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1

"I'd only do this for Mom, you know."


Sergeant Eric Bergstresser adjusted the high collar of the Marine dress blues and shrugged his shoulders, again, trying to get the uniform to feel right. But since he spent most of his time in digi-cam or jeans, it never quite did.


"You've skipped out of it the last two visits, bro," Joshua Bergstresser said, shrugging. Josh, just turned sixteen and decidedly civilian given the earring he was sporting, was wearing Dockers and a polo shirt, as dressed up as he was going to get for church. "Besides, you look good. You're going to attract the ladies like flypaper. Maybe I should get a set of those."


Eric winced and then shrugged.


"Don't do it unless you're sure," Eric said, frowning. "As long as you're not in my outfit, Mom probably won't get two telegrams."


"Not a good way to talk, bro," Josh said. "You'll be fine. Tell me you'll be fine."


"Ain't gonna lie, bro," Eric replied. "Not something I can talk about. But I will tell you that on my last mission, we went out with forty-one Marines and landed with five."


"Are you serious?" Josh asked angrily. "That never made the news!"


"Yes, it did," Eric said, one cheek twitching up in an ironic smile. "Thirty-six Marines killed in helicopter crash. News at Six."


"That was out west somewhere," Josh replied, furrowing his brow thoughtfully. "That was your unit? Eric, crashes, well . . ."


"There wasn't a crash." Eric chuckled grimly. "They all died in combat. But a helicopter crash was a convenient cover. Among other things, it explained why most of them had closed casket funerals. Hell, there weren't even bodies in most of the caskets, just sandbags. We didn't lose them all at once and quite a few weren't recoverable."


"And that was your unit?" Josh asked.


"Yep."


"And you're going back?"


"Yep."


"That's insane."


"Yep."


"Eric," Josh said desperately. "You cannot go do . . . whatever it is you do, again. Forget what I said about the uniform. De-volunteer or something. Hell, I'll hide you under my bed. With casualties like that . . ."


"Not much chance of believing I'll survive, right?" Eric asked, finally turning away from the mirror.


"YES!"


"Believe it or not, on the last cruise I started to get into Goth and heavy metal," Eric said, talking around the point.


"And I was happy, happy, happy," Josh replied. "Since I no longer had to listen to Hank Williams, Jr. What's it got to do with the statistical certainty you're going to die?"


"I still listen to Hank," Eric said. "But one of the songs I got into was called 'Winterborn.' You've never heard of Crüxshadows, have you?"


"Bit indy for me, man," Josh said. "What's wrong with Metallica?"


"Besides that they haven't had an album out in ten years?" Eric replied. "But this song, it's about the Trojans. There's a line in the chorus: In the fury of this darkest hour, I will be your light. You've asked me for my sacrifice, and I am Winterborn. I'm good at what I do, Josh. Very good."


"I didn't figure you got the Navy Cross for being incompetent," Josh said quietly. "But there's these things called odds."


"And if I didn't do it, somebody else would have to," Eric continued as if he hadn't heard his brother. "From experience, probably somebody who wasn't as good, who has less of a chance of coming back. You want me to put them on the chopping block, bro?"


"Hell, yes!" Josh said, his jaw working. "They're not my brother!"


"They're somebody's brother," the sergeant said, picking up his cover. "They were brothers and sons. Some lady just like Mom carried them in her womb and nursed them and loved them. And most of them we couldn't even bring home. There wasn't anything to bring. I've got a better chance than any replacement." He tucked his cover under his arm and curtly nodded at his reflection. "So, this is my sacrifice. As my first sergeant once said, if I was worried about where I was going to die, I never should have joined the Marines in the first place."


 


Commander William Weaver, Ph.D., topped out on the climb and stood up on the pedals, clutching the saddle between his thighs as he coasted downwards to catch his breath. The roots on the trail were still slick from the morning dew that had yet to be burned off by the mid-morning Alabama sun. The canopy of oak trees and the dense green foliage around the trail would prevent that for several more hours. The rear wheel spinning and slipping on the roots had made the climbs more difficult than Bill was hoping and he was getting totally worked.


Leaning his center of gravity behind the saddle as the screaming downhill rushed up at him, he managed to keep the bike in control just long enough to hop over a small oak that had been dropped across the trail to prevent it from washing out. Bill looked at his heart rate monitor on the center of the handlebars—185. He was working way too hard for this part of the trail. The ride was fun and had let him take his mind off of, well, off of a lot of things, but his heart just wasn't really in it. The climb on the other side had severely kicked his ass. He should be able to get his heart rate back down to at least the 160s, but it was dropping slower than he'd expected and his heart pounded like a bass drum in his throat. He felt so out of shape. And the ride back up the mountain to the parking lot was going to be hell.


Eight years ago he would have kicked this ride's butt and been up for another lap or two, but eight years ago was . . . eight years ago.


Eight years ago was when he'd put his ass on the line to save the world. Eight years ago was before there was any concept of the Vorpal Blade. Eight years ago was . . . eight years ago when the world was a relatively simple place and a little slope like that last one wouldn't have bothered him one bit.


Eight years ago he'd been working for a defense contractor, fixing problems for the military and other government agencies with acronyms, mostly ending in A. DIA, CIA, NSA. Then an explosion blew out the University of Central Florida physics lab. Not to mention the rest of the university. Two hundred fifty-one times ten to the twelfth power joules would do that. Call it sixty kilotons and be done.


Subsequent to the blast that flattened UCF and a goodly space around it he'd been blasted into other dimensions, died he was pretty sure, resurrected he was absolutely sure and generally had a hell of a time running around saving the planet. The blast had opened up gates to other worlds, some of them inhabited by hostiles with seriously negative intent. Called the Dreen, they consumed organic matter to create more copies of themselves. They had conquered multiple worlds and Earth was next on the list. Weaver, with the help of a SEAL master chief and sundry others had managed to close the gates the Dreen used. But the anomaly where UCF physics department used to be kept pumping out more gates.


In time Weaver, among others, had figured out how to create gates on Earth, shutting down the gate forming bosons that were the culprits. Instantaneous teleportation from point to point was now a reality, with more and more gates being opened every day. The now defunct airlines had been less than thrilled. After almost ten years it was getting to the point that auto makers were less than thrilled.


The Dreen were not the only alien species encountered. One of their subject races, the catlike Mreee, had pretended to be friends just long enough to scout out the new human prey. The destruction of the Dreen gates had almost certainly wiped out the Mreee as well. Contact with them had certainly been cut off. But the survivor Mreee, part of the Dreen invasion force, had been less upset about that than many expected. They were a proud race that had seen themselves fall into slavery to masters who took not only their planet's resources but the very bodies of their citizens for conversion into Dreen. A clean death at the hands of an honorable foe was preferable.


One friendly race had been encountered, as well. The Adar were in advance of humans technologically but had nearly as much trouble with the Dreen. It was the Adar, though, who had passed on two items. One was a bomb big enough to shut down the Dreen gates. They hadn't used it themselves because the only way to crack the gates was for the bomb to go off very close to one. If it went off on the wrong side, the planet wasn't going to be habitable. The humans were desperate enough to use it and it worked, shutting down not only the gate that it was sent through but all other Dreen gates.


The second device, though, was in a way more useful. The Adar had found it on an ancient planet whose sun was just about dead. Nothing more than an enigmatic black box the size of a deck of cards, it had surprising properties. Any electrical charge caused it to release orders of magnitude more energy than inputted. Weaver eventually guessed that it was at least in part a warp drive. And he was right.


Using the box, which was not only a warp generator but a reactionless drive generator, the U.S. government had converted a submarine, the USS Nebraska, into a spaceship. It had taken seven years, and Weaver had jumped ship into the Navy early in the process. One of the problems he was having with this hill, admittedly, had been caused by too much time in a swivel chair redesigning a submarine to go where no man had gone before.


But Weaver, and a team of thousands, had eventually done it. And then Weaver, acting as astrogator, had gone out with the rechristened Vorpal Blade. Humans, seeing the first mirrorlike gates, had christened them Looking Glasses. The Adar found human thought process fascinating and had insisted that this ship be named in accordance with that thought. Since the ship was an Alliance spaceship, they'd had enough pull to push the name through.


Unfortunately, the Adar, while fine scientists and philosophers, had very little understanding of human humor or thought processes. So the acronym for Alliance Space Ship had slipped past their filters before it was too late.


On the ASS Vorpal Blade, Weaver, a crew of one hundred and fifty-four officers, NCOs and enlisted, forty-one Marines, and a handful of scientists had ventured forth on a local survey. They had limped back with five Marines, a couple of scientists and a hundred and twenty crew. But they'd found out what they were sent to find out: Space may be an unforgiving Bitch but She was nothing compared to landings. On the other hand, they'd also found allies and some interesting technology.


On a moon of a gas giant circling the otherwise unremarkable star 61 Cygni Alpha they'd encountered a race of rodentlike mammaloids. Named the Cheerick in the language of the country the Vorpal Blade contacted, they were similar in form to chinchillas or hamsters and at their highest level of technology were about at War of the Roses level. In other words, they'd just started to press the edges of real science, climbing out of the darkness of alchemy. However, they also had records dating back thousands of years that indicated that from time to time, for reasons unknown, another race would rise up and destroy them. Dubbed "The Demons" they had begun to show up shortly before the arrival of the Vorpal Blade. The Blade had, fortunately, been forty light-years away at the time of their first sighting so it was innocent.


Eventually, through about half of their casualties, the scientists of the Blade had determined that the "Demons" were some sort of biological defense mechanism that targeted electrical emissions. By that time, the majority of the science team and a goodly number of Marines had bought the farm. But before they died, the science team had gotten a lock on the source of the Demons.


It was left to Weaver, Chief Warrant Officer Miller, USN, a handful of local Royal Guardsmen and a small team of the remaining Marines to stop the scourge. Fortunately, they'd been accompanied by the ship's linguist, Miriam Moon. Normally as nervous as a rabbit, Miss Moon had been the person who figured out how the system worked and, using a local, shut it down.


While Weaver was away on his forlorn hope, though, the ship had been under attack. Most of the "Demons" were ground mounted but there was an aerospace component as well, giant red and blue "dragonflies" with a very fast reactionless drive system and lasers that shot out of compound eyes. The Blade had been chased into space by them and ripped very nearly to shreds. The local who had taken control of the system, Lady Che-Chee, had had to tow the ship back to the planet using the same flies that had ravaged it.


Enough repairs had been enacted to allow the ship to limp back to Earth, but making it spaceworthy again had been a half-year process. Weaver had acted as the ship's executive officer on the trip back but gratefully turned over the job on arrival to a more experienced officer. Since then, though, he'd been deeply involved in the repairs and upgrades. Like, pretty constant sixteen-hour days involved.


This was his first real break, since the major repairs were completed and all that was left was details. He'd grabbed at the new CO's suggestion, more like order, to take some leave. The ship wasn't due to leave for its next mission for two months. So he'd headed down to his real home in Huntsville to visit friends and reacquaint himself with the trails, baby-head sized rocks, roots, boulders, downed trees, screaming downhills, and extremely rough and technical climbs of Monte Sano Mountain.


He pulled his left foot out of the pedal and planted it as he braked just before the whoopdie-doos. Just as he started down, his cell phone rang. The ringtone—"Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns'n'Roses—was barely audible over his pounding heartbeat. Bill welcomed the break, he was that fragged. He bit the tube hanging from the helmet strap in front of his face and sucked down water from his CamelBak between gasps for air.


Despite the fact that he was on leave, he was required to be on call. Since he not only had a deeper grasp of the science behind the drive but a knowledge of every bolt and system in the ship that was unsurpassed by even its commander and XO, sometimes there were questions that only he could answer. And it appeared that there was another one.


"Weaver," he said, panting for breath. The earbud he was wearing automatically activated at his voice.


"Commander Weaver, Captain Jeller, SpacComOps. You're required to report at the earliest possible moment to your ship."


"Shit," Bill muttered. "Uniform?"


"Whatever you're wearing at the moment, Commander," the captain on the phone said. "There has been an incident . . ."


 


Eric tuned out the priest as the sermon started. It was a new one since he'd left for the Corps, a woman of all things. His family was Episcopal but while Eric had heard there were no atheists in foxholes, he didn't recall praying much on the last mission. Mostly he'd been too scared spitless to remember any.


He spent most of the sermon checking out the congregation. It was pretty much the same faces he'd seen most of his life. He was born in Fayetteville, NC, when his dad was still in the Army, a "leg" who did something in logistics Eric had never quite understood. But Eric didn't remember North Carolina as a kid. His dad had moved to Crab Orchard to work in the, then new, plastic plant as a dispatcher. Josh had been born in the Arh Beckley Hospital as had his sister Janna.


Most of the people in the church had been born in Arh Beckley, those that hadn't used a midwife. And he'd seen the same faces every Sunday for as long as he could remember. So was it his eyes that had changed or the people around him?


Coach Radner had been a nightmare during high school. The head coach for the phys ed department and the lead coach for the Crab Orchard High School football team, the former paratrooper was missing two middle fingers from some industrial accident back in time. One time Bob Arnold had mocked him as the coach was instructing him on the fine point of the three-point stance of a blocker. Bob, thinking he was being funny, had taken up a three point stance with those same fingers folded back as if they'd been cut off. Radner, half Arnold's weight, had knocked the tackle flat on his ass with that same damaged hand. You did not cross Coach Radner.


Looking at him now, Eric saw a man who was relatively out of shape and on the back side of fifty. He looked satisfied with his life but not the demon that Eric recalled.


Bob Arnold was in the audience, too, with his wife Jessie. Jessie was one of the co-heads of the cheerleading team; Bob was the school's top tackle. It had been a natural match. Now, they both looked worn and washed out, with two kids already; Bob's muscle was turning to fat quick and Jessie wasn't exactly svelte anymore. Eric heard Bob was in construction framing down in Beckley. Eric had a hard time adjusting the picture of the two in high school.


Behind them were the Piersons. Mr. Pierson and Mrs. Pierson looked pretty much the same as they always had, a good looking couple. Mr. Pierson was the local veterinarian, Mrs. Pierson had been a legal secretary to one of the town's lawyers for years. But Eric stopped and blinked for a moment at the people with them. The Piersons had four children. Paul had been a year ahead of Eric in school and Eric heard he'd gone to college so he wasn't around. The youngest girl had to be Linda, but she'd really grown. She must be ten or so by now and had shot up. Then there was Hector. He was recognizable by the shock of white hair but that was about it. Where'd the pimples come from?


But the one that really caught him was the teenage girl with them. The other Pierson child would be Brooke but . . . that couldn't be Brooke. He conjured up a vague memory of a gawky and awkward blonde girl who had just entered high school the year he was graduating. She'd had a serious overbite that mildly affected her speech and a mass of metal to go with it. Nice hair, a mass of naturally curly blonde locks, but . . . 


Jesus! It had to be Brooke Pierson. But the maulking vision in a pink dress sitting with them couldn't . . . Same damned hair, though. Shit, it was Brooke . . . She'd sure shot more than up.


He turned away as the girl in question looked his way, as if divining that he'd been staring. It wasn't that, though. He'd caught other looks from the congregation as the service had gone on. The dress blues certainly stood out and Dad had told him that the decoration had been written up in the local paper. Given that they weren't, as far as anyone knew, at war, the award of the Navy Cross had been big news in a very small town.


Looking away from the girl who . . . hell, she'd be seventeen, which would get you twenty even in West Virginia . . . he saw Coach Radner looking his way. The old paratrooper gave him a respectful nod, one former warrior to the present generation, and turned back to ignoring the sermon.


It was times like this that got Eric thinking. Looking around the congregation he picked out the veterans. There were a bunch: small towns like Crab Orchard had always provided more than their fair share of soldiers and Marines. But they left quite a few behind, too. The annual Memorial Day celebrations pointed that out, the roads lined with crosses with names on them. More crosses than there were people who lived in the town it sometimes seemed. WWII, WWI, Korea, Vietnam, the aborted "War on Terror," the Dreen War . . . 


Would one of those crosses one day say "Eric Bergstresser"? Or would he be one of the guys in the congregation, running to fat but there to see their grandkids? Would he sit around in the VFW hall and tell stories about crabpus and Demons? Or would he be an empty box in a grave, a guy people sort of recalled on Memorial Day, but really nothing but a fading memory?


He shook his head to clear the thought as the sermon finally droned to a close. The new priest, priestess, whatever, sure seemed devoted but my God she was boring. There had to be better uses of his time but Mom wanted to show off her Marine-hero son. Given that it might be the last chance she got, he owed her that. It was that that had decided him on coming. Not that he was going to put it to her that way.


Since he was in church he figured he ought to pray, some, for a chance to come back to it. But he was blanking on prayers. No, there was one.


 
"For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And, guarding, calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!"


"What was that, Eric?" his mom asked, as the congregation rose to do what Eric thought of as "the huggy" thing.


"Just a prayer, Mom," Eric said as the lady in front of him, whom he didn't recognize, turned around to get a hug and a welcome. "It's called 'Recessional.' "


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Framed