Of Friction

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In a future earth where humans are the minority to the now-dominant Altered, genetically-engineered people, Sam "Valkyrie" Ryan struggles to stay focused on a mission to protect a pivotal summit between the two races from human-supremacist terrorists.
First 10 Pages

Chapter 1: The Marine

When Sam Ryan woke up, she was still upset.

Her dismantled rifle lay in front of her on the table, its individual pieces set out in a row like a work of carefully curated museum art. It was the second time she had stripped the weapon and brushed, oiled, and polished the parts inside and out with a ritualistic fervor. She must have fallen asleep before she could reassemble it.

Craning her neck from one side to the other, Sam stretched out her tight muscles. Something fell off her shoulders. A light blanket from the galley. She glared at the dark fabric where it hung partially over the cargo bay bench, threatening to cascade onto the riveted floor. A quick scan of her surroundings assured her she was alone. Her only company was the stacked boxes labeled “UMF” around her.

The United Military Federation. Sam was on her third contract with UMF, ten years in, coming on eleven. Her contract end date wasn’t for another ninety-seven days, but she had submitted the renewal request after the last mission. It was an easy decision. Command would automatically approve it when her window came up in a week; she had no doubt about it. There would be no objections. Why would there be? She was good at what she did, one cog of a reputable recon duo. Her half-brother, Scott “Mute” Reckert, was the other half. No pun intended.

Her brother.

Sam was angry at her brother. He was willing to throw it all away. Worse. He was going to throw it all away.

She thought it was a joke at first. His sarcasm at its best. Scott was one of the most decorated marines of their outpost. He could have switched contracts and started a career track as an officer if he wanted. Not that he wanted it—both of them preferred to do the actual job. This job, together.

Her brother had over seventeen years on five contracts. If he completed two more, Command would provide him an acre of his own pensioned land. It was a generous plot, enough for a dwelling and a farm, and it’d be within a reasonable distance from Ursus, a spot outside Gould, the boring settlement he had grown up in. He’d be well-off at forty years old—retired from a steady career, able to live however he saw fit with his acre and pension. He wouldn’t be wealthy like the upper class with their large flats in the nicer part of town, but he’d be comfortable.

Sam had seen his many drawings of a two-story house, a small farm, and a mundane life. They were designs of a future in the form of mindless doodles in the dirt while on missions, and on his tablet at his compound apartment while off missions.

His low, raspy words echoed in her head. “I’m out, Sammy.”

I’m out.

She was confused. She didn’t understand. They were a team. Over six years together, blood and sweat, thick and thin, covering each other and their unit. They had always been together. Twenty-three years she had been glued to his hip. She had been his shadow until one day, after years of hard work and practice, she was her own independent equal. Twenty-three years he had practically raised her, been her guardian, her brother, her best friend, her mentor.

It was obviously not going to be forever, but their time in UMF wasn’t supposed to end this way. Or this soon. Sam figured they’d have at least six more years together before she had to wrap her mind around being on her own. She searched back in her memories for any indication, any warning signs she had missed. None. No, only just an hour before, when he cautiously took a seat next to her in the ship's frigid galley.

As his hands wrung and wrestled themselves in his lap, her concern grew. When he motioned, this is my last mission, a stone sunk in her gut. When he talked, she flinched, stunned.

Sam waited for the laugh, the punchline, but it never came. The realization set in. He wasn’t joking, and she had already missed a lot of the quiet ambush spun by his hands. Her eyes watched his fingers twist and turn as they seemed to stutter their own speech, her brain not translating, still in shock. By the time she came to her senses, he said those two damning words.

I’m out.

I’m out.

I’m out.

It was the only sign and declaration just before his—their last mission together.

Of course, she took it personally.

Sam had sat up straight and asked him why.

He hesitated. Time slipped as his mouth and hands went still.

Sam demanded a reason, any reason. Something to help with her confusion.

But he closed her out.

She always told him everything. She thought he did, too. But not this. Apparently, now he kept secrets. Did she do something? Did he not trust her? Or worse, did he not respect her enough to look her in the eye and tell her why he was leaving the military? Leaving her?

Sam stormed out of the room before she lost her composure any further. He didn’t even try to stop her. She spent the rest of the trip in the cargo hold, lividly working on her carbine as if she could transfer the cleaning motions to her own head, erasing “I’m out, I’m out, I’m out” like it was unwanted carbon that had built up in the weapon’s chamber. Not that there had been anything to clean. She had already maintained her trusty rifle before the trip. But it was her thing. The familiar motions wrapped around her like a security blanket.

She was less, but still incensed when the announcement came over the ship intercom. Thirty minutes to dock. She had thirty minutes to push her feelings into a box and shove it to the back of her mind.

Sam Ryan was a marine—hell, a Special Operations Group marine—and a damn good one. The mission came first. She would deal with this betrayal later.

The mission always came first.

* * *

The fast transport was like a dragonfly, skimming across the water’s surface. As the ship slowed, nearing the expansive port of the sprawling city, it glided past the commercial freighters within the busy harbor into a gated section filled with similarly armored watercraft. A haggard metal sign with the faded words “RESTRICTED AREA: Authorized Personnel Only” clanged against the post from which it hung. As the propulsion system powered down with an elongated whisper, a metallic ramp extended from the ship’s side and folded down, latching onto the docking platform.

Sam walked down onto the dock carrying a large assault pack and loose armor. A thin metallic cuff with a display rested snug against the lightly tanned skin of her left wrist. With her right hand, she adjusted the strap of a polished, short-barreled rifle slung over her shoulder. Her eye caught the corner of dark ink on the inside of her forearm: a tattooed circle around a white, fleshy scar line, splitting the shape down the middle.

A warm but refreshing breeze, a mix of ocean brine and the flat smells of civilization, lifted Sam’s spirit. The morning sun embraced her face, and she shut her eyes, letting herself fold into the moment. Another draft swayed light blonde locks into her face despite the bun. Her hair disrupted the visor's hololens, and she secured the stray locks behind an ear. Her fingers brushed the edge of the device hooked around the back of her head, one tip extending to her left temporal bone and the other wrapping behind her ear, peeking out to the hinge of her jaw.

Sam slowly opened her eyes and squinted into the morning light, taking in the chattering dockhands, the large harbor, and beyond it, the glossy black of the ocean stretching to the thin horizon. She rolled her shoulders and neck to increase blood flow to her taut muscles. Overnight travel was always cramped, never relaxing enough for actual rest. The last couple of hours on this specific one hadn’t helped.

Her stomach twisted and gurgled. Their last full meal had been before she and her brother boarded the ship. She had avoided the nutrition bars in the kitchen, no desire to chew through their dry texture. Coffee was also available on board, but its color reminded her of dehydrated piss. She drank what she could tolerate, solely as a languishing grasp at energy she knew she’d need for the day ahead. She should have slept more but couldn’t, not after…

Behind her, a uniformed man with short golden-blond hair walked out of the cargo hold. His boots were heavy, each step reverberating against the ramp, each a grating blow to Sam’s ears. Scott stopped briefly at the edge as if to say something.

In the long second that ensued, a debate swung in Sam’s mind of whether or not to turn around, confront him, and demand answers. But in the end, paralysis chose for her. She ignored him. Her jaw clenched in anticipation of another slurry of words and motions to make her day worse.

But there was nothing.

He moved past her to the monotonous buildings at the end of the dock. The familiar scent of his apartment’s indoor garden floated behind him like a specter.

Sam watched as her brother’s knuckles whitened around the handle of his long rifle bag as if he was wringing the life from it. She scoffed at his back. Good. Suffer.

Her left eye twitched. She didn’t mean it. Not really. They hadn’t talked or looked at each other since their last conversation. Her chest tightened with irritation and guilt as she watched him amble away.

They were siblings. They had many disagreements before, but this one vexed Sam. She wasn’t used to feeling this way, especially toward him. All their past arguments were trivial—many of them brought about by hunger or exhaustion—and quickly resolved.

She had a seed of doubt. Perhaps she had been too rash in her initial reaction. Perhaps she had missed something he had said before. It all came crashing down now.

She was sure about one thing—she was tired.

Sam tried to center herself, raising her left hand to pinch the bridge of her nose. She filled her lungs with the port air, which now had a stronger hint of metal and trash—something she hadn’t detected before. She pushed out a slow, deep exhale, and the detached armor in her hand settled limply against her rig.

Sam nodded a greeting to a group of dock workers as they passed by, staring at her. She moved her hand from her face and softly tapped the tech behind her ear. The hololens disappeared, and she adjusted her effects as she hurried to catch up to her brother.

“You’re worse when you’re hungry,” she said. Sam wasn’t sure who she meant it for, her brother or herself. If Scott heard her, he didn’t show it.

When she fell in step with him, they had passed through the military’s port administration building in sustained silence. She stayed within an arm’s reach and matched his casual pace despite his longer stride. An unsaid, unfamiliar distance hovered between them despite their proximity. But together, they moved forward into a compound of gray buildings.

This was the home of UMF Command, the military’s center of operations, its pulsing human brain. Just past it, carved into the hills facing the ocean, the largest human population center on the recovering planet was an explosion of colors and structures, a clashing contrast to its stoic, gray neighbor. It was Station City, just outside UMF headquarters.

* * *

0816

The numbers illuminated on Sam’s wrist display. She set her hand back down on the table with a light clink from the cuff as it tapped the metal surface—the fourth time she had checked her commcuff since sitting down. Her leg bounced like an agitated spring, ready to uncoil and launch. The breakfast surge had passed, and the main DFAC, the military’s dining facility, was partially occupied, gradually emptying like a lazy falling tide. Their table in the back corner provided a reticent refuge and vantage point.

Across from her, Scott shoveled food into his mouth. His brows furrowed as he focused on satiating the hunger that came with a lengthy journey. Ursus Outpost was a long ride from the north in the expeditionary fast transport, and they had left at the teetering hour where late night met early morning. A fleck of paste sat on his unshaven jaw, and Sam resisted the urge to wipe it off with the thin excuse of a napkin in front of her.

She picked at her food. It was standard UMF pulp, this time with too little seasoning. In any other routine situation, she would have thought about how the military could still mess up basic culinary fundamentals when an abundance of salt was readily available, especially with water filtration farms from Ursus to Station City working at full capacity. She set her utensil down. The five large spoonfuls she had hoisted into her mouth had quelled her body’s rumblings. That would suffice for now.

Really, she was more interested in ensuring they weren’t late for their first meeting with their new, temporary team. It was her first assignment away from Ursus’s area of responsibility, and she wanted to make a good impression. She was also admittedly distracted by the newness of everything around her. Though the uniforms and the DFAC’s bustling operation were all familiar thanks to the standardized processes of UMF, it was still a new place for her. She had never been to Station City. Technically, she wasn’t in the city but rather UMF Station, its own campus outside the proper metropolitan limits. It didn’t matter. She hadn’t been here before. Sam only traveled where the outpost or Command sent her, and those missions were often limited to the north and bordering areas where Altered and humans clashed.

Resisting the urge to look again at her commcuff, Sam turned her attention to the buzz of scattered conversations. She concentrated discreetly on a discussion from a neighboring table.

“—was chatting with Luna. She said her company is gonna cover City Center with District’s SecTeam. Two-week detail ’til the summit is over.”

“Damn. Lucky. We know where we’re going yet?”

“Nah. Hope we get a good one. I wanna see the Royals.”

“I want to see a praetorian!”

One marine scoffed. “Y’all are idiots. Fuck the Royals. Fuck the alties. It’s all a sham.”

“Still. Biggest thing that’s happened in years.”

“No way, don’t care. You really think things gonna change? Plus, it’s gonna fuck with my commute, man.”

Someone laughed.

“Your own fault for…”

Sam tuned out the conversation. She had seen the trending posts on the network about the supposed talks with the Altered governing body: the Sovereign and his Royal Court. It was another effort for official peace, and Sam was skeptical. Humans and Altered had been in a tense standstill well before she had taken her first breath. During her time with the military, there had been no blatant moves between the two races, but that hadn’t stopped UMF’s involvement in counterterrorism on both sides. Or getting involved with human-human and human-Altered civil squabbles that local SecTeams couldn't handle. UMF was the only overarching force protecting all humankind, with little to no support from the multiple settlements that continued to attempt their independence from Station City’s republic. Humans had a habit of violence and selfish actions, often to their own detriment.

Sam thought herself apathetic, or at least impartial, to the governing structures of her own kind. Her outpost, Ursus, and many nearby northern settlements aligned with Command and Station City. Her brother’s hometown, Gould, had its council, which served the settlement’s general matters. Not that she cared much. She lived and spent all her time at the outpost. She had little interest in politics and would only believe it—official peace between humans and Altered—when she saw it.

Sam turned her observation to the marines in their gray-colored uniforms, a lighter variation than the one she wore herself. Something was different with the military folk here; she couldn’t quite put a solid finger on it. They all worked under the same core leadership, but the Station service people had a more…city feel. Though Sam had ensured her shirt and pants were tidy and as wrinkle-free as possible, the surrounding uniforms were just more pristine. She compared the others’ neat hairstyles to her updo and was grateful she had adjusted her bun into a tighter knot high on the back of her head. Somehow, Station marines looked trendier. Stylish. Tight. It had to be a headquarters thing. Sticks up their asses.

She shook the quick judgment out of her head.

They were marines. Just like her.

Sam Ryan was a marine. She’d be a marine until the day she died. She knew nothing else, nor did she care much about anything else.

Despite her youth, she had been longer in the corps than most. Sam didn’t see herself retiring after the usual seven contracts, even after a generous acre of land. What would she even do with a plot of property? Despite the inconsistent seasoning of food, despite the tedious bureaucracy, annual training refreshers, and the occasional hiccups in operations, she liked her job. She liked her life. UMF was where everything made sense to her. It was where she belonged.

She also had nowhere else to go. Her mother abandoned her as a newborn, and she didn’t remember her father—he died when she was young, too young to remember a burglary gone wrong. Junkies. She despised them.

A year or so after she was left on the doorstep, her father had registered her as Ryan when the census people showed up. Not Ryan Reckert, like her brother. Just Ryan. She wasn’t sure why Ryan. Maybe her father had been disappointed she wasn’t another son and went with a middle-ground name. Or worse, her father hadn’t cared at all.

Scott said little about him, even when she was younger. She learned not to ask after the first outburst, a rare sight for her quiet half-brother. Scott, eleven years old when she dropped into his life, had named her Sam, and called her Sammy when he was feeling particular.

Her brother had turned to the marines at sixteen, two years into university, two years shy of graduation and a future beyond the military. Sam never asked why. It was another unspoken topic she learned to leave alone. It didn't matter, because she was proud of him. He was a great marine, a recon specialist with a steady and consistent demeanor. He was the perfect fighter against all forms of opponents, be it Altered or human radical.

When her brother and his friends joined SOG, Special Operations Group, she aspired along with them. At sixteen, she earned her own diamond tab and joined them. For seven years, he was one arm; she was the other.

And now he was leaving her.

Sam stiffened, and her mouth pinched. She internally cursed her circuitous brain. She had been doing so well in distracting herself. Her leg bounced harder as she willed her focus back onto the marines in the dining room.

What was left of the breakfast crowd paid little attention to the duo in their dark charcoal uniforms, although she spotted a handful of marines glancing at their table from afar. Though she couldn't hear it, she recognized the words from the movement of their lips. Her callsign. Her brother's.

She fixed her shirt collar and thumbed the top point of the matte diamond pin. Then, Sam consciously stilled her leg and replaced it with the familiar and comforting scratch of her index fingernail on the right side of her thumb. It was a bad habit for as long as she could remember, but it helped calm her nerves.

She made a note to change into a lighter outfit later. Sam didn’t enjoy sticking out, an occupational mentality already proving difficult seated across from the only other light blond in the room. It was made worse by also being the only two in the room to sport the latest visor, the light and sleek tech around their heads. Other marines had older, clunkier versions hooked over their ears or hanging off their necks. She could only do so much to fit in. It was a constant struggle.

A loud clatter startled Sam out of her thoughts. Scott’s utensil rattled against his empty tray where he had dropped it.

She narrowed her eyes, and her upper lip curled. “Feel better now?”

The first words she had said directly to him in the last hours slipped out with biting venom. So much for putting emotions aside. Guilt punched her chest.

Scott mirrored her spite, mocking her, but an unsubtle, affable smirk followed behind. He brushed his short hair with a quick hand and leaned back into the stiff chair, arms stretching up and behind him. He stifled a yawn, and Sam resisted the contagious action.

She turned her wrist. The fifth time since they sat down.

0819

Her leg stuttered up and down. “What time do we need to be at Command again?” The words came out strained, but it was an attempt at normalcy.

Scott shrugged and returned Sam’s irate stare.

She raised her hands to her chest, pressed each thumb and pointer finger’s pads together, and flicked them out. Useless.

He shrugged again and grinned.

She never understood how Scott could be so relaxed before operations. Never mind how okay he seemed with the current state of their relationship. Sam had never felt this distant from her brother.

A corner of anger slipped, aimed at him. “You’re the worst,” she grumbled and returned her gaze to the room, desperately trying to reel in her emotions.

Her brother grinned. He pointed at her, crossed his arms lazily in an “x” across his chest, and tapped his sternum with his finger. You love me.

She sneered with a pointed side-eye and snapped back, “Love is a strong word.”

Scott recoiled, and Sam felt another sharp pull of regret as his face fell, playfulness gone.

Dammit.

She forced a small snort to backtrack. “I deal with you? I tolerate you?” she said. “Those might fit better.”

Scott applied a stiff smile and folded his arms. He gnawed at his bottom lip and played with a thin chain around his neck as they sat in silence.

Time stretched and billowed, and Sam fought the urge to check her cuff display. This wasn’t how she wanted to start their day, especially her first time in headquarters. It was supposed to be exciting. Fun. Happy. She definitely wasn’t happy.

A deep voice shattered the bloated pause. A welcome rescue and interruption.

“Hello, Golden Twins.”

A terrible rescue and interruption.

Sam and Scott turned to the tall, dark-haired man who had approached their table. He wore similar gray uniform pants like the other Station marines, but a fitted, black T-shirt hugged his torso instead of the usual button-up. Over his right breast, a black diamond—almost like a spearhead—was printed, barely visible. It was the same shape on the recon duo’s collars, the unremarkable insignia of UMF’s Special Operations Group.

The siblings looked at him. Frankly, it wasn’t the first time they had heard this nickname. They were used to the slew of monikers, labels, and nicknames that humans, bored or amused, gravitated toward. Their physical appearance was no help for the lengthy list. Such was the life of two natural blonds in a world of predominantly mixed ethnicities. Their father was of the old blood, a small pocket of resistant people who didn’t believe in the future's diverse melting pot. Petty racism was a cockroach, unkillable even in climate change and a fast-adjusting world.

The man winced, his face scrunched and wrinkled. “I am so sorry,” he said. “That…was a description I was given by a bad source.” He cursed something unknown, then held his hand out between the siblings. His face split into a grin, desperate to start anew. “I’m Yuri Gregov with Razor-Echo. You can call me Gregov. Greg. Greggo. Or Yuri. Most just call me Yuri.”

Play nice. No judgments. Yet.

Sam gave him a tightlipped smile of acknowledgment and took his hand. She’d stick with “Gregov.” First names were too casual, too intimate.

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