Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Thirteenth chapter of my new novel. Thanks for reading, and all comments are welcome. 
Wayne C. Grantham


“You don’t take a bullet for your partner, Dogface! You keep him, and yourself, from getting shot!” came over the helmet radios, at the close of the exercise.
“I got hit in the back of my thigh with one of those hockey pucks of theirs,” Annette said, trying in vain to rub the bruised area through the stiff plastic body armor that covered her body.
“That’ll teach you to keep your....thighs down,” Mars chuckled. “I know what you mean though. I took one in the ribs.
“Two more weeks of this shit, then we get our battle suit training,” Mars reminded Annette between deep breaths as they slogged through the sand toward the armory. She looked very much like a more slender version of him in their Star Wars-inspired plastic body armor.
As they struggled along, very tired after the drills, Mars remembered his realization that the deep, dry sugar sand was part of the day’s workout. He hadn’t found any reason to alter that thought.
“Be careful what you wish for,” she said around her own huffing and puffing, “My brother went through training last year. He said that the first couple of weeks of battle suit training are the hardest part.”
“So I’ve heard,” Mars said, breathing almost in rhythm with Annette as they left the sand and climbed a rocky hill to the armory. “But it gets us where we want to be.”
The steep, broken slope antagonized what few muscles weren’t already on fire from the day’s abuse. They topped the hill, nearly staggering, and crossed a grassy field to the pavement surrounding the armory building. There were a couple of members of the day’s training group entering the armory ahead of them, some already inside and others strung out behind. Finally, they stepped through the open door into the locker room. Several trainees from other platoons were pulling their armor off, or were in various stages of partial dress.
“I’m still not used to your co-ed locker rooms.” Mars admitted in a voice only his partner could hear. He pulled his helmet off and started unclipping the plastic armor on his arms.
Annette did likewise. “C’mon partner,” she said with a smirk and a chuckle. “You’re too old not to have seen a girl naked.”
As he removed the chest plate from his shoulders, Mars could see that he’d dropped a few pounds and built a little muscle since the beginning of his militia training. Annette, a full fifteen years younger than Mars, revealed a beautiful figure--both very feminine and muscular as she stripped off her armor and the padded underwear that was worn underneath. Mars tried not to stare, though his eyes kept wandering back, as they always did. There were a couple of other women in the process of changing to street uniforms, making Mars’ attempts at nonchalance require serious concentration.
Mars emerged from the shower to find that many had dressed and left the locker room, to be replaced by several of those who had been following him to the armory building.
“Old timer,” said a twentyish fellow four inches taller than Mars. “Aced out early again, I see. Ya have to keep up, Bob! Keep yer ass down.”
“You’re just slow, Beanpole,” Mars returned as he pulled on his drawers. He tried for a smile, even though the gut really was annoying. “That last hill too much for you? All this grown man stuff wears you out early, eh?”
Annette picked that moment to step out of the shower room, blonde hair brushed out and her towel draped carelessly over her shoulder.
“Hey, Chula!” yelled the tall militiaman. “Whadya want with a partner old enough to be yer papa?”
“Shut up, Oscar!” She glared, walking over to her locker. “Mars is a man who’s seen the elephant. I’d rather have him at my back than a neophyte like you!”
“Bullshit!” Oscar started pulling off his armor. “He’s old. He won’t be able to keep up.”
“Oscar, Mars has been in fights with men who shoot back. For real.” She angrily began pulling her fatigues on. “You’ve never been in a gunfight with real bullets, and without armor. He has. He’ll be watching my back while you’re diving for the nearest rat hole.”
Oscar threw down his torso armor, which bounced of a bench and clattered across the floor. He stepped over to where Annette, still without her shirt, stood her ground.
Mars, dressed except for his boots, stepped between them.
“Drop it, Beanpole!” he said, “You don’t want to get your blood smeared all over these clean lockers.”
Oscar aimed a fist at Mars’ chin. Mars ducked under it and kicked Oscar’s feet out from under him, helped by the slipperiness of the wet tile floor. Oscar caught himself on one knee and got up quickly, only to meet two short punches, one to the jaw and the other to the solar plexus.
Oscar fell back, gasping for breath. Oscar’s partner, who was a few years older, stepped up. He held up his open hands.
“That’s enough, Mars.” Mars held his guard and took a small step back.
“We’re all on the same side.” He turned to his partner, who had gotten up. “You’re out of line, Oscar. Drop it.”
“Bullshit!” Oscar said, but dropped his fists. He turned away, and continued undressing.
Mars and Annette stepped away, toward their lockers. “You don’t have to fight my battles for me, Mars.”
“Hey, I’m your partner, ain’t I?”
“Yes, but I’m your equal, and I could’ve handled him.”
“Y’know, I think you could,” he chuckled. “Another thing I’m still not used to--women being able to handle themselves in a fight among men.”
“Men are bigger and stronger,” she said, tucking in her fatigue shirt. “Women have to be quicker and smarter. Our boss is among those who study ways we can accomplish this. I’ve been studying under her for five years.”
Mars held his hands up in mock surrender. “I’ve drilled hand-to-hand with Juanita. Please don’t ever get mad at me!”
Mars took a step. Unused to the length of the step of the battle suit, he stepped right into a wall, and lost his balance and fell. Reflexively, he put out a hand to break the fall. The hand broke the fall, but still off balance, he toppled over onto his back.
“Sonuva bitch!” he yelled, as he scrabbled on the smooth pavement with his hands and feet to try and turn over. They had just buttoned him into his first battle suit, and verbally explained the sensors and controls, as they had earlier in the training process, using animations, training miniatures and mockups. It was his first attempt at taking a step in the actual machine. “Now what do I do?”
“Stop!” Sarge ordered. His voice came to him over his suit’s internal speakers. “Pause and think, for now. Later, you won’t have to, but for now, take it slow and think about each move.
“This goes for all of you, he continued. You move in a battle suit just as if you aren’t wearing one. It becomes an extension of your body. A step in a battle suit is just like a step in your street duds. Just remember, in a battle suit, you’re eight feet tall. You’re a dozen times stronger and can move twice as quickly. Your legs are a foot or so longer. Your arms are a half a foot longer--more with certain weapon options.”
Sarge paused. He looked at Mars’ in his suit lying in an unnatural position on the pavement.
“Ok. Mars. Here’s what you do. Roll over exactly as you would if you weren’t wearing the suit. Wait! Do it slowly, deliberately and use your eyes to keep track of your position.”
Mars brought his arms back as he lifted himself. He slowly attained a seated position. He twisted his torso and threw his right arm over. With a clatter and bang, he fell to an elbows-and-knees position.
“Not bad,” Sarge said. “You’ll make it smoother with practice. Continue....slowly.”
Mars drew his knees up under his torso and lifted himself with his arms until he was in an upright kneeling position. As he lifted one knee up to plant a foot, he almost fell over again, but he put the knee back down.
“Good. You’ll have to do that while maintaining your balance with your torso and arms, so you can come to a full standing position. Try it again.”
He put his hands down to steady himself, and pulled one knee up, then the other. He pushed his torso up with his arms and straightened his legs. After tottering around a bit to regain his balance, he stood upright, and still.
“That seemed clumsy as hell. I hope I can smooth it out a mite.” Mars said.
“You will,” said Sarge. “All of you will. The other way to get to your feet is to roll over on your belly, then do a push-up with your arms, and then pull your knees up under you. It becomes second nature.
“The key is to get used to your size, then move in your normal fashion. Women, you won’t look like women. Any of you can disguise your public voice, if you want, and make yourself sound like a man, a woman, a cartoon character or even like Iron Man. You even have a sound effects chip so that you can make a siren sound, or a foghorn blast or any of several other sounds to get people’s attention.
“A standard hand grenade might knock you down, and if a piece of it hits near a joint, it can immobilize that joint, but it won’t hurt you. Neither will most standard bangers. But remember: an armor piercing round can pierce your armor and kill you. It’s never a good idea to stand up under fire and make yourself a target. You have to remember at all times that you’re not invincible.”
“I want you all to try some careful walking. You all saw how Mars handled it. Try to avoid his mistakes. Anyone falls over, get back up. You’ll certainly have to learn to get up off the ground quickly in the field.”
Later, after each soldier had a chance to get somewhat accustomed to walking in his battle suit, they maneuvered themselves into the suit storage warehouse, all of them walking, somewhat clumsily. As Mars and Annette entered the building together, he put his radio on private. “Not bad, for a rookie, eh Partner?”
“Not bad yourself,” Annette returned. “’Specially since Sarge picked on you first.”
They both backed themselves into their parking spots and popped the backs of their suits. Tubes and wires came loose from their bodies as the suit opened itself. Restraints at their knees, feet, shoulders and elbows loosened to allow them to wriggle free and step out of the machines.
“It isn’t as tough as I thought it’d be, although I could seriously do without the catheter connection.” Mars said, stepping back onto the platform. He rubbed his chest, then his face and neck where sensor pads had left indents in his skin. Annette stepped out, similarly massaging her skin.
“Time’ll come when you’ll be glad for it. We still have a lot to learn, Mars,” she said. “And that’s even before we get any weaponry.”
“Yeah, Partner, but now, we’re beginning to know what to expect.”
As other members of the platoon shucked their battle suits, and various soldiers went in and out of the showers, similar talk was evident around that part of the warehouse. After Mars and Annette dried themselves off and dressed, Annette turned to leave.
“I’m going to the mess to get a beer. Join me?”
“Uh, no thanks, Partner. I, uh, have to meet someone.”
Annette, puzzled, watched Mars leave the dressing room as if in a hurry, without looking at her.
Three platoons, including that of Annette and Mars, were assembled in a ready room, with Sarge at the front.
Video was onscreen, showing a pair of soldiers patrolling in battle suits through Training Town. A robot appeared in a window with a grenade rifle. It fired; the grenade hit one of the soldiers, who staggered back a couple of steps and had to catch himself against a wall to keep from toppling over. His partner opened up a machine gun mounted over his shoulder, and fired about twenty or so bangers into the window. The robot disappeared.
The screen paused.
“The shoulder mount automatic sells for one and one-half gold ounces, and should be carefully considered,” Sarge lectured. “It’s powerful enough to get to your adversary without taking out the building. It can be loaded with anything from bangers and armor-piercing to lead or steel bullets or even rubber bullets, with the appropriate barrel.”
He pressed a remote and another scene began to play. Two battle-suited soldiers were confronted by a tank armed with a rapid-fire cannon. The cannon fired four rounds, at which point the battle suited solders leaped straight up thirty feet, arcing in different directions as the cannon shells exploded near where they had been.
      The two airborne soldiers flanked the tank as they reached the apex of their leap, and each fired a rocket from a weapon on his waist. The tank burst like a can of water hit by a bullet, then burned with a number of secondary explosions.
      The two soldiers landed on their feet thirty feet apart from each other. Once again, the video paused.
      “In this one, the men have waist-mounted bazooka tubes. They hang down against the thigh when not in use, but tilt up to fire. Extra rockets are attached at the small of your back, and the tube has to be manually reloaded by the soldier’s partner. The rockets can be armor piercing, as shown here, or any of a number of others: tear gas, star shells, incendiaries, trank gas, smoke, etc. Also, the suits are outfitted with anti-grav kits, which your training suits didn’t have. They’re a fairly new accessory, fitted at no extra charge, to allow the soldier to leap away from sudden danger. We’re working on better power packs, so the soldier can stay airborne longer. Sometime soon, we want to make them flying suits, to fly as well as a car.
      “The bazooka outfit will set you back a little over two ounces, depending on your choice of rockets.” Sarge turned off the video. “I’m letting you go a little early this afternoon. Pick up the manufacturers’ brochures for the weapon systems that interest you, look ‘em over, and I’ll answer questions tomorrow. Have a good.”
      As the militiamen perused the stacks of brochures, Annette paused over a flyer for a forearm-mounted small caliber minie gun. It showed a headline “Fires 50 .12 Caliber flechettes per second.” She picked it up and slipped it into her bag.
Over the next several days, after the troopers received their own battle suits with the weaponry installed, they learned to operate the weapon systems and began working on proficiency. Toward that end, they were supplied with underpowered ammunition and had live ammo battle drills.
The got the feel for using their new ordnance, as well as the feel of getting hit by bullets and explosives.
      “Ok, troopers! It’s the same town you’re accustomed to, but that’s where the resemblance ends.” Sarge spoke through the internal intercom of his battle suit. “Your enemy’s small arms will be live hardballs, which you’re all familiar with. RPG’s, bazookas and other explosive weapons will be underpowered, but will still pack a pretty good wallop. They may knock you down, and for the purposes of this drill, will be considered a kill.
“Those who do get ‘killed’ will return for further training.
“You’ve been in these suits long enough now, that you’re pretty good at all aspects of their use. You’ll get better, with continued practice. This is your body, while you’re in the field; take care of it. I don’t expect to see any of you ‘killed.’ I do expect to see a lot the enemy killed.”
      The platoon, having boarded its APC and clicked the battle suits’ wrist grapplers to the overhead grab bars, tapped into the van’s cameras to observe conditions in the streets of the “town,” and to look for heavy arms. The battle suit’s computer made a map from the observed data, with which the militiaman could find his way through the streets and alleys more easily.
      As is commonly done, the APC broadcast a statement requesting immediate surrender, then put down at a clearing at the edge of the training ground. The platoon spread out in six pairs and entered the “town” at several locations.
      Mars called up his map, which showed not only the locations of the other militiamen, but the locations of the emplacements that had been seen from the air. He spoke privately with Annette.
      “We’re headed toward that laser emplacement east of here. We’ll follow this street for about ten blocks. The map calls it B Street. See it?”
“Aye. Be careful, Mars,” she advised. “Keep watch for small stuff on the way. Slowly, now. Eyes and ears!”
      Other men followed other streets, generally moving in the same direction, out of sight of each other to minimize losses. Mars and Annette took opposite sides of the street, staying close to the buildings or any other cover that appeared.
      As they moved about a hundred yards along the street, Annette saw motion. “Movement your side first floor, second window.” Making herself a target, Annette stepped out toward the house.
      “Careful, Partner. Several hotspots.”
      Annette placed her infrared scanner on screen two. “I see them.”
      Annette maintained position while Mars quickly moved around another building to the rear of the house.
      “Come out where I can see you! No weapons!” Annette said on her PA speaker.
      At the same moment, Mars burst through a rear door and aimed his gatling. There were six men inside. “Drop weapons,” Mars repeated the order.
      Weapons hit the floor, but one robot lifted his rifle. Mars’ gatling fired a burst, which deactivated all six of the robots. Mars spoke to Annette, “All clear!” He emerged through the front door to the street. 
      Annette and Mars continued along the same way, carefully and slowly moving and scanning for any “life.” The buildings, which were mock-commercial and business, became mock residential: houses made of concrete for durability, with openings representing windows and with plain plywood doors. There were concrete and steel shapes representing trees, hedges and fences.
      Mars halted. “Warm bodies. Eighty yards at ten o’clock.”
      “Got ‘em! Pretty good-sized group, moving across. Should reach the street in a few seconds.”
      “Weapons ready.”
      Both soldiers moved behind cover, Annette behind a large “tree” and Mars at the corner of a wall.
      As they watched, twenty-odd robots entered the street. Using magnification, it became clear that only six of the robots were armed and were covering the rest, who were unarmed and whose arms were immobilized with plastic ties.
      “Lower your weapons and let your hostages move away!” Annette ordered over her public speaker.
The group stopped. “We will continue on. Firing on us will kill innocents.”
Internal radios: Aim carefully, Mars. You take the three on the right. Head shots.”
“Got ‘em.”
Six shots rang out almost as one. The six armed robots slammed to the pavement, their weapons clattering to the ground near their bodies. The robots representing innocent hostages continued across the street and out of sight.
Annette and Mars continued along the street, encountering an occasional sniper, uncovered by careful observation through their suits’ sensor array, and eliminated them. Eventually, they approached an intersection that would lead to the objective. Two of their platoon mates beat them to it, and jogged toward the intersection.
“Mars opened his platoon-wide communicator. “Careful, guys. Eyes and ears.”
Just as he said it, at least four dust-filled pops erupted at the two troopers feet. They were coated in pink dust. They stopped, paused, and walked back the way they had come. Killed.
“Partner, let’s check this out before we proceed.” Mars said as he pointed toward the location. Mars went back to one of the buildings they’d just passed and tore the door off its hinges. He slid it flat across the intersection. Several bangs and five or six plumes of pink dust erupted.
“We’ll have to jump over the intersection. You jump to the sidewalk over there,” Mars pointed. “And I’ll jump over there, directly across the street from you. Eyes and Ears!”
They jumped to their respective sides of the street and began moving carefully along the curb, using all of their sensors.
Their objective, a flag on a short pole attached to the end of a low block wall about three hundred yards down the street, could be seen, now that they had turned the corner.
“What do you think we should do,” Mars asked.
“It seems to get more perilous, the closer we get,” was Annette’s reply. “Yet, what else can we do but go to it, being careful as possible as we go.”
“Opposite sides of the street. Anything moves, holler. Jump, if you think you should,” Mars said, stepping off to cross the street.
Annette looked around carefully. “I don’t see anything yet. Moving....”
Mars paused to look carefully at both sides of the street ahead. “On your right. The second story window. I saw a change in the light. Keep looking around; I’ll watch the window.”
“I see a photo cell in the stoop of this next house. There’ll be another one on your side.” Annette found the cell and carefully stepped over it.
Mars moved carefully, keeping an eye on the window. “Nothing new at the window. Maybe the photo cell was to activate it. 
They moved slowly forward.
“Wait,” Annette stopped. “I hear something!”
“”Yes! I hear it.”
A low rumble is heard from ahead of them, out of sight around the next intersection. The rumble was getting louder. Both soldiers took cover around the corner of buildings, waiting to see what would appear. Mars loaded his mortar.
The machine entered the intersection two blocks ahead. It was like a tank, but smaller. Unmanned and remote controlled, Mars guessed. The tank turned and fired as Mars leaped across the street, landing near Annette. He fired a mortar round and, not waiting to see if it hit, popped a rocket into Annette’s bazooka. She fired. He followed it quickly with another. As she launched the second rocket, both of them leaped behind the nearby house and threw themselves down behind a concrete wall. The tank’s cannon round puffed behind them at the near edge of the street. No more shots were fired.
Mars activated the camera in his index finger and pointed it over the top of the wall, trying to see where the tank was and what it was doing. He saw two blue blotches on the side of the tank; one in the area of its track and the other on the turret, next to the cannon, in the joint between the turret and the body. In a real battle, it would have immobilized the turret and likely damaged the cannon itself.
According to the rules of the test, the tank was dead.
“We’d better stick close,” Mars said as they stood up and moved back into the street. “We may still need the bazooka.”
They moved along the street together, both monitoring their sensors carefully, moving closer to the dead tank.
A half-dozen armed robots dashed into the street and took cover behind the tank. They began firing hardball rounds, a few of which ricocheted off both their battle suits. They took cover behind the nearest house.
“Stay here and fire bursts to keep them down,” Mars said. “I’ll go around the house for a different angle.”
A grenade popped near Annette as Mars moved away. It was a miss, but showed that care was needed. A grenade hit would put one of them out of the game. He hopped over a wall and skirted the next house, putting himself a hundred feet nearer the tank, with a different angle of fire. He peeked.
He lobbed a mortar round to drop behind the tank. It was a close miss. Two of the robots ran from behind the tank--were shot by Annette. Mars corrected his mortar and fired again. Direct hit. All the robots were out of action.
“Come forward. Carefully!” Mars suggested. “I’ll cover you.”
She joined him as they continued their advance. Without any further resistance, they arrived at their objective, a flag flying from a pole, which was attached to the top of a low wall. Annette reached for the staff of the banner.
“Stop, Partner,” Mars stepped between her and the flag. “Let me look at this.”
Mars examined the flag with each of his sensing devices. His electric current sensor showed color in the flag’s staff. “There’s an electronic connection here.”
Mars raised his left hand toward the staff, and pointed his index finger. A needle-like shaft emerged, which Mars poked gently into the staff of the flag. After a few seconds, he removed the flag and stepped back.
“What was that? Annette asked.
“There was an electron flow which, if broken, would’ve triggered the explosion of a paint bomb which would’ve disqualified us both. I merely redirected the flow and cut the flag out of the circuit.”
“So....we win!” proclaimed Annette. “Or, I should say, you win. I was about to get us killed.”
Sarge’s voice came over the internal radio. “Congratulations, men. 86% of the militiamen tested get excited and grab the flag without a scan. Well done!”
“Marlowe, you’ve shown yourself to be very adept at maneuvering and handling obstacles in your battle suit.” Major Lopez, addressed the members of the platoon. “All of you did well, except for Privates Duke and Fernandez, who were disqualified. You’ll now graduate from the training. Eric Marlowe leads the class with his partner Annette O’Malley won the mock battle and thus start their careers as First Privates.
“As mentioned in your contract, we’ll have an overnight a month of practice/training and you can come to your armory anytime, with an appointment, and stay a few days to drill in your battle suits. You just have to schedule it so someone will be here to set up and run the range.
“Best if you can do this with your partner, so you can continue to learn to better work with each other.”
Sarge motioned to Mars and Annette as the group broke up to go back to the APC. “As your drill instructor, I’m going to grab first claim. I’d like both of you to join my platoon, if it’s agreeable. You’ll remain partners.”
Mars looked at the blank face of Annette’s battle suit. He put his radio private to her. “I’m good with this Partner, how about you?”
“Of course, Partner,” she said. He wondered if there was a hint of sarcasm in the way she answered him.
      At the end of the training, after a shower and donning their street uniforms, there was a short ceremony in which they were formally accepted into the Freestate California Militia.
      After everything was concluded, Mars and Annette left the auditorium together.
      “So, how ‘bout a beer and a burger before we leave?” Annette asked Mars.
      “Well, I, uh....”
      Annette’s eyes flashed, she grabbed Mars’ arm and pulled him over against the wall.
      “You know, Partner, you’re really starting to piss me off!” She dropped his forearm roughly. “Is there something wrong with you? Or is it me?”
      “No, I...”
      “Do you want to pick a different partner? You haven’t called me by name since we were first paired together at Dos Rios....Partner!” She raised her voice at the last word enough that she drew some looks from other militiamen nearby.
      “Ok, look Par...uh, Annette, I think the world of you,” he said in what he hoped was a soothing voice. “And, no. I absolutely do not want a different partner. Ok, let’s go down to the mess. I guess I owe you an explanation, and an apology.”
      He took her arm gently, and guided her toward the door, but as they started walking, she pulled her arm free to keep a little space between them.
      The enlisted mess had only a few occupied tables as they entered. It was between meals and most of the militiamen were leaving for other locations rather then opting for the mess. After they were seated, each with a beer, Annette, still with an angry look, asked, “Mars, I don’t get it. We work well together, we each hold up our end well, and we don’t fuck up. What’s going on?”
      He took a big swallow of his beer. “When Juanita first suggested that I have a partner, I resisted it. I preferred to work alone. When she told me the person she had in mind was female, I resisted even harder. I didn’t need a woman to slow me down.
      “Why? As a homicide detective, up in San Diego, I had three partners over a period of ten years. They’re all dead; killed while partnered with me.”
      “Oh!” she muttered, eyes downcast. “I’m so sorry!”
      “I spent a lot of time after each instance, wondering if there’d been anything I could’ve done to prevent it. Wondering whether I’d been alert enough. Wondering if I’d thought of everything before we went in.” He paused and continued. “Wondering why it wasn’t me.”
      “You’ve been out of that place for months now,” she said, her hands clasped around her glass. She lifted it and sipped. “We’ve been partnered here for nearly six weeks, and longer, with Dos Rios. I’ve never complained or criticized you, because, well, dammit! You’re taking to Freestate life well and I’ve seen no mistakes in our work together. I only hope I cover you as well as you do me.”
      “In California, we’re accustomed to the notion that we have to accept women in dangerous work like this for the sake of ‘equality,’ whether they’re any good or not. I’ll take it a step farther: you can’t criticize the women you work with either. Most women aren’t suited for police work. They’re not physical enough and they aren’t tough enough. Or they put on a false bravado that falls apart if they get slapped around a little.
      “To my good fortune, all three of the partners I had in San Diego were good at their jobs. All three of them were men, which I used to think, was my good fortune. I didn’t have to worry that they’d fall apart over the breakage of a fingernail.”
      Annette’s eyes involuntarily went to her fingertips, then she looked up. “A nail?”
      “I’m serious! Or that they had the strength to pull me to cover if I was wounded. I always thought I was lucky. My partners weren’t.”
      “So now, you’re worried about me.”
      “Less now than at first. I know you’re strong and no shrinking violet. You handle yourself well. You’ve the makings of a fine fighting man, and I’d never wish for anything less.” The cook set their plates in front of them. Mars took a drink from his glass. “I just get nervous about a personal relationship with a working partner. Both here and at Dos Rios.”
      “Because I’m a woman?”
      “Well, yeah!” He looked into her eyes. “Partly. It’s frustrating as hell. We might have to run into an inferno together, and we might be killed. You....might be killed.”
      “....And you might be killed.” She smiled an understanding smile, then reached over and patted his hand. She left her hand resting on his. “Mars, that could happen whether we’re together or not, and even if we were working in offices.”
      “So, what’re we gonna do?” Mars said, looking into her eyes with a degree of discomfort.
      “Well,” she said, noticing his unease, “we’re friends. We like each other. I’m sure you had that much of a relationship with your previous partners. I’m not here to trundle you off to bed, or anything like that. What d’you say to just hanging out more together and getting to know each other? I don’t like that wall you try to keep between us.”
      “You don’t know how hard that wall has been to maintain.”
      “Don’t look at me as a girl when I’m in the battle suit. I’m just as big, strong and agile and well-armed as you are. But, as you know, if we get to know each other in the field and off, we’ll become more powerful fighting together than both of us would be separately.”
      “Well,” he said around a swallow of beer, “that really stokes my manly ego,” he chuckled, then more seriously, “but nothing would please me more.”
      Annette laughed over the rim of her beer glass. Mars liked it when she laughed. “We can check out the other stuff as we go along--but we are partners in the militia. What kind of sports do you like?”
      “Sports? To watch, or to play?”
      “To play, of course! Watching is sitting on your ass!”
      “Ok. I play catcher and first base in the police softball league. I can bowl....sorta.” He paused in thought. “I’m on top of the department in pistol combat and fair with a rifle. Not so good at skeet. I used to play hockey. I ski....”
      “You play hockey?” she said with a nod of approval. “That’s cool! Er, so to speak. You have a good build for it.”
      “I said I used to play. I haven’t had skates on in a few years. I haven’t skated since ice rinks were declared too high in energy use.”
      “Bull!” She scoffed. “Wait’ll you see the rink in San Javier. We’ll fly over there tomorrow!”
      “You skate?”
      “Well, I’ve never played hockey, but I skate for fun.” She finished off her beer. “I’ll get a car and pick you up at ten!”

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