Hello, my name is Jack.  I’ve always taken things day-to-day, minute-to-minute.  No plan survives contact with an angry father, so why bother making one?  I prefer to wait for someone else to commit to an action, and then do what I need to do about it.  It’s always done me well.  Charles is way different.  Even his backup plans have backup plans, and contingencies are his comfort zone.  So if he’s involved, there will be a plan.  Or several. None of them have killed me yet.  So I go with them.





A bonfire sent sparks into the clear starlit sky, casting a flickering light on three dozen and more souls.  They danced on the beach, played music, or sat back and enjoyed watching the others have fun.  Jack was one of the latter.  Some even swam in the shallow water, though Jack had a feeling the water was supposed to be too cold for that.  Of course, they were Minnesotans, so that wasn’t too odd.  Minnesotans were crazy after all, or so people from warmer climates kept telling him.  It wasn’t odd at all that most of the partiers were dead.  They’d been gone for too long and he was just happy they were back.  Parties needed friends after all.

Taylor and Jennifer strummed their guitars on one side of the party, close enough to the bonfire that it kept them warm in the early morning chill.  That was good.  Jack hadn’t realized how much he missed them until they walked back into his dreams.  Of course they were still alive, so he could do something about that.  He just had to decide what.  He smiled and his eyes scanned out to see moonlight glinting off the waves of Rainy Lake again.

It was all Paradise.


The single word ripped the beach apart, smashing the party into a kaleidoscope of colors and casting Jack into confusion.  Then his mind caught up to his subconscious and eyes opened wide onto the waking world as Jack literally jumped from a drowsy slumber into full wakefulness.  Twenty years in the military had trained him to move from sleep to action in the blink of an eye, and today he matched that training, even as his mind fought to stay in the dream.  Arms automatically pushed against the small bed and flung himself over the other two forms on it to cartwheel through the air, sending the thin emergency blanket flying away.

He planted his left leg on the floor but pain shot through it and he stumbled onto his right foot, barely keeping himself on his feet.  He scanned the emergency shelter under his old home through teeth gritted against the pain, looking for the threat that had woken him.  Racks of emergency food and other supplies were all that met his gaze. He turned his head to where Betty’s holoform stood with a single raised eyebrow.

“Sorry,” she whispered with a wince.  “Not life and death.”

He licked his lips and looked around, trying to wake a mind blurred by sleep and…something he couldn’t remember.  There was one thing he was sure of though.  “It was…a dream,” he whispered in regret, blinking the sleep away.  It had been so nice.

Betty smiled at him, relief on her face.  “The party again?”

Jack nodded and stood up tall, feeling the pain in his left leg and stiffness in the same shoulder.  He continued to scan the small room and sucked in a breath as he recognized the inside of his family’s emergency bunker.

“Was it good?” Betty asked in her most understanding tone, making him want to answer.

“Yeah,” Jack whispered as he tried to remember why he was here of all places.  “More people today.”

“Good,” Betty said in an approving tone.  “The attendance was getting rather depressing.”

“Tell me about it.”  Jack shook his head to clear the cobwebs and finally remembered the gunfight.  He glanced down at the shoulder attached to his immobilized arm and saw the large scar where the bullet penetrated.  It looked much better than before he slept, but he needed a lot more time before his body could heal all the damage.  Which brought an important question to mind.  “Why’d you wake me?” he asked as he studied the shelter.

Betty nodded, a proud look coloring her face.  She was probably just happy he was developing a clue or two.  “Charles picked up our emergency beacon.  He’s on the way now.”

Jack blinked and frowned, eyes flicking to the clock above the entry.  It was morning.  It had been afternoon when they were attacked.  Emergency crews should have arrived in minutes.  But he’d never considered calling them.  Why was that?  And why hadn’t Betty?  “Why’s he the first one here?”

Betty set her jaw and crossed her arms, giving him a careful look.  He was obviously too slow to keep up with something.  “Because someone tried to kill you, and I didn’t want them sending someone else to finish the job.”

Jack blinked and his former President’s warning came back to mind.  That put things in a new light.  He groaned.  “Fair enough.  Good call,” he added with a smile, then frowned as the time clicked in his mind again.  “Wasn’t he scheduled to arrive last night?”

Betty mirrored his frown and shook her head.  “He was.  That’s why I called him.  But…” she trailed off into a shrug.

“Right,” Jack whispered and tried to pull his scattered mind back on track.

She shook herself.  “But he’s here now,” she said in a more confident tone.  “And he’ll be here in two minutes,” she finished with a look towards the bed.

He followed her gaze to where Taylor and Jennifer tried to blink themselves out of a deep sleep, looking around in confusion after his hurricane of motion.  They obviously hadn’t learned to be morning people in the last twenty years.  He studied them for a moment, noting their scrounged and rumpled clothing.  Then he looked down at himself and sighed.  White boxers, beautiful little red hearts on them, and not another stitch.  That was going to look so professional when Charles showed up.

He looked for his Dress Whites and found them scattered over the floor, covered in blood and mud, torn and cut apart.  Right.  The gunshots.  They’d needed to get at the wounds to clean them.  The wounds.  Plural.  He frowned and looked down to see another scar on his left leg, right about where it hurt, and sighed again.  And then he felt the wounds and went down on one knee.  The left one of course, which forced a groan of pain through clenched teeth.

The girls reacted to his groan, reaching his side in seconds, and even through the pain he couldn’t suppress the admiration he felt for them.  “Come on,” Taylor ordered and wrapped an arm around his torso, careful not to jar his left shoulder.

“Work with us,” Jennifer added and secured his other side, avoiding the sling that held his arm.

“Yes Ma’ams,” he whispered through clenched teeth and allowed them to help him back onto his feet and over to the bed to sit down.  He sucked a long breath in, let it out, and willed the pain away.  It went.  Most of it.  He smiled through the remains of it and motioned towards their rumpled clothing with his good arm.  “You might want to change.  We wouldn’t want Charles to get the wrong idea,” he said with a wry look.

Jennifer snorted.  “And here I thought you’d love for him to get that idea.”

Jack smirked back.  “Well, I wouldn’t mind.  What about you?”

The two girls leaned back for a moment in surprise, studied him to see if he actually meant it, and smiled.  “Well, you’re commander’s coming,” Taylor finally said, avoiding his question.

“We should get you presentable,” Jennifer added.

Jack smiled back, then looked back to the remains of the uniform on the floor.  “Yeah, I think that’s not going to work well.”

The girls frowned at the uniform before turning to look at the closet where his family had stored the clothing they’d worn since arriving.

“And before you look, I don’t have anything there I can put on over this,” he said with a wave towards the immobilizing sling.

“He’s landing now,” Betty noted from the side and aimed a finger at a blanket on one of the shelves.  “Use that,” she ordered.

Jennifer jumped to grab it, shook it out, and a very Mexican States pattern unfurled.  That was when Jack noticed the hole in the middle and remembered when he and his parents had acquired three of them on a trip to Monterrey.  Jennifer smiled in recognition and walked over to slip the one hundred percent natural wool, hand-woven by a real person, poncho over his head.

“Thanks,” Jack said and waved towards the closet.  “This’ll do.  Now you might want to take care of yourself.  I’ll keep.”

Betty shifted and turned to the door, grabbing his attention.  “He’s asking for the door,” she announced, her voice clear and strong.

Jack pursed his lips and suppressed a growl.  The morning was just moving too fast for him.  “Tell him to wait.”

Jennifer arched an eyebrow at him and shook her head.

“Open the door,” Taylor said with an amused smile, but still took a moment to straighten her sundress.

Betty smiled and the door at the top of the stairs began to slide open, letting bright morning light down them and into the survival bunker.  White cowboy boots hammered down the stairs, accompanied by the full Dress Whites of the commander of the Cowboys, and Jack felt like coming to attention.  Of course he hurt far too much to want to do that.  He needed another dose of painkillers.

Charles skidded to a stop at the sight of Taylor and Jennifer.  Confusion colored his face as Dorothy walked down the steps behind him in a far more sedate pace.  She waved a hand towards the torn, muddy, and bloody Dress Whites on the floor and Charles looked at them, then up to Jack, looking for once like he was at a total loss.  Well, there was a first time for everything.  He shook himself and raised a hand to tip his cowboy hat towards the girls.  “Ma’ams.”

Taylor and Jennifer shared an amused glance before turning back to him.  “Major,” they chorused back, the tones just as amused.

Charles cleared his throat and looked back at Jack.  “I appear to be uninformed about something.  What happened here?”

“Someone tried to kill us.”  Jack waved at the pink scar on his leg and pulled the poncho back to show the much worse one on his shoulder.  “They got close, but we weren’t playing horseshoes.”

Charles frowned at Jack’s explanation, eyes flicking around the shelter.  “How are you doing?”

Jack winced.  “Well, everything’s healing.  But I’m getting a mite hungry,” he finished with a wink.  It took a lot of energy for his body to repair the kind of damage those two bullets had done to him, and he was actually feeling the peckishness of needing to eat, and eat soon.  His stomach growled and he realized that he was way past peckish.  He was starving.

Charles frowned.  “I see.”  He looked around the bunker.  “Do you know what happened out there?” he asked with a wave of a hand towards the stairs.

Jack started to shrug, then winced as his left shoulder screamed in pain.  “They’re dead,” he said after waiting for the pain to fade again.

“I meant further out,” Charles noted with raised eyebrows.

Jack shook his head and looked to Taylor and Jennifer.  “Not really.  I’ve been asleep.  All night.”

Charles nodded slowly in understanding.  The Ageless could heal far faster than normal humans, but bullets punching holes in them still tended to slow them down for at least a few hours.  And Jack’s shattered shoulder was far worse than a mere bullet hole.

“Right,” Charles finally returned, getting a rough handle on the situation.  “I am sorry.  I did not understand,” he said with a glance towards Dorothy.

“I did not either,” Dorothy said with a pointed look at Betty.

Betty shrugged.  “I was keeping my transmissions to a minimum.  I didn’t know who else might be able to listen in,” she said with a wave towards Jack.

“That was good thinking,” Charles said with a respectful nod.

“Thank you,” Betty responded with a smile.  “Now maybe you can tell him to take it easy on the gymnastics until he’s had time to heal.”

Jack glowered at her.  “I wouldn’t be flying out of bed like that if you weren’t using the ‘the devil is coming’ tone of voice,” he growled with a raised eyebrow.

Charles cleared his throat, crossed his arms, and aimed another look at Betty.

She snorted.  “He was asleepIgnoring me,” she explained with a shrug.  “He wakes up to that tone of voice.  And to be fair, the devil usually is coming when I use it.  Or at least the Shang,” she finished with an elegant sniff.

Charles brought a hand up to cover his mouth and cleared his throat, sounding suspiciously like he was keeping himself from laughing.  Then he turned to raise an eyebrow at Dorothy and she leaned her holoform against the wall, an unapologetic smile on her face.  Finally he turned to Jack and pulled his hand away to reveal the smile.  “I feel your pain.”

Jack snorted and pointed at his shoulder.  “I doubt that.”

Charles nodded and raised a finger, acknowledging the point.  “Metaphysically.”  Then he shook his head and frowned.  “Unfortunately, her tone might have been apropos,” he finished in a serious tone.

Jack licked his lips as he studied the man and realized just how serious Charles was.  Jack frowned as a thought finally came to mind.  “Why’re you really here?”

Charles gave him a slim smile of approval.  Very slim.  “Because we received your distress signal when we arrived in system.”

Jack frowned at the words that answered the letter of the question, but not the spirit behind it.  And Charles was smart enough to know he was doing that.  So it was on purpose.  The question was why.  Another question came to mind and Jack asked without hesitation.  “Shouldn’t you have been here last night?”

“Yes,” Charles said in a much darker tone.  “I had an appointment, but we were…delayed,” he finished after a short pause as he shared another look with Dorothy.  There was far more to the delay than that single word suggested.  “And now…”  He shrugged.

“What?” Jack asked, needing to know whatever it was that was making Charles so reticent.

“You met the President yesterday,” Charles said.  It was not a question, and his tone ordered a response.

“Yes, Sir,” Jack answered with a nod.

Charles’ lips quirked at the automatic answer.  “What did she tell you?”

Jack frowned again.  “Well, I don’t know.  A bunch of crazy stuff really,” Jack finally said.  He glanced at his shoulder.  “At least I thought it was.  Now I’m not so sure.”  It wasn’t that he didn’t trust the President.  He did.  He’d give his life for her, even now that she wasn’t the President anymore.  And she had this way of making you want to believe her, a true magnetic personality.  Her military would have followed her into Hell if she asked it.  She had actually.  Liberty or Death.  Never Surrender.  Those had been her calls.

But now that he was away from her again, he just couldn’t get by the fact that her words sounded like a Conspiracy.  With a big C.  Of course, someone had tried to kill them, which leant the words some credibility.  Maybe even with the big C.

“What kind of crazy stuff?” Charles asked in that same tone of order.

Jack sighed and shook his head again.  “She said something about your family being involved in some kind of conspiracy to keep us…I don’t know…down.  Something about them not trusting us and thinking we’ll take over if we keep going the way we are.”

Charles frowned and brought a hand up to scratch his stubbled chin.  “I…see,” he said slowly.  “What else?”

Jack snorted, then winced as pain lanced through his shoulder.  “She told me to watch out.  With The War over, she said they don’t need us anymore.”  He waved his good hand at the shoulder and gave Charles a wry look.  “And then this happened.  I’d really like to think it’s a coincidence.”

The side of Charles’ mouth raised in a half smile.  “But you’re not as dumb as you act, right?”

Jack glowered back.  “Hey now.”

Charles shrugged and gave him a half-apologetic wave of the hand.

Jack frowned and he replayed Charles’ entry and his earlier question.  “What is happening out there?”

Charles sighed and looked over to Dorothy.  The cyber nodded and Charles pulled in a long breath as he returned his look to Jack.  “They lost contact with her limo over Lake Superior yesterday.”

“What?” Jack growled in shock.

Charles nodded to affirm that he was serious.  “Rescue crews have found no bodies, no wreckage, no nothing, but Lake Superior is a big place to search.  All we know is that she went down.  No witnesses.”  Charles shook his head, his lips curled in a bitter expression.  “That is why I needed to know what she told you.”

“Why?” Jack asked in confusion, not even certain what he meant by the question.  There were so many questions after all.

Charles snorted and answered one of the possible questions his single word suggested.  “Because we had an appointment to meet last night.  But I was…delayed.”  He glanced at Dorothy and their grim exchange confirmed that there was far more to that story than the single word suggested.

Jack pulled in a long breath and steeled himself.  “What happened?”

Charles aimed a dark look at him.  “Not an accident.”  He turned to look at Dorothy and she nodded in agreement.  “Or a coincidence,” Jack’s commanding officer of twenty years finished in a harsh tone.

Jack swallowed and licked dry lips.  “What in Hell’s going on, Chief?” he asked in a tone he knew betrayed more nerves than he really wanted to.  But control wasn’t his strength at the moment.

Charles let out a long breath and shared another long look with Dorothy.  His partner nodded and Charles turned back to Jack with a smile that showed no humor at all.  “You said it yourself.  They don’t need us anymore.”

Jack shook his head, finding it hard to believe, but returned Charles’ gaze.  “Who?”

Charles turned back to Dorothy and they shared another silent exchange of looks that she finished with a shrug.  Charles sighed.  “That remains to be seen.”  He looked at Taylor and Jennifer for a long moment before turning his gaze back to Jack.  “I intend to find out.  But first things first.  We will clean up the mess you left up there.  And then you will walk back into the world as if nothing ever happened.  Let them wonder why they have received no update from their agents.”

Jack swallowed, not entirely happy with the idea of making himself a target again.  “That seems like a real good way of asking them to try again,” he said in a doubtful tone.

Charles smiled, his stance suddenly confident again, and Jack felt that confidence radiating out to him.  “Don’t worry about that.  I have a plan that should make that a limited possibility.  A plan you will enjoy I think.”  He turned speculative eyes on Taylor and Jennifer and nodded.  “Would you like to teach this Neanderthal how to dress with style?”

“Hey!” Jack growled.  “I know how to dress good.”

Charles rolled his eyes.  “Yes.  Flannels and jeans like a good little Paul Bunyan,” he said in a voice that somehow combined dismissiveness and joking in a way that took any insult out of it.

“I have never dressed up like Paul Bunyan,” Jack growled, waving the index finger of his good hand at Charles in a menacing way.

“Funny,” Taylor whispered from the side.  “I remember this time in Bemidji…” she trailed off with a wink.

Jack cleared his throat and looked away from her.  “Without first losing a bet,” he added in a tone that said he really wanted to talk about something else.

Charles covered his mouth again, but the twinkle in his eyes betrayed his amusement.  Jack turned back to Taylor and Jennifer, and they smiled at him, nodding with a glance towards Charles.  Jack sighed and glanced at Betty, and she answered with crossed arms, leaning back against a shelf of food with a smug smile.  Jack shook his head.  He didn’t know what Charles had planned, but it was a plan.  And Charles hadn’t killed him yet with one of those.

“Fine, fine,” he growled with manifest reluctance.  “When do we start?”