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Toy Soldiers

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Arik Travis was fourteen years old when his brother Lev didn't come home.

Arik was five when his mother became the personal guard to the chief administrator of section five in London dome. His father was a trooper stationed on one of the outer worlds, but when he'd been able to make a four day stop at home a few weeks after the promotion, he'd made a chocolate cake and allowed little Arik two big slices.

The chocolate was impossibly rich, so Arik was up half the night getting sick. Mother was very cross at Father because of it, but for a long time it was one of his fondest memories because Lev sat next to him and told him war stories until he felt better.

Lev came home early from his training for the Federation guard.

Mother was cross again, and at the time Arik didn't know why. He only knew that Lev would be a trooper like Father instead of a guard like Mother, and that had caused Mother and Lev to alternate between very loud and very quiet while they sorted things out.

During one of the quiet times, Lev came to Arik's room while he was playing with the little soldier figurines Mother had bought him.

"Mind if I hide out here for a while?" Lev asked, smiling although he looked tired.

Arik shook his head and watched Lev sit cross-legged next to him. "What are you doing?"

"Infiltrating an enemy stronghold," Arik said quietly as he moved one of his soldiers into position outside of the building Arik had put together out of old wall plating. "They stole one of the top ships in the fleet." He lifted a piece of plating to show the model ship sitting inside among the non-Federation figurines made out of white polymer.

"That ship doesn't look big enough to fit your people," Lev pointed out.

Arik furrowed his brow, considering this for a moment. "The bad guys shrunk it."

Lev smiled, his eyes sparkling with suppressed laughter. "Oh? How'd they do that?"

"They stole an experimental prototype shrink ray." Arik chewed on his lip, noticing a flaw in his logic. "They had to shrink it to escape without being noticed, but then they didn't know how to un-shrink it, so that's why they aren't getting away in it."

"Of course." Lev leaned in to check out the formation of the soldiers. "Why don't you move this one here?" he asked, plucking one up and setting it closer to the door. "That way, as soon as you get them out, you can start shooting."

Exasperated, Arik moved the soldier back. "I have a plan, okay. Look. When they stole the ship they--"

"And the shrink ray."

"And the shrink ray. They also got one of their friends out that I'd captured before. Except I let them do that, because he's got a bomb implanted in him, and it's going to go off--" He pushed the plating down so it clattered on top of his white figurines. "Now."

"Mm, looks like you got them... except. Oh, what's this?" Lev took up one of the white figurines and bounced it toward the soldiers. "One of them's getting away. Who will save the Federation?"

"My troopers will shoot him," Travis took two of the soldiers and pointed them at Lev's figurine, making gun noises.

Lev shook his head. "Nope, he also stole an experimental blast-proof personal force field."

"No he didn't!" Arik frowned up at him. "You're cheating."

"But he did. Look, the guns aren't hurting him."

Arik watched the Lev bounce the figurine away from the soldiers unharmed. He got to his feet and went to his desk, returning with his scissors. With a single snip he cut the figurine in half. "There."

Lev blinked at the half of the figurine he was still holding. "Arik, you ruined your toy."

"He was getting away."

Lev laughed and shook his head. "Guess it doesn't matter."

Arik looked at Lev for a long moment, then back down at his soldiers. "Is Mother mad at you?"

"You picked that up, did you?" Lev was trying to make a joke, but it came out flat. "Don't tell her, but I'd rather be a trooper anyway. Guards have all of the work and none of the perks."

"I'm going to be an officer," Arik stated.

Lev raised his eyebrows at him. "You'd have to be an alpha grade for that, Arik. They don't let gammas make decisions."

"Then I'll become an alpha grade."

Lev chuckled. "I bet you could, too. Definitely stubborn enough for it." He poked him in the side.

"Stop it," Arik whined, twisting away from him, but he couldn't stop giggling as Lev kept poking his ticklish sides. "No, really, stop!"

Lev ruffled Arik's hair and playfully shoved him away. "All right, kid. Gotta talk to Mum some more."

Arik frowned a little. "Don't yell at her."

"I'll try." Lev headed for the door, but he paused before opening it. "You should try for that alpha grade, if that's what you want. Don't be a dumb gamma trooper all your life like your brother, all right?"

"Father's a trooper."

"Yeah..." Lev shrugged and headed out.

Arik wanted to follow after Lev and defend Father, but he found himself just sitting there with his soldiers. When the yelling started again, he set the soldiers back up for another attack on the enemy.

When Arik was three, the Federation issued a new design for trooper helmets, so his Father gave him the old one. At first, Arik would run around with it on, pretending to be a trooper. As he got older, it became a showpiece, something he kept on his wall and never allowed anyone to touch.

When Arik was fourteen, they sent Lev's singed uniform to Mother. His unit had been raiding an illegal weapons-grade crystal manufacturing plant, and one of the criminals had shot him.

Arik asked for the helmet, and hung it up next to Father's old one. She called it morbid, but it made Arik feel better if he remembered his brother died in the service of the Federation.

A few days after Lev's funeral, Father put on his trooper uniform and shot himself with his sidearm. Arik threw his father’s old helmet at the wall so hard the visor cracked.

Until Arik was twenty, he believed the story that Mother told him about his brother's death. He'd made alpha grade by then, and assumed alpha pride and haughtiness like boots that were a little too loose. One of the troopers under his command asked, "Lieutenant Travis? Are you related to Lev Travis?"

Lieutenant Travis only nodded.

"I was in his unit. Nice guy..." The trooper paused awkwardly, adjusting his helmet. "For what it's worth, I always thought it wasn't true he defected. Probably just got confused."

The words gave Lieutenant Travis a chill. "Defected," he repeated, sneering at the word.

"Sorry for bringing it up, sir. I know it's not common knowledge. Just told the family, but as I said, I was in his unit. I've never told anyone, sir, I promise."

Lieutenant Travis nodded tersely and left the soldier. At the earliest opportunity, he had the soldier taken in for conditioning. He'd disobeyed the Federation's orders to lie.

When Space Commander Travis was 27, he visited home for the first time since he'd joined the service. He didn't mention Lev to Mother. He didn't go into his old room until she was asleep.

The helmets still hung on the wall. He traced the crack in the older one with his fingertip.

Lev was weak. Father was weaker. But Mother--Mother who always seemed the strongest--had been weakest in the end. She'd been more interested in protecting the memory of her elder son for her younger son than she was devoted to showing him what it meant to betray the Federation.

And after the Federation had been merciful enough not to send them to a penal colony.

Space Commander Travis took the helmets down from the wall and put them into the city garbage to be disintegrated. He left London dome before morning and never visited Mother again.

He did keep one thing; one of the little toy soldiers his mother had given him. Wherever he went, he'd set it on a bedside table or shelf as a reminder of home, and of why he didn't go back.