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The Weapon: Chapter One

       Last updated: Friday, November 5, 2004 02:16 EST




    The first time you suffocate, it’s terrifying. It doesn’t get any better with practice.

    The airlock chuffed open, atmosphere hissing away in an increasingly sibilant, ever quieter sound that was familiar. The two goons grabbed us and tossed us out. I was already in the standard safety position, mouth and nose open to let the air roar out of my lungs. My ears were stabbing out of my head, and gas pressure shrieked unheard out of my guts through the obvious orifice. My eyes began to throb and flood with tears, and I spun myself around, grabbing quickly for a line, a stanchion, anything. Nearby, my buddy Tom Parker already had hold of a line and reached out an arm to me.

    It’s hard not to panic as the blood starts to boil in your lungs. Tom looked like a gaping fish, and scared. I assume I did, too.

    I saw the two goons grinning through their faceplates, feet tucked under stanchions on the dark gray hull of the ship. I swung around Tom, snagged the line and jerked to a stop then ricocheted back toward them. They reached to grapple with me, and I snuck my left hand down and behind my back, slipping a knife from the tape sheath I’d built and stashed inside the belt of my ship coverall. It wasn’t much of a knife. Just a bar of steel with a crudely ground and serrated edge with a chisel point ahead of a tape-wrapped hilt, but it would suffice for this. And I’d been in a hurry.

    Goon One looked shocked as I ripped it through his braided oxygen hose. He gaped like a fish, then gulped as I had while Tom caught him from behind and tangled with him. As Goon Two approached to see what the problem was and lend assistance, I swung over him and jammed the armor-piercing point into the edge of his faceplate, near the gasket. He imitated a carp also, and I twisted over him and back into the airlock, clutching for the safety bar. Tom was waiting, having levered the first goon out into space while I dealt with the second one.

    As air roared into the lock from soprano to basso, the sweetest music anywhere, I heaved several deep breaths, the blotches in front of my eyes fading along with the twanging in my ears. I then opened the inner hatch, we swam inside and waited for the inevitable response one gets for outwitting the instructors.

    They both tumbled back in a few seconds later, coughing and gasping. They proceeded to verbally ream us meter-wide rectums. I was worried it might actually turn into a real fight, when Captain Ntanga swam in from his observation post.

    “Brace up!” he snapped. We did. It looks odd in microgravity. “I’m disgusted,” he said. “How in the name of God and Goddess did you two screwups let a student get a blade in here?”

    As they looked stunned and sheepish, he turned to me and said, “Chinran, you are a devious, non-regulation, bloodthirsty, vicious, murderous little bastard. You’ll go far. If you live long enough.” Then he left and it did turn into a real fight. I’m sure he knew it, he just pretended not to see it.

    Higher praise a student cannot get.

    It always bothers civilians, and more than a few military personnel, that it is a required part of our training to practice suffocation, drowning and surviving torture. But they’re just exercises. We cannot, ever, panic in an emergency. We’ve made a career field out of hypoxia and pain.

    Let me start at the beginning. This will be graphic, so don’t read it if violence and human suffering bother you.

    Everyone has heard of Black Operations, the utterly clandestine division of Freehold Military Forces Special Warfare. You probably know how badly we beat up Earth during the war. However, virtually no one knows what actually goes on within our ranks. This narrative is of course, not complete, since there’s far too much that you as the reader have no need to know, especially about me. I’m the man who destroyed most of Earth.

    I went into the military to get away from home. I suppose, looking back now, that my home life wasn’t that bad. At the time, however, it seemed interminable, oppressive and objectionable. So I went into the military. The inconsistency in that should be obvious to all readers.

    The recruiter I spoke to was honest, but did have a quota. He tried to get me into a slot in missile control. I didn’t want missile control. It had few civilian applications and little activity or travel. I chose combat communications, which had some technical transference to the civilian world and lots of travel. A tentative date was set for me to depart and I took the battery of standard tests.

    Less than a week after that, I got a phone call. “Is Kenneth Chinran there?” the caller asked. He was military, in uniform and looked sharp. In fact, he was huge. He’d make a good recruiting vid actor.

    “That’s me,” I replied.

    “Mister Chinran, you recently enlisted in combat comm. I’d be interested in offering you a different slot, with a bonus,” he said. “Can we meet?”

    “Sure,” I said. I didn’t figure I’d be interested in switching, but I’d give him a fair listen.

    He flew in, dropped and landed on our apron a short while later. I walked outside into the glaring summer Iolight and met him as he left the vehicle. I really didn’t want him to meet my parents. They’d be polite, hospitable and a bit condescending. They like to think they’ve done it all, but they come across as insecure.

    “I’m Sergeant Washington,” he said. He was as tall as I, had fairly obvious African ancestry with some of the local influx of Hispanic, Indonesian and American. His muscle tone was incredible and he was obviously very competent, deadly and self-secure. I knew I’d never look like that, skinny, gawky kid that I was.



    We left as soon as I strapped down and we chatted as he flew. “You blew the tests off the scale, Ken. May I call you Ken?” he said.

    I love hearing about how smart I am. I’m still waiting for someone to offer me money commensurate with my brains. “Sure. Or Kenneth. I don’t mind,” I replied.

    “Good deal,” he said. “Sure you want to go into combat comm? Can I ask why?”

    I shrugged. “It has a bit of travel. The technical training is good, and it gets me out of here,” I said. “Here” was New Rockville, a small suburb ninety kilometers south of Westport. It’s an okay town, but hardly the center of Freehold culture, much less of the galaxy.

    “I have a position available that’s better. Not to put the combat comm guys down, I mean, but—”

    “What is it?” I interrupted. I didn’t want to hear a spiel, just the facts.

    He shifted drive ratio fast and said, “Special Warfare. We get to travel too, and sometimes first class and in high circles. We get a lot more training, some of which has civilian applications, even though people might not realize it. If you want action, then we’re your people.”

    I started thinking. I knew of Special Warfare, of course. I’d heard lots of stories, and had no idea which were real and which were rumors. The idea was appealing, but…

    “I couldn’t possibly pass the physical,” I said. Not a skinny guy like me.

    “Sure you can,” he said. “After Basic, we have our own course. You’ll be in adequate shape then, and we’ll build you up from there. You’ll be hardcore by the time you’re done.”

    Now that sounded good. I had no illusions about huge muscles, but strength and agility appealed. I loved gymnastics and dancing and I never backed down from a bully. The idea of being able to actually clobber them instead of being splattered gave me a warm feeling.

    “Let’s go to your office,” I said. It didn’t take much convincing to make me agree to switch over. I held out for the bonuses they offered, though. He scheduled me for another battery of tests, mental, physical and psychological, that made the standard military placement look like an elementary school assessment test. I was worn out when I finished.

    My parents were convinced I was making a huge mistake. When I got home, my mother started in on me. “I thought you wanted to work with comms? That was the whole reason you signed up; for the school.”

    “I can still go to that school. I get to do other stuff, too,” I said.

    Then my father hit me from the other side, “There’s very few real world applications for any of it, unless you plan to be a rescue tech in the Dragontooth ski resorts, or an evac vertol medic. There’s no real money in it.”

    That was his gig: money. Money only concerns me as a means to put a roof over my head. As to career goals, I had already jumped in headfirst. I planned on being a military careerist. I wasn’t interested in civilian applications anymore. I was convinced of my own immortality, and wanted to be a badass. I knew they’d never understand that. Besides, after building a few bombs in the back lot, I loved the idea of working with real explosives, and that did have civilian applications with all the inland construction going on as we developed the continent.

    They tried to talk me out of it, and called the recruiters, but I was a sworn adult and they couldn’t do anything to stop me. They did wish me the best and follow me to the port, where I was almost late from mom’s hugs and kisses. While appreciated, it was a bit embarrassing.

    There were other recruits on the flight, and we got along variously, from reserved to riotously righteously fun. I hadn’t been on a ballistic flight in a couple of years, but the thrill of a spine-grinding lift was tempered by the fear of what lay ahead. Or maybe it was the booze. Still, high Gs, microgravity, swooping back to increasing Gs and a thundering rollout are never dull.

    We debarked, were met by a sergeant in uniform, and marched out to a bus, then taken to a hotel.

    I had expected to be treated like a number. I also had my own ideas on how to avoid that. I was a jokester, a goof, and had smuggled along a couple bottles of liquor. It made me popular with some of the recruits, avoided with headshakes and wary glances from those who thought me “strange.” I never worried about people like that.

    Shortly, I was the center of a party of about ten recruits. They were younger and older, men and women, including a few cute ones. I had no illusions about bedding any of them. Not only was I unsophisticated, with no idea how to approach a stranger, but we were all there for basic training. I admired a couple of them, though. There was a striking redhead with sapphire blue eyes who was on the slightly elfin side. Nice! I could only wonder what she was training for. We chatted briefly, but didn’t really have much to talk about except our upcoming ordeal. We didn’t want to talk about that. Her name was Denise (“Call me Deni. Everyone does.”) Harlett, and she hit all my buttons for lean women. Her lion’s mane of red hair was gently restrained by a static band behind her ears, her tattoos were temporary nanos, not permanent ink, so she could change styles without surgery, and what body art and makeup she did wear was quite restrained for her age, which I put at about my twelve, or eighteen Earth years. She seemed a bit odd; her clothing didn’t match her style and was rather plain. It was as if she’d studied makeup and snuck some with her, but hadn’t been able to afford clothes. Well, some people do get dressed by their parents until they escape.



    We retreated to the only two chairs, in a corner of the room, and tried to talk for quite a few segs. (“Seg” is local time measure, 100 seconds.) Neither of us mentioned training. We discussed music and camping. It was safer.

    It turned out she was another fan of Cabhag, at least a closet one. “My friend has a huge collection,” she said. “I love the way they mix ancient and modern instruments.”

    “You dance?” I asked. Gymnastics had got me into dancing. I’m pretty good. And women love a man who can dance.

    “No,” she said. “Well, I’ve never really tried. Logan’s a small town and pretty far north for any real clubs.”

    Miss. Damn. I looked her over again while trying to come up with another topic. Then I noticed one of the strange things about her: no ear piercings. None. Not even a pair of basic studs. “You don’t wear jewelry?” I asked.

    “No,” she said. “I’m—”

    Right then they came by and did a bed check. Some sergeant came through the door, filling it as he did so, and said, “Everyone to your assigned rooms, it’s lights out.” They were ensuring, already, that we were where they could keep us reigned in. I guess it made sense, especially after we tried to remove a drunk from the room I was sharing with a military firefighter-to-be. It took both of us and the local sergeant, and Deni, who held the door and helped shove him through. She seemed to enjoy it.

    I got a brief chewing out over the liquor, apologized, and watched as they dragged off the struggling body. His career was over already. They threatened to write me up, but at this point, I was still a civilian, a legal adult, and they couldn’t do much except refuse to take me. I knew they wouldn’t do that.

    The next day, we moved officially on base, into another holding cell, basically. We sat there for hours as they called names, checked paperwork, etc. It took far longer than it should have, and I’m sure it was done on purpose to annoy us. What was even more annoying were the idiots who couldn’t follow simple directions. We were told, for example: “We’ll call off your name. If we mispronounce it but you recognize it, come on up. Don’t try to correct us, because we don’t have time and it doesn’t matter.”

    Naturally, they pronounced mine “ChinRAN,” instead of “SHINrahn.” I answered “Here, Ma’am,” and stepped up. A moron shortly after me heard, “Chuvera” and said, “That’s ‘Kuvera.’” He received a good reaming.

    Let me be honest. I was not the most self-secure person. That evening, we wound up standing in loose formation, bags by our sides, waiting for our Sergeant Instructors. I was a bit shaky. I was also tall enough to be in the front rank, and could see four of them gathered just inside the “ADMIN” door to the huge barracks. I knew they were professionals here to do a job, and I also knew that this was designed to be intimidating. I also knew my legs were twitching like a rabbit in the sights of a shotgun.

    My stress level went through the roof a few moments later. One of them kicked the door open, and they came out screaming. I didn’t get one of them in my face, which was good. I did see the guy next to me—with peripheral vision, as I was not about to turn my head—get torn apart for having his bags on the right side. The staff who dropped us off clearly had said “left side” as they departed. I saw how this was going to play out. Despite that, my legs were still shaking from involuntary reflex. I was glad I’d worn loose pants.

    I did as I was told. I didn’t stand out. I tolerated the mindless exercise, the blistering days, the nights colder than the Outer Halo, and bugs, snakes, rocks, and the rest of the drill. It was almost two weeks into it, nineteen days to be precise, before they even knew my name to go with my face. Unfortunately, it fell apart after that. I felt perfectly comfortable talking back to an instructor who was being (in my mind) unreasonable.

    She was bitching me out for not having “enough” uniforms in my locker. I was protesting that several were dirty, I was awaiting laundry detail, and that those I had were arranged as prescribed in the recruit training manual. I proceeded to quote from memory about “spaced equidistantly or 10 cm apart, as is feasible, shirts buttoned and facing the right, pants hung folded at the halfway point lengthwise and seam-to-seam along the legs…”

    She claimed I’d simply dumped my extra uniforms into the laundry bag to avoid having them inspected. She was right. There was nothing prohibiting that, however, and I wasn’t about to accept a gigging over it. She swore and threatened, I replied that she was violating regs. Another instructor came over, and it got louder. Then I was written up.

    I refused to sign it. They could impose any punishment they wished, but I wasn’t going to acknowledge it as legal. Shortly thereafter, I was standing shaking and terrified in front of the battalion first sergeant. I’d look like an idiot if I backed out now, so I made it clear I’d take it through the chain of command to the Marshal if I had to. He hemmed and hawed, but agreed I’d committed no violation, merely been a smartass. He agreed the instructors had no authority to act as they had. I was dismissed back to my section. I won the battle.

    And that lost me the war. They knew who I was. They knew I was a smartass. I spent the next six weeks (we have ten day weeks. Twenty-eight plus hours to our day) regretting it, being nailed for every tiny infraction (it’s impossible not to make them) and cheerfully accepting the punishment. Wasn’t I the recruit who liked to go by the book? What did the book say about dust? Wasn’t that a dust mote on my locker?



    It was a valuable lesson. A little extra work would have saved me a lot of grief. I never saw an off-base liberty, and damned few on base libs, either. I spent my time polishing furniture and shoes, scrubbing latrines and floors, and hating the instructors. The only time they left me alone was survival training, and that was brutal enough on its own.

    I made it to the “Wreck” (Recreation Center) for one evening, for a whole half div, about 1.5 hours. I knew I couldn’t get anyone to dance with me, we weren’t allowed to touch if we did, and I didn’t like pop music. All I wanted was to get away from everything for a few segs.

    While standing there, getting a sugar high off a single mug of chocolate, I was confused by a face almost nose to nose with me. The eyes twinkled and looked happy to see me. I stared at them and tried to place the rest of the face.

    Deni. Hard to recognize in shapeless camouflage and with a shaved head, but it was Denise, the redhead from the hotel. “Hi!” we both said together, and laughed.

    We sat and talked, ran late, hurriedly swapped unit and contact info on paper, being forbidden to use our comms for personal matters (“All soldiers must carry a manual writing implement and notepaper at all times, in case of comm failure.” Thank you, Freehold Military Forces!) and parted ways. I cheerfully took the bitching I got and the extra half div of guard detail.

    Deni was in the barracks next to us, which might as well be light-years way rather than a mere 200 meters. There were sixteen platoons in each blocky barracks building, and we were on adjoining sides. Occasionally, I’d see her across the drill field during PT, or while doing details. It was frustrating.

    I had a normal sex drive. I still do. After thirty days, I needed an orgasm or I was going to die. There were plenty of naked women running around my platoon for me to think about, and some were quite hot, but it was Deni in her shapeless goof suit that I thought about while carefully jerking off under the covers at 0200. I really hoped to meet up with her later, although I knew it was highly unlikely.

    We covered much more than the silly minutiae I mentioned above, and those aren’t really part of the training. Those are designed to get the mind thinking about the petty details that must be dealt with to keep one alive. The real training was what you would expect, and then some. We shot, practiced first aid, field sanitation, perimeter security, orienteering, concealment, support weapons, recognition of air and space craft of our own forces and others, communication methods, order and discipline, the laws of war, and unarmed combat. I excelled at swimming. I’d competed in several events at school, and was totally comfortable in water.

    I loved unarmed combat. I got my share of bruises and then some, but I learned to dish out much more than I’d ever managed against bullies. It was a far cry from the rudiments in school gym. The FMF form is a combination of various styles, predominantly Northern Shaolin and Indonesian Pentjak Silat, if you want the history. It has some jui jitsu, hapkido, and a smattering of tai qi quan and mantis quan, but it’s mostly a hard, external form. We were told we’d be doing it every day in training, and every other day the rest of the time. I had no problem with that; I loved it.

    We covered survival in water, arctic, desert and jungle environments. That was brutal. I lost five kilos, and I was a skinny bastard, barely 65 kilos at 185 centimeters. That and our final exam, trudging around the Sawtooth mountains performing sundry tasks, was a rite of passage like no other. It was the defining moment. Why other militaries don’t require as tough a test is beyond me.

    ## At graduation, we marched through a classical Victorian-era parade. My parents couldn’t make it, unfortunately. Some people had family there, most not, so I didn’t feel too left out. I cleared the field and fell back into route march with the rest of the platoon and felt much lighter. That part was over. I wasn’t thinking as to the weeks ahead, just to the present sense of relief.

    Some troops were shipping to other bases or a few remote specialty schools. Some were going home to reserve units. I would be staying here with most of the rest, and prepped my gear to sign out and move across base for further training.

    While waiting for a shuttle bus, I was joined by another graduate—Deni, looking exceptionally good in a perfectly tailored uniform. She was as cheerful as I was, and we decided to walk so as to be able to talk longer. That meant shouldering our rucks and our duffels, grabbing civilian luggage in the left hand so as to be able to salute officers, and trudging several kilometers. Yes, we were gung ho and stupid. Weren’t you at that age?

    “So what are you training for?” I asked as we left the barracks area. I felt good. I was a soldier, I kicked ass, and I was about to become better.

    “You won’t believe me,” she said.

    “Try me.”

    “Mobile Assault…then Blazer…then Black Ops if I can,” she said.

    Holy shit. “Me too!” I said, surprised and thrilled. “Skiffy!”

    “I don’t think we can choose our buddies,” she said. Then she gave me a sidelong glance that was far too sophisticated and sexy for her age. “But we’ll have breaks and leave time.”

    That was a hint. I knew a hint when belted with one. “We don’t have to stay on base the next three days,” I suggested, fluttering inside and with a rushing water sound in my head. “We can go into town.” I needed sex in the worst way, and she seemed to feel likewise.

    “Good idea,” she said.




    We were both desperate for contact after eight ten-day weeks of stress and no socializing. I had more sex in the three days that followed than I'd had in my life. That wasn't saying too much, as I'd only had three ladyfriends, and wasn't able to do more than the usual fumbling one does as an adolescent. A couple of one-shot encounters were nothing to write home about. Deni and I stayed in bed those three days except to eat, and tried every position either of us could think of, all over the room and the balcony. She floored me the second day when she casually admitted to having been a virgin until we met.

    "I was raised in a Seeker community. Obsessive parents. One reason I left. What can I say?" she said in explanation.

    She didn't have to say anything. So her parents were primitive religious types and she wasn't. I didn't have much basis for comparison, but I knew talent when I encountered it, and she was evidently a quick study. Add in a delectable body tightened by exercise and I wouldn't have traded her for any three vid stars. Even after I acquired more experience, my opinion of her in any fashion never dropped. She was bright, thoughtful, strong, sexy and had those eyes that seemed unnatural. Most redheads have green eyes, hers instead were a blue like a high-latitude eastern sky at sunset. I'd never realized until then that eyes could be sexy.



    Mobile Assault Training was fun. The instructors were strict without being anal retentive, and good natured. They used sick jokes to reinforce safety. I recall one, where the sergeant teaching Initial Parachute Landing (Lecture) explained, "…for an emergency landing during a total equipment malfunction, cross your right arm over your left and right boot over your left and remain at full extension." She demonstrated as I tapped furious notes with the rest of the class. I drew up short as she finished, "It won't do you a damn bit of good, but when the rescue crew shows up, they can just unscrew you from the ground." Very funny, especially the morning before you hang on the side of a VC-6 as it lifts straight up, then fall off as the rail is yanked from under you.

    There were no cancellations of pass unless you really screwed up. We had a two-day break at equinox, and I hung out with Deni. She insisted on temple, which I rarely do, but I went along gamely. She'd called ahead and arranged with the priestess, so we were greeted cordially. It was temple, I hadn't been in a while, so I agreed. It was an actual temple, too, not a grove. Cozy little building, all wood and angles with flying beams and buttresses. I took a glance around and stopped, because all I could think about was this bundle of power sitting on the ground next to me. Deni, meanwhile, seemed to be unfamiliar with ritual. She hesitated over the invocation and I could tell she was watching me for cues.

    After the service, we let our noses find food and walked a block over for lunch. It's forbidden to touch in uniform, at least in anything that might be considered a sexual fashion, so we made a game of bumping shoulders. Our booted feet clattered on the walk and it was all fun until her weapon dinged my elbow. We eased up then.

    I'd skipped breakfast to sleep late, so I was ravenous. The restaurant was neat, clean and packed, mostly with regular military in civvies. We were acting maturely enough, so they nodded and left us alone. The server found us a booth at the back and I at once ordered enough ham and eggs to fill me, while Deni got fruit and pancakes with a side of bacon. I hate pancakes and said so, as our server stuck thick, bittersweet chocolate in front of us.

    "So I'll eat all yours," Deni said, grinning.

    "I'll throw them away," I said. "Haven't been to temple in a while?" I asked over the clatter of dishes.

    She sipped her chocolate, shook her head and said, "Never have."

    "Huh?" I replied brilliantly.

    "Seekers are Naturalist Wiccans. My folks are obsessive about it," she said. "I've always wondered what a Druidic service was like. So I went."

    "Okay," I said. I tried to be casual, but I wanted to ask a thousand questions.

    She appeared to figure it out from my expression and said, "That's why I don't have any piercings, hardly own any makeup, or much in the way of clothes. Seeker sect. They even made us keep all our body hair. Rough natural fabrics to wear, 'whole' foods to eat…"

    As she trailed off I said, "Hated it?"

    "Despised it," she agreed with a nod. "I have makeup, I'm working on a wardrobe, and first chance I get I'm getting at least my ears pierced. I'm thinking about a tattoo."

    "Lots of sex, too?" I asked, feeling a thrill from a simple flirt.

    "Pay your tab and grab your weapon," she said. Then she gave me that look.

    I never pulled cash out of my pocket so fast in my life.

    We went back to training the next day, goofy grins on our faces. It was obvious to everyone what we'd been doing, and I got some jealous ribbing. It felt great. My previous lovers were certainly attractive. I'd had few because I am picky, even when desperate for sex, and my abrasive personality was an additional hindrance in that regard. Deni seemed to like my personality, however, and we meshed. As to looks, she went beyond attractive to flaming. I loved the comments from the guys who'd spent two days doing nothing in the barracks, hiring basic escorts or jerking off alone.

    I didn't believe Deni at the time when she told me that she was getting similar comments. I now accept that I'm handsome in a way, although I still think I'm awkward and gawky. At the time though, it was a huge and needed ego boost.




    We finished our instruction block, jumping out of spaceboats, starships, stations, fixed wing cargo craft, vertols and specialized vehicles, and sliding down ropes from cliffs, buildings, vertols, and doing controlled falls like spiders on a line. We swam, climbed, swung, crawled, and generally found all kinds of ways to get where we were going. I loved it. And on weekend passes, I had a budding, experimental nymphomaniac. Deni was coming out of her shell, with military discipline being just enough to stop her from being stupid. She even kept me from a few mistakes that would have screwed my career. She was much more mature than I.

    There was a week delay before we were due back for Special Warfare, and we had some funds. I wanted to show her off to my friends. Well, I wanted to show me off, too. She agreed to go with me.

    "Are you sure you don't mind?" I asked. "What about your family?"

    "I'm not going back anytime soon," she replied. "We don't get along well."

    I called ahead to let my parents know. My mother answered.

    "Hi, Mom," I said.

    "Ken! Oh! How good to hear from you!" she said. I'd only called a couple of times a week. She'd been pushing for daily reports. Parents.

    "I'm done with assault school, and heading home. I'm bringing a friend, if that's okay," I said. She sounded really excited, far more than I was. It seemed odd.

    "Of course. Now, make sure you negotiate a good rate for the flight, and call if you need help. And don't forget to carry a water bottle, just in case of delays-" she was saying when I interrupted.

    I said, "Mom, I'll be fine. I've had survival training, okay?" I knew she meant well, but it was embarrassing to have her repeat the obvious. Besides, I had several hundred thousand kilometers of civilian air and space travel under my belt anyway. I knew all this.

    "Just making sure you don't forget, dear," she said, "and call…"

    The call ended after another hundred seconds of lecture. I love the lady, really, but she can be so annoying.

    The flight home was uneventful, except for Deni and me teasing each other. That and a few stares from young civilians jealous of our status. Dress black-and-greens are designed to be impressive, and we were in top shape and knew it. It came across to others as an aura. We were on our feet as soon as the craft stopped rolling and were out the hatch at a brisk pace, rucks and rifles shouldered. We caught a cab and I paid to have the driver take us in on the ground, so I could get a look around.

    Would you believe the town looked different in twelve weeks? New construction, dress style changes…even the traffic patterns seemed odd. I knew it was I who'd changed more than the town, but I didn't feel different. This brought it home. Still, a hundred and twenty days is not a short timespan, I thought. I kept switching between the two thoughts.

    We pulled into the apron and I tipped the driver. We spent a few seconds adjusting our uniforms as the cab left, then swapped grins and headed around back where I could smell dinner.

    The grass and rock garden looked the same as I recalled, but it was no longer neat, now that I could compare it to military facilities. Well, I'd never cared that much about gardening and my parents had less free labor now, with me gone. The house looked good, familiar and comforting, sprawled out and relaxed across the lot.

    I turned the corner and saw that Dad had the grill going, and a pile of assorted dead animal flesh alongside it to convert into deader animal flesh in the flames. I got cheered by the crowd, which I took gamely, and I introduced Deni to my friends and family. Mom wanted pictures, which was fine, and my sister Jacqueline came up and hugged me.

    "Hiya, big brother!" she said.

    "Hiya, squirt," I replied. It was really good to see her. She was skinny in a healthy seven-year-old way (seven of our years, ten and a half Earth years), had styled her hair into a double cat's tail in back, and moved much more surely than she had before I left. I guessed she was taking her gym classes seriously. While my 'rents got things ready, she took Deni and me over to meet her group. I went along politely, even though they're all in the six to nine local years range. I recognized a few of her classmates and tried to keep track of names as an exercise, as I knew my memory would be tested when I got back to school. Oddly (it seemed to me), her friends made less of a deal and acted more normally around us than the older kids and my friends and classmates. Deni was a heroine to the girls, but I intimidated the three boys. All these social things I'd never noticed before were hitting me.

    Jackie had made up a banner for me, and the quality was good-the colors fluid, the blending even and not muddy. She had a miniature vidcam on a float platform that hovered near her head unless she sent it off to get images from another angle. Occasionally, she'd dictate a note to it. She was still pursuing her goal of being a videographer or director.

    "Where'd you get the floater, Jackie? I don't recognize the make," I asked.

    "I built it from a component kit," she said proudly. "Even the lift fan."

    "Really," I said, impressed. I knew she was growing up, but to me she'll always be the two-year-old, left behind by the bigger kids and wanting to "snuggwe" on the couch. Dammit, my mind was still switching drive ratios. I drifted back over to the other adults, as I thought of myself now. Deni nodded as I moved, no words spoken. We communicated in gestalt fashion.




    Deni and I both wore the Mobile Assault qual badge prominent on our chests, and people were impressed. I was also a bit bulkier and much stronger than I'd been when I left. I heard comments about Deni from friends, and even got a wink from my father. My mother was gracious and didn't embarrass me much, and Deni was just as courteous in return. All in all, it was great. I drank far too much, and stayed awake late enough to avoid a hangover.

    There was only one vet among the group; this was after our independence but before the buildup to give us our own armed forces really got under way. Joe Tanaka had been in the UN forces back when we were still a colony and serving with them, and had been in the New Jerusalem system while it got over its problems. He asked a lot of questions about our training. "That's better and more intense than what they gave us," he commented. "Sounds like a good course."

    The visit seemed odd to me in another way. Deni and I wanted to talk about weapons and craft and gear and camping, and my parents wanted to talk about civilian jobs. That was years away, but we seemed to stumble over the issue. I felt a growing gulf that I was sure would never close. I was right. I have to wonder what they'd think of me now?

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