They tell you not to wear the uniform in public these days. Folks don't like to be reminded of the war. Not long ago, things were looking grim. Defense exercises lit up the night sky every other week. The skirmishes drew nearer to home with every engagement. Doomsayers were out in force everywhere you looked, screaming about imminent invasion. Things are different now. The enemy is on the run. We're winning. But the war has shaken the public's sense of security, maybe for good.
I feel the eyes on me as the hostess leads me to my table. I'm used to it. Half of them are regulars, but they still gawk like they're surprised to see me. The war had just begun when I first started coming here. People used to stare back then too, but the expressions were different. They didn't turn their heads when I looked. They smiled. Some of them would even shake my hand and thank me for my service. That doesn't happen anymore.
"The usual, Sergeant?" the waiter asks.
"Please. But I've told you to call me Paul about a hundred times."
"At least." He shrugs, and I understand. He's like the rest of them. He can't think of me as anything but a soldier. A walking reminder.
I'm halfway through my sandwich when I notice the little boy. By now, everyone else has lost interest; the chorus of clinks and murmurs has resumed. But the kid is still staring, eyes like silver dollars.
He smiles when our eyes meet, so I give him one back. He brings a chocolate-stained hand up to his forehead, threatening to spread the mess to his blonde tangles. He can't be older than six or seven. I return the salute just as his mom looks over. I try to smile at her too, but she's already looking away, scowling. I'm not close enough to hear what she says to the boy, but I can tell by his expression that it's not complimentary. He turns his attention to the coloring mat on the table, lips pouted, stealing the occasional glance when she's not looking.
I study the slow-moving ceiling fan in the center of the room, doing my best not to look in the kid's direction anymore. I don't want to get him in trouble, as grateful as I am to have found a pair of eyes unafraid to look my way. Still, I can't help but notice the blonde tuft bobbing up and down in my peripherals as he fidgets about. The second half of my sandwich takes a little longer than the first.
The mother is shouldering her purse to leave when the boy runs over. You'd think he was running into a burning building by the look in her eyes. "Jason, come back here!" she yells, and now everyone is watching again.
"You're a soldier," Jason says. It's not a question.
"How can you tell?" I ask.
"Your suit. I'm a soldier too, but don't tell Mom."
I laugh. "What outfit are you with?"
"I'm on Major Roughneck's team. He's the toughest soldier in the galaxy. He always wins and none of his guys ever die."
"Is that a cartoon?"
"Uh-huh." His mother has caught up now. The panicked look has lost its intensity, but she still doesn't make eye contact. She puts a hand on his shoulder. He doesn't seem to notice. "Do you shoot bad guys? Do you kill Squidders like Major Roughneck?"
She tightens her grip. "Jason, that's not a nice question to ask someone you don't know."
"Afraid not," I say. "Real life is different from the cartoons."
"You don't shoot them?" His shoulders droop.
"I've never even seen one in person."
"But they're bad guys. How come you don't shoot them?"
"They live a very long way from Earth."
"But we have spaceships that go there." He nods emphatically, as though reminding me of this obvious fact.
"There's no people on those spaceships, buddy. They have to go really, really fast because the Squidders live so far away. It's not safe for us to ride ships that go that fast. So we send drones instead."
"Kind of like robots. They take care of the bad guys so we don't have to."
"It's time to go, Jason," his mother says. "Say goodbye."
"I want to shoot bad guys like Major Roughneck when I grow up," he says, still looking at me. "Do you think they'll make ships that are safe to ride?"
"If they do, I don't think they'll send them where the bad guys are. I think they'll send them to look for more good guys. Wouldn't you rather do that?"
"We have to get all the bad guys first. The bad guys got my dad."
His mother is silent now, and I'm afraid to look at her. I go down to one knee, partly so my eyes are flush with Jason's, mostly because he just knocked the wind out of me. "Was your dad a soldier?"
"He was on the solarcon thing."
"The extra-solar recon," I say, my voice faltering.
"He wanted to be friends with the Squidders, but they sent a bomb at him. He didn't know they were bad guys."
"None of us did," his mom says. She doesn't avoid eye contact this time, but part of me wishes she would. I don't know what to say.
"That's why I want to be a soldier," Jason says. "I want to shoot the Squidders."
"That's why I wanted to be a soldier, too. But you know what I found out?"
"It's not always about shooting bad guys. If you want to stick it to the Squidders, the best thing you can do is work hard in school and learn as much as you can."
"So I can make robots?"
"If that's what you want. Between you and me, I don't think we'll need those drones by the time you're grown up. Maybe you can help build those new spaceships instead, so we can stop worrying about bad guys and start making friends out there."
"It would be cool to make a spaceship, I guess."
I stand up straight. His mother is still looking at me. There are tears in her eyes. I want to put a hand on her shoulder, but I don't think that's what she wants. I don't know what I can do for her. Probably nothing.
"We have to go," she says, and Jason listens this time. But not before giving me another salute on his way out.
They encourage the Arkshippers to wear the uniform in public. It reminds folks that real live people will be going up on those ships. The very sight of them recalls that drive to explore we once had and are now reclaiming. The stars aren't something to be afraid of anymore.
And so, it's his uniform I recognize first.
"The usual, Colonel?" the waiter asks, but I barely hear. Like everyone else in the restaurant, my eyes are on the blonde-haired man across the room.
At first, I'm not sure why. This close to a military town, you're bound to run into an Arkshipper sooner or later, and I've known my fair share. But there's something about this one. It starts as a small tug at the back of my mind, the faintest glimmer. I don't know who he is, but something tells me I should. Then I catch a glimpse of the woman across the table from him, and before I know it, my feet are carrying me across the room.
"Thank you for your service," I say, sticking my hand out.
He shakes it and nods. "A privilege, sir."
"How long do you have?"
"Less than a week." He winks at the older woman across the table. "Mom thought she'd throw me a little going away party."
She's staring at me now. The same inkling of recognition that pulled me across the room is drawn about her face. She doesn't say anything, but her eyes tell me she knows.
"The whole world ought to," I say. "What you're doing is braver than anything I got up to when I was in a uniform."
"You served? What outfit?"
"One of the old ones," I say with a smile.
"Well, I appreciate it, sir. The colonial endeavor would still be a pipedream if not for those old outfits. You took care of the bad guys for us."
"We just opened the way. Good luck to you, son."
We shake hands again, and his mother thanks me. I pretend I don't know why.
Joni is waiting at my table. She greets me with a tight hug. "Good to see you, Dad. I missed you. Who's that guy you were talking to?"
"An old friend."
"An Arkshipper? Was he there when your team started the program?"
"No, he's much too young to have been there in the early days. But he'll see it through."
I watch as they get up to leave. Jason's mother looks in my direction, then leans over and whispers something into his ear. I'm not close enough to hear what she says, but I can tell by his expression that it's unexpected. His eyes find mine, and he raises a hand to his brow. There are no chocolate stains on his hand this time, and the salute is more proper than the last one he gave me. But the light that swells in his eyes as I return the gesture says that same little boy is still in there somewhere.
I hope he makes us some friends out there.
This story originally appeared in Daily Science Fiction.