Lieutenant (Senior Grade) Calqhoun O´Neill, of the Capitol Sunset Strikers, enjoyed an unprecedented degree of relaxation. Tall, lanky and handsome in the way of Capitol´s media stars, with clean features and a roguish smile, twice decorated for valour, the Lieutenant did not usually lack for female attention, but now, on the fourth day of his R&R, he was content to lie quietly alone on a deckchair in the shade of the palm trees, nurse a Graveton longdrink and watch the vacationers play in the surf. Children played ball on the white Venusian beach, couples kissed, youths splashed each other with the cool salt water. O´Neill did his best to ignore the concrete blocks and corrugated metal of the military radar post, some nine hundred yards (sniper´s trained eye measure, he thought sourly) down the shore, intersecting the clean beach like an ugly scar. Here, as everywhere, the Capitolian Eagle had to keep a careful vigil. Capitol enjoyed freedom and prosperity, and freedom and prosperity brought with them the envy of those who did not enjoy them at their own home. A thoroughbred military man, Lieutenant O´Neill was proud to be part of the bulwark that kept the envious eyes and grasping hands at arm´s length, so that those children could continue playing, the couples continue kissing, the youths continue ducking each other in the water. But today, he was on vacation, and entitled to an afternoon of thoroughly un-military thoughts.
„Excuse me, sir?“ asked the elderly lady in the deckchair next to his. She had pinned a flower in her white hair, which was Graveton Archipelago style for young women and girls. O´Neill immediately liked her. He took off his Bauhaus-Talsen aviator sunglasses and smiled back at her. „Yes, ma´am?“
„You look like a soldier, Mr. -?“
„O´Neill.“ He held out his hand. She took it daintily. „Lieutenant O´Neill, ma´am, in the Strikers.“
„Very pleased to meet you, Lieutenant O´Neill. I´m Marjorie Adams. I had a son in the AFC – a fine boy, he was. You remind me of him.“
O´Neill sensed her meaning and said, „I´m sorry.“ He did not let go of her hand. But she shook her head. „It´s been so long... one gets used to it. I´ve his picture on my nightstand, so I know he´s still watching over me, over all of us. I´m proud of him. We owe so much to soldiers like you and him, Lieutenant.“
O´Neill frowned. „Just doing our job, ma´am -“
„Marjorie, please, Lieutenant.“ There was a shy little-girl smile on her face that suddenly made her look like sixteen. He was forced to smile too. „We´re doing our job, Marjorie. When I´m looking down this beach, or when I´m talking to you, I know that we´ve done it well. Your son, he made the world safer for you, and for those children. You can be proud of him.“ But the words came out too easily, too glibly, and he was uncomfortably reminded of all the mothers, wives and lovers he had already had to break the news of their loved boy´s death in the line of duty to. She seemed to sense it, too. Her smile faded.
„Do you suppose we will be all right, Lieutenant?“
„We will have to, Marjorie. Because, for all its faults, Capitol is the light. We´re free where all the others are oppressed. I know -“, and here the rhetoric failed him. He started anew, and then the words poured out. „I know oppression. I´ve been on Mercury, in Longshore. I´ve seen children executed or tortured or sold to a sweatshop for a pittance. I´ve seen the commoners pushed into line with electric prods in the factories.“
„It´s like that in the slums. In San Dorado, in the Sprawl.“
„Yes, but that is at the fringe of our society. In Mishima, it´s everywhere. Everywhere. Even in the palaces. They´ll carve up a servant girl if she serves the tea too hot. And they got the right to do it.“
„I don´t see how that is too different from our own rich people, Lieutenant. Look at this -“ she took a crumpled newspaper out of her handbag, „What Thomas Irving-Jorgensen did to that girl. She won´t ever be able to walk again, poor thing, and it looks like he´ll just buy himself out of the trial -“
„Well, but the newspapers report it, do they?“
She looked surprised. „Why, yes.“
„In Mishima, this is so commonplace – and legal - that it wouldn´t even make the fifteenth page. Over here, it´s an outrage. Look at the size of that headline... it must be four inches high. And Irving-Jorgensen had to beat up his little mistress behind closed doors. The samurai do it publicly, they even flaunt it. And the citizens aren´t armed. They got no legal recourse. They got no civil rights to exercise. They can´t even fight back. And if they try, it´s the death penalty the minute after. They´ve got no courts, no juries, no bail. Don´t blame our society for its shortcomings until you´ve seen how the others live. After seeing Mishima from the inside, I can live with gun crime and corporate greed and the pushy rich getting their way.“
A shadow had fallen on O´Neill, and he turned his head to look at the source.
„Enjoying your leave, Lieutenant? Still having the girls falling at your feet, I see.“ Captain Harrison was short and burly, clad in immaculately pressed khakis. His army car, similarly squat and clean, was parked at an awkward angle behind the rose bushes that circled the sun deck. „Sorry to keep you from extolling the Capitolian way to the young lady“, - Harrison touched the peak of his cap at Marjorie, who acknowledged the salute with a dignified nod, - „but you are needed at base. Fifteen minutes to get into gear, I´ve got a Purple Shark waiting to pick you up at sixteen-hundred.“
O´Neill didn´t budge. „This is my R&R.“
„This is your duty. Leave´s cancelled, Colonel´s orders. I´ll have that“, and the Captain deftly appropriated O´Neill´s drink, „Sergeant Grady will fill you in on the details while you´re underway. Excuse us, ma´am, we got a bit of soldiering to do.“ He took a sip from the glass, then took out the umbrella stick and swallowed a cherry.
O´Neill heaved the tiniest of sighs and folded his lanky six-foot-eight out of the chair. He reached for his towel, scratched his crew-cut and threw Marjorie an apologetic half-smile. She looked up at him, then reached out an age-flecked hand and patted him on the arm. Looking for all on Venus like a mother giving her brave little soldier son a farewell. O´Neill suddenly felt like a schoolboy. She tenderly picked the flower out of her hair and pinned it to his khaki shirt.
„Thanks“, he said, feeling touched but vaguely ridiculous.
„Take care of yourself, Lieutenant.“
„Calqhoun. I´m Calqhoun.“
„Take care, Lieutenant Calqhoun O´Neill. Thank you for what you do.“ And with a last smile at him, she picked up the newspaper, shook it firmly and frowned at the crossword. Somewhere behind the Lieutenant, Captain Harrison impatiently honked the car´s horn.