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A Different Sort Of Command

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Jack leaned his weight against the fence and surveyed his domain -- one scruffy half-acre of trodden grass, with a tiny natural pond in the southwest corner. Not much, but more upscale than he'd thought he'd have when he was young. Times were hard, and he knew neighbors with far less.

"Gathering cotton?"

Jack eyed his approaching speaker, then snorted. "Hey, Dan." His best friend winked a greeting, before ducking under Jack's fence and plopping himself down on the grass with abandon. "How're the kids?" Jack inquired.

"Oh, they're fine," Dan said carelessly, pausing to scratch an itch on his shoulder. "Rowdy and ear-pulling and asking me for stupid 'pony-rides' as always." Jack sighed. He'd give his eye-teeth to have Tessa and Kayla asking him for rides, but Dan just didn't appreciate kids the way Jack did. "Listen," Dan said, his eyes suddenly more alert and his ears virtually vibrating with excitement. "I think I've found something important."

"Oh, really?" Jack feigned interest. Badly. But Dan didn't need much encouragement to talk about his most recent project. It was kinda sweet -- and always entertaining.

"You know that sheet of paper I found stuck under the floorboards on the south side of the shed? I'm pretty sure it's a set of operating instructions for the engine. I've worked out a little of what it says, but the words are all spelled funny and I swear the syntax is off. Also, there's these symbols that make no sense."

Jack flicked an ear at him and started rubbing an itch in his backside against the top rail. "I thought you could read anything."

"Anything that's in English, of course," Dan returned snippily. "But that's the problem. I'm almost certain that these instructions are written in another language." His tone said that he was unsure whether to be wildly excited by this development, or personally insulted at this new stumbling block.

"You'll work it out," Jack assured him. And heck, he was pretty sure Dan would. That was the way he was. Once he got hold of a bone, he would never let go until he'd gotten all the answers he wanted.

"I just don't have enough time," Dan said mournfully. With his bushy eyebrows and slightly squashed nose, he was able to pull off the look admirably. He couldn't maintain it for long, though, cocking his head up at Jack playfully only a second later. "Unlike some, I actually have to work for my dinner."

"I'm retired," Jack insisted, taking up their usual exchange. "I put in my time before you were even born, and I deserve to live out the rest of my days in peace. All I have to do now is watch the stars in the sky and the fish in the pond."

"There aren't any fish in your pond, Jack."

"So there aren't." It didn't bother him. "The tadpoles, then."

Dan got to his feet and shook himself out. "I don't know how you can live like this," he said. "I mean, I've been sitting here for two minutes and I'm already crazy to go back to work on that translation. Maybe Tessa will have something on her shelves I can use. I wish the kids were older. All I've got to work with is Dick and Jane's wagon." He whined, pacing circles in front of the fence. "Maybe if I could get Sha're to help. I'm sure I could get into Master Hammond's library. All I need is ten minutes...!"

"Whoa, hold on, Danny," Jack interrupted. Dan was hyper enough without getting all worked up. It couldn't be good for him. "Let's say by some miracle you actually manage to work this out-- ah! let me finish. So you figure out what all the 'writing' stuff means. What good does that do?"

Dan growled and yipped once in exasperation. "Jack, don't you get it? This is amazing stuff here. We can do something that nobody on this farm has ever done before! With this information, we can open the gate!"

The grizzled, cranky donkey stared down at the excitable blond-brown Welsh sheepdog. He rolled his eyes and pronounced quite succinctly, "You're nuts."