CIVILIANS is the third story in which I  tried to depict some of the special characteristics of military childhoods. The other two were LEGACIES (Asimov's January 1992) and SERGEANT MOTHER GLORY (Asimov's October-November 2000). CIVILIANS takes place in the same background but it deals with a different set of characters and a different aspect of military family life. As one of the characters says, "If you know you're a civilian, you aren't."





Tom Purdom



"It looks like somebody may be following us," Lieutenant Kim said.

Daj had been monitoring the news media ever since the catapult had shoved the transport vehicle away from Huanying City. So far there had been no word about his mother or any of the troops under her command. Most of the stuff he had scanned on his notescreen had been general commentaries about the situation in the city. The real time reports consisted of videos that emphasized angry faces, homicidal rhetoric, laments over the folly of mankind, and occasional images of people operating various kinds of projectile weapons.

It was a typical news media response to a violent event. There was a general agreement the situation in Huanying was rapidly developing into a full scale civil war. Beyond that, the news merchants were pandering to the public interest by maintaining a continuous flow of commentary and covering up the fact that they didn't have any solid information. Daj was only thirteen but he recognized the pattern.

He touched the controls on the right side of his notescreen and picked up a feed from the cameras mounted outside the transport vehicle. An arrow designated a dot near the upper left hand corner.

The other passengers in the vehicle all seemed to shift positions at the same time. The only exception was the girl huddled in the couch across the aisle. Wan-shu was only seven. For her, adults were still background figures who spent much of their time engaging in random, uninteresting actions.

Lieutenant Kim occupied a couch in the front of the vehicle. A half-height partition separated him from his passengers. They could glimpse segments of his screens but they couldn't collect any meaningful information. They could hear him speaking into his headset but he was talking in a low murmur. For most of them his words would have been meaningless even if he had been bellowing. Kim was speaking Ghurkali-- the working language of the Fourth International Brigade-- and his passengers were all civilians.

Daj spoke Ghurkali. So did his civilian father, Yin Hong. Most people spoke two of the official international languages. Daj spoke three-- Techno-Mandarin, Hindi, and English. Someday he would speak all six. Right now he was concentrating on other types of learning.

Lieutenant Kim turned on the intercom loudspeakers and spoke to his passengers in Techno-Mandarin. "I'm sorry to report we are being fired on. Our armor system is containing the attack but I've talked with Battalion and they agree we should make some attempt to evade, instead of staying on course and waiting until we're supposed to make our scheduled orbital transfer maneuver. I'm putting us in an orbit that will bring us very close to the surface of the planet-- close enough I can try to interpose some mountains or craters between us and their radar. We believe there's a good possibility the two vehicles can occupy significantly different orbits when we come back up again."

Daj frowned. Kim's statement made no sense. The standard military projectile was a two gram package that contained several hundred molecular devices. The moles started multiplying and destroying as soon as the package hit its target. The armor system consisted of moles which responded by attacking the intruders and repairing the damage. If the armor system was "containing" the attack, why were they attempting a fuel consuming-- and peculiar-- evasion maneuver?

"The thrusters will operate for about one minute," Kim said. "You'll feel a slight push against your couch harnesses."

Daj manipulated the controls on his notescreen and zoomed in on the other vehicle. The best magnification on his system brought it to a simulated two kilometers. He couldn't make out any details but it looked to him like it was a standard orbit-to-orbit civilian transport vehicle. There were no turrets or any other indication it was armed. The two turrets on their own vehicle should have had it outgunned. Their armor system should have neutralized any moles the other vehicle could launch.

The thrusters were pushing him against his couch harness, as promised. The thrust ended after sixty-eight seconds and his stomach advised him he had returned to a free fall, zero-g environment. He put his phone against his mouth and murmured to his civilian father in Ghurkali.

"It looks like the trade in illegal fabricator programs has once again created problems," Daj said.

"I see you've been thinking again," Yin Hong replied.

"Am I right? We wouldn't be diving on Mercury if our armor was working as well as he says it should."

"Perhaps he just wants to show us what a superb pilot he is."

Father Hong was strapped into the couch directly behind his son. Daj couldn't see his father's face but he could visualize the expression it had probably assumed. Yin Hong was a prominent sociologist, with students and research partners scattered all over the solar system. Daj had been hearing that wry, sardonic tone since he had been a year old.

"I suspect we shouldn't discuss this any longer," Father Hong said. "Not even in Ghurkali."

"I just wanted to get your opinion, Doctor."

"Well, you have it, young man."

"Do you truly think we can evade them by going down to Mercury?"

"I'm afraid that's outside my area of competence."

Daj kept his notescreen connected to the external cameras and watched Mercury expand. Every few minutes he switched to another camera and noted that the other vehicle was maintaining its distance.

In Daj's opinion, Lieutenant Kim's biggest problem would be the three giant interlocking habitats that circled Mercury. Each habitat was over three kilometers high and twenty kilometers wide. Each one went all the way around the planet, creating a sealed environment that was so large it generated a self adjusting weather cycle. Shorter lengths of habitat connected the larger units and linked them into a single environment. For a vehicle attempting a low level orbit, the habitats were planet circling walls. If Lieutenant Kim slipped up and crashed into one of those walls, he would trigger a historic catastrophe.



Copyright 2001 by Tom Purdom. All rights reserved. This document may be printed out and archived for personal use. All other use is strictly prohibited.

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