Hello, my name is Jack.  I don’t talk about the last two years of The War much.  To most people, they were good times.  We’d won the Battle of Hyades.  We were driving our enemies before us.  We were winning.  All I could see ahead of me was the end of a way of life I had devoted two decades to.  I didn’t know how to handle that.  I didn’t know what to do.  I didn’t know how I could go back.  Those were real bad years for me.





Jack lay back in his lounge chair, watching the waves lap against the beach in the early morning light.  Or was it evening light?  He didn’t know.  He didn’t really care either.  There was no bonfire.  He didn’t remember the last time there had been one.  There was no music or dancing or partying.  There hadn’t been in a long time.  There was just the beach, the lake, mist in the air, and a dim light out of the eastern sky.  So that made this morning.

Jack pulled in a long breath, realizing that maybe he did care.  A little bit.  He enjoyed the smell of a young, fresh day.  It reminded him of early mornings in his youth.  Before The War.  He winced.  He didn’t want to be thinking about that here.  Dreams were his chance to get away from real life.  He didn’t want to dwell on it.  But sometimes it was hard not to.  It was hardest when the alarms from outside clanged for his attention.

He ignored the alarms and continued watching the waves lap onto the beach.

“So, are you going to wake up or take a swim?” a voice asked from his left and he turned to see black-haired Lila spread out over a lounge chair of her own.

Jack looked at her long and lean form for several seconds.  In the past, he’d found her beautiful.  Now he barely noticed.  Usually.  Today he noticed again and a ghost of a smile colored his face.  “Don’t know.  Haven’t decided yet.”  In the past, he would have been flirting with that answer.  He knew that.  He remembered that.  Today he was simply being truthful.  He didn’t know what he wanted to do.

“Well, you should decide soon,” Lila returned with a shake of her head.

“She’s right,” a voice from his right said.  Jack turned his head to see red-haired Gabby on a lounge chair as well, looking out on the lake.  “It’s a nice view.  But it’s real silent now.”

“Maybe I like the silence,” Jack noted to the second of the two people who had never left his dreams.  They’d worn different forms at first, but they’d shared his dreams since the day Yosemite fell.  They were the only ones who hadn’t abandoned his dreams.  Today, as often in the past, he wondered if they were simply parts of him trying to get his attention.  His own internal consciences as it were.  Other times he wondered if they were somebody else entering his dreams.  But that was crazy talk.  Sometimes it was just confusing.

Gabby shook her head.  “Maybe.  Maybe not.  But this limbo isn’t good for you.  You need to wake up.”  She shrugged.  “Or not.  Your choice.”

Jack aimed a raised eyebrow at her.  “What?  No arguments today for why I should buck up?”

Gabby turned her head back to look at the ocean.  “Nothing you haven’t heard before.”

Jack pursed his lips and turned back to Lila.  “Any words of wisdom from you?”

Lila shook her head.

“I thought you wanted me to stay?” Jack asked.

Lila shrugged.  “I do, but this isn’t staying.  It’s just not moving.  And that’s not you.”

“Maybe it’s the new me,” Jack said with a sigh.

Lila shook her head again.  “I hope not.  That would be a disappointment.”

Jack’s eyes flashed in anger for a moment.  Then he pulled in a deep breath and let it back out, relaxing again.  That brought him into focus and he looked out on the gentle, lapping waves of Rainy Lake.  He remained like that for several seconds, just watching and composing his thoughts.  “So what do I do if we find the same thing again?”

“Adapt,” Gabby answered.  “Take the chance to fulfill your end of the deal.”

Jack pursed his lips in thought.  The deal.  That was the rub.  The agreement he and Betty had made almost twenty years ago.  He shook his head.  “And what if I’m not the right person to fulfill it anymore?  I’m…”  He shrugged, unable to find the right words.  “She’s…”  He gave up again.  He just didn’t know what words could convey the mix of…whatever it was he felt.  Of wondering if, after twenty years, it was right to hold her to an agreement with someone who didn’t even know who he was anymore.

“It’s her life too,” Gabby supplied.  “Her choice.  You should ask her.”

Jack snorted and shook his head.  “And if I have to wake up to do that?”  He turned his head to observe her.

She smiled back at him.  “Then I guess you have to wake up to do that.”

Jack turned back to Lila.  “And what do you think?”

She sighed and shook her head with a rueful expression.  She brought her hands up behind her head, smiled, and didn’t say a word.  She’d obviously said her piece, and didn’t mind losing this round.  Of course, she was playing the long game.  She was happy to wait.

Jack pulled in a long breath, took another long look at the gently lapping waves, and sighed.  “Yeah, I was getting a bit bored here,” he finally said and rolled off his lounge chair.  He nodded towards the two girls as he came to his feet.  “Present company excepted of course.”

They smiled back at him.

“Seeya tonight then,” he said with a smile and a shake of his head.

“Goodbye, Jack,” they chorused in response.

He stopped for a moment, wondering if he was crazy.  Split personality, or someone else, giving advice only he could hear.  And he listened.  He didn’t know which possibility scared him more, but either one raised all kinds of crazy flags.  Good thing he’d never told anyone who tell on him.  But he’d never regretted listening to them yet.

He sucked in a long breath of fresh morning lake air and shut his eyes.

He opened his eyes onto a bright white room that brought tears to his eyes.  A groan moved from his head to his toes and back again and he glanced over to a bulkhead covered in posters of pretty, young singers he’d met over the years on USO tours.  Taylor and Jennifer of course dominated the center of the display.

Jack smiled and felt his face twitch almost out of control.  He’d been asleep for a long time.  He carefully flexed his arms and legs, feeling his joints crack from the motion.  He yawned hard enough to bring tears to his eyes and to pop his jaw, and then worked from side to side to get it used to moving.  He tossed his covers to the side and swung his legs out to plant bare feet on the comfortable, warm deck.  Leaning forward, he placed his elbows on his knees and rubbed his jaw to get feeling everywhere that mattered before wiping the tears from his eyes.

Betty’s yellow sundress flickered into existence a split second before the rest of her followed, and his eyes teared up again in protest against the bright color.  “You’re awake!” she said in a bright tone.

Jack rubbed his temple with one hand and tried to say that he was.  All that came out was a horse cough.  He sighed, raised a hand, and cleared his throat.  Then he reached for the cup that was always there and downed the water in a long draw before slamming it back down with a gust of releasing air.  He shook his head, blinking away more tears, sniffed once, and cleared his throat one more time.

“Yes,” he finally croaked out, his mouth and throat feeling somewhat closer to alive.  He must have been out for most of the two-day trip.  He cleared his throat again.  “How long before we arrive?”

“Well…” she answered with a wince.

The hatch to his quarters opened at that moment, saving her from a question she obviously didn’t want to answer.  Jasmine’s avatar walked in wearing blue jeans, a white t-shirt, and a smile, holding a bundle of clothes in her arms.  “I see Sleeping Not-So-Beauty is finally awake,” she said with a chuckle and dropped the bundle on his bunk before stepping away again.

“Hah,” Jack answered, rubbed his forehead, and cleared his throat one more time.  “Seriously, how long?” he asked and wiped grit out of the corner of each eye.

Jasmine chuckled.  “We actually arrived a few hours ago.  We’ve been prowling around the system ever since, scouting for anyone that might be hiding.”

Jack blinked and yawned again.  “Hours?”  He shook his head to clear it.  “Why didn’t you try to wake me earlier?”

Jasmine and Betty shared a worried glance.  “We did,” Betty said in a matching tone.

Jack cleared his throat.  “Sorry,” he said and rubbed his scruffy jaw.  He’d been sleeping long and hard recently, and they didn’t like it.  They had a point.  They were supposed to be partners.  It was hard to be partners with someone who slept all the time.  He looked at the uniform on the bunk next to him with a shake of his head.  “I suppose you want me wearing that?”

“As opposed to what you’re wearing now?” Jasmine asked with a raised eyebrow.

Jack snorted.  “Not like there’s anyone else to see.”

“Jack,” Betty said in a serious tone, pulling his attention back to her.  “Please.”

He met her gaze for a moment before letting out his breath and nodding.  “Yes, Ma’am,” he intoned as he came to his feet and unfolded the uniform.  When he finished donning it, he looked in the mirror and gave a slow nod.  He did look better.  He pulled in a long breath to steady his nerves and stepped out of his quarters.

The corridor ran down the center of the scout ship’s command section to the bridge of the Queen of Harts.  He’d flown off a different warship every few months for years, during the long Hyades Campaign.  But after that campaign ended and the Shang began to run, The Fleet had been forced to split up to track down the scattered forces left.  For the first year, it hadn’t been too difficult.  Lately though, they’d gotten a lot harder to find.  Now Jack sighed as he walked down the corridor, passing cybernetic crewmembers bending over exposed wall panels and hatches to perform maintenance work.  He wondered if they would find the same thing they’d found on the previous four scouting missions.


The hatch in front of him opened and he walked onto the bridge with Jasmine and Betty in tow.  He scanned the displays spread throughout the bridge that showed all twelve Nemesis drones in space.  Four surrounded the scout ship and four fanned ahead in hyperspace to search for the enemy.  Four more flew spread ahead of them in normalspace, maintaining a watch of their own.  All of the scopes were empty of bad guys.  Jack didn’t like that.

“So the outer system’s clear?” he asked as he sat down in the captain’s chair and began locking the five-point harness in place.

“Clear as glass,” Jasmine answered.

Jack frowned as he considered the displays showing the system around them.  It was supposed to be a major Shang base, but in hours of work his girls hadn’t picked up so much as a peep out of it.  “Let’s check out the inner system then,” he finally ordered in a doubtful tone.

He felt a vibration through the deck as the scout ship began to accelerate.  “On the way,” Betty said.

“Worried that we’ll find too many of them to fight?” Jasmine asked with a cocky smile.

“Or that we won’t find any at all?” Betty asked.

Jack shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I just…this is the fifth we’ve checked.  What if they’re gone here too?”

Betty smiled in a reassuring manner.  “Then it’ll be time to return to The Fleet and tell them what we found.”

“You mean what we didn’t find,” Jack muttered with a scowl.

Betty cocked her head to the side and gave him a concerned look.  “What’s troubling you?”

Jack studied the displays for several seconds in silence, looking for any hint that this wasn’t what it appeared to be.  Then he shook his head.  “That this could be it.  The end.”

Betty turned her head the other way, studying him as closely as he was studying the displays.  “Of what?”

“The War,” he answered without a pause.

Betty pursed her lips.  “Don’t you want it to be over?”

“Of course I do,” Jack said without pausing to think.  Then he winced as he realized he wasn’t actually certain he did.  Betty caught his self-correction and aimed a raised eyebrow at him.  He paused to consider his next words more carefully.  He owed that to both Betty and Jasmine.  “I just…I just don’t know what to do if this is it.  What comes next?” he asked, looking back and forth between both of them.

Jasmine looked at him with a smile.  “Do you really think we chose you without having a plan for after this was over?”

Jack cleared his throat and felt a blush hitting his cheeks.  “I…guess…not.  I mean.  Now that I think about it, it would be kinda stupid.”

Betty smiled and held a hand out to him.  “It won’t be easy, Jack.  It never is.  Your kind have come home from war for millennia, always feeling like you lost something out there, wondering if you’ll ever be whole again.”

Jack nodded, what she was saying making perfect sense.  “I’m…I’m just not certain I can do that.”

Betty gave him a sad smile.  “I know.  You’re afraid you’ll wind up like so many other Veterans.  No job.  No money.  No friends.  No family.  No home.  You all lose so much in war, and then more when you come back.  Nations call on you at need, and then set you aside in times of peace.  It is…horrible.”  She bent down to look him straight in the eyes.  “But know this, Jack.  I am no nation.  I chose you.  I will not abandon you.  I am, and always will be, your friend.”

She meant every word.  He could see it in her eyes.  She truly was prepared to spend her life keeping him from going off the deep end.  In that moment, he realized that Gabby was right.  He had to say something.  “Look.  I feel old…and tired.  Stretched.  Like butter scraped over toast a few too many times.”  Jack stopped, the final thought freezing in his mind before his lips could put words to it.

Jasmine and Betty shared another understanding glance.

“Well, Jack, this is your lucky day,” Jasmine said and patted him on the shoulder.  “Because we just happen to specialize in revitalizing the old and tired.”

Jack shook his head, a hint of anger at her flippant answer flashing in his eyes.  “I’m serious,” he growled.

Jasmine met his glare with a calm look and an understanding smile.  “So am I.  We knew what we were signing up for when we chose all of you.  And we’ve spoken about it since.  We all agree.  We weren’t just picking pilots.  We picked family, and real family never gives up on each other.”  She stopped for a moment, swallowed, and her smile turned far more sincere than the wry sense of humor it usually displayed.  “Just like you didn’t give up on me.”

Jack’s sat slack jawed at Jasmine’s statement, feeling like a bull had just run him over.  He had no words to respond with, nothing at all came to mind.  He just sat there in his captain’s chair, feeling like a bump on a log.

“Trust us,” Betty said, her calm voice cutting through his worry as she held her hand out to him.  “You are Family.  Family is our life.  Family is our choice.”

Jack sucked in another breath, recognizing Gabby’s words from his dream.  The words that had pushed him to wake up in the first place.  They were good words.  He pursed his lips though, about to protest that neither of them really understood.

Betty’s eyes flashed in anger, stopping him short.  “And I don’t care if you think you’re worth it or not.  You will trust us when we disagree.  You get me?”

Jack froze stiff for a moment, hardly able to breath.  She’d realized what he hadn’t said, and he saw the sheer determination that she wouldn’t let it stand in her every movement.  She truly was serious.  And once again, words deserted his suddenly dry lips.  So he fell back on two words designed for situations exactly like this, ironed into him from a youth in rural Minnesota, and reinforced by the steel of the United States Marines.  “Yes, Ma’am.”