Soft Casualty

by Michael Z. Williamson

Jandro Hauer waited in the hot, bright light of Iota Persei for his shuttle to clear for boarding. On his forearm was a medication patch feeding a steady dose of strong tranquilizer. Above that was an IV line from a bottle hanging off his collar. He'd be in orbit in a few hours, and then transferred to a starship home. Perhaps then he could calm down.

"Hey, Soldier," someone called. There were eighty or so people at this boarding. He looked toward the voice to see another uniform. A US Marine with a powered prosthesis on his right leg gave a slight wave.

"Hey, Marine," he replied. "Soldier" wasn't strictly accurate for the combined South American Service Contingent, but it was close enough.

"I noticed the meds,” the man said, pantomiming at his own arm. "Are you a casualty? If it's okay to ask."

Jefferson was a beautiful city, or at least it had been before the war.

Jandro Hauer looked out from his quarters. This building had once been apartments for the middling wealthy. The enlisted people had a good view, the officers were lower down. That's because the locals occasionally fired a missile. Usually Air Defense intercepted it. Usually. Three floors up there was a hole, and a sealed off area, where one had gotten through and killed two troops. That's why he was inside the window with the lights off, not out on the balcony. He could see the towers of brilliant white clouds rising over the coastal hills just fine from here.

Support troops spent a lot of time indoors, not interacting with the planet or its residents. It was safer that way. That, and it meant not having to deal with the bright local light, thin air, and vicious fauna.

He still didn't get it. The former colonists were so willing to fight the UN and Earth they'd destroy their own city in the process, which would just guarantee whatever was rebuilt would look like all the other major colonial cities. Being independent had let them develop a unique architecture and style. That wasn't going to last with them reverting to Colony status.

It was 1900, but still full light here. The local day was twenty-eight and some odd hours. The UN Forces stuck to Earth's 24 hour clock. That led to some really surreal days where it would be midnight at noon.

A chime at the door indicate his roommate returning. He stepped aside because…

Jason Jardine swiped the lights on as he stepped in.

"Off!" Jandron shouted.

Jason scrabbled with the touch plate. "Sorry," he said as the room darkened.

"Always check the window first, Jase," he said. Jase was a Senior Corporal in Finance, but had only been here a week. He was still adapting. It was his first offworld mobilization.

The man nodded. "Yeah."

Some troops even kept the windows opaque 24/7, or 28/10 here. That was safer, but it didn't let them have a view.

"Goddamn, it's a hell of a city," Jardine said, walking over to the window.

"It is. That concentration of wealth thing is pretty dang good, if you're the one with the wealth." He looked around inside.

Troops had scribbled notes, art, tags and names on the walls. There had been decorations. Even though war trophies weren't allowed, there were ways to get stuff out.

Jardine looked where he was looking.

He said, "Just pay some local a few Marks to sign it over as something sold to you, and as long as it passes Customs, you're fine. The guy you replaced picked up quite a few neat things in town."

"It's that easy?"
"Depends. If they have kids to feed, they'll sell just about anything. You know prostitution was legal here, right?"

"I heard. Not just legal, but unregulated."

"Pretty much. So some of them are still in business, and others are freelance."

Jardine said, "Just wear an all-over polybarrier."

"Not really. Most are actually clean. That was one of things they were very strict on."

"I heard they're cheap, too." Jardine stowed his day pack on a rack by the door.

"I've heard that. Never tried, not planning to. I also hear some of them made a fortune."

"Doing what?"

"Doing rich guys. Apparently when you have a lot of money, you want to spend it."

"Makes sense. Almost like a tax."

"Hah. Good." He hadn't thought of it that way. What would you do if you had all that money? "Heading for chow?"

Jase said, "Nah, I was wondering if we could go out and eat? Into the compound area, I mean. I know there's vendors out there. Do you know much about them?"

"Yeah, I'll go with you. I've eaten at several. That will be a change from the chow hall. They're doing lameo chili again anyway." He hated military chili. It wasn't chili with paprika and rice and whatever else they put in to make it international. It was nothing like the chili he'd had when visiting Texas, or that you got in a restaurant back home. He’d also had enough sandwiches lately. He didn’t want another bland burger thing.

He took a step, looked down, and said, "Let me change into casuals." He was still wearing a battle uniform, even though he never went out on patrol. They had orders to "support the battlefighters." That meant dressing up like them during the work day.

He went to his room, undressed and tossed the Battle Uniform onto the bed for later. It was a nice room. Most of the furnishings were still there and in good shape. The dresser was real wood of some figured sort. He grabbed a clean Casual Uniform from the top drawer and pulled it on. He was back into the common room in two minutes.

"Let's go," he said to Jase.

Six squares of this area was controlled compound, barricaded off with triple concrete and polyarmor walls. Inside that were military and UN contractors only. Outside that was another four blocks of restricted area, where local contractors took care of nonessential functions. Outside that, chaos.

Though even there, most of the fighting was subtle. It wasn't until you got outside of the metroplex that violence started in earnest. Here, they didn't even need armor. As long as it was stored in their quarters, it was considered "within reach."

They walked the two blocks to the inner perimeter and berm, scanned out through the gate, and entered the Gray Zone. It was patrolled by bots with cameras, and there were a few MPs rolling around in carts. He still wasn't sure how many, but there was usually a cart in sight. He looked both ways and saw one patrol. There were probably a hundred troops in sight, more around the rest of the perimeter.

The local sun was gradually going down. It was late summer, and it was merely hot, not scorching. It reminded him a bit of Rio, except for the thin air and higher gravity. The sky was clearer, though, and this city had a split personality. Most of it continued to function, its business and politics monitored by the Interim Government in this compound and in those two buildings to the south, protected by lots heavy floater platforms, manned air support and ground-based lasers. Very little got shot at it these days, but occasional gunfire happened to little effect.

This area was a low-intensity war zone.

To punctuate that, his phone chimed a message.

He looked fast, wondering if there was something inbound, some political change.

It was from Kaela Smith at the MP station.

The screen read, "Jandro, the sniper casualty earlier today. Moritz got shot. Sorry.—Kay."

He didn't even swear, he just wiped the screen.

Jase asked, "Something bad?"

He realized he was tearing up. "That sniper this morning at the West side? Got Sammy Moritz."

"I'm sorry. Were you close?"

"No, it's just…" he took a deep breath, because this was scary. "Right after we secured this area and set up for the diplomats and provisional government, they shot some guy at the gate. Just dropped him from a distance and that was all. He got replaced by someone else. They got shot. Moritz was the fifth or sixth person in that duty slot."

"That's sick." Jase apparently hadn’t heard about this yet.

"Very. They're not targeting battlefighters or staff. Just people at random, or in this case, not random. It's been six people in about three months in that slot."

"Glad I'm not an MP. At least not that MP."

"It's creepy. I wonder which poor bastard gets it next." He didn't want to think like that, but he couldn’t help it. One field unit kept losing cooks. Convoys got disrupted. They needed live drivers because automated ones got waylaid or hijacked. The enemy was outnumbered, but technologically smart and vicious.

He always wondered if they'd come after Logistics some day.

Jase asked, "Can't they rotate around?"

"They do. But they seem to follow the slot, not the location."


"These fuckers have no sense of decency. We laughed, it was hilarious, when they abducted Huff, stripped him naked and made him walk back. But if you're a prole, you're likely to just wind up dead."

"Is that why the no fraternizing order?"

He nodded. "Absolutely. Outside the second line, nothing is safe."

"Almost makes me glad to be stuck in here."

"Almost. Would like to actually fight, though. Or support it. Something." He actually wasn’t sure about that, but he kept telling himself that.

"Yes, but logistics is what wins wars,” Jase said. “And my family's glad I'm safe,” he added.

"Hey, at least you're here, doing something." They crossed into the plaza that had been a park of sorts. Much of the greenery was chewed up from troops walking and playing. One of the trees had been used for climbing until the CO stopped it.

Jase nodded. "You’re right about that, and so was the Captain. These people really don't want us."

He said, "It's resistance to change. In twenty years, their kids will love life and wonder why anyone lived this way." They were told that, and he wanted to believe it.

"I hope so. The poor people must appreciate it."

"So I'm told. I see interviews."

Jase gave him a disgusted look. "Oh, come on, you don't think those are faked."

Jandro sighed. That hadn't come out right in English. "No, not at all. But everyone I've met locally has a couple of different things going. I've also read that civilians will tell occupying forces anything to keep them happy. And I can't imagine a lot of frustrated rich people are shooting at us."

"No, but maybe the people doing the shooting need money badly enough to do it for them. Or are held hostage some other way."

"Or maybe they're just afraid of us from propaganda. Hate isn't rational."

"Yeah. Okay."

Good. Jase didn't like the conspiracy nuts any more than he did. Sure, there were problems back home, but no one started a war just for a political edge. Paid bribes, manipulated language, made economic payoffs, but not start wars.

"So what looks good?" he said. There were ten or so little carts and knockdown kiosks offering food.

"Pizza's always good. Or I always like it. But it just doesn’t taste right here."

"They grow different grain breeds."

"That must be it. Don't they use real animals, too?"
"Yes, raised out in the open air and then killed."

"That's awful. It's so awful I want to try that, just to stare at people and tell them."

"Hah. It was really trippy the first time. I got used to it. It's just meat. You realize that's in the dining hall too, right?"

"I didn't." Jase looked at him with distrust.

"All food has to be locally sourced. There's just no effective way to bring in that much meat from outsystem, process it in orbit and land it. So we get it here."

"Why don't they tell everyone?"

"It's inspected and approved. There's some sort of BuAg exemption until we can build enough facilities here. So they don’t mention the source in case it disturbs people."

"I guess I can see colonies needing that, but once you get to cities," he waved around at the surroundings, "shouldn't you be building vatories?"
"Exactly. So you've already eaten dead stuff, and these people either don't have a choice, or actually like it."

"The chow hall meat is a bit stronger tasting than home, I guess. Wow. Suffering animals. One more way we're tougher than civilians."

"You can't really brag about it. Someone will call a counselor."

"I know. But part of it is knowing, and part of it is tossing it out there when someone wants to try to measure up."

He nodded. "There is that. I feel sorry for the grunts. You can't boast about being in combat. It's seen as some sort of moral and mental handicap. No wonder they all burn out."

"Six months is a long time. I've been here a week and it's getting old fast."

"So what are you eating?"

"How's the bratwurst?" Jase asked, and pointed at a cart under a broad tree that was warping the plascrete walkway.

"Spicy and greasy. Occasionally there are small bone chips from processing."

"How spicy?"

"Middling. Hot for Europe, medium for Tex."

"Let's do it."

"Looks like he's closing, too. Better run."

They jogged over to the cart, and looked over the menu. It was posted on a scrolling screen in English, Mandarin, Arabic and Russian. Next to the screen was a tag certifying inspection and authorization to be in the Gray Zone.

The cook looked up and nodded.

"You're just in time. What can I get you?"

Jandro said, "I'll take a cheddar brat."

The man nodded. "Got it."

Jase said, "The 'Meatlog.' That sounds suggestive."

"I had one before. It's good. Savory and salty as well as spicy."

"Sure. That's two hundred grams? I'll take two."

The cook, Gustin, per his nametag, flipped three sausages off the grill, said, "That's all I had left. You're in luck," and rolled them around to drain on the rack. Then he rolled each into a bun, and pointed to the condiments. "What would you like?"

Jase considered and pointed. "Lemme get the dark chili mustard, onions, relish and banana peppers."

The man didn't stint on the toppings. Each boat-shaped bun was overflowing.

They paid him in scrip he could exchange later. It was supposed to cut down on black marketing, but Jandro had heard of so many ways around it. He wasn't really interested in scamming stuff, but it wasn't hard.

He pointed to a bench under another tree. It was made of wooden timbers locally, not extruded.

"I was on Mtali for a while, too, when I was just out of training," he said.

Behind them, the man closed his cart, unfolded the seat and drove off. It was a fueled vehicle, not electric.

"Oh?" Jase asked.
"That was much worse than this place. Here they're opportunistic. There, they were crooked."

"How crooked?"

"We had to open every package, test every delivery, and no local help at all. They'd steal it in front of you, toss it over the fence to a buddy, and insist they never saw it."

"Hah. Lameo."

"Very. It was pathetic. These people are creative at least." And scary. He'd swap that for incompetently dishonest any time.

"The food looks good."

Jase squeezed and stuffed the bread around the contents, angled his face and got a bite. He chewed for a moment, and flared his eyebrows.

"Damn. If all dead animal tastes like this, I could be a convert."

"Hah. Just don’t say that around the cultural officers."

"Oh, hell no. But it's different from vat raised. Stronger tasting? Something. Good stuff."

The cheddar brat was good as always, and he tried not to think about dead pig. On the other hand, he'd seen pigs up close. They were pretty nasty creatures.

Jase took another bite and made it disappear.

"Is stuff like this why people stay in? Seeing all parts of the universe?"

"All parts we know about. It does cost a veinful to travel. We get to see the bombed out ruins. Chicks in New York and Beijing and Nairobi pay good money for that."

He munched the brat. Yes, once you got used to the ugly fact of a dead living being, rather than one raised in a vatory with no head, they were tasty. Did the animal's emotions and life flavor the meat? That was a bit creepy, and bit taboo.

He bit something hard. There was something in it, probably a bit of bone. He worked it around and pulled it out with his fingers. It was gray. He wiped it on the boards and kept chewing.

There was another.

“Damn, they need a better butcher. I’m getting bone bits.”

Jase took another bite and twitched, then pulled back with a confused look.

"What the…" He reached into the bun, grabbed something and pulled it out. It was a long, gray piece of polymer. It took a moment to recognize it, and then it was instantaneous.

It was a shredded dogtag, and it had been inside a sausage. That meant…

Jase screamed through the entire audio spectrum, then he vomited a meter, gushing and squealing and choking and trying for more.

A moment later it hit Jandro, and he puked and puked and kept puking. He realized he'd blacked out, and was leaning over the table. Then he heaved again. It felt as if he'd emptied his entire tract, and he hoped he had.

Someone nearby asked, "What's wrong, are you alright?"

"Water!" he demanded. "Ohdioswater!"

A bottle was placed in his hand. He cracked the seal, rinsed, spat, rinsed, spat, gargled, and kept going.

Everything blurred out as two people helped him walk to the clinic. There were MPs around, and camera drones. Someone handed him two pills and another bottle of water, and he tried to swallow them, but spat the water out. The pills went with it.

He didn’t want to swallow anything.

Someone waved an inhaler under his nose and he passed out.

He woke up in a bed, wrapped in a sheet, and a South Asian woman in casuals sat next to him. The lights were at half. He could tell he that was medicated.

"How are you doing, Alejandro?"

"I feel ill," he said. Very ill. He'd eaten…oh, god.

"I'm Doctor Ramjit from Emotional Health and Wellness. You're safe here."

"I know. I'm just…it was awful. Jase pulled out that tag…"

"What do you think it was?"

"A shredded dogtag."

"The investigators say they're not sure of that."

He sat up and shouted, "It was a maldito dogtag!" As she recoiled, he added, "Ma'am." If he wasn't careful, he'd wind up in some long term facility.

She reached out and offered a hand. He took it and clutched at it.

She said, "It may have been. If so, it may have been a prank."

"I hope so." Yes, that was entirely likely. Like stripping the General, or the doped sodajuice one time. The locals wanted to find ways to screw with the troops. He hoped that was it.

"Did they get the vendor?"

She hesitated a moment.

"No, and he's not responding to contact."

"I feel okay otherwise. How long am I here?"

"When you feel fit you can leave. We will do trace analysis on the regurgitate. We'll let you know what we find."

He wasn't sure they would. If they said it was clean, would he believe them?

"Can I get something for the stress?"

"Yes. I've prescribed some tranquilizer patches. You're welcome to come talk to us any time, or the chaplains. You're on quarters for tomorrow so you can de-stress."

"Thank you," he said.

He gave it a few minutes, decided he could walk, and signed out. He made his way back to the dorm, and slipped inside.

Jase's room was dark, but the door was open.



"How are you?"


The man didn't want to talk more than that.

He went to bed, and the tranquilizer did help him sleep. He woke up twice, hungry, but shook in terror at the thought of food.

He was still awake on and off, and a glance at the wall said it was 0500. The chow hall was open, and he was hungry. He'd slept in casuals, so he wore those down.

He walked into the dining hall, and walked right back out. They had sausage in there, and pans of other meat. He couldn't do it.

He went to the dispenser in the rec room and swiped his hand. He went to select a bag of vegetable chips, and his hand froze. They were local, too.

Perhaps he wasn't hungry yet.

Two hours later he was back in the clinic.

Doctor Ramjit saw him at once.

"Please tell me," he said. "I have to know what you found."

"The sausage contained human flesh," she said evenly.

He'd known it would be bad news, because he couldn't have trusted the good. He closed his eyes and felt dizzy, as if spinning.

"It was only a trace amount," she said. "Probably a piece of muscle tissue. The identag was deliberately placed to draw attention to it. It was intended to be morally horrifying, and it was."

It was intended to be morally horrifying. What she was didn't seem to grasp is what that implied. The troops knew what had happened, and everyone had been eating local food for months. There was no way to be sure how much of it was contaminated with their buddies, and there was no way to be sure how much wasn't.

It was worse than that.

That was the moment Jandro knew there was no line the rebels wouldn’t cross. They'd spent a year and a half escalating the moral outrage, humiliation and fear. The executions of the MPs, and this, had been a message.

We will hunt you down relentlessly, remorselessly, tirelessly. Regardless of your power and the damage you inflict, we will violate the sanctity of your mind. We will make you question reality and yourselves. And we will never stop.

He wanted to go home. There was nothing here but hatred, no one to be liberated, no one to be brought into line with modern thought. They were atavists and savages who could not be reasoned with.

The UN Forces alliance had come here to save them from rampant repression. He'd seen some of the poor in images from patrols. Out of the city only a few kilometers, some people lived in shacks without power or plumbing, because it was cheap. No one should be forced to make that "choice." There wasn't even a right to due process. That had to be paid for in cash, in an annual tax that they insisted on calling a "resident's fee," even though it is a tax. Fail to pay, and you had no status.

Yet, when the Forces arrived to help them, dirt poor and super rich alike homogenized into one people, intent only on fighting them.

"Whose tag was it?" he asked.

She blushed and stammered.

"I don't have that information."

"You do," he said. "It was a real person's tag, wasn't it?"

"It was," she nodded, looking queasy herself.


"Binyamin Al-Jabr. The first MP shot at the gate."

His head spun again.

"That's not for release," she said. "At all. But I'd rather you had the truth than a rumor."

It was orchestrated terror. They'd shot the man and taken his body. They'd shot everyone who replaced him in the last three months. The MPs were near rioting in terror. Then they'd chopped him, or parts of him, up and fed them to Jase and Jandro.

He really didn’t want to know what muscle they'd used. Nor how many batches they'd made.

"I can't eat," he said, and erupted in tears. His lips trembled as he mouthed, "I have to go home."

"I will arrange it," she said. "I've documented both emotional trauma and post event trauma. We'll get you home. We've got other people distressed as a result, though of course, none had the direct experience you and Senior Corporal Jardine did."

"I can't eat," he said again. "Please hurry."

Doctor Ramjit seemed compassionate, but someone in the chain didn’t believe him. A sergeant from Commisary took him over to the kitchen, to watch the food being prepared. It arrived in ground and cut form, and he watched a steak go from freezer to grill. He could smell it, too, dead meat. But the cooks were all contracted locally, brought in every morning and searched. A couple of them stared at him, then there were a couple of giggles.

“Didn’t you see that?”

“See what?” his escort asked.

“They’re laughing at me.”

“It’s fresh steak. Or you can choose a vegetarian option.” Though the man looked unsure himself. He kept glancing furtively at Jandro, and at the cooks.

“I…” He had no ability to trust them.

The smell caught him. Somewhere there was pork, and he remembered bratwurst, and there it was again. He ran from the kitchen.

They took him back to the clinic and dosed him again. He felt needles, and they said something he didn’t follow.

He almost limped, almost staggered back to the dorm, escorted by a medic. He carried a case of Earth-sourced field rations. He had that, and sealed bottles of expensive, imported spring water. That would have to suffice until he left.

Jase wasn't there. He was probably at the clinic, too. He might even be worse off, since he'd gotten the whole dogtag.

That set him reeling again, and he quickly brought up some landscape images from Iguaçu National Park.

Two hours later he stared at the open packets before him. He'd even placed them on a plate and microheated them, so they'd look more like real food.

He couldn't.

He knew it was perfectly safe, packaged on Earth, and was real food, but he couldn't.

Maybe in a day or two.

The door chimed and opened, and Sergeant Second Class Andreo Romero walked in quietly.

"Hey, Jandro."


"Jase is in the Emotional Health Ward. They reassigned me here."

On the one hand, he needed company. On the other, he knew a suicide watch when he saw one.

"How is he doing?"
"Not good. Homb, they officially haven't said anything, but there were witnesses. Everyone knows what happened."

"Did they find the vendor yet?"

"No one knows where he is."

"Not even the other sellers?"

"They say they've never heard of him. They're also gone. No more local carts. All food is going to process through the dining hall now, for safety."

It might well be. But Jandro couldn't eat it. He pushed back from the table and left the food there.

"Is Jase coming back?" he asked.

Andreo shook his head. "No, he's pretty much sedated and prioritied to return home. He took it pretty hard."

"I took it pretty hard."

There was awkward silence for several moments.

"Well, if you need anything, I'm here. They say you're on extended quarters until tomorrow, then you're on days."

"Days" didn't really mean much here, since each shift would be four plus hours out of synch with the local clock. It was a gesture, though.

Andreo said, "The cooks are all going to be offworld contractors, too. Pricey. We put in a RFQ already, and have some interim workers from BuState and elsewhere. The chow hall is going to be substandard for a while, but that's better than…" He faded off, and shivered.

Jandro nodded. Lots of people had eaten from the local vendors.

Andreo asked, "Can I finish that ration if you're not going to?"


At least someone could eat it.

That local night, another MP was shot. Officially they were told counterfire had demolished the sniper’s hide, along with a chunk of that building, but he didn’t think it would matter.

He twitched all night, between wakefulness and dozing. The next morning, he was ravenous. He opened another field ration, and managed two bites before nausea caused him to curl up.

It's from Earth. It's vatory raised chicken. There's eggs and vegetables. It's guaranteed safe.

Maybe lunch.

He walked into the Logistics compound, into the bay, and got greeted.

"Hey, Jandro. Good to see you back."

"Danke," he said. Johann Meffert was German.

He had materiel to process. Three huge cargontainers sat in the bay, pending sort. This shipment was ammunition, spare parts, tools, generators and nuclear powerpacks for them. He had units and their transport chains on cue, with quantities needed. Those always exceeded quantity available. He broke them down by percentage, then applied the urgency codes to adjust the amounts. Once the Captain signed off, the loader operators would dispense it to be tied down and depart for the forward bases.

He ignored Meffert's periodic stares. Everyone was doing it.

"Ready for review, Captain," he said into his mic.

He sat back and stretched for a moment. It did feel good to do something productive.

"Looks good so far, Jandro. But those KPAKs need sorted, too."

He looked at his screen. He'd missed four pallets of field rations.

"It's not my fault!" he shouted at the bay. "I didn't plan to eat him, I didn't want to eat him, and I didn't put him in the food!"

He stood up and walked out, back to the clinic.

"You really must try to eat something," Doctor Ramjit said. "Vegetables should be fine. I've switched to that myself. It's perfectly understandable that you don't trust the meat."

He sat in a reclined chair, surrounded by trickling fountains, soft images, and with a therapy dog for company. It responded to his scratches with a thumping tail.

"They're from on planet," he said. Had they urinated on the plants? Grown them in poison? Fertilized the ground with dead troops?

"How are you managing with field rations?" she asked.

"Better," he said. "I've eaten part of one."

Her frown was earnest. "That's not enough for three days. You've already lost weight."

"I know," he said. "But I can't. I just …can't." He hoped she understood.

"It's not just the food," he continued. "It's this place. All of it. I can't be around people like this. The cooks were giggling. Our people stare at me. They get the gossip. They all know. Jase has already gone. Please send me, too."

"I'll try," she said. Her frown came across as pitying. He didn’t want that, either.

He untangled from the chair and dog and left in silence, though she said, "Good luck, Alejandro. You have our wishes."

As he entered his room, his phone pinged a message. He swiped it.

"Alejandro, you are scheduled to depart in fifteen days. The clinic will fit you with a nutrient IV to help you in the interim."

"Yes," he said to the Marine. "I'm a casualty."

"Good luck with it, then. I'm sorry, At first I'd figured you were a base monkey. They don't know what the point is like."

"No, most of them don't," he agreed. He looked around at the other people on the rotation. Some were military, some UN bureau staff, some contractors. They might know what had happened, but they had no idea what it felt like. Thankfully, none of them recognized him.

The Marine said, "But I saw that," pointing at the IV. "I hope you're recovering?"

"Yes. It shouldn't take long. Good luck with the leg."

"Thanks. They say three months."

He boarded the ship and found his launch couch. The shuttle was well-used, smelling of people, disinfectant and musty military bags. He settled in and closed his eyes, not wanting to talk to anyone. They bantered and joked and sounded cheerful to be leaving. He wasn't cheerful, only relieved.

When they sealed up, pressure increased to Earth normal. He breathed deeply.

The acceleration and engine roar took a faint edge off his nerves. Soon. Off this nightmarish hellhole and home.

The tranks worked. He had a scrip for more, and a note that said he should not be questioned about them. Doctor Ramjit had said that wasn't unusual for some of the Special Unit troops, and even some of the infantry. "The ship infirmary should be able to refill you without problems," she'd said. "Especially as we've put out a bulletin about personnel generally suffering stress disorders. We haven't said why."

They even helped with launch sickness. He felt blissfully fine, not nauseous.

He zoned through until the intercom interrupted him.

"Passengers, we are in orbit, and will dock directly with the Wabash. Departure for Earth will be only a couple of hours. Final loading is taking place now."

Good. He eyed the tube on his arm. He could have them unplug this, and he could eat real, solid food from safe, quality-inspected producers on Earth.

Well, he'd have to start with baby food. Fifteen days of the tube had wiped out his GI tract. He'd have to rebuild it. That would be fine. And he'd never touch a sausage again.

He unlatched when the screen said to, and waited impatiently. He wasn't bad in emgee, knowing how to drag himself along the couches and guide cable. Several passengers didn't seem to know how, and some of them were even military.

Shortly, he was in the gangtube, creeping along behind the Marine and a couple of contractors rotating out.

There was a small port to his right, looking aft along the length of the ship. He looked out and saw the open framework of an orbital supply shuttle detach a cargotainer from the ship's cargo lock, rotate and attach another in its place.

He flinched, and nausea and dizziness poured into him again.

The cargotainer was marked "Hughes Commissary Services, Jefferson, Freehold of Grainne."

He fumbled with his kit, slapped three patches on his arm, and almost bit his tongue off holding back a scream.

Copyright © 2014 Michael Z. Williamson

Michael Z. Williamson is retired from the U.S. military, having served twenty-five years in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force. He was deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Desert Fox. Williamson is a state-ranked competitive shooter in combat rifle and combat pistol. He has consulted on military matters, weapons and disaster preparedness for Discovery Channel and Outdoor Channel productions. In addition, Williamson tests and reviews firearms and gear for manufacturers. Williamson’s books set in his Freehold Universe include Freehold, Better to Beg Forgiveness, Do Unto Others, and When Diplomacy Fails, as well as short story and nonfiction collection, Tour of Duty .