Private Steele stood before the green wooden door. She gently placed her hand on it and smiled. It had been repainted recently. She peered through the glass to the left of the door, but everything inside was dark. The tidy brownstone on the quiet street showed all signs of being empty.
It had been a long tour. Steele’s unit traversed the galaxy, suppressing revolts throughout the Empire. She had been through so many fights, so much violence, had her life threatened so many times, that she had stopped thinking of the encounters individually. They were just part of one long campaign of chaos and bloodshed.
And, Steele had to admit, she kind of loved it.
Steele removed a dull brass key from her pocket and unlocked the door.
“Ambush!” The yell came from all directions at once. Bodies flew at her from the left and right, a shadowy figure leaped a staircase banister and hurtled down from above. Another bolted out from behind the door she’d just passed through. A last grabbed at her ankle, rising from a position crouched on the floor.
Five assailants in all, assaulting her in a coordinated, well-planned attack.
But Steele really wasn’t in the mood for it.
The attackers grappled, threw punches, kicked.
“I got you!”
“Hey, wait, get off!”
“No, that’s not fair!”
Steele allowed the scrum to continue for a minute or two, and then flicked the wall switch, illuminating the pile of bodies that rolled around on the floor. The only person not entangled in the mess was Steele, who leaned up against the wall, chuckling.
After another half-minute, the men stopped rolling around on the floor and looked up at her. The oldest, George Jr., said, “Oh, man, I thought we had you that time!”
Phil, the second youngest, added, “We planned that attack for a week. See, I told you we should have gone with the net.”
Steele shook her head. “Rule one of an ambush. Don’t yell ‘Ambush!’ as you’re doing it.” She leaned down and tried to spread her arms around her five younger brothers, all but the youngest of whom were larger than she was.
A woman who looked very much like Loretta Steele from the future walked in from the study. Her hair was still mostly black with only a few frizzy grey strands, her glasses hung from her neck by a chain, and she wore an elegant but simple blue dress which she smoothed down as she entered.
She shook her head and muttered, “Never thought that would work,” then started barking orders. “Junior, Phil, Rudy, dinner! Anthony, homework! Tom, practice!”
The five brothers scattered.
Though Steele’s posture was typically straight as a beam, she found herself throwing her shoulders back even more in the face of a commander tougher than any sergeant she’d ever served under.
Delores Pershing-Steele sighed, “At ease, chipmunk.”
“I hate when you call me that.” Steele murmured as she wrapped her arms around her mom.
Steele and her mother sat facing each other on the living room couch while the eldest brothers loudly clattered about the kitchen, preparing dinner. It had been a year since Steele had been home.
Her mother’s dark brown eyes flickered over Steele’s form, studying her like a buyer examining a used car.
“I’ve still got all my parts, Mom. Not a scratch on me.” Steele said this last not without a bit of pride.
“I’m… I’m so glad. It’s just… I’ve been watching the news. Seems like every time I see a riot happening somewhere, or a revolt, the next letter home tells me you were there.”
“Yeah,” Steele stared off. “Seems like the Legions really are getting their money’s worth.”
“I just… Does your unit ever take a break? The stress must be unbelievable.”
“Actually, the Pangalactic Pacification Patrol has over a hundred units. It’s most of what the Legions does these days, putting down revolutions. They just keep transferring me from unit to unit.”
The mother’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you think that is?”
“No idea, mom. But I’m fine with it, I really love the work. I get to see the galaxy, meet new people, expand my horizons…”
The mother’s eyes narrowed further. “Chipmunk, don’t bullshit a bullshitter. You don’t care about any of that stuff.”
“OK,” Steele smiled, “I get to beat people up. I mean, constantly. Sometimes I shoot, or blow things up, but mostly, I just really love the challenge.”
Shaking her head, Steele’s mother reached out and wrapped her arms around her only daughter. “You are your father’s daughter, make no mistake. Junior’s going to be a doctor. Phil looks like he might get tenure. The others are excelling at their studies. But you are just like your father.”
Steele closed her eyes, enjoying the moment. When she pulled away, she asked, “So…?”
“No. Haven’t heard a word from him. Not one word.”
Steele’s father never spoke of his campaigns, but she understood. The standard form mercenary contract had a strong confidentiality provision. Steele liked to think that he performed supplemental support duties for whatever Imperial task force was coming up short. But she strongly suspected that he didn’t always serve the Empire.
It had been almost four years now, since before Steele had entered the Legions, that her father had been gone. She knew he wasn’t dead, or the Merc Union would have paid out his death benefit. That was an absolute, there was no question. She also knew that he wouldn’t have just taken off.
Because she just knew it.
A contract usually lasted from a few months to a year at most. The Steeles were used to their father being gone for a long time. But this absence was unprecedented, and no one from the Union had an explanation. It didn’t make sense. Fortunately, between Steele’s wages from the Legions, and her mom’s work as an actuary, the family did ok financially.
“So,” the mother asked, “Everything else is going ok?”
Steele knew that her mother meant, “Are you dating? Have you met anyone?” Steele considered the question. Her job was great. She was enjoying the action, and she was good at it.
When she wasn’t in-theater, though… she had now been ambushed four times, not including her brothers’ play-attack. The first had come during her date with that terrorball player… she couldn’t recall his name. Then she was jumped in the middle of a routine patrol. Once at the gym. Once as she was coming out of the showers on base, wearing nothing but a towel.
They always wore masks and they never used weapons.
Whenever she reported the incident to a superior, she was met with incredulity, and could never prove it happened.
Steele looked into her mother’s dark eyes. This was one person in the universe who’s job it was to worry about her.
“Yeah, mom, everything’s going fine.”
© 2020 Ryan Kriger