Here is the second part of my current story. Here we get to meet more characters.
Krasnoyarsk Outpost Two, Siberian District, Russia
24 August, 2259 Terra Year
1416 Zulu Time
Horacio watched the embedded reporter speak to his CO. The little camera floated around on its regressive gravity platform, controlled by little twitches of the reporter’s big toe. The lieutenant pretended to be busy with a balky mass coil driver for a squad automatic weapon while the interview was going on. He was trying to keep an eye on Captain Màrtainn, ready to interrupt with a pretext to get her away from the reporter. Some bullshit excuse, maybe pretend he needed her CO’s retina print and voice print on a report for something. God knows there was enough paperwork floating around the military that it was plausible enough. Then again, there probably really was stuff that needed her to sign off on anyway.
The technology of the camera intrigued him. It was something proprietary, and more than likely some JAG lawyer was trying to get it licensed to the military. He could think of a few ways to weaponize something like that. He wasn’t too keen on the idea of getting the picocontrollers for the thing implanted in selected muscles. It was different for everyone. Not everyone had the best control of a certain muscle group, so they went with whatever body part they had the best control over, other than face, ears, and hands. Reporters still had to write, or at the very least manipulate electronic tools with devices. The military didn’t use thumbprints anymore, but the civilian applications did. Biometrics had come a long way in several centuries.
The captain was still outwardly calm. The reporter was a good man, and even though no one in the unit liked reporters, they’d all respected him. He was professional, competent, and best of all, a former Marine. The reporter knew how to elicit information and lay down covering fire. So, the reporter got more tolerance from the Marines. Horacio saw her twitch a little when she spoke about the Russian, and his heart hurt for her. Horacio was jaded after years of war and having served in two branches as officer, but for some reason he was more protective of his current CO than all the others. He wasn’t the only one to feel that way, and over blood beers later he and Second Lieutenant DeBourchier concluded it was because she was his first female commanding officer.
“Not saying you’re attracted to her, sir. But we all kinda watch out for her in battle. God knows if she thought we were, she’d rip us new ones, and that’s no joke. That sharp tongue and temper of hers, well, you know how it is.”
“Don’t I know it, D.B. Sometimes, she ain’t a people person.”
“No, but damn, what a fighter.”
“Too bad we can’t replicate a hundred of her and send them all to Ik’tretka.”
“Their home planet would explode.”
They looked around to make sure she wasn’t hovering around. Lieutenant DeBourchier sat back and belched politely. His black mustache stood out against the flash of pearly white teeth.
“What I don’t like is the trippies running experiments on our women and using them like so many brood mares. I heard too much about the feeding stations.”
It was no secret about the particular atrocities visited on women. The staff xeno-psychologists were all ripping out body hair trying to figure out why the trippies liked women so much. Yes, there was the hormone thing, estrogen and such, but no one had captured a live Trippy to find out why. He knew about the warrior suicide culture they had. The xeno-anthropologists said that according to every intelligence document they could find, the trippies considered what humans called death to be the same thing as “growing up.” The thought that the human race was locked in a to-the-death battle with children was disquieting.
“Where are their ‘parents?’ Wouldn’t you think they have to be around somewhere?”
“You’d think so, but no, I guess not. Leastaways, nobody’s made the trip to go find them.”
“Yeah, too busy dealing with the hooligans knocking down the mailbox and leaving prank calls. What about trying to keep them alive when we take prisoners?”
“You know how hard that is.”
The Trippy prisoners tapped into their warrior culture whenever they were captured, and performed a version of seppuku. The ritual was never-ending, and every Marine, spacer, soldier – or cop, for that matter – had seen it at least once.
Once a Trippy was issued into a cell, they made use of the facilities to ‘purify’ themselves. Water was water, apparently, and they consumed it with gusto. The Trippy prisoner would cleanse themselves, arrange their bark-like exoskeleton with care, and usually compose a poem in their native tongue. Some of the more educated among them would write it in Standard, which was strange enough. Those composers were the more militant of any of the prisoners taken.
The strange thing was that in the absence of a spoken language, the Trippies had very complex written language. It was a very precise orthography, heavy on mathematics. The heavy scientists like the physicists, astronomers, mathematicians, various engineers, and so forth all wanted to study this language for possible use in scientific expression. Strangely, though, there was several subsets of the Trippy language that dealt with the abstract of art and interpretive expression. The scientists with the artistic leanings was pleased to find this hidden side as well.
This dichotomy of the aliens – the absence of a spoken language versus a complex written language – made for a lot of head scratching and debates. Whenever a prisoner was taken, several of the scientists from whatever range of discipline that was available rotated watches along with the military personnel. They waited for the prisoners to write out anything, and watched for minute clues in posture or mood. Each composition was recorded and pored over, with the more popular posted in the daily intelligence briefings to the Theater CINCs.
Currently the November Tau Tanka was the selection given. So called because the layout happened to match the style of a Japanese tanka, it ran as follows:
the air of battle
makes gre’swetor’s sweet hail
Come, gre’swetor! I have stood
awaiting my time proudly!
This particular tanka was accompanied by a list of battle accomplishments and honors, posts, duties, and commands held by the Trippy in question. It turned out that he (or she or it, no one was sure) was a fighter of some great influence. Even to a layman, it seemed impressive. The xeno-anthropologists seemed to be particularly impressed by the genealogy that the fighter had thoughtfully attached.
They couldn’t ask him/her/it about it, though. Like every other Trippy that they’d captured, the fighter had written all he/she/it had to say down after the ritualistic purification, bowed to the four winds, collapsed where he/she/it had stood upright, and died. This was the supposed meaning of the word ‘gre’swetor,‘ but no one was quite sure.
There was no way to stop them. Suicide watches had been set on every one, and most just recited a string of numbers, using their language hardware, then collapsed. Invariably, there would be a message arriving at the headquarters, with the numbers in the headers of the message, that contained the last words of the Trippy in question. If there was more than one, say in holding cells, one would act as a second for the others’ action. It was half-seriously dubbed trippuku by the Marines, and the slang word had caught on. After all the other Trippies had been ‘assisted,’ the second in the trippuku ritual would follow suit. This one would always list the assistance just given last as a great honor, and expire happily.
Lieutenant DeBourchier shoved his empty blood beer mug to the sergeant bartending and stood up.
“It’s been nice, sir, but I got to rack out. I have an early patrol tomorrow.”
“I hear you. Hey, don’t forget those evaluations.”
“Yeah, tell me about it. I think sometimes the military runs on paperwork, not fake-coffee.”
“It does. Thanks a lot for reminding me about coffee, fake or not. Real coffee’s five hundred credits a pound and you want to mention it? This crap we got now just sucks.”
“Sorry. I’m not the one that lived on the stuff before the Trippies came.” The junior lieutenant smirked as he slipped the proverbial dagger in.
“Oh, get out of here before I wipe that smirk off your face.”
DeBourchier left, not particularly worried about the jesting threat. The sergeant grinned at the officer.
“Sir, one day he’ll get it back. Don’t you worry.”
“Not worried, sarge. I’ll get mine. Besides, I still have a freeze-dried pound of coffee he doesn’t know about in my bank’s safe deposit box back home. When the war’s over, I’m going to get it out, open it, brew a pot, and I’m not sharing.”
The last part came as the sergeant was visibly drooling. He seemed to be disappointed. Horacio didn’t have any sympathy for him, or anyone else.
“And another thing…”
“Anyone comes up to me and starts sniffing around for coffee, I’ll know right where to go.” A level glance spoke volumes. The sergeant nodded quickly, and placed a shot glass in front of the officer.
“Sir, I got something for you to try. I was saving it for a special occasion, but now’s just as good a time as any.”
“Okay, what is it?”
“Patience, sir. You’ll see.”
Horacio watched as the sergeant took two unmarked green glass bottles out of the cupboard, one smaller than the other. He set those down by the shot glass, then got a teaspoon and a dirty white bottle from the small refrigerator under the bar.
The sergeant smiled, and shook his head. He set the white bottle down on the other side of the glass, and theatrically balanced the spoon on it. Horacio rolled his eyes, but was intrigued enough not to say anything. The officer watched as the enlisted man uncorked the bigger bottle and carefully pour out half a shot of clear liquid into the glass. He recorked it and put it on the counter running the length of the wall behind the bar. After he uncorked the second bottle, the sergeant grabbed the spoon and twirled it absently.
Horacio raised an eyebrow.
The sergeant placed the spoon bowl side up over the shot glass, and very slowly poured a deep green liquid over the spoon, leaving a space to the rim measuring maybe the thickness of three coins. Horacio noticed that the green liquid didn’t settle in and mix with the other fluid, but sat placidly in a layer over it. He still didn’t say anything. The sergeant uncorked the dirty white bottle with one hand without moving his spoon, and tipped in a milky white cream over the spoon in the same manner as the green layer.
Horacio noticed that the cream left no residue or droplets on the spoon. Looking at the shot glass, he saw that the concoction was steaming or smoking – he couldn’t tell which.
“Throw it back, sir, whole thing. Quick, before that top layer melts. Swallow quick.”
The officer looked up at him, then shrugged. He grabbed the shot glass, feeling the warm and cold layers through the thin glass, and threw it back.
His breath left him as molten fire coursed down to his stomach. As the slug inched its sedate way, following gravity, he was surprised to note that the peristalsis of his digestive tract had stopped in shock. His muscles tightened in response, but as the shot worked its way down, the muscles loosened up after it passed. Horacio was sure that his stomach was going to clench up, but that didn’t happen. Instead it seemed to calm itself and go to sleep. A feeling of warmth and content ease washed over him, and he looked at the bartending sergeant in astonishment.
“Sergeant Hanks, just what in the hell was that?”
The sergeant grinned.
“Felt like poison going down, didn’t it, but at the end, feels great?”
“Yes, but you didn’t answer the question. What was it?”
“The guys call it Cosmic Explosion.”
“I can see why. Where did it come from?”
The sergeant wiped the bar as he spoke.
“Well, one of the intel guys was looking at the trippuku stuff they get, and one of them left his favorite drink. They didn’t really think anything of it, until other Trippies after that one mentioned in their own missives that they wished they’d had it one last time. It’s sort of like Gunny Jacob’s meat jerky, as far as we can tell.”
The officer nodded. Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Jacob was famous in the unit, and beyond, for the jerky chews he made to take out on patrol with him. He charged a high price for a small bag of his jerky, but not one Marine complained. They got discounts compared to the Navy and Army. The joke was that when he retired, Gunny Jacob was going to get rich from the jerky. The other joke was that since he guarded his secret method so well, the recipe he used was classified high enough that even God wasn’t cleared for the information.
“So what about it? Are you saying that this Trippy made this drink, like Gunny’s jerky?” He coughed and watched, fascinated, as the room spun a little. The sergeant had a hand out to steady him already.
“How do you know this stuff won’t kill me?”
“Me and the boys did a scientifical test. We found out what the analogues was to the Trippy ingredients. It turns out that you have to make up the green part and the white part, but any moonshine at least a hunnert ‘n’ fifty proof will do.”
“So what was the proof?”
“We took leave and drank shots. Nobody can get through more than two. Best part is, you don’t get a hangover.”
“Well, that’s good, but I don’t think I’ll be trying a second one so soon. I’ll try another one next week. Damn, that’s potent.”
“You say so, sir. You know what’s funny?”
“What?” He was slurring his words a little now.
“Skipper can slam two of these beauties, and still ream someone out. You can’t tell it affects her a-tall.”
“Dayum. She’s a better man than me. You put me out with one shot. I’m going to bed.”
The sergeant laughed.
“Have a good night, sir.” He watched as the officer carefully got off the rough wooden stool and navigate slowly to the door. Sergeant Hanks traded smirks with the other enlisted man cleaning up for closing time. The lance corporal flipped the sign over, and turned out the lights, then walked to the bar.
Sergeant Hanks was just finishing two more Cosmic Explosions, and he locked up the bottles, as the lance corporal sat down on the seat the officer had just left. He picked up his shot.
“Well, Bill, another day.”
“Got that right, Roger, another day, down the tubes.” The sergeant picked up his shot, and they threw their drinks back. Both shuddered simultaneously.
“Think this place is going to survive?”
The sergeant stared off in the distance, thinking about the lance corporal’s question.
“I hope so, but the way it’s been going, I don’t have any kind of clue.”
“Lieutenant Bisbee’s all right, but the Skipper… she’s scary.”
The sergeant thinned his lips.
“I know she isn’t going to win any popularity contests, now or probably ever, but if anybody that managed to deal with half of what she’s had to and still be a saint is cracked. He’s got something eating at him, too, but he keeps it close.”
“Why? You heard something?”
“Bartenders and priests hear a lot, and both drink because of it. I’ll keep the Skipper’s secrets, mainly because I don’t want her after me.”
“OK, well, yes, I can understand that. You know scuttlebutt has that there’s another operation laid on in a few weeks.”
“I know, and it don’t look too good.”
“You know any details?”
“All I know is rescuing women. They’ve been pretty tight with anything else. The Skipper and Mr. Bisbee’s going in with the whole team. I don’t know anything else, and don’t really want to know anything else.” The sergeant gave the lance corporal a speaking glance.
“Did you know about the special munitions for the mass driver weapons?”
“Yes, there’s several huge crates, about big enough you or I could stand up in, being guarded at the corner of the ammo dump. All hours, and the guard are all people that I don’t remember having seen here before.” The lance corporal had a photographic memory for faces. “I don’t know where they come from or what they do when they aren’t around those crates. A forklift had to move them, and they drive the forklift, too. Nobody on the base is assigned there. I nosed around. People don’t even know about it, and I wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t happened to drive by on an errand the other day. It’s locked up tighter than a battlecruiser’s hull. There’s a godawful big barracks behind that razor tipped fence, too.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t be talking about it. Loose lips and all that, you know?”
“I know, but …”
“They’re armed with some serious shoulder weapons, they’re in uniform, and they have military discipline out the yingyang, but this group isn’t Army, Navy, or Marines. They aren’t wearing Hegemony threads.”
“So they’re government contractors.”
“Yeah, you’d think so….”
The junior enlisted man had a frown on his face still. Sergeant Hanks looked at him.
“I said that I didn’t see anyone that belonged here, and I meant that. I did recognize quite a few people I’ve served with that. All of them were lifers. Career service, and no pushovers. Two of the others was my senior drill instructor and another drill instructor. None of them would get out of the service for anything and I would have bet my life savings that all of them would die in uniform before they took it off. Plus, we’ve had a higher rate of turnover in our staffing on this assignment than the norm, not counting casualties and injuries. I called some friends in the network around the world and they’re telling me the same thing.”
“Are you saying…”
“I don’t know what I’m saying, except something is going on that don’t look aboveboard. There’s a paramilitary unit out there, behind that fence that’s got people in it that mean business. They’re self-contained in there. They don’t mix and mingle with our people out here.”
“That’s not good.”
“No, and that worries me. Yeah, military secrets and all that, but I did a little digging.”
“Hold on! The hell!”
“Relax. I checked building orders. I didn’t get into personnel files or anything like that. Building orders are non-class.”
Sergeant Hanks shook his head.
“I don’t want anyone busting up in here and throwing me on the ground just because you happen to be here.”
“I doubt it. Now, do you want to hear what I found, or not?”
“I think I’m going to regret it, but you have my attention now.”
The lance corporal grinned humorlessly.
“It turns out that the base planning commission – you know the guys that go to work all day in that basement and almost never sees the sun – they think that corner of the base is all forest. There’s no work permits, construction permits, administrative orders, utility hookups, electronics contract work – nothing. Just a permanent hold order for that exact plot of land. Those feather merchant clerks in that detachment didn’t seem interested in telling me much more than that.”
“What does the hold order do?”
“It’s a reservation thing. Whoever puts the order in can hold it until they’re ready to develop it, and things like that can literally stagnate.”
“Well, if there’s this ‘hold order,’ then why isn’t there other paperwork on file for the buildings and improvements out there?”
The lance corporal blew his breath out.
“Don’t you get it? There’s some higher than top secret stuff going on over there, and people are noticing. It isn’t just me. There’s people being quietly shuffled around, too. That makes holes that need to be filled, and it’s attracting attention. It’s going to start pulling in more than that soon, and it’ll start with trying to find the unit all these people went to. Somebody is going to pull that hold order up on a computer somewhere and they’re going to see that it’s a ‘work in progress.’ They’ll stop looking there, unless they go looking with the Eyeball Mark One, Mod Zero. If they decide they want more answers and try to get onto that mini base out there…”
The sergeant looked at the lance corporal, then unlocked the whiskey cabinet again.