His eyes opened and he grunted at the bright light of his bedroom as he slowly shifted out of bed, the sheets entangled around his legs falling to the floor.  He looked at them for a bleary moment before pulling his legs out and then picking up the sheets to drop them on his bed.  He hated mornings.  He spent ten minutes stretShangg out and running through katas before grabbing the clothes that were thankfully not starched anymore.  He quickly walked out into the main room of his apartment and smiled at Vanessa.

“How’d you sleep last night?” she asked in a concerned manner and he shrugged.

“Badly at first.  Then it got better,” he finished with a contented smile.  It had been a wonderful dream.  She smiled back, a look of relief coloring her face.

“You’re ready for today?”

“Yeah, I guess I am,” Jack whispered with another smile and walked into the bathroom to shower.  He came back out in his standard rumpled black suit and stuffed his hands in its pockets as she stood in front of the door in the loose white clothing that covered her combat armor.  “I guess it’s that time then,” he noted casually and she smiled back at him.

“We need to talk to the others first,” Vanessa responded.  “Go over the final plans.  See if anything needs to be changed.”

“I can think of a few things I’d like changed,” Jack muttered.

“I know.  But we can’t leave them out of it.  We need all the help we can get and the government can’t be seen to do anything until we have the proof.”

“Life sucks, doesn’t it?”

“Let’s go, Jack,” Vanessa smiled and opened the door to lead him out of the apartment for what would, if the plans worked out, be the last time.  He snorted as he realized that even if they didn’t work it would be the last time.  There was no going back after this.  As if he wanted to in the first place.  He was glad to see the last of it.  Very very glad.

They walked towards the skycar and slid in quickly.  Vanessa grabbed the controls, pulling the skycar up into the traffic lanes leading past the spaceport into New Washington City and towards the restaurant they’d eaten at every morning for the last two weeks.  As usual, she talked about anything that crossed her mind, which tended to cover a wide range of subjects, as Jack looked out on the skyline while it went by.

A few minutes of dodging other skycars and skytrucks brought them to their exit, and Vanessa guided the car down to ground level and into the restaurant’s parking area.  They slid back out and Jack stretched again as he looked at the entrance carefully, looking for any traps.

“Are you alright?” Vanessa asked and he smiled back at her.

“Yeah.  Let’s just get this over with,” he noted in the casual manner he always projected and walked towards the door.  It opened automatically and he scowled at it.  “I really hate these doors,” he muttered.

“Why’s that?”

“It’s hard to be gallant and open the door for lovely ladies when they open up on their own,” he responded as they walked in and Vanessa giggled.

“I can see where that’d be a problem,” she whispered as they walked past the “please wait to be seated sign” over to a corner booth and sat down.

“We like to save these booths for larger parties,” a waiter said stuffily as he walked up to them and Jack shrugged casually.

“We’re expecting friends today, Harold,” he noted with a smile and the waiter sighed.

“Very well.  Would you like something to drink this morning?”

“Water will do nicely,” Jack muttered.  “For six,” he added and the waiter nodded before turning crisply and leaving the booth.

“The trials of eating at a high-class joint,” Vanessa whispered into his ear.

“The food’s good.”

“They don’t like how you dress.”

“I don’t like how they dress,” Jack muttered.

“You’re in their building.”

“I’m giving them my money.”

“Why don’t you dress up a bit?”

“Because I don’t care,” Jack muttered and looked up to see the black-clad Benjamin and Elsie walking up, arm-in-arm like any good dating couple.

“What don’t you care about?” Elsie asked and Jack shrugged.

“About looking good for the ladies,” Vanessa pouted back and Jack wished she didn’t take so much delight in her job.

“Well now, that’s not very nice,” Elsie smiled as she slid over to sit by Jack, bumping him with her hip.

“That’s what I keep trying to tell him, but he just doesn’t care,” Vanessa sniffed and Jack put his head in his hands miserably as Ben sat down on the other side of Elsie.

“That’s not nice, Jack.  You’re making the poor girl cry,” Elsie whispered and pulled Jack’s Shang up to look at her.  “What do you have to say for yourself young man?” she finished in a scolding tone of voice.

“Bite me,” Jack muttered and leaned back into the booth, just trying to relax, as she looked at him in an appraising manner.

“That wasn’t very nice,” a new voice said and he looked up to see Cat smiling at him.  “What’s he pissed off about today?” she asked as she sat down and slid over to Vanessa so James could sit down beside her.

“I want him to dress better,” Vanessa sniffed and Jack let out a long breath, trying to maintain his cool.

“But he doesn’t care about that,” Elsie added and Cat nodded in understanding.

“Well, he does look a little rough around the edges,” she whispered like she was analyzing a used skycar.  “Makes me wonder what a woman would see in him,” she finished with a nasty smile and his head jerked up to look at her as he took in a deep breath to respond.

“Now now, lets not be harsh,” Elsie responded as she put a hand on his shoulder to quiet him down.  “I’m sure he’s got some good points.  Let me think here…um…well…hmmm.  Vanessa, I’m right aren’t I?” she asked as Jack turned to glare at her angrily.

“Well, I’m sure there must be something,” Vanessa responded innocently and Jack whipped his head around to glare at her too.  Then he turned to glare at Ben to see the Engineer giggling silently.

“I do hope you’re enjoying this,” Jack muttered casually.

“Ah thin’ he’s lovin’ it,” James chortled from the other side of the booth and Jack swiveled his head to look at his old partner.

You stay out of this,” Jack whispered threateningly.  “This is between me and yonder little joker,” he finished and whipped around to look at Ben again.  “Don’t make me take this outside.”

“Now that wouldn’t be nice,” Vanessa whispered and grabbed his left shoulder in an iron grip, pushing him into the back of his seat firmly.

“Yeah, we can’t have you beating each other more senseless than usual today,” Elsie added and grabbed his other shoulder just as firmly.

“How about tomorrow?” Cat asked innocently.  “We don’t have anything planned tomorrow do we?”

“Not that I know of,” Vanessa said with a wicked smile.

“It’s settled then,” Elsie chimed in.  “Tomorrow they get to beat each other up.”

“Why do I even bother?” Jack finally muttered and relaxed.  “Let’s just get this over with.  I want to go home.”

“You’ve got a place,” Cat whispered, suddenly sounding serious, and looked at James.  “But what about us?”  Jack turned to look at Ben questioningly and the Engineer sighed before nodding seriously.

“I’ll make sure you aren’t forgotten,” he said firmly.  “Same for your people.”

“Thanks,” Cat smiled sadly and looked at Jack.  “So what now?”

“We order,” he noted casually and pointed towards the waiter coming back with a tray full of water, looking perturbed at how things had so quickly gone completely out of his control.

“Would you like anything else to drink?” the waiter asked as he put the water down.

“I’ll go for a hot chocolate,” Cat responded happily and Jack cocked his head at her.  The rest shook their heads and the waiter bowed stiffly as he put six menus on the table for them to look at.

“I will return with your drink, miss,” the waiter noted formally and walked away to get the hot chocolate.

“Do you drink that often?” Jack asked and Cat shrugged.

“Every day.  Fast metabolism,” she added with a smile and Jack nodded in understanding.

“It definitely seems to work,” he muttered and she smirked back before nabbing her menu.  Everybody followed her example and started looking for their orders, barely looking up as the waiter came back with Cat’s drink.  He came back at the appropriate time, just as they started shifting around, noting they were ready to order.

“And what would you like?” he asked as he looked at Benjamin.

“Ham and eggs.  Sunny side up,” he whispered and the waiter nodded.

“And you miss?” he asked, turning to Elsie.

“A side of bacon, please,” she noted with a smile.

“Is that all?” he asked and she nodded.  “Very well,” he noted and turned to Jack silently, raising an eyebrow at him as if he were a misbehaving child.

“Pigs in a blanket for me,” Jack muttered.  “The full breakfast.  Scramble the eggs and give me some Tabasco sauce on the side please.”

“Of course, sir,” the waiter answered before turning to Vanessa, smiling like a father at his favorite daughter.

“And for you, ma’am?”

“Just a blueberry muffin please.  Looking out for my figure.”

“I do not believe you need to worry,” he whispered and turned to Cat as Vanessa winked at him.

“And what would the young miss like to order?” he asked and she shrugged.

“I’ll go for a five stack of pancakes with strawberry sauce, some bacon on the side, and make my eggs…over easy please,” she rattled off and the waiter blinked for a moment.

“Of course, miss,” he responded shortly and then turned to James.  ”And for you, sir?”

“D’yahav grits?” he drawled and the waiter blinked uncertainly for several moments as Jack tried to keep from smiling.  James could speak without the accent, most of it, if he wanted to.  But sometimes he loved to play jokes on people with it.  Obviously right now he was in the mood for one.

“No, sir,” he finally responded in his cultured English.  “We do not have…grits.”

“Ah…Ah’ll have wha’ she’s havin’ then,” he drawled, pointing at Cat.

“Very well then,” the waiter noted crisply.  “I shall return as soon as the cooks have finished preparing,” he finished with a stiff bow and walked away.

“Why did he call you ‘ma’am’?” Cat asked as she turned to Vanessa and the AI raised her left hand to show the ring on her third finger with a smile.

“Oh,” Cat whispered as she fingered her own empty finger.  “It’s very pretty,” she added and then looked to Elsie’s equally empty hand.

“He may be an old coot,” Vanessa smiled, “but he’s very observant.”

“He doesn’t seem to like Jack much,” Benjamin whispered quizzically.

“Jack doesn’t follow the rules,” Vanessa responded.  “He hates that, but I’ve always acted like the good little girl who’s being pulled into following and doesn’t know any better so he treats me like his daughter and Jack like the son-in-law he doesn’t approve of,” she finished with a bat of her eyelashes.

“He obviously doesn’t know you very well does he?” Cat smiled and Vanessa sniffed disdainfully in response.

“The impetuousness of youth.”

“Look who’s talking,” Cat bantered back and Jack rolled his eyes.

“Can we get back on track?” he asked painfully.  “I’d like to get out of here before I die of old age.”

“Sorry,” Cat whispered meekly and his left eye rolled over to look at her as he sighed.

“Ok, I’ll be a good little girl,” Vanessa responded.

“Miracles never cease,” Elsie chimed in with a smile and Jack glared at her.  “Sorry,” she whispered, covering her mouth with one hand and he looked over at Ben questioningly.

“So is anything new today?” he asked and Ben nodded slowly.

“A freighter’s coming in from Asgard today at 1300 hours.”

“And that’s special how?” Jack asked.  “It’s not like we don’t get a few dozen of them a day.”

“This one’s special.  I got some information from Charles that it’s one of five freighters coming in before the Aesiran diplomat arrives.  One of them has something special on it but we don’t know which one.”

“What kind of special?” Jack muttered as he stretched out and put his hands behind his head casually.

“Don’t know, but it has something to do with the diplomat and its heavily guarded inside the freighter.”

“But on the outside, the freighter looks normal,” Jack muttered and Benjamin nodded.


“Wonderful.  So what does that have to do with us?”

“Nothing really, except that it gives us the opening we need.  All government fighters are going to be in the air or on standby when it arrives.  ‘Regularly scheduled military maneuvers’ you understand.  Nothing at all to do with the freighter,” he finished with a smile and received a round of chuckles.

“So airspace will be confused won’t it?” Cat asked and Ben nodded.

“It will be easier for you to support us,” he responded.  “You will be leading Jack’s squadron and running them through drills at the main live-fire training area.  At 1250 hours, Jack and Vanessa will penetrate Barlon Headquarters.  He has an appointment at the munitions office at 1300 hours so getting in will not be a problem.”

“They want to lecture me about limiting munitions usage,” Jack smiled and Cat snickered back.

“We have been a bit free with it haven’t we?”

“Just a bit.”

“Back on track,” Ben interjected quickly.  “We hope they won’t notice he’s not coming until at least 1305 hours.  That should give Vanessa time to find one of the primary computer terminals, hack into it, and find the data we need.  Proof that Barlon is working with the Shang.  If we can get that proof, Inter Planetary Security can come down on their heads…hard.  Until then, their hands are tied.  As soon as we have confirmation that Vanessa has the information, you come back to the spaceport,” he noted pointing at Cat.

“What kind of confirmation?” she asked quickly.  “I thought Barlon Headquarters blocked all outgoing transmissions.”

“They do,” Ben responded with a smile.  “But we have a pre-arranged signal that she will trigger while in the Barlon computer system.  There will be no transmission.”

“Ah…good thinking.  So how does my squadron get over Headquarters?”

“Well, unfortunately there will be a slight problem with the routes.  The Planetary Defense Forces will have a squadron sitting on your planned route and you will be forced to circle around to the north, over the city…” he trailed off suggestively and she smiled.

“Right over Barlon Headquarters,” she whispered appreciatively.  “I like how you work.”

“Not quite that good, unfortunately,” he responded sadly.  “That would make them suspicious.  But your route will be close enough that they won’t have time to react before you are over their airspace.  They will be forced to deploy their guards outside to try and hold you off while one of their squadrons scrambles from the spaceport.  And that will give Vanessa and Jack the opening they need to exfiltrate with the data.”

“We’ll be short one fighter when their on-call squadron arrives,” Cat whispered and Ben nodded.

“Exactly.  And that’s where James comes in,” he noted with a nod in his direction.  “I know you can’t keep your fighters hot without gathering undue attention to yourselves.  But if you keep your pilots near your fighters performing, ‘catch-up maintenance’ you will be close enough that you can jump into your fighters and be up less than a minute or so after their on-call squadron.  You’ll have to hold them for a bit,” he added, nodding towards Cat.  “But help will be on the way.”

“Just what I always wanted.  Well, it’s not like we aren’t used to fighting against the numbers,” she said with a wink towards Jack.  “The plan sounds good to me if you can pull off the redirect.”

“We can,” Ben noted firmly.  “James?”

“Ah agree,” he noted slowly with only a trace of his accent and Ben blinked for a moment, probably wondering why James was suddenly talking almost normal.

 “And you?” he finally asked, glancing at Jack.

“Ready whenever you are,” Jack muttered.  “I’m in with or without support.  I’d prefer without but you seem to love these elaborate plans of yours so I’ll go along with that.”

“Your enthusiasm with the plan is under whelming,” Ben sighed and Jack shrugged casually.  “But I guess we have a go.  I’ll commence final preparations as soon as we have everything in position.”

“Everything?” Jack asked and Ben nodded.

“I have other…assets that will be helping.  I hope,” he trailed off and Jack stared at him for a moment.

“You hope,” Jack echoed after a moment.  “You mean they might help Barlon?”

“Oh no,” Ben whispered.  “She might kill me but she wouldn’t help them,” he finished calmly and Jack’s jaw hung loosely.

HerKill you?  And you want her help?  My god man, what did you do to her?”

“I’ve trusted her with my life for a long time, Jack,” Ben continued calmly, obviously ignoring his second question.  “And she knows how important this is.  If she kills me, she’ll wait until we’re done.  She won’t jeopardize the mission.”

“I’m surprised you are so…uncareful with your life,” Jack muttered.  “You could live forever.”

“No Jack,” Ben whispered calmly and looked directly into Jack’s eyes.  “We all die.  Everyone dies sometime.  You of all people should know that,” he finished and Jack blinked.  He turned away to see James nodding slowly while Cat just looked confused.  Elsie looked the same, but Vanessa nodded as well.

“Damn, you psionics are strange,” he finally muttered and Ben chuckled, his serious side melting away to show the cheerful young man Jack normally saw.

“And proud of it,” Ben responded with another chuckle as he spread his arms wide.  “It’s fun to frag with people’s minds from time to time,” he finished with a wink and Jack shook his head slowly.

“I’ll give you an A if you’ll stop,” he muttered and Ben chuckled again.

“It’s a deal,” he whispered softly and Jack wondered which side of him was saying that.  The psionic or the man.  Oh well.  Didn’t much matter.  He was strange, but he was trustworthy.  That’s all that mattered.