Hello, my name is Jack.  Going home can be amazing.  It can be scary.  It can be sad.  There are so many emotions, all dependent on how you left.  For the prodigal son, you can be afraid, praying your parents will accept you back.  For the conquering hero, you expect family and friends to say how proud they are of you.  For every kind of person, there is another hope or worry.  Few go home looking for trouble.




The limo dropped out of the sky towards International Falls, winds flowing off the lake to stream over her fairings.  His eyes scanned the town below, playing over where the theatre once towered over downtown, the convenience store’s sprawl near the last remaining traffic light, and the small town hall.  That was all before Yosemite.  After the station fell all over America’s western States, it had been piles of rubble, shrouded in smoke and fire.  After twenty years it was different again.  The town was alive and bustling, but the buildings were wrong.  They hadn’t rebuilt.  They’d simply built new buildings.  This wasn’t the International Falls he’d grown up in.

It wasn’t home.

“I’m not sure about this,” he whispered and licked his lips, trying to settle his nerves.

Taylor leaned against his right arm.  “We weren’t the first time either.”

“Don’t worry,” Jennifer added with a comforting smile.  “We’ll be here all the way.”

“Thanks,” Jack whispered, far more willing to follow their lead than anyone who knew him in the past would have believed.  He’d always been the troublemaker after all.  He smiled as he remembered all the parents he’d drove to drinking.

“Penny for your thoughts,” Taylor said into his ear with a tickling breath.

Jack snorted and shook his head.  “Just remembering all the trouble you two dragged me into back in the day.”

“Us?” Taylor asked, her face showing innocent outrage.

“Drag you into trouble?” Jennifer added with a smack to his shoulder.

“Yes,” Jack returned in a serene tone as he assumed an innocent demeanor.  “Poor innocent me, tempted into corruption by the seductive temptresses of my youth.”

“Hah!” Taylor shouted and slapped his hand.

Jack shook his head and gave them a serious look.  “This really isn’t the best idea we’ve ever had, you know?”

“Don’t be silly,” Jennifer corrected.  “They’ll be happy to see you.”

Jack snorted.  “Seriously.  There’s no red ribbon ceremonies for guys like me.”

“Well,” Taylor whispered in a tone that made him instantly suspicious.

“Now that you mention it,” Jennifer added teasingly.

“No,” Jack growled, glaring back and forth between them with a mix of surprise and…outrage.  That confused him.

They just smiled at him.

Jack closed his eyes and pulled in a long breath.  “Betty?  Can we turn around?”

“Sorry, Jack,” Betty answered, her amused tone putting the lie to her words.  “But the town would be disappointed if you pulled a hooky on them.”

Jack snorted and found his mouth twisting at the humor of her statement.  “Like they’d be surprised,” he offered up, partly as a final plea.

“Ah, but you’ve become a respectable Officer, Marine, and Cowboy since then,” Betty somehow managed with a straight face.

Jack’s eyes snapped open and he aimed a horrified and hurt look at her.  “You…wound me.”

“There, there, Jack,” Betty noted with a shrug and a sly smile.  “It’ll only hurt a little if you just accept it.”

Jack looked back and forth between the three faces, looking for some support.  He found none.  “Very well,” he said with all the gravity of a man being led to the gallows.  “Take me now, and I shall follow you even unto Perdition’s flames.”

Jennifer slapped his hand.  “It won’t be that bad, silly.”

Jack sighed and leaned back into the seat, preparing himself for the boredom to follow.  When the limo came to a stop though, he heard the Battle Hymn of the Republic through the close doors.  Jack paused for a moment, listening, and nodded in approval.  The band was playing it well.  He pushed the door open and stepped out to see the small marching band in the Falls High purple and gold uniforms.  They stood before a small outdoor stage in front of the town hall, a flag with a bronco fluttering above them.  Jack smiled at the school mascot and let out a long breath of approval.

Then his eyes shifted to take in the few hundred people standing in the town square, milling about and waiting for the ceremony to begin.  Some of them he recognized, men and women he’d looked up to, or tried to sneak around, when he was younger.  But most of them were complete strangers.  Just like the town.

He pulled his eyes over to the cheerleading squad bouncing in time to the music in a way that pretty much any guy would like.  They were very young, very flexible, and oh so pretty.  A pretty face had always given him a reason to stand up tall.  A pretty caboose too, which these girls most certainly had.

Jack perked up and decided it was time to the make the best of a bad situation.  He stepped towards their line, gave them a charming smile, and brought a hand up to tip his hat towards them.  “Ma’ams.”

A few of the cheerleaders giggled at him.  A few others gave him measuring looks, and he had the feeling that they’d be happy to party.  Most of the rest just shook their heads in good-natured amusement, recognizing a shameless flirt when they saw one.

Two sets of arms grabbed him from behind and began to pull him away from the squad.  Jack put on a show of struggling against Taylor and Jennifer, and a larger show of regretting that he could not win against their superior strength.  The cheerleaders laughed at the spectacle he was making of himself.

“Well, what do you know?” Taylor growled in a low tone.

“This was a bad idea,” Jennifer added, shaking her head.

“I told yah,” Jack said with a smile.

“Hush,” Taylor whispered.

“We weren’t talking to you,” Jennifer finished as they pulled him behind the stag to where the town staff were preparing for the ceremony.

“Still misbehaving I see,” a much older voice said and Jack’s eyes went wide.

He disentangled himself from their arms as gracefully as he could, straightened his Dress White tunic, and turned to face the source of that voice.  A disapproving look he remember well covered the woman’s face, and she crossed her arms in a way that suggested she was considering throwing him back into the lake.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack answered and she pursed her lips at him.  Taylor and Jennifer slapped the back of his head, hard.  “No, Ma’am,” he corrected without missing a beat.  “Wouldn’t think of it, Ma’am.”

“Right.”  She shook her head with a knowing look before jerking her head to the side.  “They’re waiting on you.  So shoo and give me some time with my girls,” she ordered in one of the few voices that had ever made Jack move without thinking.  Along side such vaunted members of the human race as his mom and his drill instructor.  Or Betty on a bad day.

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said and smiled at Taylor and Jennifer as he walked towards where the city staff were preparing.

“Jack,” Betty whispered through the small speaker in his ear, and his contacts flashed to get his attention.  He followed the flash and saw someone waiting with two suited men that froze him in his steps, his mouth agape.  Then he brought his hand up to the brim of his cowboy hat, came to attention, and held the best salute he’d done in years.

The first President of the United States that he’d ever paid attention to smiled and returned his salute.  Twenty years ago, the Junior Senator from Colorado had come down with a particularly virulent form of the flue that had resisted every drug they had.  Then the Shang bombarded Washington DC during a Presidential address to the full Congress of the United States, and the fall of Yosemite killed the designated survivor in Los Angeles.  He still remembered the gaunt and tired face she’d presented to the public that night, when she spoke from her Colorado hospital as the acting President.  She looked better now, though time had aged her.

“Madam President,” Jack said in a clear tone, trying to keep the shock from his voice.

“Captain Hart,” she answered with an amused glint that showed he hadn’t quite managed it.  “Come on over,” she ordered and he stepped up to her without hesitation.  She smiled and leaned over to whisper into his ear.  “We need to talk.  I’ll find you after the ceremony.”

Her smile didn’t reach her eyes.  Her eyes were grim and hard, every bit the War President he remembered from the early days of The War.  He never even considered telling her no.  “Yes, Ma’am.”

As it happened, the ceremony went quickly, even the boring speeches cut short by the presence of a former Commander in Chief of the United States of America.  She spoke just as quickly.  She’d always been quick to the point, and she didn’t disappoint this time.  The cheerleaders proved the highlight of the ceremony for him and many others though, and they belted out the official Falls High chant with their very healthy lungs while bouncing around in a dance that got the attention of every guy and quite a few women as well.  He could have watched that all day long.  Unfortunately, it could not last forever.

After the ceremony, he reunited with Taylor and Jennifer who wore knowing smiles on their face.  “What?” he asked in an innocent tone.  They just tilted their heads to the side, not fooled in the least by his act.  “Do you still watch basketball for the amazing displays of sportsmanship?” he asked in a pointed tone and their eyes opened wide in surprise.  Then they giggled, wrapped their arms around his, and pulled him away from the town square, to the long ago path they’d always taken to the lake that bordered the town.  It was different than he remembered, but so was everything else.  Still, he placed one foot in front of the other and kept up with the girls.

They reached the benches overlooking the beach and sat down to enjoy the light breeze.  They’d spent so much time partying on that beach in their youth, and Jack pulled in a long breath of the clean, wet, lake air.  That smelled like home, and he shut his eyes to listen to the lapping waves washing onto the sand.

He heard the limo float down out of the sky and knew it wasn’t theirs.  It didn’t sound right.  But there was no danger in it.  He smiled and remained where he was as it came to a rest.  One door creaked open and a hard soled-shoe sunk into the sand, followed by another.  A second door opened, and a soft voice he remembered well thanked the man for helping her out.

Jack let out a long breath and opened his eyes.  He patted Taylor and Jennifer’s knees before coming to his feet and turning to see the woman who had been his Commander in Chief.  And if he wanted to be honest, he would still probably follow any order she gave, even if she wasn’t, technically, in the chain of command anymore.

“So this is where I hear you used to party?” the President asked with a smile, seemingly ignorant of the power she still held.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack said, determined to return her conversational tone.  “The fire was right over there.  Or there.”  Jack frowned in thought as he scanned the now-strange beach.  “You know, I can’t really tell.  Everything’s changed.”

“That happens,” the President whispered with a nod.  “I’ve had my share of that.”

Jack pursed his lips, considering that statement for a moment.  “It happens too much, Ma’am,” he finally said in an annoyed tone.  “I liked things the way they were.”

“Most people did,” she noted with a calm smile, but her tone suggested she didn’t.

Jack frowned and cocked his head to the side.  “What about you?”

“I ran for office to fix things.”  She sighed and turned to look out on the lake.  “I was so sick and tired of the corruption.”  She shook her head.

Jack followed her gaze, drinking in the surface of the lake and the lapping waves.  “Is it any better now?”

“Not much.”  She shook her head and smiled at him.  “Oh, it cleared up for a while.”  She shrugged.  “But where there’s power there’s corruption.  All I can really hope for is that I left it better than when I came.”

Jack smiled.  “Well, we’re still alive and free.  That’s better off than the Shang wanted.”

The President sighed and shook her head.

Jack frowned at her.  “What?” he asked after a examining her carefully.

“Nothing.”  She shook her head again.

Jack’s expression turned concerned and he looked to Taylor and Jennifer and they shook their heads, as uncertain as he.  Finally he turned to Betty and she pursed her lips in thought.  Finally she shrugged, but he could tell she was considering something very carefully.  He frowned and turned back to the President.  “What wrong?” he asked, suddenly far more interested in why she wanted to talk to him.

The President sighed and turned to face him again, her face very serious.  “You know your kind isn’t always popular right?”

Jack swallowed, remembering the news reports about how the Ageless were unfairly taking jobs from able-bodied normal humans in the big cities.  He’d spent his life acting like he was just one of the guys, and most of the town had played along, casting a blind eye on the occasional slip, except for the rare occasions when they needed him.  Like the time that car collapsed on Susie Williams and he’d lifted it off her without even thinking to make it look like a strain.  Her father had given him an approving nod, and her mother blubbered all over him for saving her.  Her older sister had done…so much more than that.  But not everyone had welcomed the proof that an Ageless lived amongst them.  “Yes, Ma’am,” he whispered.

“Some people are afraid that you will take over,” the President said and paused until he nodded.  “They’re terrified you are the future.  Homo Stellarus.  That you’ll do to us what we did to the cavemen.”

Jack’s spine chilled at the thought.  He looked to Taylor and Jennifer and they aimed reassuring smiles at him.  Betty just nodded in approval when he met her gaze.  “I suppose they never considered that maybe the cavemen disappeared because we all got together and made big happy families?” he asked in a sad tone.

“Oh, I’m sure they have,” the President whispered with a wry smile.  “But they want to have the biggest stick, and your people have never taken well to sticks,” she finished with a pointed look.

Jack nodded in understanding.  “I guess that makes sense.”

The President aimed a sad smile at him.  “I saw it in the Senate, and later.  They hit Congress with bills meant to bring you under control.  I worked with some of your people to make certain we stopped them.”

Jack pursed his lips and examined her.  He’d never heard about those attempts, but then he’d been too busy not worrying about politics.  He had a feeling he couldn’t do that any more.  “So you know who were behind it?” he asked, going straight to the point.

The President shook her head.  “They’re too good at the shell game.  All I ever knew were a handful of families.  The rest stayed behind the curtain.”

“I see.”  Jack scratched his chin and peered at her.  “What families?”

A small smile crept onto the President’s face, but she didn’t really answer his question.  “Do you trust Major Hurst?”

Jack cocked his head to the side and stared at her.  “He hasn’t gone by that name in fifteen years,” he whispered.

Her eyes locked with his and a shiver ran down his spin.  “That’s not what I asked,” she answered in a hard tone.

Jack swallowed and frowned at her.  “I would trust Charles with my life,” he said in a deathly-serious tone.

The President nodded in approval, but then turned to Taylor and Jennifer.  “Would you trust him with their lives?”

Jack raised his eyebrows and looked to where the girls leaned back against the bench, without a care in the world.  “Yes, Ma’am.  Why do you ask?”

The President sighed.  “Because his family is one of the answers to your question.”

Jack blinked, and then sighed as he understood her question.  “And if they wanted to control us, what better way than to get one of their own in command of us?” he asked with a wry smile.

The President nodded.  “That was my question.”

Jack smiled and turned back to watch the waves lapping across the lake.  “Charles is as trustworthy as they come,” he whispered.  “His public split with his family is even more nasty in private.  It wasn’t faked.”

It was the President’s turn to look at him with a question in her eyes.  “You know this?”

Jack smiled and nodded, remembering everything that happened after they realized what he’d done.  And more than that, remembering how Charles had reacted.  “I know it.”

“Thank you,” the President said and turned to her security with a nod.  He reacted by turning towards the limo she’d come in on.  “Now I need to go.”  She turned to Betty and smiled.  Betty gave her a warm smile in response.  Then the President, Taylor, and Jennifer exchanged smiles and she turned back to Jack.  “You be careful now.  The War’s over and they don’t need you to fight the Shang for them anymore.  I don’t know what they’ll do, but they’ll do something.  So be careful.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

She pursed her lips and examined him for several seconds.  “Thank you,” she finally said and moved to walk past him.

Jack came to attention at her movement and said a single word.  “Ma’am.”

She paused, smiled at him, and returned his salute.  “Captain.”  And then she walked to the limo door held open by her security so she could slide into it.  The man shut the door, nodded at Jack, and took his seat in the front.  Moments later, Jack watched the limo of the first President that ever meant a thing to him rise up into the air and fly away.