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Excerpt for Claire Takes On The Galaxy by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

140










CLAIRE TAKES ON THE GALAXY








By M S Lawson



















ISBN 978-0-9954192-2-3 (e-book)


Copyright© 2018 by Mark Steven Lawson writing as M. S. Lawson

markslawson@optusnet.com.au


Published by Clearvadersname Pty Ltd


www.clearvadersname.com


All rights reserved. The book contains material protected under international and national copyright laws and treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, without express permission from the publisher.



Other books by this author


A Planet for Emily (ebook, 2017)


Disgraced in all of Koala Bay (ebook, 2016)


The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court, 2013)


A Guide to Climate Change Lunacy (Connor Court, 2010)








Cover image: shutterstock






TAKE ON THE GALAXY

Join the Stellar Marines


Postings off world





(Stellar Marine Corps recruiting spot ad.)










Prologue



One of the few memories that Claire Amber Williams had of her father was when they slipped away from her mother to play at stalking one another in woods near their home, and she was allowed to play with a slug gun. The adult Claire did not approve of giving a gun to a child, but the infant Claire was intrigued by the weapon although it was, of course, unloaded. When Claire pulled the trigger, the hammer clicked on an empty chamber and she made the “piou, piou” noises of bullets, as she hunted imaginary enemies by a river bank. Later her father had marked a target on a tree and given her a real slug to put in the gun.

“Line up the front sight and back sight,” he had said indicating where they were on the gun, “pull the stock tight into your shoulder. Squeeze the trigger, don’t pull it, and remember, not a word to your mother.”

Claire’s memory of that sun-filled day was that she lined up the target as in instructed and hit it dead centre first time.

“Why, that’s .. that’s very good Claire,” said her father, astonishment apparent in his voice even to the young Claire. “Very good indeed.” Father and daughter smiled at one another.

Then Mr Williams had died unexpectedly of a heart attack. His widow, Claire and her very new baby brother, Logan, were well provided for, but Claire was not given any more slug guns. She was given dolls and tea sets instead. When she got older the closest she got to a boy-like activity was the school netball team.

Rachael Williams’ careful attention to the lives of her daughter and son was lessened when she married again, but renewed when the marriage broke up and she reverted to her earlier married name. Claire studied subjects like English and history as her mother approved of them, and kept away from subjects like politics and athletics as her mother did not care for one and had no interest in the other. Strong willed in her own right Claire seldom rebelled as she did not mind much of what her mother told her she should do, although deep down she thought that perhaps something was missing. But when she started dating, Claire drew the line at private detectives being hired to vet the boys she went out with.

“What on earth were you thinking of, mother?”

“I was just looking out for you, dear. Girls get raped at parties by bad sorts.”

“I wasn’t about to get wasted and be ravaged in a back room. We’d been to see films twice.”

“There are such bad sorts out there, dear. You have no idea about men.”

“I won’t get any idea about them at this rate, your detective scared him off.”

Mrs Williams never acknowledged any wrong doing. Instead she was annoyed with Claire for getting angry when all she had been doing was being careful. Claire decided that she had to resort to secrecy – simply not tell her mother about the boys she was dating. Then she met Brad.

Claire’s best friend, Ellen, declared him to be “hot”. He took Claire to dinner at up market restaurants and live shows rather than films at the multiplex, and was charming. Despite Claire’s attempts at secrecy Rachel Williams found out about this man in her daughter’s life but did not need to hire detectives to check him out. Brad’s father occasionally turned up in the business news, his mother was mentioned more often in the gossip columns. Mrs Williams approved of him.

After a year of flattering Claire with his attention Brad asked her to marry him, and she said yes thinking that she loved him. Mrs Williams was over the moon. She organised an engagement party. There was even a small notice in the news feeds, because Brad’s father was in business. The moment that she said yes, however, Claire thought that Brad’s behaviour changed. Instead of being attentive, days would pass without Claire hearing from her fiancé. When Brad did turn up and she asked where he had been he would get angry, saying that Claire was putting pressure on him and that he was busy at work.

Claire thought there was something in that criticism. Perhaps she was being over anxious, or too possessive, and thought that if she loved Brad she should make allowances for him working hard. Her mother, on the other hand, dismissed Claire’s concerns out of hand as a bride’s cold feet and got on with the job of planning the perfect wedding, including loading the wedding dress with tulle, the fine net around the dress. Claire did not want so much tulle. She did not like the look of the dress.

“It makes me look like a blancmange, mother.”

“Nonsense, dear, it looks lovely.”

“Who’s getting married here, you or me? I don’t want so much tulle. In fact, I would prefer lace.”

“Tulle is an excellent material, dear, you will see. You’ll look lovely.”

As usual Claire thought that arguing with her mother was like shouting into a hurricane. She thought that if her fiancé was going to be absent so often, and get mad when she raised the subject of his absences, and her wishes about the wedding were to be ignored, then maybe she should call the whole thing off. But like so many other brides with reservations, she found it difficult to say the words that would stop the process. Everyone seemed so pleased about the marriage and the ceremony. Disappointing them would be very hard. And she was in love with Brad, or thought she was. Perhaps things would be better after they were married?



Chapter One



The day before the wedding Claire was sitting in the university lecture theatre whispering about the ceremony with two friends who were to be her bridesmaids. Despite her preoccupation with the ceremony, Claire heard and even later remembered a little of what the lecturer was saying.

“Let me give an illustration,” said the lecturer. As Claire had not been listening to that point she did not know what the lecturer was trying to illustrate. “In J. K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry Potter eventually defeats Voldemort but is left in a coma – appears to be dead to others – but then revives to finally destroy his nemesis.”

“Did you say anything to your mother about the dresses,” said Ellen, the maid of honour, on Claire’s left.

“You bet I did. Way too much tulle. I look like a meringue.”

“I thought you said you looked like a blancmange,” said Jenna on her right.

“Whatever,” said Claire, suddenly aware that she did not know what a blancmange or a meringue looked like. “I still don’t like my dress.”

The lecturer was battling on. “Then in the also very popular Lord of the Rings series of films, Gandalf falls in Moria fighting a Balrog, to become dead for all intents and purposes and then is brought back to life by divine intervention and transformed from Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White.”

“Did you tell your mother that you didn’t like the dresses?” said Ellen.

“You bet I told her. But just try arguing with my mother. She just does not listen to me.”

“Does anyone know where these images come from?” asked the lecturer. “The image of death and rebirth to transform someone who then makes the world better.”

“Be at my place at two sharp to get dressed,” said Claire. “You don’t want to face my mother if you’re late.”

“Anyone?” asked the lecturer in near despair.

“The bible,” said someone close to the front.

“Exactly. Christ took on the sins of the world was crucified and on the third day he rose again.”

“Weather forecast is not so good,” said Ellen. “Is the reception open air at all?”

“It’s mostly inside.”

“But death and rebirth of an individual who then makes things right is an extreme example of the imagery we are discussing here,” said the lecturer.

“The photographs will be a problem,” said Jenna.

“The broader picture is that of the age-old story of a character undergoing some trial – a trial which he or she may be plunged into by a personal crisis – and emerges from this ordeal as a better person, one more able to help him or her self and to help others. In the gospels Jesus goes into the desert and suffers for 40 days and 40 nights. The devil tempts him with all the kingdoms of the world, provided Jesus serves him, but Jesus emerges from this ordeal to start his ministry, to fight evil.”

“Mother has her heart set on garden pictures,” said Claire.

She heard nothing more of the lecture but on her way out, she and her two friends were confronted by a gigantic poster that seemed to dominate the main student quadrangle.

“Take on the galaxy,” said the catchline at the top, then in huge letters between pictures of a man and a women soldiers with weapons in the hands, looking dramatic “Join the Stellar Marines”. Underneath, in smaller type, it said “postings off world”.

“Those posters are now everywhere,” said Ellen.

“I heard it’s tough training,” said Jenna. “You barely have time to think.”

“Then you are posted off to some hell hole light years away for a year at a time,” said Ellen. “Takes weeks of hyper-sleep to get there and even text messages take days.”

“I couldn’t survive without social media,” said Jenna.

“As if anyone would join the marines,” Ellen snorted, amused.

When Claire saw the poster, including the women holding what appeared to be an assault rifle, something deep within her stirred, but she pushed the feeling to one side. She had to prepare for her wedding.


That day and the next was a whirl of preparation. She went to the hairdressers and got her hair done in an elaborate way which she did not like, put the dress on and was lectured on a bride’s behaviour by her mother.

“It’s your special day, you must be happy and smile.”

“Be happy, great,” thought Claire.

She got Claire to put her driver’s licence and a credit card into the small, white purse which came with the outfit.

“You need them to prove your identify when you go to sign the papers,” she said.

Claire didn’t think that was right, but put them in anyway, along with her phone.

Then, almost before she knew it, Claire’s Uncle Frank, her mother’s brother, had arrived to take her to the church and down the aisle. The bridal party got into a gigantic black car with white ribbons on the front.

“You’ll need umbrellas,” said the driver. “I have two in the car and a raincoat.”

Clouds were piling up in the direction they were going. Lightning flashed.

“Not a good omen for the marriage,” thought Claire.

“Not good for garden pictures,” said Jenna.

“Can’t have you arriving in the church wet through. Your mother will never forgive me. We’ll see what we can do when we get there,” said Uncle Frank.

By the time they got to the church the steady rain had turned into a storm.

“I’ll go to the side entrance,” said the driver. “There’s a covered walkway there. It’s a big church. I think you can circle around to the main entrance inside the building.”

“Looks like we’ll have to do that,” said Uncle Frank.

There was still a gap between the car door and the walkway, and the walkway itself was narrow. Claire’s uncle did his best to shelter the bride and bridesmaids with raincoat and umbrella, and got himself soaked in the process, but they were still windswept and damp by the time they got inside the church’s side door. Mrs Williams was there in her own, carefully chosen outfit, having been alerted to the change in plans. She was calm about this mishap. She knew that even she could do nothing about the weather and, anyway, it was a good wedding story.

“We can get to the front through a side cloister,” she said.

From the side door Claire could see the altar and Brad’s best man along with her brother, Logan, who was groomsman. She could not see Brad. Then she became aware of a faint, rhythmic thumping and gasping from a closet to her left. Something about the gasping seemed familiar. On an impulse, she opened the door and her world fell away.

“The groom seems to have wandered off,” said the minister, who had had come to see what was happening with the bridal party. “The best man can look for him.”

“Don’t bother,” said Claire, “I’ve found him.” She flung the closet door wide to reveal her groom, with his pants down, in the act with another girl. She recognised the girl as the daughter of one of her mother’s friends. She was pretty, of no account, as Claire recalled, and underage. As the girl giggled when she saw them, Claire thought that she also must be as high as a kite.

The wedding party gasped. The minister gasped. Brad turned around, his eyes widened and he abruptly pulled up his pants.

“How come you guys are coming in this way?” he asked.

“The rain, you fool,” snapped Uncle Frank.

Ellen said, “Brad, how could you? You said you had errands to run.”

“What?” shrieked Claire, rounding on her bridesmaid. The guests in the church heard the shriek and wondered what was going on.

Ellen went red then muttered “I can’t keep this up, I was with him last night.”

Claire turned on the groom.

“How long has this been going on?”

Brad grinned. Maybe he just had no idea of the enormity of his crime, or maybe, Claire realised in her anger, he was just a piece of filth. “A while babe, I guess.”

“We were going to tell you,” said Ellen, miserably, “then Brad said he’d do it, but he never did.”

Claire rounded on Jenna. “What did you know of any of this?”

“I thought something was happening, but I wasn’t sure...” Her voice trailed off.

“Brad said he’d stop it,” said Ellen.

“And you were going to let me marry him? You let it get this far?”

Neither bridesmaid replied or could look at the bride.

“Babe, I know this looks bad, but we can talk about this,” said Brad, still grinning.

“Who are you saying babe to?” retorted Claire, “me, Ellen or her.” She pointed to the girl who had retreated to the back of the closet to giggle.

Uncle Frank spoke up. “Reverend can I borrow your bible for a moment?” The minister, still stunned, handed the book to Uncle Frank who flung it at Brad. In his youth, Uncle Frank had been a creditable softball pitcher. The heavy book caught Brad square on the nose and sent him sprawling against the back of the closet.

“I hadn’t thought of that way of using the good book to chastise sinners,” said the minister.

“I’ll buy you a new one,” said Uncle Frank.

“No need. The book has been put to good use.”

“The wedding’s off,” said Claire turning to the minister.

“I agree,” said the minister. “It is indeed off.”

“Now wait,” said Rachael Williams finally finding her voice. “Is there no way to fix this?”

“Mrs Williams, I cannot possibly marry them after this,” said the minister.

“Rachael, its off,” said Uncle Frank. “We just have to tell the guests.”

“Tell the guests?” said Rachael Williams, a note of panic in her voice. Her carefully planned grand ceremony had, in an instant, turned into a legendary disaster.

Claire turned to Brad, a handkerchief red with blood now held to his nose and dropped the flowers at his feet.

“You marry him,” she said to Ellen. With a last glance at Brad she went out into the rain.


It was still pouring. Before she had taken a few steps Claire was soaked through, her hair a mess. She did not care. She was so angry with Brad, and even angrier with Ellen, she could have walked through a flood with debris floating by, without noticing much. She walked along the side of the church, around to the front entrance where the bridal party should have arrived. She could not see the car they had come in, but there was a taxi. She walked over and opened the door.

“You free?”

“Well, sure,” said the driver, startled by the appearance of a bride in full dress, wet through. Claire saw her mother holding an umbrella, gesturing urgently for her to come back. She got into the back seat, finally out of the rain, tugging and pulling to bring all the dress’s tulle on board.

“Where to?”

“Just drive.”

“Anywhere in particular?”

“Just drive,” she snapped, and then said “city square”. It was the only place she could think of just then.

“Okay, okay.”

Claire looked back to see her mother staring open mouthed as the car drove off.

“Wedding didn’t work as expected, huh?” said the driver.

“You could say that.”

“You got a card?”

Claire realised that she did, thanks to her mother, and she tapped the driver’s terminal with it.

“Groom didn’t turn up?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay.”

Claire’s phone rang. She turned it off without looking to see who was calling. The perfect event her mother had planned, had turned into one of those wedding disaster stories that Claire had always enjoyed hearing. Now that she was the subject of such a story they did not seem so funny, but even as she seethed she realised that there were advantages to this total humiliation. Not only had every one of her doubts and misgivings about marrying Brad been confirmed before Claire had gotten to the alter, the evidence had been put right in front of the noses of the bridal party. There was no room for argument, not even from her mother. She had been grossly betrayed by Brad and her best friend, made heartbroken and miserable, but she was free of the marriage and, she was surprised to realise, glad to be free. Free to do what? Going back to her mother or the university where her bridesmaids also studied was not a welcome thought.

Claire shivered. She was wet through. She asked the driver to turn up the heat in the back. She saw they were among the office towers of the city centre and, through the rain, the slogan “Take On The Galaxy” appeared. The full poster, the same as the one she had seen on campus the previous day, came into view. It was above a shop front and a smaller version of the same poster was in the window. She thought of Ellen derisively dismissing joining the marine - ‘as if anyone would do it’. Then someone else saying ‘doesn’t give you time to think’.

“Can you pull up here?” she asked the driver.

“Sure.”

She tapped the driver’s machine again and extricated herself from the back seat, pulling and tugging at the tulle. A few of the Saturday shoppers, holding umbrellas, paused when a bride dashed across the sidewalk in the rain.

Was the recruiting station open on a Saturday? It was.

“I want to join up,” she told the women behind the desk.

There were a handful of others, mostly male but with two females sitting on chairs in a room behind the desk, obviously waiting. They all looked up when Claire appeared. The women, a civilian near retirement, looked up and did a double take at the sight of a bride in full regalia, albeit one that looked as if she had just been fished out of a river.

“Don’t you have to be some place?”

“Not anymore.”

“Oookay, a story huh?” Claire did not reply. “Well if you want to enlist, we’ll need identification.” Claire handed over her driver’s licence and credit card and the receptionist went into the back room where a uniformed recruiting sergeant sat, watching the action on a security camera. “Can we take her?”

“If the identification checks out why not?” said the sergeant. “There’s a story there alright, but it ain’t my problem. My problem is getting recruits. I give the oath to the inductees in ten minutes and one more is fine by me. There’s a month cooling off period if she changes her mind. We’d better find her something else to wear before putting her on the bus to camp, though.”

“Shame, it’s a nice dress,” said the receptionist.

“Nah,” said the sergeant, “There’s too much,” he gestured at his legs, “what’s the stuff down there?”

“Tulle?” said the receptionist.

“That’s it. Too much tulle.” The receptionist stared at him. “Whatsmatter, can’t a straight guy have an opinion about a wedding dress?”

A few minutes later the receptionist came out of the back room and handed Claire her licence and credit card, and a form to fill in.

“Claire Amber Williams,” she said, “welcome to the Stellar Marines.”



Chapter Two



Claire gratefully swapped her wedding dress for a standard marine camouflage uniform a size too big for her, and brown deck shoes without socks which was all that could be found at the recruiting office. Along with the rest of the inductees, Claire then boarded a marine heavy-lift transporter which used powered lift crystals mined in off world colonies. Claire and heard about craft that used the crystals to generate lift but had never encountered them before. They were too expensive for general use on earth. The transporter took off from the top of a city tower and headed West with a fraction of the noise and vastly greater energy efficiency than that of a helicopter.

After staring out of the window for a while at the darkening landscape, Claire thought to turn her phone back on, to find – no surprises there - her mother the stand-out winner in the number of messages and voice mails left. Claire texted back to say she was fine and would return when she was ready. Her mother was too busy complaining about dealing with the aftermath of the disaster to sympathise with her daughter for being so horribly humiliated, and Claire did not mention she had enlisted in the Stellar Marines.

A girl sitting beside her in the transport, dark haired, dark eyed and dark skinned in contrast to Claire’s fair skin and hair, watched Claire texting with interest.

“See they got you out of the dress,” she said. She had been standing beside Claire when they took the oath to defend the earth against all enemies.

“Uh huh,” said Claire, still texting.

“It was a nice dress.”

“My mother liked it.”

“That’s why you’re here, you and your mum argued over the dress?”

“Don’t want to talk about it.”

“Just asking.”

Another text from Uncle Frank said that the girl in the closet had been returned to her mother and that most of the guests had left puzzled, to make their own arrangements for dinner. But Brad had lied to his parents about what had happened, and there was a confrontation in the vestry until Uncle Frank and the Minister, with the reluctant support of Claire’s mother and bridesmaid Jenna, had set the record straight.

This resulted in a message from Brad’s mother: “I’m so sorry about what happened. What my son did was so awful that there is nothing I can say or do that would make amends. All I can say is that at least it was better to find out about my son’s true character before the vows were exchanged. I was looking forward to having you as a daughter in law, and now it is never to be. In fact, after finding out what my son is truly like, I might have to warn every girl he brings home. I am truly sorry for the whole thing.”

Finally, some sympathy for the wronged bride, thought Claire.

She wrote back: “I’m sorry I won’t be your daughter in law but as you say at least I found out in time and can walk away. Thank you for your apologies.” She couldn’t think of anything more to say.

“Looking forward to dinner,” said the girl next to her.

“Excuse me?”

“Dinner at the camp. Supposed to be good food in the Stellas. Having got us to enlist, they don’t want to drive us away, ‘specially before the one month cooling off period.

“Stellas?” asked Claire.

“Sure, Stellar Marines. The guys call each other marines, but the girls often call each other Stellas.”

“Sound like a 1960s girl band,” said Claire. “What’s the cooling off period?”

“You know, like it said in the stuff you signed. You have one month to back out or serve the four-year enlistment which includes a minimum two off world tours of one year each. The off-world tours can be in grim places well out into the galaxy, but the money and conditions are good. My brother was a Stella and saved a heap, now he manages rides in an amusement park.

That was too much information about the brother, thought Claire. But in the circumstances going far away sounded good.

“When do we leave?”

The girl laughed. “You have to do the training first, a long stint in basic which includes stuff about shooting people” (Maybe she would be allowed to shoot Brad? thought Claire) “and blowing them up” (better, she could blow up both Brad and Ellen) “as well as using airlocks and stuff in spaceships. Then advanced training in your specialty. Takes a while and not everyone gets through. You do a sport?”

“Netball.”

“You should be fine, anyway, Lou?” the girl stuck out her hand.

“Lou?”

“That’s me – Louise, so Lou. Don’t like Louie or Lewis. Lou.”

“Oh sure, hi, Claire.”

“I’d really like to hear the story behind you taking the oath in a wedding dress.”

“I’d really like not to tell it.”

“Okay, but maybe someday you’ll tell me.”

“What happens after we get to camp?” asked Claire.

“Nothing much tonight or maybe tomorrow. The yelling doesn’t start until Monday.”

‘Yelling?’ thought Claire.


“MARINES! ON YOUR FEET AND OUT IN THE YARD.”

Having been warned by Lou about what would happen Claire jumped out of bed, pulled on pants, shirt and shoes and dashed to the parade line in the dark, tying up her shoes on the assembly line.

“Boys and girls; boys and girls,” roared the senior sergeant, a big man crisply turned out at five in the morning, complete with a swagger stick as Claire learned the brown leather covered sticks were called, tucked under his arm. These were a distant echo of the vine sticks carried by Roman centurions, used to beat erring recruits. Stella Marine senior sergeants, male or female, did not beat recruits but the sticks came in handy pointing at malefactors and slackness of any kind. There was always a lot to point at. Like Roman centurions the senior sergeants had loud voices and used them a lot. “Stand up straight and look to your front, heels together, feet at an angle of thirty degrees, arms by your side, fists clenched. You are Stella Marines on parade, not a mob of cattle wandering the plains. You! The swagger stick was deployed in earnest. Do not look at me, look to your front!” The senior sergeant walked along the line of new recruits, inspecting them. What he saw disgusted him.

“You will be taught how to stand to attention properly later today, and not a moment too soon in my opinion. Never in my born days have I ever come across such a collection of degenerates, misfits, losers and no hopers.” His voice rose as he recited this litany. “We are tasked with defending colonies in far flung places, with ensuring the safety of earth’s citizens no matter where they may be. For that we need skilled, dedicated people of the highest calibre and what do we get?” The senior sergeant was working himself into a frenzy. “What do we get? We get a bunch of slack jawed, drooling civilians who can’t even stand up straight. These same drooling civilians we have to turn into soldiers capable of understanding orders given to them and operating complex equipment in the heat of battle.”

Claire thought that she was cold, wanted to go to the head (there were no bathrooms on the base, she had discovered, only heads), hungry for her breakfast and did not drool. She also thought the sergeant had a loud voice. He was still using it.

“That means, boys and girls, that we have to work, and work hard. Do not look at me Marine! You look to your front! Be thankful that I have been sent to transform you from misfit civilians barely able to cross the road without getting run over into worthwhile Stellar Marines, capable of defending our beloved planet earth and its citizens and if necessary to die for them.”

Good heavens! thought Claire. No one had said anything about dying. After Lou had told her about the enlistment conditions she had glanced through the papers she had signed, and a couple of brochures showing happy, good looking marines playing sports. There had been nothing about dying.

“To start this long journey, you will be taught how to stand up straight. Do you hear me?”

The response was a few barely audible “yesses”.

“When I ask a question on parade like that, you say sir, yes sir and you yell it. When you are invited to make a remark or asked a question by me away from the parade, you will call me senior sergeant. While on parade, any parade, it is an officer on parade even if there is no officer present. That means you will say sir, and you will say it loudly. Now, do you hear me?”

“Sir, yes, sir.”

“I can’t hear you. Do you hear me?”

“SIR! YES SIR!”

“Marines, there is much to do and little time to do any of it. If you want to stay in the marines then you will work, and work hard.”

They did. Claire learnt to stand at attention, salute and march about in formation. She went on route marches with packs filled with sand, a process Napoleon had called ‘seasoning’, went over obstacle courses and swam the length of muddy ditches fully clothed, then dug holes dignified with the term weapons pits. She got rid of the remains of her bride’s hairstyle at the first opportunity and opted to have it cut short, as well as let her hair turn back to its natural auburn. In her spare moments she dealt with the wedding disaster aftermath. Her chief fear was that her humiliation might be picked up by the news feeds, but it either went unnoticed or was not considered worthy of attention. That meant Claire was left to her private message battles.

Like the other recruits, Claire left her phone in her barrack room during the day. When she returned to her room, she switched the device on only long enough to delete voice messages, unheard, and respond to those texts she felt like answering. These included texts from her brother, who had never liked Brad, a few notes of sympathy from friends, and a host from her mother who was puzzled over where her daughter had got to. Lou, who was in the same four-person dormitory room as Claire, noticed this.

“Need time to think, huh?”

“Excuse me?”

“You keep your phone off most of the time.”

“Texts are easier to deal with.”

“Uh huh – you never told me the story behind that dress.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Feel like telling me now?”

Claire was conscious the other two girls in the dormitory, who all knew about Claire taking the oath in a wedding dress, had stopped to listen to what she had to say.

“Nope.”

“I’m still hoping you’ll tell me.”

“Keep hoping.”

The recruits were taught to estimate distances, read maps (Claire liked that part the least), navigate by dead reckoning in rough terrain, by day and night, and basic squad manoeuvres. She was given a helmet with a comm link and microphone, the first piece of military gear that she was entrusted with, and given commands over it. She had to take it back to the tech unit when it went dead, and the technical sergeant asked her out. She declined as politely as she could, and the sergeant shrugged as if to say it had been worth a shot.

“He’s single and hot,” said Lou who heard about this without Claire telling her. “And it could have been useful when we get more tech stuff.”

“Then you go out with him.”

“He hasn’t asked me.”

Brad gave up leaving voice messages and sent her a text. “Babe, I’m so sorry about what happened. I must have been high. Can’t we work this out? I really miss you and need you. Maybe we can do counselling or something. Please message me back.”

“Counselling? Why would I need counselling?” thought Claire. The “or something” also did not sound like true love’s commitment. The very next message was from Ellen saying how sorry she was for the whole ghastly episode and yes, she should have come clean long before they got to the church, but now she was “with Brad”. Claire copied Brad’s message and sent it to Ellen, with a brief explanation. She copied Brad in. Both individuals dropped out of her life.

The worst part about the whole episode, as Claire realised that night after lights out, was that some part of her still wanted to be with Brad, which she knew to be absurd. He could not be trusted, even on his wedding day with his bride on her way to the church. The best part about joining the Stellar Marines, Claire realised, was that she had done too much during the day to stay awake after going to bed. After closing her eyes the next thing she heard was “Marines! On your feet!”. There was no time for pinning, and that helped.


The day after the episode with the texts an unexpected new interest came into her life – the LW (for Land Warrior) 150 standard light infantry assault rifle, firing 5.56 mm rounds with an over and under pump action grenade launcher and optical sights plus target recognition software that made laser sighting irrelevant. The weapon was also light enough, despite thirty shots in its magazine, to swing around and sight with ease, while standing. The weapon was lethal, even in the hands of an amateur. In the hands of a trained professional it could kill with ease at eight hundred metres. It was, as Claire told herself, just what every girl wanted. Recalling that sun filled memory of her father giving her a slug gun to fire, the trainee marine was entranced. After a brief introduction she was permitted to carry the weapon onto the range and fire at the one hundred metre targets. She imagined Brad’s head was in the bull’s eye and squeezed the trigger, just as her father had instructed her all those years before. The ten rounds she fired made a neat hole where the bullseye had been.

“You shot before?” asked the range senior sergeant, looking at the target through binoculars.

Claire shook her head. She did not think a single shot with a slug gun as a child counted. The senior sergeant knew that the LW-150 could make any wet behind the ears recruit fresh from school graduation or a lecture hall look good, but this was something else. Private Williams might have the makings of a sniper, but he also knew that few female marines wanted to be snipers. Part of it was cold blooded killing. This was a shame, the sergeant thought, as Private Williams was also cute – an observation that he was careful to keep to himself. Apart from being married it was more than his career was worth to interact with Claire about any matter other than firing a weapon (the technical sergeant who had asked Claire out was in a different unit and not an instructor). “Good shooting,” he muttered and moved onto the next recruit. Claire was thrilled.

After that, whenever Claire went near a range she shot well, cuddling up to the LW-150 and even whispering to it, so that the weapon seemed part of her. Lou, who had turned into a best friend, thought she was nuts.

“It’s not so much that I’m in love with the 150,” Claire explained. “After all, I can’t have children by it.”

“That brings images to mind that I just want to forget,” said Lou.

“But it’s way more reliable than any guy.”

“Was that the problem with your fiancé?” asked Lou, hopefully. “He wasn’t reliable?”

“And I can use the 150 to shoot guys like they deserve,” said Claire, ignoring the ploy.

Claire was shown how to clear out buildings and trenches of people who wished her and her comrades harm, and learnt the legal basics of rules of engagement.

“We’re meant to look up a rule book before we shoot back?” asked Lou. “What happens if the other side doesn’t care about the rules?”

Mrs Williams finally worked out where her daughter had got to (she hired the same private detective who had checked out Claire’s boyfriends, and he looked for mentions of runaway brides on social media). She was horrified.

“The Stellar Marines? What were you thinking?” said one text. “And the cooling off period is almost up. If you don’t leave now, its four years, including two off-world – more if war is declared.”

Her mother had been reading up on the marines, thought Claire. She had already decided to stay and become better acquainted with the LW-150, and if that meant time off world then so be it. She replied to her mother along those lines, deleted several voice messages and turned her phone off again. A few days later she was called to the office of Colonel Jasmine Mulroney, the senior female officer on the base. She went wondering what she had done. That senior officer proved affable, telling Private Williams to sit down.

“Your mother has been driving us crazy,” she said.

“Oh joy,” thought Claire, “my mother has found a way to cause me more trouble.”

“She badgered the receptionist here,” said the officer “until she was put through to me and then insisted that I put you on a bus back home. She did not want to hear that I couldn’t put you on anything unless you agreed. She wanted to come and pick you up, but the same objection applied. I can’t deliver you to the front gate unless you agree to be delivered. That brings us to the point. Do you want to stay?”

“I want to stay, if I pass, Ma’am,” said Claire. The Ma’am was pronounced in the American style to rhyme with ham, rather than in the British style to rhyme with palm.

“Then that’s all that needs to be said. I glanced at your record and its solid right through, with your shooting marked as excellent.”

“I like shooting, Ma’am.”

“With these scores you may be offered sniper school when you go on to advanced training.”

“Sniper school, ma’am?”

“Sniping can be assassination. You wait for an enemy to show themselves then take them out with one shot. In the Stellas they have a broader role as they are also used for skirmishing, recon and to counter the enemy pop-ups.”

“Pop-ups Ma’am?”

“As you’re staying you’ll find out what popups are very soon. In the meantime, Private Williams, I have one request to make. It is a request, not an order. Can you call your mother back, so she quits pestering me? This isn’t ballet school, I shouldn’t have to deal with controlling mothers.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Claire went to a quiet spot besides the parade ground and rang her mother. It was the first time they had spoken since the wedding day from hell, and Mrs Williams was not happy.

“But two years off world at least,” she said. “What about your career? What about starting a family?”

“What career? I was still studying, and there’ll be plenty of time for a family – I’ll be a soldier, not a nun.”

“What happens if you get into a battle? The Mercantilists are talking about earth blocking them from getting essential resources.”

Claire was surprised her mother had even heard of the Mercantilists. This was a group of mega-rich individuals who had seized and settled the only naturally habitable planet found so far, saying they were tired of the “excessive rules and regulations” of nanny-state earth. The Mercantilists had recently been complaining that they were not being given “fair access” to the precious lift crystals, used in space ship drives and for marine transporters, and the smart crystals used by the big AI systems, which were mined in off-world colonies. Just what the Mercantilists meant by “fair access” was never explained.

“Have you been watching the news feeds, mother?”

“Of course I have,” Mrs Williams snapped. “My daughter has joined the Stellar Marines and wants to stay. Someone may try to kill you in those outposts.”

“Then I’ll try to kill them right back,” said Claire, thinking of the LW-150. The idea that someone might try to kill her was now less startling than it had been when she had heard the reference to “dying on her first day. “I’ll think of Brad and pull the trigger, mother.”

Her mother sighed. “I suppose it’s just as well the marriage never happened.”

“Yes, it is mother – and because of that I’m now in the Stellar Marines.”

“You can still leave, and I’ll send you on that grand tour you were thinking about,” said her mother. “Paris, London, New York – all those places you’ve want to go.”

For a moment Claire was tempted. She had always wanted to travel and probably would end up in some galactic hell hole, but then thought that she would be back under her mother’s thumb with no range exercises with the 150 to look forward to.

“I’m staying mother, and that’s that.”

After agreeing to ring her mother regularly, on the condition that she leave the base receptionist and Colonel Mulroney alone, Claire hung up thinking that for the first time, in any argument with her mother, that her wishes had prevailed.



Chapter Three



The ranks of the trainees thinned at the end of the cooling off period, with both voluntary departures and the Steller Marine Corps quietly jettisoning those who weren’t going to make it. In Claire’s dormitory room one girl departed abruptly. They returned to the room one day to find that girl’s bed stripped, and locker cleaned out. That left Claire, Lou and Taylor, a stoutly built girl who favoured pigtails and kept romantic novels in her locker. Claire thought that romantic novels did not sit well with the basic job of a marine, to kill people, but then she did not mind a romance herself.

For the survivors of this shake-out, who were now going to be marines for good or ill, training was stepped up. This was not the “break ‘em or make ‘em” training of special forces. The Stellar Marines wanted keep the trainees left behind and lift them up to the required standard. That meant the training was intensive without pushing any limits, which was quite intensive enough for Claire. The recruit marine found out more than she really wanted to know about company, platoon and squad level organisation, and about Pop-ups, Beasts and Trolls. A Roman legionnaire might have recognised the squad as a distant descendent of his eight-man tent group, and the platoon/company units as echo of Roman centuries and cohorts, but would have run howling from the equipment used.

The Stellar Marine Corps was a light infantry force equipped and trained to fight in the broken terrain that was a major feature of the terra-formed valleys on off-world colonies. Pop-ups were like mini-helicopter drones, using lift crystals rather than rotors to take off, and were employed in a manner similar to that of the attack helicopters of old. They would “pop-up” from behind cover, controlled by a marine on the ground, fire missiles and machine guns at whatever targets it could see, then drop down again, hopefully before the other side could react. Trolls were heavily armoured humanoid figures carrying machine guns and missiles, filling the role of the now obsolete tanks. Beasts were long, squat platforms on four articulated legs that could go anywhere a human could, carrying spare ammunition, pop-ups, first aid stations that were almost the equivalent of field hospitals of previous eras, the electronic equipment needed for e-warfare, and much else. One variant had been adapted to carry small artillery pieces that filled the role of mortars – up close infantry support - another fired missiles.

All these were supported and controlled by the marine grunts, which included Claire and Lou, either as operators or as weapon specialists (grunts with guns) who mostly stayed behind the Trolls but in front of the Beasts, as they tried to kill stuff while staying alive themselves. Pop-ups were the mortal enemies of Trolls and Beasts, Claire discovered, while Trolls and artillery Beasts were the mortal enemies of grunts. Sniper-spotter teams, often moving a little ahead and to one side of the battle line, countered Pop-ups and generally made lethal nuisances of themselves to Grunts and Beasts.

The squat, low Beasts and Trolls were worlds away from the towering figures that movie producers often imagined were of use on a battle field, nor did they use rockets to move around as depicted in graphic computer games. The problem, as Claire’s instructors repeatedly emphasised, was that anything that could be seen directly on a battle field, rocket powered or not, was easily destroyed. The big weapon systems of past eras, the main battle tanks and sophisticated jet aircraft, were not only too much trouble to cart out to remote colonies, they were too hard to hide and too easy for a grunt with a missile and control panel to target. Instead the Trolls, Pop-ups, Beasts and Grunts, combined to form one big weapon system run according to the age-old combined weapons mantra – the Grunts, Beasts and Pop-ups killed anything that might kill the Trolls, while Trolls killed anything that might kill the Grunts, Beasts and Pop-ups.

“It’s about three things,” one of Claire’s instructors repeatedly declared, “teamwork, teamwork and teamwork.”

Claire learnt about being part of these combined arms teams; the basics of controlling Beasts, Pop-ups and Trolls; and about taking cover. Above all, it was about taking cover. She was rapped hard on the helmet by one instructor for the sin of trying to raise her head above a rock.

“Don’t stick your head above cover, Williams,” snapped the sergeant. “If you must use your head, look around the rock, not above it. Better yet, put your 150 out there and look through the sight display on your helmet screen, like we showed you.”

That sergeant later remarked, wistfully to a male colleague that he would have liked to do more than rap Private Williams on the head.

“I hear you,” the colleague replied. “But the trainees still need to take cover.”

Claire and the others had to crawl over an obstacle course, while machine guns with live ammunition were fired over them. They would be alright, they were told, provided they did not raise themselves above a certain level. That meant hugging the ground, “as close as a lover”.

“Would’ve preferred a real lover,” grumbled Lou.

In one exercise, they had to crawl under this live firing, with the occasional noise grenade thrown around for “realism” through mud, in pouring rain, cut barbed wire and disarm a mock mine with their knives. Neither mines nor barbed wire were used much on modern battlefields, but the main point of the exercise was to complete it. As one instructor explained it was the journey not the arrival which mattered. Claire thought that could she could do with less philosophy. As it happened, Lou was by her side in this muddy crawl.

“Now are you going to tell me what happened at the wedding?” Lou shouted over the rain.

Claire just shook her head.

They got on and off troop lifters. These were another version of the transporter which had taken Claire to the training camp, but adapted to take one platoon, and functioned much like armoured personnel carriers or troop helicopters of old. They would land, the rear ramp would open and the senior sergeant would yell.

“Platoon break right, tac formation. Double.”

The first time they did it, they got into an awful mess and the Senior Sergeant yelled a lot.

“Doesn’t that man’s throat ever wear out?” Claire thought.

After the fifth time they almost got it right, and the Senior Sergeant merely spluttered. After a week, Claire thought she would never look at a transporter the same way again. They bivouacked in mountains, hills and forests, practised manoeuvres against other squads, platoons and companies, and had adventures with field rations. Claire was given a full squad helmet. This was a helmet with a transparent safety shield over the top half of the face. Once pulled down, displays were projected onto the left and right of this shield, all carefully designed so that the glow did not give away the wearer’s position at night, or distract the wearer from what was in front of her. The most useful of these decision assistance displays was squadtac, which told her which way she was supposed to be looking and where her squad mates were so that she did not shoot them – all good things to know. She was given her own LW-150 with a serial number checked off in her name, which she had to maintain.

“I think it’s love this time,” Claire told Lou. “The other rifles were just flings.”

“You have serious issues, Private Williams,” said Lou.

Although a marine formation was not expected to march anywhere, as opposed to being taken in a transporter, they still went on lots of route marches. Marines did not sing on these marches, Claire discovered, they chanted. The traditional chant, given right at the end of a march, owed something to a New Zealand Hakka.

A senior sergeant would bellow “Stellar Marines will march to order”. They would unsling their rifles, carry them properly by their sides and swing their other arm as if in a formal parade.

“Stand tall,” yelled the sergeant. “Puff out your chests. Who are you?”

“We’re the Stellar Marines,” they would roar in unison.

Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.

“What is coming?”

Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.

“A storm is coming,” they would roar.

Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.

“What kind of storm?”

Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.

“A Stellar Marine storm.”

Okay it was dumb, Claire admitted to herself, but it was better than being married to Brad.

The political situation, which seemed increasingly dire, was occasionally discussed in bars where a lot of male marines vied for Claire and Lou’s attention, and by fellow female marines, with roommate Taylor taking her own odd view of any likely encounter.

“Maybe we would be taken prisoner by The Mercs then fall in love with one,” she exclaimed over dinner in the mess hall.

The Mercantilists hired mercenaries, often ex-marines, to do their fighting and added anyone they could recruit from their own territories. Either way the enemy, should they meet them, would be Mercs.

“You’ve been reading too many of those romance novels,” said Lou. “They may want to get to know you in ways you don’t like. Skip all the talking, buying dinner, asking permission ‘n stuff, and get right down to it.”

“Not if we take them prisoner. Then fall in love with a handsome one.”

“Like Romeo and Juliet but without dying at the end?” said Claire.

“Well, yes,” said Taylor, smiling. “Real romance.”

“You have to get past the shooting at one another part,” Claire pointed out. “You may die before you get to meet Romeo.”

“And don’t forget the blowing up one another part,” said Lou. “Not a lot of romance in pop-ups when they’re up in the air looking for you, that’s for sure.”

They were subject to full combat launches. This was a take-off in a troop lifter but with a rocket launcher attached which was like being shot out of cannon, Claire thought. They learnt how to operate standard spacecraft airlocks, and what to do if caught out in a vacuum without a proper suit. This came down to getting back inside the airlock very quickly or have their bodies returned to earth, assuming they could be recovered, for a closed-casket funeral. After several months of training, which combined the basic and battle school training phases of other military forces, they had to choose/be directed to, a specialty. Taylor opted to become a beast operator. Lou thought she might also operate beasts, or simply be a weapons specialist. Claire, who had already been offered a spot in sniper school, had other ideas.

“Come to sniper school with me and be a spotter to my sniper,” she said.

“You mean crawl around the battlefield trying not to be killed, while killing other stuff?”

“I do the killing, you tell me what to kill and where it is, and keep an eye on stuff. Keep away guys who want to kill me and you, while I kill others at long range.”

“I feel I do that already in bars,” said Lou.

“You always know what’s going on, and you read tac screens much better than I do. We’d make a good team.”

“Dunno – sniper teams are always away from the main force, hiding.”

“We target Pop-ups.”

Claire knew that Lou had a particular dislike of Pop-ups.

“Hmmm!”

“Lots of guys in sniper school. We’ll be one of the few girl teams.”

“Now that’s interesting,” said Lou.

On past battlefields, spotters were often just an add on to the sniper, there to confirm kills and call correction on shots. In the Stellar Marine Corps a sniper team was always two persons and the spotter was treated equally, as sometimes boss sometimes assistant of the sniper. The spotter kept an eye on the overall situation and the various tac screens, while the sniper killed stuff, which included pop-ups and beasts, if they saw one, as well as grunts. The sniper weapon’s software took care of matters like shot correction. In the Stellars, which had no separate special forces units, sniper teams were also used for reconnaissance and infiltration. All that meant that sniper-spotter teams operated ahead of the main force before contact and then hung around in the edges of the battle, in a distant echo of the skirmishers of Napoleonic times.

The Stellar Marine Corp wanted all sniper teams to train in pairs from the start. All the men who signed up wanted to be snipers not spotters, but not Claire and Lou, as the sniper school commandant noted on the first morning when they were gathered in the school lecture theatre. He was addressing sixteen men and two women.

“Gentleman and ladies, and it is ladies,” said this dour individual, a Colonel Jeffries, “We will now go around and everyone will be called on to introduce themselves; to say a few words about themselves. We will start with the two Annies. Privates Williams and Crean, stand up.”

The girls stood and the other marines, who liked what they saw, cheered loudly.

“Enough of that!” snapped the colonel. “Silence!” The cheering stopped abruptly. Colonel Jeffries was reputed to be a fierce disciplinarian, known to never smile. “The point I wanted to make is that these two marines have joined as a sniper-spotter team. Private Williams on the right is the sniper, and Private Crean is the spotter. A lone sniper can take out an individual, a sniper-spotter team can tear whole units apart. Teamwork is just as important as individual marksmanship, gentlemen and ladies.”

“Excuse me sir?”

“What Private Williams?”

“You said Annies? Why are we Annies?”

The other marines laughed, one corner of the Colonel’s mouth twitched.

“In Marine slang, female sniper-spotters are Annies, as in Annie Oakley. The original Annie Oakley gave demonstrations of shooting in a wild west show of the 19th century. She had competitions in markspersonship with her husband to please the crowds and always won, and won genuinely as I understand it. The term has been judged to not be offensive so it is generally used.”

Claire and Lou had become Annies.

The men were inclined to laugh at the Annies but stopped laughing when Claire and Lou quickly proved contenders for the sniper’s cup, the award given to the best sniper team of each intake. Claire was issued with a longer version of the LW-150 with a second barrel in place of the grenade launcher. That second barrel shot the armour piercing, heavy anti-equipment rounds, so that it was two rifles in one. In past eras, the more stable and accurate bolt action rifles were used for sniper work over the semi-automatics (just pull the trigger and it shoots) of the infantry. By the time Claire got hold of her LW-150S, semi-automatics were standard, with the rifle AI also keeping track of arcane factors such as ammunition and barrel temperature, wind drift and any one of a number of factors that affected accuracy at long ranges. Claire thought that was all cool.


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