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Volume 1: Wherein Thou Art a Stranger
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The Last Brownie
August 17, 0004 PPE: Hollywood Park, OKC Sector West
1441.15 hrs 08.17.04 113.7 F
He was flying: standing up on the pedals with his arms spread wide and the seat locked between his knees, catching the wind on his sweat right through his flightsuit as he coasted out two blocks of hard pedaling—
He heard it again. He grabbed the handlebars just as they started to wobble, sat down and opened his eyes. The sky glared. He was coasting, alone on the wide hot street.
Someone was calling him. But it was a lady's voice. He licked his dry cracked lips and took a sip from the moisture delivery tube inside his helmet. Before he’d even swallowed, his lips were dry again.
All of a sudden he had to go. Bad.
1445.06 hrs 8.17.04 113.7 F
“Anything on the radar, over?” asked the voice in his helmet.
“Stand by, Charlie.” He had coasted almost to the corner of Gable Avenue. He snapped the radar simulator over his visorscreen and looped a slow loop from curb to curb, scanning the pink-tinted houses and purple lawns. A beam swept around in a circle on the screen, beeping and blinking, just like the real thing. “Negative on the radar, over,” he reported. Charlie was his best friend. His second-in-command. His wingman. He snapped the radar simulator off and the sky glared again.
But a lady. A prickle went down Bill’s spine under the sweaty flightsuit. This could be it.
He was playing that game of riding out the last of his momentum, inching down the slope of the pavement toward the curb, balancing. He was starting to wonder. If it was only one more. Of his own voices after all. He set one sneaker on the curb in front of the corner house. But kept the other foot cocked on its pedal, fists tight on the handlegrips while he looked around for clues.
Nothing moved except the waves of heat shimmering off the hot cracked pavement. Mirrored windows in every house reflected the mirrored windows of the house across the street.
These had to be the biggest residences Bill's platoon had patrolled on Residential Ground Patrol so far. Each one was built to look like a grand palace in a different style and color. But once Bill got used to their unbelievable size, he had started to notice a pattern. And he'd started counting. From this corner he could see all ten styles and six colors, in a pattern that repeated as far as he could see up and down Gable: as far as he could see up and down Monroe.
He only wished he could spot another bike. Conway was patrolling two blocks west on Hayworth. The Grouch two blocks east on Davis. At every cross-street Bill checked both ways, and not just because it was the drill. An orange light had come on in his helmet and Charlie started warning him at regular intervals that he was falling behind the Pre-Planned Pattern of Advance. His two-block sprint must have helped: he'd lost the orange light now. But a purple one was glowing.
It would cost him demerits if they had to come back looking. Demerits he couldn't afford.
He looked up and scanned the sky. It was crisscrossed with jet contrails: more than he’d ever seen in the sky before. Because of the parade, he was thinking. And at the same time trying not to. Because of the airshow. He filled his chest with the filtered air inside his helmet, gazing up at the streaks of shining white exhaust.
He never could get enough of the sky.
Bill's best marks were in Flight Simulation. But Ground Patrol was his favorite drill, because he spent every minute of it out under the sky— except for the troopcoptor hop, when he rode totally surrounded by sky he couldn't see. He touched a round hard lump through the fabric of his flightsuit, staring up between the contrails into endless sky. His lucky shell.
Somehow, Bill was going to pass all
his academics, science and math, even gym class— Term Exams and everything.
Somehow. Because only passing marks made you eligible for promotions, and
only a promotion to Cadet Twelfth Grade, First Class, made you eligible to
fly. And someday Bill knew he was going to fly.
Not in the belly of a troopcoptor, strapped in his harness with the rest of his platoon. Someday Bill was going to fly strapped into the cockpit of a jetfighter, just like his dad.
But just his luck. As if missing today's parade, the airshow, and probably the fireworks wasn't bad enough. His liquid bodywaste evacuation valve was malfunctioning. It was supposed to evacuate behind him as he pedaled in a thin spray that would evaporate before it reached the ground. But he had skipped a flightsuit maintenance drill, maybe two. And now— just when he really had to go—
A soft chime sounded in his helmet and he saw the man.
1456.35 hrs 8.17.04 113.7 F
“Unidentified warm object: 276 degrees, 12 minutes,” said Charlie. “Hostile potential. Target twelve-point-six meters. Confirm transmission, over?”
On the porch of the corner house.
“Confirmed.” Bill's mouth was dry as gunpowder. He unsnapped his holster, remembering the steps in the drill. The man sat camouflaged in the deep shadow of the porch roof. Hostile potential. Bill's visorscreen whined faintly as his filters adjusted to polarize the glare.
The man was watching. He sat leaning back in a faded old armchair, resting a glass of ice against a fat, bulging belly and smoking a cigarette. Silver solarglasses hid his eyes. But Bill could feel the steady look. How long he had been watching?
In the whole six months Bill's platoon had been in rotation for Residential Ground Patrol, this fat guy was the first resident he had seen sitting out in the open air. It wasn't illegal, exactly. But the man wore no filtermask. Even the few residents Bill had seen hurrying between their cars and their front doors had worn filtermasks. Some smoked cigarettes right through their masks.
The man's cigarette glowed red as he sucked in and held it, watching. He wore an oldfashioned brown cloth jacket over his light blue bodysuit. His face was slick with sweat, even in the shade. Hostile potential. He didn’t look dangerous. But you never knew for sure. A civilian is always potentially armed, the Cadet Manual said.
“Hiya, lieutenant,” said the man with an awkward little wave. He whistled, each note a separate little cloud of smoke. Then he grinned and pointed with his cigarette down at the cement walkway that curved from the porch across the grass. "Check 'em out!"
Bill's filters whined again and he saw. Two small furry animals lay curled together in a blazing square of cement. Kittens: baby cats. They watched him with alien yellow eyes, pointed ears tracking him like little radars.
“No danger, officer,” said the man. “They've already eaten.” He grinned. “The white one's Snowfall. The orange one I named myself: Brimstone.”
Bill had seen cats. The lab techs at the Academy had cages full.
The man set his cigarette on the edge of an ashtray and gave Bill a sideways grin. “I wanted to call her Furface. That got me in hot water with—” he pointed a finger straight up “—the lady upstairs. So I tried Hairball. No such luck, alas.”
The man was trying to make him smile. Bill straightened his mouth and held it. An Imperial Guard never speaks to civilians unless they need his help. Even then, he never forgets the dignity of his rank and battalion. Major Williamson had explained "dignity" for the platoon by grabbing the corners of Bill’s mouth and stretching it into a thin, straight line. One example was enough. Everyone got it then. Smiling in the presence of civilians was strictly against drill.
“So I tried Fuzzbucket. You should have heard her! Not that I pushed it, no no no. Just kept letting my creative juices flow. Monkeytail. Whiskerweed. Sabertooth! Clawfoot. But no such—”
Bill jumped. The lady's voice came from a little speaker in the ceiling of the porch, directly over the man’s head. But the man didn't even look up.
“Are you out there? It’s almost time for your show!” The lady’s voice had a hard edge, like bright stainless steel: then turned liquid, almost laughing. “Coward, answer me, or I’ll cut off your chocolate supply!”
“Say,” said the man, leaning forward all of a sudden and pulling off his silver glasses. "Say, lieutenant." Even at 12.6 meters his eyes looked red and wet, like they'd been leaking. “By any chance, is your name Bill?”
Bill couldn't make a sound. All he knew was that he had to go. He shook his head and nodded at the same time.
“Aha!” The fat man’s grin stretched even wider on his rubbery face. “My wife's expecting you. You're just in time.” He motioned with the hand that held the glass. “Up the stairs, turn to your right, end of the hall. She'll explain everything.” He winked one eye, then put his solarglasses back on and took a long drink.
Damn. This could be it! The textured pistolgrip was cool under Bill’s fingertips. But his fingers shook. Unless it was just a popquiz. Usually Conway caught word a day or two ahead and warned them. Not this time. Bill caught his other hand sneaking down to touch the hard bulge of his lucky shell. He could hear the man softly whistling no particular tune. Gradually he began to remember pieces of the drill.
“Charlie, zoom us in,” he murmured, and his visorscreen whined. Now he saw the little table next to the armchair. The ashtray, with three cigaratte butts. A longbilled cap that matched the blue bodysuit. A rainbow-striped squeezebottle, almost full. A teletron. Something on a little plate.
“Reverse zoom.” Now he saw the house: a pale yellow castle two stories high and twice as wide. A fake stone tower with fake stone battlements overlooked a roof shingled with slates. The porch had matching fake stone pillars. The buzzcut grass in front was dried to a crisp desert-camo brown, like lawn after lawn Bill had patrolled today. The shrubbery that lined the house was brown, too. But it had never been trimmed and shaped and tamed like the other shrubbery in Hollywood Park. Wild branches seemed to be bursting out in all directions like exploding tracers.
"All right, normal view— enhanced focus."
The man's nose was leaking too. And he needed a shave.
This has got to be a trap, said a voice in Bill's head: Starbolt. Got to be! Peering over the rim of an asteroid-crater on Gamma Nine, doublecrossed and outnumbered again. Captain Vince Starbolt, Galactic Sky Patrol, who never felt fear— only the tingle of danger.
Starbolt here. What’s the mission for today? Over.
Bill's mission was Residential Ground Patrol. He was supposed to investigate anything suspicious. Just logging the required hours of classic copshows on VT had drilled that in before the platoon ever boarded its first troopcoptor. But damn and double-damn: Patrol was just for practice. If this was a popquiz, and with any luck that was all it was—
“Bill, it’s almost three o’clock," said the little speaker in the ceiling. "You have about two more commercials to get your butt up here!” Bill wasn’t sure she sounded so friendly. Then stainless steel melted again to flowing water, clear and musical. “And there's a surprise— something that's not in the script!”
Three o'clock. Bill checked the time readout in his helmet, and remembered.
1457.57 hrs 8.17.04 113.7 F
The parade was starting! But how did she. How could. He looked down at his foot, seesawing back and forth on its pedal.
In about two minutes, President Rockwell's Grand Inaugural World Peace Parade was about to start on every channel in the known universe. Everyone in OKC Sector, the Republic of Oklahoma, the United Sovereign States of America, and the whole mothersucking world was getting ready to watch it exactly now. Except for Bill.
He looked up at the man again. The man only grinned. In the silence he could almost hear his bladder starting to throb.
Then his helmet chimed again. “Warm object, 186 degrees,” said Charlie. “Target eight-point-seven meters angle minus-seventeen. Possible ambush scenario. Do you want reinforcements? Repeat, do you want reinforcements? Confirm transmission, over."
Bill's eyes narrowed and his hand closed on the pistolgrip. His visorscreen whined as he tracked the tiny flickering numbers, homing in on zero, holding his breath. Suddenly he felt dumb. Damn, damn, and triple-damn! Charlie had only spotted the kittens.
The teletron on the little table beeped a tune Bill didn't recognize. The man picked it up and it automatically stopped ringing. Then he snapped it off and on again.
“Meg, I thought I told you to hold my calls!” He talked fast and low, covering his mouth with his fingers, but Bill's helmet receptors had no trouble picking up his voice. “Especially her ladyship. Tell her I'm away from my desk. Kidnapped by aliens again, anything!”
"But Master—" said an automatron's voice. The man snapped the teletron off and dropped it on the little table again.
“Sorry, lieutenant,” he said, grinning down over the iron rail of the porch. "Uppity domestics." He uncrumpled a blue-striped cloth and noisily blew his nose.
Bill looked back down at the kittens. You got to earn your ammo, said another voice in his head: Charlie. Your license to kill. Charlie could drill him on all those military phrases in the Manual. Charlie could drill him on nine academic subjects, eleven technical subjects, eighteen categories of popular culture, and sixteen categories of sports. But Charlie was still just a voice in his helmet. Bill couldn’t even radio his quadmates on Patrol. Only Conway, the quad leader, could call for backup. And Conway must be blocks ahead by now.
But patrol was just for practice, anyway. Bill reached up and switched the wingman off.
He shut his eyes to think. “How does she know—” he started carefully and stopped. “How did—”
“Witchery,” the man interrupted. “Runs in her family. Been a witch since she was seventeen. Kept me prisoner here in her chocolate-brownie cottage in the forest since the tender age of twentytwo, all with expert witchery. But—” He glanced up at the little speaker in the ceiling and let out a gigantic sigh. Then grinned again.
“I'm only yanking your big toe, lieutenant. I don't mean to imply that she's dangerous. Oh, no! She isn't the wicked variety of witch. No potions or spells. She can't stand spiders. And always, always uses her powers for good. I've stayed thirtyone years because she bakes such good brownies. All natural. Practically from scratch.”
The man picked the little plate up from the table and held it out.
“I do have one left, luckily. Ever have real chocolate before, lieutenant? The imported stuff?”
Bill stared. Never assume. The silver glasses studied him. Even among friendlies.
"It's not a major sacrifice, lieutenant. Not for one of our stalwart and steadfast men in uniform. She's in there baking up another batch right now, I promise."
Bill waited. The man finally grinned, put the last brownie down and lifted the glass. Bill's lips felt for the nipple of his moisture-delivery tube and he sipped as the man gulped and swallowed.
“Mister. How— did she know— my name?”
The man shrugged. "Sorry. Too technical for me. I’m no witch."
Bill couldn't stand it any more. "You're making all this up, mister," he burst out. "Aren't you."
“What's the matter? Scared? Get off your mean-looking machine, lieutenant, and investigate! Lo, before your very nostrils, a mystery!”
“You're making it up. There's no witches and there never was."
Bill had seen it in a history loop about the Parson. His wild rants about witches and harlots and fairies and other mythical creatures. The thousands of people who had been rounded up and sterilized because someone reported them to the Parson’s web site. "Ultra-insane," the Grouch had helpfully explained. But the Parson was dead, and nothing was left of his Reign of Error but the new calendar.
“Don’t believe in witches,” the fat man said. “Hmmm. Got that new memory upgrade, I see.” He took another sip of his drink, then another puff of his cigarette. Then he leaned forward in the armchair, the grin suddenly gone, and his extra chins hung down. “You've studied science in school, I bet. According to the latest science, what’s the difference between a live body and a dead one?”
Bill squirmed. He was even worse at Science than History. He didn’t recognize the question from any of his Science loops. And since when does a random popquiz jump from subject to subject? If only Boogers was here!
“That’s— that’s science. Witches are just— leftover— superstitions.”
“Hold it right there, lieutenant," said the man, leaking smoke. "Back to your first clue. How did she know your name?” He leaned back and blew a fountain of smoke in slow motion. “She called you a coward. You going to let a lady get away with that?”
1458.45 hrs 8.17.04 113.7 F
The man was waiting. He lifted the striped squeezebottle and squirted clear liquid into his glass of ice. Even the kittens were watching. But before Bill could answer or even think, the lady’s voice called again.
“Bill!” The voice like metal, crackling from the little speaker. “Will you answer me?” Then the voice like water. “You wanted to see this, remember? Come up and watch with me. Please?””
The man whistled no particular tune. Bill looked from the silver glasses to the blank glare of the windows above the porch. He kept his hand on his gun, his foot steady on the pedal. But his knee was jerking nervously back and forth and his bladder throbbing worse than ever.
This could be it!
Bill had never met a lady before. But he'd heard a million stories about the pranks Fraternities played for a guy's initiation. In every story a lady was involved. Sometimes more than one. And every time it took you by surprise.
But no, no, no, no way: Bill was only eleven. And the smallest cadet in his platoon. It was three more years till he was even eligible for a Frat. He was too young, too small, too slow, and failing in everything except Flight Simulation. And about to start leaking any second.
“Do you—” he swallowed. “Could I, maybe . . . use your latrine?”
The man gave a stern salute. “What’s mine is yours, lieutenant. Top of the stairs, immediately on your left. Just take it off my security bill.”
Bill squinted down Monroe Street. It was strictly against drill. He had to meet his quadmates at Gardner and Flynn at 1505 hours. But he could really fly if he had to.
1459.12 hrs 8.17.04 113.7 F
And he would really have to. He couldn’t afford the demerits. He felt the tiny scar on the back of his head tingling, and a dull ache had begun deep in his skull. The ache that always let him know when he was Tardy or Absent Without Leave. The ache that told him he was thinking about breaking drill, even sometimes before he actually was.
Slowly, shivering in the heat, he climbed off his bike and lifted the front wheel to the curb. The kittens watched without moving or even blinking: tiny wide alien eyes. Steering clear of them across the dry grass he parked his bike at the foot of the porch steps and kicked the kickstand.
He set one sneaker on the first step. Then he stopped and looked up.
“The radio! She must have tracked my transmissions with some kind of radio intercept!” The man looked puzzled. “The radio in my helmet. That's how she found out my name.” The man looked interested. "I saw it in an Espionage loop."
The man looked delighted. “Espionage? She made me do it! Said she'd divulge my secret past! Please, lieutenant, go in there and at least get her to let you in on the secret. She won’t divulge it to me.”
Bill nearly smiled back. But he kept his mouth tight and straight, his eyes narrow and his hand on his gun as he climbed the steps. Even before he reached the porch, he had already identified the smell of alcohol.
The front door was open a crack: ACC leak. If he had his first stripe already, he could write this fat citizen a big fat citation.
“Wait, before I forget,” the man was saying as he bent over his belly, reaching back. “I need you to take something up to her, if you would. Don’t worry about your bike, I'll—”
Before he even remembered the endless drills, Bill had the laserpistol out of the holster and ready. The man's hand, returning with a thick black wallet, stopped in mid-air. He grinned.
“Aha! Been practicing! Very smooth. Well, if this is a stickup, here’s my wallet. I won’t be needing it. But if you're just after brownies on the other hand you have no need of persuasion, I promise! On the contrary. Carrying a sidearm in there might just set her off, and then having one would do you no good at all. Not the slightest.” The man flapped the wallet open and slid out an oldfashioned photograph. “This is all I want. The rest is hers. As my next of kin, if nothing else.” He took off his silver glasses to squint down at the photograph. Then held it out for Bill.
Bill stared: not at the photograph but at the man. Tears were running freely down his face. As if he'd forgotten Bill was watching. Bill remembered not to and looked down. And then forgot.
He was looking down into eyes full of green light: a pale face covered with freckles. She stood in a gleaming white dress, holding flowers, at the center of a group lined up in oldfashioned formal clothes. But the picture was all hers. A dark curly cloud of hair spilled out from under what looked like a white cloud of mist. She was young, much younger than her fat sweating husband. And she was beautiful, more beautiful than ninetynine percent of all the vixens on VT wearing hardly anything at all. Though she wasn’t exactly pretty. It was the way she was smiling: not just a curve of the lips, but a glow that seemed to light up her whole face, every freckle.
“She was much younger then, of course,” said the man. “Lieutenant, the object of your mission: Lucille Sarah Vandergeld-Benedict. A spy? No question, for the right cause. And a witch. But eternally on the side of right.” The man grinned and held out the wallet. “Just be careful not to set her off.”
Suddenly Bill’s knees were shaking. He took the wallet, careful not to touch the man’s sweaty fingers, and took a step toward the door. But the man reached out and snagged him by a loop of his utility belt.
“One more thing. I swear she isn't dangerous, long as she doesn't get upset. But a gun is one thing guaranteed to do just that. As your attorney, I advise you to leave that space-blaster with me. I'll hold on to it for you till you come out.” He lifted one hand skyward in the Sky Patrol salute. “Patrolman's honor! ”
If Starbolt was here, he would have given his famous snort. This fat citizen, impersonating an officer of the Galactic Sky Patrol! As if anyone couldn't watch the show and learn the salute, along with Starbolt's famous line.
The man stretched out his empty hand and looked Bill right in the eye. “Come on, son. Give me the gun.”
Bill stared, motionless, frozen solid in the sweltering heat. He had a sudden feeling that he'd been here before, standing on this porch. Having this exact same. Even though he knew he. He shut his eyes again to think.
You got to earn your ammo . . . Bill had earned his bike and helmet the year he got promoted from Foot to Ground Patrol. Your license to kill! The techs had installed Charlie in his helmet last year when he made Cadet Third Grade. Before you get your hardware . . . And if he passed the Term Exam next week, he had a chance of getting his two-way communicator installed this year. You got to prove your skill!
And when he made Cadet Twelfth Grade, Third Class— if he ever made it— Ordnance would issue him a real laserpistol. Till then, he was only practicing. The bump on the back of his head was tingling again as he dropped his laserpistol into the man's hand.
“Be careful,” he said, “it's charged. And that bike better be right there when I get back. It's property of National Security Incorporated.”
The man gave one more solemn Sky Patrol salute. Then he picked up the last brownie, bit off one corner and held out the unbitten corner. A moist, sugary smell tempted Bill’s nose. Never assume non-regulation food or drink is safe, regardless of the source. But the man had eaten some! Even among friendlies. The Cadet Manual didn't mention any exceptions. Always test for 1) drugs 2) poison 3) microbial contamination 4) harmful chemical residue . . .
“Bill!” Both of them jumped this time. “Showtime, come on!”
1500.01 hrs 8.17.04 113.7 F
Bill stuffed the man's wallet into the utility pouch of his flightsuit, ignoring the brownie. This has got to be a trap. He snapped his infrared filter into place. Got to be. He took a deep breath, bracing himself for the ACC, and went into the house.
But the ACC wasn’t even on: a stifling wave of heat washed over him.
This could be it!
Starbolt here. What's the mission for today, over?
* * *
July 9, 0004 PPE: The Nebraska Desert
1013.00 hrs 07.09.04 115.5 F
Bill was panting in the heat. "What."
"I dunno. I found it."
Bill didn't care what Boogers had found. They had been marching too long. But he swung around under the lopsided weight of his fieldpack, marching backwards for a few paces to look. Boogers was holding a tiny piece of machinery, crusted with dirt and rust. Or a piece of a piece.
"Part of some kind of motor,” said Boogers, marching. “Look, it used to move!"
Bill saw the tiny frozen hinge: how it used to open and shut. He saw where the stem had broken off. He saw the double file of Cadets marching behind them in full battle gear, desert camo coveralls and shiny purple helmets stretching back in a long curve. Then he had to swing around into step again.
"Conway might know," he panted. "It's probably part of a car.”
“Or a farm machine. Mackey says food grew here once."
They marched. The column climbed a low ridge and the Nebraska Desert stretched as far as they could see under the hot sky. It was even flatter than Oklahoma, where wheat still grew in the fields around the airbase. In the distance he saw ruins: the abandoned shopping mall on their maps.
Even through his helmet’s polarized visorscreen the sky here hurt his eyes. Still, he couldn’t stop staring up through the crystal-clear air. Damn and double damn, he kept thinking, over and over. The sky!
Conway was platoon leader today. But the platoon was getting a little spread out. Conway kept glancing back with a disgusted look, flinging his whole arm forward like a quarterback without a ball. Conway would give them hellfire at debriefing if it was his own quad that cost the platoon the points that cost the Purple Team the game.
"We better catch up," said Bill. Boogers put the thing in his pocket.
Somewhere up at the head of the column, Lieutenant Mackey rode a dusty purple jeep and scanned the terrain ahead with binoculars. Somewhere in the rear, Major Whipton commanded this flank of the Purple Army: a couple of miles to the north Major Flawn commanded the other one. And somewhere ahead and between the closing pincers was the Yellow Army, according to the rumor that came down the ranks.
All Bill knew for sure was that they'd been rousted out of the sack before daylight and ordered to march. And they'd been marching way too long. Conway said if they ever saw real action, they’d be coptored in. All this marching was just to make them tough.
1302.49 hrs 07.09.04 117.6 F
At last the order came down the ranks for a rest. There was no shade. But they were allowed a sip of water and a salt wafer. Bill sucked hard to get every drop before the moisture-delivery tube cut him off.
Boogers passed around his find. Conway snorted.
"Sure, it's part of a car. But it's just the windshield wiper hinge."
The guys still thought it was a score. A couple offered to trade. But Boogers was keeping it.
Bill showed what he had found: a shell. He'd seen a science loop once. Something used to live in it. But not only that: finding a shell. Out here on the desert. Didn't that mean the ocean was here once?
"Unless it's a snail shell," said the Grouch, and grinned.
Nobody wanted to trade for a shell. But it didn't matter: Bill was keeping it. The little knot of Cadets was silent, gazing down at the pale spiral shape.
With a warning beep, Charlie woke up in Bill’s helmet. “ATTENTION! Double-file formation, prepare to march!”
The other wingmen passed the order down the double row of helmets and Conway was platoon leader again, no longer one of the guys. They were swinging back into motion, hustling to catch up with the Pre-Planned Pattern of Advance.
Bill's fieldpack was getting heavier. The lasertag rifle kept slipping off his shoulder. This march was going to wear out all his moving parts in one day! But he kept pushing one boot ahead to keep from falling, then the other, on and on, eyes fixed on the bootheels in front of him. Gradually he let himself slip into the steady rhythm of the march until the weight and the heat and the weariness blended in a dull, throbbing ache.
Damn. He should have taken a leak back there.
1415.17 hrs 07.09.04 113.6 F
The abandoned shopping mall loomed beyond a line of ruined restaurants. Their broken windows and rusty signs marked the curve of a road that had disappeared under tufts of desert grass.
Beebe claimed he saw a mouse. Except mice were extinct outside of science labs, and everybody knew it. Everybody knew Beebe and his tricks, too.
The column slowed, going down a sandy bank, and halted. Bill saw the purple jeep up ahead and a crowd of Cadets down on their knees around Lieutenant Mackey. Squeezing closer, Bill finally saw: a wet spot in the sandy streambed. Mackey was carefully scooping away the sand, collecting water in a steel cup. Then he dropped in the two pink tablets and counted to ten. He drew a metal straw out of an inner pocket and drank. Then he offered Sergeant Tubbs a drink. Tubbs drank through his own straw and passed the cup to Corporal Swain.
The water was long gone and Mackey had remounted the purple jeep and ridden off to the head of the column before Bill’s quad reached the wet spot in the sand. But Conway made them stop while he collected half a cup of his own, dropped the tablets in and counted. Ever since his promotion Conway was practicing to be an officer.
The water made Bill nauseous at first. Then it made him thirsty. But while the others were tasting it he finally got his chance to unzip the sand-colored combat coveralls.
1400.02 hrs 07.09.04 114.2 F
Off to the north he could see a bright speck cruising west: the 1400 east-west overflight. Bill swallowed a dry lump in his throat, watching the jet disappear into the western glare. He had seen one close up once, out on the Academy runway with his Flight Simulation class. The sensory equipment it carried would spot a mouse before Beebe ever could.
Besides routine surveillance, today the monitors in the Peace Room at Cody Air Base would be monitoring the positions of the Purple and Yellow Teams, way out here in the Nebraska Desert. It made Bill feel as tiny and shy as a mouse himself. But there was no place out here to hide from the sky.
The plane was gone now, leaving a white, fresh, perfectly straight trail of jet exhaust that divided the sky in two. A few miles to the west the fading trail of the 1330 north-south overflight divided it into four. But Bill was gazing past the white lines, way past the sector-boundaries on the air maps. Damn, he was thinking for the ninetieth time today. Damn, damn and tripledamn. The sky!
He couldn’t get enough of it: that feeling that as far as he could stare, the sky went on farther. That whatever direction he looked, the sky behind him was just as huge and empty and open as the sky he could see. 3D enhancement couldn’t even come close. Even Flight Simulation, with all the excitement of swooping and looping through virtual space. Bill wouldn’t trade wargames for a hundred Saturday nights in the Imperial Purple Clubhouse.
And someday he, Cadet William Rimsky, NSI-74681-23694, was going to fly. No matter what his dad said. Try hiding out then, terroristas!
“Fall in, men!” Conway was yelling. “Get in gear, grunts, we got us a fuckin’ war to fight! You’re not going to let those yellowbellies win just because we couldn’t keep a little appointment!”
But they were losing, according to the rumor that came down the ranks. The Yellow Team hadn’t lost a wargame all year. They even got to keep the points they won by cheating in the spring campaign. In war, the Academy brass had announced, cheating counts.
Lucky thing it was only a game. Or Bill would have been burnt in that action, cheating or no cheating.
The yellowbellies might be cheating
in other sports, too: techs in yellow uniforms ran the computers that kept
score, didn’t they? But it didn’t really matter who won all the
games. It was whose mission is most important. And in real life the Purple
Team had a much more valuable mission than the yellowbellied techs. Bill would
rather patrol the property of NSI’s clients, or even just guard it,
that push buttons his whole career while a machine won all his medals. Any
day. Any day.
Shoot to kill, Purple Aces,
Strafe their bloody carcasses!
Bomb the yellow motherfuckers,
Cut them down and skin the suckers!
Shoot to kill, Purple Aces . . .
1427.44 hrs 07.09.04 114.2 F
It was more a moan than a voice. Bill held his breath to listen.
“Over here! I’m hurt!”
Bill stood still. He didn’t want to give away the platoon’s position. Some shots up ahead had sounded hostile. He touched the shell in his pocket through the coveralls. For just a nanosec he wished he could curl up inside its little hollow spiral and go to sleep.
“Go!” said Conway. “You’re point!”
“Screw Wilson! He’s down; now you’re point. Go see if he’s okay.”
Bill darted around the corner of the caved-in gas station and ran to the rusty dumpster. He heard Wilson moaning across the parking lot of the abandoned mall. A prickle ran up his spine under the sweaty desert coveralls. What went wrong? It was only a game, wasn’t it?
He edged around the corner of the dumpster, holding his lasertag rifle ready. Wilson lay moaning among shattered glass and garbage, tied hand and foot. Blood ran down through his buzzcut from a star-shaped Yellow Team insignia carved into his scalp. He stared up at Bill through glazed eyes, straining away as if he didn’t recognize his teammate: even the uniform.
“Hsst! Stay down, dammit!” Conway had followed him after all. Conway grabbed Wilson’s helmet off the pavement, picked up one of Wilson’s armpits and motioned Bill to get the other.
A loud laugh rang out. Conway dropped Wilson and the helmet and went for his sidearm, diving sideways. But a spot of yellow light popped on his officer’s tunic and that was it; Conway was out of the game.
“Seventeen!” a loud voice crowed.
The lasertag rifle swung across to Bill. On top of the dumpster Bill had so carefully edged around, Kelly crouched in his desert-grey sniper suit and bright yellow helmet, grinning down the plexiglass barrel. He made a laughing noise like a goat.
“Eighteen,” he said, and pulled the trigger.
* * *
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