Hello, my name is Jack.  I’ve never been one for liking plans.  I tend to act by the seat of my pants.  No need to trust a plan that will die the moment the enemy comes into the equation after all.  But when there’s a bunch of people cooperating, a plan can be helpful to keep everybody pointed in the right direction at least.  And Charles does come up with effective plans.  A part of me wishes I could like them more.  Another part just wants nothing to do with them.



A Parting of Minds


The sound of soft humming filled the briefing room.  It wasn’t loud, but in the utter silence following Charles’ predatory statement, it dominated the small space.  Jack took several seconds to place the song, even though the first three notes sent his mental antennae screaming in recognition.  He smiled when it finally came to his mind.  It was one of Michael McEntyre’s songs.  He couldn’t remember the title, but it described some woman hunting down all the boyfriends that did her wrong and getting some payback.  It was a darkly appropriate tune for the current discussion.

“Wasp?” Charles’ quiet question cut the humming off.

“Sorry,” a blushing Virginia repented, and silence returned to the room.

Charles shook his head, an amused quivering that looked suspiciously like a smile twisting the corners of his mouth.  Most of the Cowboys had their own nervous habits, the unconscious things they did to keep their minds from wandering.  They rarely realized they even did it, and as a group they rarely noticed what the others did either.  It was just background noise or actions.  But the silence had been too long, the enjoyment of Charles’ declaration too pronounced, and the song too perfect for the moment to go unnoticed.

Charles finally gave in to the smile.  “Don’t be.  It’s appropriate.”  The Cowboys around the table nodded in agreement, and Virginia cleared her throat as she tried to shrink back into her chair despite their support.  She hated being caught in the act.  It was a real pity.  She really had an amazing voice.  Jack found himself wondering, again, what she would be doing now with that voice if The War hadn’t come along.

“Actually, it brings up a good question,” Ken said, taking the attention from the embarrassed Cowboy.  Ken shrugged at all the eyes focused at him.  “Who are we planning to help bite the dust?”

Jack and Charles shared a sobering gaze for over a second before the older man nodded towards Jack.  Jack nodded back and scanned the other Cowboys to see them staring at them.  The non-verbal exchange was not lost on them.

“I met the President the day I returned,” he said to all of them.  “She was supposed to meet with Charles too, but…” he faded away with a shrug that everyone understood.  But then she disappeared in the middle of the Great Lakes.  “Well, she said that with The War over, they didn’t need us any more.”  He glanced at Charles and the older man nodded in approval.  “And she suggested that ‘they’ were the Hurst family.”

All eyes turned to Charles and he frowned.  “Not all of them.  Oh, I am certain that some in my family would like me dead.  And many of them are those who distrusted me the moment it became apparent that I had ‘fallen prey to the side effects of the Peloran Treatments.’”  Charles shook his head.  “But such racism is rare even in my family.  And it would be stupid of them to kill me.”

“Well, to be fair you did steal an impressive amount of money before they caught you,” Christian broke in with a frown.  “To some people, money’s important enough to kill over.”

Charles smiled.  “Stealing is such an ugly word.  I prefer ‘unauthorized reallocation of family assets.’  Or so I said when they finally caught me,” he finished with a shrug.  “But, to be serious, I defused the money incentive some time ago.”

“And how did you do that?” Jessica asked, her voice twisted by curiosity.

Charles shrugged.  “The family council agreed to close the matter if I paid for my…indiscretions.  Which I am doing.  Slowly.  With interest.”  He winced.  “Rather high interest at that, but the colony is showing enough of a profit to cover that.”

“Wait a minute, here,” Jack said after shaking his head.  “I thought your break with the family was real permanent.  Real hard,” he emphasized by jabbing his finger on the table.

Charles smiled at him.  “Good.  It was supposed to look that way.”  He shook his head as Jack sucked in a breath to say something rude.  “Oh, it was rough alright.  And I doubt they will ever trust me.  But the tales of myself and my family being in virtual war with each other are greatly exaggerated.  On purpose.”

Jessica frowned at the explanation.  “Then…why this?”

Charles echoed her frown and scratched his chin, once again deep in thought.  “Honestly, this is a surprise to me.  I did not expect anything like this.  I expected them to be more…circumspect than this.  These actions are far too direct.  On the one hand, it does make me doubt that my family is involved.  But, I will not say that the President’s sources were wrong.”

“Fine,” Jack growled at the older man.  “Can you tell us why they might want to do this then?”

“Well,” Charles answered with an amused smile at Jack’s obvious annoyance.  “That is easy.”  He cleared his throat and all amusement disappeared again.  “It is for the same reason they don’t trust me personally.  Or any of us.  The Ageless.  We are…unplanned mutations at best.  At worst, we are more alien than human, and that makes us a threat in their eyes.”  Charles sighed at the deadly silence from the other Cowboys.  “They do not trust the Peloran, the Peloran Treatments, or those like us who have been most affected by them.”

“See, that’s something I’ve never understood,” Jesse grunted out.  “What does…this,” he continued with a wave at a body tanned even now by a lifetime spent under a Kansas sun, “have anything to do with being trustworthy?”

Charles chuckled and smiled.  “Ah, to see the world from the eyes of a farmer.”  The other Cowboys joined his chuckle, and Jesse glared at them for a moment, before joining in with a rueful expression.  “It is more an issue of power than people,” Charles continued after they all settled back down.  “My family is…very powerful.  Very old.  Kings and queens owe us favors.  Politicians are elected because we fund their campaigns.  Some of us even held such seats of power, though we generally took the position of being the people who would not lose our heads if our plans did not work out.”  Charles cleared his throat again and smiled as a low rumble of amusement rolled through the Cowboys.

“Then the Peloran showed up and blithely ignored our rightful place in favor of…well…everyone else.”  Charles frowned and shrugged.  “I was there.  I watched.  It was masterfully done.”  He chuckled and laughed, shaking his head back and forth.  “They made the treatments available to everyone, for free.  They taught young, upstart inventors how to use their technologies.  Everything they did was designed to reduce our influence in favor of…everyone else.”  Charles waved his hand to take in the rest of the Cowboys at the table.

“They refused to play the political games that my family and others lived by.  And in so doing, they hurt our power base.  Badly.  That alone would have made us unwilling to trust alien influences.  But then the Shang flew in and wiped out the greatest concentration of people in the world who still owed us favors,” he finished with another dark chuckle.

“Washington,” Jesse whispered in understanding.

Charles nodded towards the other Cowboy.  “Exactly.  My family feels like they are losing control of this world to alien influences.”  Charles smiled and met all the looks around the table.  “And can you honestly say anything other than that we have to be among the people most influenced by aliens?”

No one could disagree with him, and Jack relaxed back in his seat as he waited for Charles to get to the money shot he knew was coming.

“If you wanted to ‘take Earth back’ would you not start by taking out the people who might just side with those who took it from you in the first place?  That is the reason they are targeting us.  I am afraid to say that it makes sense, from a certain point of view.  But I am glad to say that few believe it, even amongst my family.  I have reached out to those I know do not share it, and they are commencing an investigation into those we all suspect.”

“So what are we going to do?” Katy asked in a stubborn tone that dared anybody to say they weren’t going to do something about it.

Charles smiled at her.  “We will start by breaking their blockade.”

And there it was.  The money shot.  “You mean we’ll start shooting them up?” Jack asked with a smile and waved a hand at Ken.  “Like Buckaroo?”

“Yes.”  Charles aimed a wry smile at Jack, and Jack shrugged.  It was the obvious first step in his mind.

“Why wouldn’t we report this?” Jessica asked and Jack blinked.  That had actually not occurred to him at all.  He wondered why.

“Because they have contacts in the Pentagon,” Charles answered with hesitation.  Jack nodded in approval.  Maybe that was why he hadn’t thought of reporting it.  “If we reported our suspicions,” Charles continued, “they would know we are onto them and might pull their forces back before we can catch them.  And we need proof that this is more than rogue operations.”  Charles spun his chair to face the cyber standing behind him.  “Dorothy.  Please show us the incoming schedule for the next…two days.”

Dorothy smiled and the holographic display over the table updated with a half dozen more data tracks.  Jack scanned them quickly, recognizing every single one.  It was the first one that caught his undivided attention though.  Major Tom Rogers.  The first man to fly through The Wall.  The first Terran at least.  A whisper ran through the other Cowboys as they recognized the names too, and Charles grimaced.

“Damn,” the former Major muttered under his breath.  His eyes flicked up to the clock over the door and shook his head.  “Three hours from now.  We have to move quickly.”

Christian pursed his lips and looked around the table.  “I think you should count us out for now,” he said, a gesture pointing out the Cowboys in the Marine Corps service uniforms.  I don’t think we should be involved in what amounts to military maneuvers without reporting our suspicions to our superiors.”

“Agreed.  Dorothy?” Dorothy smiled and the holographic display over the table flashed to show four highlighted names.

“That leaves myself, Buckaroo, Swan, and Minx for this operation.”

Christian and the others in uniform nodded in approval and relaxed back into their chairs.  Jack frowned though, wondering why he wasn’t included.  He opened his mouth to protest, but Ken moved first.

Ken raised one hand, his collected manner demanding attention as much as Charles’ command presence.  “What should we do?”  He patted the hand of his cybernetic partner to emphasize his question.  “Without the Blaze, we’re short some heavy firepower.”  Sara’s face twitched in sorrow and Ken patted the hand again.

Dawn made one of the small graceful move that earned her the Peloran name of Swan, and all attention shifted to her.  “You can fly with us.  I always thought we were a good team in the old days,” she added with a warm smile.

“It would be my pleasure,” Ken returned, and somehow made it look like he’d given her a deep bow without ever leaving his chair.

Jessica smiled at the two before shrugging in Charles’ direction.  “I suppose that leaves me flying on your wing, Chief?” she asked with an impish smile.

“Excuse me,” Jack said, clearing his throat and waving a hand at his name floating in the hologram.  “But I think you’re gonna need me too.”

Charles pursed his lips and sighed.  “You already have a mission.”

Jack shook his head, a furious frown betraying his annoyance.  “Hanging around doing photo ops with singers isn’t a mission.  It’s a vacation.  And I’m not about to slack off while…” he trailed off as he realized what he’d been about to say.  That he wasn’t going to slack off while they risked their lives.  He couldn’t let them think he was getting all serious.  “While you get to have all the fun!” he said instead, and heard the dull rumble of chuckles around the table.

Charles smiled and gave Jack a look that suggested he knew precisely what Jack hadn’t said.  But then he shook his head.  “You will not be on a vacation, Jack.” His voice was sincere, made all the more powerful by his rare use of Jack’s actual first name.

Jack snorted in disbelief and leaned back again, rebellion written on his face.

Charles shook his head slowly.  “You really don’t watch the nets do you?”

Jack frowned, shocked almost as much by the other man’s sloppy language as by the change in subject.  “Well,” he stammered and cleared his throat.  “Not really.  Except for the fishing channels of course.”

“And the Playboy channel, right?” Katy asked with a wicked glint in her eyes.

Jack snorted back at her.  “Hardly.  Those bunnies are pumped full of more silicon than a cyber’s avatar.”  He paused for a moment, then aimed a wickedly matching smile back at her.  “I like real ladies,” he finished with a tip of his hat and a wink covering the ladies on the other side of the table.

A groan ran around his side of the table and he shrugged as if his statement was self-evident.  The ladies shook their heads with knowing smiles.  “Keep shoveling,” Jessica whispered, allowing her smile to turn slightly impish.

Jack assumed an offended look and placed a defensive hand over his heart.  “You doubt the sincerity of my words?” he asked in a hurt tone.

“Oh no,” Charles interjected with a quelling motion to the others.  “We all know you are a paragon of truth and virtue.”  That generated a room full of laughter, including Jay’s unmistakable booming gales.  Jack glared back at the laughing Cowboys, raising a finger to them with the unmistakable air of someone sighting on targets.  “My point is that you should actually watch the news,” he finished, his quelling tone back to full bore.

Jack grimaced back at Charles, shaking his head.  “Fishermen may commit perjury every time they say how big a catch they got the day before,” he began, raising an eyebrow at Charles, “But I trust them way more than a newsies.”

Charles grunted and smiled at him.  “I never said you should trust the news.  Just follow it.  At least then you’d know what they are trying to make everybody think.”

That caught Jack’s full attention, and he frowned in thought.  He made a quick glance around the table, and saw several nods of approval.  “Okay,” he muttered barely loud enough to hear.  “You got me there.  What’s up?”

Charles took a long breath, and let it out in a calming wave that visibly relaxed him.  But he still looked deadly grim as he opened his eyes to return Jack’s gaze.  “There has been a recent uptake in the reports of returning veterans…being unsafe to be around.  They are all very understanding of course,” Charles continued in a bitter voice.  “Emphasizing the heroic soldiers who have sacrificed so much for twenty years.  But that same twenty years of unrelenting warfare has left these poor unfortunate men and women utterly unable to act normal in common civilian situations, and they become unfortunately violent at times.”

“Excuse me?” Jack growled, not liking where Charles was going with that.

Charles just smiled unhappily and continued to bore on.  “The more liberal news channels are less careful with their wording.  They say we are outright threats to public safety, and there have been rumors of forced confiscations of weapons from veterans who chose to retire.”

“Ah, Hell,” Jesse blurted out from Jack’s right.  “Don’t tell me there’s truth to that?”

“I can not say,” Charles whispered, shaking his head.  “But the more liberal media is pushing for all they are worth the idea that we are too unstable to have any weapons at all.”  He glanced at the pistols that road the holsters on their hips.  “Even armed starships.”

“Frak me,” Katy cursed under her breath.

Charles smiled at her first, and followed that up by scanning it across the other Cowboys as well.  “Well, we all know the only purpose of a weapon is to kill someone after all.  And now that The War is over, we cannot be allowed to look for more targets.  For the safety of the common people of course.”

“Do they really think everybody will be stupid enough to fall for that?” Virginia snarled.

Charles gave her a thin smile.  “There is an old saying.  ‘Persons are smart.  People are stupid.’  Beyond that though, they are desperate,” he shrugged out.  “They needed us as War heroes, safely away from Earth where we could drive the Shang away.  But now…now we are a threat to them.  There are so many avenues of power open to us.”  Charles turned to Jack.  “That is why we need you and those girls following the plan.  We need veterans front and center, touring with the most visible music groups, going to award shows, and everything else.  Showing everyone that we are all capable of living amongst them again without being a threat to them”

Jack shook his head.  “Okay.  Fine.  I see that.  But…” he paused, trying to straighten his thoughts.  “This isn’t their fight.  It’s…they almost died once.  If those people are so desperate, what makes you think they won’t try again?” he finished, his voice betraying more fear than he’d meant to.

Charles sighed and shook his head.  “I can not promise you that they will be safe.”

“Then I won’t involve them,” Jack declared, no give in his voice at all.  “I won’t risk their lives again.”

Charles pursed his lips.  He wasn’t happy with Jack’s decision.  That was easy to see.  “You would make this decision for them?”

“Absolutely,” Jack proclaimed with no hesitation.

Charles nodded slowly, but his expression betrayed neither approval or disapproval.  “Your wish to protect them is…understandable.  But they have the right to answer the request for themselves.”

Jack shook his head harder and snorted.  “But if I asked them, it wouldn’t be a request.”  He waved his hand in dismissal of Charles’ frown.  “Oh, I’m not saying I wouldn’t ask them.  But from me…” he trailed off and shook his head.  “They’re all the family I have left.  And they’ll never say no to me over something like this.  They’ll help.  No questions asked.”  Jack shrugged and leaned forward, putting both elbows on the table as he willed Charles to understand.  “So I won’t ask them.  I just won’t.”  He voice was calm, but he made certain that granite undertones filled its depths so everyone would know how serious he was.

Charles smiled and nodded, and Jack thought he sensed approval in that look.  “Well, that I understand.”  Charles leaned back and let out a long breath.  “And maybe envy a little,” he whispered under his breath.

Jack blinked at the admission, but leaned back to relax now that he’d made Charles realize the situation.

Then a sorrowful look twisted Charles’ smile.  “They said you would be mulish about it.”

“What?”  Jack felt the snarl rip out of him before he could push it down and Charles actually twitched in surprise.  Betty placed her hand on his shoulder, and he paused to catch his breath.  When he spoke again, his voice was cold.  “You didn’t talk to them about this,” he said in as calm a voice as he was capable of, but everyone at the table shifted uncomfortably, looking around to see if the others had heard what they had.

Charles opened his mouth to respond, but Dorothy placed a hand on his shoulder and he stopped.  They sat like that for several seconds, glaring at each other.  Jack felt the contest of their wills filling the room with a mix of anger, determination, and sorrow.

Finally Christian came to his feet, and everyone turned to look at him.  He focused on the other uniformed Cowboys though.  “We need to prepare.  On my authority, all leaves are cancelled.”  They nodded in understanding and came to their feet with indecent haste.  “We will be on station, doing our duty for all to see.”  He looked at Charles and Jack.  “You do what you have to on your side.  I’ll do what I can from mine.”

“Thank you, Christian,” Charles said with a wane smile, sparing the man only enough attention to meet the new Major’s gaze for a moment.  “You take care of them.”

Christian smiled and gave Charles a crisp salute.  “Yes, sir.”  With that, the new commander of the Cowboys turned from the previous commander, and led the Cowboys still in service out of the briefing room.

Dawn and Jessica looked at each other for a moment, then at Ken.  “You know,” Dawn said, her impish smile at Jessica looking forced now.  “I always did want to see your ship.  Wanna come along, Ken doll?”

“Absolutely,” Ken answered in what sounded like profound relief and the threesome evacuated the room as well.

The room felt smaller without the others, filled by the clash of wills of the two men.  Only the cybers holding their shoulders kept them from moving as the seconds went by.

After nearly a minute, Charles finally sighed and shook his head.  “I’m sorry, Jack.”  It was another rare lapse in Charles’ formal style of speech, but Jack barely noticed.  He still fought the battle of wills that Charles had abandoned.  Not given up, or surrendered to.  Charles had simply ended his side of it.  “But they volunteered.  I just can’t throw them away now.  It was and will always be their choice.”  He gave Jack a wane smile and came to his feet.  He pulled in a deep breath and held his hands palm out to Jack.  “As long as I’m in charge, that will always be the case,” he added, his voice soft but as full of rock hard determination as Jack had shown.

Jack swallowed, recognizing Charles’ statement for what it was.  It wasn’t an offer.  It was a simple statement of fact that left the ball in Jack’s court.  Charles had always led them because, whatever the official ranks given them, every Cowboy had chosen to follow him.  Which was why Aneerin had demanded that Charles remain commander.  And Jack had been the first to make that decision, twenty years ago.  He’d never regretted that.

Now, he felt himself on the precipice of doing exactly that.  Those two girls were his best friends in all the worlds.  They owed him their lives, in some ways literally.  And he owed them too, for far more than he bet he would ever be able to tell them.  They were family in every way that mattered.  But the Cowboys were family too.  And friends.  And he had to do whatever it took to protect family.  How could he put one family over the other?

Confusion ripped through him, and he didn’t know what he wanted to do.  And then he recognized the one important thing and said it before he had time to think about it.  “A long time ago, you asked me to tell you if I ever figured out why I stayed.  Well, it’s those girls.  Knowing they’re alive.  If anything happens to them, I don’t know what I’d do.” It was as truthful a statement as he could think of, and he met Charles’ gaze with more trepidation than he liked as Betty’s hand squeezed his shoulder in comfort.

Charles nodded, his smile filled with understanding.  “Then I guess we need to make certain that nothing does.”

Jack pursed his lips and shook his head.  “You know the easiest way to do that would be to just…do something else.  Not involve them at all.  Right?”

Charles sighed.  “Easiest, maybe.”  The older man shrugged then rose to his feet.  “There is one thing I have learned, Jack,” he said as he walked to the door.  “How we treat family, and how they treat us, defines us.  We are our family, no matter how hard we try to fight it or embrace it.  You have a good one.”  And with that, Charles strode out of the room.

Jack remained seated, not certain what to do, as emotions raged through him.  Betty sat down next to him.  She crossed her legs, arranged her sundress carefully, and turned to face him with a calm smile.

“What is the cruelest thing you could do to them, Jack?” she asked, her voice as calm as her face.  “Let them risk their lives, and see one or two of them hurt if the enemy gets lucky?  Or deny them the option?  Which would wound them worst?”

Jack met Betty’s gaze and knew the answer.  He hated it, didn’t know if he could act on it, but he knew it.  And Betty smiled as she saw the knowledge in his eyes.