… Based upon reports from operatives and private news agencies we are looking at the collapse of North America within twenty years. By then, Europe will have fallen into chaos too …
-Solar Union Intelligence Report, Year 51
“That’s the bus, young man.”
Martin Luther Douglas jerked awake, then rubbed his eyes as the bus came into view, moving brazenly down a street that even armed policemen feared to tread. It looked absurdly civilian, nothing more than a yellow school-bus, but the sigil on the front warned gangsters and drug lords – to say nothing of ethnic rights groups – to stay well away from the bus, its passengers and those who would join them. No one fucked with the Solar Union.
He rose to his feet and nodded to the elderly man who’d been sweeping the street, as if it was a habit he could not break. He’d been there when Martin had arrived, nodded to him once and then simply ignored the younger man while he waited for the bus. It had been hard to tell if the man was too old to be nervous around a young man from the derelict parts of Detroit or if he’d been beaten down by the system, like so many others. Martin rather hoped it was the former, but he suspected it was the latter. In the end, white or black, the system screwed them all.
“Thank you,” he said, trying hard to speak without the ghetto accent. Young men and women had been taunted for ‘acting white’ until the ghetto accent had almost become a separate accent in its own right. “I …”
The roar of the bus’s engines drowned out his words as it pulled up to the marker and stopped, the door hissing open a moment later. Martin reached for his ID card as he climbed up the steps – it was impossible to do anything in America without an ID card now – but the driver merely waved him into the vehicle. He put the card back in his pocket, feeling oddly exposed as he made his way down the aisle, looking for an empty seat. There was only one, next to a teenage girl who seemed to be a mixture of White American and Asian, with long black hair and very pale skin. The girl, her attention held by the handheld player in her lap, barely paid him any attention as he sat down. Moments later, the bus lurched to life and started back down the road.
Martin sat back in his seat and stared out at the surrounding buildings. They were rotting away, slowly collapsing into rubble. No one, whatever the politicians said, was interested in investing in Detroit, not when the gangs controlled much of the city. There was no point in spending money when it would be wasted, not when what little capital remained in the United States was heading to orbit. And besides, he had to admit, who would want to help the residents? They were either members of the gangs or their victims.
He must have fallen asleep, for the next thing he knew was the bus shuddering to a halt. Opening his eyes, he looked out of the window and saw a large fence, blocking the bus’s way. A large sign, perched prominently on the gate, warned the passengers that the territory beyond the fence was governed by the rules and laws of the Solar Union. Below it, there was a second sign informing drivers that they could abandon their vehicles to the left. Martin looked and saw a colossal car park, crammed with rusting cars. They’d simply been taken to the complex and abandoned. He couldn’t help wondering why no one was trying to take the cars and put them back into service. It wasn’t as though the original owners wanted them any longer.
The gate opened, revealing a handful of buildings set within a garden. One large building, rather like a school, was right in front of the bus; behind it, a number of smaller buildings seemed to be surrounded by people, stalls and several teleoperated machines. It reminded him of the one and only bake sale he’d attended at school, before they’d been banned. The sight brought an odd pang to his heart, even though he would have sworn he would never look back on his school days with anything approaching nostalgia.
“If I could have your attention, please,” the driver said, as he parked the bus. “Go into the main building for the orientation talk, then follow instructions. Make sure you take all your personal possessions with you. Anything you leave on the bus will be discarded and either recycled or junked, depending. There will be no chance to recover anything after you leave the bus.”
Martin shrugged. All he had was a holdall containing a change of clothes, some money he’d been able to scrounge up from the remains of his home and a picture of his family, in the days before they’d fallen apart. There was no point in keeping it, really; whatever happened, he was privately resolved never to go back to Detroit. Beside him, the girl unplugged the earbuds from her ears and placed her handheld terminal in a small bag. She didn’t seem to have much else, not even clothes.
“Yolanda,” she said, holding out a hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Martin,” Martin said. The girl’s face, so exotic compared to the girls he knew from home, left him feeling tongue-tied. “Are you planning to leave too?”
“Nothing to stay for,” Yolanda said. She followed him out of the seat, then down towards the ground. “What about yourself? Any family?”
“Not any longer,” Martin said, feeling a fresh pang. Life was cheap in the ghetto – only a handful of families enjoyed both a mother and a father – but it shouldn’t be that way. “I’m trying to get away from the memories.”
Yolanda nodded, then looked past him towards a large bin. A handful of their fellow travellers were dropping cards into the bin. It puzzled Martin until they reached the bin and looked inside. It held ID cards, Ethnic Entitlement Cards and Social Security cards. He reached into his pocket, recalling the dire warnings about what happened to anyone who happened to lose his or her card, then dropped the ID card in the bin. It wouldn’t be needed any longer.
His Ethnic Entitlement Card glowed faintly as he dragged it out of his wallet. A line of coding seemed to shimmer under his touch, informing all and sundry that he was descended from Africans who had been abducted from their homeland by white slave traders, granting him specific rights of recompense for past wrongs. His face glowered up at him. He’d been going through a rebellious phase at the time and he’d insisted on scowling into the camera, when his picture had been taken. In hindsight, it hadn’t been a very good move. It might explain why he’d never been able to get a proper job after leaving school at fifteen.
Yolanda’s card was more detailed than his, he noted, as she dropped it in the bin. He wondered, as he dropped his own card after hers, just what sort of benefits a mixed-race child drew from the society security bureaucrats. But it was never enough, he knew, recalling his mother’s endless struggle with the social workers. No level of resources provided could get the family through increasingly troubled times. He’d grown up angry and resentful. It had taken him far too long to realise that society itself, in the name of helping him, was keeping him in the ghetto. Discarding the cards left him feeling free.
“This way,” a man called. “Hurry!”
Martin smiled, then walked next to Yolanda as they entered the building and walked into a large auditorium. Warning signs were everywhere, some simple and easy to understand, others complex and puzzling. The walls were decorated with large portraits of men and women, looking larger than life, wearing the black and gold uniforms of the Solar Navy. He had to admit they looked impressive. And, unlike so many others, proud to wear their uniforms.
“Be seated,” a thin-faced white man said, standing on the tiny stage. His voice echoed around the chamber, even though he didn’t seem to be wearing a microphone. “Welcome to the Solar Union. My name is Horace Bradley, Director of this Immigration Centre. This is a very small talk to get you orientated, then you can proceed to the next step. I suggest you listen carefully and save your questions until after I have finished.
“The good news is that you don’t have to worry about much bureaucracy here” – there were a handful of cheers, swiftly muted – “but the bad news is that there are few people charged with helping you. We believe that immigrants succeed or fail by their own devices. There are opportunities galore for all of you, no matter where you come from, but you have to take them for yourselves. None of us will give you a kick in the ass to get you started.”
He paused, then continued. “There are no real government handouts in the Solar Union. We will give you a basic immigrant’s pack, which contains a terminal, a basic guide to the Solar Union and a bank chip loaded with five hundred solar dollars. The terminal comes preloaded with email and other facilities you can use, if you wish, to find a job and a place to stay. It also contains a set of guidelines, an introduction to society and other pieces of information you need to know. None of us will make you read the documents, but remember; ignorance of the law is not an excuse.”
Martin frowned, then understood. At school, they’d been drilled extensively to recall pieces of pointless knowledge, which they’d then cheerfully forgotten after passing the exams. The teachers had been considered liable for not teaching their charges everything and so they’d struggled to stuff information into unwilling brains. But the Solar Union, it seemed, wanted them to have the motivation to learn on their own. There would be no one forcing them to learn – or to succeed.
“There are fifty-seven stalls in this complex,” Bradley concluded. “Those of you who have contracts with established companies and suchlike can make your way directly to their stalls, where you will be escorted to your final destination. Everyone else, unless you want to join the military, can visit the different booths and choose your destination. Military recruits are advised to go to the barracks, where the next introductory talk is starting in one hour. I advise you to check the paperwork carefully before you sign anything. Good luck.”
He nodded to them, then turned and walked out, without waiting for questions. Martin watched him go, then looked at Yolanda. The girl was eying her handheld processor wistfully, as if she wished she were listening to it now. Martin hesitated, then asked the question that had been nagging at his mind since Bradley’s speech.
“Where are you going?”
“The military,” Yolanda said. “I’ve been practicing with navigational sims and I think the military is the best place to get spacer qualifications.”
Martin gaped at her. “The military? You?”
Yolanda smirked. “Don’t you think I can hack it?”
“I don’t know,” Martin confessed. “I was planning to try out for the military myself.”
“Then we go together,” Yolanda said. She rose to her feet, then started to walk towards the door, where a pair of young men were handing out the promised terminals. “Come on.”
The barracks didn’t look like a barracks, Martin decided, although his only experience of barracks came from semi-forbidden movies showing the military life. He experimented with his new terminal as he joined a line, which slowly moved into the building and past a grim-faced man with a facemask covering half of his skull. No, Martin saw as they came closer, it wasn’t a mask. He’d chopped away part of his face and replaced it with a cyborg attachment that seemed to defy logic or common sense. Martin couldn’t help staring at him as he took the sheet of paper, then checked it quickly. It was nothing more than a standard recruitment form.
“You can fill it out on your terminal, if you like,” the man grunted. Even his voice was vaguely electronic. “Then just upload it into the datanet.”
“I don’t know how,” Martin confessed.
“I’ll show you,” Yolanda said. “The operating system will be as simple as possible …”
“I want to make a complaint,” a girl said, pushing her way up to the guard. “I should be first in line and …”
The guard cut her off. “This isn’t the socialist states of America,” he said. “We don’t care what entitlements you might have from anywhere outside the wire. Wait your turn in the line.”
Martin stared. It was rare – vanishingly rare – for anyone to stand up to a claim of entitlement from anyone. Anything that could be used to screw an advantage out of the system, be it race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or anything else would be used. It had pleased him, at first, to know that his skin colour gave him precedence over others, until he’d realised that the system was nonsensical. He’d never been a slave, nor had his great-grandparents. And he certainly didn’t have any Native American blood running through his veins.
The girl stared at the cyborg for a long moment, then – when he seemed utterly unmoved – turned and stamped back to the rear of the line, muttering just loudly enough to be heard about how the guard should check his privilege. Her words were almost drowned out by snickers and an overwhelming sense of relief that seemed to spin through the air. Martin smiled to himself, then followed Yolanda into another large chamber. A holographic image of a giant starship floated in front of them, then shifted into a man wearing a massive suit of powered combat armour. The gun he was carrying in one hand looked larger than he was.
Yolanda gigged as they sat down. “He must be compensating for something,” she said. “Do you think he’s a defender or a mercenary?”
“I have no idea,” Martin confessed. He opened his terminal and started to fill out the form, cursing his poor reading skills. Each question was simple, yet he needed to read through them twice to be sure he was saying the right things. Thankfully, none of the questions actually required him to lie. “But I’d be either, if it meant getting out of here.”
The holographic image faded away, leaving the room dark and bare. Martin felt another pang, then sat upright as a man wearing a black uniform that matched the colour of his skin strode out onto the stage. He looked too muscular to be real, Martin thought; it didn’t seem possible that any human could have so many muscles. And yet, from the ease he carried himself, it was impossible to think otherwise. Martin was impressed. He’d met too many thugs, gangbangers and snobbish social workers in his life, but this was the first real man.
Maybe my father was like him, he thought, suddenly. But would he have left if he was?
“Good afternoon,” the man said. His voice was sharp, oddly accented. He spoke in a manner that demanded their full attention. “I am Drill Instructor Denver. You are here because you are interested in joining the Solar Navy or associated forces. If you wish to be anywhere else, piss off now and save me some time.”
There was a pause. No one left.
“Good,” Denver said. “You will know, I think, that the Solar Union is a very loose society, almost anarchistic. There are relatively few laws to follow and you can do whatever the hell you like, assuming you don’t harm others. That is not true of the military. Depending on which branch of the service you join, you will have to serve a five, ten, fifteen or twenty year term. During that time, we will own your asses. You will have very limited choice in assignments and, unless you earn a medical discharge, you will not be allowed to leave without fucking up your future. If you’re not committed, like I said, piss off now and save me some time.
“The Solar Navy is charged with defending the human race against the Galactics,” he continued, without a break. “You may not like Earth as it is now, but it would be a great deal worse if the Galactics took over. We cannot afford to fuck around like the politically-correct” – he pronounced the words as if they were curses – “officers who have ruined the western militaries over the past seventy years. The Solar Navy is all that stands between us and alien rule.
“There will be a three-month period at Boot Camp for all of you,” he concluded. “This is to get you used to life in the Solar Union and, also, to give us a chance to evaluate you. After that, you will be assigned to separate training streams, where your talents can be shaped to suit our needs. At that point, you will be committed.”
He paused. “Any questions?”
“Yeah,” a young man said. “When can we quit?”
Denver eyed him darkly. “You can quit up to one week in Boot Camp without penalty,” he said. “At that point, you will receive your implants. Should you quit after that, you will be charged the full price for the implants, which have to be tailor-made for you personally. And then, when you are steered into your training streams, you will be committed. The military life is not for everyone.”
That, Martin knew, was true. But it was also his only hope of leaving Earth behind. He had no educational qualifications that meant a damn in the Solar Union, no hope of obtaining them … it was the military or grunt labour, which offered no prospect of advancement. If he’d wanted that, he would have gone to work for McDonalds-Taco Bell, if there had been a place available. Most fast-food takeouts were purely robotic these days.
“The choice is yours,” Denver said. “If you’re still interested, walk through the doors at the rear of this chamber. There will be a brief medical exam, then a shuttle flight to Sparta Training Base. Good luck.”
Martin and Yolanda exchanged glances as Denver walked out of the room, then, without hesitation, rose and walked through the door.