“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.
“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.