Back | Next
Contents


PART I

 


Chapter 1

Like a rich armor, worn in heat of day,
that scalds with safety.


—Shakespeare, Henry IV


Ttckpt Province, Barwhon V

It was a cold, blue-green swamp under a violet sky. Lieutenant Connors had seen some swamps in his day; after all, he'd spent a number of years at the original "Camp Swampy," Fort Stewart, Georgia.


"Nothing like this shit, though," he muttered, as he struggled for a balance between conserving power for his Armored Combat Suit, and not sinking waist deep in the muck. Not sinking continued to win the toss as he reduced mass on his suit and applied power to forward thrusters to keep going even when the ground slid away in a lumpy slurry beneath him. His feet still sank ankle deep in the crud below.


The ACS encasing Connors was Galactic-built, but to human-drawn specifications. Despite this, and despite being symmetrically bipedal—two arms, two legs—and having a largish lump right where the head should be, the thing did not look too terribly human. In fact, it looked completely inhuman. For one thing, the suit had colored itself a dull blue-green to match the vegetation of the swamp. For another, it lacked obvious eyes and ears, while having a number of weapons stations sprouting from it.


The jury was still out on the camouflage. Other schemes had been tried. The blue-green mottled pattern on Connors' suit had worked as well as any of them, and not one whit better. The Posleen's yellow eyes were just different, different in their structure and different in what they saw.


Inside his suit, the lieutenant shrugged, unseen by any but the artificial intelligence device that ran the suit for him. He didn't know what camouflage would work (neither did the AID) and just followed the latest guidance from higher on the subject.


Around him, likewise mottled in the blue-green pattern and likewise struggling for an acceptable compromise between longevity and speed, Second Platoon, Company B-1st of the 508th Mobile Infantry (ACS), was spread out in a very sharp and narrow "V" to either side of a churned-muck trail.


Ordinarily, on Earth, the trail would have been superfluous as a means of control and orientation. The Global Positioning System was capable of telling a soldier, or a group of them, exactly where they were all the time. On Barwhon, however, there was no GPS. Moreover, while the suits were capable of inertial reckoning on their own, by and large the enemy Posleen were not. Thus, the Posleen followed the trail and, thus, the MI were led to battle them along it.


Besides, the trail was the shortest distance to an American light infantry company cut off some miles ahead on the wrong side of a river ford, their backs to the stream and no good way to cross back under fire.


Connors, like the men of Second Platoon, moved forward under radio listening silence. They could hear the commands of higher, when higher deigned to speak. They could also hear the heartbreakingly precise reports and orders emanating to and from one Captain Robert Thomas, commanding the company trapped at the ford. They'd been hearing them for hours.


The MI troopers had heard, "Zulu Four Three, this is Papa One Six. Adjust fire, over." They'd heard, "Echo Two Two this is Papa One Six. I've got a dozen men down I have to get dusted off." They'd eavesdropped on, "Captain Roberts, we can't fuckin' hold 'em . . . AIIII!"


Connors heard Echo Two Two, which the key on his display told him was the brigade's medical company, come back in the person of some breaking-voiced radioman, and say, "We're sorry, Papa. God, we're sorry. But we can't get through for your dust-off. We tried."


Things got worse from there.


"Echo Three Five, this is Papa One Six. We are under heavy attack. Estimate regimental strength or better. We need reinforcements, over."


A Posleen regiment massed two or three thousand of the aliens. A light infantry company at full strength with the normal attachments was one twelfth that size . . . or less. In this case, the personnel replacement situation being what it was, the trapped company was less. Much less.


That's a good man up there, Connors thought, in consideration of the incredibly calm tone of a man, Roberts, who knew that he and all his men were on the lunch menu. Too damned good to let get eaten.


Then came the really bad news. "Papa One Six, this is Echo Three Five, actual;"—the brigade commander—"situation understood. The Second of the 198th was ambushed during movement to reinforce you. We have at least another regiment . . ."


Things really got shitty then, though the first Connors knew of it was when the point man for the company column shouted, "Ambush!" a half a second before the air began to swarm with railgun fleshettes and the mucky ground to erupt steaming geysers with the impact of alien missiles and plasma cannon.


 


The problem with killing the stupid Posleen, Connors thought as he lay in the muck, is that the rest of them get much, much smarter.


The air above was alive with fire. Most of this was light railgun fire, one millimeter fleshettes most unlikely to penetrate the armor of a suit. Enough was three millimeter, though, to be worrisome. That was heavy enough to actually penetrate, sometimes, if it hit just right. It had penetrated several men of the company, in fact.


Worse than either were the plasma cannon and hypervelocity missiles, or HVMs, the aliens carried. These could penetrate armor as if it were cheesecloth, turning the men inside incandescent.


Worse still were the tenar, the alien leaders' flying sleds. These not only mounted larger and more powerful versions of the plasma cannon and HVMs, they had more ammunition, physical or energy, and much better tracking systems. They also had enough elevation on them that, at ambush range, they could fire down, completely skipping any cover the MI troopers might have hastily thrown up. Nor did the jungle trees, however thick, so much as slow the incoming fire. Instead, they splintered or burst into flame at the passing. Sometimes they did both. In any case, the air around Connors resembled some Hollywood idea of Hell, all flame and smoke and destruction, unimaginable chaos and confusion.


The only good thing you could say about the situation was that the Posleen apparently had few tenar. Otherwise, there was no explanation for the company's continued survival.


 


Connors traded shots with the Posleen, round for round. That wasn't really his job though. On the other hand, trying to do a lieutenant's job was rough, once things heated up.


"Call for fire, Lieutenant Connors?" suggested his AID.


"Do it," he answered, while cursing himself, I should have thought of that first. "And show me platoon status."


The AID used a laser in the suit's helmet to paint a chart directly on Connors' retina. He'd started movement with thirty-seven men. It pained him to see seven of those men marked in black, dead or so badly wounded that they were out of the fight. Under the circumstances, they were almost certainly dead.


He keyed his attention on one particular marker on the chart. "Show me detail on Staff Sergeant Duncan."


Instantly, that chart was replaced with another showing vital statistics and a record summary for one of Connors' squad leaders. He didn't need the record summary; he knew his men. The statistics were something else again.


Shit, Duncan's on overload.


It took an experienced eye to see it. The first clue was the soldier's silhouette projected by the AID. Duncan should have been prone or at least behind some kind of cover. He wasn't; he had taken one knee and was trading shots with the Posleen, burst for burst. That was all well and good against normals; they were usually lightly armed. But doesn't the idiot see the goddamned HVMs coming in?


It got worse on closer examination. Adrenaline was up, but that was normal. The brain activity was skewed though.


"AID, query. Analyze record: Staff Sergeant Robert Duncan. Correlate for 'combat fatigue' also known sometimes as 'nervous hysteria.' "


AIDs thought very quickly, if not generally creatively.


"Duncan is overdue for a breakdown, Lieutenant," the AID answered. "He has forty-four days continuous combat—without rest—now. He has over three hundred days in total. He's stopped eating and has less than four hours sleep in the last ninety-six. Loss of important comrades over the past eighteen months approaches one hundred percent. He hasn't been laid lately, either."


"Fuck . . . Duncan, get down, goddamn it," Connors ordered. The silhouette painted on his eye didn't budge.


"Incoming," the AID announced, tonelessly. The splash of friendly artillery fire began to play on the aliens surrounding the company. "I am adjusting."


 


With the help of the artillery, that ambush was beaten off. It made no difference. The Posleen were swarming between the company and its objective. They were swarming in much greater than mere regimental strength. Much.


Duncan was a problem. He couldn't be left behind; there were still thousands of Posleen that would have overcome and eaten him on his own. Connors had had to relieve the man and place his Alpha Team leader in charge of the squad. Worse, all you could get out of the sergeant were unconnected words of one syllable.


And I can't leave anyone behind to guard him. I can't even autoprogram the suit to take him back to base; he'd be dogmeat on his own.


At least the sergeant could follow simple orders: up, down, forward, back, shoot, cease fire. Connors kept him close by during the long, bloody grueling fight to reach the ford. They reached it too late, of course. Captain Roberts' radio had long since gone silent before the first B Company trooper splashed into the stream.


By that time, Connors found himself the sole officer remaining in the company. That was all right; the company was down to not much more than platoon strength anyway.


Connors heard his platoon sergeant—no, now he's the first sergeant, isn't he?—shout, "Duncan, where the hell do you think you're going?"


Looking behind, the lieutenant saw his damaged sergeant beginning to trot back to the rear, cradling a body in his arms. Some friendly hovercraft were skimming the greasy-looking water of the swamp as they moved to reinforce the ford.


"It's okay, Sergeant . . . First Sergeant. Let him go," Connors said, wearily. "It's safe back there, now. See to the perimeter, Top."


Leaving the NCO to his work Connors sat down on the mound the Posleen had created apparently to honor the spirit and body of the late Captain Roberts. He began to compose a letter to his wife, back home on Earth.


"Dearest Lynn . . ."


Logistics Base X-Ray, Ttckpt Province, Barwhon V

The battalion had suffered grievously in the move to and fight for the ford. B Company was down to one officer and fifty-one others. Of the fifty-one, one—Staff Sergeant Duncan—was a psychiatric casualty. The rest of the battalion's fighting companies were in no better shape.


The battalion commander was gone, leaving the former exec, Major Snyder, to assume command. Only two of the company commanders had lived, and one of those was chief of the headquarters company which didn't normally see much action. In total, the battalion's officer corps had left to it one major, two captains, half a dozen first lieutenants and, significantly, no second lieutenants. Like other newbies, the shavetails had died in droves before really having a chance to learn the ropes.


Connors thought he was lucky keeping his old platoon sergeant as the company first sergeant. Snyder had wanted to take him to be battalion sergeant major.


Somehow, Connors thought, I don't think Snyder meant it entirely as a compliment when he let me keep Martinez.


"Sir," Martinez asked, when they were alone in the company headquarters tent, "what now? We're too fucked to go into the line again."


The tent was green, despite the bluish tint to all the vegetation on Barwhon V. It smelled musty, and a little rotten-sweet, from the local equivalent of jungle rot that had found the canvas fibers to be a welcome home and feed lot.


"The major . . . no, the colonel, said we're going home for a while, Top," Connors answered, distantly. "He said there's not enough of us left to reform here. So we're going back to get built up to strength before they throw us in again."


"Home?" Martinez asked, wonderingly.


"Home," echoed Connors, thinking of the wife he'd left behind so many long months before.


Indowy Freighter Selfless Accord, en route Barwhon to Earth


"Attention to orders," cracked from the speakers above the troopers' heads as they stood in ranks in the dimly and strangely lit assembly hall.


"Reposing special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor, fidelity, and abilities of . . ." The 508th's acting adjutant, normally the legal officer, read off the names of the remaining officers of the battalion. One of those names was, "Connors, Scott."


"A captain?" Connors wondered when the ceremony was over. "Wow. Never thought I'd live to be a captain."


"Don't let it go to your head, Skipper," advised Martinez who was, like many in Fleet Strike, a transferred Marine.


"No, Top," Connors agreed. "Would never do to get a swelled head. Makes too big a target for one thing."


 


"The bars . . . look good," Duncan said, staring at the wall opposite the headpiece of his medical cot. His voice contained as much interest as his blank, lifeless eyes. "The diamond looks good, too, Top," he added for Martinez.


Outside of his suit, Connors and Duncan might have been taken for brothers, same general height, same heavy-duty build. Though fifteen or more years Duncan's senior, Connors looked considerably younger. He was, unlike Duncan, a rejuv.


"How have you been, Sergeant Duncan?" the newly minted captain asked.


"Okay, sir," he answered tonelessly. "They say I can be fixed up . . . maybe. That I'll either be back to duty in a year or will never be able to go into the line again. They're talking about putting me in a tank for psych repair."


Patting the NCO's shoulder, Connors answered, "I'm sure you'll be back, Bob."


"But will it be me that comes back?" Tears began to roll down the NCO's blank, lifeless face.


"God . . . I don't know, Bob. I can tell you that the tank didn't make me any different on the inside."


"Me neither, Sergeant Duncan," Martinez added, more than a little embarrassed for the junior noncom. Martinez knew Duncan was going to remember the tears and feel the shame of them long after he and the skipper had forgotten. "I came out the same Marine I went in as . . . just younger, stronger and healthier.


"By the way, Skipper," Martinez asked, turning his attention away from Duncan's streaming face, "what were you doing before the rejuv? I was a retired gunny, infantry, and just marking time in Jacksonville, North Carolina . . . waitin' to die."


"Oh, I did a lot of crap after I left the Army, Top. Do you mean what did I do in the Army? I was a DAT."


"What's a DAT?"


Connors smiled. "A DAT is a dumb-assed tanker, Top."


"So how did you end up in infantry, sir?" Duncan asked, showing for once a little interest in something.


"I hate the internal combustion engine, Sergeant Duncan. Just baffles the crap out of me. So when I got rejuved and they sent my unwilling ass to OCS I worked that same ass off so that I'd have a choice when I graduated. And I chose Mobile Infantry to keep the hell away from tanks."


Duncan rocked his head slightly from side to side, which was also a bit more life than he had shown for a while. "Okay . . . maybe I could see that."


Earth Orbit, Indowy Freighter Selfless Accord


"Let me see my e-mail, AID," Connors ordered, alone in his cramped cabin aboard ship.


The cabin measured about six feet by nine, and had a ceiling so low Connors had to duck his head to stand up to stretch his legs. The bed was stowed against the wall and a fold-out table served as the desk on which rested the AID, a black box about the size of a pack of cigarettes.


The AID didn't say anything. Neither did the e-mail appear holographically.


"AID?" Connors insisted, an annoyed quality creeping into his voice.


"You don't want to see it," the device answered definitively.


"Don't tell me what I want," Connors said angrily, heat rising to his face as blood pressure turned it red. "Just gimme my goddamned mail."


"Captain—"


"Look, AID, I've had no word from my wife since leaving Barwhon. Just give me my mail."


"Very well, Captain." The e-mail list appeared immediately, projected on the air over the desk.


Connors was surprised to see only a single letter from his wife. He opened it and began to read. It was short, a mere five lines. Then again, how much detail is required to say one's wife is pregnant by another man and that she has filed for divorce.


 


Interlude

The outer defenses of the city were crumbling now, Guanamarioch sensed. The sounds of battle—the thunder of railguns, the clash of the boma blades, the cries of the wounded and dying—grew ever closer.


He felt a slight envy for those Kessentai chosen to stay behind and cover the retreat to and loading of the ships that would take the clan to their new home. Their names were recorded in the Scrolls of Remembrance and they would be read off at intervals to remind the People of their sacrifice. That was as much immortality as any of the Po'oslena'ar, the People of the Ships, might aspire to.


Yet instead of leading his oolt into the fight, Guanamarioch on his hovering tenar led them as they marched four abreast and one hundred deep towards the waiting ship. Other oolt'os, similarly, formed long snaking columns from the city's outskirts all the way to the heavily defended spaceport.


Impatiently, the Kenstain in charge of the loading directed Guanamarioch to bring his charges to a particular ship and to load at a particular gate.


"And be quick, you," the Kenstain demanded. "There is little time left before the ships must leave."


Ordinarily the Kessentai would have removed the Kenstain's head for such impertinence. This was, however, a time of desperation, a time when minor infractions had to be overlooked. Obediently, riding his tenar, the God King led his normals to the designated ship.


At the ship another Kenstain directed cosslain, a mutated breed of normals that were nearly sentient, to take Guanamarioch's tenar and stow it. The God King removed his Artificial Sentience from the tenar, hanging it around his neck, as the cosslain took the flying sled away.


"Lord," the castellan said, "your oolt is the last for this ship. The place for you and your band is prepared. Directions have been downloaded to your Artificial Sentience. Just follow it and stow the normals, then report to the captain of the ship."


"Are you loading then?" asked Guanamarioch.


The Kenstain shook his head, perhaps a bit sadly.


"No, lord," he answered, his teeth baring in a sad smile and his yellow eyes looking sadder still. "I will stay here and keep loading ships until there are either no more ships, or no more passengers . . . or until the enemy overrun the last ship we are able to begin loading."


The God King reached out a single grasping member and touched the castellan, warmly, on the shoulder. "Good luck to you, then, Kenstain."


"That, lord, I think I shall not have. Yet there are worse ways to die than saving one's own people."


"It is so," Guanamarioch agreed.


 


Back | Next
Framed