He was pleased as punch with himself. Even if you didn’t know his face, Andrew’s look betrayed this fact very clearly, and his mother had seen that smile too many times to mistake it for anything else.

She reached forward to hug him, forgetting the heavy bags he was still holding in either hand.

“You rang the doorbell,” she said enquiringly, as she kissed his cheek in welcome. “Have you lost your key?”

“Didn’t seem right, any more. To open up and just walk in. It’s still ‘home’ but… I don’t know…”

“I understand, son.” his father’s voice, from the kitchen, was instantly recognizable and Andrew could hear the understanding in it. His father stepped forward, and after Andrew had dropped his bags in the hallway took his right hand and shook it warmly. “What the hell…” he mumbled and grabbed Andrew in a hug that took him a bit by surprise. Still, he had been away quite a long time.

“So?” said Mr Hoch. “You’re looking very pleased with yourself. What’s the news?”

Andrew had been bursting to tell them since he had first found out himself, but wanted the extra pleasure of seeing their faces as he told them so hadn’t let on when he’d telephoned to say he was coming home for a short leave.

He motioned his parents through to the lounge, where he saw there were already cups and saucers, sandwiches and cakes, and a pot of tea waiting. His mum had always been good at celebrating, and his usually being on time for everything helped.

They sat down, his mum and dad on the sofa, himself on one of the armchairs facing it across the coffee table now groaning with food and drink.

“I passed the final cut… I’m officially in,” Andrew burst out at last. The joy in his parents’ faces was worth the wait, and he smiled as they congratulated him on his achievement.

“I feel so lucky,” he said. “There’s only a couple of hundred lieutenants taken on each year now, across the whole world, so to be one of them…”

His voice trailed off, but they knew what he meant, and felt. There was a great deal of pride to be had in the fact that he had got into the Werlder Force at all, let alone as an officer.

Since most countries were now members of the Alliance the Werlder Force really only needed to be quite small – around 50 or 60,000 – as their main job would be helping out in natural disasters. There were very few other armies left, so they’d only have to respond to build ups the politicians said there’d be plenty of time to see.

The USA joining the Alliance had been the major boost it needed of course, with many smaller countries following soon after. Not that getting the USA to join had been easy. Even though the constitution and the political structure had been quite similar to what they already had, giving up their own armed forces had been a pill that had been very difficult for many Americans to swallow. In the end it had been a matter of money. The amount giving up the military would save them as a nation was just too much to ignore. Even then, the final referendum which brought them in only just passed the required 75% mark.

That had been more than six years ago now. Since then, there’d been a definite improvement across the world. Terrorism was down, mainly Andrew guessed, and the experts agreed with this guess, because other people no longer felt threatened by America’s ‘imperialism’. Having a voice on the World Council and then being left pretty much to their own devices – under the Constitution which guaranteed certain personal freedoms of course – seemed to placate most people.

The only major country still to join was China. They’d been in negotiations for several years now. Negotiations? There was nothing to negotiate really. Either you accepted the Constitution or not. Either you gave up your own military or not. These two points were fundamental to the Alliance and weren’t negotiable. Still, the Chinese had to ensure they didn’t lose face, so ‘negotiate’ they did. It was probably the fact that Werlder Alliance countries refused to interact (weren’t allowed to, in fact) with any country that wasn’t a member of the Alliance that really drove the Chinese government to join. Andrew was sure it was the government that was dragging its heels. For the people, it didn’t really mean a lot of difference. A few freedoms guaranteed maybe, but not exactly anything that would put food on the table. Actually, it probably would. But that was politics and not really something Andrew wanted to get into.

“Hello, Andrew, welcome home.” His younger brother’s voice cut through the thoughts that were tumbling in his mind. At 21, he was still in his first year of university, so Andrew had been lucky that Mike was home. The government’s new system of personal accounts had certainly helped. Otherwise he wasn’t sure his parents would have been able to afford to send both their sons to university. Mr Hoch’s job at the factory paid quite well, but not that well!

“Hi Mike. How’s Neolithic Man?” Andrew replied, with a grin. He looked up at the tall, blond, muscular young man who was now moving to sit next to him in the other armchair in the room. He looked very similar to Andrew, though a couple of inches taller, and there was no mistaking they were brothers, especially when they were together, as now.

“We don’t cover ‘Neolithic Man’ in Anthropology, as you well know, so I have no idea how he’s doing. Actually, he’s extinct, isn’t he? So I guess he’s not really doing all that well.” Mike’s voice carried the humour the two brothers usually found in each other’s company.

“Anyway,” continued Andrew to his parents, “I’ve been assigned to South America, after this couple of weeks leave. Now that Venezuela has joined the Alliance there’s a rumour that we’re going to stop the drugs in Bolivia and Colombia from getting out to other parts of the world.”

“Oh good,” said his mum, “it won’t be as dangerous as facing North Korea then? Or serving in Afghanistan?”

“Probably not,” Andrew said to her, but a glance to his father told Mr Hoch that he wasn’t really so sure about that.