The smell of barbecue filled the air, tangy with vinegar. It wafted on a gentle breeze as the small MACO unit disembarked from a military transport.
Uranus hung low in the sky, a blue sphere with small rings that threatening to touch the ground, it was so close. Sergeant Jay Hayes stepped out and was reminded of a painting of Atlas he had once seen. If Atlas could hold up the Earth, he reasoned, maybe he could somehow hold up Uranus. It certainly looked that way.
Major Ian Landry stood in front of his men. “This deployment is for two years. This is a new MACO presence, and not all of the buildings for the base have been finished yet. NCOs will bunk with enlisted men until their barracks are completed.”
Jay glanced around at the enlisted men for a moment. Landry continued, “Weekend and day passes will be awarded based on merit. You will get to know this area. The people are friendly, but they believe in states’ rights here. So you may see some evidence of disagreements with the United Earth Government. I urge you to keep an open mind in that area as we are the guests of these people. And make sure not to call it the Civil War – for them, it’s the War of Northern Aggression. Any questions?” There were none. “Dismissed!”
Hayes found his way to the barracks and began methodically setting up his bunk. He didn’t have much beyond his standard kit. He didn’t even have framed photographs, just a few images on his PADD that would offer an impromptu slide show whenever the device was in sleep mode.
He was nearly finished getting everything set up when it did just that. The fellow in the bunk next to him noticed, “Hey, is that a pic of your girl?”
“Uh, no,” Jay replied, “That’s my sister, Laura.”
“Oh. Name’s Mercer. Wanna see a pic of my home town?”
No, thought Jay, but he’d been taught to be polite. “Hayes,” he said, shaking the man’s proffered hand. “Uh, sure.”
Mercer clicked around his own PADD a bit. “Uh, here, this is New Tokyo. It’s on Oberon. Where you from?”
“Ganymede. Look, uh, Mercer, you better get your bunk ready. No more chit chat.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Mercer set about straightening up his own area.
A few minutes later, Landry entered the barracks. “Ten hut!” bellowed Hayes, and they all fell in line.
Landry inspected each bunk carefully, stopping to critique any misplaced items, or lament improperly folded hospital corners. He stopped in front of Mercer’s bunk, and then Hayes’s. “You fellas wanna go on leave?”
Hayes and Mercer stayed quiet. “Well, do ya?”
“Uh, only if we get passes, Major,” Mercer’s statement was thoroughly unnecessary, and Hayes knew that would only annoy Landry.
“Not today, Private,” Landry stated. “Now, polish those boots.”
“You’re the only one here who passed inspection. Give me your PADD.” Hayes complied, and Landry clicked his own PADD next to it in order to transfer data. “You got Cinderella Liberty. Be back before midnight and you can tell the others here what Titania’s like tomorrow.”
“Thank you, sir.”
There were falsely aged buildings, made to look like antebellum antiques, but that was impossible. Still, they were a pretty sight, as Hayes walked from the base into civilization. There were magnolia trees in bloom and, as it had been when they had arrived, the air was thick with the scent of barbecue. It was warm, too, but Jay’s fatigues were adequate and he wasn’t too hot. Not too bad for April.
There were green fields just outside the city limits, not too far from the base. But Jay’s destination was the Bar District of New Natchez. There was an old-style trolley, and he got on it. But it wasn’t really an old trolley at all, as it hovered and moved much more rapidly than expected. There were no tracks, but the ambiance was certainly there.
He helped a woman with a stroller get on, and glared at a young Tellarite until the alien gave up his seat for an old Vulcan man. But Jay didn’t engage anyone otherwise.
He got off and walked into the first bar he saw, the Lookout. He bellied up to the bar and got himself a draft, and then looked around. There was a wall chronometer and it showed the date – April 27, 2133 – and the time – 1837 hours.
There were some people in there, but they were mainly paired up. He did notice one woman by herself – she was dark-skinned, with hair in the tightest, kinkiest curls, and there was a small gap between her two front teeth. She was at the other end of the bar, but didn’t seem to see him. Hayes debated going over there, but it didn’t seem to be a good idea, given his limited time, and the fact that it was his first day. It’s better to get the lay of the land first, he figured.
A girl came over, but she seemed to be too young – he was over 30 – and all he really wanted to do was drink his beer in peace. He waved her off. “Ya’ll don’t know what you’re missin’,” she drawled at him, and he realized that she was a professional. He paid his tab and departed.
It was a weeknight, and the streets were lively, but not with revelers. Instead, these were people commuting home after work. Or maybe they were going on midweek dates. It was a sedate crowd, definitely not what a Saturday night would have probably been like.
He got a meal of barbecue – it was good but messy – at a local joint, and then wandered around some more. Knowing no one, there was nothing really to do, and he had no taste for getting hammered by himself. He clambered up a small, deserted ridge and the view of Uranus was even more spectacular. The bluish planet seemed close enough to grab.
Looking up at it, he was again reminded of the painting he had seen in the Atlanta Art Museum once when he had been on leave. He bent his shoulders and lifted his arms to the sky and, like Atlas, held a world in his arms.