‘Mad Jack’ Spratt poured himself another drink and squinted through the smoke, watching as his opponent laid his cards on the table.
“You win again,” Jack snorted, unsurprised. In reply he received a vicious smile, creasing the ever-present streaks of black paint that covered the stranger’s face.
He wasn’t really a stranger – it had been years since Jack had first met him and the rest, but he still knew precious little about them. The robot in the corner started to squeeze out a mournful tune on an old accordion as Jack started to shuffle the deck.
“You’re not joining the evacuation?” the stranger said, feigning surprise as he lit his next cigarette.
“Why go when the drink is so good and the company is so classy?”
“Sarcasm doesn’t become you, son. Anyway, I wouldn’t clean the engines with this swill. Have I ever told you about bourbon?”
“Only every time we play,” Jack snapped. He wasn’t in the mood for bantering.
“Hm. Fair enough. So which are you – scared, sad or tired?” the stranger asked.
Jack chuckled bitterly. None of them would have been out of place. Outpost Rapunzel, bastion of the resistance, was falling. It didn’t matter who had revealed the thin trail through the asteroid belt, the fact was the Crown Navy had it, and it wouldn’t be long before they’d navigated it. The rebels were getting everyone they could out, but at this point it was pretty clear to Jack he was going to die.
“Tired, I guess,” he said at last, “fifteen years is too long for anyone to fight. It’s General White I feel sorry for, I suppose. She’s been in it from the beginning.”
“Don’t waste your pity on her. She’s long since stopped deserving it, trust me.”
Behind them, the robot came to the end of its tune and, without missing a beat, began a new one. Jack and the stranger drank a while without talking, listening to the music roll and pulse. Jack finally spoke.
“The worst part is they’ll make me a martyr. I don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve any of it. Giant-killer… I wish my story could die with me.”
The stranger laughed, the first genuine laugh Jack had ever heard from him. It continued for some time.
“Jack, my boy, listen to me. I’ve been travelling a while, and in that time I’ve met scores of you – a hundred Jacks across a thousand worlds, eras and realities. They all had two things in common. They all had a story, and none of them deserved it. It’s who you are, who you all are, and there’s nothing you can do to escape that.”
Jack was silent for a spell.
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean, but… I don’t know, it makes me feel better somehow. To know I’m not the only one.”
The door flew open and a short man in dark glasses ran in. Jack snapped a quick salute, but the little man didn’t notice.
“They’re in. A half dozen rosies just breached the airlock.”
Jack nodded. They both knew what this meant. There were barely a hundred combat-ready men on the base, and a single rose red was a match for thirty at least, especially in close quarters. They might be able to take a few out, but what was left would be easy pickings for the regular Crown troops. This was it.
Jack turned back to the stranger.
“You’re not going to help.” It wasn’t a question.
“Not my place. This chapter’s coming to a close and it wouldn’t be right for me to get in the way of that.”
“Tom, you need to get to one of the evac ships.”
The short man shook his head.
“No way, man. I’ve been sitting on my ass for years now, this place is my home. It falls, I fall. Plus,” he slammed a bolt of ammunition into his rifle, “I’m wanna kill me a rosie.”
“Look, you’re Tommy Thumb, voice of the goddamn Resistance, we need-”
“No, we don’t,” Tom snapped. His glasses had slipped down his face, and behind them Jack could see his eyes. He could see how exhausted the voice of the Resistance really was. “I’ve already recorded my farewell message and sent it off with Hood. Keep fighting the good fight, all that shit. I reckon I’m due a break. Let’s buy the others what time we can.”
Outside the door, the sound of gunfire could be heard, its staccato rhythm punctuating the wheeze of the accordion. Jack picked up his gun.
“Here we go. Goodbye, Jonny.”
“Enjoy your glorious last stand,” the stranger replied.
Jack smiled, called him an fucker and headed off to die.