Ghost WarMichael A. Stackpole
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Copyright © 2002 WizKids, LLC, by Michael A. Stackpole
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Electronic edition: August, 2003
Wise men think twice before they act once.
—Ancient Terran proverb
Prefecture III, Republic of the Sphere
13 November 3132
I once heard someone complain that the two most abundant things in the universe were hydrogen and stupidity, but she declined to say which led the way. I figure that in the random distribution of things throughout the universe, hydrogen probably has the edge, but in Leary’s Eyrie stupidity was being stockpiled at an alarming rate. This wasn’t unusual or even rare, but the pressure of it seemed to dull even smart folks and fray nerves.
I’d come to the Eyrie hoping for a Tri-Vid beer ad. Not for a specific advert, mind you, but the sort of situation they depict: warm night, hot woman, cold beer, sweat—on the beer bottle and otherwise. I wanted the full-on fantasy that had inspired generations of men to swill the liquid that gave them the bellies they sucked in when such a woman appeared in their midst. I knew it was a fantasy, but that was all we had out here in the hinterland of Helen.
Of course, I wasn’t looking much like a fantasy. Or an ad, unless it was one of those late-night ads for a product that is guaranteed to make you feel younger, look younger and turbo-charge the parts you’d need working if the beer-ad fantasy came through. The crew and I had just come off the line after eighteen hours straight, and I’d not been near a bed for about double that time and a razor triple it. I did have a clean shirt on, but the jeans and work boots could have starred in their own ads for miracle cleaning products.
Or public service spots about toxic waste and hazmat dumping.
We’d been up in the forest, harvesting old growth, and having to pour on the diesel to clear a swath before noon. The local courts had issued a restraining order pending the review of some endangered species protection action filed by the People and Divergent Species Union. PADSU was the political arm of the militant Gaia Guerrilla Front, which viewed the use of any tool against the earth or anything on it as an assault that needed avenging. While they preached a sort of Luddite, return-to-nature-and-embrace-peace philosophy, they were pretty good at wielding high explosives and other weapons in attacking the forestry and mining industries on Helen.
Rusty, over by the pool table, sucked beer from a bottle. “What do you mean you don’t believe PADSU and the GGF are behind the collapse of the communications grid? Good Lord, Pep, it’s obvious. They hate technology, and that was huge technology. It goes down, they crawl out of the woodwork and begin really going to town on us. One and one is two.”
Pep, who earned her nickname by being small and quick, pointed her pool cue at him as if it were a rapier. “Problem is, you ain’t got one to add to one. The grid goes down, The Republic gets divided into its various worlds. No news flows, so The Republic can’t react. Folks get fearful, opportunists take over and groups like the GGF pop up. PADSU’s been around forever, always protesting and things, but peacefully. Now that the Knights of The Republic can’t figure out where to tromp with big BattleMech feet, the GGF forms up and starts getting nasty.”
“Not like the old days. They’d never have done that in the old days.” Keira-san glanced over from the table where he sat watching a Tri-Vid program. It was a rerun of some ’Mech battle on Solaris. Looked like turn-of-the-century stuff to me, with some kid who was supposed to be the next Kai Allard-Liao—which every fighter there wanted to be, of course, and every fighter there got billed as until the next Kai-wannabe flamed his butt. And in the nine years since Kai Allard-Liao died fighting for The Republic in the Capellan Confederation, every titleholder dedicated his title to Kai’s memory—though not one of them got out into the real universe and put his butt on the line fighting for something other than a market share of audience.
Pep brought her cue around in a slash that passed bare centimeters over Keira-san’s brush-cut scalp. “What do you know of the old days? Ain’t a one of us here wasn’t born in The Republic era. Devlin Stone helped put down the Word of Blake attacks, then disarmed folks and established peace. In the old days, as you put it, the local lordlings would have been out in their own personal BattleMechs, shooting up the peasants, then claiming they were putting down a rebellion. Check any history of the time before and after Stone, and you’ll see how good The Republic Peace has been for everyone. And will continue to be once ComStar gets planets talking to each other again.”
Keira-san slumped down in his chair and focused his attention on a fight he’d seen dozens of times before. The biggest tragedy of his life had been the lack of new Solaris fights since the grid’s collapse. The finer points of how a lack of communication between planets was creating pressures that were allowing society to melt down were lost on him.
That wasn’t really his fault, though, since Keira-san had been born on Helen and raised here as a part of a minority community from the Combine. He’d never played well with others, whereas elsewhere on Helen, old and new communities had really banded together under the leadership of The Republic. All the old tensions that used to pit the successor states one against the other had vanished. Everyone was living happily ever after.
The Republic had used a carrot-and-stick approach to make that union work. People who worked to bring divergent communities together were rewarded with land grants and community investments. People who worked against that sort of thing were punished, either through neglect or being forcibly relocated to other worlds within The Republic, and never got the incentives that made others happy to move. Those who liked The Republic’s way of doing things found it to be “progressive” and “inspiring,” whereas the victims found it to be “repressive” and “conspiratorial.” Regardless, it worked.
Then two things happened. Nearly three years ago Devlin Stone stepped down as Exarch of The Republic. This shook the confidence of the people who had grown up equating peace and prosperity with his rule. While Damien Redburn, his hand-picked successor as Exarch, had been doing a good job and confidence had begun to rise, the collapse of the Hyperpulse Generator grid really knifed The Republic in the gut.
“I’m telling you, it was PADSU who did it!” Rusty punctuated his remark by plunking his empty bottle on the bar. “They didn’t want anyone seeing what was going on here, so no one could react to it. It makes perfect sense.”
Hector sent the nine ball crashing into the corner pocket. “Game, Pep, you owe me twenty Rep credits.”
/> “Double or nothing.”
Hector gave her a broad smile. “Going for forty stones? You’re on. Brave girl.”
Boris, who in physical bulk makes up for what he lacks in wit, raised a hand large enough to palm a rack of balls. “I had next game.”
“You have next set. Rack ’em, Pep.” Hector glanced at Rusty. “The filings in your lubricant there, Rusty, is that PADSU is local. You’ve heard the rumors coming in from JumpShip traffic. The grid is down everywhere.”
Rusty sniffed. “Not everywhere.”
“Yeah, okay, so your mama did send you birthday greetings, but the last leg was made on a JumpShip coming in from Towne.” Hector shook his head, then looked up at me with dark brown eyes. “Sam, explain it to him, will you?”
“Uh huh, like I understand it.” I sipped more beer, and abruptly decided that talking was better than swilling that crap. “Okay, here’s the deal the way I heard it. Someone coordinated a lot of strikes on a lot of worlds, taking out the HPGs. No one talks to anyone. No one knows who is doing what to whom, or who did the attack. It wasn’t PADSU’s doing, but Rusty could be half right.”
“I could?” He sat up straighter. “Yeah, see there. You tell ’em, Sam.”
Pep concentrated on racking the balls so she wouldn’t bust out laughing. I gnawed the inside of a cheek so I’d not join her. “Well, it could be, Rusty, that the GGF is part of whoever took the grid down. They weren’t around before the grid went down. They might have arrived, made a deal with PADSU to help them out, creating discord here so something else could happen.”
“Nothing is going to happen now, though, Donelly.” The bartender, Max Leary, replaced Rusty’s beer with another sweaty bottle. “News came up from Overton. The DropShip that burned in last night had a Republic Knight on it. Looks like the piece will be here keeping the peace.”
“Piece?” I shot the bald man a hooded glance. I knew he’d used the term piece to rile Pep, since she’d rejected more advances from him than I had fingers and toes to count—and that was just this afternoon. Of course, with her being so small and him being so, well, round, they would never hook up. Save for the lack of gun turrets and his wearing lumberjack castoff clothing, Leary could have been mistaken for a Union-class DropShip.
Pep ignored Leary, so the bartender growled at me. “Yeah, some beauty-queen Knight was the main cargo.”
“You catch a name?”
“Why, you looking to ask her on a date or something?”
I nodded solemnly. “That’s right. I am in powerful need of female companionship.”
I’d said that with a smile and braced myself for the barbs that would be flying in my direction, but then a funny thing happened. Actually, it was a coincidental thing, which really led to an eruption of stupidity.
In through the door came two women. Gorgeous women, beer-ad gorgeous they were, and one was even clad in the sort of baby-doll T-shirt and short shorts that’s the style in beer ads. Young enough to look innocent, old enough to know how to use that look of innocence, with blond hair and a dazzling smile, she paused inside the door and looked at all of us.
She had luscious azure eyes.
By the way, my using the word azure, that’s how you know this is literature. If it wasn’t, I’d have just said blue. Sapphire could have worked, too, or lapis lazuli, but she had that sort of softness that doesn’t make you think of minerals.
But I digress, which is another literary thing to do, just in case you were keeping score.
Her companion seemed a bit older and harder, so I could use minerals to describe her, except she had nothing rocky about her. I could have called her hair rusty red, but that would be confusing, and her eyes weren’t dark enough for emeralds, and there are so many shades of jade that just saying jade wouldn’t really tell you what color they were. Nice green eyes, though, very much alive and wary, taking us all in for more reasons than her companion did. She moved fluidly, stepping from behind her friend quickly, freeing her to act if she needed to. Her red hair had been gathered back into a braid and I noticed it had been tucked down into the collar of her shirt.
This is where the whole explosion of stupidity thing began to boil over. They were both PADSU—if the coeds-on-a-hike attire hadn’t told us that, the little info-disks the blonde held in her left hand did. And while the blonde might be here to enlighten us, Red was clearly prepared to fight, and starting a fight with lumberjacks is just dumb. You might beat them up, but at least one of them will hunt you down and his ForestryMech will saw your house into a duplex.
Leary knew what was coming. He started to put the good liquor under the bar. Both bottles.
I turned on my stool and slid from it. “Excuse me, Miss.”
The blonde, who had been halfway to Rusty, reading him rightly as the most susceptible to PADSU’s message, stopped and gave me the sort of smile that would have had me investing in a brewery a keg at a time were a brand name plastered over her chest. “Do you want to help us save the Mottled Lemur?”
“Well, not exactly.”
“Oh, you should.” She spoke in one of those little-girl pouty voices and, just for a moment, I felt my resolve weakening. “There are only fifteen thousand mating pairs left on Helen. Their natural habitat has been greatly reduced through logging and mining operations that have despoiled hectare upon hectare of pristine nature. Hundreds of thousands of divergent species of plants and animals have perished.”
I held a hand up. “And bugs. People always forget the bugs.”
The blonde blinked and hesitated for a moment. “Yes, and insects, too.”
“Arachnids.” Pep smiled and chalked her cue. “And bacteria. No one ever remembers them.”
I nodded. “I seriously lament the death of slime molds. No one can remember if they are plants or animals, so I think they should be mourned twice.”
Blondie stared at me, her face slackening. Her lower lip began to sneak out in a pout and her shoulders sagged just a little. In a heartbeat I knew the lower lip was going to quiver and tears would gather in those azure eyes. “This is very serious. We’re trying to save lives.”
“I know, darlin’, so am I. I’m trying to save yours.” I reached out and took hold of her left arm with my right hand. “We’re not the audience you’re looking for.”
“Get your hand off her.”
I glanced past Blondie at Red. “You don’t want to be making an idle threat in here.”
Red had three choices. She could talk and just delay making a choice between the other two. She could back down and they would leave. Or, like every other woman who dyed her hair Natasha Kerensky-red and thought she was tough, she could act.
She picked number three, which did have the desired effect of making me take my hand off Blondie’s arm. As Red took a step forward, planted her left foot and snapped her right leg around in a kick—rather quickly, too, I’ll give her that—I, too, stepped forward. I caught her thigh in my ribs and locked my left arm down on it. I sank my fingers stiffly into her hamstring, which added a gasp to her snarl of frustration.
Then I crashed my right fist down into her face. Twice. I think it was the second punch that broke her nose. I know it was the first that broke her jaw. Then I pitched her off into a table, from which she rebounded heavily and hit the floor hard but limp.
I turned to look at Blondie. Color had drained from her face, or had been washed from it with the tears. “Oh, my God.”
“Rusty, help this young lady get her friend into their hovercar and down to the trauma center in Kokushima.”
Rusty drained his beer, then stood, straightened his plaid flannel shirt and smiled. His smile wasn’t as dazzling as Blondie’s, but she had more and whiter teeth than he did. Still, she reciprocated and he helped her drag a moaning Red from the bar.
One would think, of course, Leary’s Eyrie had been home to enough stupidity for one night, but this would be because one was not taking into consideration Boris. Boris was frustrated because he was just
sitting around waiting, which runs contrary to his self-image as a man of action. His job driving a ConstructionMech adapted to clearing underbrush runs contrary there, too, but Boris lives in his own little world, which, unfortunately, allows him to emerge into mine.
“You didn’t ought to have did that, Sam.”
“I shouldn’t have did, er, done, what, Boris?”
Boris carefully set his cue down and waded across the bar floor toward me. His shadow fell over me and I actually felt a chill. Leary might have been a DropShip, but Boris was a planet. “You hit a woman.”
“That wasn’t very nice.”
“Uh huh. You missed that she tried to kick me, right?”
Boris shook his head, which, in a way, amazed me. He looked so like a granite statue, with strong features and black hair that never seemed to shift out of place, that half the time I didn’t think he could move. Fact was, that hair came out of his neurohelmet that way, which just is not natural.
“I saw that, but that was no excuse. You hit her twice.”
I nodded and sighed. “And how would you have handled it?”
Boris moved far faster than I’d ever expected him to, which meant he was really steaming. He grabbed me by the shoulders and spun me around, then dropped his arms around me in a bear hug. He squeezed tight and lifted me from the ground.
I struggled for a second, then shrieked and went limp. A quick jolt ran through him, then his grip slackened for a moment. He leaned forward to put me on my feet again, but my knees buckled, so he grabbed me to hold me upright.
I pushed off the ground with my feet and smashed the back of my head into his face. Something snapped and a warm fluid gush ran down through my scalp. Boris’ hands left my body to go to his face, which is why, when I snapped my right heel up between his legs and into his loose flesh, there was nothing to protect his beer-buying brains. His previous howl of pain rose into the inaudible range, then he toppled back with the slow grace of the tall trees we cut, and shook the ground about as hard when he landed.