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2

Getting from Huntsville to Newport News had once been a major endeavor. Especially after the events of 9/11 when security cracked down on airport travel.


The virtual destruction of the mujahideen movement in the Dreen War had pretty much eliminated the need for the increased security measures. But they had, of course, continued on as long as the airlines survived. The only thing more eternal than the stars was a government program. However, the increasing replacement of airlines with Looking Glasses had eventually killed even the TSA.


Even up to a couple of years before, security had searched people moving through the Glasses. There wasn't any reason for it that Weaver could ever see; the Glasses weren't exactly worthwhile targets. Sure, you could shut one down. If you set off a nuke in close proximity. But the nuke was the problem, not the Glass shutting down.


Eventually even Congress had come to its senses and now there wasn't any more "security" than a minor police presence in airports. The airports remained as a good center for long-range Glasses, but that was about all.


So as soon as he got to his car, Bill drove to the Huntsville Airport. He parked in long-term parking, hoping that he'd get a chance to move the car somewhere else if he was going to be gone long, then walked into the terminal. There was a Glass opening to DC in fifteen minutes at Gate Nine.


He had plenty of time to walk to the gate and got there well before the opening time. Really, it was just traffic control. People could walk back and forth easily enough but you couldn't see if anyone was coming on the other side; Glasses would pass certain particles but not electrons or any wavelength of light. The "opening" times were just to make sure nobody ran into a person coming the other way. Bill had suggested a system based on muon generators that could be used as a signalling system but it hadn't gotten implemented last time he checked.


Apparently the last group had already finished when Bill arrived. On a Sunday afternoon there wasn't exactly heavy traffic back and forth. In the morning there would be, as commuters to DC headed out. Recently, given that Glasses meant you could go as far as you wanted in no time at all, people had started using them to commute some really incredible distances. One guy Bill knew lived in Portland, Oregon, and worked in DC. It took him less time to get to his house than it had when he lived in Alexandria, and most of it was driving through Portland's traffic. But given the differential in time, he missed even Portland's rush hour on his way home. Of course, he had to get up at oh-my-god thirty to get to work.


The light over the Glass went green and Bill joined the group of eight or so that lined up, dropped a token or swiped a card through the turnstile and stepped through the Glass. On previous trips there had been some balkers, people who hadn't quite gotten the hang of going through a Glass. But this group, clearly, was experienced with the trip. All of them just went through, no muss, no fuss.


The other side wasn't at Reagan National; the Glass exited in Union Station, the main rail and metro station in DC. Bill headed down two escalators and along a nearly deserted metro platform to the now familiar Glass to Newport News. There were, in fact, three Glasses on the platform, one for Newport News, one for Little Creek and one for Norfolk Naval Station. They had been installed since the last mission and Bill had already gotten in the habit of using them to get from one base to the other. It was quicker and easier to go to DC then back to Norfolk than it was to drive across town.


The light over the Glass was green—the count-down timer having a bit over five minutes left before the next switch—so he just swiped his card again and stepped through. The card he used was also his military ID and a charge card; the charge for the transfer would be automatically debited from his bank through it. There was a website he could access where he could adjust the charge to the military, given that he had been recalled. But it really wasn't worth the two bucks the trip was costing.


The exit at Newport News was in a recently constructed semi-secure building. The room was secured by a bored-looking guard who was there to prevent troublemakers and the unworthy from entering the base. Hell, there were people who just stepped through the wrong Glass.


Bill held up his card and gestured at the exit door to the room.


"Go ahead, Commander," the guard said, nodding from behind the aliglass. "I got the word you were on the way. There's a field car waiting for you."


The "field car" was a golf cart driven by a warrant officer. Notably, Chief Warrant Officer Todd Miller, U.S. Navy SEALs. Bill slipped into the passenger seat and the SEAL pushed down the pedal, sending them deeper into the base at the cart's maximum speed of slightly faster than a trot.


"What's up, if you can say?" Bill asked.


"I dunno, sir," Miller said. "I just got here, my own self. And got told to go pick you up. But Greg Townsend's chairing the meet."


"Admiral Townsend's here?" Bill asked. Townsend was the commander of Norfolk Naval Base. As one of his "other duties" he was also the senior officer of the Vorpal Blade project. He was being bruted as the next commander of the operational arm of Space Command as soon as the Powers That Be went public with the Blade and turned it into the Space Navy.


"Everybody got the word to come to the ship instead of to Norfolk, sir," Miller said with a shrug. "Usual cluster fuck."


"Great," Bill replied, crossing his arms. It was just a tad chilly for spandex bike shorts and an Underarmor top.


"Nice outfit," Miller said with a grin. He was wearing a pair of cut-off desert BDU pants and a Hawaiian shirt.


"I was biking," Bill replied.


"I was getting ready to have a family barbeque," Miller said, clearly trying not to snarl. "My wife was less than thrilled."


"How's she handling your reactivation?" Bill asked.


"Not too happy," Miller admitted. "But the nice thing about Glasses is that I can commute from Diego. And if she couldn't handle the thought of me buying it on a mission we would have divorced decades ago."


They pulled to a stop in front of the headquarters for the Blade project and went through the usual security rigmarole. It was a bit harder than getting on the base. There were four steel doors to negotiate and a guard station. From there, Miller led the way to Secure Room Four. Bill turned over his cellbud and PDA at the guard station, then entered.


The secure room had mostly familiar faces in it. Admiral Townsend was at the head of the table. He was in civilian clothes as well, wearing a polo shirt. Captain Steven "Spectre" Blankemeier, the ship's CO, was wearing a T-shirt with an ace of spades on it and a squadron number. The new XO, Commander Rey Coldsmith, was the only one of the senior officers in uniform. Coldsmith was a submarine officer who'd come up through engineering. With degrees in both nuclear engineering and physics, he was a close second to Weaver in his understanding of the new drive. He did not, however, have Weaver's background in quantum mechanics and astronomy.


Captain James Zanella, the new Marine company commander and First Sergeant Jeffrey Powell were also present. Powell was one of the five Marine survivors of the previous mission. Tall and slim with a deeply wrinkled face from lots of time in the sunshine, the Marine Senior NCO had a masters degree in international relations from the Sorbonne. The latter had come in handy in negotiating with the Cheerick on their previous mission. Zanella was even taller than his first sergeant with a greyhound physique and black hair shot with premature gray. Zanella was in a polo shirt but the first sergeant was wearing a T-shirt with a dragon fighting a wizard on the front.


The one face Weaver couldn't place was a lieutenant in undress uniform. His nametag read: Fey.


Weaver was, by far, the most underdressed. But he could handle that.


"Glad you finally made it, Commander," Admiral Townsend said without any notable rancor.


"I was near the top of a mountain in Alabama, sir," Bill said, taking a seat. "It took me a while to bike down then get to the glassport."


"Understood," Townsend said, looking around and letting loose a grim smile. "This caught us all flat-footed. Lieutenant?"


"To introduce myself, I'm Lieutenant Chris Fey with SpaceCom's Office of Alien Technologies," the LT said. "This got routed through SpaceCom and I was the officer they dispatched to give the good news."


"Which is?" Bill asked.


"Not good," the lieutenant said, keying on his computer and projecting a starmap on the wall. A star was highlighted. "This is HD 36951, located just north of Orion's Belt in the sky and is about five hundred and fourteen light-years from Earth. It is a Class A3 type star. Its Gamma planet is a gate world, one of the most distant we have. The gate opens about fifty miles from Wichita, Kansas, in a wheat field. What is called a Type Six boson resonance, for those familiar with the term. Not a Dreen Type Three, in other words. There has been a small science party there for some time gathering astronomical and archaeological data. It's quite close to the Orion Cluster and had recently gotten some upgraded equipment and personnel due to recent work on Dreen gates. Admiral, I need to elaborate."


"Go," the admiral said, leaning back.


"As Commander Weaver is aware, and I'm sure most of you are, gate links are somewhat traceable," Lieutenant Fey said. "Inactive bosons that are trying to link send out a steady stream of muons in the direction of the nearest linkable gate. Once linked, the same muon stream is detectable. During the Dreen War, Commander Weaver—as a side-note to trying to close the gates—did some studies of Dreen links."


"They were hard to track with the stuff we had at that time," Bill said, frowning. "We never really could get a good direction on them."


"Well, our office took your original data and crunched it . . . a little harder," the lieutenant said, smiling slightly. "What we determined was that most of the Dreen gates, all the ones surveyed, seemed to point towards the Sagittarius constellation area. There is a cluster of stars, called a 'local group,' in that area that we now believe to be the primary center for Dreen worlds. It's located in the Sagittarius arm, fortunately."


"How far away . . . ?" the admiral started to say.


"The galaxy is divided into arms, sir," Fey said, pulling up another picture of the local portion of the galaxy with some stars marked in on it. "We're here, in the Orion Arm. The next arm over is the Sagittarius Arm. We're talking, straight distance, about a thousand light-years away, possibly two thousand."


"Two thousand hours," Captain Blankemeier said with a wince. "At max speed. Long damned way."


"I like it," Admiral Townsend said. "The farther away they are the better. But that's not why we're here."


"No, sir," the lieutenant said. "However, it's important to the story of HD 36951. The point is that HD 36951 is the nearest gate we have to the area the Dreen may be infesting. So the post was recently upgraded with a small security contingent and there were plans in the works to put up a satellite system. However . . ."


He tapped his computer again and a video started. The initial view was of the ground and the audio of panting.


"The base . . . it's gone . . ." a man's voice said, the view coming up and showing an area of dust and smoke. "There was . . . a big explosion. I was out surveying the . . . there's . . . Oh, my God . . ."


The view whipped upwards and a dark shadow could be seen in the sky. The outlines were ovoid but that was about all that could be seen as the view began jumping all over the place.


"Grapp this . . . grapp this . . ." the voice said, panting and apparently running. "I'm heading for the gate. If I don't make it . . ."


The screen went to snow suddenly and the strained voice was cut off.


"On the far side of the gate a major explosion was detected coming through," Lieutenant Fey said, cutting off the video. "Kinetic energy only, no radiation. A response team took about two hours to get there. The local sheriff's office in the meantime sealed off the gate. The response team from SpaceCom found the base destroyed, apparently as a result of a kinetic strike. They also found the video camera but not the person using it who, based on the voice analysis, was Dr. Charles Talbot, an archaeologist studying the ruins on the world. There was no evidence of any alien presence; however, based on standard protocol a Mark-88 was fired through the gate, destabilizing it, and the gate is now being moved to Antarctic secure area as all potential Dreen gates have been moved.


"While the main base was destroyed, there was a secondary base in the nearby ruins. It is likely that there were survivors of the initial attack and the blast. They had limited supplies, however. Their holding out for the time for us to get there would be . . . problematic.


"That concludes my briefing, sir."


"And we're supposed to go find out what happened, sir?" Blankemeier said. "We were supposed to be taking the new ambassador to Cheerick, sir."


"And you will, after this mission," Admiral Townsend said. "There are several pieces to this. It's unlikely that a rock just dropped on the planet and happened to hit the base. Somebody destroyed it. We need to know who, especially if it's the Dreen. And Dr. Talbot, although not an astronomer, might know enough about the galaxy to direct the probable enemy here. For that matter, there's the possibility of survivors. So you're going out, now. As fast as possible. Head to this . . . what was the star, son?"


"HD 36951, sir," the lieutenant said.


"Head to that star, find the planet, find out what happened if you can, check for any survivors, then try to find out who did this," the admiral said. "If it's the Dreen we have to know if they're there. It would be good to find out something about their space technology for that matter. All we got from the Mreee was that they had some. What's the status of your ship? The real status."


"Just some minor refitting that has to be done, sir," Blankemeier replied. "Really. We can loft any time. But our personnel are scattered to the winds."


"Get them recalled," the admiral said. "Lieutenant Fey has all the background data on the study team on . . . whatever that star was called. He's going to be going with you as an advisor and another set of eyes. You won't be bringing your usual science group with you. Anybody else you want?"


"Commander Weaver?" the CO said, looking over at the astrogator.


"I'd suggest taking the normal SF contingent. They've got enough technical expertise to be useful if we need the data without being as . . . limiting as most of the science team."


"He's trying to say they tend to survive better, sir," First Sergeant Powell interjected. "Not that any of them made it last time. I'd suggest taking Miss Moon. Keeping her occupied without the usual science teams will be interesting, but we may need a translator. Especially if it's a species other than the Dreen."


"And the Marines are going, obviously," the admiral said, nodding. "How far away is this star, son?"


"About five hundred and fourteen light-years, sir."


"Astro?" Blankemeier said.


"Twenty days, sir," Bill said, doing the math fast in his head. "If we were going straight line. But we'll have to jink around a bit to avoid gravity bubbles. And more with cool downs. But the real problem will be relative adjustment."


"Say, again?" Admiral Townsend said, then nodded. "The star's going to be moving differently than Sol. Got it. This deep space stuff is taking a little while to sink in on this old sailor. Continents and islands don't move. Not so you can notice."


"A lot differently, sir," Bill said. "Every star moves at a different rate relatively speaking. Nearby stars generally move at about the same rate as Sol, but even there we're talking about a relative velocity higher than any human spaceship ever produced until we made the Blade. And in this case, we're talking about outside of the local cluster. When the Blade exits warp it has the same inertial constant as when it entered. Basically, how Sol is moving. We're going to be doing a lot of adjustment when we get there. Less when we take a look around, though. But I'd block out a day for adjustment, given cool down time. And most of it at max thrust."


"Not to digress terribly," the admiral said, frowning. "But why don't those different movement rates affect the people transferring through the gate?"


"As far as we can determine, sir . . ." the lieutenant answered, "when you step through a gate you just are there. It's as if you hadn't been at another point. We're still trying to figure out the physics for it. But that's the effect."


"Okay," the admiral said, shaking his head. "I sometimes long for the days of Halsey. Captain? You understand the mission?"


"Three weeks to a month to even get there, sir," Blankemeier said. "Unknown time on site and in the area looking for the hostiles and getting a handle on the situation. Then another month back. I hope we don't take damage like the last time. Leaking air for that long would be . . . tough."


"You're just there to find out what happened, Captain," the admiral said. "Try not to get into any furballs. But . . . It's like old time ship captains. If you decide that it's necessary to take action, take action. You're going to be very much on your own until the eggheads figure out how to replicate that drive."


"We're doing our best . . ." Bill and the lieutenant said almost simultaneously.


"Sir," Bill added, grinning.


"I see that you and the lieutenant will have a lot to talk about on the trip," the admiral said, standing up. "Start your recall. I want you under weigh in no more than two days."


"Sir, that may be impossible," Commander Coldsmith interjected.


"Say again?" the admiral replied.


"I'm not sure we can get all the personnel through pre-mission physical that fast, sir," the commander said uncomfortably.


"Damn," Miller interjected. "I'd forgotten about pre-mission physical. How could anybody forget pre-mission?"


"We try not to think about it, Chief," Blankemeier said, nodding. "But that's a real problem."


Pre-mission physical was extremely . . . extensive. Its purpose—besides determining that the person was ready for the rigors of space flight on the Blade—was to ensure that the person that Earth sent out was, in fact, the same person Earth got back. It involved not just all the normal procedures of a physical, blood and urine tests, heart checks, etc., but extensive mapping of the person's brain and body chemistry. The point was to ensure that the person who came back was not carrying any alien parasites or stranger beings.


Alas, certain aspects of such an intense physical were physically debilitating in their own right. Notably, the chemicals used for the brain mapping were similar in composition to those used for chemotherapy. With similar results. Headache, "flulike" symptoms and, most notably, the sort of nausea usually only experienced in really bad hurricanes at sea.


"Dr. Chet will, of course, be accompanying you," the admiral said. "You can do pre-mission physical en route. You have, after all, nearly a month before you get to the AO. Takeoff by midnight Tuesday, Captain. With whatever Marines, SF and crew you have available. That's a hard date."


"Aye, aye, sir," Blankemeier said.


"Dismissed."


Eric had taken his truck for the drive to the church. While he'd taken Josh over with him, he'd asked his brother to let him drive home on his own. He just needed some time.


After church all sorts of people had wanted to shake his hand. Too many of them had asked why he'd gotten the Cross and all he could do was repeat the mantra "I'm sorry, that's classified."


The Piersons had been one of the groups that stopped to talk to him. Mr. Pierson had just shaken his hand and nodded. Eric remembered he had been in the military but for the life of him he couldn't remember where or when. Mrs. Pierson had hugged him and seemed to be tearing up. He wasn't sure why. A lot of people had been that way. It was like they all really knew what had happened but he was pretty sure it was still fully black. Was she reacting to something he was radiating? Hell, he wasn't that pessimistic.


He'd nearly panicked when Brooke Pierson shook his hand. She just made his mouth go dry. He hadn't been able to say anything to her. He wasn't even sure if he'd smiled. It was upsetting. He was usually suaver than that.


But the whole experience had shaken him on a really deep level. It wasn't being worried about the mission. If anything, he was looking forward to getting away. It was just . . . the changes. Things he thought were solid as the mountains were suddenly . . . different. And he was pretty sure that the changes were in him, not the world around him. So which version of reality was real?


He slid a chip into the truck's player and cranked up the volume, letting the soaring strains of Within Temptation wash over him as he lowered the seat. He had been a country fan before the mission and still listened to it from time to time, especially to Toby Keith and Clint Black. But at times like this it took the lyrics of Goth and metal groups to remind him why he did what he did.


" 'Tho this might just be the ending of the life I held so dear, I won't run, there's no turning back from here . . ." he whispered to himself, folding his hands over the stubble on his head and closing his eyes. "If I don't make it, someone else will, Stand My Ground."


He sat up, though, at a tap on his window. He'd deliberately parked at the very back of the church lot. Among other things, he knew he'd probably be cranking up the volume and he didn't want to bother anyone. But if this was another well-wisher . . .  They could damned well deal with it.


However, the person standing outside his window was Brooke Pierson. He turned down the chip-player and slid his window down, blinking in surprise.


"I always thought you were a country guy," Brooke said, puzzled. "What was that?"


" 'Stand My Ground'," he blurted. "Within Temptation. It's a Dutch band."


"Oh," Brooke said, still puzzled. "Look, we're going to Aubry's for brunch. Your family's going, too. I was wondering if you wanted to come."


"I thought we were going home for dinner," Eric said.


"Change of plans?" Brooke said. "My mom asked your mom if she wanted to come and it sort of expanded from there. Anyway, that's where we're going. You coming?"


"Sure," Eric replied.


" 'Kay," Brooke said, waving. "See you there."


 


Aubry's was a buffet style restaurant, a tradition in Crab Apple. It served "good ole time" food, which meant heavy on the gravy and "fixin's." As Eric filled up his plate he had to admit he'd missed it. Lord knows he could use the calories. And it was nice to see that one thing hadn't changed.


"You can certainly put it away," Mrs. Pierson said as Eric sat down with his second heaping plate.


"He needs it," Amanda Bergstresser said. "He's as thin as a rail. Probably because he goes out running every morning. How far did you go this morning?"


"Not far," Eric said, taking a bite of meatloaf smothered in gravy.


"He told me he went ten miles," Josh said. "I'm still not sure I believe him."


"Like I said," Eric replied, looking over at his brother, "not far."


"Do you do a lot of running in the Marines?" Brooke asked.


"Yes, ma'am," Eric replied. "In my unit we do, anyway. Most Marines don't run as far, but everybody does morning PT."


"What unit is that?" Mr. Pierson asked.


"Bravo Company, Force Reconnaissance," Eric replied, automatically. Nobody outside the Barracks used the term Space Marines.


"I was in the Navy," Mr. Pierson said. "A bubblehead. Ever been on a submarine?"


Eric froze with a forkful of green beans in mid-air, then nodded.


"Yes, sir," he said, thinking about the cover for his unit. "I'm . . . well, I'm assigned to one of the new littoral boats. I actually spend a lot of time in a sub, sir."


"Do a lot of running around Sherwood Forest?" the vet asked, grinning.


"Sir, with respect, I'm not allowed to discuss any details of my missions," Eric replied.


"But you know where Sherwood Forest is, right?" Mr. Pierson said, smiling.


"Yes, sir," Eric replied. "It's where the missiles are on a normal sub, sir. But I'm not allowed to confirm or deny that there are missiles on the boat I'm on, sir."


"Gotcha."


"He's so mysterious," Mrs. Bergstresser said. "He won't even tell us why he got his medal."


"Don't push, Amanda," Steve Bergstresser said quietly. "He can't talk about it and it's uncomfortable when you're in that position."


"But we're not even at war," Amanda said. "And if he got a medal that means he was in danger. As his mother I'd like to know why."


"You will, Mom," Eric said, somberly. "Someday. Trust me. But right now it's all classified and I really can't talk about it."


"Do you enjoy what you do?" Brooke asked, frowning.


"That's . . . a good question," Eric admitted. "There are parts of it I like a lot. And there are parts that scare me spitless. Sometimes they're the same parts, but not usually."


"He told me that the reason he got that medal was because he was one of only five survivors of his last mission," Josh said.


"Oh thank you very much for saying that in public, Brother!" Eric snapped.


"What?" Mrs. Bergstresser said. "You're joking!"


"We need to change the subject," Mr. Bergstresser said. "Right now. And, Josh, when we get home we're going to have a little talk."


"When I was in boats the guys were real practical jokers," Mr. Pierson said, smiling in fond remembrance. "Is it still that way? Or have they cut the heart and soul out of the whole service?"


"What, like stealing the XO's door, sir?" Eric said, grinning. "No, sir, it's pretty much the same. One time we got one of the sergeants going really bad over . . . Never mind."


"Do all your conversations cut off like that?" Brooke asked.


"Yeah, pretty much," Eric admitted ruefully. His eyes darkened for a moment. "Okay, yeah, we took a lot of casualties on the last mission. But I made it and I'll make it the next time. I'll be fine, Mom."


"You must be very brave," Brooke said. Eric couldn't figure out if it was a good thing or bad her voice was so neutral.


"I just have a job to do," Eric said, shrugging. "Somebody has to do it and I'm pretty good at it."


"Do you still get into science fiction?" Mr. Pierson asked. "I recall you used to read quite a bit of it."


Every day, Eric thought. In mission reports, after action reviews . . . "Not so much anymore," he replied. "I do a bit of reading on cruises."


"Not much else for the Marines to do, I suppose," Mr. Pierson said, nodding. "Did you get anywhere interesting?"


You wouldn't believe, Eric thought again, trying not to snort. But the smile was evident.


"That interesting, huh?" Mr. Pierson said. "And you can't talk about it. Sorry."


"No, sir," Eric said. "Look, the missions we do are classified. Where we go is classified. I can say that we get there in a submarine. But we don't do many shore leaves, sir."


"I understand," Mr. Pierson said. "And I was the one trying to change the subject."


"I've got a change of subject," Brooke interjected. "What are we doing after dinner? I was wondering if we were going to the movies."


It was a bit of a tradition in small southern towns. Go to church. Have dinner. Go to a movie. In many cases you'd see the same faces all day long.


"I've got to go to the Halverson's this afternoon," Mr. Pierson said. "But the rest of you can do whatever you'd like."


"I could see a movie," Josh said.


"You've got homework," Mrs. Bergstresser said.


"So do Linda and Hector." Mrs. Pierson looked at her younger two children. "Brooke, I don't want you going to the movies alone . . ."


It was a set-up. He should have seen it coming. On the other hand . . . He could live. Hell, it wasn't like fighting crabpus.


 


"I didn't mean to set you up that way," Brooke said as they got in the truck. "Mom had said we were probably going to the movies after dinner."


"I didn't think you did," Eric replied, starting up. He couldn't look at her, though. "What do you want to listen to?"


"What you were listening to before," Brooke said. "It sounded sort of like Evanescence."


"Similar," Eric admitted, unbuttoning his collar. "I seriously don't mind taking you to the movies. But I'll admit I was looking forward to getting this damned uniform off."


"You can take the time to change," Brooke said, doubt in her voice. "But . . . It looks really good on you."


"I'll wear it," Eric said, looking over at her finally. "If you want, I'll be glad to."


"Please," Brooke said. "What do you want to see?"


"Let's just find out what's playing."


 


There wasn't anything either of them wanted to see playing for a couple of hours so they found a Starbucks in Beckley and sat and talked. Well, mostly Brooke talked. Eric couldn't for the life of him recall what they talked about but they talked, a lot. They talked in the café then drove back to the movie theater but by almost unspoken agreement didn't even go in. They just sat in the truck, listened to Eric's playlists and talked some more. Brooke was hoping to go to medical school, or maybe vet's school, she wasn't sure. Eric admitted to a desire to be a career Marine but didn't say much more than that about his future plans.


Finally, as the sky darkened the talk wound down.


"You haven't been saying much," Brooke admitted. "Usually I just sit there and listen as the guy I'm on a date with drones on about his latest interest. I do admit that I like your music taste, though."


"There's not much for me to talk about," Eric admitted.


"Or not much you can talk about," Brooke said. "But I can tell you're thinking something."


"I'm thinking that this was a really stupid thing to do," Eric said, then grimaced. "Maulk, did I actually say that? I'm sorry . . ."


"Fine, you don't want to spend time with me . . . !" Brooke said angrily.


"It's not that," Eric said, grabbing her hand as she started to climb out of the truck.


"Let go of me!"


"Can I just please explain?" Eric asked. "Please."


"Fine," Brooke said. "Explain. If you can."


"If I should," Eric said, looking past her even if his eyes were pointed in her direction. "I've never had a better time with anyone in my life. I really like you. Probably too much, Brooke. But what Josh said was true. What I do is . . . It's really dangerous. And I can't even explain why. All I can say is that one of these days you're probably going to hear that I've died. That's all you'll know, just like all my parents know about my medal is that I got it doing 'classified actions.' "


He finally looked her in the eyes and felt like crying.


"I really like you, Brooke. But I hope you don't feel anything near like what I feel. Because one of these days I'm probably going to just be gone."


"Nothing can be that dangerous," Brooke said, looking as if she was going to start crying. "You'll be okay."


"Seven out of eight," Eric said. "That's how many guys died on the last mission among the Marines. Seven out of eight. One of the guys who debriefed us admitted that he couldn't figure out how any group wouldn't mutiny with those sort of casualties. We didn't take them all in one shot; we got hammered over and over again. And we kept going back for more. There were a couple of points where it looked as if nobody was going to make it back to Ear—"


"Back to Earth," Brooke said, her eyes widening. "You were going through the Looking Glasses? Were you going to Dreen planets? Is that why it was so—"


"Look, I didn't say that, okay?" Eric said. "Please please don't repeat that. But, yeah, I was off-planet. And I'm going back. And it's probably going to be bad. My unit's job is to . . . poke. To poke to find out what's there. And it's generally hard and bad and nasty. And, yeah, a lot of it is interesting as hell and a lot of it is terrifying. And there's a good chance I won't come back. I'm not going to lay that on you. I'd love to say that I want to be with you, always. But I can't put that on anybody. Not with my chances of coming back. That's why I said I think this afternoon was a very bad idea. Had a great time; probably was a bad idea."


"I don't think it's a bad idea," Brooke said. "You know why?"


"Why?"


"Because if you have somebody to come back to, there's more reason to come back," Brooke said. "Promise me you'll come back. Promise."


"Can't," Eric said. "Because there were plenty of guys who had people to come back to that didn't. I was at the memorial. There were crying widows all over the place."


"Then I'll say this. I won't promise I won't date other guys or anything, because you're never home and I've got to go to prom with somebody. But I really like you, too, Eric. A lot more than any guy I've ever known. So when you come back, there will be a Brooke to come back to. Okay?"


Eric's implant dinged urgently. He ignored it, though, and took Brooke's hand. "Brooke, honey—"


"Priority Call from Gunnery Sergeant Daniel Neely," the military issue implant whispered. "Priority call for Sergeant Eric Bergstresser . . ."


"Damnit," Eric said, activating the implant. "Sergeant Bergstresser."


"Two-Gun," his platoon sergeant said. "Recall. Right now. Get your ass back to Newport News even if you've got it half stuck in."


"Maulk, maulk . . ." Two-Gun muttered. "Tell me you're joking, Gunny."


"Negative," the gunnery sergeant said. "Get moving, Two-Gun. That's an order."


"Aye, aye," Eric said. "Two-Gun, out."


"Two-Gun?" Brooke asked. "What was that . . . ?"


"I have to go," Eric said. "I need to take you home, then get home and pack."


"You've got a mission," Brooke said, her already pale skin whitening. "Don't you?"


"I . . . I don't know how long it will be until I can contact you," Eric said, starting the truck and putting it in gear. "Normally that's bullshit when someone says that. But in my case it's true. I'll be really seriously out of contact. And I don't know for how long. Figure three months."


"Eric," Brooke said about halfway home.


"Yes?"


"I take it back. I won't sit under the apple tree with anyone else. Not for five months. I'll give you that long."


"I can't say I'm sorry," Eric replied. "But I also can't say you won't be."


"Can I just ask one teeny question about what you do?" Brooke asked.


"Maybe."


"Why did you call yourself Two-Gun?"


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