Here’s a sample from the first chapter of my new book The Last Flight of the Acheron:
“Sandrine Hollande,” the Commandant intoned, the same affected pride in his voice that he’d had for every other surname from A through G.
I stepped briskly across the stage, the way we’d rehearsed it a dozen times, the brand new Space Fleet dress uniform tugging at my hips and armpits. God willing, I’d never have to wear the damn thing again.
Commandant Burkhardt pressed the plaque into my hands, turning me towards the audience in the auditorium for just a moment before warmly shaking my hand and sending me on my way. With the lights in my eyes, they looked like faceless, formless ghosts. It had been a waste of time anyway; there was no one in the audience looking for me. The one person who should have been there was missing, just like always. I stalked away down the stairs and barely heard the plastic-faced asshole announce “Roberto Hooten” before I was back at my seat a few rows back from the front.
Ash was there beside me. I didn’t ask how Ashton Carpenter had managed to switch places with Melanie Hogan, even though the C’s were two rows in front of me; Ash always found a way. He looked like a recruiting poster, with his square jaw and honest, beaming smile, and he cradled his graduation certificate with all the pride and affection of a new parent. I looked down at mine and wondered when I’d get a chance to toss it in the recycler without being yelled at.
“My mother isn’t here, either,” he reminded me quietly.
I scowled at him, half because it was a bit tone-deaf under the circumstances and half because he was right.
“It’s not the same,” I hissed in his ear. “Your family wouldn’t leave their housing block even if the Tahni aimed a nuke at it.” They’d also told him not to bother coming back when he left to attend the Academy, but that wouldn’t help make my point.
“Your mom would be here if she could,” he said, “and you know it.”
“All I know,” I shot back, getting a bit too loud but not caring, “is that I wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t pushed me into it. The least she could do is pretend I mean a damn thing to her.”
I felt an irrational flare of anger and knew I had to get out of there before I said something to Ash that I’d regret. There were stares and embarrassed mumbles as I pushed my way to the end of the row of chairs and fast-walked down the aisle, past row after row of proud parents and siblings and aunts and uncles and family friends. Their faces blurred into one, then blurred more from the tears I had to blink away. I hated them. I hated them all.
When I could see clearly again, I realized I was standing out in the entrance hall to the auditorium. This building was new compared to the rest of the campus, built less than a century ago, but they’d tried to make its architecture fit in with the rest of what used to be the United States Air Force Academy, so the ceilings were high and majestic and what had passed for futuristic three centuries ago, and there was a lot of glass.
Through the three-meters-high windows that lined the front of the place, I could see the night sky above the Rockies. Back in the day, back when the men and women who’d left this place had flown atmospheric jets, the graduation ceremony had been conducted during the daytime, out in the athletic field. They’d shown us videos of it, of the blue and white uniforms and the newly-minted officers tossing their caps in the air.
There wasn’t a United States Air Force anymore, and there wasn’t really a United States in the sense there used to be, not since the Commonwealth government formed after the Sino-Russian War and the Crisis. And this school was for all branches of service: Space Fleet, Marines and Scouts. But I wished they’d kept things the way they used to be, with the cadets walking across the stage in the football stadium. If it had been on the field, everyone would have been farther away and I could have pretended she was in the stands.
I heard people beginning to file out of the exits to the auditorium, and I started looking around to see if there was someplace I could stand in a corner, in the shadows, out of the way. People wanted to make a big deal about thanking anyone in uniform since the war started midway through our senior year, and it irritated the shit out of me. It wasn’t like I wanted to die for them, or for the idea of the Commonwealth, and we hadn’t even been at war when I’d started here.
“Have you checked your ‘link?”
I nearly jumped out of my skin, and I didn’t know how Ash had managed to sneak up on me.
“Jesus, wear a damned bell or something,” I told him. “No, I haven’t checked it and I don’t give a damn if Mom has left a million messages, she shouldn’t be bothering you to…”
“Our assignments are up,” he interrupted, grinning.
I shut up and pulled my ‘link out of my back pocket. I’d had the notifications silenced and I hadn’t been wearing my ear bud during the ceremony, but the message was there, labelled “Commonwealth Space Fleet Military Personnel Center, Notice of Station.” My fingers were awkward on the screen as I pulled up the text and scrolled through the extraneous military bullshit till I got to the good part. The words stood out like they’d been handed down from on high by an archangel.
“Pilot, Assault Shuttle.”
“Holy shit,” I breathed, the first smile of the day passing over my face almost against my will. “I got it, Ash, I got the Jutland. I report to the Training and Indoctrination Center on Inferno in three weeks to get my ‘face jacks implanted and start flight training.”
I glanced up at him suspiciously, noticing his grin widening. Ash had a terrible poker-face. “What? What did you get?”
He didn’t say anything, just held up the display of his own ‘link, already zoomed in on the interesting part. It was identical to mine. All the misery and hate I’d been wallowing through was suddenly gone and I was laughing like an idiot as I hugged him, nearly knocking the ‘link out of his hand.
“I’m so glad you’re going to be there with me,” I said into his ear. I could suddenly feel his hands on my back and the warmth of his body against mine, and I slowly pulled away, smoothing down the front of my uniform.
“I, um…,” he stuttered and I tried not to laugh. We’d been friends since our freshman year and he still didn’t think I knew he was attracted to me. “By the time we’re done with training, the Jutland should be finished. I wonder if we’ll report to it at the Martian shipyards or it’ll come to us at Inferno?”
“You even think the war will still be going on by then?”
The voice had come from behind us and I didn’t have to turn to recognize the slight but ever-present plaintive whine.
“What, Warren?” I rounded on her, feeling the annoyance levels rising already. “Do you have some special line to the Office of the Joint Chiefs that the rest of us don’t?”
“Everyone knows this isn’t going to last,” Bethany Warren said, waving a hand dismissively. Her mouth had this permanent pinch to it that made her look like she’d bitten into something sour. “The Tahni don’t want another war any more than we do.”
“They have a funny way of showing it,” Ash told her, scowling. “They killed half a million people on the disputed colonies.”
“And we’ve launched a couple attacks on their outposts,” Warren said with a shrug. “And what else has happened? Nothing. It’s all going to blow over.”
“What did you draw, Bethany?” Ash asked her, with one of those surprising flares of perception that sometimes seemed to hit him off the blue.
There was the slightest twitch, the barest hesitation before she answered.
“Third Brigade, Second Marine Drop Battalion,” she said, trying to sound proud but coming off as scared instead. Suddenly, I felt less annoyed at her and more sorry for her. She was going to be crammed into a battlesuit and dropped out of orbit onto enemy-occupied worlds.
“Maybe you’re right, Warren,” I conceded, lying easily, with years of practice. “Maybe it’ll all blow over before we even get out of training.”