Back | Next

The Raiders

Mike Massa3

Champlain shuffled into the debriefing room at the Neuf Quebecois forward operating base.

Stripped of visible weapons, he still carried the battlefield stink of cordite, aviation fuel exhaust and sweat. Blood, dried to a dark brown, stained his neck and the collar of his combat blouse.

His remaining equipment clanked as he sank into the straight-backed chair.

Across the square table he could make out the gray uniform of his interviewer. Although the carefully placed light prevented him from making out the man’s features, Champlain easily read the four gold stripes and blue collar facings of a major of dragoons.

What a dragoon was doing in the Security Police, or SecPol, wasn’t as clear.

“Lieutenant, ah, Champlain,” the major began, consulting a file that lay open before him. “My name is DeGrasse. You will pardon my insistence that we meet without affording you a moment to rest.”

“Get on with it Major!” a second officer entered the puddle of urine-colored light cast by the locally manufactured incandescent bulb. “We don’t have time for your gentle niceties.”

The newcomer wore a spotless khaki uniform. He remained standing so that, like the major, his face remained shadowed. He continued to speak.

“‘Acting Lieutenant’ Champlain has managed to be one of the few survivors of a critical mission,” he spat. “Again. The last time you ran, Champlain, you were awarded a suspended death sentence. If I can prove your cowardice a second time . . .”

“Thank you Colonel Bin Ra’ad,” DeGrasse interrupted. “If you would be so kind, allow me to get the lieutenant started.”

He turned his eyes to Champlain.

“Simply commence at the beginning of the mission, Champlain,” he asked, not unkindly.

Champlain looked down at the table. The fatigue poisons of combat ran thick in his blood. He roused himself and sat a little straighter.

The job wasn’t over.

“Sir, the insert started out routine,” he began, his words ringing loudly in the small room. “Or as routine as they ever do . . .”

The shakes had worn off as soon as he boarded the transport, hours before. Now, despite the overwhelming pressures of his first operation as company commander, he was composed, focused.

And impatient.

“One minute!”

Senior Lieutenant (acting) Wilsyn Champlain, Second Revanchiste Quebecois Commando, didn’t bother to look back at the sound of the rope master’s voice. It was pitch black inside their aircraft anyway, preventing any last minute checks. Either their rope and personal gear were rigged correctly, or shortly he was going to be the first man-shaped blood stain outside the personal vacation chateau of the Secordian Army Chief of Staff. Landing normally was contraindicated, since they were about to visit entirely unannounced.

And, you know, there was a sort-of-war on.

In the months since their unit had been formed from barracks dregs and all-purpose fuck ups he had learned that Senior Sergeant “Razor” Bowie didn’t need baby sitting. And although he rode the second aircraft with Chalk Two and their Earther advisor, Bowie had trained the rope master on Champlain’s bird. That man, Senior Corporal Tremblay, would sooner depart the aircraft without a rope than face Bowie after a fuck up.

Of course, that’s exactly what Bowie would make Tremblay do anyway, should he or any “his” noncoms screw up the lieutenant’s op.

Approaching the LZ, their aircraft banked hard, and the combined weight of his armor and equipment made Champlain’s knees sag despite his iron grip on the chicken rail that ran the length of the troop bay.

Even though the operation was a supposed to be a quick in and out, Champlain carried more than just his allotment of ammunition and demolitions. He also bore several liters of water, enough to make his equipment webbing and pack straps cut brutally into his shoulders under the increased pull of the aircraft’s deceleration. Between the long-range patrols that their advisor cum instructor had required of them, and the inbred pessimism of a junior noncom breveted to officer, Champlain understood that carrying so much water might slow him down. It still beat the desperation of a parched mouth and swollen tongue while the sun overhead baked you dry, even as enemy rounds pinned you in place and your squadmate moaned uselessly for water from under the bandages that covered his face.

Injuries from Champlain’s own fuck up.

“Thirty seconds!”

As the turbine driven propeller nacelles began to pivot upwards into helicopter mode, the previously smooth if overwhelming humming shifted into a syncopated beating of rotors that would have been instantly recognizable to any pre-space flight aircav soldier.

Suddenly the starboard machine gun began to chug. Inside the fuselage, Champlain couldn’t tell if there were actual targets, or if the gunner was just spraying the buildings surrounding their LZ in order to discourage nosy spectators.

He approved of outgoing fire, just on general principles.

The priceless tilt-rotor slowed and pivoted, orienting the ramp towards the briefed LZ.

“GO!” Tremblay screamed as he kicked the fast-rope off the ramp. The selected method of insertion had been new to the men, since the helicopters and tilt-rotors it required were not commonplace on Terra Nova.

Suddenly the interior of their ride was lit by shockingly brilliant white light. In the moment of insertion, some local, likely inspired by the rotor noise to figure out what jackass was hovering over their quarters, decided to turn on the court lights. The loss of night vision was instantaneous. Without hesitation, Champlain threw himself off the aircraft ramp towards the thick sisal rope, gripping it firmly in his gloved fists. Despite the thick leather, his palms immediately registered the friction heat which was an unavoidable byproduct of the barely controlled descent. The world spun bright-dark-bright as he dropped thirty meters toward the now fully illuminated emerald green tennis court outside the local officer’s mess.

And of course, it left the attacking Rangers pinned to the bright yard like specimens awaiting the collector’s kill jar.

At the last moment, Champlain squeezed the rope as tightly as he could, camming his wrists together. The staggering impact of the cement was only partially absorbed by the composite soles of his boots, but he unlimbered his personal weapon and scrambled sideways in order to avoid the descending size thirteen feet of his radio operator, Royce. He squinted into the brilliance, looking for the nearest concealment.

From somewhere off to his right, the familiar sound of another Quebecois-built thirty caliber machine gun coincided with dozens of sparkling impacts across the rows of court lights, which crashed down faster than a strong man could yank a drapery off a wall.

Trust Bowie to get the job done.

The fire rate on the guns was slow, but the relative simplicity of the two-hundred-year-old design brought them within reach of on-planet industry, unlike the aircraft still vomiting out his platoon of thirty.

More importantly, their maintenance was simple enough that even a backwoods Quebecois Commando could do it.

His night vision was still gone, stolen by the short lived but intense electric lights. However, the voice at his shoulder was as familiar to him as the bolt action carbine that Champlain bore.

“Chalk Three is down,” Major Hermann Kuhlman said conversationally. “Time to send your breach teams in.”

“Why, exactly, was Monsieur le Major Kuhlman actually on the ground with your company?” asked Bin Ra’ad from outside the circle of light that defined the table. “As a United Nations observer, he was specifically enjoined to avoid direct combat. The Charter of Assistance limits the role of our advisors to training!”

The outburst had the flavor of rehearsed outrage.

“The Major led from the front.” Champlain eyed the colonel. The silver globe and wreath of the UN winked conspicuously from the taller man’s light blue collar points. “He trained with us for months, set the example after the original company commander was removed. I was in charge, but he taught us, well, everything. Which I think you know.”

“Where were your Quebecois instructors?” asked DeGrasse. “Why was Kuhlman so deeply involved in your training?”

Champlain considered his answer carefully.

“We still don’t have as much experience in larger formations.” he said. “And our unit wasn’t used to working together, at first. The major’s been to every hotspot on Earth during the last decade. He had five times the combat experience of the most seasoned commando. And he understood us.”

“Understood you?” sneered Bid Ra’ad. “What did he have in common with the rabble that he was supposed to whip into shape?”

“We hated him at first,” admitted Champlain. “But everything we did, he did. Every forced march, each night obstacle course, every live fire training problem—he was soaked by the same rain and ate the same shit food that you allotted us. Can’t do that and not understand the company.”

“Quite,” said DeGrasse. “And he was your mission briefer as well, Lieutenant?”

“Negative,” replied Champlain. “Kuhlman and I planned the actual operation. But Colonel Gagnon supplied our mission parameters.”

“And what did you understand to be the primary operational goal for this mission, Champlain?”

“Gagnon briefed us, lectured us really, about the hostage.” replied the weary yet on edge officer.

He was tired and still reeked with both the mental and physical residue of battle. Champlain needed a drink, a shower and another drink—in that order. This interrogation could not end fast enough. Still, he had to finish the op.

“Everyone knows that Jacques Hebert, son of the foreign minister, was arrested a few months ago on false espionage charges. They let his school friends go but the Secordians had Hebert in a secure location. We were supposed to get in, grab him and such intel as we could, then extract and bring him home. In exchange, we get our convictions reversed.”

Bin Ra’ad snorted derisively.

“That was the deal,” said Champlain, leaning forward. “That’s why you picked us!”

“You and the rest of the men were chosen because we could afford to lose you,” retorted the tall, khaki clad colonel. “You were an expendable forlorn hope. Brig rats. Prison toughs.”

Champlain blinked, shocked at the unexpected honesty of his interviewer. He leaned further, meeting Bin Ra’ad’s sneer.

“My boys were hard enough and aggressive enough, sure.” he answered. “If Command had a better option then they would have taken it. But they needed us and they offered the promise that Quebecois Command would reverse their criminal convictions!”

“And they will, just as soon as we sort out all the questions,” DeGrasse said, smoothing over the sudden electric tension. “The legal arrangement is entirely legitimate.” He stared meaningfully at Bin Ra’ad, who stepped back half a pace and turned indifferently to examine a wall map.

“Now, please continue.”

“Everyone, even our friend from headquarters, made it down in one piece and the tilt-rotors are clearing the area,” Kuhlman reminded him. “They’re too easy to shoot down and we need them for the ride out.”

The company was already spread out, well away from the beaten zone of the LZ, but they remained vulnerable to the inevitable reaction force, which was supposed to be at least thirty minutes away. Third platoon, under Bowie, was detailed to set up a blocking force on the main access road to the compound. Champlain sent Second to screen against the adjoining cluster of military buildings while he personally led First against the officers’ quarters and main residence, keeping Weapons platoon in reserve.

“Right, sir,” Champlain replied. He turned to his faithful radioman Royce, “Pass to all teams, take positions briefed.” Much more loudly he yelled, “Breachers up!”

Two pairs of men ran pell-mell for the main doors just as a spattering of ground fire began.

The building’s stout outer doors were built fortress style for looks rather than to hold off an attacking army, but they still overmatched simple crowbars or hammers.

Plus Champlain was in a tearing hurry.

The breach teams each worked one door, carefully placing the meticulously proportioned charges, just as they had done on the mock-up back home. The pre-made explosives rode flimsy wooden frames whose dimensions were hastily adjusted to each door before the charges were joined with heavily waxed detonation cord.

“Fire in the hole!”

The assaulters and the command group huddled together in the lee of the courtyard, hands over their ears and mouths open to relieve some of the overpressure. The charges went off simultaneously for once and the doors flew apart with a sharp blast and a pattering of wood and stone.

“Attaque!” yelled Champlain even as the first squad rushed the door. He followed immediately upon their heels.

Inside the anteroom there were two men in shirtsleeves, one clutching a pistol, already crumpling. A few more weapons banged as Champlain’s men fired into the hallways on either side. He motioned second squad towards one side and dove towards the other, following the team that had already jumped ahead, yelling like banshees.

The hallway was dimly lit and lined with alternating doors, clearly quarters. Groups of three prepared to tackle each room in turn. Two rooms down a Secordian spun into the hallway, leveling a shotgun. Time slowed suddenly as the bore yawned wider than the mouth of hell. Champlain’s gut tightened futilely against the expected buckshot before the gun boomed. The shot was answered instantly by several carbine rounds, tumbling the figure back into his room, but not before one of Champlain’s men coughed a sheet of blood across his belly and folded onto the floor.

The thick burgundy carpet soaked up Champlain’s footfalls as well as the blood draining from the fresh corpses in the hallway. Ignoring the sharp iron scent of blood, he stepped over the casualties and brought his own bolt action carbine to present as the team cleared the next room. More yelling resulted and was met with the muted thudding of clubbed rifle stocks. Moments later that pair of men stepped out of the now quiet room into the hallway, and the next team kicked their door open.

This time feminine screams met their sally.

There wasn’t time to collect prisoners, so the prostitutes were left in place, once the room was swept for weapons or combatants.

“We need to hurry, Lieutenant!” Champlain was surprised to hear Colonel Gagnon at his elbow. “We need to check both his quarters and the communications building!”

The short, dour-faced colonel was an unusual addition to the ground team. Supposedly only he could confirm Hebert’s identity. In the absolutely regrettable event that the political officer met with an accident, Champlain carried the hostage’s recognition picture as a backup. There couldn’t be too many soft-faced teenagers in a Secordian brigade commander’s headquarters area.

Outside the building more rifle fire rattled as the security element engaged the Secordians who were slowly, but forcefully, reacting. Weapons platoon had been the last on the ground, but judging from the distinctive sound, at least two of their tripod-mounted medium machine guns were now in action. Nothing the Secordians would have immediately on hand could match that.

Or so the intelligence section had assured them.

Champlain could hear more doors splintering as the Rangers cleared the last hallway and entered the target room with a clatter of equipment and the sound of splintering wood.

“Clear left, clear right, one civilian! Wait, he’s not here,” exclaimed one of his troops. “It’s just a girl!”

Champlain shouldered his way into the nicely furnished room. In their haste the searchers had overturned the walnut desk set, and the closet door hung askew from one surviving hinge. The lieutenant saw an obviously terrified young woman in her bedclothes. Sleep tousled bangs framed pale blue eyes and an exquisite heart shaped face whose porcelain skin was the province of only the very young. One of his men watched her at gunpoint.

Champlain stepped closer to the woman, who clutched the deep blue bedspread to her chest.

“Pardon, mademoiselle,” Champlain said. “We are here to find Jacques Hebert, to save him. Quickly, where is he?”

“I . . . I don’t know,” She shook her blonde curls, wide eyed. “I . . . mustn’t say.”

One of his troopers growled and advanced a step; each additional minute that they tarried invited disaster and every commando knew it.

She shrank backwards even as Champlain raised his hand to motion the trooper to the wall. There was so little artifice in her terrified regard that he instinctively chose a softer approach.

“We are friends and we aren’t here to hurt him,” he said. “Or to harm you. Please, help me get Jacques home.”

Gagnon bravely shouldered his way into the cleared room and produced a small, flat automatic pistol. He aimed it menacingly at the shivering young woman.

“Where is Jacques Hebert, slut?” he demanded. “Answer, or your life is forfeit!”

Behind the political officer, one of Champlain’s door kickers visibly rolled his eyes.

“Colonel, I am happy to interrogate . . .” began Champlain but the shorter man waved backwards, irritated.

“I am quite capable, Lieutenant.” Gagnon stepped closer to the woman, moving the pistol closely enough that her eyes crossed as she watched the muzzle approach.

“I don’t know for certain . . .” she stammered. “He was restless, he . . . sometimes he takes his notebooks and writes in the library, I think. Please, please don’t hurt me!”

Champlain fished around in his blouse and withdrew the target map. Scanning for the club area he noted the position of the library and club across the tennis courts, adjacent to a building labeled “Communications.” Behind him he heard Gagnon continue.

“And how many guards will he have?”

“Just the night guard sir, please, please don’t hurt me!” the woman pleaded.

Before Champlain could issue the orders to clear the room and organize movement to where he hoped they would find the target, the report of a pistol filled the small space.

He snapped his head about in time to see Gagnon holstering his weapon. The stout colonel stepped into the hallway, jostled by Kuhlman, who shouldered his way into scene at the sound of the shot.

He looked at the bed and then exchanged a glance with Champlain. After a pause, both of them turned and followed the political officer.

The teenager lay across the bed, one perfect blue eye staring at the ceiling, and the other a bloody ruin.

“You sound mildly disapproving of the colonel’s interrogation technique, Lieutenant,” stated Bin Ra’ad smugly.

“I was entirely comfortable with his questioning,” retorted Champlain. “I rather object to the murder of noncombatants. Sir.”

His last syllable rhymed perfectly with “curr.”

“You little jumped-up nobo—” Bin Ra’ad began to sputter. This time the other interviewer pushed Bin Ra’ad back lightly before scooting his chair all the way into the illuminated center of the table.

“Now Wilsyn, you don’t mind if I am familiar, do you?” asked DeGrasse.

Champlain raised one hand palm upwards, indicating that he didn’t really care.

“Wilsyn, let’s back up just a little,” He flourished a pack of Earth brand cigarettes.


Receiving a nod in reply, DeGrasse tapped out a cigarette and offered it to the lieutenant who accepted both the tobacco and a light.

The little ceremony complete, DeGrasse took a drag on his own cigarette.

“Wilsyn, I want to just briefly touch on your comment about murder,” he said. “Did you actually see Colonel Gagnon shoot the, eh, female?”

“No,” replied Champlain. “But there’s no question that he did it.”

“Yes, certainly. But, isn’t it possible that at the last moment the woman made some motion or reached for a weapon, compelling the colonel to defend himself, and of course the other . . .” Degrasse paused significantly, “. . . loyal Quebecois in the room?”

“It’s absolutely possible, Monsieur le Capitaine,” Champlain replied. The friendly smile beginning to spread across DeGrasse’s smooth countenance froze as the lieutenant finished. “. . . that the terrified teenage prostitute accessed a hidden weapon in an already cleared room, attempted to murder us all and then somehow disposed of it after Gagnon gallantly defended us from her perfidy.”

“It’s clear, DeGrasse,” Bin Ra’ad spoke into the long pause that followed. “This one is not reliable. We should return him to rot in your gaol, with the rest of the survivors.”

DeGrasse watched Champlain patiently.

“I’m not a hasty man, Colonel,” he said. “I will complete this interview first and offer Lieutenant Champlain every opportunity to complete his mission.”

“Sir, Weapons platoon reports heavy resistance past the original LZ and Bowie at the roadblock wants you!” panted Royce. Following at Champlain’s heels as the men moved towards the next cluster of buildings, his message was delivered with the rhythm of his trotting.

“Who wants me?” Champlain yelled back even as he accepted the proffered corded handset.

“Sir, Sergeant Bowie,” the radioman replied, shouting to be heard over the now ceaseless background crackle of small arms.

“Go for Charlie Six,” Champlain said, keying the handset.

“Blocking force here, Lieutenant,” Bowie replied, eschewing radio protocol. “We got vehicles approaching—wheeled APCs. Looks like they got mounted machine guns. We used a few rockets t’ make ’em dismount and push on foot, but we can hold ten minutes, mebbee twice that. Then they work around ma’ flanks and I’ve got t’withdraw.”

“Casualties?” the assault leader asked.

“Light,” the noncom shouted over the sounds of combat. The Crack-Boom! that signaled the launch and nearly simultaneous impact of an outbound rocket testified to the short range of Bowie’s firefight. “One deader an’ one injured so far.”

“The package has shifted.” Champlain informed him. “We’re searching, but the timeline holds. Even if you can hold longer, withdraw in time to get your casualties to the LZ.”

“Copy.” Bowie said unceremoniously.

Champlain passed the handset back and felt a heavy slap on his shoulder.

Major Kuhlman wanted his attention.

The broad-shouldered veteran moved lightly in his equipment and the friendly blow was only a reminder, but Champlain had seen him handle two of the worst Commando discipline cases by the simple expedient of picking them up at arm’s length until they quieted.

Even Bowie approved of the Earther, and the senior noncom hated officers as a simple matter of principle.

“We’ve got to hoof it,” Kuhlman not quite ordered. “Doesn’t matter if the kid’s at the club or library. His guards will know that there’s an attack underway, but they won’t know what we’re after.”

“So we take this bunch,” Champlain said, gesturing at First platoon. “And bust the resistance that is pushing on Weapons platoon. From there we split First and Second and we each take a building. First person to find the boy calls the op and we move Weapons to back Third at the roadblock.”

A bullet whirred overhead, the buzzing sound suggesting a ricochet instead of a sniper. Of course, a ricochet in the right place was still lethal.

Standing next to Royce, Gagnon ducked. The other officers declined to notice.

“I like it,” Kuhlman gave him a tight grin. “It’s a plan, Wil. Prevent the good colonel from exposing himself overmuch but keep him close, he’s a caution.”

The faintest wink accompanied the last statement.

On the run, the platoon shook itself out into a blunt wedge as Champlain directed the squad leaders towards the two-story complex. Ahead, they see could the irregular lines of muzzle flashes that demarcated the defensive lines of Weapon’s platoon, which was now pressed on two sides. The intersecting web of red Secordian and green Quebecois tracers dominated the exchange of fully automatic fire from both sides.

The formation broke into an outright run as they passed a corral of horses that supplemented the base motor pool. The whinnies, snorts and overall movement covered the sound of assaulters as they approached.

Champlain could see that his force had remained unnoticed. The Secordians were wholly absorbed by the action to their front as they gained fire superiority over the beleaguered Commandos’ Weapons platoon. Champlain caught Tremblay’s eye and gestured sharply toward one end of the line of Secordian skirmishers which was pouring fire into the exposed flank of raiders.

Sucks to be you, boys, he thought.

Tremblay pulled his men into a ragged halt, laying down a base of fire and carefully shooting past the remainder of the still running platoon. Their targets included almost a score of gaudily dressed Secordian Marines and one half-dressed officer. The brightness of their palace-ready uniforms didn’t reduce the effectiveness of their rapidly firing lever action rifles, which could maintain a much higher rate of fire than the bolt actions carried by Champlain’s men.

As the first Quebecois rounds reached their targets, killing and maiming several Marines, Champlain could see the blank O’s of surprised faces as the Secordians turned to look behind them. Midway up the defenders’ line, one Marine horsed around a large gun. The disk-shaped magazine on top marked it as another example of an ancient design brought back to life on Terra Nova.

The stuttering orange muzzle flash strobed, dropping several Rangers in moments.

“Grenades!” yelled Champlain as he dove into cover face first. Too quickly for them to have been in response to his order, several explosions crumped along the line of Marines, the last centered perfectly on the machine gun. Unfortunately, the detonations were also uncomfortably close to the company commander. Nearest the enemy, Champlain felt the sting of gritty dirt and sand on his exposed neck, but he appeared to have dodged the shrapnel.

His ears rang deafeningly. He must’ve lost a few moments, because Champlain suddenly registered that the Secordian machine guns had stopped firing. In fact, the entire enemy line was being mopped up. When he rubbed his neck, his hand came away with a smear of blood, underscoring two important lessons: he hadn’t dodged perfectly and grenades don’t have friends, after all.

“You hit?” Kuhlman asked as he pulled Champlain up to his knees with one hand. The other held a very short, sleek looking gun while the American observer’s Quebecois MAS carbine dangled muzzle down from its leather sling. What Champlain had assumed was a binocular case swung open under Kuhlman’s left arm.

The major noted Champlain’s look.

“I decided to bring along Vera,” he explained. “Collapsible over and under pistol caliber carbine. Integrated microgrenade launcher, autoranging multiband laser-optics. Totally proscribed for use here, so don’t mention it in your report, all right?”

Champlain shook his head again, and yawned, uselessly trying to reduce the overwhelming tinnitus.

“Didn’t see nothing,” he answered muzzily. Over the other officer’s shoulder he could see desperate attempts at first aid.

“Medic!” Tremblay called. “A moi! A moi!”

His platoon had at least a dozen wounded and killed. As Champlain scanned his surrounding, some of the supine figures resolved into men clutching their wounds. Others lay with a limp finality.

“There’s no time!” Champlain shouted, shocked by the losses. Despite the residual impact of the explosions, he continued on. “We have to take that building now! Royce! Royce!”

“Sir!” Royce yelled into Champlain’s ear.

“Pass to Weapons platoon that we are going to leapfrog into those building,” he gestured at the nearby structures. “They’re to hold security while we clear.”


Champlain turned to Kuhlman as the latter fitted a matte black block of polymer into the action of his Earth manufactured weapon.

“Where can I get one of those?” he asked.

“Can I get another cigarette, Major DeGrasse?”

Wordlessly, the Secordian intelligence office slid the pack and a lighter over to Champlain. He looked up at Bin Ra’ad.

“Were you aware that Major Kuhlman had imported advanced weaponry, Colonel?” he asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” replied Bin Ra’ad, folding his arms. “What matters is the mission. We can presume that any evidence of Kuhlman and his weapon were both totally destroyed when the damaged tilt-rotor, imported at great cost by the UN and intended exclusively for medical evacuations I might add, crashed. And since the crash site lies in Quebecois territory, there won’t be any forensic evidence for Secordia to recover.”

Champlain paused for a moment. Bin Ra’ad was clearly rehearsing the lines which he would use to finger the Rangers for an independent and unauthorized mission, should Bin Ra’ad’s scheme risk exposure.

“Apart from the bullets,” the Commando lieutenant said, hoping to point out the obvious. “The major did a lot of shooting afterwards. By that point everyone had seen him use the thing and it was better than anything else we have. If we had one or two of those per squad, I would’ve gotten almost everyone out!”

“Your job was to execute the mission with the weapons on hand, Lieutenant,” DeGrasse said, sharpening his tone. “That was the whole point.”

“Well, you have Hebert back, don’t you?” Champlain answered, his voice strained. “So, the next order of business is for Secordian High Command to honor the deal.”

“Not quite Champlain,” said Bin Ra’ad. “As I suspect you know. You see, we’ve already interviewed young Hebert.”

It cost Champlain the rest of another squad before they reached the final room, having reduced the Communication building to a smoking ruin along the way. In front of Champlain, the lead commando staggered back, his arm riddled with pellets from a defender’s shotgun. The last two Secordians fought back tenaciously from behind the shelter of the thick steel radio room door which was jammed slightly open by the commando’s last breeching tool.

Champlain decided to donate them a grenade in recognition of their vicious defense. If the kid was inside, tough. They’d retrieve his body, but Champlain was sick of losing men, his men.

His remaining team huddled away from the door for a moment. Champlain straightened and withdrew the safety pin from a fragmentation grenade. He let the spoon fly and then very carefully underhanded the fist-sized metal egg through the partially open steel door. The crack of the grenade sounded different, contained by the heavy masonry and metal construction. The overpressure banged the door shut, springing the frame. Thin gray smoke drifted out from behind the security door, now hanging slightly askew. Despite the protection of the reinforced wall, the attackers were still rocked by the blast.

Champlain took the lead position this time and pushed the door open, riding it closely all the way into the room, keeping his carbine up. Quickly, his number two and three men slid through behind him.

There was no more resistance.

He surveyed the room. No hostage. Just wrecked equipment, smoldering paper and death. Radios and maps were decorated with the blood spatter of the last two Secordians whose faces exhibited the gruesome injuries caused by the intense overpressure of the explosion.

“We got him!” in the hallway Royce yelled triumphantly. He waved the handset at Champlain again. “Kuhlman says he’s got him!”

Champlain’s heart lifted even as his minder sounded off in the hallway outside.

“Where?” demanded Gagnon. “Where’s the boy?”

Gagnon had elected to shadow Champlain’s detachment. The company commander didn’t dwell on the significance of Gagnon’s choice, but it did leave Kuhlman alone as he took another group into the adjoining recreation area.

“The major says to come to him,” said the radioman, ignoring the Quebecois politico. “Says it’s easier than dragging the package directly to us.”

“Right,” answered Champlain. “We’ll head that way. Colonel, stay closer to me this time and keep up. We have to move quickly.”

He ignored the glare from the bandy-legged man.

The real problem was the Secordian shelling. One of the armored personnel carriers pushing on Bowie’s defenders mounted a mortar. At the roadblock, the Rangers were pinned by the ever increasing small arms fire from the Secordians. Bowie had reported by radio that without overhead protection, they were steadily absorbing casualties from the high angle of attack weapons. The lethal HE shells were relatively inaccurate, but the Secordian design was fed by clips of three shells. The overlapping detonations of each stonk covered enough ground to offset the lack of pinpoint accuracy.

One lucky hit could kill or maim his whole group, so Champlain kept them under as much cover as possible as they ran towards Kuhlman’s position.

“Alors!” A voice rang out from a doorway ahead. They slowed clumsily, Gagnon rebounding from Champlain’s equipment harness before the group filed in, chased inside by a brilliant starshell.

“Here’s our man!” Kuhlman brought their target over, effortlessly towing him despite Hebert’s seemingly reluctance. The burning magnesium shone through the windows to reveal the rapidly blinking eyes of a pale college age youth. Shadows tilted across his face as the Secordian para-flare scudded ahead of the breeze.

Gagnon muscled through the press of troopers.

“Do you have it?” he asked, his eyes greedily taking in the schoolboy pack that Herbert clutched to his chest. “Do you?”

“Uncle Gagnon!” exclaimed the boy, clearly surprised. “I mean, yes, of course!”

Champlain met Kuhlman’s eyes but the Earther only gave him a miniscule head shake in return.

Hebert flipped open the pack, which was decorated with a Quebecois fleur-de-lis patch. The starshell died, so Champlain helpfully used his expensive, civilian pocket torch to illuminate the interior. Hebert’s shaking hands lifted a plastic sleeve. Four golden compact discs gleamed, each slotted individually into the transparent plastic.

There was a brief murmur from the ranks. Most of the men had never seen in person what passed for advanced Earth technology.

“CDs?” Champlain asked. “What do we care a—?”

“Close that!” In a single motion, Gagnon slapped the pack closed and yanked the bag away from Hebert. “Classified!”

“Master Hebert explained about the discs already, Colonel,” drawled Kuhlman. “He insisted on bringing them with him, you see. Took a bit since he hadn’t finished copying the last one over from the entertainment unit in the corner.”

He nodded his head at a rare, but clearly damaged Earth made computer. It was plugged into the wreckage of a large televisor unit, and its housing and screen were cracked and starred from heavy impacts—marks about the right size to have come from the buttstock of a Quebecois carbine. A commando stood nearby, carefully holding one of their few demolition packs.

“Also cost us another two dead and one more wounded,” he added, “Since the Secordians appeared to object to us fiddling with their video equipment.”

“What gives, Colonel?” asked Champlain, turning towards Gagnon, anger tinging his words. “We have the hostage. What’s was the point of the discs?”

Advanced technology was sharply limited outside the UN enclave at Atlantis. The optical CDs could be read only by scarce Earth supplied computers. Outside instances where the extremely wealthy could use them on smuggled entertainment units or inside the laboratories of very well funded universities, the number of reliably functioning CD readers and computers was infinitesimally small.

“Although we tried to disable the equipment manually, it needs a little extra effort,” Kuhlman said, not quite answering Champlain’s question. “Master Hebert also explained the importance of destroying local copies and hiding his activities. Therefore, as soon as we move out, Private Cote will ignite the charge.”

“Yes, well, fine,” harrumphed Gagnon, grudging approval apparent. “We have what we came for then!”

Champlain looked the question to Kuhlman, who nodded.

“All right, Craveaux,” Champlain said to the surviving corporal from First Platoon. “Do a quick head and ammo count, cross load what we have left. Royce!”

“Right here, sir,” the tall radioman piped up behind him.

“Get me the Senior Sergeant Bowie. Tell him to withdraw towards the LZ. We’ll meet him there after we collect Weapons Platoon outside. Tremblay!”

“Sir?” The assistant rigger was also one of the squad leaders in Second.

“Your job is to stay with Monsieur Hebert,” ordered Champlain. “His physical safety is your personal responsibility, which isn’t over until his feet touch Quebecois soil. You aren’t relieved till I relieve you. Understood?”


Despite the casualties and his sense of confusion at the byplay between Gagnon, the hostage and Major Kuhlman, Champlain felt a growing sense of elation.

By God we’re gonna pull it off!

Then the windows blew in, ahead of a sleet of shrapnel.

“The data! You have it!” exclaimed Bin Ra’ad. “Where is it!”

“Not with me,” replied Champlain.

“Lieutenant, or may I amend, Captaine Champlain, you are to be congratulated,” DeGrasse said, ignoring the outburst from his partner. “Not only did you extract the boy, but you have preserved the valuable information that young Monsieur Hebert happened to chance upon, as he informed us when we spoke with him.”

“Yeah,” answered Champlain wryly. “We have the discs that young Jacques made.”

“So give them over, now!” ordered the tall UN colonel, stalking over to Champlain’s side of the table. “They contain critical, potentially priceless military intelligence!”

“Well, sir,” Champlain said, drawing out the last syllable again. “I have to agree that they might be priceless, but I’m not certain about the military part. And that bit about ‘chanced upon’ is what my old tactics instructor would call a polite fiction.”

“Happenstance or not,” DeGrasse said politely, “The crux of the matter is that you have them and will deliver them to us now.”

“And our pardons will be granted?”

Certainement,” replied the Quebecois major. Still standing over the tired commando, Colonel Bin Ra’ad partially clenched his hands, like talons.

“I’m betting that our deal is unlikely to be honored once those discs are in your hands,” replied Champlain, totally ignoring the Earther. “Unless our signed pardons are in my hands first.”

DeGrasse lit himself another cigarette and exhaled luxuriously.

“Exactly what position do you think that you are in, that you can dictate terms, Capitaine?” asked DeGrasse. The urbane major presented a small pistol and laid it on the table. “While it pains me to make so obvious a statement, I must insist that you produce the discs now, if you please.”

Champlain noted in passing that it was the same model as the gun that Gagnon carried. He looked back up and briefly imagined a bloody red crater where DeGrasse’s perfect left eye was. Fatigue slipped away and Champlain chuckled. The smile cracked the blood that had dried on his neck.

“Sure, you can shoot me,” he said. “Shooting is easy. But that doesn’t get you the discs because they aren’t with me.”

He leaned backwards, stretching his legs straight out under the table.

“If I don’t walk out of here, those discs will remain beyond your reach forever,” he said, casually crossing one ankle over the other. “I’m betting that since no one else has checked on us so far, you two are the only ones on this base who really know about the discs. And the UN survey mining assay data on them. Data that is supposed to be locked away in a UN vault in Atlantis and that somehow ended up in the personal cache of a Secordian general.”

“What nonsense is this?” Bin Ra’ad said angrily. “How do you know this? Those data are UN property, to be returned immediately!”

“Oh, maybe there are some other conspirators who know about the gold deposits documented in the assays,” Champlain continued, ignoring the indignant UN officer. “But Quebecois high command? The High Admiral in orbit? I rather doubt it. And after this mission and the loss of UN aircraft, you won’t get a second chance to retrieve the data from anywhere else, if it even exists.”

“That damned Quebecois whelp talks too much.” Bin Ra’ad ground his teeth. “If he were back on Earth I would teach him, and his father, a very long lesson at the end of a very short stake.”

DeGrasse looked at the automatic and then back up, meeting Champlain’s eyes.

“We appear to be at an impasse,” he said, tapping one manicured fingernail on the table top, a few inches from his gun. “What do you propose? For if as you suppose, we are the only ones who are aware of the mining assay data, then surely we are desperate men. Without the discs, I can’t imagine a reason why you should depart this room with that knowledge.”

“So we exchange one for the other, sir,” replied Champlain. “You prepare the signed pardon for the entire unit, even the dead. You then loan me a phone and I reach a party that will bring the discs to us here.”

“You dare . . .” repeated Colonel Bin Ra’ad. “You dare to dictate terms to me! Do you know what I can do to you, to everyone that you care about?”

“I can guess, Colonel,” said Champlain. “And that’s why we’re going to do it my way, or not at all.”

“Sir, sir! Wake up!”

Champlain blinked, his eyes gummy. Cool liquid splashed on his face and he raised a hand to try to wipe it away. It came away red with clotted blood.

“It ain’t yours, sir. C’mon, you with me?”

He rapidly came all the way back. Bowie was kneeling next to him in the wreckage of the library courtyard. Champlain drank a little water from the canteen at his lips.

That’s twice in one night I’ve been blown the fuck up, he thought.

In the background, a heavy machine gun stitched the compound. The faster rate of fire identified it as a Secordian weapon. The high-pitched cracks overhead meant that the rounds were still supersonic and the enemy was uncomfortably close.

“Sitrep, Senior Sergeant,” Champlain said, slightly slurring the words.

“Tha’ Secordians pushed those APCs all the way up and your team got hit by a stonk from the mortar. Gagnon’s dead. You’re wearing bits of him across your face. Tremblay dove on top of the hostage and caught a bunch of shrap in the neck, he’s down hard. Tha’ kid, he’s shook but okay, hell—Kuhlman even gave him his schoolbag back. Tha’ major took what’s left of Second to push back on the Secordian react squad. As soon as he left, a pair of sappers tried to blow the courtyard but I potted them before they could arm the charges.”

“Weapons Platoon?”

“Sir, there ain’t no more Weapons Platoon.” answered Bowie. “Major said that you, me and First are gonna head for the LZ. And we have less than fifteen minutes to get there before those fancy tilt-rotors leave without us.”

“How we set for the heavy stuff?”

“We’re just about out of ammo for the belt feds,” the noncom replied. “I used tha’ last of tha’ rockets to break contact in order to get here, just to have that crazy Earther go right back out t’tha’ road. If youse tired of living, we got those sappers’ demo charges and that’s it.”

“Right, help me up,” the lieutenant ordered, after a very brief pause. He and Bowie clasped forearms and Champlain stood all the way up, barely swaying.

“Everybody’s getting out, Razor,” he said. “Even the wounded. You organize movement to the LZ. Protect the package at all costs. I’m going for Kuhlman and Second and we’ll fight our way back to the LZ. If we’re not there in twelve minutes, you get the fuck out. Got it?”

“Sir, you’re a crazy fucker,” replied Bowie. “But it’s your call.”

“Royce, on me!” ordered Champlain. “We’re heading to the sound of guns.”

When radioman and his officer left the courtyard, Champlain was barely weaving at all.

The fighting was a lot closer than when Champlain had entered the building. Red tracers spurted overhead. Periodically they ducked when they heard the faint whistle of a mortar round descending on final trajectory.

Overshooting their objective, they nearly surprised the crew of a Secordian APC that was gathered on the open ramp of their vehicle, arguing on their radio. Hastily backtracking around a low brick wall, they crawled as fast as they could heedless of the skin on their knees and palms. Two hundred yards further on they came to an abrupt halt.

Sans Peur!” came a harsh whisper from ahead.

Coeur robust!” replied Champlain, completing the challenge and password. “Where is Major Kuhlman?”

“Over here, sir.”

They followed a Second platoon runner to the UN major who was peering through the sights of his high tech weapon, which projected a faint green glow on his brow. To either side, the remains of Second were strung out in hasty firing positions that blocked the road leading further into the Secordian base. Less than fifty yards away, an APC was stopped in the middle of the road, pale flames licking up from the open driver’s hatch.

A few still bodies lay beside it, illuminated by dull orange flames that dripped from the undercarriage.

“I thought I saw a couple friendlies scuttling about out there,” Kuhlman said conversationally, scanning the near distance. “Figured it was Bowie, not you.”

Intermittently, commando carbines answered the much larger, but diffuse, incoming Secordian firepower.

“Major, we got to get the fuck out, now!” said Champlain. “Birds are gonna leave in less than ten minutes.”

He glanced at his luminous wristwatch.

“Make that nine minutes!”

“Thing is, Wilsyn,” Hermann began to answer. He paused, and his weapon coughed once. “That’s eleven.”

“Thing is,” he repeated. “The moment we pull out, the Secordians are going to roll ‘hey diddle-diddle’ right up this here road all the way to the LZ.”

He turned to look directly at Champlain, carefully keeping his modern weapon pointed down range.

“If they get line of sight to the extract birds then no one goes home,” he said exasperatedly. “My way, at least you were going to get out with kid and have a shot at freedom for your men. But without you, whoever Gagnon was working with will just roll over top of the survivors. No pardons for any of you, get it?”

“So we use these,” answered Champlain, shrugging out of his pack in order to reveal a linked pair of scratch built Secordian demo charges. “My radioman has two more.”

He tumbled out the crudely taped and fabric wrapped bundles. A coil of yellow prima cord and metered pull ring fuses flopped to once side, making Kuhlman wince.

“Well, ordinarily, given the choice between chancing a demo charge improvised by what passes for a demo expert on this planet and wrestling a bear,” Kuhlman said, more closely examining Champlain’s payload. “I’d say, bring on the b’ar. But . . .”

His fingers gently plucked at the connections, checking the integrity of the explosives while Champlain spoke aloud.

“We give them a final defensive fire, set the charges to stagger every minute and haul ass,” the Quebecois lieutenant urged. “By the time that the last one goes, we’re all the way to the birds. So fuck your b’ar, sir. Everyone goes home.”

It worked.

The first of the charges appeared to stun the Secordians and covered the withdrawal of the remains of the Second. After the first burst of speed, the dozen or so Rangers slowed from their initial headlong sprint into a more sustainable running pace. The slow motion ripple of subsequent explosions along the road must have done the trick.

Or near enough that Second just passed the crest of the rise that shielded the LZ before the first Secordian APC poked its snout through the wreckage of the Secordian base, emerging into view.

A dozen meters behind the survivors, Champlain brought up the rear, trotting alongside Kuhlman, Royce faithfully dogging his heels. The feeling of elation was stronger now. The rotors of the aircraft were plainly audible over the sound of small arms and the faster Second platoon Rangers were already descending towards the LZ.

Champlain flashed a wide grin at Major Kuhlman, who just shook his head, returning a more restrained smile.

The merest whisper overhead was all the warning that they had, before the faithful radioman tackled his officer to the ground, even as the triple hammerfist of mortars bracketed the road.

Three times. That’s three fucking times I’ve been blown up tonight. Fucking mortars. thought Champlain. He struggled to roll a soft, heavy weight off his back.

“Royce, hey Royce!” the commando officer said. “Hey, man, you all right? Get up, Royce!”

He felt warm wetness soaking his shirt.

Though the radioman didn’t answer, some slight movement suggested that Royce was alive. But when Champlain finished sliding out from under his man and carefully sat up, the gush of lifeblood spilling from the radioman’s gaping head wound was already slowing to a trickle.

Kuhlman was alive, however.

“Hey Wilsyn,” he said. “Now you got to beat it.”

“Let’s go, sir!” Champlain crawled the short distance between them. “We got to go!”

“Can’t feel my legs.” The UN officer coughed, and a light pink froth speckled his lip. “Can’t see too good; look there’s something you need to know.”

Champlain let him talk, but ditched his own equipment. It was the work of a minute to sling the Earth made gun across his chest, and then roll Kuhlman to a sitting position without hurting him too much. Despite Champlain’s best efforts to be gentle, a grunt of pain interrupted the major’s message, which he hadn’t stopped muttering. With a muscle-tearing effort, Champlain got Kuhlman’s weight across his shoulders and then straightened.

A few more shots whined overhead but the extract aircraft beckoned just down the slope. A spill of light shone like hope, and his Rangers were waving him on.

Bowie entered the room, Hebert’s backpack hanging negligently from one scarred hand. In the other an olive drab steel egg was partially visible. The grenade was tightly enfolded in the big man’s fist and no one missed the glaring detail of the safety pin missing from the striker device.

“Over here, Razor,” said Champlain, beckoning him closer. “Keep a hand on the bag, but let Major DeGrasse here have a look on the table.”

Cigarette dangling, the intelligence major flipped the bag open, the fleur-de-lis winking like quicksilver in the dull light. If the grenade bothered DeGrasse, it wasn’t evident. He looked inside where the CDs gleamed, easily visible. DeGrasse nodded to Bin Ra’ad.

“Here, you rotting extortionist!” the UN colonel said, angrily shoving a sheaf of paper over the table. “Take your pardon and pray that we never meet again.”

Champlain nodded as he read the top page, examining the signatures, the great seal of the Terran Novan nation of Quebec and the counter stamped endorsement of Atlantis Command.

“Colonel, that’s my earnest desire,” he said. “And given what Senior Sergeant Bowie is capable of, you might want to make that a mutual wish. In fact, the sergeant has had a particularly trying night. We all benefit from him not suddenly deciding to frag the officers that cost us three quarters of our team.”

He nodded to Bowie, who slowly relinquished his hold on the pack. He kept the grenade visible.

“Thank you Capitaine Champlain,” DeGrasse said, replacing the flap on his pistol holster. “You have my word that it ends here.”

“I know what you word is worth, Major,” Champlain said, folding the pardons and tucking them inside his blouse.

A sudden bitterness invaded his tone for the first time.

“And I know why you arranged this entire mission. In fact, I’d wager these pardons that the only ones who were supposed to know about the existence of the UN assays were Gagnon, the kid’s father and you two. You dare not tell anyone else or you would get in trouble. Not for raiding Terran Novan gold from under our noses but because you didn’t invite anyone else in. The High Admiral would certainly take exception to missing his cut, no?”

“As you say,” replied DeGrasse. “But this business is complete. Take your pardons and your men and enjoy your life. Bon soir.

Champlain rose and walked to the end of the hut, the papers crinkling audibly under his chin. He held the door for Bowie, who continued to look at each of the two officers.

The fingers on his grenade hand whitened for a moment.

Bin Ra’ad sneered but otherwise remained silent as the tall commando slowly backed to the door.

Outside, they quickly exited the checkpoint manned by a pair of Security Police.

“You mind sliding the pin back in that bombe, Razor?” asked Champlain.

“Naw, sir, I don’t mind,” said Bowie, fishing in his pants pocket for the cotter key that would secure the grenade’s bail. “I just wish that I’d tossed this into the hooch as we walked out. Really chaps my ass that those spooks are gonna make money off our dead. Doesn’t feel right.”

“Here’s your pardon Top,” said Champlain, tapping his blouse. “That should feel pretty right. Besides, they’ve got the CDs. I didn’t say shit about promising them the data.”


“Before I got Kuhlman out,” Champlain remarked. “He told me what was what. During the confusion when we got mortared the first time, he used the ranging laser on his fancy gun to light up the discs.”

“So what, sir?” replied Bowie.

“Kuhlman was an Earther, trained on high tech,” said the officer. “The UV range finder was in the same wavelength as the lasers used to record the data. He scrambled the CDs so that the data was trashed without leaving any marks. It’ll just look like they didn’t get copied properly. That’s on the kid.”

“The kid that we thought was the whole point of the op?” Razor started laughing. “The kid that already pissed off that tall UN asshole?”

“Yeah, the kid that I risked my life, your life, all of our lives for,” Champlain shared a final, feral grin. “I’ll risk it all, risk us all, for la belle patrie, or to save a hostage. But, I’ll be damned if I’ll do it so some UN Earther or SecPol can make a fortune. And Kuhlman? He felt the same way.”

Back | Next