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When Diplomacy Fails: Chapter Six
Last updated: Monday, July 9, 2012 22:42 EDT
Aramis saw Jason come from the conference, and head into the side room. He assumed it was to visit their armory, and he was correct. He fell-to to assist Jason with the guns.
"Can I help?"
"Please, and thanks."
"What do you need?"
"Crates," Jason said, and pointed.
They had a pair of two-meter cargo crates that were supposed to contain all their weapons and then some. They had to check that. The bands were keyed to Jason's fingerprints and snapped off with the right combination of print and pull.
"Sweet," Aramis said as he saw inside. What a reassuring crate.
There were six carbines with attached launchers, and three spares of each. Three shotguns. One autocannon that would need to be pintle mounted. Two squad weapons. One marksman rifle in 8mm. One heavy machine gun to mount on their vehicle on top of the three Jason already had attached. Spare parts. Tools. Knives. Jason's tomahawk. Extra body armor. Smoke grenades. Flares. Batteries. Multi-spectrum vision units. Tactical harnesses.
"We're short on grenades and explosives," he said.
Jason replied, "Yeah, check the other one."
He reached over and popped the straps on the second, smaller crate.
"Medusa!" Aramis crowed. That multi-barreled, multi-headed, massive monstrosity on a backpack was instantly recognizable. "She'll never let us carry it if she sees it."
"That's why she won't see it. It was IDed in the inventory as 'gun system, soldier portable.' We didn't say, 'With four barrels of automated death ready to paint the walls with people's livers.'"
"I see bullion, cash, a bag of spangly jewelry, good cigars, enough for trade, some liquor…I'm not seeing grenades either hand or projectile."
Jason reached past him. "Yeah, and this shotgun drum is shot, slug and recon only, no flame or explosive rounds."
"I don't see any explosive kits for Elke."
"Please do not offer that information. We'll relay it through Alex."
"Yeah. So they shorted us on everything explosive. Does the Medusa have loads?"
"Not for the grenade launcher, no."
Jason indicated the crates. "They don't seem to have been opened, so the stuff was never loaded. I don't know if that was a military thing, a BuState thing, something personal from Highland, or just some kind of cock-up."
Aramis shrugged. "In the meantime, we do have small arms."
"And that," Jason said.
"Oh?" Aramis opened the box. Harness. Nozzles…
"A jump belt?" he asked to confirm.
"Good for about thirty seconds of lift. Between the need for recon, the apartment blocks and those stupid walls they're building between factions, I figured we might use one."
"Heck, only one?"
"One was all I could get them to unload," Jason said.
An hour later, Aramis was amazed. Jason knew more about small arms than any dozen armorers he’d met. He could rattle off from memory alloys, strengths, ranges, ballistic patterns, timing and torque specs, masses, generation upgrades. He could strip a carbine in twenty seconds without even looking at it. He had a small but detailed tool box, and Aramis helped him sort and lay out parts as he modded all their weapons.
“Since we have permission from the principal, money from Corporate, and the tools to do so, we’ll go with the best, personalized.”
Aramis asked, “How do you know how everyone wants them personalized?”
“From two years of operating with you,” Jason said with a grin. He slapped retaining pins on the weapon he held, cycled through a function check, and shoved it at Aramis.
Aramis took it. He checked the chamber, settled it in his grip and…
Holy crap. That was awesome.
It fit his hands perfectly. Controls for the weapon, attached launcher, optics and accessories sat right under his thumbs and forefingers. Three easy clicks took him from scope to standard to battlesight, with a thumb flick for night vision or UV for seeing through smoke. It balanced exactly between his hands. Everything was mounted with quick detach keys. He’d already seen the compartments with spare parts, batteries and cleaning kit. It was self-contained light support for a squad, and they each had one, plus some spares.
“Damned good work, man,” he said.
"Thanks. There may be some problems with the encryption. If so, let me know."
Aramis shifted his grip. The biometrics didn't disengage, as required by law. He still had a live weapon even when only his finger was on the trigger, no palm on the grip.
"It seems to be working fine," he said. Fine for what he needed it for.
"Good. I'll work on the others. Tell Elke I have hers almost ready."
"She'll be jealous that she wasn't first." He stretched and started to stand.
Jason grinned. "She'll be fine. We go way back."
"When did you first work with her, anyway?" He crouched back down for the story.
Jason leaned back and grabbed a rag to clean his hands. "I was actually still in service. We had an exercise going on, and mining charges set to do a hasty dig of some boulders. You've seen the OmniDig multipurpose engineer vehicle?" he asked. Aramis nodded. "Well, in addition to trench, grade and load blades, it has a high-speed pole drill. On pilot bore, it cuts five centimeters, and can reach down three meters. More than enough. We chased out, bored under this boulder field in our LZ, planted the charges, backed off and shot. Nothing happened."
"Ah, that always sucks."
"It does. We gave it the ten minutes as required, and started back to reset charges. Someone decided to test a cap. Nothing. So we secured another lot number and started out.
"Then something did happen. One of them blew. We got showered in rock frag. Six minutes later a second one detonated. At that point, no one wanted anything to do with it, except we needed the field clear, because we did have a ship de-orbiting."
"That's a pretty lifelike exercise, not to clear first, then land."
"Right. Don't take this the wrong way, but we do more of that than the Army. Most exercises are pretty real in the functional details."
It used to be a sore point, but Aramis had to agree anymore. "Yeah, my Army went to hell when it became part of the UN, rather than being distinctly American. I am a bit jealous of the other branches, and some other nations."
"Right. The US wanted to keep Marines for distinction, needed its own Aerospace, though even that is coalescing with the others now, and of course, the colonial units have to be independent. You did get shafted. But anyway, we had two craft to land, the first already in descent, and we had to clear the rubble fast, and it was pretty clear the charges or the caps were unreliable. We told the landers to abort, then we screamed for help."
"Yes, she showed up, alone, all sixty kilos of her—she's put a bit more muscle on—went to one of the live ones, poked an illuminator and camera down, while we sat there shivering. She asked to see the box, ran some numbers, and told us there'd been a packing error. We had random delay charges used for area denial."
"Yes, very much. The LT was ready to abandon that section of the exercise, have the craft land at a proper 'port, and ferry everyone out.
"Elke told him to wait, walked back out, and started hand-rolling directional charges. She cut them off from Dynalene sticks, bored the ends with a knife, capped, planted and wired. A third one blew while she was doing this, and she just kept walking, stuffing, setting.
"We had about five minutes of our two hour exercise window left when she walked back, asked the commander to clear the range, let him get off his three calls, then called fire in the hole and the entire field lit up. It turns out she'd put shattering charges over them, too. All these car-sized boulders turned into hundred millimeter gravel in a couple of seconds. She hung around a couple of days. We met in the chow hall once. It was a heck of a surprise when I joined the company and we wound up on assignment together."
"Was she always a flake?" That wasn't the best way to phrase it, but…well, yes it was.
"Yes. Very much. She's asocial, dislikes people because they're not logical or predictable, is far more educated than anyone realizes. She has a doctorate in physics."
Aramis replayed that and said, "Huh?"
"Yeah, I didn't find out until a few weeks ago. She can crunch the numbers in her head as she goes."
Aramis said, "I figured she had the usual reference charts in her visor and lots of hands on practice."
"She has that, too, but she really does do the math as she goes. Did her basics in electronics, worked in the lab for the Czech Regional Police, moved into Munitions, and did school while working."
"So when whatsisname on Govannon…Eggett…said he'd read her papers…"
"Yes, he was head of explosive mining for Caron's family, and he meant professional journal papers, not just industry notes."
"Damn. I feel very under-educated, with only cartography and navigation theory to my bio."
"Well, education isn't wisdom or intelligence. Look at any politician for proof of that."
"I'd rather be compared to someone worthy, thanks," he replied.
There was noise at the door, and everyone else came through.
"Where are my explosives?" Elke asked at once.
Jason said, "Here, have a shotgun, a carbine, a pistol and a fighting knife." He handed them over.
"Very nice, thank you," she said without expression as she took them, checked the chambers on all three, did a couple of practice drills, and laid them on the couch, the sheathed knife atop them. "Where are my explosives?"
Aramis handed out knives and demolition hammers to the circle around him, then started on pistols.
Alex took his, cleared it, nodded and said, "No word on the explosives?"
Jason said, "No sign that they've been here at all. I'm betting they're in a separate box."
Elke paced a bit. She didn't make any comments, but she was obviously irritated, and…Aramis guessed vulnerable, except that sounded romantic. Insecure? He could see that. Explosives were her tools. It would be the same if he didn't have firearms or armor.
"Where is the armor?" he asked, realizing he hadn't seen that.
Jason said, "Screwup in transit and customs, Cady will deliver it tomorrow."
"Good." Assuming it happened. He looked back at Elke.
Shaman kept an eye on her, surreptitiously, and she probably noticed but didn’t say anything. She helped check and clear weapons, stow them, tag them. She filled magazines and belts, checked batteries.
In short order they had it all done, and split up the bullion and cash into packs and pockets. Aramis found himself in possession of a contractor credit account, a pre-paid card with a healthy limit, a roll of cash that would choke a medium sized alligator, several hundred grams of gold, some silver, and one each palladium and rhodium 30 gram bars. It was a good thing he'd be armed, because anyone getting a whiff of this just might consider murder.
Still, it reassured him on bugging out. It was a mark of trust from the company, too, as they'd provided that from their own assets, and would have to take his, and their collective, word on disposition.
Elke looked unhappy, but she checked over her hardware and very politely said, "Thank you, Jason, the customizing is excellent. I'm going to retire early." She slung them carefully and walked out silently.
He didn't think he'd ever seen her that pissed the entire time they'd worked together.
Bart broke the uncomfortable silence by saying, "I would like that beer now."
Alex was mostly satisfied. Elke's gear and the heavier weapons were an issue, but almost everything else had been resolved, though not the way channels would approve.
That's their own damned fault for refusing to cooperate, he thought. When they'd first started this outfit, the military had been competitors and eventually the enemy. However, they'd never until now been hostile.
The medics and intel were cordial and professional, at least as far as they saw mutual benefit. The rest of the base so far was actively antagonistic. They'd have to find some way to smooth that out.
Their quarters were quite comfortable for the field. They had billets on par with officers or other high end contractors; hard buildings, private rooms where enlisted personnel would have three to five, basic bunks and lockable closets. The problem, of course, was the weapons, which in theory were supposed to be secured whenever they were not on escort, which would mean a lot of back and forth to the armory. In practice, they usually left someone in the billet to watch things, armed. He also knew Aramis concealed a small pistol when out. He was sure Jason did, too, though he'd never seen it. He made do with a knife.
Elke was ostensibly sleeping, and certainly fuming about her mistreatment. The explosives were a necessary component, and he'd talk to Das about that in the morning. For now, they could use a non-alcoholic beverage on the military side, and a little noise and camaraderie.
"Just keep the attitudes from bothering you," he said. "Right, Aramis?"
"Understood. I speak their language. I can talk around any problems."
Good. The man took the hint.
"No problem at all. I just remember that I am Aerospace Force, Grainne Colony, and therefore better than they are."
He grinned at the delivery. "Very good. Shaman is remaining here. Bart will simply sit quietly in the corner and drink, and no one would be stupid enough to start a fight with him."
Jason said, "I'm sure someone would, so watch out for idiots. The big guy is always wrong."
"On paper, at least," Bart said, and cracked his knuckles. "I shall be relaxed."
At the gate, Alex greeted the guard. "We need to sign out."
The guard stared at him. "Why?"
"So we're accounted for. It's policy for State and for our company."
The man rolled his eyes, but grabbed a screen and passed it over. They each printed it and waited for it to acknowledge, than Alex handed it back.
"Thank you," he said.
The response was a mumble.
It was less than a kilometer to the rec center, but they attracted some stares.
"Everyone drives, even here," Aramis noted.
"Yes," he agreed. "Want to go back, or remember that for next time?"
Bart said, "Next time we shall take a limo, just to show them up."
"At two meters tall?" Yes, the man was huge, but they could at least try.
The weather was quite pleasant and the walk enjoyable. It was early enough that they were before shift change. That reminded him of the issue that presented.
The day here was 25 hours and change. The UN ran on Earth's 24 hour clock, "To avoid schedule-related accidents," and ran two 12 hour shifts. That meant a steady progression across the day. However, Highland's appearances were mostly local day, though she, or rather Jessie, had planned some so the transmission times would hit certain areas of Earth, notably North America and Coastal Asia, during prime viewer time there, after being transferred from surface to ship, through the Jump Point then down to Earth. That was going to be murder on their own schedule.
For now, though, they should appear, participate and relax. Aramis was slightly ahead and held the door.
There were other contractors on base, but the Ripple Creek team were certainly the highest profile. Also, they were effectively combatants, while most of the others were either strictly technical support, or guards with non-lethal weapons and no authority outside the perimeter. This had caused tension before, and they expected it now.
It was made worse by their military non-uniforms. For now, they were wearing field pants with adjustable color, turned to dull gray, and collared sport shirts that had the obvious shine of non-newtonian mesh. That said to everyone, "Contractors with assets." Coupled with JessieM's casual release of details, pretty much everyone knew they were Ripple Creek and Highland's personal detail. It might be a good idea to not socialize until things had a chance to settle down and some favors were exchanged. Still, they were here now.
They picked a vacant sitting area, ignored the stares and offered an occasional polite nod, and sat down. There were a couple of mutters, but nothing seemed problematic. Of course, things might be better, or worse, after some action and interaction.
Or even right now. The lieutenant near the counter spoke loudly enough to be heard clearly.
"That's not your problem, soldier. Contractors are exempt from all regulations. Just ask them and they'll tell you. In exchange, they have to put up with more pay, better quarters and get to go to political banquets. It's a rough job."
Alex looked up and asked, in a quiet voice, "Is there a problem, Lieutenant?"
The officer turned, and his expression wasn't a smirk, but was provocative.
He said, "Pardon me for believing people like you should be under military discipline. It would change your attitude."
Alex said, "We’re all veterans. It's company policy." He was irritated. Even a lieutenant should know better than to provoke a fight, though Alex wasn't going to mention so, because that would be provocative.
"Yeah, I understand you left under questionable circumstances." He pointed at Aramis and continued, "Anderson was asked to leave due to conflict of interest with your employer. Weil’s a surface sailor, which stopped being militarily relevant a century ago."
Jason did smirk and said, "Want to say something about me, next?"
The lieutenant turned. "Yeah, you’re a colonial wannabe. It’s not like your forces will ever amount to anything. As to the others, Sykora is a glorified bureaucrat who joined a pseudo police force, and Mbuto’s ‘army’ doesn’t even exist anymore, nor does the second rate excuse of a nation it belonged to."
Alex was still ticked, but Jason took over and flashed a big grin.
"Thanks. It's always good to know where someone stands."
"That's it? That's all you have to say?"
Jason shrugged. "There's not much to say. You didn't offer anything to really argue about."
Alex came out of it. Jason had defused that brilliantly. The lieutenant stood looking quizzical, then turned and walked off.
After he was gone, Jason said, "I could see the wheels turning behind his eyes, and I think that was brain smoke trickling from his ears."
"Thanks for doing that."
Jason said, "No problem. We're going to get more of that, though."
"Yes, I believe we are."
"I'm also disturbed that he had that much background on us. It's searchable, if you know our names or get good face shots. Now, of course, we're outed forever. If he can search us, so can any threats."
"Yup. Thanks, JessieM."
"That was a power play."
"Yes. He wants us to know how connected he is, and that he thinks he's better thereby."
"How long are we staying?"
"Thirty minutes. Want to play a game of pool?"
"Sure. I'm terrible at it and will laugh at myself."
Aramis was eager to get on with the mission, but there was always groundwork. He knew it was important, and he took pains to make sure it was done properly.
In addition to the bailout bullion and cash, he'd been assigned discreet assets to use for his part of the groundwork. He was expected to furnish maps of as many areas as possible, with photos, on a non-connected system or actual paper. He usually went for both. Basic supplies of food, water, clothing and rucks would be stashed in several safe locations, along with weapons as they were able to acquire them by purchase, trade, battlefield pickups or outright theft from anyone who on paper wasn't allowed to have them. Once, they'd even robbed a military armory. That had been life and death at the time, though. Planning ahead meant it might be unlawful, but shouldn't come at a cost to anyone.
Cady and Jason had two safehouses arranged already, but he would like a third. No one else needed to know about it.
He reflected that three years before he'd been a pure mercenary, attracted by gobs of cash and the potential excitement. It now was more home to him than the military had been, still better paid, but with fantastic esprit de corps and a better sense of accomplishment. They kept people alive when no one else could. He took the task seriously. Still, there was a thrill of ancient gunslinging and swordselling in acquiring the assets they needed. Weapons, explosives and bullion made for a fine simulation of an adventure game, in the real world.
The beer wasn't very good, but he finished it rather than waste it. He finished cutting the current map, saved it on both the "phones" he had wire-connected to the unit, and ran six copies through the printer on tough polymer sheet. The phones had no circuits for communication, only memory storage and display. One printed copy would go to each bugout location, and one each to Jason, Alex and himself.
At some point he'd have to make a shopping trip.
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