Hello, my name is Jack.  The Marines have this thing about every Marine being a rifleman.  Even pilots like me.  They also have a thing about training every Marine in martial arts, to control our minds, our characters, and our bodies.  They ground it into me pretty good.  Literally.  On the ground.  A lot.  But once I got the hang of it, I realized something.  It’s all a dance.  Combat in all its ways.  Messy and violent, but a dance.  And girls have always said I’m a good dancer.



The Dance


Jack stood at the top of a hill where the house he grew up in had stood.  Now waist-high grasses covered it, seedpods waving in the breeze coming off the lake behind him.  The lake stretched out on either side, surrounding the promontory that he still owned, twenty years after the fall of Yosemite wiped out everything.  Behind him, down in the cold spring water, Taylor and Jennifer splashed, keeping above water despite the shock of being thrown in.  Beyond them, the limousine that tried to run them all over sank into the lake like a rock.  Ahead of him, the stones marking generations of his family stuck out of the grass, too far to be of any use to him.  Beyond them a thick, dark, old growth forest rose out of the field, standing tall above the landscape.

Warning red lights flickered through Jack’s contacts, highlighting threats in that forest.  He peered at the three threat sources, smiling as the adrenalin burned through his veins and time seemed to stand still.  The men hunkered down behind fallen logs, rifles braced over them and trained on him, their eyes open wide in shock.

They hadn’t expected him to avoid their first attack.  Sloppy of them.  Somebody must not have told them who their target was.  Either that or they were far too stupid to live.  Nobody targeted one of the Ageless, especially one with a cybernetic partner, with a single attack and expected it to succeed.

The Peloran Treatments had ended aging as humanity knew it.  The Terran branch at least.  Short of death by accident or threat, people could live for centuries now, with bodies that just didn’t wear out like they had before Contact.  But there were some side effects to the Peloran Treatments.  One out of a million people simply stopped aging at all the moment they took the final treatment, whatever physical age they were.  Six, sixteen, or sixty, whatever the age they never aged another day in their life.  They were Ageless, with immune systems that actively fought any change at all, healing wounds without scarring, and even regrowing lost limbs given enough food and time.  Their body knew exactly how it was supposed to look, where every cell should be, and it would remain like that, unchanging, until the day something finally killed them.

More than that, the body of an Ageless fought the effects of fatigue with amazing capability, stripping the toxins from their bodies that caused most people to slow down.  They were stronger than average, had hair trigger reaction times that few could match, their eyes and ears could see things most could not, and they even used more of their minds than most humans.  They were much like the genetically-engineered Peloran in fact.  But for all their differences, they weren’t actually superhuman.  The best comparison an early researcher of the Ageless phenomenon made was that they were like professional baseball, basketball, football, or soccer players.  They were at the peak condition of the human body, able to do things that most people could never dream of doing themselves.  And their bodies never broke down due to injures or age.

For twenty years, Jack had fought the Shang, driving them back from their assaults on Earth, Alpha Centauri, and all the other worlds of humanity.  The Terran branch at least.  In all those years, the Marines and then the Peloran taught him how to fight, and unlike those who lived before Contact, he still had the perfect body of a twenty-five year old college student, with not a single physical scar to betray all the lessons two decades of training and fighting had drilled into his body.  Mental pain was a completely different issue.  In this moment of perfect clarity, Jack knew he was a mental basket case.  But physically, he was never better.  Literally.

And the three men holding rifles at him had no idea in the world what they’d done.  Actually, from the way their eyes opened wide as he finished standing up, adrenalin burning through his veins and heightening every last one of his senses, he figured they were realizing it.  That knowledge was far, far too late to make a difference.

Jack smiled as he studied them, his mind picking out important pieces of information at lightning speed.  They wore impressive active camouflage fatigues that made them blend into the dim, old growth forest, breaking up their outlines in their shelters.  Even their rifles aimed at him were tied into the system, and looked like branches sticking out of the logs they rested on.

But even limited to the sensors embedded in his uniform, Betty knew what to look for and the enemy outlines flared in his contacts.  He might have been able to see them without the contacts, if he knew where they were there, but he wouldn’t have bet his life on it.  And caught unawares, he doubted he ever would have noticed them in time.  Their armored helmets and combat fatigues weren’t Marine issue, but they looked like they would protect the gunmen from most, if not all, small caliber weapons.  And the helmet was one of the standard combat helmets, with a clear visor that gave the wearer combat information much like his contacts.  Betty pointed out the weak points in their protection as she laid blazing red lines across his contacts, showing the rifles aimed at his chest.

Jack’s studying gaze flicked over them for a split second, registering the open shock behind the visors, assimilating all of Betty’s warnings and suggestions.  He stepped to the side, breaking contact with the three lines that met at his body, right hand dipping to pull the pistol from its holster, and saw the first flashes from their rifles.

Bullets whizzed by him close enough he felt the brush of air as the gunmen tried desperately to bring their rifles around to him again, but Jack danced to the side, following a tune the attackers could never hear.  Moving lines flowed in his vision in time with the swinging rifles, but he continued to move before them with deadly grace and brought the pistol up.  More bullets whizzed by and he aimed the pistol, lining it up with one of Betty’s markers.  He pulled the trigger once and rode the recoil to avoid another stream of bullets as the slide hammered back, sending a smoking casing twirling into the air, sunlight glinting off it.  The slide shot forward again, slamming another round into position as his first shot exploded through his first target’s visor.

One stream of bullets tore up into the air, their rifleman no longer alive to control them, and Jack planted one leg down hard to jump to the side as the other two streams of bullets swept towards him.  He flew over the rocks and fell away from the hill as the bullets passed over him.  A slight tug on his left leg sent him tumbling though, and he splashed into the water much harder than he’d planned.

The freezing water of a Northern Minnesota lake in early spring bit to the bone and it took a lifetime’s experience of jumping into the water under far less dangerous circumstance to keep him from gasping.  He held onto his control, planted hands and feet in the muddy bottom of the lake, and pushed himself back above the water.  He shook his head, spraying cold water in every direction, and blinked more out of his eyes, trying to get a good look at the attackers through the rocky bank that blocked a direct sightline.

Via sensors Betty had deployed, his contacts showed the two gunmen on the move, crouching as they ran across the open field directly towards his position.  That wasn’t good.  He glanced to the left to see Taylor and Jennifer holding onto rocks and shivering.  He had to get them out of the water before hypothermia set in.  He just had to make certain that getting out of the water wasn’t a death sentence first.

Jack nodded in decision and began wading to the right to flank the enemy, crouching to avoid poking his head above the hill.  He really didn’t want to give them a free target.  The gunmen turned, keeping track of his movements, and he suppressed a curse.  Betty wasn’t the only one who’d dropped sensors.

“Betty?” he whispered so quietly that even someone standing next to him couldn’t have heard, continuing to move away from the girls in the knee deep water.  He had to draw the attackers away from them if possible.

“I’m on it,” Betty answered from his earpiece.  “They have AI support,” she added in a derisive tone.  “Dealing with it now.”

“I need them blind,” Jack growled as the attackers continued to track his movement, aiming their rifles at the rim of the hill above him.

“Got him,” Betty answered in triumph.  “AI is down.  Stupid piece of crap,” the cyber added and Jack smiled.  To her and most cybers, AIs on a good day were their stupid inbred cousins that needed help to run their own code.  On a bad day, they were ants to be squashed.  She was in a squashing mood today, and Jack heartily agreed.  “Sensors down.  They’re blind.”

Jack stopped moving immediately and smiled as the gunmen continued to track his previous movement for a few seconds.  Then they stopped, tracking their rifles back and forth, covering the hill in case he came over it.  Jack licked his lips, following their movements and waiting for the right time to attack.  After a few more seconds, one turned in a decisive action and began to run towards where the girls hid.

“Frak,” Jack whispered, not bothering to suppress the curse this time.  So they’d decided to force him to show himself.  If the gunman got to the girls, he would use them as hostages.  Jack could not allow that.  Whatever the cost.

Jack shot out of the water, water and mud running off the pistol held straight out before him, and aimed it at the closer gunman.  The man’s rifle aimed to Jack’s right, where the man thought he would be.  The man was wrong.  The attacker spun, bringing his rifle around, but Jack had all the time in the world to pull the trigger.

A 12.7-millimeter armor-piercing bullet roared out of the barrel, spraying mud and water before it.  Jack saw the shockwave of air as it traveled at over a thousand meters per second, crossing the few meters between them in less than an eye blink.  The bullet’s point exploded against the visor, clearing the way for the rest of the bullet to penetrate the man’s body armor, and then proceeded to bounce around inside the armored helmet, turning his brain into paste.  The pistol’s slide slammed back, ejected the smoking casing, and rocked forward again with a third round in the chamber as Jack spun to face the third rifleman.

The third one was smart.  The smartest of them Jack thought.  He’d been the one to threaten the girls.  And he’d expected Jack to react.  He hadn’t known where Jack was of course, which kept him from correctly guessing where Jack was, but there was only one Jack, and there had been two gunmen.  It took time to kill them both, and the third attacker had bet his life and the mission on that time.  It had been his best bet, and Jack had killed his partner first, giving him the time he needed to line his rifle up on Jack.

The attacker pulled the trigger and a bullet exploded out of a flashing barrel, faster than the speed of sound.  Jack watched its silent approach with the corner of his eye as he spun away, trying desperately to avoid it.  But he wasn’t fast enough to avoid a speeding bullet.  Still, that didn’t really matter.  He felt his pistol line up with the attacker and pulled the trigger as pain blazed in his left shoulder.  Then an explosion of sound rolled over him as he flew back and fell into the water again, smashing face first into the muddy bottom.

This time he did gasp in pain, and bubbles of precious air floated up and away.  He blinked in pain, watching blood swirl in the water, and knew it was bad.  Not dead bad, but bad bad.  Jack gritted his teeth, planted his good hand on the muddy bottom, and pushed his head out of the water again.  He looked up through the hill to see the third attacker laying on it, the readings on his contacts clearly showing the man was dead.

Jack let out a long breath in relief, and pulled his legs under him.  He rose to his feet shakily, and looked down at his uniform.  Mud and blood ran down it, staining the white fabric in blotches.  He blinked and tried to move his left arm.  Tried.  The pain exploded, and he was pretty certain the arm just flopped.  The shoulder was ruined.  He slipped the pistol back into the holster and reached over to rip the uniform open at his shoulder.  The shoulder looked bad, but the bleeding was coming to a stop already.  Good.

“What happened?” Jack asked and winced as he began to trudge through the water, waving aside weeds with his good hand.

“I’m sorry, Jack,” Betty whispered as her holoform flickered into focus in the water next to him, slipping through it like a ghost.  “They hacked the limo.  I didn’t have time to get control back.”

“No problem,” Jack answered and walked into view of Taylor and Jennifer.  They aimed frightened looks at him and he smiled.  “You warned me.  That’s what matters.  Any idea who they were?”

“None,” Betty whispered, and a quick glance showed concern on her face.

“Any others out there?”  He stopped and looked at her, hoping there weren’t.

“Not in range.”  Betty shrugged.  “But I didn’t take time to ask the AI.  I just shredded him.  They may have backup.”

“Got it,” muttered and turned to Taylor and Jennifer again.  “We need to move.”

They wrapped arms around their torsos, shivering in the early spring breeze.  “Where?” Taylor asked through chattering teeth.

Jack shrugged and immediately regretted it.  The bad shoulder had a real way of protesting any motion.  He smiled through the wince of pain.  “Some place I really never intended to come back to,” he muttered and turned to very carefully walk up the stone bank.  Taylor and Jennifer followed his example, but Jack winced as his left leg spasmed in pain.  He looked down to see blood staining the uniform leg and sighed.  But he’d been walking on it.  That meant it was just meat damage.

“You’re hurt,” Jennifer whispered, concern on her face as she looked at his shoulder.

“I’ll live,” Jack growled, pushed the pain away, and made his way up onto the grass again.  He stood still for a moment, gasping and concentrating on holding the pain at bay, and then staggered up to where the house used to stand over the lake.  He dropped down on one knee, the one attached to the bad leg of course and winced as a jarring pain informed him of the protesting limb.  He paused to take a deep breath, let the pain subside, and then brushed twenty years of dirt and grass off the security panel.  He placed his hand on it, the panel blinked in recognition of its last living owner, and a thick security door in the ground retracted.

Dirt and grass fell onto the stairs as lights came to life, providing illumination into the bunker.  “Get down there,” he ordered and they walked down without hesitation.  He ran one last scan of the area and Betty flashed data across his contacts.  They were clear.  Jack nodded, pushed himself back onto his feet, and walked underground, the heavy door sliding back into place to lock them in.  More importantly, it locked any threat on the other side of that door, exactly where he wanted it.  He reached the bottom of the stairs and saw the girls looking around.

“Is this?” Taylor began to ask.

“Where dad died,” Jack supplied, looking at the place where he’d watched his father breath his last breath.  “And where mom might as well have,” he added, remembering her keen of grief like it was yesterday.  He shook his head.  He had more important things to worry about, like the shock that would be coming now that he could feel his adrenalin starting to fade.

He sat down on the floor, leaned back against the wall, and let out a very long breath.  “There’s pain killers over there,” he said with a wave of his good arm towards one of the shelves, not trusting himself to make the walk..

Jennifer jumped into action towards the shelf, while Taylor went down on her knees next to him.

“How are you?” she asked, her teeth chattering.  She was soaking wet, sundress plastered all over her body like a second skin, hair straggled and stringy.  And she was so cold her entire body shivered along with her teeth.

“I’ll get better,” Jack whispered.  “But you’re going to go into shock soon.”  He reached up to slip the shoulder of her sundress off with a serious look.  “You need to get out of that.”

Taylor brought a hand up to hold the sundress, an embarrassed look on her face.  Jack’s face fell in fresh realization of what the last twenty years had cost them.  She never would have been embarrassed over something like that before.  Jack pursed his lips and waved towards another shelf on the far side of the bunker.  “My mom hid clothing over there.”

Taylor smiled gratefully, sniffed, and rose to her feet to check it out.  Jennifer came over with a package and ripped it open.  She took out a patch and placed it onto his shoulder.  It went to work instantly, taking the pain away.  A rip of uniform fabric preceded another patch on his leg, and he relaxed into the wall with a sigh.

Then Jennifer followed Taylor, and he turned his head to keep track of their progress.  He heard them gasp as they found the stash of clothing, and then Taylor stuck her head out.  “They’re labeled.  With our names?”

Jack chuckled as his good hand started to tremble.  “Yeah,” he whispered, shaking his head.  “Mom wanted to be prepared.”

“For what?” Jennifer asked from behind the shelf as she stripped out of her wet clothing.  He couldn’t see much through all the foodstuffs and other emergency supplies in the bunker, but the glimpses he got were enjoyable.  He pulled his gaze back to Taylor to see her raising a knowing eyebrow at him.

Jack cleared his throat and sat on the hand that he couldn’t stop from trembling.  “Ah…well,” he stammered before just jumping in.  “For me to grow a brain and make honest women of yah,” he said with a shrug of his one good shoulder.

Taylor’s smile softened and she stepped behind the shelf.  “She really said that?” she asked as she began changing.

Jack felt the tremor in his hand spread to his entire arm, and licked his lips.  This wasn’t a conversation he’d ever thought to have with them.  “Yeah,” he whispered in a shaky voice.

Jennifer stepped out wearing sturdy jeans and a work shirt with a smile that reminded Jack of the cat that just caught the bird.  She didn’t say a word, but tugged her collars in a satisfied manner and walked over to where he sat.  She stood over him for a moment, and then sat down next to him.

Jack’s teeth started to chatter with the cold.  He needed to get out of his uniform.  He nodded at her, hoping to disguise the other motions as he tried to get his body back under control.  It was just so hard.  This place.  These people.  It was too much.

Taylor stepped out into the silence wearing a sunflower-covered sundress that brought out the color in her cheeks.  He looked back and forth between them, and…and didn’t know what to think.  His mind just froze.  He wanted to say something, but couldn’t think of a single word.  He wanted to do something, but his entire body vibrated like a taught string.

“Jack?” Taylor asked and he saw the concern in her eyes as she went down on her knees to examine him.

Jack wanted to tell her not to worry.  That he’d be fine.  But he couldn’t get the words out.  He was so cold, he was losing control, and there was nothing he could do about it.  The shakes came in earnest as memories of the last twenty minutes, the last twenty years, and his life before all of it crashed through the walls in his mind.

Taylor and Jennifer moved as one to wrap their arms around him.

“Don’t worry,” Jennifer whispered in his right ear.

“We’re here,” Taylor added in his left.

Jack held on tight and sobbed into their shoulders like a baby, helpless against the emotional and physical whiplash ripping through him.