Barghest – Chapter 19

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Fealty

Hour 0900, Day 118, Year 2148

Twenty-ninth anniversary of the Expulsion. Sol Coalition forces routed Cullers from Close Space Near Sol and set up perimeter defenses in a one hundred light year radius.

Maker barely suppressed the urge to fidget. Most soldiers managed to get through their mandatory two years without ever seeing a review panel. Most got through entire careers. It was her second time facing inquiry in less than two months. Not a great track record, she thought. She cracked the joints in her left wrist and hand nervously, then forced her palm to slide across her thigh. Maker pressed it there to keep herself still while she waited for the officers on the panel to enter.

It was not as bad as the last time. She was not alone. Kerry, Rodriguez, Gonzales, and Bretavic sat behind her. The rookie was still in the infirmary – drugged into a coma until his new vertebrae were done growing. Why Peters wasn’t in the hearing instead of Bretavic, she had no idea. Seems to be the order of the day, she griped to herself. She still wasn’t entirely sure why the review panel had been called. As far as she knew, she hadn’t broken any regulations. Everyone under her command had survived. This time. And while her breaking into the communications line to order a bug-out could be considered insubordination, that seemed like something that would be taken care of between her direct superior and Major Ben-Zvi. She could only assume that her mission had failed in some way – but if that was the case, it should have been Peters and not Bretavic in the room. She glanced at the sentry stationed by the doors, the crisp uniform of an MP in stark contrast to the haphazard look of her own group.

Bretavic, as usual, was just this side of unsightly with his wrinkled jacket and fraying pant hems. Rodriguez would have looked the picture of the dapper soldier, if not for the oversized burn glove on his hand, protecting his new skin. His hair might have been a bit too shiny and voluminous, but he was a stark contrast to Gonzales. Every aspect of her uniform and hair was staid and starched -except for the brace on her wounded leg and the IV pack of antifungals she carried around with her. It was enough that most other soldiers gave her a wide berth. A lot of Cullers carried diseases that might be worse than being chewed on.

A door opened at the far end of the room, and Maker could see the profile of an unfortunately familiar officer. Lt. Commander Soon was turned back toward someone else, talking, but even without his attention focused on her, Maker felt a surge of despair. Whatever she had done, the consequences were about to become much, much worse.

A stage whisper broke the tense silence. “Hey, Sarge.” Maker studiously avoided looking at Rodriguez. He continued anyway, “Do you know the difference between a lieutenant commander and a private?” Maker closed her eyes and breathed quietly, hoping that whatever was about to be said wouldn’t involve balls or recreational shower use.

“What?” she asked quickly, thinking maybe Rodriguez could get it over with before Soon heard him.

“The private knows he’s stupid.” There was an expectant beat, and Maker could feel Rodriguez’s grin beside her without even looking.

“You’re an idiot,” she muttered quietly.

“That’s what I’m saying!” His outburst drew a snorted chuckle from the sentry and a groan from Gonzales. Soon stepped into the room, his eyes narrowed with suspicion. “But obviously, the private is better looking,” Rodriguez added.

“Shut it,” Maker hissed as they all stood at attention. Soon was followed into the room by the Commander she recognized from her first inquiry. The third figure made the blood drain from her face. Captain Yardley. It was one thing to be summoned to a performance review, without knowing what you had done wrong. It was entirely different for the Captain of the ship to oversee the hearing.  She swallowed hard and did her best to look coolly professional. Maker had the distinct impression she failed.

“At ease,” Yardley ordered. His silver hair was bent over a tablet in his hand, reading glasses from another century perched on his nose. He found his seat, in the center of the panel of reviewers and looked up. “You may be seated, Private Gonzales.”

“Sir, I prefer to stand with my team, sir.”

Maker did her best not to cringe. She knew it was a signal of solidarity, but honestly she would have preferred to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible. The last thing she wanted was a memorable inquiry. She already had enough officers that disliked her. Soon’s perpetual sneer was difficult to ignore.

Yardley raised a bow, “As you will. This review board is convened at 0902 on day 118, 2148.” The hearing room was equipped to record the proceedings for the official record, and didn’t require that date and time be stated, but the Captain finished the formalities. “The actions of Sergeant Clara Maker and Privates Dan Rodriguez, Pilar Gonzales, John Kerry, and Petr Bretavic are under consideration. Please note that a fourth soldier will be reviewed in absentium, while recovering from injuries sustained in combat.”

Yardley read their ID numbers off, then continued, “While under siege on planet VK10-RD48,” it took Maker a second to recognize the designation of the hellhole she had spent two weeks fighting on, “Sergeant Maker and Private Rodriguez showed initiative and disregard for their personal safety by planning, volunteering for and successfully executing a maneuver which allowed two companies relief from pinning fire.” Wait, what? Maker actually felt her mouth fall open. Yardley had sounded like he was complimenting them, but his expression was stern.

“Furthermore,” Yardley continued, “Sergeant Maker planned and led an infiltration and destruction mission against the enemy position, going above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that her team survived against insurmountable odds and weakening key enemy defenses to provide for successful destruction of the opposition.” Yardley was reading from his tablet. Soon was glaring at Maker. She snapped her mouth closed. Her thoughts were reeling. She had anticipated a slap on the wrist, at best, not praise from the Captain.

“Privates Rodriguez, Kerry, and Gonzalez showed courage under fire and exemplary dedication to their duties, fighting against overwhelming odds and undertaking tasks far above their training and experience. Private Bretavic,” there Yardley paused and looked up. Something passed between the captain and the hulking man beside her, but other than the slight compression at the corners of Yardley’s mouth, he gave no indication of what he was thinking. “Private Bretavic,” he began again, “risked his personal safety to pilot a damaged transport ship to the surface, in advance of reinforcements, to provide an exit to the aforementioned team, without which they may not have successfully returned to base.”

Yardley scrolled through his tablet. “In light of these events, I am hereby submitting for consideration Privates Kerry, Rodriguez, Gonzalez, and Bretavic for Commendations for Meritorious Service during Combat. Sergeant Maker shall be considered for a Bronze Star. Soldiers,” he was speaking to them as he placed his hand on the tablet to sign the order. Maker felt like she must have taken a head injury. She wondered if the effects could be delayed. Soon was still scowling. “Thank you for your service.”

Bretavic shifted uneasily, blowing out a hard breath beside her. Rodriguez had puffed up his chest, but from the corner of her eye she could see his tight expression. Gonzales sat down with a thump.

“This inquiry has ended. Everyone dismissed.” Maker wanted to collapse in her chair, but oddly, the panel was not leaving. Yardley’s voice took on a more dangerous tone. “Recording end, authorization Alpha, Foxtrot, two-niner-one-Alpha.”

The Commander spoke next, “Sentry, lose the next twenty minutes.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the MP replied and left the room.

Confusion was rapidly growing into something resembling fear for Maker. Soon stood and walked to the nearest access terminal. He placed his hand on the wall pad and gave his voice authorization code, locking down the room. Maker’s heart began to beat double time.

“Sir,” Rodriguez began, but was cut off.

“Sit down Private,” Captain Yardley snapped. “All of you.” Maker sat. Bretavic was stiff next to her, his arm pushing against her shoulder and supporting her frame. “You are in a serious situation here, and I truly hope you can grasp the importance of the next few minutes.” His gaze focused on each of them in turn, and it made Maker feel small and unsure when it landed on her. “Classified information which is far above your paygrade came into your knowledge while you were in those tunnels, and while I would like to know what the hell you all thought you were doing, I don’t have clearance to ask that.”

Soon’s scowl had turned into a sour little smirk, but it was completely overshadowed by Yardley’s anger. “When the Sol Intelligence Service contacts me and demands records – I don’t like it. When the Minister of Defense contacts me and orders compliance, I like that even less. Whatever garden stroll you took your team on, Maker, I suggest you forget it. Whatever you saw, whatever you heard, it might as well not have happened. Got it?”

“Our tech…” Rodriguez started, and then trailed off.

“Yes, your tech,” Yardley’s jaw hardened. “Everything on this boat belongs to me, is under my command, and yet I have a dingy full of SIS on their way to rendezvous and collect your tech and scrub down my databases. Why is that, do you think?” Rodriguez opened his mouth. Only a sharp exhale came out as he was simultaneously kicked by Gonzales and Maker. He grunted, “It would seem to me to be a waste of time, given the number of individuals that now know about the comms transmissions. Who was that, exactly, that borrowed your authorization code, Sergeant?” His eyebrows were raised. Maker wasn’t sure what to say. “Well?”

“I, ah, sir, that individual did not identify himself to me, sir.” Her palms were a little sweaty. She couldn’t deny that she had thought about that gravelly voice, the Team Leader, since she returned to the Pershing. Most of those thoughts ended in telling him what a complete jackass he was for not responding to her communication. In light of what Yardley was saying about the SIS wanting to cover up the specifics, she was beginning to wonder if ‘legionnaires’ was a nickname for a special forces unit, or an intelligence gathering team.

“Work on that answer, Maker. I doubt SIS will take that at face value.” Yardley was still frowning, and for a moment Maker thought she saw pity in his eyes. “You’ll all debrief with SIS at the border station.” He stood, tucking his tablet under his arm and sending one last glare toward each of them. “I suggest you spend what time you have left on your tours keeping your heads down and your noses clean. This meeting is over.”

The captain stalked from the room followed by a straight-backed Commander and a smirking Soon. The vicious smile he sent her way would have once chilled Maker, but she was too confused and had been too recently terrified to give it much attention.  The medals are a cover, she thought blankly. It almost made her sick to think about. Pinning something to her chest that represented loyalty to the Coalition and bravery when all she had been was afraid and sick and terribly unlucky.

“Well,” Rodriguez said, “now I’m really curious about that device we found.”

“Shut it,” Gonzalez snapped, struggling to her feet at the same time Bretavic ordered,

“Drop it, Fuzz.”

“You drop it,” Rodriguez fired back at the larger man. His voice was hot with anger and pent up frustration. “Debrief with the SIS? That could take weeks, if they don’t like what we have to say. You pretend it never happened if you want, but I want to know what earned me this kind of sentence.”

“It’s not like you’re going to prison, Fuzz,” Gonzales tried to calm him down. “It’ll probably be a cushy few days on some station inside the border.”

“No, thank you,” he replied tightly. It was the most honest emotion Maker had ever seen him voluntarily display.  His wrist bracer chimed quietly with an incoming message, followed by each of the other’s.  Maker glanced down at hers as Rodriguez groaned. “Damnit, the assignment has already been put through.”

“I’ve been moved to munitions supply,” Gonzales said woodenly. “I haven’t done munitions since my rookie rotation.”

“Third shift, cargo transport,” Bretavic read off of his own screen. “Boring, but it could be worse. What’d you get, Sarge?”

“Second shift data core,” she said, unable to suppress a wince.

“Isn’t that Soon’s detail?” Bretavic didn’t wait for a response. “Shitty.” No wonder Soon was smiling, can’t wait to have me under his command.

“Yeah,” Maker sighed. She still felt a little shaky. Just like Rodriguez, she wondered what the Culler device was for – why it was so classified. Unlike Rodriguez, she wasn’t stupid enough to say so out loud. A little voice in the back of her mind also wondered what had happened to the Team Leader and his Legionaries. She shook her head, trying to get rid of thoughts that might end her somewhere worse than under Soon’s thumb. As if there was such a place, she snarked to herself. Yardley was right. They all needed to forget they saw and heard anything that the SIS wanted to remain classified. “Hey, no pity for me. I’ve only got three months left.”

“Me too,” Bretavic grunted, standing. “But I’ll probably re-enlist. Nothing better to do.”

“Nothing better than making greasy smears out of space lobsters?” Maker stood also, reorienting herself for the reality outside of the little room. Preparing herself to lie about what had happened inside the crater. Preparing to convince herself that it didn’t matter.

“Easy money,” Bretavic replied.

Kerry, who had remained stoic throughout the ordeal, offered Gonzalez a hand and helped her to her feet. “It will make the rookie’s story better, to have gotten a medal out of it.”  Everyone turned to stare at his placid, dark face. It took Maker a moment, but she finally remembered.

“That kid is going to be swimming in booze and uniform-chasing women,” she laughed, grateful for the release of tension.

“And I’ll be forever debriefing with the SIS,” Rodriguez whined. “The best ladies will already be taken.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Gonzales pinched his cheek, and they all began to file out of the room, “I’ll save you a beer.”

They were playing cards three days later when Rodriguez was called to report to his superior officer. Two days out from their rendezvous with the SIS, and Bretavic had given in out of pity and let the fuzz into his game. Rodriguez was surprisingly good at cards, and unsurprisingly immodest about it.

“Ha,” he crowed as he scooped up chips. “How did you not see that bluff, Sarge!”

“I was distracted by all the light bouncing off of your hair. Did you dump engine grease in it?” Maker folded her arms. She didn’t really care that she had lost, she almost always lost, but teasing Rodriguez might put him off of his game enough that Kerry could win something back.

“Pomade,” Rodriguez replied proudly, “it’s made by collecting the placenta-” A message on his tech distracted him.

“Thank god,” Gonzales muttered from her place at the next table.

Rodriguez frowned. “I have to report in, looks like our friends arrived early.” That the debriefing schedule, which listed Rodriguez first, had been moved up went unspoken. Their table grew quiet. Although most of the players at the Thursday games didn’t know the specifics of why Maker’s team and Bretavic were up for commendations, it seemed everyone on the Pershing was whispering about the legion. Comms travel fast, Maker had thought the first time she overheard soldiers whispering about it. It was true. Messages that went out on wide frequencies and resulted in a lightning paced bug-out and planetary bombardment tended to be repeated. Whether the gravelly voice Maker had heard on her line belonged to a special forces operative or an SIS spy, it didn’t really matter. The rank and file had already chewed on the gossip and determined that there was a new, badass unit that Maker had met up with on a secret assignment. That neither she nor the other members of the team would talk about it only made the rumors worse. Rodriguez hurrying through the corridors just as a ship requested an unscheduled docking – in the dark – would add fuel to the fire.

“Good luck, man,” Bretavic said quietly.

“Try not to talk so much,” Gonzalez advised.

“Keep a knife on you.” Kerry’s serious statement was met with surprised looks. He did not react as though he had said anything unusual.  Rodriguez stood, and then waited expectantly by Maker’s chair.

“What?” she finally asked.

“Aren’t you going to say anything? Something encouraging and inspiring, maybe?” He waggled his eyebrows, “Or admit your undying love for me, Sarge?”

“Ew,” Maker said flatly. The storage room erupted in laughter, breaking some of the tension. Maker stood too, and held out her hand for his. “Watch yourself, Rodriguez,” she said quietly. “Anything they push you on, just tell them it was my orders, and they’ll have to ask me.”

He grinned lasciviously, his ultra white smile handsome against tanned skin, “See, you do care.” Kerry and Bretavic stood too, and Gonzalez walked over, all to shake Rodriguez’s hand.  He whistled nonchalantly as he left for his debrief.

Everyone was surprised when Rodriguez returned an hour later, quietly letting the others know that the SIS unit had emptied the Pershing in a wide path to the server stations. After collecting the tech from the VK10 mission and scrubbing the servers, they left without debriefing anyone. Maker did not feel relief.

***

Four months later.

“The recent skirmishes between Coalition forces and Culler detachments outside of the CSNS perimeter have been quoted by the Minister of Defense as being, ‘the first of a new wave of aggression’. Sources close to President Sudarshan have indicated that she is committed to ensuring economic and civilian losses are minimized as the war continues. Approval ratings for the President remain strong after recent announcements of increased funding for a new fleet of deep space ships, with the intent to push the Cullers further from the Sol system. Whether the President has determined to run for a third term is still under intense speculation. Although the precedent has been for leaders of the Sol Confederation to step down after two six-year terms, the public has responded positively to the idea of Sudarshan continuing in office.”

Maker took her beer as the bartender handed it to her and walked back to her booth. The screens placed around the small pub continued to drone on, reporting the news and showing highlights from the recent Sol Cup. It was only her second drink, and still early afternoon, but she hadn’t eaten since she got on the train that morning. The alcohol was getting to her head, but she nibbled on the pretzels at her table and stared out the window rather than order something.  She had been discharged a month ago, her mandatory service complete, and returned to the family farm with a mixture of relief and guilt.

“Hey, Dad,” she had said softly, stepping into the barn where he was putting away saddles. It smelled just like she had remembered. Dry and musky. Leather and horse sweat and the comforting notes of old wood, hay, and manure.

 “Clara?” He had looked up, startled, and she was a little surprised to see how much he looked the same. Bright blue eyes. Dark blonde hair that had faded to silver on top. His plaid shirt was rolled up at the sleeves and his denims and work gloves were dirty with leather polish. The man who had raised her by himself, who had attended soccer games and spelling bees, who had taught her to ride, and mend fence, and grill steak. The man who had commiserated over quantum mechanics homework and spent hours setting up translation software so that she could learn Japanese – even though he didn’t want her to.

 “Daddy,” she whispered. Tears welled in her eyes, and suddenly it all came rushing back at her. She had seen people die. She had killed. She had been terrified. She was still terrified. Her bag fell to the ground, sending up a cloud of dust and crushed straw. And then he had his arms around her and they were sitting in the dirt. She was sobbing, and she thought he might have been crying too, but she couldn’t tell through the snot and the tears and the painful way her heart was thumping. “I was so scared.”

 “It’s okay, shh, it’s okay, baby.” She wasn’t sure how long they sat there in the barn, her father stroking her hair and rocking a little. When it was over, she felt embarrassed. She was twenty years old and crying like a little kid. “You are never too old,” he had said with a smile, “it makes you human. To have emotions about all of this. To feel guilt and shame and elation and fear. To want to come home.” They had helped each other up then, and he handed her a shovel and she cleaned stalls while he talked about a new quarter horse and the last elementary school tour group that had been to the farm.

A waiter stopped by her table, shaking her out of the memory. “You need a refill, or something to eat? Or are you waiting for someone?” His smile was easy, his black hair carefully styled. It reminded her of Rodriguez. She wondered where he was. “Yeah – I’m waiting, I mean. But if you have a menu, I’ll take a look.” She didn’t plan on ordering, wasn’t sure her stomach was up to food, but it would buy her more time alone until Bretavic arrived. The news reporter on the screen behind the bar was speaking to another anchor.

“-indeed. The margin of five votes is significant. This will be a true indication of where the President draws the line in supporting the military. With such a small margin, she could maintain backing from either side of the issue. Vetoing this bill would allow First Tier Citizens to continue to own property and hold controlling shares in corporations. Although the bulk of the bill is dedicated to new reforms for punitive service and veterans’ benefits, the property clause could have tremendous impact on re-enlistment numbers. Polls have shown that-” Someone changed the channel and a musical program came on. Maker turned back to the window.

That bill was why she had come to Seattle to meet with Bretavic. He was flying in from Russia, and she wasn’t sure if she wanted him to talk her into action, or talk her out of it.  She stared at the enlistment office on the other side of a wide, cobbled courtyard. A few individuals were already lined up outside the door, waiting for their turn with the recruiter.

More than twenty years previous, Greg Maker had done his mandatory military service and then returned to Earth and his beloved farm. He had worked beside his great grandfather while he went to school and took courses in agriculture, veterinary science, and chemistry. He had traveled to institutions and research centers all over Sol-controlled space, pursuing his love of growing things and learning. It was how he had met the mother of his child. Lin Yamamoto had just reenlisted for her first tour and – despite their radically different views on the military, politics, genetics, and nearly everything else – they did have chemistry. Although all enlisted personnel were required to submit to a contraceptive implant, nothing was 100% effective.  Greg had taken Lin to court to make certain she did not terminate the pregnancy. He had won then, the courts determined there was no physical or psychological detriment to the mother to continue the pregnancy, and Greg had gotten parental rights with no contest from Lin.

He had built a life for his daughter on Earth. Dedicated himself to raising Clara, crops, and animals. He made his home a center for education on historic food production methods and won grants to supplement his projects.  He had done all of those things, and often stood on his soapbox about the genetic modification of humans in order to ‘make them better’. He had not, however, re-enlisted.  Greg was a First Tier Citizen, someone who had completed his mandatory service and never gone back to the military. Under the new law, he would no longer be allowed to own property. Not unless he signed up for a tour of duty – and then there would be no one to run his farm.

Maker let out a shaky breath. Second Tier Citizenship was not something she had ever desired. She had always assumed she would go home, perhaps pursue an education similar to her father’s, and work on the farm. She certainly did not want to go back to the Coalition. The line in front of the enlistment center moved forward again. Ten years. That was the shortest period she would be eligible for, since she had no upper level education. A decade of her life, to preserve what her father had spent his life building.  She rubbed her shoulder absently. Kerry had not been helpful when she discussed it with him. He was absolutely loyal to her, and would support whatever decision she made. For himself, he had already re-enlisted. The same day they got back to Earth.

“What’s the deal, Maker? You ask me all the way here and then don’t even get me a drink?”

She glanced up and there was Bretavic standing by the table. His smile was large and crooked, his form looked smaller in civilian clothes.  She stood too and offered him a smile and a handshake before waving over the waiter.  “It’s good to see you,” she said, before they ordered. Bretavic got them each a beer and a plate of fried okra to share. It arrived quickly, and he ordered the most expensive, real meat entree on the menu and another beer while he salted the crispy vegetables and dipped them in mustard. “Seriously?” Maker wrinkled her nose.

Bretavic laughed. “I’ve been on leave for a few days, stocking up. By next week I’ll be on military nutrition again. All printed meat and low-sodium reconstituted veggies. I need to enjoy this while I can.”

“Make yourself sick, more likely,” she retorted. He just popped another piece into his mouth and smiled. He was halfway through his steak – all Maker could see when she looked at it was the outrageous price of beef – when she finally got around to it. “I’m thinking of re-joining.”

He set down his knife and fork, wiped his mouth as he finished chewing, and leveled her with a serious stare. “You hated it.”

“Yeah,” she blew out a breath, and glanced out the window again. The line had grown shorter. Only one person was waiting, a thin man probably up for his mandatory service. Man, she thought, more like kid. He was on the short side and was fidgeting with anxiety or excitement. “Yeah, I did. Most of it,” she admitted, turning back to Bretavic. “Have you seen the news?” He nodded, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms, the steak temporarily forgotten. “You know I grew up on a farm…” She hesitated, wondering if maybe she was making a mistake talking to him about it. Bretavic was a career soldier. His family was huge, and had a record of military service that began before the last Russian tsar. What will he know about it, she thought, second-guessing herself.

“Your dad doesn’t have Second Tier status, does he?”

“No,” Maker confirmed quietly.

“You’re thinking about enlisting to what, save the family farm?” His expression was unreadable, his posture stiff.

“Yeah.”

“Don’t.” His flat response was so unexpected, Maker blinked. “There are already plenty of dumbasses who signed up just so they could get ahead.” Maker’s cheeks burned with embarrassment and indignation. That isn’t what I- he interrupted her thoughts. “Idiots take a tour so that they can get a shiny bar on their shoulder or better pay. They want the SC to fork over the credits for school, or they want to meet a spouse. They sign up so they can run for political office or own a corporation. Those people are assholes – and I don’t want to fight beside them.”

“Who do you want to fight beside?” she asked. Her voice was snide, but she couldn’t seem to control it. She had thought Bretavic was her friend. Despite their age difference, he had acted like he respected her. Because of his experience, she had wanted his advice.

“Friends,” he responded, quickly but without any anger. “Comrades. People who don’t want to be killing or getting killed any more than I do, but who still show up. Soldiers. That is who should be in the fight, Maker, soldiers. A real soldier is there, because he knows that without him the unit is weaker, his friends are more vulnerable. A soldier fights because he has something to protect, only a mercenary fights because he has something to gain.”

Shame and fury washed through her like a tidal wave. Shame that she had fallen so low in Bretavic’s estimation. Shame that she had only been thinking of herself and her family, not what the Coalition stood for – what it meant to so many others. Fury that Bretavic had forced her to see that part of herself. “Sorry,” she mumbled.

“Don’t apologize to me,” Bretavic said gruffly, leaning forward again and cutting into his steak. “Thinking about it doesn’t make you wrong. But if you do sign up, make sure it is for the right reasons.”

“Why do you do it, really?” She spoke without thinking, and immediately regretted it as a Bretavic winced. “No, never mind. You don’t have to say anything.”

Bretavic shook his head and took a deep breath. “During my two years, I was stationed on the border. SC was taking some pretty good hits at the time. The Cullers were losing big numbers, but they were wearing us down in places, testing our defenses.” He took a sip of beer. “My Sergeant – he was a real prick – he pushed us further and further out from the main line. We were in a little short-range runner ship, and he saw a Culler detachment set down on an asteroid. We had no idea what they were doing, but Sarge wasn’t going to let them get so much as a pinkie toe on anything in our space. We’d been going on forty-two hours without sleep, and you know there is only so much the stim packs can do for alertness.” Bretavic was staring into his glass. The pale golden liquid swirled as he slowly turned the pint. “He ordered us to do a free fall entrance to the asteroid and attack. There were only two of us that had ever been untethered in space outside of training. I remember one of the kids just about fainted at the idea. I called Sarge out, told him it was stupid. Prick punched me in the nose.” Bretavic chuckled and looked up. “See,” he pointed to his crooked smile, “didn’t ever go in for correction. Broken nose messed up my face.”

“What happened?”

“Sarge said I could stay on that ship, bleeding like a coward, or I could go down there and watch my team’s back. Said he wouldn’t report me either way – but I’d have to live with what happened.” He took another drink of beer. “We all went down there. Sarge got killed. Most of the team got killed. But we got every last one of those slimy fuckers, and destroyed the supplies on the asteroid.” He grinned, more feral that friendly. “They had munitions stockpiled. Enough to outfit a Culler fleet and take out ten or twenty destroyers. Blow a hole right through the perimeter. We stopped that.” He threw back the rest of his drink. “Useugi was on that one with me.”

Maker’s gut churned, remembering blood floating out into space above VK10. “Useugi is dead.”

“Gonzales isn’t. Peters isn’t. That kid with the broken back isn’t. Even Rodriguez, who is just as likely to get shot with friendly fire for running his mouth, is still alive. They need good soldiers at their sides. The people here on Earth? The ones on Titan and Europa Station? At Gagarin and Aldrin colonies? At Gliese? They need good soldiers to keep them safe. If you’re gonna re-enlist, do it for the right reasons, Maker. Be a soldier, or stay home.” He didn’t say it to be mean, she knew that. He wasn’t sneering, or questioning her bravery or loyalty. Bretavic finished up the rest of his steak and called for the check while Maker sipped her beer, thinking.

He cursed, loudly and creatively, in Russian when it came. “Good thing I get a bonus for signing today. I’ll need it just to pay. Two weeks’ worth of credits for one steak. Highway robbery,” he muttered, getting out his card and swiping it across the waiter’s tablet.

Maker smiled in apology and left a generous tip. “Come on, Bretavic,” she stood and he followed her out of the bar. “Let’s go get you that bonus check, then I’ll thank you for coming out here with a real steak.”

“A real steak?” he said, brows raised. He kept pace with her across the courtyard and up to the enlistment office. “What did I just pay for, printed protein?”

“Nah, that was inferior.” She waved him off. “Before we have to report for duty, you’ll come out to the farm and I’ll get you some Nebraska beef. Trust me, there is a difference.”

We are going to report for duty?” He narrowed his eyes at her. “Are you still doing this for your dad?”

“Yes.” She took a deep breath. “And for Rodriguez. He’ll be scrubbing toilets for the next decade if there isn’t anyone to make apologies for his stupidity. And for Kerry. He’ll rush into enemy territory with just his bare hands if he’s ordered to do it. He needs backup.”

“Well, then,” Bretavic leaned against the wall behind her, waiting his turn. “Welcome to the Coalition, Soldier.”

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