When the knock on my apartment door came, I answered the door expecting to find the delivery boy from the pizzeria down the street.
Instead I found myself face to face with a man in the uniform of a Chief Petty Officer in the US Navy, carrying a clipboard.
"Lt. Paul Chapman?" He asked. I nodded.
"Sign here," he said.
"Hold on a moment," I said, "Just what am I signing for?"
The CPO rolled his eyes and sighed. "Great. Another one who didn't get the news." He refocused on me. "Under executive order 2332, all persons of the rank of O1 and above currently on active duty in the United States military are required to be married in order to promote family values and moral character. Since you are unmarried and show no signs of getting married in the near future, the US government has issued you a wife."
I blinked at him. "You're joking right?"
He gave me an evil grin. "Nope. Sign here please."
"But I don't want a wife!" I protested. "I like being single!"
The CPO shrugged. "Your choices are to either accept the wife issued to you, or to resign your commission immediately. I have both forms right here."
"This is a little much to take in at one time," I said, "don't the women have any say in whom they are issued to?"
The CPO smiled tiredly. "Look Lt. Here's the deal. You know that the last war left the women outnumbering the men here at home 30 to 1."
"I know all that," I interrupted, "it's a single man's paradise out there."
"All of the wives that we issue have signed up for the program voluntarily," the CPO continued as if I hadn't spoken. "After 30 days, if you prove to be incompatible, you can put in a request for another wife to be issued to you. Otherwise the term of the marriage runs to the end of your military career."
"Do I at least get to see the woman before I make up my mind?" I asked a little desperately.
The CPO grinned again. "Of course," he replied. He turned and waved to someone just out of my sight. In a moment a woman came close enough for me to see her.
Maybe about 20, she was pretty enough in a 'farmer's daughter' sort of way, with
long brown hair and a decent figure. She was wearing the long, somewhat shapeless dress that became mandatory public dress for women outside of the home since the new indecency laws had been passed a year ago.
The CPO started to say something, but I held up my hand and he closed his mouth with an audible snap. I faced the woman directly. "Are you agreeing with this set up?" I asked. "If you are under duress, I can and will protect you until State Security shows up."
She shook her head. " I am not under duress." She replied softly. "I signed up for this of my own free will."
To me it sounded like a rehearsed answer, but I had no grounds to dispute it. I turned to the CPO. "Give me the papers." I signed on the dotted line.
The CPO saluted and then left at a rapid pace.
The woman stood there staring at me curiously. I remembered my manners. "I am Lt. Paul Chapman. Please come in."
She gave me a smile then. "A little formal for talking to your wife isn't it?"
I flushed a little and stepped back a few paces so that she could enter. She closed the door behind her.
I led her into the living room and set her down on the couch. To tell the truth, I was still somewhat in a state of shock. She noticed this and smiled again. "My name is Cathy Ellsworth." She stopped and shook her head. "I guess it's Cathy Chapman now." She looked up at me where I was still standing there as if rooted to the spot. "Oh come on and sit down, I won't bite."
I flushed again and moved to sit down on the couch a foot or so from her.
"Relax," she told me. "I got into this program because I didn't care for the alternatives. I didn't want to risk the lottery for the 'Homeland Replenishment Corps' and wind up being forced to undergo artificial insemination if my name happened to be drawn. Nor do I have any inclination to go gay, especially with the new 'purity' laws." She shuddered.
I shuddered a little too. Ever since that preacher got elected after James Cromwell and most of the rest of Washington, DC died, when someone had managed to sneak a rather large nuke into the city and set it off 20 years ago, things were starting to resemble Taliban era Afghanistan. The penalty for being openly gay was forced sterilization and lifetime confinement on the Wyoming Undesirables Reservation.
Penalties under the provisions of other of the so-called 'Purity' laws were equally draconian. Public stonings were becoming more and more common for violations of the public modesty acts. And as a member of the military, I had been required to officiate at several of these executions, which meant reading the death warrant to the gathered crowd and throwing the first stone. It always gave me nightmares for weeks afterward.
The military service was the safest of the available jobs for men these days. Unless you were in one of the other 'protected' occupations, farming or medicine for example, you were subject to draft by the Reclamations Corps, which was currently engaged in clearing the debris from what had been the nation's capital. I thought about the radiation and short life expectancy of those poor devils and decided that marriage wasn't such a bad idea after all. Of course, there was always the route of the Church. But the requirement that all priests and acolytes be gelded made that a choice of little appeal, at least to me. I'd just as soon hang on to my balls, thank you very much.
Still, I couldn't believe that this pretty young woman sitting next to me on the couch was now my wife. Somehow I had always pictured myself falling in love and then settling down to a nice, quiet home life with a passel of kids.
There was anther knock on the door. This time it was the pizza delivery boy. I paid and tipped him, then took the pizza back to the living room and sat down on the couch again. Cathy took the box from my hands, set it down on the coffee table and opened it. The tempting odor of the hot pizza wafted up to my nostrils, but I just didn't have much appetite now. Cathy had no such reservations and started chowing down on the pizza. "I don't mean to seem greedy," she said as she licked a bit of sauce from her upper lip. "but I haven't eaten since yesterday morning."
"No problem," I told her. "Eat all you want."
I wasn't too surprised that she was hungry. With the rampant inflation and general shortage of food these days, malnutrition was the second most common cause of death among women.
In short order, Cathy had finished most of the pizza and even the half slice that I had been too queasy to eat. Finally sated, she sat back and looked at me speculatively.
I stared back trying vainly to think of something, anything, to say.
Finally Cathy looked away. "I think I need a bath." She sniffed "No, I know I need a bath."
"Down the hall, first door on your right," I said.
Something occurred to me then. "Don't you have any bags? Clothes and things?"
She shook her head. "When I signed up for the program they made me leave everything behind."
"For Pete's sake, why?" I asked.
Cathy shrugged. "The proctor told us that they didn't have the resources to haul around bunches of feminine frippery and that it was bad enough having to haul us all over creation just to find husbands for us."
I shook my head in disgust. No doubt that proctor had by now sold off all of the women's belongings that he had forced them to leave behind. Well that I could do something about. But not tonight.
"There are some sweat pants and shirts in my ... our, bedroom. Put those on after your bath. We'll see about getting you more clothes and whatever else you'll need in the morning." I said.
Cathy nodded and headed for the bathroom. I leaned back on the couch and thought for a bit. Then I picked up my phone and called my commanding officer.
By the time Cathy had come out of the bathroom, I had explained the situation to my CO and he confirmed the executive order was genuine. He gave me a few days leave to get settled into the new domestic situation and then I'd have to report to the base to pick up my assignment. "Most likely more domestic security duty," he said with a sigh. "Damn it, I'd prefer combat duty to acting like a goddamn policeman."
I agreed with him, but didn't have the rank to be able to say so safely. A slip of the tongue on my part could land me in the reclamation corps, or on a gallows.
Cathy came out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel with another towel wrapped around her long hair. She glanced at me and I pointed to the doorway at the end of the hallway. She nodded and flashed me a smile, then went on into the bedroom.
I waited for a while to give her a chance to get dressed. I killed the time by cleaning up the living room. Then I headed down the hallway to my bedroom and my first night as a married man.
Cathy was already in the bed with the covers pulled up to her chin. For all her seeming confidence earlier, she appeared nervous and never took her eyes off me, as I undressed down to my boxers and slipped into bed beside her. I turned to face her and propped myself up on my elbow.
"This is new to both of us," I said, "so nothing has to happen that you do not want to do. I am perfectly happy just to get some sleep. It has been a nerve wracking evening."
Cathy ducked her head and blushed a little. "Could we just, you know, cuddle for a while?"
"Sure," I said. I rolled over onto my back and left my left arm outstretched. She wriggled closer and gingerly laid her head on my shoulder. I bent my left arm to rest the forearm across her shoulders where I could stroke her back and hair. She put her arm across my chest and put her leg partially atop mine, then she nestled her face closer to me and sighed contentedly. I slowly and gently stroked her hair and upper back until she fell asleep.
I wasn't a virgin, and hadn't been one for over a decade, but I was sensitive enough to know that she needed to ease her way into the new situation as much as I did.
She was wearing a pair of my gym shorts and one of my t-shirts as pajamas. She felt soft and warm and altogether desirable lying there in my arm. I stared at the ceiling and thought about tomorrow and what trouble I was going to get into for poking that crooked Church proctor one right in the nose.
After a long time, I slept.
I awoke in the morning to the wonderful feeling of having a woman snuggled up close to me. Cathy didn't appear to have moved all night. She was still sound asleep and I didn't want to wake her so I stayed right where I was and took the time to think things through.
OK so I had a wife. Now what? Well, first things first. Get her some clothes and all the other 1001 things that women seemed to need.
Next I would look up that proctor and tear him a new one. After that? I had no idea. Christ on a crutch, I didn't even know where my new wife was from or what she had done for a living or anything about her except for her name, and that she claimed to have signed up for the issue wife program freely.
Cathy interrupted my train of thought by stirring, and then stretching, squirming delightfully against me as she did so.
"Good morning," I said.
"Morning," she mumbled and snuggled against me for a moment before reluctantly getting up and stumbling toward the bathroom. I watched her go and decided that she did, indeed, have a nice firm figure to go with that pretty face.
Shaking my head to clear it of thoughts I couldn't take the time to explore right then, I sat up and stretched. Then I got down onto the floor and did my morning pushups.
I got to my feet when Cathy came out of the bathroom wearing her shapeless dress again. "I'll fix breakfast while you shower," she said. "what would you like?"
"Surprise me," I said with a quick grin. Then I headed for the bathroom to shit, shower, and shave in preparation for the day's activities.
Cathy proved to be a very good cook, and had a hearty breakfast waiting by the time I was dressed and ready to face the day. I had decided to wear my dress uniform today. I figured it might give me an air of authority when I went to deal with that damned proctor.
Cathy sat across from me as I ate, her chin cupped in her hands and her elbows planted on the table. She smiled when I complimented her on her cooking. Indeed it was better than I had eaten in many years.
After the dishes were done, I escorted my new bride downstairs to the secure parking level. As an officer in the military I had access to a small armored car and I used it. Military officers and churchmen were often targets of malcontents, and I had no wish to be one of the dozen or so officers assassinated every day.
Cathy had never ridden in a military designed vehicle before and was suitably impressed.
What impressed me was that while I was describing the various functions of the devices around us, Cathy spotted the vehicles weaknesses and had suggestions to eliminate them.
The Church dogma was big on the "women should be at home, preferably barefoot and pregnant" line. Officially there was equal education for both men and women. Unofficially, educating a woman beyond the minimum required for whatever job she was destined for was considered a waste of time, and was frowned upon as a waste of resources. In Cathy's case this was an error of mammoth proportions.
She was far more intelligent than I was, and all she lacked was the education to put her smarts to use.
As we drove to the shopping district Cathy and I talked about her life before she signed up with the program. I learned more in that hour-long drive about the day-to-day life outside of the military reservations than I had learned in the last 10 years as an officer. And what I found out pissed me off. Rampant corruption among the Church and the civic authorities. Deliberate shortages of vital commodities and services to keep the prices artificially inflated. Women and girls snatched off the street, many to be sold south of the border. Those few women who managed to escape and return home were rounded up quickly and never heard from again.
There was more and worse, and the more I learned, the madder I became. I had known that the system was seriously flawed. But I'd had no idea of the extent of the rot.
At the relatively safe shopping district, Cathy was soon able to re-stock herself with clothing and other essentials. We loaded her purchases into the armored car and then went looking for the Church proctor that had processed Cathy into the program.
Little did Cathy and I know then what consequences our visit would have.
We found the proctor at his station down in a poor section of oldtown. He looked up when we entered the office, his snarl quickly becoming an ingratiating smile when he saw my uniform. That smile faded though when he recognized Cathy, as she stepped up beside me in front of his desk. "H-How may I help you good folk?" he stammered.
I leaned over with my fists on his desk. "You can start by giving my wife the belongings that you made her leave behind when she was processed into the program."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," he said as he leaned as far back in his chair as he could, sweat beginning to bead his brow.
I turned to Cathy. "Describe your bags and their contents." She did so in a clear and steady voice.
The proctor was pale now and looked sick. "All unnecessary items were properly disposed of," he said shakily.
"And just who decides what is necessary?" I demanded.
"Er ... I do I suppose," he said weakly.
I stood erect and put on my beret, which I had taken off upon entering the building. Putting on the cap meant that I now spoke as an officer in the U. S. Military. "Proctor, you are hereby requested and required to produce the missing items, or a complete written inventory and account of the disposal of said items immediately, or face summary judgment."
I turned by back on the proctor, a foolish move in retrospect, to pace to the far side of the room.
Cathy screamed and I felt a tug at my belt. Before I could complete my turn, I heard shots from two different guns.
When I was turned all the way back around, I saw the proctor slumped forward onto his desk, a small old fashioned revolver near his hand. There was no mistake about his being thoroughly dead, as most of the top of his head was missing. Cathy was clutching her belly with one hand while her other still held my service automatic aimed steadily at the proctor's corpse.
I gently took my gun from Cathy's hand and wiped the grips and trigger with my handkerchief before holstering it. As far as anyone would ever know, I was the one who shot the proctor. I could claim self-defense. Cathy would have been executed without trial. In the eyes of the Church, as a woman she would have automatically been in the wrong for defending herself, or me, against a proctor no matter what the justification.
I had thought that Cathy was just ill at the gruesome sight of the proctor's dead body. Then I saw the blood seeping around her fingers and went ice cold inside. She had been shot.
I wrapped my arm around her and swung her up to carry her like a child, then headed for my armored vehicle as fast as I could walk.
Once inside I reclined her seat as far back as it would go and covered her with my coat. She was breathing hard and was tense with the pain. I tried to think fast. If I took her to a military hospital, as was her right as my wife, there would be questions asked that might reveal the truth, and she would be executed at once. If I took her to a civilian hospital, the same thing would happen, except that she would die by stoning rather than a bullet to the head.
But there was one other option. A doctor whose daughter I had saved once from a blood-maddened crowd. I started the engine and pointed the nose of the armored vehicle north.
Thankfully Dr. James Carter was home, as was his daughter, Cindy, who acted as his nurse. I carried Cathy up to the back door of his house and pounded on it until he answered. He recognized me right away and started to say something, and then he saw the blood spreading across Cathy's dress.
"Bring her in, quickly!" he ordered and moved out of my way. He led me to his basement where he had set up a complete operating room.
Illegal, and enough to get him and his entire family killed if the authorities ever found out about it.
Cindy came downstairs in a rush wearing only a bathrobe and toting a serious looking gun at the ready. Her face softened when she recognized me, and she lowered the antique M-16 rifle she was pointing in my direction.
"Don't just stand there," her father snapped, "no time for you to change, or me either, we have to get the bullet out of this girl now!"
Without a word she leaned the rifle against the wall and shrugged out of her robe.
She went to the operating table and began cutting Cathy's dress away with a pair of scissors.
Her father turned around, glanced at his daughter and grunted, then began laying out the tools he would need to operate with. By now Cathy was unconscious from shock and blood loss.
"I don't suppose you know her blood type?" he asked rhetorically.
I shook my head and he ordered his daughter to go get as much type O blood as they had on hand. Cindy returned with the blood and started an IV in each of Cathy's arms.
Without further ado the doctor made a 6-inch long incision in Cathy's belly, giving him enough room to reach in and find the damage.
It was over 4 hours later that the doctor made the final stitch to close the incision. The damage from the hollowpoint .38 caliber bullet was extensive, but repairable, and he was confident that Cathy would survive. He asked me what had happened, as he washed the blood from his hands at the sink. His daughter had gone upstairs to shower and get dressed. I told him about the issue wife program and about the crooked proctor.
"Just as good he's dead then," the old doctor said, "will there be any repercussions from this?"
"I don't know," I admitted, "partly it will depend on how fast Cathy recovers."
The doc grunted. "She'll be laid up in bed for at least a month, and that's only if there are no infections or other complications."
"How long until she can be moved?" I asked.
"2 maybe 3 days," said the doc "but she's going to have to stay in bed and be quiet for at least a month."
Well, it couldn't be helped. I thanked the doc and went home.
As I walked in my door the phone was ringing.
"Hello?" I said.
"Lt. Chapman?" the voice on the other end of the line asked.
"That's me," I said.
"Lt. Chapman, this is Captain Pollan. I am with the Office of Naval Intelligence."
Oh Shit! I thought. This can't be good. "How may I help you Captain Pollan?"
"Well Lt., you can start by telling me what happened to Proctor Sullivan down at the 32nd street processing center."
"I shot him in the line of duty, Captain."
"Would you mind explaining that statement, Lt.?"
"Sir, I was investigating him for possible corruption and misuse of his office. When I confronted him with what I had learned, he drew a gun and shot at me. I fired back and killed him."
"And what about the woman that you were seen carrying out of the building?" the captain asked.
"Sir, that was my issued wife. She was feeling ill after the incident and so I carried her to my car and took her somewhere safer."
"I see," said the captain in a tone that said that he saw too much, "well Lt., will you be home later, I think I'd like to get her side of the story."
"Of course captain, we'll be happy to have you over," I replied.
After a few more insincere niceties, we both hung up.
I had to get Cathy clear of the city, and myself as well. Once they started digging in to the facts of the incident, both of us would be taken out and shot.
I grabbed a few things I thought that we'd need and headed for my armored car. The first thing I did was to disable the satellite tracking system. Then I disabled the one the brass didn't think we knew about. I made a beeline for Dr. Carter's office. As soon as he answered, I pushed past him and off the street.
"Everything is compromised," I told him bluntly. "We have maybe 6 hours before ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence) swoops down on this place looking for me and Cathy. And you know as well as I do that they are going to take you and your daughter in, stick needles in you and turn your brains inside out for whatever info they think they can get."
The doc shrugged resignedly. "We were getting too hot here and would have had to move on soon anyway."
He went to get his daughter and make preparations to move Cathy. I went back out to my car and looked for more tracking devices. I didn't find any, but that didn't mean that they weren't there. We'd need to ditch this vehicle or trade it for another one as soon as possible. The car was armored, but that wouldn't mean a damn thing if they sent fighters or attack choppers after us. And they would send them if they found us.
Pretty soon Doc and Cindy carried Cathy out on a stretcher and we put her into the rear of the vehicle. Then the two of them went back inside for their supplies and belongings while I secured the stretcher so that Cathy wouldn't be jarred around too much as we drove.
She opened her eyes and managed a sleepy smile. "Hi there," she murmured.
"Hi there yourself," I said. "the doc says you are going to be fine with rest."
"That's good," she mumbled, and then was out cold again.
Doc and his daughter brought the last of their things and loaded them into the cargo bay. As soon as they were inside the armored car, I fired up the engine and headed out even before doc's daughter settled into the seat beside Cathy's stretcher.
As best I could figure, our only chance was to get to the Wyoming Undesirables Reservation. The way into the reservation was clear. The Church didn't give a damn who went in. Trying to get out again though was a sure route to suicide.
With my uniform and the official vehicle, I figured I could bluff our way into getting fuel for the trip. All we had to do was avoid the choppers and planes that would be looking for us soon.
I reached the highway I needed to take, and made the turn. For better or worse, we were committed now.
We didn't make it out of the city before we were hot as a firecracker! So far, it was only the local office of ONI that was after us, or, actually, after me. Cathy didn't count, since she was a woman and a non-entity as far as officialdom was concerned. Of course, the city police and the Church guards were cooperating to the fullest, but ONI was the one I really worried about. Also, they did not yet know of Dr. Carter and Cindy, but they would pretty damned soon. All they had to do was follow up on the tracking of my car in those first few hours before I pulled the tracking devices.
We heard about the manhunt by way of the radio in my vehicle. I normally kept it tuned to ONI general ops frequency unless I had a specific need to tune it somewhere else. The order was quite specific: "Apprehend Lt. Paul Chapman, description to follow, for suspicion of violation of unspecified regulations. He is to be returned to Main ONI Headquarters upon capture, alive, if possible. However, he is armed and undoubtedly will not hesitate to shoot, so caution is advised. Any people with him are also to be apprehended and turned in to ONI. Description of Lt. Paul Chapman follows--..."
"Oh, shit! We are in for it, now. Dr. Carter, do you and Cindy want to get out and try to get by on your own? I sure as hell cannot guarantee your safety if you stay with me."
"Son, I don't know what else we could do if we did try to run on our own. It seems to me that you are a sharp young man who knows his way around a tight spot, and I think we are better off with you than we could hope to be on our own. Don't you agree, Cindy?"
"I sure do! Besides, who is going to look after Cathy if we cut out. You sure can't do it and do all of the other stuff you will have to do, so I vote for staying."
"Thanks. I don't know how to thank you enough for you confidence in me and concern for Cathy. I'll do my best, but don't think too badly of me if something goes wrong."
Well, now it was a cinch that I couldn't go through the usual city exits. The roadblocks that were routinely there would surely catch us, so I had to find another route out of the city. I had originally planned to head directly west, bluffing my way through the various checkpoints, but that was now impossible.