P.P. Gonzalez rocked back on his heels, his thumbs tucked into his pants waist. If wearing shorts made him feel incompetent, then wearing pants made him feel like master and commander. He looked down at his men as they ran the Drill in the arena.
“Sir,” came a voice behind him. It was Williams.
“Seven four,” P.P. said, welcoming him in. He took note of the soldier’s stately stature and striking masculine features. He was a handsome man - it was no wonder the others took to him so easily, a natural born leader. “Where did you get such damn handsome skin?” P.P. burst out. "Look at how tan it is!" He’d never noticed that before. Sun was hard to come by in these parts.
“Born with it, sir,” Williams replied.
“Born with it,” P.P considered, “Naturally… Seems you’ve been born with a lot of things, seven four.”
“How so, sir,” Williams replied.
“Well, among other things, you’re a gifted soldier and a natural born leader. You led the ranks to safety under extreme duress with wounded civilians and even some Klammathians in tow. And not a single casualty.”
“One casualty, sir,” Williams replied.
“Yes, sir. One of the 'Klammathians,' sir.”
P.P.'s lips twisted to the side in a smear of dried and cracked figgish brown. “Oh right. The pregnant woman? The black one.”
“Yes. How’s her baby getting along?”
“Just fine, sir.” Williams replied.
“Does it have someone caring for it?”
“Yes, sir,” Williams replied again. No need to mention Sandy – nothing good came from broadcasting one's weaknesses.
“Wonderful,” P.P. went on, “Well, one casualty in the big scheme of things isn't bad, seven four. Think of the thousands that just died in our very own backyard.” He lifted one hand and perched it on Williams' shoulder. “And you should know, son, that that Digger lot wasn’t your charge, really. Refugees don’t have a home, that’s what makes them who they are. But it’s good to hear that the baby survived, quite a gift there. Quite a gift.”
“Yes sir,” Williams replied.
P.P. let his hand drop down and stood at ease as he assessed Williams face. “Good, very good.”
He turned back towards the spectatorship and looked down upon his dominion. “Well, seven four, to cut to the chase, I called you up here to congratulate you – first and foremost, for your outstanding achievements in the field. Job well done. Secondly, I’d like to promote you.” He swung round to face Williams once more. “How does second lieutenant sound?”
Williams remained tight-lipped. In the military, promotions were a bad thing. “Honor” meant dying, it meant martyrdom and Purple Hearts. But promotions could not be refused. Williams swallowed. He thought of Sandy.
Well, at least it would be something different. And it would sure as hell beat doing the Drill every day, lining up like a motherfucker without a clue, a motherfucker without a cause. Anyways, he had no choice if he wanted to keep getting paid. He thought of his family back home. Time to man up. “Sounds good, sir.”
“Wonderful.” P.P. kept a steady gaze on Williams as he said this, noting the total lack of expression on his face. He threw a small magnetic bead in Williams’ direction. “Put that on.” It was still warm from P.P.'s hand. The general waited for Williams to fit the bead to his lapel. Once the magnet was placed, it asserted itself and could not be removed. Like a shackle. “Well! Now that that’s official, I have a new assignment for you." He folded his hands across his belly. "This one’s coming straight from the Puritan House.”
As General P.P. Gonzalez outlined his new mission, it was Williams’ turn to look down at the arena. From up here, he couldn’t make out the individual faces of his friends; he couldn’t find Barks or Tendril, Chen or Pieta. They just looked like little white dots on a grey gridded background. He could almost see patterns now. He could almost see the soldier with his toes out of line. Almost.
Sandy tucked the baby’s loose hair behind his ear. She’d had a little brother when she was six. He looked nothing like this baby, but she felt the same outpouring of tenderness for this baby now as she had for her brother.
When she held this child in her arms, she felt tremors through his body that seemed unnatural. He rarely cried – just shook sometimes like there was something being excised from him. The other Digger women circled wide around her, like they were giving her room to be his mother. That wasn’t what she wanted.
She was sixteen. She wasn’t ready to be a mom. She had her whole life to figure out – she couldn’t just add a baby to the mix.
She picked up a small metal cup and walked towards the water pump.
It was hard for her to believe she’d set out on this journey with Barb only a few days before. It felt like everything had changed. Holding the baby in her arms seemed to age her; she could feel the youth slipping willfully away from her like rebellious grains of sand.
Barb. A pang of guilt rushed through her. She didn’t even know if Barb was dead or alive. And here she was, safely back in the bad part, holding a baby and thinking about starting a a new life. A new family. Wasn’t Barb her family? Wasn’t it her job to go find and save her best friend? Kick Dirth’s ass for not bringing Barb back himself? Tell Dirth… what had happened to his partner?
As Sandy looked down into the stars of her tiny charge’s eyes, she wasn’t sure what direction she was looking in any more – up or down, left or right, far into the night sky or down into the sea floor.
She heard a throat clear behind her. Williams stood there.
“Hey,” she said. All her teenage jitters from before were gone; she felt like they had been forged in a fire together, like they both knew what it meant to have a baby born in their midst.
“Hey,” he said back. He walked up close to her. His hand reached around to the small of her back. She felt the warmth of his palm through her sweater just as he angled down to kiss her.
Their lips touched. It was warm, and wonderful, and everything they had both expected it to be for a while now. Holding the baby in her arms, she felt, unrightly so, that this baby had now been consecrated into some family of theirs. Some home.
When Williams stepped back, she expected to see a smile on his face to meet her own. Instead, his expression was serious. “I have to go. P.P’s…promoted me.” Sandy’s face held still. “He’s assigned me to a new mission. And I don’t know… if I’ll be able to complete it.” He reached a hand down to touch the baby’s head, like he’d been doing it for years.. “It’s… insane.”
Sandy looked down at the baby too; two adults unable to meet each other’s eyes.
“I don’t want you to go,” was all she could say.
“I don’t want to go,” he replied. “But…you’ll… make coming back… something to look forward to.”
Sandy smiled a sad smile as leftover tears found their escape.
Williams reached around and held her.