The year is 2108, and the North American Commonwealth is bursting at the seams. For welfare rats like Andrew Grayson, there are only two ways out of the crime-ridden and filthy welfare tenements, where you're restricted to two thousand calories of badly flavored soy every day:
You can hope to win the lottery and draw a ticket on a colony ship settling off-world, or you can join the service.
With the colony lottery a pipe dream, Andrew chooses to enlist in the armed forces for a shot at real food, a retirement bonus, and maybe a ticket off Earth. But as he starts a career of supposed privilege, he soon learns that the good food and decent health care come at a steep price…and that the settled galaxy holds far greater dangers than military bureaucrats or the gangs that rule the slums.
The debut novel from Marko Kloos, Terms of Enlistment is a new addition to the great military sci-fi tradition of Robert Heinlein, Joe Haldeman, and John Scalzi.
I was introduced to Marko by a mutual writer friend, who contributed to a previous bundle. We talked, and Marko was thrilled to help out, offering up TERMS OF ENLISTMENT. Catching sight of Marko is like spotting a unicorn, as he is often hidden, writing, and working his tail off, creating these insanely popular books. – Martin Kee
"Military science fiction is tricky because it either intends to lampoon the military industrial complex or paints it in such a way that you must really have to love guns to enjoy the work. Terms of Enlistment walks that fine line by showing a world where the military is one of the few viable options off a shattered Earth and intermixes it with a knowledge of military tactics and and weapons that doesn't turn off the casual reader."– Buzzfeed.com
"Much like Scalzi's Old Man's War and its sequels, Terms of Enlistment and Lines of Departure are combat-grade Military SF, and should come with an addiction warning."– io9.com
Chapter 1: Farewells
"You should go see your father," my mom says from the kitchen.
I look up from my book reader and glance at her. She is putting a meal tray into the warming unit, so she can't see the smirk I'm giving her. I go back to reading about the destruction of the Pequod, which is a much more interesting subject right now.
"Did you hear me, Andrew?"
"I heard you, Mom. I'm just ignoring you."
"Don't be a smart-ass. Are you not going to go and say goodbye before shipping out?"
"Why the hell should I? He'll just be drugged out of his mind." Mom takes the meal tray out of the food warmer. She walks over to the table and puts the tray in front of me, with emphasis.
"Put that thing away for dinner, please."
I let out a sigh—also with emphasis—and turn off the book reader.
"You'll be in training for months, Andrew. With the way his cancer is going, you'll probably never see him again."
"Good," I say.
Mom glares at me with an expression that's a blend of sadness and anger, and for a moment, I'm expecting her to slap me across the face, something that she hasn't done since I was ten. Then her glare softens, and she looks out of the window. Thick bands of rain are pouring down onto the concrete gerbil maze of our Public Residence Cluster. I hate rainy days—the moisture makes the smell worse. Piss and decaying garbage, the ever-present aroma of the welfare city.
"He's still your father," she says. "You'll never get another chance to speak to him again. If you don't go and see him, you'll regret it someday."
"You broke his nose when you left him," I remind her. "You weren't too broken up about the cancer. Why the hell should I care?"
"That was seven years ago," Mom says. She pulls out a chair and sits down at the table. "A lot of stuff has happened since then. He was proud of you when I told him about your acceptance letter, you know."
She looks at me, and I try to ignore her gaze as I peel off the seal on the meal tray. The flavor of the day is chicke and rice. There's not much you can do with the processed protein in the Basic Nutritional Allowance to make it appealing. I poke the fake chicken patty with my fork and look up to see that Mom is still looking at me with that dejected expression she has when she's trying to make me feel bad about something. I hold her gaze for a moment and then shrug.
"I'll go and see him," I say. "And if I get robbed and killed on the way over there, I hope you feel bad about it."
My room is just big enough for a bed, desk, and dresser. The furniture is made out of stainless steel, bolted to the floor so we can't dismantle it for scrap. The dresser is half empty. I don't own enough stuff to fill it up.
I open the top drawer, and toss the book reader onto the small pile of clothes inside. I traded a box of ancient rimfire ammunition for it last year, and the guy who traded with me thought I was a complete moron. The school property stickers are impossible to remove, but the public-housing police don't get excited about school hardware. When they do their sweeps, they only look for guns and drugs. I could keep the book reader hidden if I wanted, but the cops get suspicious when they find nothing illicit at all.
As I walk through the apartment to the front door, my mother sticks her head out of the kitchen nook.
"It's Sunday. Are you going to stop by at the food station and pick up your allowance for the week?"
"I'm leaving for Basic tomorrow. I won't be around to eat it." Mom just looks at me, and she almost looks like she's ashamed.
Then I catch her drift, and I shrug. "I'll pick up my allowance, Mom."
She opens her mouth to say something, but I turn around and close the door behind me, and her reply blends with the hollow clap of the door slamming shut.
The elevator in our wing of the building is out again. I pop the door of the staircase near the elevator, and listen. The stairs are a hangout for the various packs of apprentice hoodlums, who use the confined space to gang up on people. The public-housing police only show up in force when they do a drug-and-gun sweep. The rest of the time they stay well away from the tenements. We have security cameras on every floor, but most of them are broken. Nobody gives a shit about welfare rats.
Our apartment is on the twelfth floor of a thirty-floor building. I make my way down the stairs, taking three and four steps at a time, speed over stealth. At the bottom of the staircase, I pause again to listen. Then I open the door to the lobby and hurry out of the building to fetch my gun.
Guns are illegal in welfare housing, but just about everybody has one anyway. I don't keep mine in the house because of the random checks, and because Mom would have a fit if she found it. I hide it in a waterproof tube that's stuck into a crevice of the building's huge, mobile trash incinerator. It's a great hiding place—nobody ever checks there, and the container is always in the same spot—but it leaves me easy prey until I get out of the building. I check to make sure nobody is watching, and walk over to the trash container.
Every time I reach into the crevice, I expect to come up empty. Every time my hand closes around the cool metal of the magnetic storage cartridge, I let out a breath of relief. I open the lid and take out my gun. It's an ancient cartridge revolver, made over a century and a half ago. It holds only six rounds, but it works even with crummy ammunition, which is far more common than the good kind. Most of my meager ammo stash is hand-loaded from old brass cases and scrounged lead scraps. Revolvers are more popular than automatics because a dud doesn't tie up the gun.
I stick the revolver into my pants, right behind the hipbone, where the tension of the waistband holds the gun in place. It's risky to walk around with an illegal gun, but it's riskier still to walk around in the Public Residence Cluster unarmed.
There's one thing that's nice about the rain. It keeps most people indoors, even the predators. When it rains, the streets outside are almost peaceful. I pull up the hood of my jacket and walk out into the street.
I'm soaked to the bone within five minutes. You can stay mostly dry if you use the awnings and building overhangs as cover, but I'd rather get wet. Doorways and other dark places close to buildings are dangerous. You walk past one where a bunch of apprentice thugs loiter, and your journey is over. I almost got mugged twice last year, and I'm more careful than most.
My father's apartment building is almost at the other end of the PRC. There's a public-transit station nearby, but I can't enter without setting off the gun scanners at the entrance, so I walk.
This is the place where I grew up. I've never been outside the Boston metroplex. Tomorrow, I'll be off to Basic Training, and if I don't wash out, I'll never see this place again. I'm leaving behind everything I've ever known, and everyone who's ever known me, and I can't wait.
Dad opens the door after my third buzz. I last saw him over a year ago, and for a moment I am shocked at how much he has changed since then. His face is haggard. When he was younger, he was a very handsome man, but the cancer has eaten most of his substance. His teeth are horrible, enough to make me want to recoil when he opens his mouth to smile.
"Well, well," he says. "Come to say your good-byes, have you?" "Mom sent me," I say.
"Of course she did."
We look at each other for a few heartbeats, and he turns around and walks back into the apartment.
"Well, come in, come in."
I step into the hallway of his apartment and close the door behind me. Dad walks over to the living room, where he drops onto the couch with a sigh. There's an enormous collection of medical supplies on the table in front of him. He catches my glance and shrugs.
"Pointless, all of it. The hack at the clinic says I'll be worm food in six months."
I want to give him a snide reply, but somehow I can't bring myself to do it. The room smells like sickness, and my father looks miserable. The cancer is eating him up from the inside, and he'll die in this place, where the stairwells smell like piss. There's nothing I can say or do that will make him feel worse than he does already, nothing that will make me feel any better.
When I was fourteen, I would have given anything for a chance to kill my dad, take revenge for all the beatings and humiliations. Now he's in front of me, weak enough that I wouldn't even need the gun tucked into my waistband, and I have no hate left for him.
"I thought your mother was lying to me," he says. "I didn't think you'd pass. You and your books."
"Yeah, maybe that had something to do with it," I say. "They do need people with brains, too."
"You'll be pushing buttons somewhere. No way they'll send you out to kill other people. You don't have it in you."
Why, because I never fought back when you used me as a punching bag?
His remark is the perfect excuse to hurl something back at him, but I realize that he's trying to provoke me, and I don't want to give him the satisfaction.
"We'll see about that," I say, and he flashes a faint smile. I look so much like him that it hurts. If I end up washing out, I'll be back here in the PRC, and then I'll end my life just like this someday, alone and afraid, confined to a few dozen square yards in the middle of a welfare city. PRC housing doesn't stand empty for long when someone dies. They throw out your stuff, hose the place out with a chemical cleaner, reset the access code for the door, and hand the apartment over to a new welfare tenant the very same day.
"When are you shipping out?"
"Tomorrow evening," I say. "I report to the processing station at eight."
"Keep your nose clean. If you get arrested, they'll fill your slot with someone on the waiting list."
"Don't worry about that," I say. "When in doubt, I'll just think of what you would do, and then do the opposite."
Dad just rasps a chuckle. When we were still living under one roof, that kind of belligerence would have gotten me a beating, but the cancer has sapped the passion out of him.
"You've turned into a little shithead," he says. "All full of yourself. I was just like that when I was your age, you know."
"I'm nothing like you, Dad. Nothing like you."
He watches, amused, as I turn to walk out of his apartment. At the door, I turn around.
"Just go," he says as I open my mouth to say good-bye. "I'll see you again after you wash out."
I look back at him, the man who contributed half of my genetic code. I tell myself that this is going to be the last time I see him—that I should say something that will make me feel like I have closure. Instead, I just turn around and walk away.
I step into the dingy hallway outside and walk to the top of the staircase at the end. As I reach the stairs, I hear the door of my father's apartment closing softly.
On the way home I stop at the food station to pick up my weekly meals. They come in sealed, disposable trays, twenty-one to a box. Every welfare recipient gets a box per week, fourteen thousand calories of Basic Nutritional Allowance.
The stuff in the BNA rations is made of processed protein, enhanced with nutrients and vitamins and artificially flavored to make it palatable. They say it's deliberately designed to taste merely tolerable because it discourages excessive consumption, but I think that no scientific process can make BNA rations a culinary delight. In the end, it still tastes like they used ground-up feet and assholes for the raw protein, which is probably not too far from the truth. One of my friends in school claimed that BNA rations are partially made of reconstituted human shit from the public water-treatment plants, which is probably not too far from the truth, either. Public drinking water is recycled piss anyway, so it wouldn't be much of a stretch to complete the circle.
The rain is still coming down steadily. At the tenement high- rise next to ours, some guys are hanging out under the overhang by the entrance. They notice the box under my arm as I trot by, but none of them must like the idea of getting soaked to the bone for a few trays of badly flavored soy, because they all stay put.
As I walk up the stairs to the front door of our apartment building, I remember the gun on my hip.
There's one more thing left to do this evening.
Eddie and I meet in a dirty alley between two residence towers. Eddie buys and sells almost anything of value—guns, drugs, vouchers for the food stores outside the PRC, and fake ID cards that sometimes hold up to inspection.
"How much ammo do you have for this thing?"
"Eight factory rounds, and twenty-seven home-rolled," I say. Eddie opens the cylinder and then spins it, something he has done three times already during our negotiation. It's almost painful to see my gun in the hands of someone else. I know that I'll never hold it again if the deal goes through. "You're tossing that in, of course," he says.
"Of course. What am I going to do with the bullets without the gun?"
"Thirty-Eight Specials are common on the street," Eddie says. "You could sell the ammo to someone else."
"I'm joining the service tomorrow. No time to go shopping around. Call it a package deal."
"A package deal," Eddie repeats. "Okay."
He looks the gun over again, and nods to himself.
"Two commissary vouchers, and two ounces of Canada Dry. Last you for a week or more if you don't run around and share."
I shake my head.
"No go on the dope. If I test positive, they'll kick me out. Four commissary vouchers."
Eddie pinches his chin with thumb and forefinger in thought. I know he made up his mind on my offer the second it was on the table, but I let him go through the ritual anyway.
"Three vouchers, ten pills, regular meds, your pick of house stock."
I pretend to think about it.
"Three vouchers, fifteen pills," I say. "Deal."
Eddie holds out his hand. We shake on the transaction, and my revolver disappears underneath one of the many layers of Eddie's clothing.
"What kind of pills do you have?"
"Let's see," he says. "Painkillers, antibiotics, blood-pressure stuff, uppers, a few downers."
"How good are the painkillers?"
"Headaches and stuff, not 'getting shot' kind of pain." "Good enough," I say. "Let me have those."
Eddie reaches into his coat, gets out a tube of pills, and counts fifteen into my hand.
"These better be real," I say as I tuck the pain meds into my pocket.
"Of course they are," Eddie replies, mild offense in his voice. "I have a reputation, you know. People end up with fakes, they'll never buy from me again."
He reaches into one of his pockets again, and presents three commissary vouchers with a flourish, like a winning hand of cards.
"Appreciate the business," he says as I take the vouchers.
"I'll see you around, Eddie," I say, and know without a doubt that I won't.
Mom looks up from her Network show when I walk back into the apartment.
"How was it?" "Pointless," I say.
I walk over to the living room table and drop the handful of pills onto it. Mom eyes the meds and raises an eyebrow.
"Nothing illegal," I say. "Just some pain meds. I figured you could use 'em, with your toothaches."
She leans forward and scoops up the pills. "Where did you get those, Andrew?"
"I traded some stuff."
I pull the commissary vouchers out of my pocket and place them on the table in front of Mom. She leans forward to inspect them, and claps her hands together in front of her mouth.
"Andrew! How did you get those?" "I traded some stuff, Mom," I repeat.
She picks up the vouchers carefully, as if they are made of brittle paper. Each of those vouchers entitles the bearer to a hundred new dollars in goods at a food store outside the PRC. The government issues vouchers every month, and they hand them out from the safety of a concrete booth near the public-transit station on a lottery basis.
"Use 'em, or trade for something," I say. "Just don't let anyone cheat you out of those."
"Don't you worry about that," Mom says as she stacks up the vouchers and slips them into a pocket. "It's been a year and a half since we got a voucher. I'm dying for some bread and cheese."
I was fully prepared to feed my mother some nonsense about the stuff I traded for those vouchers, but she's so excited that she doesn't bother to dig any further.
"Good night," I say, and walk over to the door of my room.
Mom smiles at me, the first one I've seen on her face in days.
Then she turns her attention back to the plasma panel on the wall, where some inane Network show is running on low volume. "Andrew?" she says as I am at the door. I turn around, and she smiles at me again.
"I'll try and go over to the food store in the morning. Maybe we can have a decent lunch before you go."
"That would be nice, Mom."
I spend my final night in PRC Boston-7 reading the last fifty pages of Moby-Dick. Tomorrow I will have to leave the book reader behind. I've read the novel a dozen times or more, but I don't want to leave it unfinished now, forever bookmarked at the spot where the Pequod slips beneath the waves.
On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan. .