Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sunday Night SF at Delaware Libertarian: War on the Cheap Part Two

Find Part One here.

War on the Cheap

An Original Science Fiction story by

Steven H. Newton

(c)2008; all rights reserved

Part Two of Four

Standing behind her platoon sergeant, a particularly squat Xinq who never seemed to stop moving or hooting, Arras had to admit that whatever the tactical capabilities of the recon NCO might be, Gully Foy ka-damn sure knew how to intimidate the troops when necessary.

An obviously exhausted Terran, last soldier in the platoon, had just reached the final pool of muck in the improvised obstacle course. Staggering under the weight of her pack and weapon, she threw herself down the lane by force of will alone. Instead of keeping almost totally immersed in the foul-smelling brew, she attempted to crawl across on hands and knees, which raised her ass high enough to trip the sensors. When two Xinqs committed the same error, Gully Foy had hauled them out of the pool and beaten them nearly senseless.

Arras waited to see how he (she was reasonably sure that Gully Foy belonged to one of the three pseudo-male sexes) would handle the situation with a Terran.

The Xinq NCO bounded up to the unfortunate woman just as she lurched out of the mud to cross the finish line, grapplers and tinkers shaking with barely controlled rage. The Terran cringed slightly, but stood her ground, chest heaving as she tried to suck oxygen out of the excessively humid air. Gully Foy blew out several nonsense, tea-kettle sounds, then sounded out her name in pidgin, loud enough for the other nine Xinqs and six Terrans in the platoon to hear:

“Private Hooo—ellaa!”

He unfastened the flap of his holster, pulled out his pistol, and extended the weapon toward her, butt first.

Arras felt her left eyebrow rise.

“Private Hooo—ellaa!” the sergeant repeated. “Take my ka-fucking piece, please.”

Private Vanessla Hoella (formerly a recruit, 17th Strikers, with barely two years in and no combat experience) glanced toward Winsen, her eyes entreating her Platoon Commander to intervene. Receiving no response, she slowly extended her hand and accepted the Consortium 11mm. Precis 4 from the Xinq. By the way Hoella’s hand sagged, Arras knew that the pistol was loaded, probably with those super-heavy explosive slugs that so many Xinqs in the XRAF favored.

Gully Foy arched both spines, and his tinkers pulled back his combat harness, exposing the diaphragm in the center of his chest. Sweat from the glands on the undersides of his grapplers ran in small rivulets down the muscular upper arms.

“Shoot me, Private Hooo—ellaa,” he chirped. “Then pick least three other soldiers, shoot them, too.”

The young woman stood frozen, confused.

“Get it over now, Private Hooo-ellaa, rather let Nilly Nilly do it when you fail us real.” Before Hoella could move or reply, Gully Foy pivoted to face the rest of the platoon. “Maybe someone else admit they ka-damn sure mess up today, too, hey? Who Private Hooo—ellaa’s teammates, huh, hey?”

A Xinq with heavily tattooed grapplers and a thin Terran both flinched obviously enough to answer the question. Everyone else executed the timeless military maneuver of pulling away from the pair without actually moving.

“Recon got to be team!” the sergeant whistled, so shrilly that a fine, barely visible spray spewed out of the speech organs on either side of his broad skull. “Your partner not make it, but least she ka-damn trying. Your partner not make it and you did, Gully Foy know exactly who blame when we all die.”

With a lightning move that caused Hoella to jump back in surprise, the Xinq snatched the Precis out of her hand, holstering it in one fluid motion. All four arms waving, he stormed toward the troops.

“Sergeant Gully Foy not get paid if he dead, and you want to meet one pissed-off tubehead, you meet Gully Foy’s ka next life when he don’t get paid! Now, we run course again, nah? Only this time, all make it”—his right tinker pointed back at Hoella, who appeared to be slowly sagging into the ground—“including Private ka-damn Hooo—ella, nah?”

Second Sergeant Askell int Reyd (former Lance with the 3rd Hovercraft) appeared to realize that everyone in the platoon—Xinq and Terran—would be looking toward him to confirm or challenge Gully Foy’s orders. At least that was the conclusion Arras drew when she saw his shoulders tense and his hand unconsciously hitch the sling on his pulse rifle. Almost as if disconnected from conscious control, she felt her own right index finger slide along the edge of her holster.

If she had to intervene, the whole operation was in serious trouble.

But Sergeant Reyd just chuckled—loud enough for the sound to carry—and said, “Since I intend to be the last one through, none of you would want to slow me down, would you?” He smiled, exposing fang-filed incisors that were all the rage with the floaties, then sauntered in the direction of the course starting point, grasping Hoella none too gently by the arm as he passed.

There was a rustle of equipment, accompanies by a chorus of groans and off-key hoots as the platoon started to follow him.

“That’s one old campaigner who knows his business, nah?”

The gravelly voice came from behind her, so close that Arras jumped and half-spun into a defensive stance before her mind connected the accent with the Terran she’d reluctantly accepted as the contract’s operational commander: Colonel Staad nal Elbers.

He stood with his arms crossed, smiling at her discomfiture, but it was somehow a disarming smile that radiated no malice. Elbers towered over Arras by nearly a third of a meter; his blocky form appeared to have been erected by piling slabs of basaltic rock into a rough approximation of human proportions. Yet there was an underlying grace to his movements (he was considered one of the premiere ballroom dancers on Regent). The man was so ugly, Arras thought, that he approached being handsome.

“That’s not necessarily wise,” she said slowly. “Slipping up behind people carrying live ammunition, nah?”

“There’s nothing wise about this whole ka-damn operation, Major, so I seem to be in good company.”

As he spoke, Elbers tapped three studs of the command gauntlet on his left arm in quick succession. The tell-tale on the inside of his wrist changed from green to red, cutting him out of the comm net.

“We need to speak. Now, I think.”

Her platoon had covered half the distance back to the starting point. Gully Foy had already disappeared over the ridge concealing the first obstacle from view. Arras made eye contact with Reyd, who inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement, then turned back to pushing the troops along.

“All right, then. But just so I’m clear, are we talking field boss to platoon commander, or commander to contractor?”

Elbers dropped into a squatting position like an avalanche descending a mountain; it brought him to just below her standing eye level. Like everyone else, he wore the same sanitized, XRAF surplus field utilities, lacking nametag and the interlocked triangles of the Xinquess Reach shoulder patch. Unlike everyone else—including Arras—he had found time to have his uties tailored, and wore above his left breast pocket the single muted-gold sunburst that designated him as colonel.

“First things first, Platoon Commander. Tell me about your unit.”

“Gully Foy’s good. Recon in his veins, I think, but never been a platoon sergeant. Reyd’s a seasoned NCO, but he’s never been Recon—least not on foot. We’ve got three Xinqs and one Terran with actual Recon experience, although everyone but Hoella has fire time.” She paused, added, “I’ve never done Recon, either—not as a specialty.”

Khom had spent a good deal of time fretting about the right place for her in the company’s organization. Arras lacked the technical skills for fire support and the tactical confidence for one of the line platoons. Eventually, he resolved the dilemma by increasing the normal scout complement of a striker company from a squad to an under-sized Recon platoon, cutting two positions out of each line platoon’s support element to make up the difference.

“Your assessment?”

She felt the crossed straps of her field pack cutting into her ribs below her left breast, but resisted the urge to hook a thumb underneath to relieve the pressure.

“We need at least two weeks we haven’t got to shake down for anything long-range, but since we’re only doing an out-and-about sweep from Hill 49. . . .”

Elbers cut her off: “Platoon Commanders shouldn’t make assumptions about what the commander might have to order.”

“I’m not going to pretend, Colonel, that I haven’t been helping draft the operations plan for this contract,” Arras said, hearing exasperation in her own voice. She didn’t add that his contract called for him to execute that plan without major deviations.

“In my mind, Major, the fact that you are the contractor is more than sufficient reason that you shouldn’t be running around playing soldier. I’m not about to have you second-guessing me in the middle of a ka-damn firefight.”

“You don’t seem to have any problems with Khom as your XO.”

Elbers waved a hand dismissively.

“Different entirely. Khomarys is an experienced staff officer. He knows his job, and he knows who makes the command decisions, and I’ve had him working for me before. Your experiences are less relevant to the field. Frankly, I have more confidence in that unjacked tubehead Klatta Lor to call in the right firefall than I have in your competence as a Platoon Commander. People with the Bureau tend to see combat as an individual event, not a team effort. If you were not the contractor here, Major Winsen, I would replace you.”

“You want to speak candidly, Colonel?” Arras replied in a low voice. “If I were the sole proprietor of North Regent Consulting, you would not be the commander. If anyone doesn’t lift when we go, it will ka-damn sure be you and not me.”

Elbers rumbled in laughter as he stood.

Faintly, over the noise of the simulators, they could hear Gully Foy hooting and Reyd shouting at the platoon.

“You know, Major, I thought seriously about bedding you once, back when you were still an honest striker and not a political. You make me sorry that I didn’t follow through. We understand each other, nah?”

Arras smiled back.

“We understand each other. The field boss will have the Platoon Commander shot if she can’t cut it, and the contractor will have the field boss shot if he gets out of hand.”

He tapped his gauntlet, putting himself back on the net.

Arras bent down to tighten a strap on her leg-pack of additional power packs for her pulse rifle (unobtrusively loosening the strap against her ribs as she did so), stopped in mid-motion, and looked Elbers straight in the eye.

“By the bye, Colonel, it was a good decision.”

“What?” he asked, genuinely puzzled.

“Not to follow through. With the bedding, I mean.”

She straightened and began walking away, but said over her shoulder, “The rumors were right: it does have teeth.”

* * *

“What? Sorry, drifting.”

Arras re-focused her attention on the man standing beside her in the lounge of Deng Altairs’ yacht. Major Vercienne ak nal Wizlen (“Verk,” he insisted) balanced his globe of gin and a small plate of something wet and squiggly from the appetizer table with more aplomb than she had been able to muster. But then, his brown, not-quite-a-uniform suit was also much better chosen for a semi-formal occasion than the maroon wrap-blouse Arras had paired with black flare-pants and white, spike-heeled boots.

“I said that it is amazing just how awkward we all seem to be, cruising around in this lap of luxury. Two or three decades of being shot about the Reach in old tubs can ruin one’s taste for the finer things, nah?”

“Lap of luxury” seemed the appropriate term for the vessel in which the five NRC team members had ridden, along with Deng and Semplen, to rendezvous with representatives of the Frec Yinor Gonkaina. Each of them had been assigned private cabins and individual stewards. Meals had been served in a palatial dining compartment, prepared by a chef who appeared to have on-board an endless stock of fresh fruits and vegetables. The yacht sported a full-size gymnasium, several vid-suites, and numerous meeting rooms. A ka-damn sight different, she had thought several times, from the creaking, out-dated little fleet of zPL transports Verk had leased for the operation, which smelled of feces and fertilizer.

Arras looked around the compartment at the six men and one Xinq waiting for the Gonkaina delegation to arrive.

Staad nal Elbers stood posed, statue-silent and jaw out-thrust, behind the chair in which he would sit during the meeting. He wore a retiree’s uniform with full decorations, including several ostentatious Gonkaina Intervention medals. Elbers had been thoroughly briefed on his role at conference: to nod sagaciously at key points and keep out of any substantive discussions. A hefty performance bonus written into his contract was intended to insure that he would keep his well-shined boots out of his mouth.

Khom Khamarys, predictably, owned no suitable clothing for a semi-diplomatic meeting. Thus, sitting at the table and nervously flicking his way through screens of data he had already memorized, he was encased in one of Semplen’s semi-formal jumps that the steward had expertly altered for the occasion. Arras caught her partner glancing irritably toward her several times as she stood talking to Verk.

Assembling a modified striker company at a snap had been a recruit drill beside the problem of equipping, transporting, and inserting the outfit, a quandary made worse by the fact that neither Arras nor Khom had expected to land a substantial contract for at least another six months. So Khom had not grumbled too loudly when Arras suggested calling Verk’s Consultations in Transport and Logistics for assistance. Something she’d sensed in their brief encounter had suggested competence lurking behind that wry, self-amused smile. Once Verk had come through with armaments, a training ground, and even cut-rate transport, however, Khom had taken a fervent dislike to the smooth-talking loggie that rivaled the antipathy Arras had for Elbers.

Verk appeared completely impervious to such feelings, and from the start had conducted himself as NRC’s third founding partner rather than the hired help.

Deng Altairs paced, circling the table about once per minute, so distracted that he walked twice without noticing through the holographic logo of Tegnarian Lattice behind his appointed seat. The name of the ruling Xinq faction—Frec Yinor Gonkaina—literally meant “Terrans Away from Gonkaina” and aptly summarized the party line toward humans. Yet Yuhuzatankor (derisively labeled “Yoo-hoo Tankey” by XRAF propaganda) had come to the reluctant conclusion that the Frec government could not survive without dealing with Terrans, if only to keep buying weapons to fight off Nilly Nilly’s still-rebellious ja Gonk Koloankar (“Free Gonkaina Movement”), which other Terran corporate interests kept underwriting. So the Frecs dealt with Terrans like Deng Altairs, who had the inclination to risk venture capital in the middle of a continuing civil war.

But they didn’t have to like it.

That the Frec government, sitting atop the richest lattice fields in the quadrant, demanded fifty percent of all gross profits was something an entrepreneur like Altairs expected. That the Frecs required all Terran investors dealing with them subscribe an associate membership to the Frec Yinor Gonkaina was distasteful, but what one might expect from a government run by tubeheads. That the Frecs then insisted on all Terrans in direct contact with Frec officials wear Xinq ceremonial dress, including the open harness and body paint was, Arras thought, something that could only be born by a man like Altairs when he stood eventually to make billions rather than millions.

The left half of Altairs’ torso was dyed a pale yellow, the right side a deep purple. From the instinctive flinch that Klatta Lor had attempted to hide when Altairs first appeared, Arras concluded that in Xinq culture there was probably nothing flattering to the wearer in that color combination.

Klatta Lor stood at the buffet table, stuffing food into her abdominal maw at a prodigious pace. Two days of training had passed before any of the Terrans realized that she was a member of the single true-female sex, a bearer, and also pregnant. Fortunately, she was only eleven months gone, and would not deliver her pellets for nearly another year. The only allowance that had to be made occurred with respect to rations: an expectant Xinq’s metabolism accelerated to the point where she had to digest nearly twice the normal 4,500 calories per day.

Including Klatta Lor had been Arras’ idea, primarily to throw the Frecs off-balance by presenting them with a multi-species delegation, and it had not initially been appreciated. Khom had opposed the plan almost as staunchly as he disliked Verk, but in the end—having learned to depend on his partner’s instincts—he capitulated. Elbers had required a pointed reminder of precisely who deposited the Cert into his account.

The chime announcing Semplen’s imminent arrival with the Frecs interrupted her train of thought, and set everyone in motion toward the conference table. Xinq cultural mores insisted that when the superior individual entered the room, everyone else should be seated and ready to work. Deng slid into the float-chair to the immediate left of the Frec spokesman’s quodke cushion, while Arras and Khom seated themselves beside him. Verk and Klatta Lor—leaving an open space for the Frec deputy—took positions directly opposite, with Elbers at the far end of the table, directly facing the head Xinq. Arras noted abstractedly that even though the colonel had been standing behind his own chair, he managed to be the last one to take his seat.

Semplen, again as per Xinq rather than human protocol, entered the room ahead of the guests, proceeding without speaking to a standing position behind Deng Altairs. Arras saw the two men make pointed eye contact, however, and could have sworn Deng nodded his head fractionally at whatever message his aide imparted.

The first Xinq through the door was the thinnest of the species that Arras had ever seen, gaunt to the point that the cartilaginous ridges surrounding its auditory diaphragm stood out in high relief. The Xinq’s harness had been lacquered with Auricum and crusted with shimmering fragments of chrysalis nodes, accentuating rather than covering slanting lines of vermillion and scarlet body paint. This, she knew from Deng’s earlier briefing, was Gorthokojofar, Second Tinkerer of the Lattice Authority of Gonkaina.

Gorthokojofar strode confidently to the table, acknowledging no one, and sat. Several paces behind followed a deputy—probably a Lesser Grappler—a more nondescript Xinq wearing a less decorative harness over purely vermillion paint.

Nonetheless, the subordinate ripped everyone’s attention away from Gorthokojofar. Perched on its upper shoulders, clinging to its harness, even riding along balanced atop a three-toed foot, were five—no, six—immature Xinq pups, two kilos each of inane hooting and wildly gesticulating appendages. At a guess, Arras thought they might be a standard old, which meant that they were a good six years away from developing true sentience. And, she realized with a suddenly dry throat, about a year shy of having the plates in their skulls grow together. . . .

Still soft crabs.

Her eyes flicked involuntarily toward Elbers, whose body had subtly transformed from resting immobility to complete rigidity.

Gorthokojofar abruptly began hooting in Gonk dialect, allowing no time for translation. Arras caught no more than one word in three, but she had expected this. At any rate, both Deng and Semplen understood Gonk (as did Klatta Lor, a fact about which Arras and Khom had somehow neglected to inform their partners). When Gorthokojofar ceased speaking, Deng reached into a pocket and withdrew a small voder. At one touch a holographic keyboard appeared, which was the visible manifestation of a complex series of magnetic fields capable of interacting with the nano-paint on the millionaire’s fingernails. With more diligence than ease, Deng typed a reply, contemplated it for a moment, and keyed the “vocalize” command, causing the voder to produce its own array of Gonk noises.

Thus followed the first twenty-five minutes of the meeting, a series of interactions conducted solely in Gonk, translated by no one, and therefore incomprehensible to Arras, Khom, Verk, and Elbers. Despite Deng’s assurances that the initial exchanges represented nothing more than ritual greetings, she knew she would feel better when Klatta Lor was able to confirm the content.

In the meantime, half a dozen Xinq pups ran free throughout the conference room. Studiously ignored by everyone (Semplen had gone over this aspect of the negotiations in great detail), they proceeded to trash the buffet table, overturn two potted plants, and defecate odorous yellow, stringy lumps near Khom’s boots. At length the most adventurous of the litter scrambled up Elbers’ leg and began licking his medals. Uncertain whether to be horrified or amused, Arras had never before actually seen the vein in a man’s forehead pulse so visibly.

“Major Winsen, Major Khomarys,” Deng said with quiet abruptness, breaking her tangential reverie, “we’ve finally run up to your part of the technicals.” He flicked his fingers, keying a voder translation of Gorthokojofar’s last remarks.

“Requirement immutable that your attack occur within the next four cycles. Requirement contractual that you seize the lattice fields and maintain their possession for two cycles. Requirement compensatory that all participants in the consultation group be enrolled.”

The first two clauses simply recapitulated North Regent’s contract with Deng Altairs; the third represented a particular Frec quirk. The Frec Yinor Gonkaina did not—at least officially—employ mercenaries, especially not Terrans, and more specifically not Terrans with an XRAF pedigree. Thus, to satisfy the legal fictions necessary of interstellar diplomacy, the reinforced striker company became a “consultation group,” all of whose members were formally enrolled into one of the various Frec militias. Thus Yuhuzatankor’s government could maintain with a rising pitch that it had employed only indigenous forces against the Goks.

These were the same militias that had carried out the reprisal executions against Gonkaina’s resident Terran population, something few XRAF veterans were likely to forget or forgive. Nevertheless, she thought bitterly, we considered the ka-damn costs of doing business months ago, and there’s no way around it. Aloud, she said, “North Regent Consulting, Limited, accepts the Frec requirements.”

As the voder chirped the translation of her words, Arras added softly for Deng’s benefit, “But the first Xinq who expects me to tear open my shirt and paint my tits green is in for one rude surprise.”

End of Part Two.

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