You initially thought you’d have to dig to find Jack’s residence, but as it turns out, the IBI company directory has all of the company facilities listed, including “Jack’s Place”, three floors at the top of an out-of-the-way residence tower in an uninteresting corner of Skyward. Swiping your slate gets you in the building and up the express elevator without so much as a “who goes there”. You’re let off into a small foyer at the front door of the residence. You ring the bell and after enough time has passed for someone to take you in on camera, the door opens revealing the most non-descript man you’ve ever seen.
Brown hair in an unremarkable business cut, brown eyes, medium build, slightly olive skin – his description would match billions. This guy’s a ghost. His stance is never off-balance, his hands are always free, and he’s got the unfocused gaze of someone looking everywhere at once. Bodyguard?
He smiles politely and with a soft, prim voice says, “Hello Ms. Triggs. My name is Giles. Please come in.”
He ushers you into the front hall of the residence.
The austere decor of a military man who never particularly adapted to having a real life. It could be a photo from an interior decorator’s portfolio for all the character it has. Does he really live here?
“I’m here to see Jack,” you say without preamble.
“Mr. Cartwright is attending to business on Eriksson today, would you like to leave a message?”
You very deliberately drop your kit on the floor of the foyer. “Nope, I’ll wait. Got a guest room?”
Without batting an eye the man nods. “Yes ma’am, of course, I’ll show you there.” He picks up your bag and gestures down the hall. “Not to be indiscreet, but are you in trouble? Mr. Detweiler and Mr. Yang have protocols, we can get you to a safe house or off-planet…”
“What? No, I’m not… Does that happen often?”
The man shrugs. “Not really. More than never.” He leads you up a set of stairs to a very well-appointed guest suite and hands your bag over. “Will you be staying for dinner?”
“I’ll be staying until I talk with Jack.”
He nods. “Very well then. The kitchen is fairly well-stocked. Either I or Mrs. Fenway prepare a hot breakfast at oh-six-hundred and dinner at nineteen-hundred daily. You may come and go as you please, but we ask that you respect the privacy of Mr. Cartwright’s private rooms on the third floor.”
“Okay…sure. Were you expecting me?”
“No ma’am, but family is always welcome here. Is there anything else?”
“When do you expect Jack to be back?”
Giles shrugs noncommittally. “Mr. Cartwright keeps a robust schedule that he rarely shares with me, ma’am. Rest assured I’ll notify you the next time he comes to the residence, wherever you may be.”
And that’s how it starts. Jack apparently has a very busy schedule. He’s on Eriksson for several days, then a business meeting on Musk, then a reception on the other side of the planet, and so on. On the plus side, the accommodations at the residence are exceptional, and both Giles and Mrs. Fenway are both friendly and helpful enough in the same cheerful but professional manner of a hotel concierge, in addition to being exceptional cooks. You spend the next three weeks being catered to, working on your studies, and even fit in a day trip to visit your parents, who have been understandably concerned after seeing video footage of you in a firefight with heavily-armed soldiers on Myrr. But no Jack.
The night before you’re to report back to Explanations on Eriksson, you return to the residence after dark and find Giles waiting at the entrance to take your coat. He gives you a smile that’s just slightly less robotic than normal. “I’ve taken the liberty of preparing you a nightcap in the study, ma’am. If you’ll come with me?”
Intrigued, you follow him to the only truly interesting room in the lower floor of the residence. Jack’s study is a circular room with a real wood-burning fireplace, a library of real paper books, two of which are actually from Old Earth, several momentos of his military service, and big comfy leather seats. You can smell the cigar smoke as you approach.
Three of the big leather seats are pulled up around the fireplace, two of which are occupied by Dirk and Jack and the third has a fresh drink on a small table next to it.
Two cigars, almost entirely burned down, the filters must be clearing the air or the room would be a cloud. Nearly empty bottle on the sidebar, holy shit that’s expensive scotch. Bits of wax from the seal on the desk around it. Did they drink the whole thing? Must have. Both these guys are drunk, but Dirk’s a functional alcoholic, Jack’s not. Did Dirk get Jack hammered? Jack’s muscle deterioration has gotten worse, the gravity is adding to the booze and weighing him down in the seat. Giles made me a cocktail, must have gotten a ring when I came through the door downstairs, condensation is just now starting to form on the glass. Dirk’s staring into the fire, barely acknowledges me walking through the door, Jack is staring above the fire at the artist’s rendering of WCF Indomitable on the wall. We’re dining on ashes tonight gentlemen?
Jack turns when Giles shows you into the study and smiles warmly. “Angelica, dear. Please come in, and welcome. Dirk and I were just discussing the finer points of Old Earth Maritime Law.” Dirk rolls his eyes and takes a long pull of his drink in response.
“I’ve been wanting to ask you some questions,” you say, sitting down.
“I know, I know, and it must seem like I’ve been avoiding you, which is, I suppose, partly true.” His normally sharp speech is much slower, the words slightly slurred. The scotch has done a number on him.
“What is this all about? Really?”
Jack goes back to staring at the painting. He notices that his hand is still holding a glass of scotch and he takes a small sip.
“I’ve done a terrible thing,” he says. His voice is quiet, severe, no sign at all of the boisterous “Gentleman Jack”. You settle in and take a sip of your superbly-mixed drink and wait. This line seems news to Dirk as well, who straightens up and raises an eyebrow at you. “I’ve broken through a norm. Given them license to delight in their darker whims….”
You open your mouth to speak but stop when Dirk shakes his head sharply.
This is what Dirk’s here for, too. Confessions. Answers.
“They were going to bombard the planet. Did you know that? They had lined up a host of mass drivers and they were going to take the fight out of Grove not by ending their ability to wage war, but by bludgeoning away the desire. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions would have died. Civilians. That’s why they ordered us back to the line.”
He finally turns away from the painting and looks at you. His eyes are moist with tears and his voice has a quiver to it. “My Marines were down there. Cara was down there.”
He sinks back into his seat and sighs. “That’s why I did it. I had to stop the war before they did. Had to make it clear to everyone that the war was over. The Cheyenne Drive Yards were the last means to wage war on the Council this side of Jericho. And I destroyed them.” He’s quiet for a long moment. “I felt quite righteous in that decision for a few years. Through the trials and the press and the noise. I always told myself ‘Jack…you saved all those innocent people. You saved Grove from economic collapse. You kept evil men from their evil plots.’”
He chuckles and takes another sip. “Silly me. Now they don’t even have to pretend.”
The room is silent save for the crackling of the fireplace for several long minutes.
Be patient. He’s not done.
“I recently found out that there hasn’t been anyone new elected to the boards of Zijin, BioGen, or Vickers-Maxim in over two hundred years.” This is such a tangent that both you and Dirk shift awkwardly in your seats. Jack continues, staring into the fire. “They passed a law, you see. Around the time they had to let the cat out of the bag about Jericho, they repealed the Corporate Governance Compacts from the initial Articles of Colonization so they wouldn’t have to tell anybody. Fuckers have been freezing each other. Going under for decades at a time and coming up to check in and make some decisions.”
He drains the rest of his scotch and looks at the firelight through the crystal. “Unimpeachable, permanent power. Control of sixty…maybe seventy percent of production. And no one short of some religious nuts thirty light-years away can do anything about it. There’s a storm coming. And I may have been the one who allowed it to happen in our lifetimes. I fear I’ve done a terrible thing.”
He lapses into silence long enough that you feel the need to push.
“Jack,” you ask quietly, “what are you going to do with a warship?”
He rises suddenly from his chair with a fluid grace that belies his drunkenness. He steps over to the sidebar and pours the last of the scotch then turns to the two of you, leaning back against the table, raising his glass in a toast.
“We,” he says with deliberate emphasis, “are going to make a metric shitton of money.” He swallows the rest of the drink then chucks the glass into the fireplace, where it shatters dramatically. “I am not one to be buffeted about in the gale blowing from the assholes of tyrants! We will tack into the wind! Ride out the storm.” He walks a little unsteadily over to the desk in the corner. “And maybe,” he continues, fussing about in one of the desk drawers, “maybe we do some good in the process.” He straightens and holds up a tiny data storage chip and smiles. “Pay for our sins.”
He comes back around the desk, swaying slightly, and tucks the chip into Dirk’s shirt pocket.
“That’ll decrypt at the right time,” he says quietly. “Now, you two have an early call up at the port, yes?” He nods to himself and pads towards the door. “Oh, and Dirk, I’m going to need that brief now.”
Dirk snorts. “Yeah, I figured.”
“Make it bullet-proof, son. Our lives may depend on it.”
Dirk’s face gets about as serious as you’ve ever seen it. “Yes, sir,” he says without any of his usual…Dirk-ness, “it will be.”
“Good, good.” Jack smiles at the both of you from the door. “Thank you for the visit.” And then he’s gone down the hall.
You look back at Dirk, who appears downright pensive. “What was that about? What brief?”
Dirk sighs and checks the chip in his pocket. “We’re both pretty sure what we’re doing is legal. But it’ll have to be explained to a lot of people. Often. And occasionally at gunpoint.”
You slump back in your seat and rub your temples. “Fan-tas-tic,” you mutter.
Dirk shrugs and stands up a little unsteadily. “Alright then. See you in the morning. Drink lots of water.” He walks carefully out and shouts for Giles to call him a car.
You stare into the fire for a while, puzzling through what you learned. Giles brings you a glass of water.