"Hey Jackson, you ever think about ants?"
"You mean like my Aunt Jennie? Not much. Though I had this one aun--"
"No, no. I mean like the insect kind of ants. Like these over here. I mean they always seem to be working. Gathering stuff and building their nests. Makes you wonder why they can't take over a whole planet, doesn't it?"
"Not really, Marcus. What I wonder is how much trouble we're going to get in when the sarge gets back and sees that we haven't finished digging this trench. Now get your butt in gear."
And with that Jackson dug his shovel into the ant's nest, destroying it and killing countless workers in the process.
Richard Jackson, in the old vernacular, could best be labeled as a "red-neck". He was just a bit under six feet tall and, as a result of his lifestyle before joining up, had gotten his weight up to a respectable two hundred and thirty pounds. He wasn't much under that now, but a lot more of that was muscle then had been. His close cropped hair when it grew out would return to its ragged brown mass. In the twenty-three years of his life he'd never been much for following orders. He'd always been pretty pig-headed but he had what for him was a real good reason for joining up.
He had joined up because he liked the idea of getting his hands on some guns. On Phantor, known to the galaxy at large as Dominion VI, possession of a weapon without authorization was a capital offense. And the only way to get authorization was to be in the military, and the only way to get in the military was to pass a psych test. Since Jackson couldn't pass the psych test, he had left Phantor and joined the Republic.
Now with basic training almost over he'd had weeks of handling guns. He hadn't gotten much exposure to the bigger guns yet but if he got lucky in his station, he would have all the access he could ever want. Granted he might never get the chance to kill anything but this would be the next best thing. Sure, so far he was mostly just getting paid to do grunt work, but he would probably end up doing that anyway. Might as well get some access to weapons while he was at it.
Marcus Henderson on the other hand had joined up for a much different reason. It was that or get his ass kicked. Not only had his family been on Zaflen, or Fharlon III to the rest of the galaxy, for what seemed forever, but he also came from a family of pure military. His four brothers and both of his sisters were in the military. His mother was retired from the military. And his father and as many generations of Hendersons as you would ever want to count had all been in the military. Not only would his family not have been too happy if he hadn't joined up but there was even a reasonable chance he would never live to see his nineteenth birthday if he didn't. To describe his family as fanatical about the military was to understate the fact.
He was built pretty much as the rest of his family: large, stocky, and well muscled. His two hundred and eighty pounds still made him look thinner at six foot four than Jackson. He'd never had his hair any longer than a military cut so all that could be said about it was that it was thick and brown.
He'd never lived anywhere except on military bases and though he'd heard friends talk about all of the great things to be found *off* of base, he'd never had opportunity to sample them. His father had never believed in "free time". And even when he had managed to earn a "pass" from his parents, that just meant he could do what he wanted - on base.
He had no idea what he was going to do when boot camp was over. It was pretty much a given that if you didn't screw up, you and your platoon would get a weekend pass after boot camp. He wanted to leave the base and go to town but had no idea how to handle himself. He also had no intention of letting people know how inept he was at dealing with people off-base.
A couple of hours later the sarge had returned. He started at one end of the trench and had the squad leaders gather their men together into formation. With each squad gathered, they all moved onto the next section of the trench. By the time the sarge had gathered all one hundred men of C platoon back together some of the men were getting a bit antsy. They knew that tomorrow was the day they were supposed to graduate from boot camp, but it wasn't unknown for a platoon to fail to graduate. Some of the men with more on the ball realized that this had just been one more exercise in the training. The idea in this case to make sure that the platoon could work both as a single unit and as each squad to finish a task. A test of all of the men and the squad leaders.
As the sarge had the squad leaders lead the men back off to the base he was less than informative on how they had done. The sarge relayed orders for the men to clean up and half an hour later threw a surprise inspection.
At least that's the term that the higher-ups liked to use. Truth is though, an inspection was almost never a real surprise. Usually word managed to work its way down as it had this time. The men had pretty much known since yesterday afternoon that there would be a surprise inspection today and had spent what time they had yesterday in preparing for it. As such, except for the gear they had just been wearing they were all ready for it. Though at first surprise inspections had truly been surprises and many men got gigs and even when they were no longer surprises men were still getting gigs, none had gotten a gig from an inspection for the last week and a half.
The sarge relayed to them their planned schedule for tomorrow and then basically left them to their own devices. That didn't mean they were free to do what they wanted though. They all knew the routine daily schedule and still maintained it. Meal time, another class, some "free" time which really meant time to check and maintain your gear, and then lights out. The men were pretty much in good spirits. Since the sarge hadn't said anything negative it was a safe bet they were definitely graduating.
Graduation had gone well. Though their platoon wasn't top-rated neither was it anywhere near the bottom. Add to that the fact that the weather had been fine and nobody had screwed up anything really noticeable and… weekend leave!
All of the other men in C platoon pretty well had *some* idea about the background of the other men in the platoon. Once that kind of knowledge had become common they had pretty much relied on Marcus as an unofficial marker. Anytime they weren't exactly sure of what to do in a situation, they just looked to him. With the family life he had led, how could he possibly screw something as simple as boot camp up?
Marcus however was very happy when no one looked to him about what to do on the leave. This was the one situation where he was completely in the dark about what to do. It was the first time since coming here that *he* had looked to someone else. He did however try his hardest to make sure that no one realized how out of place he was in town.
At first he tried to just follow along where some of the others went. He made sure he wasn't the last in any group though and whenever his opinion was asked he just replied with some variation of "You choose." After a while though, he realized that this wasn't going to work. Not because the others were noticing his behavior so much as because he just wasn't used to any of the bars they went into. Sure, he'd been in the enlisted men's' club on base but it didn't even remotely compare with these bars and nightclubs. Some of the things that were going on in them would have landed a soldier in lockup quicker than he could blink. Even out here they had to be careful. Getting involved in anything illegal could still have the same effects.
As Marcus came to realize how he wasn't fitting in, he made some lame excuse about looking around town and left the other soldiers. He really did look around town but he wasn't looking for another bar so much as somewhere peaceful to sit and think. He finally came to a park which seemed to be relatively quiet and made his way into it. Eventually he came to some benches that were someway into the park and sat himself down.
He couldn’t' have been sitting more than five or ten minutes before he heard his name. "Henderson, where the hell are you? I saw you come in here. Hey, Henderson!"
"Jackson?! That you? I'm over here!"
A minute or so later Jackson came into view down the path to his left. He was carrying a couple of bottles of what was presumably alcohol, though even with the park lights it was too dark to tell for sure. "What are you doing out here Jackson?"
"'s just not the same as back home. All of these people are so… uppity. Or something. You know, like those social climber kinds? Just wasn't having any fun. So I bought a couple of bottles and was walking the streets looking for something better when I saw you come in here. Why are *you* out here?"
"Pretty much the same," Marcus said. Sure it was a partial lie but it was also a partial truth.
"Well, scoot over. Here, have a shot," Jackson said as he sat and handed Marcus a bottle.
Marcus and Richard swapped the bottle back and forth making some major headway on it. About half an hour later they heard some voices but they were to into the bottle to be very interested. As Jackson was just finishing up a healthy slug he noticed a group of about seven or eight people coming down the path. As they got closer he made them out to be about five guys and four girls all somewhere around his age. But based on their appearances they had to be civilians. Even without the clothes they were wearing there was no way they'd have hair like that in the military.
There was an exchange of tentative nods as the group passed the bench and it wasn't until they were heading away that Jackson had an idea. "Hey!" He called out. "Hey you guys."
As the group stopped, Jackson held out the bottle. "Suppose you could give me some information?"
The kids looked at each other and then one of them walked back to the bench. "Like what?"
Jackson lightly swung the bottle to the guy to indicate that he could take a shot. While the kid took the bottle and threw back his head, Jackson went on. "What's there to do around here? Other than those bars back there," he added nodding in the direction of the strip of bars just off the park.
"What's wrong with the bars?" The guy asked, making to hand back the bottle. Jackson waved it away. The guy motioned to the other people with the bottle and as they walked back he waited on Jackson's answer.
"Too -- phony, I guess," Jackson supplied, as one of the other guys took the bottle and took a hit. He handed the bottle to Jackson, who took a quick shot and handed it back. By this time the rest of the group had gathered around and they were soon passing the bottle back and forth. It didn't even occur to Jackson to inquire about ages. He was after information but that wasn't the kind he cared about.
"Well," one of the group finally offered, after the question had been bandied around a bit, "there's always the quarry. Or the river."
As Jackson opened up the other bottle he looked a question at them.
"Well, the quarry isn't really 'open' but a lot of us hang out there. Usually someone brings music and… whatever. The river is pretty much the same except a lot of them yuppies have taken to going there as well. It doesn't sound like that's what you want."
"How's that sound Harrison? What say we go see this quarry?"
"Sure, why not."
"Ok, quarry it is. You wouldn't by any chance be heading there, would you?"
"Truth is, we hadn't really decided either way yet, but what the hey. Ok guys?" Nobody in the group had any problem with that so after picking up some more bottles (underage or not, some of them had id that said otherwise) and off they went.
The ant nest by the left rear leg of the bench was in turmoil. What with all of the group moving around they had caused some damage to it. The ants were doing their best to repair the damage and clear out those ants killed in the cave-ins.
"…and you said this last line was the date you got it."
"Yep. Name, number, birth date and planet, and issue date and planet."
As the couple continued on to more interesting things, so the night and the party wore on. Others were dancing, some were just drinking, and like the first couple now, some were just making out. As for Jackson and Harrison…
Jackson and Harrison spent the better part of the night up at the quarry. It didn't really surprise either of them when they noticed other soldiers. None of the soldiers were in uniform but after all of those weeks in boot camp there was a similarity of movement in the soldiers. Add to that the fact that all of the soldiers had the same haircut… sure there might be some civilians with crop-tops but they were the exception not the norm.
It was rare for people to feel anything except antipathy towards soldiers in the towns near bases. The people always thought of the soldiers as outsiders and the police knew they couldn't really do much to punish them. Oh, they could catch them if they committed a crime, but then they were subject to military law and the MPs came and took them to the bases to receive whatever punishment their superiors dished out.
So it was a bit of a surprise when some of the people at the quarry asked some of the soldiers along on a camping trip. The soldiers had mentioned that they had to be back by 0500 hrs Monday but they were told that wasn't a problem. They weren't going all that far that they couldn't get back in a few hours. If they wanted to go, that still left them with more than a day worth of time.
The soldiers who had come up to the quarry had done it for varying reasons and those that had just heard that there were frequently all-night parties weren't necessarily into going camping. After all, most of them had just gone through a good share of that and had more to look forward to in one form or another. Others just had something else they wanted to do while on leave. Eventually it was narrowed down to Marcus, Richard, another soldier from C platoon by the name of Carol Willer, and one from A platoon by the name of C'ralean Gk'eda.
Carol was from the next star system over and saw the military as a quick way to earn some money for school and something to put on her record. She wasn't so much interested in going camping as she was in not hanging out in town. She would have just stayed at camp but something like that would quickly mark her as different - the kind of label she was trying to avoid. She knew that some labels could ruin your career. On the other hand, out in the woods, she wouldn't get in any trouble and would still be seen as "fitting in".
C'ralean was a transfer from another galaxy two sectors away. He was just one of the military's ways of preventing soldiers from developing a connection with their own planet. As far as the military was concerned, the armed service was your world now. They did whatever it took to drill that into the heads of the soldiers. He was typical of the Sha'eldec with his dark complexion, and the patterning of tattoos that his world specialized in. It was said that the Sha'eldecs could read the tattoos to ascertain exactly where you were from and who your family was. Tattooing in general was frowned on when you came into boot camp. The higher-ups felt that visible tattoos detracted from the feeling of oneness they tried to instill. But there was nothing to be done in this situation. It was a part of C'ralean's society, not something he did for fun.
In addition to the four soldiers, there were also three guys and five girls. All in all, a nice healthy little balance. Since the soldiers lacked spare clothes and any camping gear they divided up and went to town to acquire supplies for them as well as the gear that the others already had. They had to pay a little extra since the all-night stores charged a little more but it saved them from having to hang around until morning to get supplied. It was less than three hours later with the sun just rising that they were all loaded up and on their way.
As the party at the quarry had wound down, the various insects had begun to make their presence felt as they went about scavenging the dropped food and spilled liquids. The ants were having a real heyday and the ground was soon crawling with their active little bodies.
They had reached the site they had talked about in the mountains at about eight in the morning. After they had set up camp and gathered enough wood to last them through the night, they pretty much divided up into groups as they set about doing whatever they wanted.
Two of the couples apparently *were* couples and they walked off in different directions to presumably engage in some activity they felt more comfortable doing alone. C'ralean, Carol, Richard, and one of the other girls opted to go for a hike. The girl had told them that there were some nice trails leading up the mountains and you could get to some pretty nice spots in only an hour or two. Considering that would make it near to noon, they packed some food for a lunch and decided to make a picnic out of it.
Marcus and one of the remaining girls weren't interested in that long of a walk and so just choose to walk down to the lake and maybe just walk along it. The other couple liked at least half of that idea and figured to go swimming for a bit. Since it presented a nice alternative, Marcus and Sherry and the other couple changed into their suits and then the four of them walked down to the lake. Marcus and Sherry could always get a swim after they finished with their walk.
As they left the other couple at the lake, they got to know each other a little better. They had already talked some last night and on the trip which, in truth, was a lot of the reason behind their walking off together now.
Sherry had turned eighteen this year, making her no more than five months younger than Marcus. She was more world-wise than Marcus even though she had lived in this one town her whole life. Her family had moved here before she was born and had lived in the same house ever since.
She wore her long auburn hair in a single braid. Though he thought they were unusual for a redhead, he was attracted to her eyes. Their sky-blue color offset nicely with her dark tanned skin. She was close to a foot shorter than Marcus, and though she couldn't be called buxom, he thought she still had a very nice shape on her. And when you added the brains into a package like that…
She had graduated from high school a year early and was very likely to get scholarships to some good colleges. She planned to study genetic engineering and hoped to be involved in some major advances. She felt sure that she could offer new insights once she got going. She said she'd read everything she could get her hands on about the advances that had lead to the "ghosts". Oh, she couldn't get anything specifically about what the ghosts had, but if you just traced the advances that were being made *before* the ghosts…
Listening to her, Marcus realized that she had something he was seriously missing - drive. Oh, sure he had done a good job with boot camp, and would probably keep doing good. But it wasn't what he *wanted*. He'd joined to please - well, actually placate - his family. It wasn't what *he* wanted out of life. And he didn't see any way out of it.
"What are you thinking about Marcus?"
With a sigh, he responded "Nothing really. Well, that's not really true. I was thinking about how easy it all seemed for you."
"Easy? What seems easy?"
"Oh, I don't mean that you haven't worked for what you've got, and that you won't keep working. I just mean that - well, I don't know. It's just that you actually *are* working for it. Me, I just went where my family pushed."
"Yes, but you're good at it, aren't you? Isn't that what you said?"
"Yes, but that doesn't mean it's what I want. You're working for what you want. I'm just working. How do you do it? How do you just do what you want?"
"Well… you just do. It's like walking. If you want to walk, just take a step. Maybe if you're real tired the step will be hard but it's still just a step."
As Marcus and Sherry continued to talk they also continued to walk. Eventually they decided to sit by the lake for a while. They sat watching the water and talking for what seemed like hours.
"Um, Sherry… I've got to um… "
"Take a leak?"
"Ha. Yes, I've got to take a leak."
"Ok, well go ahead. I'll wait here for you."
As Marcus walked back into the woods and proceeded to business he couldn't shake the feeling that he wasn't alone. He didn't mean Sherry of course. He was sure she was sitting back at the lake like she said she would.
A little later Sherry began to wonder what was taking Marcus. "Hey, Marcus! You going to be much longer?" She called off over her shoulder. When she got no answer, she called again. "Marcus!? Hey, Marcus!" Still no answer came back. She became a little bit angry. If Marcus went off and left her she definitely was not going to talk to him anytime soon. "Marcus, dammit! Where are you!?" She walked off into the trees and looked around. She didn't see him anywhere and had decided to go back to camp without him. If he was there… well, errrggghh!
As she started to walk away from the trees her foot snagged on something. She pulled her foot back and up to dislodge whatever had caught it. She caught a glimpse of something metal but after it fell she couldn't find it. Her anger slightly distracted, though not averted, she once again started back towards camp.
The other couple wasn't at the lake swimming anymore so she continued onto the campsite. When she got there, everyone except for those who had gone hiking up the mountain and Marcus were there. She asked about him but the last anyone had seen of him was when he had gone off with her. Later in the afternoon when the others came back and Marcus had still not appeared they became really worried. She took them around the lake to where she had last seen him and they started a search. They found no sign of him and eventually went back to camp. While some of them remained at camp, C'ralean, Carol, and a couple of the civilians headed back to town.
The ants in the woods considered the thing they had found. Though it smelled of food potential, it didn't actually seem to be food. For a while they considered carrying it back to the nest, but it kept snagging and they couldn't bite through any part of it to make it smaller. If they had been smart they would have realized that there was no way they would ever bite through metal. And though they tried for a while they just couldn't get the chain to quit snagging on things.
Eventually they just settled for picking the food particles off of the object and carrying them back to the nest. As the night wore on and the rest of the bits were cleared off of the metal, someone looking carefully would have been able to read what was written on it.
Henderson, Marcus J.
07.16.3026g Fharlon III
09.23.3045g Dylar IV