War on the Cheap
An Original Science Fiction Story
Steven H. Newton
(c)2008; all rights reserved
Part One of Four
Everything shouldn’t seem the same when everything was about to change, Arras thought, exiting the shuttle. The sky had a familiar orange cast, the air stank from the tanneries. Attendants ignored the departing passengers, and Xinq taxi drivers squatted around a blanket to dice bones and gamble away their pay.
“Damn them,” said a man struggling with a garment bag, suitcase, and two carry-ons. “They haven’t got the brains to see customers coming.”
“They know we’re here all right,” said a thin man wearing the lapel pin of a retired major in the Xinquess Reach Armed Forces. “They don’t have to tote our bags until they pretend to see us.”
“We don’t put up with behavior like that on Geffney. Our Xinqs either know their place or get shown it.”
Arras crinkled her lips in a humorless half smile. Coarse black hair framed her face, cut for utility rather than style. Crow’s feet ringed deep green eyes, and her nose arched perilously close to being a beak. Like the major, she wore a sidearm strapped to her right hip.
“How odd,” she said. “I thought the revolution had penetrated to Geffney, along with a new wave of inter-species solidarity.”
The comment won her a venomous look, but no reply. The irate passenger had the wit to realize that she wore undress blacks, lacking rank, awards, or nameplate. Only select groups within the XRAF traveled that way, and even in these times you did not to provoke them.
The Xinq drivers abruptly acknowledged their potential customers with a flurry of waving arms—grapplers and tinkers alike.
“Ride, boss?” they hooted in Lingua Xinq, which was as close as the tubes on either side of their bullet-shaped skulls could come to enunciating human languages. The man from Geffney shouted back in plantation patois, demanding that someone stow his bags.
The retired major asked Arras, “Care to share one? We could split the fare.”
She heard a further invitation in the offer, but said, “Sorry, someone’s supposed to meet me.” He smiled wanly, murmuring about his losses and other people’s gains.
A low-slung ground-effect vehicle approached, raising dust devils in its wake. Despite a coat of cerulean blue paint, the GEV had the unmistakable look of a tactical vehicle. Arras and the major both noticed that the anti-personnel mine ports above the skirts had not been disarmed.
“Your chariot, I’d bet,” he said, quirking an eyebrow.
Arras shook her head: “Might as well have put up a ka-damn sign, ‘I’m coming,’ as send that around, hadn’t they?”
He smiled, commiserating with professional sympathy.
“T-L-I?” he said, noting the logo on the vehicle’s side. “I’m not familiar with it.”
The ring on his left hand marked him as a former staff officer, 4th Strike Battalion. He’d be able to look it up anywhere.
“Never heard of that one.” He obviously wanted to inquire further, but knew better. “Well, enjoy your encounter. I’d best be off before someone else contracts all this lot and I’m left to gimp my way into town. Perhaps. . . ?”
He tendered his card:
Major (ret.) Vercienne “Verk” ak nal Wizlen
Consultations in Transport and Logistics
13437 Dorhousl Way
Diadem, North Regent
“I don’t have a card. Currently, that is.”
The hatch of the GEV popped open. A blocky man with black hair emerged, scanning for his passenger.
“Hardly surprising, given. . . . Well, hardly surprising. A name, then? Doesn’t have to be real, merely functional.”
She chuckled and said, “No reason anymore not to use the real one. Arras ak Winsen. Perhaps we’ll meet again.”
She allowed the brush of his lips across her calloused hand before turning to meet her escort.
“Semplen,” she called.
“Arras. C’mon quick, or we’ll be late.”
They’d met twelve years earlier on Fringe, before the Concordance intervened and the planet’s Xinq majority renamed it Jakar Xinq. Lieutenant Semplen Derst-Jesten had been seconded from the Landric Trackers (when such arrangements still existed between League and Reach), while Aspirant Winsen had been a question-mark entry in the lead sergeant’s training book. Now he was the bodyguard for a Tegnarian lattice magnate, and she was potentially a target for prosecution by the incoming FXM regime, once the bastards got around to using all four hands for shuffling through the personnel files.
Deal with that when and if it occurred.
Arras spared a last glance over her shoulder at Verk ak nal Wizlen climbing carefully into the least dented taxi of the lot.
“They serve you your walk-abouts yet?” Semplen asked, as the vehicle slid away from the shuttle field. He paid no attention to the automatics once he had entered his destination code.
“Nah, I’m in limbo. The Bureau doesn’t exist, of course. I’m back to being supernumerary for the 19th Strike, which is scheduled for de-mob.” Even before election results had been tabulated, the Free Xinquess Momentum had announced XRAF cutbacks, as well as its policy for commissioning Xinq officers.
Semplen shook his head at the vagaries of civilian government, and reached into a cargo pocket to withdraw two ampules of blue liquid.
“Shooter?” he offered.
“Nah. Wits about me, I think. Who’ll be meeting?”
He didn’t answer immediately, instead loading both amps into a needler and injecting himself in the heel of his left hand. His body tensed momentarily, then relaxed with a satisfied shudder.
Arras studied the exterior screens. It was eerie, she thought, gliding through the streets of North Regent past traditional house-complexes with whitewashed walls, exterior gardens, and unobtrusive guards. A Xinq repair crew with a human supervisor excavated a power cable. Along Defender’s Row the old statues still stood, and Xinq gardeners pruned purple-yellow Ygeia bushes. In the distance she saw the jutting rise of the Tower, nerve center of Xinquess Reach for two centuries, due in three weeks to have new occupants.
“Who’ll be meeting?” Arras asked again, more sharply than she intended, but in the shooter’s initial blur he failed to notice.
“Just Deng. He believes in handling confidential details himself.”
She’d checked out Deng Altairs. Like Semplen, he was Landric, and even though born into a fortune he’d run off at seventeen to join the Trackers and see the worlds. He’d served out a full hitch, and made Lance before his term was up--Lance in the Trackers was nothing to scoff at. Still, everyone knew—in circles where “everyone” was rich and invested to the eyeballs—that Deng Altairs was an entrepreneur. By thirty he held key blocs in a dozen companies, mostly lattice and chrysalis nodes, which meant that despite political upheavals he remained heavily invested in the Reach. He plainly had a fascination for high risks with the opportunity for a big kill.
Tegnarian Lattice appeared to be a side venture, thrown together to turn a quick profit when the civil war on Gonkaina ended. Altairs had secured leases to prospect on minor continent, Zekaina, and quickly struck a rich vein. Trouble was, the Concordance might have declared the war over, the elections results official, and the Frec Yinor Gonkaina installed as the legitimate government, but no one had gotten around to convincing the ja Gonk Koloankar. Nilly Nilly’s Gonk rebels still held most of the countryside, supplying themselves by smuggling lattice out through Fringe. The Frec’s Gonkaina Republican Army had never been a match, Xinq for Xinq, for the Gonks, so the GRA contented itself with holding major cities, the lanes between them, and the nearest lattice or node fields.
Nilly Nilly’s ragtag army would take a lot of defeating, Arras knew, since the XRAF had trained it. The Gonks had proven that point rather forcefully a few months back, overrunning most of the Zekaina lattice fields in a surprise offensive calculated to embarrass the Yuhuzatankor government during a visit by the Vice-President of the Free Republics.
Leaving Deng Altairs with rights to a multi-million-Cert field that could no longer be accessed, and a pronounced need for the services of one Sub-Major Arras ak Winsen. . . .
* * *
Built in Erit Bosner’s time, when great slabs of flawless pink marblite could still be had on Kwa-uluz, Heritage House had been a favorite of the military since opening day. The walls enclosed seventeen hectares of parks, pools, and dueling grounds; the food was excellent and the rooms comfortable if somewhat Spartan. No one had ever needed to place a sign reading “Humans only” over the archway; any Xinqs inside had come in through the service entrance.
That was also about to change.
Semplen debouched from the GEV and greeted the bell captain with a playful slap aimed for the head. The Xinq, whose left tinkering arm ended in a blackened stump, wore harness decorations of a former Under-sergeant in the 6th Hovercraft Battalion. Ducking Semplen’s hand, the majordomo stepped under the human’s arm, and delivered a mock counter-punch to the ribs.
“Boss, hey! Major getting little slow in old age. Too much good food, too much Blue!”
Arras thought a cloud whisked across Semplen’s face, but if so, it disappeared so quickly that she couldn’t be sure. She’d wondered about the double shooter hit, having initially assumed he’d meant one ampule for her. With the bell captain’s comment, she made a note to watch him more carefully.
Semplen reached into his pocket and tossed the Xinq a five Cert chip.
“Needs servicing, Jelly Ool. See to it smart and there’ll be another one for you and one to split for the boys.”
Jelly Ool, whose full name transliterated as Jelleliulol, rocked forward with the motion that the neckless Xinqs substituted for nodding. “When will the Major need it?”
“No quicker than two hours, I think. Can do?”
“Can do, Major.”
Semplen gestured Arras to follow him toward one of the private grav-chutes, avoiding the necessity of crossing the lobby. Abruptly, he stopped and returned his attention to the Xinq.
“Jelly Ool,” he said. “You’ll have your first Xinq guests in a few weeks, right?” A rocking agreement, more cautious this time. The master of Heritage House’s front stoop understood the dangers inherent in such questions. “What do the boys say?”
“They say they like old ways, at least here, Major. Everyone on staff a veteran. Veterans understand what tubeheads in ja Xinq Kooloanquor”—juxtaposing derisive human slang with the Xinq term for the Free Xinq Momentum—“never will. Everyone has place.”
Semplen smiled, and Arras read in his expression the same desperation she saw in other human faces across the Reach, holding on to fragments of society as they had known it. He had a lot in common, she realized, with the fellow from Geffney. The thought was disquieting; Arras had always considered Semplen a man who could confront reality without flinching—before, during, and after their brief fling a decade ago. She hadn’t seen him in four years, and found it uncomfortable to notice the subtle changes.
The grav-chute deposited them on the ninety-third floor, in the anteroom to one of the penthouses. Before Semplen could swipe his code on the pad, the door slid open to reveal the waiting figure of Deng Altairs. A short, wiry man, with a triangular face, bushy eyebrows, and widely spaced hazel eyes, his hair (a mere fuzz across his skull) was dark brown, his skin only a few shades lighter. He looked ten years younger than his reported age of forty-seven, his trim body tacitly asserting that he could still wear his old uniform.
“Major Winsen!” he exclaimed, with what appeared to be true excitement. “Come in.”
The suite was awash in tropical plants, yet strangely devoid of scent. Holos, she realized. It made sense, since such an arrangement provided a near-infinite array of backdrops for discriminating clients. Deng ushered Arras into a sitting room furnished with the backless couches that had recently become the rage throughout the Reach. She detested them, for they required an ungainly slouch to be comfortable. Deng offered drinks, stim, and shooters, all of which she declined, as did Semplen; the millionaire then mixed himself a Dirizi Fizz and perched on his own couch.
“My company—Tegnarian Lattice—has recently suffered a severe loss,” he said.
“Unless TLI has more assets than publicly recorded,” Arras countered, “Nilly Nilly’s capture of the Oyos lattice fields represents a complete loss.”
Deng spread his hands in mock surrender.
“I love dealing with soldiers. Always a dance before we reach the heart of the real issues.”
She gave him back a half-smile and said nothing.
He sighed theatrically. “All right. The loss of Oyos wipes out the company—and my investment—in six months.”
“It’s not ka-damn likely that our Frec buddies are going to retake them for us,” Semplen said.
Arras asked, “Which of the Xinqs on Gonkaina are our buddies these days, Semplen? We trained Nilly Nilly’s strikers, and I seem to remember us calling in fire on a lot of Frecs at Hill 214.”
When Deng looked mildly at Semplen, as if waiting for a response, Arras realized that he was being admonished to stay out of the conversation. After a silence of either ten seconds or two years, Deng said, “Our Xinqs are the ones who have the potential for holding those lattice fields permanently. No matter what our—my—personal sympathies for old comrades, no one is ever going to recognize Nilly Nilly as a legitimate government.”
Deng took a long sip from his drink, and said quietly, “Major, I have to have those fields back within two months. I’m over-extended, it’s that simple.”
It was never that simple with men like Deng Altairs, but now was not the moment for witty rejoinders. Arras bit the inside of her lip and stayed silent, forcing him to speak again.
“Semplen suggested to me that your organization—what’s it called again?”
“North Regent Consulting, Limited.”
“Yah, that. Semplen tells me that you might be able to raise a force to assist the GRA in retaking our fields.”
“You mean, that I might have sufficient mercenaries available to splint the backs of the Frecs long enough to convince Nilly Nilly to try his luck elsewhere?”
Deng didn’t balk at her use of the term “mercenary,” but she hadn’t expected an ex-Tracker in the lattice business to be squeamish. “I’m losing a million a day, solid Cert, Major. I don’t have time to be coy.”
“How much backing will we get out of the GRA?” Arras asked, directing the question to Semplen.
“We told them we’d refit four of their regiments, and they’ve agreed to commit two of those to holding the fields after you capture them.” He looked like he regretted turning down that third ampule, she thought. “One of the regiments will be trash, of course, but the other’s the Ardulu’utel.”
Arras nodded. The Ardulu’utel Regiment had the reputation as the best-trained unit in the Goinkana Republic Army; at Hill 214, the XRAF had needed to inflict fifty percent casualties to force the Ardooleys to break off an attack.
She turned back to Deng.
“It can’t be done with less than a full company with a support platoon. Who inserts?”
“That’s your call,” the millionaire said, which meant, “That’s your problem.”
“You’ll lose sixty million over the next two months anyway, but I’ll charge forty to get those fields for you. Half at the going-in end, half when the Frecs relieve us.”
Arras thought she’d named a price sufficiently high to open negotiations.
Deng said, “Done. When can you go in?”
Semplen wore the same bemused look he’d had when she came out of the bush at the end of her Rites. He’d joined in the general laying of bets that the scrawny Aspirant might crap out in the exfiltration run; later she found out he’d wagered against her. His expression now was the one Arras had seen as she crossed the line, fourth of twenty-six who made it.
She could hear Khom already: “If he agreed to your first price, it was too low.”
Arras considered Deng’s question about the timing. The insertion would be a challenge, but the company, there was the real rub. North Regent Consulting was still a shell; Arras and Khom hadn’t expected any offers until after demobilization. The mercenaries that Deng Altairs needed didn’t yet exist, save as personnel files in Khom’s computer.
Semplen, she realized, knew that and had chosen to keep silent. Curious. Arras rubbed the bridge of her nose, a habit left over from too many sleepless nights evaluating intelligence data. Finally, she met the millionaire’s eyes with all the confidence she could muster, and said, “Two weeks. In two weeks, you’ll have your lattice back, but then it will be up to the Frecs to hold it.”
* * *
“Two weeks?” Khom Khamarys repeated with disbelief, running his hands through thinning brown hair. “You promised him two ka-damn weeks?”
Khom had an angular, weather-beaten face, which habitually wore a harried look. Sitting in front of his computer in baggy work utilities, he might have been a junior accountant for one of the Reach’s shipping houses. Because he rarely wore his uniform, and never with decorations, nothing connected this mousy figure with Major Khom Khamarys, former Operations Officer of the 1st Penetration Troop, the infamous “Gray Stalkers.”
“He might have gone for three, but if I’d asked for a month we’d have lost the contract. I know it’s cutting it off close to the detonator, Khom, but pull it off, and we’ve got operating capital and the start of a working reputation.”
A chip for Cert twenty million sat beside his computer, probably the reason he hadn’t thrown her out of his apartment, the only office North Regent Consulting possessed. His fingers danced across the keyboard. The top left screen displayed schematics for a XRAF Striker Company with attached weapons platoon, each slot indicating the rank, experience level, and technical proficiencies required. The screen below displayed the same organization with blanks to enter names.
Both right-hand screens flashed individual dossiers so rapidly that Arras did not know how Khom could actually be reading them. His right hand kept up a steady tap-tap-tapping, flickering through the Terrans and Xinqs in their pirated database. Every so often Khom hesitated on one file or another; usually he shook his head and continued, though occasionally he transferred a name into the organizational file.
“I wonder what kind of reputation we’ll have, Arras, if we can’t put together a company, much less take Altairs’ lattice fields for him.”
Arras was unrepentant. “We had to start sometime, Khom,” she said. “I can’t believe you won’t be able to put together one ka-damn striker company. We’ve got nearly 4,000 names.”
He didn’t look up, but continued his relentless tapping through the dossiers. “That’s the problem with you Bureau types. Anything bigger than a three-person team represents some amazing, unexplained miracle. This is the reality of conventional operations: less than 1,000 of them are on Regent or Geffney right now, and given Altairs’ schedule, we can’t go any farther to pull them in. Of those, maybe two-thirds are tech or support. You know the strikers are predominantly out there on deployment, even now.”
“So we’ve got, say, 300 combat-qualified troops available, and half of them are Xinq.”
He transferred another name into a squad leader’s slot. Looking over Khom’s shoulder, Arras saw that the soldier in question was Xinq.
“Shouldn’t represent a problem,” she said. “After all, XRAF Xinqs have always been the cream, yah?” It was a brittle irony that many of the best soldiers defending the Reach had always been Xinq.
“That’s not the issue. I haven’t got a thing against Xinq troopers or NCOs, but even after I’ve modified it this table calls for three more officers than I’m going to have Terrans to fit.”
“So just put both of us in, and we can always figure out a way to finesse the final position.”
He looked at her blackly. “I put us in at the start. You can’t run an outfit like this if the organizers aren’t out at the sharp end, at least in the beginning. No, if we’re going to do this in the time allowed, we’re going to carry three Xinq lieutenants.”
She leaned over Khom’s shoulder, and examined the screen upon which he had paused. The inlaid graphic showed a small Xinq, grapplers almost diminutive as tinkers, wearing the harness of a Leading Sergeant in the 7th Strikers. The name appended was “Klattalolulor” (pidgin equivalent “Klatta Lor”); the Mentation Scores were excellent, rating out well inside Terran norms. Further down the screen, she saw Klatta Lor carried as an indirect fire specialist, with master ratings in auto-mortars and orbital shraps.
“We need a mortar commander,” Khom said. “This is the best of the lot.”
“So take him,” Arras said. “It won’t be the first time Terrans had to take orders from a tubehead in the field.”
Khom pressed a stubby finger against the screen.
“Not augmented,” he said. “You want an unjacked Xinq bringing in fire over your position? I ka-damn well don’t.” Despite the fact that many Xinqs showed Mentation Scores comparable to Terrans, there was a species-wide difficulty with temporal sense. Xinqs perceived any increment smaller than about two minutes as a “rush”—with seconds almost indistinguishable from minutes. Elite units like the Grey Stalkers overcame this deficiency with chrono-links known as “jacks,” that allowed Xinqs to set an internal count for a specified time to synchronize their performance in combat. But throughout the XRAF perhaps no more than a few dozen of the four-armed natives had received such augmentation.
“Give him a strong under-sergeant and be done with it,” Arras insisted.
Khom, whose field experience dwarfed her own by an exponential factor, stiffened, but obediently slotted Klatta Lor at the head of the weapons platoon. She realized then, despite the overt pessimism and the ritual of screening candidates, that her partner already knew he could put together a striker company. This entire charade had another purpose.
Arras moved away from Khom and collapsed into a real chair with an exhalation somewhere between a hiss and a sigh.
“Go ahead,” she finally said. “When you’re done putting the company together, make your pitch.”
Khom’s neck reddened; otherwise, he gave no indication of having heard the remark. His fingers continued to peck and more names fell into place. One complete striker company with attached weapons platoon—even alternate names at key technical slots. Arras wondered if he knew that she knew he’d been running simulated mission rosters non-stop for two weeks. By now Khamarys could probably whip up a full striker battalion out of the leavings around Regent.
Which meant he was about to return to their worst point of contention. Arras and Khom were both XRAF combat veterans, but their records left much to be desired with regard to starting (say nothing of commanding) a mercenary outfit. Arras had been quickly seconded to the Political Estimates Bureau, trained in far more specialized fashion, and then shipped off to Landrum, Artresia, and Zakaral to “estimate” several key ja Xinq Kooloanquor operatives. Those assignments had required linguistic ability, marksmanship, stealth, and utter ruthlessness, but nothing that passed for small-unit tactics.
Khom had been a field officer in the Grey Stalkers, had planned and participated in raids into Gonkaina, Fringe, and even ja Xinq after the last refugee flights. But Major Khomarys had never been a company commander; the Colonel, having seen something in him early on, posted Khom to the battalion’s short staff and left him there. His right to be considered a Stalker had never been questioned, yet while he had engaged in firefights aplenty, Khom had never done so as the tactical leader.
Finally, Khom pivoted around and said, “They’re all there, on the screen I mean, but to get them we have to him.”
No doubt about the identity behind the pronoun: Colonel Staad nal Elbers, easily one of the most legendary figures in the XRAF. Elbers had commanded the original company that formed the nucleus for the Stalkers, led several battalions during the Gonkaina incursions, and commanded a short brigade during the ja Xinq evacuation. He’d personally piloted one of the last, heavily damaged shuttles into a hot LZ to recover an isolated company of combat engineers, bringing out all six Terran officers and sixty-two of their unwounded Xinq troops.
But he had—even by rather lenient XRAF standards—unsavory personal habits that were at best an open secret within the ranks. Since the ranks were at least half Xinq, it was a certainty that the Momentum would also know about them eventually.
“I’m thinking long-term, Khom,” she said carefully. “Two, three years down the way, is Elbers going to help us or hurt us?”
Khom said, “We’ve got to have a ka-damn short term in order to get to the long term, don’t we? Given the time line you’ve handed me, we’re going to have to recruit down and dirty on the inside, and we’re going to need a name as good as his or better to get it done.”
Other than the Colonel, who had blessed their endeavor behind the scenes while adamantly refusing any public role, Arras knew that few better names existed to draw in Terrans or Xinqs for the kind of work they had in mind. She wondered if her reluctance to use Elbers stemmed from revulsion or anxiety that he might somehow seize control of the whole enterprise. After a moment’s consideration she smiled grimly, dismissing that fear. She’d proven to herself several times over that she possessed the hardness to deal with that kind of situation.
Khom mistook the smile for something else, said, “Honestly, Arras, even this Klatta Lor has enough field time not to be thrown off by a few soft crabs.”
“All right,” she said. “But he only gets a short-term contract, no maintenance. We’ve got to be able to cut him loose when he becomes a liability.”
Her partner ignored the fact that Arras had said “when” and not “if.”