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The Price

This was a bad story in 2000. In its original version, it rightfully got rejected because it was long, turgid and tried to be far too complex. I’m still learning how to write shorts. This was an attempt to cram a novel into 12,000 words.

When John Ringo told me he expected a story from me for the Citizens anthology—a collection in which all the authors are veterans, though the stories aren’t necessarily military—I wondered if this one would work. He agreed to my query, so I dusted it off. I pretty much gutted and rewrote it thirty-five percent shorter, cut scenes, tightened some stuff up, and made it work. The concept was sound. The execution had been awful.

Both he and Baen editor Jim Minz were complimentary over it, and I got good feedback from quite a few veterans. I’ll just keep working on the concept of short fiction until I get better.

* * *

Four Jemma Two Three, Freehold of Grainne Military Forces, (J Frame Craft, Reconnaissance, Stealth), was a tired boat with a tired crew.

After two local years—three Earth years—of war with the United Nations of Earth and Space, that was no small accomplishment. Most of her sister vessels had been destroyed. That 4J23 was intact, functional, and only slightly ragged with a few “character traits” spoke well of her remarkable crew.

“I have a message, and I can’t decode it with my comm,” Warrant Leader Derek Costlow announced. The crew turned to him. This could be a welcome break from the monotony of maintenance. Jan Marsich and his sister Meka, both from Special Warfare and passengers stuck aboard since the war started, paid particular attention. Any chance of finding a real mission or transport back to Grainne proper was of interest to them.

“Want me to have a whack at it, Warrant?” asked Sergeant Melanie Sarendy, head of the intelligence mission crew.

“If you would, Mel,” he nodded. “I’ll forward the data to your system.”

Sarendy dropped her game control, which was hardwired and shielded rather than wireless. Intel boats radiated almost no signature. The handheld floated where it was until disturbed by the eddies of her passage.

Jan asked, “Why do we have a message when we’re tethered to the Rock? From who?”

Meka wrinkled her brow.

“That’s an interesting series of questions,” she commented.

“The Rock” was a field-expedient facility with no official name other than a catalog number of use only for communication logs. The engineers who carved and blasted it from a planetoid, the boat crews who used it, the worn and chronically short-handed maintenance personnel aboard had had little time to waste on trivialities such as names. There were other such facilities throughout the system, but few of the surviving vessels strayed far enough from their own bases to consort with other stations. “The Rock” sufficed.

They were both attentive again as Sarendy returned. She looked around at the eyes on her, and said, “Sorry. Whatever it is, I don’t have a key for it.”

Meka quivered alert. “Mind if I try?” she asked.

“Sure,” Costlow replied.

She grabbed her comm and plugged it into a port as everyone waited silently. She identified herself through several layers of security and the machine conceded that perhaps it might have heard of that code. A few more jumped hoops and it flashed a translation on her screen.

The silence grew even more palpable when she looked up, her eyes blurred with tears. “Warrant,” she said, voice cracking, and locked eyes with him.

Costlow glanced around the cabin, and in seconds everyone departed for their duty stations or favorite hideyholes, leaving the two of them and Jan in relative privacy. Jan was family, and Costlow let him stay. In response to the worried looks from the two of them, Meka turned her screen to face them.

The message was brief and said simply, “YOU ARE ORDERED TO DESTROY AS MANY OF THE FOLLOWING PRIORITIZED TARGETS AS POSSIBLE. ANY AND ALL ASSETS AND RESOURCES ARE TO BE UTILIZED TO ACCOMPLISH THIS MISSION. SIGNED, NAUMANN, COLONEL COMMANDING, PROVISIONAL FREEHOLD MILITARY FORCES. VERIFICATION X247.” Attached was a list of targets and a timeframe. All the targets were in a radius around Jump Point Three, within about a day of their current location.

“I don’t understand,” Jan said. “Intel boats don’t carry heavy weapons. How do they expect us to do this?”

“It was addressed to me, not the boat,” Meka replied. “He wants me to take out these targets, using any means necessary.”

That didn’t need translating. There was a silence, broken by Costlow asking, “Are you sure that’s a legit order? It looks pointless. Why would they have you attack stuff way out here in the Halo?”

Meka replied, “We know what the enemy has insystem. We know where most of their infrastructure is. If Naumann wants it taken out, it means he’s preparing an offensive.”

“But this is insane!” Jan protested. “The Aardvarks will have any target replaced in days!”

“No,” Meka replied, shaking her head. “It’s a legit order. All those targets are intel or command and control.”

Costlow said, “So he wants the command infrastructure taken out to prevent them from responding quickly. Then he hits them with physical force.”

“Okay, but why not just bomb them or use rocks in fast trajectories?” Jan asked.

Costlow said, “It would take too long to set that many rocks in orbit. Nor could we get them moving fast enough. Maneuvering thrusters and standard meteor watch would take care of them. As to bombing them, they all have defensive grids, and we’re a recon boat.”

Jan paused and nodded. “Yeah, I know. And there aren’t many real gunboats left. I’d just like a safer method.” He asked Meka, “So how could you get in?”

“UN stations have sensor holes to ignore vacsuits and toolkits. Ships can’t get in, but a single person can.”

Costlow looked confused. “Why’d they leave a hole like that?” he asked.

“Partly to prevent accidents with EVA and rescue, partly laziness. They lost a couple of people, and that’s just not socially acceptable on Earth,” she said. “It’s the Blazer’s greatest asset to penetrating security. Systems only work if they are used. Backdoors and human stupidity are some of our best tools.”

“Didn’t they think anyone would do what you’re discussing?” Jan asked. That was dangerous. It would push EVA gear to the edge.

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “They would never give such an order. The political bureaucracy of the UNPF requires all missions be planned with no loss of life. Not minimal, but zero. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but that’s how they do things.”

Jan asked, “So you EVA in, and then back out?”

“How would I find a stealthed boat from a suit? How would you find me? It’s not as if there’s enough power to just loiter, and doing so would show on any scan.” Her expression was flushed, nauseous and half grinning. It was creepy.

“ . . . But even if you get through, they can still get new forces here in short order,” Jan said. He didn’t want his sister to die, because that’s what this was; a literal suicide mission. His own guts churned.

“No,” Meka replied. “Or, not fast enough to matter, I should say.” She tapped tactical calculus algorithms into her comm while mumbling, “Minimum twenty hours to get a message relayed to Sol . . . flight time through Jump Point Two . . . ”

Jan had forgotten that. Jump Point One came straight from Sol, but it no longer existed. Professor Meacham and his wife had taken their hyperdrive research ship into it, then activated phase drive. The result of two intersecting stardrive fields was hard to describe mathematically, but the practical, strategic result was that the point collapsed. No jump drive vessel could transit directly from Sol to Grainne anymore, and the UN didn’t yet have any phase drive vessels that they knew of.

Meka finished mumbling, looked up, and said, “Median estimate of forty-three days to get sufficient force here. They could have command and control back theoretically in forty hours, median two eighty-six, but that doesn’t help them if they are overrun. It’s risky, but we don’t have any other option.”

Costlow said, “That may be true, but they can send more force. It’s a short term tactical gain, but not a strategic win.”

“I know Naumann,” Meka replied firmly. “He has something planned.”

“Unless it’s desperation,” Costlow said.

Shaking her head, her body unconsciously twisting to compensate, she said, “No. He never throws his people away, and he has very low casualty counts. If he wants me to do this, then he has a valid plan.”

“Trusting him with your life is dangerous, especially since you don’t even know that’s him,” Jan said. They’d almost died three times now. She’d almost died a couple more. This one was for real.

“We’re trusting him with more than that,” she said. “And that’s definitely him. Security protocols aside, no one else would have the balls to give an order like that and just assume it would be followed. Besides, it authenticates.”

“Okay,” Costlow reluctantly agreed. “Which target are you taking?”

She pointed as she spoke, “Well, the command ship London is the first choice, but I don’t think I can get near a ship. This crewed platform is second, but I’d have to blast or fight my way in. If I fail, I still die, and accomplish nothing. I suppose I have to chicken out and take the automatic commo station.”

“Odd way to chicken out,” Jan commented in a murmur.

“Are you sure of these priorities?” Costlow asked. His teeth were grinding and he looked very bothered.

“Yes,” she replied. “If I had more resources, I’d take London, too. We don’t have any offensive missiles, though.”

“We have one,” the older man softly replied. They looked at him silently. “If you’re sure that’s a good order,” he said. His face turned from tan to ashen as he spoke.

“I am,” she said.

“Then I’ll drop you on the way. Just think of this as an intelligent stealth missile,” he said, and tried to smile. It looked like a rictus.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“No,” he admitted. “But if it’s what we have to do to win . . . ”

There was silence for a few moments. Hating himself for not speaking already, hating the others even though it wasn’t their fault, Jan said, “I’ll take the automatic station.” Saying it was more concrete than thinking it. His guts began twisting and roiling, and cold sweat burst from his body. He felt shock and adrenaline course through him. “That takes it out of the equation, and you can fight your way into the crewed one.”

Costlow said, “It’s appreciated, Jan, but you’re tech branch. I think you’d be of more help here.”

It was a perfect escape, and Meka’s expression said she wasn’t going to tell his secret if he wanted to stop there. He was a Special Projects technician, who built custom gear for others, usually in close support, but too valuable to be directly combatant save in emergencies. The act of volunteering was more than enough for most people, and he could gracefully bow out. He felt himself talking, brain whirling as he did. “I do EVA as a hobby. I’m not as good as Meka, but I can manage, given the gear.” There. Now he was committed.

“You don’t have to, Jan,” Meka said. “There are other Blazers. We’ll get enough targets.”

“Meka, I’m not doing this out of inadequacy or false bravery.” Actually, he was. There was another factor, too. When she looked at him, he continued, “I can’t face Mom and Dad and tell them you did this. No way. I’m doing this so I don’t have to face them. And because I guess it has to be done.”

After a long wait, staring at each other, conversation resumed. The three made a basic schedule, hid all data and undogged the cabin. They each sought their own private spaces to think and come to grips, and the rest of the crew were left to speculate. The normal schedule resumed, and would remain in force until the planned zero time, five days away.

The three were reserved in manner during the PT sparring match that evening. The crew each picked a corner or a hatch to watch from in the day cabin, a five-meter cylinder ten meters long, and cheered and critiqued as they took turns tying each other in knots. Sarendy was small but vicious, her lithe and slender limbs striking like those of a praying mantis. Jan and Meka were tall and rangy. Costlow was older and stubborn. Each one had his or her own method of fighting. They were all about as effective.

Jan was strong, determined, and made a point of staying current on unarmed combat, partly due to a lack of demand for his services. He and Costlow twirled and kicked and grappled for several minutes, sweating and gasping from exertion, until Jan finally pinned the older man in a corner with a forearm wedged against his throat. “Yours,” Costlow acknowledged.

Jan and Meka faced off from opposite ends, both lean and pantherlike. They studied each other carefully for seconds, then flew at each other, twisting and reaching, and met in a flurry of long limbs. Meka slapped him into a spin, twisted his ankles around, locked a foot under his jaw and let her momentum carry them against the aft hatch, where her other knee settled in the small of his back, pinning him helplessly as she grabbed the edge. Her kinesthetic sense and coordination never ceased to amaze the rest of them.

Passive Sensor Specialist Riechard gamely threw himself into the bout. He advanced and made a feint with one hand, orienting to keep a foot where he could get leverage off the bulkhead. He moved in fast and hard and scored a strike against Meka’s shoulder, gripped her arm, and began to apply leverage. She countered by pivoting and kicking for his head.

Riechard spun and flinched. “Shoot, Meka, watch it!” he snapped.

“Sorry,” she replied. Nerves had her frazzled, and she’d overreacted, her kick almost tearing his ear off. “I better take a break. Default yours.”

The crew knew something was up. Costlow and the Marsichs were on edge, irritable, and terse. The session broke down without comment, and everyone drifted in separate directions.

Jan signed out and headed into The Rock the next morning. The scenery was no more exciting, being carved stone walls with sealed hatches, but at least it wasn’t the boat. The air seemed somehow fresher, and it was good not to see the same faces. It wasn’t his choice for a last liberty, but there wasn’t any alternative. It was either the ship or The Rock.

Throughout the station, soldiers and spacers moved around in sullen quiet. The reserved faces made it obvious that other boats and ships had similar instructions. Jan had to smile at the irony that everyone had the same orders, and no one could talk about it. Then he remembered what was to happen, and became more withdrawn himself.

He’d wanted Mel Sarendy for two years, but crew were off-limits, and it grew more frustrating as time went on. Their society had no taboos against casual nudity, and the spartan supplies and close quarters aboard boat encouraged it. He’d spent hours staring at her toned body, surreally shaped in microgravity. Her ancestry, like her name, was Earth Cambodian, diluted perhaps with a trace of Russian. That he occasionally caught what he though was a hint of reciprocation in her speech and actions made it almost torture.

He didn’t want to drink, in case he crawled into the bottle. He settled for a small cubicle where he could just sit in silence and alone, a luxury unavailable aboard the boat.

Costlow was excited when he returned. Jan recognized cheerfulness when he saw it, and was impatient to find out what had changed.

Some time later, the three gathered on the command deck and sealed it off. “Talk to me, Warrant,” Meka demanded.

“There’s enough guidance systems to set a dozen charges. We can do this by remote,” he said.

“No, we can’t,” Meka stated flatly.

“Shut up and wait,” he snapped. “We program them to loiter outside sensor range, then do a high-velocity approach on schedule.”

“Thereby running into sensor range and right into a defensive battery. I suppose you could hide a charge in a suit, but I doubt it would maneuver properly, and you couldn’t program it to steer itself. We aren’t using us to deliver from lack of resources, it’s because we can get through and a drone can’t. If you want to try to program them for a fourth target, do so. It can’t hurt, unless of course you need them as decoys later.”

Jan breathed deeply and slowly, feeling sick to his stomach. Crap, this was the worst experience of his life. Were they going to do this or not?

Costlow looked sheepish. “I thought I had it there. Sorry,” he said.

“Don’t apologize, sir,” she replied. “The fact that you missed that means the Earthies think they are solid and can’t be taken. This will work.”

A depressed silence settled over them, but then Jan had a different thought. He cleared his throat.    

“There’s another factor,” he said. “The crewed station might have viable oxy or escape pods. After Meka takes it out, she can hunker down and await rescue . . . there’s a chance you could survive, Sis.”    

“Well, good!” Costlow said.    

Meka flushed red. “Yes, but that’s hardly fair to you two.”

He shrugged. “What’s fair? We do what we have to. After that, who can say?”

She looked at Jan. He smiled, of course, because he was glad of the possibility. He was also furious, nauseated, frightened, and there was nothing to say, except, “Good luck, then.”

It was wholly inadequate. They were all lying, they all knew it, and it was just one more cold lump in the guts.

Two tediously painful days later, the two soldiers and the pilot gathered in the crew cabin once more. They checked off lists of essentials that had been requisitioned or borrowed, finalized the schedule, and prepared to start. The equipment made it fairly obvious what they planned.

“First order of business, clear the ship,” Costlow said. He sounded the intercom for all hands, and everyone boiled in. When they were clumped around him, he said, “We have a mission for which we must reduce mass and resources, so the rest of you are being temporarily put on The Rock. Grab what you need, but you need to be off by morning.”

The crew and techs looked around at each other, at the three who would remain, and it was seconds only before Pilot Sereno said, “How much mass are you stripping?”

Costlow replied, “None yet. We’ll be doing that later in the mission.”

More looks crossed the cabin, thoughts being telegraphed. After an interminable time, Sereno said, “Yes, Warrant,” and headed away. The others silently followed his lead.

Yeah, he knows, Jan thought.

Over the rest of the day, they returned, one by one, to make their cases. Every single member of the crew was determined to accompany the boat on its last mission. Death was to be feared, but staying behind was unbearable.

Sereno spent some time arguing with his superior that he was more expendable. While true, Costlow was the better pilot. He left dejected and angry.

Boat Engineer Jacqueline Jemayel had more success. She simply handed over a comm with her checklist, and said, “No one else has the years of training and familiarity to handle your hardware in combat. If you think you can handle that while flying, I’ll leave.” Costlow twitched and stalled, but relented to her logic and determination. They’d been friends and crew for a long time, and he was glad to have her along.

Engine Specialist Kurashima and Analyst Corporal Jackson got nowhere. Neither was needed for this. They might be needed on another vessel. Costlow wasn’t taking anyone except Jemayel, and only because she did have a valid case. A good boat engineer was essential generally, and for this especially. He listened briefly to each of the others, wished them well and sent them packing. He was proud that his crew were so dedicated and determined, and he left recommendations for decorations in his final log file.

It was mere hours before departure time when the hatch beeped an authorized entry. They looked over as Melanie Sarendy swam in, followed by Sergeant Frank Otte, the equipment technician for the intelligence crew.

Costlow was annoyed, and snapped, “Sarendy, Otte, I ordered you to—”

She interrupted with a stern face, “Warrant, the London has Mod Six upgrades to its sensor suite. If you want to get close, then you need offensive systems as well as sensors. This is a recon boat, not a gunboat. I’m the best tech you’re going to get, I can get you in there, and I’m coming along. Sergeant Otte is here to build a station for me on the flight deck, and modifications for offensive transmissions, then he’s leaving.” She moved to swim past them toward her station. How she’d found out the details was a mystery. No one had told her. Costlow blocked her. She looked determined and exasperated, until he held a hand out. “Welcome aboard, Sergeant,” he acknowledged.

It took Otte, Jemayel, and Jan to build the devices necessary. Sarendy’s requested station wasn’t a standard item for a recon boat, and there were few spare parts aboard The Rock. Judicious cannibalization and improvisation yielded an effective, albeit ugly setup. Additional gear was used to build an offensive electronic suite, and some of it had obviously been stolen from other ships. As promised, Otte left, but not before trying desperately to convince them he was as necessary as Jemayel. He failed, but not for lack of determination.

4J23 departed immediately. The time left was useful for rehearsal and training, and those were best done without distractions. The short crew strapped in as Costlow cleared with Station Control, detached the umbilical, thereby cutting them off from communication, the boat being under transmission silence, and powered away.

It would avoid awkward goodbyes, also.

Meka began laying out gear for herself and Jan. They each would take their duty weapons. Jan had a demolition charge large enough for the structure in question. She took extra explosives and ammo. Both would carry their short swords, not so much from need but because it was traditional. They both required oxy bottles. He’d wear her maneuvering harness, she had a sled designed for clandestine missions. They had enough oxy mix, barely, to last them two days. That was tantalizingly close to enough oxy for a pickup, but still short. A boat might conceivably get into the vicinity in time, but rescue operations took time. If they could run this mission in the open . . . but of course, they couldn’t.

Costlow spent the time getting trajectories from the navigation system. He needed to pass by two stations whose locations were approximate, get near the London, which was in a powered station orbit around the jump point, observe, plan an approach, execute the approach to stay unseen, and arrive at a precise point at an exact time with sufficient fuel for terminal maneuvers. Very terminal. He consulted with Sarendy as to detection equipment ranges and apertures to help plot his path. Jemayel tended the engines, life support, and astronautics. None of them spoke much.

Jan had little to do until his departure. He spent it moping, getting angry, and finally beating on the combat practice dummy for hours, twisting in microgravity. When Meka called him over to explain the gear, he was more than eager to just get things over with.

She showed him the mass of gear and began to go through it. He checked everything off with her. Weapons and gear needed little explanation. He was familiar with the technical details of her maneuvering harness and the munitions fuzes even though he’d never used them. The briefing would be far too short a distraction.

“We’ll synch our chronos,” Meka said.

“Goddess, don’t give me a clock,” Jan begged, shaking his head. “If I have to watch it count down, I’ll be a basket case. Just put me there with some stuff to read and let me go.” He spoke loudly, eyes wide, because the stress was getting to him.

“You need one in case the auto system fails,” Meka said. “You’re getting a triple load of ammo. It seems unlikely, but if anyone shows up to stop you—”

“Then I hold them off as long as I can.”

“Right,” Meka agreed.

Costlow showed the plotted course in a 3D, and asked, “We let you off here. Are you sure you can maneuver well enough for that distance?”

Shrugging, Jan replied, “End result is the same for me either way, but I’m sure. I do a lot of EVA. Unlike some people, I like it.”

“Bite me, Bro,” Meka replied and laughed, too loud from stress. She had always hated long EVA, and that’s what this was. She was assembling a pile of gear including her powered sled, two oxy bottles, the basic demolition blocks from everyone’s standard gear plus her own larger pack, weapons and stuff the others wouldn’t recognize. Her actions were trained, expert, and only a little shaky from tension. She’d done long trips in the dark before, and survived, but that didn’t make it fun. She had her sled for this one, Jan was making a far shorter infiltration, and the boat wasn’t her concern. She prepped everything, had Jan and Jemayel double check, and went through exercises to calm herself. Those didn’t work for Jan.

With less than four hours until his departure, Jan sat staring at the bulkhead of the day cabin. His bunk was folded, and his few effects sealed in a locker. He’d recorded a message and written instructions, all of which made things rather final. He didn’t feel thoroughly terrified yet, but did feel rather numb. Rest was impossible. He nodded briefly to Sarendy as she swam in, and tried not to dwell on her. It was all too easy to think of justifications to break the fraternization ban. He didn’t need rejection or complications now, and the sympathy ploy was the only approach he could think of. It wouldn’t work, as she was in the same boat as he, quite literally.

“Come back here,” she said, gesturing with a hand. She turned and swam for her intel bay.

As he followed her in, she closed the hatch and dogged it. The bay was dimly lit by one emergency lamp, there being no need for its use at this time, and there was just enough room for the two of them inside the radius of couches and terminals set against the shell. While his brain tried to shift gears, she grabbed him by the shoulders and mashed her mouth against his while reaching to open her shipsuit. Both their hands fumbled for a few seconds, then his stopped and drew back while hers continued questing.

“Mehlnee,” he muttered around her kiss. She drew her full lips back a bare few millimeters, and he continued, “I appreciate this . . . but it won’t help me deal with . . . this.”

“It helps me,” she replied, voice breathy, and wrapped herself more tightly around him. Her lips danced over his throat and he decided not to argue with her logic. His hands were on the sinuous curves of her golden-skinned hips, and long-held fantasies solidified into reality. Frantic, unrequited lust made thought impossible, and that was a good thing right then.

Jan was first out. He doffed his shipsuit and donned his hard vacsuit, intended for short duration EVA maintenance and not the best for this mission. It was what he had, though. Meka’s assault harness fit snugly over it and would provide thrust. Three bottles rode his back, two oxy-helium, one nitrogen for the harness. His rifle and clips were along the right bottle, and his comm on his wrist, programmed with everything he needed. Strapped to his chest was a large, bulky pack with over twenty kilos of modern military hyperexplosive. It would be more than enough for the station in question.

Melanie and Meka checked him over and helped him into the bay. The other two were busy on the flight deck. Ignoring his sister’s presence, Melanie kissed him hard and deeply. He kissed back, shaking, wanting to leave before the whole situation caused him to go insane. Meka waited until Sarendy was done, then clutched him briefly. “Good luck,” she said.

“Good hunting,” he replied.

Behind him he heard, “Oh, I will,” as the hatch closed.

Jan stared out the open bay into cold black space with cold, bright pinpoints of light. “God and Goddess, I don’t want to do this,” he muttered. His stomach boiled and churned, and he wished he’d filled his water bottle with straight alcohol. Even the double dose of tranquilizers was not enough to keep him calm.

A light winked once, twice, then a third time, and he jumped out briskly, feeling the harness shove him in a braking maneuver. He was immediately thankful for the suit’s plumbing, and his brain went numb. I’m dead now, was all he could think.

The station Jan was attacking would note the passage of the anomaly that was the boat as well as it could, and report later. Meka’s target was more complicated. It was crewed, and they would react if they saw her. She’d have to ride her sled for some distance and most of a day, and try to time it for a covert approach. That might be the hardest part of this mission.

In the maintenance bay, she strapped herself to her sled and had Jemayel check her over. With a final thumbs up and a lingering hug, she turned to her controls and counted seconds down to her launch.

The boat passed through the volume as stealthed as possible, oriented so the bay opened away from the station’s sensors. There were no emissions, only the operating radiation and a bare hint of the powerplant. Her braking thrust was hidden by the mass of the boat, and should be almost invisible at this distance. That should put her right on top of the station at Earth clock 1130 the next day, when the crew would hopefully be at lunch.

Once the vibration and heavy gees tapered off, she checked her instruments and took a trank. It would be a long wait, and very eerie in complete silence and blackness.

And now I’m dead, she thought.

Sarendy reported when they were outside the known range of the station, and Costlow waited a planned extra hour before bringing up the plant and engines. He wanted to be lost in background noise.

The thrust built steadily in a rumbling hiss through the frame. Most of the impulse would be used now, with only enough left for margin and maneuvers. That would simplify the approach by minimizing emissions then. The velocity increased to a level the boat had rarely used, and he nodded to his remaining crew as they completed the maneuver. Now they had to wait.

“Anyone for a game of Chess?” he asked.

Jan watched for the station. It was a black mass against black space, and he was glad to see it occult stars. He’d been afraid the intel was wrong and he was sailing off into space for nothing. Odd to feel relieved to see the approaching cause of one’s death, he thought. It had been a three-hour trip, and he was hungry. He would stay that way for the next day and a half, because his suit was intended for maintenance EVAs only, not infiltration, and had no way to supply food. So much for the condemned’s last meal. Then, there was the irony that his boat had IDed this particular piece of equipment, which is why it was on the list, and why he was here.

The occultation grew, and he got ready to maneuver for docking, landing, whatever it was called in this case. He switched on the astrogation controls, adjusted his flight toward it, then braked relative. He was tense, lest the reports be inaccurate and the station blast him with a defense array, but nothing happened. He didn’t overshoot, but did approach obliquely and had to correct for touchdown.

There was no one and nothing nearby, which was as expected. He snapped a contact patch out, slapped it to the surface, and attached his line. There were no regular padeyes on the unit.

A short orientation revealed where the power cell was. He planted the standoff over it and slapped it down with another contact patch. When it triggered, the blast would turn a plate of metal beneath it into plasma and punch it through the shell into the power cell. He armed it, and all he had left to do was defend it against what appeared to be nothing, wait until it detonated and die with it. Simple on file. Doing it didn’t seem quite that by the numbers.

At first, he was terrified of being near the charge. He realized it was silly, as it would kill him anyway, and if it didn’t, suffocation would. He compromised between fear and practicality by hiding over the horizon of the small, angled object. It was a bare three meters across, five meters long, and almost featureless except for a docking clamp inset at one end. Its signals were all burst through a translucent one-way window. He longed to tear into it for the sheer joy of discovering if the intel briefs were correct about this model, but that might give him away. He’d sit and wait.

He did have emgee, and a suit, and a tether. He decided to rest floating free. The technique had helped him before when stressed. He stared out at the stars and the distant pointy glare of Iota Persei, their star, and fell into a deep sleep, disturbed by odd dreams.

Meka approached the station gradually. She’d have to leave her sled behind and finish the trip in just her suit to avoid detection. While a bedecked suit would register as maintenance or a refugee with the sensors, the sled would trigger alarms as an approaching threat even if the enemy didn’t have knowledge of the precise design. She made one last correction to her orbit, set the autopilot, pulled the releases, and drifted loose from the frame. Her minuscule lateral velocity should be of negligible effect.

The sled burped gently away on gas jets rather than engines, and would hopefully never be detectable to the station. It was near 0800 by Earth clock, and another three hours should bring her quite close. That’s when it would become tricky.

First, she’d have to maneuver with an improvised thruster. Jan had her harness, she had only a nitrogen bottle and a momentary valve. He’d—hopefully—made his approach with power but no navigation. She had the navigation gear in her helmet, but improvised power. The risks they were taking would cause a safety officer to run gibbering in insanity. On the other hand, they were dead either way.

There was also the substantial risk of the station noting her approach to its crew. They might await her, or send someone to investigate, or shoot her outright. She was betting against the last, but it was just that—a bet. If they met her, it meant a fight. She would win one on one against anybody she faced, but the station might have up to twenty crew. It was effectively a large recon boat with maneuvering engines, and she didn’t relish a fight within.

Unlike her previous long EVAs, she was relaxed and calm. Perhaps it was experience. Maybe it was the complexity of the task and the associated thought that kept her too busy to worry. Perhaps it was fatalism. As she neared her target, more issues interfered and she dropped all those thoughts.

There were no obvious signs of disturbance as she approached. That meant that if they did see her for what she was, they were at least holding their fire. She checked her weapon again by touch, and began readying her muscles for a fight. If someone met her, she’d go along peacefully to the airlock, then start smashing things and killing on her way inside.

Nothing happened. Either the station’s sensors didn’t see her, or they assumed she was performing maintenance and ignored her. It was good to see the intel was accurate, but it still felt odd that her presence wasn’t even reported. Perhaps it was and they were waiting for her. Dammit, no second guessing.

She was close enough to think about maneuvering now, and there were still no signs of enemy notice. The nitrogen bottle beside her breathing bottle was plumbed into a veritable snakepit of piping Jan had built for her, that ended front and back at shoulders and hips, much like a proper emgee harness. She hoped the improvised controls worked so she wouldn’t have to attempt it by hand. Her record on manual approaches was less than perfect.

She vented a pulse of gas and the harness worked as planned. Two more short ones brought her to a bare drift. She sent more thoughts of thanks after her brother, who had turned out to be essential to almost every mission she’d fought in this war. His technical skill in every field was simply genius.

She managed a gentle touchdown on the station hull, letting her legs bend and soak up momentum. She caught her breath, got her bearings, and went straight to work. She had no idea how long she could go unnoticed.

She placed the prebuilt charges with a rapidity born of years of practice. Each charge was designed to punch a hole into a compartment, hopefully voiding them all and killing the occupants instantly. She danced softly across the hull to avoid noise inside that might give her away, swapping tethers as she went, and planted them precisely with the aid of thoughtfully provided frame numbers. Magnetic boots would have made it easier . . . if the shell had been an iron alloy and if clanking noises didn’t matter.

She caught movement out of the corner of her eye. She pivoted to see a UN spacer in gear, staring at her in surprise.

Her combat reflexes took over. He was unarmed, meaning he was conducting routine maintenance or inspections. It was possible he wore a camera that was observable inside on a monitor, and he would definitely report her as soon as he recovered from the oddity of the situation. She twisted her right arm to unsling, then pointed her rifle and shot him through the faceplate.

The eruption of atmosphere and vaporized blood indicated he was dead. She put two more bullets through him to make sure, the effect eerie in the silence. The recoil of the weapon was mild, but with no gravity or atmosphere it started her tumbling. She steadied out with a grasp of her tether, and brought herself back the half meter to the shell. Now what?

Her pulse hammered and her breath rasped. Despite the massive damage and casualties she’d caused in her career, it was only the second time she’d killed someone directly and up close. She forced her emotions into quiescence and considered the situation. If he’d reported her, she had seconds to deal with it. If not, she had a little longer before he was missed. If she killed the crew early, they might miss a scheduled report and the secrecy of her mission would be compromised. If she waited, they could report her presence. She didn’t see much of a choice.

Her fingers activated the system through her comm, she paused a second to confirm the readings, and then detonated the charges.

If the atmosphere gushing from her enemy’s helmet had been impressive, this was awe-inspiring. Brilliant bursts of white were swallowed by fountains of spewing air and debris. The station shook beneath her feet as the hull adjusted to lost pressure. Anyone not in a suit should be dead. Now to hope no report was expected before her mission zero time. It was a long shot, but all she had. And it was unlikely that the omission would be considered more than a minor problem at first.

Costlow was a first class pilot, but this would strain even his capabilities. The astronautics would take over for evasive maneuvers only. The approach would be manual.

While there was a timed window for attacks, the closer together they were the better. Any hint of action would alert the enemy and reduce the odds of success for others. He wanted to time this to the second, as much as possible. To avoid detection, he had to rely on passive sensors operated by Sarendy across from him. Passive sensors didn’t give as accurate a picture as active ones, which meant he’d have to correct the timing in flight. As he would approach at a velocity near the maximum physics and Jemayel’s bypassed safeties would allow, that left little time for corrections. He wanted to get inside their weapons’ envelope and right against the skin before they deduced what he was. That also increased the risk of their particle watch picking him up, assuming him to be an incoming passive threat, and shooting preemptively.

They were only a few hours from target, and he’d already brought them around in a long loop behind the London’s engines. The emissions from them would mask their approach in ionized scatter. He wondered again just how hard this would have been without Sarendy, Jan and Otte. Sarendy was pulling all her intel from the sensors up to the flight deck and using it to assist in astrogation, and was preparing a counterintel system for use when they were detected, and would utilize the active sensor antennas as offensive transmitters. He hadn’t realized that was even possible, but Sarendy was a witch with sensors, Jan an expert on improvising hardware, and Otte had kept up with both of their orders and put the system together. Amazing. If a crew had ever earned its decorations, this one had.

“Your turn, Warrant,” Sarendy reminded him.

Right. Chess. “Um . . . ” He moved his queen, looked at the board with satisfaction, and leaned back. Her rook’s capture of his queen and declaration of checkmate stunned him.

“Perhaps we should stop now,” he suggested. “I didn’t see that coming and I have no idea what you did. And both my bishops are on white.”

“They are?” she asked. “So they are. Let’s call it a game.”

Meka swam through the main corridor, counting bodies with faces reminiscent of dead fish, and checked that every compartment was open to vacuum. Nodding to herself, ignoring the grisly scenes, she made her way to the powerplant and unlimbered the large charge on her chest. In seconds it was armed, placed, and she swam back out to face the outer hatch. Little to do now but wait.

She wondered how other troops and units had done. Was anyone trying to retake the captured Freehold facilities? Or to destroy them outright? Would the attacks be successful, and allow the presumed counter to work? Would they win?

She’d never know. She could only wish them luck.

Jan awoke with a start. Guilt flooded over the adrenaline, as he realized he’d slept past when he was supposed to be on guard. He shrugged and decided it didn’t matter, as the chance of anyone interfering was incredibly remote. It still bothered him.

It was close to deadline, and he realized he didn’t even know what this operation was called, only that it probably involved the entire system, aimed for infrastructure, and was suicidal. That was probably enough.

He still had a couple of hours of oxy.

Hypoxia/anoxia would be pretty painless. A little struggle for breath . . . he could take those two hours. It wasn’t impossible a rescue vessel might show up. It just took a hell of a lot of zeros to make the odds. Two extra hours of life, though.

He decided he didn’t have whatever it took to let himself die slowly. He was already shivering in shock; the tranks were wearing off.

He snagged the tether and dragged himself hand over hand to the station. He hooked to the contact patch near the charge. The only thing worse than being blown to dust, he thought, would be to be injured by it and linger for hours in pain. He wished Meka luck, aching to know if she’d make it. That hurt as much as anything else. There were fewer zeros on her odds, but they were still ludicrously remote. Their mission was to smash enemy infrastructure, not occupy and set up housekeeping.

There was nothing left. He settled down to read, gave up because he couldn’t focus, and turned on music to break the eerie silence. If he had to die, he wanted it to be painless and instantaneous.

When the charge underneath him detonated, he got his final wish.

Costlow sweated, with aching joints and gritty eyeballs from sitting far too long at the controls. He watched the display in his helmet, trying to ignore the way the helmet abraded behind his left ear, and made another minute flight correction. He had minutes left to live.

4J23 was close behind the London, and undiscovered as far as they knew. Sarendy screwed with their emissions, inverted incoming scans, sent out bursts low enough in energy to pass as typical, powerful enough to keep them hidden and the gods only knew what else. He wished there were some way to record her competence. She was a fifteen year-old kid, and likely knew more about her job than all her instructors combined. Add in her bravery, and she deserved ten medals.

No, he thought, she deserved to live. Rage filled him again.

He forced the thoughts back to his mission. He was hungry and thirsty, but he daren’t pause to do either. This could all come down to a fractional second’s attention. Especially now that they were so close.

He brought 4J23 in in a tight, twisting curve from the blind spot behind the drives, and aimed along the approaching superstructure. London’s defenses found him, and a launch warning flashed in his visor. It missed because Sarendy switched to active jamming and burned its sensors out with a beam that should have been impossible from a recon boat, and would almost fry an asteroid to vapor. The brute force approach was an indication that all her tricks were exhausted, and it was doubtful they could avoid another attack. He flinched as the missile flashed past, even though it was detectable only as an icon in his visor, and heard a cry of sheer terror start quietly and build. He realized it was his voice. He’d wet himself, and was embarrassed, even though he understood the process. He could hear Sarendy panting for breath, hyperventilating behind him, and wondered what Jemayel was doing in the stern. His eyes flicked to the count in his visor—


Alongside the London, within meters of her hull and at closest approach to her command center, a small powerplant overloaded and detonated. It was enough to overwhelm her forcescreens, vaporize her forward half, and shatter the rest in a moment so brief as to be incomprehensible. One hundred UN spacers were turned into incandescent plasma by the blast, along with the three Freeholders.

Meka watched the seconds tick away in her visor. She dropped her left hand and grasped the manual trigger, set it, and held on. It would blow if she let go, or on schedule, and her work was almost done. The count worked down, and she closed her eyes, faced “up” and took a deep breath to steady herself. She opened them again to see it count 3 . . . 2 . . . 1—

Whether her thumb released or the timer acted first was irrelevant. The blast damaged the station’s fusion plant, which shut down automatically, even as it vented to space. She felt the cracking and rumbling of the structure through her body, fading away to nothing. It would take a dockyard to repair that, and they’d have to remove the wreckage first. She moved back toward the powerplant, navigating by touch in the dust, and dragged herself around several supports twisted by the blast. She entered the engineering module and waited. The particles cleared very slowly, as there was neither airflow nor gravity. It all depended on static charges and surface tension to draw things out of vacuum, and Meka stayed stock still until she could get a good look through her faceplate, cycling through visible, enhanced and IR to build a good picture. She nodded in approval of the damage. The blast and fusion bottle failure had slagged half the module.

Her task was now done, but she had no desire to die immediately. She could have embraced the charge on the reactor and gone with it. Her rationale had been that she should be certain, although the charge had been three times larger than she’d calculated as necessary. The truth was, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Death might be inevitable, but she still feared it.

She studied the life support system whimsically. Without a proper deckplan, she’d just vented every compartment from outside to be sure. Her charge over this one had punched into the makeup tank. There was a functional air recycling plant, but no oxygen. A meter in any direction . . .

There were no escape bubbles. This was a station, not a ship. If damaged, the crew would seal as needed and call for help. She’d fixed that when she vented atmosphere. There were extra suit oxy bottles, but the fittings didn’t match. Even if they did, there was no heat, and her suit powerpack was nearing depletion. Jan would easily have cobbled something together, or tacked a patch over the hole in life support and used the suit bottles, but even if she could do so before her own gas ran out, it still meant waiting and hoping for a rescue that would likely never come. There was no commo capability, of course. That had been her prime target. No one knew to look for her. The remote possibility of rescue they’d discussed had been for Jan’s benefit, to let him hope she might survive. He’d probably figured out the lie by now.

With time and nothing better to do, she planted charges on every hatch, every port, every system. She fired bullets liberally to smash controls and equipment; wedged the airlocks with grenades to shatter the seals and render them useless. Even the spare parts inventory was either destroyed or blown into space.

Finally, she sat outside on the ruined shell, watching her oxy gauge trickle toward empty. Her weapons were scattered around her, some lazily drifting free in the emgee, each rendered inoperable and unsalvageable, all save one. She really had harbored an unrealistic hope that there’d be some way out of this, and cried in loneliness. There was no one to see her, and it wasn’t the first time she’d cried on a mission. Blazers didn’t look down on tears and fear, only on failure. She had not failed.

The stillness and silence was palpable and eerie. She brought up her system and cycled through her music choices. Yes, that would do nicely. La Villa Strangiato. The coordination and sheer skill impressed her, and the energy in the performance was powerful and moving. It filled the last five-hundred seconds and faded out. Silence returned.

A warning flashed in her visor and sounded in her ears, becoming more and more tinny as oxygen was depleted. She’d black out in about a hundred seconds.

One thing she’d always wondered was how far her courage went. People died all the time. Soldiers died when ordered to fight and the odds ran out. Sick people died because life was not worth living.

But, could she die by choice? Her courage had been tested throughout her career, and this last year to an extreme. But did she have the strength to pull that switch herself?

After prolonging the inevitable this long, it was rather moot, but her life wouldn’t be complete without the experiment. She armed the grenade, stared at it as her body burned from hypoxia, and tried to force her hand to open. Lungs empty now, she gritted her teeth, pursed her lips, and threw every nerve into the effort. Her wrist shook, thumb moving bit by bit. Willpower or self-preservation?

She was still conscious, though groggy, as her thumb came free and the fuse caught. Three seconds. Hypoxia segued to anoxia and her thoughts began to fade. The last one caused a triumphant smile to cross her face, even as tears pooled in her eyes.


On slabs of green and black marble in Freedom Park are the names of two hundred and sixteen soldiers who accepted orders they could not understand and knew meant their deaths. Words were said, prayers offered, and torches and guards of honor stand eternal watch over them. Their families received pensions, salutes and bright metal decorations on plain green ribbons, presented in inlaid wooden boxes.

One family received two.

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