• Published 30th Jun 2021
  • 454 Views, 12 Comments

Rose Brass - Dave Bryant

Rose Brass has moved back to the city of her birth because she has nowhere else to go—and nothing else to do. • A Twin Canterlots story

  • ...


“Sarge!” Rose sat up and stared in astonishment. “What are you doing here?”

The fellow in his late thirties, working his way around the rows of chairs and ignoring looks from the waiting room’s other occupants, was painfully average-looking; even his colors were subdued earth tones. He wore slacks and a button-down work shirt embroidered with a logo on the left breast pocket—a classic chess-knight–style horsehead over the letters “CCSS” in a bold serif face. He broke into a crooked half-smile at the question as he rounded the last corner and came to an abbreviated brace before her. No salute, of course. “Good to see you too, Ma’am.”

She rolled her eye as she stood and offered her prosthetic hand. “Hello, Sergeant. It is good to see you. But my question stands.”

He shook it without hesitation. “How d’ya mean it, Cap’n?”

After a few seconds’ thought Rose waved the just-released hand. “Any way you can answer it.”

Both of them sat, the sergeant on the edge of the chair facing hers, forearms crossed on thighs. “Well, that’s a story and a half, and no mistake. I did my twenny years and it was time for me to take retirement. We got kids now, and I gotta think o’ my family. I remembered whatcha said about the city, how it was a great place to grow up. Talked it over with the wife, and we decided to move out here.”

“Good for you!” Rose meant it. “Are you all liking it?”

He nodded with genuine enthusiasm. “Yes Ma’am! We bought a house. It’s not big, but it’s gotta yard for the kids to run around in.” He shrugged. “This isn’t the cheapest place to live, but that just shows how much people like it and wanna be here.”

Rose’s brow rose. She hadn’t thought of it that way, but it made sense. “Huh. Fair enough.”

“As for the rest of it—m’wife gotta job almost right away.” That was one proud husband sitting there. “Took me a little longer, but I’m right pleased with what I found.”

“Oh? Construction?” The man was a positive genius when it came to anything that moved on wheels or tracks. Rose was convinced he could write his own ticket running a forklift or bulldozer at any firm he chose to work for.

To her surprise he shook his head. “Nope. I really wanted to do somethin’ different. Don’t get me wrong, Ma’am—we did good stuff over there, buildin’ schools and repairin’ villages. Better’n shootin’ up the joint like everyone else was, them or us.” His expression turned unwontedly pensive. “I guess I just wanted to keep helpin’ people. So I took a job with Social Services, drivin’ folks places. Called ‘paratransit’, see. Kinda like taxi service for people who can’t get around on their own or can’t afford it—in fact, I just dropped off an old squid for an appointment here and was on my way back to the van when I saw you.”

She nodded. “I’ve heard of it. I’ve been tempted to use it myself, since I can’t drive any more.”

“Hey, I’d drive you any time you needed it, Ma’am. Just give us a call.” A muffled buzz sounded, and he plucked a pager from his belt for a glance at the display. “Gotta go. You take care now, Cap’n.” Just like that he was gone, leaving Rose once more alone with her thoughts.

She sat back again on the not overly comfortable chair and frowned a little. The sergeant was right; they had done good work, fixing up or building anew huts and buildings, roads and highways all over the war-torn country, in addition to duties more usual for their specialty. They had helped a lot of people who just wanted to lead peaceful lives, without rude strangers of any stripe rolling through and kicking over anything and everything in the way. But they hadn’t helped—couldn’t help—everyone.

For every face in her memory that beamed happily, there were others blank with shock or twisted with grief. Ruins left untouched because their occupants were . . . gone, fled or worse. Numb children standing alone or in gaggles on dusty packed-earth streets, no parents to stand with them. Parents devastated by sudden gaps, or almost-gaps, in their families. Those almost-gaps, people of any age maimed by all manner of hazards bequeathed by battlefields in which they had no part.

Her own nation’s services and those of allies were hardly innocent, she knew. Military discipline meant any given individual or unit might be less prone to such sins, but the number of personnel deployed guaranteed that lower relative rate still resulted in too large an absolute number of accidents and incidents. Suddenly Rose felt unutterably tired.

An eternity ago, as a teen, she had felt an inchoate desire to—what? Save the world and everyone in it? Something like that. Later, as a cadet, she had burned with the need to serve her country honorably and well. She hadn’t accomplished much of either, had she? The first, she had come to realize, was an impossible task akin to pushing a broom against the tide. The second she no longer was certain she could do, even if she hadn’t been denied the chance. No wonder Sarge had pulled the plug and moved on.

A tone sounded, followed by a pleasant synthetic feminine voice calling a short alphanumeric code. Rose started and glanced down at the slip of thermal paper crumpled in her good hand, then stood.

“MOS Twelve-Bravo.” The employment counselor looked up from another flat-panel monitor. He looked like a well-fed middle-aged accountant in his business suit and tie.

“That’s correct,” replied Rose in the cool, emotionless tone she’d learned at the academy.

“Construction is a growth industry, not just in the city but around the whole region,” the well-meaning fellow began.

Rose shook her head—slowly at first, then more firmly as she considered her gut reaction. “No.”

“But you have an excellent background for it. I’m sure you could take your pick of—”

“I said no.” She drew a breath for patience and thought. “I’m done with it. I’m proud of my work, but I want to change tracks, do something different.”

He frowned. “You realize you’d give up any advantage your education and history give you. You might have to go back to school. That’s neither cheap nor easy, especially these days.”

She shrugged philosophically. “If I do, I do. I can get a VA loan, and where I am now, I can get by on my pension. It’d be tight, but I could manage.”

The patently doubtful expression on his face made her lips twitch. “If you say so. In that case, what do you have in mind?”

“I’m not sure.” She blinked. Her ruminations sparked by the sergeant’s revelations hadn’t gotten that far before her number was called. “I think . . . I want to keep helping people. We did a lot of that, probably the only folks in uniform the locals were happy to see other than the medical and dental units. That felt good. I don’t mean all the smiles and the gratitude. I mean, I liked that too, but just knowing we left someplace better than it was before—well, I’d rather have that than a medal.”

It was his turn for a deep breath. “All right then. Let’s see what we can do for you.”

To be fair, once she’d shaken him of his desire to shove her into a convenient pigeonhole and move on to the next number in the waiting room, he rose to the occasion. The questions he asked were incisive and probing. She spoke about everything that happened to her after the explosion, especially the people she’d met and the things some of them had done for her: physicians and nurses, the family in the park, the couple at the farmers’ market, the sergeant, even the VSCC staff. A few times she struggled to keep talking. He listened closely, occasionally turning back to his keyboard and monitor to make some electronic inquiry. They went far past the nominal time limit on her appointment.

“Social work,” he finally declared, as if putting a paperweight on the pile of discussion. “You’d need at least a bachelor’s for that. I’ll look into where you can study for it and what kind of aid you can get other than a VA loan. You might even be able to take some on-line courses. More universities are starting to offer those nowadays.”

He gave her a penetrating look. “I had my doubts, but you know, I think you could do well as a social worker.” A note of severity leaked into his voice. “But you absolutely will need counseling before you can qualify for employment.”

Rose stood in the still-warm midsummer sunlight of late afternoon slanting across the city and blinked against the glare. Downtown bustled around her, sidewalks and streets busy with traffic. At least the row of bollards disguised as low planters kept most pedestrians from intruding on the narrow apron fronting the century-old four-story brick building that housed VSCC’s offices, giving her a chance to orient without immediately being jostled by throngs of passersby.

Both hands slipped on a pair of glacier glasses, the biggest she’d been able to find. They covered much of her eyepatch, just clearing its shallow conical peak and the bias tape hemming its rim. Expensive but worth every penny, since otherwise she’d have to take off the patch before donning them, and nobody wanted to see that. It was pretty raw and nasty, after all, and there was no point subjecting everyone to it when she didn’t have to.

She straightened again, shoulders back and head up just as she’d been taught in the academy, tall and slim in black T-shirt, khaki BDU pants, and tan tactical boots. No flashbacks had haunted her since reliving the explosion in Mister Lectern’s office. She didn’t fool herself into thinking they wouldn’t visit again, but it was a good sign. A deep breath filled her lungs.

Everyone in that building behind her cared. It really was that simple, and that profound. Even the employment counselor, who doubtless saw far too many people in a day, had gone the extra mile. They had done their competent best to help her. She had a plan, a checklist, and the knowledge she had something resembling back-up.

Now she needed to look ahead, put that plan into action, and start checking off items.

“I assigned everyone I could to perimeter security and split up the rest into two-man teams for checking the wrecks.” Rose, a little more neatly dressed than usual in undecorated olive T-shirt and a brand-new pair of jeans, sat back on the button-tufted wing chair and rubbed her forehead with her good hand.

“Is that usual procedure?” The voice was soft and mild, but steady and at the moment seemed genuinely curious.

“No.” A deep breath followed. “But I didn’t find out until we got there nobody had secured the site in the mean time—it was left unguarded for almost a day. I had to assume the insurgents had taken advantage of the oversight to plant booby traps.” Her unmarred lips twisted. “I was right; they had.”

“Why did you take that particular approach?” The man facing her from a matching chair in the cozy den-like room was only a few years older than she and had the same professional air of competence. All muted gray with aqua eyes and short black hair, he completed a tidy appearance with white dress shirt, blue necktie held in place by a brass wolf’s-head clasp, dark slacks, and dress shoes. His only real quirk was a lab coat instead of a jacket, but she found the gentle humor of it appealing. A yellow legal notepad balanced on a knee; one hand idly twiddled a ballpoint pen. Both found copious use.

“Instead of just using heavy equipment to bulldoze them all, and let the bombs fall where they may?” Rose waved her prosthetic back-handed as if sweeping away an obstacle.

He tilted his head in acknowledgement if not agreement, and she continued. “People have this idea all our gear is a bunch of tanks with ’dozer blades or cranes, but that’s not how it works. The army doesn’t have many of those—they cost a lot of money—and not all of them were in-country. None were assigned to my company, and they were off doing other jobs anyway. What I had was light- and medium-duty stuff, basically civilian machines in camouflage, maybe with a little ballistic protection against fragments and small arms. An IED that size would have demolished anything I brought and killed the operator, not to mention making the job I had even harder by adding to the wreckage instead of removing it.” She shrugged. “But when the army tells you to do something, you find a way to do it.” After a moment’s thought she added, “Or die trying.”

“Let’s talk about that.” Polite and unassuming as the therapist’s suggestion might be, Rose recognized an order when she heard one.

Marching in boots and BDU pants and yet another T-shirt, Rose cut straight across the sunny, breezy quad, eyes . . . eye front. So often she seemed suspended awkwardly between military and civil society, a curiosity for others to gawk at. She couldn’t shake the crawly feeling of being on display, of drawing every gaze in sight, even if it might be all in her head. Nowhere was the sensation more acute than the city college where she’d begun classes a few weeks ago.

Her only previous experience of higher education had been the academy. She wasn’t sure how many civilians really understood the official institution that transformed young high-school graduates into army officers was a university as well as a training establishment. The curriculum was just as diverse, albeit stricter in setting out requirements and course paths. Cadets moved around the academic parts of the campus pretty much the same way any other student body would, apart from the uniforms, salutes, and identically brisk, impersonal clockwork strides. Well, maybe not quite the same way.

Graduates received diplomas at the same time as, but separate from, commissioning as second lieutenants; Rose herself had finished in the top third of the class with a bachelor of science, in the very field of study for which the academy originally was founded just over two centuries ago. As the employment counselor at VSCC had warned, though, the only value of that degree for current purposes was bypassing general-ed requirements, allowing her to skip directly to her declared major and attend the less expensive two-year college that only in recent years had begun offering bachelors as well as associate degrees. Moreover, if she was frugal she didn’t need a job to pay the bills, so other than the ongoing therapy appointments she could devote the whole day, every weekday, to classes. It was a grind, but her former career long since had inured her to doing what needed to be done no matter how tedious it might be.

Midday the quad swarmed with equally casually dressed students—nearly all of them a decade or more younger—sitting around or strolling every which way, singly or in groups. One such herd filtered from one of the concrete walkways onto the quad itself, only a few yards away, and turned in her general direction. She drew in a deep breath through her nose as the half-dozen or so girls, all of them not merely young and healthy but pretty, chattered and gestured seemingly without a care in the world.

One of them glanced up, catching Rose’s eye in passing. The laughing face blanked instantly and the shapely figure in snug jeans and top flinched from head to toe before half-turning away, diving back into the twittering conversation and doing everything possible to ignore the approaching cripple.

Rose tensed all over and gritted her teeth; a dull ache throbbed in the stump of her arm and behind her missing eye. By now she had months of leavening experience with the balks and inconveniences imposed by a physical world not completely accommodating of her prosthetic and impaired vision. As she had worked her way through the enrollment process before this semester, she’d steeled herself against a sense of discomfort, of not quite fitting in, anticipating the age difference and the way civilian students lacked the firm self-discipline inculcated in every plebe.

What she hadn’t expected was the anger simmering, unpleasantly bitter, in the back of her mind. She resented all those intact youthful bodies around her, constant reminders hers just . . . wasn’t, any more. Her breathing quickened and her eye narrowed as the acid within boiled up, heated by the moment of rejection. She fought to cool it down again, to clear her mind of the distraction.

Her good thumb stroked the band of her men’s-style academy class ring, something she almost never wore until, on impulse, she’d put it on her ring finger as a sort of talisman, before her first day here. She never had liked “ring knockers”, officers who flaunted having graduated from the academy rather than OCS or ROTC, often by turning their rings bezel down to rap ostentatiously on desk or table. A simple way to soft-pedal her own graduation was simply to put the ring away somewhere, valued but not something to bring out every day. Now that ring, from the institution where the concept of class rings had been invented, was a soothing connection to the history and traditions she still cherished, even if she had been separated from them—and after all, she wasn’t likely to wear a wedding ring on that finger any time in the future.

Rose didn’t stop, didn’t even slow. She had someplace to be. But she knew what she would be talking about at her next therapy session.

Smiling was beginning to seem less strange. The current expression plastered on her face wasn’t broad, but it was genuine. Her bike clicked and whirred beside her, the mechanical noises barely audible over the talking, shouting, shuffling throngs of weekend shoppers on this brisk overcast morning. A deep breath brought with it the scents of fair-style foods—popcorn and hot dogs prominent among them—that beguiled so many passersby into devouring a few more calories than they really should.

To the cyclewear-clad Rose all of it was simply a backdrop, a stage setting for the pavilion sporting the red and green and yellow banner. Every Saturday she showed up, beelining over to gather what groceries Sweet Apple Acres could provide before stopping off at a few other stalls to complete the trip. The produce indeed was some of the best she had found anywhere, but it wasn’t the only reason these trips had become a highlight of her week.

All the Apples were a simple joy to visit with, even the plump, crusty grandmother who occasionally spelled one of the young couple behind the tables. That couple, in turn, all but outshone the sun, bursting with life and hearty good will. Even the children glowed like embers with the promise of like vigor as they grew. It was as if the family’s mere presence helped to fill Rose with the sunlight that blessed their crops. And they never made her feel anything but welcome.

A cloud passed before the sunny thoughts; her smile faded and her brow knotted. The mob seemed to be thinning rather than congregating as she approached the pavilion’s established location. She didn’t see the banner either. When she broke out into the unaccustomed open space she stopped and looked around in bewilderment, for the tables and canopies were nowhere to be seen.

A few clumps of bystanders stood around chatting, as they tended to do anywhere there were a few unoccupied square feet on the market grounds. Rose dismissed those in favor of a stocky middle-aged woman wearing jeans and a staff T-shirt strolling without clear aim, patrolling the aisles and lanes. Broad, quick strides brought Rose closer to the shorter woman just before she disappeared back into the crowd.

“Excuse me!” Rose called. “I noticed the Sweet Apple Acres stand is—”

The staffer started and pivoted, distress plain on the face that looked to hers. “Oh! Oh no—hadn’t you heard? Oh, it was just terrible. . . .”

The voice rattled on, but after the first few moments Rose didn’t hear any of the words. Her teeth clenched and her eye squeezed shut. She would not cry. Not here, not now. But never again would that brilliant couple light her world or anyone else’s. Those three young children—what would happen to them? Her breaths came short and fast, almost panting.

Rose cut off the maundering that had gone far beyond what she needed or indeed wanted to know. “Th-thank you. I—I have to go now.” Leaving the voluble staff member open-mouthed behind her, she turned and quick-marched off without bothering to watch her path. It didn’t matter; people took one look at her and got out of the way quickly enough.

She went straight back to her little cubbyhole. She would not return to the market for many years.

Bing bong. The mellow electronic tones were familiar from so many other upscale businesses that had installed the same door chimes. Rose stepped in and looked around uncertainly as the old-fashioned double-hung door, no doubt grandfathered, swung shut behind her.

The hush that greeted her was broken only by the murmurs of a few scattered customers and the soft swishes of fabric or metal hangers on metal rods. Piped-in music was conspicuous by its absence. Colors were rich and harmonious, none of them searing or garish. Lighting was subdued but carefully placed—incandescent, she noticed, or LED fixtures, the latter a touch of luxury given how expensive they still tended to be. Not a single plebeian fluorescent tube compromised the atmosphere of quiet good taste.

At the same time a note of whimsy moderated the opulence. The décor evoked an antique merry-go-round without overcommitting to the concept. Even Rose, whose knowledge of architecture was more practical than æsthetic, was impressed . . . and intimidated. Moreover, she had to be a bit underdressed in desert-tan T-shirt, BDU pants, and boots, along with an almost-new bomber jacket against the damp autumn weather outside. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

When she called the paratransit office midmorning and requested Sarge as a driver, she had only the vaguest goal in mind. All her adult life she’d relied on her uniforms to answer for any social situation. What little else she had was nothing but casual—fine for school or knocking around town, but not enough for any professional or formal setting—and she had no idea how to build a new wardrobe from scratch. When he arrived at curbside in a shiny new white panel van from the city’s motor pool, she described the problem and asked his advice, exactly as any young officer might request of an experienced NCO before making a decision.

Rather to her surprise his answer was immediate and definite. “Carousel Boutique. M’wife heard about the grand opening a while back and went over to see if it was any good.” He pulled a wry grin. “She loved the place. I didn’t love the bill she brought home with the stuff she bought, but even I could tell it worked really well for her. If there’s anybody who c’n help you with that, it’s Ms. Hemline.”

A youthful voice from her right brought her back to the moment. “Can I help you with anything?”

Rose pivoted abruptly; her prosthetic hand half-rose in a defensive reflex. The rose-complected young woman standing nearby jumped and let out a squeak; burgundy sausage curls, and the brilliant plume rising from a fascinator clipped to them, bounced in response. The rest of the tights-and-skirt ensemble looked just as outlandish to Rose’s eye, and the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land only redoubled.

They stared at each other for a moment, the disfigured captain in bafflement and the floor girl in shock. The latter’s eyes were round as she took in the scars, the eyepatch, the mechanical hand. Wearily Rose let her arm drop. “Uh, sorry about that. I just came in to—”

“To what? Frighten my staff to death?” another voice broke in, this time from Rose’s blind side.

She sure was getting off on the right foot here, wasn’t she? Rose about-faced to see a sharp-featured woman around the sergeant’s age glaring at her from several feet away. Prim Hemline—she couldn’t be anyone else—cut a striking figure. Medium stone gray, page-boy hair close to hot pink, eyes ditto but a bit darker, flamboyant earrings, pantsuit and bolero of cut and colors that wouldn’t look out of place on a certain kind of rock musician.

“No excuse, Ma’am.” The words were crisp, almost brittle, but Rose did succeed in throttling them down from the parade-ground bark they wanted to be. Sheer habit drew her up in a brace, heels together and thumbs on pant seams.

Hemline never moved her gaze from Rose’s face as she dismissed the minion with a backhanded wave and a courteous, if absent, “Thank you, Miss Penny, that will be all.” Her searching look continued in silence until the teen vanished into the underbrush of racks and shelves.

“Veteran?” The question was milder than Hemline’s previous tone.

“Yes Ma’am.” With an effort Rose relaxed her stance, but she wasn’t sure what to do with her hands and feet. Under the weight of the proprietor’s examination she fidgeted, shifting her weight and fiddling with her messenger bag. “Army Captain Rose Brass.” After a beat she added belatedly, “Retired.”

“I imagine so.” The eyes flicked up and down, measuring Rose’s wounds—and not, it seemed clear, just the physical. “Well, Captain Brass, why are you here, if it isn’t to throw a scare into innocent girls?”

With a sigh Rose raised her good hand to rub her forehead and in a few short phrases summed up her dilemma. At least Hemline really appeared to be listening.

“Ah. Let’s see what we can do, then, Ms. Brass. I think, for you, the word to keep in mind is gravitas. Dignified. Balanced—neither too feminine nor too masculine. Follow me.” Hemline turned away and waded into the forest of displays without a backward glance.

The new customer followed with relieved haste and renewed hope.

Rose’s tall sinewy form, dressed out for the day’s exercise in T-shirt, sweat pants, and running shoes, bent and arched with effortless ease as she limbered up. The prosthetic arm braced her against a four-by-four wood post, one of a pair supporting a large sign placed between the unpaved parking lot and the nearby trailhead. The top panel spelled out the park’s name and governing authority in proud bold letters. Under it a lockable glazed notice board displayed a laminated relief map on one side, the balance of the space crowded by a host of brightly colored sheets conveying a variety of announcements and bulletins.

One of the things she liked best about the city was the extensive array of public lands mostly surrounding it. The patchwork of parks—municipal, national, and everything in between—created a broad sweep of wild or mostly wild country in relatively easy reach, a good deal of it crisscrossed by a more or less continuous web of trails historical or constructed. The network extended clear out to Camp Everfree, a fixture since before the parks now bordering it had been chartered, though reaching that sprawling private parcel would take two or three days on foot. All in all, this was a great place and a good day for a nice long trail run, if not as far as the old summer camp.

The morning was pure crystal, clear and chilly and windless. A small dual-calibrated spirit thermometer fastened to her wristwatch strap claimed the temperature was in the mid-fifties or around twelve degrees. Rose drew in the sharp air and its not-quite-scent heralding the changing of the seasons; she remembered her parents describing the sensation as “smelling like winter”. A wisp of steam blew out with her breath.

Right now she was covered in gooseflesh, but she knew from experience that would abate after she literally hit her stride, settling into the distance run she’d learned in high-school track and field. Her core would stay warm just fine, so she was in no real danger of hypothermia, though her skin might remain cool to the touch and she might not break a sweat at all despite the exertion. A thermos bottle of hot chicken broth hung on her web belt, and when Sarge swung by in a couple of hours to drive her home, he could turn up the car heater if she needed it.

On the other hand, the low temperature meant a lack of other traffic, whether hikers, equestrians, or bicyclists, and that was just fine by her. She snorted softly as she finished her calisthenics and straightened. Time to get the show on the road; after all, this might be one of the last weekends she could get out for a run before winter really closed in. She stepped out and swung around to the front of the sign for a good look at the map. Her planned route already was committed to memory, but hard military experience had taught her to double-check both her recall and for any potential surprises such as, in this case, unexpected trail closures.

No, nothing new or unforeseen. As she half-turned toward the trailhead, her absent gaze tracked across the board, then stopped. Oversize bold type did what one more fluorescent paper among the rest couldn’t. She stepped a little closer to read the whole page and muttered, “When did they start doing that?”

The rumble of an engine and the gritty sound of tires on dirt almost drowned out her voice as another arrival pulled onto the lot. The numbered highway from which the little roadster had turned followed a route through the hills that had been in use for centuries, maybe millennia. People from some of the local tribes had traveled it to the place on which the modern city later would grow, reachable from the ocean as well as a variety of other foot-roads, where a trade fair had been held each spring. Hunting and fishing, trade and commerce, feasts and festivals, treaties and vendettas, exchanges of young folk seeking spouses—all the affairs of an intertribal convocation went on for a month or so before everyone dispersed back home.

When settlers began to arrive, they perforce used the same passes and harbors, and they too did business at the fair, among other things selling horses to fellow immigrants and locals alike. New villages and towns sprang up for logging, farming, ranching of horses and other livestock, and when gold was discovered, mining. The importance of horses in the region’s development led to an abundance of equine-related place names, alongside the perennially popular Everfree that reflected an independent streak among both the tribes watching the population of strangers grow seemingly without limit and those self-same pioneers who’d left behind more settled lands in favor of making their own way.

Sometime since Rose had left for the academy, somebody or more likely a swarm of somebodies had decided to commemorate this local history with an annual charity run. Participants would congregate in a small hamlet, still little more than a wide spot in the road, that had been the last overnight stop before new homesteaders reached the nascent city. From there everyone would run, or jog, or walk along the highway to a plaza in town, supposedly on the site of the original long-vanished fairground.

The next run was four months out, according to the notice sheet, which also detailed closures of roads and parks along the way. Rose frowned in thought. Maybe she would sign up for it. She’d made a lot of progress over the last few months, and she should be in shape for it by then.

She started to juggle timetables in her head. Shuffling routine chores and errands shouldn’t be a problem, but the run would be during the spring semester, so she’d have to consider class schedules. Then there was the weekly therapy appointment to think about. And she might have to rearrange her tai chi session or time on the pistol range. . . .

Rose shook her head in bemusement. When had her life gotten so busy? It all happened so gradually, much of it overshadowed by the day-to-day demands of school, she hadn’t considered just how much she was doing these days.

A sudden grin broke over her face. Well, what was one more thing? She wanted to do it. She needed to do it. She could worry about the details later. Face and heart light in the wake of her decision, she pivoted on a heel and ambled toward the break in the fence and the trail that awaited.

A car door thumped closed, catching her attention. From his track suit, the newcomer seemed to be another runner, middle-aged but fit as a fiddle and plainly in good humor as he looked forward to some trail time of his own. Without even thinking about it she raised her artificial arm in a casual wave. There was no hesitation to the fellow’s return wave, a tip of his hand in greeting from one runner to another. Rose laughed in sheer delight as she turned back and scratched off into long, loping strides, straight through the gate onto the trail.

Author's Note:

Yes, more abbreviations and jargon. Generally speaking U.S. practice is followed, but every now and then I’ll drop in something else, where it’s convenient or simply to mix things up.

  • Eyes front: a command for troops to look ahead; by derivation, not turning one’s eyes or head while standing or marching
  • MOS: military occupational specialty
  • OCS: officer candidate school, for civilians and non-commissioned officers who already have either the educational background or the military training, respectively, but need the other element to meet the standards established for commissioned officers
  • Pager: before smartphones, these devices were a primary method by which information could be transmitted to remote personnel or locations, and still are used for some mission-critical applications; models range from simple beepers to sophisticated transceivers able to display and send alphanumeric messages
  • Plebe: a freshman cadet (or midshipman, in the navy)
  • ROTC: Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, a group of officer-training programs at civilian universities
  • Squid: nickname for someone in the navy applied, affectionately or derisively, by a member of a different service

Rose, I think, developed far more in Three-act Play than in Amphorae and Virga combined. I don’t think this story could have been written without the astonishingly rewarding prelude of collaborating with Scampy on that complex and difficult novel. Not only did the narrative as written explore Rose as a character in much greater depth, our story conferences also produced a wealth of additional insights that at the time didn’t make it to the virtual page. Here, though, I’m able to draw on some of those—for example, one of Scampy’s observations during our plotting of “Arrangements”.

I bet Rose used to want to save the world, and everyone in it. And she’s since learned that the best way to do that is to save the people in her own world, narrow as it may be.

Thanks also to I-A-M for some suggestions regarding Rose’s struggle to assimilate her disabilities and to deal with a less than fully understanding world.