Firemask: Book Two of the Last Legion Series (4 page)

BOOK: Firemask: Book Two of the Last Legion Series
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“So even if we believe your investigation, which certainly sounds credible, the question remains: Something must have happened to the Confederation, to the thousand thousand worlds of our empire, something beyond the petty machinations of this Redruth.

“We know from reports by newly assigned troops and emigrants there were civil risings throughout the empire, including major riots on Capella. Many worlds were put under martial law. There were unconfirmed reports that entire sectors of the empire dropped out of contact or, worse, declared some sort of unilateral independence.

“But what catastrophe could have produced this sudden silence, this complete breakdown of all communications?

“I wish,”
Rao said slowly, “I could even hazard a guess. But I cannot.”


Njangu Yoshitaro leaned against the orderly room railing, listening to the clerk call the mail list: “Irthing … Bassas … Fleam …”

He pared his nails with his combat knife, wondering what it’d be like to get a letter from someone, tried to pretend it didn’t matter that he never had.

“… Bayle …
Jaansma …”

Njangu looked up with a bit of surprise. Garvin got no more mail than he did, and Yoshitaro wondered who it could be from. Probably a dun from a tailor — Jaansma insisted on dressing like the illegitimate son of a Star Marshal that he occasionally claimed to be.

He idly watched Garvin as the clerk finished the rest of the mail, handed out a few packages. Jaansma opened the small envelope, pulled out what appeared to be a card. His face reddened, and he looked around to see if anyone noticed. Njangu was busy with his nails.

Garvin read the card once more, crumpled it, tossed it into a waste container, and went down the steps into the company area, bootheels thudding hard. A new troopie went by at the double, as required of all potential I&R recruits.

“Hold it, soldier,” Garvin snapped.

The striker broke stride, almost fell, froze at attention.


“There’s this thing called saluting,” the officer said.

Jaansma. Sorry, sir.”

He saluted, Jaansma returned it ill-temperedly.

“Carry on!”

“Yessir. Sorry, sir.”

The soldier watched Garvin pace away, his expression worried, as if this might be enough to get him returned to his parent formation, then ran on.

Njangu went to the waste can, took out the crumpled card Garvin had tossed away, unwrapped it:









“Well, Jesus in lace,” Njangu muttered. “There are some
humpers out there a lot worse than I ever thought of being.” He wondered who sent the invitation — the worthless Kouro or his bride-to-be. Yoshitaro’d never had much of an opinion of Jasith, other than the general disdain anyone growing up without a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of had for the rich.

He made a note to stay out of Garvin’s way until some days after the reception.

At least
, he thought,
they didn’t invite him to the wedding. Probably afraid he’d strafe it with a flight of Griersons, which wasn’t that bad an idea. Get rid of a whole
of Rentiers …

• • •

Two days later, an ebullient Ben Dill ricocheted into Garvin at the I&R Company’s landing field.

“Kiss me,” he ordered.

Garvin gave him a hard look, which Ben was oblivious to.

“I just got my license ticked for deep space! I’se a real piloter! C’mon to the O Club and help me drink it in.”

“Sorry,” Garvin said shortly. “I’m running late on the company report. Maybe another time.”

He nodded, walked away.

Dill stared after him.

“Well excuse the
out of me,” he said in a hurt tone. “And what’s the matter with my perfume today?”

• • •

Jon Hedley considered the aircraft park, then the camouflage nets, which blocked infrared and heat signals as well as sight.

“We could have us,” he told
Angara, “a flipping good shipping company if we wanted.”

Angara nodded.

“Six freighters, eight yachts, a skedaddle of lighters, six converted customs patrol craft, all the Griersons and Zhukovs tested for out-atmosphere deployment … what more could we need?” Hedley said.

“A destroyer, a cruiser, a battlewagon, a fighter-launcher for openers,” Angara said.

“You surely know how to rain on somebody’s flipping parade. You’d think you were expecting, oh, say, the flipping Musth or maybe Alena Redruth.”

“I expect everything, I expect nothing,” Angara said. “I am an open vessel.”

“But you gotta admit we’re as ready as we’re able to be.”

“We are,” Angara agreed. “I just wish we had more stuff to get more ready. At least we’re pretty well dispersed, so all there is to do is worry.”

“Not quite,” Hedley said. “Considering it’s a half hour back to Camp Mahan, and it’s pretty near opening time, we’d better hurry.”

“I see you caught that about open vessels, didn’t you,” Angara said.

“I always listen to my flipping superiors,” Hedley said piously.

• • •

“A word?” Njangu asked, sounding a bit formal.

Garvin put down his paperwork.

“Go ahead.”

“Has anybody suggested you’re behaving a bit like an asshole lately?”

Garvin colored, got up from his desk in the I&R Company Headquarters.

“You know, I didn’t need this shit from you, of all people.”

“Who else is gonna give it to you?” Yoshitaro pointed out. “We happen to be friends, remember?”

“Just leave it alone,” Jaansma said. “I’ll be all right.”

“Sure you will. You’ll get over being dumped on, sooner or later. Nobody I ever knew died of a busted heart. But you’re sure playing hell with the company while you’re getting better, growling at everybody so nobody knows whether to shit or go blind, ignoring people half the time, giving them a ration of crap the other half.”

Garvin stared out at the company street, at a team going through gun drill on a rocket launcher borrowed from an Artillery section — I&R trained on every weapon, every vehicle in RaoForce as a matter of routine.

“Whoever dumped that invite on you wasn’t your friend,” Njangu pressed. “And they sure succeeded in getting to you.”

“You know about that?”

“I know about it,” Njangu said. “And probably half the frigging regiment’s figured it out by now.”

“I thought I had all that business tucked away, forgotten,” Garvin said. “And then whambo, it came bouncing right on back.”

“Yeah,” Njangu. “Ngai surprises us like that, making us think we’re human and all every now and again.”

“And where the hell did you get all this sudden wisdom?”

“Easy,” Njangu said. “It ain’t my problem.”

Garvin smiled wryly.

“So what do I do about it, o combat advisor and valued friend … for a dickhead.”

“Go bleed somewhere else.”

“What? Take leave? And what happens if something happens while I’m gone? No way,” Garvin said. “I’ve got too much to do.”

“Wasn’t suggesting you go piddle off,” Njangu said. “The new fools we’ve got training are coming up for their graduation exercise.

“We’re fat city, no more’n two percent understrength, and the way it looks we’re gonna graduate about eleven of them, with only two, maybe three washouts. Things like that are liable to make Hedley think we’re getting soft since he gave us the company.

“So take these clowns up in the hills, bust their nuts, see if you can’t get five or six of ‘em to go crying home to momma.”

“Like where?”

Njangu considered the wall map.

“Here’s something that’d be a real killer. Take the virgins across to Dharma Island, maybe on the far side of Mount Najim, hike on up into the Highlands. It’ll be nice and frozen, make ‘em homesick for the tropics down here.

“Go completely tactical, no air unless it’s an emergency …” Njangu looked at the map again, checked the legend. “Yeh. Here we go. Insert here, where it’s still fairly livable, then shamble on up into the Highlands to … here. That’s the Musth base they abandoned.

“See if there’s any interesting sou-ven-waars. Tell the little bastards that we’ll come in with hot rats and cold beer, give them a nice ride back here for graduation, then put on your best sorrow-face and say, ‘The airlift didn’t show, and we’ll have to hike back.’

“That ought to get some people busting into tears and quitting.”

Garvin looked at the map, at Yoshitaro.

“That’s an evil thought. How long ago was it you went through this shit?”

“Year or so. Which reminds me. You never did qualify, not formally. So this’ll be your own final grad. How’s that hang, my friend? Be a real shame if you start wheezing and quit on us. They’ll have to give the company to me, and send you back to polishing Griersons.

“Give me a chance to give it some kind of sexy name, like all these steel-teeth units do in the holos. Screw Jaansma’s Jewels, it’ll be Yoshitaro’s … um …

“Yoinks,” Jaansma said, a smile coming for the first time in he didn’t remember how many days. “Yerks. Yaahoos. Yobbos. Yoodles. Yackoffs.”

“Shut the hell up,
And go pack.”

“Thank you,
I’ll take your suggestion. God help those poor trainees. Take charge of the company ‘til I get back.”

“I shall,” Njangu promised. “And you’ll not recognize it for the improvements.”

• • •

The Rentiers had built a great tabernacle, almost a fortress, overlooking the city of Leggett, just where the ground rose into the Heights and the aristocrats’ estates.

Their religion was quiet, formal, full of exactitude, and helped demarcate the established families from the parvenus. A proper Rentier could maneuver easily through the rituals, while still admiring or despising the dress of a competitor or friend, considering whose turn it was to invite a “few friends” over for a postservice meal, or the latest gossip from the night before’s ball.

The Leader waited until the chorus’s chanting died away in the dim rafters of the temple, then walked forward, his white-and-black robes swishing as he moved.

“This is the second reading of the matrimony proposed between Loy Kouro and Jasith Mellusin. Again, is there any among us who knows of a reason these two should not be joined in matrimony?”

He waited.

Someone, no one ever found out who, far in the back, giggled.

A few necks stiffened, but no one turned to look.

“There are none,” the Leader said. “Now, let us turn to this day’s lesson …”

• • •

The Grierson came in hot, skidding sideways and letting its momentum smash down brush on the edge of the clearing. Eleven women and men staggered out, anthropoidal under huge packs, blasters cradled in their arms, lumbered to the far side of the clearing, and fell into a defensive perimeter.

Inside the Grierson, Garvin started to unplug his throat mike, hesitated, keyed a sensor.

“Vehicle Commander, this is Jaansma.”

“Yeh,” Ben Dill said flatly.

“Hey. Sorry I was a shit-for-brains.”

Without waiting for a reply, he lifted off the flight helmet, pulled on a floppy patrol hat, and lurched out into the center of the perimeter, dropping to his knee beside the trainee named as that day’s patrol leader and her com man.

She, like the other recruits, had been ground down to the point of emaciation by the long weeks of training in and around Camp Mahan, and her face, which might be pretty after a week’s sleep, was pale in spite of the blazing sun. She was seventeen and, like the others, had her black hair shaved.

The Grierson’s ramp snapped up, and the combat vehicle lifted away sharply. This was the second time it’d lowered into a jungle clearing, and in common with standard insertion tactics, would do a second false insertion before returning to Camp Mahan.

The trainee, a woman named Montagna, reflexively waited for Jaansma to tell her what to do, then realizing she was The Man now, recovered. She checked her map hastily, making sure, as best she could, they’d been landed where she’d asked to be put down.

The patrol order had been set before they lifted off. Montagna nodded to the point man, and he checked his primitive compass, got up, and, moving slowly, eased into the jungle. Jaansma had insisted compasses be used, rather than global positioning SatPos, both to increase the hassle factor and because it was possible for an enemy not only to use satellite positioning to give false locations, but to backplot and locate someone using the system.

Behind the point man came the woman picked for slack, then the rest of the patrol.

Jaansma walked behind Montagna and the com man, moving in easy rhythm, as he’d done in many, many training patrols since taking over I&R, wondering why the hell he’d allowed himself to be talked out of being a nice quiet gunner on a Grierson, riding around high over this muck, letting his mind forget Mahan, Leggett, and people who were going to get married.

• • •

“ ‘Kay,” the wedding coordinator said briskly. “Now, imagine music … bumpbumpadump, bumpbumpadump … and the bride, that’s you, Jasith, will come through those doors, that’s right, no, more slowly, dear, you’ll lose your flower girls, and go to the center aisle, where Loy will be waiting.

“You’ll hold the moment for the coms which’ll be up there, remote from the rafters, another one in this pew, a third from behind you, at the main entrance.

“You bridesmaids, don’t pay any attention to the cameras, don’t wave, or play the fool, or you’ll get no champagne at the reception.

“Now, let’s run through it … bumpbumpadump, bumpbumpadump, pause, turn, now start up the aisle, bumpbumpadump, bumpbumpadump, and here comes little whatsisface holding your train and what the hell do you want?”

The portly red-faced woman was scowling at a slender woman with a com.

“Florist, ma’am. I need to go over just where you’ll want the wreaths, and where the flowers from guests will go.”

“For the love of … all right, girls. Take a break.”

Jasith Mellusin slumped into a pew, wiped sweat. Mellusin was not quite the richest woman on C-Cumbre, heir to her murdered father’s mining empire, but close. She was just twenty, medium height, with a slender model’s body, black hair she kept long, and a pouty, provocative face.

“This rehearsing is hot and stupid,” she said.

“Not as hot and stupid as it’s going to be on The Day,” one of her bridesmaids, Karo Lonrod said. “Aren’t you glad you decided to get married, ha-ha-ha?”

Lonrod was a year younger and a few centimeters shorter than Jasith, red-haired, with a slight tendency to chubbiness that her fanaticism for sports kept under control. She, like all the other women in the huge temple, was a Rentier, wealthy, and most aware of it.

BOOK: Firemask: Book Two of the Last Legion Series
10.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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