The colonists of the planet Montana are accustomed to being ignored. Situated in the buffer zone between two rival human empires, their world is a backwater: remote, provincial, independently minded. Even as a provisional member of the Republic of Aligned Worlds, Montana merits little consideration—until it becomes the flashpoint in an impending interstellar war.
When pirate raids threaten to destabilize the region, the RAW deploys its mechanized armored infantry to deal with the situation. Leading the assault is Marine Corps Lieutenant and Montanan expatriate Promise Paen of Victor Company. Years earlier, Promise was driven to join the Marines after her father was killed by such a raid. Payback is sweet, but it comes at a tremendous and devastating cost. And Promise is in no way happy to be back on her birthworld, not even when she is hailed as a hero by the planet’s populace, including its colorful president. Making matters even worse: Promise is persistently haunted by the voice of her dead mother…
Check out Unbreakable, W.C. Bauers’ character-driven military science fiction novel—available January 13th from Tor Books!
OCTOBER 17th, 86 A.E., STANDARD CALENDAR, 7:30 a.m. LOCAL TIME, GRATION FAMILY HOMESTEAD, IN THE HIGH COUNTRY OF MONTANA
Fresh air spilled into her upstairs bedroom through an old wooden window. Promise inhaled the smells of an early autumn shower, which normally calmed her, but not today. She scanned her room in frustration. Anyone walking into it might have thought a vandal had tossed it looking for valuables. She pinched her nose and scrunched her eyebrows, just like her father did, then slowed her breathing and counted to seven, just long enough to temper her words. She rarely let her father see her perturbed and had no intention of doing so today.
“Dad! Where’s my comb?” Promise closed her eyes. I really did try not to yell. “You know,” she said as she forced her shoulders to relax, “the one Mamma gave me for my birthday?”
“Try your nightstand, dear.”
“Right.” The lamp stood alone, a sea of nicknacks swept to the floor beneath it. Promise imagined her father seated in his hardwood desk chair, sighing in resignation. She didn’t even try to keep the edge from creeping back into her voice. “I know it’s not approved by the elders, but it’s from Mamma, and it’s one of the few things I have left.”
“Yes, I know,” Morlyn Gration answered with a maddening degree of patience, but without ceding the point. “Try not to obsess about it.”
“Try some compassion,” she muttered under her breath. Remember, P, he misses her, too—cut him some slack. Just not too much.
Promise knew her father was hard at work and that she had interrupted him over what he considered to be a trivial matter. She pictured his study vividly: a modest flattop desk, on the right of which sat a pad of paper and a gravity-fed pen because Morlyn Gration refused to use a smartpad or a sensible backup. Rows of calculations foretold the size of the coming harvest and the profits it would net. On a shelf above his head sat a seldom-used book of genealogy. Behind him stood a narrow shelf of books neatly filled with volumes on herbals, horticulture, and husbandry. All very boring in her opinion.
Her family was small and proud. They’d come to the planet Montana many generations ago, on the tail end of the Third Diaspora, which had come to a close with Earth’s death. As planetary deaths went, it had been a particularly bad one. Time reset itself, A.E. this time instead of C.E., to keep the homeworld’s memory alive, of course. But after one hundred years, no one cared anymore.
The lucky ones had left before “The Event,” drawn to Montana by its distance from Holy Terra and their separatist Luddite zeal… and just in time, too. Thank God.
After landing, the Grations migrated to Montana’s northern hemisphere, to a parcel of land along the foothills of the Fhordholm mountain range, only a day’s hike from the tree line. They saw four seasons and winters that dipped deep into the minuses, lived close to the land, and dabbled in tradecraft. In less than a generation, harsh Montana winters took their toll, the deaths mounted—so many children, lost unnecessarily—and time-honored traditions crumbled to dust. The Grations became reluctant technophiles of a sort. And why not? That’s what mechs were for, after all. Let them grunt it out for a change. Let the children live.
Big surprise, Promise thought as she kicked a pile of clothes in frustration. Not that using mechs bothered her. It didn’t. But it was the principle of the matter, which brought her back to the comb. He sees the value of machines. I wish I could ask Mom why she fell for him. Dad can be so… so… stubborn! Can’t he see how much this means to me?
Promise gave up her search. She walked to her closet, reached up high, and grabbed the handgun and holster off the top shelf, making both disappear. She walked down the hall and descended the stairs, which emptied into a plain room. A few solid pieces of furniture hugged the walls, which supported several acrylic landscapes, soft pastorals full of greens and yellows and browns. Her father’s rocker sat near a bricked fireplace. Her mother’s leather armchair faced to the east. Mount Kinley stood in the distance, a purple dome that had once topped five thousand meters before it blew its top.
“Be back for lunch,” yelled her father.
“Don’t plan on it,” Promise shouted back.
She was already halfway to her ride when she heard the screen door slam shut behind her. Promise swung her leg over the sled and felt her hands mold to the polymer grips. A green light on the steering console came to life and scanned her eyes. Then the sled rose on a platform of countergravity.
Promise glanced behind her and up at her father’s office window. She caught movement and knew he was watching her from above, hoping not to be seen. “He looks. Too bad he never really sees me.” She pivoted, then urged her sled forward and out of sight.
OCTOBER 17th, 86 A.E., STANDARD CALENDAR, 7:57a.m. LOCAL TIME, GRATION FAMILY HOMESTEAD, IN THE HIGH COUNTRY OF MONTANA
Promise left the sled by a small creek at the base of the hill. She’d gone there to collect her thoughts and to grieve the loss of her treasure. But there was plenty of time for that and runners didn’t waste cool mornings in self-pity. She had only meant to jog a few kilometers. But as her thighs heated, she made the decision to push. Conditioned muscles responded, and three klicks became five, then ten. As she ran, three gray-blue moons floated overhead, a trio of sentinels guarding the hectares of agriculture below them. The air was brisk and wormed its way into her jumpsuit, chilling her slight breasts.
She heard her father’s mantra coax her forward as the lactic acid collected in her legs, tempting her to quit. Rise early, work late, or poverty will knock at your door like an armed man and destroy you.
How about rest, Dad. Rest is good, too. She’d told him so often enough. A little sleep, a little slumber, makes a man a kinder soul. Her father never did know how to take a joke.
Before returning home, she doubled back to the hill to watch the sun crest over the horizon and chase away the night. Her home stood in the distance, about two kilometers away. The path to the hill’s top was a series of switchbacks marked by trampled grasses and clay, clear evidence that she had been there many times before. As she neared the summit, Promise heard the roar of engines. She ducked instinctively as a shadow passed overhead. She’d never seen one in real life, just in vids and stills. But she immediately knew what it was. Short-range, blocky, and clearly armed. Two manned sleds dropped from the craft’s belly, changed course, and quickly disappeared into the landscape, headed roughly in the direction of her home. Then the larger craft turned that way, too.
A sudden, overwhelming fear washed over her. The nets had reported raids across the planet Garius, barely a week ago, and Garius was only a short jump from Montana.
Oh, God, please turn! But the craft didn’t alter its course.
Promise tracked the vessel with growing trepidation. She withdrew a small optic from a band on her arm and used it to glass the land below. The ship came to stop above the ground and a short distance from her rectangular, wood-framed house. Two sleds shot out of the trees and climbed high above them before circling the much larger ship. They reminded Promise of wraiths waiting to collect the dead. The main vessel hovered, impossibly still. Seven figures dropped from its belly and sunk their boots into Montana’s orange clay. They drew weapons and spread out. Fear held Promise in place. Time seemed to stretch as one second became ten, and then sixty.
She watched her father exit the front door to face his attackers in The Way—hands raised, palms up, in peace. Like any other day, his dress was plain as his God had intended it to be: a woven hat shielding his eyes; his black vest hanging open and casual (the proper black); the sleeves on his blue shirt (the proper blue) rolled to the correct place on his elbows; his khakis generic, not brand. One of the seven stepped toward him with his weapon raised.
Morlyn Gration’s body fell backward in slow motion. Promise waited anxiously for him to rise. He has to get up. Get up, Dad. Get up! She screamed in silence. A slight breeze caught his hat and blew it into a mound of flowers, and like that she knew he was gone.
They worked methodically and took everything of value that could be sold or traded: household effects, servomechs, and livestock. They set fire to the rest and then disappeared into the upper atmosphere.
Promise watched it happen from the top of the hill, helpless to do anything about it. She couldn’t cry. She couldn’t move. She feared going home. What if they returned? She feared moving from the hill and being detected, or possibly taken, or worse. She sat transfixed, rocking herself with her arms around her knees, until the sun approached its zenith.
A brief gust of wind startled her and nearly succeeded in pushing her over. As quickly as the wind picked up, it stopped, and grew strangely still. She reached back to retie her hair and felt her blood pumping in her neck and pounding in her ears. She pressed into the thrum thrum thrum of it, as if each pulse was all that mattered. Her father had believed that life and death was in the blood, that it was a cardinal sin to shed it. Mom would have fought. Why didn’t you? The accusation was aimed at her father but ended up punching her in the gut instead.
“Why?” It was barely a whisper. Then in earnest: “Why?” Again, and again, and again. Until her screams turned to gut-wrenching sobs and bruised fists pounding the ground beneath her. She dug her hands into the soil and watched the clumps break apart and scatter.
Exhausted, she began to look for an answer, a direction, a what now?— anything. Lonely childhood memories circled about her, how she’d been raised by a plain, pacifist father who loved God and shop craft as near equals. An avatar of her mother materialized, a fierce fighter who’d charged through life with a 40-caliber sidearm strapped to her thigh.
Her parents had loved each other in spite of their differences. But Promise had been caught between them. Around the time she’d turned seven, she realized she might someday have to choose. It was her mother’s sickness that ended up choosing for her. They buried Sandra the following year, on the day the ground thawed enough for digging. After that, her father had grieved in his own way by boxing up her mother’s things and refusing to talk about it, or about her.
A memory flashed before her, one she hadn’t thought of in years. She was in her mother’s room, at about noon. They’d spent the morning in the garden, weeding and tidying up beneath a hot sun. Sandra had pushed her trowel into the earth and stood, arched her back, and brushed the soil from her hands. “Time to come in, munchkin.” Promise skipped into her parents’ bedroom and sat on the hardwood floor to play with her favorite doll. Her mother appeared sometime later, her hair damp and pulled back, wearing a silk gown with an ornate dragon coiled between the shoulders. Sandra walked to the full-length mirror and stood in silence.
“I feel so old.”
“That’s silly, Mommy. You’re not even close to one hundred.”
“I couldn’t agree more, munchkin. Thank you.”
Promise looked up and smiled. “I love you, Mommy.”
“I love you too. Always and forever.”
And nevermore. Her eyes shifted, and she was back on her hill, shivering with cold. Mom was so happy then. That’s how I want to remember her.
Promise pulled herself up off the tear-stained ground, reached behind her head, and let all of her hair fall. She drew her handgun and pulled the slide all the way back, held it for a small eternity. As the round chambered, she found the strength to choose. Not your way, Dad. Not Mom’s either—she wouldn’t have wanted that. I choose to live on my own terms. Not for you or for her. For me.
NOVEMBER 21st, 86 A.E., STANDARD CALENDAR, 12:00 p.m. LOCAL TIME, PLANET MONTANA, LANDING CITY
She stood outside the RAW-MC recruiting station in the heart of the Landing, Montana’s capital city. A handful of weeks had passed since her father’s murder, weeks that might as well have been decades. Nothing felt right. It hadn’t for years, really. Home—I don’t even know what that is, what it’s supposed to look like. I’ve lived like an orphan for too long.
The sign above the doorway read, YOUR TICKET TO THE STARS.
Right. Please scan mine and boost me out of here.
A week before, she’d seen it in the lawyer’s office, a brochure about joining up, for the truly “gung ho.” An Aunt Janie apparently wanted her. Promise had an idea of what that really meant. Warfighter. Wasn’t that the unvarnished truth? Certainly not what her father thought. Paid killers. The brochure had been the only piece of carbonscreen in an otherwise Spartan room. Glass on two sides, sparsely furnished with two withered plants and a virtual painting, a large desk, two side tables, and several abused chairs. The smell of burnt caf. While Mr. Lackett talked her through her father’s will, she’d lost herself in a grand what-if. A Republican Marine? Could I? What would Dad think? And Mom, I don’t even have to ask—I know what she would say if she were here now. She’d smile and salute cavalierly and tell me that a Gration woman can do whatever a Gration man says she can’t.
A hollow-point smile consumed Promise’s face. From the other side of the desk, Mr. Lackett smiled uneasily. He’d seemed very sorry for her loss and relieved to tell her that she would be taken care of. But it wasn’t her inheritance that brought the joy to her face. Realizing she had choices had changed her countenance, and that had settled it.
“Ms. Gration, I’ll give you a bit of time to read through your father’s last wishes.” Mr. Lackett handed her a luminous, razor-thin tablet and a small stylus. “I’ll just be in the other room if you need me.”
As the door closed, Promise sagged against the back of her chair. She felt her mother’s handgun press against her right kidney—she’d forgotten it was there. Her father wouldn’t have approved. In his mind, Grations and guns were like blood and oil. Irreconcilable. So where does that leave me?
The Last Will and Testament
Morlyn P. Gration
I, Morlyn Paul Gration, resident of Bristletown, Montana, being of sound mind and body and at least eighteen (18) years of age, do hereby make…
“The mind was very sound, true. But the body—tut, tut, tut—”
Promise jumped in her seat, and her head snapped up reflexively. Between Mr. Lackett’s desk and the glass wall stood her dearly departed mother. Sandra Gration’s hair glistened. She was dressed in a floor-length robe, cinched at the waist. A tail of some sort snaked over her shoulder and coiled around her heart possessively.
“I’m just joking, munchkin. Your father had a very nice derriere.” “Y-you, you’re—”
“Spit it out, munchkin.”
“Dead. You’re dead. I was there.”
“And yet here I am. How positively sublime.”
Promise pressed her palms against her eyes and rubbed at them feverishly. When she opened them, she saw that her mother was…
“Still here, dear.”
Promise stood and began to pace around her chair. “I’m dreaming. No, I’m hallucinating. I have PTS—that’s it! That must be it.” Promise took a step backward, toward the door she’d entered through and away from her mother’s apparition. “And you’re not my mom. You’re just a manifestation of my—”
“Stop psychobabbling, Promise. The fact that you can hear and see me is the important thing.” Sandra came around the desk and leaned against its side.
Promise wrapped her arms around herself and stared intently at a woman she knew, knew, was long since dead and buried. “You always did cut to the point.”
“Yes, well, your father liked to vacillate, and a businessman must be decisive. Someone had to look to our interests, and that someone was me. I made him twice the man he would have been otherwise, and three times as rich.”
Promise couldn’t decide whether to cry or smile. I’ve missed you so much.
“I know, munchkin. I’ve missed you, too.”
“What?” You heard that?
“As if you shouted it for all to hear, like you did when you were born. I remember. God knows you were a stretch—a woman never forgets that kind of pain. You even startled the doctor.” Sandra smiled at a distant memory. “And my nether regions were never the same either. The sex got better post you.”
“Sorry. I’m so glad to see you.”
This isn’t happening.
“I can’t believe this is happening! What a fine young woman you’ve become. Let me look at you.”
Promise took a hesitant step forward.
Sandra cleared her throat and drew a circle in the air.
“Fine.” Promise huffed, dutifully turned. “Is it really you?”
“Unless I was body snatched. You tell me.” Sandra dropped her chin and smiled warmly at her daughter.
Promise shook her head in disbelief. “This can’t be.”
“I’d like a hug from my girl.” Sandra dabbed at her eyes and opened her arms to receive her daughter.
A tear ran down her face. Promise closed her eyes as she rushed forward and through her mother and into the edge of the desk. “Ouch!” She rubbed at her hip and hobbled around to find her mother standing behind her, smiling sadly, with her arms still open wide.
Sandra shook her head with obvious disappointment. “It appears my body was snatched, munchkin—I’m so sorry.” A stubborn tear escaped and slid down Sandra’s cheek. “Well, at least I’m not one hundred.”
Promise choked back her surprise. “I remember that day.”
“And I’ll never forget it.”
“I have so many questions to ask you: Why after all this time? Why are you here? How are you here?” Promise cocked her head and crinkled her face. “I remember the robe. Wasn’t it a birthday present?”
“Good questions, most don’t have answers—your father would’ve killed to see me tongue-tied—” Sandra quickly changed the subject. “The robe was one of my favorite things. Silk, from Busan. I remember how it felt. I nearly made your father send it back when I found out what it cost him.” She narrowed her eyes, grew serious. “I think you know more about me being here than you think you do.”
“Me? I have no idea how any of this happened.”
Sandra tapped the side of her head and then pointed at her daughter.
“What? So this is just a dream?”
“Maybe I’m just with you. In there, out here—does it matter?” Sandra shrugged her shoulders. “Don’t overthink this, munchkin. I’m here and I haven’t a care in the world. Except you.” Sandra looked over at the door. “You must have been thinking of me; otherwise, I wouldn’t be here. Out with it.”
“Right.” Deep breath. Exhale halfway. Talk. But she couldn’t pry a word loose.
Sandra cleared her throat. “Dear, it’s never wise to irritate the dead.”
Promise opened her mouth, closed it. Looked left, opened again, closed again. Her thoughts began to wander in singsong fashion. I’m talking to my mother… my very dead mother… this is absolutely crazy. She licked her lips and…
Promise knocked into the chair and nearly fell backward. “Okay. You’re right,” tumbled out instead. “I was thinking about you… and about this.” Promise looked down at the crumpled advertisement in her hand. She smoothed out the wrinkles to reveal two lines of words in bold yellow lettering:
SEMPER PARATUS—ALWAYS READY
THROUGH ADVERSITY TO THE STARS
When Promise looked up, she found that her mother was just to the side of her and looking over her shoulder. A hint of saffron hung in the air, and the room seemed a bit warmer than it had been moments before.
“Mom, there’s nothing for me here. Dad’s gone. So is the house. I barely knew our neighbors, Gene and Tamar Wayvern—you remember them? He’s a lot like Dad.” They exchanged telling looks. “Three girls. Two are at university. The youngest was a big surprise. They offered me a room until I figure things out. Believe me, they don’t get out much either. Mr. Wayvern wants to buy our land, too. Grans is the only family I have let. Her dementia is really bad. She came to the funeral but couldn’t remember who I was. There’s university. But I’ve had my head in books for years. I need an out. Out of here. This place. This planet. Out or I’m going to scream.”
“Then get out. Go.”
Promise inhaled sharply. “You can’t mean that.”
Sandra nodded at the brochure in Promise’s hand.
“You mean enlist?”
“Dad wouldn’t approve. Isn’t this beneath me?”
“You are Morlyn Gration’s daughter. But you are not him.”
“I’m still a Gration.”
“You are more than that.” Sandra looked appalled, and for a moment. Promise thought the look was aimed at her. “Your father and I were so very different. We didn’t make things easy for you, did we?” Sandra shook her head. “No, we didn’t. I’m sorry if we made you feel like you had to choose one of us over the other. In fact, I’m pretty sure we did that, more times than I care to admit.” Sandra’s breath caught in her throat, and she had to clear it several times to get the next words out. “Promise, please forgive me. Forgive him, too… if you can. And please don’t carry that burden with you any longer. Make a clean break, here, now. I’ll support you, whatever you choose.”
“My choice? Huh. That’s not something I’ve asked myself much?”
“Think it over and then decide. No one will rush you, least of all me.”
Sandra frowned, and patted her side. “You’re clothing is a bit tight at the waist. When you spun for me, I saw Janie imprint. You’ll have to be more careful when you conceal-carry.
“Your GLOCK, dear. That’s my Janie on your hip, right?”
Without thinking, Promise cupped the frame of her handgun in the hollow of her back, against her right kidney, and gave her mother a puzzled look. I’ve heard that name before. Where have I heard that name before?
Sandra rolled her eyes. “Your father.”
Right. You called him the peacemaker and he called you…
“Republican-issued Janie. He hated just about everything to do with the government. So I named my sidearm in his honor.” Sandra’s eyes smirked. “He turned his cheeks, and I slapped them.”
Promise heard footsteps in the other room.
“Time for me to leave, munchkin.”
Promise looked up from the pamphlet. “Mom? When will I see you again?” But her mother was gone. “Mom?”
She felt something brush the side of her face, and then a hushed voice whispered into her ear.
As Promise stood outside the recruiting center, she surveyed her birth world for the last time. She watched an odd assortment of vehicles hugging the ferocrete. Butanol-powered cars darted about on antiquated wheels, while their modern counterparts flew high above them, sleek Aerodynes powered by fusion cells and flown by efficient and costly navigational programs. There weren’t many of them here. They reminded her of arrogant bees on a planet full of hardworking ants. Montana was a Rim world, part of the “verge,” and most Montanans drove on vulcanized No-Flat rubber and preferred it that way. They carried driver’s licenses—not “flight” certificates—as a matter of pride, and they holstered guns that chambered metal-cased rounds, some loaded so “hot” they bordered on being unsafe.
One more step and she’d close one chapter, open a second.
Ticket to the stars. Sounds perfect. She stepped through. Next chapter, please.
Excerpted from Unbreakable © W.C. Bauers, 2014