After a couple of assignments involving more intrigue and skulduggery than the Cutter Force Initiative ever wanted, the unit is looking forward to being part of a straight-up, short-term industrial war on Earth.
Cutter agrees to a support role offered by an old Army comrade who’s now a general in a larger military force. The pay is good, the unit happy. All they have to do is basic ranger stuff: sneak and peek, shoot and scoot.
But what starts out as a corporate fight to occupy a valuable piece of contested territory quickly goes sideways, and once again Cutter and crew find themselves in the middle of situations in which things aren’t as they seem, and the unit must determine the truth—or lose more than just a battle.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
COLONEL R. A. “RAGS” CUTTER: A career military man, Cutter left the GU Army when he ran afoul of Army politics. At large, Cutter realized that there was a need for his kind of expertise and created a fighting force for specialized, smaller-scale actions.
JO SIMS: A former PsyOps lieutenant in the GU Navy, Sims is drop-dead gorgeous and as adept with small arms as she is with her mind.
TOMAS “DOC” WINK: An ER doctor before he joined the Cutters, Wink is an adrenaline junkie who doesn’t feel alive unless he is on the razor’s edge defying death.
ROY “GRAMPS” DEMONDE: Previously the PR director for a major corporation, Gramps lost his family in the revolution and is always looking for a way to stick it to the GU.
FORMENTARA: A mahu and cybernetics whiz, Formentara is adept at installing and maintaining all kinds of bioengineered implants.
MEGAN “GUNNY” SAYEED: Gunny is a master weaponsmith and expert shooter. If it throws any kind of missile or a particle beam, Gunny can use it, upside down and over her shoulder.
KLUTHFEM “KAY”: Kay is a Vastalimi who can kill using only her bare hands, feet, or fangs.
The Cutter’s Wars Series
The Matador Series
Hotel Orleans—New York Metroplex
Cutter arrived at the door, which swung open as he got to it.
He stepped inside. It was a first-class meeting room, part of a suite, expensive and plush. Good signs. Meant the clients who hired Zoree Wood’s military unit, The Line, had money and didn’t mind spending it. Be interesting to see how much of it would come CFI’s way . . .
Other than the woman who met him at the door and himself, it seemed they were alone.
“Hey. How has the galaxy been treating you, Rags?”
“Can’t complain,” he said. “Yourself?”
Wood smiled. “Come on in, have a seat. I cashiered out a colonel, and now I’m a general. Pay is way better, and I get to call more shots than I did in the GU Army, no uplevels second-guessing over my shoulder. What’s not to like?
“Have a glass of this?”
She held up a bottle of very good bourbon.
He grinned at that. “Know my weakness, do you?”
“Word gets around.”
He sat on the couch, as comfortable as it looked, and it looked comfortable. He returned her smile. She was still fit, still handsome. Not in uniform, though she might as well have been, everything about her clothes and bearing said “soldier.”
She poured him a drink.
Wood’s preferences ran to women, there had never been anything other than work between them, but the respect had been mutual. He’d been a captain and she a lieutenant when they’d done the Jusian Campaign. Clean and mean, that one; it had given him a boost toward colonel, and put her further along the path to her captain’s bars. A good memory. Long ago and far away.
He said, “How are the wife and kids, you still married?”
“Kids are grown, off making grandchildren, and I am still with Gemma. She’s her same ornery self. She wants me to retire, for us to buy a star-fruit orchard, raise puppies, and watch grandchildren. Couple more years, we’ll be able to afford it.”
She said, “Looks like you’ve done all right for yourself, considering. Sorry it went down the way that it did.”
“Scroom,” he said. “Onward and upward.”
“So, are you in?”
“I am. Gramps is exchanging photons and dickering with your contract people as we speak.”
“Demonde? He’s still around?”
“Only the good die young.”
“Explains why we are still here.”
“Okay,” she said, “down to the nitty-gritty?”
“When you are ready—I’ve irised the NDA.”
She nodded. “What we have here is your basic license-limit industrial. The Line represents Tejas Enterprises, a conglom whose reach spans everything from photonic computing to earthmoving gear to agro and fish farms.
“Our opposition is called United Mexican Corp, they have fingers in most of the same pies. The Resource Allocation Act parses a lot of stuff neatly, but there aren’t as many resources as there used to be on the homeworld, and that makes the cost of doing business spendy. Negotiations between TE and UMex for sharing the water rights have broken down.
“The H2O in question is predinosauric and down deep, and theoretically owned by a convoluted mix of corporations and governments, a rat’s nest of rights and subrights. Local and planetary govs have waved eminent domain and condemnations all over the place, but the inks lease their lawyers by the shipload, and it is a tangle that might take decades to sort out.”
He nodded. “Our goal?”
“Forty thousand acres of land, with wells going halfway to the core, apparently, producing all of the groundwater in the region that isn’t completely tied up legally.”
“How is this even possible in these times? And wouldn’t it be easy just to channel desalted from the nearby gulf?”
“Good questions. Apparently during the various changes of government and corporate mineral and water rights being tossed around over the last century, there came a loophole regarding this particular lot. Some arcane and highly technical hairsplitting and what resulted was a big chunk of property that belongs to either everybody or nobody, depending on which authority you ask. And what it appears is, there is a ticking clock. On such and such a date, whoever is in possession of some substantial portion of the aquifer located at such and such a longitude and latitude, vis-à-vis the operational flow—and I’d have to ask the lawyers to get into the details—has some kind of a priori claim. At least long enough to run things until it all eventually gets sorted out.
“If nobody is there, it goes back to the government.
“It’s apparently cheaper to pump the water that’s there up than build a new plant and pipeline. The current ones are running at capacity and the water allocated. There are all kinds of environmental-impact studies that have to be done to run a new conduit across private properties. Condemnations, rare birds, endangered field mice, all that takes a lot of expert study and legal wrangling. Plus what it would cost to put up a desalination plant and rig dins or hire people to run it. Last time somebody built a new osmosis plant and channeled the freshwater more than a hundred kilometers inland anywhere locally, it took ten years to get it done.”
“All about the money,” he said.
“Always is, isn’t it? Anyway, a lot of stuff can happen before the legal mud finally settles.”
“That sounds downright goofy.”
She smiled again. “Does, doesn’t it? Ours is not to reason why . . .”
He nodded. “Got it. Strategy and tactical situations?”
“The area is being held by a small security force run by a bunch of locals. TE and UMex have convinced the powers that be that a dukes-no-nukes dustup is the quickest way to settle things, citing the Zeller Accord. Commencement officially starts in fourteen days. So the locals bail. We can field recon now though no hot engagements are allowed for two weeks. After that? We have seven days to shoot and win it, so three weeks total. Somebody needs to range, sneak-and-peak, and this is your kind of thing. Do this right, we hit the ground running and clean it up PDQ.”
“Numbers and hardware?”
“Licensed for two thousand troops each side, personal augmentation, no limits; small arms, light APCs, up to 30mm on the cannon end. AP grenades, G2A, G2G, A2G, A2A, nothing bigger than Class-V rockets, little stuff. It’ll be stoppered-velocity everything; they don’t want strays leaving the range and killing civilians in their homes halfway across the region. No railguns, no lasers, no big boomers. No deep, ugly craters in the local landscape.
“No orbital boomware or zappers, spysat feeds only. Troops are however we want to divide ’em—infantry, armor, air. Pretty tight limits.”
“Still a lot bigger than anything on Earth in a long time.”
“Yes. And a nice feather in our caps when we win it.”
“Okay. When do you want us operational?”
“Yesterday. I’ll have my XO squirt the maps and intel your way as soon as the contracts click. They are almost a day ahead of us on this; so they’ll have their own rangers on the ground before you get down there if they have anything on the ball.”
“Welcome aboard, Rags. Always good to see a competent face at my door.”
“Happy to have somebody think so.”
It was hot here in this particular region of Earth. And humid. Kay’s fur was damp with perspiration. Still, she’d been in warmer places; she could stand the heat. The things about which you could do nothing? You simply endured them.
The smells were odd, but she was sorting those out. She had never been to Earth before. There was a lot of civilization here, but also pockets of nature. An interesting mix, but it didn’t feel anything like Vast. No other world felt anything like Vast.
She watched the two combatants circle.
Mishfem stepped to her left, wary, and rightly so.
Jo Captain maintained her distance, also edging to her left.
Em was slightly faster, but Jo knew more about fighting Vastalimi than Em did fighting humans, and Jo was more than passing adept at positioning. To overcome this, Em would have to move closer; however, to move closer was to court Jo’s attack. Even though Em was faster, the difference was not so great when reaction time was factored in. In theory, a nearly even match.
A few years back, Kay would not have believed it possible that a human could spar with one of The People and have any chance of winning at all, even one as augmented as Jo Captain. Now? Jo could manage a win against Kay half the time, and against Em, still three of four. Many on Vast would react with scorn to hear such a thing spoken. A human? Are you mad? A natural mistake, but one that could be fatal, should the situation arise.
Em wanted to leap and claw, that was her nature—just as it was Kay’s nature—but they both had learned that flight time from where they were to where Jo was could only be hastened so much. Seldom enough to compensate for Jo’s superior position. To fly was to find yourself unable to change your trajectory against an opponent who knew how to exploit that.
Millions of years of evolution taking prey by leap-and-claw, however, were not that easy to overcome.
Humans didn’t mind defending and countering, so the first attack needed to be telling or they—well, at least in Jo Captain’s case—could block or parry and land a critical response. Bare-handed and sheathed in a bloodless cub match like this, it didn’t mean anything save wounded pride, but had she a blade? Jo could inflict a fatal wound even against a Vastalimi’s superior claws. There would likely be mutual slaying, and while such was not technically a loss, it would be a high price to pay for a technical point . . .
Kay and Jo had learned much from each other; Em had more than a little left to learn. None of the humans against whom she had fought had Jo’s skill and physical abilities combined. Kay wasn’t sure there were any humans that good.
Em feinted, a quick false step.
Jo did not react, save to smile. “Am I a cub?”
“Never know until you try.”
“Your sire is a rhinoceros,” Jo said
Em frowned. “What—?”
Jo had already charged, and as Em shifted, dropped, and extended her lead hand to cover, Jo fell to the ground on her side, sliding below Em’s defense. She hooked her right ankle behind Em’s lead ankle and thrust with her left foot in a kick at Em’s thigh—
—Em twisted away a hair, but that’s what Jo wanted, and her instep took Em behind the knee, bending it and throwing the fem off her stance—
—Jo came up, fast, onto one foot in a balance that seemed impossible, and dropped with an elbow that caught Em on the shoulder blade, taking her to the ground—
—Em dived, rolled, and came up in a half turn, but she was a quarter beat behind, and Jo was there to deliver the spear hand into Em’s solar plexus. Painful with a bare hand, but a telling strike had her fingers been a knife.
Em’s belly muscles were like thick leather, and while she obviously felt it, there wasn’t any real damage, but had it been claws or a blade, the match was done—
Em knew: “Jebati me! Tzit, tzit, tzit!”
Kay whickered. She had said much the same more than a few times when dancing with Jo Captain. Humans sometimes did something so unexpected it stalled one for just long enough to make their point. No normal Vastalimi would have thrown that attack.
Probably a normal human wouldn’t have, either.
Em said, “How can you possibly leap onto one foot and hold that balance?”
“Formentara,” Jo said. “I sport a proprioception aug she created.”
“Most humans would not have this thing, would they?”
“Nope. But you won’t know if one does until you get there.”
“Point made. And the comment about a . . . rhinosaur?”
“A nonsensical distraction. While you were thinking about it, it bought me an eighth of a second.”
“It did. Again?”
“I’d like to, but I have to go see Rags about the mission.”
Em nodded. “I am in your debt.”
“Everything I learned about dancing with Vastalimi I got from Kay. Thank her for it.”
Em looked at Kay.
Kay said, “She is too modest.”
“I have noticed.”
“Gotta run, fems.”
After she was gone, Em turned to Kay. “It does seem as if we have found ourselves an exemplary group of humans.”
“I believe it to be so. Perhaps you might favor me with a match?”
“I would. Although you seem to have picked up enough from Jo Captain so that you are equally unpredictable.”
“It pleases me to hear you say so. Predictability can get one killed.”
– – – – – –
Gunny was practicing her draw when Jo arrived at the staging area. For a human with only the most basic of augs, she was passing quick, and outside Rags himself, nobody in the unit could outshoot Gunny with a small arm of any kind. And Rags only because of some kind of freak talent he had.
Gun in holster. Blur. Gun on target. A considerably less quick return to the holster. No hurry with that, the shooting was gonna be all over with and if you were still standing, you could take all day to reholster your weapon.
Jo said, “Getting slow in your old age.”
“Don’t Ah know it. That shoulder has never gotten back to a hundred percent.”
“It was a joke, Gunny.”
“Might as well save your breath,” Gramps said as he appeared in the doorway. “A fire brick’s got more sense of humor than she does.”
Gunny looked at Gramps. “Ah dunno about that, old man. Every time Ah see your ancient face, it makes me want to laugh.”
“Jealousy doesn’t become you, Chocolatte.”
Now Gunny did laugh.
“I stand corrected about the sense of humor,” Gramps said. He smiled.
Jo shook her head. One of these days, the two of them would find themselves alone and maybe have to deal with how they really felt about each other. She’d love to be a fly on the wall when that happened.
“Rags just got back. Might as well come on in and let’s hear what he’s got to say. You too, Gunny, if you can tear yourself away from your obsessive practice in death dealing.”
– – – – – –
Jo already knew the gist, having gotten it from Rags when it was first brought up just after their visit to Vast, but she didn’t know the on-the-ground specifics. Rags had gone and talked to his old friend General Wood, who now commanded a well-respected private army called The Line. Rags had liked what he heard.
They had flown south, and here they were.
She raised an eyebrow when he was done, but Gramps spoke first:
“Water rights?” He looked left, did a slow scan to the right, squinting as he did.
“What are you lookin’ for?” Gunny asked. “You forget who and where you are?”
“What am I looking for? Cowboys, Amerinds, bison, camels, like that,” Gramps said. “Because we must have stumbled into a time slip. Water rights? On Earth?”
“It’s complicated,” Rags said. “And it doesn’t matter as far as we are concerned. We have to scope and report, and since they are paying us to the finale, occupy some ground once the shooting starts.”
“I remember the offer, but how many are they actually paying for?” That from Jo.
“Short company: three rifle platoons, one ranger, one light air- and groundcraft, one support, including electronics. Hundred and ten troops. Relatively-low-velocity ammo. Total force maximum is two kay each side. There will be medical support and supply available if we need it.”
“Four thousand. That’s a good-sized dustup,” Gunny said.
“Biggest allowed on Earth in sixteen years,” Rags said. “We need to field our fastest and sharpest for recon, and we needed to do it yesterday. We have fourteen days beginning now when we are theoretically not being shot at.”
They nodded. Theoretically. The official stance was supposed to mean no engagements resulting in the exchange of fire until the official start date, but everybody knew that recon resulted in clashes—a silenced sniper rifle or a knife in the back? It happened, and Monitors sometimes missed it—or deliberately looked the other way. When big money was on the line, any advantage you could get without being caught was worth a lot. A few hundred thousand noodle to bribe a Monitor to turn his or her back while you did something not quite covered under the rules? Cheap insurance.
Industrial mercs were like samurai—you were supposed to be vigilant all the time. If you weren’t ready for an enemy’s action once you stepped onto the field, it was your own fault—you knew what he was and what he wanted, and it was all snakes and scorpions.
“We’ve got all the geosat and overfly maps and images in the tactical files, but there are some gaps; we need to tread the dirt and smell the flowers, you know the drill.”
“Let’s get it out to the others, set up an S&T plan, and get this going. Jo?”
“I’ll tap people for the initial rangings,” she said.
It had been a while since they’d been in a real war; mostly they had been doing extractions, retrievals, escort duty. It would be nice to not have to worry about who did what to whom, when, where, and why, and get back to the simple business of recon and combat.
Wink honed the edge of his sheath knife against a leather strap, finishing the task. The knife was a stubby-bladed spearpoint, thick across the spine, with a fat, cylindrical handle, Damascus steel, and an oval guard made of the same material.
He was a doctor and a surgeon; he favored shorter knives because he knew where to stick them and how to achieve the best results, going and coming. He looked up to see Jo approaching. He touched the edge with one thumb. It was as sharp as it was going to get. He tucked the knife away into the belt sheath behind his right hip.
“Wink. I’m putting together my ground team for the initials. How is Singh doing?”
Singh, late of Ananda, had been with them a relatively short time, but he was a bright kid and dedicated. He had gotten too close to a concussive grenade while training and lost an eardrum. The new one had taken a while to regen, but it was back to normal. The auditory hair cells should also be up to par, but Wink hadn’t tested them yet.
“Should be good to go. You taking him along?”
“Yeah, I think so. He’s still a little green, but he picks up stuff quick, and he won’t learn sitting on the sidelines. Gunny’ll keep an eye on him.”
“So it’s sneak’n’peak?”
“For two weeks, then we go online with the rest of the army. One week hot, we’re done.”
“Been a while since we did a war,” he said. “You know, I’m caught up here, the machines and my assistants can handle things. You might ought to have a decent medic out there with you.”
“A decent medic? You know any?”
“Ow. That’s cold, fem.”
She smiled. “Rags would kick me seven ways to Sunday if I let you go play in this situation, Doctor Death-wish.”
“I only want to dance, not die.”
“You are an adrenaline junkie.”
“You have no room to talk.”
“But I am not the medic who needs to be in one piece to help keep the rest of us in good health. You stay in camp unless the colonel okays it.”
“I’ll have a word with him.”
“You probably already have—you know how Gramps likes to spy on everything. If I had to guess, I’d bet that your answer will be a fat ‘No.’ And Rags won’t be going out to play, either.”
“You are a harsh mistress, Josephine Sims.”
After she was gone, he smiled. They had a history, albeit brief; a short, athletic sexual liaison after their adventures on Ramal, and he much enjoyed the memory of it. They were all friends here, sometimes with benefits, but probably there was no future in that direction for the two of them. They both loved putting themselves at risk too much, testing to see how close to the edge they could come and survive. It wouldn’t do to make any deep connections with anybody while they did such things; it wouldn’t be fair to a partner, even one who knew of it and why.
Jo knew. And there was Kay, who also knew. The Vastalimi had an offhand disregard for dying that came pretty close to a shrug. And Kay was . . . one of the most interesting sexual partners he’d ever had, too.
The idea of a three-way polyamory sometimes arose in his thoughts . . .
Too early in the day to be going down those lanes, Dr. Horny . . .
He voxaxed his com: “Singh?”
After a beat, the response. “Sah?”
“You need to drop round the office and let me check your hearing again.”
He thought about telling the kid why but decided to let Jo do it. She’d enjoy the smile on his face when she told him . . .
– – – – – –
For the first run, it was just Jo and Kay. They were the most experienced, the quickest, save for Em, and the best two-person team in CFI. They knew each other’s moves, they knew their own, and it was unlikely that the opposition would have anybody to match them.
They met with Wink, Gunny, Gramps, and Formentara for the final rundown.
Gramps led off: “Here, take this.”
“What is this?” Gunny said.
“Why, it’s a map, child,” Gramps said. “A two-dimensional representation of the forest wherein we are about to commence our recon op.”
Gunny gave him a fuck-you look. “Ah know it’s a map, you doddering fossil! And Ah also know this is Earth, and they have so many geosats circling you can footprint any spot on the planet from twenty thousand kilometers up sharp enough to read a flatscreen Bible over somebody’s shoulder! So why are we looking at this . . . parchment sheet instead of a holoproj real-time goog? Future shock too much for you?”
“No, because your ordinary visible-spectrum satcam stops at the tree crowns, and what we want to see won’t show up on IR or pradar. Part of what we need to do is update this map—remind me to teach you the difference between ‘paper’ and ‘parchment,’ by the way.”
“What do you mean, it won’t show up on IR or pradar? Both of those should paint the ground like those tree crowns are made of air.”
“Ah, but there’s the rub.” He grinned.
Jo, standing next to Kay, added her smile to the mix. Always entertaining, the Gunny and Gramps show.
Gunny turned to look at Jo. “What is this . . . unwrapped mummy blathering on about?”
Jo started to speak, but Gramps picked it back up. “It’s the trees, Chocolatte. Which, if you had read your background packet, you would know are native to the area but genetically modified Cupressus arizonica.”
“Commonly known as ‘Arizona cypress,’ the natural version is a medium-sized evergreen tree that grows to between ten and twenty-five meters in height. These have been genetically modified so that they achieve a height of forty meters, with a broader crown.”
“Uh-huh. It’s a fucking tree. Making it taller and fatter stops pradar and IR how? Are you gonna get to it or keep dancing?”
Jo said, “Don’t let him give you a hard time, Gunny, we didn’t know it either until the guy from Tejas told us. It’s one of the reasons they hired us.”
Gramps said, “Attend: Back in the day, there were a lot of revolutionary factions on Earth, peaking during the late twenty-first century. There were ecoterrorist groups, tax revolts, multinational corporate infighting. Some of them came and went in a hurry; some of them lasted a lot longer.”
Gunny said, “Ah knew that. Primary ed stuff. Again, so what? Why the history lecture? You do it just to fuck with me, don’t you?”
He ignored that: “You recall hearing about a group called Children of the Alamo?”
Gunny shook her head. “No. Ah do know about the Alamo.”
Formentara said, “The what-amo?”
“A prespaceflight war,” Gunny said. “A small force of soldiers and civilians, somewhere around two hundred and fifty, were holed up in a makeshift adobe fort, an old religious mission, called ‘Alamo.’ The defenders gave a good account of themselves, but they were outnumbered five to one; eventually, they were overcome and slaughtered.
“The battle became a rallying cry of the Alamo’s defenders, whose armies went on to defeat their opponents: ‘Remember the Alamo!’”
“That’s the war,” Jo said. “The defeated group was forced to cede a lot of territory to the victors, which became part of a new country. There were some who never got over the loss, apparently. One faction determined to reverse their fortunes, to win back the lost real estate.”
“Did they?” Wink asked.
“No, but not for lack of trying for multiple generations over several hundred years. They hold grudges a long time here on the homeworld.”
Kay shook her head.
Jo continued: “To shorten Gramps’s long story, the CotA group eventually became insurgent, tried to foment a revolution. It failed, but along the way, they did some things, one of which was to create and grow several forests of the local cypress tree throughout the region. The plants could be made to take up minerals and metals from the fertilized soil that would then concentrate in the wood and needles in specific proportions.”
Gunny got it. “No shit? Organic shielding?”
“Grow-your-own Faraday cage and chaff all in one.
“It had been done before, on a smaller scale,” Gramps said. Before Gunny could say anything else, he said, “I looked it up. Anyway, they were in it for the long haul, and once the trees were big enough, the revolutionaries conducted much of their business underneath the canopies. Simple, but effective.”
“Nobody noticed they couldn’t see through the trees from above?”
“Not for a long time, there was no reason to. IR was mostly used for weather, and little forests don’t create much of that. Long-range pradar was expensive and used mostly for military applications, and dinky forests in the middle of nowhere weren’t considered a problem.”
“Hidin’ where nobody would look. Or could if they tried.”
“So it was,” Gramps said. “Eventually, the would-be revolutionaries fell apart, ran down, and went away, but the trees they planted were hardy, and they are mostly still there. Which brings us to us . . .”
Gunny nodded. “Got it.”
“So Kay and I will make the first pass and record what we see. Gunny will be backup, Gramps on the com, Formentara will assemble the vids,” Jo said.
“What about me?” That from Wink. “I talked to Rags.”
“Yeah, you did, and don’t lie, I know what he said. You and he can have some beer and argue about smashball stats. Or count your tongue depressors.”
“Don’t start. We don’t need you there, and we might need you here.”
“Life is hard, Doc,” Jo said.
There was an old saying, “Trust, but verify,” that amused Gramps whenever he thought of it. It was populist babble that sounded meaningful but was a contradiction on the face of it: If you trusted somebody, there was no need to verify what they said.
One of the first truths he had learned when he had begun doing backgrounding for CFI was that a lot of people lied. Some merely shaded the truth in their favor a bit, a little spin, a little polish to shine a thing brighter; some went straight to damned lies, and would space a long way to avoid any more of a connection with reality than was absolutely necessary to sell a story. People would put twice as much effort into a lie as telling the truth, and as often as not, for no reason he could see.
Truth was the default and easy. Lies were hard to track; you had to keep them straight.
Sometimes a man put his hand out, and said, “I’m your friend,” and it was so. Sometimes the shake was to grip your own hand tightly so he could keep it occupied while he pulled a hidden knife and stabbed you.
It behooved you to know which was the more likely possibility, and part of his job was to try to determine that. In this case, it wasn’t really CFI’s responsibility, they were just hired eyes and guns, but after Ananda, there had come a decision: never again.
Not always easy, sussing out the reality from the fantasy. They had been caught flatfooted on Ananda, had never seen what was really going on until they were almost done. In that case, it hadn’t hurt them much, save maybe for pride, but it reminded Gramps that the next time might not be benign.
That didn’t mean you walked around in a constant state of high-alert paranoia, but it did mean that if you were caught sleeping when you should be awake, it was your fault.
So the rule was, “Trust after you verify,” and even then, keep an eye peeled. Trust could be so ephemeral . . .
Corporations these days tended to be like mazes, especially the multiplanetary ones. Given the complexities of law from world to world, it was often easier to pay for forgiveness than to ask permission. What they did for fun on Glade would be cause for imprisonment and serious rehab on a dozen planets in three systems. What was legal on Earth might get you executed on Morandan. So it went.
Corporations fielded platoons of lawyers and spindocs and PR folk and they became star-chamber cultures, keeping their business secret and handing out their own punishments for crimes against the company. The largest corporations spanned systems, and their operant phrase could be boiled down to one concept when it came to keeping in step with local laws: What they don’t know won’t hurt us . . .
Tejas Enterprises and UMex were not happy exceptions. There was the surface scan, which showed shiny fronts and polite smiles, and a centimeter under that, a tungsten-steel wall upon which the curious would smack their heads and be stopped cold.
Say there, friend, what does this little phrase you have on your financial report mean?
None of my fucking business? But, really, if you have fleas and I’m about to get into bed with you? That, uh, kinda makes it my concern, you know?
Unless the curious happened to be adept at finding ways to get past it and into the belly of the beast, finding out who had what could be difficult.
Gramps didn’t have the chops, nobody at CFI did. Formentara was brilliant enough so zhe could have figured it out, but it was a waste of hir skill since there were others who had the talent and who could be rented. Over the last few years, CFI had developed a go-to group of simadams and their freaky-clever AIs, and they were have-guns-will-travel paladins. A call, a deposit into an account, and the lookers would probe whoever or whatever Gramps sicced ’em on, and eventually get information that would benefit CFI to know.
The problem was not that they couldn’t find it, it was that sometimes it seemed so obvious to Gramps and Rags and Jo what was going on that they didn’t check.
Well. They had learned that lesson. Look-before-leaping had become CFI’s mode of late, and while that was expensive, it was hard to put a price on keeping your ass alive and in one unbloody piece . . .
The com was clean, the transmission encoded out the wazoo, and the person who might or might not be a woman, and who ran one of the sharpest and fastest C-AIs in the galaxy smiled across however much time and space there was between them.
“Ah, my friend. How nice to see you again.”
What she was seeing—if indeed she was actually a fem at all—was also a computer construct of him that looked like somebody half his age and of a different genetic makeup. Certainly, she could rascal that and get his true image if “she” wanted, given her expertise. And while the encryption on the pipe they were using was as good as anybody could afford, they avoided names, just in case.
“My own sentiment,” he said. “I have bought some new artwork,” he said, continuing the verbal fugue they used. “I was wondering if you might take a look at it and evaluate it?”
Even if somebody broke into the pipe and managed to unravel the encryption, what they heard wouldn’t do them much good.
“I would be happy to. Drop a copy into my mail chute, and I’ll have a look.”
“You are too kind.”
“Not at all. Well, I must run, things to do, people to see. So good to talk to you again.”
“The pleasure was all mine,” he said.
The names of the corporations would be sent steganographically, buried in a complex image of computer-generated art, and even if somebody knew it was there, good luck on finding and decoding that. The key was iffy even for a high-function AI running quantum—the person to whom he had just spoken had told him that and certainly should know. And even if a spy somehow managed to suss that out? So what? It wasn’t illegal to send a corporate name hidden in a picture anyhow.
Gramps felt better after the call. With the tame Connections AI on the case, it would only be a matter of time before they had what was there to be had. Might even have it done before the war proper started though sometimes the fine sifting took a while.
Well. It was in play, and it would take however long it took.
– – – – – –
Jo and Kay didn’t wear the shiftsuits that would have made them mostly invisible and impervious to a lot of small-arms fire. The suits were good, but they slowed you down, and both preferred freedom of movement when they had the choice.
Despite the state-of-the-art climate control they ran, the suits were too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, too. Field equipment was never perfect, no matter how much it cost. The top-of-the-line com would work just fine until it didn’t; the big-scale purifier that would turn raw sewage into potable water might leave a little turd flavoring in your tea. The loudest sound on a battlefield was click! when you were expecting bang! It was a never-ending wonder: What was going to go wrong next?
Rags had made a pro forma protest over Jo’s decision to skip the shiftsuits, but he knew it as well and Jo and Kay did: The perfect scout was one nobody ever knew had been there. They couldn’t shoot what they didn’t know about, and Jo and Kay were faster and better than most anybody they were likely to find in the woods. In and out quick was their plan.
The area they needed to scout was a large patch of the genetically modified trees that shielded the ground from pradar and IR sats, bordering the contested wells on the eastern and northern sides, near some place called Choke Canyon, some 130 klicks south of the biggest city in the region, San Antonio. The forest was only about ninety years old, a ragged kidney-bean shape that was eight kilometers long by four wide, narrowing slightly in the middle. There were rivers there, and a reservoir farther south.
They took a flitter to the northern edge, parked it, programmed their coms to the shielded opchan, and headed in.
There was a two-man Monitor team near the road. Jo sent their ID on a short-range pulse, and the Monitors—unarmed but connected to Central—checked the sigs against their list, then waved them through.
Jo said, “I don’t suppose you’ve seen any of the opposition come by here recently?”
The Monitors smiled. They were neutrals, and they didn’t give anybody anything.
Given her choice, Jo would have waited until night. Both she and Kay could see in the dark, and even if the rangers from the other side had spookeyes, that made their chances of being spotted less. But speed was of the essence in more than one way. They had to assume the opposition’s rangers were already on the ground and scouting, and letting them get too far ahead was not good strategy.
They wore POV cams that would let them record what they saw, and that would be integrated into the maps Gramps was compiling.
“Weapons check,” Jo said. She unslung her carbine, looked at the diode and counter. Green and six-zero.”
“Green and full,” Kay said. She restrapped the weapon over her back, snugged it tight.
“Cam diagnostics,” Jo said.
Kay nodded. “Green.”
“Com check. Anybody home?”
“Online,” Kay said.
“Nobody here but us chickens,” Gramps said, from back at the base.
Kay looked at Jo. “Chickens? A kind of bird?”
Gunny piped in: “All his jokes are old.”
“Speak to a passing parade, Egg. Funny if you haven’t heard it.”
“We are moving into the target area.”
“I’d get some popcorn, but there won’t be much of a show, given those trees,” Gramps said. “Break a leg.”
Jo and Kay separated and moved into the woods.
– – – – – –
The first hour was mostly quiet. There were animals and birds, deer, turkey, squirrels, but no sign of people as they scouted, mapping trails and landmarks. Not really much of a surprise—noncombatants had been warned away, there were signs posted on the trees, and transponder sigs marked the area as off-limits—so Jo didn’t expect they’d run into a family of campers or nature lovers taking a hike. That was a good way to get shot, and that’s what the sigs and signs said: Go away or risk dying.
Mostly, their coms worked inside the forest though there were patches where they cut out. Beaming a sig through the canopy? Didn’t happen.
Another thirty minutes, and Kay, half a klick to Jo’s west, said, “I have human scent, male. To my north-northwest. Not close enough to see.”
Jo marked the general location of the source. Her own olfactories were enhanced as much as they could be but still weren’t as good as that of a Vastalimi; plus, she wasn’t downwind from the source’s position.
“Affirm that. Marked. Might be a Monitor.”
Nobody knew where the Monitors would be, or how many there were, and you had to be careful when they were on-site. Killing a Monitor was good for a monstrous fine, maybe even a forfeit, depending on circumstances. As was disguising yourself as a Monitor. You didn’t fuck with them when they were deployed. Not all wars used them, but the big ones usually did, and probably even the small ones here on Earth would. Part of doing business.
Kay would try to spot the source of the scent without being seen, to ID and narrow down the location, but that was less important than avoiding contact. They hadn’t come to shoot, only to look.
After a few more minutes, Kay subvocalized into her com: “Here he is. Appears to be a human in a yowiesuit, crouched, not moving.”
“Not a Monitor. Sounds more like a sniper than a ranger. Unless he spots you and starts shooting, best leave him be.”
“Affirm that,” Kay said.
They were almost two klicks into the forest from the edge, and there were opposition rangers, so they’d have to move carefully if they were going to finish the recon.
They’d have to come back later for the section where the enemy had a squatter, chances were the scout wouldn’t stay there, and they could log that area once it was clear. If he wasn’t gone when they were ready to withdraw, they’d come back another day.
An initial crisscross recon didn’t have to be perfect, but the more you knew, the better. Might be something important where the enemy scout was, and it would be shortsighted to assume otherwise.
After six hours, they were done for the day. Studies had shown that rangering skill on the ground increased for the first few hours, peaked at five or six, then began to decline. There was no sense in pushing it; they had covered a lot of territory, had recordings of it, and knew considerably more than they had before.
Formentara would add what they’d collected to the maps. Zhe would also talk to the locals Gramps had found who knew the area. Paying them was cheap, and often, locals would know things even a thorough CCR would miss.
They nodded at the Monitors outside the forest as they headed back toward their vehicle.
“Nice work,” Gramps’s voice came over the com implant. “Got some information: Looks like our opposition is Dycon Limited.”
Jo said, “Ah.” They were reputed to be one of the better SoF companies around, though CFI hadn’t been on the other side of the battlefield from them.
“In fact, we got a call from them not an hour ago. They want to meet with us, have a chat.”
“Yep. Rags thinks you and Kay should go.”
“And why is that?”
“You two are our best observers, you’ll pick up stuff the rest of us will miss. And Gunny, if you are eavesdropping, don’t even bother with the blind-deaf jokes at my expense.”
“Ah’m sure Ah have no idea what you are talkin’ about. Which would make two of us.”
“And why CFI in particular?”
“I dunno, ask him when you get there.”
Jo said, “We are going off-line. See you in an hour or so. Discom.”
After they shut down their opchans, Kay said, “Can Gramps and Gunny truly not see how they feel about each other?”
“If they do, they don’t want to admit it.”
“How interesting,” Kay said. “The human capacity for denial sometimes seems to be quite large.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
The caller was in San Antonio, and after Jo and Kay got cleaned up, they arranged to meet him that evening. Gunny and Singh were backup, in a following vehicle, just in case the opposition was trying to be cute.
Excerpted from "The Tejano Conflict"
Copyright © 2014 Steve Perry.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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