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The best things in life aren't always shiny or new
"Dismissed. . ."
That final word hung over me for a moment before I fully comprehended everything. That final word meant the end for me getting into space as anything other than a paying passenger. The Commandant of the Space Academy was dropping me from the rolls. I stood there speechless for a few moments until Sergeant Clark gently took me by the arm and guided me out of the Commandant's office.
"Son, you all right?" he asked.
I looked at him, still speechless with a painful lump in my throat. My eyes weren't yet watering enough for a tear to fall.
He said, "Come along with me, Dave. It's not the end. We'll have some coffee or whatever and talk it out before you start packing. Then I'll give you a hand there, too."
I allowed him to guide me to the Dining Facility. We went over to the coffee dispenser and he filled two cups of coffee. While I wasn't looking, or maybe I was without paying attention, he took out a small flask and poured just a capful of whiskey into each cup. He pressed one cup into my hands and continued to guide me by the elbow over to a table where we sat down on hard plastic chairs. He managed to get me to take a sip. The unexpected touch of whiskey choked me for a moment, but it was enough to break through the pain in my throat. I suddenly came to life again and started realizing what happened and where I was and why.
"Sarge, I could understand being dropped because my grades or my behavior were poor, but to be dropped because they're cutting the military strength doesn't make any sense. Please, explain it to me so I can understand. Isn't seventh out of four hundred good enough to stay in?" I begged.
He replied, "Son, I know how you feel. I agree with you that it's not fair, but neither of us makes the rules. What's more, they're not playing by any rules we can afford. They're playing politics and money. The people that told the Commandant who to drop didn't look at your grades or behavior. They looked at your family."
"My family?" I said puzzled. What did they have to do with my being in the Academy?
The sergeant said, "You're not a rich family's son. Maybe I should say you're not a rich enough family's son. Even some of them couldn't play the game. If there was a war going on, those rich kids would be the first to leave. You wouldn't be able to see them go for all the dust they'd kick up. But there's no war and when that's the case, then the Union suffers because we get a bunch of officers who bought their commissions. If a war breaks out, we'll be scrambling to get enough candidates in and through in time to make a difference."
"What about the courts? Can they do anything?" I asked.
"You have the money?" he asked.
I answered, "No, but I was hoping that maybe one of the special lawyer bureaus would take my case if you think it's possible."
Sergeant Clark said, "The cold hard truth of it is that by the time they win the case for you, you'll be too old to enter. Every family with a kid who was behind you will be hiring lawyers to present briefs just to be sure that it's not their kid that you replace. The only ones who will sympathize with you will be those who have kids ahead of you in each of the four classes. By the time you beat some of these families down, a new class will have started. You'll have new families out to protect their status. My advice is not to bog yourself down with a court case. Even if you got lucky and got back into next year's class, you'll have to repeat the first half of the year and you'll be ostracized by just about everyone in the class. You'll be lucky if you didn't get booted out because of sabotage by some other rich kid whose friend you replaced. Even if you made it through to graduation, you'd get the dirtiest of assignments where you wouldn't be able to advance in rank. That's no way to start a career. You'd be resenting it even more by then. I don't mean to say you're not going to resent it now. I know I would in your non-skids."
I said, "Then what should I do? I put all my educational efforts into getting into space."
He replied, "There's where I can help you. I'm going to write down a name and address for you. You can get a job in space with this woman on my recommendation. I'll have that ready for you by the afternoon. Even without my recommendation, just a transcript of your grades here would convince her to give you a job. She runs a freighter service. The pay's good. With what you know and can do already, you'll get into space within a week."
"A freighter?" I asked.
He replied, "Don't knock it, son. They see more action than nine-tenths of these cadets ever will. That's why the freighter companies pay so well. These rich families don't know it, but they might have done you a favor. With your brains and skills, you could be breaking some of them in ten years."
"Why aren't you working for a freighter company?" I asked.
He said, "We're talking about getting you into space, not me. Whether you decide to check them out or not, that's up to you. The recommendation and a copy of your transcript will be ready for you this afternoon, regardless. It's the least I can do."
"Okay, I'll think about it," I said, as I took another sip of the laced coffee.
The sergeant said, "That's all I'm asking you to do. I'll also make out a list of things that I strongly recommend you get if you don't already have them. That'll be with the other papers. It'll probably be the most important sheet of paper you'll have until you have the items. Some of them won't make sense to you, but you'll need them or you'll figure out when you need them at the right time. That I'm sure of."
We finished drinking the coffee. Then the Sarge and I went over to the billets to start packing my gear. I think he wanted to help so that he could see what I might already have that he could recommend later to me to ditch or keep. While we packed, he made a few more recommendations right then on things to get rid of. A few items were sentimental, so I kept them anyway. The others, I took his advice on and dropped into the disposal. If nothing else, I earned credits for recycling those items. The extra credits would help tide me over a little longer until I had a job.
Later that afternoon, I stopped by Administration, picked up the papers that the sergeant prepared for me, and stuffed them into my pockets. It felt strange to be wearing civilian clothing again and to use my pockets for anything other than my card-keys and identification card. I was still in the habit of putting my cigarettes and lighter inside my socks on the inner portion of my ankles. I was about to leave the compound when I reasoned that I should at least take a look at the items the Sarge recommended I purchase. After all, I still had privileges at the exchange shop until midnight. Prices were definitely lower there than at the civilian stores.
I placed the duffle bag down, rather than stand there and hold it in the heavier gravity that we trained in. If nothing else, I was stronger than when I entered two and a half years ago. I pulled the papers out of my pocket and went through them to find the one with his recommendations. I don't know why Sarge insisted on using paper instead of committing it to disk. Certainly, there was no need to make a paper copy of my transcripts. Surely, they'd be available over the Universal Internet to any employer who desired to see them.
The list seemed a little strange. An everlight I could understand. I wondered about getting a Fresnel lens. At least the Sarge listed next to it a size that he recommended. I wasn't sure about the pocket knife. I hadn't had one of those since I was a kid. The marker and note pad seemed downright antique in nature. I wasn't even sure if anyone still sold those. There were other items such as a thermal blanket, thermal canteen, web hammock, and waterproof shoulder pack. I could see some use for a few of those items if I went camping, but in space? If I took the job he recommended, those items didn't appear to be very useful. Rather, if I got the job, should I decide to apply for it. However, if there was anything about the Sarge I could say in his defense, not that he ever needed anyone to defend him, it was that he never recommended or said something without good reason in the two and a half years I'd known him. Then I got to the last item and almost couldn't believe it. Sarge recommended that I purchase a projectile weapon. I'd only seen those in old movies and museums.
Needless to say, every item, if I had or bought it, would fit inside the shoulder pack. Buying them certainly wouldn't hurt my credit balance, especially if I purchased them in the exchange. Because the items cost so little, I decided to go ahead and purchase them.
The only items I couldn't purchase in the exchange were, of course, the projectile weapon, marker, and note pad. It wasn't because they didn't carry weapons, but because it was so old-tech as were the other two items. I even decided that I'd get the shoulder pack with the separate holster for a weapon. It would help balance the load once I purchased the weapon. I left the exchange and put the new items, still in their packaging, inside the shoulder pack and adjusted it to fit before slipping it on. Then I made my way to the entrance, though for me it was the exit, of the compound. I left the academy for what I figured was probably the last time unless I had a chance to stop by and visit the Sarge to either thank him or just look him up as a friend.
Outside the entrance, I paused to look at the recommendation for a job along with the name and address. I figured on using that as my starting point. I wandered over to a public terminal and spoke in the information to begin a search of the company and the owner, Penelope Wayte. I was astounded to find out moments later that neither was listed. I'd never heard of a company or person not being listed in the directory. Hell, even the Mafia was listed in the directory, so why shouldn't a business or person be in it? I tried cross-referencing it by the address that Sarge wrote down and still couldn't locate it. If I decided to apply, I would have to do so in person. Even that was unusual. I thought that I would be able to apply using the terminal, but not in this case.
At least, it wasn't far from the Academy. For someone in my shape, it was a short easy walk. There was no need or reason to hire a Yellow. Besides, there would be stores and vendors along the way where I might be able to purchase the last few items remaining on my list. I started walking in the direction of the Pennyweight Shipping Company. My language background wasn't so bad that I didn't recognize the obvious play on words with the owner's name. About two blocks from the academy entrance, I came across one of those ever-present surplus stores and went on inside to browse. They had, believe it or not, a selection of arms second only to a museum.
"What can I do to you, son?" asked the salesman, an old thin man of about sixty or older with thinning hair.
I answered, "I'm looking to purchase a projectile weapon."
"Don't get much call for them. What caliber do you want?" he asked.
"I'm not sure. Let me check." I pulled out my list to see if the caliber was listed.
The salesman's eyes seemed to know just because of that. "Never mind, son. I know what caliber you want. Thought I'd never see another one of those lists. How is the Sarge these days?" he asked.
"In good health. You know him?" I asked.
"Yes, I do," he said, pulling a box from under a counter. He looked at the shoulder pack I had, walked over to another aisle, pulled a different shoulder pack off a shelf, and brought it back with him. "You'll need this size and style to accommodate this weapon. I'll trade you even for the packs as a favor to the Sarge, not that it'll ever make us even."
I sensed then that there was a story behind that man's reverence for the Sarge. However, I decided it wasn't my business to pry into the man's personal affairs.
"Nope! There ain't no way I can ever repay the Sarge for saving my son's life. You'll get the gun at wholesale price, too. Go ahead and take your gear out of that pack. Put it in this one. Did you get everything on the list?" he asked.
I replied, "Not quite. I couldn't find the . . ."
He said, "Marker and note pad. I don't think hardly anyone else besides us still carries those. They'll be wholesale, too. Now I'll show you how to use this antique. It packs a wallop for such an old weapon, but someday you'll be thanking Sarge for recommending you buy it."
We went into a back room where the old man showed me how to use the weapon and then to take it apart, clean, and reassemble it. He wouldn't let me pay or leave with it until I showed him I could do as he had. Then he went about making sure I had everything stored away inside the pack, putting the pistol in its holster that was concealed by the pack unlike the other pack where it was visible.
"Yep," he said as he rang up the purchases and finished with everything including my permit for a concealed weapon, "that kind of pack is the kind that will do you a lot of good. Don't ever forget to keep it in good condition. I was on an expedition once. We used those to float a wounded man across a river. Always keep your canteen in the front half. That way you can use the straw to drink while you're walking and keep your hands free."
Before I left the store, he had exchanged three more items for what I bought with different models which he thought to be superior. Even though one item was used, he looked and sounded so sincere that I let him do it without argument. I guess it was also because one of the items he exchanged equally was a better item than I purchased. He wasn't trying to cheat me, I could clearly tell. As I left, he wished me good luck.
I spent more time inside the store than I planned on, but it was still before supper. I saw no reason not to go on ahead down to the Pennyweight Shipping Company to see what they were like. I only got about two more blocks when I entered into an area that had been off-limits while I was a cadet. Now I was free to enter. At my own risk, of course. I didn't feel like walking around the area that was poorly policed and where almost anything was legal or likely to happen. I wasn't thinking about my haircut marking me as a cadet. On the other hand, I hadn't received my cadet ring yet. It would be forwarded to me, so I guess I looked more like a first-year washout than anything else. However, none of those things occurred to me as I entered the area.
I barely went a block when I found myself being faced by two tough-looking thugs. They seemed determined to shake me down and force me to transfer credits, not to mention stealing whatever I carried of value. I guess it would have been different had I been a washout as they thought, but I wasn't. I was a third-year cadet. That meant I was conditioned and trained already in several forms of combat. Nor did they teach us to fight fair at the Academy. We used padded robots so that we could throw real punches and kicks at any and every vital area we could reach. Also, I was wearing my steel-cap insert non-skids. It didn't even occur to me to pull the ancient .50 caliber pistol I was then carrying.
It was hardly a fair fight as I indicated. One of them put his body in the way. The second man tried to come from behind while the first one did his best to keep me busy. As soon as I felt the second man's hand on my shoulder, I ducked down and swept my arm back to hit him in the groin. He backed off as quickly as he could while doubled-up. I jumped up from my position, leaving my duffel bag on the ground, and planted a steel-capped kick into the ribs of the first man, knocking him over backwards onto his ass. His hand clutched at his ribs. I was sure I broke at least one. I hadn't held anything back as I made that kick. It was meant to maim, if not kill. I hadn't held anything back on the first man, either. He was still clutching himself while tears of pain fell down his face. I picked up my stuff and resumed walking away. As I left them, I could hear the two of them saying something about not seeing a ring on me while trying to blame the other for making a bad choice of victims. I know that three years ago, it wouldn't have taken but one of them to make me shit in my pants and hand over everything.
As I continued walking through the area, the way in front cleared considerably as news of the skirmish travelled faster than light speed. No one was sure what year I was anymore, but they didn't want to tangle with me. Evidently, the word about the reduction in force hadn't reached the zone yet. However, they were hardly expected to be interested in such matters. By the time I reached the opposite edge of the off-limits area, I could make out the space port. As well, I was only two more blocks from the Pennyweight Shipping Company. I considered stopping for something to eat since it would be supper time soon, but decided that I didn't want to have to wait until morning to check them out. The fact that they weren't listed in the directory had grabbed my curiosity and squeezed it until I had to find out about them to relieve the pressure.
I expected to find a rundown, seedy-looking building because of the lack of a listing, but the building wasn't much different from any other building on the block. I guess that made me more curious since they seemed like the other shipping companies from the outside. I entered the plain brick building and walked up to the office counter.
"You the guy with the package to ship?" asked a man without looking up at me.
I replied, "No, sir. I came here to learn about your company and possibly put in an application for a job."
He looked up at me, noticing the shoulder pack and my haircut almost immediately. "Let me see your transcripts, son."
I reached into my pocket, pulled out the paper copy of them, and handed them over along with the recommendation from the Sarge. I didn't mean to hand that over yet, but forgot to pull it out, along with my list.
He looked through the sheets of paper and handed me back the list without asking about it. He looked at the recommendation and then looked back at me. "Okay, Dave Oden, come on around the counter and take a seat there," he said pointing at a bench.
I did as he instructed and then waited almost an hour before he came back to get me.
He said, "This way. We'll interview you now. Seems like we might have a position for you, if you're interested."
I almost started to explain that I really wanted some information about the company first. However, I decided that I should find out what the position was before I bothered to waste anymore of their time or mine since I did need a job. He showed me to an office with the Pennyweight logo displayed outside it. I noticed the date of establishment and saw that it was an old company. It wasn't likely named for the owner unless she was over a couple of hundred years in age, which was highly unlikely, despite an average life span of a hundred and fifty for people to look forward to. After all, their logo showed a Clipper ship that was commonplace for the time they were established. It only made me wonder more about why they weren't listed in the directory. I walked into the room, expecting to see an old, if not ancient, woman. Instead, there was a rather young woman, probably not more than my own age of twenty-five. Before I had a chance to speak, she started talking.
"We've got an opening on our gun ship. You qualify. You want the job?" she asked.
"Not that I'm particular, but what is the opening?" I asked.
She said, "We're not like the Navy. Our gunners also perform other duties. You might be taking care of recycling, farming, navigation, piloting, or anything else that needs to be done."
Something inside me said take it, so I said, "Yes ma'am. I'll take it." I wondered why I didn't bother asking about the company's background or how come they weren't listed in the directory. All I knew was this was a civilian gun ship that regularly escorted company ships into places where there was no law and usually no navy to protect them. If anything, the Sarge was right about seeing more action than most of the navy personnel would see. I thought that I would actually wind up on a freighter. In a way, I was right as well. If the cargo was small and valuable enough, then the gun ship would double as a freighter and go out alone.
"Jim, get him a badge and a belt with a stinger." Then she turned to me and said, "You'll have a locker inside this building to stow away your gear. Take only what you absolutely have to have. At least, you're prepared for what the job entails. Sarge prepared you properly. Welcome aboard. I'm Penelope. Don't ever call me Penny unless something's wrong. I'm assigning you to the Thurman. It don't look like much, but it don't need to. You have any trouble finding us?"
I answered, "No ma'am. Just walked out the Academy entrance, turned left and kept walking until I got here. Only stopped to pick up a few items."
"You walked?" she exclaimed.
I answered, "Yes ma'am."
She said, "You're either foolish or over-confident. I don't like either of those. We worry a lot. Business is cutthroat and there's no room for either. I'm surprised that you didn't get mugged in the off-limits area. It's off-limits to our people as well, unless we have a delivery inside there."
"Yes ma'am. I understand." I decided not to tell her that I had injured two men making my way through the off-limits area. I didn't want to be labeled as a bragger. It was bad enough what she thought of me so far.
Jim came into the office and handed me a badge and gunbelt with a stinger already holstered in it. The stinger was a typical commercially-sold, small, handheld, charged-particle weapon which could recharge itself. I went ahead and put them on, using Jim as my model on how to wear them properly. Then I went with him out of the office and picked up my gear. He showed me to the locker room where I left most of the gear from my duffel bag, taking only a change of clothes with me. He pointed out what I thought was a dark copper-colored ship that was my assignment.
I walked on by myself over to the ship. The closer I got to it, the more I could tell that it wasn't copper colored. It was rust I was seeing!
I couldn't believe that I'd signed onto a company with a ship like that. I stared for a moment at my second major disappointment for that day. It was a very old patrol ship bought from the Navy as surplus. I doubted that it could hold its own in an even fight with another ship almost as old as it. I was wrong about that. From the looks of things, once I got inside it, it looked like it couldn't beat a ship older than it. I was almost sure that I was going to be on runs where there wasn't any real danger to be faced. After all, nobody in their right mind would send that rust bucket out to face some of the current state of the art ships out there in the space lanes. They would dance circles around it. Then they'd tear it apart with their pea shooters just for kicks.
I checked in with the officer on watch and got my assignment before I went to eat. Once inside, I was shown my gun station first and then my assignment. It was about what I figured it would be for the most junior man aboard. I was in charge of the recycling. That was a pleasant description for what was otherwise called taking care of the garbage. Lastly, I was shown where to bunk down. Now I knew why the Sarge listed a web hammock. I would need it for more than just camping.
Anyway, I didn't have to leave the ship to get a meal. Once I was hired, I was entitled to eat in the onboard dining facility. I expected the food to be as bad as the shape of the ship. Incredibly, the food was great. It was actually better than what the Academy gave us as cadets. I also had duties to perform starting right after supper and began recycling the garbage. There were two ways of handling it. One for planet surface use and one for in space. I knew both because of my Academy training.
END OF SAMPLE
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