There's a military flight out of system, but after that we fly commercial. My Marine ID gets me a decent billet, but no frills. Civilians stare at my uniform. I stay in my cabin during transit, avoiding their questions.
At Sternheim, it's another nine hours in a passenger carrier from the orbital transit hub to the surface. I sleep through the flight. As the carrier comes in to dock, someone drops a case. The heavy thump brings me to my feet in a split moment, wide awake, ready to fight. The marshal in charge of our cabin happens to be just one row behind my seat. He lays a steady hand on my arm and says very softly "As you were, Sergeant."
I turn to him, surprised, and still wrestling with combat instincts and the adrenaline surge. "You?"
He nods. "Ten years. I was a lieutenant, Ground, at Hemnon. We're coming in to dock, Sergeant. Please take your seat."
Rush meets me at the shuttle port. I pick him out of the mob at ten meters, long before he notices me. He was my best friend, before. I was in thrall of his flair and style. Now I glance over his sloppy appearence: hair too long, disheveled; garish red leather jacket; strategically ripped trousers unbloused from red ranger boots 'fashionable' reproductions of the real thing synth-leather, stamped in a scale pattern, steel-capped pointed toes, and not quite the same shade as the jacket. Sum up, he looks ridiculous. I catch myself calculating how hard to thrash him for it. Spooks me a bit.
He grins, and hugs me. "Welcome home, Soldier."
Automatically I correct him, "Marine."
"Marine! All right. How do you want to spend your first night back from the zone, Marine?"
"Not talking about the zone."
"Okay. You got it." He grabs my duffle, even though I can tell it's too heavy for him. He struggles valiantly. I give him his pride.
"I want the longest hot shower."
"Easy enough. After that?"
"Feed me like a wilderhund, get me drunk, and get me laid."
He laughs out loud. "Simple pleasures."
"You have no idea."
"We should be able to accomodate you." On the tarmac, Rush's trick little sport cruiser waits for us.
"Nice ride." I think it's the stupidest thing I've ever seen. All look-pretty, no meat.
"Thanks! Graduation present."
"I would have gone with the black."
Rush laughs. "Ladies only notice the red ones."
"Sure. And I'll bet the leather interior sells it."
"How'd you guess?" He grins as he triggers the door release and the 'wings' slide open.
"I can smell dead cow from here!"
Folding down the driver's seat, Rush fights my duffle into the back. I wait, pretending not to notice his difficulty.
The evening is cool, cruisers prowl the ramps, lightmurals crawl across the towers. Seven different musics crash into each other, set my teeth on edge. The people around us laugh and talk and argue. Laban is winding up for another long night. Nothing has changed.
"Hey, relax!" Rush says.
My attention snaps back to him. "What?"
He laughs. "You're all tight, like you think somebody's gonna jump you. Relax."
"I'm tired," I lie. I slept the whole flight down from orbit.
I used to think all the excitement of the city was a thrill. Now it triggers every alarm in my system. I can't track all the action. I feel wound and unsafe.
I rent a dormitory room for the week. I spend almost an hour under the shower. I almost fall asleep.
"Aren't you gonna wear the blacks?" Rush asks from the lounge where he flashes through stations on the network terminal.
Without thinking I've dressed in familiar utilities, drab green. I don't have anything else except my Class A service uniform. I don't want that kind of attention. "This is fine." The fatigues are new, clean and creased, that's all I care.
"Ladies love the uniform," he smirks.
"Don't have dress blacks with me. Not authorized."
"Well, I guess that'll work." He flicks the terminal off and rises from the lounge; pulls his jacket on. "I called some friends to meet us."
"Friends?" Most of the names that word brings to mind now belong to dead men.
"Flash." I wonder if he thinks of anything else.
"Where do you want to eat?"
The place is packed and noisy: laughter and shouting, vicious synthar and drums. Smoky. Perfect. We sit at the bar, warm up with a few shots, then graduate to a table as it becomes available. The steak is hot and the liquor is ice cold. I must have died in that last skirmish, because I'm in paradise.
Rush gets stupid after his second drink. I've seen the bottom of five or maybe seven after an hour and a half. The alcohol helps level my nerves and dull the paranoia. The constant noise and activity does the rest. I'm finally starting to relax.
"Can I bring you gentlemen anything else?"
It takes me a minute to get my brain to focus on the question and not her chest. "Yes. Double order of king prawn, fried eel with rice. And a refill." I raise my glass in mock toast and finish it off.
She smiles. "Mauler's again?"
"You got it."
As she glides away toward the bar, Rush asks, "How can you eat more? You already put down half a cow."
"It was a small cow." Combat has left me underweight and ravenous. I could gain ten kilos and still be nothing but skin and bones.
"Here they are!" Rush nods toward the door, rising to his feet. I glance over the newcomers. Bretta and Iane, girls we knew in school. Bretta, short and blonde, curvy, puffy lips, in some skimpy red thing; Iane, long and tall in something more modest up top, but showing off her smooth, dark legs. Both pretty enough, but at this point, pretty is an afterthought. I'm like to mount anything with a pulse.
Rush waves them to our table. Bretta immediately wraps herself around Rush. My estimation of his friendship slips a notch. Iane sits next to me, lets me slide a hand up her thigh. "Hello, legs."
She laughs. "You haven't changed a bit!"
"I'm drunk, love."
"Well, and I will be, give me an hour or so."
"I'm feeling generous, I'll give you two."
Rush pays for a car to drop us at the dorm which might win him back a point or two in my book. Upstairs, I find Iane's dogtags as we strip, but I don't want to think about it. We fuck, and doze and fuck again. She is lean and soft and wants me, but doesn't want it to mean anything. Neither do I.
"When did you join?"
She's half-stupid in the afterglow. "The Marines? I joined out of school."
"Because they'll pay my way to university."
"That's a shit reason, Iane."
"Not all of us have rich fathers willing to pay our way, Sabbath."
"Don't." I hate that name, she knows it. I hate him even more. "I never asked him."
"You don't have to."
"Fuck you, Iane."
"You just did," edge on her voice.
I almost hit her for that. Even draw my hand back for it.
She glares at me. "Don't you dare."
I'm supposed to live to a higher standard than this. We both are. I let my hand drop. "I'm sorry." This anger is stupid, and I'm not sure who I'm mad at.
"It's all right." She strokes my hair. I'm almost asleep when she asks, "What happened to your back?"
"Hmm...?" The welts she means. They're almost healed. "Fucked up. Stood a thrashing."
"Deserved it." I'm too tired to explain it, but she doesn't ask. She counts my ribs with slim fingers, but doesn't tell me the obvious.
"Go to Flight," I tell her in the morning. "You're clever, could be a pilot. They live like human beings. Hot meals and showers."
"Thanks for the advice."
"I'm proud of you, Marine." I mean it. It spooked me at first, but I am proud to serve with Iane and call her my Marine sister.
"Thanks, Sarge," halfway making fun of me. But she smiles.
"I'd like to see you again."
Her smile fades. "I don't think that would be good for us."
"My muster date is in two weeks. I have a lot to wrap up in between. And you need to find a job."
"Iane, it's my second day back, can't I make it a week without thinking about that?"
"No." She sticks her tongue out at me and laughs. "Listen. I had a good time. I had fun. But it's not going to last."
"Not even two weeks?" That part about not wanting it to mean anything? I think that was my liquor stupor talking. This morning, a few steps closer to sober, I'm suddenly looking at being alone well and truly alone - for the first time in almost four years.
Marines are pack animals. We eat, sleep, play, and fight in groups. I've gotten used to having somebody watching my back. All day, all night, no matter what. I don't think I can handle a solo run.
"You've got six months before you go back?" she says.
"Yes." The thought scares me, so I avoid it. "Or, I can take discharge. My enlistment term is almost up. I haven't decided."
"Then you definitely need a job."
"You're circling the issue."
I have to let it go; have to let her go. And as soon as the door latches shut the crushing silence closes in.