To Do or Die
From the national bestselling author of the Kris Longknife series comes an all-new Jump Universe novel.
Retired Colonel Ray Longknife and Marine Captain Terrence “Trouble” Tordon come to Savannah via different routes, but what they find is the same. One bully strongman is intent on keeping power no matter what the new rules are for peace. He’s got the population cowered by thugs, and tanks at the ready. He expects to win the coming elections handily.
He doesn’t expect trouble. Or, in this case, Mrs. Trouble—aka Ruth Tordon—a Marine wife on a mission to find the drug lords that almost killed her and her husband and put them out of business—and she’s not about to be stopped by some barely trained roughnecks.
Abandoned by their strongman and desperate in defeat, the heavy armor get ready to roll into town over anybody in their way. But Ray Longknife, Trouble and Ruth are standing in their way…and nothing is going to flatten them.
It was a port dive like any other humanity had built since some lucky bastard brought the first log back to shore. And the topic today was no different from when the Phoenicians sailed the middle sea—pirates and slavers.
Only this dive stood in the shadow of the New Birmingham bean pole. The shops and heavy-fabrication barns that gave a thirst to this bar’s customers sent their goods and gear up the elevator to starships in the orbital yards of High Birmingham.
Today was different for Captain Terrence Tordon. Trouble to his enemies, Trouble to his friends, and more often than not, just plain Trouble, he’d come to accept the label for all it meant. Born, raised, and commissioned in the Society of Humanity Marine Corps, he had passed many a happy hour in dives such as this.
Today, however, was the first time he followed his wife into one.
Commander Uxbridge led them through the bar’s door with its flashing beer ads. It was he who suggested the sun was below the yardarm and their business might better be completed in informal surroundings with a drink at hand. Uxbridge was finishing up his forty years with the Navy at the disappointing rank of commander, so no one would be surprised if he put in less than a full day.
Trouble and his wife Ruth followed because she had questions about the source of funds now flowing into Uxbridge’s numbered Swiss accounts on Old Earth.
Officially, Uxbridge was the czar of Navy scrap on New Birmingham. He sold off surplus gear, battle-shattered hulks—and defeated Unity ships from the recent unpleasantness. They weren’t supposed to be in working condition.
So why were said ships showing up in the hands of pirates and slavers. Trouble had had the unfortunate experience of accepting said slavers’ hospitality not once but twice a few months ago.
It was a major source of embarrassment for a combat Marine.
Trouble glanced around the bar as he settled into a chair next to his wife. This early, the booths lining the walls and the tables scattered around the floor were empty except for two men in one booth. They seemed lost in haggling. Given the time and place, it likely had something to do with recreational pharmaceuticals.
The front entrance was balanced by a rear exit. The lights were up, throwing in harsh relief dilapidation that went unnoticed in the smoky shadows at night. Behind the bar, a mirror ran the length of the room. It exhibited dents and dings that proved it metal, not glass.
Trouble fingered the table. Painted to look like wood, it was heavy metal.
That’s one way to avoid replacing the furniture every time the customers get rambunctious, he thought with a smile.
Then he went back to splitting his time between Ruth’s conversation with Uxbridge and the rest of the bar. He was, after all, the guard dog here.
Ruth, a farmer born and bred, even looked the stereotype today. Her long black hair was braided into two pigtails, and she wore a calico dress with full skirt.
How much she looked the part of the contract farmer for a light cruiser, providing fresh fruit and vegetables from hydroponic gardens between the ship’s ice armor and main hull, had been a hot topic between husband and wife that morning. However, since the Navy Department had only just started this crazy farm program, no one was too sure what the proper appearance of a ship-based farmer was.
Ruth had dressed as she wanted.
Trouble, who’d never lost a firefight, was getting used to losing to his bride.
Whatever her appearance, Ruth could talk farming. And she was talking Uxbridge’s ears off about hydroponic agribusiness and her need for additional tubing, tubs, and pumps. She was laying it on thick. So thick, no one would mistake her for an Alcohol, Drug, and Explosives Enforcement Agent.
Even a part-time one.
At least that was what Trouble and Ruth fervently hoped.
A waitress showed up. Ruth interrupted her monologue long enough to order a beer; both men followed her lead.
Trouble noted that the conversation between the two men in the booth seemed to be getting more heated, but they kept their words too low for him to make them out over Ruth’s voice. He rested a hand on her knee under the table, hoping she’d take it for a request for a pause.
She brushed his hand off.
Did she really think he’d make a pass at her right now? Still, this was her show. Captain Umboto had made that clear as they left the Patton this morning.
Ruth leads; Trouble follows.
But Ruth, love, do you have any idea where we’re going?
The drinks arrived. As Trouble reached for his, he noted that the booth’s conversation was on pause as one of them answered a phone. Was there a twitch of a nod in their direction?
Uxbridge was seated with his back to the booth. Was he looking at Ruth, or beyond her to something in the mirror? Trouble started to turn, to check the mirror out, but Uxbridge was lifting his glass in some kind of informal toast.
Trouble raised his mug, glancing at Ruth, who was smiling as if she had good sense. The commander was smiling, too, kind of smugly.
Movement at the corner of his eye drew Trouble’s attention.
“Honey, I think we got a problem,” he muttered.
His bride ignored him . . . a habit developed since saying “I do.”
She missed the pistols coming out across the room.
“Down,” Trouble growled—and upended the table.
Their drinks went flying, adding little to the heavy aroma of yesterday’s brew, smoke, sweat, and more exotic odors.
“What are you doing?” Ruth screeched, and made to follow Commander Uxbridge as he headed for the back door.
Trouble kicked the chair out from under Ruth, unbalancing her enough that he could pull her down beside him—just as two rounds from across the room filled the air where her head had been.
“Huh?” Ruth came out of her fixation on Uxbridge to glance around. “What’s going on?”
“A friendly exchange of joy dust for cash seems to have gone wrong,” Trouble offered as he edged his head above the upended table, and ducked fast as the two people across the room squeezed off more incoming in his general direction.
“Assuming it was what it looked like, and not cover for your friend’s withdrawal.”
Ruth’s automatic was out of hiding from its rather nice place that Trouble enjoyed roaming in quieter times. Set for sleepy darts, she squeezed off two rounds at Uxbridge as he disappeared out the back door.
“Darn,” she muttered as she only added more chips to the bar’s battered motif.
Trouble edged his own service automatic around the tabletop and sent a few of Colt-Pfizer’s best toward the erstwhile entrepreneur and client. He glanced around for the bartender, but she had made herself scarce.
To call the local constabulary?
Not likely. Trouble had noted a distinct lack of New Birmingham’s uniformed finest as he and Ruth approached the “friendly watering hole,” the commander had suggested.
Trouble ducked as another couple of rounds shoved the table against his shoulder and showered plaster from the wall above him. He tapped his commlink.
“Gunny, I could use some help here. Where are you?”
The pause that followed was decidedly longer than Trouble expected.
“Stuck in traffic, sir,” finally came back.
Marine NCOs are people of few words—but they pack a lot of meaning into what they do say, just as the Corps packed a lot of power into its chosen few. What Trouble heard was straight information underlain with rock-solid determination, overlain with more embarrassment than he believed possible to a Gunnery Sergeant.
“You wouldn’t believe the traffic here, sir.”
Trouble would. Raised by the Corps at bases around the rim of human space, this was his first venture deep into the overpopulated heart of humanity. From orbit, New Birmingham was one glowing orb, whether in daylight or darkness.
“We’re fifteen blocks from you, sir. Should I get the crew moving on foot?”
The image of four combat-loaded Marines double-timing through this industrial area, even in the camouflage they’d dummied up for today, made Trouble cringe worse than the next burst from across the room.
He glanced around the lower corner of the table.
The two were running—one for the front door, the other for the back.
“They’re bugging out,” he shouted to Ruth. He snapped off a three-round burst at the back of the one headed for the front door. Ruth tried for the other.
Both got solid hits.
And the rounds just stuck there like darts on a dartboard.
“Body armor,” Trouble spat as he stood, dusting plaster from his one set of civilian clothes. But he was talking to himself.
Ruth was up and headed for the back door.
Trouble caught her elbow and swung her back around. “You’re not sticking your pretty head out that door until all concerned have had a few minutes to reflect upon their evil ways.”
“But Uxbridge is getting away.”
“He’s gotten away, Ruth. Diamonds to donuts, there was a car waiting for him out there. And his driver knows how to get around this damnable local traffic. All that’s out there now is a buddy of our gun-toting trader from across the room.”
Trouble waved at the now-vacant table.
“Oh! Yeah, I guess that’s how I’d do it.” Ruth looked around, probably taking in the pub’s decor for the first time.
Imitation wood paneled the walls in dark swirls. Blinking signs for local brews and sports teams paled in the full light of day. Now the bartender wandered out from the bathroom.
She noted the situation with an unconcerned eye and asked if they wanted fresh drinks. Trouble declined, righted the table and chairs, settled their tab, and led Ruth cautiously out the front door.
A half dozen people in working overalls passed them going in. It was as if an open for business sign had been turned on. A dozen more in pairs and trios followed.
A moment later, a cab drove up.
Gunny piled out to report as the other three Marines took point, covering 360 degrees around them.
The idea was for them to be inconspicuous today, since New Birmingham had its own police force . . . however invisible . . . and strong gun-control laws . . . that now seemed less than perfect in their application.
The Marines’ body armor was covered by their new, multicolored sweat suits, making them look for all the world like a child’s crew-cut, hard-eyed teddy bear. Their guns were hidden in bags, making them only slightly less conspicuous.
“Sorry about the delay, sir. Next time I do this, we use one of our own drivers.”
“I agree, Gunny. Let’s get out of here.”
The cabby had no trouble delivering them quickly to the space elevator. An hour later, they were up the bean pole and reporting to Captain Umboto in her day cabin on the Patton.
“He got away, Izzy,” Ruth blurted out.
Trouble gritted his teeth at his wife’s familiarity. He’d spent much of his two months of married bliss trying to introduce Ruth to the Navy Way.
He hadn’t been all that successful.
She had finally acquired the ability to identify rates and rank. The wardroom still chuckled at Ruth’s initial effort.
Standing in line at the Navy exchange at High Woolamurra, Ruth had proudly told Trouble, “That one’s a captain, ’cause he has four stripes. But what’s five stripes?”
“Five stripes?” Trouble asked, puzzled as he followed Ruth’s gaze . . . to two chiefs. One, with over sixteen years in the Navy, sported four gold hash marks. The other, with twenty-plus years, had five.
Trouble spent the rest of the wait in line trying to stop laughing as he explained the difference between officer rank stripes, that encircled the sleeve, and enlisted service hash marks that angled up to cover part of the sleeve. Undaunted, Ruth shared with the entire wardroom over supper that night how she’d made her latest discovery.
Half of the officers had almost laughed up their chow.
The skipper surprised him; she’d nodded understandingly at Ruth. “Learning all the secret handshakes of this bunch is a bitch,” she muttered encouragingly.
The skipper surprised Trouble again today. She just nodded at the announcement that the bird had flown the nest and changed the subject. “Better get the farm ready for fluctuating gravity, Ruth. We’re clearing the pier in two hours.”
“Orders, Skipper?” Trouble asked.
“The yard at Wardhaven finally thinks they’ve figured out the spaghetti that passes for wiring in our main system. We’ve got a week’s reduced availability there.”
Trouble and Ruth both knew the truth behind those words. The Patton was one of many hasty war conversions from merchant vessel to light cruiser. The yards had rushed the ships into commission, paying attention only to what would make them fit to fight . . . and wasting little time on minor things like system standardization.
Thanks to that haste, the Patton had damn near ended up a permanent fixture at the end of a pier. Trouble wouldn’t have minded that, except he and Ruth about then were in slavers’ hands, growing drugs on a stinking, hot planet named Riddle.
The work was bad; the supervision was worse.
Slave drivers stalked around with whips in their hands and rape on their minds.
Ruth and he had risked their necks to help an invasion fleet show up.
But those were yesterday’s problems. Today, the Patton was in the best shape she’d ever been, and the skipper had a tiger grin on her face.
The call to Wardhaven came from the people who made planets shake.
When they talked, people died.
Hopefully, it wouldn’t be anyone Trouble knew personally. With a salute and a shrug, the Marine officer went to prepare his detachment to get underway.
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