Theirs Not To Reason Why

Damnation

Jean Johnson's - Theirs Not To Reason Why: Damnation

CHAPTER ONE

...

“What did it feel like to step for the first time onto the Damnation, back in August of ’98? That’s an unfair question—unfair to you, I mean. I ‘first stepped’ onto the Damnation when I was fifteen. I knew every pipeline, every cabin, every cannon and every corridor on her before I was old enough to legally drive. And I knew the Hellfire just as well, and just as early on, long before my military career began. I have known every single ship I ever boarded long before I touched foot to deck plate, just as I have known nearly every single person I have ever worked with in advance of that first day, Harper excepted.

“But I will admit I did enjoy that new-ship smell. You don’t get that many smells in the timestreams, oddly enough, unless it’s temporally important somehow. It almost never is, though. As for the Damnation itself…it was longer, better laid-out, and equipped with certain amenities which some would call luxuries, but which have kept my crew sane. It’s hard to relax when you fly from one battle to the next with rarely a pause for anything else.

“Beyond that…it’s just like being back on board the Hellfire. This ship is our home. In a way, it always has been. In a way, it always will be.”

~Ia

...

August 14, 2498 T.S.
TUPSF
Leo Major
Scadia, AQAT-15 System

The Leo Major did not smell like the Damnation. Where Ia’s ship still smelled of fresh paint, carpeting, newly installed aquaponics and various kinds of plexi, this larger but heavily battered starship smelled of internal fires, sweat, and dried blood. It also bore the odd odor of hard vacuum, not quite metallic and not quite like dust, the smell of cold frost mingled with the scents of chilled solder and other sealants.

From the swirled bits of debris on the deckplates, they may have gotten the hangar bay functionally airtight, but it was clear there had been far more important repairs on their mind than merely sweeping up. The Leo Major wasn’t ready even for insystem maneuvers, or those bits of metal and plexi would have been vacuumed up by now, for fear of them being turned into lethal projectiles during a sudden vector change. The civilian spacedock orbiting the third planet from the local sun wasn’t quite prepared to service a ship of the Leo’s size, but they were doing their best. With the bay sealed and capable of accepting larger deliveries, the work could go a lot faster now.

Saluting the bandaged ensign who had granted her permission to board, Ia waved off the young man’s offer to guide her with a murmured, “No need to bother, Ensign; I already know the way. Please fetch a three-ton hoversled for Private Runde, and prepare to board live cargo for the lifesupport bays.”

“Uhh...aye aye, sir,” the ensign stammered, eyeing Ia as she headed into the damaged ship.

She did know the way, though she had never stepped foot aboard a battlecruiser of the Talon Class before. Three levels up to Deck 25, five cross-corridors aft to Lima, and one side-trip toward the port brought her to the boardroom for the Marines Company stationed aboard. Here, the visible damage to the ship was considerably less, though the damage to the brown-clad men and women inside was quite evident.

One of the women, sporting a blue regen pack strapped over one ear, caught the movement of Ia’s approach out of the corner of her eye. She turned to see who had entered, caught sight of Ia’s Dress Blacks with its two-tone stripes of green and grey, the four stars pinned to her collar points and shoulder boards, and stiffened. “—General on Deck!”

“At Ease, meioas,” Ia quickly ordered, since there was more than one soldier with an injured arm in the room. “I’m not here for your salutes. You earned my respect when you donned the Brown of the Marines, and earned it again with how well you fought today.”

Some of them relaxed at her words. Others stood a little taller with the pride her words invoked. Most of them parted to either side a little, opening up an aisle between her and their current commander. Standing in front of the officer’s desk, on the dais in front of the sloped tiers of seats, was a man she had not seen in over eight years. He stared at her, squinted…and then sagged back against the table, resting his hips against the edge.

“Well, double-dip me,” Brad Arstoll muttered slowly, staring at Ia as she closed the distance between them. “It is you! I’d heard some wild-asteroid tales about someone with your name pulling all sorts of shova out there, but…it really is you, isn’t it? And a shakking general—look at you!”

Ia gave him a half-smile and spread her hands slightly. “In the four-starred flesh. I’m here on the Leo for two reasons. Three, if you count the shake-down flight out here to help you and the Scadian Army fight off the Salik invaders earlier today.”

“Well, we appreciated that,” he agreed.

“No thanks are needed. First off,” she stated, digging a hand into her Dress Black jacket, pulling out a small black box. “I am authorized by the DoI to confirm your field promotion, Captain Brad Arstoll. Effective immediately, you are now officially in charge of D Company, 3rd Legion, and not just the Acting Captain for D Company, 3rd Legion, 3rd Battalion, 4th Brigade, 4th Division, 2nd Cordon Marine Corps. This box holds a data file with the pertinent DoI paperwork…plus your silver tracks, of course. You’ve earned them.”

“Thank you, sir,” Arstoll murmured, accepting the package. “I wish I hadn’t.”

“I know,” Ia murmured back, knowing he meant he wished he hadn’t earned it at the expense of the loss of his CO. “Captain Ling-Bradley was a good leader. But so are you.” She tapped the box now in his hand. “There’s a second data chip in here with a few precognitive directives you might find useful. Beyond that, I know the Corps trained you well. You have my confidence, and that of the Command Staff.”

“Huh,” he grunted, a humorless laugh. “Of course they’d be confident. The Prophet of a Thousand Years told them so. If this is just a favor to an old Basic Squadmate…”

“You’ve earned it, so step up to the job and suffer, soldier,” Ia corrected him firmly, pushing the box against his chest. He winced a little; his ribs were taped, waiting for the bone-set serum to finish healing the fractures earned in combat. She didn’t push hard, though, and removed her hand once he got the point. “Second…I lost five good men and women on Dabin. Lives I shouldn’t have had to lose,” Ia admitted, jaw tightening for a moment. “I may be a massive precog, but I can’t control everything. Because of it, I need replacements. I have two already in transit to meet up with my ship in the Tilfa system, but I’m here for the other three.

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to take one of your Marines,” she added, glancing over her shoulder at the men and women listening with various levels of interest and boredom as the two of them had caught up with old news. Her words piqued interest even in the most bored of the soldiers. “The last two I need are serving in the Scadian Army in the Orbital Fleet. I convinced the Admiral-General to help with some pre-maneuverings on getting them transferred, so I have a writ from the Scadian military leadership allowing me to recruit whoever I like. I’ll still have to do a little diplomatic dancing once I get down to the surface, but it’ll be worth it.”

Shakk...I wonder what strings you had to pull to get that done,” Arstoll muttered, eyeing her. “These colonists are proud as hell about serving their planet. They wouldn’t even have accepted our help if they’d had enough ships to cover all vectors. They don’t lack the fighting skill or the tactical smarts, and they don’t lack any bravery; they just lack the equipment to get the job done.”

“I know. That’s why I need two of them. They’re the best shot I have at filling the gaping holes the Salik blew in the best crew of the Space Force. As for the Marine…I’ll need your Private Second Class Julia Garcia.”

Garcia?” Arstoll exclaimed, eyes wide with disbelief. Other voices joined him in their confusion.

“Wrong-Way Garcia?”

That piece of skut?”

“Sir, if you think Garcia is going to…er…” The speaker, the woman with the missing ear, trailed off as Ia turned to face Arstoll’s soldiers. Her hard stare silenced all of them.

“Private Garcia,” Ia enunciated carefully, with just enough volume to fill the boardroom as she shifted her gaze from face to face, “is a far better soldier, and a far better Marine, than all of you combined. In my hands, within one year she will be the hero of a hundred fights and the savior of more than a million lives…and that is not hyperbole, meioas. I have foreseen it—speaking of which,” she added, lightening her tone as she shifted her gaze to one of the taller, redheaded men. “Private McCraery, remember to hit the deck flat-out instead of just duck on the sixteenth of September, at about two o’clock local. You’ll know when. I’d rather you didn’t get your head blown off because you overestimated the height of the incoming attack. Captain Arstoll will still need you afterward, so keep yourself alive.”

“Uh…yes sir,” he agreed hesitantly.

“Private Sangwan, since you were trying to be so generous with praise for Private Garcia,” Ia added, turning back to the woman with the regenerating ear, “you can go help her pack her things. We leave in thirty-three minutes from Docking Bay B. Dismissed. Corporal Vance, you were about to ask your CO for a priority list of mechsuit repairs, on behalf of the Leo Major’s manufactory bays. You will need A through C Squad functional in the 1st Platoon, followed by B through E in the 2nd. The rest in those two Platoons have minor repairs they can manage on their own. The 3rd and the 4th Platoons will just have to wait their turn on the things they cannot fix themselves—Private Sangwan, you have been dismissed.”

“Beg pardon, sir?” she asked, glancing between Ia and Arstoll, then at Ia’s green and gray stripes...which were on the sleeves and pant legs of an otherwise all-black uniform. “Aren’t you like Special Forces, or Army, or something?”

Ia pointed at the stars on her shoulder board, speaking slowly and clearly. “I am Command Staff, soldier. Everybody in the Space Force is under my chain-of-command, save only for my peers on the Staff, the Admiral-General, Secondaire, and Premiere of the Council. You have your orders. Dismissed.”

“Sir, yes sir,” she muttered, face flushed with embarrassment. Turning crisply, Sangwan headed for the doors out of the Company boardroom.

“Captain Arstoll, when you have a few minutes later on today, please remind your troops how the Space Force chain-of-command works,” Ia stated dryly, watching the other woman retreat.

“Sir, yes sir,” he agreed, giving the departing, flinching Sangwan a hard look. “I’ll have her checked for a lingering concussion, too. I thought my Marines could count four stars on their own.”

A few of the others carefully looked anywhere but at their CO and the visiting, white-haired brass in front of him.

Nodding, Ia closed her eyes for a moment, focusing, then opened them. “Sergeant Yangley, the Navy order forms for what you need to requisition materials for the lifesupport bays are now appearing on your workstation screens back in the clerk’s office. I’ve already filled in the authorization codes for everything but the fish stock. Scadia doesn’t have enough of the right kind of fish just yet for your shipboard aquaculture needs.

“Being aware of that, I have brought over a tank of tilapia from the Damnation, along with enough feed to last them until you get the cycle balanced in the second bay and it becomes self-sufficient. Private Runde will already be loading them onto the hoversled fetched for her from the ensign on duty. Make sure to sign for them. Get to it.”

“General, yes sir,” the sergeant replied crisply, turning to leave on his appointed task.

“Good meioa. The rest of you already know what you need to do. Since I am aware of those needs, and that when you put your minds to it, you are a competent crew, you don’t have to ask your Captain anything right now; you have my permission for the tasks at hand. Go do them,” Ia directed the men and women before her. “That means dismissed.”

They scattered. When the last of them had left the room, Ia moved over to lean back against the table next to her old Basic Training squadmate. It felt good to slouch a little, good to rest for a moment.

“Rank hath its privileges,” she murmured, glancing at him. “I hope you don’t mind me sending them off like that, but they honestly can handle everything, and this is literally the only time off I’ll have from my duties for months to come, waiting for Garcia to pack. It’s not much of a Leave, but I’ll take whatever I can get. So…. How are you doing, Brad? I mean, really doing?”

Brad shook his head. “Between you, me, and the bulkheads?” he asked in a bare murmur, not nearly as sure as she was that there weren’t any listeners still nearby. “Like fresh, steaming shit. I had the Captain on the commscreen when the hull breach hit our docking bay. I saw him get sucked outside. He was not in a pressure-suit. This is not how I wanted my next command.”

Ia clasped his shoulder, giving him a brief moment of comfort. “I know. I wish I could’ve helped prevent it…and I know you’ll hate me for saying this, but…you’re going to be the right person in the right place at the right time, because of this. Not just today, but multiple times in the next few years. The universe needs Captain Brad Arstoll to take full command of D Company. Do good things with it. Save lots of lives. Make as good a career for yourself and the meioas under you as you can.”

“How do you live with yourself?” Arstoll asked her, frowning at his former Squad mate. “Seeing what you do. Knowing what you do. Doing what you do, and not doing. If even half the rumors running around the Space Force in the last few weeks are true…how is it that you’ve stayed sane?”

“I have too much work to do to go mad, and not enough time to dwell on my mistakes. Or to keep track of old comrades, other than snatches here and there. You ever heard what happened to Sung, and Crosp, and the others from Basic?” Ia asked. “Spyder’s with me, and Sergeant Tae’s the uncle of my first officer, of all things, but I’ve been too busy with other concerns to check on the rest.”

“Uhh...Crosp got called back home to take up the reins of the family business. That was before the war started,” Brad dredged up out of his memory. “Sung...hell if I know. The one thing I knew, she was being shipped off from Basic to stand guard at some embassy among the Gatsugi. She’s probably still doing that. Sergeant Linley always praised her hand-to-hand and her observational skills, said she’d be great for guard work. Oh, and ZeeZee made it to Sergeant First Class last year. Wait, you said Spyder’s with you?”

Ia nodded. “Lieutenant Second Class—Field Honor, like you and me—and he’s in charge of my 2nd Platoon, plus serves as the tactical coordinator for all mass troop movements. That got put to the test on Dabin just recently, which is why I need replacements. He does say ‘hi,’ by the way. Sorry, I almost forgot to mention that. I’ve had a lot on my mind lately."

“I can only imagine what you have to keep track of. Can you, ah...you know, see them right now?” Brad asked her. “I mean, see the others in our old Squad, since you say you’ve got a few minutes?”

Ia lifted her brows at the suggestion, then shrugged. “I suppose I can check.”

Closing her eyes, she flipped herself onto the timeplains and searched. It didn’t take long to find the old threads from her Basic days, nor to follow them down through to the current day. Sobered, she opened her eyes again.

“I’m sorry to report that Sung died during the initial invasion of the Gatsugi homeworld. She was taken out while defending the Terran Embassy from a clutch of Salik robots,” Ia stated quietly. “She took more than a few with her, but they still took her out.”

“Damn,” Arstoll whispered, hanging his head. “I liked her.”

Another brief glimpse—since she had the time to spare for it—gave Ia another view on their old squadmates. “I can see ZeeZee’s still a Sergeant First Class. He’ll live for at least three more years, but I cannot guarantee beyond that point. The second warfront will evoke too many shifting possibilities for his sector of space. Crosp...has two kids, twins, and looks like he acquired a thriving munitions business with military contracts, so he’s still supporting the war effort in his own way.

“The rest are...still enlisted in the Corps in various duty posts around the warfront, except for Kumanei. She opted for pilot training in the Navy, and is flying drop-ships as a Chief Yeoman out of…Battle Platform Anna Yesarova,” Ia concluded, double-checking the name. “I can’t tell you where, though; that’s Classified above your pay grade.”

“What’s this second warfront you mentioned?” Arstoll asked, distracting himself from the grim news of Sung’s death.

“The Greys are coming back. Don’t share it with your troops just yet,” Ia added, ignoring his sharp, worried look. “They don’t need to fret themselves to death over it.”

Shakk... Ia, can anything be done against them?” he asked. “I don’t think our tech’s progressed nearly enough to even sneeze on them, but…well, we beat them back with psis last time, so we do have enough of ‘em this time, right?”

She shook her head. “They’re a dying race, and they’re growing more and more desperate. It’s even odds they’ll get their hands on the Salik anti-psi machinery, and if they do, it’ll be a very hard-fought war. But we will stop them. I have foreseen it,” she murmured, staring across the boardroom without actually seeing its rows of padded seats.

He gave her a wary look. Ia patted him lightly on the shoulder.

“Relax, and don’t worry about it. It’s all well above your pay grade, either way. Concentrate on your own troops,” she advised him, nodding at the half-wrecked boardroom around them. “This corner of the galaxy is just as important as any other out there. Tell me what you think of these Scadians. I may be able to see them in the waters of time, and I know what I’ll need to do with them, but that doesn’t mean I’ve ever dealt with them before. Knowing and doing are two different things. We learned that in Basic.”

“We did. As for the Scadians… They’re…insane. In the most benign ways imaginable,” Arstoll explained, or at least tried, gesturing vaguely as he spoke. “The most honorable people I have ever met. And the most stubborn in many ways. Peculiar, too. Friendly, polite, and cheerful, but odd beyond measure. Some of the best close-quarters fighting I have ever seen. Do not let them goad you into a swordfight. I thought we learned swordfighting back in Basic, but these meioas—both genders—will make minced garlic out of you.”

“Minced garlic?” Ia asked, skeptical at his word-choice.

“Minced garlic, minced onions, minced whatever. They’ll slice you to shreds that thoroughly, and leave you crying while they do so. The Marines have nothing on ‘em with a blade in their hands,” he added, tucking his arms across his chest once more. “In fact, they could probably give the Afaso a run for their money, too. But only with a blade, or some other melee weapon. They don’t do nearly as much of the weaponless stuff.”

“I’ll take that under advisement, but it’s a fifty-fifty chance I’ll be challenged anyway,” Ia admitted. At his sharp look, she explained. “I told you, have to go down to the capital city of Regnum to appropriate two of their soldiers. To do so, I have to get permission from the colonial leader, their ‘Emperor’...who just might demand that I show myself ‘worthy of being their warleader,’ to put it in Scadian terms.”

“Which means a swordfight,” Arstoll muttered, not without sympathy. “You’re shakked. I remember you being good with a blade back in Basic, thanks to all that fancy Afaso training you’d had, but these meioas are beyond good, like a General is beyond a mere Captain...begging pardon, sir.”

“Don’t worry about me, Arstoll. Worry about continuing to help Commander Eosod get the Leo Major back into fighting form. Put all of C and D under the engineering department, so they have the extra hands they’ll need,” she told him, meaning the latter two of his four Platoon groups. “You won’t need them in fighting trim for the next week, when A and B will do. Hold the fort around here until late November. By that point, the Salik will have a lot more to worry about than a backwater colonyworld of historical re-creationists.

“If the locals give you or the commander trouble, remind them that every single person on this ship has given their word of honor—that phrasing exactly—to defend the lives of every single person on or around Scadia. Tell them that each one of you will die before you break your vows. That’ll impress them. Just make sure to follow through on it,” Ia warned him. “You’re representing the entire honor of the Space Force in this command, between you and Captain Eosod. Your ability to hold true to your word of honor will have repercussions on Terran-Scadian military relations for the next four hundred years, and that’s not hyperbole. That’s another reason why I wanted to keep you here. I know you can do it.”

“Then I’ll try to remember all that,” he promised. They sat in silence for a few moments, then Arstoll cursed under his breath. “Dammit…you can’t give me any winning lottery numbers, can you? Fatality Forty-Nine gets in the way, doesn’t it?”

Ia gave him a wry smile. “Yes, it does. I would if I could, but I can’t. Even if the regs weren’t in the way, you winning a lot of money at this point in your life would change that life for the worse.” At her words, he only chuckled. She eyed him warily. “Why does that thought amuse you?”

Leaning back on his palms, her former training mate shrugged. “I was just thinking for a moment you must have the most wonderful powers in the universe, to be able to see anything, know anything...but it’s not really all that wonderful because you can’t do anything you want, can you?” At the shake of her head, he tipped his own. “That thought amuses me. I don’t know why.”

Ia thought about it, and decided she wasn’t offended by his laugh. “Maybe because it makes me Human?”

“Maybe,” he agreed. “I don’t think I’d laugh at a God, but then I’ve never met one. Stay Human, Ia. Remember that you’re fallible. That your power comes with a price, and—”

“—And a responsibility. Yes, I know,” she admitted, completing the sentence with him. “I won’t ever be able to forget my failures. The best I can do is strive to make sure they don’t happen again.”

Again, they let a companionable silence fall between them. Or rather, quiet. Sounds of repairs could be heard reverberating through the decking from somewhere in the distance. It reminded Ia of when she had first claimed command of the Hellfire. Finally, she drew in a deep breath and straightened, though she didn’t yet stand.

“So. While you have a member of the Command Staff a captive listener, so to speak—since I have another fourteen minutes before I’m due to meet Garcia in the docking bay—is there anything you’d like to discuss, or request?”

Folding his arms, he gave it some thought, then spoke decisively. “Space mines. Insystem, not orbital. If you cannot get us another ship, get us some repositionable mines. I’d also take a couple squadrons of fighter craft if I could, make ‘em a gift to the Emperor. The Scadian Army lost too many in the last few fights.”

Ia thought about his requests for a moment—checking them in the timestreams—then nodded. “You’ll have the fighters in three days, but while I can get you the mines, it’ll take a little longer. I already foresaw the need for the fighters, so they’re on their way. Older craft, which would’ve been decommissioned and recycled for the private sector, but they’re still good enough in a fight. The Scadians will make good use of ‘em. Didn’t think about the mines, though. It’ll work, but it’ll take at least seven, eight days.”

“It’ll do. Anything I can do for you?” Arstoll asked her.

Reaching behind him, she tapped the box containing his new rank insignia and the data chip she had promised, which he had set down on the table top at some point. “Pay attention to my suggestions. Live as long and happily as you care to. Stay Human yourself, admit when you’re wrong, and keep going. Be honest when talking to others about me; let ‘em know what you thought of me in Basic, however flattering and unflattering those thoughts may be, as well as what you think of me now. I need to be a legend in order to lead everyone on the right paths to win all these wars, but I need to be a Human legend, with failings as well as successes, foes as well as friends. Otherwise people won’t always believe in me, even if they might believe me. Anything else?”

“...Got any medals for my people?” he asked her next. “Or the crew of this ship?”

Ia shook her head. “Those have to be reviewed by the right departments, based on all your post-battle reports. I can’t hand them out arbitrarily. Not without risking my own hide. But there will be medals awarded. You really did fight hard and well here,” she promised him. “I’ll be putting down everything in my own post-battle report.”

“How much damage did your own ship take?” Arstoll asked, curious.

She grinned. “We scratched the hull in a few places, enough to need swapping out the panels so the repair teams can buff them smooth, plus three FTL panels and a shield array. But it’s nothing they can’t fix by the time I’m back on board. Of course, it’s a brand-new ship,” she added in explanation. “Commander Harper—he’s my first officer, my logistics officer, and my chief engineer all in one, as well as Sergeant Tae’s nephew—he was swearing up a storm at me for having to organize fifteen different replacement parts for the hull. You should hear him when I’ve really dinged our hide. If I took any of his insults and threats seriously, he’d be court-martialed three ways from Sunday on a monthly basis, if not weekly.”

Arstoll smiled at that, then frowned. “He’s covering all three of those jobs?” he asked her. “I didn’t see much of it, but isn’t that odd-looking ship of yours big enough to have all the officers you need?”

“It’s a new Class, sized to crew at least five hundred, but I’m running it with less than 160 at the moment. 161 once I get all my replacements. I keep forgetting to count myself,” she confessed. “Everyone runs at least three, four positions on board. Even the chaplain and me—the chaplain, the doctor, even our Company clerks are all combat-ready, and combat-proved, from tactical training to hand-to-hand combat skills. There’s a reason why my crew is now the best of the best.”

“And you want Garcia?” he muttered dubiously, thinking about it. “Ia…she’s no good here. She’s easily confused. She lags behind in a lot of things... I don’t know how she made it through Basic, to be honest. Are you sure you want her on your ship?”

“The thing most people don’t realize, Brad, is that I don’t dare pull anyone away from any other position in the known galaxy who is needed in that position,” Ia told him. “I can only take the throwaways, those whose lives or deaths wouldn’t make a damned bit of difference spent anywhere else. But on my ship, as one of all the men and women I’ve selected? Those lives spent there will finally count for something. Garcia passed Basic in the Marine Corps because she was in the right environment, with the right people around her, supporting and encouraging her. She’s failing here because she doesn’t fit in here. It’s not right for her. She will fit in again on my ship, and do great things under my care.”

“Then I’ll be glad you’re caring for her,” Arstoll said. He offered her his hand. When she lifted hers, he clasped it wrist to wrist, meeting her gaze steadily. “Make sure you take care of her. You promise me that, one officer to another, as well as one squadmate to another. I’ve lost too many lives today as it is.”

“I promise I’ll take care of Garcia, Brad, to the best of my ability, and to the best of hers once I get her to believe in herself again. I’ve lost too many as well,” Ia agreed. Releasing his forearm, she clapped him on the back, then straightened, pushing away from the table. “Time for me to head to the docking bay. We still have to make planetfall, get the other two on board, and get back to the ship by the time Harper finishes our repairs.”

“And then what?” Arstoll asked her, following her toward the doors. “Or is that Classified?”

“Most of it is, and well beyond your pay grade...but once I have these three on board, we race for the Gatsugi homeworld. The various heads of state will be holding a meeting, where I’ll be begging for certain cross-government military powers. I’m still not entirely sure why the Admiral-General made me a four-star,” she confessed, “but she did, and it’s made my job unbelievably easier, so I’m going to run with it as far and fast as I can.”

“Hauling bus all the way?” Arstoll offered. “Like you did at the end of Hell Week?”

“Farther and faster, if I can,” Ia quipped back. “Tae says they’ve now made it an end-of-Hell-Week challenge for teams of recruits to pull a ground bus a hundred meters. And yes, they have to remember to release the parking brake, first.” She flashed him a brief, wry smile, and then offered her hand. “Time to go. Good luck, Arstoll.”

“Good luck, Ia. Eyah?” he asked her as he clasped it one last time, using the sign and countersign of the Marines and their V’Dan counterparts.

Hoo-rah,” she agreed.

© 2014 G. Jean Johnson