Zochtil Ch1

Chapter 1

Aboard the UES Mayflower

I was sitting at my desk on the first faster-than-light ship ever built. Well, maybe not the first ever built, but the UES Explorer and the USS Independence had both exploded when they tried to go FTL. On the UES Explorer, the captain had been in communication with Earth when he pushed his ship from point nine-niner to one c.

“Transferring to FTL,” he had said.

“Roger,” NAV COM had replied. “Good luck!”

Then in one brilliant flash, picked up by thousands of satellites and telescopes aimed at the Explorer, she had exploded. It was almost as if the ship had hit a wall. Parts of the ship were flattened, while other parts just couldn’t be accounted for. Whether they were vaporized or went FTL was a mystery that scientists still hadn’t figured out.

The worst part was not that the ships had exploded but that each one had been packed full of colonists. Entire civilian families had died, and yet the UES Mayflower was packed with more civilian families ready to colonize another world.

I was one of those colonists and wasn’t scared. Sure, I was only ten, but my father, the captain of the UES Mayflower, wasn’t scared. A man named Randy Kelven was the reason that we all believed the Mayflower would survive.

The Mayflower was accelerating toward the Kelven threshold, the speed at which, theoretically, the Kelven Drive would be able to slingshot us faster than light.

We were just passing Jupiter, and our speed was at about point eight c. My dad’s chief astrogator, Andrus, said it would be another couple days before we reached point nine-niner. Even though I was on a mission that would rewrite history, I still had homework. In addition to the useful stuff, like math, I also had to do literature, even though there can be no possible point in reading a book written before the internal combustion engine was invented. Seriously, who cares if some idiot tried to joust with a windmill?

“Okay,” I said, shoving my homework across the desk to my tutor, Jared Belnap, a petty officer in the United Earth Navy. “I’m done with it, you can check it now, Belnap.”

“Will do, twerp,” Belnap said, getting up. I could tell that Petty Officer Belnap enjoyed math tutoring about as much as I did, because he always called me twerp.

I fidgeted as he went over my work, marking all the things I had done wrong. After about ten minutes, he handed it back to me.

“Rework those problems,” he said. Then he looked at his watch, “Have them done by class time tomorrow. I have to stand watch now.”

I wanted to be a starship captain, like my father, but I didn’t relish all the work I would have to do to get there. I much preferred playing computer games or learning about the ship’s systems. I wanted to learn astrogation, but Astrogator Andrus said I would have to wait until I had mastered differential equations and fractal geometry. But I was itching to do things, not just learn.

***

A couple days later, the crew of the Mayflower was bursting with excitement. The passengers, on the other hand, were nervously pacing the corridors, reading their scriptures or praying that the Kelven Drive would work, while the crew was busily preparing to switch to the Kelven Drive. Even my mom was a little nervous, and she told me I didn’t have to do schoolwork. So, I headed down to the wardroom, looking for my friends in the Marine Corps.

The UES Mayflower included a detachment of twenty marines in case we survive faster-than-light travel, in case we reach Centauri B, and in case we find anything dangerous there. The marines weren’t very happy about being aboard. They thought the three months they’d spent on the Mayflower had been a complete waste of time. They spent most of their time in the mess hall, either eating or playing RISK. RISK wasn’t my favorite game, but it was fun to join them occasionally.

The marines weren’t at all nervous. They just sat around their usual table, with a couple games of RISK running at the same time. Their captain had the best version. It had a map of the solar system, and your troops (or marines, as they always called them) had to travel across the system to attack other worlds. Since it allowed landings on Jupiter and Saturn, it didn’t achieve the height of realism, but it was still fun.

I sat down next to the captain and watched him take his turn.

“Hey, boot,” he said. He had called me boot since the first day he met me back earth-side. He seemed to think that I wanted to be a marine, even though I had told him my plans were to join the Navy.

“Hi, Captain,” I said. “You winning?”

“Yes, sir. Today I’ve got Luna, Ganymede, Titan, and Jupiter. And my troops are en route to Earth.”

I watched them play for a while, until the captain won, then I joined in a new game. We played a couple hours before the captain won again. I swear the captain had the dice rigged to always roll in his favor, but I couldn’t figure out how he could have managed that. I used the same attack and defense dice, and they still always rolled in his favor. After the captain had won the game, I got up and went to the bridge to visit my father and mother.

After visiting the bridge, I was actually bored enough to get back to doing my homework. There just wasn’t a whole lot you could do in space if you were unemployed.

I was awakened the next day by the sound of the boatswain calling out, “All personnel to your duty stations. All off-duty personnel strap down. We will be testing the Kelven Drive in ten minutes.”

Ten minutes wouldn’t give me much time. I ran out into the hall, and went straight to the bridge. I reached the bridge with four minutes to spare. My father glanced at me.

“Welcome, Almek,” he said. “You can have Advisor Firmin’s chair. He was feeling sick this morning and won’t be reporting to duty.”

I nodded and sat down silently. I knew the gravity of the situation.

“Astrogator,” my father called out. “What’s our speed?”

“Three minutes from the Kelven threshold, sir,” he said.

“Jessica, put me on the all-hands circuit.”

My mother nodded and pressed a couple buttons, “You’re on, Captain.”

“All hands, this is the captain speaking. We will be testing the Kelven drive shortly. Everyone must fulfill their duties perfectly. Good luck, and see you on the other side of light speed.” My father nodded to my mother, and she cut off the circuit.

“Captain,” Lieutenant Kelven called out over the speakers.

“Yes, Randy?”

“She’s primed and ready, sir,” Kelven said.

“You sure, Randy?”

“As sure as I ever will be, Captain. There is nothing left to do but test her out, except perhaps praying that I didn’t drop a decimal point.”

“Don’t worry,” Father said. “You’ve already got everyone on the ship praying for that.”

“One minute remaining, sir,” Andrus called out.

“Good luck, Kelven,” my father said.

“And good luck to you, sir,” Randy replied.

I heard a click from the astrogation panel, and I turned to look at Andrus.

“Thirty-seconds … Twenty … ten … five … four … three … two,” Andrus called out, as he read his display.

“Cut power to the main drive,” Father said. “Bring the Kelven drive on line.”

The main drive died, and I went weightless for a couple seconds. Then suddenly colors blurred together, everything around me went dark, and I couldn’t hear a thing. I thought that I must have died. The Kelven Drive hadn’t worked, and we would be just one more horror story for space-happy young kids like I had been. Then everything came back. I could see color, I could hear. We were alive!

I looked up at my father.

“Kelven, what just happened?” he asked with a detectable edge in his voice.

“We just surpassed light speed, sir.”

“Andrus, what’s our speed?” my father asked.

“We are going at one point two c. We’ve done it, sir!”

“Run a full diagnostic on the sensors. Make sure they are operating properly. Then we’ll celebrate.”

There was a long pause. “All the sensors are working, sir,” a senior chief petty officer called out from his duty post.

My father smiled. “Then it is done. We have passed light speed. Jessica,” Father turned to Mother, excitement beginning to show on his face, “I want a direct line with NAV COM.”

“I’m on it, Captain,” she replied.

My father turned back to Andrus, “How long until we reach Centauri B, Andrus?”

“We will reach our destination in ten days if we follow the planned speed profile.”

“Good, follow the plan, and consult with Kelven. If he says you need to make any changes, follow his orders exactly.”

“Yes, sir,” Andrus replied.

“I’ve got NAV COM, sir,” my mother called out.

“Captain,” I heard NAV COM say. “What happened? You aren’t showing up on any of our scans.”

“We’ve done it,” my father said. “We’re traveling at one point two c.”

I heard a huge roar from NAV COM and assumed that everyone there was celebrating our success. “Congratulations, sir!”

Father turned to his commander. “Commander O’Brien, how would you like to take command of the first FTL starship?”

“I’d love to, sir,” Commander O’Brien replied.

Commander O’Brien was a reservist in the Navy, and, once we reached Centauri B, he would be the governor of the planet. My father didn’t like him, because he was just a politician and not a real naval officer, but my father couldn’t be on the bridge all the time.

“On the bridge, this is Captain Andrew Manning, Commander O’Brien has the conn,” my father called.

“This is Commander O’Brien,” O’Brien echoed. “I have the conn.”

My father waved at my mother and me, and we both got into the lift tube heading down to our quarters.

“What do you think of this, Almek?” my father asked.

“I thought I was dead,” I said. “When all the lights went out, and I couldn’t hear. I thought that Lieutenant Kelven had failed.”

My father sighed, “I did, too, son.”

“Well,” my mother said to me. “You just witnessed the single most important event in the history of transportation.”

“That you did, son,” my father agreed.

***

We had just sat down to dinner with Andrus, Kelven, and the other department heads, when we were interrupted by news from the bridge.

“Captain,” O’Brien said. “Relative velocity is reading zero, sir. The Kelven Drive is no longer operational!”

“What?!” Kelven shouted. “I go away from that darned girl for one second, and she starts acting up.”

“What happened?” my father demanded.

“I don’t know, Captain. Just get up here on the double.” O’Brien swore. “Hurry! Over twenty ships appeared directly ahead of us.”

My father sprinted for the nearest ladder, with my mother, Andrus, and the department heads on his tail. Kelven took off for engineering, and I ran for the nearest lift.

I stepped out of the lift to see O’Brien stalking off the bridge with the master-at-arms. Then I looked up at the main viewer. I saw dozens of ships, all of which resembled dragons from a medieval fantasy. Suddenly, an image of a humanoid dragon appeared on the screen.

“I am the commanding officer of the Draconian blockade force. Humans are to stay within the confines of this solar system! Report this back the chair of United Earth, before we destroy you for firing on us.”

Huh? Had Commander O’Brien fired on the dragon creatures? After a brief pause, the dragon ships all began to open their maws, and lasers started pounding the ship’s hull.

My father jumped into action. “Jessica, order the call to abandon ship, and raise NAV COM. Then get out of here!”

She complied, grabbed me, and we ran off the bridge for the escape pods.

“NAV COM,” my father was saying. “I have twenty-six alien ships firing on me. I am transmitting all the records of the ship to …”

I was off the bridge. I was split from my mom in the crowd heading for the pods, but the marine captain found me.

“Boot!” he shouted.

“Captain!” I cried. “You found me.”

“Come on, we’ve got to blow this place.”

He picked me up, and carried me like a football to an escape pod.

“You,” the captain said, pointing at his sergeant. “Find the boot’s mom, and tell her he’s safe.”

“Wilco, Captain,” the sergeant replied.

Then the captain closed the pod’s hatch, and we launched. I looked at the Petty Officer who was piloting the pod, and then I glanced down at his screen. I saw a mass of yellow dots, which represented the escape pods. I looked through the view port and saw that the dragon ships were firing on the pods. I saw many of them vaporize. Then something very strange happened. I saw a massive blue spiral appear ahead of us.

“Sir,” the petty officer said, looking at the captain. “I’ve lost control of the pod. We’re being pulled into the spiral!”

“Can’t you turn us around?” he demanded.

“No, sir. The controls just aren’t responding, sir. I can’t get any yaw or pitch.”

“Well, then, let’s face death like marines.”

“But, I ain’t a marine, sir,” the petty officer said.

“That’s obvious,” the captain retorted.

I grabbed the captain’s arm, and clung tightly to it.

“That’s all right, boot,” he said. “You are a true marine.”

I smiled. It made me glad to know that the captain thought well of me. I had always sought his respect.

Then we entered the spiral. Seconds later we exited, and right there in front of us was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. It was Earth! All blue, green, and cloudy, just waiting for us to return home.

Part 1

London Proper

Chapter 2

On the Bank of the River Thames

I was sitting on the bank of the River Thames, though the Thames is no longer like I’ve heard it once was. It had once been a major tourist attraction of one of the greatest–if not the greatest–city in Europe. However, the Thames no longer shows the same splendor, and no tourist would dare venture near it today. The Thames was once a beautiful blue, but is now green, brown, grey, and sometimes even blood red. The Thames runs with the blood of those who call London home.

London, like the River Thames, is not what it used to be. The once great city that had been the heart of the United Earth Government is now a bombed-out wreck. Skyscrapers, once towering, now lay strewn across multiple city blocks. Shopping center parking lots are still full of cars, and the cars are full of shrapnel or have been ripped in two by small cluster bombs. Houses lay in ruins, with roofs caved in. Driveways have been destroyed, windows broken, and the city is deserted.

Mostly deserted, I should say. London has turned into the dumping ground of the new United Monarchy of Europe. London Proper is where all the criminals in the western part of the UME are dropped off. It is much cheaper than paying for real prisons, or even killing the criminals. Thus, London has turned into a desolate place where only the worst live, and it has been renamed The London Proper Detention Facility.

Yet, here I was on the bank of the River Thames in the middle of London Proper. I wasn’t a criminal but an orphan. I was an orphan who had refused government protection, so I had been thrust onto the streets of London Proper. I wasn’t actually an orphan, except in the legal sense of the word. My father had died on the Mayflower. He went down with his ship, as every captain should. My mother and I made it back to earth, thanks to the blue wormhole, which has not yet been explained.

My mother resigned her commission after the cease-fire. She took my father’s death hard, and she eventually turned to drinking. When she was drunk, she turned on me and blamed me for my father’s death. She went mad. Two years after the cease-fire the Child Rights Police came and took her away. I haven’t seen her since. She probably ended up here in London Proper, too, but I don’t think she could have survived.

I was not alone. I was sitting next to a beautiful and battle-hardened young lady. She was tall, about five foot eleven, with short brown hair and gorgeous brown eyes. Long hair wasn’t practical on the streets–it was just too likely to get in the way during combat. Her name was Annabeth Gauge. She was my girlfriend and my most trusted confidant.

I knew that I should have been with my squad. We had just won a battle, but we had lost many, many good men and women. However, my squad knew I needed to take this time with Annabeth and let the atrocities of the battle flow out of me. We had just beaten our greatest enemies: two squads who had allied to try to defeat my squad. Those squads were commanded by Duke and Drake. Drake had been my archenemy, but now he and his squads were all gone. We had killed every last man and woman. My vibroblade was still stained with blood. I had spent the past several minutes attempting to wash the blade clean and had finally given up. The battle had been too long and the River Thames too dirty. Nevertheless, we had won.

My squad and I no longer had anything to fear in London Proper. We had beaten all who tried to fight us, and we were now the most powerful squad and the rulers of London Proper, and I was the squad leader. I turned from my thoughts to face Annabeth.

“Annabeth,” I began. “We’ve done it. We’ve finally done it.”

“Yes, we have, Almek. We have, but it isn’t enough, is it?”

After a long pause, during which I turned once more to face the River Thames, I said, “No. It isn’t.”

“You need to go into space, don’t you? You need to serve in the Fleet.”

She was referring to the Solar Fleet, the space navy of the Presidential Council. The world had been racked by a massive civil war, which had torn apart United Earth. The UME, on the one side, consisted of Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and most of Africa, while the PC, on the other side, consisted of Australia, the USA, Canada, South America, China, and Japan. After having been so badly treated by the UME, I felt that my future lay with the PC and the Solar Fleet–not with the UME.

“Yes, I need to go to space,” I said, my gaze shifting upward to the moon, which was faintly glowing in the sunset. I wanted to space! I wanted to serve in the Solar Fleet, as I’m sure my father would if he were alive today.

I often wondered what my father would think of me being stuck here in London Proper, the squad leader of a gang of teens and young adults, ravaging a city for food, killing for food, killing to stay alive, acting more like a savage than a man, and certainly not like an officer in the navy.

“Annabeth,” I said, turning to face her again. “What would … will the squad think?”

She sighed heavily. “The squad knows you, and most of our squad wants to space, too. But after a battle like this, I don’t know if they’re ready.”

“But I am … I am. I need to get out of here, Annabeth. This isn’t my home … I don’t belong here. Why did we have to kill them all? Why wouldn’t they just surrender? Why did we have to kill them?”

Annabeth scooted closer to me and wrapped her arm around my shoulder, “Almek, you need to focus. Your squad needs you. You’ve been out here for an hour now. You’ve never been gone this long, and your squad will begin to wonder. We need to go back.”

“Do I tell them?”

“Not now,” she said. “We wait. Things are too tight right now. None of us wanted to kill them. Why they wouldn’t surrender, I don’t know, and none us are taking this victory well. We want to celebrate, but we killed so many. You don’t have the luxury to mope. You’ve had your rest, and your squad needs you. You are Almek Manning, squad leader of the most powerful squad in London Proper.”

“Is that something to be proud of?” I asked her, turning to look at the bloody vibroblade at my side.

“Whether it is or not, the rest of our squad is proud of it, so you have to act proud of it, too.”

I sighed heavily, trying to force all the negative emotions out of me. “Aye, aye, ma’am. Let’s go back to the squad.”

Annabeth and I got up. I sheathed my vibroblade and slung my rifle over my shoulder. We hiked our usual route back to camp, but, when we were about a klick away, we were halted.

“Stop! Identify yourself!” a voice shouted, and it seemed to echo all around the empty streets. “I have you in my scope.”

“Almek Manning,” I said.

“You may pass.” The shadowy form of a squad member appeared on the roof of a nearby shopping center. “You had us worried. You were gone an awful long time.”

“I’m sorry, Kris,” I said. “I had a lot to think about.”

“I understand,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed my time standing watch. I also needed the time to think and come to grips with my standing in the eyes of God.”

“That too,” I said. “I hope to see you ‘round the fire later tonight, or do you have a longer watch?”

“I’m here until 1900, sir,” she said. “Save some grub for me.”

“I will. See you then.”

Annabeth and I took a long and circular route to make it to the camp. I knew that Kris would have hopped on the radio and told everyone about my return from the Thames. However, it was still good to let those soldiers who were on watch see that their squad leader was ready to lead them again.

“Halt! Identify! I have you in my scope!” This voice I easily recognized–having heard it for over half a decade.

“Jen!” I shouted. “It’s me, Almek Manning!”

Jenny was an interesting girl, to say the least. She stood six foot one, just a few inches taller than me, which she never let me forget. She had hazel eyes and short brown hair.

Jenny was the one who had saved me from death on the streets of London Proper for the first time. I had been wandering on the streets for only thirty-two hours when she found me. Having refused government indoctrination through the schooling system of the UME, I was deposited in London Proper. The Child Rights Police dropped me off on the streets, equipped with a one-way comm link to CRP headquarters in case I wanted to come back, though I later found out that the comm links were only good for twenty-four hours before the batteries ran out.

Jenny found me surrounded by a gang of Drake’s teens. I watched her kill two of them that day. At thirteen, I had never seen death up close before. I’d seen my father’s ship ravaged by lasers, and I knew that people had been killed on that ship, but I had never actually seen someone killed. Jenny had killed them coolly. She hadn’t seemed to be fazed by what she had done. If only she’d killed Drake then, but Annabeth tells me not to dwell on the “ifs” …

Since that day, Jenny had helped me survive on the streets. She taught me the rules of the streets, taught me how to wield a vibroblade, how to jury-rig a laser charge, and many other skills. Jenny brought me to the squad she belonged to and vouched for me. She had been my mentor and guide for months, and we became best friends.

Now, after more than five years, I thought of Jenny as a sister. At some point, Jenny was no longer the one training me. I had learned all I could from her, and I begun training her. I couldn’t explain this transition, nor do I have a clue when it happened. It was so gradual that neither of us really noticed it until long after the transition occurred. I also realized I was no longer happy living in that squad. I wanted my own squad. When I told Jenny, she gathered her weapons, and we left. She didn’t ask any questions, we just left. We set up camp on the border of London Proper and started picking up kids who were brought in by the CRP. We also picked up a handful of UME deserters deposited in chains at the edge of London Proper and left to die. Jenny became a part of me over the past half decade. I didn’t know what I would do without her.

That thought brought me back to my present needs, and I said, “Jenny, you get yourself off watch. I want you at the officers’ meeting.”

Jenny laughed. “Are you kidding me, Almek? I’m not on watch! Kris radioed down here and told us you were on your way. I’ve only been up here for the past five minutes. I just wanted to get your head in my scope. Let you know that your officers have your back.”

“Thanks, Jen. Come on down. I can smell some grub cookin’. Who’s the chef tonight?”

“Unfortunately, it isn’t me. I was too tired, so Kai volunteered.”

“Kai ain’t half bad,” I said.

“No, he’s not.”

“Well, see you indoors.”

Annabeth and I entered the small office building where we’d taken up residence. Miraculously, the office building had not been bombed. Half a decade of disrepair had left its mark, but the building was good enough for me and my squad. As soon as I walked through the doorway, I was greeted by my dog. Sapphire had been my first friend in London Proper, even before I met Jenny. I’d run into Saph only moments after being dropped. She was a beautiful Golden Labrador, with a very strange design on her forehead, a deep blue five-pointed star. She kept me alive until Jenny found me, and since then she had been a stalwart companion, having saved my life multiple times.

I knelt down and petted her. “How you doin’, girl?”

She just glanced up at me, and nuzzled my chin.

“It’s good to know that you’re doing good,” I said. Then I stood up, so that I could take in the whole camp.

I saw the cooking fire burning brightly in the corner, and my eyes lingered over the scorch marks on the floor from where we normally lit our bonfires during the winter. I glanced over the men and women cleaning their vibroblades or field stripping their rifles and handguns. I ignored all of them, and made a beeline for the men and women who were being tended by Kate, my squad’s healer.

She was one of the deserters Jenny and I had picked up. She had been a corpsman on a UME ship when she went AWOL. She was caught after only two days and deposited in London Proper, without so much as a court martial.

Before the battle, my squad had been fifty-one strong and the combination of Duke’s and Drake’s squads had totaled forty-seven men. We’d killed them all, but I had lost fifteen, with ten additional injured. Our casualty total was almost fifty percent. It was a high price to pay.

I walked over to the wounded. Kate’s head was bent over one of the injured soldiers. She was one of the few people who refused to cut her hair short, and her long blond hair covered half of her face. She was gently wrapping a fresh bandage around the man’s arm, her hands moving carefully so she wouldn’t cause any more pain.

“How are you holding up?” I asked her.

She didn’t reply until she tied off the bandage, then she glanced up and flicked her hair out of her eyes. I saw her deep blue eyes were filled with the pain of the suffering around her.

“I think we’re going to lose Samantha.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

“No, Almek. Just don’t get us into any more battles.”

My heart wrenched, because I knew that I was about to do just that.

“I … I can’t make any promises.”

“I know,” she said, sighing heavily.

I knelt down by each injured soldier and spoke words of praise and gratitude to each of them. They needed to know that we all appreciated the sacrifice that they had made, that it was worth it and, most importantly, that their squad would never forget the price they had paid.

When all of them were healed and in fighting condition again, we would total thirty-six soldiers. Would that be enough to escape London Proper and the UME? I didn’t know, but I would soon find out. I shuddered inside, wondering how many more I would lose, and if I could really ask them to do this for me.

I headed over to the cooking fire where Kai was at work. Kai was one of the old navy hands like me. Both his mother and father had served in the United Earth Space Navy. His dad was a naval aviator, and his mother an engineer. He had also been dropped off by the CRP when he had refused to go through indoctrination. He wasn’t even a UME citizen; he had just been unlucky and ended up in UME territory when the war started. I knew that Kai was just as anxious to space as I was. We spent many a sleepless night gazing at the stars and discussing our hoped-for future in the navy. I was sure that he would be more than happy to escape with me.

I sat down next to him and waited for my cadre of officers to gather around. Jenny came down the stairs, still toting her rifle. She walked over to our armory, deposited it, and then joined us. Spencer came over next. He’d been sitting next to one of the injured soldiers, a man from his platoon. I looked around, searching for his brother Collin, and soon found him. He was sitting in the armory, playing with some empty charges for the rifles. He was trying to recharge them. I watched his long fingers nimbly working on the charges. It was funny to see his tall, lanky form intensely hunched over those small charges.

Collin was probably the most important member of my squad. He was my squad’s techie. He rigged all of our radios and could come up with amazing ways of recharging the clips for handguns and rifles. Collin was one of my original squad members. We picked him up one month after I became squad leader and, without him, my squad wouldn’t have survived much longer. He gave us the technological advantage that most squads didn’t have. Most squads had a handful of guns, along with a few half-used charges, but every member of my squad had a gun that had charges to spare. Collin’s parents had been anti-UME revolutionaries. Their group had revolted, and the revolt was crushed. The UME marines had killed every adult and then dumped their kids in London Proper.

My gaze circled the camp, looking for the last member of the cadre, Marian. Marian was the oldest person in my squad. She was twenty-two, and she was the toughest fighter in our squad. She was deadly with or without a weapon. Marian kept mostly to herself. I didn’t have a clue where she came from or how she had ended up in London Proper.

Kai finished cooking and called Kate over. She and her medics quickly dished out ten bowls of soup and took them to the wounded. Then Kai called the soldiers. They lined up to get their food. Once the others had dished out their food, it was the officers’ turn. In most squads, the leaders ate first, but that wasn’t good for morale. The squad needs to know that their officers will not eat unless their soldiers eat, and that soldiers will not go hungry unless the officers also go hungry. Not that my squad had to be afraid of going hungry. We controlled several acres of farmland that produced a variety of fruits, grains, and vegetables.

During the meal, we discussed rearranging personnel so that we would all have equal-sized platoons again. We talked about the new watch schedule, and other tasks. We were just talking shop, and it felt good.

After dinner, I called my squad together so that I could talk to all of them. I walked up to the stairs at the far end of the lobby, and I waited until everyone was silent.

“Men and women,” I said to those in the room and, via radio, to those on watch. “You have all earned your keep today, many times over. Today we may rest knowing that we have nothing to fear. We have won! We have proved we are the best of the best! I congratulate you!

“However, I do not want to see any of you slacking for even a moment while on watch. If you start to fall asleep on watch, or to be less alert, you will be disgracing the memories and the lives of your comrades, your brothers and sisters in arms who died today to give us this liberty, this freedom, this peace of mind. Our worries may be smaller now, but do not forget your squad mates who died today. Remember that we are the Manning Squad! Thank you for fighting hard today! Thank you for fighting well!”

The room broke out into cheers and applause. Life was good in London Proper.

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