Back | Next


“There are those who don’t understand military rituals. Some even ridicule them. I feel pity for those people.”

—Sergeant Mel Butler, US Army

“Military Override Call. Military Override Call . . .” Kendra heard the first alarm while asleep, was waking by the second and snapped totally alert when Rob answered.

“Answer call Warrant Leader Robert McKay,” he said, sitting up.

“Hi, Rob,” the caller began. He was in his thirties and looked very tired and disoriented. “Sorry to bother you, but you are on the list. Warrant Leader Bjorn Gatons died about a div ago.”

“What?” Rob replied, shaking his head. “No, I heard you,” he said to the caller’s attempt to repeat. “Where? How?”

“Hunting trip in the Dragontooth Range. Massive heart attack.”

“Didn’t they have a stasis box or a medic? No, I guess they wouldn’t on the side of a mountain. Goddess, that’s terrible.”

“I am to inform you that the funeral is at nightfall tomor—well, today, actually, at Placid Lagoon Memorial Park. His request was that you command the firing party.”

“That . . . I’m honored,” Rob said, shaking his head again. “I’m sorry, but I’m very short of sleep. May I call you later when I can track?”

“Absolutely. Apologies for disturbing, but, well, you understand. Before you go, do you know where Corporal Hernandez can be reached?”

“Right here,” Marta acknowledged, sitting up and pulling the covers off Kendra. The camera swung to focus on her. “I heard,” she said preemptively.

Nodding, the caller said, “You are requested to serve on the firing party, also.”

“Did you need to ask?”

“Not really, except as a formality. Your father is in command of the Honor Guard.”

“Got it. Is it a closed service?”

“Not at all. All family friends and any veterans are invited.”

“Understood. Out.”

Kendra sat back as Rob and Marta dressed. Except for brief glimpses in the park, she had never seen the Freehold Forces dress uniform and was impressed yet again.

Both wore straight black pants, tucked neatly into boots with gleaming gold-thread laces. Rob explained the laces were for parade only. Kendra didn’t care; they looked sharp. The coats they wore were green, epauletted and high throated. Rob’s emphasized his shoulders and tapered lightly in at the waist. Marta’s was cut to flatter the female figure without looking cute or sexy. Hats were optional, they told her, but would be worn for this function. They donned brimmed hats, green and trimmed in black and pinned up at the side.

Insignia was sparse. Rob had four ribbons, Marta only two. Kendra had acquired nine in her three years of service and asked about those she saw. Rob spoke a few commands and a chart of decorations was displayed on the back wall. Kendra read, then turned back in shock. Ribbons were almost unobtainable except in combat, and the first of the four Rob wore was the Citation for Courage. It was the third-highest award possible.

“How did you manage that?” she asked.

“First engagement on Mtali. I used my vertol to draw fire away from the ground units and flew a very extended support mission. By some mathemagical juggling they credit me with saving better than fifty lives.”

Thinking over comments she’d heard from others since arriving, she asked the next question. “Those people who I thought were joking with you about saving their lives weren’t joking, were they?”

“No,” Marta supplied. “We all owe this lunatic big time, especially after he took out a missile battery by crashing into it.”

“What?” Kendra demanded.

“Well, my racks were empty and my engines almost dead. Mass was the only weapon I had left. But it was a useable weapon,” he said with a shrug.

Kendra pondered silently while the two adjusted their buttons and other accoutrements. She spoke again, saying, “Those are seriously bright. Gold plated?”

“Gold,” Rob corrected.

“Real gold?”

“Yeah. Looks better, wears better, has a better psychological feel to it and in an emergency makes good trade goods.” As he spoke he completed the look with a side-tied green satin sash and thrust a huge cross-guarded sword into it.

“What is that?” Kendra asked, awed.

“That’s a Viking langseax. We may carry just about any blade that suits personal taste for dress. Standard issue for combat is a kataghan,” he said, handing her a different one from his closet. It was slightly double curved, had a small round guard and a grip big enough for both hands despite its shorter length. She then looked at Marta’s dress blade, which was a smaller, wickedly pointed piece with exotic wood and gold wire fittings.

“Just a poniard,” Marta said, “But a long poniard.”

Finished dressing, the two looked proud, professional and deadly. Kendra was starting to wish she could join the Freehold Forces. They commanded a respect that the UN couldn’t, and from professionalism, not fear. But it was a silly thought. She was an outsider and they wouldn’t trust her.

Kendra felt out of place as soon as they arrived at the funeral. Most of the hundreds of attendees were in uniform and those who weren’t were all acquaintances, judging from their actions. She stood nervously close to Rob and Marta and felt slightly better when she recognized Medic Jaheed approaching.

He greeted his compatriots and turned to her. “Greetings, lady. Have things been well?”

“Excellent. Thanks very much for helping me. And please, call me Kendra. Kendra Pacelli,” she insisted.

“And I’m Andrew, Drew to my friends.”

“Incidentally,” Rob interrupted, handing a package to Kendra.

“Oh! Yes,” she nodded and handed it to Drew. “I was going to have Rob deliver this, but since we are here . . . Well, thanks for your help.”

“Thank you,” he replied, taking the box. He glanced quickly at the contents. “Silver Birch! Thank you indeed. If you feel the need to collapse again, please do, I owe you,” he said, laughing.

She laughed with him, then cut short. This was a funeral, after all. But no one had seemed offended and there were other smiles around.

“We have to run,” Marta reminded Rob. Turning, she spoke to Drew, “Would you mind keeping Kendra company and explaining the service to her?”

“Delighted,” he agreed and offered her his arm.

Rob and Marta headed toward the center of the round field. Drew led her to the edge of a circle of people that was forming spontaneously and stood beside her. In short order, Iota was sinking behind the earth rampart that surrounded the clearing and the service began without preamble.

Three people took position in an equilateral triangle at the perimeter, all nude and bearing items. They began walking slowly in the direction of the planet’s rotation, chanting as they moved. The first one, a young girl, passed by a few moments later, swinging a censer and repeating, “With Fire and Air we draw the Circle.” Some of the people nearby repeated the invocation.

Many seconds later, the second figure approached. This one was an adult woman, sprinkling water from a bowl with a wand. “With Water and Earth we seal the Circle,” she said. Again, some responded.

The last to pass was also a woman and mature if not old. Despite her age, she whipped a short sword around her body in a complicated form that denied any frailty. “With Spirit and Sword we guard the Circle,” she called, louder than the others.

Finally all three returned to their starting points, just as the sky was coloring with dusk. The soft roar of waves on the lagoon muted some of what Kendra could hear. Stray beams of Iolight flashed off leaves in crimson, green, scarlet and violet. The air was becoming brisk and she was glad of her cloak. She strained to hear again, through shuffling waves and whispering boughs.

Seeing the expression on her face, Drew leaned closer and spoke quietly, “We can talk. The Circle is a ritual to enclose friends and to ward off evil. The service within is meant mostly for the next of kin and is kept quiet on purpose.”

Kendra nodded understanding and watched politely. She noted that Rob had the firing party drawn up facing away from them and toward the bier on which the body lay. The pallbearers formed a triad of pairs around it and the service was being held just to the left, so the body was between the firing party and the lake.

Soon, the speaking ceased and Citizen Hernandez, in uniform although he was retired, turned smartly to Rob and barked, “Firing party! Fire three volleys!” He raised his hand in salute.

Rob returned the salute and snapped, “Firing party, by my command, port arms.”

Swish-Thump went seven rifles.

“Half-right face.”

The party turned as one, as if mounted on a board.


“Aim . . . Fire!”

Krack. Kendra started at the noise. She had expected primers only, not full power loads.

“Aim, Fire!” Krack. “Aim, Fire!” Krack. “Ready, front.”

“Pre-sent . . . Arms!” Rob’s arm raised his sword as all seven rifles pivoted to vertical. Next to her, Drew saluted with his blade, as did most of those around her.

Kendra was expecting the next phase, a bugler playing “Taps,” and felt the eerie calm that she’d felt on previous occasions at military farewells. A deeply seated part of her longed to be in uniform so she too, could participate. She blinked at damp eyes. At least it was acceptable here. On Earth she’d seen people sneer at the military rituals, even some who were in service. She didn’t understand them.

The bugler trailed off the last note, tucked his instrument under his arm and saluted. The tableau was complete, and stayed that way as the pallbearers retrieved the flag covering the body and proceeded to fold it. The UN flag was always folded with the center of the globe up, the Freehold flag folded until only green showed. The finished piece was handed down the line from one to another, each pallbearer stepping back and saluting as he or she finished. The flag ended up in Hernandez’ gloves. He spoke an order and all salutes dropped instantly, all across the field. There was a metallic swish of blades entering sheaths, then silence. Hernandez turned and marched to Gatons’ widow.

Reverently handing the flag to the old woman, he spoke loudly enough for all to hear, “Lady, this flag is presented with the thanks of a grateful Freehold, in memory of the service performed by your husband.” He raised a salute and lowered it very slowly.

Kendra could see the woman crying and blinked again. Military funerals were always hard to watch, in that respect. She expected that to be the end, but there was more.

Hernandez marched back to the bier, retrieved a case, and returned to face the woman again. “I hold your husband’s sword,” he said, drawing that item from the case, and laying it in her hands. “With it, he served honorably and so honored we return it.”

Taking it in both hands, Ms Gatons gripped it silently for a few moments, then handed it back. “I wish to return it to the Freehold, that it may be of service again,” she said through weeps.

A murmur passed through the crowd and Kendra turned to Drew again. “What?” she demanded.

Leaning over, he explained, “Usually, a sword is willed to another soldier or kept as a treasure. To return it is a rare gesture of dedication.”

Kendra turned back again, to see Hernandez offer his arm to Ms Gatons. He marched slowly and she walked proudly, her eyes shining. They approached the bier. The murmurs rose again.

“Great Goddess . . .” Drew whispered. “They’re going to . . .” Kendra tugged at his arm to no avail.

At the bier, Hernandez held the sheath and Gatons fiercely drew the sword. She passed it expertly over her hands, presented it hilt first to Hernandez and silently mouthed, “Thank you.”

With a hand at each end, Hernandez slapped the blade over his knee. It had obviously been pre-stressed, as it snapped cleanly and loudly. He returned the two pieces to her and she placed them on the body as someone started clapping. In seconds, the entire crowd was roaring. Rob shouted above the din and another volley sounded from the firing party. Despite the confusion, it was still a crisp, single crack. Letting out a yell, Jaheed finally noticed Kendra again and said, “Destroying the sword says that for another to touch it would lessen the honor he did by serving. It’s very rare to see.”

The crowd quieted quickly and Hernandez faced the body, saluting again, as Gatons walked to the central fire. She drew out a brand and held it aloft.

Somewhere behind the rampart, a bagpipe began “Amazing Grace.” Gatons walked slowly back to the bier and thrust the flaming limb into the base. The old woman with the sword was at the edge of the water, waving wildly and shouting things unheard by Kendra. The woman made a chopping motion with her sword and stepped back as Ms Gatons leaned her weight against the huge structure and heaved. In moments, the pallbearers and Hernandez joined her.

The bier slid to the shore on rails and began floating slowly out into the lagoon. Kendra began crying again and noticed others were too. The piper sounded the last bar as the flames licked upward.

Then, with a mighty wail that seemed to shake the earth, came the sound of many pipes, joining the first in another verse. The lead piper crested the berm, followed by others from all sides. The triumphant notes were almost drowned in the noise from the crowd and Kendra was blinded with tears, holding her hands to her face to cover it. She didn’t see the pipers converge in the center and form up behind the fire.

She regained her composure in time for the three women to reopen the circle, in almost the same manner it had been closed. She followed Jaheed as he fell into a line with the others. There was a touch at her elbow and Rob and Marta were there.

Gatons was making her way along the line, greeting each person individually. I can’t be here! Kendra thought to herself, but by then, Jaheed was shaking hands with the woman.

Letting go, Gatons turned to Marta and hugged her close. “Thank you so much for coming!”

Rob held her hands, then hugged her also. “Warrant Leader McKay,” she said almost formally, “thanks for leading the firing party.”

“You’re welcome, lady,” he replied. “It was an honor.”

Gatons then turned to Kendra. “I don’t believe we’ve met,” she said, but there was a friendly twinkle in her eye.

“Kendra Pacelli, ma’am, uh, lady,” she stumbled, holding hands.

“Kendra is our ladyfriend,” Marta explained, “and is a veteran of the UN Forces on Mtali.”

“Interesting!” Gatons smiled, “We are honored by your presence,” she assured Kendra.

“It has been a privilege,” she replied.

Kendra joined them at the wake and had an enjoyable time. There were toasts and discussions of the happy times in Gatons’ life, then food and dancing. When she left with Rob, Marta and Drew were still dancing, along with a few other diehards. She discovered she felt really good and joined Rob in his apartment. Sex was becoming a pleasant pastime and she decided that life in the Freehold was good after all. She just wished she could let people back home know. She cried quietly after they made love and he held her gently until she fell asleep.

Back | Next