Conscription, by Mark J. Howard

Earth Sector 19, Sub-Sector 12, Habitation Block 10774, Unit 408. July 12th, 2389: 22:55hrs.

It was not the worst of times that was still to come. Carrie could feel it in her bones, a deep ache of despair that clung to her like a parasite. She assumed everyone else felt the same way but that the social convention of defiance prevented them from saying so. The war had been raging now for five years, and in that time Earth had reduced from a shining hub of commerce to a shantytown, grim and under populated. Today, though, was the worst day so far. It was Isaac’s fourteenth birthday.

The day her son went off to war.

Carrie looked at herself in the bathroom mirror and her forty four year old face stared back impassively. She was so used to her mask of calm that now she couldn’t imagine living without it. She remembered when that face used to laugh and had eyes that knew nothing of loss or despair. The hair had been full and golden, but now was flat and dull, casting a minimal shine from the harsh strip light running along the top of the chipped glass. The lips had been kind and welcoming instead of thin and cold and few of those harsh lines had been there. Countless emotions used to play on that face, unashamed and naked, but now only grim acceptance remained. She washed her face so that if Isaac saw her eyes she could say that she’d got soap in them.

He had to be back by eleven to pick up his kit bag, and then the bus would come for him at midnight. Carrie wanted to be strong for Isaac, didn’t want him to see her cry. She thought that if she could leave him with a memory of her as a strong and beautiful woman, and as a loving mother then perhaps that memory would help him in the horrors to come. Something to hold on to and keep fixed in his mind, something to fight for and, more than anything else, something to survive for.

She practiced smiling in the mirror, but somehow couldn’t get it right and wondered when it was that she’d forgotten how to do this. Probably when she’d realised why only the young boys were going off to war. The girls were being kept back because they were all that was left. Everybody else was a part of the war effort or a mother. The men had all but gone, only the very young and the very old remained. All the women who didn’t have small children to care for, all the spinsters and lesbians, everybody had been cast out to feed the war effort. If, by some miracle, the war was won, the girls would be needed and only the strongest men would return from the fight. It was the very last preparation that could be made and now there were only three things left to do; fight, hope and pray.

Emotion welled up again inside her, but she forced it down with a scowl. Maybe if she remembered something from the past, from the better times before anybody had even heard of the Latan, she could remember how to smile. She called to mind a memory of herself, Isaac, Sean and Jack picnicking in the Grid 44 park ten years ago. Sean had been ten, and already a fine figure of a boy; tall and athletic, but with a keen mind and an insatiable curiosity. Sean fussed over Isaac as much as Carrie did and the boys remained inseparable. On this day, the day of the picnic, Sean was teaching Isaac to dig holes with a stick and the pair of them were laughing in the sunshine. Around them, the trees hung limp in the warm air, providing welcome shade, and Jack was opening a bottle of Champagne. It was the day Jack had become the captain of the Whyte Starr Line freighter Capricorn Queen II, a day he’d been waiting for all his life. Carrie had recently returned to part-time teaching, lecturing history at the Sub-Sector 12 Edu-Hub and it seemed that their lives were complete. She remembered the smell of the grass in the warm sunshine and the happy sounds of the other families in the park. This was her Perfect Day, the memory she escaped to when reality became too much for her to bear.

Carrie opened her eyes and saw herself smiling properly for the first time in many months. Seeing it, though, broke the spell and the smile melted away like butter on burnt toast. Jack and Sean were both dead and now Isaac was off to join the Navy.

She heard the main door open and quickly gathered herself, rinsing her face and then dabbing it dry with a towel.

‘Hi, mum,’ Isaac called from the living room. ‘Are you home?’

‘Course I am, Hon, I’ll be out in a jiff,’ Carrie answered; unplugging the sink and watching the water swirl away. She pulled up her grey overalls and shrugged into them. Tugging the sleeves into place, Carrie adjusted the shoulders before pulling up the zip and, with one last check in the mirror, strode out of the bathroom.

Isaac stood proudly in the middle of the Spartan living room, his deep blue Naval uniform with its red piping and white cross-belts fitting him with a crisp perfection. He threw his mother a salute and, with a huge smile on his face asked, ‘Well? What do you think, ma’am?’

Carrie couldn’t speak. You look like cannon fodder, she thought. You look like a little boy in a dead man’s uniform. She shook her head and forced out the words her son wanted to hear. ‘You look perfect, son. Very handsome. Come here, give your old mum a hug.’

‘Aww, mum,’ Isaac protested as Carrie folded him in her arms, ‘you’ll crease it!’

Carrie kissed him on the cheek and then, with a final squeeze, let her son go. His new uniform smelled of static and regulation Naval soap. ‘Of course, I’m sorry. Still,’ she tugged gently at his tunic and belt, straightening them with care, ‘no harm done, eh?’

Isaac nodded and then re-adjusted his uniform himself, his hands moving quickly, almost compulsively. He knew he couldn’t rely on his mother any more, and thought that this small show might demonstrate to her that he could look after himself from now on. He was ready. Carrie nodded and smiled, but Isaac merely grunted. He’d wanted with all his heart to smile back at his mother, but something in him knew that if he let any of his emotions go tonight, they might all escape into the open. For a long and uncomfortable moment, neither mother nor son could think of anything to say.

‘Did you have a nice time, Isaac?’

‘Oh yeah, it was thick. Captain Stearns told us all about the Wasp and her history. She’s a glaring ship, mum, tough as old boots. Oh, and you’ll never guess who else I saw there?’ Isaac said excitedly, pulling off his cap and running a hand over his freshly shaved head.

‘I don’t know, who?’ Carrie asked, pointing to the settee that sat alone near the window overlooking the darkened city.

‘Jimmy Crackers, he was there. He’s going to serve on the Wasp too. Isn’t that great?’ Isaac said, sitting down next to his mother but taking great care not to crease the back of his tunic.

Carrie frowned. ‘Who is Jimmy Crackers?’

‘Don’t you remember? He came ‘round here once and broke the sink.’

‘Oh right. I thought his name was Peters? James Peters?’

Isaac shrugged. ‘Well, it is, but everybody calls him Jimmy Crackers because he once ate a whole packet of Yakkubs in under a minute.’

‘Right. And he’s going aboard the Wasp too? Well then that’s good, I suppose, to have someone you know nearby. At least you’ll have somebody to talk to.’

‘Mum, it’s a warship. I’ll have hundreds of people to talk to,’ Isaac chided. He spoke to her like Jack used to, always showing his best face, hiding his feelings behind an easy humour.

Carrie rose from the settee and headed for the kitchen. ‘You know what I mean, Isaac. It’ll be nice to have a friend from the start, it’ll make it easier for you to make more friends if you work together. I’m making tea, do you want some?’

Isaac’s stomach had started to knot as soon as he’d left the induction party to come home for his kit bag. Somehow, the enormity of what he was being asked to do hadn’t occurred to him until just a few minutes ago, and now that enormity was threatening to engulf him. ‘No thanks, I’d better not. I don’t want to be sick on the shuttle.’

Carrie disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Isaac alone with his thoughts. He looked around at the hab unit, this place he had called home for ten years, spinning his cap absently through his hands. This had been a grand hab once, not so long ago. Filled with laughter and light and toys and holo-games. Almost everything was gone, now, taken away for the war effort so that only the bare essentials remained. A few chairs and a dining table, a single holo-viewer that only worked four times a day for an hour at a time when they broadcast the news. Even the carpets had gone so that now only a motley collection of old rugs lay scattered on the bare, plastcrete floor. The adaptive wallpaper, deprived of power, remained frozen into a single pattern; endlessly repeating bunches of grapes and leafy vines on a depressing, dark blue background. On the mantelpiece, over the disconnected heating unit, sat the only thing his mother had wanted to keep.

Old as the Hills, that was the clock’s name, and it had been in his father’s family for hundreds of years. Isaac listened to the familiar sound it made and felt soothed by the steady, sure ticks and tocks punctuating the air like solid links in the chain of time. All the important letters were kept behind that clock, his father once told him that it was a family tradition started hundreds of years ago, and so it was only natural that his Conscription Order should have lived there for so long. He remembered staring at that white envelope, protruding from behind the clock, looking at the blue stamp with the crest of the Imperial Defence Force and the words CONSCRIPTION ORDER: NAVAL SERVICE stamped on it, smudged by the postbot’s thumb. It seemed to him then a mystical thing, his ticket into adulthood, and he was made to feel proud of it.

The Order had arrived on his thirteenth birthday, a year ago today, along with training slugs and mock equipment. Over the last year, his entire life had been geared towards a military education and basic physical training, enough to make him ready for the four weeks of Basic Naval Training he’d need before becoming part of the Wasp’s crew. And his mother had been with him every step of the way, watching the training slugs with him, helping him to understand and expanding on what the holo-lessons taught him. She’d stayed with him on the physical training too and, although she couldn’t keep up with him, nevertheless taught Isaac how to push his body to one last sit up.

The prospect of joining a warship had excited him, he was going off to fight the Latan and it all seemed like one huge adventure. Isaac had been one of the first to be called up for pre-military service, and everyone said that it was just a precaution, that the age of conscription would never be brought down to fourteen and that Isaac would almost certainly never go to war. The Empire would soon start turning the tide against the Latan, it was only a matter of time.

Now the envelope was snug inside his tunic, ready to be presented to the adjutant’s office aboard the Wasp. It felt heavy in his pocket.

‘Cake?’ Carrie’s voice called from the kitchen.

‘What? No, no thanks, mum. I’m too… excited to eat,’ Isaac said, concerned that the knot in his stomach didn’t seem to be going away. He could never be a hero if he was going to feel like this all the time.

Carrie emerged from the kitchen holding a tray with two mugs of steaming tea and heaped plates of cake and biscuits. ‘Here we are, budge up and push that stuff off the coffee table.’

Isaac cleared a couple of magazines and his mother’s sewing basket from the low table and placed them underneath in a neat pile with all the other old papers and bits and pieces which had accumulated there.

‘I said I didn’t want anything,’ Isaac said as his mother laid down the tray.

‘I know, but you might change your mind. You know what you’re like and I’m not getting up again. Besides, I wanted to make it. To make you one last cup of tea before you go off. I don’t care if you drink it or not, I just wanted to make it.’ Carrie sipped at her own tea, adopting an appreciative face.

Isaac smiled and reached for the mug. ‘Thanks, mum,’ he said. ‘I suppose it might settle my stomach a bit.’

‘Butterflies?’

Isaac scowled. Butterflies were what children got if the lights went out. Big boys, grown men, didn’t get butterflies. And yet he could find no other way to describe it. The sensation was like having butterflies in his stomach and, suddenly, this phrase he had known and used all his life made perfect sense to him. He’d always assumed that it was just nonsense, something people said instead of admitting to real fear. The truth came as something of a minor revelation to Isaac, as if a small veil had been lifted from a small part of the world he’d never paid much attention to before but assumed he’d understood. It made him wonder how many more veils remained to be lifted and he feared that there might be a great many in the months ahead. ‘Yes, butterflies. I’ll be okay. I’m just excited. I’ve never been into space before.’

‘You came to the Moon with us, didn’t you?’ Carrie said, picking up a small slice of homemade sponge cake. She’d become a quite proficient baker since the food synthesisers had been deactivated to save the planet’s energy reserves. Old-fashioned cooking had come back in a big way, but while most families cursed having to prepare and cook food, Carrie found it to be a relaxing exercise. In the midst of all the deprivations and the remorseless advance of the Latan hordes towards the Earth, Carrie found hope in the fact that she could still create something good – even if it was only a sugared lemon sponge finger.

‘Mum, everybody’s been to the Moon. The Moon isn’t space, not really. I mean I’ve never been into real space before; out past the sun, going round other stars. That space, proper space.’

‘I went with your dad a few times. The Proxima run, Belhoon, New Earth, Torvega. There’s nowhere as nice as here, though.’ Carrie took a small bite from the lemon finger and licked the sugar from her lips. This small action was enough, as she knew it would be, to send Isaac’s hand towards the plate of cakes.

‘Earth’s a dump, though,’ Isaac said. ‘There’s nothing to do, most of the buildings are empty and everything’s switched off to save power. It’s really sub, you know?’ Isaac gestured towards the window and the city outside. Most of the buildings were dark, empty and closed down to save power for the Orbital Defence Battery reserves, and only a few of them showed the lights of occupied habs. Not even the streets were lit and the night sky above the shadowy city was alive with stars. Isaac didn’t like being able to see stars in the sky, it just didn’t seem right. The sky should be orange and warm with reflected light, not naked and cold.

‘I mean, Earth as it was. There’s nowhere nicer,’ said Carrie.

‘That’s why we have to win the war. The restoration of the Earth, the human race and the Empire can only…’

‘Isaac,’ Carrie interrupted, ‘I know the slogans. Please, let’s not talk propaganda tonight. Let’s just not mention any of it and have a nice time before you go. This could be the last time I see you in a long time.’ She hoped the last four words she’d spoken hadn’t sounded as hollow as they felt in her throat.

‘It’s not propaganda, mum, it’s the truth – and you should watch what you’re saying.’ Isaac’s face became grave and his voice dropped. ‘It’s not right to talk like that, people might think you were a Defeatist.’

Carrie sighed. ‘I’m not a Defeatist, I promise you. I’m sure that, with you in the Navy, we’ll be turning the tide in no time.’

‘The Navy is winning more and more battles, mum. Captain Stearns said so. He said that the Latan are slow to alter their tactics, and that our new weapons are better than theirs so that, even though there’s more of them, we’re finally more powerful.’ Isaac put down his mug, aware that, in his excitement, he had been waving it around. ‘He said that it really is only a matter of time, now, and that only the Navy can win this war. He says that the infantry just aren’t up to the task. They’re all very brave, he said, but the Latan are bigger, stronger and faster than humans, and there are heaps more of them, so all the infantry can do is hold them up until the Navy get there and fight them from orbit.’

Carrie finished off the sponge finger and returned her empty plate to the tray. ‘At least, I suppose, the Navy has a better chance. The infantry don’t seem to do much winning, just delaying the inevitable until all the civilians can get away.’

‘Yeah, I’m really glad I’m not going into the infantry. Jimmy Crackers says that spacers call the infantry the Legion of the Damned Well, because they’re all damned well going to die.’

Old as the Hills struck the half hour and Isaac jumped to his feet. ‘Right, I’d best get going. Bus leaves for the base at midnight.’

Carrie also leaped to her feet, gripped by a sudden panic. Where had all the time gone? They hadn’t talked about anything. ‘No, son, please. Just another few minutes. You can walk to the departure bay in ten minutes from here, so you don’t need to leave until ten to.’

‘I can’t be late, mum. Captain Stearns said…’

‘I’m sure he did, but I’m your mother and I want to tell you to be careful,’ Carrie said, struggling to contain her emotions. She took Isaac gently by the shoulders and looked into her son’s brown eyes. They were the same colour as Jack’s; Jack who had been killed by a Latan Striker whilst escorting a convoy of refugees through the Crab Nebula. The same colour as Sean’s, who had been killed along with the rest of his troop by a Latan bioweapon on Kyettel-Hyukoor without firing a single shot. ‘You have to promise me that you’ll be careful, and that you won’t try to be a hero.’

Isaac put his hands on his mother’s wrists and made a serious face. ‘I’m not going to be a coward, mum,’ he said. ‘Dad wouldn’t be proud of a coward.’

‘I didn’t mean it that way. I meant that, if everybody else is running, you run too. Do as you’re told and keep your head down, understand?’

Isaac squeezed his mother’s wrists gently in his fingers. ‘All right mum, I promise. But I have to go, really.’

‘Oh, before I forget,’ Carrie pulled her son’s attention back to her as he tried to remove himself from her grip. ‘If you write, it might take a while for your letters to get to me. I’m having to move out of here.’

‘What?’ Isaac was appalled. ‘But why? This is our home, I don’t understand why…’

Carrie put a finger to his lips. ‘Hush, now. It’s all right. They’re clearing this whole block to save power. There’s too few of us living here now for it to be efficient, so we’re moving to other blocks.’ Carrie saw that Isaac wanted to protest, but stopped him with her finger. ‘It’s all right, we can come back when the war’s over, they say. This place’ll still be ours, don’t worry about that. So, what I was saying, I don’t know where they’re going to put me, so if you write I might not be able to write back for a while, okay?’

Isaac tried not to look disappointed, but failed and Carrie stroked his cheek with her knuckles. ‘Don’t worry, your letters will arrive eventually. It’s just that they might be a bit late, that’s all. As soon as the war starts to turn, I’m sure they’ll put the Info-Net back on. Then we won’t need old fashioned letters any more and we’ll be able to talk any time.’

‘But, it’s not fair. This is our home, you shouldn’t have to move.’

‘You know as well as I do that everything and everybody who isn’t essential to the continuation of the human race has to go into the war effort.’ Carrie scowled at herself for using the same propaganda Isaac had tried earlier and changed tack. ‘It’s just a hab, Isaac, it’s just a hab. And I want to tell you one more thing before you go.’

Carrie held her son’s face in both of her hands and smiled the most happy smile she could. ‘I love you, son.’

‘I love you too,’ said Isaac, but with rather more reserve than he would have liked. ‘Now, it really is time to go. Where’s my bag?’

Carrie pointed, ‘I put it over there, by the door.’

Isaac turned and walked to the bulky kit bag. From behind, he could be a fully grown man, thought Carrie as she watched him shoulder the bag with an easy swing of his arm. He put his hand on the lock-pad and the door slid open. Isaac turned in the doorway and waved. ‘Bye,’ he said.

Carrie smiled and waved, but could not speak. Then the door hissed closed and Isaac was gone.

* * *

It took her almost a full minute to realise that she hadn’t even kissed him on the cheek as she stood alone in the hab, staring at the closed door. The tears she’d fought so hard to suppress had gone away altogether and she realised that she was probably beyond grief. The Latan were unstoppable, everybody knew that. Advancing slowly and methodically, the Latan Hordes struck with easy predictability, taking their time with one planet before moving on to the next. The fact that they never altered their tactics demonstrated the disdain they showed for their enemies. Even the most optimistic projections said that the Earth faced attack in under eighteen months. Every planet attacked by the Latan fell sooner or later. Every one. They didn’t take prisoners and they didn’t leave survivors, eradicating even pre-stone age species, wiping out every technology-capable race to the last infant. They didn’t want territory or resources or technology. They wanted only to wipe the Empire from the face of the galaxy. There was nothing to do but fight them or be slaughtered by them.

At least on a ship like the Wasp Isaac had an outside chance. Maybe, when things got too bad, the Navy would flee to a quieter part of the galaxy and start a new civilization, far away from the Latan. She hoped Captain Stearns was the kind of man who would consider that option.

She waited in silence, listening to Old as the Hills ticking away as it always had. Eventually, the old clock chimed midnight and Carrie wept with small, dry sobs. She was no longer a mother. Isaac had passed into the care of the State and she now had no purpose. Carrie moved over to the clock and pulled the white envelope from behind it. It was addressed to her and had a blue stamp with the crest of the Imperial Defence Force and the words CONSCRIPTION ORDER: INFANTRY stamped on it, smudged by the postbot’s thumb. ❦

THE END

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