Monday, June 25, 2018

#Review - An Ancient Peace (Peacekeeper #1) by Tanya Huff #SyFy

Series: Peacekeeper # 1
Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
Release Date: October 6, 2015
Publisher: DAW
Source: Library
Genre: Science Fiction

The first adventure in a thrilling new science fiction spin-off series of Tanya Huff’s Confederation novels

Someone is searching for the lost weapons of the H’san: powerful tools capable of destroying entire planets. Though the H’san, like the other Elder Races, gave up war long ago, with the formation of the Confederation and the truce with the Younger races, the reappearance of their lost weapons would no doubt lead to a devastating war. It’s up to Torin Kerr and her team to fix this problem before it explodes. But the more Torin learns about the relationship between the Elder and Younger races, the more she fears war might be unavoidable…

Series Overview: Torin Kerr and her team must stave off a search for planet-destroying weapons to prevent an interplanetary war, in this spinoff of Huff’s popular spacefaring Confederation series.

An Ancient Peace is the first installment in author Tanya Huff's Peacekeeper trilogy. FYI, this is a continuation of the Confederation series. You can either have already read the previous series, or take your chances and push forward into this new chapter for Ex-Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr and her team. Torin and her team are now working for the Justice Department chasing down those like Richard Varga and the Humans First movement who are looking to stir up trouble between the so called Younger Races, and the Elder Races. 

Torin's crew includes Craig Ryder, Former Lance Corporal and Sniper Binti Mashana, Werst, Krai and Alambra Di Tayko. Kerr had been the very model of a Confederation Marine. Torin was in the mix when she fought 1,000 Silsviss to a standstill which led them to joining the Confederation; she was the first person to discover an alien race which the author is calling Plastic Aliens for short. But when she learned the truth about the war the Confederation was fighting, she left the military for good. 

But Torin couldn’t walk away from preserving and protecting everything the Confederation represented. Instead, she drew together an elite corps of friends and allies to take on covert missions that the Justice Department and the Corps could not—or would not—officially touch. Torin just hoped the one they were about to embark on wouldn’t be the death of them. In this installment, Ancient H’san grave goods are showing up on the black market—grave goods from just before the formation of the Confederation, when the H’san gave up war and buried their planet-destroying grave goods for the death of war. 

Someone is searching for these weapons and they’re very close to finding them. As the Elder Races have turned away from war, those searchers can only be members of the Younger Races. Fortunately, only the Corps Intelligence Service has this information. Unfortunately, they can do nothing about it—bound by laws of full disclosure, their every move is monitored. Kerr and her team are no longer a part of the military, the six of them tackling the H’san defenses and the lethally armed grave robbers are the only chance the Confederation has. The only chance to avoid millions more dead.

But the more Torin learns about the relationship between the Elder Races and the Younger, the more she begins to fear war might be an unavoidable result.  
Conclusion? Probably should have read the original series first before trying to catch on to this trilogy. There was a whole lot of referrals to past exploitations of Kerr who I also liked to Ridley in the Alien movies. But, I pretty much caught the jist of what the author is trying to put forward. I really like Torin, and her crew. I like that she's a badass, but has become numb to the continuation of wars. It will be interesting to see where Huff goes from here.

“. . . AND WE WILL CREATE a place for Humans alone!” Eyes blazing, nostrils flared, Richard Varga threw both arms up into the air, directing the roar of the crowd. When the sound began to die down on its own, he lowered his arms—giving the impression the sound had fallen on his command. “A place for Humans,” he continued, “where we will not be tempted by the di’Taykan. Where we will not be forced to live among those who use their bodies as licentious tools of conquest!”
Most of the di’Taykan Torin knew would laugh themselves sick at the phrase “licentious tools of conquest.” Taykans in the di phase were undeniably the most sexually indiscriminate species in known space, but when it came to conquest, a smarter man than Varga would remember that they’d only barely managed to broker a planet-wide peace—a peace enforced by half a dozen heavily armed satellites—when the Elder Races made first contact. And they’d been as happy as Humans had when given a chance to apply their knowledge of war to the Confederation’s engagement with the Primacy.
“A place where we will not live under the threat of the Krai’s unnatural appetites!”
As the Krai’s appetites weren’t unnatural to the Krai, Torin thought all-encompassing appetites would have been a better description; although Varga wasn’t particularly concerned with either accuracy or overt speciesisms. In fairness, even Torin found it a bit disturbing that the Krai considered Humans to be the tastiest thing on the menu—or would, had not a number of very explicit laws been put in place.
“We were there when the Elder Races needed us.” The fingers of both hands curled into fists, Varga shifted into an exaggerated fighting stance. “We fought in their war!”
Torin gritted her teeth and mirrored the reactions of the men and women around her who were stomping, howling, and forgetting that Varga had never been a part of the military we. Had never fought. Had never watched friends blown to pieces by Primacy artillery or seen them bleed out too fast to save. Had she not already been under orders, Torin would’ve taken him down for that lie alone.
Three years ago, Varga had been a less-than-successful actor who found his natural stage when he’d joined Human’s First. When he’d realized that true belief wasn’t as important as discontent and a willingness to blindly follow rhetoric, his rise to the top of the organization had turned a whiny fringe group with a misplaced apostrophe into an armed force. He’d gone looking for Humans trained to violence by the Navy or the Corps and unwilling or unable to settle into the peace of civilian life, then he’d layered the new shape of the organization around them.
Human’s First had stopped being a distasteful example of the Confederation’s belief in free speech and had become a threat when they took over the small station orbiting Denrest and killed the station crew, three of them the Humans they were supposedly putting first as well four di’Taykan, whose small freighter they stole after dumping the bodies out the lock. It wasn’t entirely clear if they’d taken a shuttle up from Denrest or if they’d had Susumi capabilities before they’d taken the station, but they definitely had them after, opening up all of known space.
Then they took another small station, another ship.
And another.
Having watched him in action for over two tendays, Torin would bet her pension Varga had referred to the dead as collateral damage.
“We have done their dirty work, and what has it got us?” he demanded.
The old garage, long empty of drills and excavators, rang with variations on sweet fuk all. The communication unit implanted into the bone of her jaw pinged twice short and fast. A heartbeat later, once more. Her people were on the move and not a moment too soon. Torin touched her tongue to the pressure point just long enough to make the ping distinct, snarled at the sallow-faced, young man who’d just stomped on her foot, and let the motion of the crowd carry her away from him toward the wall.
A tall, thin man, hair and beard gone naturally gray, stood in the half circle of upper echelon behind Varga on the dais, his eyes locked on his slate. He might have been checking on his kids—there were, unfortunately, no laws preventing assholes from breeding—but Torin’s intell said he was monitoring the crowd’s comm traffic, his own implant slaved to the slate. Implants significantly improved the odds of veterans finding civilian employment, so both officers and NCOs kept their military comm units when they left the service even though nonmilitary techs charged an arm and a leg for upkeep. Both legs if they had to crack the bone. Given the size of the crowd, Torin estimated another ten to fifteen implants in the garage creating sufficient background noise to hide her team’s coordinating pings.
Or the fraction of her team acceptable to Human’s First aggressive recruiting. Ryder. Mashona. Her.
Today, new recruits mixed with old hands in an abandoned mining facility on the dark side of a small moon, in the old heavy machinery garage that smelled of sulfur and sweat, having their stores of meaningless rhetoric topped up.
“No more . . .” The crowd around Torin quieted as Varga dropped his voice to a conversational level. She settled into the same expectant stillness, although her expectations were entirely different. “No more will the Elder Races keep us from what is rightfully ours. Humans first!”
At least they drop the apostrophe when they’re chanting. Torin covered the last three meters to the open decompression hatch, stepped over the lower lip, and out into an access tunnel that had clearly been a part of the old mine. She drew in a deep lungful of air and said with complete sincerity, “Stinks like the latrines after burrito night in there. I need to breathe a bit.”
She found it interesting that Varga’s security stood facing the garage rather than down the tunnel. Had been facing the garage before Torin had moved toward the hatch. Varga was clearly smart enough to realize he hadn’t built stability into his organization.
At 1.8 meters, Torin wasn’t small, but the woman standing with impressive arms folded and a scowl that told Torin she’d made master corporal, at least, before leaving the Corps topped her by a good 15 centimeters. “Don’t wander off,” she growled.
Torin tongued her implant, grinned, and said, “Wouldn’t think of it.”
The guard’s scowl shifted to a frown.
First ping back.
“Think you’re smart, eh? You can’t be hanging around out here.”
The double ping back removed the need for Torin to respond.
Eyes locked on the guard’s face, Torin lunged forward, driving her fist into the other woman’s solar plexus, her weight behind the blow. “Actually, I can be,” she muttered, turned, and hauled the hatch closed to the sound of a large body hitting the floor and flopping a bit, the guard’s ability to give the alarm reduced to a barely audible wheeze.
Years of neglect had nearly rusted the locking wheel into place. Using the heel of her hand, Torin slammed it left, then right. Metal ground against metal and red-brown flakes drifted toward the floor.
Left. Then right.
Then all the way right. The battens slid home into the cleats on either side of the hatch.
The problem inherent in turning people into a mob was that, at some point, they had to be gathered together and people crowded into an area with limited access were inherently vulnerable. Control the access; control the space.
First ping.
Torin tongued her implant and dropped to one knee, checking the guard’s diaphragm spasms had stopped when she’d lost consciousness. Labored but regular breathing suggested they had, so Torin hooked a thumbnail over the end of the zip-tie hidden in the outer seam of her military surplus trousers and yanked it free. Woven from Mictok webbing, the zip-ties were undetectable and unbreakable. Torin’d had to call in a few favors to get them, but she didn’t use plastic with another option available. The guard’s wrists secured, she pulled another zip-tie from the inner seam of the same leg, looping it around and through crossed ankles.
No implant. Torin let the guard’s mouth close and scrubbed her thumb against her sleeve. Trust the idiots who misplaced apostrophes to think size meant security.
Double ping.
Three of the garage’s four hatches had been dogged down. Yet to be closed were the old loading doors behind the dais; the moment Varga noticed something was up, he’d be out them faster than Havarti through a H’san. Unfortunately, with the crowd staring directly at those doors, they had to be closed last.
Through speakers mounted along the roof of the tunnel, she could hear Varga listing everything Humans had been denied. Where Humans equaled Richard Varga. It was a long list. Sooner rather than later, one of his less reflective followers would get bored, decide it was a good time to hit the shitter, and discover they couldn’t leave.
Torin raced for the fourth door, reached a T-junction, made a hard right . . .
Ten meters away, three men stood outside the big doors; three large men armed with black-market–acquired Marine Corps KC-7s. Guarding Varga’s back.
The paranoid bastard.
Given the way they filled the space, she could hear more than she could see Binti Mashana charging in from the opposite end of the tunnel.
Two of the guards turned toward Torin, the third turned the other way. All three raised their weapons and the largest of the three, a man with his beard divided into two braids, barked, “Hold it right there! Both of you.”
Torin smiled and kept running. At the other end of the tunnel, Mashona picked up speed.
“I said, hold it right there!”
When an approaching enemy declined to hold it right there, the correct response was to pull the trigger, not repeat a command already ignored. Of course, they couldn’t be positive Torin was an enemy; she could have been one of Varga’s people in a hurry to get somewhere, but it was still sloppy work. Torin decided to take that personally as the weapons raised the odds that all three of this lot were ex-Corps. Everyone in the Corps, regardless of specialty, trained first on the KC-7.
She ducked under the barrel of the raised KC without slowing and hit Bearded Guard at the waist, her shoulder driving deep into a layer of fat over muscle. He grunted, folded, and went down, crashing into the guard behind him hard enough to drop him to the floor as well. In her peripheral vision, she saw Mashona grab the muzzle of the third weapon, point it at the ceiling, and aim her knuckles at the windpipe of the man holding it.
Her weight on Bearded Guard’s chest enough to keep him temporarily on the floor, Torin grabbed the barrel of his KC, yanked it out of his grip, and swung it one-handed at the second guard who’d made it back up onto his knees. The butt slammed into his jaw with a crack of metal against bone and he went down again.
She jerked back in time to avoid a fist aimed at her nose, the blow glancing off her mouth instead, hard enough to slam her lower lip into her teeth, splitting the soft flesh. Mouth filling with blood, Torin rose up, dropped, and felt a rib give way under her knee.
Bearded Guard bellowed. Torin spat blood in his face.
The crack of a fired KC echoed in the enclosed tunnel, overlapping the high-pitched buzz of two ricochets and a grunt of pain Torin barely heard over the ringing in her ears. Early on in the war, it had been discovered that the more complicated and high tech the weapon, the easier it was for the opposing side to fuk with it from a distance. A contained chemical explosion propelling a piece of metal at high speed out a rifled tube could only be fukked up by the person firing it.
She couldn’t tell who’d been hit.
“Dipshit here had his finger on the trigger . . .” Mashona wrapped profanity around the muted thud of fist against softer flesh. “ . . . and shot himself in the leg. Apparently, he slept through . . .” Two fast blows. “ . . . Lieutenant Cole’s lecture on trigger discipline.”
Discipline dropped into silence. The list of Varga’s grievances had stopped blaring out of the speaker over the door.
All five combatants froze for a single heartbeat.
Torin braced herself against the sudden roar of sound from inside the garage.
“Gunny, they heard the shot!”
“Lock it up, I’ll deal with this.” Torin blocked an elbow with her forearm and rolled up onto her feet as Mashona dove for the door. She kicked Bearded Guard just above the curve of his gut, hard enough he lost interest in anything but puking and choking on it, both arms holding his rib cage together.
Ignoring the blood soaking into his pant leg, Mashona’s Dipshit pulled a knife from a boot sheath. Torin bent away from his first swing, spun around to his bad side . . .
“Gunny! Door’s stuck!”
. . . then kicked him in the thigh, driving the toe of her boot into the bullet hole. He howled with pain as his leg collapsed under him and was smart enough to yell for backup before he lunged at her again.
This one was definitely ex-Corps.
Catching his blade in the trigger guard of the KC, Torin twisted it out of his hand, continued the movement around behind him, and got an arm around his neck and choked him out with the strap.
Rusted hinges had jammed one of the big double doors with twelve centimeters still to close. A scuffed boot stuck out through the space by the floor and two, no, three sets of fingers emerged farther up. Torin slammed the muzzle of the KC into the shin above the boot—hard enough to break the skin and invoke a stream of impressive profanity—then she used the butt of the weapon on the reaching fingers. As they disappeared to slightly less impressive profanity—probably ex-Navy—she threw her weight against the pitted steel, her shoulder next to Mashona’s, and together they managed to move it far enough for the three big canted, coiled spring latches to finally snap into place.
The background roar from the speakers grew louder while over it a familiar voice demanded they open the doors immediately. Or else.
“Does he honestly think he’s still in charge?” Mashona wondered.
“He thinks Human’s First has an apostrophe.” Torin spat out another mouthful of blood, checked the magazine of the weapon she held, tossed it to Mashona, and bent to pick up the other two as Varga began listing the ways they’d pay when he got out.
Lifting one of the second guard’s arms into the air, her fingers dark bands around his pale, grubby wrist, Mashona shook her head. “Gunny, I don’t think this one’s going anywhere.”
“Is he dead?” Varga had trusted these three with weapons at his back, so she’d be willing to bet they’d been among those who’d attacked the stations and killed noncombatants. Torin wouldn’t mourn if she’d taken one out when taking him down, although the Wardens would be pissed. Again.
“No. But . . .”
“If he’s alive, secure him. There’s three of us against everyone else on this moon; if we sideline someone, I want them to stay out.” She rolled Bearded Guard up onto his side so he could breathe, cracked ribs topside. Then, avoiding the spreading puddle of vomit, she got out the zip-ties.
A few moments later, after elevating Dipshit’s leg on Bearded Guard’s hip, they ran side by side up the tunnel, the extra gun slung across Torin’s back and the knife filling the empty sheath in Mashona’s boot. Retracing Torin’s approach, they passed the first guard. She’d regained consciousness . . .
“You going to let her say that about your mother, Gunny?”
“I thought she was talking about your mother, Mashona.” . . . went through a hatch and up a level, boots ringing against metal treads. As they reached the top of the stairs, the upper hatch flew open and they came face-to-face with one of Varga’s men heading down.
The anarchy symbol tattooed on his forehead dipped in and out of his frown, deep purple against the kind of pale, pink skin that could only have come from time spent behind insufficient shielding. His gaze locked on their weapons, not their faces. “What the hell . . . ?”
“Big hatch is jammed,” Torin yelled without slowing. “We need the tools from the mechanic’s locker.”
“But that’s empty.”
“Let’s hope not!”
As he turned to lead the way, Torin took him down and held him as Mashona applied the zip-ties.
“Okay, that . . .” She crossed his wrists and yanked the tie tight. “ . . . was definitely about your mother.”
“Next time, we bring gags.” Torin led the way topside, guarding Mashona’s back as she dogged the hatch shut behind them. Varga’s increasingly hysterical orders blasted out of speakers at both ends of the corridor, the actual content lost under the fight going on in the background. “If I had to guess, I’d say Craig . . .”
Binti was Mashona on the job. Craig was always Craig. But then Craig hadn’t been Corps.
“. . . hasn’t found the override for the inter . . .”
Broken by a snicker.
Torin shrugged. “Never mind.” She could see the door to the control room and could hear . . . Boots. Pounding up metal stairs.
There were two open hatches between them and the control room and two beyond. With Varga quieted, the sound of the boots bounced off multiple hard surfaces, their source impossible to pinpoint.
The first hatch they passed had rusted open.
“We’re in sealed tunnels under the desiccated surface of the dark side of an uninhabitable moon. How the hell is there enough moisture for all this rust?” Mashona snarled, misstepped, and lengthened her stride to catch up. “Gunny, that sounds like . . .”
“Like a benny charging.” The bennies, BN-4s, were tight-band lasers that also contained a molecular disruption charge and, although they were susceptible to enemy EMPs while the KC-7s were not, they were a Marine’s weapon of choice in places where a projectile weapon would be a bad idea. Places like stations and ships, where smart people thought twice about blowing a hole into vacuum. Or rock tunnels where ricochets were a given if the round fired didn’t immediately hit a soft target. Given the presence of black-market KC-7s, it came as no surprise that Human’s First had gotten hold of at least one benny. Torin tongued her implant and didn’t bother subvocalizing. “Craig, we’re five meters out. We’re coming in hot.”
The control room hatch unlocked as they reached it.
Mashona shouldered it open and Torin stepped through on her heels, slamming it behind them. Her hand still on the metal, she felt the buzz of an MDC impact. And then another, and another. “Idiot.”
“Oh, yeah, and you’re so smart. You’re locked in here now, too.”
Torin turned her head to see a young woman in her mid-twenties sitting on the floor in the corner, wrists and ankles secured. She wore a pair of deep green coveralls over a striped sweater and had shaved her head so a single ten-centimeter tuft of dark curly hair waved over her crown. She looked unharmed, but very pissed.
“The MDCs only work against organic material,” Mashona snorted. “Your buddy’s just decontaminated the other side of the hatch.”
The next impact felt like a heavy body slamming against metal.
Torin exchanged a long look with Mashona that contained all the contempt she felt for anyone who felt they could shoulder their way through a pressure door, then she leaned both KC-7s she carried against the wall. “When I give the word, unlock the hatch and open it.”
Two. Three.
Another slam.
Two. Three.
Unable to stop in time, a middle-aged man with a red ponytail and a tiny silver ring in one nostril stumbled over the lip and right into Torin’s hands. She dragged him clear and slammed him to the floor as Mashona re-secured the hatch. He whimpered continuously as she secured him and she fought the urge to ask him what he thought would happen when he joined a group that killed to support speciesist bullshit. He couldn’t possibly have believed the Confederation would allow them to exist unopposed.
“You didn’t have to hit him!” Tuft-girl protested, sliding her ass along the floor until she could support Whimpering-guy’s head on her leg.
“Technically, the floor hit him.” Torin straightened and walked over to the control panel where she leaned over the back of a chair so close to collapse that it made the duct taped pilot’s chair in Promise look shiny and new. She dragged her thumb along the plastic trim. “So, how did you subdue Tufty over there?”
“Smiled.” Craig grunted without taking his eyes off the board. “Flashed a bit of arm.”
Both were admirable, Torin had to admit. The smile came with dimples and pale gray eyes that crinkled at the corners, and while she considered herself hard to distract, the heavily muscled arms had caught and held her attention more than once.
Craig’s hands skimmed over the touch screen and froze in place. His left hand moved two centimeters to the right. His thumb tapped the screen twice, and he let out the lungful of air Torin hadn’t been aware he’d been holding. “Okay. I think I’ve got control of the base sysop.”
“You think?”
He snorted. “You want definite, you should’ve brought Ressk or Alamber.”
“Because short and green or tall and blue would pass as Human.”
“I’ve seen both.”
“You’ve gotten around.”
“I have that.” He glanced back over his shoulder at her and narrowed his eyes. “You’re hurt.”
She rubbed at her hands “It’s rust.”
“And the split lip?”
“Right.” Torin touched her tongue to it, then bit his probing fingertip, ignoring Binti’s comment about where the finger had likely been. “Forgot about that. It’s nothing.”
“Don’t rubbish me. You’re slurring your sibilants and there’s blood on your boot.”
“It’s not mine. What about you?” She couldn’t see any damage. They both knew that meant nothing.
“I got the drop on the kid Varga had standing security. She . . .” He nodded toward the corner without taking his eyes off Torin’s face. “ . . . didn’t touch me.”
“I wouldn’t touch you if you were the last Human male in known space!” Tuft-girl sneered.
Craig rolled his eyes. Torin ignored her. “Are you okay? Not physically,” she added before he could protest. She’d have never asked him for violence if they hadn’t needed all three Humans on the team to complete the mission.
“Aces.” His brows dipped in. “You?”
“You telling me you didn’t enjoy yourself?”
She could see the concern, knew where it came from. He’d seen the way war twisted the survivors, seen the way survivingtwisted the survivors. He’d seen what happened when someone got twisted all the way around until they broke. This time, though, he was seeing something that wasn’t there. “Maybe I enjoyed myself a little,” Torin admitted, licking blood off her lip. “These guys were just so straight line, fukking easy to beat. It’s refreshing.” When he looked dubious, she flicked her gaze past him to the board. “Should that light be red?”
“No, it should not.” Facing the board again, he dragged the red light left until it shifted to green. “Okay. If Ressk’s patch worked, and I’m reading this right, everything’s locked down. Ships and shuttles both are nailed in until I release them. And, yeah, I can’t believe they handed over their codes when the sysop asked,” he added as the communications panel lit up. “I suppose mockery would be out of order?”
“They’re spelling Human’s with an apostrophe,” Torin sighed. “They’ve gone past mockery and straight into derision.”
“Maybe it’s not a declaration. Maybe it’s descriptive.” The control chair screeched a protest as Craig spun it around. “Like baby’s first solid food.”
“Human’s first post-Confederation revolution,” Binti offered.
“Well, we’re millennia late for it to be Human’s first dumbass idea.” Torin put her boot on the chair between Craig’s legs and stopped both spin and screech.
Binti dropped into the other chair and nodded toward the speaker on the wall. “We should probably make sure they haven’t gone anywhere.”
They hadn’t.
“What are they using against the doors?” she wondered over the clang of intermittent percussion.
“Each other?” Torin offered.
“Sounds like they’ve broken up the dais,” Craig said thoughtfully. “They’re using the structural pipes. Morons.”
“Di’Taykan lovers!”
All three turned to look at their prisoners. “Well, duh,” Binti responded.
Craig wrapped his hand around Torin’s ankle, thumbnail flicking at the fasteners of the boot not sticky with blood. “So what do we do now?”
“We wait for the Navy.”
The second chair screeched as Binti rocked back, propped her heels on the edge of the control panel, and sighed. “Who’d have thought going freelance would be so much like being in the Corps . . .”
“The boss wants to see you.”
Jamers a Tur fenYenstrakin hunched her shoulders and kept her eyes on the cargo bay doors. “I are being busy . . .”
“You are being seen if she wants you to be seen. Come on.”
She flinched as one of the Krai unloading water from the pen snickered, but fell in behind the big Human as he are leading the way down the cliff and into the structure. The light are being dim enough her lenses are lightening until they are being nearly clear.
“Given the speed we clocked you at, I’m impressed you got down without getting your ass kicked by the satellites.”
He didn’t expect her to answer and that was good, because at half his height she had to run to keep up and she was needing what air she had for breathing. She wasn’t being young—as the graying skin on her hands and feet kept reminding her. Maybe that are being all it was. Maybe the boss are wanting to be giving her a bonus for landing the supplies in one piece. Maybe the boss are realizing she are having negotiated a better price for supplies so are having added an extra tenday before she are having to go out again.
She was panting by the time they are having reached the crypt the boss are using for an office. Panting and shedding, great clouds of underfur are being visible in her peripheral vision as she are stopping far enough away to leave an angle she are able to sight along. The boss, like all her species, are being too damned tall.
The boss’ turquoise hair are lying flat against her head. The boss’ hair are always flat. Motionless. Jamers are not having thought that possible with her species.
“You took something from a sarcophagus, Jamers. Several somethings. I want them back.”
She are having thought the others were being busy searching at the long wall, but apparently not all the others and she are having been seen. Her luck are always being like that. Always. “You are having said your people are not to be taking them. You are making them be putting them back. You are having said you are only being interested in the weapons because that are what you are being paid for.”
“I know what I said.”
The boss’ teeth were not being as pointed as Jamers’ own, but her smile are being much more deadly. Jamers sighed. “I are not having them now.”
“You destroyed them?”
Jamers wanted to say yes, but she are knowing that the boss are knowing it would be a lie. There are being many things this boss are not tolerating. Touching. Lying.
“You sold them, didn’t you?”
She scratched at her arm where the fur are being so thin she are seeing the mottled pattern of the skin beneath. “Yes.”
“Did you tell your buyers where you found them?”
“No!” She’d been hired to bring in the water because she are being able to buy in nearby systems unnoted if not unseen. Because she are not Younger Races. She are knowing better than to give away the compound’s location. “I are being careful. There are being nothing to be connecting them to here.”
“Nothing,” Jamers repeated, willing the boss to believe it. Her mouth are being dry and she swallowed.
The boss’ hair are remaining perfectly still. “Nothing but you.”
“Yeah, yeah, it all worked out and the Navy actually came when they were called, but I don’t like the kind of bullshit missions where half the team faces a bunch of crazy, militant fukwads and the other half sits on their collective asses doing sweet fuk all.” Werst’s bare feet slapped against the station floor, adding a fleshy emphasis to his words. “Look, we’re good at what we do because of the way our strengths combine. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts and all that crap. And, yeah, it worked, fine, and these guys gave dumbasses a bad name, but they had live ammo they were willing to use and you got lucky. You shouldn’t be facing those kinds of odds without me, Gunny. Mashona’s learned a little meat to meat, but Ryder’s fukking hopeless.”
Torin grinned at Werst’s disgruntled tone, secure in the knowledge that the significant difference in their height meant he wouldn’t see it. “You’re a meter two and greenish brown. You wouldn’t have passed.”
“Didn’t say I would or that I wanted to, only that I’d rather you had better backup when it’s three to however many serley idiots Human’s First had managed to round up.”
“They weren’t exactly hard to beat.”
“You didn’t know that going in.” Werst stepped into the vertical and grabbed a passing handhold. By the time Torin stepped in behind him, it had risen far enough that they hung eye to eye in the zero gravity. “And if you mention that fukking apostrophe, like it’s the reason they were so easy to take down,” he added, nostril ridges flared, “I’m going to inform your court-appointed therapist about your sudden grammar fixation.”
“One apostrophe is not a fixation.”
His lips pulled back off his teeth in what would have been a smile had he not been Krai. When Krai showed teeth, they weren’t smiling. “You keep telling yourself that, Gunny.”
Pointedly ignoring him, Torin exchanged a nod with a staff sergeant descending down the other side the vertical—he’d pulled three jacks to her trip tens on their last visit to Ventris Station—and silently acknowledged that Werst wasn’t wrong. They hadgotten lucky.
Binti had been a sniper back in the Corps and while she hadn’t had the specialist training in unarmed combat both Torin and Werst had received, she at least had basic hand to hand to build on. Craig, however, had been a civilian salvage operator, arriving after the fight was over to mine the debris field. He was a big man with a heavy layer of working muscle, but like most people outside the military, he had no training in violence and little amateur experience. Occasionally, over the last year of dealing with messes the Justice Department couldn’t—or wouldn’t—clean up, he’d had to expand his skill set. Truth be told, Torin didn’t like it when Craig was in the thick of the fight any more than Werst did. She wanted Craig safe on board ship, hands on the controls, ready to swoop in to save them using his training and experience rather than trying to fake hers. Or Werst’s. Or Binti’s. Or even Ressk’s—who’d proven even more resistant to learning the dirtier tricks of unarmed combat than Craig. They were all ex-Corps, or as ex-Corps as anyone ever got, and her concerns for and about them were familiar—she’d had years of practice separating legitimate concern from speculation. But she didn’t think she’d ever get used to the feeling of Craig in danger even if she had gotten good at repressing it.
If the guard on the hatch hadn’t been young and stupid . . . although his youth and stupidity had been why she’d sent Craig to that particular hatch. If Craig hadn’t been able to bluff his way into the control room . . . although he’d bought a new converter for the Promise bluffing out a pair of eights so she didn’t want to sell his skills short. Neither did she want to make him into something he wasn’t. Nor did she want to insist he never change. She just wanted to keep him safe.
Without, of course, making her concern for his safety so blatant that he was insulted, hurt, or angered by it.
She worried about the team’s young di’Taykan as well, but Alamber was an entirely different problem. Had the vantru who’d fukked him over still been alive, Torin would have happily put the boots to her. The relationship carried a lot more emotional weight than the translation of primary sex partner implied and Alamber had been almost obscenely young when she’d dragged him with her to Vrijheid Station and not significantly older when she’d gotten herself killed, abandoning him there. Unfortunately, while it helped that they all knew why he defaulted to manipulative self-centered shit under stress, it didn’t change the fact he did it. Alamber’s response to being left behind while the three Humans infiltrated Human’s First had made Werst’s look calm and measured. A lone di’Taykan among other species became the definition of codependent, and Torin needed to either find another di’Taykan for the team—and where the hell she’d find one who’d fit she had no idea—or cut Alamber loose. To do what? He’d been a career criminal, albeit a junior one when they’d adopted him—Craig’s words and not entirely inaccurate even given that Alamber was legally an adult—and their position in the shadows where the law couldn’t reach suited him perfectly. Or it did when he wasn’t left behind to take out his frustration by rerouting drone shipping.
Fortunately, Ressk, just as frustrated but less likely to end up imprisoned for it, had spotted the hack.
Which brought her back around to Werst’s point about bullshit assignments. It might be time to take another look at the parameters of their arrangement as independent contractors with the Justice Department.
A twitch in her peripheral vision caught her attention, and she swung out into the level nine corridor before Werst had entirely released the handhold.
“Could’ve sworn you weren’t paying attention,” he grumbled as he dropped to the deck beside her. “Should’ve known better.”
In too much of a hurry to say anything, a pair of captains settled for glaring disapprovingly at their civilian clothing as they pushed past and into the lift. Four meters down the corridor, a di’Taykan second lieutenant opened her mouth and snapped it shut again as Torin met her eyes. Bright green hair flattened against her head, and she nearly slammed her elbow into the bulkhead, putting distance between them as she passed.
Werst snickered.
In Torin’s opinion, it was never too early to start training officers to recognize senior NCOs out of uniform. Or out of the Corps entirely. After a certain point, the rank and its ramifications remained.
The waiting room outside Dr. Ito’s office was empty. As far as Torin knew, it was always empty. Over the last year, she’d never seen anyone sit in one of the three admittedly uncomfortable looking chairs. Never seen anyone pick up the slate on the small, round table. Never seen anyone put eyes on the vid screen that always showed the star field outside the station like it was a badly situated window.
When she mentioned the lack of any other patients to Werst, his shoulders lifted and fell in what was almost a shrug. The Krai had picked the motion up from Humans, but had never been able to entirely duplicate it. “Yeah, because you’d be such pleasant company sharing this shithole.”
He had a point, Torin allowed as Master Corporal Tresk, Dr. Ito’s current admin, looked up from her desk and stroked a document closed as she acknowledged them. “Gunnery Sergeant Kerr. Master Corporal Werst.”
Torin had stopped reminding Tresk they were civilians three appointments ago. She had two brothers; the Corps hadn’t needed to teach her to pick her battles.
Nostril ridges open, Werst spread his arms. “Sorry, Tresk, still happily taken.”
“Sorry, Werst, still not interested.”
Torin wouldn’t have known Tresk was female had Werst not mentioned it. The Krai had so few secondary sexual characteristics, it was difficult for a Human to determine their gender. Torin liked to think that once she knew, she could spot the difference in the way the bristles grew on the mostly bare scalp or the subtle distinctions in the mottling, but the odds were high she was fooling herself. The di’Taykans, who relied on scent, had no difficulty telling male and female Krai apart—which was amusing as di’Taykans probably cared less about gender than any species in Confederation space.
“We’ll be in Sutton’s when you’re done, Gunny.”
“What, you’re not going to wait here to escort me down?” Torin touched her slate to the desk with one hand and ran the fingertips of the other along the plastic trim.
“Yeah, funny thing, you never disappear on your way to the bar.”
“Miss one appointment,” Torin muttered as he went out the hatch.
“Seven,” Tresk corrected. “Over the last six months. The doctor will see you now, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr.”
Werst waited in the corridor outside Dr. Ito’s until he heard Torin go into the inner office and the hatch close behind her. Then he exhaled, allowing his nostril ridges to flutter in relief. She’d never walked away from an appointment once she was in the office, and she always had a reason when she missed one—it wasn’t like they kept to a regular schedule—but he preferred to be sure before he walked away.
And not only because of the “court appointed” part of the sessions. They all joked about it, sure, but Werst had seen the changes in Torin after Vrijheid Station, had seen the shadows behind her eyes, and, since she wouldn’t talk about it with the team, Dr. Ito became a necessary evil.
Gunnery Sergeant Kerr had been one of the best Marines Werst had ever served with. With the weight of the Corps behind her, she’d been able to be as practical and as ruthless as needed to bring her people home alive. Leaving the Corps hadn’t worked out quite the way she’d expected; the life she’d tried to build with Ryder had been kicked apart by some Grade A assholes—currently space particulate thanks to Mashona’s aim. Without the weight of the Corps behind her, Torin had been searching for definition, and whatever had happened in the shuttle bay on Vrijheid, whatever made that fight, that death different, had skewed the way she saw herself.
Werst knew not quite right when he saw it.
The others didn’t see it. Ryder, for all Werst generally approved of him, didn’t have the context to see the differences. Mashona saw better from a distance. Ressk was better with code than people.
Gunny said she was fine.
For fuk’s sake, she was Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr. Of course she was fine.
“She’s fine,” echoed Ryder and Binti and Ressk.
Alamber . . .
To give the little shit credit, Werst acknowledged, heading back toward the vertical, Alamber had noticed something was off. He was probably trying to take advantage of it, but at least he’d seen it.
“And you don’t think it might be better if you made a clean break from the Corps?”
“And what exactly might be better, Doctor?” Torin raised a brow and the doctor smiled. Her first court appointed psychologist—after the exploded pirates and the destroyed station—had been brand new to the job and that had been a disaster. Dr. Ito, however, had a streak of cynicism Torin could relate to and he almost understood. About the war with the Primacy. About how the war had more or less ended once she’d discovered it had been a lab experiment run by sentient, polynumerous molecular polyhydroxide alcoholydes—hive-mind organic plastic. Granted, the war had “ended” more on some days, less on others. About what she’d done and what she’d been willing to do when Craig had been taken and tortured by pirates. About the weight of all the small metal cylinders she still carried, the ashes of all the Marines she hadn’t been able to bring home alive, although the cylinders themselves had long since been returned to family and friends.
When she got around to mentioning it, he might even understand how it had felt as though she’d been fighting herself in that explosives locker.
“You haven’t actually been a Gunnery Sergeant for some time now, Torin.”
“You never stop being a Gunnery Sergeant, Major.”
Dr. Ito’s left eye twitched. He’d made it clear from the beginning that he preferred to be addressed by the medical honorific. “I think you’ve just made my point for me.”
“I notice you don’t have any visible plastic in your office.” Torin smiled. In the year since the hyper-intelligent shape-shifting organic plastic had been exposed and had admitted to manipulating both the Confederation and the Primacy into a centuries-long war, natural fibers had started to make a comeback. “Is that for my benefit or for yours?”
“Are you still angry that you haven’t been sent out to hunt for the plastic aliens?”
Torin stared across the room at the psychiatrist. Dr. Ito stared back at her. They’d spent one whole session like that, Dr. Ito silently waiting for Torin to answer, Torin wondering how long he’d wait. This time, they kept the dance short.
“Yes,” she said. “I am still angry that we haven’t been sent out to hunt for the plastic aliens. I am fully aware that no one has any idea of where to start looking. I know while the cellular marker they stuck in our heads means they occasionally respond to my touch or to Craig’s, that means shit in the end given that I carried a plastic bowl for days without them giving themselves away. But I also know that people died—good people, mediocre people, bad people, people—because they were using us, all of us, Confederation and Primacy both, as subjects in a social science experiment. The war was their laboratory, our deaths were data, and they don’t get to do that without consequences.”
“And yet, because they’ve disappeared from known space, it appears they have indeed escaped without consequences.”
Torin pushed both hands back through her hair and sighed. “Why do I think the word displacement is going to show up any minute now . . .”
On OutSector stations, the lowest two or three levels of the central core were set aside for off-duty and civilian personnel. On a MidSector station the size of Ventris, five broad concourses had been set aside for stores, bars, and cantinas. Although Sutton’s on Concourse Two was a civilian bar, it seldom saw civilians; both officers and enlisted personnel gravitating there for the excellent beer, the first-class kitchen, and the enormous vid screen that showed a steady stream of the Confederation’s more obscure sports. In spite of three solid days of cricket annually, it had been Torin’s favorite bar when she’d served on Ventris and she saw no reason to find another just because she no longer wore a uniform.
The first time she’d sat down with her team in Sutton’s after a Justice Department debrief—the debrief where Torin had picked up another dozen visits to the Corps psychologist for what the Wardens had called excessive violence while closing an orbital factory turning Katrien into coats—a brand new second lieutenant had made a comment about certain people not knowing where they were unwelcome. The comment had been intended to be overheard. Before Werst could do more than threaten further excessive violence, the lieutenant had been set straight by two captains, three NCOs, and Elliot Westbrook, the grandson of the original owners.
Staff Sergeant Kerr had fought a thousand Silsviss to a standstill, ripped off their leader’s head, and brought the vicious reptilian race into the Confederation.
Staff Sergeant Kerr had outwitted a sentient alien ship and, unarmed and with only an HE suit between her and vacuum, stood between her people and enemy fighters.
Gunnery Sergeant Kerr had brought down Crucible when it turned against the Marines it was supposed to teach and by defeating it—with nothing more than a platoon of trainee Marines—had discovered the hyper-intelligent shape-shifting plastic aliens who’d been collecting data on the Confederation.
Gunnery Sergeant Kerr had survived the destruction of Sho’quo Company, escaped from an alien prison, and threatened the hyper-intelligent shape-shifting plastic until they admitted they’d nurtured the fight between the Primacy and the Confederation as a sort of social experiment, and then she’d ended the war.
The poor kid’s hands had still been shaking when she downed the beer Torin had bought her as an apology for the exaggerations.
Unfortunately, although the war was over, the fighting had become a centuries-long habit and it hadn’t entirely ended. The plastic aliens had been happy to explain; she hadn’t had to threaten them. Much. The Crucible thing was essentially true, but, in all honesty, it had been an accident of placement as much as intent that had put her between her Marines and the enemy after leaving the alien ship in Craig’s salvage pen. And she certainly hadn’t fought a thousand Silsviss to a standstill by herself. There’d been a platoon of Marines with her. She did, however, acknowledge that the Silsviss skull in her old quarters had probably been how the “ripped off their leader’s head” rumor had gotten started.
Because she’d been out of the Corps at the time, the destruction of a pirate fleet and the station they’d used as their base with three ex-Marines, a civilian salvage operator, and a morally flexible di’Taykan seldom got mentioned on military stations although it was the first topic of conversation on the small OutSector stations where they often ended up in the course of their deployments by the Justice Department.
“They’re jobs, Torin,” Craig had sighed. “Can you try to call them jobs? For me?”
They hadn’t been back to Ventris in nearly two months, having bounced from their previous deploy . . . job to the takedown of Human’s First, without a break. As you are no longer a part of the military had been explicitly mentioned in every Justice Department briefing they’d been to over the last year, the department sending them in to meet with Major di’Uninat Alie had come as a surprise. Major Alie had been Torin’s Intelligence Service contact before Crucible, back when she’d been the Corps’ best resource on the Silsviss. Fortunately for all concerned, her battle observations had been quickly replaced by a battery of reports from xeno-ists. Biologists. Psychologists. Sociologists. Hell, maybe even xenoherpetologists; the Silsviss were one of the Confederation’s few reptilian races.
Given that the summons had been for the entire team, not for her alone, odds were the meeting had nothing to do with the Silsviss. Unless a few of the big lizards had gone rogue.
“Yeah, that’d be fun,” Torin muttered, pausing just inside the door of Sutton’s while her eyes adjusted to the lower light levels. She turned toward the sound of Craig’s voice and spotted the team tucked back in the far corner near the doors to the kitchen. Exiting through the kitchen and out the staff entrance would take them to the service corridors and from the service corridors, they could get anywhere in the station. More importantly, they could get back to the Promise. Alamber and Ressk had hacked through the lowest levels of station security, pulled the schematics, and uploaded them to everyone’s slate under a mask of false directories.
Back in the day, Ressk had made a game of getting through at least the basic security of every ship Sho’quo Company had been deployed on. Had Military Intelligence found proof, they’d have used that leverage to poach him from the infantry, but he’d always been able to cover his tracks—at least to the point of plausible deniability. Alamber, who’d spent his formative years learning how to cripple code for shits and giggles and profit, knew a number of very nasty tricks he was more than willing to apply. Torin had cut them off before they could go any deeper and had made it clear she expected Ressk to police the young di’Taykan.
“Because, in this, you’re the only one who can,” she’d snapped when he’d protested. She didn’t know how, she didn’t need to know how, but he’d stopped Alamber before they crossed the line between too smart for their own good and treason.
Back in the day, when she’d had the weight of the Confederation Marine Corps behind her, she hadn’t needed to know the alternative exits from her favorite bar. Times had changed.
She passed a table of three di’Taykan corporals in the midst of settling their bill and arguing about whose quarters had the largest bed; passed a table holding two glasses of wine where a lone Krai lieutenant sat watching the clock; passed an empty table—although a bowl holding the dregs of congealing curry suggested it hadn’t been empty long—and finally dropped into the seat left for her, one hand on Craig’s arm, the other reaching for a beer, muscles she hadn’t realized were tense, relaxing.
“It wasn’t my fault!” Alamber protested, acknowledging her arrival with a spear of pineapple, pale blue hair flying about his head as though it were being directed by the waving fruit. It wasn’t actually hair, but protein-based sensors similar to cat whiskers that grew a uniform eight-to-ten–centimeters long, its motion a fairly good indication of a di’Taykan’s emotional state. Given the flourishes, it looked like Alamber’d been impressed by whatever it was that hadn’t been his fault—although it was more likely he was using those flourishes to draw attention and control his companions’ reaction to him. He also looked like he’d had a few of his more obvious emotional edges blunted so he’d likely found a few di’Taykan and gotten laid. “If you’d seen it,” he continued, with heavy emphasis on the pronoun, “you’d have asked if it was real, too.”
“I wouldn’t have been looking,” Ressk muttered, eyes on his slate. “Some people like to piss in peace.”
“I’d have looked,” Werst said thoughtfully.
Alamber’s eyes darkened as light receptors opened, and he snickered, one hand rising to the masker at his throat. “Not getting enough at home?”
Torin tapped her bottle on the table. His lower lip went out and he tossed his head dismissively, but he lowered his hand. When the di’Taykans discovered that their pheromones worked on all mammals and some nonmammals more powerfully than they worked on other di’Taykans, they took that to mean the universe intended them to have sex with most of known space. The maskers were Parliament’s solution to the problem of biological consent. They could still have sex with most of known space, but now known space had a choice.
Under cover of Werst’s snarled protest that he was getting quite enough at home and Alamber’s insisting he be more specific about what exactly enough meant, Craig leaned in until his shoulder touched Torin’s. “So, still sane?”
“Sane enough for government work.” Torin nodded her thanks as Binti pushed a bowl of nuts closer to her hand. “Apparently, we need to take a break when the job conflicts with my appointments.”
“I thought they scheduled your appointments between jobs?”
“Yeah, well, waste management is less flexible than they think.”
“Waste management?”
“We take out the trash.”
Craig snickered, the outer corners of his eyes crinkling, and Torin shifted her leg so their thighs pressed together under the table. “You use that line on Dr. Ito?” he asked.
“I did. Distracted him from a long discussion about my feelings. Which haven’t changed since the last time,” she added before Craig could speak. She believed in what they did and found a certain satisfaction in using her military training to clean up the broken pieces left behind after centuries of war. And she hadn’t needed Dr. Ito to remind her that those broken pieces were people.
She’d washed enough blood off her hands; she couldn’t forget.
Before the Justice Department had put their collective Elder Races’ feet down, military brass had argued their team should be lumped in under the Special Forces’ banner. But two of her people had never been military and, while he was no longer a CSO, Craig had no intention of ever being military and Torin had no intention of allowing the military too close a look at Alamber. The official belief was that she’d rescued the young di’Taykan before Vrijheid Station had blown and as that was within spitting distance of the truth, it was a belief Torin encouraged. Fortunately, the Wardens seemed willing to take her word for it.
“Gunny.” Ressk waved his slate until he saw he had Torin’s attention. “Major Alie’s set our meeting with Intell for 0830 tomorrow morning.”
“Is it a good thing or a bad thing that she wants it over early?” Alamber wondered, fingernails picking at the embroidery on his cuff.
“It’s a thing,” Torin sighed. “Although,” she added setting her empty down on the table and tapping in an order for another, “the odds are good it’s early because no one wants you lot wandering around unsupervised any longer than absolutely necessary. The sooner the major’s done with us, the sooner we’ll be redeployed . . . given a new job,” she amended as Craig blew out an exaggerated sigh and the others laughed. “And when I say, you lot, I mean everyone but Binti who, so far, has managed to not get hauled in by the MPs.”
“Hey!” Werst protested. “I didn’t . . .”
“Depless Station. You kicked the shit out of that supply officer who suggested the vid of the plastic aliens had been faked.” Werst’s nostril ridges slowly shut, and he muttered something about the privileges of being a civilian Torin was just as glad she couldn’t hear. “And you two . . .” She nodded at Ressk and Alamber. “ . . . have little enough concept of personal privacy singly. Collectively, well, get caught here and you’ll be contemplating the meaning of firewalls from inside a couple of tech free cells. And you . . .” A nudge against Craig’s shoulder, rocked him sideways. “ . . . were in a poker game with marked cards.”
Looking smug, Binti raised her glass in a mocking toast.
“They weren’t my cards,” Craig protested. “I was an innocent bystander.”
“You had most of the money piled in front of you when the MPs showed up.”
“Not my fault that corporal couldn’t cheat worth shite.”
“You said no fighting or hacking deep on Ventris, Gunny.” Ressk hung his slate back on his belt and waved a foot through the table’s sensor field to summon a waiter. “We are therefore neither fighting nor hacking.”
Ressk held out his bottle. Werst and Binti tapped theirs against it. Torin rolled her eyes as Craig added his.
“Yeah, but because you won’t let me delve deep . . .”
Years of practice allowed them all to ignore the thick layer of innuendo.
“. . . I still can’t find what the major wants us for.” Alamber frowned down at his slate and looked up to find everyone staring at him. He took a moment to preen. “Nothing on official channels. Nothing on unofficial channels . . .”
Alamber’s previous life on the other side of the line had given him access to some very unofficial channels.
“. . . and, strangest of all, nothing on any of the social networks. The military’s not even gossiping about it and you lot are worse than a group of sheshan at a family reunion.”
“We don’t gossip,” Werst began.
Alamber cut him off. “Please, it’s all stoic warrior shit in public, but on private forums you guys are all whine, whine, whine. The food sucks. I don’t want to go to Caraba. The tracker at the range is busted, my score should be higher. The sergeant’s picking on me.”
“Enough.” Torin’s tone put Werst back into his seat. She let the rude gesture he flicked at Alamber as he sat go. They’d all been on edge since they’d received the summons. They’d been chewing over possible reasons for the last three days and the best they’d been able to come up with was the Intelligence Service needed information on one of their deployments firsthand, untainted by the Wardens’ interpretation.
“We should’ve told them we don’t take military jobs,” Craig muttered, flicking the menu up, then down, then up again.
Torin shrugged. “They know that.”
Up, then down. “I don’t like jumping when the Corps says jump.”
“We’re not.” He’d made his opinion on that very clear on their way to the station. “Our employer, the Justice Department, has informed us that Major Alie wants to speak with us. Speaking. That’s all.”
Turning far enough to meet her gaze, he sighed. “If that was all it was, they’d have told us what it was about, and if the Corps wasn’t involved, you’d be all over the lack of information. You spent years obeying orders, Torin, you haven’t shaken free of it yet.”
She wanted to tell him she had, but way back when they’d first got together, back when she was still in uniform and she couldn’t always tell him the truth, she’d promised she wouldn’t lie to him. “We had to come back to Ventris anyway. Dr. Ito is my court appointed therapist of record.”
Ressk swallowed a mouthful of nuts. “There is some talk about you being back, Gunny. A lot of Marines know you by sight thanks to the whole plastic aliens thing.”
“And the Silsviss thing,” Binti added. “And the Big Yellow thing. And the . . .”
“Yeah, I get it.” Torin cut her off. “A lot of Marines know me by sight.” Especially now that she’d lost the anonymity of the uniform. Hopefully, that was all that it was. “Is General Morris . . .”
Binti grinned. “General Morris isn’t on station, I checked.”
“Thank you. So it could be worse. Whatever it is.” General Morris had been her own two star pain in the ass for years. He’d sent her to Silsvah, he’d sent her to Big Yellow. He hadn’t sent her to Crucible, but he’d been around. If he was here, on Ventris, she could pretty much guarantee her life was about to hit the shitter.
Of course, his absence was no guarantee of sah and kayti either.
INTELL TOOK UP SECTIONS 23, 24, AND 25 of Level 9 and, rumor had it, a Section or two off the public record in spite of stringent full disclosure laws. The vertical took Torin and her team as far as Section 22. A short walk down an empty corridor took them to a set of double hatches outside Section 23 that, when closed, would create an emergency air lock.
“I’m impressed by a paranoia that takes steps to avoid explosive decompression when they’re nowhere near the outer wall of the station,” Craig declared, touching the clear plastic cover on the emergency controls before stepping over the inner lip. Given his history—one man, working alone out of a small ship—Torin figured the odds were even that hadn’t been sarcasm.
“We’re in part of the station’s original build,” Ressk told him. “The tech in the walls is still self-contained enough . . .” He held up his slate as he crossed. “ . . . to make sure nothing goes in or out that isn’t filtered through Intell first.”
Alamber’s hair flattened and he froze. “We’re locked?”
“We’re filtered.” Werst shoved him forward, then crowded him through the second hatch. “Everything you say can and likely will be used against you.”
“Boss!” Twisting around, he shot a wide-eyed, unhappy look over Werst’s head.
“It’s just like being back on Vrijheid,” she told him, “with Big Bill listening in.”
“Only the part of Big Bill will be played by the Intelligence Service of the Confederation Marine Corps,” Binti added before Alamber could respond. “So, on the one hand, they’re the good guys.”
“And on the other hand?” Alamber demanded when Binti stepped through the lock without saying anything further.
“On the other hand,” Torin said dryly, “they’re the Intelligence Service of the Confederation Marine Corps.” She briefly rested her finger below the smudge Craig had left on the plastic cover, and stepped through into an area roughly three meters square that showed all the signs of having once been the decontamination chamber for the small lock. Currently, it was a security station, complete with two armed Marines and a lieutenant in a uniform so perfectly creased and boots, brass, and masker so perfectly shined, she found herself thinking of her first meeting with Lieutenant Stedrin, General Morris’ aide. The lieutenant waiting here had fuchsia hair and eyes while Lieutenant Stedrin shared Alamber’s pale blue coloring, but the “I’m making a point here” spit and polish were the same. The memory of Lieutenant—now Captain—Stedrin, who’d become an officer Torin would be honored to follow, smoothed out her reaction to being summarily lined up and scanned into the data stream even though anyone with half a brain knew the OS had registered them the moment they’d entered the Section.
She smiled, catching the lieutenant’s gaze and holding it. “Thank you for meeting us, Lieutenant . . . ?”
“di’Miru Harym, Gu . . .” His hair flipped in choppy arcs and his eyes darkened as light receptors opened. “Per Kerr.”
The civilian honorific as a reminder she was no longer in the Corps was the bald truth, not an insult no matter how unhappy Lieutenant Harym felt about his instinctive reaction to her tone. Given the faint growls she heard behind her, she needed to remind Werst of that. Again. She nodded, politely, and allowed him to look away.
Hair beginning to speed up, eyes darkening further as he glared past her, the lieutenant opened his mouth.
Torin cut him off before he could speak. “I have 0826, Lieutenant. If we’re more than four minutes out from where Major Alie wants us . . .” She left the statement hanging, allowing the lieutenant to fill in the consequences of a late arrival.
His hair flipped once, front to back, a final protest as he turned and snapped, “Follow me.”
Although the Confederation had been nudging the Taykan toward an ability-based system, traditionally the upper classes carried shorter names. Four letters slotted in just below the aristocracy. Torin preferred to believe the Corps didn’t give a H’san’s ass about the background of its recruits, but the odds were high senior family members had arranged for di’Miru Harym to be posted to Intell where he could accumulate the political capital necessary for the eventual promotion to a flag position.
She had to admit, the lieutenant’s ability to make it look like his presence was all that kept them from running wild through the Section impressed her.
“If he made a little effort, he could probably get some enjoyment out of that stick up his ass.” Alamber seemed less impressed.
The corridor the lieutenant led them into stretched twenty meters in both directions and was empty except for a hurrying captain who shot them a disapproving look nearly identical to the one on the faces of the captains she and Werst had passed in the corridor by Dr. Ito’s office. All but this last year of her adult life spent in the Corps, and Torin had never realized that captains were inherently against civilian clothing.
Not that they were exactly flamboyant; Craig wore blue trousers and a brown jacket over a yellow shirt, and Alamber had wrapped himself in flowing layers of ragged, deep purple fabric that covered everything except his head, his fingertips, and his platform boots, but the rest of them were squared away in black. Not in uniform, but not exactly out of it. The Corps had switched to black when the Elder Races added the di’Taykan to their military—it seemed agreeing to fight and die in an interstellar war was one thing, but multicolored pastels over the old camouflage crossed a line.
“You and your team can wait in here, Per Kerr.” Lieutenant Harym gestured through an open hatch.
A rectangular black table and ten chairs nearly filled the small room. The long wall facing the hatch showed distant birds wheeling through a silver sky over turquoise waves that lapped gently against a sandy shore. Banal, but a pleasant enough change from the default starscapes. At least it wasn’t pretending to be a window. The other three walls appeared to be pale gray, painted metal.
“Per Kerr?”
“Eyes before feet, Lieutenant.” Senior NCOs made sure that junior officers survived long enough to learn how to lead. It was a hard habit to break. Torin stepped over the hatch and into the room.
The edge around the table’s screen was gleaming black . . .
“Lacquered wood.” Werst caressed the sleek surface. “Krai work, definitely.”
The room was empty of visible plastic. The chairs were the same black lacquer; the seats unpadded, but then this wasn’t a room designed for comfort. It smelled faintly of cleanser, all evidence of the last people to use it wiped clear.
“You think Intell’s dumped the plastic out of their entire sector?” Binti wondered.
“If anyone has.” Torin walked to the far end of the table. Her jaw implant chimed 0830 as her ass hit the chair.
Craig sat to her right. “So they’re making us wait. Because we’re less important than anything else they could be doing?”
“Or something came up. I doubt we’re the most important item on today’s agenda.” Torin hid a smile when Craig seemed determined to remain annoyed. The Wardens they dealt with recognized the need for their combined skill sets while simultaneously disapproving of how those skills were applied. Given that the Elder Races tied themselves in knots over the need for a military at all, let alone the less savory needs that violence as a career had created, Torin had gotten into the habit of ensuring no one on the team took that disapproval personally. The Elder Races needed to own their shit.
“I don’t like going in blind.” Craig tipped his chair back and braced a knee against the table. “Is it against protocol to give us a heads-up? Let us know what they want us flapping about?”
“Yes, it’s against protocol. They’ll get more detail if they don’t give us a chance to compare stories.”
“Sneaky bastards.”
“True that.” Binti sat on Torin’s left, having beaten a scowling Werst to the chair. “But marketing thought Intelligence Service sounded better and the Elder Races weren’t familiar with the term oxymoron.”
At 0837, the glossy black tabletop turned pink, the color surging through the glass in a virulent wave.
Eyes on the vertical lines of a Taykan keyboard he’d called up amid the pink, he waved her off. “Not hurting anything, Boss.”
“Reset the defaults.”
“Oh, come on, Boss.” His voice dropped into a seductive purr. “Let me play for a while.”

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