Hour 0900, Day 073, Year 2148
Ninety-second anniversary of the Rajasthan Reactor Catastrophe. Death toll estimated at 600,000.
Two days of light duty and an equal number of hours of mandatory counseling – required after a live weapons fire exchange, and Maker had herself under control again. She wasn’t better. She didn’t feel less guilty – although the psychologist had worked hard to try to get her to admit to the emotion. But she had pushed it down far enough that she could function, and possibly make something better of the time she had left to serve on the Pershing.
Kerry was waiting for her when she got off her shift on Thursday. It wasn’t too surprising, he often went with her to the mess or a rec hall if their schedules lined up. It was illegal to discriminate towards Genetically Modified Humans, had been for years, and the SC enforced the letter of the law. But it did not stop anyone from thinking less of people like Kerry. Can’t outlaw assholes, Maker thought as they walked together. She pushed a string of black hair that had escaped her regulation twist behind her ear; the movement made her shoulder spasm. It had been a long day working in the communications department.
“Workout?” Kerry asked quietly. “Today is Thursday, you are cleared for cardio, right?”
“Yeah, I- Thursday?” Maker paused, recalling her ride in the lift with Bretavic. “Actually, I was invited to a card game, but-”
“Bretavic,” Kerry nodded, “he asked me too.”
“Really? I – I mean, that’s great but -”
“Surprised he asked a tuber like me?” Maker flushed at Kerry’s easy use of the derogatory term, but her friend’s quick smile forgave her assumption. “I was too.” They walked in silence for an entire section. “So,” he said casually, “do you want to go?”
“I’ll lose,” she said seriously. “I am terrible at cards, you know that.”
“You have money?” Kerry’s thick, dark eyebrows lifted in question.
“Some.” She hesitated, “I could spare a few hundred credits, I guess.”
He snorted, “That’ll ensure they invite you back, if you lose that amount.”
“If I’m going, so are you,” she hit him lightly in the ribs with her elbow. “Today everyone has to get out there make a new friend. Even if it hurts.”
Kerry stopped them at the lift and hit the controls. “It almost always does. Except without the friend. And getting out there most often consists of a bar fight.”
“Yeah,” Maker smothered a laugh, “but the hurt is usually on the other guy.”
“Of course.” Kerry fell back into his customary silence after that, and they made their way to Maintenance Bay 6. Maker punched in the door code, and Kerry frowned.
“It’s ironic,” she informed him with a smile.
“I do not think you know what irony means,” he replied seriously.
It took them a few minutes to find the cluster of soldiers in a far corner, behind a stack of crated repair parts. Two tables had been set up and the men and women were using storage containers for chairs. Several field canteens, presumably of alcohol, were being passed around to fill a variety of cups. As Maker and Kerry approached, talk slowed. Most of the faces were carefully blank, but a few looked hostile. Maker was about to suggest that they turn around when Bretavic stood and offered them each a cup.
“You’ll play at my table,” he announced loudly. There was some place shuffling and resettling, but the release of tension was palatable. Hands were dealt and Maker relaxed for the first time since she had arrived on that mining station. An hour later – seventy-two credits in the hole – Maker folded early, sitting back to drink contraband moonshine that had the kick of rocket fuel and listen to the conversation around her.
“Sounds like a lot of talk to me,” a soldier stated flatly. She took a swig of her cup that left Maker wincing, but the woman didn’t even flinch. “Election campaigns will start in a couple of months – the liberals that want to run for office always throw out the idea of pulling back the military to get the voters stirred up.”
“Right,” Uesugi, the man next to her, snorted, “and then nobody ever says anything concrete about plans, and next thing you know mandatory service levels are increased or recruitment quotas go up. Anyone that believes Congress wants to downsize the fleet should have their genes examined. Idiots,” he added and increased his bet.
“I’ll see it,” the woman responded. She continued, “A politician saying they want to bring home soldiers is like an officer saying tubers are valued team players,” her voice dripped with condescension. “A whole load of shit that looks nice on a poster.” She glanced up at Maker, then her eyes slid to Kerry. “No offense.” She shrugged.
“None taken,” Kerry said evenly. “I’ll see and raise you five.”
“Little bit taken,” Maker said dryly. She was the only officer at the table. The woman laughed.
“I’ll see your five and call.” Bretavic swore loudly as he lost the hand to Kerry. He poured himself another drink while the younger man cleaned up the markers on the table. “Suck it up, Maker. You’re going to be an officer, you have to get used to being hated.”
“Not hated,” the veteran corrected, “just don’t expect friends.”
“And here I thought maybe later we would braid each other’s hair and trade diaries,” Maker deadpanned. She spoke in a monotone, “Now my feelings are hurt. Ouch.” They all laughed and drank and played another hand, which Maker quickly folded out of so she lost only the ante.
“Point is,” the female soldier said as though the conversation had never stopped, “it doesn’t matter if the Cullers stay outside Far Sol Space for another five years. As long as there are reports of the slimy little fuckers anywhere in this arm of the galaxy, no one is going to want to reduce Earth’s defenses.” She took the hand with a crow of triumph and counted her markers.
“Lucky for us,” Bretavic said sourly.
“You’re damn right,” the veteran agreed, either ignoring or not noticing the large soldier’s sarcasm. “That’s job security. As long as there are Cullers – they’ll need somebody to blow them straight to hell. I get paid to make greasy smears out of space lobsters. That’s easy money.”
“You should really needlepoint that on something,” Maker said. Blank looks met her archaic reference.
Kerry noted, “Recruitment poster.”
“Ha!” The woman laughed, and punched the veteran in the arm, “that would get re-enlistment numbers up.” She spread her finger out and outlined an imaginary advertisement in the air over the table, “Come, sign up with the Sol Coalition. Make greasy smears out of space lobsters.”
“Don’t forget the easy money,” Bretavic pointed out, frowning as a new hand was dealt. “I think that sums up this whole war nicely.”
“Easy money,” the veteran and woman repeated in sync, then laughed. Their chuckles were only lightly scented with alcohol, but Maker couldn’t help the shiver that danced along her spine. She might have agreed with the sentiment a few weeks ago, but after the mining station, she didn’t see a lot of humor in the idea. Thankfully, conversation soon turned to a recent training test that had been completed by one of the many platoons aboard the Pershing. Maker picked up her cards. She had a pair of twos and an ace. With my luck, she thought, I’ll end with just the twos. She threw in her marker with a sigh of resignation. Her contemplation of what to keep in her hand was interrupted by an argument between the veteran and Bretavic.
“-the hell! No way you scored that high!”
“Jealous, Bretavic?” Useugi smirked, “Try getting onto the mats every once in awhile, instead of using fights with new recruits to polish your martial skills.”
“I call bullshit,” the woman said, tossing her cards and folding. “If you scored that high, you’d have already been flagged for special ops. You’re a liar and ugly – it’s not a good combination.”
“You weren’t saying that last night, Tremaine,” the older soldier grinned. She flipped him off.
“The score isn’t the only requirement for special forces,” Kerry said quietly. All eyes turned to him in surprise, he hadn’t spoken much since the game had begun. The heavy muscles in his shoulders shifted under his uniform as he shrugged. “Genes.” Maker saw the flash of pity in Bretavic’s eyes, while the other two soldiers remained silent. Kerry gradually stiffened, as he realized he had drawn attention to himself. They couldn’t know for certain, although Maker did, but they could easily guess how well a Genetically Modified Human would do in training tests. Kerry had been specifically bred to be a soldier, which was fairly obvious from his build and reflexes. Maker had tested out with him at every step of their training and could attest to his near perfect scores in anything related to strength, agility, or motor skills. Her table companions had been right when they made the comparison to politicians’ promises. No tuber, no matter what was said about equality, was treated fairly in the Sol Coalition. It was a load of shit.
“That explains it,” Bretavic broke the silence, pointedly looking over the veteran. “Too much Neanderthal DNA, right?”
The table was silent for a long minute, and Maker held her breath, wondering if Bretavic had stepped over a line. Finally, the woman barked out a laugh and slapped Useugi on the shoulder. “He caught you out, idiot! I always suspected – what with the back hair!”
The veteran slouched in his chair and grinned, “It’s a sign of virility – back hair.”
“Keep telling yourself that,” Bretavic mumbled, disgusted.
Maker let out a silent exhale, grateful that the attention was off of Kerry. Her friend had a difficult enough time as his appearance was so obviously caused by now-illegal mutation; he didn’t need the first social time he had taken part in on the Pershing to single him out from other soldiers. The nickname, tubers, already spoke volumes about how most people felt about the technology that created him – and thousands more like him. It took a tremendous amount of science to combine human sperm and egg with DNA from non-human sources. Whether the result was a live birth or not, the individuals were labeled by their start in a test tube. Even before the Sol Coalition had banned the practice on Earth, it had been a procedure that was frowned upon. Only those who were truly desperate to set their offspring on a different path chose Genetic Modification.
It had been particularly popular with debtors and parolees that owed years of service to the government. When the ban on the procedure was extended in 2124 from Earth to all Sol-controlled systems, black market operations sprang up on independent mining stations and colonies. Those couples that paid for a GMH pregnancy in the years following gave everything they had – and oftentimes the promise of years of future income – to scientists that promised the world but rarely had the credentials or equipment to deliver on those guarantees. Many of those born from such procedures developed chronic issues that actually barred them from successful entry into the military and specialized service fields that their parents had envisioned for them. A high percentage ended up serving in the same mining and terraforming camps where their parents were bound. Having genetics that were labeled superior or desirable did not ensure an easier life.
Although GMHs were given full access to citizenship rights almost ten years before either she or Kerry were born, equality was still a long way off. Legally, Kerry couldn’t be denied the rights or privileges available to any human. In reality, his file – like that of every soldier – noted his genetic profile, and his assignments reflected how his superior officers felt about it. Luck hadn’t been in his favor when his profile was compiled either. His mental capabilities were above average. His physical abilities were well above minimums even for special forces troops. Aesthetically, however, Kerry was not an ideal soldier. His musculature was over-developed, giving him a hulking appearance which was not lessened at all by his shorter than fashionable height. His jaw was wide and his nose almost flat. Combined with his thin lips and extremely dark skin, a heavy bone structure made him stand out sharply against the tall, athletic stereotype of a soldier. Eighty-five percent of Sol-born humans received embryonic gene therapy to maximize their DNA. The process didn’t allow for additives like those that Kerry had received, but it did allow parents to select the best possible combination of traits for their children. It resulted in a nearly homogeneous army. Symmetrical facial features, skin tones ranging from honey and caramel tones to a deeper mocha, and two generations of selecting for height resulted in Kerry being an anomaly in almost any crowd.
Of course, Maker had the same problem, to a certain extent. Although she wasn’t as obviously different as Kerry, her father’s choice to restrict her gene therapy to only medical needs and leaving her appearance up to nature had a visible impact. Her mother’s family was from Japan, and she had inherited her short stature from them, rather than her tall, blonde American father, although she had received his blue eyes. Her skin was as pale as genetics allowed without abnormality; the combination of milky almond Japanese coloring with scorchingly pale Scandinavian heritage made her a sharp contrast at the opposite end of the spectrum to Kerry. Two new recruits, one the result of desperation and hope, the other of hippie rebellion against the system, found each other the first day of training and had quickly formed a friendship. Maker often felt she didn’t deserve the sort of dedicated loyalty Kerry gave her, but she did her best to offer him the same.
She pick up her cards without really looking at them a determined that the hand would be her last. She was almost out of money, and Kerry seemed comfortable enough to stay without her – if that is what he wanted. She had a new duty shift the next day, and wasn’t looking forward to slogging through training on a few hours of sleep.
“The bet is to you, Maker,” Bretavic leaned around Kerry’s bulk to catch her eye. “Just fold already so I can collect my winnings.” He grinned.
“What the hell,” she smiled back and tossed in a marker. “This is my last hand anyway. Call.”
“Past your bedtime, little girl?” Useugi grinned. “Probably for the best, as you won’t beat my straight.” He laid out his cards and sat back, crossing his arms smugly as the woman next to him groaned. Both she and Kerry had folded early.
“Fuck all,” Bretavic swore, tossing down his hand. “Two pair, you lucky bastard.” The veteran was actually reaching toward the pile of winnings in the center when Maker put down her cards. She blinked in surprise, not having paid much attention to the last game. Bretavic barked out a laugh, “A Full House, Aces over twos! Get your hands off the credits, Uesegi!”
“You been setting me up for the long con this whole game, Maker?” The veteran, Uesegi, frowned, but he didn’t sound upset.
Maker shrugged, smiling. No one could be angry about what was clearly a lucky hand. She had lost more than she won over the course of the night, so no one could say she came out ahead. “Yeah, that’s it. You caught me. A few more weeks of losing my paycheck and I would have had you just where I wanted you.”
“Now you’ve done it, Sergeant,” the woman laughed as Maker picked up the markers, “You’ll have to come back and lose next time just to prove Bretavic didn’t bring in a ringer.”
“That won’t be a problem,” Kerry deadpanned. Maker elbowed him while everyone else grinned and chuckled. More drinks were poured as she tucked her winnings into her uniform jacket. She didn’t admit it, even to herself, didn’t even let her thoughts go there, but as she walked back to her shared quarters, she felt a little less guilty. A little more at peace.