Jules Verne, dog/space marine, returns. The platoon sees more action than they'd bargained for when a routine mission goes wrong, and Julie sees combat for the first time as the situation on planet Jefferson continues to deteriorate.
Jules Verne, dog/space marine, returns. The platoon sees more action than they'd bargained for when a routine mission goes wrong, and Julie sees combat for the first time as the situation on planet Jefferson continues to deteriorate.
This is the third part of Cry Havoc, the novel I am serializing here on SoFurry. There is no sex in this one, 'cause I ran out of time. Next time guys. This section resolves some of the tension between Jules and Chris, but most of it is spent exploring her own character after she goes into battle for the first time and it proves to be not what she'd expected. If you like it, the rest of the novel will follow in installments as I write them. Beyond that, read and enjoy -- and as always, please chime in with criticism and feedback. Per ardua ad astra, and all that!
Released under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Share, modify, and redistribute -- as long as it's attributed and noncommercial, anything goes.
Cry Havoc!, by Rob Baird -- Ch. 3, "And you tell me, over and over..."
Don't you understand what I'm tryin' to say?
And can't you feel the fears I'm feeling today?
If the button is pushed, there's no runnin' away.
There'll be no one to save, with the world in a grave
Take a look around ya, boy, it's bound to scare ya, boy --
And you tell me, over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don't believe
We're on the eve
- Barry McGuire, "Eve of Destruction"
Verne intended to apologize to Christopher Neumann for her distance, but the next morning brought word of further planned operations, and four hours later they were suiting up to return to the planet's surface. Freeman's mission briefing had described it as being yet another "straight-forward police action"; the Jefferson government wanted to storm a few warehouses in downtown Lincoln City, and -- having performed superlatively on the previous mission -- B Company was providing cover.
The dog was in a relatively good mood -- she had extracted a promise from Forster that he might be available for further instruction in the near future -- but Usher's admission of his bad feelings about the cruise weighed down on her. Each new mishap began to compound this: the sudden fault on an auxiliary computer, the sticky charging handle on her rifle, the way her armor pinched her fur painfully.
Most troubling, to the dog's sense of order and routine, was the absence of Horvat's Logical Song from the Kirishima's launch bay -- work was being done on the Strix, and the mission threat coefficient demanded that the ships be armed. The CLS-37D before them claimed to be the Elevator Operator. Its paint was a mixture of gunmetal grey and uncovered primer, and its nose art showed a hooded figure clutching a scythe, with one bony finger pressing a button that read 'Hell.' In stark, block lettering, a word bubble asked simply: "Going down?"
Fran Horvat was muttering at an open panel and the green-shirted mechanic organizing the wires stuffed inside; when she saw Verne approaching, she gave an exasperated growl as a sign of her mood. "You up on your insurance, mutt?"
"Better double-check. After all, somebody's gotta care, since CODA sure doesn't." She directed this last comment at the hapless mechanic, and kicked the side of the dropship. "I think they pulled these things out of a goddamned museum somewhere. When I ran my preflights, I found out the life support was disconnected. Why was that, again?"
The mechanic sighed. "Corrosion in the secondary portside bus caused by the improper way the craft was checked in after its last drop," he said tiredly; Verne was given to understand, by the weariness of his voice, that he had been answering the question repeatedly.
"Now, Jolly Green here says that everything else is fixed. That's good... if it's not, there's going to be consequences." She stared coldly at the man, and then looked to the dog. "I'll have you bite him, how's that?"
Now the mechanic turned and, catching sight of Verne, nervously blinked a few times. She bared her teeth, for effect, and he swiftly turned back to his work.
"Good on you. Now, what do you want, private?"
Verne called up the holographic display above her right arm and spun the globe so Fran could look over it. "I need the connect codes for the Strix's sensors, ma'am. We don't know where -- or if -- we'll have to put down, so the LT wants me plugged in to as much data as possible."
Horvat nodded, and ran her fingers through the display, programming Verne's C&S equipment to synchronize with the sensor suite on the Elevator Operator. "That should do it," she finally said. "Of course, we can't test it yet because the power's down. You know, you'd think it would've been simpler just to bolt some Mark 390s to the side of my ship, rather than finding a whole new one."
"You'd think, ma'am."
"It's like they don't trust us. Like they think we're all too immature to handle our toys. Are we immature, mutt?"
Julie shrugged noncommittally. "You did threaten to sic me on a deckhand, ma'am."
"Oh, that. Don't worry, Jolly Green," Horvat patted the mechanic's shoulder. "She wouldn't hurt a fly. You wouldn't hurt a fly, right?"
"Well, I am a carnivore," the dog admitted, and curled her lip for emphasis, revealing her sharp, white fangs.
Horvat's eyes widened in mock horror -- then she leaned down to catch the mechanic's eye, grinning darkly. Her voice was a conspiratorial, harsh whisper. "You'd better be careful, just in case."
Ghazwan Naser and Djemka Baranachich, the crew chiefs, proved to be in better spirits -- no doubt aided by the presence of the bulky weapon pods bolted to either side of the Strix's frame. They were going over their checklists when the dog's circuit of the vehicle brought her close, and when Naser caught the interest in her expression he hopped down from the ship, jerking his head up towards the pods. "Nice, huh?"
"Impressive, yes," she said. Besides the bulk of the pod itself, the only evidence of its function was a few sensor blisters and the two black barrels currently protruding from the side -- for the drop, they would be retracted, but now they faced the hangar deck with cold menace. "What is it?"
"What is it, private? This is the pinnacle of ten thousand years of human evolution -- no offense. You'll get there, don't worry." He jumped up to give the underside of the pod an affectionate slap. "Allow me to introduce the Mark 390 Multithreat Close-in Weapons System. The big guy is a linear cannon, fifty-seven millimeters of pure bad-assery. Power for the accelerator is actually integral to the rounds, too, so we don't have to shut down life support or anything if we want to fire it."
"I appreciate that."
"Mm-hmm -- I thought you might. The GAU-436's little sister here is a GAU-460 -- from your neck of the woods, actually. Aren't you from the Free Zone?" She nodded. "This here's the genuine article -- even says Designed by AAI in Cupertino on the inside of the access panel. Eleven millimeter caseless at six thousand rounds a minute -- ought to be enough to make anybody's day. Think we're going down with flechettes, but, still..."
"So it's like the Cerberus?" That was the automatic weapon that people like Sedlacek and Selam carried -- a heavy three-barreled contraption designed to provide suppressive fire at long ranges.
"Yeah, if the Cerberus grew a pair. Six thousand rounds a minute," he repeated with a predatory emphasis. "God, you know, it's just nice to have something to go after the bad guys with. Before, we --"
Djemka leaned out of the Strix. "Hey! You want to stop jerking off and help me finish this damned preflight?"
Naser turned and regarded her wearily. "Yes, yes, of course." He shook his head at Verne. "I think I'm supposed to outrank her, do you know that?" But he returned to the ship, pulling himself through the open hatchway and returning to work.
The interior of the Elevator Operator looked more or less identical to the inside of the Logical Song, except that it was slightly less well kept. Verne plugged herself in, securing the respirator over her muzzle and taking a cautious breath of the air -- clean enough.
She was one of the first to board, and took up her spot next to Staff Sergeant Mayer Bourne. "You got a bag, private?" He tapped the one fixed to his chest, for emphasis.
"I do." The mission profile had them flying in orbits over the town of Lincoln City, keeping watch and waiting to see if anything went wrong. They would be packed into the Strix for the duration, isolated from visual cues to the outside world -- a recipe for motion sickness, which occasionally plagued the dog severely. "I didn't have breakfast, either."
"Smart move. What's the threat picture down there?"
Verne shrugged. "From what Freeman said, absolutely nothing. It's hard to say. You saw the debrief for the last operation, right, sergeant?" Bourne nodded. "I mean, only one platoon claimed they took fire, and they didn't have anything to show for it."
"Yeah, but Lincoln City is hardcore separatist territory. You know the political history?"
"Only a little. My corporate teachers didn't really spend a lot of time on rebellions."
"Didn't want you getting any ideas?"
That was, of course, the reason, but Verne demurred. "Officially, it wasn't important for vocational schooling."
"Of course. And they say y'oughta leave sleeping dogs lie, right?" Bourne's thick eyebrows arched like parentheticals over his grin. "Anyway, I'm actually from Jefferson, so maybe it's a bit closer to home for me. I'm from the east, though -- otherwise known as the civilized part."
"Not where we're going?"
Mayer scoffed. "Nah. Jefferson was founded as an aggie world, way the hell back when the Confederation was just starting. The fertile agricultural land is all on the east coast -- the jungle we were in last week is useless for food crops. So that's where all the big cities are, and the cultural centers, and all that. That's where I grew up, in New Philadelphia -- crown jewel of the whole damn planet. You ever been?"
She shook her head. "No. The first time I set foot on that rock down there was last week."
Bourne closed his eyes, recalling pleasant memories. "Ah, you really need to get to the east coast. Maybe on shore leave -- New Philadelphia's all organized around this long boulevard that runs from the harbor. The sidewalks are framed in marble, and it's lined with trees, and when the sun comes up in the morning..." He sighed. "You know, I always kind of felt that most of the civilized parts of Earth were too sterile, and the uncivilized parts were... like, too far in the wrong direction."
"Yeah. I used to go up in the guard towers on the edge of the Silicon Valley Free Zone... look out at the slums and try to figure out what that would be like, to live there. Is all of Jefferson like New Philadelphia?"
"Nah. The west coast is mostly mineral wealth. Bunch of little mining towns -- Lincoln City's about the biggest and it's still a dump. Of course, that's because the government taxes the hell out of 'em and spends the money in Old Jefferson. That's what this whole thing is about. You know GE or Mitsubishi would love to get their hands on the rare earths there, and most of the west coast thinks the zaibatsus would give 'em a fairer shake than the Philadelphia Government does."
"Do they not have a right to self-determination in their constitution?"
"What, private?" Usher had joined them, and was strapping himself in. "You didn't think we were the good guys, did you?"
"I suppose it hadn't really crossed my mind, sir."
The lieutenant chuckled harshly, settling in. "Out of our pay grade, anyway. But New Philadelphia can't let these yokels secede. Where would they get the money for us, if that happened?"
Verne looked to Bourne, who merely shrugged to indicate his agreement. "Pretty much. Being a revolutionary doesn't pay very well."
Usher grunted. "In this case, I couldn't care less how right they think they are. You don't get to stockpile surface to air missiles and pretend they're just for your self-defense."
Politics had been absent from Verne's official schooling -- for exactly the reason Mayer Bourne had guessed. Two centuries before her time, another Moreau named Atwood had spent her free time reading up on revolutionary ideology. Eventually -- when she was no longer sufficiently ignorant for the company's purposes -- her stubborn resistance to being dominated had begun a movement for her kind's general equality.
Thusly emerged the Incorporation Treaty, and the vague sense that Moreaus were Confederation citizens, after a fashion. But they still couldn't vote, and they still got strange looks in restaurants -- and GeneMark had, somewhat spitefully, terminated Atwood's product line. The Incorporation Treaty suggested that the genetically enhanced had rights of their own; it did nothing to prevent the companies who made them from indulging in a bit of intensive indoctrination.
Verne supposed that a dog like Forster probably viewed the Colonial Defense Authority's mission on Jefferson with some skepticism -- she sensed that he was sympathetic to the feeling of solidarity shared by the oppressed. Verne herself had not meditated long on the root causes of the conflict, and now she wasn't entirely certain why -- inquisitiveness was supposed to be in her nature, but she'd accepted blindly the idea that the discontent felt by the Jeffersonian mineworkers was illegitimate and CODA's response was deserved and proper.
The easiest decision to make was that Usher was right: regardless of whether or not you had a legitimate grievance, the dog felt that heavy armament was not an appropriate way of giving voice to it. Even Atwood had been nonviolent -- and a fellow Border collie, if any trust was to be placed in the whispered words Verne had heard bandied about the company barracks in her youth.
Usher had been right, too, about the theatrics of their earlier deployment. This time they had been asked to circle above Lincoln City, waiting to see if any assistance was desired on the part of Jefferson National Guardsmen serving a few search warrants. It was a simple mission, and their flight down to the surface was sedate -- a steady one gee that was quite comfortable, save for occasional pockets of turbulence.
The Strix flipped upright again and, several seconds later, the doors opened to either side. This time, there was no explosive deployment; they were flying relatively slowly, close to the ground, and Usher wanted to be able to see the activity below them.
It wasn't immediately possible to tell whether Bourne's dismissal of the city had been accurate; it looked the same as any other to Verne -- densely packed buildings, cracked streets, and the ceaseless crush of foot and vehicle traffic that, with its noise, led so many of her human colleagues to extoll the vibrant life of the urban environment.
She took off her respirator for a moment and sniffed carefully; they were not so distant from the city that its smells were entirely absent. Now Verne began to discover differences -- instead of the ozone she associated with gravidynes, she could smell the grease of primitive mechanical contraptions.
There were open markets, filled with vegetables and freshly butchered meat -- like the inside of an omnimarket, but a thousand times stronger, and without the sterile tang of the vending machine packaging.
Even the people seemed to smell stronger -- her nose wasn't good enough to pick out individual scents, not from the Strix's altitude, but the hints that wafted up to their height spoke of fifty thousand humans, with typical human bathing habits, in close quarters. In the Free Zone, and in the closed quarters of the Kirishima, antiseptic showers were compulsory for disease control, but the corridors of the ship still reeked of human habitation, and Verne knew that left to their own devices humans cleaned themselves only once a day, at most, and not very effectively at that.
This sort of organic information was absent from the data fed to her by the C&S set. When she activated her goggles, the little lines and markers were crisp and clear, but they told her precious little about the city itself. She even thought she could smell other animals -- horses, maybe? Mules? They used those sometimes, on the frontier, where they tended to be more reliable than human-made machines.
"Private?" Usher had caught her staring at the ground, and his voice crackled in her ear -- wind noise, not entirely cancelled out by her headset, prevented them from talking directly. "What's the threat picture?"
"Nominal, sir." She tapped the computer on her right arm to broadcast the C&S display to his goggles, and when she looked at him she caught the display flickering on. "But you can see... The city is so dense that the readings are hard to sort. We keep getting pinged by laser and IR, but nothing's tracking us."
"No acquisition signals?"
Verne shook her head. "Honestly, it seems pretty innocent, sir."
There was no reason to believe that it wouldn't be; Usher nodded, and they watched the first search take place in silence -- a small convoy of National Guard hovercraft slunk up the street to an unassuming warehouse; uniformed men charged in, and then ten minutes later they left again, carrying a few boxes. Argus, the C3 Strix orbiting even further above them, told the net that they'd discovered some unlicensed electronic equipment.
"How thrilling." McArdle was not impressed.
Usher shot him a look. "Don't jinx it, Jim."
"Sorry, LT. Just impressed by the appropriate and proper use of military resources, here."
"Could do worse than to get thirty thousand for flying in circles," Usher pointed out, and McArdle agreed. The second search was no more dramatic than the first, and Verne had to admit that the C&S sweeps were singularly unexciting. She forced herself to scrutinize the returns, anyway, looking for a hint of anything interesting.
The dog's radio scanner clicked to indicate a transmission and, eager for something different, she switched her set to make the frequency active:
" -- like the readings, over."
"Talon Six, this is Argus. Are you declaring an emergency? Over."
Now Verne's ear pricked, and she listened carefully for the reply from Talon Six -- Second Platoon's Strix, also somewhere orbiting the city. "Argus, ah, negative, not yet, but can we get vectors to the nearest friendly field, just in case? Over."
"Talon Six, we'll get those for you. Stand by -- Argus out."
Usher arched an eyebrow at Verne's intent expression -- her ears perked, her clear blue eyes searching the city, trying to pick out the other aircraft. She tapped her ear to indicate that she was listening to a radio conversation, and then spoke up. "Talon Six is having mechanical difficulties, sir. I think they may want to sit this one out." The lieutenant made a sour face, and then nodded his understanding.
"Argus, this is Talon Six. Our starboard engine is way hot. We're gonna have to cut power, here, I think."
"Talon Six, be advised the Kirishima will be in position for recovery. ETA one-five minutes to commence your orbital burn."
Verne had no idea who was flying the other ship. She tried to picture him -- his voice was still measured and clear, consummately professional. "Negative, Argus. I can't make orbit on one and a half engines. Any word on where we can -- " he stopped abruptly, and the radio carried the nervous clamor of cockpit warnings. The pilot's voice remained remarkably calm. "Ah, Argus, my starboard engine is on fire and my port engine is now down on power."
She called up her holographic display, zooming out until she could see the entire city at once. The wounded Strix was noticeably out of its assigned orbit, and descending. "Talon Six, this is Argus. There's a park, bearing zero-eight-zero, about three kilometers from you. Can you land there?"
The Strix, designed for high speed transorbital operations, was a terrible glider; even judging from the hologram Verne could tell the park was too far away. "Uh, negative Argus." Now tension was starting to creep into the man's voice, and he had to raise it over the wail of unhappy electronics and a repetitive alert chanting sink rate, sink rate. "We're going down. Aiming for a clearing west of Objective Mike -- think it's a ballfield. No real control here, Argus."
There was nothing anyone else could do; the response from C3 was curt. "Understood, Talon Six."
"Talon Six is going down," Verne told Usher over a private link, and watched him bite his lip to suppress an oath. "I don't know where yet, because -- "
"Argus -- think I was a bit optimistic. We're not -- oh, shit! Brace for impact! Brace for -- " The transmission cut abruptly, and the Strix's indicator on her holographic display fuzzed and flickered out.
Verne felt a chill run through her at the ensuing silence. She had to force her muscles back into action -- sorting through the map, checking coordinates, and keying her microphone again. "They're down, sir. Grid nine eight zero five five six three eight. Intersection of Aluminium Avenue and State Street. Threat picture nominal -- civilian area, limited commerce and no industry. Wide access for the hovercraft."
Usher opened his mouth to reply, but the radio cut him off. "Net call, net call, this is Badger Six actual. I've got some bad news, guys. Talon Six has crashed, location grid nine eight zero five six three. No response on radio, so, we're going to have to go rescue them. Opposition is expected to be light to none, but we're not going to take chances. I want a defensive perimeter around the crash site -- Hui, you take the northern approach along State Street and Corundum Avenue; Ray, you have the southern approach along State and... Davis Boulevard. Set up checkpoints and clear the streets. Jacey, put down as close to the site as you can and render immediate assistance. Everybody, keep your birds on orbit for support and observation. Badger Six out."
Through the quick briefing Usher had been poring over the map; now he placed a marker for Horvat to land on -- Verne saw his mouth move, giving the order, and the Strix began banking immediately. Seamlessly, he switched over to the platoon's net: "Listen up! We have a crashed Strix with unknown casualties in a hostile town. Now, the separatists would love to have an armed dropship captured for propaganda purposes if nothing else, and I'm sure they wouldn't mind having a chat with Quezada and his platoon. We're going to secure the approaches to the crash site -- keep any gawkers away. Should be real simple -- rules of engagement haven't changed, so you're not allowed to fire unless you're fired upon first, but keep your weapons ready."
The Strix touched down momentarily -- a matter of seconds only -- and when they had all jumped from it the ship roared back skywards. Verne could see the guns on the weapons pods swinging out and into position -- now the adrenaline was starting to pump; the world was crystalline and narrow.
She couldn't see the crash site directly, only the smoke billowing from a few hundred meters away. Usher was giving orders to the squads; she stayed close to him, answering his brisk questions about the city layout and keeping him apprised of the threat picture -- still clear, but there were signal emitters everywhere and she had to write a quick filter to keep most of them suppressed.
The platoon's passive sensors were starting to come online, and now the dog found to her displeasure that Victor Ramirez's suit was not transmitting. He was a hundred meters to her south, with Ajibola's squad, and she received permission from Usher to investigate more closely.
The squad was arrayed around an intersection; at her approach, Ajibola waved her up against a wall for cover. She explained that Ramirez's suit was malfunctioning, and he motioned for her to go to him.
She tried to keep herself low and inconspicuous, stealing over to where Victor crouched, his rifle tracing a slow arc back and forth, searching the long alleyway. "What do you want?"
"Your suit's not working. If you took better care of your pre-drop checklists..."
"Aw, get off my case," he muttered. He wasn't looking at her -- still peering with laser focus down the alley, watching through his rifle's electronic sights. "Can you fix it?"
"Maybe," she told him, sharply, and flipped open the diagnostic panel on the suit's arm. A flashing message greeted her: Fault 0x005D. Uninitialized integrator: a subunit, driver, or coprocessor could not be started. The message was opaque; as she set about flushing the unit's memory, trying to keep watch over the shifting colors of her threat picture, she growled, mostly to herself. "This is what the checks are for. You find the problems before you wind up on the mission."
"Jesus, mom, I know how the fucking suit works. We didn't have time."
"You always have time," she shot back; the suit was no longer reporting any errors. She let it reboot, and pushed the diagnostic hatch closed angrily. "If you don't check it, you put yourself and your colleagues in danger."
Victor snorted. "God, you really need to --"
His suit's sensors had clicked on, and now her display showed an angry red marker. Before she had even had time to think about it, she grabbed Victor by the shoulder and shoved him roughly to the side, letting her momentum carry her so that she landed atop him.
"Hey! What the --" the snap! of the bullet passing by them silenced him, and he blinked at her with wide eyes. "Oh, fuck."
Then the air was thick with the crackle of incoming fire. Verne straightened herself up. Her fingers worked her computer quickly. Her paws were shaking; she tried to ignore it. The red was spreading -- dots lighting up, fanning out. Coming closer. She squeezed the transmit switch of her microphone roughly. "Signals! Left ten -- four men, using a garage for cover. Left eleven, six men, in the open. Vehicle, right one -- light machine gun. Crossing an intersection." She was surprised at the strength of her own voice.
She tagged the threats as she called them out, sending the information directly to Ajibola. He was shouting, too. Giving orders, directing return fire. Selam's Cerberus roared to life in angry barks. Verne could smell hot metal, and hear the high-pitched snicker of the action.
Concentrate. She zoomed the map out. Serhat's squad was also taking fire, more lightly; she marked a few targets for them. The rest of the city seemed quiet. Not where she was -- rounds were kicking up dust, scattering brick and mortar from the corner of the building they were hiding behind. Focus. Sort. She zoomed in again, looking for the source of the fire. Matching the pattern of close impacts to the brightening red of active acoustic marking.
An explosion, and an angry burst of activity on her sensors as the computer tried to make sense of a thousand new signals, told her the truck she'd seen earlier had wandered into sight of the Cerberus. Good -- keep going. Range. Elevation. Deflection. Check...
"Victor," she whispered. "Bearing two zero one, about two hundred meters. The roof of a building -- two men. Machine gun."
Ramirez nodded, and unclipped the camera from his rifle, attaching it to the corner of the building and peering at the monitor in his gunsight. She called the picture up in her goggles to observe. Yes, two men. The barrel of a gun was pointed directly at the camera lens. The muzzle flashed brightly -- more dirt and shattered asphalt sprayed into their faces. She shook her head to clear the goggles.
As she watched, a small red box appeared over each figure. When both boxes had turned green -- Victor's rifle had a firing solution -- he shut his eyes tightly, crossed himself, and then leaned out around the building. The rifle fired in a stuttering cough.
At least one of the rounds connected with the man on the left, behind the machine gun; she saw a brief flash of pink, and his head snapped back awkwardly. His companion went stiff, tried to get to her feet, and pitched forward off the building. It was a six story fall, but she was out of frame long before.
The gun swiveled aimlessly, pointing at nothing.
Verne lowered her ears and tried to put the scene out of her memory. Next target. Then -- that's good. Think in terms of targets. As the minutes ticked by she marked them dispassionately, broadcasting guidance to the appropriate squad leaders.
Her radio was a mess: "Contact! Left eleven!" "Badger Three-Six, this is Badger Three-One -- taking heavy incoming fire, here!" "Man down! Man down!" "Where's the goddamned air cover?"
"Private!" The last message had come from Ajibola, over the radio; now he was shouting at her directly, across the intersection. "Mind getting the flyboys to do their fucking jobs?"
She switched her radio over to the Strix's channel. "Talon Seven, this is Badger Three-Niner, message, over."
The response from Keleman was immediate and urgent -- they could hear what was going on but were powerless to intervene. "Talon Seven, send, over."
"Badger Three-Niner, we're heavily engaged here. Are you available for support? Over."
"Talon Seven, ah, negative." She looked up; the Strix was a dark, menacing form, circling like a shark. "From up here, we're having trouble sorting targets. Your shooters are well mixed with the civilian population. Over."
So much for that. "Badger Three-Niner, understood. Over."
"Talon Seven. Uh, downrange from your position is a street market. Was pretty busy, before the shooting started. You might want to watch your fire a little. Though -- wait one. It's hard to tell exactly, but I think your aggressors are withdrawing back to the secure zones east of Objective Echo. Over."
Verne tapped her holographic map and added a quick note. "Badger Three-Niner, I will pass that along. Anything else, over?"
"Talon Seven, negative; we'll stand by for further instructions. Out."
From the threat picture, the alleyway she and Victor were guarding was now clear. Verne steeled herself, tensed her legs, and sprinted across the intersection to join Ajibola behind a heavy metal skip, filled with construction rubbish. "They're too close to the civvies, sergeant. The Strix can't separate them from altitude, except to say they might be pulling back. Keleman says we're also shooting towards a crowded market."
Ajibola grimaced. "Zem -- watch your fire," he shouted over the din.
Selam's Cerberus roared in answer. "Bite me, sergeant! They have to start watching theirs first." The intersection was still receiving fire from down the street; a hapless autobus had stalled in the intersection, behind them, and its side was so shredded with holes it looked like a cheese grater.
"C&S says you're shooting towards civilians."
Zemzem ducked back around the corner; her eyes were wild, and her hair, above her goggles, was soaked with sweat. "C&S can bite me, too."
He shook his head. "C&S just might. Ease off a bit, Zem. We --"
Verne's map pulsed with a new emitter -- a laser, transmitting with a unique sequence. Her eyes narrowed, trying to puzzle it out -- then there was an IR flash on her map and she shouted a warning by reflex, cutting the sergeant off. She could see the rocket with perfect clarity -- a glowing red dot, drifting lazily towards them. She could almost see the straight line of its travel, from the smoke-shrouded launcher to its impact point.
It slammed into the side of the skip and the metal shuddered next to her. The explosion ripped the air from around them -- there was no sensation of sound, just a percussive hammer blow so forceful that it took a moment for the dog to recover her senses, and another to realize she was still alive.
But it could've been worse, she knew -- the skip's side was shredded from the fragmentation round, but the contents of the bin had absorbed most of the destruction. A directed charge might've punched a hole all the way through it -- or worse, transmitted the energy of the blast through to the metal of the far side. Spalled pieces of the skip's wall would've been just as deadly as any shrapnel.
Selam's gun was back in action, now, and Ajibola had to shout to be heard over it. "Pulling back, private?"
Verne shook her head, and called up her map. Her ears were ringing, and it was difficult to find the clarity to sort through the data. She could see what Keleman had meant -- the little dots that represented likely enemies did seem to be drifting away from them. "Slowly. They're covering their retreat pretty well..."
But Keleman's observation had been largely correct. The volume of fire dwindled, and for her part Selam's Ceberus began firing in shorter and shorter bursts. Verne chalked this latter up, at first, to the ebbing tempo of the battle, but then Selam twisted around, shouting across the street: "Dennis! Some ammo would be nice over here!"
Dennis Scott had been half a block away when the firefight started; now he was with Victor Ramirez, guarding the far side of the intersection. He produced a large box magazine, and then frowned -- the street was too wide to toss it safely. When he glanced to Ajibola, the sergeant beckoned him over, and Verne watched Scott's jaw set for a moment before he started to sprint towards them.
He made it halfway through the intersection before suddenly twisting in midair, skidding to a halt on the tarmac. The crackle of a burst of weapons fire hit them a second later. The dog glanced to her map, trying to make sense of it, but the sounds had echoed too many times off the surrounding buildings and the computer could only narrow down the source to within a ten-degree range.
Ajibola, for his part, was locked to the sight of his rifle. "Where did that come from? Did anybody see where that came from?"
"No muzzle flash or anything. Little fucks have been hiding in the office building at one-nine-four." Selam swung her Cerberus in that direction, and seemed to consider firing for a moment on general principle.
Verne tried another filter on the data, without much to show for it. "They could've come from there. But the Strix wasn't watching that area... we only have our passive sensors, and acoustics aren't good where we are right now."
She caught a scuffling sound; in the median, Dennis was trying to get back to his feet. "Fuck -- Scott, stay down!" Ajibola punched the wall of the skip in frustration, hard, and then shook his head. "You two, cover me."
The dog grabbed her carbine, trying to ignore the adrenaline now flooding her system. She had never shot at anything in anger -- had, in fact, not fired a live rifle since basic training. Then the sergeant was leaving the cover of the skip; Verne set her jaw, brought the gun up by reflex, and tried to match her C&S map to the view down the gun barrel.
There was little activity -- most of the civilians had, she guessed, fled or taken cover. Her eyes flicked to every bit of movement -- blown pieces of debris, mostly. She saw someone poke their head up from the shattered window of the office Selam had mentioned, and squeezed the trigger instinctively.
Nothing happened; the safety was still on, and by the time she had flipped it off the figure was gone. From the corner of her eye, she could see that Ajibola had Scott by the shoulder, and was dragging him back to safety. Dust and bits of asphalt kicked up again; now Verne had a good angle to see the lone man on the roof of an adjacent building. This time, when she pulled the trigger the gun kicked in her grasp like a living thing, and the man ducked back and out of sight.
Her radio chimed, and Verne was so focused that she jerked in surprise. "Talon Seven to whoever's engaged south of the roundabout on State Street, do you read me? Over."
She felt around for the microphone switch. "Talon Seven, this is Badger Three-Niner, go ahead. Over."
"Talon Seven. What's going on down there? It looks like you have a man down. Over."
"Badger Three-Niner. Affirmative, we have one wounded. Ah, it's Private Scott. We're taking fire from the rooftop of a building, bearing one-niner-niner. Wait one." She called her map up, and added a quick note. "Sending a UDL packet. Target building is spotlight Yankee Three Delta. Over."
Almost directly above her, the Strix slowed, nosing up as it edged into a hover. "Talon Seven, tally. I have a firing solution on your shooters. Looks like two men, one with a rifle, one with... maybe a rocket launcher? Over."
Well, that was another mystery solved. Ajibola and Scott were back behind the skip; the former was frantic and tense, trying to find the catches on Scott's suit. "Sergeant," she told him -- his head jerked up and he looked at her warily. "The Strix says they can see who's shooting, and they have a firing solution."
"Jesus -- what are they waiting for? Take 'em out."
Verne nodded. "Badger Three-Niner. Talon Seven, you're clear to engage. Over."
The Strix's machine gun opened up with the sound of an operating saw; the roof of the building disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Then the fire stopped, and a moment later she heard Keleman confirm that the target had been neutralized. He sounded, more than anything, happy that he had been able to help; Verne shut her eyes for a moment, and told herself that, at least, she hadn't pulled the trigger.
In the aftermath of the Strix's attack the world was eerily quiet, broken only by a series of soft oaths from Dennis, whose armor plate Ajibola had now largely removed. The inside of the ceramic was covered in blood, which dripped down the sides to pool on the ground below.
"Luck," Ajibola said, pressing a bandage to Scott's side. "That's what it was. Armor got most of it, but I think one of the bullets punched right through the articulation point between two of the plates. One in a thousand shot."
Dennis groaned; he was panting softly through gritted teeth. "I don't... feel... lucky."
"I never said you were. They were. For a minute or so, anyway. You got the shit end of the stick, private."
"How bad is it? I can't... I can't really see, 'cause you're in the way..."
Ajibola shrugged. "I don't know. I'm not a doctor." He turned to the dog. "Private -- hey, are you a doctor?"
There was something about the sight -- and the smell -- of blood that made Verne squeamish. She forced herself to look for a moment at Scott; Ajibola had gotten his shirt off, and most of his pale torso was stained red. "You'll be fine," she muttered, glancing sideways at him. "Probably be good for the next drop. It's just a --" her radio clicked, and she held up her paw, looking away, grateful for the distraction.
"This is Usher. Show's over, guys. The bus home leaves in one-zero minutes. Landing zone is point Bravo Six Alpha on your maps -- let's get out of here before anybody changes their mind. Out."
"LT, this is Ajibola. I have a man down here. We can get him self-mobile, but it's going to take us more than ten minutes. Over."
"Stay where you are. I'll have a Guard truck sent to your location. ETA... What? Don't shake your head at me, you fuck, this is your fault. Wait one, Ajibola."
Verne blinked, and the three exchanged glances; with the radio off, Ajibola shook his head. "Always causing me problems, Scott."
"Sorry, boss. Wasn't on purpose. Oh, man, if my dad knew the way they treated us..."
"Your dad," Selam called over her shoulder, "is all talk, and no fucking action." Scott grunted, and started to say something, but the radio clicked on again.
"This is Usher. Ajibola, we have a Guard gravidyne moving to your position. ETA five minutes. Load up and get to the LZ as quickly as you can. Out."
"You know something," Scott mumbled. "I think that round cut out my suit's casualty support system."
"Isn't there supposed to be integrated... antithet... athanes... ansa... shit. Painkillers, right? I don't think it's working, sergeant."
Ajibola grabbed the man's arm, and ran a quick diagnostic. "It's working fine, private," he said, quietly.
"Then it doesn't do any fucking good."
He was starting to drift; Ajibola's response met with a slurred oath, and the sergeant didn't make any effort to press the issue. Scott was unconscious by the time the gravidyne pulled up next to them, floating silently a half-meter from the ground. When the squad was safely embarked, and the armored hatchway was closed behind them, Ajibola let out a long sigh. "Thank the gods..."
"Sorry about that, guys." A man with a short rifle and the uniform of the Jefferson National Guard was nodding to them, glancing down at Dennis Scott's prone form. "He gonna be okay?"
"Probably," Ajibola said tiredly. "What are you sorry about?"
The Guardsman was young and fresh-faced; only a light trace of stubble suggested he was old enough to be holding his carbine. His rank indicator showed him to be a private, new to the service -- outranked even by Verne, Scott and Ramirez, whose drop training had entailed a promotion to private, first class. "This mess. It wasn't supposed to go like that. It's these damned Minutemen, you can't... can't ever be too careful."
"Yeah, we..." He looked at Verne sharply. "Are you a... dog?"
Selam snorted. "Yeah. I think it heard about our stick, an' nobody ever told it we weren't talking about the kind you throw."
"I dunno," the young man said, glancing between Selam and Verne. "It just seems weird."
Verne decided not to rise to the bait. "Minutemen?"
"I... Uh. Fine. Neighborhood watch. There's a lot of crime out in these cities. Police are completely ineffective, 'cause they're corrupt. So, you get these neighborhood groups, called Minutemen. Paramilitaries. They think they own the cities. When the real authorities roll in -- like the Guard -- we sometimes fight. Well. Often fight. The central government doesn't have a whole lot of control in Lincoln City."
"So they shot at us thinking we were you."
He nodded. "Yeah, I think so, sergeant. Once they figured it out, they put out a ceasefire on their net pretty quickly. Nobody wants to pick a fight with CODA. That's why you're here, after all... help us get our job done. Plus..." He nodded at Scott's body. "You really think he's going to be okay?"
"He'll be fine."
"Oh, good. Then, uh, plus, it's like... you guys are kind of lucky. Us?" He plucked at his uniform, and then rapped his chest once. "It's fabric armor. Good for dissipating light rounds -- spreads the energy real well. But if I'd gotten hit with one of those bullets? Hell, sergeant, half of me'd be in one place, and half in another. It's real ugly, urban ops out here. I hate it."
"Watch yourself, private." This admonition came from the gravidyne's driver, who turned around as the vehicle pulled to a stop. "But, hey, CODA?"
Ajibola turned, raising an eyebrow. "Corporal?"
The driver looked over the squad, and then nodded. "Thanks. It is good to have you guys around."
They unloaded Scott carefully; he stirred, glancing around, and gave a mumbled, unintelligible curse. Usher shook his head at the sight, waving them onto the Strix. When they were airborne again, Verne slumped against her straps. She was utterly drained -- not physically tired, but the life had been sapped from her. She looked weakly at the computer on her arm, checking the time.
They had spent less than an hour on the ground.
"So what did you think of your first time in combat, pup?"
She was sitting on the edge of a bed in the Kirishima's sickbay; Christopher Neumann and Dennis Scott had proven to be the platoon's only casualties. "I didn't... I didn't actually do a whole lot of thinking," Verne admitted. "Mostly it all happened by instinct. What happened to you?"
"Sniper." Chris shrugged, and then winced. "Oof. Gotta remember not to do that. Somebody was watching us, I guess. Moved up a block, no problem. Moved up one more, no problem. Last block... felt like God Himself punched me in the shoulder."
"Through the suit?"
"No. Unfortunately. Dislocated my left shoulder, and..." He took the sleeve of the loose-fitting hospital gown and pulled it up, revealing a massive, angry bruise in the exact shape of the armor plate.
Verne grimaced sympathetically. "Did they tell you how long it'll take to recover?"
"No, not exactly." He closed his eyes, sinking back into the bed. "You know, my insurance doesn't cover painkillers after the hospital stay. I got a cheap plan, 'cause I'm stupid. Don't do that, pup -- what's your plan, anyway?" He opened one eye to look at her.
"I have to have the most expensive one, because of my... unique physiology. I mean, that's what the representative said. I'm sure they were just trying to pad their commission. But I have a high-end plan, at least. If something happens."
"Good. It's worth it." Closing the eye again, Chris sighed through pursed lips. "If I don't move, it's not too bad. But I think I'm going to take my hostile activity bonus and buy a lot of medicine. A lot, pup."
"Might not be a bad idea. If you want to sleep, or anything."
He shook his head, very slightly. "No, it's not a bad idea. I just wish I'd thought of it earlier. Jules, can I ask you a question?"
Verne tilted her head, and her ears quirked attentively. "Sure."
Christopher paused, and chewed on his lip for a second. He looked at her closely; his eyes were blue, like the dog's own, but soft and, in the light, slightly tender. "I guess..." he began, trailing off. "I'm a little surprised you came to visit me. You know, after the dance, you didn't really... you were kind of avoiding me, I thought. I know I was a little... I mean, I'm sorry for being so... So... whatever I was."
Julie blinked, and her ears lowered. "Oh. That. It wasn't your fault, Chris. I was trying to make sense of some things."
She fidgeted and looked away. Her employers had always made it abundantly clear that honesty was the best -- only -- policy to be followed, where people were concerned, but it was proving difficult. "I enjoy being with you. And... when Corporal Selam barged in on us, it felt... strange. I sort of felt a bit like I was doing something forbidden. Kind of... guilty? And then I felt guilty about feeling guilty, and then... I meant to apologize to you this morning, but we dropped. And I didn't have the chance."
He felt around for her paw, and gave it a squeeze. "There's probably not too much to feel guilty about," he suggested softly. "If you don't mind it. I don't mind it, pup."
Verne smiled, in her own doggish fashion. "It's one of those things that's easier said than done, I think. I have a lot of... I'm carrying a lot of weight, from my previous existence."
She nodded. "People say that one of the things they do in basic training is they... they knock you down so they build you back up again as something different."
"Part of a team. Or a family, maybe."
"Sure. But they need to do that because most of their recruits are like clay. They're malleable; nobody's ever tried to make them into something before. Me, I spent my entire life being indoctrinated one way. You know, I didn't even know how to use the first person in my speech until about four years ago. I always understood that I was different -- inferior. And when you're inferior, they can tell you anything, and you'll believe it. They lied a lot -- history, biology, sociology, you name it."
He squeezed her paw again, warmly. "So why the guilt?"
"They told us that attraction -- real affection, anyway -- was a purely human behavior. They said that what we felt, as animals, was more primitive -- just a desire to reproduce. Mating instinct. And then they said that physical intimacy was deeply unpleasant -- painful and awkward -- so we should have a very good reason to subject ourselves to it."
"But you know, that's not quite true."
"I don't know it, but I'm starting to guess," she agreed. "And I want to be close to you. You make me feel very comfortable, Chris. Safe. Happy, even. But none of those were ever covered in my classes, and they go directly against what I was told. And..." She gave him a vulnerable, slightly quirky grin. "Please don't take this the wrong way, Chris, but I don't actually want you to father pups with me. I presume you feel the same way."
He laughed. "It is jumping the gun a bit."
"I don't know what people like Zemzem would think if they saw us together, like we were a couple days ago. But then again, I'm also not entirely certain that I care -- at least not as much as I used to. That's my long-winded way of explaining why I came to visit you. Because... I like you, and I wanted to see if you were okay."
Chris sighed again -- this time it sounded relieved, and he smiled at her gently. "Would you do me a favor? Come closer..." His voice had dropped; she leaned in to listen, and when she was close enough Chris lifted his head, and kissed the tip of the dog's muzzle. His lips were warm, and soft, and he held himself there for a second or two before he fell back to the pillow with a chuckle. "I've wanted to do that for awhile. I was wondering if your nose would be cold."
Verne lifted her free paw to it, touching her nosepad lightly with an outstretched finger; it seemed ever so slightly to be tingling. "I guess."
"Well, I don't mind. It's not something you can help, anyway."
"No." She paused, and then, as if helpless, lowered her head and licked the man's face once -- before drawing back suddenly at his shocked expression. Her ears pinned, and she put her paw over her muzzle with a nervous half-bark of surprise. "I'm sorry. I don't know what --"
Chris laughed. "No... it's okay. What's good for the goose, and all that... I just wasn't expecting it."
Mollified, she let her paw fall away. "Oh."
"Well, it's the truth. Close to it, anyway -- you don't want the actual truth; I know that much. Or at least, you never have before."
"What's the actual truth?"
"The truth, Jules, is that I find pretty much everything about you adorable. There's a lot of things you do that nobody else would, so... if I want to see them, it's pretty clear who I have to go to."
"Because I'm a dog, mostly."
He let her paw go, lifting his hand up to brush the fur of her muzzle thoughtfully. "Maybe. I don't think of it like that, exactly. It's sort of a win-win situation for you, though, pup, right?" She lifted an eyebrow, and Chris snickered. "Yeah. If it turns out that I just have a thing for dogs, well. You think you've got emotional baggage. Hell, I could give you a run for your money, in that case."
Verne grinned. "That's true. It's not a popular inclination."
"No. But I like to think that's not it, anyway. I like to think that it's because I want you to be who you are without all the... the training and the indoctrination about how you're supposed to behave. It bothers me a lot that you feel people are so... well. That people are so judgmental."
"And you don't care what they think?"
"No. Why the hell would I? You know what I've learned, pup? This is something I'm sure they didn't teach you at your corporate academy. I've learned that people aren't assholes about a single thing, they're just assholes. Zemzem doesn't really give a shit if she thinks I actually want to marry a dog. She just wants to be a dick. If it wasn't that, she'd be on my case about how I suck at cricket and I'd rather play with my microdrones. If you weren't a dog, she'd be -- do you play cricket? Do you play anything?"
Chris made a face. "Zem would definitely make fun of you for that. Hell, I might, for that matter. What, are you gunning for OCS? Oh, Christ, that's another thing. If you weren't a dog, Zem would be judging you for being such a perfect little cadet. You can't win with judgmental people, Jules. You just have to play without 'em."
There was such fierceness in his voice, such genuine passion, that Julie was unable to doubt his sincerity; her tail thumped softly against the hospital bed. "You have a way with words..."
"You have a way with body language," he teased. "I don't think I've ever seen a dog look so excited."
"I might have to lick your face again," she admitted, and when he shrugged she did so. Leaning in close, she bathed him with her broad, flat tongue until, laughing, he pushed her away with his good arm.
"Hey, hey. I'm trying to convalesce, here."
She wrinkled her nose, and felt her left ear droop -- but her grin remained, and her tail was still wagging. "Right. Sorry. I guess you looked pretty tired when I came in -- I can let you sleep..."
"Just for a bit. But will you promise me something, pup?"
"I can try..."
"Be like that more often?"
"I can try that, too."
"Good," he laughed, and then took a deep breath. "I'll come see you when they let me out, then." He gave her paw another squeeze and then let go, grinning as she slipped from the bed to regain her feet. At the door, she turned, and he waved. "See you soon, pup..."
There was a spring in the dog's step as she padded down the hall, until the electronic panel on the adjacent room caught her eye -- "SCOTT, D." and then a serial number. Her ears flicked back, momentarily, but in her chipper mood the dog felt conciliatory, and she decided that paying him a visit couldn't hurt. In the best scenario, perhaps they could clear some of the unpleasantness between them; in the worst, he would simply send her away, in which case nothing changed.
Close to the hatch, she could hear a muffled voice from within; she paused, and cocked her ears to listen. "-- erase everything. Hey dad; I bet you can't guess where I'm writing you from. I... no. Computer, pause and erase everything. Hi dad. Remember how you told me to keep my head down when I enlisted? You used to remind me of that time in Little League when the pitcher clocked me in the head? Well, as it turns out, you were right and I was wrong. Again. Like always." Dennis sighed. "Fuck. Computer, pause and erase everything. Hello, dad. Remember when you said to join up, and you told me that every Scott was a decorated veteran? Well, good news is, I finally won a fucking medal for you. Computer, pause and erase everything."
He sighed a second time; Verne was torn between a desire not to violate his privacy and the desire to speak to him while her good mood lasted. She reached up to knock at the door, and just before her paw touched it he began talking again; now his voice was level and even.
"Hello, sir. Probably, by now, CODA has informed you what happened. I hope you're not too worried, and that mom is not stressed. I'm doing fine now. They say it was quite minor, actually, although the lucky scarf that Ellen knitted is now somewhat discolored and for my part I'm glad I am a universal recip... computer, pause and erase last sentence. They say that I will recover soon enough, and I intend to do the Scott legacy proud by rejoining my platoon in advance of our next deployment. So you see, it's not too serious here. I hope you all are having a good day. Please, give everyone my regards. Computer, end dictation and send message."
The room was silent; she moved to knock once more, and as she did, there was a sharp, choking oath and the thud of something striking the wall at high speed and clattering to the floor. Verne waited, closing one eye in thought, and then knocked again.
"Come in," Scott said softly. She clicked the door open and slipped inside; Scott lifted an eyebrow, and then shut his eyes wearily. "Oh, boy. Hello."
"Hi." The computer he had been using was face-down on the floor; she picked it up carefully and set it on the table next to his bed. "How are you feeling?"
"Did the LT send you? Or McArdle?"
"I came on my own."
Scott shook his head. "I know they like you for some reason. Always have. I've never seen them take to somebody new like that. Did you fuck 'em? Was that how it --"
"A blowjob, at least? Because I figure, with that long nose of yours you're probably --"
"No," she cut him off again. Her mood was starting to fade. "No, Dennis, I make friends the same way you do -- a smile and a winning personality."
Scott eyed her closely; finally, resigned, the animosity seemed to drain from him. "Look, I... I'm sorry. It's just been a... a long day, that's all."
"That's not quite it," she offered. "There's a difference between a long day and a day where you get shot. Do they have you on nice drugs, at least?"
He laughed hollowly. "Oh, yeah, there's a silver lining to every cloud. Fortunately, I guess, the bullet pretty much missed everything that was vital in favor of everything that was just painful. What are you down here for? Did you get out okay? No scratches? Sprained ankles?"
"Not really. I'll tell you a story, though. You don't think I should be here, do you? I mean, in the platoon. Or the service, or whatever."
For a moment, Scott paused, looking as though he was trying to figure out if he was being set up. "No. I don't... like... I'm not racist. But... you were meant to do something, it's as simple as that, and this isn't it."
At least, Verne decided, he's honest. "No, it's a good point. It's not what I was meant to do. Now, I wear a model 3 Europan suit -- 'cause it's light, and I need the spare capacity for the C&S computers. But they weren't really designed for my body, so it doesn't fit quite right." She rolled her uniform sleeve up, turning her elbow to him. "See, I'm supposed to have fur here. But the suit pinches it, and every time I move my arm, it pulls the fur out. So I'm going bald. I think the suit may be telling me the same thing you are."
"And you're looking for... what, pity?"
Julie shook her head. "No, I'm just telling you something. You seemed to want me to be hurt in some way... and I am, a little. It's not pleasant. Mine is a part of the job, though. I put up with it because I have to, I guess."
"You sound like my dad."
"You don't normally compliment me, so I take it that's not a good thing."
"Well. Parents, you know?" Scott glanced briefly over to the computer.
The dog's ears dropped. "Not especially. I was born in something they call a parturition matrix; I never saw my parents. If I had any. Then I was raised communally, in the loving bosom of a Silicon Valley corporation. I never really had a family in the same way you do."
"It's not all it's cracked up to be. They get you by the throat. My dad's always on about stoicism and the virtue of sacrifice and the duty of service and everything. All the fucking propaganda lines you hear from CODA or AAI or any of the big PMCs. He offered to pay for my university education, but only if I'd put in a term with one of the military units. Then he insisted it had to be a combat unit, and then he reminded me that him and his father and his grandfather had all been marines. And here I am -- serving proudly." The bitterness in his voice was unmistakable.
"Can you transfer, after this?" She gestured with her paw at the hospital bed.
"Not serious enough. It's good for six credits, but I'm still eight short. After this cruise, maybe. If I make it. You know, the LT has a reputation for being safe. Simple, easy missions with a low TC, that's the name of the game. I think he's finally giving up on that."
"Haven't you seen his tat? He's red ink." She arched an eyebrow. "It's a corporate term, I guess. He has a negative balance -- karmic and otherwise. Scuttlebutt is he got into debt and tried to make up the money selling his company's designs to their competitors. Nobody'll hire him, so he's just treading water -- or he used to be. Suddenly he's all gung ho. Trying to make a name for himself; rehabilitate his criminal ass. You know last mission, we got that bonus for turning up those guns?"
Curious, her eyes narrowed. "Yeah?"
"He fucking dumped that money into Fran's Strix. They're putting a weapons bundle on it, same shit as we dropped with today -- for all the good it did us. He wants to raise the platoon's ATAQ so we can take more serious missions. The pay's better -- there's more prestige, too. And who do you suppose is going to get hurt? Him? Nah. It's us. You want to learn a lesson about humanity? The one thing we're good at -- the thing we have all the practice in -- is fucking each other."
"Probably not the only thing..."
Scott bit his lip, stifling a derisive snort. "Yeah. Paella. We make a good paella, too. So that, and fucking each other." He swallowed heavily. "I thought I was gonna die down there, you know that? Maybe you don't care. You probably never had some Dog Jesus spoon-feeding you bullshit about an afterlife. But I thought I was gonna die, and you know what I felt? I felt angry."
"Because it --"
"Because it's not worth anything. We're not down there to protect any fucking civilians or restore any fucking order. We're down there because some fat, happy businessmen in New Philadelphia thought he might see a two point zero... five zero one... seven... eight... fucking... percent... drop in his profits if they had to deal with the west coast. And Cho wants to make general, and Freeman wants to make colonel, and the LT wants to make captain, and you want to make believe you're a human being, which you're not, and you know what I want to make? I want to make it the fuck home, that's what I want." Diatribe over for the moment, he slumped back, his hands balled into fists that bunched up the starched sheets.
"Everyone wants that," she said softly. Much of the interest she had felt surrounding the act of combat itself had vanished in the first moments of the firefight in Lincoln City, and what remained had disappeared the first time she had fired her rifle. "And I don't really want to be human, you know."
"You sure act like it. If you don't want to be human, what the hell are you even doing here?"
"I wanted to be something more than what I was."
Scott threw his hand up in exasperation, letting it fall with a dull thud on the bed. "So why here? You don't have to prove yourself to anybody. You don't have to come in and fuck everything over. Show everybody up. Fuck, nobody's stupid. Our squad got credit for the bounty last mission, but we all know who was really behind it. I mean, is that what you wanted? Congratulations, you're a better human than any of us."
Verne drew her ears back slightly at his perverse antipathy. "I wasn't really trying to prove..."
"Of course you were. Why the hell else would you be wearing that fucking ridiculous uniform? The rest of us... we have to do this. Oh, I know they say it's voluntary, but it sure as hell ain't if you don't have the money to buy your citizenship. If we want to make anything of ourselves, work in a big company or go for office or anything, and we don't have a sponsor to foot the bill? We have to enlist. You don't. You're just a goddamned dog. So why the fuck would you do it, if you weren't trying to prove you were just like us, except better? Or you've got some noble mission to win your people's freedom by showing how much you really care. Well, shit," he spat. "We're not much to look up to, and there is no noble mission. And you don't have to be so fucking pious -- coming in here acting like the platoon morale officer. 'How are you feeling?' Aw, fuck you. I'm shitty, dog. I've got a hole punched through my side, I'm doped up on chemicals I can't even pronounce, and I'm going to die on that fucking rock even though I shouldn't even be here."
His voice had raised to a shout, by the end, and the machine at his side marked the steady rise in his heartrate. The dog kept her ears back, and tried to choose her words carefully. Having the emotional lows of others taken out on her was not particularly novel; she had experience in coping with it. "I'm not trying to be your friend, Dennis, and I'm not trying to be... I don't know, better than you, whatever that means. Would it make you happier if it was selfish? Because we're going to have to rely on each other, down there, and I figure it's best if you don't hate me, that's all."
Dennis sighed. He turned, looking past her at the wall, and he didn't meet her eyes when he spoke again. "I don't hate you," he finally managed. "I just hate what you stand for. It's... it's complicated." His voice had softened; he sighed again, and reached out his arm to brush his hand over the battered computer. "Look. You caught me at a bad time. I... would you mind leaving, please?"
The dog tilted her head, and then nodded gently. "Sure. I'll see you soon, then. Back at the barracks."
"Yeah," he murmured. She stepped back to the door, and was pressing the handle to open it when his voice caught; she turned to see him straighten up, jaw set. "Look, uh... maybe you should go to the infirmary, and get some bandages."
"Yeah. Before your next drop. If you wrap them around your arm, where the suit joints are? I bet it'll keep your fur from catching. Just... just an idea."
Verne smiled, inclined her head, and stepped through the door.
The mood in the barracks, when she returned, was less jubilant than it had been after the previous mission. The marines were tense -- even though Chris and Dennis were not seriously injured, their absence was a keen reminder that the situation on the ground had become fraught and hostile. They had yet to hear anything about the drop beyond rumor; the jokes were nervous, and the laughter she heard was braying and forced.
Usher finally emerged from his office, rapping the metal bulkhead with his empty thermos to call them to order. "Alright, folks. I need Horvat, McArdle, Pisano, Verne, and the squad and section leaders over here. The rest of you are dismissed." They found seats and gathered around; when they had settled down, Usher spun a chair backwards and dropped into it, resting his hands on the back. "I'm sorry this took so long; I needed to get debriefed by Freeman, and he was waiting for the Guard. The topline summary from CODA is that the mission objectives were successfully completed despite certain setbacks occasioned by mechanical failure in the company. We got out with seven dead and twenty-one wounded -- two in our unit, as you know, and the remainder in Lieutenant Argus Quezada's platoon. Jim?"
"How bad of shape are they in?"
Usher sighed, his cheeks puffing. "They lost half their air crew. Quezada himself just suffered a concussion, I hear, but their platoon sergeant, two of their squad leaders, their assistant mechanic and one of the squad machine gunners were killed in the crash. Freeman has pulled the platoon, for now. We may be reinforced with Fourth Platoon, D Company of the 26th, but it depends on how quickly we need to deploy in force. For us, we should be okay -- Private Verne, the doctor said you just stopped by sickbay? How are Neumann and Scott faring?"
She was aware of the others' eyes focusing on her, and shifted uncomfortably. "They're both fine, mostly. Shook up, but... they should be back with us in the next couple of days, I'd guess."
"Within reason, sir."
Usher nodded. "Fair enough. As far as our performance, we did quite well, all things considered. After the loss of Quezada's ship, we took about ten minutes to get into position and were successful in securing the two main arteries leading to the crash site. Haruki, your squad was instrumental in shutting down Harbor Street and the Lincoln Plaza ULR Station on extremely short notice. Not one train got through after we landed. Did you have any problems with the station agents?"
Hiroshi shook his head. "No, sir. They were reasonably cooperative -- it helps that it was during the middle of the business day, so only limited trains were being run anyway."
"Good. Um. Bourne, you had a bit of a more interesting go. Our analysis now suggests you were being opposed by Lincoln City militia forces at platoon strength, spread through a range of about six blocks. They had the element of surprise and of environmental knowledge, so the limited success they had in probing our perimeter is indicative of our ability to project force effectively. Sergeant Ajibola's squad was heavily engaged for most of the duration of our landing... our casualties were light, and they didn't seem to want to stick around, but to be honest I really think we got lucky. Kabiru?"
"We did get lucky," Ajibola agreed. "They were in close. Our C&S did well in sorting targets, but that's because they were on-site with my squad. We got lucky there, too. The report from the Strix was that they weren't able to make heads or tails of it -- if C&S was supporting us from your position, sir, I think we would've taken more serious casualties."
Fran Horvat cracked her knuckles, and then splayed her fingers, palms upward in an apologetic shrug. "We're orbiting at four hundred kilometers an hour. We have to stay near enough to the ground to see things clearly... but we also have to have enough altitude to watch the entire operational zone. Plus, the high-res sensor can only sweep eighty degrees at a time. It's a delicate balance, and in those conditions..."
"I'm not blaming you, chief. You saved our ass at least once. But it's something to consider, LT -- we're blind in urban ops."
"I'm half-blind, myself," Verne added. "Acoustics is one of the easiest ways to triangulate incoming activity, when we're not being actively pinged. In those alleyways, though, it's almost impossible. I have to write new sorting algorithms every time I reposition myself, and on short notice it's hard to do them right."
Usher grunted. "Well, this was definitely on short notice. Suggestions? Corporal Baldetti?"
"Drones. We need unmanned drones for visibility in those conditions. Hell, we could hear Ajibola getting chewed up without any way to see if we could support."
"Drones are a good idea," McArdle agreed. "We should see if Santa Claus's magic reindeer are available, too..."
"Sorry, LT, but we have to be realistic about what they'll actually let us ship with."
Verne raised her paw. "If we have a good sense of our area of operations, and a decent three-dimensional map of the area with material modeling, best-guess filters could be written beforehand. I don't think we'd get perfect accuracy, but it would be better than nothing."
Usher nodded. "We'll have to start doing that. This is a critical vulnerability for us. We also have reports of collateral damage. Urban operations, guys... I know it's tough, but the platoon's insurance only covers a handful of dead civvies or destroyed property before it starts coming out of our pocket. It was in a crowded area, and I know our SA was bad... but Kabiru, your squad put sixteen hundred rounds into the side of a bank."
"Anybody get killed?"
"Thankfully, no. Mostly minor injuries, and in the confusion I think the Jefferson government is going to blame the militias. But we can't always be guaranteed of that. Verne, I don't know if it's pre-calculating your filters or what, but we have to be more precise next time."
She nodded, and started to answer, but Bourne spoke up first. "Due respect, sir -- it's our fault on the trigger, not hers. It was a shit show on the line there, sir, and that was some of the best C&S work I've seen. I think Muhammet and Ajibola would both agree."
Kabiru nodded. "No, it's true. I'd say half a dozen times that's where the intel for a kill came from -- on time, accurate, and under fire. If we're counting bodies, C&S takes credit for at least a third of ours, maybe more."
Verne flicked her ears -- to hear it stated so blatantly was a bit unnerving. She had managed to avoid thinking too much about the battle itself, because the recollection was still too fresh; she feared, in part, that if she closed her eyes she would see the tumbling body of the woman she'd helped Ramirez to gun down.
She didn't want it to be such a terrible thing that she was proving herself competent -- that had, at one point, been her goal. But it was a little uncomfortable -- the moreso when Horvat added her agreement, giving the dog credit for the men on the rooftop, even though the fierce hail of the Strix's machine gun (six thousand rounds a minute! she could hear Naser brag; the dog shivered with the memory) could've left nothing alive there anyway.
"Either way," Usher said, drawing their focus back, "we just need to make sure we're on top of things. It's quite possible that we're going to have to be doing more of this. I know you don't want to hear it, but New Philadelphia hired us to assist them in suppressing the activity of people just like the ones we faced today."
"More city ops, LT?"
"I couldn't bet against it, Mayer, let's put it that way. If the militias don't ease up, they're liable to declare martial law." The men groaned, and Usher raised a hand to quiet them. "Freeman doesn't necessarily think that's in the cards yet. But if it happens, we have to be ready for it. There'll be more of these operations; more chances to screw up. Jim, I want you to take the lead in setting up training exercises to refresh our urban capabilities."
"Sure thing, boss. We'll start tomorrow. How long do we have until our next drop?"
"We're in rotation in thirty-six hours. Hopefully Scott and Neumann will be back by then. Losing a marksman hurts. Either way, other next steps... ah, squad leaders, work with your men on fire discipline. The last thing we need is for some schoolgirl to get clipped because one of our Cerberus jockeys got trigger-happy. And, Private Verne -- don't get too cocky. Apparently you're quite the predator, but... make sure you have contingencies so you don't get saturated. I know the high-level view's not quite as glamorous as a kill-shot, but in the long run it's what's going to keep us safe. Speaking of which, when the armorer comes by to check the gear I want you to get yourself fitted for a helmet. Have 'em cut holes for your ears, if you have to. If you're gonna be seeking out action, you need to be protected."
The dog nodded. It was easier to simply acknowledge his statement than to meditate too long on whatever glamor remained in what she had done. When Usher finished up, and dismissed them, she stayed behind, shrinking into her chair and trying to make sense of what she thought of their praise.
Would Usher understand? Or McArdle? Or Bourne? She was a newbie, after all, and they were seasoned. Gathering her wits, she left the barracks and went roaming.
Verne tracked Forster down in the mess hall; he was playing a game on a small handheld device and didn't notice her approach, at first. When he caught sight of her he stood, and licked her face before giving a quick sniff at her neck. She returned the gesture -- unlike with Chris, there was nothing particularly intimate about the greeting -- and when he indicated a seat on the opposite side of table she settled down comfortably.
"What's the word from your side of the aisle, Hakhana?"
"Busy. They're hard at work down there, you know -- I hear, at least. I guess you ruffled some feathers? The operation made the news."
"I haven't had the chance to see it, yet."
"You still smell like gunfire and GIs -- and a little blood, if I'm not mistaken."
Julie flinched, and looked at her arms; she had tried to clean up, immediately after returning, but they were still slightly dirty. Imperceptibly so, to human eyes; her fur was mostly grey anyway. But a shower had been insufficient to cleanse all of the dust and grime, and in any case Forster's sensitive nose was keen enough to pick up the remnants of the battle. "A little, yes."
"Was it exciting, at least? I've never deployed -- actually I've never been anywhere near combat. Five hundred kilometers is about the closest I get -- and it's straight down, so..."
She splayed her stubby fingers on the table, staring at the chipped surface between them for a long time. "It was... there was a lot of adrenaline, to be sure. One of the dropships crashed -- the rumor I've heard is a bad fuel converter. Killed both the engines, and they were too close to jump so they rode it in. Lot of injuries, there; seven deaths -- the platoon's out of action for awhile." She had steered the question away from Forster's intent, and hoped the shepherd didn't notice or mind.
"They pulled the ships out of mothballs on the Roddenberry and gave 'em about twenty minutes of maintenance. It's not surprising -- stupid decision, anyway. One of my friends is an accountant on the carrier, and he said it was a ten percent savings over transferring the mission equipment to the company's Strixes. Well, insurance'll pay out on the downed one, I guess."
"I guess. Our pilot gave the one they lent us a real thorough check. I don't want to know what would've happened otherwise."
Forster chuckled harshly. "Well, somebody's gotta care." That, Verne recalled, had been Fran's point of view as well. "I'm just glad you're safe, Runshana. Did you see any action? They said one of the platoons was in a pretty serious firefight -- air support and everything."
"That was us," she nodded, slightly. "I guess we ran afoul of some paramilitaries."
Verne cocked her head sharply. "How come nobody tells us these things before we drop?"
"I thought everybody knew. That's what you guys are here for, after all. Government in New Philadelphia doesn't want to have to power share with the city militias. Some of the zaibatsus, hell, they see the Minutemen as an opportunity. Or where did you think the separatists were getting their heavy weapons from, flea markets? The power struggle isn't with the miners, it's with the warlords -- neighborhood watch captains, whatever."
"They certainly seemed well armed," Julie scowled. "The National Guard didn't feel like warning us either. The guy who picked us up made it sound like as soon as the militias figured out who was shooting back, they shut up real quick. Like their real target was the Guard and their little scout gravidynes. The heavy machine guns they had would've done a number on those. Almost like... I don't know..."
Forster arched an eyebrow, his voice dry. "Like the Guard recognized an opportunity to use you to take out some of the militia, as long as you were in the neighborhood? Like they didn't bother trying to tell anybody who was involved because they wanted to rely on your firepower without having to pay mission rates for it? Oh, Runshana, don't think like that."
"I wasn't going to be quite that cynical."
"Maybe you should be." The shepherd wiggled his ears, and leaned forward. "But come on, don't keep me waiting. What was it like down there?"
"Loud," she said softly, and averted her eyes again. "And chaotic. Everything was okay for a long time, and then suddenly it just... it came apart, almost immediately. There was literally half a second, a second maybe, between when my set flashed a warning and when I heard the first round. It hit a meter away from where I was with one of the other people in the platoon. And then everything was..." Her breathing was picking up, involuntarily; she forced herself to calm down, and shook her head. "Mad. It was mad."
"Were you shot at?"
"Not directly. Somebody fired a rocket at where I was, with a handful of other soldiers."
Verne took a deep breath, aware that her fingers were curling, pressing her claws into the table. "Not at the time. I didn't really have the chance to be frightened. We were only on the surface for maybe fifty minutes, and that includes the retrieval... they worked fast, at the crash site, and... as soon as things were cleaned up we pulled out."
"Probably Captain Freeman realized you were being used by the Guard, and that helped -- ordinarily CODA doesn't run from a fight. I didn't know it was so fast, though -- from the ammunition use logs, I would've thought a couple hours."
"A lot of suppressive fire, from the machine gunners especially. We were just asked to keep anybody from approaching the crash site... we weren't going after anyone in particular."
Forster nodded. He was paying rapt attention -- for once in her life, she was the world-wise one, and the shepherd was hanging on her every word. "Did you shoot anybody?"
Julie fidgeted, rubbing the pads of her fingers together nervously. "I..." It was getting harder to breathe again; she took a moment to calm herself. He wasn't deliberately making her uncomfortable, after all, just curious. "No. I mean, at people... once... they were shooting at us, though. I didn't have any choice. They'd just shot one of the people in my platoon, and I... I mean, I could... I could see them, so..." Her words were clipped; her voice tense.
The shepherd's big ears flicked; he reached across the table and took her paws gently. "Hey. Hey, Runshana. It's okay; calm down. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to... I guess it's still pretty raw."
"A little." She clung to his paws, squeezing them tightly, aware that -- in the hours since their return, including her brief attempt at sleep, she had been occupying her time to prevent any idle thoughts. "Mostly, it all happened by reflex. I don't know how comfortable I am with the thought I could do that reflexively. I mean, I know that's the point of all the training, because you can't... you don't really have the time to think, but..." She was panting, now, softly; her ears were pinned back, into her hair.
Forster pulled his paws away and stood up, coming around to her side of the table. He took her by the shoulder, pulling her to her feet. "Come on, Runshana. Let's get out of here..." She nodded dumbly, and let him guide her. In the dog's quarters, he took a seat at the edge of the bed, and pulled her down with him; she went pliantly, and he put an arm around her side. "You okay?"
"I don't know," she whispered. It was the truth; her panting had ebbed, and she didn't feel the need to cry, or whimper, but there seemed to be a great many emotions swirling in conflict at the edge of her consciousness. "I've been trying not to think too hard..."
"You were put in a stressful position," Forster said gently. "You know, you can't blame yourself for your emotions."
"My job is in data collection and synthesis." It was so simple; so formulaic. "I'm not supposed to kill anybody. That's not my job."
She took a deep breath. "But my job is to make it easier for everyone else in the platoon to kill people. I mean, 'accomplish the mission objectives,' or... whatever you want to call it. If the mission objective is to kill people, my job is to know exactly where they are, so that someone else can do it. In... in legal terms, that makes me an accessory, right?"
"If it was a crime, maybe."
She leaned heavily on the shepherd, as if trying to draw strength from his body heat. "It's not, because it's what we need to do. Even if it's unpleasant. I know that. But it's like I have the responsibility but none of the power. So I have the guilt, but... there's nothing I could've done, really. I... I found a couple of people on a rooftop. They'd shot at one of the riflemen in my platoon, and I told him where they were, so he could... I mean, he neutralized them, both. Which was kind of my doing, I think..."
Forster gave her a soft, comforting hug. "So you saved his life."
"I--I'm aware of the platitudes, Hakhana Kana. That's not really my point."
"Then what is your point?"
She squeezed his arm, feeling her fingers sink through the fur, rubbing at him like a stress reliever as she tried to articulate the answer. "I guess it's that I don't know what to make of myself. It's mostly just that... I... I hadn't really thought of what collections and synthesis meant before. It was all an abstraction. And now it's not. Now it's some guy getting shot in the head because I knew where he was and guided somebody else to him."
"And it bothers you?"
Julie sighed. "Maybe. I just need to be careful, I think. It's sort of what you said, when we first met. Do you remember? You were talking about the problems of humanity, and you said they had... you said they were predators, but that they spurn the hunter's code. What did you mean by that?"
"There's a certain vow that a predator owes their prey -- a respect that comes from having power over life and death. As a hunter, you should learn to take only what you can use -- it's a good rule, pragmatically as well as ethically. And you should respect that you have ended a life to further your own, because at the end of yours, the balance sheet will be pretty heavily stacked against you. Humans, though... They buy their meat at an omnimarket, from a vending machine. They have no sense of that sacrifice, or what has been given up for them."
"It's true of all killing. In antiquity, ending someone's life required brute strength, and every man who had to be a soldier was someone who couldn't be a farmer, or a potter, or a blacksmith. It was a sacrifice. Every man who died was someone who would never be a farmer -- never dig a well, never build a house, never tend an orchard. There were societies, back long ago when humans were new, for which nearly all combat was ritual. They understood what they would have to give up, so they'd... line up their armies in a menacing display of arms, and they'd settle as many of their disputes that way as they could."
"Well. We put on a good show for the colonists when we first got here, and didn't fire a shot."
"No," he agreed. "Nobody wants to kill all the time. But the humans have made it too easy -- pushing a button; pulling a trigger. Half the time, these days, it all happens on a screen. It's safer, and more effective. But it reduces the irrevocable consequences, and it makes it easier to push that button. And sometimes, Runshana, we're on the other side of the screen. A hunter understands that... I'm not sure that people do."
Frowning softly, the dog turned and pressed herself to the shepherd's side, looking up at him thoughtfully. "I guess we're predators, by birth at least -- we have the teeth for it. I understand what you're saying. I worry that I'll get too comfortable. They made a point of complimenting me, at our after-action review... one of the squad leaders said I was the best C&S specialist they'd had. I guess I'm not sure that's a good thing."
Forster made a face, and his tawny brow furrowed. "In a sense, it's worse than what I said about them. When they made us, they assigned us the most menial of their tasks, but they spared us the worst of their vices. Have you ever noticed that, Runshana? Have you ever seen a Nakath drunk, or mugging people to get the money for their next narcotic fix? Have you ever met a Nakath prostitute servicing the uplifted? How often do we kill one another?"
He nodded. "And that is one of the few things we owe our creators for. But when we spend too much time around them, we run the risk of becoming... corrupted. Losing our way. It's not that we forget what we're taught -- they indoctrinate us well. But it's not what you teach people, it's how you act -- and it's not hard to learn from their actions. So Nakath get addicted to human drugs, or become prostitutes for the consumption of men -- that's happened before. As a tool to help them kill one another, well... maybe you're the first to wear this particular uniform, but you can't say it doesn't have a long history."
"So what do I do?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "Just... try not to lose sight of what it is you're doing. If you can live with it, you can live with it; if you can't, it may be time to find a different line of work. But don't ever forget the power you have and the respect you owe the universe as a hunter. That's a start."
Julie sighed, and gave the shepherd a thankful nuzzle, resting her nose in the crook of his neck and saying nothing for a time. "I suppose I just wish I'd known what I was getting myself into. I'm sort of committed, now."
"Maybe." Forster turned to her, nosing gently at her ear. "But maybe it won't matter, anyway, Runshana. You can hope, at least."
With a quizzical tilt to her head, she leaned away from the shepherd to regard him with perked ears. "Won't matter?"
"Oh, hadn't you heard?" He shrugged. "That's the word on the wire. Corporation says that with the confiscation of the goods in the warehouses and the 'serious damage' inflicted on the militia, the mission here is winding down. That was the bulletin from an hour ago, just before lunch. Maybe we'll all be home again by next month."
Blinking, the dog rubbed thoughtfully along the back of her neck. "That doesn't make sense. The Jefferson government has been moving to crack down on the Minutemen even harder, since we've been around. At least, that's what I heard. At the review, my lieutenant made it sound like they were getting pretty close to doing something drastic."
Forster grunted. "Interesting. Not entirely surprising, though. If the Corporation doesn't want to commit, it's in their interests to make it sound like everything's going well."
"Before the drop, a few days ago, Lieutenant Usher said he had a bad feeling about the operation. I'm starting to feel it, too."
"People are always fretting about their future, Runshana. I'm sure it's nothing -- CODA stretches the truth all the damned time, but if they had reason to worry, I suspect it would've been communicated through a bit more than nervous feelings."
Julie shook her head. "I don't know..."
"What's there to know? Fine, we'll see if there's anything on the news," he shrugged, and reached behind him to slap his paw across a recessed panel. The wall across from them lit up, flickering and then resolving into the three-dimensional visage of a news anchor. She was young and attractive, and only her frown made her seem aware of the picture behind her -- a city in flames, with thick black smoke obscuring the horizon. She was mute; Forster brushed the panel again, to bring up the volume.
"... Leaving fourteen soldiers and policemen dead, with dozens injured. No arrests have been made in either incident, and with tensions rising, Governor Burrows has publicly expressed hope that the declaration will calm the volatility."
Verne's ears pricked forward, until the tips were borne down by gravity. "What declaration? Is this the only channel?"
Next to her, Forster shook his head. The image on the wall flipped like an old book; the next page animated in the form of another anchor, this one standing before an imposing marble building. "-- Curfew will take effect beginning tomorrow, and will cover the sixteen hours between nine in the evening and seven the following morning..."
The screen changed again; Verne swallowed nervously, consumed by increasing apprehension. "... -firming the expected imposition of martial law effective tomorrow. Colonial Defense forces have been deployed to the area, and are expected to supplement the outmatched National Guard in restoring order."
A final swipe brought forth a woman dressed in a military uniform that she recognized from the young Guardsman. She was older; her voice was reassuring, almost motherly. "... Calm. I cannot stress enough that this necessary -- and temporary -- order is intended first and foremost for your protection. Life will continue as before, with only a few minor disruptions to your routine. You can ask me; you can ask anyone in the National Guard or the Colonial Defense Authority. We will, with utmost conviction, tell you -- over, and over, and over again -- there is no cause for alarm. Trust us."
Verne stared straight ahead, blankly; it was all she could do to keep from screaming.