Firemask: Book Two of the Last Legion Series (2 page)

BOOK: Firemask: Book Two of the Last Legion Series
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“If we can learn from Man, study their weaknesses, could not those same lessons be applied when we encounter other aliens, and decide whether they are our enemies or our allies?

“Think well on these two matters, clan leaders. We may, in what appears to be a very minor matter today, be setting policies future Musth will praise or curse us for.

“Now I call for a vote.”

Senza was not surprised at all when both his measures failed handily.

“Now that that foolishness has passed,” Paumoto said, “we can return to the real issue and forget cubbish sentiment. I suggest we return to Cumbre, but with a larger force than before, one mostly composed of warriors. The detachment would be led by Aesc, since he is most familiar with the system, and his second-in-command would be Wlencing. Be aware I would like him to be the second in everything, not merely military.

“Rather than have our main elements stationed on Silitric, and our headquarters in a remote section of their home-world, we should establish posts in every city on the planet.”

“I don’t understand their purpose,” Aesc said.

“On the surface,” Paumoto said, “to attempt to lessen the tension between our two races. But in reality, to monitor exactly what these men are planning, thinking, and to be ready for an instant, violent response if that is required.”

“Or, perhaps,” Senza added cynically, “Paumoto is suggesting them as targets, so that if men wrong the Musth, they will have an opportunity close at hand, and we will then have enough reason to retaliate for such a massacre instantly.

“Is that an element of your thinking?”

“I would hardly allow myself to speak for a policy that might mean the deaths of some of our people, would I?”

“No,” Senza said. “You would not
speak
about it.”

“There shall come a time, Senza,” Keffa put in, and, the clanmasters could see on their screens, his claws needled in, out, “when your cleverness shall turn against you.”

“Is this a challenge?” Senza said. “To my clan, or to myself? If you are challenging me personally, you should remember I said time past I would accept no offers to duel. Blood settles little, which you’ll learn, Keffa, as you grow and age. If you age.”

“Enough,” Paumoto said. “I would wish to put my suggestion to a vote, reminding those who are in favor of the measure they will be required to assist in the funding and equipage of this expedition.”

The tally was taken slowly, over several hours, as various factions argued back and forth or withheld their votes until one side or the other won the argument or presented recompense.

At the end of the time, 112 clanmasters involved themselves and their clans, with only a scattering of votes against the proposal. Senza, like most of the others, remained neutral.

“Is that enough?” Aesc asked Wlencing privately.

“More than,” the War Leader responded. “For the ones who favor the measure are the ones rich in weapons, warriors, and power, and once the inevitable happens, the others will scratch to join us.

“This marks a new beginning.

“It shall not be long,” Wlencing said firmly, “that all Musth will join us, and the day of man’s removal from our path shall arrive.”

• • •

The next day, as Senza’s mothership offplaneted, his aide, Kenryo, came to him.

“Your student Alikhan, Wlencing’s cub, remained on 4Planet.”

Senza lifted a paw, indicating mild surprise.

“He’s chosen to serve with his father, on Cumbre.”

“Which means we have lost another battle,” Senza said. “Another one chooses the violence-way, the way that requires no thought, no reasoning.”

“You denigrate your teachings, sir.”

“In what way?”

“I do not think Alikhan is completely insensate, that his time with us was wasted, that your thoughts were ignored.”

“Thank you for the compliment,” Senza said. “But if you are right, then the cub may be troubled by the contrast between what we believe and what his father will practice.

“I fear,” he said somberly, “his final decision, as many others he has made, has a strong probability of being made in blood.”

CHAPTER
2

Cumbre/D-Cumbre

“And don’t you love this peacetime army,”
Alt
Garvin Jaansma, Commanding Officer, Intelligence and Reconnaissance Company, Headquarters, RaoForce, panted. “Duding in custom-tailored uniforms, ankling down a promenade, the rattle of good silver in your pants, every admiring eye on you, the goddamned palladium … whatever the hell that is … of all that’s good, right, and just in society?”

“Shaddup and help me bang this friggin’ form back where it’s supposed to be before Monique buries us in quikset,” his executive officer,
Aspirant
Njangu Yoshitaro, grunted.

Both officers, barely twenty E-years old, wore torn, sweaty undershirts, work boots, and cement-stained pants.

Hosed down and in the midnight blue dress uniform of the Force, they would look a great deal better, particularly Jaansma.

He was tall, almost two meters, blond, with a natural weightlifter’s body, and an open, firm face. If he lived long enough and didn’t desert, he could end up in a high command position strictly on appearance. He was the descendent of a longtime circus family, and had enlisted hastily after setting Earth tigers loose on a mob.

Njangu Yoshitaro was a bit shorter than Jaansma, slender, dark-complected and -haired. He was less handsome than striking, and his eyes were constantly calculating. He never talked about his background, or about his criminal record that’d put him between enlistment or conditioning.

The two met as raw recruits, on the last troopship from the Confederation capital of Centrum, and had distinguished themselves enough as soldiers and covert operators during the recent ‘Raum uprising to be offered commissions.

They were currently at the bottom of a five-by-five-by-six-meter hole that they, and a half-dozen other Intelligence and Reconnaissance soldiers had dug using explosives, antigrav hoppers, shovels, and obscenities.

A cool wind blew down the mouth of Dharma Bay, toward Chance Island and D-Cumbre’s capital of Leggett. The sand was clean, the sky improbably blue, and the surf curling white against the ocean.

At the bottom of the hole, nobody could see anything entrancingly tropical, though. A battered, obsolete Cooke lowered toward them, its cargo bay filled with fresh concrete, First
Tweg
Monique Lir at the controls. Lir, if you discounted her muscles and steel-toothed attitude, looked less like the stereotypical hard-ass noncom than a model or actress.

“Ready to pour?” she called.

Njangu looked skeptically at the plas form around the pit.

“You realize if she screws it, and buries us alive, she’ll take over the company, don’t you?”

“Thank Allah and his all-girl band that she is happy being the brains behind the scenes,” Garvin said, then shouted, “Let ‘er go.”

“So she claims,” Yoshitaro muttered, and whatever else he added was inaudible as concrete gushed down the nozzle held by a sweating striker.

“Why,” Yoshitaro tried, when the rumble died a bit, “are we, two big-time, supposedly bright officers, standing underneath a goddamned Cooke, when we’ve done everything to get rid of the worthless bastards because they crash so much?”

“Pure intellect,” Garvin suggested. “And it’s my turn to ask questions: Who the hell came up with this idiot idea of leading by example?”

“You did, you dolt. I think you got it out of some manual.”

“What a dipsh,” Garvin said. “We coulda been strolling around, supervising, with maybe a cold beer in each hand. Instead — ”

“You mention beer and cold in the same sentence, and I’m gonna throttle you, even if you do outrank me,” Yoshitaro managed, coughing as dust clouded them.

“Empty,” Lir called. “Going for more.”

“Why are we so
special
?” Garvin said, then shouted, “Take it up!”

“Why’s she driving, anyway? How’d that friggin’ Dill manage to get out of the scut work flying cement around, anyway?”

“He’s playing test pilot. This is his big day to Die Gloriously over on Mullion. So he’s too busy and big-time for us.”

“Asshole. Shows what happens when you commission an elephant.”

Lanbay Island, once utterly uninhabited and uninhabitable, was being turned into a tiny fortress, with half a dozen missile pits and a central command bunker being built on it.

On other islands, on the arms of Dharma Island circling the bay, on Mullion Island and many of the other islands and small continents sprayed across D-Cumbre’s middle, more fortifications were being hastily built. Some would be manned immediately, but most would only be used if the Musth fulfilled their promise of months earlier, and returned with warriors.

Or if Alena Redruth, “Protector” of Larix and Kura, came back with warships and a stronger offer of “protection.”

The Strike Force was very busy, and gloomily expected to be still busier in the future as it deployed out from the comfortable, easily targeted Camp Mahan on Dharma Island.

It’d once been called, rather grandiloquently, Swift Lance, the Confederation force holding the Cumbre system and keeping the colonists safe, as often as not from each other.

Two local years earlier, when Jaansma and Yoshitaro had arrived, Swift Lance had been the very model of a lazy, button-polishing peacetime garrison unit. But the ‘Raum uprising brought reality in with a shock.

Now it was commanded by
Caud
Prakash Rao, and it was officially RaoForce, the Force, or commonly the Legion, when its soldiers needed a label that wasn’t obscene.

It had taken massive casualties in the Rising, including its then CO and most of his staff, and surviving soldiers like Yoshitaro and Jaansma had been rapidly promoted. The formation was rebuilt with recruits from the local population. As Jon Hedley, once CO of I&R Company had predicted, a lot of them, frequently the best, came from the defeated ‘Raum. If a recruit, man or woman, showed unusual familiarity with weapons or tactics, no one in the Force asked where she or he had learned, but instead marked them for early promotion.

RaoForce was nearly up to its authorized strength of ten thousand. But it was far weaker in equipment than before the shooting had started. There still was no communication, let alone supplies or equipment, from the Confederation, and the Force was learning to rebuild total wrecks, do without, or improvise from whatever could be found in Cumbre’s civilian sector.

Everyone knew time was short, and wondered where the next enemy would come from, and whether it would be human or Musth.

• • •

Dec
Running Bear stretched behind the controls of the sleek lim, now incongruously anodized in camouflage pattern.

“If you’re stiffening up,”
Caud
Rao offered from the rear of the luxury lifter, “I can fly this beast.”

“Nossir,” Running Bear said. “Just reminding myself I’m not dreaming, and gonna wake up still flying a Cooke.”

Rao looked at him skeptically, went back to his quiet conference with
Mil
Angara, the Force executive officer, and his aide,
Alt
Erik Penwyth.

Rao, medium height, dark, stocky, early fifties, could have passed for a ‘Raum. Angara’s still-athletic body was beginning to lose the fight with gravity and desserts. Erik Penwyth had hair a bit long for an officer, a long aristocratic face and nose to match. Not your usual recruitment poster grouping.

Something had happened, Running Bear knew, something big. The evident casualness of the three officers was deceptive. But it wasn’t his affair.

He thought about Rao’s volunteering to take the controls of the lim. That was a change from the old days.
Caud
Williams was nice enough, but he never would’ve thought to play driver.

Hell, pushing this lim around, a gift from the momentarily grateful Rentiers of D-Cumbre instead of a rickety Cooke dripping with autocannons, was a big change.

Running Bear touched his new rank tab and the Confederation Cross, the empire’s highest award, on his breast. His wounds were bothering him a little, but he didn’t really mind. The pain kept reminding him he should’ve been quite dead after doing a last stand like he was that white-eye Cutter or Cluster or whatever the guy’s name was, and not be whining about whatever was bothering him.

Changes … he glanced out the driver’s window to his left, at the beaches of Leggett, then the wasteland that’d been the ‘Raum ghetto, the Eckmuhl, mostly destroyed in the ‘Raum’s final, desperate counterattack.

He still wasn’t sure if he liked the idea of serving with people who’d been shooting at him not very long ago, but when he’d brought it up once to Rao, the officer had told him to never mind, and so he had. Especially after one of the ‘Raum strikers in his section had taken him home on pass, and Running Bear had met the striker’s sister.

Not that there was much to do even if you did somehow find a social life. Leggett was rebuilding, but not as quickly as anyone liked. The war had cost money, not just lives, and the ensuing peace hadn’t brought much in the way of prosperity, since there still was no offplanet market for the minerals on C-Cumbre.

The AmerInd shrugged. Not his business, nor concern.

“Coming in, sir,” he said, and banked the lim down toward the new prefab that was Planetary Government, not half a kilometer from where the old building had vanished in a boil of flame, along with most PlanGov officials.

The lim grounded, and the three officers got out. Penwyth carried a small projector and screen.

“Find a shady spot and get something to eat from the canteen,” Rao said. “This is liable to take all day.”

“Yessir,” Running Bear said, and lifted away.

“Here we go,” Rao said. “Penwyth, kick me if I don’t kiss the proper asses, since you know Rentier high society. We want to make sure they give us what we want.”

Penwyth grinned slightly, but said nothing. He was, indeed, part of D-Cumbre’s upper crust. He’d enlisted in the military for no known reason, then been commissioned from I&R in lieu of being court-martialed for pretending to be an officer, since he got away with it.

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens,”
Mil
Angara said. “It’s bad enough being isolated, without the nasty little secret we’re about to hand them.”

“Especially since,” Penwyth said, “a lot of people I know have friends, sometimes even relatives, on Larix or Kura. There’ll be howling. But they’ll have to recognize the truth.”

“With all this logic on our side,” Rao said, “we’ve got to be doomed.” And on that note he led the way into PlanGov.

• • •

“They say,”
Alt
Ben Dill, Commander of the Mobile Scout Section recently folded into Intelligence and Reconnaissance, “if it looks good, it’ll fly good.”

“Can’t flippin’ argue with that,” said
Haut
Jon Hedley, head of the Force’s II Section — Intelligence. Hedley was a gangling, profane, lazy man who somehow could hike any of his soldiers into the ground while yodeling and skipping backwards, then carry their packs into camp while they crawled home.

Both men were lying, both knowing half a hundred examples of air/space craft with lines that sang, and performance that killed.

Dill was not quite the size of a Terran elephant; late twenties, prematurely balding, and naturally big in every direction without ever having to work out. There were those who’d made the mistake of thinking anyone that big couldn’t move that fast.

He’d commanded the Grierson — the standard Aerial Combat Vehicle — Garvin Jaansma had been assigned to when he joined the Force, showed talent as a covert insertion specialist during the ‘Raum Rising, been commissioned and tasked to restructure I&R’s new integral flight section. Despite his inherently casual attitude about everything, Dill could fly a Grierson, or anything else he’d gotten behind the controls of, through the eye of a needle without touching metal.

Dill ambled around the Musth
aksai
toward its command pod. It was one of half a dozen that’d been abandoned, in various shades of disrepair, when the Musth pulled out of the Cumbre system.

The Force had quietly taken the ships, as well as other scrounged or “acquired” non-military aircraft and spaceships to a new, secret airbase hastily cut out of the jungle on Mullion Island. There, technicians began laboriously figuring out not only how the
aksai
flew, but how they kept on flying.

Hedley hoped they wouldn’t need these ships, whose cost and maintenance were buried deep in the Force’s classified intelligence budget, but preferred to prepare for the worst.

“Are you sure you’re going to fit, Ben?” he asked. Unless around higher-ranking outsiders, no one in I&R ever called anyone other than his first name or just “boss.”

“Be a bit tight,” Dill said. “But I’ve laid off the beer for a week, so I should slide in, properly greased.”

Two techs stood nearby, next to a starter cart and a jury-rigged boarding ladder.

Dill walked once more around the
aksai.
“Don’t see anything dangling, so I might as well give it a shot.”

He checked his flight suit, made sure its various emergency devices were functioning.

“Tell Mother I died game,” he said, and went up the ladder to the cockpit. It creaked, but held.

The concave
aksai
varied from model to model as to the number of fighting positions, from one to four, all of them prone and in pods in various places along the body, about twenty-five meters from horn to horn. The pilot lay in his pod not quite in the center of the C-curve. Dill crawled backwards into the flight pod.

“I fit, I think. Nobody use the word ‘claustrophobia.’ ”

He closed his eyes, let his fingers run over controls never meant for man. Dill had spent every minute the techs let him in the cockpit, memorizing the controls and the functions computer analysis, logic, and ground rehearsal suggested. Labels had been cut and stuck on the sensors to help him out. Dill preferred tactile memory.

“Start it up,” he ordered, touching the sensor that slid the clamshell canopy closed around his face. He keyed the human com that’d been welded into the cockpit, set on a seldom-used frequency.

BOOK: Firemask: Book Two of the Last Legion Series
8.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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