It was what some would call a ‘girly’ sort of day in the Smith house.
Second Lieutenant Stephanie Shylock was sitting at the dining room table, listening to the radio while she painted her nails. She was coming to the end of another bottle of the green polish she’d adopted the previous August, but that was fine –– the Bowring Brothers store in downtown St. John’s had promised to keep bringing it in for her as long as she needed it.
Stephanie figured that would probably be a while –– some years, at least. She’d gotten accustomed to having short green nails, and though they were a nuisance to maintain, it seemed right that she made the effort.
The same determination kept her using a special Japanese moisturizing cream, also being imported by the Bowring Brothers. It was expensive and made of things she couldn’t hope to pronounce, but applying it regularly had become a part of her hand maintenance.
Of course, the care could only do so much; constant exposure to gun oils and cordite, and constant use of soap to wash off the same, tended to give her hands the texture of sand… and working a Browning Hi-Power chipped away at her nails incessantly. The callus that ran between the first and second knuckle on the middle finger of her right hand wasn’t going to disappear –– not that she’d want it to –– and at the end of the day, she’d never possess the dainty digits of the average young woman who graduated from a college like Memorial.
Fortunately, that wasn’t her intent. She just figured she should do the best she could to look after her hands, since they were the final interface between her mind and her pistol. They’d work fine whether they were hard or soft, but she wanted to give them the same level of care she reserved for her guns.
So just like most other girls her age, she was sitting at the table, listening to the radio and painting her nails. It could have been a scene from any home in fashionable St. John’s…
“Your nail polish smells like gun oil,” Alex was passing the dining table, and she dropped that remark as she headed to the kitchen for a snack. It had been nearly an hour since lunch, so she was overdue.
“No, my gun oil smells like gun oil,” Stephanie corrected helpfully, nodding towards the Hi-Power that was sitting on the table just beyond the nail polish.
It had already been stripped, cleaned, oiled and reassembled, because as much as she wanted her hands to get equal favor, Stephanie always put the needs of her pistol first. Her nail polish wouldn’t have stood a chance if she reversed the order, anyway.
Alex was already coming back out of the kitchen –– Champions were fast to food –– when she offered her next retort, “You going to stick with the green, even though it’s such a pain?”
“I think so,” Stephanie carefully put down the brush, then held her hands out in front of her to inspect her work. “It’s so stylish.”
Pulling out the chair beside her friend, Alex settled down with a leftover breast of chicken, then set about attacking it with knife and fork, “It doesn’t even match your uniform.”
“It would have matched your coat, if you hadn’t picked white,” Stephanie bounced that one back, and Alex narrowed her eyes while she chewed.
“Mmhmfmhmhm,” was the younger Lady Smith’s answer –– mouth shut and eating, so Stephanie glanced at her and smiled.
“Well when you put it that way.”
Alex just gave her a glare, and then quickly wolfed down the rest of the chicken. By the time she was done, the brush was put away and the cap of the nail polish was screwed back on. With her hands laid on the table to let the varnish dry, Stephanie was condemned to simply wait beside her friend for the next jab… and to listen to the radio.
“God, he likes the sound of his own voice,” Alex said as soon as she could, referencing what they were hearing from the set in the corner.
“He’s a politician,” Stephanie shrugged, which Alex figured was a good answer.
Perhaps it would have been more appropriate if Stephanie had been listening to music as she beautified herself, but instead she was listening to a live broadcast of the Senate Inquiry into the destruction at Fort Eustice, which after a few months was finally winding down. It wasn’t pleasant; a Senator called Pollock had basically been driving the whole thing, turning it into the worst sort of witch hunt.
“The fact remains, though, Commandant: your base wasn’t prepared for a fight, was it? You can’t make excuses over that,” Pollock’s voice crackled from the speakers, and only after the Senator finished repeating that same thought a few different ways did Commandant Powell –– a man who Caralynne had told both girls was not particularly credible –– answer uneasily.
“Defense of the base was in the hands of Colonel Adams and his men. They failed most directly, and it is they who are responsible for all of this, Senator.”
“Of course,” Alex muttered to herself, pushing her plate aside and looking more closely at her friend’s hands on the table.
With a frown, she started to prod Stephanie’s right hand –– at the callus on her middle finger. Stephanie watched this probing with a frown of her own, “Um?”
Like a scientist discovering a new species, Alex poked at the side of her friend’s right middle finger, then held her own hand up and ran her thumb over the equivalent spot before shaking her head.
“Why don’t I have that?” she asked, sounding rather saddened by the perfectly soft state of her own hands.
“You haven’t been shooting long enough, or as much,” Stephanie’s answer was more matter of fact. “And you probably can’t even get calluses. Your skin’s too perfect.”
She didn’t sound jealous, just a little envious. Shooting as much as she did, Stephanie had quite a collection of calluses and scars on her big paws. Japanese moisture cream would never get them all.
Alex’s slightly smaller hands would always look as though they belonged to a delicate young Lady, with no aspirations towards war… even though, strictly speaking, Alex’s hands were even more dangerous than Stephanie’s.
“This is one of those times when if I complain that no one will ever take me seriously because of my delicate hands, you’ll glare at me?” Alex checked to make sure her interpretation of Stephanie’s mood was correct. Her assessment was confirmed with a nod from the Lieutenant.
They both fell silent, though Alex continued to look enviously at her friend’s powerful hands… while Stephanie eyed her friend’s perfect ones. Champions enjoyed plenty of advantages in life, and a lesser person might have been more than just envious…
Fortunately, Stephanie wasn’t lesser than anybody.
“I think the situation is clear,” Senator Pollock came over the radio again, sounding authoritative. “This is the case of army bureaucratic nonsense that I have long advocated against. Ours is not a professional army –– not like the British Army, anyway. We have spent too long sending the sons of politicians to positions of power… nothing based on military merit, and everything based on the powerful influence of a select few. These bureaucrats… these mandarins… are the reason our Fort could not withstand the attack of whoever did this.”
Both Stephanie and Alex looked up from their hands at those words. They weren’t paying close attention to the Inquiry –– in its earlier days, they’d tuned in to listen to Caralynne and George testify, but after a while it had become monotonous… clear that no new information would be revealed, and that the whole affair was really about politicians competing to see who could seem the most exasperated and offended, without fainting or cursing.
Pollock had been the front runner for ages, but this tactic sounded new –– and on-target, for once. Was he finally recognizing that he and his kind were creating the problem, by politicizing their own armed forces?
“Clearly, any good military commanders not motivated by politics wouldn’t have left negroes to look after our most prized possessions. To be so blinded by supposed progress as to endanger national security is damned near a crime in itself, and were it just me on this panel, I’d have a United States Attorney in here already, filing charges along those lines. But in the interests of good government, I think it’s time the social progressives are thrust aside, and we point our blame at the real culprits here: the negroes. Maybe they were just negligent… in my state, we know their intellectual limitations. This incident seems to be the proof that should bar them from important service, at least until they’re taught to be real soldiers.”
Well. So much for that.
Stephanie was staring at the radio, but she flopped back in the dining chair. Alex simply looked at the ceiling and groaned, “So close, and then off he goes.”
“I’m totally surprised,” Stephanie’s sarcasm wasn’t especially clever, but it seemed appropriate. The American politicians were willing to blame anyone but themselves for the mess of their Champions establishment… and unfortunately, those in the line of fire were the black men of the 25th United States Infantry.
Certainly, Stephanie knew that not all the soldiers in that regiment were as professional as they needed to be… but there was a difference between needing the training and being traitors. Especially when the lack of training was also the fault of politicians.
It was a great relief when the special telephone rang, interrupting both girls in the midst of their acts of exasperation. Because that phone was connected only to Lord Jimmy’s office at headquarters, its ringing usually meant something important was about to happen, so Alex looked to her friend with hopeful eyes.
“Mom’s at the Academy, so they must be calling for us!”
Though it took immense mental strain, Stephanie had also reached that completely obvious conclusion. She therefore offered an exaggerated nod, “So, like, you better answer the telephone.”
“Like?” Alex frowned, “Why’d you say ‘like’ in there?”
Her friend shrugged, “Isn’t that what the girls say? I’m sure I’ve said it before.”
“Not that I’ve heard,” the young whitecoat answered, getting to her feet. “Maybe it’ll catch on.”
Stephanie raised an eyebrow, “As if that’s likely.”
Alex got to the phone by the third ring, and then lifted its receiver a bit excitedly, “Hello, Smith residence, Lady Alex speaking.”
She sounded quite silly –– she was clearly trying much too hard to come across as serious. Stephanie failed to resist a smile at her friend’s irrepressibility, but as Alex’s expression sobered, the American girl with the painted nails felt a more responsible air settle back over the room.
“Okay, we’ll be there in half an hour,” the younger Lady Smith said, then hung up.
As soon as the receiver was down, Stephanie’s raised eyebrow asked the wordless question.
“Hong Kong. We’re flying out there on Skipper Miller in an hour, Strong will meet us at the ship.”
Stephanie blinked, then nodded. With a last look at her nails, and a quick blow to make sure they were dry, Stephanie Shylock pushed herself to her feet, collected her recently-pampered pistol, switched off the radio, and headed for her room to change.