Authors: Chris Bunch
Yohns?” Her smile was knowing.
“Yes?” Njangu smiled politely, admiring her, trying to figure out why the alarm bells in his mind were shrilling so loudly.
“Do you remember me?”
“No, I …” Njangu stopped. He suddenly did.
“I’m Maev,” the redhead said. “I thought I recognized you, back when you were inspecting the Guard this morning.
“You and I were recruits, and were screwing, back when
Celidon seized the ship we were on, the
, headed for Cumbre.
“Back then, your name was Njangu Yoshisomething or other, wasn’t it? How the hell did you ever get here?”
A port opened in the side of the Cumbrian Kelly-class destroyer, and a small dart, not much bigger than a man, spat out, speeding “down” toward Kura Four.
“Lousy, lousy recon,” Dill said, standing behind the
“Yes,” agreed Alikhan. “There should be files from spies, many satellite photos.”
“Not to mention a couple of sneaks on the ground checking things out before the combat team gets inserted,” Garvin added.
“Would you three morons get the hell off my bridge?” Liskeard growled. “It was almost better when you were second-guessing my piloting on the way in.”
“Not me,” Garvin said. “I know my limitations.”
“Interesting thought,” Dill said. “Let me know when you discover any of mine.”
“Shall we obey our orders,” Alikhan said. “And you can open a file on your faults that I shall happily dictate. A very large file.”
“Good idea,” the weapons tech at the control station behind Liskeard grunted. “Sirs. And let me fly this goddamned bird in without getting my ass shot off.”
• • •
, one of the first four destroyers built on Cumbre, was a compromise between what the force needed, what the Force wanted, and what could be built in a hurry. Essentially, the class used the existing templates of a standard planetary patrol craft, but enlarged the ship in all dimensions. It had a crew of twenty, four Goddard antiship missiles in pods under the ship’s “chin,” a pair of chaingun turrets, and four Shadow antimissile stations.
The shipyards of Cumbre, newly modernized and expanded after the Musth War, could each roll out one of these destroyers in a month, and the internals could be added in another month. Larger ships weren’t possible at the moment: Any building work increases exponentially in cost, complexity, and material, not arithmetically.
No one knew how fast Larix/Kura were building ships, nor how large they were, but everyone assumed the worst, which, in war, is the safest way to think.
• • •
“You wish?” Ben Dill said politely to the Musth.
“To inquire as to why you are being stupid.”
“Just my normal procedure.”
“You are a pilot,” Alikhan said. “Yet you have volunteered to play ground-worm. That does not make sense.”
“Because,” Dill said, “like I told Garvin, back on Cumbre, I’m bored waiting for trouble to come to me.”
“I see. That is stupid, indeed,” Alikhan said. “But no more stupid than my joining the Force. Why did you not ask me if I wanted to be stupider than I already am?”
“To be real honest,” Ben said thoughtfully, “I didn’t even think about it. But even if I had, I don’t think I would’ve grabbed you.
“What happens if we get spotted down there on Kura? Don’t you think somebody would go completely apeshit if they saw this big brown furry mother trotting through their jungle?”
“Apeshit is not a term I’m familiar with,” Alikhan said. “I can infer its meaning, though. Nor am I of the female gender and capable of giving birth. But would that surprise be any greater than seeing ten humans, dripping weapons, dressed in a strange manner, wandering around looking for things to destroy?”
“Mmmh,” Dill said. “Strong point, which I don’t wanna consider. I’m sorry, Alikhan, that I didn’t give you a chance to get killed. But try this one. You’re going to be the insert pilot with the
, right? Since you’re not that bad a pilot, second only to me, that’ll make sure there’ll be somebody with his shit firmed up who’ll be around to extract us when we start hollering for help.”
“I shall never understand the human fascination with excrement,” Alikhan said. “I accept your apology. And I shall be there to pick you and the others up.
“No matter when, where, or what.”
• • •
Two shifts later, as the I&R raiders tried to convince themselves they were comfortable living on the laps of the
’s crew, and that they were nerveless commandos unworried about this near-blind mission, the drone’s tech swaggered into the small cargo compartment they’d taken over.
Jaansma,” she said. “Admire large head, sir. Admire very large head.”
“The drone’s back?”
“Not only back, but nobody sniffed nahthing,” she said. “Admire large head.”
“Okay, crew,” Garvin said. “Set up the holo, so we can figure out where we want to start tickling them.”
• • •
Kura Four had been picked because prewar intelligence suggested that was the most heavily populated of the worlds in the system, although none of the four habitable planets would have to worry about population pressure for a millennium or so.
The drone had initially made eight passes, pole to pole, out-atmosphere, on a mapping run. The runs were repeated at night, using infrared sensors as well as amplified light.
The team watched the projection of Kura Four, a holograph about a meter in diameter, spin in front of them.
“Eleven main cities,” Monique Lir said.
“Twelve,” Froude corrected. “There’s another light-smear down near the south pole.”
“Bring each of those areas up one at a time,” Garvin said.
“Yessir,” the technician said, and the holo closed in on one area, then another.
“That one’s NG,” Dill said. “Looks like it’s built on the only patch of open ground on the planet.”
“Bust that one out, too,” Lir said. “Right on that peninsula — no running room there, either, when things start blowing up.”
“What about that one?”
Three others areas were considered possibles, and those four studied.
“That one,” Garvin decided, blinking tired eyes. “That city’s about the biggest on the planet. Maybe, what, a million?”
“Maybe a bit more,” Froude said. “In fact, probably. I ran close-up scans on all the possible targets. That one’s got a good complement of landing fields, warehousing, what looks to me like military depots, so you can project the population probably a bit higher than a mill.”
“Sitting right there where these two rivers run together,” Jaansma said. “Then the valley widens, with the sea, what, fifty kilometers below? Mountains back of the city, which’ll give us good hiding places.”
“What’s the plan, boss?” Lir said.
“I think,” Garvin said slowly, “if we come in back here, letting that ridgeline mask us, then hump over here … we hit this dam. Blow the shit out of it, hope there’s enough of a shock to take out this other, bigger dam further downstream.
“With any luck, we put a nice wave down the main valley, maybe fifty meters high, through the middle of that city and wash everybody out to sea.”
The medic, Jil Mahim, bit her lip, but didn’t say anything. Garvin saw her expression.
“If it bothers you to probably be drowning women and kids,” he began.
“No, boss,” Mahim said. “It just took me a minute.”
“ ‘Kay,” Jaansma said, pretending he didn’t notice her embarrassment. “That’s the tentative first target. As the op order said, we’ll take out the first target, extract, and depending on how battered we are, reinsert on another part of the world and mess with them there.
“That’ll give Protector Redruth something to worry about protecting, I hope.
“Now we’ll have the tech chance another sweep with the drone over those mountains, see if we can’t see where the local soldiery hangs its hat, the size of the dam’s garrison, where the local villages are, and like that.”
“Second target,” Lir said, “if the first dam doesn’t take down the big one, we’ll get it ourselves.”
“That’ll make the countryside nice and hostile,”
Lir shrugged. “You wanted an easy life, you didn’t have to do something dickheaded like volunteer, now did you?”
There was laughter.
“Actually,” Froude said, “if we were serious about pursuing war to the hilt with these people, we’d be better advised to abort this commando business, pull back to Cumbre, and then return with the best defoliants science can build. Assuming, as is likely, this and Kura’s other three planets are Redruth’s rice bowl, as the intelligence indicated.”
“Or,” Mahim said, “a little radioactive dust here and there.”
“That would work as well,” Froude said, undisturbed. “If we have no postwar plans for occupying the planet.”
“Back to the operation at hand,” Garvin said. “For extraction we’ll pull back into the mountains, and holler for help. I’d guesstimate operation time at, oh, five to seven E-days. But it could run double that, so don’t pack yourselves on the thin side.”
Garvin saw Alikhan looking at him, raised a questioning eyebrow.
“A private word, Garvin?”
Garvin started to say there weren’t any secrets on something like this, stopped himself, and went out of the compartment with the Musth.
“I am still not that familiar with your fighting rules,” Alikhan said. “Was there a reason you did not mention those … I do not have a word for it … presences we saw in the display from time to time?”
“They appeared to me like thin, small clouds, but moved in several directions, so they could not be clouds, unless the winds over those mountains are stranger than any I’ve known.”
“I think,” Garvin said, “we better go back inside and tell the troops what you think you saw.”
Alikhan followed him back. The soldiers were studying the projection, muttering about “steep bastard to be humping,” “figure max travel no more’n three klicks a day,” “wonder if there’s villagers in the jungle we’ll have to worry about,” and such.
“Crew, listen up,” Garvin said. “We might have problems. Would you rerun the sweep over the rivers?”
The tech obeyed.
Alikhan pointed, his head moving back and forth rapidly. “There is one. Another. Two there. That one.”
The humans looked perplexed.
“Did anyone see any of what Alikhan was pointing at?”
There was a chorus of “no,” nossir,” “nah,” and such.
“Very interesting,” Dr. Froude said. “One of the many things we appear to have overlooked was whether the Musth sense beyond human ranges.”
“None of you saw what I did?” Alikhan said, wonderingly.
There was a long silence.
“Technician,” Garvin asked, “does your record show anything above/below human perception?”
The technician touched keys on the holo box, read the screen, frowned, hit more keys.
“No, sir. Nothing like
says he’s seeing … and there isn’t any way somebody could sight something that the instruments say isn’t there.”
Alikhan surveyed the woman, ears cocking, eyes reddening in anger. But he said nothing.
“I don’t like things to get strange,” Deb Irthing said.
“Who does?” Garvin said. “When we send the drone in again, we’ll see if Alikhan picks up anything. Maybe,” he said hopefully, but not very convincingly, “we’ve just got some flaws on the recorder.”
• • •
Another, closer pass over the area gave more details. There were small villages here and there. Just below the first, smaller dam, was a military-looking camp, and there were buildings on either side of the dam’s parapet.
Alikhan also saw half a dozen more of the “clouds.”
“I do not like this, Garvin,” he said. “This time, as they are seen by the drone, they move quickly to one side or another, as if they do not wish to be pictured.”
“So now, in addition to everything else,” Garvin said, “we’ve got invisible thingieboppers that can sense drones. Whyinhell doesn’t that frigging Yoshitaro report in with some good skinny to explain all?”
“What’s the prog, boss?” Lir said.
“Screw it,” Garvin said. “We’re going in.”
“Bless Ahriman and his putty dildo,” Lir said fervently. “I was sure this’d end up another goddamned dry run.”
• • •
made a fast swoop, dropping off a relay satellite in a geosynchronous orbit over the target area that would bounce any transmissions from I&R to the pickup ships hovering at the system’s edge.
• • •
came down in a near-vertical dive, Alikhan at the controls. Dill considered the somewhat greenish I&R troops strapped to hastily fitted acceleration pads at the rear of the control room, and chortled.
“Nice to see the guys and gals with the steel assholes aren’t perfect at
. Be glad a gentle lout like Alikhan’s at the controls instead of me, or you’d really be heaving your guts out. Speaking of which, would any of you care for a nice, refreshing vomit before we enter the jungle?”
Lir was the only one healthy enough to manage an obscenity.
Dill laughed even harder. “Hey, Alikhan?” he bellowed. “You need any help up there doing this controlled crash?”
“Negative,” Alikhan said. “I could fly this pattern with my tail.”
“It feels like you are.”
flared once about five hundred meters above the tree-covered slope, then lifted into a near stall over the clearing Garvin had picked. Alikhan caught it on antigravs, settled it down.
“Ramp down,” he ordered, and two human crew members obeyed. The
hovered two meters above brush.
“Go, go, go!” Lir was shouting, and the team unstrapped and went out the door, dropped into the brush, got a nasty surprise that they were still three meters above the ground, found a more pleasant surprise as they squished down into muddy soil. The soldiers recovered, staggered forward under the mass of their packs for a dozen steps, hit the prone position, weapons ready.
The last solider was down. Garvin looked up at a helmeted face peering out the
s ramp, gave a thumbs-up, and pointed to the sky. The
s drive snorted, and the ship lifted for space, very fast.
Nobody moved in the jungle hush, waiting. No shots, no cries of alarm.
Garvin came to his knees, stood, then motioned the team forward, after him. He walked point, with
Wy Nectan on slack just behind him. Third was
Val Heckmyer, then
Darod Montagna, the team sniper. Behind her was Ben Dill, the biggest and most heavily laden. Garvin, maliciously, had chosen him for prime commo, with
Baku al Sharif behind him with a backup com. Jil Mahim, the medic followed, then Dr. Danfin Froude. The last two in the initial march order were
Deb Irthing, and tail gunner was First