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The Weapon: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Tuesday, June 7, 2005 19:34 EDT



    Upon returning home and debriefing, I was promoted to Operative Sergeant and made team leader, and bumped to E-6. Likely, I’d stay Sergeant for some time, and get rate promotions based on time in service and technical proficiency. I wasn’t worried. With space pay, jump pay, flight pay, demolition pay, the stipend we all got for being Operatives in the first place, the stipend for each language and skill we qualified for (I was qualified as a combat medic, combat marksman, combat engineer in construction and demolitions, translator in French, Russian, Greek and Spanish, intelligence specialist in security assessment, power and electrical systems specialist, welder with gas, arc, laser and electron beam, machinist, basic electronics technician, small arms repairer, heavy weapons crew, flight engineer (vertol and spaceboat), hazardous environment rescue specialist, perimeter defense security specialist, aircraft munitions specialist, explosive ordnance disposal specialist, and had master ratings in unarmed combat, small arms, support weapons, heavy weapons and vehicle operations), I figured I was earning enough to make even my father happy. Much of it counted as practical or elective credit toward the degree in Military Science I was working on. All I needed were a few courses in poli-sci, history and strategic calculus and I’d be good to go. From there, I could go as far as regimental commander, with work.

    That was before I learned the politics of the military. Every new troop has to do this, and I had actually been rather sheltered by the system so far, more concerned with the job than with the machinations behind it. That’s generally a good thing, but those networks of friends and a good grasp of the unofficial military are what will get you ahead and help you do what’s right for the service. It can also be used by self-serving assholes to get cushy jobs and bogus awards. That, of course, would never happen in our military, right?

    I’ll come back to that later.



    Let’s look at the key facts: we were a neutral nation with a small military. Until a decade before, the military had been mostly a joke. It handled a few rescues of idiotic sillyvilian pleasure craft, and was strictly a symbol of our statehood, despite the quality of the troops we had. We could hold off pirates, few that there were, maintain local order (very important, and defined by our constitution. It was our primary purpose), and tackle major terrorists that tried to get happy with us. If we needed real backup, we would have called the UN for force.

    Then we’d declared ourselves a nation, not a colonial territory. Then we’d seceded from the UN, because we couldn’t meet their “civil rights” criteria, and had no intention of doing so. Their definition of civil rights was what the Roman Legions gave their subjects—the right to complain, pray, and do nothing. We defined freedom as the right to be stupid. If you aren’t allowed to ruin your life because of the “greater good of the whole,” you aren’t really free, you’re a cog. But I digress.

    With no UN support, we had to have a military that actually worked. First, we’d gotten better hardware. Then, we’d upped the standards for enlistment. Now we were working on increasing the size, but slowly, as we had no wish to sacrifice quality. Lastly, we wanted to ensure that everyone did a stint in a combat zone, for the experience.

    That last being absolutely impossible for a neutral nation amidst an authoritarian hegemony. Who was going to attack us? Why would we go on the offensive? We had great troops, great equipment, great standards, and absolutely no way to ensure any of it.

    Then, the year before I enlisted, Dyson had been made Marshal. He had strict notions of how we could get as good as we could without live-fire, and proceeded to institute those policies, despite the whining of the wannabes who really didn’t want to be real soldiers.

    Many of those whiners were still in service, even ten years after we seceded. Amazingly, we even had some in Special Warfare. I have no idea why someone joins SW and expects an easy time of it, but for some ludicrous reason, a few do. They took it upon themselves to commwhip every exercise and qualification they could, so as to sit, drink chocolate, and revel in the glory of their qualification badges. It bothered Marshal Dyson, and it bothered me, that their actions were identical to developing nation dictators and their Instant Colonel Syndrome—you know: where junior grade friends of the Faithless and Fearful Leader become commanders without doing anything to prove themselves.

    They had to go. They’d done nothing actionable, and we needed the slots filled until we got competent personnel so they stayed in the interim, but their days were numbered. It took a few months for me to realize that I could have one of those slots, with a little patience, hard work and a few liters of spilled blood. The blood would be my own, spilled here and there in training exercises. The actual coup and assassinations would be bloodless and political

    Everyone in SW is in great shape. I’d actually come to terms with the fact that I’m a handsome son of a bitch in dress greens, no matter how goofy I look in battledress. I took it upon myself to be seen in greens off duty, or when on duty doing administrative work, so as to impress Captain Maron, the commanders of the units we were assigned to, and anyone on base who encountered me. Both my awards were placed, all my qualification badges were polished, and I cultivated a look of deep thought and alertness.

    It worked. Maron was in the area late one day, as I prepped my team for our next exercise, and watched quietly as I spoke. We both knew we were aware of each other’s presence, but pretended to continue business as usual. I had everyone’s chameleon suits out, as we’d never used them in an exercise. I intended to fix that, and not because it was a good way to suck up, but because it needed done. We ran all the circuits through, tested them against a background screen and the local terrain of grass, buildings and parking apron, and I told everyone to put them away. I planned to brace our squad leader, Warrant Rutledge, to let me do a team run in a day or two. He was one of those who didn’t see a need to do more than the basics. He thought of all this as “wasting time.”

    Once done, I told the troops to hang them in our bay area and dog off for the day. I turned, and there she was.

    “Ken, how’s things?”

    “Just fine Ma’am,” I replied. SW troops never salute outside, and only on formal occasions inside. “You need to see me?”

    She replied, “Tell me about today.”

    She’d seen what I’d done, but when your commander asks for a debrief, you give it. “I’m having my fireteam check all their gear. Today, the chameleons. I’ll be arranging a field test as soon as I can, and meantime I’ll be checking the exos, the jump harnesses, and all our environment gear. Our climbing and arctic equipment get regular workouts, but some of the other stuff is low use, so it needs at least a good exercise.”

    “Good thinking,” she said. “But don’t you think that would be better done at the squad or platoon level?”

    “Yes, Ma’am,” I said. “But I don’t have that authority.”

    She nodded. “Well, a warrant slot will open up eventually. Do you think you’d be prepared to take it?”

    I quivered. That was not a casual offer, and the only acceptable answer (as if I’d give any other) was, “Absolutely, Ma’am. If I’m qualified, I’ll take it, if I’m not, I’ll get qualified. But that’s a way off. There’s a lot of seniors who’ll get a slot before I do, even allowing for rating jumps.”



    She nodded. "I'll put a word in for you. It doesn't hurt to think long term. Have a good evening, and let me know the results of your exercise. While you're at it, write up a plan for the procedure I can distribute to others."

    "Yes, ma'am," I agreed. She nodded, turned and left.

    The next morning, my comm relayed a "routine" message to see the First Sergeant. Now, routine means it isn't life-and-death-skip-a-shower-and-get-here-because-we're-screwed. It doesn't mean to dawdle. I signed into the team bay of our squad room at two segs shy of three divs, and was at the First Sergeant's desk by three on the nose.

    "Ken," he greeted me.

    "Sergeant Jack," I said. "What can I help you with?" I was hoping it was good, but one always has the feeling that there's a problem waiting to screw one.

    "Put these on," he said, handing me senior sergeant's chevrons. "The captain apologizes that she can't arrange a rate raise yet, but she'll be on it when she can."

    "Thank you, First Sergeant," I said. "And please thank the captain for me." Wow. I resolved to see what command wanted out of me to push me higher. Money and power had heady appeal. Mostly the power.

    I was a big hit with the junior troops and my friends that day, but did see a few disgruntled looks on others who disliked me bumping their positions, and figured where this was going. Rutledge didn't look amused and said so.

    "Planning to replace me?" he asked, when I got back to the bay.

    "No, sir," I said. "But sooner or later you'll promote or I'll get reassigned."

    "You spend too much time worrying about prep and gear. That's my job," he said.

    "That's everyone's job," I argued.

    "Well, you just make sure you handle your team," he said. "I know my part."

    Tense. I said, "Yes, sir," and made myself scarce. In actuality, I didn't want his job. I wanted to be me, not him. But he'd never believe that.

    I followed up myself by drafting a letter of thanks to the captain. Always acknowledge the good. It makes people appreciate doing it, and helps them decide to do more. I mentioned Rutledge by name as my trainer and source of much of my knowledge. It was diplomatic. They might see it as window dressing. He might see it as sucking up. But at least I'd covered the issue.



    I got tested on my new rank and alleged competence at once, and the fallout was shocking. We deployed to space aboard craft of 3rd Fleet (no, all these numbers are not coincidence. 3rd Fleet, 3rd Army, 3rd Mobile Legion, 3rd Mobile Assault Regiment and 3rd Special Warfare Regiment are all under one superior authority. We did do exercises elsewhere to rehearse for mass confusion, but by sticking together we created a well-oiled machine from practice . . . at least in theory) and split into five elements in order to conduct games.

    So I took my team and prepared for a clandestine EVA to a target ship. For exercise purposes, we'd be attacking an intruding cruiser as it sat in port near a planetoid base. Actually, what we had was a derelict transport we'd gotten cheap. The engineers got to cobble it back together enough to mostly work as their part of the training, the bridge staff got to deal with the attendant problems of steering and commanding such a wreck, the rest of the crew got a creaky, groaning and banging ride with vacuum gear always at hand to stay in the right mindset while they jury-rigged defensive systems and things like working airlocks. Realism. With danger.

    I got to blow it up. How can you beat a job like that?

    I had Frank along, and Deni, and Barto Diaz and Eliot Christensen who'd been around for a year, and Gary Hulse, who was fresh from school and eager. Too eager, sometimes. I realized I'd matured about five percent when I looked at him.

    We observed the mission start from the Black Watch, the heavily stealthed transport we were assigned to. Special Warfare has seven highly modified craft for clandestine delivery within occupied space, one for each Regiment and a spare, and a healthy chunk of our budget, all fitted for phase drive. They're stripped to make them as undetectable as possible, gunned enough to give us support to get in or out as is indicated and loaded with electronic toys and a shop full of low-mass, low-signature tools for Special Projects to use to build us assorted non-issue implements of destruction.

    This would be the first time our squad had tackled a long EVA. One of the Operatives' most useful insertions is across space in naught but a suit. It's almost impossible to detect, and tricky enough that usually no one imagines anyone will attempt it in the first place. Even knowing to expect it, our own people would have a bitch of a time finding us.

    What we planned was to come in from a stealth boat, EVA on sleds to within 20 kilometers, then use suit harnesses the rest of the way. Sensor image: none to speak of. Risk for errors: bloody high. And "error" would equal "death." There's not much room for it under the circumstances.

    There are two things every Operative tries to carry in space. One is an emergency flare, in case one is lost during an exercise. The other is a grenade, in case one is lost in wartime. I know personally, intimately, with long practice what hypoxia is like. That doesn't mean I like it. If you can think of a colder (metaphysically), lonelier, more wretched death than to die slowly of suffocation surrounded by frigid points of stars and the searing blades of distant Iolight, I'd rather not hear about it. This was an exercise. It was also potentially lethal. We train as we fight—hardcore.

    So, there I was with my team, ready to deploy from a boat. We greased each other up with a lubricant that makes it easier to squirm into a skintight suit. It's also been adapted as a surgical and sexual lubricant, but there was nothing sexy about the elastic mesh we donned, trust me. The goo was cold and slimy in the darkened bay. Not a thrill. Creepy, really. Hands helping get the small of your back and shoulders slick are not romantic in the slightest. It outgases to a powder with exposure to vacuum. Messy both ways.

    We checked all our own gear. We checked all our buddy's gear. I buddied with Frank and we checked each other over. Carbine. Pistol. Sword. Knife. Cutting torch. Explosives. Comms and maps, keycodes and schedules. Smoke and flare. Emergency oxy bottle. Axe, used to rip through bulkheads and crack ports. Armor. Harnesses. Primary oxy bottles. Umbilicus for the sled's oxy supply. Sled. Emergency transponder. I did a quick check of everyone else's gear. If I sound paranoid and scared, it's because I was. Never mind my career; losing a person would be hell on my conscience. There were not going to be any screwups. Rutledge had grudgingly told me to do a good job as he doublechecked my checking. I'd agreed. We might have been a bit tense with each other, but neither of us wanted to succeed at the expense of lives. I wished him luck on his own insertion. We shook on it. He went to Second Team to see how Davis was doing. I ordered my team up.

    We cycled through the lock, me first as leader, and hung on the outside by glued tethers which the boat engineer would detach later. There are no padeyes or other distortions on the skin of a stealth boat. Glued tethers are all we had, and I don't like them. I have this psychotic fear that the glue won't take. I prefer a mechanical lock. Yes, I know what the tensile strength of the bond is and what the chemistry of the glue is. I don't care. It's a phobia. As to the cycling, it was a bitch. Vac sleds are not designed to fit in personnel locks, and we don't use cargo bays on stealths because of the risk of a sensor image. It was one at a time, crowded and tangled with gear, near black with only a tiny glow tube to illuminate things. The image is fuzzy with your goggles' enhancement dialed up, and it shifts as the outer door opens and starlight and distant Iolight pour in, causing the goggles to polarize. The shadows are very sharp and dark.

    Once we were all out, I waved hand signals and everyone mounted sleds. You have to strap your gear down, then yourself, with an old-style horsehitch to release as you thrust. We each thrusted in sequence, me first again, and took up a loose formation. I was leading. If my navigation was wrong, I'd die first. For an exercise, we could abort and use comm if we had to. If that happened, the shame and embarrassment would kill me. I didn't think about that at the time, as it was black and I was alone. I couldn't turn far enough on the sled to see behind me. I had blips on my visor that were intermittent even at this range; we were as low sig as we could get, but a good intel boat can home in on almost nothing. Our support boat would abort us if necessary, as long as we were still in its range. I didn't hear anything from them.

    It went okay as an exercise. It simply lasted forever. We thrusted then floated in trajectory for almost ten divs—28 hours. Almost a full day. There was nothing to break the monotony except music—vid is too distracting. As we use an oxy-helium mix, the sound system has to compensate for atmospheric effects. I had an extensive library of tunes, from classical to scape to modern jazz and clash. I love music. I could barely listen to any of them. Tedium, boredom, hell. It was horrible. Nothing followed by nothing forever, while I clung to a metal frame. Harsh stars ahead, above, below, to the sides. I dozed in and out, watched the readouts for time and activity, and grew more fatigued the more I napped. The flavored goop in the food tube grew tiresome in short order. I made myself drink more water, as it's easy to dehydrate. You don't think about drinking in emgee for some psychological reason, just like in the cold.

    We might arrive and find the other two teams hadn't made their missions, or had been discovered and left us hanging as targets. We might find the ship already "destroyed" by other factors, or moved out of orbit, even though intel said it would stay where it was. That would make us dead for the exercise, but dead for real if this were an actual mission. Six Operatives for a starship? A small price. Unless you're one of the Operatives. Why the hell had I chosen this job?

    Nothing. Followed by still more nothing. I watched the scale tick off in my visor, wondering if it was actually working. Cursing it to move faster. Trying to avoid the nervous kicks and twitches one gets after hours of inactivity. I gripped the sled. It was my only company.

    Finally, my nav system was telling me we were close, but I had no physical evidence of that. My hyperaware eyes finally saw a shadow occulting a star, though just barely, and I breathed a huge sigh. We would survive. Even if we failed the exercise, we would survive. I realized I hadn't peed from the tension. In fact, I hadn't gone in longer than I could recall. I vented liquid and felt better.

    Then came the next stage. A signal chime in my right ear matched a flash on my visor, and I disconnected from the sled, switching to suit oxy. The barest practiced push would slowly separate me from the tubular frame, and my suit harness would take over. It's easy to shove too hard, which actually changes your trajectory considerably. You can miss the target by several hundred meters that way. A touch is all you need. "Below" me, the sled was braking with small shoves to a relative zero velocity. It wouldn't do for it to appear on sensors later, giving away the fact that we were present. These sleds would activate beacons and become an exercise for space rescue units; nothing was wasted. In a real war, of course, they'd be expended.

    The suit thrusters kicked in, using compressed nitrogen to make bare corrections to the course. And no, it can't compensate for the shove that separates you from the sled. It handles your programmed trajectory only, not that of anything else around it. Sensors on a harness would be pricey, subject to detection, and incredibly inaccurate with so small an aperture.

    We continued our apparent drift, even though it was a very precise orbit. For three more divs—2.8 hours each—nothing happened. The slight occultation I'd seen had been one tiny ship of the fleet in front of one irrelevant, distant star. We were within a div of our final time tick when I saw another, then another, then three more.

    Suddenly, surreally, we were within the fleet. It was in a holding pattern near what would be a planetoid base, carved out by combat engineers to provide storage and rudimentary billeting space. They could build them on short notice and abandon them in seconds if the need arrived. They were referred to only as "rocks" because that's all they were. Not home, just a space equivalent of a windbreak or leanto. They'd be awfully glad for the use of that shortly, because the ships were about to go bye-bye. Sweat was pouring off me, and I adjusted my cooling slightly.

    It was thrilling and bizarre. Here we were, surrounded by state of the art warships that could deliver enough ordnance to boil a planet, and we were too low mass and velocity to even register. We were drifting debris. Barring the astronomical odds of a repair crew or special courier, nothing would get near enough to affect us. Of course, if they had brought sensors up, they could refine us if they knew to look. Or they might get lucky and irradiate us with active search measures. The close in sensor systems are pretty potent. We were just as alone and endangered as we had been, yet I felt much safer, even amidst this "enemy."

    Things got active after that, and I was grateful for it. I think everyone else was, too. The ships resolved themselves as black shapes against black space, the stars disappearing at the edges. A shifting, interrupted shape would be the fleet carrier, a huge framework designed as a stardrive to carry smaller craft. It stayed back from the battle, defended as well as could be by its systems, and a threat point. One team would be taking that out. That would leave much of the fleet casualtied as unrecoverable, forcing command to decide between abandoning crew or taking time to transfer them. Fleet carriers are not the best means of projecting power, but they're what we have, so we train accordingly.

    Our target must be the shadow ahead. It was obviously a "cruiser," so unless there'd been a drastic shift, it was ours. Yes, we knew exactly where it was. Think of it as a sea fleet anchored offshore, awaiting orders. We were coming in from the sea with a good view, and would sink them in the shallows.

    All at once, things started happening. The target filled half my view, then it was all I could see. Surface features began to resolve in starlight, and I picked out a good place to land. I waved my arms for attention, the tiny pinlights on my sleeves triggering indicators in the teams' visors. They watched as I lit a point with a milliwatt laser, just enough to be seen by someone looking hard. They and their comms grabbed the dot as a target, or they should have. I had no way to know.

    Then I was close. I waited until I was sure I was going to slam into the hull then braked, the gas puffing in front of me. Inertia carried my legs forward as thrust slowed my torso—I'd left the leg section turned off for that reason. I was feet down, thrusted again with the lower jets and relaxed my knees. I felt my feet touch through the thin, insulated traction boots I wore, and collapsed, absorbing the momentum while grabbing a line from my waist.

    I was down, and moved quickly to connect to a padeye, or any convenient point. I found said ring, set into the hull, and let the cable snap to it. I adjusted its retaining drum for minimal tension, just to keep the line out of my way, and looked around.

    I counted four, panicked as to where number five was, and did a quick check. Me, Frank, Deni, Barto and Gary . . . no Eliot.

    For just a moment, my head spun and I was lost. Then I clamped down on it. One of my troops was in trouble, and I had to help him now.

    There was no point in a broadcast. The suit commo range is short. I would have to contact higher up and have the signal come down for him. It might blow the exercise, and that was still a consideration. Failing that test as well would hurt me. It may sound callous, but real world, I'd have to call him dead and move on. Here, I had to do the same for exercise purposes, while doing everything I could to find him for real. But there were no excuses. It would be a failure if we got discovered.

    First, I touched helmets with Frank. "Anyone see him?" I shouted. We all touched helmets and inquired. No. He'd been last off, and had been slightly behind Deni. She'd last seen him some hours before. So he was in trajectory, and likely near us. Alive? Dead? We didn't know.

    That settled, I opened a laser tightbeam to the nearest judge's ship, while Frank tried to locate a friendly ship for me. "Emergency—Three Zulu One," I said. "Casualty Casualty Casualty. Blazer Eliot Christensen missing in EVA. Believed to be on last trajectory Three Zulu One. Casualty casualty casualty."

    "Emergency, acknowledged. SAR responding. Any further details?"

    "Emergency—Three Zulu One. Christensen was sighted by team member after dismount from sleds."

    "Emergency, acknowledged."

    Frank clanked helmets and said, "Got a ship." Great. I could hook into their secure commo net through his maser antenna. I plugged and switched channels as I finished with Emergency.

    "Emergency—Three Zulu One, acknowledged—break—Blue Force Command, Three Zulu One. Casualty Casualty Casualty. Report made to Emergency, holding, awaiting instructions."

    A few moments later, just as I was about to repeat, I heard, "Blue Force Command, continue as best you can. SAR may ask for additional information. Good luck, and best wishes for recovery."

    "Blue Force Command, Three Zulu One. Acknowledged." So that was that. I felt horribly sick and helpless, because I was. There was nothing I could do. Nor did I have any idea what had happened. Hypoxia? Blowout? Fell asleep, missed the alarm, missed the tick and was healthy but drifting? Suit harness failed and no thrust for corrections? Hit by a meteor (astronomically unlikely . . . but possible)? Fluke cardiac arrest? Alive? Dead?

    So I quashed it all. There was nothing I could do. It was one of the things I'd trained for, but this was nothing like training. Except it was training, and might very well happen in the real world. The sweat from earlier was now a cold, greasy layer between me and the suit, even worse than the goop that had evaporated. I heaved a breath, held it and got my nerves under control. Continue with mission.

    We were late, and we needed to move fast. I signaled with my hands, got waves of acknowledgement, and we started.

    After that it was a frantic pace. We bounded aft in long, practiced strides, each taking a line for another. I led, waiting for the next troop—Gary—to arrive and fasten me to a new padeye, then leaping. I'd fasten, he'd jump, the next troop would repeat, and we flowed aft like a caterpillar, Frank as assistant at the rear.

    There was the spot we wanted, and the caterpillar squeezed into a ball. We started laying out explosives to cut our entrance. This craft was an old lady, now used only for exercises. Despite that, she was lovingly maintained. After we blew the hole, the engineers would patch it and polish it until it would take scientific tools to determine where it had been cut. We joke about how one day, there will be just one square meter of surface that hasn't been replaced. And of course, the ship will blow a leak on the opposite side from there, on the newest section. Thinking that reminded me that Eliot might be out of oxygen. I clamped down on that again.

    In short order, we had four sides marked with charges in a tapering rectangle, slight boosters at the corners, and us in a line behind a heavy shield much like a Roman scutum that had been folded up for insertion. We were gripping at line or padeye as we could reach. Everyone checked gear, squeezed hands to acknowledge readiness, Gary squeezed mine and I hit the stud.

    We could hear the explosion through our suits, both from the contact with the hull, and through the nimbus of air and debris that engulfed us. I raised the shield, skidded forward and swung in. The shield went first, to prevent me getting cut on the raw edges across from me, and Gary shoved an identical one in the near side. I ricocheted, tangled with Gary, tumbled and came around in the compartment. Five meters square, two meters and a bit deep, plain bulkheads in our enhanced vision, merely a system access bay. It was empty. Good. I counted everyone by eye, four, not five. I listened through my feet, feeling normal ship vibrations and what was probably an alarm klaxon, rhythmic and persistent.

    We moved to the hatch, repeated the squeeze, and triggered the emergency override—a hatch won't normally open in a compartment open to space. It popped open in front of us, and a roar of air evacuated the companionway behind it, billowing dust through the valve and around us. We swung it open and swarmed through. Remember that we were still in emgee.

    It was a lit T intersection, and had three safety hatches around the T, as well as the one we'd come through and two others. There was no one here. One of those was a half-sized crawlway that accessed a main fuel line, and that was a target. I pointed to confirm, we still being silent, and Barto Diaz slapped a charge, cut his way through and went to work shutting it down. The rest of us moved out, forcing the hatches as we went, carbines ready. Barto was very somber. It was bad for all of us, but Eliot was his buddy.

    Two hatches along, as lights failed, indicating Diaz had succeeded, we were ambushed. A Security Reaction Force poked out of cubbies, or rather, their weapons did. I saw flashes and leapt left, shoving off with my right foot so I tumbled. It was an immediate reaction, intended to make me harder to hit. It worked. I wasn't hit. I tossed a grenade sim by hand and followed it with a burst from the carbine, just to appear to be doing something. They were in secure positions, but we were better trained. We swapped fire and dodged around stanchions, inlets, anything that might provide cover.

    We "lost" Frank to fire, we killed the ambush and moved on. At least we knew Frank was only an exercise casualty. But that was two down. I was getting a rough lesson in mortality, and prayed that Eliot was alive and just lost.

    Shortly, we had another fuel feed down, and the crew was getting panicky. They had to see us on sensor by now, and automatic systems were trying to kill us. Those were basically shotgun mines set into the sides of passages, that were supposed to blow as we neared them. We used up a lot of ammo spraying suspicious looking boxes, which also did more collateral damage to various systems. We'd brought plenty of ammo on purpose.

    Eventually, we wound up in life support and engineering and shut the ship the rest of the way down. It was an example of how we could capture a ship and keep it mostly intact. Alternately, we could hold it for ransom. Or we could just blow it the hell up. That would shorten our lives somewhat. But we'd succeeded. The fleet command knew we could do what we'd claimed: get aboard enemy ships unseen and wreak havoc. We knew we could infiltrate over large distances and stay alive until we reached our target. It was a profound, exhilarating experience.

    Except that we'd lost someone, and that put a damper on the joy at once.

    As soon as we got the kill, I opened up and said, "Crew, I need commo, emergency."

    "Ah, here, sergeant," someone said, assuming my rank as he pointed at a connection terminal. I nodded, swam over, plugged in and identified myself to the bridge. I told them what I needed.

    "That would be the lost EVA troop?" the commo tech asked.

    "Yes," I said. "He's one of mine."

    "He's been found," I heard, and before my relief could get started the, "I'm very sorry," hit me.

    I felt nauseous, feverish, panicky. Spots were swimming in front of my eyes, but I needed to know. "What happened?"

    "See oh two poisoning. They think the filtration medium was contaminated."

    There was nothing I could have done about that. Everything had been checked, and Eliot had done his own final mark off. And not having any control over it made it worse for me. "Understood, thanks," I said, snapped my cable out, and turned. "Please, get me into gravity now. I'm sick." I wanted some kind of pressure on me before I heaved.

    "Sergeant?" "Ken?" "Boss?" I heard.

    "He didn't make it," I said.

    All five of us wound up in sickbay, sedated and under .5 G to help us relax. It wasn't just Eliot's death; we'd been in space for almost two days. It's sheer murder on the body. I insisted that we wanted a shuttle to transfer us back, or a docking, and would not be EVAing across between ships. It was over-reaction on my part. Even if the system failed, the few seconds between ships wasn't a risk. But I was badly shaken and phobic.

    Rutledge wrote the letter to his parents. I don't think I could have handled it. But we all served as pallbearers at his funeral. His parents were inconsolable and weeping, and we all had damp eyes from the experience. It's an honorable duty to bury a comrade. But it's not an easy one. It wasn't a relief, though it did put some finality on it. Odd, now, to think about a single death affecting me so. But every life and death is important.

    I took leave, and Deni came with me. My parents had moved to a smaller place up in the Cairngorm Hills, with a beautiful view down into Westport to the south. Deni and I stared out across it for quite some time.

    My sister Jackie was away at school, and tearing up the instructors over dramatics and presentation. I grinned. Good to know our tradition as troublemakers was secure. Deni and I had the run of the property while my parents were at work, and practiced our knots and lashings with the help of an antique four-poster bed. That was Deni's idea. Certainly a diversion, and fun. I prefer being able to wrestle, though. Besides, she was a sadistic, torturous bitch once she had me tied. But the endorphin rush was amazing. For a while, I didn't think about my mortality. Which is what was bothering me. Eliot was a friend, but not a close one. The fear I had was of being next.

    Dinner the first night was still more awkward. All we could say was that a teammate had died in an EVA accident. My father wanted details.

    "What type of equipment failure? I thought everything was redundant."

    "It is. But some things are still susceptible to failure," I said. It was a subject I wasn't allowed to discuss, and didn't want to discuss.

    "But how long were you out? There's nothing that would be lethal fast."

    "I can't say," I said shortly.

    "What do you mean?" my mother asked. "Don't you remember?"

    "I mean it's protected information."

    "Are they covering something up?" she prodded. They could really be overprotective, over-inquisitive and obnoxious, even well past my puberty. And there was no good lie I could tell. I was glancing at Deni now and then, my eyes pleading for help. She clearly had no idea how to address it, either.

    "No, it was a predictable but rare accident, and nothing can be done about it," I said.

    "But how could people not notice? He obviously stopped moving," my father asked.

    "Sometimes we're still for long periods of time. And I can't discuss it."

    "And there's usually convulsions associated with hypoxia," he persisted.

    "I said I can't talk about it!" I snapped.

    There was silence for a moment, until he said, "Ken, it sounds like someone above him is avoiding blame for screwing up. You might want to mention it through channels." His voice was quiet, calm, reasonable and concerned.

    I said nothing. I just flushed and burned and gripped my fork.

    Deni said, very softly, "Ken was his team leader. I was the last one to see Eliot alive. It was thoroughly investigated, and determined to be unavoidable. Life's like that sometimes, especially for Blazers."

    There was more silence, until my mother said, "We're very sorry. But I do wish you could talk about it."

    "So do I," I lied. Yes, Mom, I spend days cruising through space in a polymer skin for the privilege of blowing people's heads off and whisking away their breathing air so they flop like fish. Fun for the whole family. Wait until I get a chance to dig out that nuke I buried.

    I was losing what connection I did have with my family. We had no common interests and no real feeling, it seemed.

    The other three days were rather strained. I was glad when we were able to leave. Deni and I spent the last night in a hotel. I was glad I'd been vague about my schedule.

    Once we were logged in, Deni asked, "How are you holding up, Ken?" She had that look with her head and eyebrow cocked. It was just inquisitive, but it was always so sexy on her.

    Except right then. "I'll survive," I said. "But I'm going to be shaky on EVA until I get some courage back."

    She nodded. "So let's not talk about it for a while. After you've lost some of the stress of the last three days we'll see."

    "Yeah. Thanks," I said, and meant it. But I was still really screwed up. I'm glad for it now, and I owe Eliot thanks for teaching me about death. I was to see lots more.



    I got promoted again later that year. I'd had the hoped for rate increase to E-7, but had figured I'd be a senior sergeant for some time, especially in light of Eliot. But it had been ruled an accident. As far as anyone could tell, all equipment inspections had been done. It had been a fluke. It absolved me of any blame, and our successful exercise had been credited to me. It didn't make me feel better, though.

    With retirements and expansion, the FMF found space, and I was promoted to warrant leader and made a squad leader. It was often easier to get promoted in Special Warfare units, I'd found out, but this was still a decent deal even considering that. It wasn't unheard of or unrealistic; we won't let anyone become an officer without being a soldier first, but anyone with potential is promoted as fast as we can. I was officer material. I was second in my class at OLS. Two years of service had proven my abilities. There was no friction over this; Rutledge moved out of Special Warfare and became a lieutenant in intelligence.

    "I'm not young anymore," he said. "I've done my time. Good luck, Ken. But do try to tone down the attitude, eh?"

    "Will do, sir," I said. Well, I did try.

    The standard squad arrangement is a senior sergeant as leader, sergeant as assistant, three fireteam leaders of corporal, assistants of senior specialist, and the rest privates. In actuality it would vary somewhat. Special Warfare units, however, are elite and small. We needed a certain number of ranks to fill slots, rank to go with the awesome responsibility we wielded by comparison, and enough rank to make us "respectable" to our contemporaries in other units. Besides, on a rank-per-damage-inflicted basis, we were on the low side anyway. So we filled our operational squads (as opposed to the backfill and training slots) with stripes. I was a warrant leader squad leader, with a senior sergeant as my assistant, three sergeants as fireteam leaders below them, and several junior troops who were Operative specialists or corporals. We had no Operative privates; by the time an Operative is trained, he's at least a specialist. I was warrant leader because I needed enough rank to operate on my own authority when attached to a larger unit. The same thing was true with other attached units, such as logistics and occasionally engineers. The rank may seem a little high for the position, but the pay we receive is comparable to others, we simply have more authority and responsibility to go with it. Fair trade, right?

    Sorry. I'm not good at sarcasm.

    It wasn't hard to fit into the slot. I found us lots of exercises, and got the troops used to me the hard way: I was a hardcase asshole bent on making their lives hell. Since I abused myself just as much, they could hardly complain without appearing to be non-hackers and wimps bitching about the world as it as.

    I was still in 3rd Special Warfare Regiment, and still assigned as support for 3rd Mobile Assault Regiment. Whenever they or 3rd Legion got called to do light, fast forward deployment, we'd be along as eyes, ears, force multipliers and the enemy's worst nightmare. To my thinking, this was a better tasking than divisional or army level support, as it kept us where things were happening. It was harder to buff egos for a promotion, but would result in much better chances for decorations. Since the FMF is very stingy about giving out decorations, they count a lot toward promotion. It was a fair tradeoff, and lots of fun.

    In the meantime, I had all my old friends to play with. Deni and Tyler were the only two women present, my old friend Frank was along, and we formed the core of the squad. I posted Frank as my assistant, gave Barto our first fireteam, and Deni was tasked as leader of the weapons team. With Adam Verani as second team leader, I had no concerns about the quality of my personnel; they were ass-kicking, hardcase killers who shot first and didn't bother asking questions later—answers weren't that important to them. They existed, as did I, to outthink, outfight, outmaneuver, and outgun anyone we were up against, and to keep score by the pile of bodies.

    We were notorious, as we played by SW rules, not by anyone else's. Our first exercise, we were given a time and place to attack and told the rules of the game. I elected to stage a broken down civilian vehicle along the convoy route, just before the ambush area. Deni and Tyler could still pass as college girls, and they got the convoy bunched up and gathered around. When troops started to hear pinging in their helmets, and realized it was an attack, they grabbed the women and took them along into cover. At this point, my lovely ladies "killed" the headquarters squad with concealed pistols (two each and lots of spare magazines inside their autumn coats) and took the captain hostage. By the time his lieutenant figured out she was in charge, my flitting wraiths were popping up behind trucks to hose the occupants with fire, vanishing again to land on the hoods and glacis plates in front of the drivers, then to squirm into the equipment to plant mock charges. The pouring smoke and teargas, pops and bangs from simulators and blanks and the natural disorientation on top of psychoacoustic blasts was all the score we needed. The lieutenant never did get her remaining troops under orders, and we defeated them in detail. It was sweet.

    Then came the complaints about us having troops out of uniform, which was against the rules. We had not attacked at the time and place we were told to. We shouldn't have stapled the captain's hat to our unit trophy wall, etc. It was just like the exercise on Caledonia, and I'd frankly expected better of our people.

    Those complaints went nowhere, fortunately. The new doctrine was to play hard, fight hard and expect surprise at any moment. Marshal Dyson was wise enough to realize that troops get bored in garrison, and also get bored doing nothing but silly exercises. To that end, he instituted a bonus program. Troops who responded well in exercise got passes, extra leave, and bonus credits. They quickly became enthusiastic about responding, reacting, and stopping us. And then they started anticipating and planning responses ahead of time. The first time I actually got outflanked and shot up, I was chagrined at my failure, but equally elated at how our regular troops were progressing. They were reaching a level that few armies achieve in wartime, much less peace.

    Captain Maron regretfully took a promotion to Commander of 2nd Mobile Assault Regiment and left Special Warfare. She was replaced by Captain Stig Erson, a former teacher at Officer Leadership School and fresh from Blazer Combat Air Control School. He was a hardass son of a bitch, and I loved him. We lived in the field, ran urban exercises through town with stiff penalties for getting seen, much less IDed by civilians. I drilled my people mercilessly, and they enthusiastically dreamed up new, even more impossible scenarios for us to deal with. We practiced our covert missions by sneaking into factories in local dress or shop uniform, planting simulated sabotage devices, and then having others sneak in to verify the "damage" and remove all evidence of the event.

    It was arrogant of me (arrogance is when you can back it up, conceit is when you can't) to start thinking of Operatives, and me in particular, as gods of covert warfare. It wasn't long after that that I had an opportunity to prove so.

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