Hello, my name is Jack.  When they called for volunteers to fight the Shang, I signed up real quick.  I wanted to kill ’em all for what they did.  I did real good in training too.  A life of swimming and fishing and dancing and playing music makes for real good physical fitness let me tell you.  Then I got tagged for aptitude as a pilot.  That six weeks changed me good.  Real good.  I found out what I was made of there.  I found out what I wanted.


The Metal in the Man


A dry Texas westerly wind blew dust around Jack as he walked through the dirt yard in front of the building.  He pulled in a breath of hot morning air and grimaced.  Even after six weeks, he still couldn’t stand the weather.  Mornings were meant to be cool and moist.  Not…this.  He glanced around and shook his head.  He had really learned to hate the desert in his time here, even if this wasn’t properly a desert.  It was the closest to a desert he ever cared to see.  What little bit of grass survived was…brown.  That was just all kinds of wrong.

He walked up to the door and felt cool air streaming out over him.  He smiled in relief and looked down at the 40-kilo German Shepherd guarding the door.

“Hey, Bruce,” Jack said and spread his arms out wide, enjoying the cool breeze.

“Jack,” the dog answered, his tongue hanging out the side in a humorous way.  “Six weeks to the day.  You know what that means?” the dog asked.

Jack gave the dog a feral smile.  “Yes it is and yes I do.  I find out how I’m gonna start killing Shang.”

“That’s the spirit,” Bruce said with a hearty bark.  “Remember, if you need character witnesses…” Bruce trailed off with a leading expression.

Jack laughed at the statement before frowning in thought.  Was Bruce more than just a guard dog?  “Would they really listen to you?” he asked, genuinely curious.

Bruce barked again in laughter and sat down on his rump, cocking his head to the side.  His tongue seemed to hang out even more, giving a truly comical look to the dog.  Certainly a lot more comical than the time he’d seen Bruce running off a trespasser with the full rabid dog act, foaming at the mouth and everything.  “What do you think?” Bruce finally asked.

Jack rubbed his jaw, considering the question with care.  “I think you’re testing me,” he finally said with a smile.

“Always,” Bruce answered with another bark of laughter.  “Now get in there.  You don’t want to be late because you stopped to talk to a guard,” Bruce ordered.

“Yeah,” Jack returned slowly, still thinking.  “Maybe.”  There was something.  He glanced out on the dusty grounds where Bruce’s pack patrolled, just like every morning.  They felt…more watchful today.  He caught one of them glancing at him.  That was Annabelle.  She turned away when she caught his gaze and returned to prowling the perimeter.  He thought about asking if there was something wrong before shaking his head.  The pack wasn’t worried.  They were expectant.  Of course, considering the day that was expected.

“Go,” Bruce barked more sternly.

“Yeah,” Jack answered, gave the dog a long stare, and turned away.  “You’ll tell me if anything bad’s about to happen right?” he asked, covering all the bases just in case.

“Always,” Bruce returned before letting out several amused yips.

Jack considered what was going on with the dogs as he walked into the cool air of the building where he’d trained for the last six weeks.  Every day he’d spent six hours in a single class with every candidate in the school, learning everything about the cybernetic intelligences there was to know.  He’d also spent six hours in a training room, alone with the people he was here to impress.  Half the time they trained, working together to fly anything from fighters to warships.  The other half, he answered questions from knowledge of history and physics to what kind of jelly he wanted on his peanut butter sandwich.  Assuming he liked peanut butter sandwiches.  Or jelly.  They said it was to gain an accurate psychological profile.  Jack thought it was more because they enjoyed torturing him.

And in the middle, for four hours, there had been nothing.  Since he’d joined the military, he’d never had so much free time as at this pilot academy, and he still couldn’t figure out why.  He had time to eat, to study if he wanted to, to work out in the gym, or whatever he felt like.  It was four precious hours that were his with no structure at all enforced from on high.  The only rule was that they could not leave the perimeter.

That was fine by him.  He’d spent most days playing with the dogs.  Uplifted dogs as it happened weren’t much different from normal dogs when it came down to it.  They loved to play fetch, have their tummies rubbed, or get in wrestling matches.  Bruce was a wrestler.  Annabelle had a favorite ball she loved to chase.  Tony had become his best friend, not to mention a constant wet nose, when he found out Jack came to the yard with sugar cubes in his pocket.

He stepped into the classroom that took up the center of the building and filed down the auditorium steps until he reached his row.  He squeezed past those already in their seats and sat down in his assigned seat for the last six weeks.  He leaned back in his chair and waited for the last class to start, still considering what exactly was going on, beyond the obvious of course.

On time to the second, their instructor walked out onto the stage and stopped behind the podium.  His eyes squinted at the two hundred soldiers in the room and he nodded in what might have passed for approval.  “I will not lecture you today.  Those of you here have passed the written exams and the skills testing.  I congratulate you.  Now listen to me one last time.  All of you will be leaving today, going to your next duty station.  Many of you will become ground or naval combatants, trained to fight in all elements.  Some of you will become pilots as well.  Listen to me now, one last time, and you may change the verdict in your favor.

“The cybernetic intelligences that you may meet in the next hour are up to over two thousand years old.  They share the memories of every single member of their families that has been built in that time.  They have spent over two thousand years learning how to be human.  Once they pick a partner, a form, and a name, they will be human, indistinguishable from any other human you will ever meet.

“If they pick you, they will have chosen to be whatever you need to fight and to live to fight another day, until the war is over for you, one way or the other.  Your best friend, your sister, your brother, whatever it is, they will have chosen and accepted that role in your life as your partner.  The head of every single cyber family is here, so if you are not chosen here you will not be chosen by any cyber.  If you are not chosen, you will not be a combat pilot for the United States Marine Corps.

“And that is all.  You will be escorted to your training rooms one row at a time and then you will wait.  Once everyone has been escorted to their rooms, those of you who have not been chosen will be escorted out.  Those of you who have been chosen will have a few minutes to get to know your new partner and then you will be escorted out.  Those of you who are still on the bubble, this could be a long day.  It will be your last test.  Convince the cybers that you are worthy of working with them, or you will be escorted out alone.  Goodbye, good luck, and get the Hell out of here!”

“Oorah!” the soldiers chorused back.



Jack stepped out of his line and into the open door of his training room.  The door shut behind him, closing him into the white-walled room, and he sat down in the single chair.  He looked at the bare walls for a moment before plugging a crystal encased in clear plastic into the chair’s arm.  The computer read the crystal and jazz music filled the room.  Jack smiled, shut his eyes, and leaned back in the chair.  It would be several minutes before everybody got into their rooms, so he might as well relax while waiting.

“He shouldn’t be so cocky,” a female voice he recognized said five songs in.  Jack opened one eye to scan the room and saw the speakers lined up at the top of the wall were live.  Well, two of them were at least.  The light above speaker five blinked out.  Yup.  He’d been right.

“I don’t know.  I like his choice in music,” a much older female voice that sounded like a nice old aunt who had horses and a lake on her farm said.  The light above speaker three came on.

Jack suppressed a smile and shut his eye, listening to the cybers continuing to talk.  Cyber Number Five didn’t like him, never had truth be told.  She was the crazy aunt who lived in town and shouted at all the kids for placing a toe on her lawn.  Well, maybe she wasn’t that bad, but he’d never liked her either.  He was surprised that cyber had shown up here at all.  Cyber Three on the other hand seemed interested.  Cyber Five was just here to talk the nice one away.  Well.  He really couldn’t allow that.  He was a little disappointed that Cyber Seven and Cyber Four weren’t here to talk to him.  He wondered why, but cleared his throat and entered the conversation.

“You do know I can hear you, right?” Jack asked, opened his eyes, leaned forward, and cut the music.

You should be more respectful,” Cyber Five said in a frosty tone.

Jack sighed.  “Look, you aren’t here to talk to me.  You’re here to stop Three from choosing me.  But that’s Three’s decision, so why don’t you just go and find someone else here who will work with you rather than envision stabbing you through the speaker?”

Both speakers remained silent and Jack wondered if he’d gone too far.  He really didn’t like Five but hoped his interjection hadn’t pushed number Three away.  He breathed in and out, holding onto his calm, and waited.

“What if I decided to choose you?” the voice from speaker five suddenly filled the silence.

Jack smiled.  He glanced at the silent speaker three.  “I’d throw you back,” he said, eyes on Five’s speaker again.

Silenced reigned again for a long time.  “Why?” Five asked.

Jack shrugged.  “When I fish, sometimes I catch Croppie or Bass.  I don’t like them so I throw them back.  Northerns I like.  I keep them.  I wouldn’t like you the way you are.  And you wouldn’t like me unless you changed yourself so much you probably wouldn’t like you either.  So I’d throw you back and we’d both be happier.”

The silence lasted another thirty seconds this time before speaker five spoke again.  “Three has left.  I’m your last chance,” she finally said.  “Convince me to choose you or you will be escorted out alone.”

Jack swallowed this time, eyes flicking over to speaker three.  He licked his lips, wondering if it was true.  He wondered for a moment if…no…no.  He shook his head.  “I don’t accept your premise.   I don’t think Three is gone.  I think you’re testing me.  Even if I’m wrong though, it wouldn’t change things.  You’re too bound up in rules for you and me to ever work well.  We would be fighting each other as much as the Shang, and that would kill us both dead in the end.”

“You are correct,” speaker five said.  “We would fight each other.  Goodbye, Jack.  Enjoy your escort.”  The speaker went silent.

Jack leaned back in his chair and waited for the door to open.  When it didn’t after a few seconds, he tapped the crystal and the jazz music began to play again.  If he was wrong, he had just gambled everything and lost.  No, he hadn’t really gambled actually.  He really wouldn’t have enjoyed working with Five.  But if Three had left already…He shut his eyes and breathed in and out, willing himself to be calm.  A minute went by, the jazz bubbling in the background, and the door did not open.  Two minutes.

“So you think I’m a Northern?” Speaker three asked with the tone of a quizzical aunt asking why he’d thought it was fun to toss rocks into the water.

Jack smiled.  He’d played his cards right.  He left the music on in the background since the cyber liked it.  “I think you’re a lot more likely to be one than Little Miss Tightypants over there,” he said with a wave towards speaker five.

Three let out a hearty laugh.  “I will have to tell her you called her that,” she continued in a wry tone.  “Later of course.”

“Of course,” Jack echoed with a chuckle.  “I’m glad Five was lying by the way.”

“Five wasn’t lying.  Five was testing you,” came the response.

“Ah.” Jack placed brought his hands up behind his head and interlaced his fingers, affecting a pose of relaxation.  “Did I pass?”

“I’m still talking to you.”

“I guess that means I’m still fishing then?” Jack asked.  It was hard to gauge if he was going too far without a face to look at, to measure a retort against.

“Indeed,” Three answered, the amused tone back.

“I guess that makes it my move them.”  Jack’s forehead creased in thought.  “Can I ask you two questions?”

“Proceed,” Three said, the tone serious.

Jack paused, trying to form the questions just right.  “The first one is, ‘Why did the others decide not to choose me?’  And the second is, ‘Why are you reconsidering?’”

“Those are very good questions.  Let me answer the second one first.”

“Actually,” Jack interjected.  “I’m really curious about the first one.  Could you tell me it first?”

The speaker went silent for several seconds.  Jack did not swallow.

“You are trying to make me end with what is most positive about you, hoping that it will make a positive outcome more likely.”

Jack shrugged, giving the speaker a very large smile.  “I’ll take any advantage I can get.”

“You declined with Five.”

“There was no advantage to working with Five.”

“True.”  The speaker went silent again.  “Very well.  The others decided against you because your psychological profile over the last six weeks shows that you are obsessed with killing Shang and getting your revenge on them for killing your father and then forcing you to watch your mother die of grief.  The tests say you do not see a world that does not involve killing them.  They are unwilling to choose a partner who will trap them in a war of vengeance like that.”

“Oh,” Jack said, dropping his hands down into his lap.  He blinked, considering the verdict, replaying the conversation with Bruce.  He was going to find out how he was going to kill Shang.  Jack sighed.  She was right.  He pulled in a deep breath.  “And you?  Are you willing?” he finally asked.

“No.”  The old voice held no equivocation at all.

Jack swallowed.  It was time to get Three away from this line of thought before she chose to leave.

“So what makes you think I’m worth considering then?” he asked.

The cyber waited a few seconds before answering, probably measuring him for something.  “You played with the dogs,” she finally answered.

Jack blinked in confusion.  “Wha?”

“Please.  Do you really think a military training facility would give you four free hours with no tests in the middle of a war?”

Jack grunted.  “Well, I was wondering about that.”  He considered his words for a moment.  “So you were watching us to see what we would do when we…wanted to?”

“Yes.  And every candidate who played with the dogs except you has already been chosen.”

Jack frowned in thought.  “Why did you pick them?”

A chuckle came from the speaker.  “Jack, I’m not going to reel myself in on your line.  It’s time for you to answer my questions.”

Jack returned the chuckle, leaned back into the chair and interlaced his hands behind his head again, relaxing his posture and kicking his feet out.  “Go fish.”

Why did you play with the dogs?”

Jack swallowed.  He barely stopped himself from uttering the amazingly idiotic phrase of “Uh…wha?” by the skin of his teeth.  It really wouldn’t have helped.  He slid back into the seat and leaned forward, bringing one hand forward to rub his chin as he thought.  Finally he shrugged.  “Well, Annabelle came over with the ball and wanted to play.  And Bruce…well he wanted to fight so we did.  They started it really.”

The cyber sighed.  “I know they did.  They always do.  It’s their job.  But why did you play with them, not just toss the ball and forget about it?  Why did you find out that Tony liked sugar cubes?”

Jack looked at the speaker for almost fifteen seconds, trying to come up with a good answer.  “Well, I grew up with dogs,” he finally began with a wave of his hand.  “Most of them like sugar so I figured it was worth a try.  And I guess I just like dogs.  They’re fun to be around, whether they are normal dogs or uplifted dogs.”

The cyber remained quiet again for a long time and Jack began to wonder if he’d blown it.  “So let me get this straight,” she finally said.  “You spent four hours every day outside, eating or playing with the dogs because you like dogs?”

“Well, yeah,” Jack answered.

“You gave up study time for the classes because you like dogs?”

Jack raised an eyebrow at the speaker.  “Like the classes were really difficult enough to require studying?” he retorted.  The speaker did an amazing imitation of grinding teeth and Jack winced.  He’d probably gone too far with that one.

“Do you know how many candidates fail each class?” the cyber finally asked.

Jack considered several wise cracks and shelved them all before finding one that just might work.  “Probably almost as many candidates as have already been escorted out alone,” he ventured.

“You see the point again,” the cyber said slowly.  “You’re smart enough to pass the tests without studying and yet you are so blinded in other ways.  We truly do not know what to make of you.”

“I guess that makes me special then?” Jack asked.

“And so quick witted…sometimes,” the wry tone uttered.  “Fine.  Once more.  What makes you the kind of person who on the one hand wants nothing more than to kill every Shang you see and yet at the same time be the kind of person who will not turn away a dog who wants your attention?”

“Well…” Jack trailed off and let out a long breath.  He shook his head.  “Look, it’s stupid.  Just…stories.  You know how things are, right?  Your parents teach you something and it just sticks.  It’s nothing big or important or anything, it’s just how things are.”

“Our families are not exactly like yours,” the cyber answered, an interested tone in its voice.  “But we have similar relationships.  I well understand how the wishes of a parent can still influence a child even after you have parted ways.”

Jack gave the speaker a hard glance.  He and his parents had not “parted ways.”  They had been murdered.  He took in a deep breath and released it, relaxing.

“Now, what are these stupid stories that you talk of and how do they influence you?”

“They are not stupid stories,” Jack growled.

“But you said the reasons were stupid…and stories,” the cyber said, digging for more information.

Jack shook his head.  “Don’t confuse me with the facts.”

The cyber did not answer for several seconds.  “Was that a joke?” she finally asked.

“A bad one,” Jack admitted.  “But…not entirely a joke either.  I don’t know.  Maybe they are stupid stories.  But my parents told them to me….”

“Ah.  I understand,” the cyber said, a smile in her tone of voice.  “You are conflicted.  I wish I could give you time to work it out, but I cannot.  Our time is valuable and I must decide soon if we are to work together.  I must insist that you tell me now.  If you do not, I will leave and you will not see me again.”

“Wait,” Jack nearly gasped out.

Silence answered him for several seconds.  “I will wait,” the cyber finally said.  “A very short time.  It is better to say something imperfect now rather than the perfect thing after I have gone.”

Jack sighed in reluctant agreement.  He composed his thoughts, breathed in, breathed out, and began to speak, thinking this was all very stupid.  Surely, the cyber didn’t want to hear a story.  But she had asked.  She had demanded.  “Look, there’s a bunch of stories, but here’s one about this really rich old man that probably says it better than I can.  I’m talking he’s rich enough to buy planets if he wanted to.”  Jack looked at the speaker for a moment before continuing.  He didn’t want to lose his nerve part way through.  “This guy hadn’t let the fortune get to his head though, and he was a nice old man to everybody he met.  He even talked to God every night, and God talked back.

“Well, one night the rich old man asked God to come dine with him the next day.  He wanted to really meet God face to face and spend a long time talking with him over a table.  God said he would come and the man was all kinds of happy.  The next day, he ordered his servants to spare no expense, to buy the best food in the town and to make the largest, most amazing banquet ever made at his house.  He’d had some real amazing banquets too, so this was saying something.  God was coming though, and that was worth his best stuff.

“Well, word started to get around that he was doing this, and some people thought he was crazy but didn’t say much.  He was a good guy and treated everybody well, even if he was a bit odd.  A beggar, hearing about the banquet, knocked on the old man’s door and asked for some food.  Well, the man was getting ready for God, so he didn’t really want to let the beggar in, but he could see the man needed food.  So he let the man in, and told him to eat whatever he needed and to take what he needed when he left.  And he talked to the beggar, as a host should, even as he marked the time and tried to hurry the man off as quickly as he could without being rude.  Finally the beggar left, and the old rich man felt he was ready.

“A knock came, and it was someone else needing food.  It wasn’t God.  The old rich man smiled and let them in, and shared his food, and talked with them, and let them out.  And more people came, and he let them in, and let them out, and all the while he wondered when God was coming.  The night came, and he still hadn’t seen God, and he went to pray and asked why God hadn’t come.

“And God said he’d come, that he’d been there all day.  He’d been the first beggar, and all the other people the old man had welcomed into his home, had talked to and fed, and spent his time with.  That everything the old man had done to those people he had done to God.”

Jack sighed and leaned back in his chair, chewing his lip.  He looked at the speaker.  “He’d been busy, preparing to meet someone very important, but when someone else came along and needed his time, he gave it.  He…”  He gave up with a shrug and fell into silence.

“You were busy preparing to meet me, and you gave the dogs your time,” the cyber said, each word deliberate.

“Yes,” Jack answered with a thoughtful frown, still trying to find the best words to explain his feelings.  “Yes, if we all gave each other time, maybe the world would be a better place,” saying the one thing that almost seemed more stupid than the rest of the story put together.  He just couldn’t help himself.

“Indeed,” the cyber said very, very carefully.  “Your turn.  One question.”

Jack licked his lips, bringing himself back under control.  He would not sound desperate.  He breathed in, he breathed out, he calmed himself, and he asked the first thing that came to his mind.  “Would you join me for dinner?”

The cyber laughed, long and heartily, at the request.  “Be careful,” she said after her laughter trailed away.  “You don’t want God to think you are blaspheming I think.”

“I think He’d understand,” Jack answered with a shrewd smile.

“Indeed, I think He would,” the cyber intoned thoughtfully.  “You impress me.”

Jack’s smile grew, along with his confidence.  “Does that mean what I think it means?”

The cyber chuckled again.  “It means I have one more question for you.  It will either be easy or impossible to answer.  Ready?”

Jack swallowed his nerves down.  “Go fish,” he said, forcing the smile to his face.

The cyber chuckled.  “Jack.  If there were no Shang, no war, what is the one thing you would want to do above all others?”

Jack felt his breath go out.  That was real hard to imagine.  Without the Shang, his parents would still be alive.  “We always used to fish,” he finally said, his jaw set hard to keep his emotions in check.  “I’d want to do that again.  Ride around in a boat.  Stop and let the wind and waves take you…wherever they want to take you.  Party with friends.  Play music.”  He blinked and took in a deep breath.  “I never realized how…” he let himself trail off rather than finish that sentence.  It wouldn’t do to remind her how much he hated the Shang for taking that away from him.  He shook his head and let out a long breath, calming himself again.

“It was paradise you know.  Now…looking back on it.”  He shrugged, blinking what were definitely not tears away.  “I’d want that back.”  He blinked again and let out another long breath.  “You know I lived most of my life up there, on the water?  The wonderful thing about the Boundary Waters is just how damn big it is.  You can be on it every day, and see something new, go someplace you’ve never been.  See some species of bird or fish you’ve never seen before.  It’s…amazing up there.  It’s paradise.  What more could a man want?”  Jack stared at her speaker and gave her a sad smile.  “But…that’s gone now…and it’s not coming back, is it?”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” the voice said with a smile.  “The universe is a grand and amazing place and it is far more resilient than we give it credit for.  So what do you want more, Jack?  Do you want to kill the Shang for taking that world away from you, or do you want to build a new world like that?”

Jack looked away, considering the question very carefully.  He could make the easy answer that of course he wanted to build a better world, but it wouldn’t mean anything in the end if he was just mouthing the words.  He sighed and looked at the speaker again.  “I want to kill Shang real bad,” he said in a sad tone.  “You’re right about that.  But that’s a long grueling fight.  It’ll be Hell out there and I know that.  And I’ll do it.  And I know I might not come back.  That’s the oath I took when I signed up.  I’ll kill ’em, and I’ll keep killin’ ’em until there’s no more to kill.”  He pulled in a deep breath.  “But for all that I want ’em dead, I don’t want to spend my whole life killin’ ’em either.”  He smiled at the speaker.  “Thanks for that, by the way.”

“For what?” she asked, sounding genuinely curious.

Jack let out a long breath.  “For reminding me what I’m fighting for.”

“You are welcome, Jack,” the speaker said in a joyful voice.  “And you will not be fighting alone,” she added as a hologram appeared in the middle of the room.  It started as a genderless human figure and began to take on a female form in seconds.  As the figure began to come into focus, a yellow sundress appeared around her.  Her feet came into focus and white sandals appeared on them.  Long blonde hair puffed into being, framing a very cute face with blue eyes.  She wasn’t beautiful, not the kind that would get his attention in that way.  But she reminded him of something…of someone.  And then it clicked.

“Damn,” he whispered.  She looked like she could be one of his cousins.  Not any one cousin, but an amalgam of all of them and yet not really any of them.  Someone had done her homework.  He smiled.

She smiled back.  “Hello, Jack,” she said with a voice that made him feel almost homesick.  It wasn’t any of the voices he remembered from the reunions, just like the rest of her wasn’t, but it was all so close.  She was family.  His family.  She made a show of looking in a mirror that appeared in the wall and nodded.  “Yes, I think I like this.”  She put a hand to her throat and laughed.  “I like that too.”  Finally she turned to Jack again.  “And now for the name.  I think we will be working with each other for a long time, so I have to make certain it is one I like.  Don’t you agree?”

Jack nodded, as comfortable in her presence as he’d been with anybody in his life.

“Yes.  I think that will work,” she said, her head cocked to the side in thought.  She really did have all of the mannerisms of humanity down perfectly.  Then her hologram seemed to snap into solidity.  She looked real, like flesh and blood; like he could touch her skin and it would be warm, like she could touch him and he would feel it.  She smiled at him again.

“Jack, you can call me Betty.”