Hello, my name is Jack.  One thing I learned a long time ago is that everyone dies sooner or later, even people who don’t age like me.  I’ve learned to be careful, I’ve learned to walk away when people who have no concept of living forever ask who wants to do it while talking you into something dangerous.  I tried shortcuts to get around death, and learned that all shortcuts have side effects.  I learned to treasure the life I have.  I learned to live the way I did before I stopped aging.



War Games


Jack walked out of the brisk evening air into Devilcat Country’s warm common room, shuffling a deck of cards in his hands while he looked for a game.  Betty walked next to him, the soft hum of the holoemitters in his uniform that most people couldn’t hear bringing her holoform to life.

He saw some Devilcat pilots playing a game on one of the holotables.  Small robots darted across the table, shooting lasers and missiles at each other in time to commands from the pilots around the table.  Some of them were humanoid, while others looked like big robotic dogs.

Intrigued, Jack walked up and saw Devilcat Ten in the group.  The guy couldn’t fly very well, but he was smart enough that Jack had him on the short list for transfer to the Cowboys.  “Hey Roger.  What’s this you’re playing?” he asked.

Roger smiled.  “Mechs of War.  Haven’t you heard of it?”

Jack nodded in recognition.  “Yeah, I’ve heard of it.  Guys in big robots blowing up guys in big robots?”

Roger chuckled.  “In really simple terms, yeah.  You never played it?”

Jack shrugged.  “No, though now that I think of it I think I remember seeing a cartoon when I was kid.”

Roger shuddered and winced.  “The less said about that garbage the better.”  He gave Jack a perplexed look.  “You really never played?”

Jack shook his head.  “Nope.  I played all the Hellcat simulators until I discovered girls.”

Roger chuckled.  “Fair point.”  He aimed an evaluating gaze at Jack.  “So that’s why you’re so good in a Hellcat.”

Jack shifted the side, not really wanting to toot his own horn.  “I shot a fair share of unnamed Asian, Khazic, and Arabic enemies on unnamed colony worlds in those games.  Got a bit of experience there.”

Roger snorted.  “Gotta love the Political Correctness in fighting games.”

Jack gave a dark chuckle.  “I bet the next round of games will be a lot more pointed on who the enemy is,” he said with a smile.

“No bet.”


Roger shook his head with an amused smile.  “I ‘just say no’ to sucker bets.”

Jack chuckled.  “Good policy.”

Jack’s attention returned to the table as two of the mechs ran into each other, the dog mech pouncing on the humanoid mech.  The dog thing ripped a leg off the other mech and ran away from its disabled enemy, weapons fire from other mechs exploding all around it.  The pilot it belonged to thrust one hand up in the air in victory.  Roger shook his head with another smile.  “Sometimes we can get into the game a bit.”

Jack shrugged.  “No worries.  I know what that’s like.  So why fight in mechs like this?  Aren’t there warships or something in the game that could drill them from orbit?”

Roger nodded with a big smile.  “That’s actually one of the most common questions.  There are a couple reasons for that though.  First is that there are no big juju aliens in the game.  No Peloran to bring us gravtech, so we are still using standard old school rocket engines to move around.”

Jack nodded his head in understanding.  “So they have to assume gravity orbits when they get around a planet.  That would put a kink in sustained orbital bombardment.  But they should still be able to drop a few loads of kinetic death on anything below as they fly overhead, right?”

Roger chuckled.  “Not that simple actually.  Between point defense and jammers, it’s actually pretty hard to localize a target from orbit.”

Jack nodded.  “Good point.  That correlates with the real world.”

“Exactly.  Also, it’s against the Rules of War, so they don’t.”

Jack raised on eyebrow.  “There are rules to war?”

“Hey.  Just like the Lunar Treaty.  Bad Things happened and they don’t want them to happen again.  A bunch of former nations in the history of the game bombed themselves into oblivion from space, so the surviving nations agreed to never do anything like that again.”

“Ah.  And everybody agrees?”

Roger winced.  “Mostly.  Sometimes people play a little fast and loose with the rules of course, but it’s a general agreement that nobody bombards cities from orbit.  They know everybody else will return the favor after all.”  Roger winced and waved a hand at the game table, pointing at the status screen hovering above one edge.  “Now these guys don’t agree, and they really mean it.”

Jack focused and the words “Holy Terran Empire” at the top of the display came into focus.  “Let me guess, neither Holy, nor Terran, nor an Empire?”

Roger laughed.  “Actually, in their point of view, they’re all three.  They’re a religious theocracy, they control ‘Holy Terra,’ they have the best technology, and they believe the galaxy is destined to bow before them or burn.”

Jack winced.  “That has to go over well with everybody else.”

“Not exactly.  They basically go total war whenever they fight someone else big.”

“Sucks to be whoever’s world they’re fighting on.”

Roger laughed again.  “Yeah.  It generally doesn’t go well for those guys.”

Jack focused on the status update over the side controlling the dog mechs.  He read the name Antares.  “Anatares?  I thought you said no aliens?”

Roger cleared his throat and aimed a hand at the table.  “This is almost two thousand years in the future, Jack,” he explained in a wry tone.  “We’ve penetrated the Terran and Taurian Walls, explored the Betelgeuse Expanse, the Polaris, Rastaban, Antaran, and even Rigelian Bubbles, and more.”  Roger smiled.  “The Antarans are humans who have come back to fight.”

“Oh,” Jack whispered as he tried to switch his worldview around to consider it from that angle.  “I never thought of that.”  He brought a hand up to rub his jaw.  “I suppose Earth won’t always be the center of power it is now, will it?”

Roger sighed.  “Rome was the center of all Western knowledge.  The sun never set on the British Empire.”  He looked at the board where a dog mech took a hit and exploded.  “And sooner or later, the sun will set on Earth.  The question is we have to consider is who will be controlling the new centers of power.”

Jack blinked and considered Roger for several seconds as he mentally placed Roger on top of the list of which Devilcats to take.  He couldn’t fly, but damn could he think long term.  The Cowboys might just need that in the future.  Jack started shuffling his cards again and nodded.  “Thanks for talking to me about this.  I’ll have to think about it,” he said and turned away.

“Wait!” Roger said and Jack stopped.  “I think you want to play this game,” Roger added with a smile.

Jack winced.  “Actually, I normally like playing games that have real world significance.  That’s why I tend to do combat sims even now.  And mechs aren’t real.”

Roger raised a finger in correction.  “Actually, mechs are real.  We just don’t use them for war like that.”

Jack cleared his throat and raised his eyebrows in annoyance.  It was a meaningless correction as far as he was concerned.

“But that’s not why I think you’ll be interested,” Roger set in a rush.  “It’s the cybers.”

Jack cocked his head to the side and turned to Betty.  She took on the faraway look she used when accessing data for a second, and then came back into focus with a swift nod.  Jack grunted and turned back to Roger.  “I’m listening.”

Roger licked his lips.  “Look, after Contact, we introduced cybers into the Mechs of War universe.  We had a history of rogue AIs doing Bad Things and the cybers asked us to make them the good guys.  So we created them in game.”  He waved a hand at the Antarans.  “One of their early acts in game was to keep the Antarans from destroying themselves in their own private little Final War.  The Antarans have an Indian motif, so the cybers took on the spirit guide nature and helped them out.  And the real interesting thing is that in battle, the cybers become the mechs, just like they become the fighters for us.”

Jack glanced at Betty to see her arms crossed and a look of approval on her face.  “I’ll bet a lot of cybers like that.”

Roger chuckled.  “More cybers play the Antarans than any other faction.”

Jack pointed at the Terran side of the battle.  “So what are their cybers like?”

Roger shrugged.  “They actually don’t have cybers the way we think of them.  They copy the minds of their soldiers into cybernetic brains, but they do the same effective thing.”

“Interesting,” Jack whispered and turned to look at Betty.  She didn’t seem to approve at all of the idea.  “Not many cyber fans of that faction, huh?”

“More than you’d think, but not many, no.”  Roger pulled in a deep breath.  “But the reason I think you’d be interested in playing is that we have full simulator pods for the game.  Like a Hellcat or Avenger pod, that a cyber can enter and help you play just like in real life.”

Jack blinked as he considered that.  “Interesting.”

Roger seemed to brighten up as he realized he was making progress.  “And the Department of Defense has accepted them as full scale pilot and cyber sim pods.  If you’re tired of all of the same old DoD sims, you can try this game out for some quality pilot and cyber time.”

Jack looked at Betty with a speculative eye and she crossed her arms, looking interested.  “Good sales pitch,” he whispered.

“I always jump at the chance to get new people interested in the game,” Roger said with a smile.

“Jack,” Betty said and he turned to look at her.  “Charles called.  He needs you at the office.”

Jack nodded.  “Got it.  Thanks for showing me this.”  He glanced at the game table, considering the cybers, and wondered just how realistic that was.  “I’m going to think about it,” he said and turned to stride out of the common room, shoving his playing cards in a pocket.

“Talk to me anytime,” Roger called out.

The chill, evening air descended around them and Jack pulled in a deep breath as his mind continued to mull over the idea.  Betty walked next to him and they made their way across the street, dodging vehicles hovering down it.

“What’s got you thinking?” Betty asked as they cut through a back alley between buildings.

Jack shrugged, not wanting to tip off just how interested he was.  “Just wondering, I suppose.  That copying minds into cyber brain thing.  Is that really possible?”

Betty sighed as she kept pace with him onto another street.  There was no traffic on ground level this time so they cut across without a worry.  “Yes, it’s been done before.  But the main reason we wanted it, doesn’t really work so we don’t do it anymore.”

Jack considered that for a moment, stepped up onto the sidewalk, and turned as he nodded.  “The main reason being that there could be a backup of me in case I died, right?”

Betty nodded.  “The problem with the whole idea is that the backup is a cyber too.”

Jack sighed.  “And every cyber needs a partner,” he said with a wave towards himself.

“Every cyber needs a genie partner,” Betty said in a firm tone.  “And no insult intended, but there just aren’t many of you we want to partner with.”

Jack chewed his lip as he considered that.  “You’d have a population problem if you tried that.  Lots of cybers wanting to be partners with a selectively small number of people.”

“Exactly,” Betty said and guided them around a corner.  “Imagine if Drew had backed herself up.  Right now, both she and Jasmine would need to be partnered with somebody.  And their own relationship would overshadow their new relationship.  Back when we tried it, sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t.  Sometimes the person in Drew’s position got resentful that the laws forced her to find a partner.  They didn’t always have the same…wish to find a partner that the rest of us are born with.  We had some issues, and we chose to stop doing it.”

Jack frowned in thought, mind pondering something else.  “I’ll bet you had another problem.”

“We had more than one,” Betty said with a smile.

Jack shrugged.  “I suppose you did.  But I’m betting a big one was the partners.”

Betty cocked her head to the side and gave him an expectant look.  “Explain.”

Jack chuckled.  “Well, this partnership we have is…pretty deep.”

Betty nodded.  “Yes it is.”

“How many people were willing to have a partnership with more than one person like this?”

Betty sighed.  “Yes.  And that is why so many of us choose to shut down after our partner dies.  It is hard to find another partner.  It is hard to find one that we like.  Hard to find one who doesn’t already have a partner.  Hard to find one willing to have more than one.”

Jack tapped his chin in deep thought and stepped around a light pole.  “And I suppose sometimes someone would say they are willing because they don’t want to see you die, but then really not be willing to let you get close.  They’re happy with what they have and don’t really want anything to upset the applecart so to speak.”

“Yes,” Betty said in a sad tone.  “That happened as well.  As I said, we had some issues, and we chose to stop doing it.”

“Did I do that with Jasmine?” Jack asked in a truly concerned voice.  He looked around and didn’t see her.  He blinked as he actually realized for the first time that he hadn’t seen much of her at all lately.  “Where is she?”

Betty shook her head with a smile and brushed the shoulder of his uniform.  “Right here, like always.  And you’ve never made her feel like a tagalong.”

Jack frowned.  “But I didn’t realize she wasn’t here,” he said with a wave of his hand.  He shook his head.  “I should have.”

Betty shook her head again and opened her mouth to speak.  She shut it as Jack heard another holoemitter hum to life.  Jasmine appeared in the air next to him and shook her head.

“What?  I should have,” Jack repeated in a more insistent tone.

Jasmine shook her head again.  “You would notice if Betty wasn’t here.  Just like Drew would have noticed if I wasn’t…there.”  Jasmine shivered a bit but got her composer back quickly.  “The point is, me and you aren’t like that.  I don’t know what you’re thinking before you think it.  And you can’t tell what I’m thinking from the way I twitch a finger.  You don’t notice my absence because my absence doesn’t make you feel alone.”

Jack glanced at Betty and she smiled back at him.  He sighed as he realized Jasmine was right.  “I’m sorry.”

Jasmine laughed.  “Don’t be.  You’ve always welcomed me when I’m here.”

Jack pulled in a deep breath, smiled, and decided to make it worth her time to show up.  He spread both his arms out and wrapped them around the cybers’ waists, barely touching the outer edge of their holoforms so he wouldn’t break them.

“What can I say?  I just love walking down the street with two beautiful young ladies.”  If they both rolled their eyes at him, he bravely marined on and walked towards Charles’ office with them.  His eyes scanning to either side, he soon realized they weren’t the only ones on the way.  “Hey Tomcat, Juliet” he said as the other man and cyber turned off a side street to match their course, the cybers exchanging nods.

“Jester, Betty, Jasmine,” Tom answered with a smile.  “Just out for a walk or on your way somewhere?”

“Yes,” all three said in unison.  Jack waggled his eyebrows at Tom who just shook his head in return.

“Charles?” he asked and nodded towards the small building ahead of them.

Jack shrugged as they walked up to the door.

Tom waved for Jack to move in first.

Tom probably wanted Jack to catch whatever flak came their way first.  Lucky for both of them, Jack prided himself on being a non-stick surface when it came to trouble.

“I’ll bow out now,” Jasmine said with a look at the street around them.  “It’s going to be crowded in there.”

Jack smiled at her as she faded out.  “Just as long as you promise to walk me back home,” he said into the air and winked at Tom.  The other man rolled his eyes and waved at the door again.  Jack opened the door and walked into a room filled with the low hum of holoemitters, Betty right with him.  He saw Jay, Charles, and their cybers already inside and started to call them out when he realized someone else was in the room.  He stopped fast enough that Tom bounced off him, but still came to attention despite that.

“Admiral,” he said in a far more respectful tone than he usually used.

“Jack, Betty,” Aneerin answered with a bow of his head.  “Tom, Juliet,” he said with another.  “It is good to see you again.”

Jack scanned Aneerin’s form carefully, noting where it didn’t quite seem to fit with reality on the edges, and knew he was looking at a holoform.

“It will always be a pleasure,” Tom returned as he squeezed around Jack.  “Do you have news about Oweoc?”

Aneerin’s mouth twitched in…something that wasn’t happy.  “That’s actually why we’re here.  The courier I sent to Independence finally returned today.”

“It’s late,” Charles noted, annoyance at its untimely nature easily showing through.

Aneerin nodded.  “And now we know why.  Fifth Battle Fleet was not at Independence when the courier arrived.”

“What?” Tom asked, his voice suddenly concerned.  “Where are they?”

Aneerin shrugged.  “That’s the million dollar question.  Six months ago they received information that a transport fleet was hijacked by Chinese pirates and taken to the Hyades Cluster.  They left to investigate in force.”

Charles frowned.  “Why didn’t they send a courier telling us of that?”

Aneerin’s expression turned grim.  “They did.”

“Oh frak,” Jack whispered as realization of just how bad this was hit him.  Their reinforcements weren’t coming.  “The Chinese sucked them in.  Do you think they even know we’re at war?”

Aneerin looked like he’d bitten down on something sour.  “If they haven’t left the Hyades Cluster to tell us what they’ve found, I believe I can say with certainty that they do know we are at war now.  The more pertinent question is whether or not they are still alive to consider the fact.”

“What could kill a Battle Fleet?” Jack asked in disbelief.

Aneerin looked away for a long moment and sighed.  “We have lost them before.  But that was a long time ago.”  He aimed a sad smile at Tom.  “I do not know what the Chinese could have that could do that, but I intend to find out.  The courier tried but their patrols were too tight to get through.  We will break through those patrols.”

Jack shook his head and looked to Tom.  “You know somebody in that fleet?”

Tom nodded.  “Oweoc.  You remember Aneerin as the Peloran who made Contact.”  Tom shook his head.  “Not me.  We’d only landed on Independence a few hours before…then this massive kilometer-long spaceship floated down through the clouds.”  Tom sighed.  “You have no idea what it was like.  You grew up with gravtech.  I’d just flown a rocket across the known universe, and here’s this ship larger than anything we’d ever imagined, just floating there, without any rocket flare at all.  It was an amazing sight.”  He turned to look at Juliet standing next to him with a smile.  “That was a pretty amazing day all around.”

Juliet stood there as if there was no place she’d rather be and smiled back.

Aneerin let out a long breath.  “Oweoc still commands that ship, as well as the squadron attached to it.  Just as I have been stationed at Terra since Contact, he has been stationed at Independence.”  He nodded towards Tom again.  “Wherever he is, wherever the rest of the fleet is, we will do our utmost to find out what happened and where they are.”

Charles cleared his throat to get their attention.  “The question is how long will it take you to finish refitting?”

Aneerin pursed his lips.  “A month,” he bit out.  “Assuming we want all of the ships and all of the drones ready.”

“Which we do,” Charles whispered.

Aneerin nodded his head, but didn’t look happy about it.  “Indeed, we do.”

Charles shook his head in agreement at how not good the situation was.  “Then we wait.”

“Yes.”  Aneerin pulled in a deep breath, lifted his chin, and gave Charles a long look.  “Get me more fighters, Charles.  We need the screen, we need the scouting.  I can provide the heavy weapons, but I need those fighters to keep the warships safe.”

Charles gave the admiral a half bow.  “I will do everything I can, Admiral.”

Aneerin smiled.  “I know you will.”  He gave everyone in the room a quick half bow.  “I know you all will.  Good day, Cowboys.”  With one more half bow, his holoform faded away, leaving the Cowboys alone to consider matters.

“Well, that is that,” Charles finally said in a calm tone.  “Let’s keep this between us for now.  If it gets out that the Peloran fleet is not coming to reinforce us, people could panic.”

“Oorah,” Jack and Jay uttered in reflex.  At the silence from Tom, they looked at him.

Tom glanced back and forth between them for a moment, aware that something was amiss.  “What?  We supposed to say yeehaw?” he finally asked.