The fourth book in Tanya Huff's action-packed military sci-fi adventure Confederation series
After surviving the perils of the Crucible, the Marine Corps planet where a routine training assignment had taken a deadly twist—Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr returned to Ventris Station just in time to link up with her old platoon and head out to a new war zone, an area of space where the enemy known as the Others appeared to be building up its forces for a preemptive strike.
Sent to pull back troops who’d moved up to an indefensible position, Torin was caught in the heaviest fighting just as a devastating air strike reduced the whole area to slag. The Corps concluded that she was dead. But despite irrefutable evidence, neither Torin’s father nor salvager Craig Ryder agreed.
And the truth was that Torin had survived. She woke to discover that she was trapped in a series of underground caves that appeared to be an enemy-run POW camp. But everyone knew the Others never took prisoners—or did they?
Could Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr escape this prison that shouldn’t even exist, taking as many Marines as possible with her? Though she was determined to get herself and her Marines back to the Confederation, Torin had no idea how crucial her attempt could prove, not only to her own well-being, but to the course of the entire war.
“GUNNERY SERGEANT KERR! Good to have you back!”
“Good to be back, Sergeant Hollice.” Torin thumbprinted the release that would send her gear straight to her quarters and fell into step beside the sergeant as they crossed the shuttle bay. “And congratulations on the promotion.” Adrian Hollice had been in her squad when she was a sergeant and then, when she made staff sergeant, her platoon. She’d fast-tracked him onto his SLC and had been pleased to see her decision justified when Command had given him his third hook. Not that she needed reassurance that she’d been right—these days, she needed reassurance that Command didn’t have its head so far up its collective ass it was cutting off all oxygen to its collective brain. “The squad have any trouble getting used to it?”
“Not after Ressk and Mashona knocked a couple of heads together. They said I’d been leading them around by thediran avirrk for months anyway, I might as well get paid for it.”
Torin grinned. The Corps tried to keep combat units together when it could. Familiar faces strengthened both stability and loyalty under adverse conditions, and Marines had their own ways of working through the disruptions promotions brought.
“The captain was a little afraid they were going to send you to Recar’ta HQ,” Hollice told her as they stepped onto the lower beltway.
“So was I.” After Crucible, after she’d been detanked with her jaw rebuilt, after she’d passed the physical and psych evaluations that followed any major reconstruction, Torin had asked to be returned to Sh’quo Company. They were short NCOs and, as she’d pointed out, she’d be wasted in a staff position. Although the Corps reserved the right to send her wherever the hell it pleased, both points were inarguable and she’d been sent home. It hadn’t hurt that the Commandant of the Corps had agreed with her—although wasted in a staff position had not been the phrase used.
“The last thing we need around here is someone else who thinks she’s always right,” had been the gist of the Commandant’s observations.
Given the hour, the lower beltway was nearly deserted.
“They’ve started sweeping our Division.” Hollice stood self-consciously erect as they rode toward the heart of the station. “Started at First Recar’ta, of course, so the war could bloody well be over before they get to us at Fourth. Scuttlebutt says they haven’t found anything yet.”
He tugged at his collar tabs, and Torin hid a smile at the telltale sign. In a poker game, he’d have been bluffing. In a conversation, he was trying to draw her out. This was why he’d come to meet her; she’d been with the recon team on Big Yellow—the alien spaceship that had turned out to be the actual alien, or aliens, the terminology remained uncertain—later, she’d initiated the investigation into why nobody remembered Big Yellow’s missing escape pod and had most recently spoken to a collective of the alien on Crucible. Granted, melting her jaw during a last-ditch attempt to override a reprogrammed OpSat had meant she’d been tanked during the initial There are aliens among us!hysteria, and she’d missed the development of the search protocols, but she was the closest thing to an authority in the Sector.
“You think they will, Gunny?” Hollice prodded. “Find anything, I mean?”
“Find bits of a polynumerous shape-shifting, organic plastic alien that boots through our security protocols like cheddar through a H’san?” Torin asked him blandly. “One that can separate into submicroscopic pieces to avoid detection and then recombine itself back to sentience when the danger has passed? I very much doubt it.” Search protocols and calming announcements from the Elder Races be damned. “Not unless it wants to be found.”
She had to admire the dryness of his delivery. He’d deserved that promotion. “Not really.”
“What does it want?”
“It told me it was collecting data.”
“So it seems.”
“No idea. We may never know.” Little pieces of plastic were ubiquitous throughout Confederation space. The alien could be a part of any of them. It could be any of them. It could mimic other materials, and while the parts they’d most recently been in contact with had been gray, Big Yellow proved rather conclusively that didn’t have to be the case. The handrail on the beltway could be recording data for the alien—as the alien—while she passed. Torin, by career choice and disposition more paranoid than most, had made a conscious decision not to think about that.
“It could make us all forget it was ever here,” Hollice pointed out, his voice fraying a bit around the edges.
“Not all of us, Hollice.”
He turned, stared at her for a moment, and smiled. “That’s right. It can’t mess with your head.”
“Took a look inside and was scared off. It wants to get to Sh’quo Company, it’ll have to get through me.” Which was both the truth and complete bullshit since she had no more way of stopping the alien, singly or collectively, than she had of convincing the Navy that a straight line was the shortest distance between two points. But it was bullshit Hollice needed to hear and bullshit he needed to repeat to his squad. Or maybe it was the part of the statement that was the truth he needed to repeat. Whatever worked.
Technically, it hadn’t messed with her head. Hadn’t adjusted her memories of the escape pod the way it had adjusted the memories of nearly everyone else who’d been involved in the exploration of Big Yellow.
Hadn’t and couldn’t were two totally different things.
* * *
The shortage of NCOs meant that Torin had only to put in a request to the station sysop to have her old quarters reassigned. The recon mission to Big Yellow had been a temporary posting, but the promotion before traveling to Ventris to brief Command on the Silsviss had destroyed the certainty of a round-trip ticket—integrating an aggressive reptilian species into the Corps would take decades, and she’d essentially been responsible for their willingness to join. That made her, if not an expert on the species, someone whose opinion Command intended to exploit. Fortunately, new information from the Marines stationed at the embassy on Silsviss had pushed her experience out toward the edge of the target. Some of those Marines were trained xenopsychologists rather than a noncom with good instincts and a willingness to kick ass when required, and, more importantly, none of them had been expected to kill a senior officer.
Torin suspected a few people were concerned because they still weren’t sure if she’d have gone through with it had General Morris’ sacrifice actually been necessary. She supposed it didn’t help that when asked directly she’d said, “As it wasn’t necessary, I guess we’ll never know.”
Which was the absolute truth; it wasn’t something anyone could know until it happened—no matter what they believed themselves capable of.
Her willingness to hack Major Svensson’s arm off with an ax hadn’t reassured anyone.
When she dialed the door open, her quarters looked just as she remembered them, right down to the Silsviss skull hanging on the wall over her entertainment unit. Weird. When she’d left for Ventris, she’d put everything she wasn’t taking with her into station storage.
“Messages?” she asked as the door slid shut behind her.
She’d verbalized, so the station did the same. “One message to Gunnery Sergeant Kerr from Staff Sergeant Greg Reghubir. As follows: “Welcome back, Gunny. We figured the last thing you’d need to do was sort your crap out, so we did it for you. Lance Corporal Ressk says you need stronger encryptions on your storage unit.” Greg sounded matter-of-fact, but Torin would have bet hard currency that he’d changed his own unit’s setting immediately after he saw what Ressk could do with an eight-digit code. “Twenty-thirty tonight in the SRM; don’t be late, or we’ll start without you.”
Torin patted the skull fondly as she passed on her way to the shower. It was good to be home.
* * *
“There’s been a lot of action out on the edge of the sector. Long-range sensors have picked up Susumi portals here, here, and here.” Captain Rose touched three points on the star field currently mapped out on the briefing room’s HMU and frowned at the resulting red lights. “Navy swears they’re not responsible.”
Second Lieutenant Jarret’s lavender eyes darkened as light receptors opened to give him a better look at the map. “Civilians, sir?”
The captain sighed. “It’s always possible some dumbass corporation or university has decided to scout the perimeter—those types always think they’re invincible until they find out they aren’t and we have to pull their butts out of the fire—but I don’t honestly think so. We usually get some kind of a heads up just so we’re available to pull those butts out of the fire, and, so far, no one’s admitting they’ve gone visiting.”
“What about independents, sir?” Second Lieutenant Heerik was brand new, on her first posting with none of her enthusiasm blunted, and more than one of Sh’quo Company’s officers and NCOs bent over their slates and hid a smile at the intensity of the Krai lieutenant’s question.
“What kind of independents did you have in mind, Lieutenant?”
“Well, maybe civilian salvage operators.” Her nose ridges flared. “It was a CSO who found Big Yellow.”
And Torin felt the attention of the room shift to her.
“Gunnery Sergeant Kerr?”
Torin had served with the captain long enough to know he was amused her relationship—or whatever the hell it was she had with Craig Ryder—had made it into the briefing. Although his reaction was subtle enough, the odds were good no one else could see it. “CSO Craig Ryder found Big Yellow because of a small error in his Susumi calculations.” She waited out the murmur of reaction. Small errors in Susumi calculations were usually fatal errors. “Spaced as they are. . .” She nodded toward the lights on the map. “. . . these portals are clearly deliberate. Salvage operators follow rather than lead, and there’s nothing happening out there. No debris, no reason for them to be deliberately jumping that way.”
“Unless there’s something happening out there,” Lieutenant Jarret said thoughtfully.
“Unless,” Captain Rose agreed. “Which is why the Navy has sent the Hardyr out to have a look around. Captain Treis came out of Susumi space here. . .” Another touch on the star map illuminated a fourth portal, this one green. “. . . and is proceeding with due caution to this system, ST7/45T2. . .” One last touch. “. . . here.” The system was equidistant from all three red portals.
“How long is due caution expected to take, sir?” Lieutenant Joriyl wondered.
“You’ll likely be headed Coreward before it happens, Lieutenant.”
Her pale orange eyes darkened as she smiled. “And not a moment too soon, sir.”
Lieutenant di’Pin Joriyl was the senior platoon officer. With her heading into Ventris on course that meant. . .
Torin blinked as she realized that meant Second Lieutenant di’Ka Jarret would be senior. The voice of reason and experience for Second Lieutenant Heerik and an even greener second lieutenant to be named later. It hadn’t been quite a year since a very green Jarret had been tossed into a stew of giant lizards and diplomacy gone bugfuk, and suddenly Torin felt old. Life was moving just a little too fast of late.
“Captain Treis will keep Recar’ta Station informed, Recar’ta will keep Battalion informed, and—if we’re really lucky—Battalion will let us know what the hell is going on before they ship us out to deal with it. Platoons are nearly at full strength for the first time in a long time, so let’s make sure everyone’s geared up and ready to go.” The star field flicked off. Captain Rose swept his gaze around the room, then nodded once. “Details have been downloaded to your slates; get out there and get ready to save the galaxy’s ass yet again. Gunnery Sergeant Kerr, remain behind.”
“Yes, sir.” Torin stood as the officers and NCOs made their way out of the small briefing room, Jarret throwing her a distinct we’ll get together later before turning his attention back to Heerik, who continued talking about the best responses to possible foothold situations, unaware of expressions exchanged nearly a meter over her head. Torin had been Jarret’s staff sergeant for that snafu of a giant lizard diplomacy trip, and she’d been impressed by the way the young officer had handled himself—both independently and under her guidance. If he stayed beyond his first contract, he’d be a credit to the Corps, and she’d be happy to serve under him again.
When the room emptied, she followed Captain Rose and First Sergeant Siaosi Tutone through the door to the captain’s office.
“Opinion, Gunny?” he asked, dropping into the chair behind his desk. Captain Rose’s voice had always seemed about three sizes too big for his body, but here, in the relative privacy of his office, he sounded tired. No, weary. Tired of all the crap that came from being a fair distance down the military food chain.
Or maybe Torin was reading too much into it.
“I think three Susumi points definitely indicates the Others are interested in something in that end of the Sector,” she told him. “I think the lack of any significant attempt to hide their presence means they’re coming through in force. I think the Navy should have sent more ships because if the Others get that force on the ground we’re looking at Battalion moving the whole Ground Combat Team out in response. And I think that the music selection in the Senior Ranks’ Mess changed for the worse while I was gone.”
“That would be my selection,” the first sergeant pointed out. His voice was as deep as the captain’s although less incongruous, rumbling up as it did from the depth of an enormous barrel chest. Torin was tall, but Tutone topped her by a head and a half—taller even than most di’Taykan—and proportionately broad. His hands were enormous, and muscle strained against the confines of his Class Cs.
“Good choice, First. It’s past time I broadened my musical tastes,” Torin added, although she wasn’t sure whether she was aiming for more or for less sincerity.
Tutone grinned, teeth flashing white against the rich mahogany of his skin.
Captain Rose leaned back in his chair and smiled as well. “Welcome home, Gunny. It’s good to have you back.”
“Thank you, sir. It’s good to be back.”
“Recar’ta Station agrees with your analysis, by the way. When the orders come down, they’ll come down for the entire GCT. That’s why you’re here, specifically here with Sh’quo Company when we don’t generally rate a gunny. Aman’s short, and she’s not reupping. Unless we deploy in the next tenday, that’ll leave Jura’s platoon with a shiny new second lieutenant and Heerik, who’s almost as shiny, with a green staff sergeant. We’ll move the new staff sergeant in under Jarret, since he’s got a whole year of experience. . .” Pale eyes rolled, although for the most part he kept the sarcasm from his voice. “. . . but that’s going to leave the company scrambling for experience among the officers and senior NCOs. We need you to be a kind of utility player, coming in off the bench where needed both at the platoon level and keeping the company connected to Battalion.”
“Off the bench is a sports metaphor,” Tutone offered. “Baseball.”
His tone was dry enough that Torin couldn’t quite tell if he was being helpful or facetious, so she settled for a neutral, “Thank you, First Sergeant.” The league on Paradise had teams on all three major continents, and the year she left to join the Corps, New Alland—a minor continent or large island depending on who was speaking—had petitioned to have their teams recognized as well. According to the news download in the most recent packet from her younger brother, they still hadn’t managed it.
“Until we ship out,” Captain Rose continued, “you’ll base at a desk by First Sergeant Tutone’s, your primary duty to liaise with the rest of the GCT as we attempt to get ready for whatever’s coming down the fukking pike. Eventually, I expect you’ll be at the first sergeant’s desk.”
New gunnery sergeants were expected to indicate which way they intended their careers to go—to the combat position of first sergeant or to the staff position of master sergeant. After the incident on Crucible, where both the system and the officer in charge had been taken over by unknown alien forces and Torin had led the training platoon of one-twenty recruits while they fought both the system and the aliens to a standstill, Command had made it quite clear which choice they’d prefer Torin to make. Fortunately, it was the choice she wanted to make. Tutone’s desk had been her goal since she’d received her corporal’s hooks.
“I wasn’t planning on going anywhere, sir.”
For an instant, Torin thought the first sergeant had been reading her mind, and then she realized he’d been responding to the captain’s statement.
“Glad to hear that, First. I was just starting to get used to you. So, Gunny, is it true what Command says, that there’s nothing we can do about the microscopic bits of a big yellow alien scattered throughout known space?”
“That’s the gist of it, sir.”
“Since the search teams haven’t found anything, any chance they’ve buggered off back where they came from?”
“The bit I spoke to told me they didn’t have enough information, sir. I expect they’re still collecting data.”
“Why can’t the search teams find them, then?” Before she could answer, Tutone raised a massive hand. “Never mind. The answer is probably that they can’t find their anus with both hands and a map, so. . .” He waved off the end of the sentence.
“Any chance that when they spoke to you, they were messing with your head?” the captain wondered.
Given that some of them had just emerged from Major Svensson’s head, Torin sure as hell hoped not. “I don’t think so, sir.”
Captain Rose sat and stared up at the ceiling for a moment; specifically stared at the ring of gray plastic around the recessed light over his desk. Tutone followed the captain’s gaze, but Torin refused to look. “It’s like discovering the enemy is an inanimate object,” he muttered, dropping his gaze. “Any inanimate object.” Then he shook his head and double tapped his desk, blows ringing against the plastic. “All right. Let’s get going on a job we can do.”
Both NCOs recognized the dismissal, coming to attention and snapping out a “Sir!” in unison.
Rolling his eyes, the captain stroked one hand down the edge of the lower, right side screen. “I’m sending your first problem out to your desk, Gunny. And I know you’ve got things to deal with, First Sergeant, so let’s have a little less smartass spit and polish and a little more work out of both of you. Gunny?”
Torin paused at the door. “Sir?”
“Can we be expecting General Morris to drop by any time soon?”
General Morris had become Torin’s personal pain in the brass. He’d sent the platoon out to Silsviss, he’d sent her out to Big Yellow, and he’d been contaminated by the alien. Torin had a feeling he blamed her for the last. After all, if she hadn’t blown the whistle, he’d never have known. Or, specifically, no one would have ever known it about him. Given their history, the thought of him showing up once again at the Four Two made her feel a little chilled. Their time spent together never ended well.
“I sincerely hope not, sir.”
“Glad to hear it.”
In the outer office, Torin settled in behind her desk—easy enough to identify as it was the one the first sergeant hadn’t settled his bulk behind—and opened the file the captain had sent.
“New desk, new job, eh, Gunny?”
She looked up to find the first sergeant watching her. “Same old war, First. Same old war.”
He smiled and nodded, but she had a suspicion that he didn’t entirely agree with her. She had no problem with that. There were days when she didn’t entirely agree with it herself.
“Do you ever get the feeling that there are things the Elder Races aren’t telling us?”
“It is worth noting, Gunny, that none of the diplomatic missions sent to the Others have ever included a member of the species doing the actual fighting.”
Granted, it had turned out not to have been the Elder Races messing with the memories of those who knew about Big Yellow but Big Yellow itself, and while that was moderately less distressing than the alternative—always better to be screwed over by an unknown factor than an ally—that didn’t actually address either question. Were there things the Elder Races weren’t telling the Humans, di’Taykan, or Krai who fought their war? And why hadn’t one of the three Youngest ever been invited to join the missions sent out to try to end the war? Over a century of attempted diplomacy had resulted in a few thousand dead diplomats, so why hadn’t Parliament tried every possible option?
And, most importantly, had she been discussing the Elder Races with Major Svensson or with the alien living in his brain? If the former, was there discontent growing within the Corps? If the latter, did the aliens know something the Youngest didn’t?
Too many questions.
Torin wanted to go back to the days when the only question she ever asked was What do I have to do to get my people out of here alive? Unfortunately, once the round was out of the barrel, there was no stuffing it back in. Those days were long gone.
* * *
“The company will be at full complement when we deploy, Sergeant—three full platoons plus NCOs plus officers.” Torin leaned forward just far enough to tap the screen currently showing the potential packet layouts. That leaning forward also brought her well into the transport sergeant’s personal space was intentional. “We’re short here. And here.”
“I’ve got the whole GCT moving out, Gunny.” His nose ridges opened, closed, and opened again. “Not everyone’s going to get what they want.”
“That’s fair. But Sh’quo Company will get what we need.”
He started to answer, realized she hadn’t actually asked a question, and shut his mouth with a snap of his teeth. Krai teeth could chew through anything that held still long enough, and the sound was intended to be intimidating.
Torin smiled. Human teeth weren’t as strong—it was all in the display.
* * *
“No, sir. The download is correct and in order, but the count was wrong. Download says we received eight hundred twenty-eight, ninety standard-round mags for one hundred thirty-eight KC-7, five hundred fifty-two high impact mags, and thirty-six full packages for the heavies when, in point of fact, we received eight hundred twenty-six, ninety standard-round mags.”
The supply officer flashed her laser at one of the automated retrieval drones up near the roof of the armory, adjusting its approach to an upper storage unit, then turned to scowl in Torin’s general direction. “You’re making all this fuss for two magazines, Gunnery Sergeant?”
“Fine. We’ll make them up in the next ship. Two magazines aren’t going to make a damned bit of difference.”
“Sorry, sir, but we could deploy at any moment; I need it corrected now.”
That focused the lieutenant’s attention. “You need it corrected now?”
“Because I have nothing better to do?”
Torin caught the lieutenant’s lilac gaze and held it. She’d been a lieutenant through Torin’s last three promotions and at this point would likely never see her captain’s bars. Torin didn’t care about that; there were plenty of reasons people were passed over for promotion. Some of them were even good reasons. What she did care about was that someone who’d be a long Susumi jump back of the shooting had no fukking idea just how much difference two magazines could make when it came down to it.
The lieutenant looked away when Torin allowed it. She flashed the laser at one of the smaller drones, and waited, scowling, until it buzzed up and hovered by her elbow. Picking the magazines out of the bin, she tossed them toward Torin who snatched them out of the air, checked their loads, and scanned the serial numbers into her slate to replace the two they didn’t receive.
“Happy, Gunnery Sergeant?”
“I don’t want to see you around here again.”
“And you won’t, sir.” She paused just long enough for it to be noticeable. “Not as long as the downloads and the counts match.”
* * *
“Nice grouping, Mashona.”
Lance Corporal Binti Mashona lowered her weapon and grinned. “Thank you, Gunnery Sergeant.”
The ten rounds hadn’t hit the target in a grouping so much as in a single large hole.
“Lance Corporal Mashona was using a standard KC-7, right off the rack.” Torin informed Second Lieutenant Heerik’s number three squad. “Now that she’s proven what can be done when properly motivated, why don’t you lot come up here again and, this time, try to hit the damned targets. If you’re still having trouble, pretend you all qualified on this weapon back in Basic!”
“Uh, Gunnery Sergeant. . .” The private’s ocher hair made tentative movements out at the ends of the strands. “. . . we did all qualify back in Basic.”
“I know that, Private Leraj.”
“I think you’re making them nervous, Gunny,” Mashona murmured as the squad rushed back into position.
Torin snorted. “I can’t see why.”
* * *
“I’m surprised, I am, truly surprised, that a big hero like you—got the Silsviss to join up all on your lonesome, discovered a new alien life-form, saved a whole platoon of children from a bit of bad programming—I’m surprised you’re still willing to drink with us working stiffs.”
“He’s drunk, Torin.”
Torin looked at Amanda’s hand on her arm then up at the di’Taykan technical sergeant looming over their table, his lime-green hair spread out in a brilliant aurora around his head. “You think?”
Di’Taykan hair wasn’t exactly hair as Humans understood it. It was more like fine cat whiskers, and this, this was a threat display. Used to thinking of the di’Taykan as lovers—where lovers meant the most enthusiastically nondiscriminating species in known space—a lot of people forgot why they were part of the military structure. When the Elder Races first contacted them, they’d achieved peace under the umbrella of half a dozen heavily armed Orbital Platforms and had defense satellites in place all the way out to the edge of their system. While it was true that usually, one on one, they fukked before they fought. . . they also fought.
And this technical sergeant, wearing Armored’s distinctive lightning bolt and wheel collar tabs, was looking for a fight.
Thing was, fights didn’t happen in the SRM regardless of the amount of alcohol consumed—someone with more than two operating brain cells usually put a stop to things. Tonight, no one was stepping forward. There was, instead, a sense of anticipation among the other NCOs in the mess. As more and more of them became aware of the drama playing out in the corner, that anticipation grew.
In each of those instances, Torin had just been doing her job, and everyone in the room knew that; but there hadbeen a lot of attention, and that wasn’t going to make everyone happy. Add to that the certain knowledge of a big fight brewing but with no clear idea of when, and it was no surprise tensions had risen to a flashpoint.
“I’m surprised the brass hasn’t handed you a commission on a plate,” the technical sergeant sneered.
“Let it go,” Torin suggested wearily. She didn’t feel like talking about it, but she had to at least make the attempt before she handed this moron his head on plate.
Or. . .
“Sure.” She drained her beer, set the glass down on the table, and stood. “Your place or mine?”
He wanted a fight. But he was di’Taykan. Lime-green eyes darkened as light receptors opened and he took a closer look at her—not that physical appearance was ever part of di’Taykan criteria. His hair fell closer to his head and began to sweep slowly back and forth.
Torin raised a single brow, the effect well worth what she’d paid for the ability. “Well?”
The technical sergeant spread his arms and grinned. “Now that’s an encounter you’re going to lose, Gunny.”
Returning the grin, Torin snorted. “You have an interesting definition of the word lose, Sergeant.”
* * *
Due caution ended up taking almost three full tendays. By the time the word came down that Captain Treis had recorded the Others with numbers approaching full battalion support on the fourth planet of the system—dubbed Estee by the Marines—Sh’quo Company was supplied, supported, refreshed, and ready to move out.
“Little more anticipation and I’d have started moving some of them out myself,” Torin muttered. “Right out the air lock without waiting for the Hardyr to match up.”
“You know what the new kids are like.” Amanda took her second duffel bag from Torin and tossed it down the chute to the shuttle bay. “Anxious to get out there and win the war.” She half snickered as she turned. “Like until they showed up, no one bothered to put any effort into it.”
“I’m not sure everyone is.”
The staff sergeant’s eyes narrowed. “You okay, Torin?”
Torin considered and discarded a number of answers. Amanda was on her way Coreward—two contracts fulfilled, one long and one short—and as soon as Ventris dealt with her data dump, this would no longer be her war. She’d been a good Marine, a good staff sergeant, and good friend; she’d survived everything the Others and the brass could throw at her, and Torin suggesting she question all that would only throw shadows over what should be a celebration. “I’ll be fine,” Torin told her, “as soon as they give me something to shoot.”
As a response, it had the added benefit of also being true.
Amanda snickered, as Torin intended. “At least Command delayed Lieutenant Joriyl’s course. The last thing you needed was two green twoies and Lieutenant Jarret as senior going into a knockdown fight. And, although I’m happy you’ll be taking care of my kids, it sucks you’re back in charge of a platoon.”
When Torin raised an eyebrow, she sighed. “Not what I meant. It’s a step back for you.”
“But they’re still paying me more. And, until I can be in charge of the whole company, it suits me better than running the captain’s errands.”
“Gotta do the shit before you can do the shine, Gunny.”
“Truth.” Torin watched Amanda take a last look down the corridor, saw her note a scuffed section of wall she could put a punishment detail to buffing out, and she smiled. “You’re going to miss it.”
“I am. And I need to go while I still will.” She frowned. “Still will miss it.”
“I got that.” Good-bye seemed depressingly final, so instead: “Stay safe.”
Amanda rolled her eyes. “Why wouldn’t I be? As long as you’re out there.”
* * *
“Isn’t this kind of fast?”
Torin paused, twenty meters of rope looped over one arm, and actually looked at the screen. “What do you mean fast?”
“I mean fast!” Craig Ryder sat back in his pilot’s chair and crossed his arms. That put his face farther from the pickup but allowed Torin to see more of his upper body, so she figured she came out ahead. Not that he didn’t have an attractive face—blue eyes, slightly crooked nose, and dimples bracketing a self-assured smile currently visible without the on-again, off-again coverage of a scruffy red-brown beard—but she had a special fondness for the heavily muscled arms and the set of shoulders so broad they threw things out of proportion, making him look shorter than he actually was. “I mean, sure, the bad guys are jumping in pretty much right up your lot’s arse, but don’t you need more time to get ready?”
“Yeah, well you could definitely use a little more good oil on what you’ll be facing. I mean, fuk, they’re deploying the whole GCT out of Four Two and you’ve got almost no intell.”
She smiled then, mostly at his sudden switch into military jargon. “We’ve got almost no intell you’re aware of.” Civilian Salvage Operators worked the edges of battles. They knew where those battles were, or more precisely where they’d been, but they didn’t know much more.
“So you know more than: Oh, look, one fuk of a lot of Others in our space—let’s go kick butt!”
“I don’t actually need to know more than that.”
“No. . .” He sighed and reluctantly returned her smile. “. . . I guess you don’t. You know how long you’ll be gone?”
“Until we win.”
Neither of them mentioned the corollary.
“If it lasts long enough, then I expect I’ll rock up.”
If there was debris enough to make it worth his while. Debris meant dead pilots. Dead crew. Dead Marines. They didn’t talk about that. Safer to talk about the recent repairs to his ship. Torin stowed the rope in her pack while Craig went over the modifications he’d planned for Promise’s living quarters to accommodate the possibility of a second person. As her continued silence moved him from not quite ready to acknowledge possibilities into more general gossip, she moved to the desk and opened her med kit. The contents provided a little more than first aid and, odds were good, a little less than what she’d likely need.
“Hey! Are you even listening to me?”
“I am.” She liked hearing his voice in the background as she got things ready. It was—gods help her—comforting. It didn’t matter what he was actually talking about.
“So what do you think about it?”
Turned out she hadn’t been listening closely enough although she was fairly certain he’d been telling her about a military rumor now making the rounds of the general public. Which would make the safest response: “I doubt it’ll happen.”
Craig shrugged. Torin watched the movement appreciatively. “I don’t know, Presit seemed sure your R&D guys could reverse engineer her pilot’s trip behind the Berg to Big Yellow.”
Presit a Tur durValintrisy, reporter for Sector Central News, had wanted the story of the unidentified alien ship badly enough that she’d bullied her pilot into locking onto the tail end of the Berganitan’s Susumi signature, basing his own equations on information received from riding the sweet spot in the warship’s wake. It was amazing piloting, and Parliament had declared the stunt too dangerous to be repeated without further study. A lot of further study.
The reporter still had no time for Torin but considered Craig one of hers. One of her what Craig wasn’t willing to say, although the Katrien were a matriarchal species, so the chances of him being embarrassed by the details were high.
“If your lot can dummy a way to follow the Others home,” he continued, “then won’t you be able to take the fight to them?”
“We will.” Torin shoved her med kit into her pack. “And then there’ll be more fighting.”
“I thought that was what you did.”
It wasn’t a question, so she didn’t answer it. Wouldn’t have had an answer to it had it been a question.
“So. . .” The chair creaked as he shifted his weight. “. . . one of my salvage tags seems to have gone walkabout.”
“You probably stuffed it into the junk drawer.” No probably about it—she knew he’d stuffed the tag in the junk drawer because that was where she’d taken it from. It was currently tucked in between her breasts, hanging around her neck on a length of braided cord.
He shook his head and grinned. “The buggers are chipped, Torin.”
“I run the codes and I can find it.”
She looked up then. She’d taken it on impulse, wanting to carry something of his with her and ignoring the fact that she never did anything impulsively. On the shuttle ride to the station, turning it over and over, she’d found a weird sort of comfort in knowing that as long as she held on to it, he could find her. Provided he was close enough. Her military ID had a stronger signal, but he’d be more motivated.
She hoped he’d be more motivated.
She’d almost sent it back to him twice. Almost.
Finally she said, “I know.”
After a moment, Craig reached out and touched the edge of the screen. “This must be costing you big bikkies.”
“A few.” Full squirt with no discernible time delay was expensive, but they wouldn’t have another chance to talk until she got back to the station. No way of knowing when they’d be together physically, and the thought of that made her ache in ways she found just a little disconcerting. It wasn’t the sex—there was always plenty of that to go around—it was him.
That got him her full attention. It was the same tone he’d used during their we’re going to damned well discuss a future whether you like it or not conversation. She hadn’t liked it. And he hadn’t backed down. And damned if they weren’t likely to have a future together. Some day.
“Why spend so much to say good-bye?”
“It isn’t. . .”
He snorted and she paused.
“Fine. You mean that much to me. Okay? Happy?”
His smile made her fumble a rolled pair of socks, and she called herself a sentimental ass as she bent to pick them up.
“Happy unless,” he continued as she straightened, “you’ve got a bad feeling about this fight and you think this may be it.”
She flicked an eyebrow in his general direction. “I’m going into combat. Of course this may be it.”
“Damn.” One corner of his mouth twisted, turning the smile into a parody of itself. “I wasn’t expecting you to agree with me.”
“Don’t worry.” She stopped herself before she could touch her fingertips to his on the screen, knowing that whatever the impetus for the cliché, no matter how much Craig would appreciate the gesture, she’d hate herself for it later. “I’m not that easy to kill.”
He snorted. “Everyone’s easy to kill, Torin.”
* * *
Moving a full GCT of fifty-four officers and 1,178 enlisted Marines from the station out through the lock tubes and into their packets on the Hardyr called for split-second timing and some inventive profanity. As all three GC companies, the recon platoon, and the engineers waited to board, the masses of black uniforms surging back and forth across the main loading bay looked, at best, like barely organized chaos. The chaos was unavoidable, but Torin had made damned sure that Sh’quo Company’s part in it at least was organized. Their armory had been loaded, their packets checked, their mess adjusted—Supply had its collective head up its ass if they thought Marines could survive a four-day Susumi jump and an indefinite time fighting on their idea of coffee rations.
Slate in hand, she watched as C’arden Company moved its first squad over the lip and into the tube and grinned as Sergeant Perry, a distinct enough of this shit tone to his voice snapped out, “Double time, people! I’ll be right pissed if we miss the rest of the war!”
First squad in set the pace, and double-timing half a kilometer with full gear should be no one’s idea of a rough time. They might even get all three companies loaded before the Marines on the shortlist claimed their contracts were up.
With Captain Rose and First Sergeant Tutone huddled up with their counterparts, Torin calmed Second Lieutenant Heerik, who was not handling the waiting well, broke up a shoving match between a pair of heavy gunners by threatening to link their exoskeletons to a dance biscuit, and joined Sergeant Hollice watching Corporal di’Merk Mysho repack her pack.
“She says fussing kills time,” Hollice said without being asked.
Torin shrugged as Mysho smacked Sam Austin’s hand away from a bag of high-calorie chews. “She’s right.”
“She also said fukking would kill time.”
“She’s right again.”
“Except that we’re in ranks and I wouldn’t excuse her.”
Hollice snorted. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure she expressed an opinion on my parentage, too.”
“You need to learn more di’Taykan, Sergeant.”
He snorted again. “Safer not to know, Gunny.”
“Is Private Padarkadale praying?” His eyes were closed and his lips were moving, and a circle pendant dangled from one pale hand.
“Probably,” Hollice allowed, rolling his eyes in the greenie’s general direction. “But we needed a religious one to complete the set.”
Mashona was asleep, head on her pack, KC-7 cradled against her chest like an infant, long, dark fingers gently cupping the sniper scope. Boots off, slate held in prehensile toes, Ressk worked the screen with both hands—nose ridges clamped shut, lips drawn back off his teeth. Whatever he was working on, he was finding it a challenge. Given that he’d broken through station security so cleanly they’d remained unaware of the breach for almost six tendays, Torin told Hollice to check him out and continued circulating.
Sh’quo would be the last of the three GC companies to load. Most of the Marines had their slates out playing a game biscuit or writing one last message home; a few, like Mysho, were going through their gear, fewer still were sleeping. There were a couple of quiet conversations, a couple of louder conversations, and another shoving match broken up by their teammates before Torin could get across the floor.
The engineers would load after Sh’quo and then Recon—last on, first off.
“Gunnery Sergeant Kerr!”
Torin knew that voice. She turned, slowly, figured what the hell, and smiled at the dark-haired young woman currently trying not to smile at her. “Private Kichar. I see you’ve gone into Recon.”
Dark eyes narrowed over a prominent nose. “How. . .”
Kichar flushed slightly but didn’t glance down at her tabs. Point for her, Torin acknowledged. “I just wanted to say it’s an honor to be serving with you again, Gunnery Sergeant.”
“I can’t say I’m unhappy about it either, Kichar.” And she meant it. The battle on Crucible had knocked the stick mostly out of Kichar’s ass—the creases pressed into her combats indicated she was still an annoying overachiever, but there’d be plenty of battles to knock that out of her, too.
“I didn’t ask to be posted to 4th Recar’ta 1st Battalion after training,” Kichar explained.
“She doesn’t want you to think she’s stalking you, Gunny.” The Krai corporal’s teeth were showing as he detached himself from the crowd and moved into their space. “Even if all she does is fukking talk about you.”
“You don’t think I’m worth talking about?”
He snorted. “I don’t know, Gunny. What’ve you done lately?”
Kichar’s eyes narrowed further, her weight shifted forward, and she was clearly about to do something she’d just as clearly regret about five seconds after doing it. Torin closed a steadying hand around her arm. “It’s okay, Kichar. Lance Corporal Werst was with me on Big Yellow—although he was a private then.”
“And I’d be one again if they let me give the fukking hook back,” Werst grunted.
Torin grinned. She’d bet serious credit on him ending up career Marine. “I’m sure you can figure out a way to lose it.”
Although she managed to keep from grabbing the much shorter Krai, Kichar’s hands kept opening and closing. “You never said you served with the gunny before.”
Werst shrugged, a Human gesture both the di’Taykan and Krai had adopted. “So? Dursinski’s here too, Gunny. Still bitching.”
That was a surprise. The lance corporal hadn’t seemed to be enjoying her time in the Corps. A bigger surprise that she’d remained in Recon given the attrition rate. “She reupped?”
Werst shrugged again. “Said it beat looking for a real job.”
“That’s not,” Kichar began, paused and frowned. “You were kidding?”
“Not me,” Werst told her, nose ridges pinching shut. “Dursinski might’ve been.”
“Gunny, I need to. . .”
“Ask the corporal what she meant?” Torin interjected into the pause. “Go ahead.”
“Fuk, she’s annoying.” Popping something in his mouth Torin was just as glad she couldn’t identify, given the Krai were as indiscriminate in their eating habits as the di’Taykan were about sex, Werst nodded toward an argument among the engineers. “You going to deal with that?”
The trio of specialists seemed to be disagreeing on who’d be carrying what equipment. Before Torin could work up enough interest to care, a Human technical sergeant broke it up, smoothly separating the combatants and bending quickly to catch something that looked like a metal spider before it hit the floor. As he straightened, he met Torin’s eye and nodded before handing the spider back to the Marine who’d dropped it.
“Looks like it’s under control,” she said. Across the loading bay, Captain Rose raised a hand. “And I’m needed. Be seeing you, Werst.”
“You can join us out in front any time, Gunny.”
Gunnery sergeants did not need the approval of lance coporals, but Torin was Human enough she appreciated the thought all the way back across the bay.
“It’s like supervising a kindergarten class,” the captain sighed as she joined him. “Tutone’s just gone to broker a deal with Captain Yun’s First concerning pudding cups.”
“Pudding cups, sir?”
“Yun thinks their mess got too many vanilla cups.” He scratched at a patch of old scar tissue on his jaw and sighed. “We don’t wait well, do we?”
“No, sir. But we’ll snap to once the fight starts.”
* * *
“Gunny!” Captain Rose leaned in so close she could feel his breath hot against her cheek. The only way to be heard over the Others’ artillery and their own answering it. “Any word from Heerik’s number three squad?”
“Should have sent a runner when the PCUs went.”
“Yes, sir!” A lot of “should haves” got missed with the company pinned down under small arms and artillery fire while attempting to take an entrenched position. Blasted communication units made the list even longer.
“I have to know. . .”
They ducked together as something impacted against the other side of their hastily thrown up earthworks and blew with a whomph that rattled Torin’s teeth.
Coughing and spitting out mouthfuls of finely pulverized dirt, the captain glared at her with bloodshot eyes. “You think they knew we were coming?” he bellowed as the dust settled.
“Seem to have baked a cake, sir.”
He spat again and rubbed dirt off the readout in his sleeve. The various items actually woven into their combats were pretty much the only wireless tech working; even their slates were down. “God fukking damnit, I’m not directing an air strike down on my own fukking Marines. Find that squad, Gunny! And when you find it, move it back!”
Balancing safety and speed and concluding she had no time for the former, Torin raced toward the squad’s last known position. They were out front, every one knew that, but no one knew how far out front and where they’d gone to ground. If they’d gone to ground. If they were still alive.
She jumped a body, got cursed out by the corpsman working on a slightly more intact body beside it, recognized the pale orange hair, and froze momentarily as another mortar hit. The Others were blowing nothing bigger than their own Em223s. Small stuff from the firing position, significantly bigger boom for those at the other end of the trajectory.
As soon as the earth stopped moving, she started running again.
“Gunny!” One of the new recruits. “What are we supposed to do?”
“Wait for air support,” she snapped without breaking stride.
And right on cue, three Marine 774s screamed by with two of the enemy’s planes in close pursuit.
Torin half heard the whistle, shouted, “Down!” with no hope of being heard, and hit the dirt as at least half a payload landed a little too close. The earthworks shuddered as the blast wave hit, then slowly toppled inward. Torin tried to scrabble clear and got tangled with a warm body. She managed to get her arms over her head to make an air pocket as the dirt rained down.
Rocks in the mix slammed against body parts not protected by her vest. She took a hard hit to the calf, then strong hands grabbed her ankle and began to haul her clear. Digging in elbows and knees, she gave what help she could.
“You okay, Gunny?”
“I’m fine, Anderson. Thanks,” she added as the heavy gunner set her on her feet. Fortunately, the exoskeletons had been unaffected by whatever pulse the Others had hit them with. Half turning, she saw another heavy drag Lieutenant Jarret out from under the collapsed barrier.
“We’ve got to stop meeting like this, Gunny. . .” He coughed and spat out a mouthful of mud. “. . . people’ll start to talk.”
Torin’s lips caught against the dirt on her teeth. “Let them talk, sir.”
He returned her grin. “What’s your heading?”
“Lieutenant Heerik’s three squad is up front.” New bruises were rising, but everything essential still worked. “We need to place them so the captain can call in coordinates for the air strike.”
The lieutenant glanced at the Marines working to rebuild the blown section, his lilac eyes dark. “Call in on what? Nothing’s working!”
“We’ve had word that Signals are running filament. Should be out our way eventually.”
“And until then?”
Gunnery sergeants did not ever admit they didn’t know. “Smoke signals, sir.”
He blinked, then he grinned again and nodded. “Stay on thirty-seven degrees. If she proved to have half a brain and stayed put, you’ll find Heerik.”
“Keep your head down, Gunny.”
“Count on it, sir.”
She didn’t find Heerik, but she found her other two squads. “God damn it, Doctorow, don’t tell me you’ve lost your lieutenant already!”
The staff sergeant rolled his eyes. “She went up to find three squad.
“She went herself with this lot sitting on their fine Marine asses getting fat?”
The Marines close enough to hear suddenly found something to look at over the barricade.
“Said it was her job. Wouldn’t listen to me. Slipped away when I was dealing with. . .”
“. . . that. Damn it, Huran,” he whirled and glared at the corpsman. “Knock him out if you can’t shut him up.”
“We’ve been through this, Staff. His religion says he can only lose consciousness naturally.”
Padarkadale. Or most of him.
Torin held up her right arm. “See all these hooks? They say my religion trumps his. Dope him!”
“Gunny, I. . .”
“That was intolerant of Padarkadale’s beliefs,” Doctorow muttered as Huran bent back over his patient.
“Yes, it was,” Torin told him as the private stopped screaming. “His god can talk to me about it later. Which way did Heerik go?”
“That way—one hundred and eleven degrees from Marine zero.”
Torin lined up on the way he was pointing and checked her sleeve. “How far?”
“Shouldn’t be more than a klik and a half.” He snorted. “Could be anywhere in hell’s half acre.”
Another set of 774s roared by. Higher this time.
“They’ll start dropping by eye any minute now,” Doctorow noted, glaring up into the sky.
“Oh, fukking joy.”
One hundred and eleven degrees took Torin over the barricade. . .
“. . . through the woods and to grandmother’s house we go,” she muttered, slapping a filter over her mouth and nose. That took care of breathing, but with all the dust in the air, she could hardly see. Running bent almost double, KC-7 in her right hand, left arm out in front to maintain her bearing, she concentrated on keeping the readout in the green.
From the sound of it, things were getting interesting in the lower atmosphere.
Interesting was seldom good for the Marines on the ground.
At a klik and a half, during a miraculous pause in both artillery and the air show, she thought she heard voices. Two hundred and fifty meters more, another pause, and she was sure of it.
No mistaking the Krai lieutenant’s voice. There just weren’t that many female Krai in the infantry.
Five meters more and Torin slid down into a crater, riding a ridge of dirt to Sergeant Hollice’s side. A quick count gave her all twelve members of the squad and Second Lieutenant Heerik. Mashona lifted a hand in a remarkably sarcastic wave, but Ressk kept his gaze locked on the lieutenant.
“Captain would like your three squad back behind the barricade, sir.”
“I came out to bring them back in, Gunnery Sergeant. . .”
More planes screamed by. Theirs. Others. Torin frowned as something broke the sound barrier. Navy?
“. . . we were just about to leave.” She had her boots off and scrambled up the crater wall a lot faster than anyone but Ressk was likely to manage.
No, not Navy.
“Sir! Get down! Now!”
Torin had no idea which side had dropped it, or what it was, but on impact it distinctly went BOOM.
BOOM was never good.
The lieutenant turned, lips drawn back off her teeth, and looked startled as the top half of her body blew across the crater, spraying blood onto the uplifted faces below. Her legs swayed for a moment, then slowly crumpled. As they slid back down the slope, each individual mote of dust in the air picked up a gleaming white halo.
The halos joined.
The ground rose.
Torin’s knees slammed into her chest, and she tasted blood.
The whole world went white.
“I are being sorry, Craig, but Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr are. . .”
“No.” Hands flat against the control panel, Craig leaned in closer to the screen. “She isn’t dead.”
Presit pulled off her dark glasses and arranged her features in what she probably thought was a sincere expression—something furbearing species sucked at, Craig sneered silently. “I are knowing you are not wanting to believe, but. . .”
“You said there’s no body.”
“The blast are having melted her position. I are having seen the raw news feed, there are being no hope of bodies. There are barely being hope of DNA resolution.”
“The news. . .” He didn’t bother hiding his disdain. “. . . has been wrong before.”
Dark lips drew back off very white, very pointed teeth and, within the black mask of fur, Presit’s eyes narrowed. But all she said was, “True.”
“And the military doesn’t know shite half the time.”
“That are being also true.”
“They haven’t told me. . .” He stopped then, unsure if they would tell him. He didn’t know, had no way of knowing, if Torin had added him to her notification list. If she hadn’t, if Presit hadn’t spotted Torin’s name in the data stream coming into Sector Central News for rebroadcast, he would never have known. He’d have just kept waiting and wondering until finally there’d be no question and then. . .
His fingers curled against the warmed plastic. “She isn’t dead.”
Presit shook her head, the motion sending a visible ripple through her silver-tipped dark fur, the highlights too artfully natural to be real. “Saying it are not making it true. No one are surviving that attack.”
His laugh sounded off, even to his own ears. “It wouldn’t be the first time Torin’s beaten the odds.”
“A direct hit by a missile fired from orbit that are melting the landscape to slag are being large odds, even for Gunnery Sergeant Kerr.” The reporter sighed, her acerbic tone softening. “She are not being invincible.”
Yes, she is.
“No.” Craig had no idea whether Presit took his soft denial as agreement or disagreement—mostly because he wasn’t sure himself—but she clearly accepted it as the end of the conversation.
“I are not liking her much,” Presit admitted, muzzle wrinkling, “but I are being sorry for your sake that she are being gone. If you are wanting company?”
It took him a moment to realize what she was offering. The last thing he needed was Presit a Tur durValintrisy in his face while he was griev. . .
While he was. . .
While. . .
“No. Thanks. I’m fine.”
Presit’s snort spoke volumes as the signal faded.
He got no signal off the salvage tag, but ST7/45T2 was damned near to the edge of known space. Too far to read. Too far to go himself with no certainty of salvage on the other end although he ran the Susumi calculations just because.
Then he returned to the job, working the edges of the debris field left behind when the Others slid a pair of battle cruisers into a system already claimed, scooping up the wrecked pieces of Navy Jades because, well, he had to breathe and oxygen wasn’t free although he had been thinking that if things went well, he might invest in a converter since Promise’s arms would do just as well capturing chunks of the small ice asteroids littering known space and with two people in the cabin. . .
Sweat trickled down his sides as he stepped out of the air lock, faceplate polarizing in the unfiltered solar radiation.
Torin hadn’t been ready to leave the Corps and he hadn’t been ready to push, but they’d both known where they were heading, sooner or later, and it wasn’t like he couldn’t do the job on his own because he’d been on his own since he started, but it’d be fukking pleasant to have some backup when the only thing separating his bare ass from hard vacuum was a twelve-year-old Corps surplus HE suit and a bit of luck. A second pair of eyes would. . .
Craig locked the last piece of twisted metal and plastic in place, DNA residue flagged. DNA turned up in the strangest places. Once he’d found Human residue on wreckage from an enemy fighter. Navy had found the body months earlier and no one had any idea how those few cells had wandered. Once, he’d found a pilot, or most of one, in the crushed remains of her Jade. The Others had fried every system on her ship, and the commander had been nothing more than meat in space. The Navy couldn’t find her without a signal. He’d only found her because finding the small debris, too small for the military to waste time and money recovering, was how he lived, and he worked on instinct as much as equipment.
“And what would I be doing while you’re using these well-honed instincts of yours?” Torin had asked as she pulled on her tunic.
“Same thing you’re doing now,” Craig had said, tossing her a boot. “Keeping your people alive. Fewer people,” he’d added grinning, “but better job perks.”
She’d matched his grin as she’d snagged her first then her second boot out of the air. “You think?”
“You haven’t complained.”
He checked the pod configuration before he headed back into the air lock, loading the dimensions into his slate. The data went automatically into Promise’s memory, but having survived one Susumi miscalculation, he had no intention of pushing his luck. Careless pilots were dead. . .
As the door cycled closed behind him, he clawed at the shoulder catches and dragged his helmet off the moment the telltales showed green, suddenly unable to breathe within the confines of the suit. Hands braced on his thighs, he sucked in deep lungfuls of air and forced his heartbeat to slow.
Fukking irony that the panic attacks he used to have at the thought of sharing limited space and resources were now being caused by the realization that. . .
If there was one thing Torin excelled at, it was staying alive.
She wasn’t dead.
He opened the inner door, stripped out of his suit, and hung it precisely in its locker, tank snapped up against the remix valve. Next time he needed it, Promise would see that it was ready.
A quick visit to the head; he never hooked up the plumbing in the suit if he didn’t absolutely have to. A visit to the coffeepot to start the whole cycle up again.
And then there was no way of avoiding the message light blinking on the control panel.
Turned out he was on Torin’s notification list after all.
* * *
The Confederation Marine Corps had two levels of notification. Level one included a trip into the Core and Ventris Station where the details would be explained and counselors both military and civilian would be on hand to deal with the emotional maelstrom that came with the loss of a loved one. Figuring that any maelstrom was his own damned business, Craig hadn’t planned on taking them up on it until he found himself working out the Susumi equations.
Hands above the controls, he paused. He didn’t need some counselor telling him how he felt.
He did, however, need to sell his salvage, and Ventris was as good a place as any. Particularly since the notification had come with a code that granted him a free berth and hook-in. No reason not to do what he could to broaden his limited profit margin.
And while he was there, as long as the Corps was paying for the privilege of his company, it wouldn’t hurt to find out what the fuk they thought had happened because the whole thing sounded damned shonky to him.
“Civilian salvage vessel Promise, this is Ventris perimeter. State your reason for approach.”
“Salvage license tango, sierra, tango, five, seven, seven, nine, tango. I have cargo.” Craig sent the details of his load and then stared out at the bulk of Ventris Station, covering a quarter of his screen even at perimeter distance, and ignored the way his hand was resting beside the pressure pad that would transmit the notification code.
“Roger, Promise. Delta yard has docking available. Stand by for. . .”
“Wait.” One finger moved to the pressure pad. “And I have this.”
“Roger, Promise.” The dispassionate tone hadn’t changed although he knew there was a person of some species on the other end of the link. “Salvage must be unloaded and cleared before you can proceed to the station. Stand by for coordinate download. Docking master will take control in three, two, one. . . mark. Docking master now in control.”
He sat back as the program ran and his ship surged forward. He’d been expecting. . . more.
Someone he could tell to fuk off, that Torin wasn’t dead.
Apparently, enough Marines died; it was business as usual.
“Well, fuk you, too,” he muttered at no one in particular.
* * *
“No, you don’t understand. . .”
One foot raised to step over the hatch; Craig put it down again and eased back into the corridor. The voice filling the room he’d been about to enter was male, the tone frustration heading toward anger. He was, himself, just here for information, he didn’t want to intrude on another man’s grief.
“. . . I have all the information you lot are willing to give me and I’m not here to talk to a counselor; I’m here to talk to talk to someone who doesn’t have their head up their ass about this. . .”
Obviously, the man hadn’t spent much time dealing with the military. In Craig’s experience, head up the ass was the default posture.
“. . . my daughter isn’t dead!”
A thousand daughters in uniform.
More. So many more.
And more than a thousand fathers who’d refuse to believe.
There was no reason, absolutely no reason that this overheard conversation had anything to do with Torin. Except that Craig’s code had directed him here, to this anteroom off the docking bay, an area barely inside the station, awkward civilian interactions kept at the edge of things military. Three dozen doors along this corridor—he’d counted them while wondering what the hell he was doing there, pacing past other men and women who seemed to have a lot fewer questions. Three dozen doors and the notification code brought him to this one.
He stepped into the room.
The Krai corporal behind the desk looked up, his nose ridges flaring. Or maybe her nose ridges—secondary sexual characteristics were subtle and Craig never had been able to tell the Krai apart. Since it had never been an issue, he didn’t worry about it much. “I’m sorry, sir, I’ll just be a moment.”
Ignoring her—or him—Craig crossed to the man standing by the desk. He was big—not just in contrast to the meter-tall Marine behind the desk—and the patchy red-brown of his tan said he spent most of his time outside in actual atmosphere. Before the Marine could speak again, Craig held out his hand. “Craig Ryder.”
Deep-set eyes narrowed, creases pleating at the outside corners. Recognition dawned, and he nodded, once. Craig always figured Torin had picked up the gesture in the military. Maybe not.
“John Kerr.” Torin’s father had one hell of a grip, his hand hard and callused.
“You know how to find a bar in this tin can?”
“Mate, I can find a bar in Susumi space.”
“Yeah? Well, I don’t have the faintest idea what that means. . .” He scratched along the edge of his jaw, nails rasping against rough skin where the depilatory had begun to wear off. “. . . but if you can find a bar, I’ll buy.”
“Sir. Sirs,” the corporal amended as they turned together. “The Corps will deal with your needs while on Ventris.”
“The Corps can,” John Kerr began. Stopped. Drew in a deep breath. And pointed one large, scarred finger across the desk. “I’ll be back.”
* * *
“Torin liked this bar.”
“Yeah.” Their notification codes hadn’t got them onto Concourse Two; that had been Craig’s not entirely legal schematic of the nonsensitive parts of the station, a little bullshit to an actual live Marine at a checkpoint, and the taking of the Commandant of the Corps’ name in vain when asked for his authorization by the station sysop at the last hatch. There were plenty of bars on Concourse One, the area reserved for those just passing through. Craig knew and liked a number of them, knew and avoided a couple more, and didn’t want to see the inside of any of them. Not now.
Torin had liked Sutton’s.
Half a dozen second lieutenants had pushed two of the small tables together over in the corner, a couple of Krai NCOs sat at the bar watching cricket on the vid screen and occasionally commenting in their own language, but other than that the bar was empty. The Corps ran on a 28-hour clock, but 1530 seemed to be an off hour.
John took a long swallow and set his glass back on the table. “The beer’s good.”
Craig raised his own glass in acknowledgment and drank. They hadn’t done a lot of talking on the way and now. . . “You don’t think she’s carked it.” At John’s blank expression, he shook his head. “Sorry. Died. You don’t think she’s died.”
“I don’t. They hear it all the time, you know: My kid’s not dead.” His hand tightened around the base of the glass. “There’s no body. They haven’t found anything that resembles her fukking DNA. Give me a body. Give me something.” His eyes were a darker brown than Torin’s, but the intensity was the same. “I’ll believe when I have proof but not until.”
“The force of the blast melted rock.” Presit had been right. Nothing could have survived it. “The whole area was slagged.”
“I saw the vids.”
The vids had come in a packet with the notification code. Craig had always suspected these sorts of things were sterilized for public consumption—the last thing the Corps needed to do was expose the grieving to the ugly reality of war. In this case, there’d been nothing to sterilize because the enemy blast had done the job too well. Over thirty square kilometers of battlefield had been turned to a rippled sheet of gray green. Shining. Lifeless. A helpful X marked Torin’s last known position.
“She was too far from the edge to have been thrown clear.” Far enough from the edge that being thrown clear would have killed her.
One dark brow rose. “My daughter tells us you’re a bit of a gambler. Guess you have to be,” he continued without waiting for a response. “Doing what you do. You want to bet on a sure thing, you bet on my daughter having survived.”
“I don’t. . .” Craig drank a little more beer if only because it forced him to unclench his teeth. “I didn’t believe it when I first heard, but. . .” Then the notification. Then the vids. Then Ventris. Then sitting down in a bar on a military station with Torin’s father. That last, he realized—feeling as though the station had just vented into space, feeling steel bands tighten around his chest, feeling his lungs fight for air—that was when the verb changed.
Torin was dead. And only a galah would, could believe different.
He might have said it out loud. He wasn’t sure.
A large hand closed around his wrist, and Torin’s father said, “No.”
“No what? No one could have survived that.” How the fuk did he get here. . . here trying to convince a man he’d just met that his daughter was dead?
John’s grip returned to his glass. “Saying it doesn’t make it true.”
Craig frowned. Hadn’t Presit said that to him? Hadn’t she been arguing the other side?
He recognized the voice. When he looked up at the Commandant of the Corps, he also recognized the pissed-off expression on the face of the colonel standing behind her. “High Tekamal Louden.” Then, because he didn’t know what else to say and she was obviously waiting for something, he nodded toward the other man. “John Kerr.”
“Yes, of course,” she said as he stood and held out his hand. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Mr. Kerr, and wish it had been under better circumstances.”
“High Tekamal? That’s. . .”
“High Tekamal Louden is the Commandant of the Corps,” the colonel pointed out.
Tanya Huff may have left Nova Scotia at three, and has lived most of her life since in Ontario, but she still considers herself a Maritimer. On the way to the idyllic rural existence she shares with her partner Fiona Patton, six cats, and a chihuahua, she acquired a degree in Radio and Television Arts from Ryerson Polytechnic—an education she was happy to finally use while writing her recent Smoke novels. Of her previous twenty-three books, the five—Blood Price, Blood Trail, Blood Lines, Blood Pact, Blood Debt—featuring Henry Fitzroy, bastard son of Henry VIII, romance writer, and vampire are among the most popular. Tanya can be found via Twitter at @TanyaHuff.
Praise for the Confederation series:
“The action is solid, and the marines are an entertaining mix of oddballs led by the highly competent and eminently likeable Staff Sergeant Kerr.... A rousing military adventure.” —Locus
“An intriguing alien race, a likeable protagonist, a fast moving plot, and a rousing ending. What more could you ask for?” —S.F. Chronicle
“The notable Tanya Huff proves herself equally adept at military science fiction as contemporary fantasy. A writer of great versatility, Ms. Huff captures the ambiance of an elite military group and adds a rare depth to skillful characterization to make each personality stand up and be counted.” —RT Reviews
“This book is Rendezvous with Rama for the rest of us: exciting, mysterious and full of action and puzzles to solve. Torin is everything you want in an action heroine.” —Kliatt
“Readers who enjoy military SF will love Tanya Huff’s Valor’s Choice. The level of detail is intricate…the blow-by-blow of combat is delivered with a focus on character as well as with lots of empathy and humor. Howlingly funny and very suspenseful.” —Science Fiction Weekly
“Fans of military science fiction will want to read The Better Part of Valor, a thriller that is every bit as exciting as Star Wars. Torin is a great heroine, while the realistic species provide an authentic spin to this vigorous fantastic futuristic tale.” —Midwest Book Review
“Sergeant Torin Kerr is a great character – gutsy, capable, and kick-ass. Everything a reader could hope for.... The series maintains its quality and addictiveness…there’s a great balance of humour, story, and action.” —Civilian Reader