Down and Out on Minerva

Anibabe-Combat Gear bw

Illustration by Robert Quill

by Lloyd Montgomery

 

I ran low and fast through head-high brush, trying to keep quiet. Flechettes buzzed at me through the foliage, leaving behind the scent of freshly mown grass. There were at least forty hostiles after me. The wind was from behind and I could smell their fear and excitement, even through the alien forest. I couldn’t possibly kill them all before they caught up. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone.

“Reen, cover me. I’m falling back through you,” I said over the platoon circuit.

“SAW’s dry, Khan. Rockets outgoing.” My support man’s Squad Automatic Weapon had run out of ammo, he was covering my retreat with the rockets in his Skorpion. My fur stood on end in the overly dry Minervan summer air as the six mini-rockets screamed past and prox blew about fifty meters behind me, in the midst of the enemy line. The rest of my team opened up, an impromptu ambush.

Crouching down, I turned to assess the damage. The mini-rocks from Reen’s sidearm had downed at least fourteen indigs. The rest of their company hit the ground as the sound of explosions filled the forest, forcing us to take them out the hard way. Blaster bolts, guided a-pers missiles, and hypervelocity shot tore through the trees and into the enemy line. More of those nasty little flechettes came back at us; they were deadly at close range but lost power over distance. I still had several stuck in my armor. Bringing my sniper rifle into line, I shot at the dappled-brown uniforms that my head-up-display indicated no one else had targeted.

Thirty seconds and it was over, my team had cut down better than twice their number.

“Great Shiva, someone tell me they stopped chasing us.” The enemy had been following for a day or more, since we hit their Command Post and took out most of their officers and communications gear.

“Can I eat any of them, Khan?” Reen rumbled. I ignored him, as I always did. I’m told he asked the same question to his last platoon leaders every time he hit dirt. To my knowledge he had never actually eaten a fallen enemy, Hs’Thai just have a perverse sense of humor.

I moved my team into some heavy brush, away from the last skirmish. The whole area for kilometers around was light to medium forest with scattered spots of thick brush. Perfect terrain for sneaky Explorer fighting—one of the remaining things we had going for us.

“Marty, give me an update,” I told my Commo/SigInt man, a thoroughly professional career human. He had been in the Explorers past ten and never cared that I was Ithri, female, and younger than him. Since the day I grew stripes on my uniform to match my fur he was one of the ones I could count on to back me up. The Long Range Explorer Corps was his religion and the CS Apache his church.

“Sat says there’s another bunch moving this way. Close to a hundred, max. Looks like light infantry.” He was reading data coming down from the Command satellite. “ETA fifteen minutes, spread out along this front, two to three hundred meters wide.”

“What’s word on our pickup?”

“Same as before: Quit dicking around and fall back to Alt 2. Lander is on the way.”

I switched to Command freq, “Command, Recon 3. Can we get Lightning yet?” They had turned us down once already, enemy atmospheric craft were giving them problems.

“Recon 3, Command here. Air Support is unavailable for one hour, we are re-tasking now. Recommend you fall back to Landing Zone Alt 2.”

That drew a muttered, “Thanks for the tip, Einstein,” from Lee, my surviving Corporal and fellow sniper. She had access to the Command line too.

“Status of Primary LZs and Alt 1?”

“Alt 2 is closest still open, Recon 3.” That meant the natives had already overrun the other four.

Intelligence had really blown it. Minerva was supposed to be a minor planet in the Rim Worlds, full of pre-spaceflight barbarians of all races, still recovering from the Fall of the Empire almost two hundred years earlier. Confederation government had found the place, sent in Contact teams to open relations, and—when the natives had slaughtered the diplomats—fell back on the Explorer Corps to straighten things out. We had been the first wave of the pacification force. Our job was to establish a perimeter for the rest of the Ground troops, gather intel, and harass enemy Command.

The whole op had gone wrong from the beginning. Solar flare activity made communications sporadic and forced the Task Force to move to a safer orbit. Then our lander hit heavy atmospheric ionization during its run, ruining its stealth capabilities. By the time my team was on the ground the natives had triple-A and interceptors airborne. We got out but the dropship took heavy fire while leaving. When the rest of the battalion was finally down and out a small war had started. The Minervans had been at war with each other for over a century, but they were more than happy to take a break and shoot at us for a change. What should have been a 36-hour battle had lasted over 72 hours. Half my platoon was injured or dead and the rest of us were running low.

I checked my group, everyone who could had reloaded and taken some water, “Time to move.” My platoon shouldered weapons and helped injured comrades to their feet.

“Where to?” Lee asked. She’d taken several hits, the only things keeping her going were the drugs in her armor. She smelled of weapons fire, blood, and fatigue.

“Alt 2.” I surveyed the terrain, mostly light woods and heavy undergrowth ahead of us. Brush fires burned randomly behind us, highlighting the path we had cut through enemy territory. Any dangerous animals had already pulled out in the face of superior firepower.

I was unhappy, all the fun had gone out of this fight hours ago. We were no longer the hunters, the prey had turned on us.

“Sarge, there’s a couple hundred indigs and what looks like a light armored company spread out between us and there,” Marty stated, looking up from his gear. “Just thought I’d bring it up.”

“Only available, we go low and slow. Ch’Chura, take point.” Usually I get an Ithri to go first, we felines are natural hunters, but the other two in my group had gotten themselves killed. They had both been males, smelling that I was close to mating season, and had likely been trying to impress me.

Ch’Chura nodded, checked his 4mm railgun and said, “One hundred meters.” The Ch’ are small primates, more prey than predator, but they can move fast and quiet. I lost him in the brush two meters away.

The rest of us spread out behind him, Reen brought up the rear. He was another veteran that had been in a lot longer than I, twenty-four years at last count. Hs’Thai live for centuries, it’s that reptilian blood. They usually become mercenaries, but every so often one of the more honorable ones joins the Explorers or the Marines. Confed has learned to love them—they are a heavy ton better than most soldiers, even us Ithri. Reen had earned more decorations than the rest of the platoon combined. More important than that, no matter what we ran into we knew he had been there before. To him it was always just another op, another chance to make bad jokes.

While we were moving, I switched my visor over to Inventory; I needed to see if anyone still had heavy ordinance, anything capable of taking out armored vehicles. We had used most of our stuff pasting the enemy CP. The best I found were two high-explosive/anti-armor grenades on one of my regs.

“DeeVee, confirm two HEDP rounds,” I asked the one Sari in our platoon.

DeVarrosinsharra came back, “Confirm, Khan. I still have two live.” I could hear his breath rasping over the radio, he’d taken a hit in one of his four lungs. His blue skin would be mottled but he could keep going on one lung if he had to. “Sadly, those and the blaster on my Skorp are it.”

“Load them. We hit armor, use them first.” Everyone in my platoon carried a multi-purpose Skorpion for backup, except me and Ch’Chura. Confed issued them as pistols; they’re basically a multi-function blaster with four other weapons tacked on. We were both too small to use it as a sidearm and too proud to call it a longarm. I carried an LREC-issue sniper rifle and he carried that nasty Ch’ bullet-hose.

“Roger that, Khan,” DeeVee replied.

“Anyone carrying that doesn’t show up on Inventory?” Our offensive resources were badly depleted.

The response wasn’t encouraging. Marty and a couple of others carried hold-out pistols and two had picked up Minervan flechette guns as souvenirs; none of which would make a difference against tanks. I tried to make plans as we pushed through the forest.

Marty and Ch’Chura both informed me about the same time: We were getting close to the enemy armor. My tiny point-man was closer, I would defer to him on data.

“CeeCee, how’s it look?” I asked as the rest of my platoon took cover in the trees.

“Light tracks, Khan. They look more like Infantry Support than APCs or Main-Battle. Not much room for troops. Not unless all the infantry are my size.” Armored Personnel Carriers would have been a problem.

“O/D?” Meaning Offensive/Defensive capabilities.

“Armor looks like light steel or layered aluminum alloy, maybe forty mill on the glacis. Guns are two twenty-to-thirty mill cannon with a co-ax MG. Turret mounted with three-sixty FOF. Tracks are exposed and she’s buttoned up.”

“Any support troops?”

“None close. Scan says three, four hundred meters past.” Idiots, only a fool brings up armor without infantry to guard their flanks, I thought.

“How many tracks can you see?”

“Three in LOS, the trees cut down vision. About fifty meters between them.” The enemy’s technology was based on line-of-sight.

“I’m looking through you, slow sweep left to right.” I closed my helmet and switched to his POV, looking through his eyes. He was right. The armor was just sitting there—shimmering in the heat—without infantry cover close, their guns pointed away from us.

“They look like they’re trying to hide from whatever’s on the other side of them,” he added.

I got it then, “They’re hull-down, waiting to hit our Marines as they come this way. No one told them we were here.” Most of the fighting was taking place past them, where the Drop Zones were. We were behind their line of battle.

“We need to make a hole, kids. DeeVee, hit those two as we go.” I painted the two nearest vehicles and assigned two more of my best armed regs to harass the remaining track we could see. “After that we advance fast-fast, up through their infantry. Use scare stuff—rockets and flamers. Spook them and pass by. Reen, cover our rear.” We didn’t need to break this line, just get through. Once Command had our data they could task the Marines or Ground Attack to wipe out what was left. I sent a Priority Message upstairs just in case, dumping all of my intel. On my thigh datapad I quickly sketched out our line of advance and sent that also, Marty did the same.

“Command, Recon Three. Do you see this?” I had to make sure they knew what was happening.

“Recon Three, Command. We confirm. Ground Two and Five will cover your flanks from the other side of your advance. Can you break through?”

“Ree-See, Command.” That Remained to be Seen. “Is Lightning available yet?” Ground Attack ships would make things a whole lot easier.

“GA is fifteen away, Recon Three. We paint enemy activity behind you. They are closing fast, regiment or better.” Air Support would take too long and we couldn’t stick around, the enemy at our backs would reach us first. “Delta Four is incoming to make your pick-up. ETA is five.”

“We go now, Command. Tell Ground Two and Five to cover us in two.” I switched circuits. “Recon Three, advance. DeeVee hit them now.” His first grenade went out and nailed one track in the side. Typical Sari caution, aim for center-of-mass rather than risk a miss. It didn’t matter, though. His target cooked off, burning debris landing all around. His second shot had equal results. Two down. All we had to worry about was the third monster on our right.

Despite the a-pers rockets and blaster beams hitting her, the third track’s guns opened up. Her gunner was aiming low, looking for infantry. High-explosive shells and flechettes shrieked past or exploded around us. Another of my team went down, Relldren moved to pick him up. This was taking too long, seconds too long. If we stayed to fight, the track’s friends would close in and kill us.

“She’s staggering fire on her cannons, Khan.” Every couple of seconds one cannon would go silent as the loader switched to a fresh magazine. Staggering fire meant she could keep a constant stream outgoing. It also meant we would have a hell of a time taking the track out. Nearly two hundred years fighting each other had trained these people well.

“Recon Three right, throw smoke and leave her. Advance with the rest of us.” We had to take the chance. Smoke would blind the gunner for a few seconds. After that we’d be into her infantry, they couldn’t shoot without hitting their own troops.

We pushed forward, through the billowing smoke, into the enemy line. Even though we were shot up and down to sidearms, their groundpounders were still no match for us one-on-one. They had no armor and their weapons were strictly line-of-sight, with no HUD/IFF capability at all. Lee and I painted targets for the rest of the platoon and maintained field-of-fire, all on the run. Anyone they missed, we took down with our sniper gear. Despite our superior equipment, it was a mess; the line they held had a better than three-to-one superiority in numbers. Blowing up their tanks had eliminated any surprise that we were coming. Fortunately, the Marines in Ground Two and Five, more heavily armed than my team, kept their flanks too busy to send much support. Another hundred meters—we were through the worst and closing in on our Drop Zone.

“Recon Three, fall back to Alt Two by Evac drill.” I didn’t want to give the order but we were losing cohesion, enemy flechettes and HE from the armor were cutting us down. We needed to get out and take our wounded with us.

“Lander, Recon Three. My beacon is red-red-white.” Trying to remain calm, I tossed the flare onto the only empty field within four kilometers and dropped flat in the rough grass, covering what was left of my platoon.

“Recon Three, this is Delta Four, I have your beacon.” I recognized that voice—Flight Commander Richard Fandrill, Task Force 4/2’s resident nonconformist, comedian, and the love of my life, depending on who you ask.

“Soonest Delta Four, we are hot-hot-hot.” Enemy armor was within a kilometer of us and advancing. “Infantry and armor firing close.”

The voice brightened, “Khan, my love! Is that you down there?” Rick’s perverse sense of humor surfaced at the worst of times.

“Roger Delta Four, it’s me.”

“I’ll be in your arms in five, lady.” Then, just to further irritate Command and me, he asked, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in this shithole?”

I didn’t answer, bantering with him would knock me out of my combat mindset.

“Well, Sarge, looks like he couldn’t bear to leave his girlfriend on the ground.” My relationship with that crazy human was a source of endless amusement for my platoon.

Near me, Marty shook his head, “That dumbass flyboy’s gonna get another rocket from Command for talking trash on a tactical line.” Ship communications were closely monitored from orbit.

“Like that has stopped him the last twenty times.” Reen responded, still out in the woods. Our platoon freq wasn’t powerful enough to be heard upstairs.

“I hear the Navy rates in Commo have a pool going every op to see if he does it again,” Relldren, one of my support shooters, chimed in.

“He gets us out of here, I will take the hit for him and kiss his feet.” That was from Sesellra-Farra, a Sharai. They come from swamps and the thought of touching someone else’s feet disgusts them.

Rick’s lander came in low and fast, drawing fire from every heavy weapon within a kilometer. Its shields flared white as shots exploded off them. With all his skills he brought it down, killing the shields as he hit ground. The doors slid open.

“Get ’em onboard, Khan. We’ve got Angels incoming!” Our air support was finally on the way.

“Recon Three, even-odd fall back!” My platoon started moving, losing the cover of the forest by the numbers. I ran to a position by Delta Four’s bulk and kept an eye out for problems, shooting them as I saw them. Lee had gone down, I was the only sniper left.

I counted the members of my platoon as they went through the lock. Not good, we’d been decimated. Almost a quarter of my team was dead, half the rest were wounded.

Marty ran onboard, carrying Ch’Chura and helping Lee.

“Marty, where’s Reen?” That oversized lizard was the tail-end of my team.

“Didn’t see him,” he gasped. “Should be ten back, unless he stopped for a snack.” I checked my visor. Reen had popped his beacon; he was down in the treeline, fifty meters away.

“Pilot, hold two. I’ve got a man down.” I dropped my rifle, drew my pistol, and ran back the way I came.

“Make it fast, Kitten. The natives are getting restless.” Light artillery from the tracks was pounding the area. “I can’t raise screens until we’re airborne,” he mentioned, in case I had forgotten. “And the armor on this boat sucks.”

As I ran back, I pulled the tab on my chestplate, releasing stimulants into my bloodstream. I’d regret it later—the Ithri metabolism doesn’t deal well with drugs—but Reen was almost twice my size, I needed the boost. Looking through a forest full of blooming explosions I found him in the fog; he’d caught the edge of an artillery burst and couldn’t get back up. The smell of explosives and propellant was overpowering. I skidded to a halt, threw his three-meter tall body across my shoulders, and started back to the ship as fast as I could move. Gods Above and Below, I could see enemy soldiers shooting at us as I ran for it. Those horrible flechettes buzzed around us, punching into our armor like evil demons, seeking our blood.

I heard the Drop Coordinator admonish Rick over the Command line, “Delta Four, Command. You are past your launch window. Dust off.”

“DC, we are working on it. Tell Ground Attack to hold fire for one.” Rick wasn’t leaving until his pickup was onboard.

“Delta Four, GA is into their run. You have to go now.” I tried to speed up. The enemy had found the range, explosive shells were hitting the ship and our Angels were about to plaster the area as well.

“Roger DC, we are away.” I was almost worried, despite his long-ago oath.

Rick lifted his boat a meter off the ground and sideslipped it towards me with the doors still open, slamming into trees. The madman. Muscles screaming, I jumped and flew through the drop hatch as the lander and I met in midair. Reen and I crashed into the hold and were caught by the rest of my team.

“Pilot, we are in. Go-go-go!”

Snort, “Like I’d leave without you.” He closed the doors, raised screens, and maxed the engines and afterburners all at once just as Ground Attack strafed Alt 2. Shockwaves slapped our craft around like a leaf in a hurricane. Our Angels used GC plasma bombs and heavy auto-blasters to carpet the DZ. Anything left on the ground was burning wreckage.

While he was pulling us out of harm’s way, with the lander still halfway upside-down, Rick cut in on our platoon line, “Drinks are on Pathfinder Team Three.

This drew a swarm of comebacks from beings scattered throughout the hold:

“Try and find us.”

“As much as you can drink, airedale.”

“Get me onto the Apache and I will kiss your ass.”

“My feet are yours, truck-driver.”

“Every drink to your ancestors.”

I was curled up on the cold uncaring deck, shaking from the after-effects of the stims and trying to pretend the whole recovery had never happened. I hate getting picked up under fire. I can’t shoot back, I can’t even see my enemy. Situations like that fray my nerves raw.

Quietly, I keyed my comm to the pilot’s frequency, “Richard, when we get back. After I check my team. When you get through being yelled at for using the tacc line to try and get laid. When the Drop Commander gets through with you, gives you a commendation, and tells you never to do something like that again. When the Angels get through calling you a magnificent bastard for pulling out in the middle of their run. When Pathfinder Team Three is finished buying you drinks in the Enlisted and NCO Clubs on the Apache. When all that is done, I’m going to find a way to go into season, find your drunk ass, and make you realize why you gave up on human women.” I was at the point where I could decide when it was going to happen, within a month or so.

Just to try and get in the last word he said, “Deal.”

Just to make sure I got the last word, I agreed, “Deal.”

We flew back to the Apache.

 

 

Stuck in the Private Sector Blues

by Lloyd Montgomery

 

MESSAGE BEGINS

Confederation Military Forces, Bauer-Rim Worlds Theatre of Operations

To: Commander, Long-Range Explorer Corps, Hellstrom Base

Special Orders RE: Completion of Enlistment

Fandrill, Richard L. (CSN 142-665-2973) Lieutenant (Senior Grade)/Flight Commander Confed LREC-2nd Battalion-Air Support, attached to Task Force 4/2
Khan’shrr Mrenn, Feerann (CSN 996-438-2975) Platoon Sergeant/Scout-Sniper Confed LREC-2nd Battalion-Recon, attached to Task Force 4/2
Individuals listed will proceed via Confed transport to Hellstrom Base, Bauer-Rim Worlds upon completion of current assignment, and will report to Commanding Officer LREC for separation from active duty as per current regulations. Individuals are to remain listed as Active Reserve for a period of not less than one Standard Year. All perquisites for rank are to apply.

MESSAGE ENDS

 

It’s all about a fight. I can’t really say that all the important parts of my life have involved a fight; I don’t remember my childhood being particularly violent, despite growing up in a place called Ares. It just seems like several of the important bits later on always ended up in a fight. I’ve talked to perfectly normal people who go through life without the first hint of conflict. I can’t really complain; it’s a damn sight more interesting than being a groundhog, poor fools they. I suppose that choosing a job like small-craft pilot for Confederation might be the reason that violence always found me. Everybody always shoots at the little guys.

I thought that would change when I left the Explorer Corps. I was wrong.

After mustering out at Hellstrom Base, Khan and I got on the first low-tech, low-life, low-class civilian freighter that we could find. Destination unimportant. Khan, by the way, is an Ithri, and falls into all the classic Ithri stereotypes — basically stone crazy. And yes, her full name sounds like she’s coughing up a hairball.

Our final destination was, of all places, Alpha Centauri. AC was the furthest you could get from Civilized Space and still be able to fly out when you wanted to. Granted, that isn’t saying a lot. Most of what goes in and out of AC barely qualifies as FTL. Indie freighters — either one step above or below the pirate line — bulk carriers from the major haulers, and the occasional military craft are about it for there.

In keeping with the great traditions of the Explorer Corps we did what any red-blooded (literally in our case) ex-military beings would do upon mustering out; we got truly ripped. Keep in mind that the Ithri, as a race, subscribe to a rather fatalistic philosophy — they don’t care if they live or die. The whole race understands that they’re going to check out eventually, so there’s no sense in worrying about it. Whatever the excuse, this makes for some memorable parties. Which is pretty much what we did for about a week; blowing off the accumulated pressure of a long campaign in places civilized beings didn’t dare to venture. I am continually glad that the other prevalent species in the galaxy, like the Ch’ and Sari, find alcohol as much fun as we do; though every race finds its own way to get messed up. I’m convinced that those who don’t discover some method of recreationally killing brain-cells self-destruct before they get this far. It’s a big headache being a civilized race; sometimes you have to find a way to turn your brain off and act silly.

After the dust of a seven-day-long bender had subsided — beer consumed, tail chased, bars emptied, fines paid, and having dragged Khan’s sorry ass out of the third casino in a row (gambling and death wishes seem to go hand-in-hand) — we realized that our mustering-out pay wasn’t going to go much further. You’d think that former members of the Confederation Long-Range Explorers (the cream of Confed military forces, just ask anyone) would be worth more. And since everything there cost like crazy, it was time for us to start exploring new career paths.

We were beginning to regret the choice of Alpha C as our mustering out destination. We had been retired in the Rim Worlds though, so our options were limited — the Rim Worlds being a far-flung collection of old Imperial planets just recently rediscovered and admitted to Confederation. I’ve been told by people who study this sort of socio-political crap that AC has enormous potential to contribute to the rebuilding of C-Space, but at the time all I could see was a handful of gravity-wells just barely out of the Dark Ages. It says something when Alpha Centauri is the best of the lot. The rest were even less of a dream choice. Who really wants to end up on some zero-tech hole like Montclair? Step right up, the next starship will be along any year. Most of those places didn’t see an FTL vessel more than once a generation or so. At least at Alpha Centauri you could see some movement outside the planetary envelope.

Y’see, AC had once been a major Imperial shipyard, a couple of hundred years ago, before the Empire did the big Crash-and-Burn. I wasn’t there, but the history books make it out to be one serious mess. Every planet in the Empire lost FTL capability one way or another, mostly by having it shot out from under them. It was over a century from the fall of the Fraser Dynasty to the establishment of Confederation. Looking at all the leftovers in the Alpha C system — orbital defense bases, drydocks, and enough derelict ships to make your own spacefleet — it made you wonder who, other than themselves, could have brought the Imperials down. Historically, empires have always been their own worst enemy. This bunch had been no different, over-expansion, internal dissent, and an annoying tendency to mess with peoples genes had spelled the end of this Empire. At its height though, the Imperial spacefleet must have been huge, if the remnants were any indication. So there we were in the galaxy’s biggest junkyard, the remains of several centuries worth of Imperial expansionism all around us. Name your price and buy it by the kilo. And everybody did; even Imperial junk was a quantum leap higher than what most Free Traders try and fly with.

The vultures had been feeding off the carcass of Alpha Centauri for almost a century now, with little care for what they left behind. The smell off the shipyards and scrapyards had become an ingrained part of the atmosphere; a combination of metal oxides and free radicals wafted through the stew that they called air. The entire city surrounding the starport smelled like a year-long tire fire. I’ve always preferred cockpits to armpits like that one.

Checking the datanet for possible employment The Day After did not improve my outlook on life.

“Khan, my love, I don’t suppose you know WinTenX data processing procedures? There’s an Administrative Assistant position open at Blueshift Passenger Lines that has your name all over it.” OK, it was a poor joke, but the sun hadn’t even cleared it’s way through this rock’s soup of an atmosphere yet. From the response I got, a pillow to the back of the head, I figured she wasn’t up to learning to ride herd on an admin deck this early in the day. She grumbled something in Ithri about how I should go tell the God of War that he was having problems with his sexual orientation and rolled over, stealing my pillow to cover her head.

“How about a couple of berths on an indie leaving for the Sari Directorate? They’re asking for a co-pilot and a quartermaster.”

“Richard, you silly primate. The Sari are the most civilized Sphere in this galaxy, no independent freighter has a reason to go there. That bunch are pirate wannabes that will change their flight plans before they jump and we will end up on Tortuga, or running guns to some hole with a revolution to fight.”

“Here’s one for a company selling ‘droid parts to the Pleiades Far Side. They need a comptroller, two ‘techs, and a programmer.” I was just winding her up at this point, I still owed her for the last bar fight.

“Fan, do not make me get up and kill you this early in the morning.”

“Yeah, like you could find the floor, lightweight. I told you not to drink Sari nectar and try and chase it with Gath-Shemani ale.”

“Mraa, and who carried who back to the room this morning, you no-cargo-carrying flyboy?” She had me there, I had to think fast.

“That’s only because some tiger-striped lunatic decided to pick a fight with a member of her own species. Him and five of his friends, just because he made a pass. Then she left me no recourse but to stand up for the honor of the Corps while she made like a ghost.” Actually, she had been teaching the horny loudmouth some manners, but I wasn’t going to let reality get in the way of a good rant.

“Did we get in the same fight? As I recall I took down four of them while you were kissing floor. Even the Tish… Besides, that tan had it coming, asking me to sleep with him.” Tan meant a normal Ithri, most of the race are light brown. Sports like Khan have stripes, even other Ithri think they’re nuts. The feline Don Juan last night must’ve been cruising for a new thrill.

“Bah, I loosened up the lizard-horsey for you and you know it.” That was the Tish, they’re friggin’ huge, and covered with armor plate to boot.

“Grrr, why am I talking to you at this hour? Even the Gods do not know this time of day, truck driver.”

“Feh, low-life grunt.”

“Airedale.”

“Drop rat.”

“I bet all the monkey-girls just love you. Go to Rainforest and start a new vocation as a gigolo.”

“I’ll drop you off at Wayside, you could do the freak circuit.”

“That does it, I am putting you down on my appointment calendar: ‘Twelve-o’clock: Disassemble the loudmouth.’ Grrr, maybe one-o’clock.” Khan is not a light sleeper. She can stay awake for days if she has to, but when she crashes, she really crashes. The only way to get her moving is to piss her off so bad that getting up and thumping you seems like a good idea. The dumbest or toughest person in her platoon always got the job of waking her up. Most of them lived through it.

“C’mon, Kitty-Kitty. Time to get up and find a job, LREC isn’t going to pay you to take up space any more.” By those of us who are left, aka The Few, LREC is pronounced ‘el-wreck.’

“What do you want for an epitaph? How about; ‘He was a good person despite his suicidal tendencies?’ or perhaps, ‘Most people will miss him?'” She was waking up, in Ithri that last comment was a zinger.

“Half speed at best, General Issue.”

“Give me a moment, then I shall cut you apart verbally. Right before I cut you apart physically.” Nope, she was still on the killing me diatribe. She wouldn’t count as conscious until she came up with a better line of bullshit.

“Big talk from someone naked, hungover, and horizontal.”

“I would like to formally thank you, Richard. No matter how bad the rest of my day is, from here on out it can get no worse.” Better.

Even during the last exchange, I was still checking the ‘Wanteds’ for a new career for us.

“Darling-darling, how’d you like to get paid almost-serious money as a ‘Security Consultant’?” This one looked like a real job.

“Talk to me. Due to a certain person’s charm, I am almost awake.” Her head was out from under the pillow, one ear up and the other down.

“Konstantine Metalworks,” that meant a wholly-owned subsidiary of Konstantine Shipbuilding, one of the Big Five corporations that owned the starports around here, “is looking for beings, ideally ex-military, to act as — near as I can tell from reading the ad copy — guards for shipments from their scrapyard to the ‘port.”

“Why should we be interested?”

“Because they are paying stupid cash for us to do so.”

“Define stupid.”

“Cr. 200 a day, offense/defense provided.”

“Reason enough, call them.”

So with our training, the only honest jobs to be found were riding shotgun on truckloads of Imperial scrap going from one of the bigger junk heaps to the starport. Sure, we had our choice of illegal jobs, but we’d just gotten out of the most legal gig in Civilized Space that lets you carry guns; who wants to fall that fast? We might walk down the stairs of legality, we weren’t going to jump. Of course there was always what the Employment Agency called “Unspecified Labor, Unskilled.” Translation: grunt-work at the starport. Given a choice between guarding crates and moving crates, I’ll take the job with the sidearm.

Face it, neither of us would ever again fit into the groundhog mold; clock-in, clock-out, do your job, and don’t rock the boat. That was the classic military trap. Take a person and give them the best training in the universe, but at the same time change their basic mindset so that they can never truly be a pure civilian again. Make the military their only home and they will never want to take the skills that you have given them and offer them to another employer. Re-enlistment for the Explorer branch has always been high. Hell, I did eight and Khan did twelve for them. I was honestly surprised when our dates came up and she chucked it in with me, no guarantees but my winning smile. Sure, there are the exceptions — pilots working the cruise circuit, scouts signing on as executive security personnel or as ‘port cops — but most of them keep returning to the nest. Some of us just can’t resist the lure of freelancing though.

Ok, I might have been able to land a job with the Star Pilots Guild as a shuttle driver — ships came and went fast and furious around here — but it would have been a solo, and Khan and I had been through too much to break up the team over something as piddly as poor cashflow. She was good at her job, but there’s never been a big call for snipers in the private sector.

What the hell. The guard job paid us good money just to stand around with a gun and drink coffee for eight hours a day. The worst grief we got was from starport security. The depths to which we had sunk; being laughed at by ‘port cops. Even the lousy gear they carried was about twenty years up the technological ladder from what Konstantine Metalworks outfitted us with.

*****

Then came the day of the fight. I mentioned the fight, didn’t I? It seemed like a normal garbage run to me. Khan and I had done this a couple times already so it was no big deal. We were each assigned to a separate truck, kitted out in low-tech body armor, and issued a riot-stunner, with our blasters for backup.

The two hovertrucks were each the size of a seventy-five ton Main Battle Tank, sans guns, with the four cargo containers lashed onto them. The damn things were huge and nobody was going stop one with anything less than an orbital weapons platform once they overcame their inertia.

The only thing making that drive different from the run of the mill garbage-haul was the large number of desk jockeys hanging around the Konstantine Metalworks yard. I don’t know how it is in your line of work, but in my experience critters wearing suits usually mean problems. They were all from the head office at the ‘port and they spent their time walking around, looking at the load, typing onto keypads, and (you could feel it) worrying that they were going to have to explain whatever might go wrong. In their minds they were already trying to cover their asses. The smell of their concern nearly drove Khan nuts.

“They are worried about something,” she mentioned as she walked by me, growling softly in Ithri and twitching all over.

“About what? It’s a trash run.” I shot back, pissed not only because she had just upset my hungover little world, but also because she had spotted it before me.

“Don’t know, but it’s got to do with the cargo. I can hear them talking about it. Sounds more important than usual. Will not say what it is though.”

She still didn’t look happy, her striped fur was on end. The only time I remember that happening was on a world in the Disputed Territories — we were there to Reclaim the planet for Confederation. The low-tech natives decided to debate planetary sovereignty with the duly designated members of Confederation using shotguns and cannon. The odds that time ran about six hundred to one, so you could see why I was concerned now.

“Keep your pelt down, we run garbage. Y’know, scrap to the ‘ports.” I couldn’t think of anything that might have survived this long on a scrapped Imperial ship, despite their oh-so-high tech reputation, that might get anyone excited. I knew ships pretty damn well, not necessarily Imperials though. “All the impressive stuff got claimed years ago. This crew is dealing in power generators and conduits, maybe some fire control systems. No big deal.”

“Do not tell me, Richard, tell them. They’re about to piss themselves. (And they do not trust their Gods),” she came back.

The last part was pure Ithri. I had picked up that particular sentiment years ago; Khan’s people throw it around like we use the phrase, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” It was enough to make me wake up and forget the last six beers I’d had the previous night. The Ithri have several sayings that transcend normal bullshit. When they start using them it’s time to find cover and check your gear. It means that they are — well, I can’t call it scared, like I said they have no fear of death — it’s more like they know that the fur is about to fly and they want to share the fun with the rest of us. And she was using my first name, which I hate. She only did it when she was wound up.

If her instincts were giving her signals, I knew it was time for me to wake up. I did a few mental exercises and went into Almost-Full-Blown-Crazy mode, “Talk to me Khan, where’s it coming from?”

I instinctively checked my weapon, realized it was a piss-poor riot-stunner, and wished that I’d saved enough cash to keep my Explorer-issue Skorpion when I mustered out. You can’t get a good multiple-duty weapon like that just anywhere.

“What am I? Esper? I’m just getting vibes and scents off the targets.” Target being an Ithri slang term for anyone not armed. She had slung her stunner and pulled out the auto-blaster that I swear all her race are born carrying.

She wasn’t happy.

“All right then, Csi, wait C.” This last was some Confed ground-pounder battletalk that meant, “If we can’t see it, we wait for it.” It came out as “seesigh, waitsee.” I knew it would calm her down, she lived to hear people talk to her in battle-lingo, and the last thing I needed was for her to lose it on the corporate executives simply because they smelled wrong. Like everything on that planet didn’t smell funky.

Khan and I were up to full alert, the drivers were looking at us like we had just grown wings, and the suits were dispersing to do suit things. Maybe Khan was Esper, because suddenly things started getting weird. A glass crab — sorry, let’s be polite — a Nossidar pulled up in a cab and sauntered across the flattop of the junkyard, red sunlight flashing off his crystal carapace.

“Ok people! We need mag-lifts out here on the double!” he ordered, like he owned the place. “And you,” waving a tech-pad at Khan, “I need a copy of the lading manifest. Let’s go!”

I thought he was toast right there. I could see Khan fingering her auto-blaster; her theory being, if you don’t understand it, shoot it.

“Come on, beings! I have one gross of Imperial crystal-card readers in this shipment, and I want them double-checked before anything gets taken to the starport. Get to it.”

Maybe this guy missed the memo about heightened security. Maybe he was just a bureaucratic nutcase. Hard to say with the Noss, they founded a star-travelling society about the same time that humans were shooting rockets at the moon. The Noss had taken a long, leisurely climb up the ladder of interstellar civilization and had made few mistakes. It makes them think the universe is a little less nuts than it really is.

“Is this a problem?” I asked Khan, hoping for some alien insight.

“No clue,” she replied. Apparently I was on my own.

And then some dumbass decided to crash a starship on us.

*****

It happened literally that fast. One moment I was watching the Nossidar to see if he was going to blow up, draw a gun, or go into a song-and-dance number. The next, there was an ungodly crash as a civilian freighter did its best impression of a stone thrown across a pond.

Skip.

Skip.

Crash!

Right through the middle of the damn junkyard. Straight for us.

They drill it into you in the military, they really do. I responded immediately, “Monitor Class Free Trader. Two Mk. X blasters and two Mk. VI turbolasers. Single launch-tube. Civ Delos shield generator, no armor.” I called out stats to Khan as that multi-ton monster ceased being immune to gravity and hit the ground like it was trying to apologize to Newton for all the grief we had been putting his laws through for the past five hundred years. It hit a couple of hundred meters off, skipped, hit again, tried to get lift from equipment that had forgotten how to perform that particular magic, and plowed through a couple tons of Imperial Era scrap. I could tell from where I was standing that they had suffered a major malfunction in their atmospheric drives; you could hear them screaming way out of tune. I could even hear the muffled thumps as the engines’ power converters blew. Big problems. They had the right idea, putting her down in a junkyard. She’d never fly again.

“A-drives are out, converters are gone, she’s not getting back up.” I let Khan know.

“Get the trucks out of here!” one of the execs was shouting, to no one in particular.

I didn’t care if the trucks were solid gold or full or Astartian sex chicks; I wasn’t about to put myself between a scraphauler and an out of control starship. Khan, the drivers, and I were already hauling ass away from our rides when the Free Trader hit. The trucks never stood a chance.

I hit dirt just before the truck closest to me burst apart. Vehicle parts and Imperial electronics filled the air like a swarm of Altarian Nightbats.

The Beast that Gravity Remembered slid on her stomach, screaming like a banshee and throwing scrap to all sides, until the main building for the junkyard got in her way. The two met with a truly monumental crash. It took about a minute for all the debris to hit the ground.

I yelled the immortal phrase, “Houston, we have a problem!” into my comm and drew my gun. Khan took cover. The Free Trader had been headed our way when their drives blew; I was sure they still had business with us.

I called out to Khan, “Two locks, port and starboard forward. No locks aft. Four cargo doors, two per side.” She was on one side of the wreck and I was on the other. Normally, communication would be a problem a hundred meters apart with a giant flaming hull between us but, good soldiers that we were, we had integrated our comms the minute we hit dirt on this useless planet. Khan had forced me to do so on the starport concourse while I was trying to find the first pisser that didn’t belong to the scuzzy freighter we arrived on. She’s the type of person who remembers to lock the door and check her gun every night, dead drunk or not.

After less than a minute the two locks opened up and guys with guns started rushing out. They were lightly armored in combat/environment gear, carrying Scattershot SMGs and hosing them around like they didn’t care who got the power bill. I threw caution to the wind and assumed that they counted as the Bad Guys; our job description was a bit vague about situations like this, seeing as how they had already destroyed the trucks that we were supposed to be guarding. But then again, I was on the ugly end of their fire.

I had shit-canned my riot-stunner as useless before the Beast had finished its second bounce, so I was firing my blaster at anything that moved. And there was a lot of shit moving.

The first man out my side stopped a blaster bolt with his head and dropped dead in the airlock. There’s a safety tip for you; don’t lead with your face. That stopped them. Briefly. “Khan. Statchek,” I yelled into my open comm. The comm hissed back at me. Either Khan was busy or something was throwing out static interference on the commband. Like a couple hundred tons of crashed spacecraft. Throttling back my gag reflex, I moved through the foul cloud of smoke and chemical fumes towards the ship.

And then he rushed me. One figure diving out of the wreckage straight at me. I raised my blaster and unloaded right into his chest. Two. Three shots. Dead on.

The headless body of the man I had killed about twenty seconds ago fell at my feet. Through the smoke I caught a brief flash of a laser sight and knew I’d been had.

I had just enough time to curse Konstantine Metalworks one more time for not properly outfitting us. Given another second or two I might have gotten around to cursing my own stupidity as well. Oldest trick in the…

The air crackled orange around me as the shot screamed past me from behind. From behind. Bad guy number two ate it, no thanks to me.

“Damn, Khan. That’s one more I owe you… ” How the hell had she gotten there that fast?

“Yes, human. You do owe me for saving your life,” the Noss said as he scrambled over the debris field, waving a holdout blaster the size of a pen. Apparently this was my day to be surprised. I’d met Nossidar before and they weren’t renowned for their bravery. The usual Noss response to a situation like this was to dig a hole and hide, quietly muttering threats of lawsuits. I figured he had some angle going. He was going to steal something or sue somebody for this. And I was in his debt. Just great.

Fire from two more, waiting in the airlock, sprayed down the area I was hiding in as the Nossidar found some cover. The scattershot hoses they were using had lousy penetrative capabilities — they were designed for use onboard space vessels — so the rubble we were hiding behind took most of the abuse.

I crawled around the debris and, poking my head out from behind a thick slab of sheared-off hull plating, began to lay down cover fire for the Noss. In the space of about two seconds he had moved to a fortified position that gave him vantage on the two idiots left crouching in the airlock. Obviously not big tactical geniuses; even when the Noss started firing on them they refused to leave the airlock to find better cover. After about thirty seconds of firefight they both went down.

I was heading for the entrance when the Noss stopped me, “The door will be locked from the inside, let me go first.”

Someone willing to step in garbage before me? “Ok by me,” I’ve never been burdened by guilt. “Get it open, we’ll take the bridge,” I told him.

I knew where those hatches went; the bridge would be just forward and to the left.

The Noss scuttled up to where I was standing. “These civilian vessels have only rudimentary security,” he said, as he pulled gadgetry out of nearly every pocket of his vest. “Watch your ass left, human.” Using all four arms, he attached several of his toys to the lock and slid a fresh charge into his holdout blaster.

“I owe you one,” I mentioned as the lock cycled open.

“No, human. You owe me two now.” Wiseass.

Ignoring the Noss, I stepped into the ship.

The aft section of the ship was a wreck. I stepped forward, looked right, and then turned left to the bridge — about four meters — I could see the mess from where I stood. That first skip must have taken out the grav-compensators. Anyone that had been in the bridge at the time was turned to paint. A frothy pink paint.

Gunfire erupted from the right side of the ship; Khan had met the enemy.

Hauling ass for the starboard lock, I yelled to the Nossidar, “Dump the ship’s computer to disk!” He had already pulled a data storage cube from his vest and was starting his download before I finished my sentence. Nossidar love playing with other people’s computer systems; like Marines enjoy drinking free beer. Give him enough time on the computer and he’d own this piece of shit, and someone would owe him money for parking it here.

I came out the starboard lock in time to witness another group of hostiles learning the hard lesson not to attack a Confederation Ithri Scout-Sniper without proper cover, like maybe a tank. In under a minute, Khan had spotted them, tagged them, and shot three out of four of them without working up a sweat. Well, I guess it’s a pant since Ithri don’t sweat.

I couldn’t make out the last man that Khan was squaring off with, dust and debris were everywhere. He had found cover behind a heap of old comm panels that had survived the near-destruction of the scrapyard and was spraying her position with flechettes. She was pinned down.

Old instincts kicked in automatically. Problem: Partner trapped by hostile force. Could I take him out? Not while he had cover. Solution: Provide distraction.

I ran screaming from the airlock, firing indiscriminately at the comm panels.

As soon as I cleared the airlock, I could make out my adversary. A H’sthai. H’sthai are three-meter-tall lizards with bad attitudes that have built a reputation through not-so-civilized space as top-notch mercenaries. He was at least one step higher on the evolutionary scale of gunfights than the guys he was working with. He also had heavier armor, as I found out the hard way.

Without bothering to get behind something, I snapped two shots into his back. All he did was turn around to get a bead on me. Make that much heavier armor. I dove for cover as he filled the air with flechettes and could hear shots spanging off my armor. Fortunately, the suit I had on was designed for stopping shrapnel and the occasional ricochet. Up close, though, he’d tear right through me.

The H’sthai advanced quickly on me. He had me dead to rights. Just where I wanted him.

Khan nailed him from the side. She put three shots in the weak spot in his armor, right under his arm. He crumpled like a ten-credit note left in the wash.

“Last down. Statchek bridge,” she asked, as I struggled out from under the H’sthai.

Before I could respond, the Nossidar came scurrying out of the ship. “This vessel is about to self-destruct, not too violently I assure you, but bad enough to render the immediate area dangerous. The fusion drives are rigged to melt.” He looked us both over with six eyes like cobalt blue marbles. “If you have no other immediate business dealings here, I might have an offer for the both of you.”

“Time to go then. Khan, the bus is leaving. Clear here.”

“Clear, my side,” she called back.

I needed no incentive to stop guarding garbage trucks, and I didn’t want to stick around trying to explain this disaster to the police or Konstantines squad of suits. One look at Khan and I could tell she agreed. “Find out how well he pays and do not sign anything,” she muttered into her comm as she broke cover and walked towards us. Khan had stopped talking in battle-speak and had started using complete sentences again. That usually meant it was safe to touch her without fear of losing a limb.

We made it, at a run, to the gate of the yard at the same time the Free Trader’s engines went. More specifically; I ran, Khan walked fast, and the Noss scuttled. It sounds like I’m making him out to be a big hermit crab, but when he moved fast he scuttled, his four crystal legs moving in different directions. It’s a tendency of the human race to oversimplify; Ithri look like cats, Nossidar look like crabs, H’sthai look like lizards, and Farthé look like demons. That’s ok, Khan jokes that humans all look like meertuk — a small arboreal primate they hunt for food.

The ass end of the Trader turned red and melted. Her fusion plant’s containment field had failed and shut down.

As the Noss was signaling a cab I asked him, “What’s the job? Konstantine Metalworks paid us well to ride herd on their gear.”

“Also, do you have any damned idea what that was all about?” my partner added.

“I can assure you that if I find what I’m looking for, human, you and your partner will be rewarded with untold riches.” He said it in an off-the-cuff blasé way that made me figure he was either a nut or a serious criminal. Maybe he’d just read too many bad adventure novels. “What you just saw was a poor attempt to hijack the load you were guarding.”

“Yeah, that much I had already keyed into. All the low-penetration weapons seemed to indicate pirates.” Dumb pirates at that, I thought. Smart pirates keep their ships in better shape, making sure the engines don’t go crit on landing. “What were they trying to steal anyway?”

“Old Imperial medical gear. It’s a pity it was destroyed. One doesn’t often find Imperial medical equipment intact.”

That explained a lot — the nervous suits, the hijacking attempt, and the Noss’ involvement — Imperial level doc gear was in high demand; nobody’s been able to copy it.

“What do we call you?”

“I am Keethar.” The Nossidar like to keep it short in the personal name department.

“Keeth, if you’re leaving this gravity-well, I think we can do business.” I had seen enough of the planet to last me a while, and I knew that Khan hated backwater holes like Alpha Centauri. The atmosphere had to be driving her nose crazy. Even illegal or semi-legal occupations were starting to look good.

Anything to get the smell off of us.