Thanksgiving Thoughts 2010

It’s been a great year since last Thanksgiving. Sold three stories to Analog Science Fiction & Fact, got some interest in a novel project from a terrific publisher, and had a heck of a break-in splash in the form of Writers of the Future. More than that, however, my family and I managed to make it through another 365 days without major illness or mishap. Everything came up roses at my civilian job — last year was one of the most uncertain and stressful work years I’ve ever had — and I was able to spend many precious moments with both wife and child, even though work and the Army kept me away from home more than at any time since 2003. I also got to see my parents a lot, which becomes more important for both me and them as all of us get older. Because as they approach 70 we all realize, someday, they won’t be around anymore. So it was nice to sit at their table — just a small family holiday meal, no big festivities this year — and ponder our collective good fortune.

I’ve got a lot of unfinished business to take care of in December, however. A lot of chores. It was nice to get a four-day break — some years, you feel like you earned it more than others — but I’ve still got a lot to do in order for the year as a whole to feel like it was successful. Including finishing up a lot of writing due-outs which have been nagging at me the last few weeks. I’m dreadfully behind on completing the half dozen chapters of Emancipated Worlds I’ve been plinking on since the last chapter, I’ve got a draft on another book to complete and ship, and I’ve got perhaps half a dozen short fiction manuscripts sitting on my hard drive — all incomplete. If I were still in school, I’d feel panicked because I’d know if I didn’t get it all turned in before Christmas break, my grades would be hosed. As it is, I’m sort of miffed that I let another year come down to a scramble at the end; to get s**t done.

I’ve also got a lot of thinking to do, in terms of how I want to tackle 2011. I very much want next year to be my Year of Professional Writerly Production. Kevin J. Anderson laid it down in a recent blog post: the man produces more fiction annually than many of us have produced in an entire lifetime of writing. He is an animal. He is also from the same school of hard knocks as Dean Smith and Kris Rusch, so Kevin’s math missive isn’t for writers who like their writing advice candy-coated or wrapped in pretty artiste ribbon. He’s the writer’s work-a-holic, which perhaps explains why he’s also one of science fiction’s best-selling and and most prolific long-time pros. He’s a terrific example of what’s achievable when a writer focuses on the work. Not having done work. Not thinking about doing the work. Just doing the work. Day after day.

Again, it’s been a great year, and I don’t want to sound like I’ve not enjoyed it nor been very productive overall. But I know I can do better. In fact, I know I can do a LOT better. And not just with writing. With lots of things. I can push more distractions into my time management waste basket. I can get more done and feel more relaxed and in control doing it. I can got to bed more nights feeling like I’ve made the most of that particular day, and not fret over opportunities missed or minutes which have gone fruitlessly down the drain.

When total strangers say thank you

Today was an unusual weekday drill day for me in the Army Reserve. Ordinarily it is just one weekend a month, but occasionally there are times when you gotta put in more than just a Saturday and a Sunday. On the way from work at the end of the day today I stopped at Barnes & Noble up near 10600 South & State Street in Salt Lake City, Utah, to find a copy of Juliette Wade’s cover issue of Analog, and do a bit of browsing around the store. And precisely because it was a drill day, I still had my Army uniform on — the pixelated Army Combat Uniform (ACU) that has become the Army’s standard since 2006.

In the past if ever I’ve gone anywhere in uniform — I avoid if where possible, both because we’re advised to not wear our uniforms out due to us marking ourselves as targets for mischief, and because I don’t like to show off — I’ve gotten occasional handshakes and thankyous from other Americans who have felt prompted (upon seeing me) to walk up and express their appreciation for my service in the Service.

This is always, always, always a very surprising and humbling experience. Especially since I usually forget I have the ACU on and when I am in a public place and someone suddenly sticks their hand out and says thank you, I usually stand there stupidly for a few moments trying to figure out what I could possibly have done for a total stranger to give me thanks. I usually manage to smile and blush, bumble through a few pleasantries, and then go on my way astonished that in our cynical day and age there are still people who can be touched in the way they are apparently touched when they see a uniformed servicemember.

Tonight was extra astounding however, because a complete stranger saw me in the checkout line with my copies of Asimov’s and Analog, and just outright said, “Let me buy those for you.” Per usual, I stood dumbly and tried to figure out what was happening. At first I thought the man had merely wanted to snag my copies from me, as if seeing them he suddenly had to have them before departing the store. Well, I’m a nice guy so I was perfectly happy to surrender the copies — there were more back on the magazine shelves. Then he repeated his insistence and it registered: he was insisting on buying them for me.

Oh my goodness.

My pride said to tell him no, which I did, and politely too. After a bit of back and forth however, I smiled sheepishly and surrendered my copies, not because I couldn’t pay — I have money — but because the gesture had nothing to do with me as an individual. Such gestures have a much larger, broader context, and it isn’t fair for me to spoil the gesture by being stubborn. This gentlemen wanted to give back to a person in uniform — I believe I symbolized something important for him, and he decided it was in his personal power to pay homage to that symbol. It wasn’t about me, it was about the uniform, and that flag on my shoulder.

Or at least that’s how I take it. And took it.

So thank you, anonymous sir, for your kind and generous purchase of my science fiction magazines on this night of November 19, 2010. I was too flabbergasted to get your name, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. I shook your hand, and was grateful for what you did, and I hope you know that such gestures as these are priceless for those of us in uniform who experience them. Because in the end we are not, in fact, mercenaries — as has occasionally been declared by those hostile to the U.S. Armed Forces. There are easier and better ways to make money. More lucrative ways too. In the end, to serve, I think you have to have a bit of the patriot in you. More than that, I think you have to have a bit of love for your fellow American — enough to want to step up and do your part to ensure that your fellow Americans get to keep on keeping on with their American way of life. To continue being Americans.

Anyway, I just wanted to post these thoughts as they are fresh in my mind. Juliette Wade’s issue now has a whole new level of significance for me, and I won’t ever be able to think of this issue or see it now without remembering the anonymous fellow who, through inspiration or prompting, decided to do an Army guy a favor on a cold autumn night.

Pressing the reset button

It’s after 2 AM and I am about to head to bed. My wife gets home from Denver tomorrow, and life can resume its normal schedule. Overall, this past week wasn’t anything like I hoped it would be. Then again, not everything about it was bad. Got to spend some one-on-one Daddy-daughter time, including a matinee viewing of the movie Megamind, which turned out to be both visually impressive and very enjoyable in the story department. Kudos to the writers and the actors for inhabiting their characters with skill and savor. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Am tempted to compare it to The Incredibles, as there are shared themes between the two movies — focused as they are on the tropes of superhero and supervillain. Anyway, that was fun. And as mentioned in the previous post, I did resurrect my Compaq CQ5500F writing computer with a new operating system: Windows XP. Because the honest truth is that I’d run out of patience for Windows 7 and Office 2007 alike. And as much trouble as it was getting Windows XP loaded to the new machine — driver madness — I am much happier with the unit now. Much.

One thing I’ve been trying to do — along with getting my shit organized and systematically coherent — is not cry too much over spilled milk. Like my wife can tell you, I tend to be a brooder, and a what-if-then kind of guy. Not glass half empty per se, but just too much fretting over mistakes and goof-ups. Case in point, I went into last week with a lot of gusto — hubris? — and got my ass handed to me. Ordinarily that would mean this coming week would be snared as I got down on myself and got down in the dumps about having not made the kind of progress I’d wanted during the week prior; grumpy grump grump. But I’ve got to throttle back on that sort of stuff. It’s not helping anything, and in fact is rather corrosive on my plans for the future, because I need my head focused on the present and what follows immediately thereafter, not what just happened. Can’t be rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Unless, of course, there is a sellable story in it! (say, now…)

So, I am pressing the reset button. The old Nintendo NES had one. So did the old Atari 2600, though in Atari’s case it was a sort of spring-loaded lever/switch. When the game went sour, you just reached out and *BLINK* the game was refreshed and you were back at ground level again. Of course, sometimes even that never satisfied. Who else remembers physically ripping the old Atari and Activision game cartridges out of the 2600? So that you could sit there and fume at the test-pattern-like stripes on the TV and listen to the speaker go WEEEEE or BOOOOOO or UNNNNNNNN moronically? Yah, I did that a lot too. Was always told it would wipe the cartridges. Never happened. Hah!

It’s a new week, the second I pick my head up off the pillow. A fresh start. The past is gone, never to be recovered. Back at ground level again. Plenty to do, and 7 days in which to do it. Looking forward to it, in fact.

Buried by details, plus a software rant against Windows 7

It’s been a revelation this week, with my wife being gone. This is her second away trip for the year, and even though it’s not two weeks like the one she took this summer, somehow this time it’s having a bigger impact on me personally, because I’ve been trying to build and maintain a professional writing output level since getting back from Writers of the Future in August. One thing I will say, about these trips — and the additional workload being shifted to my shoulders — they always makes me wonder how single Moms do it for years on end. I have just the one daughter, and she’s an easy, smart little cookie. I can’t imagine multiple kids, much less multiple kids with issues or behavior problems. I think I’d go crazy. So, to all single Moms, my hat is off. You are all working miracles.

Anyway, the week has been a total disaster, and a total blessing, at the same time. A disaster because I’ve not been able to get done even half the stuff I wanted to get done — writing or otherwise — but also a blessing because it’s made me realize acutely how and where I need to reorganize my life and effect some serious changes in how I track, sort, and prioritize all the small and big things I’ve got going on — stuff that needs attending, lest I fall short or wind up causing problems not just for myself, but the family as a whole.

Yesterday I officially began work on a writing-related project that should start bringing in regular money come December of this year. Not much. About what I get from the Army Reserve every month. But it’s writing-related so I get to include it as writing income, and that’s a very big step for me, to have a regular lump of writing money showing up in the mail. But it also means a further commitment that requires proper and diligent attention. Just like my 7 year old needs proper and diligent attention, and my day job, and my army job, and the writing of new fiction. Which is just a very wordy way of saying I’m Bilbo: spread thin, like butter scraped across too much bread.

To that end I’ve been re-reading David Allen’s book, “Getting Things Done.” It was a complimentary gift as part of a day job sponsored time management class I did in late January, and I am returning to it again because I am really, really needing some fresh, practical ideas and motivation to focus hard and restructure my daily flow.

One of the huge things David hits on is having a reliable “catchment” system that can keep things from falling through the cracks. All the bazillion little and big items, actions, requirements, reminders, etc, all go into the system. If the system is trustworthy, it will not let you forget or overlook things, so that they get done on time and without much mental grief.

And mental grief is something I’ve had too much of in the last six months. Mostly because I have become so overwhelmed by everything I have to do, between all my commitments, that I often wake up in the morning and immediately experience a crushing sense of groaning, dull obligation. Ugh. And I know it’s because I don’t have a properly organized and prioritized system. I carry all of it around in my head, and trying to carry it all around in my head drives me nuts because I wind up worrying about all of it all the time, and I am forever stuck in Covey’s “important urgent” box, or in the “not important, not urgent” escapist time wasting box.

Theoretically, it should be possible to get to the “important, not urgent” box — where everything is handled before it’s a crisis, and there is little or no time-wasting on bullshit because there’s no emotional or mental desire to flee the entire mess because it’s just too overwhelming and difficult to try and grapple with at any one moment. Yes, occasional fires are inevitable, and they have to be put out when they have to be put out. But life shouldn’t feel like a fire, all the time, every day, and that’s what my life has felt like lately: one fire after another, and I’m rather tired of it.

So, much as I’d have loved to drop everything and write a ton as I’d planned, I’ve actually been forced to spend my time — what time I can find in between everything, including being a Dad — trying to figure out and develop my system. And the first step in that process, is identifying any and all possible action items, items requiring attention, reminder items, etc, in my life right now. And this list has grown depressingly long — almost to the point that I want to put my head back under the pillow and hide from it all. Only, I can’t. It’ll only get worse if I do that, and I am all out of energy and patience for ‘worse’ in all its forms.

So, that’s my update on this end.

Oh, and I am abandoning Microsoft Windows 7. Have had it on the new writing computer in the basement since August, and am fed up with it. Done. D-O-N-E. Windows XP did everything I needed my operating system to do, and it did it in a familiar, efficient manner. Windows 7 seems like an artfully decorated box of crap. Nothing works the way it used to. I have to keep scrounging in all kinds of annoying ways just to figure out how to do simple shit I used to be able to do without thinking. The interface doesn’t work for me at all. I used to think it would just take a little time to get used to, like when I went from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95. But unlike when I went to Windows 95, which rapidly proved itself superior to 3.1 within a couple of days, Windows 7 has been nothing but frustration.

So I am simply not going to put up with it anymore. Before I left the house this morning I put my Windows XP disc — been with me almost 10 years now — into the DVD-R/W drive, booted from the disc, told it to reformat the entire partition and re-load the OS, and walked out the door. I’ll have to dicker with XP to get it to load the correct drivers for the new hardware, but at this point it’s a small price to pay to get my computing sanity back at home.

Oh, and I am ditching Office 2007 on that machine as well. I still have my Office XP disc. It too did everything I needed, and it did it well. Office 2007 with its chaotic ribbon system is just not worth my time anymore. Both Windows 7 and Office 2007 seems like idiotic steps in the wrong direction. For me anyway. If Microsoft doesn’t pull its collective head out of its ass on the next versions of these, I am liable to go away from Microsoft products altogether for the first time since I adopted the PC in 1992.

Somehow, I suspect, I am not alone.

35,000 words in 7 days

I dropped my wife off at the airport today. She’s headed to Denver to see her brother for the first time in ages, spend the week in a nice hotel sharing a room with a very old and very close woman friend from when we lived in Washington State, and then she’s attending the NWSA conference at the end of the week. So it ought to be an engaging and relaxing time for her, and I do think she’s earned it. Yes I do.

Of course, not having the spouse at home for a week means lots of hours open up for other projects. So I’m going to get a little crazy and challenge myself to write 35,000 words in the next 7 days. Sunday through Sunday. That’s 5,000 words a day, roughly. I think it’s do-able, provided I chop my internet surfing to less than 30 minutes daily and write both in the morning before work and at night after I tuck my daughter into bed. Ostensibly I’d polish off another two chapters of Emancipated Worlds, get at least one more new short piece of fiction out to market, and devote the rest of the wordage to my novel draft that’s going to Baen at the end of the year.

Code of the Gentleman

There has been a bit of conversation in recent days, about the unfortunate behavior of certain members of the male gender at science fiction and fantasy conventions. I won’t name names, mostly because I don’t know names, and I wasn’t there. Suffice to say, some things have happened which have (again) brought to light the fact that some guys just don’t have a clue about how to behave around women. And I’m not talking shy. I’m talking clod. As in, wouldn’t know how to treat a lady if it meant his life sort of clod.

Which brings up something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the last couple of years. It has to do with the seeming death of gentlemanly behavior in our 21st century American culture.

Once upon a time, both boys and girls — if they had any of what they used to call breeding in the bad old days — went through a finishing process before being dispensed into society. This process focused largely on etiquette. What was and was not proper in polite society. And as ironic as it might seem for me to hold forth on issues of propriety — me, the guy who rails against Political Correctness — I do think it’s useful to have a refresher on the duties and expectations of men, when dealing with females.

So, without further ado, here are the basic rules. Call it the Code of the Gentleman.

A Gentleman does not stare at a woman.
She may be beautiful, or she may be not so beautiful. She may be fully clothed, or she may be wearing little more than a thong bikini. Whatever the case, and whatever the dress, a man should not stare. I don’t know where this rule originated, but it doesn’t really matter. A gentleman should not fix his eyes on a woman and leave them there, while in a public place. A private encounter with a wife or lover? Fine. Stare away. But staring at a stranger? Not acceptable. Regardless of how she may be dressed. Yes, I know, double-standard. But then this isn’t about being fair. It’s about being a gentleman.

A Gentleman does not ogle a woman’s breasts or butt.
Call it a corollorary to the first rule. This sort of thing just isn’t done, and this is where I think many modern men fall down. Yes, yes, the proliferation of breast implants and the displaying of same by women via low-necked shirts and other clothing makes it tough to not take a gander. Same for women with exceptional trunkage. But a gentleman will not permit himself to indulge in sight-seeing of this nature, not with strangers and not in public. He will avert his eyes — preferably to the woman’s face if he is in conversation with her. Speaking to a woman’s chest is not the mark of a gentleman, and should be avoided.

A Gentleman does not let his hands do the talking.
Barring a gentle handshake or perhaps a palm placed gingerly on a bicep, a gentleman keeps his hands to himself. You have to know a woman really, really well, and probably be advanced into a romance with her, to venture beyond this point without losing your gentlemanly cred. No exceptions. Regardless of the favors you feel you might be doing for a woman. Unless you’ve got explicit permission or solicitation to touch, you don’t touch. Anywhere, for any reason. A woman’s personal space is sacred. Cads and trolls break it at will. A gentleman respects this barrier and will not penetrate it.

A Gentleman does not use suggestive language.
As in, don’t fixate on sex or sexual subjects, when engaged in conversation with a woman who is not your lover and/or wife. Even if you’re supremely attracted to her. Unless she’s in a romance with you, your fixation on sex and sexual language is liable to be embarrassing, if not alarming. Women consider this a strong signal that you’re bad news — not well adjusted. An occasional brushing of the subject, in the natural course of conversation? Fine. To make it the maypole of the exchange is to broadcast all sorts of not-so-nice messages about yourself: hard up, needy, possibly even a sexual predator. Keep your language proper.

A Gentleman does not abuse money, power or influence.
It’s a very old story. The one about the man with the money, the fame, the authority, using these things to extract sexual goodies from females. Often younger, but not always. Often seeking that male’s stamp of approval, be it for a job, a good word, or something else she may need to further herself in the world. It is therefore the height of ungentlemanly behavior to take this need — on the part of the woman — and exert it against her for puerile sexual gratification. And I’m not even talking copulation or blowjobs, though this is considered common tender among the lechers of the world. I’m talking about guys getting away with all of the things I’ve already named, because they know the woman they’re talking to can’t or won’t saying anything — because she needs something from him.

A Gentleman does not suffer the ungentlemanly.
Which is not to say we need to go back to white gloves and pistols at 20 paces. But there are times when it’s honorable to step in and help another male adjust his behavior, especially if that behavior is obviously in poor taste, unusually crude or boorish, and is otherwise perturbing females in the area. This might be done gently, or it might be done not so gently. All men step out of bounds from time to time, in spite of their best effort. It helps us if we try to keep each other honest. And the socially deaf trolls — the serial creeps who just don’t get it — they can sometimes require more rigorous action. It behooves the real men in the area to intercede, where they are able, otherwise the females can be left feeling more vulnerable and isolated than before. Silence and inaction can function as condoning of the behavior.

Again, this might strike someone as odd, coming from the man who says PC is bunk. But being a gentleman isn’t about PC. Being a gentleman is about having a personal code. Call it honor, for lack of a better label. I like to think of it as Arthurian integrity. A touch of the Old School when chivalry had not yet fallen out of fashion, and there were societal expectations on males — as regards their service and bearing towards women.

I think this code can apply anywhere, at any time, and it’s a shame to see so many males advance through adolescence and into adulthood without receiving either a proper role model — or proper guidance. Because the honest truth of it is this — and I speak comfortably as a man who knows his limitations: women civilize us. Left to our own devices, we are selfish, brutal bastards. We need the women in our lives to remind us of a higher responsibility, beyond our own carnal lusts and the rumbling of our stomachs. A gentleman rises to this challenge like a falcon rises to the morning sun. He does not shirk it or shrink from it, or cast it off as old-fashioned.

Okay, that’s it for now. Nothing overly dramatic. Just a basic set of precepts. Some might even call it common sense. But if the behavior of some men in certain places as of late is an indicator, there is a large Clintonian movement afoot. Ergo, it’s all right if it feels good to the man, and as long as the woman doesn’t complain. Too much. I’m not in agreement with that modern (post-modern?) paradigm. I think it gives the male an excuse to slip off the civilized chain, and become a dog. Granted, this urge in the human male is always strong. We have, by our nature, strong desires and urges. But it’s precisely our ability to direct, focus, and deny those urges, that separate us from the beasts.

So do yourself a favor, and don’t act the wolf or monkey.

Like the line from Devo said, are we not men?

Got my third contract from Dell Magazines today

I’ve said it before in other forums today: had someone walked up to me on November 4, 2009, and told me that by November 4, 2010, I’d not only be a Writers of the Future author, but a three-time selling author for Analog Science Fiction & Fact, I’d have told them they were smoking something. Nevertheless, here it is. “The Bullfrog Radio Astronomy Project” looks like it will net me a nice check, which should arrive roughly around Christmas — a welcome influx for the household budget! And a nice present from Dr. Stanley Schmidt, too.

Heck, I can’t say thank you enough to Dr. Stan for giving me such a great year. Most Writers of the Future winners have to hack at it a bit more, before they advance to their second, truly pro-vs-pro sale. Me? I’ve had three base hits in several tries at bat with Analog in 2010, and it’s been one heck of a pleasant surprise after so many years of struggling down in the aspirant pool. The wait has definitely made the successes more savory, so as much as I wish I’d done certain things much sooner, having these victories now is as gratifying as anything I’ve ever done in my life.

Which reminds me, one of the reasons I’ve not been able to get the new Emancipated Worlds chapters out as quickly as I’d like, is because I’ve had to split time on that project, and my other projects going out the door — projects which pay. Perhaps I will put up a PayPal tip jar on my EWS posts starting in 2011, just to see if anyone wants to lob in a few bucks? Because the honest truth is, my capitalist conscience nags at me when I feel I am spending too much time on something like EWS — when manuscripts for magazines like Analog seem to be yielding so much dinero right now.

No worries, the EWS chapters will keep flowing. And I am sorry for being late with this batch for the week. I’m clawing at it. Just wanted to toot a little about some bona fide cash on the barrelhead, and thank Stan, Analog, Claire with Dell Magazines, Trevor Quachri, and of course Writers of the Future and all who participate in it for getting me off the ground. 2010 has been a damned fine year for me. Damned fine.

Daft Punk + TRON Legacy = Absolute. Total. Awesome.

In case I haven’t made myself clear on this:

Daft Punk + TRON Legacy = Absolute. Total. Awesome!

TRON Legacy

27 years. That’s how long I’ve waited for this sequel to my beloved TRON. Holy frak, does this teaser material excite the heck out of me. Gorgeous and amazing special effects wizardry, an outstanding (and very hip) soundtrack from the twin robo masters of electro-synth disco-beat badassery, and it’s headlining Disney’s Christmas push for 2010. Headlining! As in, Disney has gone all-in on this movie! It’s putting all the dice on this film! Oh wow, oh wow, in my wildest dreams… Never…. Lord, please, let the script be decent! Because everything else seems guaranteed to be superbly spectacular!

if the picture link doesn’t take you to YouTube, please click here!

WOOOOO!

Emancipated Worlds Saga: Chapter 4

Emancipated Worlds Defense Force

CHAPTER 4

The flight operations deck of the EWW Opportunity was vast. Sandy found herself momentarily mesmerized by the sheer size of the space as she slowly walked down the steep steps that led out of the side of the aerospace plane. Running down the length of the flight deck, in orderly rows, were similar craft — their delta-winged, spear nosed shapes looking like dozens of mirror images. Sandy stepped onto the deck and looked back up the stairs to see Kap emerge. He too walked slowly, his eyes adjusting as he took in the view. They hadn’t said much else to each other for the rest of their trip to orbit, and his eyes and mouth were still locked in the same serious expression he’d had since they’d been found by the armored soldiers on New Mojave’s surface.

“This way,” said Squad Sergeant Abbott, who’d exchanged his armor for a one-piece fatigue. The deep blue fabric of Abbott’s uniform was crisply pressed, with no accoutrement save his last name in silver-threaded lettering on the right side of his chest, and a shiny metallic pin on the left side of his chest. The pin appeared to be a set of wings, with a ringed planet at their center where the body of a bird should have been.

Abbott was pointing under the fuselage of the plane, opposite where the stairs had let them down. There was a walkway denoted by a twin set of yellow-dashed, painted lines across the deck’s scratched and use-scarred metal surface.

Sandy and Kap turned and quietly passed under the belly of the plane, with Sandy almost bumping into Kap’s back as they emerged on the other side, Kap coming to a complete halt.

“What?” Sandy said.

“Look at that,” Kap replied.

Sandy stepped around the wide-hipped boy to see what he was seeing.

It didn’t look at all like the plane they’d just ridden in. In fact, it didn’t look like a plane at all.

The hulking vehicle sat on four flexed legs, each tipped with a large tire. Angles and flat surfaces dominated, whereas the aerospace plane was curved and sleek. A huge maintenance hatch on the vehicle’s side was clamshelled open, allowing a clear view into the interior. Workers in fatigues similar to Abbott’s were busily fussing with a revolving cradle filled with long, deadly-looking orange-nosed rockets. Other workers clambered over and into bubble-canopied cockpits, of which there appeared to be several.

Abbott stopped on Kap’s opposite side.

“The pride of the Force,” said the coal-skinned soldier.

“It doesn’t look like it can fly,” said Kap.

“The Challenger-class isn’t built to fly in-atmosphere like these older planes,” Abbott said, patting a hand on the hull of the vehicle they’d just exited.

“Then what is it?” Kap asked.

“A gunship,” said Abbott. “One hundred percent Emancipated Worlds original build. Something the Commandant commissioned. Wish we had more of them.”

“How come it takes multiple pilots?”

“There are only two people flying, a pilot and a co-pilot. Those other seats are for the gun crew who operate the weapons, fore and aft.”

Kap seemed transfixed, as if the bulky, menacing machine were a scantily-clad woman.

“Come on,” Abbott said, gently pressing a hand between Kap’s shoulder blades.

Kap began walking again, but slowly, his head swiveling gradually as his eyes never left the Challenger until they’d passed through a yellow-rimmed hatch in the landing deck’s exterior bulkhead.

Sandy watched Kap’s shoulders. They’d become hunched.

“Where are you taking us?” Sandy asked Abbott.

“Like I told you,” Abbott said, “the doc will check you out, then we’ll do a debriefing.”

Other uniformed people side-stepped past Sandy in the cramped, tunnel-like hallway they were moving through. It ultimately terminated at a closed hatch, where Sergeant Abbott tapped a few illuminated buttons on a touchpad. A competing series of hums and vibrations filled her ears — the mechanical metabolism of the starship. Something Sandy was hearing for the very first time in her life. She’d always imagined she’d get off New Mojave some day. Had been going to school and studying hard for that very reason. But she’d never dreamed it would be as a refugee.

She leaned over and pressed a hand against the bulkhead, eyes closed tightly.

“You going to be sick?” Abbott asked.

“I don’t know,” Sandy said.

The hatch opened, showing the interior of a lift car.

“Come on, let’s get you to the med bay,” Abbott said, gently guiding Sandy inside.

The door shut, and they rode up or down a few floors — Sandy couldn’t tell which — then they exited into another cramped hallway, walking past many branching corridors until they entered a wide compartment lined with chairs. A uniformed woman, not too much older than Sandy, met them as they walked in.

“These are the survivors from the planet?” she said.

“Roger that,” Abbott said. “I had their information sent ahead. Is the doc ready?”

“In a moment,” said the woman. “If they’re not in any immediate distress, they can wait here until called for.”

Kap looked at Sandy, who nodded her head. “I’m okay now. It just kind of… It just…”

Abbott held up a hand, say no more, and motioned for them to do as the medic had instructed.

Sandy and Kap found seats, and Abbott pulled out a chair and sat across from them.

“I’m not going to blow smoke up your butts and say I understand,” said the Sergeant. “You guys are hurt in ways I can only imagine. But as long as you’re onboard, I’ll do my best to take care of you.”

“Thank you,” Sandy said.

“Once you’ve got the information you need,” Kap said, “what will happen to us?”

“You’ll be going to one of the other planets in the EW, I guess. Somewhere you can finish school, maybe get put with a foster family.”

“We’re old enough to take care of ourselves,” Sandy said.

“That depends. They measure adulthood differently on different worlds. Back home, where I am from, you’re a man by the time you’re 15 Earth years. On other planets, they don’t let you have full rights until you’re a lot older than that.”

“On New Mojave it was 17,” said Kap. “I turn 17 next quarter.”

“Me too,” said Sandy.

“Make sure and tell the captain that,” Abbott said. “He might let you guys make some choices, as to where you can be dropped off. Maybe somewhere you can pick up work quickly and try to get established on your own.”

“What about the Force?” Kap said.

“What about it?” Abbott said.

“Like, I mean, joining?”

Abbott’s eyebrows raised.

Sandy looked up and stared at her friend. The military? Kap had never said so much as five words to her about the military in the four years they’d been hanging out together. So far as she knew, Kapono wanted to get into university and work on software design like his mother. His brothers had all played physical sports — football and wrestling — so Kap had learned to survive in a house full of jocks. But down inside, Kap was all geek. His mother had adored him for it.

Abbott appeared to survey Kap’s bulk, squeezed uncomfortably into the waiting room chair.

“I’m not sure that’s a good option,” the Sergeant said.

Kap blushed, and looked into his lap.

Sandy felt anger rise suddenly into her throat.

“Kap’s an honor student, the best in our class. He’s got more brains than you or I put together.”

“That’s good,” Abbott said. “The Force can use brains. But brains aren’t enough. And I really don’t think now is a good time to be making snap decisions about what you’re going to do after you get off this ship.”

Kap looked up, his eyes rimmed with tears for the very first time. “It’s war, right? After what happened to our friends and families, to everyone on New Mojave? War?”

Abbott sighed and rubbed his scalp.

“Probably,” the Sergeant admitted.

“How am I going to just go find a new home somewhere and pretend like nothing’s happened, when there is a war on?” Kap said, his hands becoming fists on his knees. “The CAA killed my family. They killed Sandrine’s family. I’m supposed to just walk away from that, like it’s a traffic accident? Somebody’s got to do something, Sergeant. Somebody’s got to make those fucking people pay for what they’ve done!”

Kap was practically shouting, his voice drawing a worried glance of the medic who’d gone back to her tiny desk. Abbott’s eyes met the medic’s, and he subtly motioned with his hand, which made her go back to checking her computer.

Tears now openly flowed down Kap’s face, though he didn’t make a sound otherwise — hot grief and fury the likes of which Sandy had seldom seen from him.

She suddenly realized that they weren’t just friends anymore. They were comrades — the last survivors of New Mojave. For the rest of their lives, they and they alone would be speaking for the dead of their home planet. Thousands upon thousands of lives snuffed out, because the Colonial Administration Authority had willed it.

Sandy wasn’t into politics. In fact, she considered political history to be dullest of school subjects. But in that moment, as Kap’s face grew wet and the Sergeant looked at them both with a mixture of alarm and concern, it became clear what Sandy and Kap both had to do.

Sandy reached across and grabbed one of Kap’s fists in her own.

“He’s right,” she said to Abbott. “Kap and I can’t just walk away. We’re all that’s left. New Mojave is gone. Our people are gone. If this means war, then someone’s going to have to fight it. That somebody might as well be us.”

“You’re just kids,” Abbott said.

“Bullshit,” said Kap. “You said yourself you were a man by the time you were 15.”

“Look, I –”

“Sergeant,” Sandy said, “what would you do if you were us? Would you just walk away and try to move on, act like nothing had happened?”

“No,” Abbott said after a lengthy pause.

“Well we can’t do that either,” Sandy said.

Abbott raised his arms and patted his hands down towards the floor.

“Look, both of you, I get it, okay? I’m tracking. You’re pissed off. And the longer time goes on the more pissed off you’re going to get. Shit, I don’t blame you at all. But anger isn’t going to make you successful in the Force, believe me. Not all by itself. You have to have discipline, and you have to be able to put up with some tough stuff, and execute the mission regardless of how hard things are. Or how much you don’t like the orders.”

Kap opened his mouth to interject, but Abbott slashed a knife-edged palm through the air in a silencing motion.

“Let me tell the two of you something. This war the CAA has started, my gut says it’s going to get mean. Real mean. You might be angry now, but what is that anger going to do for you when you get scared? When death is looking you in the face?”

Sandy thought about it carefully.

“We did that already,” she said. “Back in Old Toby.”

“What?” Abbott said.

“The cave. We told you we were trapped. We were pretty scared then too, but that didn’t stop us. We got out of it okay.”

“Only because Corporal Chowen was nearby when you came shooting out of that crack in the hillside. You’d have eventually cooked alive if she and her team hadn’t been there to bubble you up in time.”

Sandy and Abbott locked eyes, neither of them blinking.

“Look,” Abbott said, “I’m not trying to tell you that you can’t do it if you really want to. 16 Earth years is entry age for the Force, so it’s technically possible. I just don’t want you leaping into the decision when you’re all half-cocked like this. Let the doc check you out. Get some good food into you, and for God’s sake get some sleep. You both look and sound exhausted. So I don’t want to hear any more talk about you trying to join up until you’re both calmed down and have had a little more time to consider it clearly. This job is not something to be taken lightly. It’s tough, and people are tough on you. I’m being nice right now because I have the luxury of being nice. You’ve both been through hell, and back again. You should see me when I’m all business. You wouldn’t like me very much.”

“The surgeon can see them now,” said the medic from her desk.

Abbott waved his hand in the affirmative. Then he looked back at Sandy, then to Kap, his dark-irised eyes become deadly serious.

“Go,” he said. “I’ll be here when you’re done.”

Sandy and Kap stood, her hand still clenched over his, and they walked to where an older woman stood in the aperture of a brightly-lit hatch directly to the left of the medic’s desk. The surgeon had on the ubiquitous white coat which had been the trademark of all physicians for almost as long as medicine had been a civilized profession. Her eyes were concerned in a maternal sense, and she ushered them back to their separate exam rooms.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Jeremiah Abbott reclined in his seat, and let a long gust of breath push out between closed lips. Rubbing his eyes, he yawned, then noticed his Corporal standing in the med bay’s front door.

“Yeah?” he said.

“The boy is finally feeling it?” Chowen asked.

“Yeah.”

“I wonder if he’s really serious about wanting to join the EWDF?”

“I’m sure he’ll recover his sanity when the anger starts to die down.”

“Are you saying those of us who did join are crazy?”

Abbott cracked a smile, and beckoned his friend over. She plomped into the seat next to him.

“The girl is right you know,” Chowen said seriously. “If things are going to get rough, a whole lot of kids her age are going to wind up in the middle of it — whether they like it or not.”

“My Dad always told me never make a decision in anger.”

“You also told me you joined up right after you and your Dad came to fists over him not wanting you to join up.”

Abbott smiled sheepishly. “Pops felt like he’d done his share — for the whole family. Didn’t want me following in his footsteps. Thought I should have become a businessman.”

“Was he wrong?”

“Yes and no. He’s proud of me now. I got a nice e-mail from him three days before we arrived in orbit. But there are times when I wonder how things could have been different if I’d taken his advice and gone to business school. My sister owns a franchise now. Eight different shops on two continents. She’s richer than the rest of us combined. And what have I got to show for my time? An NCO bachelor cabin smaller than the Captain’s head.”

“At least you sleep alone!” Chowen laughed at her own joke, then her smile dropped as she noticed Abbot wince.

“Uhh, there’s that too,” he said.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to poke at an old wound.”

“Not your fault. I should have known Qaya and I wouldn’t last.”

“She was a complete cunt to you, boss.”

“Sometimes. But sometimes I also think I deserved it. I mean, I’m not that easiest to live with, and dragging her all over the EW as a dependent… it just wasn’t going to work out.”

The two NCOs sat in silence, pondering the recycled air between them.

“So if these two kids are serious, and do want to join, what will you tell them?”

Abbott was about to reply, when the ship-wide message klaxon honked.

“NOW HEAR THIS,” said the young duty officer’s voice from the bridge, “NOW HEAR THIS. ALL PERSONNEL, ALL STATIONS. PREPARE FOR IMMEDIATE TRANSLIGHT. REPEAT, TRANSLIGHT POSTURE. SENIOR OFFICERS AND NCOS TO THE ADDRESS HALL. NOW HEAR THIS, NOW HEAR THIS…”

Abbott and Chowen stared at one another.

“Something came in over the ansible,” Abbott intuited. “We’re leaving too soon.”

“I wonder if it’s another attack?” Chowen said.

“We’ll hear it from the First Sergeant, if true.”

“I bet we hear it from Onarak first.”

A few minutes later, and as if by appointment, Specialist Onarak entered the med bay. The sheen on his forehead said he’d come running from the other side of the ship. He walked up to Abbott and unceremoniously sat down, large, bony-fingered hands flexing nervously.

“What’s the word?” Chowen asked.

“It’s Muehling,” Onarak said. “The same fleet that hit New Mojave has been detected entering the system. This time, they broadcast an ultimatum.”

“What did it say?” Abbott asked.

The squad’s resident technophile produced his pocket AV, thumbing through the files until he’d selected the one he wanted. The little AV unit’s speakers were puny, but the words being spoken were unmistakable. The three of them listened closely as the voice of Deputy Overseer Brynhildjur held forth.

Her speech ended, Onarak clicked off his AV and tucked it away in a cargo pocket.

“Oh man,” Abbott breathed, the lower half of his face clutched in a meaty paw.

“Boss?” said Onarak, half to Abbott and half to Corporal Chowen. “What happens now?”

“I don’t think the Opportunity can get to either Muehling or the capitol before that Authority flotilla can do a repeat performance,” Abbott said.

“So why are we getting ready to leave the system?”

“Captain probably has us on translight standby until he gets direct orders from Commandant Portland. As for us? Corporal, keep the squad busy. Top will want first-line inspections within the hour, preparatory to our going out-system. Make it happen.”

“Right,” Chowen said, standing up, along with Specialist Onarak. “What about you?”

“I’m going to be shepherding these kids until we can figure out what to do with them, per orders. Onarak, if anything else flies across your radar, you bring it to Chowen and me first, you get me?”

“Roger that,” Onarak said reflexively.

“No rumors. No speculation. Just bring me the info.”

“Roger that. Do you think the Force will try to rally? Maybe cut the CAA off before they can get to the capitol?”

“No idea. If that video Chowen showed me back on New Mojave is any indicator, our entire compliment of ships — all squadrons from all systems — might not be enough.”

“What if the Senate decides to comply?” Chowen said.

Abbott stared at her, and Onarak likewise.

“Don’t even think it,” the Squad Sergeant said. “Not happening. Go.”

Abbott’s subordinates cleared out of his space and went off to gather the others in the squad, but Chowen had planted a troubling seed. Just how would the Senate react to the Deputy Overseer’s demands? It had been twenty five Earth years since the Emancipated Worlds had broken off official contact with the Colonial Administration Authority. There had been no official truce, no cease fire per se. The CAA squadrons had simply departed EW space, and the ansible network tying the EW back to the rest of humanity had gone silent. The implication being that the CAA had decided to give the EW the independence it desired.

Until now.

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