Thrown together, then torn from each other by the aftermath of a war neither wanted, their love will be a tragedy and a triumph as a man sworn to walk the road of Peace is made to follow the dictates of War and accept its consequences.More info →
“Tell me about your parents, Sin.”
It was a remark made by a frightened woman as they sat in the dark, pursued by enemy soldiers. Something to say to get her mind off their impending deaths…
“There’s not much to tell. They met, they loved, they died.”
“There must be more than that,” she persisted. That made him look at her. “Why do you hate the Federation, Sin?”
“Gee, I don’t know, Andi.” The eruption of anger in his words startled her. “They killed my father, tore me from my mother’s arms, and took everything she had to live for. I haven’t the foggiest idea why I despise them so.”
There was so much more to the story than Sinbad sh’en Singh told Andrea Talltrees that night, Much, much more. But even he didn’t know it all…
~ * ~
Twenty-nine Years Before that Moment
“What the hell am I doing here?” Allan Malcolm McAllister grunted the question through gritted teeth as he flung himself face-down in the mud and inched forward under the horizontal Kelvin beams.
“Johanssen!” The DI’s voice rapped out from the edge of the light field. “Get your butt down before you burn yourself a new ass-hole!”
The recruit being addressed burrowed deeper into the mud, removing the specified portion of his anatomy from harm. There was little chance of any of them being involved in ground combat but these anachronistic obstacle courses of mud, stone barricades, and wooden barriers as well as hand-to-hand fighting, were still part of the grubs’ training, along with more modern tactics such as laser gunnery, and for those making the grade, space-to-land fighting and piloting an FAS Eagle.
Allan’s question was merely a voicing aloud of his dismay. He knew the reason he was here.
He was paying for his uncle’s crime, though he couldn’t find fault with what his Uncle Egan had done. If he’d been merely a war protester, the Fed might’ve ignored him as they had others, but his uncle’s arguments against the Felidan War encouraged hundreds of citizens to make their way to neutral, non-Federation countries like Middle Africa and the Finnish Peninsula to avoid the Conscript. Because of that, his uncle was a declared traitor, and Allan, as the last known relative of Egan Rand, Paxist, though himself registered as an HD, a Hostilities Disapprover, now found himself a Federation draftee.
Given the chance, he’d have run away, too, but there hadn’t even been time to pack a bag before the Conscriptors were banging at the door and dragging him away.
He cleared the last beam and stopped crawling, raising his head. A pair of combat boots swam into his muddy view. Allan looked up the fatigue-clothed body and into the DI’s face and the smirk on the camouflaged-smeared features. Behind him, the rest of the company huddled together, their expressions a single one of collective apprehension for what was going to happen next.
“Glad you could join us, McAllister.” The sarcasm was thick enough to cut with a knife.
Allan pulled himself from the mud’s suction and clambered to his feet, being careful not to use the stock of the LX-15 to steady himself. If he misused his weapon, that’d make whatever Horton was planning even worse. He slipped once in the slimy semi-solid, going down on one knee before regaining his balance.
“You might like to know that if this were a real combat situation,” the voice went on, spitting out each word as if he couldn’t bear to have them in his mouth. “Your buddies here would be long gone, and you’d either be dead or a prisoner of war by now.”
Allan didn’t answer, jaw muscles rigid to keep the angry retort from escaping.
“Got anything to say for yourself, soldier?” came the expected question in that sweet-as-poison drawl. The Sarge was a Southerner, deep-swamp Georgian and proud of it. Some of the grubs said he exaggerated his accent to point that out.
“Sir! No, sir!” Allan straightened, responding with the expected answer.
“In that case, you’re going to have a lot of time to think about it while you’re on extra guard duty tonight. Maybe eight hours post-stomping will help you be a little quicker next time.” The Sergeant looked at the young men behind him. “Fall in!”
They obeyed silently enough, a couple giving Allan sympathetic but guarded looks, other smirking in satisfaction. Serves you right, McAllister. The words were unspoken but obvious.
“…and,” the DI went on. “To help y’all get to your next assignment as soon as possible, we’re going to double-time it back to the base.”
“Oh, shit!” The words were uttered before someone could stop them.
“Who said that?” the DI demanded.
“I did,” came from behind Allan, three men back. They all knew better than to attempt denying it.
The DI stalked over to the grub. Unlike some of the youngsters, this one was as tall as the sarge himself and they stood there eye-to-eye. The kid didn’t flinch, just met that cold blue-eyed stare with one of his own.
“Well, well, Pardee… so you don’t want to jog back to camp?”
“I… No sir. I mean, yes sir…uh…”
“Since you can’t seem to make up your mind…not only are you going to double-time it with the rest of us, but you’ll join McAllister for a little sentry duty tonight.”
“Sir, yes sir!”
“All right, men, get to it. Hut-two-threp-four! Hut-two-threp-four!”
Halfway back to camp, it began to rain and they didn’t need any more incentive to make them run as fast as they could to avoid being drenched. In perfect formation, of course.
~ * ~
Later that night, while walking the lines at the perimeter of the camp, Allan definitely had a lot of time to think. There was really no need for sentries. The training camp was in a secret location. No one except a few high government officials knew where, certainly not the recruits brought there in the dead of night. Possibly not even the officers and enlisted personnel manning the base.
Every now and then, he’d see movement at the other end of the line. Pardee, walking off his penance for being so vocal, his tall figure barely visible through the haze of fog steaming off the hot wet grass.
Allan thought the camp must be somewhere in the Southern Sector of the Federated American States. Maybe Louisiana. The soil was certainly water-logged enough. In some places, liquid actually spurted out of the soil when their booted feet pounded it. The days were hot and humid, and at night while he wasn’t sleeping, he’d heard some odd, booming noises floating from one of the areas outside the base’s polyconcrete walls.
Lafitte, one of the grubs, said it was a ’gator. He ought to know…he was a Cajun, from a Naturals reservation located near what was left of La Vielle Nouvelle-Orleans. Whatever it was, it didn’t sound friend;y.
God, I hate this place! Allan wondered if God were listening, or if…like some of the others in the platoon whispered, God didn’t really exist at all. Just in case, he touched the little gold crucifix attached to the dog tags around his neck. That was the only piece of jewelry allowed, a religious symbol affixed to the identification chips every recruit wore.
Why did this happen to me? He’d always been a good boy, at least he thought so. Going to church, trying to following its Teachings. His parents made certain he knew all his catechism, and all the beliefs, both religious and political espoused by the Church and the Federation. Hell, he and his girl didn’t even had sex all that much, and they’d been careful when they did. Why am I being treated like a criminal? Hauled out of his apartment like a felon and forced to come here against his will?
Because of my uncle, that’s why! Egan Rand had taken the Church’s teachings one step further. Some said several steps backward, returning to the way it was supposed to be centuries before the government stepped in. All Allan knew was that his uncle wanted peace and was on the run because of it and he, Allan Malcolm McAllister, was now paying the bill.
~ * ~
He’d learned that his first day in camp. He was in the line with all the others, dressed in his Federation-issue fatigues, duffel bag resting at his left ankle. The Sarge was going down the line, comparing names on the screen of his hand unit with the little holographic ID tags hanging around each recruit’s neck.
He stopped when he came to Allan. “Well, well…who do we have here?”
Thinking the man actually expected an answer, Allan replied, “Allan Malcolm McAllister, sir.”
“Did I give you permission to speak?”
“Well, no, sir. But I— ”
“Then keep quiet, recruit!” He turned to the others. “Gentleman… ” Even that word was deliver with a modicum of irony Allan would learn was the Sarge’s normal speaking voice. Odd how Southern accents fitted themselves so well to that mode of delivery. “We have here the relative of a very famous personage, or infamous, I should say. Mr. McAllister is the nephew of… Why don’t you tell us, Mr. McAllister?” When Allan didn’t answer, he leaned forward and went on in a stage whisper, “You may speak now, Mr. McAllister.”
“Egan Rand.” Allan supplied the name very quietly.
“What?” The DI cupped one hand to his ear, “What was that? I didn’t quite catch that.”
“Egad Rand!” Allan answered, louder.
“Egan Rand. That’s right. The traitor who thinks we should love the Felidans instead of killing them. Who wants the Federation to stop the war and welcome those murderous aliens with open arms.”
“I don’t think that’s— ”
“I don’t care what you think, McAllister! Isn’t your uncle a fugitive from Federation justice for preaching sedition by urging our young men not to enlist?”
“Yes, sir, he’s a fugitive, but that’s not exactly—”
“If I could explain, sir.”
“Oh, by all means, please. Explain.”
“No one knows why the Felidans attacked Ferris Alpha. My uncle thinks we should find out the reason. Maybe the Felidans feel they were justified. H-he thinks if we know why they did it, maybe it can be resolved without a war…”
“Well, now, that sounds reasonable enough, doesn’t it?” That slow, deep accent fairly dripped sarcasm. “Love thy neighbor. Now, I know that’s what Christos taught, and it’s what each of you dewey-eyed innocents heard when your Mamas took you to church every Sunday, but in that Bible each of you were issued along with your LX-15, it also says, an eye for an eye and do unto others—”
Spittle flew as the Sarge ranted. Allan blinked to keep from being struck in the eye by a globule. He forced himself not to flinch, didn’t dare dodge or reach up to wipe his face, just stood there, feeling the bit of wet trickle down his cheek.
“Quite frankly, I think that’s what we ought to do. We ought to take a couple of dirty laser bombs and drop ’em on Felida and wipe out all of those murderous bastards…” He broke off to survey the young faces a moment before continuing, his tone now mild in shocking contrast to his previous angry one. “But use of those type of weapons was banned at the Jovian Covention of 2120, so we’re going to do the next best thing. We’re going to use our gunboats to kill as many of ’em as possible. As for you…” He swung back to Allan. “As a little reminder to keep your mouth shut and not spread any of your uncle’s crap, drop and give me fifty!”
“Fifty what, sir?” Allan didn’t move.
“Are you smart-assing me, McAllister?”
“N-no sir. Fifty Credits? I-I don’t have that much cash—”
“Fifty push-ups you idiot! Now!”
While the rest of the company marched off to the barracks, Allan flung himself to the ground and performed the requested callisthenics, calmly counted out by the corporal.
~ * ~
That was only the beginning. It seemed no matter what Allan did, how badly or how well, it roused the sergeant’s ire. Apparently his mere breathing was an infraction of the rules.
As he turned his head, a trickle of water dripped off the down-turned brim of his boonie, splashing inside the collar of his poncho, and running like an icy rivulet between his shoulder blades all the way to his butt-crack. Allan forced himself not to shiver.
On the other side of the fence, he could see two lights approaching the spot where Pardee stood. In a few moments, the light which was his patrol-partner began to recede, heading toward the barracks. One light took his place, the other came toward Allan.
For tonight, for a few hours, at least, his ordeal was over.
~ * ~
The Terro-Felidan War began when a Felidan gunship laser-strafed a Federation settlement on Ferris Alpha, obliterating the entire camp and killing all of its forty-eight man personnel.
Generally any kind of hostile action required an immediate communication to the Terran-stationed ambassador of the planet in question, a wait for an explanation, followed-up with direct negotiations to the ruling contingent itself, and then a declaration of war if clarification wasn’t satisfactory. In this case, Felida had no ambassador to Earth, being a non-Federation member and never having applied for affiliation. In fact, few people had ever seen a Felidan, especially anyone from the planets of the Solar System, and, as far as anyone knew, Felida had never tried to contact the Federation in any way. In view of those facts, the Federation dispensed with the formalities, declared open hostilities, and began formal recruitment procedures for this, their first war with a non-human species.
The Felidans were ferocious fighters. They’d been fighting for eight years now.
~ * ~
There was nothing for Allan, of course. Uncle Egan wasn’t going to risk communicating with his nephew, not with a chance the Air Marshals might be able to trace it back to him, no matter how devious he was in his posting. Allan certainly wasn’t stupid enough to attempt to get a letter to his uncle, even if he’d known where to send it. There was no one else to write him, no friends brave enough to admit knowing a paxist. Allan had broken his ties with the only person he loved to protect her.
When the mail shuttle arrived, he simply retired to the shade of a cottonwood growing near one of the outbuildings. There was a bench there, and he leaned against the old tree overhung with moss, watching the other recruits joyfully receive their letter-disks and comfort packages filled with cookies, candy, and personal items.
Nursing his left arm where the requisite Federation tattoo still ached, he forced himself not to touch it. Drawing attention to the symbol they’d incised into his unwilling flesh wasn’t a good idea. Allan hadn’t made a sound while it was done but inside he was boiling with anger. It was Standard Operating Procedure. All recruits were marked, branded as part of the Fed’s herd. Those surviving whatever war they were thrust into carried forever the coiled, open-mouthed snake with a Forbidden slash across it and the words Don’t Mess with the Fed. They were told it was a mark signifying freedom. Allan questioned that because he hadn’t been given any freedom of choice in the matter. He kept his sleeve rolled down as much as possible.
At the moment, he was looking up at the branch above his head, studying the interwoven strands of the gray parasite called Spanish Moss. Wondering how old the tree was and how many kids, frightened, away from home for the first time, thinking of their families or of facing a battle, had sat in its shadow and read their letters. Probably thousands. For all he knew, the tree might be thousands of years old, too. He bet it had never spread its branches over someone being punished for just being related to someone.
With a sigh, he turned his attention to the building on his left, staring at it stolidly.
“Mind if I join you?”
Allan turned from his sightless contemplation of the barrack’s gray bulk to the person standing there. For a moment, with the sun in his eyes, he couldn’t identify the speaker. Raising his hand to block out the light, he recognized the angular face. It was the recruit sharing guard duty with him last night. Pardee.
“Suit yourself.” He tried to sound nonchalant, while at the same time, tensing with suspicion. Was this friendly overture a prelude to another beating? Horton had made it plain it was open season on him. He wouldn’t be surprised if he hadn’t actually called a Code Red, a euphemism for permitted extrajudicial punishment. Twice so far he’d been waylaid by recruits from other barracks. To show their patriotism, they said. To show what they thought of low-life paxists who ran away rather than defend their planet,they meant. No one tried to stop them. He’d had to drag himself to the infirmary. Even though the incidents were reported to the CO, and Allan identified his assailants by name, nothing was done and no one punished.
In the daylight and not covered with mud, Allan could see that the man approaching him was as tall as he. His hair, what there was of it, growing out of the required “Conscripts cut,” or boot-camp style, was brilliantly blond in the morning sun, almost gilt. That had been another shock for Allan. Having his fiery mane of hair shorn to a quarter of an inch fuzz except for a single inch-wide strip at the nape twisted into a braid. Sarge laughingly told them that was so God would have something to grab when he snatched them up and took them to Heaven.
Pardee was holding a letter unit in his right hand, shifted it now to his left and offered the hand to Allan, his manner surprisingly non-threatening. “Jon Pardee.”
“Guess I don’t have to tell you my name.” Allan pressed his palm against the hand, then let his own drop.
“Sure, I doubt if there’s a living bein’ on this base, from th’ commander down t’th’ cockroaches in th’ mess hall who doesn’t know who you are.” Pardee laughed as he sat down. He had an Irish accent, not strong but with a lilt speaking of a life within sniffing distance of places where heather and peat bogs still managed to exist. He nodded at Allan’s arm. “Still hurtin’?”
Unconsciously Allan’s hand crept to the spot, rubbing through the fabric. He jerked it away. “A little.”
“Same here.” It was said with sympathy. “Damn, I hated havin’ m’handsome hide punctured like that.” He pulled a letter disc from the folder he held and slipped it into the unit.
“Letter from your girl?” Allan asked. If Pardee was going to be friendly, he could at least show some interest.
“M’wife, Shelagh.” He studied the screen a moment, frowning.
“Bad news?” Allan responded to the frown.
“Nah.” Pardee shook his head. “She just says she an’ th’ baby are going t’ visit m’best friend an’ his wife for a few days.”
“Hey, you’ve got a kid?” Allan loved children. Again he felt that lonesome quiver in his heart. He should’ve been married. To a nice Catholic girl, and starting a family of his own. But not now. Not with the Fed going after anyone with a drop of Egan Rand’s traitorous pacifist blood in him. Having a wife and kid to threaten would’ve been ten times worse than having them just come after him.
“Aye.” Pardee nodded and pressed a button on the unit. A child’s picture appeared and he turned the unit so Allan could see.
The most beautiful little girl Allan had ever seen stared up at him, a blonde-curled little pixie with mischievous blue eyes. She was like a miniature angel. If she’d been here with them, he’d have picked her up and hugged her. “Hey, she’s a little darling.”
“Andrea Marina.” Pardee smiled his gratitude. “She’s eighteen months old.”
Another nod. “That was Shelagh’s idea. It means on th’ water. She was conceived in a canoe on th’ lake in front o’ our home. We Pardees do like our water-shaggin’” He laughed again. “M’little water baby.” He removed the chip, slid a second out of the folder and inserted it into the unit.
“Hey! You’ve got two letters? How do you rate?”
“This one’s from m’friend, Vicente Talltrees,”
“Talltrees? Sounds like a Natural’s name .”
“That ’tis. Shelagh an’ I were plannin’ t’ join ’em before all this started. Now? Guess that’ll have t’ wait.” He studied the screen again, then nodded. “Vicente says Shelagh has a bad cough, an’ came down t’ see him an’ Maria ’til she’s better.” Pardee looked worried. “I might know Vicente’d tell me th’ whole story. He probably figured Shelagh’d think she was worryin’ me if she did.”
“He sounds like a good friend,” Allan commented. He thought of the people he’d considered friends. How they disappeared quick enough when they learned a Conscription Squad was heading to his apartment building. Only one stood by him, his best friend, Colm, and he’d been rifle-whipped by the Squad as they hauled Allan away.
“He is,” Pardee confirmed. “He promised me he’d take care o’ Shelagh an’ Andi if I… If…” He didn’t finished the sentence, just pressed the button and looked intently at his daughter’s image again.
Allan knew what he meant. If he were married, he’d have extracted the same promise from Colm, only in his case, it would’ve meant spiriting his wife away to wherever Uncle Egan was hiding.
“Well!” Pardee ejected the disks and slid them back into the folder, slipping it into his breast pocket. “What say we mosey on down t’ th’ canteen an’ I buy you a cup o’ coffee?”
“Coffee?” Allan gave the word an ironic lilt as he thought of the liquid served in the mess hall. Real coffee had been on the Surgeon General’s List of Proscribed Substances for nearly three centuries now. “Are you kidding?”
“Coffee,” Pardee confirmed with an agreeing tone. “No caffeine, no carbs, no taste. Come on.”
“Sure. Why not?” Allan fell in beside the other man, but they hadn’t gone three feet before a figure stepped out of the building and blocked their way.
“Well, Pardee…” He looked from one to the other. “And McAllister.” His gaze went back to the Irishman again. “You’re not very particular who you pick for friends, are you, Pardee?”
There was a brief silence. Pardee took a deep breath.
“Yes, sir,” he answered. “I am. Very particular.”
For a moment no one spoke. The DI appeared to consider Pardee’s statement. Allan held his breath,
“That’s right,” he said finally. “Hold to your convictions, son, if you can.” He turned to include Allan in the statement. “Takes a strong man to do that.” He walked away.
They both watched him leave.
“What in hell was that all about?” Allan whispered, not wanting Horton to hear.
“Who cares?” There was a shrug of the broad shoulders. “Let’s just get away from here before he decides t’ come back an’ explain it!”
~ * ~
In comparison to the antiquated wooden barracks, mess hall, and training buildings, the canteen was remarkably modern, all white and sleek chrome. Maybe those pieces of ancient architecture were fashioned that way to accustom the grubs to hardship. Whatever the reason, the canteen stood at the far end of the compound, looking as out of place in this swamp as a pearl in a pig sty.
A bar stretched the length of one wall, the bartender’s image reflected in the gleaming counter-long mirror behind him. Indirect phosphorescent globes attached high on the wainscoting sent a muted glow over the figures below. Music, something in the latest jazkosa beat, floated in the air, providing a medium-soft backdrop to the human sounds in the large room…the tinkle of glasses, shuffle of feet, murmur of voices, an occasional feminine laugh from one of the socializers brought in by the Fed to keep its “boys” from feeling they were completely isolated from civilization and to satisfy the hormonal urges of the post-adolescent male.
On the two walls not covered by the entrance and the bar, twelve doors opened into the room itself. Occasionally a couple left a table and disappeared through a door, returning anywhere from half an hour to several hours later, the soldier looking satisfied or not according to the amount of liquor he’d consumed and his own physical resilience, his companion straightening her scanty clothing.
The bar offered a variety of liquids from the latest carbonated-water-and-flavoring to hard liquor. Nothing too good for the grubs soon to be offered up as sacrifices to the Great God Fed. Allan often wondered why rank in the services were nicknamed after insects…grubs, spiders, hornets… Horton, now…he was a wasp, definitely, with a deadly deep sting. Each recruit was given a liquor allowance of one drink per day during liberty hours, as much as he could drink on any Saturday he wasn’t on duty, but absolutely nothing on Sundays when they were all expected to show up in dress uniform and attend en masse the base church for services.
Since today was Friday, the atmosphere was slightly subdued though expectant, waiting for tomorrow night, when it would bust loose with loud music, yelling and shouting, total falling-down inebriation, and even a few fistfights, all of which would be ignored by those in charge. Keeping everyone and everything confined to the base was one way of preventing arrests and embarrassing calls to the Commanding Officer to come bail out one of his men. If someone got stupidly drunk or a disagreement got out of hand, the sergeant in charge just waded in and broke it up and hauled the offender back to the barracks to sleep it off.
That didn’t include pulling someone off a certain paxist, however. When that happened, everyone crowded around to watch, the Sarge included, and only when Allan was lying unconscious on a floor already sticky with spilled drinks and soda, his blood mixing with the other residues, would a halt be called. Not that Allan didn’t fight back. God knows he did, but three or four or five against one can’t be called fair in any society. Sometimes he just wished they’d go ahead and kill him. Once or twice he actually bested his attackers, then stood there panting with fists raised, waiting for the next onslaught. Most times, it simply ended with his being re-acquainted with the canteen’s parquet.
~ * ~
He and Pardee had gotten their “coffee” and were seated at a table away from the others, partially hidden in the shadows of the low-dimmed overheads, neither. Allan studied the black liquid in his plasticon cup. It was fairly palatable, might even taste slightly like the real thing though he had no way of knowing for certain. Genuine but illegal coffee wasn’t available to the majority of the planet. Only those rich enough and with contacts within the Brotherhood of St. Dismas, the Crime Guild, could obtain it, since coffee and tobacco were the two most-smuggled items on the DarkSell market.
He raised his cup to take a tentative swallow when he heard footsteps approaching. Sharp, tapping sounds of a woman’s heels. A shadow fell across the table.
Both Allan and Jon looked up.
A socializer stood there. Pretty in an over-painted way. Young, must not have been in the game too long for she was still slightly perky and eager-looking.
“I’m free.” Her voice was young, too, but she’d learned some things already, such as pitching it low so they had to give her their full attention to hear. “Either of you gents interested?”
Her dress, if it could be called that, consisted of a halter top, a three-inch strip of cloth circling her neck and falling over each breast to the waistband of a skirt stopping mid-thigh. They both stared. It couldn’t be helped, not with an outfit like that and so much bared flesh on display. As if to draw further attention to what the halter nearly hid, her hands slid up the straps, cupping both breasts, thumbs stroking over nipples already peaking against the thin fabric.
Allan shook his head. Jon gave her a hard stare and said, in a voice holding a surprising amount of disapproval, “I’m married.”
“So?” The hands moved, jiggling the breasts so they bounced. Allan shifted in his chair as he felt his groin tighten in response. Taking a deep breath, he leaned back as the socializer went on, “Does that matter? Your wife won’t know. She’s not here. And I am.”
For a moment, Pardee didn’t answer, just stared at her. Allan wondered if he was trying to decide to take her up on her offer. After all, he wouldn’t have to pay. The Fed took care of the fees and each woman brought to the base had a card certifying she was free of any contractible disease so there was no health worry.
“You’re right. She won’t.” Pardee raised his cup, took a sip of coffee, swallowed and set down the cup. He smiled and without changing expression, said, “But I’d know. Beat it, trollop.”
For just a moment, the woman didn’t move. Then she took one step back from the table, not as if she were insulted, but simply to move away. Her hands dropped.
“Married, huh?” One eyebrow lifted, lips twisting into a smirk as she looked from Jon to Allan and back again. “Right.” She shrugged. “Okay, if that’s the way you want it to play it.”
With that, she turned and walked away.
“Oh God.” Allan put his face in his hands. Pardee didn’t say anything. He looked over at him. “You know what she’s thinking. Are you trying to get me killed?”
“Relax.” Jon took another sip of coffee. “It doesn’t mean anythin’.”
“Not to you but it’s another excuse to pound on me.” Allan gave Pardee an anguished stare. “Being a Paxist is bad enough, but at least that’s true. Being labeled a dig, too…”
He didn’t finish the sentence. Since the day the old laws on homosexuality in the armed services had been reinstated in the twenty-second century, the Federation’s stance had been the same as the government preceding it and the one before that and the one before that, ad infinitum. Not forbidden but don’t admit it for your own safety. Digger or Dig was the ultimate derogatory term and no one had used it against Allan yet, but now… Am I going to find myself waiting for that particular ax to fall also?
“Don’t worry about it.” Pardee continued to drink his coffee. “If that happens, the Sarge’ll defend you. It’s the paxist in you he’ll hang out to dry.”
“I’d prefer neither, if possible,” Allan muttered. He studied his cup, wishing it held something stronger. He wished he did drink and said so. “I need some alcohol. You don’t drink, do you, Jon?”
A shake of the blond head, sending that ridiculous braid swinging. “Like I said…I was thinkin’ about joinin’ th’ Naturals when I got sent here. They don’t drink or anythin’ like that.”
He was silent a moment longer. Across the room, the socializer had homed in on another table where three young men sat. She spoke to them, hands going through their routine. One of them set down his drink and stood up. She took his hand and they headed for one of the closed doors, his companions watching.
“D’you have a girl, Mal?” It was the first time Allan would hear Pardee call him that though it didn’t register at the time. “Anyone at home waitin’ for you?”
Allan shook his head. “There was someone. Once. But I broke it off when my relatives began disappearing. I didn’t feel it was fair to involve anyone I cared about with Egan Rand’s nephew.”
There was a moment’s flash of sorrow, a brief memory of the girl who’d cried as he told her he’d never see her again. The next week, five Fed soldiers and a marshal came to his apartment and informed him he was being conscripted and they were to escort him to the Processing Center in Charleston. Escort, right. In wrist-cuffs. With an LX-13 prodding his spine.
“When I get out o’ this, Shelagh an’ I are goin’ t’ join th’ Naturals in Angel City Valley.” Pardee set down his cup. “Tell you what… Why don’t you come with us? I’ll fix you up with some nice Navajo girl an’ you can settle down an’ raise corn and kids. Not necessarily in that order. How’s that sound?”
“Sounds great.” Allan had to laugh at that. He pick up his cup and tapped it against Pardee’s in a toast.
~ * ~
Another Mail Call.
This time, Pardee had a package from Shelagh. Home-made cookies. He opened the little box, offering it to Allan. The smell of ginger and cane sugar wafted out. “Gingerbread raisin. Have one, Mal.”
“Why do you call me that?” Allan asked, selecting a large, thick wafer. He inhaled the spice’s sharp scent. It made his mouth water. Taking a bite, he spoke through the sweet mouthful. “My name’s Allan. I don’t use my middle name.”
“No, you’re Mal. Short for Malcolm, aye.” Jon picked his own cookie, ate it in two bites before going on. “But mal also means “bad” an’ you’re a bad boy, Allan Malcolm McAllister…just like I am. Whether you want t’ be or not.”
“What do you mean you’re bad? I don’t see anyone beating up on you. They may be a little differential to you but at least you aren’t ostracized like I am.”
“Is that your way o’ askin’ about me background? For if ’tis, I’ll be tellin’ a sordid tale, boyo.” Pardee could turn the thickness of that Irish accent on and off at will, but it always became more pronounced when he got serious. He picked another cookie.
“I guess I am,” Allan replied. “I’ll admit I’m curious. You’ve become my friend, Jon, and I can’t help wondering why. Is it for the notoriety, or are you just a glutton for punishment? It certainly can’t be because of my winning personality.”
“Now that…” Pardee pointed at him with the second cookie, closing one eye in a weird little squint just short of a wink. “…is where you’re wrong. I’ll admit I felt sorry for you at first, but it didn’t take me long to see you an’ I are alike in a way, an’ if an’ when things get down to basics where’er we’re goin’, ’tis you I want guardin’ me back, Mal. Just as I’ll be guardin’ yours.”
That floored Allan. That this man who was almost a stranger would come right out and say he trusted him with his life and would be willing to protect him, too.
“In that case…you’d better tell me how you became a bad boy, Private Pardee. Give me the whole, sordid mess.”
So Jon Pardee did. He explained to Allan how he’d been a bit of a wild one back in Dublin. “Got picked up by th’ marshals a couple o’ times when I was a lad o’ fourteen. For borrowin’ air cars not m’own. Wrecked one, as a matter o’ fact, though I walked away okay. My parents paid for th’ car an’ thought that’d be th’ end o’ it but I got bored fast an’ looked around for more mischief.”
Jon finished the cookie he held, offered Allan another which was gratefully accepted. Shelagh was a good cook and he told Jon that.
“You should taste her venison stew. Cooked th’ Natural’s way.” He selected a third cookie, demolished it, then said, “Now, where was I?”
“You were looking for more mischief to get into,” Allan prompted.
“Right. Well, I found it soon enough. Ever hear o’ Seamus O’Doull?”
“Who hasn’t? He’s almost as infamous as my Uncle Egan. Except he’s a real criminal.” Allan had an uneasy thought. “He isn’t your uncle, is he?”
“Nah, but I worked for him. Transported certain items he received t’ certain people who wanted t’ buy ’em, which is a nice way o’ sayin’ he was a DarkSell master an’ I was his Goods merchant. It wasn’t dangerous work, an’ only a trifle illegal.” Jon took out the last cookie, broke it in half and handed one piece to Allan who took it. “I was seein’ a girl at th’ time…Shelagh…an’ I wanted t’ ask her t’ marry me, so I told Seamus I’d be willin’ to do other work, too, if he had it.”
He fell silent and stayed that way for so long, Allan prompted, “And?”
“An’…” Jon gave him a candid stare. “An’ I’m wonderin’ if I should tell you, since you consider me a friend an’ all.”
“Well, hell, Pardee. Don’t be coy.” Allan managed a rueful laugh. “You’ve told me this much. You can’t stop now.”
“Yeah, guess that’s so. Seems Seamus needed a bruiser. He had a sharkin’ business, along with his other endeavors, an’ he wanted someone t’ go an’ “talk” t’ th’ people welshin’ on payin’ back th’ money he lent ’em…” He paused, as if waiting for Allan’s reaction to that.
“And…th’ long an’ short o’ it was that one o’ th’ welshers was some politico’s brat. I beat ’em t’ a pulp an’ th’ bastard’s da had me arrested. Seamus had enough judges in his pocket he could’ve gotten th’ charges dismissed but I managed t’ come up before th’ one honest judge on th’ circuit. He dug into m’past record an’ found all m’youthful indiscretions an’ since this was my fourth adult one, said he was goin’ t’ make an example o’ me.”
“Damn, Jon. A four-time loser? That carries a stiff sentence and a visit to a penal asteroid.” Allan had heard the treatment there was even worse than being a paxist in a service barracks. The story went that the moment a new prisoner arrived on an asteroid, he was immediately group-raped and the gang leaders fought over who got what survived. “Obviously, you escaped that. How?”
“M’mum an’ da. They went t’ th’ judge. Humbled themselves an’ begged him not t’ do that t’ me. Lied for me…said I was young, misguided, etc.” With a loud swallow, Jon finished his half of the cookie. Briefly he looked ashamed that his behavior had forced his parents to do such a thing. “They’re good people an’ I admit I was a bad seed. Don’t know how they ever ended up with me. None o’ m’brothers are like that. Anyway…this war was goin’ full-tilt, so th’ judge gave me a choice: Join th’ Service or go t’ a penal colony.” He gave Allan a brilliant smile. “I’d just gotten married t’ m’Shelagh…an’ if there was any fookin’ o’ me t’ be done, I wanted it t’ be by her an’ not some skinned-head gang leader. So… I showed m’ patriotism an’ enlisted.”
“…and the rest is History,” Allan murmured.
“You got it, boyo.” Pardee laughed. He closed the now-empty box and set it on the ground and held out his hand. “Still friends in spite of m’colorful background?”
“Still friends.” Allan shook the hand, adding to himself, Maybe because of it.
“Isn’t that sweet? Holding hands.” The words cut venomously through the quiet.
Two grubs stood a few feet away, watching them. Allan glanced around. With relief, he saw that for the moment, this section of the compound was otherwise empty.
“For God’s sake, Pardee, if you’re going to fondle your sweetmeat, at least do it in private!”
“Yeah,” his companion put in. “Some of us prefer not to have our stomachs turned before we go in to supper.”
“Oh God…” Allan’s whisper was so soft Jon almost missed it. “Here it comes.” He stood up, squaring his shoulders, hands hanging at his sides but with fists clenched. “Are you still at my back, Jon?”
“Better than that.” Jaw set, Pardee took a step away from Allan and strode toward the two grubs.
The first one had seen the little box lying on the ground at their feet. “Sharing cookies from home, boys? How many times did you bend over for those, McAllister? You certainly come cheap. But what can we expect from a damned pax—”
He was still talking when Jon stopped in front of him and rammed his fist into his belly with all his strength behind it. There was a whoosh of expelled air as the grub bent double, clutching his gut. His head snapped back as Pardee caught him under the chin with one knee, sending him sailing backward through the air, blood and spittle and a couple of tooth-fragments flying into the soggy dirt.
The grub landed on his back, arms and legs sprawling. He was still conscious as the strangled sounds coming from his mouth testified. His friend knelt beside him, looking back at Pardee fearfully as he pulled the downed man upright.
“I’m thinkin’ it might be more conducive t’ your good health if you mind your own business from now on.” Pardee turned and stalked back to where Allan stood. As the second grub helped the other to his feet and they staggered in the direction of the infirmary, he muttered to Allan, “Shite, we’re in for it now, ain’t we?”
He was smiling as he said it, though.
~ * ~
At roll call that night, the recruit was there, sporting a blackened jaw and a chin splint where emergency surgery had been done to replace the two missing teeth. When Horton asked what had happened, he replied, “Got drunk and ran into a door, Sarge.”
“Hmmm.” Horton glanced around as if surveying the entire line-up, his gaze coming to rest briefly on Pardee’s bruised and split knuckles. “Drinking during the day carries a penalty, soldier.”
Both Pardee and Allan tensed, certain the grub would confess what happened. Jon would be punished for attacking a fellow soldier and the provocation of an insult wouldn’t be accepted because Allan was involved.
“Yes, sir.” The grub avoided Horton’s gaze, accepting his punishment.
~ * ~
And so things went. Training continued. Allan was occasionally hassled, once or twice got beaten again. However, Pardee’s presence and reputation, which somehow got bandied about the post, worked to minimize whatever happened to him. Allan hated having to figuratively hide behind the Irishman, but Jon didn’t seem to mind. More than once they’d both done their share of damage. Pardee actually seemed to enjoy the violence so Allan decided he shouldn’t feel too ashamed. Occasionally, Allan took advantage of the socializers’ offers in order to dispel further rumors of diggery between the two. Though Pardee remained frighteningly faithful to Shelagh, he never once looked down on Allan, calling his visits to the rooms in the canteen proof his blood “ran high.”