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In Fury Born: Chapter Sixteen

       Last updated: Monday, March 6, 2006 17:37 EST



    "So, what do you think of your new brother?" Fiona DeVries asked with a smile.

    "He's gorgeous." Alicia tried not to sound too dubious, and her mother laughed. "Uh, does he sleep all the time?" Alicia asked after a moment.

    "I wish," her sister Clarissa said, rolling her eyes.

    "Hey, it wasn't that long ago you were doing all the crying," Alicia said, pulling her sister's long braid teasingly. "I personally remember what a pain you were for the first couple of years, Shortstuff!"

    "Oh, yeah?" Clarissa's gray eyes, as much like their father's as Alicia's were like their mother's, glinted up at her. There was laughter in them, and also just a touch of the semi-awe the twelve-year-old had experienced when her tall, older sister -- magnificent in the green-on-green uniform of the Imperial Cadre, with the Emperor's own starship and harp insignia -- walked through the concourse arrivals gate.

    "Yeah," Alicia told her with a grin. "And, I'll bet you've at least got your own room. That was more than I ever had when you were the squirmy new kid on the block."

    "Sure, sure. Back in the old days, when you had to walk to school, through the snow, in the broiling heat, uphill both ways, barefoot, carrying your clay tablet and a sharp stylus through the rain, and --"

    "We get the point, Clarissa," Collum DeVries told his middle child, then put an arm around his wife and smiled down at the newest addition to the family. "And as for you, Alicia Dierdre DeVries, I'll have you know he is gorgeous. I have it on the best of authority that that lobster-red coloration will fade quite soon. Before his fifteenth birthday, at the very latest."

    His wife's free elbow smacked soundly into his ribs, and he "oofed" obediently.

    "Seriously, Alley," Fiona said, her voice softer, "I'm really, really glad you got leave in time for the christening. Knowing you were right here on Old Earth for the last four months has been wonderful, in a lot of ways, but it's been . . . frustrating, too."

    "I'm sorry, Mom," Alicia said. "I wish I could have gotten home sooner. It's just --" "I know exactly what it was, Alley." Fiona smiled. "I was raised on New Dublin, you know. And even if I hadn't been inclined to figure it out for myself, your grandfather would have made certain that I understood it wasn't your idea. And that the Cadre wasn't doing it to us on purpose. I'm not complaining, exactly. And the fact that you've got three whole glorious weeks before you have to report back is pretty fair compensation, I suppose. But," her smile wavered very slightly, "we've all missed you, you know."

    "I do know that," Alicia said quietly, and looked into her father's eyes. "Grandpa told me that one of your reservations about my decision to enlist in the first place was the time with all of you that it would cost me. And I think that's probably the thing I truly do regret about it."

    "Every decision has its price, Alley," he told her, returning her level gaze steadily. "If you'd chosen not to join the Marines, you would have regretted that, as well. It's not given to anyone to have no regrets; only to decide, through the choices we make, which regrets we'll have. And, as your mother says, at least you're home for the christening and at least we'll have you for the next three weeks. Both of those are well worth celebrating, so I've made reservations at Giuseppe's for this evening. Let's get your baggage and get you squared away."



    "It's good to see you looking so fit," Collum DeVries said, his hands resting on his older daughter's shoulders as he held her at arms' length and looked deep into her eyes. They stood in the small, well-stocked library attached to his home office, and as she looked back at him, one eyebrow quirked, he smiled. "You'd be amazed at the stories making the rounds of office gossip at the Ministry where the Cadre is concerned, Alley. Mind you, I never believed any of the wilder ones, but where there's that much smoke --"

    He shrugged, and she chuckled.

    "I imagine the gossip dwells with loving attention to detail on all of the nonexistent superduper bits and pieces of hardware they tuck away inside us. Well, I'd like to give you all of the classified details on what we really do get, Daddy. But if I did, I'd have to kill you, and that would really upset Mom. Especially if I did it before supper."

    "I see that the military has continued to sharpen your basic sense of good tactics," he said dryly.

    "They've tried," she said. "They've tried."

    "I know they have," he said, much more quietly. He looked into her eyes for another moment, then drew her close and hugged her tightly. Tall as she was, the top of her head came only to his chin, and she pressed her cheek into his chest as she'd done when she was much, much younger. And, as he had done when she'd been much, much younger, his hand very gently stroked her sunrise-colored hair.

    She knew why her mother and her sister had carted her baggage -- and Stevie -- away in a quiet conspiracy to give her this time alone with her father, and she hugged him back.

    Collum felt the strength of those arms, the supple muscularity of his daughter's hard physical training, and tried to parse his own emotions. It was an effort he'd made before, and deep inside, he felt he was no closer to success now than he'd been the very first time.

    He eased the pressure of his own embrace and stood back, then waved at the facing chairs flanking the study's genuine picture window. She looked out the window at the soaring mega-towers of downtown Charlotte and smiled again, a bit crookedly, then obeyed the silent invitation. He took the facing chair, leaned back while it adjusted, and inhaled deeply.

    "Your mother spoke for all three of us about how happy we are to finally see you home, however briefly," he told her finally. She cocked her head to one side, and he smiled. "That's not a complaint. Your grandfather and I really have discussed it quite a bit since you volunteered for the Cadre. He's been able to give me some idea about what you've been through in the past few months. And he tells me the next three months are going to be even more interesting?"

    "You could probably put it that way . . . if you were given to understatement," Alicia said dryly.

    Her present leave was the breathing spell between her initial Cadre augmentation, familiarization, and basic training and ACTS -- the dreaded Advanced Cadre Training School. That was where she would be issued her new Cadre powered armor and put through the Cadre's version of realistic combat training. More than one Cadreman had washed out in ACTS, despite all the rigorous preselection, evaluation, and training which had already gone into him. ACTS was designed to squeeze all of the functions of Camp Mackenzie, Recon School, and Raider School, plus the Cadre's own highly specialized requirements, into a three-month endurance contest guaranteed to make all of those other training experiences positively soporific by comparison.

    "The good thing about what they're going to have me doing next," she told her father with a wry grin, "is that since that which does not kill me makes me stronger, I ought to be ready for the next All-Empire Marathon by the time I'm done. Heck, I'm already halfway there!" "You do look fit, Alley," he acknowledged. "And much though I would have resisted telling you this a few years back, the uniform looks good on you. Of course, I thought you looked good as a Marine, too."

    "I know it isn't what you wanted me to do," she began, but he interrupted her.

    "No," he said. "That's not really accurate."



    She stopped, looking at him in surprise, and he snorted.

    "Well, maybe it is, but usually when someone says 'it's not what you wanted' what they really mean is 'I went out and did something that pissed you off' or 'what I did must've been a disappointment to you.' Or something along those lines. And I was never angry with you, and I've never been 'disappointed' by the choices you've made."

    "Really?" It was her turn to lean back, and she watched his expression carefully. "I never really felt you were angry with me, but I have to admit that there've been times I felt that you were . . . if not disappointed, at least unhappy that I chose the military."

    "Alicia, you're my daughter. Once upon a time you were Stevie's size -- remember that picture of you balanced on the palm of my hand? And then you were my little girl. I still remember that first nasty fever you had and how you spent the entire night sleeping on my chest . . . and crying every time I tried to tuck you back into your crib. And after that you were all scraped knees and elbows and a smile that melted my heart. And then you were in college, looking so much like your mother when I first met her that it was almost scary."

    His smile was soft with memory, and then he shook his head.

    "I love you very much, just as I love your sister and your brother. And because I do, the thought of anything happening to you frightens me more than just about anything else in the universe. If I could make you safe, I'd do it in an instant. And because I would, I'd obviously be happier in a lot of ways if you were in a nice, sedentary occupation. One where the worst I'd have to worry about would be the occasional paper cut or spilled cup of coffee."

    The last sentence came out along with a smile so droll that Alicia chuckled. Then his expression grew serious once more.

    "But I can't pack you up in cotton, however much I love you. Or even because of how much I love you. I think the hardest lesson any parent has to learn is letting go, but it's also the most important one in a lot of ways. If you truly love your children, you have to let them be who and what they are, not try to force them into being what you want them to be. If you do try to force them, it's the surest way to drive them away from you in the end, and no matter what occupation you'd actually chosen, it wouldn't guarantee your safety. As your grandfather's said a time or two -- when he thought your mother couldn't hear him, of course -- shit happens.

    "And as for the . . . morality, if you will, of your choice -- " he grimaced and made a throwing away gesture.

    "Your grandfather and I have had a lot of conversations about that general topic. I'm not sure he's ever fully understood my feelings on the matter, either, though he's certainly tried. But the bottom line is that I've never had any patience at all with the attitude of a certain segment of the Core Worlds' so-called 'intellectual elite' where the military is concerned. I wish we didn't need a military. I wish there were no people out there willing to resort to violence to achieve their ends, and that there was no need for other people to use violence to stop them. I wish no one ever had to be killed, no cities ever needed to be turned into battlefields.

    "But however much I might wish all of those things, I'm not going to get them. And that means we do need people to stand between civilization and the barbarians. We need people like your grandfather. And we need people like you.

    "I may be monumentally unsuited to undertake that sort of job myself. Frankly, I'd be terrible at it, for a lot of reasons. And, to be completely honest, I'm not at all confident that I have the intestinal and moral fortitude to do the things that sort of job would require me to do. But that doesn't keep me from also being monumentally grateful to the people who can -- and do -- undertake the task I never could. I would have vastly preferred for the daughter I love to have avoided paying the sort of price I know you've already paid. But it was a price you chose to pay, and however much I may worry about you, I'm also very, very proud of you."

    "You are?" Alicia felt her smile tremble ever so slightly. "I've never doubted that you loved me, and that you accepted my decision. But I was always afraid that --"

    "That deep down inside somewhere, I still felt you'd 'thrown your life and your talents away' on a merely military career," he finished for her. Protest flickered in her eyes, and he shook his head. "I realize that's probably putting it a lot more strongly than you ever would have, but it's also probably reaching in the right direction. And I'm sure someone with your inherent ability could have earned a great deal more money in a civilian career. And, for that matter, that you would have excelled at any occupation you might have chosen. But the truth is, Alley, that you truly are your grandfather's granddaughter. The uniform you're wearing right this minute tells me just how well your superiors feel you've done in the career you've actually chosen. More importantly, I can see you made the right choice. And God knows how badly the Empire needs people for whom it is the right choice."

    She looked deeply into his eyes and realized he meant every word of it. Her father had never lied to her, but she'd always been secretly afraid that he'd . . . tailored his comments where her desire for a military career was concerned. Now she knew she'd done him a disservice.

    "I'll be honest," she said quietly, "there are times I understand exactly why anyone would be worried by the thought of someone paying the 'price' of a military career. But the truth is, Daddy, this is what I was born to do. Sometimes it's . . . pretty horrible, but it's still what I was born to do."

    "I know," he said, equally quietly, and shadows fluttered behind his gray eyes. "I used my Ministry access to review the internal reports about what happened on Gyangtse, Alley. I know why they gave you the Silver Star. I know exactly what you did to earn it."

    "And that doesn't . . . bother you?"

    "Of course it does. I saw the way it had changed you when you came home on leave between tours. I hadn't seen the reports, then, but I figured -- accurately, as it turned out -- that I had a pretty shrewd notion of what you'd done. It was a pretty damned brutal way for a seventeen-year-old to grow up, Alley. In fact, it was a lot rougher than anything I'd envisioned, even in my nightmares. But you survived it, and you were still you. And that -- that was the proof that you'd been right. Or, at least, that you hadn't been wrong when you made your decision."



    "And this?" She touched the harp and starship on the collar of her green uniform. "The Cadre?"

    "It scares me," he said frankly. "What the Marines get dropped into is bad enough; what the Cadre sometimes has to deal with can make Gyangtse look like a pillow fight. Trust me, I know. And, to be honest, the Cadre's casualty rates are more than a little frightening. They're probably fantastically low, given the sorts of jobs the Cadre gets handed, but Cadremen get sent out again and again. The price for being the Empire's elite is getting handed the hardest, most dangerous, costliest assignments, and I don't want to get what your grandfather calls 'The Letter,' even if now it's going to be coming from the Emperor himself, and not the Minister of War. "But I honestly believe that it's the right challenge for you. As you say, this is what you were born to do. I'd have been much happier, in a lot of ways, if you'd been born to be a concert violinist, but you weren't. So if you're going to run around risking your life for the Empire, you might as well do it with the very best. After all, you're one of that 'very best' yourself, aren't you?"

    "I'd like to think so," she said, her tone deliberately lighter, and he chuckled obediently.

    "But that's probably enough deep and serious stuff," he said. "So let's talk about something a bit less weighty. For example, have you had a letter from your grandfather lately?"

    "I got one about three weeks ago."

    "Did he mention his retirement plans to you?"

    "Retirement? Grandpa? I don't know if they'd even let him! He's practically an institution in the Corps, you know."

    "He's also getting a bit long in the tooth," her father pointed out. "They're beginning to make quiet noises to him about how he's done his share, and how it's time to let someone else carry the load." "Oh, I bet he just loved hearing that!"

    "I believe I did overhear the occasional sulfurous comment," Collum allowed with a grin. "On the other hand, they do have a point. Oh, not that he's getting too old for it, but he has done his share, and a bit more. I think it's time he got the opportunity to settle down and enjoy some of the peace he's given up for so long."

    "He won't last six months playing mahjongg or shuffleboard!"

    "The mind boggles at the very thought of your grandfather shuffling mahjongg tiles." Collum shuddered. "And it wouldn't be him that didn't last six months; it would be everyone else in his vicinity. So that isn't what he's going to do."

    "Well that's a relief! But I'm assuming that you're about to tell me just what it is he does plan on doing?"

    "Actually, we're all planning on doing it with him."

    "Doing what with him?"

    "Tell me," her father said, "have you ever heard of Mathison's World?" "No," she said, regarding him narrowly.

    "I'm not surprised." He shrugged. "It's a very nice planet, though. Out near the frontier, beyond Franconia. The climate's on the cool side, especially during the winter, but it's got absolutely gorgeous scenery. More to the point, I happen to know that Out-World Affairs is planning to organize a new Crown Sector out that way. It's not going to happen overnight, but in five or six years, they're going to open Mathison to general colonization and begin offering incentive credits to get people out there."

    "But isn't Franconia an awful long way from anywhere important?" Alicia asked, frowning as she tried to dredge up a better mental feel for the astrography involved.

    "Oh, it certainly is, at the moment, at least!" Collum chuckled. "On the other hand, I grew up on a world a lot like Mathison's, you know, and your grandfather isn't exactly going to be comfortable surrounded by cityfied real estate. And the system itself is strategically located. It's got not just one, but two asteroid belts, which is going to make it a natural site for heavy industry, eventually. And it's going to turn into a logical site for a major freight transshipment point, too, once the borders start expanding in the region. Speaking as a Foreign Ministry weenie, I'm surprised, in some ways, that that hasn't already happened. I understand the logic, more or less, but we really ought to have gotten a new Crown Sector organized out there years ago. Once we finally do, though, the Crown is going to put a lot of horsepower into the effort, and things are going to happen fast, compared to most colonization waves. Give it another fifteen or twenty years, and Mathison's is going to be the sort of colony that has to beat off applicants with a stick. Which is why your mother and I have decided to put our names on the preliminary list."

    Alicia blinked at him. She knew he'd grown up on a farming world, but somehow she'd always thought of him right here, on Old Earth -- or else jaunting about the galaxy on the business of the Foreign Ministry. The one word she'd always associated with him most strongly was undoubtedly 'cosmopolitan,' and somehow it was a bit difficult to see him on some rustic, barely settled planet on the very fringe of the Empire.

    But only for a few moments. Then she began to see how well it would truly suit him.

    "Well, this is certainly sudden," she said, sparring for time while she adjusted to the entire concept.

    "Not really." He shook his head. "Your mother and I have always planned on retiring someplace a bit less hectic than Old Earth. And while my own current profession isn't one that provides a lot of skills a colony world would find useful, I did grow up in a saddle, riding herd on megabison back on Silverado. And your mom can probably write her own ticket anywhere -- colony worlds always need first-rate doctors. It's true that we hadn't planned on relocating this soon, but we've certainly accrued enough retirement credits we can convert to colonization credits. We've decided it makes sense to go ahead and use them while we're still young enough to build entirely new lives for ourselves, and given the probability of your grandfather's retirement -- and the amount of lead time we're talking about -- it makes sense to go ahead and get started."

    "It sounds nice," she said, just a bit wistfully.

    "Oh, believe me, it'll have its drawbacks." He chuckled. "It won't be like some of the horror stories from the original colonization waves, but it's going to be decades before Mathison's has the sort of technical and industrial infrastructure most Incorporated Worlds take for granted. But the fact that it's a virgin planet, without any old League odds and ends, means we won't have any of the sort of liveliness places like Gyangtse have experienced. We may have to get used to riding horses for local transport for a few years, but at least it should be fairly peaceful. And of course," he smiled, "given the size of the spreads original colonizers get to claim, we ought to have plenty of dirt available when it comes time for you to retire, too."

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