Chapter 1

Dr. Williams smiled warmly at me.  For some reason, I hated that smile.  It was the smile that said he had one more thing to talk about, and I wasn’t going to like it.

“So, before we end for today, I had a suggestion.”

I wished that I could say that it was brilliance on my part that made me guess.  I really wish it was.

I didn’t have time to dwell as he continued.  “I know that you’re going to go to the gym after this, Molly, and work off some aggression.  And that’s fine; in fact, I’d say that it’s about the healthiest thing that you could do right now.  However, I’d also like you to consider going into town for a little bit.”

“Town,” I said flatly.  “Do you think I’m ready for that?”

He gave me a long-suffering sigh, shaking his head.  “You aren’t dangerous.  You aren’t crazy, and I know that’s something that you have to reaffirm to yourself; your reactions to a stressful situation were completely sane and rational, no matter how they might sound to others.”

I knew this whole routine.  We’d been over it more times than I could count.

The doctor knew it as well as I did, too.  “But…  I think that going into town, maybe getting a cup of tea and then coming home, it might do you some good.  Unless, of course, there’s some reason you’re scared to?”

“I’m not scared.”  The words came out of my mouth before I realized what I was saying.  Immediately, I winced, regretting them.

The doctor raised his hand in a calming gesture.  “A poor choice of words on my part.  But you’re obviously nervous about going into town.  Can I ask why?”

I let out a soft sigh, pushing myself back into the chair.  “I still see… flickers.  In newspapers, or during commercials.  Nothing bad, and when I look at it I don’t see anything, but…”

“But it worries you.”  Dr. Williams nodded slowly.  “Molly, if you were to tell me that they changed when you looked directly at them, it would be one thing.  Or if you said that the commercials warped.  Then I’d agree that maybe you should stay on base.  But…”

He sucked in a breath.  “I think part of it is that you don’t get out enough.  Your subconscious mind wants to hold onto the fantasy it’s built up, and so when you aren’t paying attention, it tries to direct you towards that.  As you look at it, though, the attempts fall apart.  But you spend all of your free time either cooped up at home, or at the gym.  The issue is that either of those put the focus on isolation, allowing your subconscious to reinforce those beliefs.

“Now, do I think that you’re ready to go to a bar and go on a complete bender?  No, not at all, and your reluctance to do so has been admirable.  But you do need to go out on occasion.  Maybe just for an hour or two.  That’s all.”

My hands gripped my knees.  “That’s all,” I repeated in a soft voice.

The doctor waited a few moments before speaking again.  “At your own time.  I’m not going to order you to do it.  Just… when you feel up to it.”

I nodded absently, but the doctor slowly rose to his feet.  “Just think about it.  You have all the time that you need, Molly.”  He paused for a moment, his face settling into a thoughtful expression.

“Good session?” I asked as I stood.

“Good session,” he said at last, nodding.  “Dismissed.”

Had I moved any faster out of the door, it would have been a sprint.  I wanted to be done, gone, out of there.  The door hadn’t even clicked shut before I whipped around and flipped it the bird.  The receptionist smirked a little, but didn’t say anything.  Under other circumstances, flipping off an officer — or even an officer’s door — might get me in trouble, but being in a shrink’s office got me off light.

It was almost a tradition, in a way.  No matter how good the session, I always flipped him off.  I wasn’t sure why I started doing it; he was only there to help.  But whatever the reason, it was my way of being officially done with their brand of therapy for the day.  Time for me to get my own in.


 

I wiped the steam from the mirror and looked at my reflection.  I wasn’t sure why.  Was I expecting something else to look back at me?  Someone else?

I think I would have preferred it.  I didn’t like what I saw at all.  The scar on my hip from when I was a kid.  The pock mark on my shoulder from my vaccinations.  And… everything else.

My dad had a temper, but he didn’t like to take it out on other people.  Growing up, it hadn’t been uncommon for him to raise his voice to a shout for a single sentence, and then he’d be out the door.  Walking had been his way of coping with his anger, calming down and thinking about whatever it was that was making him angry.

It started out simply; I started walking with him.  Sometimes he didn’t like that, but it also worked well for the both of us.  When he was upset with me, sometimes we’d just walk in silence until he could talk, but even then there would be long stretches of silence from the both of us as we got ourselves back under control.

Middle school gym class was usually alright, but it also had a weight room.  One day I came to class angry, and they wanted to teach us some basic yoga stuff.  That didn’t sound like it would work the anger out, so I hit up the gym.

My arms were like gelatin for the rest of the day, but I found that I loved the way that it made me feel.  I could easily work out whatever was bothering me, and walk away feeling powerful, capable.  It took all of the little things that made going to school every day annoying as hell and made them disappear for a time, or present themselves in a way that I could tackle them.  That day, I hadn’t just attended World History, I’d honestly studied.  If I could lift those weights, then I could do this.

For a time, it worked out wonderfully.  I convinced my parents to get me a gym membership, and my grades steadily began to improve.  Everyone noticed that I stood a little taller, a little prouder.  Even if I didn’t break any of my personal records, I was accomplishing something every time that I went in there.

And then my body started to change.  Other girls started to exclude me as I became stronger, more fit.  Which made me hit up the gym that much harder.  The compliments that were designed to hurt.  The looks, the whispers as I began to build muscle.

I didn’t have a bodybuilder’s physique.  I’d never gone for that.  Instead, I was more of a power lifter.  I didn’t have a problem with bodybuilders or anything, but we went after completely different things.  They wanted low body fat, to look “vascular” during competitions, and I honestly didn’t care about those things.

I just liked the way that working out made me feel, and the way that it helped me to work through whatever was bothering me.  The fact that my body wasn’t rock solid didn’t bother me in the slightest.  I preferred it that way.

What I didn’t like, though, was the bulk.  I’d had such a nice figure when I was young.  I wasn’t rock hard muscle, not by a long shot, but I didn’t have that figure anymore.  My arms were too big, my chest too broad, my breasts too small, my thighs too big…  There wasn’t a part of my body that I was happy with.

Doctor Williams and I had discussed this several times already.  I would get so frustrated with my appearance that I’d need to work out again, a self-fulfilling cycle.  However, he kept stressing that my body was okay,that I didn’t need to be frustrated with it.

My hand balled up into a fist.  I didn’t want to feel like this.  I didn’t want to feel broken.  I didn’t want to feel disgusted by my own body.  I didn’t want to be taken off of active duty and forced to see some shrink.  I didn’t want to feel like I’d failed my unit.  I…

I wanted to feel normal.

I looked up to my face.  Regulations said that women could keep their hair longer if they put it up in a bun, but I’d always had mine buzzed as short as the men’s.  I’d never wanted special treatment because I was a woman.  In basic, I’d impressed my drill instructors by insisting on meeting all the men’s requirements.  If I was going to fight like the boys, then I’d damn well be as good as them.

I should have kept the old saying in mind that being invisible to your DI was better than impressing them.

In the months since the incident, though, my auburn hair had gotten a little unruly.  I still had plenty of daylight left.  I debated going to get it buzzed.  Get out of the house I’d been assigned and…

Get out of the house.  What had the doctor said?  Go to town?  Maybe I could do that instead.  Maybe get a civilian haircut at a salon.  Since I was on medical duty, that wouldn’t be so bad.  Or maybe I’d just go to a cafe, get a sandwich and an Italian soda or something.

Do something normal.

It didn’t take me long to get dressed, just my favorite tee shirt with Flora Neumann’s image on it and some jeans.  A pair of sneakers.  I did, however, throw on a little makeup.  Nothing fancy, just quick and dirty.  Some foundation and a touch of lipstick.  My mascara, unfortunately, had gone solid on me while I’d been overseas.  Just my luck.

Before I hit the door I grabbed my favorite jacket.  It was lightweight and rather short, but I’d taken the time to have all my patches sewn on it.  Marine pride.  I also liked the way that it looked on me, making me feel like I had more curves than I actually did.

Unfortunately, it felt a little tight around the shoulders as I put it on.  Great, I’d put on more muscle.

I pushed that out of my head as I nabbed my purse and went out the door.  I could have used the app on my phone to get a bus, but the walk to the gates helped burn some of that energy.  It wasn’t too far to the gates, not enough for me to get sweaty, but enough to help.

Technically, the base had two entrances, one for vehicles and one for the train.  Vehicles weren’t that popular on the island, though — the government had gone all out with public transportation, and with most of the population in one city, most folks found cars not to be worth it.  I knew my sister bitched about her truck way too often.

I approached one of the gates for those in the military, already getting my ID out of my purse.  “Lance Corporal Molly Acone,” I said as I slid it to the man in the station.  “Requesting leave to go to town.”

The Private spent a moment comparing the ID to me before swiping it and turning to his computer.  I took the time to look at the other gates.  Not very many servicepeople at the gates right now, but there were some civilians turning in their visitor’s badges.  One of them was being led off to be checked out, but she looked like she was used to it.  Probably had access to sensitive materials or information and had to make sure that she wasn’t leaving with anything she shouldn’t.

“Alright,” the Private said, not looking away from his computer.  “Lance Corporal Acone, medical duty, recently returned from NATO duty.  You have a class B limit on your leave allowance, so you have…”

He paused to click a few times.  “Ten eight-hour passes, eight twelve-hour passes, four twenty four-hour passes, and two two-day passes remaining.  I can’t authorize the twenty four or two-day passes due to a mandatory block on tomorrow.  Which would you like to use?”

Group therapy was tomorrow.  Right.  “I can make do with an eight-hour.”

The Private grinned as he typed.  “Considering how much of the month is left, you probably can’t use all these up.”  I flashed him a polite smile as he chuckled to himself.  Finally the small console in front of me lit up.  “Please sign and date.  Would you like a copy?”

“Yes please.”  I grabbed the stylus.  LCPL Molly Acone, 4/21/2016.

It took another moment for everything to print out, but he pushed my leave authorization to me along with my ID.  “Have a good day.”

“You too,” I said as the gate opened for me.  I pushed through quick before I had to share any more words with the guy.  He wasn’t a bad guy, just… Something had made me uncomfortable.

I took the time to buy a newspaper before heading to the platform.  An old habit from my parents.  When we’d been kids, they’d always made sure to read the newspaper around us every day, sometimes reading articles they thought we’d find interesting out loud.  As the four of us got older, they’d find articles and give them to us to read.

I don’t know when I’d caught on that they were encouraging us to read for ourselves, but by that point it had become a routine for me.  During my first NATO tour, I hadn’t gotten a subscription for obvious reasons, but I’d made sure to read whenever I took the train.  Now I occasionally picked up a paper from the base PX, but not as often as I should.  The ride, though, would be the perfect excuse.

I had to wait probably a good five minutes before the train finally arrived.  Technically, there were two trains — one heading to the city from the east, and the other from the west.  The east was a shorter trip, with a good view of the shore, but it had a lot of billboards.  I wanted to avoid that.

Besides, the trip heading west went through farmland and forest.  Not many billboards until you got near town, and I really liked the views.  Maybe I’d have to spend some of my leave time going camping one of these days.

I settled in my seat and finally got to skimming.  The People’s Party got a couple of seats in the Upper House this year, which was getting a lot of surprise from folks.  Everybody expected that political party to die out.  The American presidential cycle was in full swing; I could care less about that show.

I ignored an ad for an internet service provider that flickered as I found an interesting article.  The Institute of Advanced Learning had purchased more land and was expanding.  It was the biggest private education facility on the island, and arguably the best.  Most foreigners thought of it as just a university, but it handled education on all levels, and was famous for giving out scholarships willy-nilly to anyone who was smart enough or capable enough.

Not that it was worth anything, according to my parents.  They’d immigrated here just after they’d married, and had kept the opinion that any private education facility was just for rich kids who weren’t smart enough to go to school anywhere else.  I’d known a girl that went there, though, and she said that it was way harder than public schools, but also more fun.

The fact that the richest man on the island piddled his day there as a substitute teacher hadn’t helped my parent’s views any, unfortunately.

I didn’t hold their views on a lot of things.  Not on politics, not on education…  They carried too much of Australia with them.  I was a local girl, through and through.

I was eyeing an article on new floating wind turbines when a voice called out.  “Excuse me, miss?”

Across the aisle from me were two men in suits.  The one who had spoken didn’t look as comfortable as the other man.  His hair was more gray than brown, but he didn’t look that old, maybe his 40s.  A hard, angular face that said that he didn’t smile much, and a muscular build.

I offered him a polite smile.  “Yes?”

“I’m sorry to disturb you, but I couldn’t help but notice your shoulder patch.”  He smiled a little, just a twitch at the corners of his mouth.  “Are you a tanker?”

I glanced down at the patch, then back up to him.  I could see why he might think that.  “Third Artillery unit.”  I paused and folded up my paper.  “Former military?”

“Army brat,” he said with a nod.  By his accent, I was guessing American army.  “My dad was a loader, so I thought…”

“No,” I said with a nod.  “I understand completely.”

Normal things.  Talking to civilians was normal, and he was almost military, so he could probably understand.  Why not?  I switched to the aisle seat and smiled.

“Actually, I almost became a tanker myself.  There’s a certain… I dunno, mystique about it.”

“A romance,” he said with a nod.

“Yeah, exactly.  Unfortunately, someone let it slip just how crap our tanks are, and how few of them we have.  Our artillery guns are newer, in better condition, so I switched over to that.”

“A hard job,” he observed.

“Yeah.  After each firing, you’ve got a very limited window to tear down and move, then set back up and get ready to fire again.  Still worth it, if it keeps our guys alive.”  I paused for a moment before reaching across.  “Molly Acone.”

“James Igen,” he said, giving me a strong shake.

The other man reached over to shake my hand as well.  “Phil Wilkinson.”  Another American.

“It’s a pleasure to meet the two of you.”  I straightened back up.  “What brought two suits to the base?”

James laughed, but Phil only shook his head.  “We’re uniforms like you most of the time.  Rangers with the nature preserve.”

“This is the first time I’ve worn a suit in years,” James confessed.  “But the military’s been wanting to expand their training grounds for a long time now, and they wanted to talk to us about it.  I drew the short straw and dragged him along for the ride.”

I’d heard that they wanted to expand, but I didn’t know that the preserve had anything to do with it.  “I take it that you had to tell them no?”

James nodded, the hint of a smile disappearing.  “We have a delicate ecology there, plain and simple.  It was planned out when the preserve was set up so that we didn’t have to worry too much about wild animals wandering cityward.  There’s rather strict noise ordinances in the areas outside of the preserve to help with that, too.  Unfortunately, the proposed expansion would violate those.”

Huh, I wouldn’t have thought.  You never heard about wild animals in the areas of the forests that were open to the public.  “So, we’re pretty much fucked, then.”

“Yup,” Phil said with a sigh.  Was he staring at my chest?

“Not necessarily,” James said slowly.  “The way that they want to expand, sure.  I know how important training is, though, so I want to talk to some folks.  It’s a longshot, but I have a few ideas that I want to pitch to people.  Try and see if we can give you all a different option.”

I tilted my head, grinning a little.  “Are you sure you’re only an army brat?  You seem like someone who served.”

An amused puff of air escaped him.  “No, I never served in the military.  I did do some mercenary work, though.  Not Blackwater, but you get the idea.”

“Private military contractor, you mean.”

James shook his head.  “The average person has no idea what that means.  It’s easier to just say mercenary and be done with it than to try and explain how a PMC is different from a mercenary group.

“I didn’t last long, though.  It was alright work, and good pay, but it was never really satisfying.  Someone suggested trying this out, though, and I found that it worked well for me.  The pay isn’t the greatest, but the work is fulfilling, the environment is good, and I’m not constantly paranoid about being shot at.”

“Yeah,” I said, a little more quietly than I’d have liked.

James seemed to pick up on that right quick.  “That was a long time ago, though.  I’ve been here since the 90s.  It’s a good little country.”

“It is,” I said, perking up.  “Except for certain things.”  I looked at Phil.  “I know my rack ain’t mesmerizing, pal.”

Instantly, the man blushed, a look of terror crossing his face.  “What?  No, I mean…  That…”

James put the back of his hand over his mouth, chuckling softly.  I couldn’t help but grin as I made continue motions.  “Please, I like seeing people dig themselves deeper.”

He sighed, rubbing his forehead for a moment.  “It’s not your tits I’m looking at.  It’s what’s on your shirt.  I see that image a lot, but I can’t quite read who she is.”

I looked down and couldn’t help but laugh.  “How long have you been off the boat for?”

“Um.”  Phil smiled weakly at me.  “Almost a year, but I don’t get out much.”

“Fuckin’ hell.”  I shook my head.  “You up for a history lesson?”

He nodded eagerly.  “If it keeps you from decking me, I’ll sit through a science lesson, too.”

“Math was more my thing,” I said offhandedly.  “Alright, so, let’s go back to the 70s, okay?”  Well before my time; I was only 24.

“So we had this Chancellor who made a lot of folks angry.  When he went up for reelection, everyone pretty much voted for the opposition.  I think most of them voted for the candidate least like him out of spite without really thinking about what the guy was saying.

“So he gets into office, and bam!  Taxes on imports go way up, he starts cutting us off from the outside world, and half the things that he’s funneling money into goes to the wrong things.  A lot of folks think he was weak, but I think he was just strong in all the wrong ways.  I won’t get into a political lecture with you, but I’ll say that pretty much everyone agrees that he was the wrong man for the job.

“Near the end of his tenure, though, this strain of influenza hits.  Here’s the thing, though.  We always used to import all of our medication.  We simply didn’t have the industry to sustain very much.  That includes stuff like antibiotics and vaccines.  So, people start getting sick left and right.

“So reelection comes, and with so many people getting sick, he tries to declare a state of emergency.  But both the Upper and Lower Houses were having absolute zilch of it.  Back then, the Chancellor’s Cabinet could fight the Houses unless they both vetoed something with a 90%.  The lower house vetoed that state of emergency, his ability to stop elections, unanimously.  The Upper House had one fucktard who voted against it, but it was still enough.  So the election season starts, and that’s where Flora Neumann comes in.”

I moved my jacket and stretched my shirt out so Phil could see all of it.

“Now, she doesn’t look like much of a politician, does she?  More like, someone’s mother or something.  But she could talk up a hell of a storm.  She took the Moderate Party from a joke to a force to be reckoned with almost overnight.  The thing was, both liberals and conservatives absolutely loved her because she spoke both their languages.

“She said that we needed a strong military, one for both peacetime and war.  So, yeah, I’ve done NATO tours, but I’ve also helped after a tropical storm hit.  But she also hit the nail on the head that we couldn’t have an attitude of us first, because we needed so much of the rest of the world.  Thanks to shitwit, our economy was in the fucking gutter and we couldn’t keep the rich healthy.  She also thought that the government needed to take over the health care system.

“A week before everyone hit the voting booths, on national television, she outlined a plan to get us everything that we needed to get us what we needed and distribute it to get the epidemic under control.  She’d done all of the deals, had everything ready, ships were being loaded to send to us, and all that it needed was the signature of the Chancellor to open the wallets.”

I grinned.  “And first thing in the morning, she marched into the Chancellor’s office and handed it to him to sign.  She didn’t care if she got elected or not, she had a solution that made most people happy, and she was fighting tooth and nail for it.”

Phil grinned.  “She got elected.”

“You’re right fuckin’ skippy she got elected.”  I leaned back in my seat, grinning from ear to ear.  “She was a bad fuckin’ ass once she got into office, too.  Instead of pushing things past the Houses, she started working with ‘em.  Well, more like in front of them almost every day, arguing and debating policies.

“Bam, federalization of the health industry, while still allowing for private practices.  Bam, quickly that epidemic starts to be managed.  She allows business owners to have more than one company, and suddenly the economy skyrockets.”  While inadvertantly making the Muldoons the wealthiest family in the nation, but that was besides the point.

“She gets us involved with every goddamn global group she can.  Not as a token member, but with an actual goddamn voice.  She was a hound going for blood.  For her entire tenure, she was the name on everyone’s lips.”

I sucked in a breath.  “But it was the end of her tenure that got us where we are today.  She didn’t run for reelection.  Instead, she stripped away most of the power of the Chancellor, and made it so that the cabinet was voted in by the Houses.  The Chancellor still had veto rights, a few times every year, but their main strength became foreign policy.  She overhauled the entire government, talked everyone into it, and quietly stepped away to let others take control.”

Phil grinned softly.  “Sounds like a hero of yours.”

“She is,” I said, grinning.  “After she left politics, she still kept active.  She was a big celebrity up until her death.  People saw her as the mother of the modern nation, so there were constant interviews.

“The entire time, though, she was humble about it all.  When the internet became a big deal, for example, she quietly gave her opinion, then said, on national television, that she wasn’t the right person to ask.  She was in touch with an older age, an older way of doing things, so it would be smarter to talk to younger people who were more knowledgeable about this sort of thing.

“But she was also always good to us, too.  She lobbied for changes to the way that the military worked and women’s roles—”

“Now approaching Wormwood Station,” the prerecorded voice announced over the PA.  “The nation of Avalon welcomes you to New Avalon City.”

I smiled sheepishly.  “This is my stop.  Sorry about that, I get a little carried away about her.”

“That’s fine,” Phil said.  “I may have to look her up.”

“Do it,” James commanded with as much authority as a Drill Instructor telling someone to mop the floor.  “She gave you the cliffnotes version.  Youtube her funeral some time if you want to see just how much folks loved Neumann.”

As the train slowed to a halt, James got his wallet out and offered me a card.  “It’s been a pleasure.  I’ll admit, I don’t know as much about the military here as I’d like to.  You ever feel like giving another lesson to someone, give me a call.”

“Thanks,” I said, taking it from him.  I offered Phil a glance.  “One more word of advice.  If you ever want to break the ice at a party or something, make a comment about our name.  Nobody razzes on how stupid of a name Avalon is as hard as a New Avalonian.”

“Thanks,” he said with a grin.  “And, uh…  I don’t have a card or a pen—”

“It’s fine,” I said with a smile.  “If I feel like giving another history lesson, I can get in touch with…”  I checked the card.  “Igen to get in touch.”

“Please do,” he said with a smile.

I tucked the card in my purse and headed for the door.  I might have been hesitant about it earlier, but I was starting to feel optimistic about this trip.

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10 thoughts on “Chapter 1

    • Every country that exists in the real world exists in this world. Maybe not 100% the same as we have today, but for the most part you could be dropped into whatever country you live in and not see any significant changes. What changes there would be would mostly be from having an island nation that’s had a ton of money sank into it.

      For example, let’s say that you were to go to buy a video game. You would still have your Call of Duty, Battlefield, Minecraft, etc. You would also have the Ginger series of games, a third-person sci-fi platformer about a girl who is seeking out answers about her past and family after her memory was stripped from her by an interplanetary mafia. The series has always been hailed as visually stunning, with solid plot and gameplay.

      When Avalon included video games on its list of arts applicable for grants in the late 90s, there were a host of people who decided to make video games. Most of these went nowhere, almost as many never gained popularity outside of the island, but there were a few that became popular overseas. With various ways for indie games to be distributed now, there’s quite a few college graduates who are making use of the various grants for the arts to make their first game and get noticed by bigger companies, both in Avalon and abroad.

      Avalon has had an effect on global politics, but I’ve tried to keep it small for the most part. They’re still struggling for the world as a whole to take them seriously.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I had, just the day before reading this, read an article about body-building addiction, so the relevant parts of this chapter kept hitting me very strangely. I’m also curious about how important the little history lesson will be to the story, and how…

    Still. Not the most engaging of beginnings, but I like Setanta quite a bit, so I’ll happily give this a try, even if you generally like for your works to stand on their own.

    I look forward to seeing where this goes 🙂

    Like

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