him whenever possible.  There were times, after all these years, that he actually forgot that Betty and her sisters were cybernetic intelligences.  They were people.  The only family he had left.

He walked over to the open cockpit jutting out of the deck and stepped down into it.  He sat down and began locking his five-point harness in place as Betty shrunk down to her twenty-centimeter tall form so she could sit on the console.  The canopy hissed down around them and Jack blinked as the contacts he wore synced up with the systems on the fighter.  He scanned the displays to make certain everything was operational, and Betty overlaid some of the information on his contacts.  It had been a confusing system when he first learned to use it, but it was second nature now.  All of the systems showed green.  Good.

He aimed his best jaunty smile at Betty.  “You ready?”

“I am always ready,” Betty returned with a sly look.

“If only,” he retorted as the ship shook around him, and they fell away from the bottom of their Privateer-class scout ship.  He examined the Avenger-shaped form in the bottom of the ship as armored plates closed around it.

“Always,” Betty corrected, pulled them away from the Privateer, and began to dive them down towards Earth.  They passed through the assembled fleet, zooming past the best and brightest warships of the Navy of the United States of America, ducking in and out of the swarm of shuttles like they were standing still.  As he looked at each ship, his contacts came alive with information.  Betty knew what interested him, from the battles they’d fought in, to the day they were born.

They finally exited the fleet, and Jack looked down to see nothing but Earth, beautiful Earth below them.  He swallowed his nerves down as Betty accelerated past the slower shuttles, the four engines of their F-12 Avenger starfighter maneuvering them in ways no mere shuttle could ever match.

“Yeehaw,” Jack whispered as the long needle-like nose glowed red hot from piercing into the outer edges of Earth’s atmosphere.  Lines of condensation appeared as the air thickened around them, flaring off the wing tips and over the cockpit.  They dropped down through the atmosphere at over ten thousand klicks an hour, engines spewing fusion plasma into the thickening air around them.  The engines died for a moment, then blue fusion flames boiled the air ahead of them and they slowed to supersonic speeds in mere seconds.

Jack pulled in a long breath as maneuvering thrusters flared to pull them out of the dive barely above sea level.  The engines disengaged again and Jack smiled as he looked out on the next best thing to paradise.  A bright sun shown over a clear Atlantic Ocean, glinting off the waves as the shadow of their Avenger flitted from wave to wave as if performing evasive maneuvers.  Ahead of them the Statue of Liberty held court over the harbor of Old New York, her torch on fire for all to see, a beacon of freedom to the world.

They finally fell below the speed of sound with a shudder and a groan and Jack patted the console.  “Hold together, girl,” he whispered with a wry smile.

“I’m only twenty years old,” Betty returned in a prim voice.  “You’re the old man around here.”

“Oh, please,” Jack said with an airy wave of his hand.  “I don’t look a day over twenty-five.”  Betty rolled her eyes, but it was true.  He did have the face of a twenty-five year old, even if he was twice that age and counting.  It was good to be Ageless.  The girls loved a pretty face after all.

“You keep telling yourself that, old man,” Betty teased.

Jack shrugged and aimed a raised eyebrow at her.  “Well, if you insist on ageism, I am old enough to be your daddy.”

Betty pursed her lips, kicked her heals against the front of the console, and glared at him as they flew past the Statue of Liberty.  “Oh, I’m never calling you that.”

Jack adjusted his tie with one hand to prolong his answer for a few seconds.  “Well, I can’t see why not.  It’s just a family relationship.”

“Right,” she said in a doubtful tone.

He gave her a mischievous grin as they flew up the bay.

She raised an eyebrow at him.

Jack cleared his throat and placed a more serious look on his face.  “Yes, Ma’am.”

She held his gaze and nodded very slowly.  “Better,” she whispered and turned the fighter into a marina, coming down to a soft landing on the water.  They nosed up to the dock and the canopy opened to let in the smell of salty sea air and burnt water.

Jack sniffed at the steam rising from the edge of the fighter and noted the popping coming from the hull as it radiated heat from the reentry.  Helpful information appeared on his contacts, telling him the temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity, dew point, and a hundred other little atmospheric factoids that Betty thought would be of interest to him.  He smiled, unlocked his harness, pulled himself to his feet, and heard the sound of music drifting over the marina.  It was a good song.  He stepped out of the cockpit, unconsciously moving in time to the beat.  The song’s name and the band that sang it appeared on the edge of his vision.

His feet hit the dock and he smiled at the soldier waiting for them as he reached an arm out for Betty to use.  She didn’t need it of course, but took the offered hand and stepped onto the dock with him as the specialist’s name, rank, and serial number appeared on his contacts.  The soldier looked back and forth between the two parts of the fighter team, the datapad in his hand, and the fighter, an expression of surprise on his face, before saluting.

Jack returned the salute as sharply as the Army specialist did.  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d done it the proper way, but then the Peloran never thought much of proper American military discipline.

“Would Captain Hart appreciate directions?” the specialist asked in a formal voice as he released the salute.

Jack made a performance of turning to scan the many uniformed men and women walking off the numerous docks and filing onto Liberty Street.  Dogs of every size, and even a few big cats moved through the crowd as well, their uniforms much more abbreviated than their follow servicemen.  Betty of course helped him by placing information in his contacts about any single person or landmark he held his eyes on.  He turned away from them and smiled at the soldier.  “Does Specialist Anders think it would be helpful?”

The specialist chuckled and gave him a wry smile.  “Yes, Sir.”

Jack looked at Betty, who nodded, and turned back to Anders with a nod.  “Then proceed.”

“Thank you, Sir.  If you would proceed down the docks to the walkway there,” he said with a wave of his hand towards the uniform-filled sidewalk.  “Take that to Liberty Street, and you may then walk all of the way to Patriot Arch.”  Jack’s contacts blinked, showing him where the relative landmarks were compared to where he was.

“I could have gathered that with my Mark One Eyeball, Specialist,” Jack said with an upraised eyebrow.

Anders smiled.  “Surely, Sir, for you it must be a Mark Two Eyeball?”

Jack chuckled and tipped the brim of his white Cowboy hat towards the soldier’s quick wit.  The man recognized him.  Of course, to be fair, there weren’t very many Captain Harts who wore the Texas Guard Marine Corps Uniform, and the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 112, the Cowboys, in particular were only a little bit famous.  “Good point, Specialist,” Jack said with a good-natured chuckle.  “Could you proceed with the helpful information please?” he added with only a slight dig.

Anders laughed this time and nodded his acknowledgement of the point.  “At the Arch, a local guide will meet you and I will no longer be responsible for getting you lost.”

Jack snorted.  “Had a lot of that lately?”

The specialist rolled his eyes.  “You have no idea, Sir.”

“Perhaps more than you think,” Jack returned with another chuckle.

“You served with the Peloran, Sir,” Anders said with a doubtful look.

“And with the dregs and troublemakers of navies that sent their ships to Aneerin to teach them how to fight against the Shang,” Jack noted with an upraised eyebrow.

The specialist paused in thought, made a show of scanning the uniforms walking down the walkway.  “You win, Sir,” he finally answered in a commiserating tone.

“If only,” Jack said with a snort.

Anders echoed his snort and looked at their fighter.  “Could you please roll your…fighter…into the bay, Sir?  Other ships are waiting to dock.”

Jack smiled and turned to Betty with a questioning look.

“On it,” she answered and the fighter began to move away from the dock.  He heard the holoemitters in his uniform take up the load of projecting Betty’s holoform when the fighter left transmission range, and sighed.

“Is that all, Specialist?” he asked, cocking his head to the side.

The soldier smiled back.  “That is all, Sir.  Have a good day, Sir.”

“Have a good day, Specialist,” Jack answered and turned to stride down the dock, his white cowboy boots clumping on the boards.  Betty kept pace on his right side the matching boots of her holoform making sounds that perfectly matched his, even though her insubstantial form couldn’t possibly be making them.  He had to admit that cybers had learned to get everything right.  The only problem was with the holoform itself.  Someone with very good vision, like Jack, could just see the hard edge of the holoform where it never quite merged with the air the way a real body did.  Instead, he could just see the moisture in the air passing through her form, clothing and all, a vague mist that could never quite interact with her right.  His uniform’s holoemitters just didn’t have the power to generate a holoform strong enough to mask its nature from his eyes.

She met his gaze with questioning eyes.  “What?”

He smiled and let out a long breath.  “Just wondering what I ever did without you.”

She returned his smile with a look that said he could keep talking like that forever, even if she didn’t really believe him.  He shrugged, admitting she’d caught him.  She sighed, and nodded ahead.

He followed her gaze to the grassy shore where all of the docks and walkways in the marina converged into a park dominated by an old pump house.  He idly wondered if it really was old or something rebuilt to look like the pump house that had been there.  Then he put that out of his mind as the crowds of men, women, dogs, and cats flowing off the docks from dozens of ships truly registered.

“Well,” he whispered, letting out a long breath.  “Once more into the breach.”

Betty chuckled, jumped into the air, and shrunk back into her twenty-centimeter form as she sat down on his shoulder.  He aimed an eye at her and she shrugged.  She didn’t like people walking through her, and a crowd this size pretty much guaranteed that would happen.

He smiled and walked into the crowd of the Navy, Army, Marine, and Space Force uniforms walking towards the park.  A quick scan of the assembly picked out the details of over fifty State Guard uniforms.  Some added or changed elements to the National uniform like his uniform, while others used a simple patch or medallion to proclaim their home State.  A very few cybers sat on other shoulders as well, and Jack made a point to make eye contact with them.  They all walked down Liberty Street, Americans despite their States of origin, and Jack looked up at the twin Freedom Towers in amazement.  He’d never seen them like this before, never felt their presence hit home like this.  The lights on the sides of the buildings blinked in an easy pattern to read after all these years, telling everyone in sight that they were welcome home.

His throat constricted and he brought a hand up to pull his collar away.  He cleared his throat to get the lump out of it, pulled in a long breath, and let it out to steady himself.  He saw Betty looking at him and smiled, telling her he was all good.

She placed a hand on his shoulder, letting him know she wasn’t fooled but that she would let him keep his façade.

He nodded in thanks as the part of the crowd they walked with began to pass through the Patriot Arch.  They stepped through one at a time, and as each one entered, someone met them, hugging or clapping them on the backs.  Some shared kisses strong enough to blow socks off, others the wrenching hugs and fists of best friends or brothers accustomed to rough play.  A dog that had to be from some German Shepard mix stepped through, only to be pulled off all four feet by a beautiful Great Dane.  As they yipped and played, Jack had to admit that the soldier had good taste in women.

He sighed, wondering who his guide would be.  His family on Earth was long gone, his friends in town either dead or in the service.  None of his friends, Cowboy or otherwise, had come hone yet, so no one he knew would be here to welcome him.  It was just him and Betty and probably some hired flunky he didn’t know.  He looked at her in trepidation and she met his gaze with that special encouraging one she used when he really needed it.  She nodded forward.

He shifted his head to the side, not certain he was ready to see a stranger.  She patted his shoulder and nodded forward.  He pulled in a deep breath full of trust in her, and walked into Freedom Park, hoping it wouldn’t be as lonely as he knew it would be.

As soon as he passed under the arch, a blonde and a brunette blur rushed him.  Normally, he would have been in motion, defending himself from attack, but for some reason his body didn’t move.  It just opened his arms as if by instinct and then his mind finally caught up as the two girls barreled into him.

“Taylor!  Jen!” he shouted and wrapped his arms around the two girls he’d grown up with in shocked exhilaration.  “What’re you doing here?”

“We’re your guides,” Taylor said with a smile, her long blonde hair bouncing in time to the music.

“I…” Jack trailed off in shock, unable to complete a sentence with the two beautiful girls in his arms.  “I…thought you were on tour!” he finally stammered out.

Jennifer aimed a pitying smile at him.  “We are.”

“Now are you going to follow us?” Taylor asked over Jennifer’s last word, continuing the rapid-fire assault of words those two always used on unsuspecting victims.  Or on old friends.

“Or do we have to do this the hard way?” Jennifer asked with a wink.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack said in response to Taylor’s question, then shook his head as Jennifer’s registered.  “No, Ma’am.”  He finally paused to consider the questions more carefully, before a wicked smile too over.  “Um…what’s the hard way again?”

Taylor and Jennifer leaned back, raised their eyebrows and slapped his arms.  “Down boy,” they chorused in a dangerous tone, their voices in the perfect harmony they’d always had all their lives.  His old pet theory that they were sisters, separated at birth and simply told they were cousins, came back to mind with a force that surprised him in more ways than one.

“Yes, Ma’ams,” he finally spluttered out.

“Good,” they chorused and pulled him away from the arch.

He let them take him with only token resistance, just enough to get them pulling harder.  “So…how did you become my guides?”

Taylor rolled her eyes at him like he was the class idiot.  Which come to think of it he’d played well so she had practice there.  “The Wounded Warriors asked for volunteers to welcome each warrior home, silly.”

“For most people, that’s family,” Jennifer noted.

“But some people get…us,” Taylor said with an impish smile and arms spread out to emphasis her lithe body and short tan sundress.

“Lucky me,” Jack whispered as Jennifer talked over him.

“A favorite actor or singer.”  Then Jennifer froze as his words registered and she joined Taylor in stepping back and planting her hands on her hips, in her case on shapely ripped blue jeans under a low-cut grey t-shirt that left little to the imagination from his one hundred and eighty-centimeter vantage point.

“Oh,” Taylor said in a doubtful tone.

“So you’re going to be trouble today?” Jennifer asked in a dangerous one.

Jack considered his answer for a moment before aiming a Cheshire grin their way.  “What can I say?”  Then he paused as he truly did lose the words that he wanted to say.  He wanted to joke with them like the old days, but his mind came up blank.

They caught onto his distress and Taylor placed a gentle hand on his arm.  “Say you want us to show you around The City.”

“And then take you to the concert,” Jennifer piled on with a gentle pat.

“The…concert?”  Jack blinked and shifted his head to the side, analyzing the music filling the park.  The sounds ranged up and down the spectrum from high treble range to low bass, far beyond the hearing of most humans.  Far beyond the range of recorded albums on the market.  This was a live performance.  “Ah…I see.”  And he finally did.  They really were here on tour.

Taylor smiled in approval as he finally got it.  “The concert never ends.”

“The biggest USO performance in history,” Jennifer whispered in a proud tone.

“I’m…impressed,” Jack whispered.

“You should be,” Taylor answered.

“Now what was it you were going to ask us again?” Jennifer asked with a demanding look.

Jack cleared his throat and gave them his best debonair smile.  “Of course.  Would the two most beautiful girls in the all the worlds show me around The City?” he asked, spreading his arms out wide.

They jumped into his arms without hesitation and leaned in close.

“We would love to,” they said in that perfect unison that always left him speechless.

Fireworks exploded overhead and Jack nearly jumped out of his skin.  His mind quailed, and a part of him returned to the Hyades Cluster, to the death and screaming and pain of battle.  All he wanted to do was find something to hide behind.  It must have shown, because Taylor and Jennifer reacted faster than he’d have thought possible.

Jennifer wrapped her arms around him before he could run.  “Those fraking idiots!” she snarled and held on as if her life depended on it.  Or maybe his.

Taylor spun in his other arm just as fast and reached her hands up to hold his face.  She pulled his head down and looked into his eyes with a gaze that demanded his full and undivided attention.  He froze, transfixed by the same eyes that had held him so many times back in school.  “The War’s over, Jack.  Don’t worry,” she said, barely loud enough for him to hear over the explosions in the air.  He could have thrown them both away and he saw in her eyes that she knew it.  But she trusted him not to hurt them, and that trust was his undoing.  It humbled him.  “We’re here for you,” she continued, her voice calling him back to the present with calm urgency.  “We won’t let you go.”

And they didn’t.