Claire - Chapter Two

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Claire gratefully swapped her wedding dress for a standard marine camouflage uniform a size too big for her, and brown deck shoes without socks, which was all that could be found at the recruiting office. Along with the rest of the inductees, Claire then boarded a marine heavy-lift transporter which used powered lift crystals mined in off-world colonies. Claire had heard about craft that used the crystals to generate lift but had never encountered them before. They were too expensive for general use on earth. The transporter took off from the top of a city tower and headed west with a fraction of the noise and vastly greater energy efficiency than that of a helicopter. After staring out of the window for a while at the darkening landscape, Claire thought to turn her phone back on, to find – no surprises there – her mother the stand-out winner in the number of messages and voice mails left. Claire texted back to say she was fine and would return when she was ready. Her mother was too busy complaining about dealing with the aftermath of the disaster to sympathise with her daughter for being so horribly humiliated, and Claire did not mention she had enlisted in the Stellar Marines. A girl sitting beside her in the transport, dark-haired, dark-eyed and dark-skinned in contrast to Claire’s fair skin and hair, watched Claire texting with interest. “See they got you out of the dress,” she said. She had been standing beside Claire when they took the oath to defend the earth against all enemies. “Uh huh,” said Claire, still texting. “It was a nice dress.” “My mother liked it.” “That’s why you’re here, you and your mum argued over the dress?” “Don’t want to talk about it.” “Just asking.” Another text from Uncle Frank said that the girl in the closet had been returned to her mother and that most of the guests had left puzzled, to make their own arrangements for dinner. But Brad had lied to his parents about what had happened, and there was a confrontation in the vestry until Uncle Frank and the minister, with the reluctant support of Claire’s mother and bridesmaid Jenna, had set the record straight. This resulted in a message from Brad’s mother: “I’m so sorry about what happened. What my son did was so awful that there is nothing I can say or do that would make amends. All I can say is that at least it was better to find out about my son’s true character before the vows were exchanged. I was looking forward to having you as a daughter-in-law, and now it is never to be. In fact, after finding out what my son is truly like, I might have to warn every girl he brings home. I am truly sorry for the whole thing.” Finally, some sympathy for the wronged bride, thought Claire. She wrote back: “I’m sorry I won’t be your daughter-in-law but as you say at least I found out in time and can walk away. Thank you for your apology.” She couldn’t think of anything more to say. “Looking forward to dinner,” said the girl next to her. “Excuse me?” “Dinner at the camp. Supposed to be good food in the Stellas. Having got us to enlist, they don’t want to drive us away, ‘specially before the end of the cooling-off period. “Stellas?” asked Claire. “Sure, Stellar Marines. The guys call each other marines, but the girls often call each other Stellas.” “Sound like a 1960s girl band,” said Claire. “What’s the cooling-off period?” “You know, like it said in the stuff you signed. You have one month to back out or serve the four-year enlistment which includes a minimum two off-world tours of one year each. The off-world tours can be in grim places well out into the galaxy, but the money and conditions are good. My brother was a Stella and saved a heap, now he manages rides in an amusement park. That was too much information about the brother, thought Claire. But in the circumstances going far away sounded good. “When do we leave?” The girl laughed. “You have to do the training first, a long stint in basic which includes stuff about shooting people…” (Maybe she would be allowed to shoot Brad? thought Claire) “and blowing them up…” (better, she could blow up both Brad and Ellen) “as well as using airlocks and stuff in spaceships. Then advanced training in your specialty. Takes a while and not everyone gets through. You do a sport?” “Netball.” “You should be fine, anyway, Lou?” the girl stuck out her hand. “Lou?” “That’s me – Louise, so Lou. Don’t like Louie or Lewis. Lou.” “Oh sure, hi, Claire.” “I’d really like to hear the story behind you taking the oath in a wedding dress.” “I’d really like not to tell it.” “Okay, but maybe someday you’ll tell me.” “What happens after we get to camp?” asked Claire. “Nothing much tonight. The yelling doesn’t start until morning.” “Yelling?” thought Claire. “MARINES! ON YOUR FEET AND OUT IN THE YARD.” Having been warned by Lou about what would happen Claire jumped out of bed, pulled on pants, shirt and shoes and dashed to the parade line in the dark, tying up her shoes on the assembly line. “Boys and girls; boys and girls,” roared the senior sergeant, a big man crisply turned out at five in the morning, complete with a swagger stick as Claire learned the brown leather covered sticks were called, tucked under his arm. These were a distant echo of the vine sticks carried by Roman centurions, used to beat erring recruits. Stellar Marine senior sergeants, male or female, did not beat recruits but the sticks came in handy pointing at malefactors and slackness of any kind. There was always a lot to point at. Like Roman centurions the senior sergeants had loud voices and used them a lot. “Stand up straight and look to your front, heels together, feet at an angle of thirty degrees, arms by your side, fists clenched. You are Stellar Marines on parade, not a mob of cattle wandering the plains. You! The swagger stick was deployed in earnest. Do not look at me, look to your front!” The senior sergeant walked along the line of new recruits, inspecting them. What he saw disgusted him. “You will be taught how to stand to attention properly later today, and not a moment too soon in my opinion. Never in my born days have I ever come across such a collection of degenerates, misfits, losers and no-hopers.” His voice rose as he recited this litany. “We are tasked with defending colonies in far-flung places, with ensuring the safety of earth’s citizens no matter where they may be. For that we need skilled, dedicated people of the highest calibre and what do we get?” The senior sergeant was working himself into a frenzy. “What do we get? We get a bunch of slack-jawed, drooling civilians who can’t even stand up straight. These same drooling civilians we have to turn into soldiers capable of understanding orders given to them and operating complex equipment in the heat of battle.” Claire thought that she was cold, wanted to go to the head (there were no bathrooms on the base, she had discovered, only heads), hungry for her breakfast and did not drool. She also thought the sergeant had a loud voice. He was still using it. “That means, boys and girls, that we have to work, and work hard. Do not look at me marine! You! Look to your front! Be thankful that I have been sent to transform you from misfit civilians barely able to cross the road without getting run over into worthwhile Stellar Marines, capable of defending our beloved planet earth and its citizens and if necessary to die for them.” Good heavens! thought Claire. No one had said anything about dying. After Lou had told her about the enlistment conditions she had glanced through the papers she had signed, and a couple of brochures showing happy, good looking marines playing sports. There had been nothing about dying. “To start this long journey, you will be taught how to stand up straight. Do you hear me?” The response was a few barely audible “yesses”. “When I ask a question on parade like that, you say sir, yes sir and you yell it. When you are invited to make a remark or asked a question by me away from the parade, you will call me senior sergeant. While on parade, any parade, it is an officer on parade even if there is no officer present. That means you will say sir, and you will say it loudly. Now, do you hear me?” “Sir, yes, sir.” “I can’t hear you. Do you hear me?” “SIR! YES SIR!” “Marines, there is much to do and little time to do any of it. If you want to stay in the marines then you will work, and work hard.” They did. Claire learnt to stand at attention, salute and march about in formation. She went on route marches with packs filled with sand, a process Napoleon had called ‘seasoning’, went over obstacle courses and swam the length of muddy ditches fully clothed, then dug holes dignified with the term weapons pits. She got rid of the remains of her bride’s hairstyle at the first opportunity and opted to have it cut short, as well as let her hair turn back to its natural auburn. In her spare moments she dealt with the wedding disaster aftermath. Her chief fear was that her humiliation might be picked up by the news feeds, but it either went unnoticed or was not considered worthy of attention. That meant Claire was left to her private message battles. Like the other recruits, Claire left her phone in her barrack room during the day. When she returned to her room, she switched the device on only long enough to delete voice messages, unheard, and respond to those texts she felt like answering. These included texts from her brother, who had never liked Brad, a few notes of sympathy from friends, and a host from her mother who was puzzled over where her daughter had got to. Lou, who was in the same four-person barrack room as Claire, noticed this. “Need time to think, huh?” “Excuse me?” “You keep your phone off most of the time.” “Texts are easier to deal with.” “Uh huh – you never told me the story behind that dress.” “No, I didn’t.” “Feel like telling me now?” Claire was conscious the other two girls in the dormitory, who all knew about Claire taking the oath in a wedding dress, had stopped to listen to what she had to say. “Nope.” “I’m still hoping you’ll tell me.” “Keep hoping.” The recruits were taught to estimate distances, read maps (Claire liked that part the least), navigate by dead reckoning in rough terrain, by day and night, and basic squad manoeuvres. She was given a helmet with a comms link and microphone, the first piece of military gear that she was entrusted with, and given commands over it. She had to take it back to the tech unit when it went dead, and the technical sergeant asked her out. She declined as politely as she could, and the sergeant shrugged as if to say it had been worth a shot. “He’s single and hot,” said Lou who heard about this without Claire telling her. “And it could have been useful when we get more tech stuff.” “Then you go out with him.” “He hasn’t asked me.” Brad gave up leaving voice messages and sent her a text. “Babe, I’m so sorry about what happened. I must have been high. Can’t we work this out? I really miss you and need you. Maybe we can do counselling or something. Please message me back.” “Counselling? Why would I need counselling?” thought Claire. The “or something” also did not sound like true love’s commitment. The very next message was from Ellen saying how sorry she was for the whole ghastly episode and yes, she should have come clean long before they got to the church, but now she was “with Brad”. Claire copied Brad’s message and sent it to Ellen, with a brief explanation. She copied Brad in. Both individuals dropped out of her life. The worst part about the whole episode, as Claire realised that night after lights out, was that some part of her still wanted to be with Brad, which she knew to be absurd. He could not be trusted, even on his wedding day with his bride on her way to the church. The best part about joining the Stellar Marines, Claire realised, was that she had done too much during the day to stay awake after going to bed. After closing her eyes the next thing she heard was “Marines! On your feet!”. There was no time for pinning, and that helped. These efforts to cope with grief were helped by the fact that the day after the episode with the texts an unexpected new interest came into her life – the LW (for Land Warrior) 150 standard light infantry assault rifle, firing 5.56 mm rounds with an over and under pump action grenade launcher and optical sights plus target recognition software that made laser sighting irrelevant. The weapon was also light enough, despite thirty shots in its magazine, to swing around and sight with ease, while standing. The weapon was lethal, even in the hands of an amateur. In the hands of a trained professional it could kill with ease at eight hundred metres. It was, as Claire told herself, just what every girl wanted. Recalling that sun-filled memory of her father giving her a slug gun to fire, the trainee marine was entranced. After a brief introduction she was permitted to carry the weapon onto the range and fire at the one hundred metre targets. She imagined Brad’s head was in the bull’s eye and squeezed the trigger, just as her father had instructed her all those years before. The ten rounds she fired made a neat hole where the bullseye had been. “You shot before?” asked the range senior sergeant, looking at the target through binoculars. Claire shook her head. She did not think a single shot with a slug gun as a child counted. The senior sergeant knew that the LW-150 could make any wet behind the ears recruit fresh from school graduation or a lecture hall look good, but this was something else. Private Williams might have the makings of a sniper, but he also knew that few female marines wanted to be snipers. Part of it was cold blooded killing. This was a shame, the sergeant thought, as Private Williams was also cute – an observation that he was careful to keep to himself. Apart from being married it was more than his career was worth to interact with Claire about any matter other than firing a weapon (the technical sergeant who had asked Claire out was in a different unit and not an instructor). “Good shooting,” he muttered and moved onto the next recruit. Claire was thrilled. After that, whenever Claire went near a range she shot well, cuddling up to the LW-150 and even whispering to it, so that the weapon seemed part of her. Lou, who had turned into a best friend, thought she was nuts. “It’s not so much that I’m in love with the 150,” Claire explained. “After all, I can’t have children by it.” “That brings images to mind that I just want to forget,” said Lou. “But it’s way more reliable than any guy.” “Was that the problem with your fiancé?” asked Lou, hopefully. “He wasn’t reliable?” “And I can use the 150 to shoot guys like they deserve,” said Claire, ignoring the ploy. Claire was shown how to clear out buildings and trenches of people who wished her and her comrades harm, and learnt the legal basics of rules of engagement. “We’re meant to look up a rule book before we shoot back?” asked Lou. “What happens if the other side doesn’t care about the rules?” Mrs Williams finally worked out where her daughter had got to (she hired the same private detective who had checked out Claire’s boyfriends, and he looked for mentions of runaway brides on social media). She was horrified. “The Stellar Marines? What were you thinking?” said one text. “And the cooling off period is almost up. If you don’t leave now, its four years, including two off-world – more if war is declared.” Her mother had been reading up on the marines, thought Claire. She had already decided to stay and become better acquainted with the LW-150, and if that meant time off world then so be it. She replied to her mother along those lines, deleted several voice messages and turned her phone off again. A few days later she was called to the office of Colonel Jasmine Mulroney, the senior female officer on the base. She went wondering what she had done. That senior officer proved affable, telling Private Williams to sit down. “Your mother has been driving us crazy,” she said. “Oh joy,” thought Claire, “my mother has found a way to cause me more trouble.” “She badgered the receptionist here,” said the officer “until she was put through to me and then insisted that I put you on a bus back home. She did not want to hear that I couldn’t put you on anything unless you agreed. She wanted to come and pick you up, but the same objection applied. I can’t deliver you to the front gate unless you agree to be delivered. That brings us to the point. Do you want to stay?” “I want to stay, if I pass, ma’am,” said Claire. “Then that’s all that needs to be said. I glanced at your record and it’s solid right through, with your shooting marked as excellent.” “I like shooting, ma’am.” “With these scores you may be offered sniper school when you go on to advanced training.” “Sniper school, ma’am?” “Sniping can be assassination. You wait for an enemy to show themselves then take them out with one shot. In the Stellas they have a broader role as they are also used for skirmishing, recon and to counter the enemy pop-ups.” “Pop-ups Ma’am?” “As you’re staying you’ll find out what popups are very soon. In the meantime, Private Williams, I have one request to make. It is a request, not an order. Can you call your mother back, so she quits pestering me? This isn’t ballet school, I shouldn’t have to deal with controlling mothers.” “Yes, ma’am.” Claire went to a quiet spot besides the parade ground and rang her mother. It was the first time they had spoken since the wedding day from hell, and Mrs Williams was not happy. “But two years off-world at least,” she said. “What about your career? What about starting a family?” “What career? I was still studying, and there’ll be plenty of time for a family – I’ll be a soldier, not a nun.” “What happens if you get into a battle? The Mercantilists are talking about earth blocking them from getting essential resources.” Claire was surprised her mother had even heard of the Mercantilists. This was a group of mega-rich individuals who had seized and settled the only naturally habitable planet found so far, saying they were tired of the “excessive rules and regulations” of nanny-state earth. The Mercantilists had recently been complaining that they were not being given “fair access” to the precious lift crystals, used in space ship drives and for marine transporters, and the smart crystals used by the big AI systems, which were mined in off-world colonies. Just what the Mercantilists meant by “fair access” was never explained. “Have you been watching the news feeds, mother?” “Of course I have,” Mrs Williams snapped. “My daughter has joined the Stellar Marines and wants to stay. Someone may try to kill you in those outposts.” “Then I’ll try to kill them right back,” said Claire, thinking of the LW-150. The idea that someone might try to kill her was now less startling than it had been when she had heard the reference to “dying” on her first day. “I’ll think of Brad and pull the trigger, mother.” Her mother sighed. “I suppose it’s just as well the marriage never happened.” “Yes, it is mother – and because of that I’m now in the Stellar Marines.” “You can still leave, and I’ll send you on that grand tour you were thinking about,” said her mother. “Paris, London, New York – all those places you want to go.” For a moment Claire was tempted. She had always wanted to travel and now she’d would probably end up in some galactic hellhole. But then thought that she would be back under her mother’s thumb with no range exercises with the 150 to look forward to. “I’m staying mother, and that’s that.” After agreeing to ring her mother regularly, on the condition that she leave the base receptionist and Colonel Mulroney alone, Claire hung up thinking that for the first time, in any argument with her mother, that her wishes had prevailed.
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