Authors: David Sherman; Dan Cragg
Tags: #Military science fiction
Assilois apVain lounged in his workstation in the dimly lit control room, keeping an eye on the bank of screens that nearly surrounded him. His screens, and those at four other workstations, glowing with real-time images that ranged the spectrum from gamma to radio, provided the room's only illumination. A few of the screens showed pictures easily intelligible to any human eye. Most of them showed shifting schematics, writhing eddies, images in unreal colors, or moving graphs. A few showed rippling, parti-colored curtains.
Only two of the sites in the normally crowded control center were occupied Everyone else, other than the few people needed to maintain the systems, was at the holiday gala hosted by Dr. Nikholas Morgan.
As administrative chief of the exploratory mission to Society 437, Morgan was the de facto head of state.
His word was law on Society 437—or so he believed. The 846 scientists and technicians at Central, the main scientific station on Waygone—which is what everybody but Morgan called the planet—had other ideas about who was in charge. The hundred-odd scientists and technicians of the off site exploratory mission counted themselves lucky that they were posted to Aquarius or Frosty stations and didn't have to put up with Chief Morgan.
But two months had passed since Confederation Day, and there hadn't been any holidays or other excuses to break the tedium of work, so Morgan arbitrarily declared a "holiday," complete with mandatory attendance at the "gala." Division chiefs with field studies and experiments in progress grumbled or howled in agony at Morgan's fiat, but they brought all of their staffs back to Central. Dr.
Morgan controlled mission resources; scientists who displeased him found their resources reallocated to someone else.
Suddenly apVain sat upright and stared intently at a corner of one of the screens he was monitoring.
"Do we have a supply run coming in?" he asked. When he didn't get an answer, he shot a glance at Suzrain Hirsute, the climatologist at the other workstation. He saw the shimmer of a privacy barrier around Hirsute and so activated the intercom inside Hirsute's workstation and repeated his question.
"Not that I know of," Hirsute replied absently. "Why?" He didn't look up from the atmospheric data he was monitoring.
"Someone just dropped into orbit, that's why." apVain sounded annoyed. He peered quizzically at the blip on his radar scope. "When we set up here, I told Chief Morgan one of the satellites needed to be oriented outward. If we had an all-spectrum satellite looking outward, we would have seen this ship days ago." A surveillance technician, apVain was responsible for geological data via satellite gathering sensors.
Nearly all of the satellites in orbit around Society 437 were focused on a section of the planet's surface. Only one of the satellite-borne radars scanned from horizon to horizon, and just then it showed an unexpected blip in orbit.
"Hmm? What'd you say?" Hirsute asked as he continued to monitor the atmospheric data.
"Someone just dropped into orbit."
Hirsute looked at apVain and blinked rapidly. "No one's due for two months. Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure," apVain snapped. "Look." He pointed an accusing finger at the scope.
The climatologist levered himself out of his chair and joined apVain to look over his shoulder at the radar scope. Clearly visible just above the horizon was a blip against the black of space.
"Are you sure that's not one of the other satellites?" Hirsute asked.
apVain tapped the screen. "It's at a higher altitude than our satellites. And it's too big. It's a starship, not a satellite."
"Who is it?"
apVain shook his head and reached for his comm unit. He was going to give Morgan a piece of his mind for not alerting him to the arrival of an unscheduled ship.
"What was that?" Hirsute asked.
"What was what?" apVain looked back at the scope.
"There was a blip, right here." Hirsute touched the screen. Numbers were vanishing from the screen where he pointed. "It suddenly appeared, moved a short distance, then vanished."
"Impossible," apVain said. Hirsute was pointing well below the altitude of the satellites. But as apVain looked, a blip appeared and vanished in a different spot, much closer to Central Station. "What the—"
apVain leaned forward, as though getting closer to the screen would give him more data. He made quick mental calculations from the numbers that had flashed next to the blip. "If that continues on the same course, it'll land near here in half an hour." He shook his head. "But it can't be. There's nothing that appears and vanishes on radar like that."
"Could it be the thing I saw?"
apVain shook his head. "Too far away—nothing moves that fast in atmosphere." His fingers started tapping out Chief Morgan's code on his comm unit, then apVain stopped and stared at the scope again.
A smaller blip dropped out of and curved away from the orbiting starship. He put the comm unit down and tapped keys on the radar control board. New numbers scrolled across the screen.
"That starship just dropped a shuttle on course to land at Aquarius Station. Why would a starship drop someone on Aquarius instead of coming to Central first?"
Hirsute thought about it for a moment. He swallowed and croaked, "Pirates. Only pirates would go to an outstation instead of landing at the main settlement."
"Oh hell." apVain snatched up his comm unit and frantically tapped out Chief Morgan's code.
Before he finished, another blip appeared, far too close to be the same object headed for Aquarius Station.
"It's landing here!"
"But they haven't signaled us."
apVain scrabbled at his console controls. He brought up the visual from the surveillance camera outside the control center just as something struck it and the picture dissolved into static. Frantic, he fumbled with his comm unit and tapped in the numbers again. "Chief," he said when his call was answered, "I think we've got trouble. Looks like there's a starship in orbit; a shuttle is headed toward Aquarius and someone just landed here." His jaw clenched as he listened to Morgan's reply. "I'm not playing some kind of practical joke," he snapped. "They just came in out of nowhere. No signals, no nothing. Someone is here. They might be pirates."
Suddenly the starship in orbit just disappeared from the screen and the satellites registered a huge explosion.
As apVain was explaining that the starship appeared to have been destroyed, the door to the control center slammed open and the two men jerked their attention to it. Hirsute's scream was cut short, becoming a gurgle as he collapsed.
"Owen, old pal, what are we going to do with ourselves tonight?" Lance Corporal Joseph "Shadow"
Dean asked his woo, back in the first fire team cubicle after Retreat formation the day of the big fight.
Owen glowed a happy pink at the sound of Dean's voice and wobbled precariously on the back of the chair where it had hopped when the Marine came into the room. Its big, staring eyes regarded Dean affectionately; at least Dean sometimes thought they did. "Wooo, Wooo," Dean said softly as he shrugged out of his utilities.
The creature glowed a brighter pink and responded, "Woooo, Wooo." Shortly before he went on home leave, Lance Corporal Dave "Hammer" Schultz, Dean's teammate, had said, "I do believe Owen thinks you're his daddy!"
"Impossible!" Corporal Leach, the first fire team leader had interjected, "goddamn Dean-o is just too damn ugly to be anybody's daddy."
Dean had grown very fond of the woo since he'd brought it back from Diamunde. In fact, Owen had become Company L's mascot. Even Top Myer was deferring to Owen when he met him on his daily barracks walk-throughs.
"I know how Marines like to start menageries of pets and call them mascots," the old first sergeant had remarked to Captain Conorado one day shortly after the company had returned from Diamunde, "but I've always been against it. Jesu, Skipper," he added, "first thing you know, the company area begins to look like a goddamn zoo! Marines get ahold of all these damn things and then they're underfoot and shitting all over everything. Why, First Sergeant Tacitus, over in Kilo Company, he caught one of his corporals, brought back a clutch of raptor eggs from Wanderjahr and was hatching them in a homemade incubator behind his wall locker! You know, those things they call wolves on Wanderjahr. Corps oughta issue a general order forbidding pets in the damn barracks, instead of leaving the decision up to unit commanders, beggin' your pardon, sir," he added quickly.
"I know, I know, Top," the company commander replied, "but in this case we're going to make an exception." And so Owen stayed with the company. Almost as if the woo understood Top Myer's opposition to his presence in the company area, whenever it saw the first sergeant it jumped up where it was plainly visible and began to glow a bright pink, something woos were said to do when content. To the Marines of Company L it meant Owen was offering the first sergeant a friendly greeting.
"He likes you, Top, he really does," Gunnery Sergeant Bass whispered into the first sergeant's ear. "He doesn't do that for anyone else but Dean. Damnedest thing I ever saw."
Gradually Top Myer was won over, and before long he casually acknowledged Owen's presence whenever the two met. Since woos disposed of their body waste through respiration, like plants, Owen never left a mess behind, and that counted heavily in his favor with the first sergeant.
Owen was thriving on Thorsfinni's World. The rocks there, from which the woos digestive system extracted necessary trace elements, suited him superbly. All the Marines had to do to keep Owen glowing a satisfied pink was to provide him every morning with chunks of rock they gathered off the parade ground.
Woos were said to be intelligent, but to what degree was open to debate. They were the highest life-form yet found on the planet Diamunde, and people who'd had long contact with them swore they were more intelligent than the terrestrial canine, but that evidence was purely anecdotal and had not been verified in the laboratory.
After his experience with the woos on Diamunde, however, Dean knew there was much more to the creatures than the little bit science had been able to deduce. He had accepted Owen as a companion, not a pet, and named him in honor of a writer, A. Block Owen, whose adventure stories he'd read as a boy.
Dean's first actual combat operation cured him forever of reading war fiction, but he'd enjoyed Mr.
Owen's stories, and besides, the woo somewhat resembled the writer, with his bulbous head and saucerlike eyes. Since most Marines had read Mr. Owen's swashbuckling adolescent novels as boys themselves, the woo's new name was instantly recognized by the men of Company L.
But despite Owen's company, something was definitely missing from Lance Corporal Joseph Dean's life. With so many of the other Marines of third platoon on leave, winding down after the hell of Diamunde was proving much more difficult than it had been after 34th Fleet Initial Strike Team's operations on Elneal and Wanderjahr. Schultz and Leach had gone on leave, but as much as Dean dreamed of having a room to himself, as do all men who live in barracks, he was lonely in the cubicle without the other two Marines. His two closest buddies, MacIlargie in the first squad's third fire team and Claypoole over in second squad, were also on leave. Dean had become very close to "Wolfman"
MacIlargie on the deployment to Diamunde—where Dean earned the nickname "Shadow," because he'd stuck close enough to the Confederation's ambassador to save her life. He itched to go to town with Wolfman and reminisce, or sit around the barracks with the other men of the third platoon, reliving the details of that experience with the other Marines.
Gunnery Sergeant Charlie Bass, third platoon's commander since the kidnapping and murder of the previous commander, had taken a month's leave in New Oslo, where he was staying with his squeeze.
He'd invited Dean and the other men of the platoon who'd stayed behind to visit him there, but Dean had declined because he thought his presence would be an imposition. Captain Conorado, Company Ls commander, had offered to put Dean up for a weekend with his family in New Oslo—officers were allowed to marry and bring their families to their FIST bases—but Dean politely declined that offer too.
Although the generosity of the offer pleased him enormously, he would have felt too awkward in the Skipper's home to be comfortable there.
Dean had decided against going on leave himself, despite the fact that he was eligible and Top Myer had encouraged him to go.
"Dean," the first sergeant had told him, "you're at the top of the list for home leave, with your mother dying and all. And I thought you said you wanted to go back to Wanderjahr—for whatever reason, I'll never know." Of course, by then everyone in the 34th knew that Dean had had an affair with Hway Kuetgens, the oligarch's daughter.
"I know, First Sergeant, but, well, my mom's been gone quite a while now and I have nobody else back on Old Earth I'd care to see. Maybe when I ship over I'll go back there—or somewhere."