Soldier of Fortune: Chapter 11

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Before Morton Barrens, before Nasa, before the Corps, Gideon had been just another dodger on the streets of Tesla, on Ford’s southeast frontier. 

But then the Adidans stormed the city, overcame and occupied it within two days, in the Coalition’s first move against United Colonies’ defenses. 

The occupation of Tesla lasted for four years, and for Gideon, it changed everything.

“And where do you think you are going, young man?” 

Gideon, with one foot on the ladder which descended from the abandoned teleph station they used for shelter, felt his shoulders hunch up to his ears at the sound of Fagin Martine’s voice. 

It didn’t seem to matter he was going on fifteen, or maybe sixteen (dodgers seldom having an accurate idea of their birthdates), or that he’d been part of Martine’s hive for going on eight of those years. The merest hint of disapproval in the fagin’s voice had him flushing and hunching like a raw drone, fresh from the streets. 

“I was going out to cadge some supplies, seeing as we’re running low on most everything.” He faced the small, tough Dole Islander who’d fed, clothed, educated, and trained him into dodging since the age of seven, and whom he suspected of being a sensitive. 

“Supplies my behind.” Her eyes narrowed. “You think I don’t know what you’re really doing down there? I may not be on the streets so much as you young ones, but even this old nose can smell phosphorous on your clothes.” 

Okay, he thought, maybe not a sensitive, just observant.

“You been marking targets for the allies,” she continued, “and likely adding a little sabotage of your own into the bargain.” 

Busted, he thought. “It’s important work,” he said. 

“It’s soldier’s work, and you may be the best cannon I got, but you are no soldier.”

“Not yet.”  And damned if he couldn’t taste the bitterness in his own words. “But someday.”

“Someday is not this day. This day you are still my dodger.” 

“Yes, but since there’s no one but the enemy to steal from, anyway, why not paint a few targets, or free some horses, or spike some Coal-fart tires—” 

“You know I do not like that kind of language.” Martine poked a finger into his chest. 

“Even for—”

“Even for the enemy, yes.” She gave him the full-on Martine de Loire glare. “Do you know why?” 

He looked at his too-tight boots, which were wearing thin as the occupation dragged on. “Because it’s verbally lazy,” he said, parroting one of Martine’s many, many views on the use of language. 

“That and because if you belittle something dangerous often enough, maybe you start thinking it is not so dangerous.” Her eyes, a shocking hazel in the dark, wrinkled face, were hard. “You start thinking that, you maybe stop being so careful on the dip, never mind what other trouble you’re getting up to out there, and then…” She brought her hands together in a sharp clap that had Gideon jumping in spite of himself. “No more Gideon here to give me sass.” 

He flushed, and hated that even in the dim light of their shielded solar lamp, she’d be able to see it. 

“If I promise not to call them Coal-farts, can I go?”

She stared. 

He rolled his eyes. “If I promise not to call them Coal-farts, and stick to stealing food, can I go?” 

“Tempting, but no.” She set a gentling hand on his arm. “Lessons first, as always. I need you,” she continued as he began to formulate another protest, “to set an example for the others. They look up to you, Gideon.”

“Only because I’m so swarming tall,” he said, though he straightened some at the praise. 

“Not so tall I can’t still box your ears,” Martine said sharply, but with a smile in her voice. “Now, come and join the rest of the hive, or you will see how high I can reach.”

He joined the others, but when the lesson began, Gideon wondered why, of all subjects, Martine would have chosen ancient history. 

Not only was it a lesson he’d heard many a time since coming into her care, but it wasn’t nearly as useful as a lesson in lock picking or wall climbing or basic first aid (should the lock picking or wall climbing go amiss). 

“So, my young ones,” she began as Gideon settled at the outer ring of dodgers (the youngest, as always, sat closest to Martine), “today you will learn, as I learned when I was young, how Fortune’s history began when Earth’s history came to its end.”

“Earth?” Maurian, nine years old but only recently brought into the hive, looked at the fagin in disbelief. “Earth’s not even real! It’s just a place the keepers made up so we’d follow their laws.” 

“Not so,” Martine replied, but without the heat Gideon would have expected. “Earth existed, likely still does in her little solar system with her one, lonely sun,” she continued to all the children. “She was humanity’s first home, but the humans of Earth were a contentious, wasteful people. Because of this, they did not respect their home, and so their home began to fail. Rather than do the needful and care for it, these contentious people turned on one another, scrabbling over what little remained.”

“Like the Coal-far—like the Coalition forces, attacking the United Colonies for our crystal.” Yribe, a boy of around twelve, and an ace at second-story work, corrected himself at her glare. 

“Some would argue about crystal belonging only to the United Colonies,” Martine said over the ensuing angry buzz of children in the throes of patriotism. “But there are similarities, as the Earthers fought many a war over oil.” 

“Like, olive oil?” little Aaya asked. 

“Like old, melted dinosaur bones,” Gideon threw in from the rear. 

Half the little ones let out a concerted ewww, and the other half clamored to know what a dinosaur was. 

“Thank you so very much, Gideon,” Martine said over the tumult. 

“Just glad to be needed.” But he put his fingers in his mouth and whistled loud enough to cut through the uproar. 

“Dinosaurs are similar to dracos and lizards and the like,” Martine spoke into the startled quiet. “But bigger—bigger even than a mammoth.” 

“But why fight over old melted dinosaur bones in the first place?” Aaya’s question emerged from the chorus of disbelieving nu-uhs. 

Martine smiled at the little one. “Because the oil those dinosaur bones melted into was for the Earthers what crystal is for us. Except oil was very dirty, very messy, and it did not grow back after it was pulled from the ground.” She paused for the various sounds of disbelief from the younger dodgers. “Which is why,” she said when they calmed again, “the Earth became so polluted, and why so many people fought over it—fought so bitterly, it was not until Earth’s demise was certain that her children, our many-times great foremothers, accepted the need to work together.”

“For world peace?” Yribe asked. 

“More like world pieces,” Gideon muttered, then hunched his shoulders again as Martine shot a look his way.

“More,” she looked back to Yribe, “that certain private citizens with vast amounts of wealth and resources gathered together the finest minds of their time to do the needful. The needful, in this case, being the engineering and seeding of planets beyond the Sol system. Planets like our own Fortune.” 

“Were there others?” Yribe asked, leaning forward, arms resting on his crossed legs. “Other planets the Earthers made?”

“That we do not know. We only know, from keeper records, that many, many ships set forth to many, many systems, in hopes that at least one would provide a new home. We may be one of many, or completely alone.” 

“Okay, so, maybe the Earthers were real,” Maurian admitted grudgingly, “but they couldn’t have been all that smart.”

“Why do you say that?” 

“Because they left us here, all alone, with no way off and no way to talk to anyone else.” 

Even Gideon could see Maurian, who’d recently lost her parents to the Coal-fart slave docks, wasn’t talking about their long-dead ancestors. 

“This is true,” Martine agreed, speaking only to the surface topic. Maurian’s underlying loss was something to be dealt with privately. “Though it is also true the Earthers had a reason for this. Do you know what it is?” 

Maurian’s only response was a single-shouldered shrug.

Which somehow kindled Gideon’s own anger. “Because,” he said before Martine could speak, “once Fortune was cooked enough to populate, they made sure none of the knowledge that got them off of Earth in the first place made it to Fortune. None of the tech, none of the mechs. They even destroyed the ships that brought them here.” 

Martine nodded, encouraging him as she asked, “And do you know why they did this?” 

“Because,” he said again, “if we know we can’t ever leave, we’ll take better care of Fortune than our ancestors took care of Earth.”

“So the keepers tell us.” Martine beamed.

“And how,” he asked, holding his fagin’s gaze, “do the keepers think that’s working out so far?”

At which Martine’s expression slammed shut, and Gideon, ashamed, turned away. 

This time, when he headed for the ladder, she didn’t attempt to stop him. 

Soon enough he heard an undaunted Yribe asking if the Earthers engineered crystal to be Fortune’s version of the old melted dinosaur bones, and why it only grew in so few areas, which led to Martine beginning the primary school edition of the Great Crystal Debate.

There, see, it’ll be okay, he told himself. The younger ones’ curiosity would cheer the fagin and, for his part, he’d stick to pilfering stores, make sure there was enough food to last the hive out a few days. And during those days he’d stay close to the tower, help with training and—hells, he’d just make it up to her. 

At least, that was what Gideon meant to do. 

In fact, he’d just reached the lower section of the ladder when the attacks began. 

It seemed the Coalition Forces, having filled their slave barges and cargo freighters, and tired of the constant thieving and sabotage, had chosen to level Tesla once and for all.

Two days later, Gideon woke in a keeper-aid tent with three cracked ribs and a few new scars to add to the livid gash over his collarbone. 

The keeper tending his wounds told him how lucky he was to be alive, as the blast which had tossed him from the ladder had decimated the teleph tower, killing all those within. 

Because of their neutral status, the keepers were allowed to go anywhere they wished, no matter who was fighting over what, so only a few days after he woke, they set sail up the Folger River, delivering Gideon and a handful of other survivors to the relative safety of Edsel. 

By then, Gideon was on his feet, so, after thanking the keepers who’d helped him, he went in search of a recruiting station, where he convinced the Infantry sergeant he was of age to enlist in the Corps.

Because the someday he thought he’d wanted, the someday Martine tried so hard to forestall, had arrived. 

Gideon had become a soldier.

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