Welcome To The Harem
Eschaton by Deslea R. Judd (Part 1 of 4)
Summary: You don't have to be mortal to love. You don't have to be human to feel. Knowle/Shannon backstory, pre-XF through XF and beyond. R for low-key sex and adult concepts.
Eschaton (1/4) (Prologue, Chapters 1+2)
Deslea R. Judd
DISCLAIMER: Characters not mine. Interpretation mine.
ARCHIVE: Sure, just keep my name and headers.
RATING: R for low-key sex and adult concepts.
SPOILERS/TIMEFRAME: Pre-XF, through XF and beyond. Mainly Eve, Herrenvolk, One Son, Per Manum, Existence, NIHT II and The Truth.
CATEGORY/KEYWORDS: Mytharc, Knowle/Shannon, Knowle POV. Pre-XF, post-col. Passing allusions to Shannon/Doggett UST, Doggett/ Reyes, Mulder/Scully and Krycek/Marita.
SUMMARY: You don't have to be mortal to love. You don't have to be human to feel.
MORE FIC: http://fiction.deslea.com
FEEDBACK: Love the stuff. firstname.lastname@example.org.
AWARDS/ELIGIBILITY: Spooky Awards 2003 eligible.
Eschaton: Last things, end times, pertains to the extremity of life and death. Koine greek: eschatos.
He becomes aware of words.
He doesn't hear them, but he feels them as vibrations penetrating the stillness. He knew how to read vibrations once, and he reads them now. There is no particular reason for him to do so - no decision, no desire - but he does it, passively receiving what there is to receive.
The vibrations becomes gradually more with each passing (day? week? year?). More insistent. More forceful. There are other vibrations, too, different ones, strong and coarse. If he could hear, they would be loud. He is not threatened by them. He accepts their presence as an inexorable fact of his existence.
In time, they form patterns. Rhythms. He makes hazy connections between vibrations and words or pictures. He doesn't seek them out, but sometimes they come to him unbidden. Miss McMahon. McMahon Industries. Number Seven Mine.
He feels the change, the rise to consciousness, like a rising sun. A breaking dawn. There is a shift. A focus. Somewhere along the line, he ceases to merely recognise these connections, and begins to actively seek them out. The search is dream-like. Slow and languid. Quietly curious. He becomes aware, and then he becomes aware that he is aware.
He becomes aware that the vibrations begin and end. That there are rises and lulls. He has a vague idea that the rises are day and the lulls are night.
Slowly, the connections beget more connections. First just a few, and then whole series of linear connections. He begins to interpret them. To derive meaning.
Miss McMahon is in Roswell today.
Albuquerque branch office is having a Christmas party.
So my wife says if I'm not back for dinner with her mom, she's gonna kill me. Man, I hate that old cow.
He becomes aware of movement. Of structures that hold him being withdrawn. Tumbling. Falling. Of feeling exposed and vulnerable. He doesn't like it. There is poking and prodding. He comes to rest.
New vibrations replace the old, new words and concepts. Liquification. Centrifuge. Cyanide solution. Intercooler. Aftercooler. Byproduct. He tries to make more connections, but this time, they don't make sense. They are too complex. Too detailed.
He is aware of dizziness. Spinning. A crawling feeling, like being worn away at the edges. He feels a separation. Sudden. Shocking. When it ends, he feels oddly cleansed. His thinking is clearer. His memories more ordered.
He feels vital. Fluid. He feels himself...growing. Becoming more. Flowing and joining. Like orgasm. Spilling out and merging. Dense pools of memory and knowledge come to him with every wave.
He feels cold. Feels himself contract and fall back on himself. The growing stops. The vibrations are muted. Now and then, there are waves of warmth, and vibrations filter through once more. Storage. Nitrogen. Just brief fragments. Then new knowledge, new memory, and cold stillness again.
Gradually, he comes aware of warmth. It is a slow warmth. Like stolen moments with Shannon in the greenhouse when they were kids. Like making love with her in the sun. Like springtime in Beirut. Like the ruins of the Mayan pueblo that last day in New Mexico, before - before -
He doesn't know.
More vibrations. Gentler ones. Forming words. They have a consistency that is new. They originate from a single source. They are familiar. Vibration gradually becomes sound.
Knowle, she says. Ark. Shan. Shannon. Ants go marching. Ants go marching two by two.
Memory and sound collapse on one another and merge.
The ants went marching two by two, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants went marching two by two, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants went marching two by two, Samantha stopped and Kurt would stop too.
And they all went marching down to get out of the rain.
Down to get out of the rain.
Down to get-
His first memory is of the dormitory.
They were two, maybe three years old. The six-year-olds had been shipped out to their assignments, so it was a smaller dorm than usual. Shannon was snuggled up beside him in his bed, and Mrs Pendleton sat beside them. He remembers giggling because Shannon was trying to sing along.
"Down to get out of the rain!" she cried, clapping her chubby little hands. "Down to get out of the rain!"
"That's right, Shannon, good girl," said Mrs Pendleton. She patted Shannon's head, and Shannon giggled. The other children, the little ones, clapped along as well. The elder ones were sullen. It wasn't until he was older that he would understand they envied the attention he and Shannon received.
Mrs Pendleton rose. "Goodnight, children," she said.
She bent down to pick up Shannon, but Shannon shook her head. "Want to sleep with Knowle."
Mrs Pendleton sighed. "Very well. Just this once," she warned, just like she always did.
"Just this once," Knowle agreed, just like he always did.
The last thing he felt was her leaning down to drop a kiss on both their foreheads, and then there were heels tapping, and lights going out, and Shannon, always Shannon cuddled up at his side.
The first time he saw Mrs Pendleton cry was when they were taken away for the tests.
He liked the tests. They measured how strong he was, and how much they could do to him to see if it would hurt. He was so proud of how much he could stand. Much more than those stupid drone Kurts, who sneered at him because he was strong and they weren't.
The discomfort was brief, and it was worth the beaming smiles. The first time they killed him and he stood right back up, the whole room applauded. They invited important people to watch, men in black business suits and green army suits and people with clipboards and even a man they said was the Chief of Staff. The Chief of Staff knelt down and shook his hand and said, "You're going to be very important to us when you grow up, young man." He pinned a military recruitment button on Knowle and ruffled his hair. Knowle felt very special and very proud.
Shannon got a button that day too, but no one ruffled her hair. Her trick was to be the one who killed him. She knocked his head right off with her hand, and just before he blacked out, he saw the way the men flinched and drew back in their seats. When his head was back and he was straightening out his clothes, he saw them muttering together, looking at her, looking afraid, and he thought they were saying bad things about her. So he led her away and showed her his button and made her giggle by telling her about the hairs in the Chief of Staff's nose.
Mrs Pendleton knew about it when they came back to the dormitory. They found her sitting on his little bunk, wiping her eyes on a tattered handkerchief that had seen better days.
He and Shannon exchanged a worried glance. They ran to her and stood before her, side by side. "What's wrong, Pendy?"
Mrs Pendleton looked up. Startled. She crumpled the hanky in her hand and tucked it into her sleeve. "It's nothing," she said. Sniffled a little.
"No, it's not," Shannon protested. "What's wrong?"
Mrs Pendleton sighed. She reached out and smoothed Shannon's hair off her face. "It's nothing for you to worry about, dear." She drew breath in a hiss, pulling back, staring at her hand as though she'd been burnt.
Knowle peered down at her fingers. They were red with blood. She'd gotten it off Shannon's hair. He pulled out his hanky and looked at it critically. Grimy, but not used. He took her hand and tried to wipe it. It seemed so big in his own.
This seemed to break her. She smiled at him miserably, and she took the handkerchief from him and finished off. She had to rub hard. The blood was sticky. Drying out.
"This is all wrong," she said in a low voice, folding the fabric and tucking it back in Knowle's pocket. "They shouldn't be teaching you to - to hurt each other like that."
"I don't mind, Pendy!" he said. "I just get straight back up again! It's really easy. Look, I'll show you!" He raised his arm to Shannon, ready to strike her.
Mrs Pendleton grabbed him by both arms. "But it won't always be Shannon. One day they'll use you to hurt people who can't get up again."
He stared at her. Bewildered. People who couldn't get up again? It didn't make any sense. He looked to Shannon for guidance, but she looked puzzled as well.
Mrs Pendleton seemed to recognise their confusion. "Like the Samanthas and the Kurts," she prompted. "They can't do everything you can do. They can't get up again, either."
"But - but they're just drones. They don't matter," said Shannon.
"I've been so very wrong to let you think that, dear. They matter very much. And it isn't just the drones. It's everyone. Me. The men who take you to be tested and the men who watch. All of us." She drew both of them close. "We're not like you. We die. All of us die. And we don't come back."
She looked so wretched that he hugged her tight around the neck, and then Shannon was hugging them both. Shannon got blood on Pendy's cheek, but this time she didn't draw away. She hugged them both back and ruffled both their hair, and Knowle felt his circle expand, from two to three. As though she belonged to him, just like Shannon did.
Finally, they broke apart, and Shannon said gleefully, "We got our orders, Pendy. The Major said. We're going to Canada."
Mrs Pendleton swallowed. "Really?"
"We're going to look after the crops and the bees with the Kurts and the Samanthas," she said. "Me and Knowle will have a little house just for us. And then when we're big, we'll go in the Marines. See my button?" she said importantly, holding it out for inspection.
Mrs Pendleton took it. Looked at it dutifully. "That's very nice, dear. You're a very lucky girl." She was very white.
Knowle didn't think she looked any happier. "Pendy, what's wrong?"
"It's just not right," she said. "Pairing you up like some tribal kids promised as babies. It's 1970, for God's sake! We're supposed to be civilised!"
Much of this went over Knowle's head, but he had the vague idea she didn't want them to have a house together. "But we belong to each other," he said. "We're supposed to live together. Like the Samanthas and the Kurts."
Shannon nodded. "We were made for each other. We're like each other. The Major said."
Mrs Pendleton sighed. "You probably are. But you should have been allowed to choose, don't you see? You shouldn't be given a house and a bed and no-one else and left to - to - to find each other that way. You should be allowed to find yourselves first. It's all wrong. Don't you understand?"
They shook their heads at her. They didn't.
"But why do they do it if it's wrong?" Knowle wondered. Determined to get some sense out of this puzzling pronouncement.
"Because a boy - or a girl -" she added, smiling at Shannon, "with nothing to lose is a very dangerous thing." She drew them onto the bed beside her. "You see, a long time ago, I used to take care of different children. A whole group of little girls and boys called Adam and Eve."
"Like we're Adam and Eve?" Shannon said.
"Yes, like that. They call you Adam and Eve sometimes, because those ones didn't work out. And so they tried again and they made you."
"Why didn't they work out?" Knowle wondered.
"The Eves got very sick in their minds and their hearts, and they did bad things. And they were strong like you, so those bad things were very very bad. And the men who had to decide what to do about it, decided it was safer to make you children in pairs. Because if you love someone, you want to take care of them, and you don't do things that could hurt them. Or make someone else hurt them."
A glimmer of understanding came to him then. He thought it was like the men saying mean things about Shannon, and the way he led her away.
"When do you go to Canada?" she asked suddenly.
"When we turn six," Shannon said. Drawing herself up. She was very proud of getting to be such a big girl.
"Next week," Mrs Pendleton said. Inexplicably, she dropped the subject, and sent them away to change their clothes.
She was still sitting there, frowning, when they left her.
He still slept back then.
It was not an easy skill to learn without the imperative of instinct and need, but he did it. It was a discipline, instilled in them as much for Pendy's benefit as for theirs, and it served him well. In years to come, it would help him blend in with his unit. Help him structure his day. He kept regular hours right up until Shannon went AWOL. It was a valuable skill, and on the rare occasions that he thought of Pendy at all, he was grateful to her for it.
That last night in the dormitory was the only time she ever allowed their sleep to be disturbed.
He wasn't fully asleep when he heard her footsteps. Just drifting in the no man's land between wakefulness and sleep. He felt his brow wrinkle, first with irritation, then with worry, as the footsteps grew closer. He felt her warmth and smelled her scent - closest thing he knew to a mother's - and then she was extricating him from Shannon and lifting him away.
"This is insanity, Miriam. Absolute insanity."
The voice was male. It came to him in sound and in vibrations as he was passed from one set of arms to another. She leaned over him, long hair brushing his cheek, and tucked his blanket around him. It was white, with big red stars. He knew it by scent, without even opening his eyes.
"No more insane than what I let them do to those poor children all those years." Shifting sounds. Then, distantly, Shannon mumbling protests without conviction.
"We follow orders. That's what we do."
"Maybe you do, but it's sure not what I signed up for." Movement. Footsteps. Sound of a door opening. Cool air washed over him.
He blinked. Opened his eyes. Blackness. Stars.
They were outside.
"They'll kill us if they catch us." He felt himself being shifted from one arm to the other. Sounds of keys jingling merrily in the dark.
"Herb, did you see the tape? What they made that little girl do? She's five! Five!"
"That tape is exactly why I'm here. I'm not a monster, Miriam, I'm just scared."
A picture started to form in his mind. They were doing something. Going somewhere. Somewhere secret.
"Pendy?" he called. "Where's Shannon?"
"I've got her, Knowle. She's fine."
"Gonna take you on a car ride, boy," the man said gruffly, but he smiled down at him, too. A tense smile in the moonlight.
"Okay," he mumbled. Reassured. He closed his eyes. Almost asleep again.
The next time he opened his eyes, it was daylight. They were driving along a dusty road. Lots of trees. Fences made of wire run through posts on either side. Shannon was already awake, and she and Pendy were singing. Shannon was clapping.
"The ants go marching two by two, and-"
"Shannon stopped and Knowle will stop too!" he piped up. Shannon giggled.
"Morning, Knowle!" said Pendy, twisting around in her seat to look at them. She prompted them, "And they all went marching down to get out of the rain."
"Down to get out of the rain," they chimed in.
Pendy rejoined, "Down to get-" and then her face went slack and white. "Oh, my God, Herb, behind us."
The man looked into the rear view mirror. "Oh, shit." Suddenly the trees seemed to be slipping past them much faster. Knowle tried to look out the back window, but the seat was too high. He couldn't see.
"Speed up. Get to a diner, or - or something. They can't do much in public."
"They can arrest us." Shannon had wriggled free of her seat belt and was peering over the seat. Knowle worked at the catch on his own, without success.
"And then we get handed over to law enforcement. There might be a chance that way." Knowle got himself free and looked too. There were trucks behind them. Army trucks, with soldiers in uniform. And cars further behind.
"I could hurt them," Shannon offered. "So they don't get up again." Knowle turned to stare at her. Hurt their own soldiers? He didn't understand. Why would she offer such a thing? He had a vague idea that maybe it was because of the bad things they said about her.
Pendy turned to look at them again. Stricken. She reached back and stroked Shannon's hair.
"Maybe you will turn into...what they want you to turn into, dear. But not today. Not for me." Her gaze moved upwards, and she swallowed. "Oh, God, Herb, hurry."
"The pedal's to the floor, Miriam, this car's a piece of shit. Damn. Damn!"
A voice. Firm. Amplified. Knowle looked back out the window. A soldier was leaning out the window of his truck and speaking into a bullhorn. "Move over to the road shoulder. We are authorised to use force if you do not cooperate."
The man's hand was shaking when he put the car into neutral. The car slowed, and he turned to them when he pulled the brake. "You kids just close your eyes, you hear?"
"No," said Mrs Pendleton suddenly. "No, you have to watch."
The man turned to face her. Outraged.
"They have to know, Herb. They have to see. They'll never understand why it's wrong if they don't."
So he watched, because he always obeyed. He watched them get shot, and they didn't get up, and he huddled there with Shannon and kissed her and promised himself he would never love anything that could die again, ever.
They called it the Ark, where little drones came two by two.
Knowle understood that the moniker was not entirely complimentary, but he didn't mind. He liked Canada. He felt free there.
Unfettered. He had his house and he had his jobs and he had Shannon. As long as they got their tasks done and their lessons written, they were left to themselves. And that was how he liked it.
He liked the bees. Their sounds and their busy toils were soothing. He didn't understand the other children, but he understood the bees. They worked for the good of the hive, each with their own place. They mated, and they worked, and that was their whole life, just like him and Shannon. Not that he and Shannon mated yet - it was understood that that would come - but it was a way of life that made sense to him. It was simple. Efficient. Purposeful, with a minimum of waste.
He even liked the presence of the other children. He didn't really like them, but after Pendy died, both he and Shannon grew more insular, so the animosity between the races eased. And their rustling movements in the background were pleasing to him.
He liked their house. He liked the muted noises that came from the homes around them as they dropped off to sleep together at night. Sometimes they snuggled up together, sometimes they argued and pinched, sometimes they tickled. Now and then they ignored each other altogether. It was no different to the rest of the day.
He remembers General Lauderton. He had a bad leg, and he flew in to teach them once a week. If Lauderton resented playing nursemaid to the children, or the injury that rendered him nursemaid, he never said so. The Samanthas and the Kurts did not receive instruction; there was no need. They were, after all, only drones.
"General," Shannon asked one day from nowhere, "why didn't Mrs Pendleton want us to live together?"
Knowle held his breath. They had never discussed Mrs Pendleton with anyone.
But Lauderton just nodded, as though he'd expected this. They were older by now, maybe twelve or thirteen years old, and they were sitting in their little sunroom, geography books open but forgotten. He said, "Shannon, there are many cultures where it's acceptable for children to marry, and when their bodies develop and the time is right then they live together like grown-up men and women do."
"You mean sex." It was perhaps a legacy of their different rates of development that Shannon spoke of sex, while Knowle still spoke of mating.
"Yes," he said. "For a long time, most of the world worked like that, and there are places where it still does. But there are a lot of people now - Western people mostly - who think that's very wrong. That's what Mrs Pendleton thought."
"Is it wrong?" she wondered.
Lauderton shrugged. "I don't know, Shannon. I don't get to make that decision. But I'll tell you this. I see people marry by choice all the time, and I don't think they're much happier for it." He glanced down at his hand, then back up again. Knowle saw a mark on his finger - an indent left by a ring. "I served in Nepal in the war, you know. I've seen arranged marriages used to hurt people. To trap a girl or give her to someone who might make her do things - sexual things - before she's ready. But I don't think that's what's happening to you. If I did, I wouldn't be here."
Shannon frowned. "Mrs Pendleton thought we should be allowed to choose. That it was wrong for them to choose for us."
"But who would you choose? Who else would understand? Who else could accept what you are?" Lauderton took off his glasses and pinched the ridge in his nose. "We humans don't like difference, Shannon. If we did, we would never have needed to make you two in the first place." He sighed. "Are you not happy here, Shannon? Don't you want to be with Knowle?"
Knowle looked at her. Holding his breath. It had never occurred to him that she didn't.
But she nodded. "It isn't that. I just wonder sometimes. What she thought I was missing out on."
He said again, "Are you happy, Shannon? Knowle?"
Shannon glanced at Knowle. She nodded. Knowle nodded too.
"Then you're not missing out on anything." Lauderton looked down at his hand again. "Most people would kill to have the kind of bond you have with Knowle. And to know they'd have it their whole lives. You're luckier than you know."
Shannon didn't look convinced.
"You know, I'm going to tell you something, Shannon. I'm not supposed to even talk about her, but I think you need to hear this. Miriam Pendleton was wrong to do what she did. She loved you kids very much, and she believed she had good reasons, but she was wrong. You wouldn't even be asking these questions if she hadn't put them in your head, and I think you'd be happier if you'd never asked them." Shannon shifted, clearly uncomfortable, but Knowle nodded. Understanding this. "That's why the military is the way it is. Why you, and me, and the Samanthas and the Kurts are the way we are. It's like the bees. They don't question their role. They trust the queen to look after the interests of the hive. They work for it, and they don't question it, even when they die for it."
Shannon seemed oddly disappointed in him. "And that's a good thing?"
"You look after them, Shannon, what do you think? A hive is a vibrant society, teeming with life. We humans should be so lucky." Lauderton sighed. "It can't be easy for you kids, being different the way you are, but for God's sake, don't look to humans for guidance. Look to the bees. Follow orders, work hard, love each other. You won't go far wrong in life if you do that."
So Knowle did, and it never led him wrong.
Shannon asked him that night if he understood.
"I understand why you ask it, but I don't understand why it matters," he said, turning on his side to look at her in the dark. "If we're happy, what difference does it make?"
"Oh, Knowle," she said in exasperation, propping her head up on her hand. "It's not that simple. You'll understand when you're older."
"Oh, all of a sudden you know more than me, because of these?" he snorted. Nodded to her budding breasts, pushing against her thin cotton nightgown. "You're not the only one who's growing up, you know."
"I hadn't noticed," she said dryly. "Must be the way you've taken to sleeping on your stomach all of a sudden."
He flushed. "Shut up."
"Anyway. He's wrong. You can put two people together, but it doesn't mean it'll all be hugs and kisses. Look at next door," she said. "I'm sure he hurts her. She always cries afterwards. You can hear her when the windows are open."
He snorted. "And you wonder why I hate them. You wonder why I only want to be with you. If that's choice, I don't want it." He turned on his side, away from her. "I wouldn't do that to you."
Her voice was conciliatory. "I know. Don't be mad at me, Knowle?"
"I'm not mad," he said. "I just think you're asking questions we were never supposed to ask. And there's just no point." He looked over his shoulder at her. She was beautiful, sitting there in the dark. He felt that vague, nagging ache for her that had begun to make itself known to him, and he suppressed it, somehow understanding that this was the wrong time for it. "What does it change, Shannon? Really?"
"Maybe nothing," she said. "Maybe everything."
"You're talking in riddles."
She moved down behind him. Pressed up against his back and rested her cheek against his shoulder. "Don't worry about it. Go to sleep."
He linked his hand with hers, but he still didn't understand.
He remembers their first kiss like it was yesterday.
It comes to him differently to the other memories. It always does. The others are methodical. Logical. They have clarity and purpose. Building up that which has been broken down. His cognitive mechanisms are rebuilding, and so is his experiential base. The process is one he understands.
But the kiss. That kiss. It comes to him bathed in heat and colour. It wasn't even that good a kiss. Just a clumsy first kiss, awkward and bumbling, but something clicked for him, something primal, and he was breathing hard and overcome. Drowning in her. Longing for her. Needing to be consumed.
Raw, unfiltered instinct, perhaps for the very first time.
It occurs to him that they took his death instincts - took them, dulled them, made them irrelevant. Whatever it took to make him into the killer they wanted him to be. But they didn't take his life instincts. They cultivated them. Relied on them to keep him in line. He doesn't understand them, even now - they are messy and disordered and complicated - but he has them, and he accepts them as an unchanging part of his existence.
Is it always this way for humans, he wonders? Is this how they live? Their consciousness consumed with one pressing need after another? Need food. Need warmth. Need water. Need safety. Need to touch and feel and sink flesh into flesh. Need to stay alive. The idea of being so enslaved horrifies him.
No wonder they're so weak.
It's a wonder they can keep going at all.
They lost their virginity together two months later.
It was late by Ark standards. They were fourteen, a full two years older than most of their human counterparts. For Knowle's part, the desire had been there for at least a year, and he thought for Shannon possibly longer. But the excesses of the Kurts and the Samanthas deterred them - particularly those of the Kurt next door, who would eventually injure his Samantha so badly that she couldn't work (and to Knowle, this fact made it the most grievous level of injury).
They came close in their bed before that. They touched one another - first tentative, then with growing sureness. They held one another, kissing and rocking against one another until they came, barely aware of what it was they were trying to achieve, driven only by instinct. There were massive gaps in their education; they understood the process of lovemaking but not the desires that drove it. In their isolation, they had no exposure to literature that might have made that information available to them. He understood the eventual goal of penetration, but their early fumblings were opaque to them both.
He had her for the first time in the shadehouse, and that was better. He understood it. It had an end, a tangible goal, a resolution. It was part of something bigger - the life cycle - and it made sense to him to bond that way. That was what his life was given over to, after all. Shannon, and the work. Always the work. An unending cycle, unchanging purpose. Its immutability was comforting.
So they stayed behind after the others were gone for the day, and he explored her there, joining with her, surrounded by the bees and the ginseng. Immersed in warmth and life. It was the culmination of their lives together. This was what they were meant to do. To work, and to belong to each other.
He believed it was so for Shannon too, but he was wrong.
They were drafted in 1982.
It was a year early, but a typographic error by Lauderton's secretary took care of that. The government had invested sixteen years in them, and now it was time for payback. To Knowle, this seemed perfectly reasonable, but Shannon was outraged at the loss of their last year at the Ark. She railed against it bitterly.
Lauderton had the unenviable task of breaking the news, and he bore her fury with practiced calm. When, finally, her anger was exhausted, he turned discussion to more productive avenues.
"What you have to understand about military training is that it tears people down and builds them back up again in the USMC's image. Everyone is learning how to live, all over again. No-one's going to be suspicious of you in the slightest if you make mistakes."
"Do you think we will?" Knowle wondered.
"Of course you will, boy. I like to think we've taught you pretty well, but there are bound to be things we've missed. You were raised to be different. You are different. And the beauty of your Marine training is that even when new experiences confuse you, you'll blend right in with everyone else, because they'll be confused as well."
"Will we still be together?" Knowle wondered. He glanced at Shannon. Worried.
"I imagine you'll get separate assignments eventually, but I'll keep you together for as long as I can. You'll need each other in there." Lauderton looked from Knowle to Shannon with sympathy. "I think dealing with humans will be quite an adjustment for both of you."
"We deal with you," Shannon pointed out, speaking for the first time since her outburst. She still looked pretty steamed.
"Yes, but you don't see all of me, Shannon. You don't see me when I'm weak, or afraid, or petty. And you're going to see a lot of those things in boot camp. At least at first."
"Where will we go?"
"MCRD Parris Island. You'll go through a three-month training course with a group, mostly male. Shannon, you may be the only woman there, or there may be a small number of others. It's hard to say." Shannon sat forward, suddenly interested, and Knowle wasn't sure why. The change in her demeanour was marked.
"What's our backstory?" he asked. Still looking at her.
"There's no point denying you know each other. There's no foreseeable need, and frankly I don't think you could pull it off." Knowle nodded his agreement. "You were raised in Snoqualmie Falls, Washington. Childhood friends, enlisted together on the same day. That kind of thing. There's a briefing in the folder I gave you that explains it more fully." He looked at Shannon. "It's your choice whether you present yourselves as a couple, but I don't recommend it. It may make things harder for Shannon, in particular."
Shannon nodded. "We have credentials to back this up?"
"Yes. School transcripts, drivers' licences, birth certificates - it's all taken care of. I need not tell you how important it is that your origins remain classified."
Knowle sat up very straight. "You can count on us, Sir."
"I know I can. You're a good boy, Knowle."
His approval did not extend to Shannon. Knowle didn't think much of it at the time, but he would remember it later.
It was at boot camp that the differences between them began to become apparent.
Knowle revelled in boot camp. It affirmed everything he believed in. At worst, he was puzzled and annoyed by their fellow recruits. They were unnecessarily burdened, unnecessarily complex. He strove to be better, and he was a favourite of their instructors.
But Shannon struggled with it. She came to him in their limited free time. Sought him out to unburden herself. She spoke of abdication of self. Of humiliation. He tried to be sympathetic, but he didn't understand, and in time, she sought out other recruits instead. She graduated with him, but she didn't share his pride. He wore his uniform all day; she couldn't wait to take hers off.
"You know why we're on the enlistment track, don't you?" she said after they made love for the first time in thirteen weeks.
"Because we're eighteen and we don't have degrees," he said, sitting up beside her.
"Sixteen," she corrected. "And it's more than that. They'll never let us into officer training even after that."
He stared at her. Puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"They don't want us to lead, Knowle. They don't trust us to lead. They're afraid of us."
Privately, he thought it was more likely they didn't trust her to lead (if that was the case at all) because she had a chip on her shoulder, but he didn't say so. "That's ridiculous."
She turned to face him. "Is it?"
"Yes," he said. "It's not about trust. At most, it's about utility. We're more use to them as enlisted personnel."
"Yeah, it's easier to kill if we're in the killing fields, isn't it?"
"Shannon..." He put his hand on the back of her neck. Stroking the slight, steely ridges of her spine. The mark they shared. Funny how he never thought much about that mark before. It seemed more important now.
She shrugged him off. "You're wrong, Knowle. You're being terribly naive."
"Why are you thinking about this? Do you want to be an officer, Shannon? Really?" He wondered what the hell difference it would make. More and more he felt her heart and her mind diverging from his. Their world was opening out, and it didn't matter to him because he had everything he ever wanted, but she seemed to want more, and he just didn't understand it at all.
She shrugged. "I guess. I think - I think I'd feel better about what we are."
He sighed. Finally, he said, "Then do it. We'll both do it. We'll ask to go to Durham. We'll go to Duke - do law or something. And then we'll be officers." He didn't have any better plans, and it would make her happy, so why not?
She turned to look at him, a smile spreading over her face. Eyes bright. "You'd do that for me, Knowle?"
"Course I would. Come here."
She did, and this time, when he touched her neck, she didn't pull away. The gulf between them closed.
For a while.
CONTINUED IN PART 2