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"Sage! Sage, wait!"
I recognized the voice. It was Drew Cortez, my uncle, and there was urgency in his hail.
I turned back from where I was about to step on the slidewalk to the maglev station and saw Drew hurrying my way. I waited.
"Damn, Sage, I'm glad I caught you before you started. Let's go." He grabbed my arm and began hustling me back the way I'd come, then dragged me onto a different slidewalk. I tried to resist, but he's a big man, and it was like trying to wrestle with a gorilla. I could have used some moves and resisted, but it might have hurt him.
"Drew, I'll miss my train!" I cried, looking at the schedule. The time for my train was blinking red, telling me I had only minutes before it left.
"Good thing, too, or you'd have wound up being held as a hostage. Hurry along, now. There's no time to waste."
Hostage? What in hell was he talking about? Just then a couple of UN soldiers in their pale blue uniforms passed us. Their faces were stony and unsmiling, as if intent on a dangerous mission of grave importance.
"Drew, this was my farewell party from the gang. We were going to--"
"I know where you were going, Sage. So did those Unnie goons who just passed us unless I miss my guess." He loosed his hold on me, probably knowing I had no chance to catch my train now.
"They weren't after me were they?" I couldn't imagine why anyone would think I was important. Hell, I'd just turned seventeen recently. Even if that did mean I'd reached my majority, I hadn't done anything illegal. And even if I had, the UN only had limited authority within our borders. We hadn't surrendered completely to them, like so many other countrieshad.
"Almost certainly. They were going to hold you to try keeping our ship from leaving. I guess you've been so busy getting ready for your weekend party you haven't been following the news."
"No, but I stopped following politics once you told me we were migrating."
"It doesn't matter now. There's our ride."
My eyes widened as we stepped off the walk. A private combo was waiting. Someone inside must have told the door to open. I couldn't see who was driving at first, because our view of the front was opaqued. Then he dropped it, but I still didn't know the man. Nor did Drew introduce me. He shoved me in and slid in beside me. Without him saying a word the combo surged forward. It made a few twists and turns along the boulevards of Sunrise City until it came to a flight area. I was pressed back in my seat by the acceleration as it took to the air. After that I was so excited for a few minutes I forgot what had happened. I'd never been in a combo before, much less one that was airborne.
"Don't get taken away," Drew said in his deep voice. "We'll be landing at the spaceport in a moment."
"Really?" I tore my gaze away from the window and stared at Drew's solemn face. "Tell me what's going on," I said.
"In a word, we're leaving early. The senate ratified the Destination Disclosure treaty allowing the UN to place trackers in all United States ships. We're going to get away before they put one in ours."
Trackers were something there'd been a huge debate about in the countries that hadn't yet given over complete sovereignty to the U.N. They were integrated into the Casimer drives in a way that left a traceable signal each time the drive was activated, and they could not be removed except by installing a whole new impeller. The purported purpose of the trackers was to assure a "Continuity of Mankind" among the stars. The real reason for having them, according to a minority in Congress, was that the UN wanted to know where every planet settled was located so that as soon as they had the strength and political backing, the UN could force the colony worlds to come under their sway.
"You mean we're leaving today?"
"That's right. At least we're leaving as quickly as everyone is safely aboard."
"You don't mean there could be trouble if we ignored the treaty, do you?"
I could feel the combo begin its descent. Drew didn't answer immediately. He was busy talking to someone on his comphone. I heard him say something about UN troops, and then he mentioned the name of another family I knew were part of our crew. I'd met one of the boys, a year younger than me although he was already heavier and taller. I take after Mom rather than Dad. Both his other brothers were larger even than Drew. Dad was the runt of the family.
"I'm afraid there's going to be a confrontation if we don't get moving quickly. After all, they've got their Unnies armed and ready."
"But they're just..." I trailed off, realizing what he meant. Because of a treaty Congress had agreed to several years ago, the UN had the right of free passage in the country, including troops and vehicles so long as they were lightly armed and didn't travel in groups of more than two dozen. Even though there was a lot of grumbling over armed UN soldiers running around the country, it really hadn't meant much. But now...
"Yes, exactly." Drew could obviously tell that the light bulb had clicked on for me. "I fully expect to see the Unnies begin enforcing the new treaty. I have it on good authority that they've been primed for this and have teams standing by. What's more, I've gotten word that they'll be enforcing their right to place trackers on United States ships selectively. To begin with, that is."
"What does that mean, Uncle Drew?" I still called him that sometimes.
"It means they don't like the politics of our group, and we're one of the first. Listen, we're going to be landing in a few minutes. Take this but don't be waving it around and don't use it unless it's absolutely necessary. We're going to try to leave peacefully."
He handed me a small needler. As I took it I felt my heart begin to thump. It felt as if Drew ought to be able to hear the pounding in my chest. It was that hard. I examined the needler to be sure it was on safety as I'd been taught, then took another look. It was the latest design, capable of penetrating body armor. I felt my hands begin to tremble. I'm sure Drew noticed, but he didn't say anything. When we landed at the spaceport five minutes later I had the laser tucked safely out of sight, but I'd activated the power charge. All it would take to fire would be snapping the safety off.
The last time I'd been here there were hardly any UN uniforms in sight. Now it was different. As our ground shuttle moved toward our ship we passed blue UN vans parked near several of other spacecraft. At one ship I saw an angry shouting match taking place between the blue-clad troops and civilians. I turned back in my seat to watch as we passed.
"Pay attention to what's in front of us, Sage. If there's a van by our ship I want you to have your needler handy after we get out, but don't draw it unless you see me do so. Understand?"
"Yes, sir," I said, granting him the authority to decide whether or not we engaged in a fight. I stared ahead of us at the long line of great interstellar ships stretching into the distance. A few of the spaces were empty. As I watched, a ship came in to land, floating down as gently as a cloud.
My hands began trembling again when I saw not one but two blue vans parked by our ship near the spot on its hull where its name, John Paul, was emblazoned above one of the side entrances. Surprisingly, when the shuttle came to a halt, our driver got out and joined us.
"Are you sure about this, Leon?" Drew said to him.
The man shrugged. "I made up my mind on the way. I don't like our country bowing to the Unnies. If you'll have me I'm going with you."
"I'll vouch for you. Are you armed?"
"Good. We might need you. This is my nephew, Sage. He can handle a gun if need be."
He nodded at me. "Let's hope we don't. We'd better integrate our coms just in case, though."
It took only a moment to temporarily merge our comphones so we'd have an idea what the others were doing if necessary, then we hurried toward the ship.
Unfortunately, the confrontation inside had already begun.
There was no guard at the entrance as there should have been. Drew held up his hand to stop us. He cocked his head, listening. I couldn't hear anything, but he drew his needler. The man named Leon did the same, except he had a slug thrower. Drew turned half way toward me and nodded.
I pulled my own weapon. Memories of all the hours of simulations flashed through my mind, games where I'd fought aliens and gangsters and foreign troops--but this was real.
We turned at the first corridor, and I almost bumped into Drew when he stopped abruptly. A body lay on the floor. There was very little blood, but then the heavy needlers UN troops use rarely leave much. Drew hesitated for a moment, then spoke, his voice a command.
"Leon, you take the left corridor, I'll take the right. Sage, you stay here and guard the entrance. If any more Unnies try to enter, you shoot. Hear? And put your com on auto now so I'll know if you need me."
"But, Drew, I want to--"
"Stay here!" he said. "They may have called for reinforcements." He began running down the corridor at a half trot. Leon went the other way while I was left alone.
I tried to avoid looking at the body of the man who'd been on guard the first time I'd come there with Drew. Casper somebody.
I stayed where I was, fuming. I thought he was leaving me to guard the entrance as a make-work job to keep me out of the fighting. I still thought that, all the way up to when I heard voices outside but still out of sight, hidden by the bulkhead of the ship. I took out my comphone and turned up the audio, hoping Drew could hear the voices. I kept it in my left hand ready to call him if they turned out to be more UN troops. All the time I was wondering how many of them one of their vans held. The voices faded for a moment, and I began to relax. I decided the danger was over and raised my body from where I had been waiting, standing behind the guard desk at a half crouch. I thought again of how Drew had snookered me into staying. Then the first blue uniform eased into sight.
I tried to aim and warn Drew at the same time. I think that despite all the simulations I must have closed my eyes when I pulled the trigger. My beam went high, scorching the paint above the entrance. The Unnie fired back quickly then ducked out of sight. His aim was no better than mine, but it scared hell out of me when it burned a hole through the desk right beside me. I waited, trying to still my trembling, and cursed myself for missing. And at a distance of only ten yards at that. I needn't have worried. I got another chance.
There were four of them. They came in a rush, all together. I guess I would have died right then but for Red Olsen. He'd approached on the slidewalk and seen what was happening. I still might have been hit, but one of the Unnies he shot in the back fell against another, causing her to stumble and her shot to go awry. My beam cut through the edge of her right arm as she tried to get up, then sliced across her throat before it died. She fell in a great gout of blood spurting from her carotid artery. My needler beam hadn't coagulated the flesh enough to stop it. I fired again. My aim was true that time, taking the last Unnie standing in the chest as he frantically tried to clear blood from his eyes, sprayed there by the first one I'd shot.
"The group!" Red called.
Later on he told me it was all he could think of to identify himself. We hadn't taken the UN threat seriously enough to have passwords. Anyway, I thought I recognized his voice.
"Is that you, Red?" I called.
"Yeah, it's me. Sage?" He edged cautiously around the edge of the entrance.
I lowered my needler. "Thanks," I said. "How'd you know to shoot?"
"Hell, they had their guns drawn and were shooting through the entrance. What else did I need? Besides, I saw that first one fire a beam at you, and I could tell they were ready to rush. And if that wasn't enough, your dad called me. Where is everyone?"
"Dunno," I said. "I was with Drew. He told me to guard this entrance."
Just then Dad came running down the corridor toward us. He skidded to a stop in front of the body then stepped around the puddle of blood and grabbed me in a bear hug.
"Are you okay, son?"
"Yeah, I'm not hurt. Red came up just in the nick of time. Are there more of them?"
"No, they're all dead." He smiled grimly. "And now that Red is here and Drew managed to find you in time, we can leave. Everyone is aboard. Help me move this carrion out of the way."
Red and I both lent a hand, trying to avoid getting our hands in the mess. The odor was becoming bad, too. That's one aspect of the simulations that's not life-like. It was the first time I'd smelled violent death. There's nothing else like it in the world. We got the bodies moved, watching carefully to see that no more Unnies were anywhere near. Dad closed the exit just as one of the technical people I didn't know came up to check the seal and permalock.
All the while Dad was trying to act normally but I could tell he had been almost as scared as I was, although I think his fear was for me rather than of the UN troops. Thinking of them reminded me to ask him about Drew.
"He's fine, and so are most of us except for Betty Wilson and Seth Sloan. They're both dead, and several others have minor wounds."
I didn't know either of them so it didn't have much impact on me. Later on I met Betty's mother, a sad-eyed woman who mourned her daughter for a long time afterward. Her brother introduced himself to me one day and told me he thought if it hadn't been for her and others like me there wouldn't be any pioneers. It was a sincere compliment, and I remembered it a long time.
"Those damn goons didn't expect us to fight back," Dad added. He put his arm around me. "You did fine, son. I'm proud of you. You too, Red."
"Thanks," Red said.
I didn't say anything. I didn't trust my voice.
"Come on, let's go see your mother and tell her you're okay."
On the way to our quarters I felt a faint shudder run through the ship as the impellers revved up. A moment later I suddenly felt lighter as the Casimer drive reached out for the Quantum foam and became one with its limitless energy. The John Paul lifted into space as softly as down floating into the air on a vagrant breeze.
Once we were beyond Earth orbit the bodies were dumped into space, and friends of ours disposed of the vans. The UN might suspect us, but they could never be certain we were the ones who killed them. I forced myself to be in the party that carried the bodies to the airlock, all fourteen of them. I felt my gorge rising but held it back. Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered a maxim: one who commits violence must be prepared to face the bodies. It fitted, I guess.
On the way back from the airlock, Drew caught me alone.
"Sage, I didn't intend to leave you facing that gang by yourself. I'm sorry. I thought they'd all gone on inside."
"It's all right," I said.
"No, it's not all right. Betty died, and you and Red damn near did because we didn't plan well enough. We should have known they'd be waiting on that treaty to be confirmed so they could put trackers on the ships that don't suit them." He shook his head. "We're going to have to do better than that. It's a big galaxy, but the UN thinks it should all belong to them."
"I've sort of gotten that idea now, but I still don't know why. We don't intend to bother them, do we? After we get our planet settled?"
"It's not what we intend, Sage. The UN is on a roll right now, and they're in cahoots with the All Humanity party. You know about them, don't you?"
"Uh huh. They want everyone to be the same."
"Yep. They'd be happy if all the races and cultures intermingled until there's no difference at all. And of course they want to integrate any aliens we happen to find into the family as well."
"The theory sounds nice," I said, slowing down as we neared our family quarters.
"Yeah. Nice and stifling. Without differences, the human race will stagnate. Well, all that's for the long run. Right now, let's put it out of our minds and go see what there is to eat."
I was all for putting it out of mind, but I didn't have much appetite that evening. I kept seeing the surprise on that woman's face as the blood gushed from her neck.
Posted October 1, 2010
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Posted July 29, 2012
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