Science Fiction

The Ballad of Becca Sanjuro

By Nancy Jane Moore
Jan 17, 2019 · 3,726 words · 14 minutes

From the author: The main characters in this military science fiction and love story are the parents of the protagonist in my novel The Weave.

            “If your assignment is such a jump on the Moon, why do you want us to bank ova and sperm?” Jake said. He and Becca sat in the kitchen of their tiny apartment in the Marine living quarters at Armstrong Base on Luna. Neither of them cooked much – they ate most meals at the mess hall – so the kitchen had become the place where they sat to have serious discussions. The bed/sitting room was reserved for pleasure.

            For the past year, they’d both been running low grav training for new Marines. It was the longest time they’d lived together in ten years of marriage. Despite the work hours, having each other to come home to at the end of the day had made the year feel like an extended vacation.

            But it was coming to an end. Jake Horner was off to Mars, part of the so-called peacekeeping operation that was really an effort to keep various rebellious factions tamped down. Becca Sanjuro’s assignment was Europa and protection of the coffee industry centered in Galileo. The Solar Union was beefing up security there, in response to a series of threats from a terrorist group.

            “Could be it’s you I’m worried about,” Becca said. “Something stupid can always happen on Mars.”

            Outside of the uniform they shared – two Marine staff sergeants – they looked nothing alike. Jake wasn’t tall, but his wide shoulders and powerful legs gave the illusion of size. His skin was a creamy brown and his combination of features indicated a broad mixture of ethnic backgrounds. Jake’s people had been military going back five generations, and that defined him more than any historical group from Earth.

            Becca, about the same height but slighter in build, was mostly Asian by heritage, though by no means all Japanese despite her surname of Sanjuro. She, too, came from several generations of military, all enlisted. It wasn’t a bad a career for someone who lacked the money and gene tweaks for higher education. You got to see the Solar System.

            “Besides, even if we’ve both got cushy assignments right now, it’s still a good idea,” Becca said. “My eggs should be at their best. Early thirties, that’s supposed to be the peak point for a woman’s eggs. A man’s sperm, too, for that matter.”

            “I always wanted to make a baby the old fashioned way,” Jake said. Though he knew they’d never be able to do that. They couldn’t afford a baby now. By the time they reached retirement age and had put enough money by, they’d both be in their fifties. Becca might still be fertile, but the odds of having a healthy child would be much lower. Artificial was the way to go.

            “Always the romantic.”

            “Guilty,” he said. “But you’re right; it’s time to do it.”

            “Besides, it gives me a hold on you. Things get wild on Mars, or at least they did last time I was there. You might meet some hot young thing.”

            “I might at that,” Jake said. They both knew he wouldn’t.

            “Best be careful. You know what they say about Mars. Best way to make E-5 …”

            “Is to go to Mars as an E-6. Yeah, yeah. You’re the one who needs to be careful. I know how to take care of myself on Mars. Europa is a big question mark.”

            “It’s still a sleepy place. We’ll have a few bomb throwers, but I can’t see how it could be worse than that. I’ll watch out, though. Promise.”

            Yeah, thought Jake. You’ll watch out and I’ll watch out, unless the job demands we take a risk. He knew Becca had common sense and he didn’t consider himself unusually brave. But people who think of themselves first in a crisis don’t become Marines.

            Becca shipped out for Europa two days before he left for Mars. Come back to me, Jake thought, watching her shuttle take off. Come back to me.

            Jake’s main assignment on Mars was running a checkpoint at the entrance port for Aresville, the largest of the domed cities on Mars. No one lived outside the domes: Bioformed plants had been seeded there and were starting to grow an atmosphere, but the possibility of living on the surface was still a century away. The shuttle landing spot was outside the city, as was the depot for the mag-lev train that ran among the settlements. All those people came to the city via heavily shielded vehicles, and all were thoroughly checked out before being allowed in.

            Repair crews and those working on the atmosphere project also came and went on a regular basis. Those people had been vetted in advance, but Jake made sure they were checked again as well. His troop was well-trained in watching for behavioral clues. They’d caught a few thieves and smugglers, though mostly the work was dull and routine.

            There were at least five dissident factions on Mars, and some of those were fractured into even smaller groups. According to the Marine colonel in charge, most were extreme libertarians – people with great aversion to the Solar Union and the idea of one government, or even one federation of governments, for the system. “Their very principles keep them from working together,” she told the troops. “If they should ever unify, though, we’re going to have a civil war on our hands.”

            So they changed crews at the checkpoints often, to keep people fresh. It was easy to get sloppy when nothing happened.

            Jake and Becca were too far apart to talk – realtime FTL com was way beyond the means of sergeants – but from the comp messages he got regularly, it sounded as if her assignment was equally routine. She wrote:

            We’re based at Galileo, with coffee plantations all around us. I’m working intelligence under Lt. Mbuki. She’s maybe a year out of the Academy, smart as hell when it comes to data analysis, but inexperienced at dealing with people. The colonel is of the “kill ‘em all and let God sort them out” school; he wouldn’t recognize a subtle pattern if it hit him over the head with a rock. He’s got no use for intelligence (in every way). Mother taught me how to handle officers like that and I’m trying to teach Mbuki, but I’ve got to be careful in how I deal with her, too. She’s too unsure of herself as an officer to know how to listen to enlisted yet.

            But so far there’s nothing much going on here. The terrorists appear to be the remnants of a wildcat corp that was trying to establish coffee on Ganymeade and got knocked out of business when the Union-sanctioned and funded plantations took off on Europa. Regular intel has a line on most of them and gets all their com messages before they do. Our crew is just keeping an eye out for a bigger pattern.

            Been awhile since I’ve done this kind of work and I’m enjoying it. One thing Mbuki is good at is teaching others. I know a dozen new ways to chop data now, and have a fancy new encrypt code we can try out down the road. I don’t think the one we’ve got now would survive any serious analysis, but fortunately nobody seems to care what I write to my beloved spouse.

            Jake felt relieved. He figured the dolt of a colonel and the inexperienced lieutenant were driving Becca crazy, but putting up with bad officers was part of the job. He’d been lucky in his officers this round.

            Her next message made him more uneasy:

            There’s a pattern coming together in the data that’s got us worried. It looks like there might be money and other support coming in from outside, probably from Earth. So far we can’t tell how big it is. Mbuki mentioned it to the lieutenant who’s running the regular intel. He hadn’t seen any chatter on his systems, but he promised to keep an eye out.

            I ran some historical data. Seems the success of growing coffee here undercut the market systemwide. Real coffee – as opposed to the synthetic crap usually found in mess halls – was extremely pricy on Earth, since the places where it grows have been crowded out by human settlement. Europa’s success made some very wealthy people a lot less wealthy. And they’re not happy about it.

            We’re factoring all that in. But Mbuki got slapped down for bringing it up at all. The colonel’s decided we just have a few idiot terrorists and don’t need to think any bigger than that. I don’t think the lieutenant’s going to be willing to push it again. I hope it’s just a little money and regular intel picks it up. They can shut down money.

            Two messages later, Jake got scared:

            Regular intel is still seeing nothing, while our analysis is indicating that something big is in the works. It looks to me like the power people are letting the local terrorist groups distract us from the real problem. I think Mbuki agrees with me – like I told you before, she’s a wiz with data – but she’s scared to bring it up. The whole officer chain spends their time trying to stay on the good side of the colonel, so she hasn’t found any support from her immediate superior.

            I tried going to the Top, but he might as well be the colonel’s clone. They’ve been together for years. Why am I not surprised?

            It might help if we could figure out exactly what’s in the works, but we’re missing a couple of key components.

            That scared Jake enough to take it up with his captain. He ended up having a brief conversation with the colonel – “I don’t really want to know how you’re hearing all this, sergeant” – in which she acknowledged that the man on Europa was a fool. “But he’s a well-connected fool. Don’t expect much.”

            It wasn’t much. Becca wrote:

            Thanks. It didn’t work, but thanks anyway. A couple of inspectors came in, Mbuki gave a presentation, the colonel laughed it off and Mbuki didn’t defend it. Maybe she couldn’t have done much, but she didn’t try very hard. I guess she’s just covering her butt and crossing her fingers that it won’t amount to anything. Or at least, won’t amount to anything until we get rotated out of here.

            The colonel thinks she’s the one who got to the inspectors, so there’s no chance that she’s going to say anything else.

            I guess I better cross my fingers, too. And my toes.

            He got a couple of personal messages after that, and then a very short one.

            I love you. Always have, always will. Don’t forget that.

            His reply bounced. He tried to find news reports out of Europa, but there was a blackout on everything. Desperate, he barged into the colonel’s office.

            “She’s talking to the brass on Earth,” the clerk told him.

            “Please. I have to know what’s happening on Europa.”

            The clerk took pity on him and sent in a message. The colonel came out. He popped up to salute, but she put her arm around his shoulder. “I don’t know much. There’s been some kind of bomb attack at Galileo – a large one. But Space Corps pilots were evacuating people for about 48 hours before it hit. It looks like a lot of people got off, but the refugee situation is the usual mass of confusion and nobody knows who made it out yet.”

            She turned to the clerk. “Have Sgt. Horner pulled off his regular duties. Sergeant, I assume you can run data analysis?”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            “Good. Intel is trying to pull a picture out of the chaos and they can use the help. That way you’ll know something as soon as anyone does.”

            He joined a room full of other Marines, all plugged into individual holo data. The current theory of data analysis involved a combination of straight computing power, AI, and human minds. Computers gathered, AI sorted, and humans saw the patterns that AI missed.

            This is what Becca’s been doing for the past six months, Jake thought, as he sat there, trying to see something, anything. It was a connection.

            They found a spike in com and comp messages back and forth between the Marine base at Galileo and the Space Corps headquarters on Europa Station. Drilling down deeper, the pattern showed both the increased communication was almost all enlisted to enlisted. Some large data dumps were included in the transmission.

            Becca backdoored them, Jake thought. She couldn’t get her officers to pay attention, so she talked to the enlisted doing intel on the space station. And they got somebody to listen. He was guessing, of course. The rules on data analysis didn’t allow drilling down to actual accounts. But it had to be her. Had to be.

            Official announcements were now coming in. The admiral on the space station had ordered the evacuation after getting an intel report showing that vast areas of Galileo had been mined. No idea yet of the casualty rate, except that it was considerably less than it could have been. A cadre of bots had been set down even before the evacuation to locate and disarm as many mines as possible. A large chunk of them had gone in the initial explosion, but they had succeeding in blocking further attacks. That operation was ongoing.

            The Marine colonel had continued to dismiss the risk, but he had to go along with the evacuations once the admiral got involved. Apparently he had not evacuated. The Marine base was gone.

            Good riddance, thought Jake. He dove back into the data cracking. There was a systemwide push on to trace the attack back to its source.

            He was deep in the data when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He shut down visual and turned around to see the colonel and next to her an officer he’d never seen before, with chaplain’s bars on his collar.

            “No,” he said. “No.” And then he began to cry. Once he started, he couldn’t stop. The chaplain took him by the hand, led him to the infirmary, where they gave him something to make him sleep. It took him two days to cry himself out and move on to a state of numbness.

            The colonel came by to talk with him. “It seems Sgt. Sanjuro did send the Marine intel data to the Space Corps crew on Europa Station. They saw the implications right away. Fortunately, the admiral is no fool, and even more fortunately, the colonel on Europa was under his authority. I don’t normally hold with Space Corps authority over Marines, but in this case ….”

            “I knew it had to be her, once I saw how they got the data,” He said. “Becca wasn’t one to sit idly by if there was anything she could do. No matter what it meant to her career.”

            “There’s apparently a court martial request in the pipeline, but I think it’s going to disappear.”

            “I’m sorry I fell apart so bad, ma’am. If I … if we hadn’t both thought the assignment would be just a jump on the moon, that the risk was tiny, it might not have been so bad. If she’d been assigned to a war zone, I’d have been prepared for the possibility.” That wasn’t quite a lie.

            “She was a hero, you know. She saved a lot of lives.”

            “Not a hero, ma’am. Just a good Marine.”

            They gave him a month of compassionate leave. That was the colonel, most likely. Not every commander subscribed to the theory that time to heal made better troops.

            He spent it at a retreat on Earth, exercising for hours a day so that he could collapse exhausted into sleep each night. Two weeks into his stay, Lt. Mbuki came to see him.

            Jake didn’t want to see her, but he let her in anyway. She looked like hell. Her ebony skin was ashy, her eyes looked bruised from lack of sleep, and if he hadn’t known she couldn’t be more than twenty-five, he’d have guessed her age at forty.

            “I’m sorry,” she told him. “You probably don’t care, but I had to tell you anyway. I should have listened to her, should have had the courage to say what I knew to be true, should have been the one to go around the colonel if I couldn’t get through to him. I knew our data were right, knew something was going to happen ….”

            Part of him wanted to comfort her. Part of him wanted to keep hating her. He found he couldn’t do either.

            “She saved my life, you know. She was herding people onto the shuttles, mil and civs. The colonel was telling us not to go, that he’d break anyone who ran. Sgt. Sanjuro ordered the enlisted to ignore him, said it would be on her, and they listened. But even then I was wavering.

            “She said, ‘Get on the fucking shuttle, Lieutenant.’ It was an order. And I followed it.

            “She was on the last shuttle out, but the explosion knocked it out of the sky as it took off.”

            Jake nodded. He couldn’t think of anything to say.

            “I’m going to resign my commission, as soon as they’ll let me,” she said. “I’m not fit to lead anybody. I don’t know what I’m fit to do, but it’s not that.” She turned to go.

            “Don’t,” Jake said. His voice was hoarse. He cleared his throat. “Don’t resign. If you can learn from this, you’ll be worth something as an officer.”

            She stared at him. It must have sounded crazy to her. It sounded crazy to him. But he knew he was right. “Don’t resign.”

            “I’ll think about it,” she said, and left.

            Jake was trying not to cry. Tears running down his cheeks or his voice cracking as he accepted Becca’s medal, that would be okay. But not the uncontrolled blubbering that still came on when he woke from dreaming about her to realize she wasn’t there, wouldn’t ever be there. It had been over a year since she died, and all his friends were telling him it was time to move on. But his grief hadn’t moved.

            He sat in a row with one live hero and the parents of another dead one on the stage in the secondary auditorium at Solar Union headquarters in Brussels. In front of them sat the Secretary General in a gilded chair that would have done justice to an ancient king. Behind them were various aides, charged with moving the ceremony along. At the back of the stage hung a large flag showing the planets in orbit around the sun with the words Sol, Societas, Posteritas Nobis in script underneath.

            The auditorium, which held a thousand people, was perhaps a third full, with most of those in attendance wearing military uniforms. But it would look full on the holo being beamed throughout the Union. It had been designed for that.

            The welcoming speech had concluded and they were sitting through holos of the honorees’ lives playing alongside them on the stage. Watching the beautifully edited bits and pieces of Becca’s life posed the largest threat to Jake’s composure. There she was in the training hall, tossing larger people aside left and right. There she led a troop into battle; despite the sameness of the uniforms he always knew which one she was. There they both were at their wedding.

            A younger version of him stood there before the judge with that “how did I get so lucky” look on his face. He and Becca were both in uniform – the wedding had taken place over a 72-hour leave and there had been no time for fancy dress.

            He took refuge in anger. Becca should have been an officer. If she’d been an officer, she wouldn’t be dead. No matter that neither she nor anyone else in her family had never had the gene tweaks, not to mention the education, of the officer class. Becca was as smart as any officer about war, probably smarter.

            Becca’s holo ended and the next one began. Jake sighed in relief.

            Twenty minutes later he stood before the Secretary General to accept Becca’s medal. His face was wet, but his voice held steady.        

            At the reception afterwards, several of his friends – fellow sergeants in their Marine best – rescued him from painful polite conversation with diplomats and dragged him to drink Belgian beer.

            “What you gonna do with the money, Jake?” someone asked.

            Jake, already half drunk, looked at him. “Money?”

            “You know, the money they give out to the medal winners. Or their families. Megabytes of credit, that’s what I hear.”

            They’d told him about the money when they told him about the medal, but he hadn’t paid attention. It was just money, like the medal was just a hunk of gold. None of it would bring Becca back.

            But now he thought about it. “A kid,” he said after a couple of minutes. “A girl. I’m going to have a daughter. And I’m going to use that money to give her all the chances Becca never got – the gene tweaks, the education. She’ll never be stuck in a dead end job like us. She can be an officer. Or a doctor or a scientist or even a goddamned politician.

            “I’m going to have a kid.”

            Jake made it back to barracks on his own steam, though just barely. And for once he had managed to reach the right level of drunkenness: no dreams disturbed his sleep.

This story originally appeared in Best Laid Plans.

Nancy Jane Moore

Nancy Jane Moore writes all kinds of speculative fiction at lengths from flash to novels.