Issue XV -- Military

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Read about some of the contributors to issue fifteen and see excerpts from each article or story.

Issue XV  Contents

A Death in Peacetime -- David Drake

Useful Agonies -- Gregory Benford

Soldiers -- Dave Luckett

Resistance -- Kenneth Chiacchia

Nuevo Shine -- Renee Stern

A Death in Peacetime © 2005 David Drake

The brothel was too upscale to have an armored street entrance, but the doorman was a wall of solid muscle beneath a frock coat in the latest style. He frowned when the nondescript aircar hummed to a halt in front of the door.

Four hard-looking men got out. Hesitating only long enough to press the button warning those upstairs to keep an eye on the closed-circuit screen, the doorman stepped into the street. "I'm sorry, gentlemen," he said, "but we're closed tonight for a private party. Perhaps--"

"We're the party, buddy," one of the men said, placing himself alongside the doorman while his partner took the other side. The other two men faced the street in opposite directions. All four wore short capes which concealed their hands and whatever they might be holding.

A fifth man, small and dapper, followed the others out of the car. His suit was exquisitely tailored. The fabric had tawny dappling on the shoulders which faded imperceptibly into the gray undertone as one's eye travelled downward.

The man nodded pleasantly toward the doorman and started toward the stairs. Movement lifted the tail of his jacket enough to disclose the pistol holstered high on his right hip.

"I'm sorry, sir!" the doorman said. "We don't allow guns--"

He tried to step in front of the little man. The guards to either side of him--they were obviously guards--shoved him back against the wall.

"You're making an exception tonight," the little man said. His shoes touched the stair treads with the tsk-tsk-tsk of a whisk broom sweeping up ashes; the men who'd initially stayed with the car followed him. "I promise I won't tell anybody."

Madame opened the upper stairway door to let the little man into the parlor. Straight-backed and dressed in severe black, she was the only woman in the establishment. In the muted lighting which the mirrors diffused rather than multiplied, she might've been anything from forty years old to twice that age.

Her face was stony and her tone coldly furious. "You have no business here!" she said. "We have all our licenses. Everything is perfectly legal!"

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Useful Agonies © 2005 Gregory Benford

“We’re following the rules of engagement laid down for this theater,” the Exec officer said.

“Minimize overall casualties, right,” I said. “But that increases risk for the men.”

“We’re to hold this position while negotiations go on,” the Exec said.

“And on and on and on,” I spat back. Nothing like two months in the field to improve your disposition. That, and being on warmed-up field rations. “We take incoming fire and try to minimize casualties, right.”

“Hey, that’s what we’ve always – ”

I grimaced in the twilight. “We minimize their casualties. We used to minimize ours.

“Yeah, well, different emphasis.” The Exec was the kind of officer who used words like that.

I watched the last light leave the bleak streets around us. Desert sunsets are supposed to be pretty but this one was coming through the black plume of an oil fire two klicks to the west. It licked at the sky as the last ruby light faded from high cottony clouds. Out here in the Middle East, you watch the sunset and hope you see the sunrise.

Then their AK-47s opened up, blamming away. Mostly just display fire, trying to get us to show where we were. Our guys use silencers with flash inhibitors, so they couldn’t see our return fire.

My sharpshooter squad was ordered – by me – to keep it clean, precise, silent, just enough to give them wounded. Shoot for the arm, the leg, keep away from the body. Aiming low is best. Not easy to do when they’re just a profile in a window, or running in the shadows.

I gave the nod.

So down go the AK-47 guys. Most of them would live, which to me is a shame, but those were our orders.

They’re still spraying slugs everywhere, Jihadi marksmanship. You can hear ricochets humming away into the gathering night. I can see their flashes from the ruined concrete prefab buildings down the street. It’s pitch black now, dusk totally gone, and in my infrared goggles I can see they’re swarming in the alleys, getting ready for yet another assault. Allah time.

“Let’s call in some air support,” I said.

“No, we got something new coming in.” The Exec jerked his thumb behind us, sardonic mouth twisted in his idea of postmodern humor. I could hear the whack-whack of a chopper landing a few hundred meters back, in the safe zone shielded by the burnt-out husks of apartment buildings.

We were holding the center of the city. It was mostly big, blocky concrete slabs with hollow-eyed windows, the locals long gone. Flypaper city, some smart TV guy had called it. Let the vermin come in, get stuck, swat them. Better than they come after us where we live, is the logic. Not mine, but a logic.

Peace-keeping is like that. Except ... just who are you keeping the peace for?

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Soldiers © 2005 Dave Luckett

The GenCom leaned over the livemap. Constant updates rippled across it, of course, but the main features were more enduring. After all, they were hills.

“You think the main concentration of enemy forces is here, then,” he said, tapping his laser pencil. Speckles of color-coded lights pricked out patterns amid the contours. The reflections played over the GenCom’s face as if he were swimming in some strange-colored sea.

The Chief of the General Staffs, who sat on the opposite side of the livemap, tapped with his own laser pencil. “Most of the ordnance replenishment is concentrated here and here, sir. From the outbound traffic, that’s a command and control node. These are support-personnel rations distribution areas. Spectroscopic data indicating the presence of cellulose fibre confirms the use of medium-level information dissemination equipment here and here.” His subordinates, ranked behind him, nodded unanimously in confirmation.

The forward command bunker was low-lit, traditionally cool and quiet. Machines ticked and twittered amid low murmurs of conversation. Colored light passed over grave faces, clean-shaven, crop-headed, firm-chinned, clear-eyed. The Chief breathed in as though appreciating a fine wine, and continued: “There are higher levels of uncertainty as to the purpose of these structures here. The CINTRAC satellite surveillance team leans towards the interpretation that they form a dispersed redundant hardware disposal facility.”

The GenCom glared up from under shaggy brows. “A what?” he growled.

The Chief of Staffs cleared his throat. “A junkyard, sir.”

The GenCom grunted and went back to studying the livemap. The Chief suppressed a sigh. There were times when he found it difficult to be a good sport about the GenCom’s adoption of this persona. The Chief had seen the GenCom in a real fight, a hard, slogging campaign before an entrenched funding committee. The man was actually about as plain, blunt and direct as the Palace of Versailles.

“What’s this?” the GenCom asked, pointing.

The Chief looked down at the feature, a faint orange-red mist staining the lower slopes of the first range of hills. He hadn’t the least idea what it was. Some sort of field obstacle from the colour, as if the enemy were trying to deny the ground. He sighed inaudibly. This would mean having to ask Milint for information, a procedure the Chief tried to avoid. Usually they didn’t know, rather often they wouldn’t tell you if they did, and if they did say anything, the Chief frequently didn’t understand it. “General Tippetts?” he asked, glancing behind him. Perhaps this time…

 Hope was instantly shattered. “Sir, wait one, sir,” rapped Tippetts, pressing an earbug. He looked alert, keen, brisk and sharp, always a bad sign. It could only mean that Tippetts didn’t know, either.

The Chief of Staffs tapped his fingers on his knee as the muttered question was followed by a long pause, and then by an inaudible response. Finally, Tippetts swung round again.

“Sir, it appears to be an ordered network of obstacles arranged in an area-parsimonious grid pattern. Preliminary surveillance drones picked it up and tagged it for attention, due to its rectilinear disposal and regular patternation, sir. Interpretative resources scrutinized the reconnaissance material and came to the conclusion that the subject installation is a complex field denial system of uncertain nature, sir. There is a net debit radiant energy signature that indicates use of solar power to enable the asset. It was accordingly referred to Intelcom, who took the decision to paint it on the general briefing overall master plan, with a designation …”

“Thank you, General Tippetts.” The Chief of Staffs closed his eyes briefly.

“Sir!” barked Tippetts, retreating into incomprehension. The Chief reflected that for Tippetts, this was hardly any distance at all.

He turned to the Commanding General, hoping that the General would have mercy. He might as well not have bothered. The GenCom was waiting with exaggerated patience. He smiled politely, as if about to invite the Chief to fire the first volley.

“Yes, Chief?” he enquired. His voice would have sweetened vinegar. “What, in fact, is it?”

The Chief of Staffs closed his eyes again. “It’s a vegetable patch, sir.”

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Resistance © 2005 Kenneth Chiacchia

Sam fell in love with Jendayi the moment he first saw her.

His first glimpse was not of Jendayi, but of little Chipo, elbowing her way through the crowded market like a pro, a mass of locks waving over a round, dark face lit with an infectious little smile. She was seven or eight, maybe.

Around her lay the deafening riot of the Cosmograd central market district, claustrophobic and heavy with the smell of cinnamon, incense, not-too-recently-washed bodies, and life-support sealing compound. A burst of dingy colors framed the tableau:  dirty, flashing advertisement bills for just about every need of daily life in the Mars colony’s narrow, teeming streets.

Sam, of course, was on the lookout for people selling things you don’t need for daily life, or for any peaceful pursuits.  Still, a small child on her own might be lost – he decided to introduce himself.

Sam shouldered his rifle, knelt to her level, and said, “Hi there. I’m Sam. You have anybody nearby looking after you?”

“I’m Chipo. Don’t need anybody to look after me,” she said, clearly offended at the affront to her independence. “But I’m here with Jendayi.”

She pointed back into the crowd; Sam looked up, first noting that a few people were eyeing him sidelong, suspicion in their eyes. Well, that was one of the reasons he’d put up his weapon.

Then he saw Jendayi.

Her walk was like the swaying of a willow; tall, lovely, her hair in tight rows across her temples, she floated through the crowd with a preternatural grace, her big, dark eyes flashing like lightning in a deep black, flawless face, a smile that stabbed daggers through Sam every time she flashed it at a friend, an acquaintance, a fellow Martian in the crowd.

Her eyes caught Chipo, then Sam. She took that moment of calculation that Martians always did when regarding an ‘occupier’, then must have read good intentions in his posture. Because then she smiled at him, and his heart felt as if it would burst.

“You’d better go back to your Mom, then,” Sam said, trying to sound matter-of-factual.

“That’s not my Mom, she’s in Heaven,” Chipo said, innocently, calmly, as if her mother had died before Chipo knew her – and as if any idiot would have known that. “That’s Jendayi.  My sister.”

Sister. Not Mom. Hope fluttered in his chest as Chipo ran to rejoin her.

“We’re finished here, Ensign Ribera,” Gatiss’ voice said from behind Sam. The older man loomed over him, voice dripping disapproval.

“Every time we come into contact with these people is an opportunity to buy goodwill, Senior Chief,” Sam replied, turning to face him as he stood.

“Due respect to the ensign, these people would cut his bloody throat without a fire team at his back,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Jack Gatiss, his ice-blue eyes smoldering in a thin, angular face. He pulled off a red-and-tan Mars camo fatigue cap, smoothed back his graying blond hair, then added, “And we do have work to do. Sir.”

Sam let the implied rebuke pass.

“We’ve got a problem over in Bravo sector,” Gatiss said.

“A problem ...” Sam began, reflexively tapping his headset, knowing immediately why he hadn’t heard an alert.

“The flipping net’s down,” Gatiss said, if possible even more darkly. “Again. We have no coms, other than line-of-sight. I only found out about it because I passed a vid screen showing a bloody newsfeed.”

“Bad?”

“Looked like an incendiary, at a cafe. Bunch of our people were there when it went off.”

Sam took a deep breath. Nobody really believed these communications outages were malfunctions.

“Damn,” Sam said. “Let’s collect the section and get on it.”

It was all over by the time they got there. The wounded were en route to Trauma One; even the one fatality – an Engineering Corps lieutenant – had been transported.

The thought of his first combat scared Sam – but waiting endlessly for it to happen was driving him crazy.

 

Antonio gave Sam hell that night.

“ ‘Tonio, he’s nearly as old as papa. He’s been doing this almost since before I was born.”

Antonio just sat there for a moment, scowling. Sam’s senior by nine years, he’d made captain in record time, and rumor had it he was on the fast track to major. He was not about to watch his little brother mess up his first command – or so he kept reminding Sam.

“I had some ideas about deployment,” Sam offered, hoping it would placate Antonio.

“Just do it.”

“Sure.”

“He’s your subordinate. You need to take charge. Don’t ask his opinion, and for God’s sake don’t ask for his permission. You give the orders, he enacts them.”

“Right.”

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Nuevo Shine © 2005 Renee Stern

Joseba Etxeberria rattled against the full-body restraints when the drop-pod hit Verde’s surface, his armor loud against the inadequate padding. Zakur, like all the track-and-retrieve unit’s dogs on board, lay strapped and sedated in his kennel at his partner’s feet, waiting for landing and his stim dose. 

“Good landing,” Serrano muttered over a live mic, and the veterans in the unit jeered.

 

Joseba kept his thoughts to himself. It had seemed like a good landing to him, but this was his first mission drop after training. His first contribution to averting war with the Nguyen Dominion. Today he’d start to lose his nuevo shine.

 

Eighteen months to go until he was done with the dirt. Five hundred seventeen days and counting until he finished his service and rotated home. Five hundred seventeen days chasing feral humans with dogs – one animal after another. As soon as he earned his freedom, he’d never leave the clean logic of stations and ships.

 

“All clear.” The pod pilot’s clipped voice echoed through the bay.

 

Aitor Botero, the unit’s captain, slapped the switch that unhooked his restraints with a metallic whir, and hopped to the metal decking with a clang. “Wake your partners and clear your gear. Double-time, you know the drill. We’ve got roaches to track.”

 

Joseba followed the steps burned into his reflexes after six months of training: unhook his restraints, unlatch Zakur’s kennel and restraints, jab the dog’s yellow-brown flank with the stim, watch the readouts on his visor as his partner shook his head and snapped alert. The drugs sometimes wonked, for no reason the vets or handlers could explain, sidelining or even killing a dog; a track rat was as useless without his dog as the dog without its human partner.

 

The roaches had that calced. They targeted the dogs more than the soldiers they partnered.

 

Joseba chewed his lip as he ran through his weapon checks and tested his armor systems. The sensors had a laughably short range up in the mountains where the roaches had retreated. Without Zakur he was practically blind, deaf and helpless. Orbital sensors were large-scale, useful only to red-light a five-klick grid for T&R attention. If training had taught him anything, it was just how many holes a roach could find in five klicks of rugged mountain.

 

Not that they trained against real roaches. Iberian forces had shut down other illegal colonies on planets now off-limits according to the treaty, and most of the feral humans refused to cooperate. The first batch suicided on the resettlement stations, a form of insanity that made Joseba’s spacer stomach roll and hardened his determination.  Station communities were too vulnerable for that brand of selfishness.

 

After that, they dumped roaches on safe planets, far from the contested borders. There they either lay down and died or found a new patch of wilderness to wriggle into and live in comparative darkness. Tenacious, ungrateful vermin.

 

“Sound off, pack!” Captain Botero snapped. 

 

As one, the unit threw back their heads and howled, their dogs joining in until the sound lost itself in echoes off the metal walls and deck. Joseba knew wolves only as feral dogs, much as roaches were feral humans, and both of them only part of his database since his first day of training. But his spine tingled up to his skull when he joined in the unit howl. He was part of the Wolf Pack, the best damn T&R unit in the service. They ate roaches for breakfast and ran back for seconds.

 

“Move out!” Captain Botero ordered over the last echoes of their howls.

 

Joseba snapped his fingers and Zakur moved closer, shoulder pressed against his left knee, ready for action. They filtered into the forming line and marched toward the hatch.

A hand slapped his right shoulder and he looked over at Unai Nozal, his bivvy-mate. Luck, J, Unai signaled in the hand talk that flourished in the ranks.

Good hunting, he flicked back.

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