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Authors: B. V. Larson

Steel World (2 page)

BOOK: Steel World
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I looked at her, my mouth hanging open.

Mom gave me a pained smile. “I lost my job,” she said.

My eyes slid to the clock. It was three pm. She
should
be at work right now. Thinking back, I realized that she’d been around in the afternoons a lot lately—but I’d never paid attention to such things. Who knew where their parents were supposed to be at any given hour? I was only twenty-two, and it wasn’t my problem.

But today, it
was
my problem. Mom explained that Dad was still working, but her job had paid better. They’d been stringing things along for three months, but the bills had mounted up. The short version was that summer was about to end, and I wasn’t going back to the university next semester.

I couldn’t believe it. All my life, I’d been the one who was screwing around while my parents struggled to cover for me. Now they couldn’t do it anymore. I had nothing, and without their co-signatures and good credit, college was unthinkable. Finishing my college degree was going to require at least a million credits, and I was about nine-hundred and ninety-nine thousand short.

A week passed, and things went from bad to worse. The following Thursday, my family was evicted from our housing unit. That day came hard. The new unit we were assigned was a one-bedroom place with peeling paint and cracked concrete floors.

I’m slow sometimes, but I got this message: it was time for me to leave home.

I’d been born on the very last day of 2099. An induced labor on New Year’s Eve, I’d been an egg laid early to give my parents a tax break. Growing up, I’d been a typical young male of my generation. I’d always hated school, preferring to chase girls and basketballs with fervor instead. All my life I’d spent most of my time plugged in online, and I had no idea what I was going to do with my future.

That all changed on the day I decided to go to the Mustering Hall. I’d played legion games for years and, like every kid, I thought I was ready for the real thing.

For any earther of legal age, the Mustering Hall was legendary. In my high school years, friends spoke of the Hall with bravado and carelessness. Everyone had been certain they would qualify to join the best of the best. According to any school kid, they could sign with any of the space-going legions they wished—if they bothered to try.

We all bragged we were going to join the Iron Eagles, Germanica or even Victrix. All of these famous organizations would be begging for our contracts.

In the final year of school, the talk had become more serious, less flippant and flamboyant. Most of us still wouldn’t admit we didn’t have the balls to join any of the legions. Instead, we began to talk-up our planned lives in accountancy, biotech and that vague favorite: an alluring future in
business
. We wouldn’t be heading into space because we couldn’t be bothered. It wasn’t really all that glamorous, and we’d never really wanted to go in the first place.

When high school ended, reality inevitably set in. Most of the youth of the world went home to their childhood bedrooms and realized they were poor and unemployed. Slowly, we found shitty jobs, wandered through college, or occasionally got ourselves kicked out of our parents’ houses. The truth was there were very few good jobs around these days. The average high-school graduate entered the world saddled with over a million credits in debt. With bank balances so far in the red, college wasn’t for everyone.

I was one of the privileged few who had been able to go to the local university. I hadn’t appreciated it, naturally. I viewed it as a sort of dodge, something to keep my parents off my back. I’d received poor grades in high school, but I’d managed to graduate, thanks to parents who never let me sink entirely into the depravity of all-afternoon basketball followed by all-night video games. Their generous discipline continued into college, allowing me to complete my first three years.

I’d been following the path to an IT degree with a less than stellar 2.9 GPA when that unexpected email had found its way to the family account. But that was all history now.

My dad said just one thing to me as I left: “Don’t get yourself permed, boy.”

Getting “permed” was slang for “perma-death”—the state no soldier ever wanted to reach. Although our medical techniques and reconstructive powers were vastly better than in the past, technical glitches or other extreme cases could leave a man dead for real—permanently.

I sighed and rolled my eyes. “That won’t happen. From what I hear, it almost
never
happens.”

He gave me a hard look. “Rumors and news reports lie. Just be careful.”

“I will,” I said and gave them both a final hug. “Don’t worry.”

I sold my gaming system and gave my family the money for all the shit I’d put them through for the last twenty years. Then I took the sky-train to the big Mustering Hall in Newark.

My parents had told me that Newark wasn’t the best city in the northeast when they were young, and from what I could see when I stepped off the sky-train, things hadn’t improved. There were tumbleweeds of debris blowing in the streets. Everyone I passed by gave me a flat stare. They seemed to hate me as much as they hated their own lives.

Fortunately, I looked tough enough to make them think twice, and the walk from the station was only six blocks.

The signs directing me toward the Mustering Hall made an unmistakable impression. They were garish and full of half-nude, beckoning men and women. I saw flashing laser carbines, dying monsters, then even more lovely people mixed with thematic shots of stars, nebulae and verdant planets.

I might be young, but I knew when I was being sold. I noticed that the rest of the populace around me knew it, too. They rarely looked up at the huge, glitzy holographic displays.

I took a deep breath, gripped my duffel in both hands, and pressed my palm against the Hall’s door pad.

After a moment, my picture came up on the dirty, cracked screen. My basic info flashed up an instant later.

James McGill, sandy hair, blue eyes. I was twenty-two and exactly two meters tall. Unlike most of my friends, I wasn’t packing any extra pounds. That was due to good genes and basketball, rather than any lack of overeating on my part.

I didn’t read it all. Finally, the door snapped back its bolt and let me in.

I stepped inside the Mustering Hall and the door clanged shut behind me, shooting its bolt home again.

-2-

 

I felt relieved that I’d at least been allowed into the Hall. If I’d been underage, a criminal, or flagged as a weakling in the medical databases, the doors would have locked me out. That initial screening was for the best, really. No legion would give an unqualified applicant a moment’s consideration.

After all the dirt and squalor of the world outside, I was taken aback by the interior of the Hall. First off, it was
huge
—the size of a football stadium at least. The walls soared so high the ceiling was hazy overhead. The roof was glass, and the autoshades far above were set to let in a blaze of cheerful light. The temperature was perfect in here, with none of the summer humidity and heat I’d left behind me.

I walked down the marble steps, and my boots sent echoing reports across the Hall—not that anyone could hear it. The place was incredibly noisy. There had to be a thousand or more people in sight.

The walls were lined with recruitment stations. Over each of these was an emblem or a crest for one legion or another. The testing took place in the center of the great open floor, I knew that much. There were sparring circles, medical booths and countless recruit-wannabes wandering around between them.

“Hey, kid,” said a guy in stone-gray coveralls. He had a cap with a globe on it, marking him as a legionnaire. I knew many of the symbols, but I didn’t recognize which one he was in.

“Sir?” I answered promptly. I’d decided ahead of time to call everyone sir—if only to get into the habit.

He shook his head. “I’m a tech. You don’t ‘sir’ me.”

He slapped his stripes, and I realized he was a specialist and therefore enlisted. I nodded apologetically. Gaming hadn’t fully prepared me for this life.

He looked me up and down appreciatively. “You’re a tall one, aren’t you?”

“Yes, sir—uh, Tech.”

“Specialist. You’re supposed to call me Specialist Ville. Or Tech Specialist Ville.”

I hadn’t known his name was Ville, but I saw it now on his nametag. I decided not to say anything, as I felt numbed. I could hardly believe I was really here talking to this guy and trying to join the legions.

Ville took a dime-sized token out of a slot and handed it to me.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Your info. The door made it. Everyone you meet in the Hall will want to see that. Don’t lose it, they’ll get pissed.”

“Okay, thanks.”

“Head down to the floor and get tested first. Don’t bother the guys in the legion booths until you pass everything. They aren’t going to talk to a splat until they know your stats.”

A splat?
I had no idea what that was but let it pass.

“Right, okay,” I said.

“And kid,” Ville said, “next time you can take the crosstown connection to the station under the Hall. You don’t have to walk the streets. Not everyone out there likes recruits.”

“Okay, thanks. I didn’t know that.”

I walked down more marble steps. I frowned, thinking hard.
Next time?
Was there going to be a next time? I’d been under the impression all my life that getting into the service would be easy. There was always one legion or another recruiting. I was able-bodied and more than half-way through a college degree—honestly, I figured they would count themselves lucky to get me.

I started at the medical cubicles. That’s where I found the first lines—the longest lines. I wasn’t afraid of this part. I’d passed plenty of medical exams to play sports in school.

These guys, however, were thorough. They examined me like a prize pig at the fair. I was poked, prodded, bled and pissed dry. After an hour of that crap, an unsmiling nurse gave me my little chip back.

“How’d I do?” I asked.

“Good enough to get to the next line,” she replied.

I eyed her insignia. I could read her rank now, after having paid careful attention. She was another specialist, like the guy at the door. But instead of being a tech, she was a bio—a medic, essentially.

I moved with the flow to the sparring circles. I was given a dummy rifle in the first chamber. I smiled. It felt just like the ones I’d bought to accessorize my gaming rig. I pumped a dozen rounds into a dozen moving targets and was just getting into it when some guy shouted “Time!” and kicked me out.

The next test involved a small arena. I’d caught sight of these guys from the doorway. This was a very different kind of test with archaic weaponry. I didn’t feel anywhere near as confident with these things as I had been with the dummy rifle.

I picked up a shaft of bright metal. There was a round, brass-colored knob at the tip, and a guard over the grip. I guess you’d call it a practice sword, but it didn’t look like a sword. To me, it looked more like a kitchen utensil than anything else.

I understood then that I was about to be tested for energy-weapon fighting skills. All the legions had to be ready to fight with energy-blades. The heavy troops used them almost as often as they used guns. They were like swords, but made of light and plasma. You never knew what tech level your opponent was going to have and what would work best against them. The Galactics and the Hegemony people decided things like that. Legionnaires just obeyed and fought according to the rules someone else set for them.

Irritable people ushered me into a ring. On the opposite side, I expected to see another dude with an electric sword. Instead, I saw a stick-figure framework of metal and wires and immediately realized I was going to be facing a robot. It reminded me of a skeleton made of steel tubing. I saw that its power source was a cord going from its right foot back to the wall, where it was plugged in.

That’s when I noticed the sawdust I was standing in and the hard brown patches in the shavings—were those puddles of blood or dry, hard puke? Or something even worse?

Really, it didn’t matter. I wasn’t happy to see those stains—whatever they were. But this evidence of past events did serve to sharpen my mind. I figured it hadn’t been this electric skeleton that had been bleeding and crapping itself in the sawdust.

No one told me anything. There were no instructions, nothing. They didn’t even say “Go!” They just slammed the rattling door behind me, and the robot went into action.

I’d heard about schools that prepped you for this sort of thing. They were supposed to teach a young person all the ins and outs of the legions over a three month term for about forty thousand credits. I hadn’t had the money or the time to spare, but right now I wished that I had. I felt like I’d spent my entire education studying for the wrong damned thing.

The robot advanced and began swinging its sword from side to side in slow arcs. My first thought was to run, but I knew the legionnaires were watching. A coward wasn’t going to impress anyone.

So I stood my ground and put up my sword to meet the oncoming robot. All I did was put my stick up in front of its stick. It whacked its rod into mine, and there was a bright flash of electricity, a snapping sound, and the alien stink of ozone.

BOOK: Steel World
4.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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