Harvesting of Youth
September 18, Earth Standard Calendar
Far removed from the politics, and cold settling over the eastern seaboard, northern Arizona was still sweltering under summer-like conditions. Interstate 40 cut east to west across the upper portion of the state, through a high plateau that was ringed by mountains. During the springtime, winds howled incessantly for weeks at a time, followed by months of hot, dry days that summer brought with it, punctuated by fierce thunderstorms, and driving rain. Autumn delivered crisp, frosty mornings, but not until late October. Winter often came with dustings of snow.
Winslow, tucked snugly in the center of this corridor, was a small town where time seemed to have stopped long ago. Established in the early 1900’s, it was well over two centuries old, and little had changed in all of that time. Twelve miles from end to end, it had once been a cog in the Route 66 chain that spanned across the country. The buildings downtown, though renovated several times over the decades, remained of the original design. The street was brick, sidewalks lined with trees and flower beds.
The majority of the businesses were of the mom-and-pop nature. Cafes, the one-screen theater, shops, and hotels. What looked out of place were the modern automobiles, sleek, and colorful in design. Nothing like the antiquated models that were parked along 2nd Street, near the famous ‘corner.’ A bronze statue stood on that intersection, a monument to the Eagles band from two hundred years past. Their song played all day from speakers nearby, in tribute to their fondness for taking it easy on that corner.
The residential areas bordered the north and south side of the Burlington/Northern railway tracks that cut through, the homes also renovated while preserving the old-style designs. Each unique, and well maintained. Green lawns and tall trees despite being tucked into the center of the high desert, thanks to a generous water table, and the nearby branch of the Colorado River. Clear Creek provided a playground for summertime.
Winslow, being a small town, did not mean that it was without its resources. It had a small regional airport that was normally a way station for private aircraft, the local medevac chopper, and firefighting crews. Many pilots made it a point to land there just to have lunch at the E&O Mexican eatery. Fresh, hand-made food made it a popular stop for the locals.
As of late, the residents had taken notice of a significant increase in military traffic there. It was not unusual to see the old-school rotor-driven helicopters coming and going from the Army base up in Flagstaff, but it was out of the norm to have the sheer volume of aircraft.
Choppers were not the only type of military craft dropping in. To everyone’s astonishment, the Space Navy had begun landing their shuttle-type helos and planes on the strip. Shuttle-helos were of nearly identical design in appearance, sans the rotors. They were sleek, with Anderson Drive power plants and artificial gravity generators that allowed for space flight. Basically, any sort of traditional aircraft specially fitted with those elements and reinforced hulls constituted a shuttle design.
Huey-shuttles, Blackhawk Shuttles, mammoth C-130 shuttles, they were all making abnormal appearances at the Winslow airport. Unbeknownst to the populace, the same sort of activity was taking place at most every regional airport across the country. It was a tactical decision. The commanders had decided that staging resources at small strips like these would better preserve men and equipment in the event of an invasion, where major bases and airports would be prime targets.
The U.S. Army had rolled into town the week prior, a convoy miles long with trucks full of crates, and soldiers clad in field gear and Kevlar armor. They were not openly carrying weapons, but their appearance conveyed an air of aggression that the residents were unaccustomed to.
A make-shift tent city had sprung up in an open field not far from the airport, and was encircled with a chain link fence, manned with guards that did carry assault rifles. Downtown, the courthouse became the new Civil Defense center. Flyers began to circulate, instructing citizens on how to stock for a two-week emergency supply, on how to duck-and-cover in the event of a nuclear attack, and instructed to begin using black-out curtains at night. The normally placid environment took on a tense, and uncomfortable atmosphere.
Winslow, and its neighboring towns were communities where doors were left unlocked. There was a sense of trust, and openness where people looked out for one another. It was a good place to raise a family, far enough away from the Phoenix-Tucson Metroplex to be beyond the crime, but near enough to be a few-hour’s drive for a visit to the ‘Big City.’ This new fold upset the balance. The old-timers gathered outside Casey’s Hardware, lounging on rocking chairs, and casting wary glances at the Army soldiers as their foot patrols passed by.
People began to whisper, and rumors circulated. There were terrible things being broadcast on TV lately, and now this. Rumors of war. Newscasts filled with the gore that a distant madman was rendering on his own people, those who he had deemed traitors to his cause, whatever that cause may be. Now, the Army had come to town.
There were more American and United Earth flags flying from porches. More rhetoric and bravado from the working men in the bars after a hard day’s work. Prices at the stores were going up, and people were hoarding goods. Mothers ushered their youngsters in at the first hint of evening.
It was a tide of mixed emotion.
It could not have been more so than at the local high school. Winslow High, home of the Bulldogs, found itself at the center of a new controversy. Like the working class in many small communities across the globe, there were many families whose children had no real hope of affording an advanced education after high school. The best paying careers lay in the field of science at present. Breakthroughs in technology that allowed greater-than-light speed, thanks to the Anderson Corporation, had created an entire industry all its own.
Despite the demands for engineers and technicians, the learning required involved up to eight years of intense college education, an education that was immensely expensive, and out of reach for all but the upper tier of the rich. Only so many grants could be issued in a given year. This meant that many of the even the most ambitious students had only standard to menial labor awaiting them after high school. It was a discouraging outlook for the kids, and a sad fact of life for their parents, who wanted a better future for them.
Thus, the debate at Winslow High.
Military recruiters had been permitted to set up shop in the gymnasium.
Four non-descript desks, nearly side-by-side, each manned by a sharply dressed representative from each of the major branches of the armed forces. This was an arrangement that had been made with every high school in every country around the world. The presidential order meant that principals really had no say in the matter.
The recruiters courted the senior class with seductive promises of a paid education, off-world travel, adventure, and the options of going career for a generous pension while gently shooing away anyone under the age of seventeen. The president had made it clear that there would be hell to pay for wooing anyone younger than the cut-off age.
As anticipated, the teens were intrigued. Before school, and in-between classes, there were always small crowds around the recruiters, asking questions, wanting to know more. Like curious pups, they always came back, asking more questions, more enticed each time. The crowds gradually grew larger each day. In only four days, there were more kids gathered there than the recruiters could reasonably handle, and by Friday morning, the first signatures were given.
The grapevine spread the news like lightning. So-and-so had enlisted. He was graduated from high school on the spot, sworn in, and allowed to call his parents to say farewell. Other kids followed, spurred on by their buddies, encouraged to do the patriotic thing. By lunchtime, the entire varsity football team had signed contracts, and were being grouped together in ever increasing numbers in a private lounge at the local airport.
Parents were leaving work early to get one last hug, or to try fruitlessly to talk their kids out of their decisions. Mostly, though, the parents merely consoled one another, believing that the military had given their kids a shot a better future.
No one considered the risks involved.
No one truly understood the horrors or the violence that war entailed. Standing against tyranny was simply the proper thing to do. The patriotic thing. It was something to brag about. Yellow ribbons to be tied to front porches. It didn’t hurt that bank accounts were being fattened with enlistment bonuses.
One member of the senior class had not been so easily drawn in.
Seventeen year old Minerva Carreno had been pondering her options for the future since the school year had begun. She was a straight-A student, popular among her classmates, and active in sports. Blessed with a natural beauty that turned the head of nearly every adolescent boy in the twelfth grade, she also had no shortage of choices for dates. That kind of easy popularity might, and likely did make a lot girls prissy, but Minerva tried hard to remain a grounded person. She made it a point to smile, and offer kindness to everyone that she encountered. To avoid gossip. To make the right decisions.
Her parents were among the working poor. They owned a modest house in one of the older neighborhoods nearest the highway. Her father worked for the city utility, laboring to keep the parks and the landscaping along the main roads looking good. He often helped friends and neighbors with projects around their homes on his free time. Her mother kept up the house, worked a garden that took up most of the backyard, and put a meal on the table three times a day. They may not have had much, but what they did own was hard-earned, and with that, Minerva learned to appreciate what she had in life. She also learned modesty.
On the Monday that the recruiters had first arrived, she remained hanging back along the outer edge of the crowd of kids checking things out. She noticed that the first thing that caught most everyone’s attention was the flashiness of the dress uniforms. Each branch had a unique design, and different forms of rank. That, though, failed to draw any appeal for her. A uniform, after all, was just that. There were more important things to consider.
Minerva studied the posters on the walls behind each desk. Those, too, were mere glamour, though they did offer a tidbit of information. The Army, for example was clearly in the business of holding and defending real estate. Of operating supply routes, and providing domestic defense.
The Air Force, Space Navy, and Surface Navy were more technologically oriented, which cued some interest.
The Global Marines, though, for some reason pulled at her. Minerva returned to the recruiter’s desk often, listening to the sergeant answer the questions put to him by eager students. She learned that the Marines held themselves to the highest standards of fitness, discipline, and honor. They were traditionally the first in to a battlefield, the best of the best. Their enlistment bonus, surprisingly, was less than what the other branches were offering. When asked why this was, the sergeant’s reply was cool, and frank.
“Because, we want recruits who desire more than just the money. We want those who want to stand above the rest.”
That was what finally sold Minerva.
On Thursday evening, after supper, she announced her decision to her mother and father. There was a stunned silence at first. Her mother wept. Her dad held his opinion while she laid out her reasons for wanting to join up. After some time, he consented, seeing the logic in her words. By then, Minerva had proven herself a responsible girl. It was time to let her spread her wings, and fly. There was little sleep in the Carreno household that night. There were, instead, many tears shed. Phone calls made to relatives.
On Friday morning, Minerva left her home, and her parents, unsure of when she would see them again. If ever. War was, after all, looming on the proverbial horizon. She walked to school, and went straight to the gym. She shouldered her way through the usual gaggle of kids gathered about the recruitment desks, and looked the Marine sergeant in the eye.
“Sign me up.” She told him decisively.
There must have been something in her demeanor, or the tone of her voice. Some small thing set her apart from the other kids to that man. The sergeant blinked, seemed to look sad, and handed her the form and a pen.
She signed her name to bottom line, and rose her right hand to be sworn in while the other kids around her cheered her on. Minerva did not hear them, though. Her entire being was focused on the words being given to her to repeat. She swore to defend her nation against all enemies, foreign or domestic. She understood that she was surrendering her freedom, her very life, to the demands of her government. It was a solemn moment for her.
When that was done, the marine stamped a large, red A on her form, and placed it in a brown file folder before giving it to her.
“You will keep this with you at all times until you arrive at the recruit training center,” he told her.
Minerva regarded the stamp on her form, the first page of what would become her service file, “What’s the red A for?”
The sergeant gave a terse shake of the head, “That’s none of your concern. Now wait outside. A van will be along shortly to take you to the local airport.”
She thanked him, and went out as she was told, feeling a lightness to her step. In the signing of a paper, she had been graduated from school, and was now a member of the armed services. She was on her own, a young adult. It felt different, thrilling, terrifying. Most of all, there was sense of adventure like nothing she’d experienced before. In only a few hours, she would be leaving the planet! What sights, and experiences awaited her out there?
As promised, an unmarked, white van arrived a short time later. She, and nearly twenty others from the senior class got on board, and were taken to the Winslow airport. Another sizable group was already waiting there, recruits gathered from the neighboring towns of Joseph City, and Holbrook. Minerva guessed that there might have been close to fifty kids gathered in the lobby.
Less than an hour later, a green U.S. Army bus pulled around from the motor pool situated behind the tent city, and parked just outside. The driver, an Army sergeant, got out, and strode into the waiting area.
“Marine recruits, load up!”
The kids filed outside, and got on the bus, rowdy, and boisterous. The sergeant did not appear to give a damn one way or another how they behaved. His job was to drive them to wherever they were going, and that was that. Minerva once again hung back, and was among the last to get on, which put her right up front, near the driver.
She refrained from taking part in the banter around her, instead gazing out the window, watching as they left town. She tried to engrave every building, tree, and house into her memory, to take it all with her for comfort should she get homesick.
The bus crossed town, and took the on-ramp for I-40 West. The scenery zipped past as they climbed toward Flagstaff, the landscape gradually changing from the ruddy reds, browns, and oranges of the plateau into scrubby juniper and green grasses dotted with patches of wild sunflowers. Just under an hour later, they were in the tall pines and broken cliffs of the college town. The long-dormant volcano, and the San Francisco Peaks dominated the view.
There was considerably more military traffic mixed in with the tourists, students, and residents that were hustling about in their daily routines. Mostly drab green Hummers, and the new Hummer-Jeeps that so resembled the models Minerva remembered from her history book. World War Two had been carried by the Willy’s Jeep, and like so many other of the antique fashions of the 1940’s being revived in popularity, even the military was getting on the bandwagon.
In the recent years, there had been a near-religious fervor for the styles of the early 1900’s. Clothing from the era had made a dramatic come-back, with men wearing suits and hats, and women raving over the summer dresses, and having their hair done. The auto industry was making money hand-over-fist with hot sales of cars and trucks in demand for the models of the same years. Old-style car bodies over modern plasma-gasoline fusion engines. Even many of the 18-wheelers were beginning to appear with those old designs, chugging along with their plasma-diesel power plants.
Minerva had often wondered why people were so thirsty for the ‘Good ol’ Days,’ but part of her already knew the answer to that. Technology in every field had progressed with ever-increasing speed for as long as she could remember, and with all of the conveniences that such breakthroughs delivered, there was still that minute fear in the back of one’s mind. It was impossible to keep up, to fully understand many things. There was a feeling of reassurance by reverting to the days of old, when time seemed to move so much slower, and a body could actually connect with the environment.
The bus veered toward the I-10 South interchange, and Minerva knew then that they were on their way to Phoenix. She recalled the recruiter mentioning that the training center was located on Attaya, which meant for sure that they were going to Sky Harbor Airport. She had no idea how things would transpire from there. Of how they would actually get all the way to the Attayan System, or long it took. A thrill ran through her at that thought. This would be her first off-world journey, and to an alien planet at that!
The Attayans had been close acquaintances with Earth since their discovery over eighty years prior. With the ironing-out of the Anderson Drive systems, the space program had been able to leap unimagined distances without the time distortions of light-speed travel, turning what would normally take light-years to cross from one star to another into hours, days, or weeks.
Manned probes had been promptly sent out to as many points as possible to begin charting what was now a reachable ocean of darkness, and by chance, a patrol happened across errant radio transmissions. They followed them into a seven-planet system orbiting a yellow star, and found what would be later known as Attaya.
The world was inhabited by natives that were astonishingly similar to humans. Bi-pedal, intelligent, and just ahead of Earth in technological advances. They averaged six feet in height, and were covered head-to-toe in fine, silky fur.
The first-contact went surprisingly well, considering the fact that the Attayans had been long aware of Earth to begin with, and had been studying several of the major dialects. The envoy that greeted the explorers spoke fluent Spanish, Japanese, and English. They had been patiently waiting for Earth to make the first gesture.
A sharing of intelligence and the establishment of the Trade World Agreement brought wealth to both societies. Unfortunately, because of the distance involved, and the shortage of privately owned vessels capable of making the journey kept travel between worlds prohibitively expensive for all but the filthy rich. Only corporate, government, and military officials were privy to actually seeing an Attayan in-person. Once Attaya had established embassies on Earth, one in each of the super-power districts, they turned into tourist attractions.
To the shock of all, medical analysis revealed that the Attayans shared an identical DNA sequence as the humans of Earth. The feline-like race was actually as human as we. They had all the same pestilences, immunities, and the like. Their evolution had taken a slightly different turn over time, for reasons no one knew, but they were our galactic brothers and sisters.
Studies of their culture revealed many similar religions as well, with some so odd that even after eight decades, no one understood them. The astounding match that caught the most attention was their large sect of Christianity.
They had bibles that mirrored our own, and had staunch beliefs in Christ, with references to all of the same regions surrounding Israel. For the Attayans, Israel had long been a place of mysterious antiquity, a place somewhere in the Heavens. Once they discovered that the area was an actual place on earth, shockwaves reverberated throughout their communities.
Minerva had been raised a Catholic, but her family had not been what most would call ‘practicing.’ The religious similarities of the two races of human were amazing, yes,
but carried no real significance for her. The excitement that she felt had to do with being on an alien world, and seeing for the first time, the Attayans with her own eyes, and not just on TV, or in a book. Of the adventures that she would experience, and be able to tell her friends and family about down the road.
Her memory touched on other things that her history teacher had lectured about.
Unfortunately, with the good, came the not so good.
The Attayans informed the then-president of United Earth that there was yet another race of humans residing out there. Nearer the galactic core, an active, and somewhat aggressive breed that called themselves Storians.
The Storian race was made up of better than a hundred different sects, but the predominant one-the oldest, was the largest, and most violent. The Prime Minister and the senate regularly dispensed cruelty to those deemed lesser.
They already had a tentative relationship with the Attayans with trade agreements, and certain economic arrangements, but there were always long-standing limits. Storians were suspicious by nature, and easily resorted to violence among themselves for reasons no one truly comprehended.
When Earth came into the picture, the newcomer Terrans were regarded with open distrust, and borderline hostility. It took better than ten years to gain even minute cooperation with them. Finally, after two decades, the Trade Alliance included the three superpowers, seated side-by-side in the circle of the United Nations. A single embassy was permitted to be established in the Storian capital, and fiercely monitored immigration of diplomats and their families permitted.
Over the years, there had been countless mysterious encounters along the trade routes, where freighters simply vanished where the furthest regions of the Terran frontier bordered the Storian. While there had been no overt accusations of Storian piracy, both Earth and Attaya suspected as such, but there was never any real solid evidence. Several incidents of corporate espionage committed by Storian rival companies brought about a long-standing, undeclared cold war of spy versus spy. The tensions steadily grew by the day.
While Minerva had never seen an Attayan in person, she had once seen a Storian. It had been by sheer chance while her class was on an educational tour of the state capital in Phoenix. The Storian was an ambassador, and had walked within a few feet of her while passing from one hall to another.
The man had been short, barely over five feet, and had a stocky build. Bald as a cucumber, without even eyebrows, and most noticeably, a lack of exterior ears. His skin was dark-olive, and very dry-looking, nearly scaled. He had glanced in her direction, and her heart nearly stopped when he blinked. His eyelids had closed from the side, instead of up and down.
Slang for the two races varied, but the more popular were the terms of 'cat' for the Attayans, and ‘lizard’ for the Storians. Both were considered highly offensive by the respective races. Minerva was sure that they must have monikers of their own for the
people of Earth, but she had yet to hear any of them.
Visions of what Attaya might look like filled Minerva’s head, and the bright future suddenly before her. The opportunities. She was toying with thoughts of perhaps remaining in the Corps beyond her obligatory six years, and going career. Maybe even going for officer’s rank. The possibilities, which had been so limited only hours before, were now seemingly endless.
The smile that parted her lips lit her face.