That Wednesday afternoon Annalisa King was welcomed home with tears and hugs and a party. School classmates, some of whom she’d met only briefly, showed up. So did many of her former soccer, basketball, and football team mates. Her older brother Alex and his wife Jessica did too. They stayed for Thanksgiving and Friday but returned to their San Diego home midday Saturday.
Their eight-year-old daughter Sylvia came with them. She and Anna spent several hours together on Thanksgiving and the next day, going to the park, mall, and movies. Anna had always loved children and was contented in their company, her time narrowing down to the intense Now of childhood.
The following week she spent as much time with her parents as she could. Since they had to work she had much of each day for solitary idleness. She spent much of that wandering her old haunts. They seemed alien to her now, as if she was seeing them for the first time.
That weekend they all tried to spend as much time as they could together. However just after lunch Sunday Anna walked into the backyard with her duffel bag and a pull-along suitcase suitable for overhead stowing at an airline. She checked with Tiara to be sure that no one was watching except for her parents. She lifted her hand and waved Goodbye. They waved back.
She dropped her hand, smiled at them one last time, and pulled Pegasus’s shield around her, going invisible. She flew upward, leaving a swirl of wind behind her.
Staying below the speed of sound she soared in a great upward arc some 65 miles to the south and bit east toward the Marine base in the Camp Pendleton area. She passed high over the Prince Industries Bluebird Security installation on the north side of the Marine base. Tiara, Suit, and Pegasus reported being probed by very advanced security, one a primitive form of gravity radar.
That she found very interesting but not surprising. Prince Industries was widely known to be at the forefront of scientific research and engineering development, their best-known products being the superbattery and many kinds of paramagnetic vehicles.
To avoid Bluebird’s attention she had to come straight down from a 20-mile height toward Camp Pendleton’s Visitor’s Barracks. She checked with Tiara to see if anyone could see her land. There being none she landed lightly under trees a block away from the offices containing the Officer of the Day. Inside she offered her papers to the OD, a stern-looking woman of forty-something years.
She was expected. After logging her in the OD had a corporal drive Anna and her luggage the half mile to the barracks.
Monday morning she awoke and dressed as required: armless olive tee shirt with USMC on the front in grey, grey and brown camouflage pants, and grey boots. She met other trainees downstairs just outside the concrete-floored parade assembly lot. A waiting sergeant called out their names and had them fall in on the assembly lot.
When everyone was checked in, the sergeant formed them into ranks by height and marched them to chow. There was plenty of choices of food and drink. They ate all together at several tables reserved for them. Anna found the food good.
The first order of business was an hour of class. This was an overview of the course which would last till three days before Christmas. It included how to defend positions, counters to improvised explosives, convoy operations, patrolling, assaults as part of a fireteam, and use of the digital warfare headset which let all troops keep in communication with each other and view maps of the ground in which they fought. They’d also learn to use several weapons: hand grenades, grenade launchers, light and heavy machine guns.
That done they began a 24-hour physical fitness test. They were tested on running, pull-ups and push-ups, agility tests, rappelling down heights from cliffs and helicopters, climbing rope ladders, water tests including heavy loads, and obstacle courses involving running, climbing, and crawling.
They did this with only two meal breaks where the menu was only combat rations.
At the end it was mid-morning the next day. They were then given an hour-long academic test of basic mental functioning, marched to chow, and released till the next morning when they’d find out whether they’d passed.
Anna was nearly as fresh after the tests as she’d been before them. She’d managed this without help from her super-scientific resources.
Some of the other Marines had noticed that she was consistently at the forefront of every test. This earned her some teasing during chow. It was mostly good-natured. Marines admired toughness in others; their comrades might save their lives some day.
Also, Anna had let her ebony hair grow out since she’d had Tiara cut it just before recruit training. The three-inch curly locks could have been professionally styled to flatter her face. Though it hardly needed flattering. Without blemish or makeup, her face would have done any fashion model proud.
The teasing by one of the Marines, however, was not good-natured. It relied heavily on sexual innuendo.
Anna ignored it. It bothered her not at all.
It did bother other Marines, however. One of them, an older man who been a Reservist and recently rejoined the Corps, said, “Knock it off, Russo. She’ll have you up on report.”
Another, a short stocky woman who was aiming for a battlefield intelligence specialty, said, “Or she’ll kick your ass.”
“Her?” He looked disbelieving. As well he might. He was easily the biggest of all the Marines there, perhaps 6′ 4″ and massively muscled (a fact which had literally weighed heavily against him in the endurance tests). A broken nose suggested he’d had more than his share of hand-to-hand action.
“Yes, her,” said the woman. “This is Annalisa King. She was Recruit of the Year.”
“Hah! Probably slept with the base commander.”
The Reservist shook his head, spoke to the sturdy woman. “Did you see the same videos I saw? Of her in hand-to-hand training?”
“Yes. Phenomenal. She’d kick his sorry ass up one side and down the other.”
Anna spoke up. “Knock it off, my friends. You’ll just make it more likely he’ll challenge me someway I can’t refuse to fight and I’ll have to hurt him. Then I’ll be up on report. I don’t want to lose a chance at my specialty.”
A short skinny Marine Private spoke up. He was barely the minimum physical size a Marine could be. He resembled a fox, and was one perhaps in more ways than the physical.
“There’s a way she can kick his ass and not go up on report. Arm wrestling.”
Her “friends” looked at him disdainfully. “No way! He outweighs her two to one and, look at her. She’s got some strength in those arms. But not his equal.”
Foxy smiled. “I’ll bet a hundred on her.”
Anna was not having any betting involved. That was a sure way to cause a lot of animosity.
“No betting! I won’t do it if there is any betting.”
“What do you mean, you’ll do it?” said the Reservist. “Are you crazy?”
“No,” she said. “I can take him.”
There was much argument on all sides. Tired as the Marines were, having been up maybe 36 hours, the prospect of a fight energized them, even one as genteel as this one.
“OK,” said Anna. “I’ll go along with it as long as we get the training sergeant to oversee it. That will make it legal and friendly, and he can see there’s no betting.”
Thus some 40 minutes later a crowd of Marines came together at the outdoor picnic area near the chow hall. There were perhaps as many as a hundred of them with more joining them all the time.
Anna and the brute sat down on opposite sides of a round picnic table made of tough plastic. It’d had its umbrella removed to give everyone watching a better view. A number of Marines further from the action removed more umbrellas from the tables and stood on the strong plastic chairs surrounding the tables. A few even stood on the tables themselves further away.
A towel was placed on the table in front of each contestant to protect their elbows. The two clasped a hand with the other, their raised fists between them, as the sergeant gave the simple instructions.
When the contestants had agreed they understood the rules the sergeant said, “Get set… Go!”
Anna’s reaction time was better than his. In an instant she had his arm pressed to a 45 degree angle.
There were cheers from some and groans from others.
Russo held his position for a minute or two. Then slowly he pushed her arm toward the upright position.
For minutes their arms stayed upright, quivering slightly toward victory for one or the other and back again. Then slowly Anna’s arm began to go down. And down. But at the 45 degree angle it stuck. Then slowly began to inch up toward stalemate. Then reached it.
By now her opponent was showing strain, his supporting hand flat on the table surface quivering. He was sweating heavily and his face was contorted in a grimace. Anna’s face showed no strain, nor did any other part of her. She might have been a machine.
In truth she could have won easily long ago. But that would not get her what she wanted.
She let her arm stay upright for long minutes, then let it be pushed down and down. She resisted despite the seeming inevitability of defeat, till finally her arm touched the towel-covered table top. That instant she ceased resistance and slapped her free hand on the table top to indicate surrender.
Russo jumped up and yelled out, “Yeah! Yeah!” He was quickly surrounded by friends. They all jumped up and down. Someone poured a can of beer over his head.
Anna stood, smiling at the sight. She was quickly surrounded by her own partisans.
“Too bad,” said the Reservist. The battlefield intel woman said disgustedly, “Idiot. She let him win. Didn’t you?”
Anna smiled at her. “I would never say that.”
At that the crowd around her parted to let Russo through, holding out a hand to shake.
“Damned good show, King. You are a tough bitch. I’ll back up that pretty ass of yours anytime.”
She smiled back up at him. “But only in a fight. You’re not getting those banana fingers on my ass. Not unless you want them broken.”
“By God, I think you’d do it.” He turned away smiling. In minutes the crowd was nearly gone. Left with Anna was the Reservist, the intel lady, Foxy, and a couple of others.
“I still think you threw the fight,” the woman said.
“Think what you want,” said Anna. “Just don’t go spreading it around. Right now Russo would be a valuable asset in a firefight. I’d hate to have you spoil that.”
“OK. OK. Have it your way. I still think you should have won.”
She turned and walked away, taking a couple of Marines with her. She was left with the Reservist and Foxy.
“Whatever the truth,” the older man said. “That was a Helluva good show. See you around, King.” He shook her hand and left.
She looked at the little man. He held out a hand. They shook.
“Dr. William Conroy, Corporal. I won’t say a word, but I know you could have easily won that fight.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“I’m a mathematician, investigating training techniques to see if I can make them better. I watched you while we were going through the PT sessions. At first it was to distract me from the pain; you are quite a pleasant sight. Then I began to calculate the effort you expended–“
“From variables such as how fast you moved and the angles your limbs subtended and the approximate weights moved. And a few others. I’ll bet you could beat most world records.”
“Interesting,” she said. “I hope you won’t go around broadcasting any of this. It would make me seem like a freak.”
“No. I don’t think it would do anyone else any good–even my dear wife–to know that a superhuman lives among us.
“I’ll see you around, Ms. King.”
He walked off. Anna watched him for long moments before turning go to her quarters, the first item on her agenda to take a long, hot shower.
Only three of the 63 in the Combat Training course failed in the fitness tests and left the base, perhaps to train up and retake the course.
The remaining weeks were taken up with short classroom instruction periods and longer field class work. This included marches, live fire of the various weapons, martial arts workouts, scaling or crawling under obstacles, locating and defusing improvised explosive devices, and use of the digital warfare headset.
This last reminded her of a very early version of Tiara. She spent especial effort on mastering the headset. In practice she’d use Tiara instead but she had to be able to convince others she was using the headset and using it well.
The last day of class, with just three days before Christmas, was a half-day. Before chow the 60 Marines were awarded a certificate for the training. Accompanying it was a ribbon for their dress uniforms. They were then let go.
Many took off home or wherever. Some went through the chow line, either to get a last free meal before leaving or (in a few cases) because they’d stay on the base for whatever reason.
Anna ate there for political reasons. She’d meet her former class mates again and again over the years. She wanted to be sure they remembered her and favorably. Russo was there, too, for the “free chow” before heading out and the two of them exchanged good-natured insults. None of his descended to sexual innuendo, however. He seemed to have learned his lesson about that, at least with her.
In the barracks she dressed in civilian clothes, packed, and took a taxi to a location off base where she could be thought to wait for friends to pick her up. When the taxi was out of sight and no one was watching she vanished.
Christmas as usual was a happy flurry of gift buying and giving and getting. Anna and her parents spent most of that time in San Diego. It was the first year the couple had celebrated the holiday there and their daughter Sylvia was delirious with joy to have all her favorite adults around her. The rest were not far behind in their emotions.
Annalisa King came down from space over Quantico, Virginia, a bit past noonday on the 1st of January. To the south seventy-something miles she saw the national capitol at Richmond, Virginia.
There was much greenery all around. From a dozen miles up parts of the vegetation was patched orange and red and brown. Fields had patches of white also. It was mid-winter here, a great contrast to sunny California which she had left just a half hour ago.
The Potomac River wound south from Washington, D. C., the old Capitol. The small town of Quantico was on the river’s western border. A railroad connecting the new and the old Capitols passed through it. Anna drifted down and for a few minutes followed an Amtrak train. Then she darted ahead and dropped down onto the Amtrak station at the edge of the tiny Quantico civic center. It was just a platform with a long roof over it.
She stood invisible near a roof support. When the train came to a stop about a dozen people exited. She took up station behind the last, gave them a dozen feet distance, checked with Tiara to be sure no one was watching her from behind, and went visible. No one noticed her.
There were three taxis waiting for the passengers. The two other Marines waited for most of the civilians to take them and waited. They and a couple of the civilians glanced at Anna but paid her only a moment’s attention. Perhaps because it was so cold, only a few degrees above freezing despite a bright sun-shiny day. A north wind led all of them to put their backs to it.
A few minutes later two other taxis arrived. The Marines again waited for the civilians to take the first taxi. They glanced at her. The older, a grey sergeant with Master Sergeants stripes, said to her, “Get in, Lance Corporal. Back seat, please.” He took the front side passenger seat taking with him his only luggage, an overnight bag.
The other Marine had a couple of suitcases. Anna had her duffle and a small overhead-sized pull-along case. The driver stowed them in the trunk and held the door for his passengers. He then got in and turned to the older NCO.
“That’s right, Tony.”
The cab pulled away from the station, turned once, then again, and entered the highway to the south. The driver meanwhile chatted with the sergeant beside him. They obviously had known each other for some years.
The entrance to the base was a little over a mile away. The driver made a right into it. One of two Marine guards came out of a hut and glanced inside the cab. She knew the two sergeants, addressing the older as Master Sergeant and the other as Staff Sergeant. Anna had to hand over the manila folder containing her travel orders and ID.
The guard examined these carefully, handed them back, and waved them on.
Anna’s stop was first and she got out, forestalling the driver. “It’s too damned cold, sir. I’ll get the luggage.” She handed him the fare plus a hefty tip. The cabby grinned and thanked her.
The Headquarters Building was a rambling two-story red-brick building. The area seemed deserted but Anna saw several security cameras looking all about. The glass double doors had a sign taped inside it. In large letters it said “PRESS BUTTON AND SPEAK.” There was an arrow on the sign pointing to the left.
“Lance Corporal Annalisa King reporting for duty.”
“You’re expected, Lance Corporal. I’ll buzz you in. Take the elevator to the second floor. Turn left there. We’re at the end of the hall.”
The inside of the building was quite nice, not a surprise considering this was battalion headquarters. All walls of the interior had been painted recently and a hint of the paint’s sharp odor still lingered. There was a reception desk to the left of the entrance to the office where the Officer-in-Charge presided, comfortable chairs opposite, and numerous photos of people and places on all the walls.
The OiC was clad in dress camouflage with a chest full of ribbons. She was, however, fairly young. Reading the ribbons Anna was impressed.
She looked up from a desk computer, stood, and held out a hand for Anna’s documents, forestalling a salute. “Lance Corporal. Welcome to Quantico. If your record is any indication you’re going to be an outstanding student.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“Sit if you’d like, Lance. Or go to the head and sit. I’ve got to check your paperwork against the computer.”
Anna sat and picked up a tattered Leatherneck Gazette. She idly leafed through it but with Tiara she monitored the checks. They were done thoroughly but only routinely so. Anna did not like surprises and the rarest ones could be the worst.
The woman looked up and said, “All in order. Here is your Welcome packet in case you don’t have yours with you. This–” Anna had stood up and was looking down at the packet and the print-out lying atop it. “–is your barracks assignment and a map from here to there.
“After you settle in you’re free to sample our recreation and other facilities.” The woman smiled. “Today they’re pretty limited. About the only thing open is the bowling alley. But you do have an entertainment center in your room as part of your study carrel. You can get most cable on it. There’s also public wi-fi if you have a tablet or laptop computer.”
The woman stood up and held out her hand for a handshake. Anna gave it, then stepped back, braced, and saluted. The woman returned the salute.
“Thank you, sir. I’ll try not to disappoint you.”
The woman smiled again and sat.
Anna left, feeling good about her reception even though she knew not everyone would be as welcoming.
The barracks were a few blocks away. The building had three above-ground floors and one floor half-sunk in the ground. She wondered a little about that last, given that the Potomac was so close and the base so low and flat. Still, the base was old and surely they’d long ago come up with ways to deal with water seeping into basements.
For a wonder she had an entire room in the barracks. It was small, with barely enough room for a narrow bunk bed, a desk which would be a study carrel and an entertainment center, a small closet, and enough room for an ergonomic chair and a straight-back chair. She could have no more than three guests without crowding and even then they would be intimate. Still, she was grateful for the privacy.
The bathrooms and showers were at the end of the hall, the stairs at the other end. This did not bother her. If she’d been body-shy recruit training would have cured her of that.
It took no more than a half hour to unpack and square everything away. Then she sat in the ergo chair and brought the study computer up. It had a fast optical line to the internet and a reasonably fast computer. Though no luxury item it was adequate for her purposes, especially since she could duplicate the computer with Tiara.
The large flat screen was also connected to a local cable service. She brought up the online guide to shows and found it had both broadcast and a long list of cable channels.
Though she expected she’d not have a lot of time for watching TV or browsing the internet. She intended to spend most evenings socializing with other trainees and Marines and maybe even with those attending the other schools at the base.
This included students and teachers at the Federal Investigation Bureau and the Drug Enforcement Bureau. Through Tiara she had access to every database on the planet, including foreign and secure ones. None of them were proof against the tech of a super-advanced race. But all those facts and theories in the databases could not compare to the wisdom of people who had “been there and done that” and she intended to make the most of the opportunities.
So thinking, she took her toiletry kit to the bathroom where she freshened up. In her room she decided on USMC exercise clothing, covered it well with a long uniform coat proof against the cold and any rain or snow, and set off for the bowling alley.
She’d expected the place not to be overly full New Year’s day, but it was doing lots of business. Plenty of other students had arrived today for the several schools and most of them were at loose ends. She made several acquaintances, did some bowling (carefully holding back to merely average scores), and ate a hamburger and fries.
At 9:00 the bowling alley closed. She good-naturedly refused going with several others who wanted to go to an all-night diner in nearby Quantico. Halfway back to her barracks when no one was watching she vanished. A half hour later she was with her parents, telling them of her impressions of the base so far while the two of them expertly wove a steak dinner for the three of them.
At 11:00 PM East Coast time she dropped down out of the sky and, invisible, entered the barracks and prepared for bed.
The next morning she checked in at the building where the indoor classes would be held during the Scout/Sniper course. Her credentials were checked once again. She was given a test of her use of a compass and map to do land navigation and draw simple maps. Then they checked that she’d taken the rigorous semi-annual physical fitness test recently. She had so she was released till 1:00 pm, when she was to report back after chow.
There were not quite fifty fellow students in the classroom assigned to the Scout/Sniper class at that time. She nodded to a few whom she’d met last night, sat in the middle of the room in a chair with a built-in desk surface, and fist-bumped the Marine beside her.
“How much sleep did you get after going to that all-night restaurant?”
The man grinned. “Not enough, of course.”
“Tol’ ja,” she said in a mocking little-girl voice.
He fake-scowled at her. “Nobody likes a smart ass, King.”
At that the sergeant at the head of the class looked up from behind a lectern. The room quickly quieted.
“Congratulations, Marines. You have been judged qualified to start on one of the most valuable and difficult courses offered to Marines. Let’s hope you live up to that.
“Some of you are used to thinking you’re hot shit because you’ve qualified as Expert Marksmen. Get over it. Everyone here is an Expert. Soon you will all be beyond Expert. You will learn to routinely make kills out to 1000 meters. That’s more than 3000 feet. About three fifths of a mile.
“As you gain experience, some of you will learn to consistently make kills at twice that distance. But that will likely take years.”
He scanned the students in their seats while taking a sip of water from a plastic bottle.
“Since it’s mid-winter here we will take advantage of that to teach you some winter skills. They’ll only be simple. There’s a regular course in snow and mountain sniper actions. But they’ll help you get through this course under these conditions.
“Most of you are not fully geared up for this climate. Use your smart phones or info slates to access the course database. Look at the list of clothing and equipment you will need and buy them at the Base Exchange.
“Reference the four-digit code for this class and all of those purchases will be billed to this class and not to your purchase account. Be sure you use this code only for those items. Our computer will double-check to ensure you’re not buying beer or porn with that code.”
There was subdued laughter at that last remark.
He then went on to give a general overview of the course. Anna and most of the students already knew the contents, but there was always the chance that this info would have recently changed in some important way, so she listened carefully.
It was mid-afternoon when the class was done. The students were let go for the day. However, they were to take from a table by the door a slender booklet which they must master before the next day.
“Hey, King!” said one of her acquaintances from the night before. “We’re going out for pizza and beer on the town. You want to come along?”
“Like to,” she said to the woman. “But I’m going to rain check. Got some things to do. Ask me next time.”
“Aw, Steinberg,” a man said. “Can’t you tell she’s a grind? Probably going to bunk and memorize the manual.” The remark was made with a grin. Anna answered in the same humor.
“With you big brains as competition? Don’t you know it. Tomorrow guys.”
The next day set the pattern for most of the following days of the two-month-long course. The first hour or so was in the classroom. It started with a test of the material covered the previous day, then covered new material.
Then the class was marched to an armory. There each student signed for a weapon and a box of ammunition, then went to a range, received instruction, and fired practice shots. Firing started at 300 meters distance and over several weeks worked up to 1000 meters. It was done in several types of terrain, and standing, kneeling, and prone.
They returned to the armory where they cleaned their weapons and returned them. In the classroom they did a field sketch and sometimes other exercises.
In the second part of the course scouting was added to the sniper instruction and practice. This included slowly stalking an objective while clad in a ghillie suit: a camouflage suit that resembled foliage.
Anna used her special equipment only to double-check that her activities would allow her to pass all the many tests she was put through. She never used it for any other purpose; her body was more than up to the level required of her. She made records at the very edge of normal human performance.
She could have easily bettered those records. But that would have flagged her as nearly a superhuman to anyone paying attention.
There was one exception to this policy of restraint. She wanted to qualify for the Ranger Scout/Sniper specialty. This would let her operate without the usual spotter partner who accompanied most snipers in every service. These partners backed up the sniper by keeping an eye on the overall area in which the two-man crews worked and kept track of weather and wind for each shot. A life-saver for most snipers, they would have hampered Anna, who would use all her special equipment in the field.
Consequently she used Tiara, Suit, and Pegasus when the competition was held for Best Sneaking (officially Infiltration and Evasion). This was done on the last weekend of the course, and was a three-day 24-hour-a-day series of games. In them she was the only Scout/Sniper no one ever discovered, no matter whether she was approaching a target or escaping after a kill (normally the most dangerous part of a kill mission).
Given a target in the five-mile square course she would take three steps into the course, lie down, begin crawling, and trigger her shield. Then she would loft into the air and spend all the time she’d ordinarily be on the ground slowly drifting toward the target. Returning she would reverse this process.
“God damn it, King!” became a familiar refrain when she would approach the end of a stalk or escape. She would wait until no one was looking near her and drop her shield a few feet away and say “Mission accomplished, Sir.”
It got so bad that on the last day those running the instructors cheated. They ordered spy satellites passing overhead to redirect their visual, infrared, and other sensors down toward the course.
Made aware of this by her own sensors Anna had Suit fake very faint signatures of her final approach. The course runners gained nothing but enough warning not to jump a foot in the air and nearly shit their pants.
Evenings and weekends were busy times for most of the students of the course, though most managed some free time to socialize, see movies, go to an occasional dance or other special event. Anna had more time, she was such a fast learner.
Thus she made the acquaintance of a wide variety of people. And no wonder. She was almost literally shockingly beautiful. And was quickly recognized as supremely capable far beyond those in or even running the course.
This got her an invitation on her fifth weekend to a birthday party for the daughter of the colonel running the base. She’d met the girl’s mother at a school play the previous week.
“Dress like the lady you are, Corporal. I want Mindy to see that you can be a top soldier and still be a girl.”
Anna laughed and accepted the invitation. For the party she wore a copy made by Suit of a high-fashion gown. This was demure but (to almost every female at the party) obviously at the cutting edge of fashion. She got numerous comments on her outfit by women at the party, not all of them friendly.
A little while after the father-daughter dance the daughter approached Anna and said, “So you’re the Good Example.”
Anna smiled at the girl and her annoyed expression.
“Jonathan,” she said to the tall darkly handsome man in a three-piece suit to whom she’d been talking. “This is Mindy Schmitz, the honoree of this party. Ms. Schmitz, this is Special Agent Jonathan Vincent of the FIB. Jonathan teaches hostage negotiation at the Academy here.”
The girl, a pretty blond in a mid-calf blue gown, smiled up at the agent. “My apologies, Mr. Schmitz. I should not have interrupted.”
The agent reached a hand toward the young woman. She grasped it to shake his hand but he turned it palm down to give it the European kiss: bowing over her hand and giving the back of it an air kiss.
“No apology needed, Ms. Schmitz. I see you two have something important to discuss.”
He turned to Anna and said, “Perhaps we’ll meet some other time.”
Anna smiled at him, he gave her the tiniest of bows, and left.
The encounter had smoothed away most of the girl’s annoyance.
“I’m sorry, Corporal. I was taking out my annoyance at my mother on you.”
“Let’s sit over here,” Anna said, pointing at a nearby line of chairs with their backs against the nearest wall.
The girl nodded and walked to sit in one of the chairs. All had rounded plastic backs and bottoms and were several pastel colors.
Seated Anna took a sip of the juice in her plastic cup. “Why were you annoyed?”
“My mother pointed you out to me as a good example of a military person who was also a lady.”
“Oh, my. She made a mistake with me. I’ve been wondering if I should let that handsome agent jump my bones.”
“Actually, just wishing. I’m too cautious for that. I refuse to screw someone I don’t deeply care about. Sex is too important to me to chance ruining it with bad memories.”
The girl looked at her thoughtfully.
“Well, sorry. I’ll get out of your way.” She made to stand up.
Anna put a hand on the girl’s nearest wrist.
“Don’t go away. Stay and chat a while.”
Annalisa King graduated at the top of the Scout/Sniper outstanding course. She had also qualified as a Ranger. This meant she would be free of a tag-along on her future missions.
She’d received a request from the base commander a few days prior to see him for a few minutes before she left the base. She’d gotten a short time slot from his office’s appointment software and showed up there a few minutes before the scheduled time.
The outer office was a moderate-sized room with several desks. She dropped her duffle just inside the door out of the way and placed beside it her pull-along suitcase sized for an aircraft overhead bin. Then she walked across the floor and approached the desk behind which sat the Sergeant Major who oversaw all base affairs under Lt. Colonel Schmitz. This was a sturdy forty-something Latina with pulled-back hair and an olive uniform with an extensive chest of ribbons.
The woman had been watching Anna approach. Anna was in her dress-camouflage uniform and boots with all her ribbons. This was the style approved for travel a dozen years back, with its subliminal message that every Marine traveling was ready in an instant to return to duty and blow whole battalions away. She’d placed her billed “cover” under her arm. Her walk was the easy controlled grace of an athlete in top condition.
“Sergeant Major. Lance Corporal Annalisa King reporting as per the request of Lt. Colonel Schmitz.” A request of course being the same as a command.
“You’re expected and on time, Lance Corporal. Knock on the door frame and enter.” At the same time one of her hands pressed a key on the keyboard on the computer console in front of her.
“Thank you, Sergeant Major.”
Anna did as directed and saw the Base Commander looking up from his desk. He stood. She approached, braced, and saluted. He returned the salute and said, “At ease, Lance Corporal.”
He reached across the desk and she stepped forward to shake his hand. He then sat and said, “Sit at ease, Lance.”
He regarded her for a moment.
“Congratulations on passing with honors, Lance. I see you qualified as Ranger. A big responsibility for anyone, especially one so young.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll do my best to deserve it.”
“I trust our few minutes together are not a hardship. I’m sure you’re eager to see your family and friends.”
“That I am, sir. But my schedule has the usual delays of most travel arrangements. It’s no hardship at all.”
“Good. The number of graduating classes on the base are too many for me to show up at each one. So I try to let the outstanding members of each class know I and the Corps appreciate them.”
Anna nodded at that.
“I saw that you’ll be assigned to Afghanistan. If you’ve not done so already, I suggest you study the situation there. It will offer challenges to all of us. And where there are challenges there are opportunities. Keep alert to both.”
Anna nodded again. None of the statements had yet required even rote replies.
“Before you go I have a question. It’s a bit indelicate of me to ask”
The colonel had excellent self control and poker face but Tiara could read the tiniest emotional cues. It helped that she could see underneath people’s skins.
“Whatever did you say to my daughter that would affect her so much? She’s a changed girl.”
“I assume that’s a rhetorical question. What we said specifically was of course private.” A much more tactful answer than “You’re out of line.”
“But generally we simply spent some time getting to know each other. Mindy is an extraordinary young woman and it was a pleasure to meet her. I suspect that what’s going on is that she’s been changing all along and you’ve not noticed because the changes were so gradual. That’s what happened to me. One day my older brother was this annoying boy and the next he was all grown up.”
A much more tactful answer than “You’ve not paid as much attention as you should have to your daughter.“
He regarded her for a moment, then nodded slowly. She could not read his mind, only his emotions, but she guessed his thought was that he’d get no more information from her than that. And possibly that she was right about the gradual changes.
“I imagine you’re right, Lance Corporal. Thank you for your insights. Well, I see that our time is up.”
He stood and offered his hand once again. “Congratulations again. Enjoy your leave.”
Anna smiled and shook his hand. “I’ll do my best, sir!”
She stepped back, braced, saluted, received his salute, did an about face, and left the room.
On the way out she nodded at the Master Sergeant as the women glanced at her and returned her attention to her computer.
Anna retrieved her luggage and left the headquarters. A block away she turned down an alley and disappeared.
A week and a half of leave later Anna arrived at the California State University’s School of Mid-Eastern Languages in Hayward, California. This was a day before classes would begin, as her instructions specified.
Coming down from space Anna saw the familiar landmarks of San Francisco below her. There was the Pacific to the west, with a white crescent of an approaching front of clouds far out over the ocean. To the east of San Francisco was the long string-bean shape of the San Francisco Bay running mostly north and south. Further east was the long line of the Bayview hills which paralleled the bay.
Hayward was halfway between the bay and the hills, on fairly flat land. Across the bay was San Mateo, connected to Hayward by a bridge, some six or seven miles long.
From a mile up Anna saw that the Hayward campus was nestled in an area tinted by the brown and green of vegetation. It was a rounded square. A street encircled it and three or four interior streets quartered it. There was an oval sports stadium on the western side and several sports areas for baseball, soccer, tennis and the like. There was a large open parking lot on the eastern side and a half dozen much smaller lots throughout.
Most of the buildings were low, one to three stories, but there were a couple of tall ones, one shaped like a round cake, the other like a stack of dominoes.
Invisible she swooped down over the campus. Tiara was displaying a map of the campus superimposed over her vision. From long practice Anna switched back and forth between the two until she found a building with a covered parking lot, the centrally located university library as it turned out. She entered the ground-level part of the parking area and went visible next to a van, still almost invisible because it was in deep shadow made deeper by the contrast with the bright nearly cloudless day outside.
Then she walked three blocks to a square three-story building with grey sides broken by windows.
She entered the building, part of it leased by the Army to manage all the language students from the several services which sent them there.
The room she was in was like many reception areas. To her left in one corner there was an alcove with a half-dozen chairs backed against a wall in an L arrangement and a low table with magazines scattered atop it. Opposite the alcove, to her right, a desk had been set up in that corner. An Army corporal sat there and looked up disinterestedly as she entered. His gaze lingered on Anna and she smiled at him. He sat a little straighter in his chair but returned to his work.
Opposite the entrance against the wall there was another desk. An Army staff sergeant looked up from it and nodded at Anna. She approached, let her luggage down on the floor, and handed him the now-unzipped leatherette folder with her orders and other papers.
He removed a records packet of manila folders and set it aside. The next folder was sealed. He unsealed it, glanced at the contents, and spoke to her. He didn’t smile but his manner was friendly.
“Welcome to language school, Corporal King. I suspect you’ll enjoy it here. You’ll dress as a civilian, eat in the cafeteria or off-site, and live in a dorm room, though only with other military. Some of the kids stay up late and are pretty noisy. We like you to have quieter quarters.”
He glanced back at her orders and back at her. “I see you have the dual language course for Afghanistan and Pakistan: Dari and Pashto. It’s a demanding course, but you must be up to it.
“You’ll find the teachers friendly and they’ll frequently invite small groups of you into their homes. Try to use as much of the teacher’s native language as you’re comfortable with, but don’t strain at it. That would defeat the purpose of the social situation.”
He spoke to the corporal. “Jason, escort Lance Corporal King to her quarters, if you please. She’s in dorm 6, room 302.”
To her he said, “Welcome, Corporal. See you around.” Then he returned to his computer screen.
The corporal stood and came over to Anna. He smiled at her and said, “Follow me. It’s not far.”
Anna hefted her duffel and pulled her overhead suitcase behind her. NOT FAR was out the back of the building to a small receiving area with a small dock and an opening onto a street. Along one side of the opening was a line of six charging stations for golf-cart-like runabouts with a long rear bed. Three of the carts were gone and three of them were hooked to charging cables.
The corporal punched an access code into the side of the nearest runabout and the cable unhooked itself and coiled unattended into the wall. Anna placed her luggage in the bed and took the passenger seat beside the corporal. He got in and turned to her. They shook hands and he said “Call me Jason.” She replied “Anna” as he switched on the runabout.
The vehicle made a quiet whining sound as they sped several blocks. Jason pointed out a few landmarks along the way. Their destination was on the southern side of the campus, a large rectangular area containing perhaps a half dozen four-story-tall dormitories, light yellow with grey accent panels. He passed by them to park in front of one of several three-story tan buildings with a reddish slate-like roof.
She walked alongside him, refusing his help with her luggage. He chatted a bit about the opportunities for fun in the evenings and weekends, not obvious about his readiness to help her have some of that fun but not hiding it either.
Room 302 of Dorm 6 was on the top floor. He led her into the room and handed her the room key from the office.
“Here it is. Quite a step up from barracks, isn’t it?”
The room resembled a nice motel room. Painted a warm cream, it hosted a one-person bed, its own bathroom, a desk with an ergonomic chair before it, an entertainment center with a large flat screen, a couch, and a large picture window with Venetian blinds and a view of the campus beyond.
“Yes. I approve.”
He smiled and handed her a folder. “Here’s the password for the room computer and other latest updates to your getting-acquainted packet. That, you’ll find on your desk.”
He nodded toward one side of the room. She glanced at it and saw it was a regular desk with pull-out drawers, a large flat screen, an ergonomic chair, and shelves on the wall above the desk.
“You can rent a mini-fridge from Campus Services but there’s a cafeteria for all the residence halls. I’ve heard its chow is OK.
“Well, as the Sarge says, see you around, Corporal.” With that he left the room to her.
Anna emptied most of her duffel and suitcase into the closet. Other items went into the bathroom with sink, toilet, and shower, and into her desk. She had only the minimum real items of clothing and toiletries and so on for anyone to see if they cared to inspect her quarters. Everything else was supplied by Suit, who could form virtual matter out of force fields in an instant and real matter in a few minutes by transmuting air into atoms and molecules and weaving them together.
She flopped back-down on the bed and bounced experimentally. The mattress was firm but not hard.
Getting up she had Suit change to her usual red tee-shirt, blue jean shorts, and red tennis shoes. She lounged on the couch and skimmed the getting-acquainted packet. She got the remote from the entertainment center console and checked the channels: local network TV, lots of cable, and Channel 1 was a campus guide. The remote let her click through several campus web pages.
The computer accepted her student password and worked fine but she spent only a minute checking that, then went searching for bed clothes. That was at a small one-story service building centrally located to the residence halls. A cheerful young woman took her order and said the bedding would be included in one packet by Central Services at the day’s end along with all the other orders turned in that day.
“If you’re not home they’ll swipe the door lock with a master card and put the clothing on your bed.”
By now it was almost noon. She found the cafeteria and saw it was large and fairly full. She joined one of the two hot-food lines and had the white-coated and -hatted servers dish up a large hamburger lunch.
Along three walls were glass-fronted cold-food fridges. She selected an apple pie and a pint of milk, then a large soft drink at a fountain. At one of the four check-out lines she paid cash, too late remembering that she’d been issued a military-expense credit card to fish it out of her pocket.
The dining tables seated up to a dozen each. She saw one near the large picture windows which already had some military people. She approached an empty chair and was noisily invited to sit.
She set about doctoring her open-face hamburger with mustard and mayonnaise and folding it into a sandwich, meanwhile idly eavesdropping. There were too many conversations to make sense of unless she had Tiara gather them into separate audio channels she could swap between. It wasn’t worth the bother.
“So, what’s your language?” said a skinny black woman across from her. She was well into a salad.
“Joint Dari/Pashto.” Anna bit into her burger and raised her eyebrows in enquiry.
The woman’s companion, a muscular black man, said, “We’re close: intermediate Dari. We’re going to be at the new all-service HQ they’ve set up outside the capitol. We’re civil-service. You?”
Anna swallowed, took a sip of her drink. “Marines. I’ll be on a protective detail out in the boonies.” Just where was not classified but she’d been warned that it was always possible that the college campus areas which military personnel frequented would be bugged.
“I forget. Some long name that went right in one ear out the other.”
They dismissed her from their minds and rejoined a conversation to one side of them. Advanced students tended to not have a lot in common with beginners. Ditto civil service versus military.
A beautiful woman, especially one as spectacular as Anna, rarely went long without company. She picked up two admirers quickly, one Navy and one Army. She good-naturedly watched the two make up lies about their military exploits, each more outrageous than the other. Soon half the table was listening in and laughing along with her.
She shrugged off company after she’d put her depleted tray in the garbage conveyer belt.
The rest of the day Anna spent wandering the campus, getting to know the area from on-the-ground first-hand experience. A couple of times she did go to some secluded location and go invisible and upward. From the air she got yet another perspective–or several of them from different heights and locations.
Anna also viewed the eastern hills above Hayward. There were some nice hiking and picnic areas and parks in the lower hills. There was also a large posh country club.
The bay to the west was lovely as the sun sank. Toward sunset clouds gathered out over the ocean beyond the bay and the coastal hills. They were a lovely mix of fiery colors.
Her stomach reminded her as the sun set that it was past dinner time. She flew to San Francisco, some 20 miles as the spaceship flies, had Suit change her outfit to expensive high-fashion leisure wear, and ate at a favorite restaurant just off Pier 9 near Telegraph Hill. There was a lovely view of the bay and the Berkeley Bridge as night fell and the lights came on.
Near 10:00 she returned to her dorm room. Sure enough there was a packet of bed clothing on her bed. She tore it open, had Suit transmute the paper wrapping to air, and dressed her bed with one of the changes of linen. The others she put away in the dresser.
She had Suit banish her leisure outfit to nothingness and nude used the bathroom (which she thought of as the head, to her amusement). Then Suit became pajamas and she fell quickly to sleep to the scent of fresh linen.
The next morning she woke at daybreak, used the bathroom, dressed for jogging, and ran four miles at a moderate speed. She ended the run back at her dorm, showered, and had Suit dress her.
The outfit was navy-colored slacks, light blue armless blouse, and low-heeled black loafers. She had Tiara put her dark hair up in a short pony tail, it having grown out enough to wear that style. Suit placed two modest golden pendants in her ear lobes. It also put a small watch on her wrist held on by a slender black band. All these items were real matter transmuted from air within just a few minutes.
The cafeteria had a nicely varied breakfast menu. She chose a large meal: eggs, ham strips, toast, fruit, orange juice, milk, and a small pot of coffee. She sat at a table with people mostly obviously military, one of a half dozen such tables. They filled perhaps a quarter of the indoor space.
A few of the people she’d met the day before but they sat too far away to do more than exchange waves. So she made the acquaintance of an older Latina Naval officer. The woman’s attitude was first a bit stuffy, since Anna was a lowly enlisted person and a knuckle-dragging Marine at that.
Anna used Tiara to do a web search on the woman for enough info for Anna to find a shared interest. This was soccer, almost a religion in Argentina from where the officer’s parents had emigrated. They’d had their children play soccer and the woman had become a fan. When she discovered Anna had played the game and helped win the top spots for her high school team her attitude thawed.
The Dari class was in a small classroom because the students were only 17 in number. Their teacher was a slender mid-30s man with Arabic features. His black hair was short and sported a bald patch, his beard and mustache trimly shaved. He was cheery, an emotion Tiara revealed as genuine. He introduced himself then had each student do the same, asking only for their first names.
“Dari is the official language of Afghanistan. It is a version of Persian, the language of Iran. It is written in an Arabic script. We’ll be using an English alphabet version of the Arabic script to make it easier on you. I urge you to try to learn the Arabic way of writing as soon as you can. We offer a short class in that on Saturdays for the first month, but none of you are obligated to come to it.”
He went from the general to the more specific, first introducing the consonants of the language. These were represented in the written language, but not the vowels. You inferred those from context.
“For some people this is the hardest part of the written language. For others, not so much.”
Most of the consonants were close enough to English to be easy. A few were not. They practiced just the consonants for the first hour, had a fifteen minute break, and spent another hour on them and a few common words and phrases.
The third hour another teacher taught, an older stout Arab woman with a jolly disposition which hid (Anna could tell without Tiara’s prompting) some deep sadness.
After lunch that woman taught them Pashto.
“This is the language of the Pashtun people. It also was influenced by Persian. It uses a somewhat different Arabic script. There is less literacy in it than in Dari, so we’ll not try to teach you that form. It would be too confusing.”
She switched off in the mid-afternoon to a tall thin man of later years with a British accent. He had nearly blond brown hair and features which marked him as a Brit in Tiara’s expert opinion. Later in the class he mentioned he’d become a naturalized American citizen more than thirty years ago, proving Tiara right.
By the end of the day everyone could ask a few simple questions and begin to decipher the answers. Anna was the quickest learner, but every student was linguistically talented and spoke more than one language besides English.
Anna was quickest partly because she had Tiara to help her, but she tried to rely on that device as little as possible. She rarely needed to use that crutch.
The rest of the week continued that pattern. On Saturday Anna was one of five who studied the Arabic squiggles used to represent consonants in Dari. She had a perfect memory when she wanted to memorize something and by the end of the day she’d mastered all the script introduced to her. On Sunday she studied the script on her own.
Despite her industry she did find time to socialize. This was nearly as important as the language she was learning. In the military even more than in corporate endeavors you had to work as part of a team. And knowing people who trusted you and vice versa even in the face of danger meant that years in the future when thrown together for some important job you were more quickly up to speed on accomplishing it.
By the end of the second week all 17 students knew each other and the three teachers at least superficially. Anna studied the backgrounds of all the students and teachers through Tiara. This included what caused the sorrow of the female teacher, Safi Wazir (whom the students privately called Mama rather than the honorific Safi). All her family but she and a very young grand-daughter had been murdered by Muslim extremists in Afghanistan. She’d only survived because she and the child had been half a mile away when the raiders struck.
Anna’s very good imagination caused her to almost relive what the extremists had done to the family before and during killing them–including the children. It gave her nightmares. And a hatred of such men almost as deep as Mama’s must be.
When the teacher found out (though not through Anna) that the Marine was going to her former country as a sniper she became more friendly than to the other students. Though she showed it very little; it would not do her students or her reputation any good to show favoritism to anyone.
In the third week the teachers began to teach the students some of the history and culture of Afghanistan and the surrounding areas. And on the third Friday of classes the students went to a party held for them at Mama Wazir’s house.
This was a rambling one-story house in the nearby upscale neighborhood where many of the teachers and staff lived. It had a dark-brown shingle roof and faux-adobe exterior, the standard style for this neighborhood. It was not unlike the outsides of many rural Afghan homes, though this house was much bigger and more modern.
As Anna and several other students entered the house they saw that the living room was comfortable, large, and decorated with pictures on several walls. Two large red and brown Persian carpets covered much of the polished wooden floor. Several smaller white carpets with black checks insured very little of the bare flooring was visible.
The seating was all very low, the long couch perhaps six inches off the floor. Large cushions replaced chairs. Tables were of matching heights, quite low.
Several shallow glass-fronted cabinets contained various curios. These included colorful vases, some beaten copper plates and plaques, and some small colorful wooden boxes.
Mama Wazir greeted each of them by name, Anna last because she was hindmost of the small group.
“I like your dress,” the teacher said.
Anna said nothing but bowed her body slightly and her head more. Her outfit was that of an Afghan woman: brown ankle boots, loose green pants, a loose blue dress down past her knees, and a long-sleeved blouse a lighter blue shade. She also wore a large golden shawl which covered her hair and upper shoulders, wound to cover her lower head so that only her eyes showed.
She unwound the shawl. The end thus hung down to her waist. “It’s Anna,” someone said.
Mama Wazir asked everyone to be seated and showed the way by sitting on the long low red couch. Anna folded herself gracefully at the woman’s knees on one of the cushions.
“Where did you get that?” said one of the other five women in language class.
“There’s a shopping area in Hayward I heard about from someone who called it Middle-East West. It has restaurants and shops and grocery stores and lots more. I spent more than an hour at one dress shop. They suggested what to buy and how to put it on.
“Is it reasonably authentic, Safi Wazir?”
“Yes. There are differences, but every woman has small variations in style. To express her individuality.”
Just then two more students arrived. They were let in by a stout man about Mama Wazir’s age who came quickly in from the kitchen to answer the door chime. He greeted the two men with smiles.
The two men sat.
“Good,” said their hostess. “Now that we’re all here, let me tell what I’d like to do.”
This was to become familiar with Afghan food. At its most basic it was similar to that of food everywhere. This included bread, meat, and drink. The bread was made from wheat and corn, the meat those of beef, sheep, and goat. The latter was especially popular in the mountains and other more rugged landscapes, goats being very hardy creatures. The most popular drink was water flavored with yogurt and mint, though Western-style drinks such as carbonated beverages were making large inroads in the Middle East.
Cereal dishes were also very popular, especially those of rice, but several other local cereals were also used. Several kinds of fruits were grown in Afghanistan, especially grapes, but other kinds as well, such as pomegranates.
To add variety to the staples Afghans added vinegar, several vegetables such as onions and chili peppers, and many spices.
Mama Wazir turned her head and called a man’s name. From the kitchen area came the man they’d seen earlier opening the door for late comers.
“Class, this is my husband, Emal Shah Ahmadzai. Emal, my students.”
The man made a slight bow with his body and spoke with a British accent.
“It’s my pleasure to meet you. I hope to see more of you in our home. But for now I believe it’s time to serve you snacks. I trust all of you have had dinner.”
The students all made the abbreviated seated bow required of those meeting someone for the first time. Anna inclined her head as well. His eyes lingered on her face for a moment.
Mama’s husband turned his head and nodded toward someone out of sight in the kitchen. From it appeared two teenagers of very young years, a girl and a boy. They were dressed as Mama and her husband were in traditional clothing. They smiled at the language students and walked to the side of the room opposite the long red couch. There they removed a long brown cloth from a waist-high table covering food.
“The dastarkhan buffet is an important part of Middle-Eastern custom.” The teacher went on to describe the importance of putting out a large and varied menu for guests. Even the poorest people gained status by the excellence of the choices and the presentation of the spread.
The next part of the ritual involved guests who approached the buffet, washed their hands in a bowl held by the young girl, and dried their hands on one of the towels offered by the young man.
Soon everyone had a snack, the male students first, a circumstance for which Mama Wazir apologized but explained that it was a custom about which they needed to know. They retired to the seats on the floor which they had claimed.
The conversation became general, guided by Mama to illustrate customary topics. By the end of the evening Anna and (she judged) the other students felt they had at least a beginning of understanding some of the nuances of the Afghan culture.
The pattern was thus set for the rest of the course: language lessons interspersed with cultural lessons and events, some of them in the area Anna had heard called the Middle-East West. This included watching a dance show in the Hayward Cal State University campus auditorium. It was well attended by CSU Hayward students and faculty, not just the students from the language school.
Anna said Goodbye to Mama Wazir in her office on the campus during the woman’s Open Door afternoon time.
She knocked on the door jamb. The woman looked up, smiled, and told her to come in.
Anna was in her dress camouflage traveling uniform. Loose but not very, it was perfectly tailored to her powerful and lovely body. She of course wore all the small assortment of ribbons to which she was entitled.
“I wanted to thank you for all you’ve done for us, Safi Wazir.” She spoke in Pashto and the teacher answered her that way.
“It was my very great pleasure, Anna.”
Anna looked at the woman through not only her eyes but the sensors of Tiara. The teacher meant it.
“You know where I’m going.”
“You know what I have to do there.”
“I will do it to the very best of my ability.”
“There is no need to worry about how I feel. Not all Afghan men are evil. But there are some who are. Killing or capturing them is necessary. Sorely necessary.”
“I must go. My schedule is tight. But if I come back this way…”
“I hope you will say Hello to me then.”
Anna bowed lower than usual. The teacher responded the same way.
“Go with God, Annalisa King.”
Anna did an about face and left.