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Claire Takes On The Galaxy

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Fleeing the wedding day from hell and her mother Claire Williams enlists in the Stellar Marines Corps - recruitment slogan 'Take on the Galaxy, Join the Stellar Marines' - and is sent to defend the remote colony of Devil's Pit. There she meets exiled bank robber, James, and his adopted daughter, and finds she must fight mysterious creatures called Shades in caverns as well as the enemy they call Mercs who want the colony for the precious lift crystals mined there. In the meantime James finds himself drawn into his own deadly, shadow battle to fin a Merc agent among the colony's marine officers.

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Chapter One
CLAIRE TAKES ON THE GALAXY BY M S LAWSON ISBN 978-0-9954192-2-3 (e-book) Copyright© 2018 by Mark Steven Lawson writing as M. S. Lawson markslawson@optusnet.com.au Prologue One of the few memories that Claire Amber Williams had of her father was when they slipped away from her mother to play at stalking one another in woods near their home, and she was allowed to play with a slug gun. The adult Claire did not approve of giving a gun to a child, but the infant Claire was intrigued by the weapon. Although it was, of course, unloaded. When Claire pulled the trigger, the hammer clicked on an empty chamber and she made the piou, piou noise of bullets as she hunted imaginary enemies by a river bank. Later her father marked a target on a tree and gave her a real slug to put in the gun. “Line up the front sight and back sight,” he said, indicating where they were on the gun. “Pull the stock tight into your shoulder. Squeeze the trigger, don’t pull it, and remember, not a word to your mother.” Claire’s memory of that sun-filled day was that she lined up the target as instructed and hit it dead centre first time. “Why, that’s .. that’s very good Claire,” said her father, astonishment apparent in his voice even to the young Claire. “Very good indeed.” Father and daughter smiled at one another. Then Mr Williams died unexpectedly of a heart attack. His widow, Claire and her very new baby brother, Logan, were well provided for, but Claire was not given any more slug guns. She was given dolls and tea sets instead. When she got older the closest she got to a boy-like activity was the school netball team. Rachael Williams’ careful attention to the lives of her daughter and son was lessened when she married again, but renewed when the marriage broke up and she reverted to her earlier married name. Claire studied subjects like English and history as her mother approved of them, and kept away from subjects like politics and athletics as her mother did not care for one and had no interest in the other. Strong willed though she was Claire seldom rebelled as she did not mind much of what her mother told her to do, but deep down she thought that something was missing. However, when she started dating, Claire drew the line at private detectives being hired to vet the boys she went out with. “What on earth were you thinking of, mother?” “I was just looking out for you, dear. Girls get raped at parties by bad sorts.” “I wasn’t about to get wasted and be ravaged in a back room. We’d been to see films twice.” “There are such bad sorts out there, dear. You have no idea about men.” “I won’t get any idea about them at this rate, your detective scared him off.” Mrs Williams never acknowledged any wrongdoing. Instead, she was annoyed with Claire for getting angry when all she had been doing was being careful. Claire decided that she had to resort to secrecy – simply not tell her mother about the boys she was dating. Then she met Brad. Claire’s best friend, Ellen, declared him “hot”. He took Claire to dinner at up market restaurants and live shows rather than films at the multiplex, and he was charming. Despite Claire’s attempts at secrecy, Rachel Williams found out about this man in her daughter’s life but she did not need to hire detectives to check him out. Brad’s father occasionally turned up in the business news, his mother was mentioned more often in the gossip columns. Mrs Williams approved of him. After a year of flattering Claire with his attention Brad asked her to marry him, and she said yes, believing she loved him. Mrs Williams was over the moon. She organised an engagement party. There was even a small notice in the news feeds, because Brad’s father was in business. The moment that she said yes, however, Claire thought that Brad’s behaviour changed. Instead of being attentive, days would pass without Claire hearing from her fiancé. When Brad did turn up and she asked where he had been he would get angry, saying that Claire was putting pressure on him and that he was busy at work. Claire thought there was something in that criticism. Perhaps she was being over anxious, or too possessive, and if she loved Brad she should make allowances for him working hard. Her mother dismissed Claire’s concerns out of hand as a bride’s cold feet and got on with the job of planning the perfect wedding, including loading the wedding dress with tulle, the fine net around the dress. Claire did not want so much tulle. She did not like the look of the dress. “It makes me look like a blancmange, mother.” “Nonsense, dear, it looks lovely.” “Who’s getting married here, you or me? I don’t want so much tulle. In fact, I would prefer lace.” “Tulle is an excellent material, dear, you will see. You’ll look lovely.” As usual Claire thought that arguing with her mother was like shouting into a hurricane. She thought that if her fiancé was going to be absent so often, and get mad when she raised the subject of his absences, and her wishes about the wedding were to be ignored, then maybe she should call the whole thing off. But like so many other brides with reservations, she found it difficult to say the words that would stop the process. Everyone seemed so pleased about the marriage and the ceremony. Disappointing them would be very hard. And she was in love with Brad, or thought she was. Perhaps things would be better after they were married? Chapter One The Friday before the wedding Claire was sitting in the university lecture theatre whispering about the ceremony with two friends who were to be her bridesmaids. Despite her preoccupation with the ceremony, Claire heard and even later remembered a little of what the lecturer was saying. “Let me give an illustration,” said the lecturer. As Claire had not been listening to that point she did not know what the lecturer was trying to illustrate. “In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry Potter eventually defeats Voldemort but is left in a coma – appears to be dead to others – but then revives to finally destroy his nemesis.” “Did you say anything to your mother about the dress,” said Ellen, the maid of honour, on Claire’s left. “You bet I did. Way too much tulle. I look like a meringue.” “I thought you said you looked like a blancmange,” said Jenna on her right. “Whatever,” said Claire, suddenly aware that she did not know what a blancmange or a meringue looked like. “I still don’t like my dress.” The lecturer was battling on. “Then in the also very popular Lord of the Rings series of films, Gandalf falls fighting a Balrog, to become dead for all intents and purposes and then is brought back to life by divine intervention and transformed from Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White.” “You tried telling your mother?” said Ellen. “You bet I told her. But she just does not listen to me.” “Does anyone know where these images come from?” asked the lecturer. “The image of death and rebirth to transform someone who then makes the world better.” “Be at my place at two sharp to get dressed,” said Claire. “You don’t want to face my mother if you’re late.” “Anyone?” asked the lecturer in near despair. “The bible,” said someone close to the front. “Exactly. Christ took on the sins of the world, was crucified and on the third day he rose again.” “Weather forecast is not so good,” said Ellen. “Is the reception open air at all?” “It’s mostly inside.” “But death and rebirth of an individual who then makes things right is an extreme example of the imagery we are discussing here,” said the lecturer. “The photographs will be a problem,” said Jenna. “The broader picture is that of the age-old story of a character undergoing some trial – a trial which he or she may be plunged into by a personal crisis – and emerges from this ordeal as a better person, one more able to help him or her self and to help others. In the gospels Jesus goes into the desert and suffers for 40 days and 40 nights. The devil tempts him with all the kingdoms of the world, provided Jesus serves him, but Jesus emerges from this ordeal to start his ministry, to fight evil.” “Mother has her heart set on garden pictures,” said Claire. She heard nothing more of the lecture but on her way out, she and her two friends were confronted by a gigantic poster that seemed to dominate the main student quadrangle. “Take on the galaxy,” said the catchline at the top, then in huge letters between pictures of a man and a women soldiers with weapons in the hands, looking dramatic “Join the Stellar Marines”. Underneath, in smaller type, it said “Postings off world”. “Those posters are now everywhere,” said Ellen. “I heard it’s tough training,” said Jenna. “You barely have time to think.” “Then you are posted off to some hellhole light years away for a year at a time,” said Ellen. “Takes weeks of hyper-sleep to get there and even text messages take days.” “I couldn’t survive without social media,” said Jenna. “As if anyone would join the marines,” Ellen snorted, amused. When Claire saw the poster, including the women holding what appeared to be an assault rifle, something deep within her stirred, but she pushed the feeling to one side. She had to prepare for her wedding. The next two days were a whirl of preparation. Claire went to the hairdressers and got her hair done in an elaborate way, which she did not like and was lectured on a bride’s behaviour by her mother. “It’s your special day, you must be happy and smile.” “Be happy, great,” thought Claire. Her mother instructed Claire to put her driver’s licence and a credit card into the small, white purse which came with the outfit. “You need them to prove your identity when you go to sign the papers,” she said. Claire didn’t think that was right, but put them in anyway, along with her phone. Then, almost before she knew it, Claire’s Uncle Frank, her mother’s brother, had arrived to take her to the church and down the aisle. The bridal party got into a gigantic black car with white ribbons on the front. “You’ll need umbrellas,” said the driver. “I have two in the car and a raincoat.” Clouds were piling up in the direction they were going. Lightning flashed. “Not a good omen for the marriage,” thought Claire. “Not good for garden pictures,” said Jenna. “Can’t have you arriving in the church wet through. Your mother will never forgive me. We’ll see what we can do when we get there,” said Uncle Frank. By the time they got to the church the steady rain had turned into a storm. “I’ll go to the side entrance,” said the driver. “There’s a covered walkway there. It’s a big church. I think you can circle around to the main entrance inside the building.” “Looks like we’ll have to do that,” said Uncle Frank. There was still a gap between the car door and the walkway, and the walkway itself was narrow. Claire’s uncle did his best to shelter the bride and bridesmaids with raincoat and umbrella, and got himself soaked in the process, but they were still windswept and damp by the time they got inside the church’s side door. Mrs Williams was there in her own, carefully chosen outfit, having been alerted to the change in plans. She was calm about this mishap. She knew that even she could do nothing about the weather and, anyway, it was a good wedding story. “We can get to the front through a side cloister,” she said. From the side door Claire could see the altar and Brad’s best man along with her brother, Logan, who was groomsman. She could not see Brad. Then she became aware of a faint, rhythmic thumping and gasping from a closet to her left. Something about the gasping seemed familiar. On an impulse, she opened the door and her world fell away. “The groom seems to have wandered off,” said the minister, who had come to see what was happening with the bridal party. “The best man can look for him.” “Don’t bother,” said Claire, “I’ve found him.” She flung the closet door wide to reveal her groom, with his pants down, in the act with another girl. She recognised the girl as the daughter of one of her mother’s friends. She was pretty, of no account, as Claire recalled her mother’s gossip, and underage. As the girl giggled when she saw them, Claire thought that she also must be as high as a kite. The wedding party gasped. The minister gasped. Brad turned around, his eyes widened and he abruptly pulled up his pants. “How come you guys are coming in this way?” he asked. “The rain, you fool,” snapped Uncle Frank. Ellen said, “Brad, how could you? You said you had errands to run.” “What?” shrieked Claire, rounding on her bridesmaid. The guests in the church heard the shriek and wondered what was going on. Ellen went red then muttered “I can’t keep this up, I was with him last night.” Claire turned on the groom. “How long has this been going on?” Brad grinned. Maybe he just had no idea of the enormity of his crime, or maybe, Claire realised in her anger, he was just a piece of filth. “A while babe, I guess.” “We were going to tell you,” said Ellen, miserably, “then Brad said he’d do it, but he never did.” Claire rounded on Jenna. “What did you know of any of this?” “I thought something was happening, but I wasn’t sure...” Her voice trailed off. “And you two were going to let me marry him? You let it get this far?” Neither bridesmaid replied or could look at the bride. “Babe, I know this looks bad, but we can talk about this,” said Brad, still grinning. “Who are you saying babe to?” retorted Claire, “me, Ellen or her.” She pointed to the girl who had retreated to the back of the closet to giggle. Uncle Frank spoke up. “Reverend can I borrow your bible for a moment?” The minister, still stunned, handed the book to Uncle Frank who flung it at Brad. In his youth, Uncle Frank had been a creditable softball pitcher, and he was fond of his niece. The heavy book caught Brad square on the nose and sent him sprawling against the back of the closet. “I hadn’t thought of that way of using the good book to chastise sinners,” said the minister. “I’ll buy you a new one,” said Uncle Frank. “No need. The book has been put to good use.” “The wedding’s off,” said Claire turning to the minister. “I agree,” said the minister. “It is indeed off.” “Now wait,” said Rachael Williams finally finding her voice. “Is there no way to fix this?” “Mrs Williams, I cannot possibly marry them after this,” said the minister. “Rachael, it’s off,” said Uncle Frank. “We just have to tell the guests.” “Tell the guests?” said Rachael Williams, a note of panic in her voice. Her carefully planned grand ceremony had, in an instant, turned into a legendary disaster. Claire turned to Brad, a handkerchief red with blood now held to his nose and dropped the flowers at his feet. “You marry him,” she said to Ellen. With a last glance at Brad she went out into the rain. It was still pouring. Before she had taken a few steps Claire was soaked through, her hair a mess. She did not care. She was so angry with Brad, and even angrier with Ellen, she could have walked through a flood with debris floating by, without noticing much. She walked along the side of the church, around to the front entrance where the bridal party should have arrived. She could not see the car they had come in, but there was a taxi. She walked over and opened the door. “You free?” “Well, sure,” said the driver, startled by the appearance of a bride in full dress, wet through. Claire saw her mother holding an umbrella, gesturing urgently for her to come back. She got into the back seat, finally out of the rain, tugging and pulling to bring all the dress’s tulle on board. “Where to?” “Just drive.” “Anywhere in particular?” “Just drive,” she snapped, and then said “city square”. It was the only place she could think of just then. “Okay, okay.” Claire looked back to see her mother staring open mouthed as the car drove off. “Wedding didn’t work as expected, huh?” said the driver. “You could say that.” “You got a card?” Claire realised that she did, thanks to her mother, and she tapped the driver’s terminal with it. “Groom didn’t turn up?” “I don’t want to talk about it.” “Okay.” Claire’s phone rang. She turned it off without looking to see who was calling. The perfect event her mother had planned, had turned into one of those wedding disaster stories that Claire had always enjoyed hearing. Now that she was the subject of such a story they did not seem so funny, but even as she seethed she realised that there were advantages to this total humiliation. Not only had every one of her doubts and misgivings about marrying Brad been confirmed before Claire had gotten to the altar, the evidence had been put right in front of the noses of the bridal party. There was no room for argument, not even from her mother. She had been grossly betrayed by Brad and her best friend, made heartbroken and miserable, but she was free of the marriage and, she was surprised to realise, glad to be free. Free to do what? Going back to her mother or the university where her bridesmaids also studied was not a welcome thought. Claire shivered. She was wet through. She asked the driver to turn up the heat in the back. She saw they were among the office towers of the city centre and, through the rain, the slogan “Take On The Galaxy” appeared. The full poster, the same as the one she had seen on campus the previous day, came into view. It was above a shop front and a smaller version of the same poster was in the window. She thought of Ellen derisively dismissing joining the marines – “as if anyone would do it”. Then someone else saying “doesn’t give you time to think”. “Can you pull up here?” she asked the driver. “Sure.” She tapped the driver’s machine again and extricated herself from the back seat, pulling and tugging at the tulle. A few of the Sunday shoppers, holding umbrellas, paused when a bride dashed across the sidewalk in the rain. Was the recruiting station open on a Sunday? It was. “I want to join up,” she told the women behind the desk. There was a handful of others, mostly male but with two females sitting on chairs in a room behind the desk, obviously waiting. They all looked up when Claire appeared. The women at reception, a civilian near retirement, looked up and did a double take at the sight of a bride in full regalia, albeit one that looked as if she had just been fished out of a river. “Don’t you have to be some place?” “Not anymore.” “Oookay, a story huh?” Claire did not reply. “Well if you want to enlist, we’ll need identification.” Claire handed over her driver’s licence and credit card and the receptionist went into the back room where a uniformed recruiting sergeant sat, watching the action on a security camera. “Can we take her?” “If the identification checks out why not?” said the sergeant. “There’s a story there alright, but it ain’t my problem. My problem is getting recruits. I give the oath to the inductees in ten minutes and one more is fine by me. There’s a one month cooling off period if she changes her mind. We’d better find her something else to wear before putting her on the transport to camp, though.” “Shame, it’s a nice dress,” said the receptionist. “Nah,” said the sergeant, “There’s too much,” he gestured at his legs, “what’s the stuff down there?” “Tulle?” said the receptionist. “That’s it. Too much tulle.” The receptionist stared at him. “Whatsmatter, can’t a straight guy have an opinion about a wedding dress?” A few minutes later the receptionist came out of the back room and handed Claire her licence and credit card, and a form to fill in. “Claire Amber Williams,” she said, “welcome to the Stellar Marines.”

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