FOUR SOLDIERS. ONE WAR.
Asteroid miner Mary Rodrigo and freighter owner Mattim Abeeb are green draftees of the Society of Humanity, forced to fight for Earth—a planet they’ve never even seen.
Major Ray Longknife and his lover, Senior Pilot Rita Nuu, are career soldiers, invested with the cause of the Unity Party—and its ambitious new president.
These four soldiers on opposing sides of the battle are about to discover the true nature of this terrible war: a quest for profit—from the high command of both sides. What they will risk is nothing less than their lives. For although truth may be the first casualty of war, it’s not going to be the last…
Every alarm in Sergeant Mary Rodrigo’s space suit went off at once. Red lights flashed on her eyeball as her headsup display demanded her attention. She ignored them.
Mary had five moles laying a minefield for her. Mines were tricky beasts. Laying a field from the underground was a tight bitch, not to be left to unsupervised remotes. Twitching her right hand, she froze them in place.
Mary twisted her right wrist and blinked twice, cycling her headsup display to the screen her alarms were so hot on. The newly deployed infrared sensors were screaming about hot targets. But there weren’t supposed to be anyyet!
She chinned her mike to a new channel. “Lek, we got a problem. Either our sensors are spooked, or the colonials got here without you knowing.”
“Not bloody likely,” the old guy said with a chuckle. “Check the angles from the two outer sensors, girl. We’ve picked up the Colly attack fleet coming around Emlo Four!”
“Acid crap,” Mary swore. “They’re that sensitive!”
“Bet they made a fuel scoop and got their balloon heat shields out,” Dumont said beside her, “What a ride for real, not just a vidgame,” the young man from the streets said wistfully.
“I better pass this to the LT,” Mary growled. “Let’s get back to the mines.” In the end, even Dumont and his street kids had voted her for sergeant, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t give her plenty of lip before he did what she said. Today, without a word, Dumont went back to putting in mines. On the other side of Mary, reliable Cassie had never quit work on the minefield.
Mary switched to the command channel. “Lieutenant, we got targets.”
“Sergeant, where the hell have you been? What?” His voice died in midquestion as Mary passed through the visual. “What…Where…How…?” he stammered.
“This is Major Henderson at battalion. What have you got for me?” So the battalion CO was lurking on their command channel, or had an alert on it. Considering all the lurking and alerts Lek had rigged through the brigade’s net, Mary had no complaint.
She shut up; let the young officer talk to the man. Only when the wait stretched and started to bend did she speak. “Our infrared sensors have picked up the colonials coming around Elmo Four. We don’t have an ETA on them,” she said, though she suspected Lek did by now. Now need telling management what they didn’t want to hear from dumb worker bees.
“Brigade finally risked a radar sweep about the time the bandits went behind the gas giant,” Battalion drawled. “I’ll pass this report along. Colonials are right on schedule.”
Which was not what the command net had been saying for the last fifteen hours. Lek had warned Mary not to believe the official word from HQ. She’d learned log ago not to trust what a foreman said. The old electronic wizard had been passing along to Mary and the rest of the unemployed miners the straight dope.
Battalion signed off; the young LT found his voice. “Sergeant, what the hell is going on here?? We’ve got to talk.”
What the sergeant had going on her was her own usual go at making everyone happy, to give the LT what he wanted, and the rest of the platoon what they wanted. What Mary wanted was to be lightyears away from tall this with a beer in on ehand and a warm hunk on her shoulder. But today, nobody was getting what they wanted. With a sigh, Mary got ready for a long talk.
His XO, Commander Inez Umboto, grinned at the display, showing no sign of surprise. “Half the troops of that platoon are outofwork miners. Remember the complaints you fielded from several mine administrators about missing equipment, even a jet cart?”
“God, those things are expensive. Even the Navy can’t afford ’em. Thought I’d love to have one.”
Inez’s grin dripped admiration for the culprits. “You may. Each company of the First of the Eightyeighth has one platoon heavy with miners.All three weighed in heavy at boarding but not enough to complain about.” She paused for a moment. “You remember how tickled Comm was to get all those extra channels. It was an old min,er pulling boards from a ’damaged parts’ box, that got them for us.”
Captain Anderson raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t tell me.”
“Sir, a good exec doesn’t bother her boss with the details.”
“What else haven’t you bothered me with, Izzy?”
“I wish I knew. There’s a shitpot of stuff out there, and I’ve only scratched the surface. Despite the rumors, I am only human and rarely can be in more than three places at once.”
Anderson ignored the humor; today he needed an exec who could be in a dozen places at once. Scowling down at his command display, he shook his head. He’d fought the coming battle hundreds of times in his fortyyear careeron the computer display.
Now he was fighting it for real, and it was going wrong in ways even the craziest umpire would not have thrown at him in a war game. Why had a picketboat been waiting for them the moment they jumped into this worthless system? What was a major colonial force reacting in only seventytwo hours?
He’d expected problems on his side. Lasers were missing parts; power plants were missing cables; crates were miscoded, misplaced, or juts plain missing. Most of his grunts were ransacking containers, chasing the critical parts he needed to get the central defenses up. Without them, the colonials could land smack dab in the middle of his base crater. He’d expected time to work all this out. Only one platoon from each company had been shoved forwards to block the three cracks in the crater wall.
Everything had gone too fast or too wrong. Maybe, just maybe, the sensors from that platoon would let him give the colonials a surprise or two.
“We don’t have all that gear, Sergeant. How’d you do it? ”
That was two questions. Mary chose to answer the easy one. With a flick of her wrist, she called up the schematic of the crater rim and the array she’d dug through it. “I used diggers from the mines to set this up. I got the place covered.”
She activated the laser designators one by one, let them sweep the broken ground in front of the pass the platoon was ordered to hold at all costs.
“By God, you do have it covered.” The LT whistled. “But how? The engineers are still at brigade. How’d you do this?”
Mary let her breath out slowly. How do you explain to a kid that never wanted to be anything but a toy soldiers what it’s like to spend twenty years of you rlife in the asteroid mines, to never want to be anything but a miner? And to get your pink slip and draft notice in the same envelope. “Our last shif at the mine, we figured if something might save our life, and it wasn’t welded to the deck, we might as well borrow it. Boss men had just installed a lot of new equipment.” Which was why they could afford to let half their workforce gothe senior half. They’d gotten all kinds of media pundits…and ignored the seniority clause of their labor contract.
Mary shrugged, or tried to. Armored space suits didn’t allow much body language. “Who knows what was gonna be surplus anyway?” Mary knew damn well the old equipment had already been sold off. She and the other members of her investment club wanted to buy it. They were close, so close to setting up their own mine, having their own place, being their own people. But the gear went without an auction. And Mary and her friends got themselves a war.
So Mary had walked off her last shift with a jet cart.
“We’re about done with the minefield,” Mary finished.
“Hurry up and get back here,” the LT answered.
Now Mary did fidget. “Sir, remember our deal.”
“What part of it?” The LT’s voice was cautious.
The first time Mary was elected sergeant had been a joke, a setup by a tough drill instructor to break his excivilians of their easygoing ways. The miners voted for her; Dumont’s kids voted for him, but there were more miners. Mary was supposed to fall falt on her face. Instead, she’d found what it took to pull this angry bunch of people together. Sometimes begging, sometimes cajoling, sometimes threatening, they’d coalesced into a team for her. Maybe not the team the DI had in mind, but a team that pulled together when they had to.
The lieutenant had shadowed the platoon the last few days of boot camp, long enough to see how things were. Then he’d taken Mary aside. “You know how to work this bunch,” he’d said.
“Seems that way,” she’d answered cautiously.
“I know how to fight. You know how to make them work. Together, we can get them out of this war alive. If anybody can. You game to work with me?”
He’d been the first to even mention survival; she’d taken his offered hand. For the last two months they’d been a team. Now, she’d find out just how far she could stretch it.
“Lieutenant, I can’t leave this network I’ve built. In the mines, you get too far away from the work, something goes wrong and you can’t fix it. From here I can fix anything.”
“Sergeant, I’ve told you a dozne times, your job is to tell other people what to do. Assign somebody to stay out there.”
“Can’t sir. If it’s too dangerous for me, it’s too dangerous for anyone.” She had a long wait for his answer.
“You dug in good?” he asked.
Mary glance around the cavern she and Cassie had turned into an observation postmaybe a tomb. Once the servos swung the halfmeterthick stone back, it would be well closed. A billion years ago when the crater was made, a pinnacle had slid from the still molten rock. It sheltered her outpost from observation from across the plain where the attack would come. “Dug in as good as time allows, sir.”
There was a long pause. “Okay, Mary, you win this one. Why didn’t you stell me what you had in mind?”
“Sir, you said you didn’t want anyone on this side of the rim, just a few sensors. In the mines, when management makes up its mind, they don’t want more talk.”
“What I meant, Sergeant, was I wanted all of the platoon behind the rim, where their artillery couldn’t wipe us out. Maybe I didn’t say it as well as I should have. When this is over, we’ve got to talk about how to talk.”
“Yes, sir.” Mary said. Talking was what she had in mind. She checked the one digger. Her best, it was halfway across the plain, towing one of Lek’s fiberoptic patch lines behind it. If it did its job, even secure communications wouldn’t keep Mary and the rest of the miners from having a talk with the colonials before anybody got killed.
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