The scorching white sun was overhead and the humidity was oppressive, but even so, the alleys of downtown Gemini City were crammed with people. People everywhere, so close they had to swim and shuffle past each other. A city this big could never be built to a plan. There were no streets to speak of, only the narrow negative spaces between the angles of buildings. The smell of sweat mixed with that of smoked vegetables—granite root and ribbon squash—filling the air and lingering on the senses. Linavla kept her mouth tightly closed, but she could still taste the stench of a quarter-billion people as her breath passed her mouth on the way to her lungs. She didn’t know where she was going; no destination in mind. Just following the currents.
Her jaw throbbed. Left eye was swollen to a narrow slit, pinched but not shut. A tooth was loose and she tried not to tongue it. There was a pain in her chest when she filled her lungs so she kept her breath shallow. Her father had done another number last night—he’d stopped for drinks before coming home, and she’d made the mistake of allowing his dinner to cool; a mistake she would not make again. She’d been thirteen then, but everything was different now. It was her birthday.
She’d had a destination after all. In her heart she must have known.
The sign above the arch of the entryway said Galactic Authority Marines: Recruiter’s Office.
It was cool inside. The air was pleasant, like lemon water. A large man sat behind a simple desk, absorbed in his holos. His features were too smooth to be real. Packed full of implants, this guy; probably had enough carbon fiber in him to make a 10,000-carat diamond. He swept the holos away. “Help you?”
“Maybe,” said Linavla. Her jaw clicked and she rubbed it. “What are you offering?”
“Sit?” He motioned to a black wisp of a chair; probably as strong as he was.
“Why? Will this take long?”
He put up his hands in a gesture that said have it your way. “How old are you?”
“Old enough. Today.”
He frowned. It was an odd expression on his uncrinkling face. “Look, kid, I get 10 of you a day. Take a year and think about it. Better yet, take two. You’ll get the same offer then, and you can’t be deployed until you’re 18 anyway.”
She crossed the room slowly, leaving Gemini City one step at a time until she was right in front of the desk. “I intend to make it to discharge. When I do, I’ll be getting…”
“Standard package,” he finished. “Relocation to any world in the Authority. 50-year cost-of-living stipend at the local economy’s rate at the time of discharge, paid up front in a single lump sum. And you get to keep all your implants. Six-year term from deployment to discharge. Do your parents know you’re here?”
“If I say yes, that would mean my parents are supportive patriots, making me an excellent candidate. If I say no, that would mean my parents are unfit, also making me an excellent candidate.” She leaned in over the desk, locking on to the recruiter’s colorless eyes. “But look at my face. I have no parents.”
He smiled. It was as ugly as his frown. “At your age, that’s the only answer I accept.” He leaned back and pushed open a back door. “Head on back, get something to eat. I’ll call down a shuttle.”
Linavla nodded, walked to the door, and paused on the threshold. “Is it worth it?” she asked.
The recruiter laughed. “Everyone who makes it to discharge says it is. Welcome to the force.”
She thought this over, and then continued into the back room. Yes, she thought, today truly is my birthday. Born again.