I’m on Day Three of my self-imposed vacation, and I’ve spent the last three days reading books (currently on Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War), watching movies (today I’ll watch the Jason Bourne movie I inexplicably missed—no wonder I didn’t know what the hell was going on at the beginning of The Bourne Ultimatum), and playing with the kids.
When you’ve been writing on the same project every day for almost a year, you feel sort of rudderless when you don’t have a Novel In Progress. If it wasn’t for the fact that I have to do the final editing pass and send this thing off before starting something new, I’d crack open a fresh notebook, fill the pens, and go to work.
For those of you who expressed an interest in the novel (and for those six or seven of you who can’t wait to see it on store shelves so you can buy a box or two and distribute them to all your friends), I have a bit of a freebie for you today. If you’re so inclined, read past the split to find the complete first chapter of my recently finished novel. It’s a Military SF novel, working title “Earthside”, tentatively retitled “Terms of Enlistment”.
(For those of you who went to VP with me and critiqued the first chapter back there—this is the brand new Chapter One, and the original first chapter is now Chapter Two, so this will be new to you. I’ll post something on our sooper-sekrit VP board once I get around to it later today.)
Anyway, read past the split for the first chapter, if you want. (No, I’m not concerned about people lifting it for their use—it’s patently useless without the other twenty-three chapters, and ownership is easily proven by my brand new IP lawyer. Just to spell it out, though: the stuff after the split is All Rights Reserved, and not authorized for commercial or non-commercial reproduction without express permission.)
Terms of Enlistment
© 2009, Marko Kloos. All Rights Reserved.
“You should go see your father,” my mom says from the kitchen.
I look up from my book reader and glance at her. She is putting a meal tray into the warming unit, and her back is turned to me, so she can’t see the smirk I’m giving her. I go back to reading about the destruction of the Pequod, which is a much more interesting subject to me right now.
“Did you hear me, Andrew?”
“I heard you, Mom. I’m just ignoring you.”
“Don’t be a smart-ass. Are you not going to go and say good-bye before shipping out?”
“Why the hell should I? He’ll just be drugged out of his mind, anyway.”
Mom takes the meal tray out of the food warmer, which seems to work as intended for a change. She walks over to the table and puts the tray in front of me, with emphasis.
“Put that thing away for dinner, please.”
I let out a sigh-also with emphasis-and turn off the book reader.
“You’ll be in training for months, Andrew. With the way his cancer is going, you’ll probably never see him again.”
“Good,” I say.
Mom glares at me with an expression that’s a blend of sadness and anger, and for a moment, I’m expecting her to slap me across the face, something that she hasn’t done since I was ten. Then her glare softens, and she looks out of the window, where thick bands of rain are pouring down onto the concrete gerbil maze of our Public Residence Cluster. I hate rainy days-the moisture enhances the smells, and the place stinks even worse than usual.
“He’s still your father,” she says. “You’ll never get another chance to speak to him again. If you don’t go and see him, you’ll regret it in ten or twenty years.”
“You broke his nose when you left him,” I remind her. “You weren’t too broken up about it when he told you about the cancer. Why the hell should I care?”
“That was seven years ago,” Mom says. She pulls out a chair and sits down at the table across from me. “A lot of stuff has happened since then. He was proud of you when I told him about you being accepted into the Service, you know.”
She looks at me, and I try to ignore her gaze as I peel off the seal on the meal tray. The flavor of the day is chicken and rice. It looks and tastes nothing like real chicken and rice, of course. There’s not much you can do with the processed protein in the Basic Nutritional Allowance to make it appealing. I poke the fake chicken patty with my fork, and look up to see that Mom is still looking at me, with that dejected expression she has when she’s trying to make me feel bad about something. I hold her gaze for a moment and then shrug my shoulders.
“I’ll go and see him,” I say. “And if I get robbed and killed on the way over there, I hope you feel really fucking bad about it.”
My room is just big enough for a bed, desk, and dresser. All the furniture is made out of stainless steel and bolted to the floor, so we can’t dismantle it and sell it off for scrap. The dresser is only three feet high and wide, but it’s usually half empty. I don’t own enough stuff to fill it up.
I open the top drawer, and toss the book reader onto the small pile of socks and underwear inside. The back of the book reader is still adorned with a bright orange sticker marking it as “PUBLIC PROPERTY-BOSTON METRO SCHOOL SYSTEM”. I traded a box of ancient rimfire ammo for it last year, and the guy who traded with me thought I was a complete moron. The book reader is contraband, of course, since the stickers are impossible to remove, but the Public Housing Police generally doesn’t get excited about stolen school hardware. When they do their surprise sweeps, they only look for guns and drugs. I could keep the book reader hidden if I wanted, but the cops gets suspicious when they find nothing illicit, and then they get thorough. Best to give them something minor to bitch about, so they don’t go looking for the major stuff.
As I walk through the apartment to the front door, my mother sticks her head out of the kitchen corner.
“It’s Sunday. Are you going to stop by at the food station and pick up your allowance for the week?”
“I’m leaving for Basic tomorrow. I won’t be around to eat it.”
Mom just looks at me in response, and she almost looks like she’s ashamed. Then I catch her drift, and I shrug.
“I’ll pick up my allowance, Mom.”
She opens her mouth to say something in response, but I turn around and close the door behind me, and her reply blends with the hollow clap of the door slamming shut.
The elevator in our wing of the building is out of commission again. In any given year, it only works for three months, usually starting in April when the public budgets are released. That leaves the staircases, which pose a different set of challenges.
I pop the door of the staircase near the elevator, and listen for a moment. The staircase is quiet, so I step out and close the door behind me carefully. The stairs are a hangout for the various neighborhood rat packs of apprentice hoodlums, who often use the confined space to gang up on people. The Public Housing Police only shows up in force when they do a drug and gun sweep. The rest of the time, they stay well away from the tenements. We have security cameras on every floor, but most of them are broken, and the rest are probably not even monitored. Nobody gives much of a shit about welfare rats, least of all the Police.
Our apartment is on the twelfth floor of a thirty-floor building. I make my way down the stairs, taking three and four steps at the time, speed over stealth. At the bottom of the staircase, I pause again to listen. Then I open the door to the lobby, and hurry out of the building to fetch my gun.
Guns are highly illegal, especially in welfare housing, but just about everybody has one anyway. I don’t keep mine in the house because of the random checks, and because Mom would have a fit if she found it. Mine stays in a waterproof magnetic cylinder, stuck to the inside of the left rear wheel well of the building’s huge mobile trash container. It’s a great hiding place–nobody ever checks there, and the container is always in the same spot-but it leaves me easy prey until I get out of the building. I check to make sure nobody is watching, and walk over to the trash container.
Every time I reach into the wheel well, I expect to come up empty. Every time my hand closes around the cool metal of the magnetic storage cartridge, I let out a breath of relief. I pop the latch, open the lid, and take out my gun before sticking the cylinder back into the wheel well.
My gun is an ancient cartridge revolver, made by a long-gone company called Smith & Wesson over a century and a half ago. It holds a mere six rounds, a fraction of the capacity of a cop’s modern flechette pistol, but it works even with crummy ammunition, which is far more common than the good kind. Most of my meager ammunition stash is hand-loaded from old brass cases and scrounged lead scraps, with improvised primers and homemade cellulose powder. Revolvers are more popular than automatics because a dud doesn’t tie up the gun–you just pull the trigger again, and the cylinder advances to the next round. With an automatic, you have to work the action to cycle a fresh round, which can get you killed, and they don’t work well with home-brewed ammo that’s out of tolerance.
I stick the revolver into the waistband of my pants, right behind the hip bone, where the tension of the waistband holds the gun in place. It’s risky to walk around with an illegal gun, and I have to stay well away from scanner-equipped public transit stations, but it’s riskier still to walk around in the Public Residence Cluster without a weapon.
There’s one thing that’s nice about the rain-it keeps most people indoors, even the welfare rats, hoodlums, gangbangers, and all the other packs of predators. When it rains, the streets outside are almost peaceful. I pull up the hood of my jacket, and walk out into the streets of PRC Boston/Northshore-7.
My jacket is a cheap synthetic blend, not the waterproof, self-drying nanofiber stuff they advertise on the Networks, and I’m soaked to the bone within five minutes. You can stay mostly dry if you use the awnings and building overhangs as cover, but I’d rather get wet. Doorways and other dark places close to buildings are dangerous. You walk past one where a bunch of apprentice thugs loiter, and your journey is over for the night. I almost got mugged twice last year, and I’m more careful than most.
My father’s apartment building is almost on the other end of the PRC, three miles away. There’s a Public Transit station nearby, but I can’t enter without setting off the gun detectors at the entrance, so I walk.
This is the place where I grew up. I’ve never been outside of the Boston Metroplex in the twenty-one years since I was born a mile down the road in the Dorchester Public Hospital. Tomorrow, I’ll be off to Basic Training, and if I don’t wash out, I’ll never see this place again. I’m leaving behind everything I’ve ever known, and everyone who’s ever known me, and I can’t wait.
Dad opens the door after my third buzz. I last saw his face over a year ago, and for a moment, I am shocked at how much he has changed since then. His face is haggard and thin. When he was younger, he was a very handsome man, but the cancer has eaten away most of his substance, physically and mentally. His teeth are horribly bad, enough to make me want to recoil when he opens his mouth for a curt smile.
“Well, well,” he says. “Come to say your good-byes, have you?”
“Mom sent me,” I say.
“Of course she did.”
We look at each other for a few heartbeats, and then he turns around and walks back into the apartment.
“Well, come in, come in.”
I step into the dimly-lit hallway of his apartment, and close the door behind me. Dad walks over to the living room, where he drops onto the thinly upholstered couch with a sigh. There’s an enormous collection of medical supplies on the table in front of him. He catches my glance and shrugs his shoulders.
“Pointless, all of it. The hack at the public health center says I’ll be worm food in six months, give or take a few.”
I want to give him a snide reply, say something about how glad I’ll be to be rid of him soon, but somehow I can’t bring myself to do it. The room smells like sickness, and my father looks weak and miserable. The cancer is eating him up from the inside, and he’ll die in this place, where the stairwells have smelled like piss for as long as I can remember. There’s nothing I can say or do that will make him feel worse than he does already, and nothing that will make me feel any better.
When I was fourteen, I would have given anything for a chance to kill my Dad, take revenge for all the beatings and the humiliations over the years. Now he’s in front of me, weak enough that I wouldn’t even need the gun tucked into my waistband, and suddenly I have no hate left for him.
“I thought your mother was lying to me, you know,” he says. “I didn’t think you’d have it in you, passing the entrance exams. You and your books.”
“Yeah, maybe that had something to do with it,” I say. “They do need people with brains, too.”
“You’ll be pushing buttons in a control center somewhere. No way they’ll give you a rifle and send you out to kill other people. You don’t have it in you.”
Why, because I never fought back when you used me as a punching bag? I think. His remark is the perfect excuse to hurl something back at him, but I realize that he’s trying to egg me on, and I don’t want to give him the satisfaction, not even now.
“We’ll see about that,” I say instead, and he flashes a faint smile. I look so much like him that it hurts. If I end up resigning or washing out, I’ll be back here in the PRC, and then I’ll end my life just like this someday, alone and afraid, confined to a few dozen square yards in the middle of a welfare city. Even PRC housing, as shitty as it is, doesn’t stand empty for long when someone dies. They remove your junk, hose the place out with a chemical cleaner, reset the access card for the door, and hand the apartment over to a new welfare tenant the very same day.
“When are you shipping out?”
“Tomorrow evening,” I say. “They told me to report to the processing station by eight.”
“Try to keep your nose clean until then. If you end up getting arrested, they’ll scrap your letter of acceptance, and fill your slot with someone off the waiting list.”
“How the hell would you know about that?”
“That’s how I got in,” he says.
“There’s no fucking way you were ever in the Service.”
He doesn’t reply, and instead just smiles in that annoying way of his, flashing rotten teeth. It’s obvious that he’s pleased at my surprise.
“Believe what you want,” he says. “Territorial Army, seventy-one to seventy-three.”
“A term of enlistment is at least four years, Dad.”
“Got kicked out for insubordination. They docked a hundred percent of my service money, too. Worked two years for nothing but three squares a day and a cot.”
“Sounds like that was your own fault.”
He shrugs again.
“Maybe. Doesn’t matter now, does it? I’m here now, and I’ll be gone before too long. Just make sure you don’t follow in the Old Man’s footsteps.”
“Don’t worry about that,” I say. “When in doubt, I’ll just think of what you would do in the same spot, and then I’ll do the opposite.”
Dad just chuckles in response. When we were still living under one roof, that kind of belligerence would have gotten me a solid beating, but the cancer seems to have sapped the passion right out of him. There’s also the matter of our physical disparity, of course-I’m six one to his six feet now, and I probably weigh half again as much as he does in his used-up state.
“You’ve turned into a little shithead,” he says. “All cock-sure and full of yourself. I was just like that when I was your age, you know.”
“I’m nothing like you, Dad. Nothing like you.”
He watches with what seems like amusement as I turn to walk out of his apartment.
At the door, I turn around.
“Just get going,” he says as I open my mouth to say good-bye. “I’ll see you again when you come back home, after you wash out of Basic.”
I look back at him, the man who contributed to half of my genetic makeup. I tell myself that this is going to be the last time I see him, and that I should say something profound, something conciliatory, something that will make me feel like I have closure. Instead, I just turn around and walk away.
I step into the dingy hallway outside, and walk to the top of the staircase at the end. As I reach the first stair, I hear the door of my father’s apartment closing softly.
On the way home, I stop at the food station to pick up my weekly meals. They come in sealed, disposable trays, fourteen to a box. Every welfare recipient gets a box per week, twenty-eight thousand calories of Basic Nutritional Allowance.
The stuff in the BNA rations is made of processed protein, enhanced with nutrients and vitamins, and artificially flavored to make it palatable. They say it’s deliberately designed to taste merely tolerable because it discourages excessive consumption, but I think that no scientific process yet developed can make BNA rations a culinary delight. It doesn’t matter whether they flavor it like chicken, vanilla, chocolate, or curry–in the end, it still tastes like they used ground-up feet and assholes for the raw protein, which is probably not too far from the truth. One of my friends in school claimed that BNA rations are partially made of reconstituted human shit from the public water treatment plants, which is probably not too far from the truth, either. Public drinking water is recycled piss anyway, so it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to complete the circle.
They scan your ID card when you pick up your BNA ration, and you have to pick it up in person, unless you’re disabled. In theory, it keeps people from mugging other welfare rats for their ID cards and then claiming multiple rations. They also assign different pick-up days based on birthdays, so we don’t all show up for ration issue at the same time. My pick-up day is Sunday, and Mom’s is Wednesday. The flavors are all crummy, but there are some that are more palatable than others, so we pool our rations and eat our favorites first. Thankfully, Mom and I have different preferences. I know some families where everyone likes one particular meal best, and that kind of thing can lead to injuries.
On the way home, the box of food under my arm makes me a big, fat target. Nobody gets mugged for their ID card, but people get robbed of their food all the time. For the robbers, the system has the added convenience of free delivery. The rain has slacked off a little, but it’s still coming down steadily. As I pass the apartment building next to ours, some guys are hanging out under the overhang by the entrance, and they all notice the box under my arm as I trot by, but none of them must like the idea of getting soaked to the bone for a few trays of badly flavored soy, because they all stay put.
As I walk up the stairs to the front door of our apartment building, I remember the gun on my hip.
I’m halfway to the trash container when I remember that I’ll be off to the in-processing center before darkness tomorrow. There’s one more thing left to do this evening.
I head upstairs to offload the food and grab my book reader, the only thing of value in my room.
“How much ammo do you have for this thing?”
“Eight factory rounds, and twenty-seven home-rolled,” I say.
Eddie opens the cylinder and then spins it, something he has done three times already during our negotiation. It’s almost physically painful to see my gun in the hands of someone else, especially when I know that I’ll never hold it again if the deal goes through.
“You’re tossing that in, of course,” he says.
“Of course. What am I going to do with the bullets without the gun?”
“Thirty-eight Specials are common on the street,” Eddie says. “You could sell the ammo to someone else.”
“I’m joining the service tomorrow. No time to go shopping around for the best price. Call it a package deal.”
“A package deal,” Eddie repeats. “Okay, then.”
He looks the gun over again, and nods to himself.
“Two commissary vouchers, and two ounces of Canada Dry. Last you for a week or more if you don’t run around and share.”
I shake my head.
“No go on the dope. If I test positive for that shit, they’ll kick me right out of Basic the first day. Four commissary vouchers.”
Eddie pinches his chin with thumb and forefinger as if in thought. I know he made up his mind on my offer the second it was on the table, but I let him go through the ritual anyway.
“Three vouchers, and ten pills, regular meds, your pick of house stock.”
I pretend to think about it.
“Three vouchers, fifteen pills,” I say.
Eddie nods and holds out his hand. We shake on the transaction, and my beloved revolver disappears underneath one of the many layers of Eddies clothing.
We’re in his office, so to speak. It’s a dirty alley between our residence tower and the community clinic next door. Eddie buys and sells almost anything of value-guns, drugs, vouchers for the food stores outside of the PRC, and fake ID cards that sometimes hold up to inspection when the cop looking at them is not entirely on the ball.
“What kind of pills do you have?”
“Let’s see,” he says. “Pain killers, antibiotics, blood pressure stuff, uppers, a few downers.”
“How good are the pain killers?”
“Headaches and stuff, not the ‘getting shot’ kind of pain.”
“Good enough,” I say. “Let me have those, then.”
I pull the book reader from the inside pocket of my jacket, and hold it out for him to see.
“What about this?”
He looks at it for a moment, and shakes his head.
“I don’t have much of a market for those, man. You can try the Irish bastard who deals all that pirated shit.”
I slip the book reader back into my pocket. If I make it through Basic, I’ll have no use for it-they don’t allow private things other than two sets of civilian clothing, and the data pads issued to soldiers are probably half as big and ten times as powerful as this beat-up piece of high school property. Still, letting go of the gun at a loss is one thing, and just dumping my constant companion and only source of decent entertainment is another thing altogether.
“I’ll just stash it,” I say. Eddie shrugs, clearly disinterested, and then hands me a small bag of pills.
“These better be real,” I say as I tuck the pain meds into my pocket.
“Of course they are,” Eddie replies, mildly offended. “I have a reputation, you know. People end up with those Chinese fakes, they’ll never buy from me again.”
He reaches into one of his pockets again, and presents three commissary vouchers with a flourish, like they’re a winning hand of cards.
“Appreciate the business,” he says as I take the vouchers.
“I’ll see you around, Eddie,” I say, and I know without a doubt that I won’t.
Mom looks up from her Network show when I walk back into the apartment.
“How was it?”
“Pointless,” I say. “He thinks I’ll wash out, anyway. Did he ever tell you he was in the service, too?”
“Of course he did. Wouldn’t talk about much else when we first met.”
“He got kicked out, you know.”
“I know,” Mom says. “I found his discharge papers one day.”
I walk over to the living room table and drop the little bag of pills onto it. Mom eyes the meds, and raises an eyebrow.
“Nothing illegal,” I say, to preempt the question. “Just some pain meds. I figured you could use one every now and then, with your toothaches.”
She leans forward and scoops up the bag.
“Where did you get those, Andrew?”
“I traded some stuff.”
I pull the commissary vouchers out of my pocket and place them on the table in front of Mom. She leans forward to inspect them, and then claps her hands together in front of her mouth, fingers still pinching the plastic bag with the pills.
“Andrew! How did you get those?”
“I traded some stuff, Mom,” I repeat.
She picks up the vouchers with a gentle hand, as if they are made of brittle paper that will fall apart under a firm touch. Each of those vouchers entitles the bearer to a hundred dollars in goods at any food store outside of the PRC. The government issues vouchers every month, and they hand them out from the safety of a concrete booth near the Public Transit Station on a lottery basis. You get there before sunrise, take a number, and wait for them to read off the winners. They only have five hundred number tags in the dispenser, which only spits out a tag once you scan your ID. If you’ve received or used a voucher in the last thirty-one days, or if you don’t live nearby, it won’t let you draw a tag. They issue twenty-five vouchers, which means a ninety-five percent chance of wasting a morning, but the vouchers are serious black market currency, so the five hundred tickets are always gone in a hurry.
“Use ‘em, or trade for something you want more,” I say. “Just don’t let anyone cheat you out of those.”
“Don’t you worry about that,” Mom says as she stacks up the vouchers and slips them into a pocket. “It’s been a year and a half since we got a voucher. I’m dying for some crusty bread, and maybe some cheese.”
I was fully prepared to feed my mother some nonsense about the stuff I traded for those vouchers, but she’s so excited that she doesn’t bother to dig any further.
“Good night,” I say, and walk over to the door of my room. Mom smiles at me, and turns her attention back to the plasma panel on the wall, where some inane Network show is running on low volume.
“Andrew?” she says as I am at the door. I turn around, and she smiles at me, the first one I’ve seen on her face in days.
“I’ll try and go over to the food store in the morning. Maybe we can have a decent lunch before you go.”
“That would be nice, Mom.”
I spend the last night of my civilian life, my last night in Public Residence Cluster Boston/Northshore-7, reading the last fifty pages of Moby Dick. Tomorrow, I will have to leave the book reader behind. I’ve read the novel a dozen times or more, but I don’t want to leave it unfinished now, forever bookmarked at the spot where the Pequod slips beneath the waves.
On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan…