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Authors: David Drake

The Forlorn Hope

BOOK: The Forlorn Hope
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DEDICATION

to Susan Allison

considered as a person and as an editor

 

 

Forlorn hope … 1: In early use, a picked body of men, detached to the front to begin the attack.…

b.
transf.
and
fig,
chiefly of persons in a desperate condition.

c.
pl.
The men comprising such a body; hence, reckless bravos.

d. A perilous or desperate enterprise.…

OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY

CHAPTER ONE

The starship came out of its envelope just long enough to unload the first rack of bombs. It flashed yellow, then it was gone—hypersonic and untouchable by anything not also in a star-drive envelope. The ship's hull, heated by its microsecond exposure to atmospheric friction, left a lambent afterimage above Smiricky #4.

The flash meant nothing to Lieutenant Albrecht Waldstejn, Supply Officer of the 522nd Garrison Battalion. Above the western end of the valley where the flash had appeared, the sky now danced with sparks that grew as they tumbled closer. The sonic boom had not arrived. The bomb clusters which shed velocity and their ablative shells in balls of fire were only an unexpected light phenomenon to the young Federal officer.

His companion, Colonel Guido Fasolini, had seen thirty years of war on almost as many planets. Bombing from a starship was a difficult technique to master, but the mercenary colonel had seen it before. He did not deny his senses by insisting that the Republicans here on Cecach could not possibly be doing it also. In the long run, that meant that Fasolini had probably hired his Company on with the wrong side again.

In the short run, it meant that he had about fifteen seconds to get his ass under cover.

“Come on!” Fasolini roared to his companion. Waldstejn was still staring in bemusement at the sky. The younger man turned to see the mercenary sprinting for the nearest shelter as fast as his stumpy legs could carry him. There would be time to get the details later, Waldstejn thought as he ran after the Colonel.

They were at the lip of the shelter when the first shock hurled them in.

It was the sonic boom rather than the stick of bombs hitting. The over-pressure of a three-kilotonne starship at Mach 5 was colossal. It flattened everyone in the compound who had not already ducked. Dust shuddered and rose among the dry grasses of the valley. The pall spread in a broad wake to mark the spacer's track on the ground beneath.

“Are they shelling us?” Lieutenant Waldstejn demanded. “They can't be—that's from the west!”

Colonel Fasolini snorted. “When you've lived as long as I have,” he said, “you'll learn your own artillery's just as dangerous as the other bastard's. But that was a spacer, and it's bombing us.”

The two men were a contrast in more than age. Waldstejn was well above standard height, but he was willow thin. His brown hair was cropped short enough that the blond roots were visible, and he was inordinately proud of the narrow moustache which was within a hair's margin of being the width of his upper lip. Waldstejn's uniform was crisply new; he was Supply Officer, after all. He wore the garment with the brown-beige-gray pattern out, as being more suitable for the present surroundings than the brown-green-black camouflage to which it could be reversed. In his belt were holstered a two-way radio and a small pistol which he had never fired.

Waldstejn could have posed for a recruiting poster. Guido Fasolini, on the other hand, looked as grim as a gun barrel, even in his present rear-echelon billet. In the dim light seeping through the beryllium-filament roof, the mercenary's uniform looked muddy black. Under the direct sun it had been the same ragged mixture of buff and gray as the dust and dry vegetation of the immediate landscape. On a glacier, the fabric would have the hue of dirty ice. It would never look sharp, and it would never call attention to the man or woman who wore it.

Fasolini himself was stocky. Middle age had brought him a paunch on which only the harshest campaigning could make inroads. But the Colonel did not—could not—look soft. His hair was black and greasy. It spilled from beneath his armored cap. His radio was built into the fibers of that helmet, leaving his crossbelt free for its load of grenades and a pistol-stocked launcher which no one could mistake as being only for show. Fasolini was clean-shaven, but his whiskers were a black shadow against the swarthy skin of his jaw.

The siren above the 522nd's Headquarters began to howl. There was a brief blat of sound as well from a klaxon on the
Katyn Forest,
the starship which was loading pigs of copper at the far east end of the large compound. The warning signals froze the civilians in the mining and smelting operations above ground. They also did more harm than good to the inexperienced garrison battalion. What frightened the mercenaries, however, and caused
them
to bury their faces deeper in the floor of their shelters was a simpler sound. Barely audible over the siren were the pop-pop-pops of clusters bursting to rain tens of thousands of bomblets across the target area.

“For what we are about to receive,” Colonel Fasolini muttered, “Lord make us thankful.”

“What do you—” began Albrecht Waldstejn. Then the anti-personnel bombs began to go off in a crackling rush that swept down the valley like a crown fire.

*   *   *

“Yeah, coming along just fine,” said Churchie Dwyer. He squinted at the bed of coals with a brew-master's eye. The gangling mercenary patted the reactor vessel. It was a proprietary gesture like that of a sailor introducing a floozie to his companions.

Dwyer and Del Hoybrin were using a huge 500-liter fuel tank from an ore-hauler. Probably the tank had been dismounted years before when the broadcast power grid was extended to the mining complex in the valley over the ridge. The tank was rusty and still had a varnish of fuel additives, but that would not make a hell of a lot of difference to the quality of the final product. The mash itself had been culled from what was available which would ferment. When it came time to distill the result into high-proof slash, it would be cooled in a radiator scrapped from a lithium refrigeration system.

They were going to get rich from this one, they were. All those miners without access even to the weak beer issued to the garrison battalion—beautiful.

“Should I put on some more wood, Churchie?” the other mercenary asked. Del Hoybrin was built on the same cylindrical lines as the fuel tank. Alongside Churchie, he looked almost as big as the tank as well. For that matter, he did not seem a great deal smarter than the vessel.

“Del, Del, don't be in such a hurry,” Dwyer chided. He patted the ground beside him. “Sit back and relax, my friend. All we're doing now is keeping the little darling warm so our beer ferments. Think of her as a beautiful woman. You wouldn't expect to go up to a beautiful woman and—” Churchie gestured at the billet of brush-wood his companion held—“just stick your log in, would you?”

Del frowned. “I don't know what you mean, Churchie,” he said. He tossed the wood back on the tangle he had cut the day before.

Both men leaned back with their legs splayed, staring at the shimmer of coals in the long trench. Cecach brush would barely sustain combustion. It was perfect for a slow fire. “Sure, this is the life,” Dwyer murmured. “And when we get back to a liberty port with what we've made from this gig.…”

Their post was on the ridge line, three hundred meters away and just out of sight behind the swell of the hill. The main purpose of the garrison was to keep the civilian contract workers at their posts despite rumors and Republican propaganda. The vast Smiricky Complex provided a significant proportion of the Federal government's foreign exchange. The authorities in Praha could not permit its workers to stream away as had the agricultural laborers of the nearby latifundia.

There was, however, the threat of a quick thrust by Rube infiltrators or spacer-inserted commandos. It was against that possibility that the indigenous garrison had been stiffened by what was, despite Fasolini's self-conferred colonelcy, a mercenary company of about fifty effectives. The 522nd had neither the training nor the political reliability to be steady under attack. The two laser cannon were the only battalion weapons which could be depended on to stop even light armor at a distance. Nobody really expected the 522nd to stand and volley hand-launched anti-tank rockets at pointblank range.

“Should we be getting back, Churchie?” Del asked nervously.

Dwyer started. He had been visualizing himself and—thus far—five women. Despite his revery, the gangling mercenary's hand snatched up his gun when his companion spoke. A moment later, after his eyes had scanned the horizon and his brain had sorted the words for content, Churchie set the heavy weapon back down. “Lover,” he said in irritation, “I sure wish you wouldn't do that.”

The bigger man blinked. His own gun was slung. Its weight was too insignificant to him to call itself to his attention, even when he was resting. Del was the only man in the Company who fired bursts of full-charge loads as a matter of course. He blinked in surprise when observers asked him if he didn't mind the recoil.

Churchie sighed. “Look,” he said patiently, “if they want us, they'll call us, right?” He tapped his beryllium cap where it covered his right ear.

Del stared. His left hand began as if of its own volition to scratch his ribs beneath a bandolier.

“And if just maybe Hummel comes out to check in person—and why the hell would she?” Churchie continued, “why, we're out making a dangerous reconnaissance through our own minefields, right? Doing our job with a smile.” He smirked, broadly enough to prove that dentists of Hister made bridges from stainless steel. “What we
know
is, that she's not going to crawl out to get us when she doesn't even know there's a path through the mines.”

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