Freezing gusts lanced through cracks and battered at the outpost’s door. They threatened to snuff out the oil lamps scattered near worn mattresses. A bundle of sweaters and defaced armor at the radio might pass for loose gear if his right hand didn’t snake out to keep the radio on. Captain Peregrine sagged under desperate boredom, but if he told his partner that he’d never hear the end of it. He twitched his hand towards this or that device from time to time and then pulled it back just before his fingers reached it. He told himself it was reflex and fine-motor training. Again, just boredom.
Peregrine wore his history on the outside, a good habit for a mercenary. History meant credibility, which meant pay. His innermost shirt bore an old divisional patch, reduced to a rip of blue and red threads by time and an errant bullet. A mass of old burns blotted the left side of his face. Scars from cuts and nicks adorned every part of him and his good eye held a calculating glare his namesake must envy.
Peregrine stood up, grunting, and pushed the chair aside to start his ritual approach on the stimulant rack. Peregrine’s partner raised his eyebrows without looking from his own work. The Japanese man tapped polishing powder onto the blade of his dagger and ripped off a small piece of rice paper to swab it down. Twenty years younger, Washi was a newer man in two ways. His cybernetics were subtler than the old movies wanted. No whirring joints or bolts in his jaw for him, though one almond eye betrayed silvery trim in place of a lid. He also broke the odd mug or bent a fork when waking up and woozy.
The dagger clicked to its scabbard clean and dry. It was forged from a rustproof alloy, not carbon steel, so oil was pure mess. Washi set the piece in front of him and leaned to grab a book from the slanted, beaten shelf next to his cot. Of course he sneaked in a bit of banter. The kid couldn’t appreciate a good gale while it lasted.
“Those shots’ll kill you early, Peregrine.” Washi flipped pages back and forth until he found his place.
“Earlier than being thick if a call comes in?” Peregrine countered. He snapped up a single syringe and pushed a pulse of its contents into his arm, then shook himself as the chemicals took effect. The haze cleared from his head and his sight no longer felt trimmed clean from his body. “Besides,” he continued dryly, “the rest of us never got to be cyborgs before it all went tits-up.”
Washi waved a noncommittal hand. After a few seconds skimming through yellowed pages, he heaved a sigh and let the text fall- either Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings or Washi’s ‘personalized’ copy of The Lord of the Rings. Washi put the same cover on both for added confusion, a page marked “Puns” in smudged pencil. Worries me he’s never given up that joke, Peregrine thought.
Washi claimed that calls always came when they readied for the predawn patrol. Peregrine thought it too storybook, but you couldn’t argue with reality. The radio crackled to a semblance of life, squawking the same rhythm several times before resolving to, “-aven Outpost, this is Adlersberg. Come in, you lazy schweine! Bist du ein kleiner Erkältung mitgefallen, Wanderfalken?” Peregrine exchanged a glance and eye-roll with Washi before keying in. He ignored the jab at his health.
“Good morning, Gottfied. Last I’d heard, HQ was Redoubt Raptor. You take over while we weren’t watching?” He could just about see Gotffied’s gaunt features spread in a grin on the other end, the same damn strand of oily black hair hanging in his left eye.
“Ha, kein Chance! You know our illustrious leader would never let me leave my desk.” Gottfied fiddled with papers on his end, muttering too quietly to hear.
“Ah, hier ist es! We have a contract for your consideration today. It’ll take the two of you somewhere warmer, if that’s of interest. Of course, I could always hand it off to Hauptmann Kerensky-“
“Kerensky wouldn’t like sunshine if it came with complimentary cocaine and enough vodka to drown the lower Wavelands,” Washi cut in, a twitch too quick. Gotffied couldn’t hand contracts down the line until the original addressees refused them.
“Ha, I take it you tire of the far North, kamerad? Mach dir keine sorgen. We’ll have you out within the hour if you accept.” Peregrine and Washi exchanged another look. As Raptors, ‘within the hour’ was a subtle hint: the contract was signed, the money in the company vault, and their decision? Piss to vapor on the winds. Peregrine took it as a vote of confidence, or that this job meant something more for the company as a whole.
“Alright, Gotffied,” Peregrine asked. “Who’s crying for help today? The Defeds again? I don’t like working with pirates. Bastards always pay us in favors.”
“Nein, nein, sicher nicht. This one’s from the Upper Commonwealth. Ever been?” That was a little like asking someone if they remembered Earth. No one got into the third continent from the outside, DeFed battlegroups aside.
“Of course not,” Peregrine lied. “What’re we bringing, then?”
“Please say sunblock,” Washi cut in.
“Mein guter Gott, Washi, weinen sie nicht mehr. The whole continent’s on Savar’s equator. You’ll get your fill of heat and then some. Na, gut… I would advise you bring a sniper rifle, Peregrine, and your best armor. Sidearm of your discretion, though we’re talking the Upper Commonwealth so something with sehhhhhrrr grosse kugeln–”
“Bugger the German, Gottfied. Washi looks about to stab himself,” Peregrine interrupted. “Sniper rifle, best armor, large-caliber handgun. You going to recommend me something I don’t normally bring?”
“Extra field dressings and rations,” Gottfied said. “And possibly money, because you’d better buy some more patience. It’s an escort mission, kamer--my friend.”
Washi stared dully through a firing slit. “An escort mission. No pay unless we stop some drooling civvy from dying. Amazing. I’ll take the frostbite, actually.”
“You heard me, gentlemen,” Gottfied said. “You did hear that part, right? ‘Within the hour?'”
“We heard,” Peregrine said. “Pilot on his way?”
“Hers. First Lieutenant Ludmilla was already in sector. Should be touching down, mm, five minutes.” Peregrine exchanged a glance with Washi.
“I assume we’ll get details at HQ?” Peregrine asked.
“Sound assumption,” Gottfied answered.
“Then there’s no more to discuss. We’ve packing to do, so bleed someone else’s ears out,” Peregrine said, and cut the comms. He turned to Washi. “Wait one…” There was no call-back. “Right, get your gear.”
Ten minutes and an argument over their excess luggage saw both operatives in the air and “reclining” on hard plastic seats in one of the Raptors’ gunships. This troop-transport model featured rotating thrusters, an armored cabin with twenty open seats, and enough yammer to steal the scant comfort thus provided. Ludmilla proved as talkative as Gottfied, with the added pain of a naturalist bent. Peregrine distracted himself by watching the Wavelands tear past at hypersonic speed. The southern sweep of battered mudflats was barren and soggy as ever, aside from the odd smatter of fishlike things or beached and rotted pseudo-whale carcass. One AA railgun threw lazy tracers skyward from a long-grounded dreadnought, prompting Peregrine to reach for the tailgun controls. Their pilot ordered him not to waste ammo and he returned to his porthole vigil. This left Washi to bear the brunt of the Lieutenant’s observations.
“I’ve noted that one of the local ungulate subspecies–I’m referring to them as Saltcows for now–subsists almost entirely on fish washed up by the tsunamis,” Ludmilla squawked. “You know what that means?”
“No,” Washi said. You need a more active patrol route, Peregrine thought.
“It means the waves have been going long enough for wildlife to evolve instinctive responses to their passage. Just think, Savar’s land and sea may have warred since the first hominids stepped from Earth’s trees!”
“Lieutenant, I’m not paid to think,” Washi said.
“Well, they don’t pay us not to, either!” Ludmilla countered.
“I’m a cyborg, ma’am. I could be running some cushy SpecOps contract with Tarse. I can’t speak for you, but I’m paid pretty handsomely not to think.” Peregrine cleared his throat loudly and shook his head at Washi. He gestured at an interior cam for emphasis. The little lenses helped the pilot to make sure her craft and passengers didn’t have any holes where they shouldn’t, but they also took recordings for the Raptors’ oft-paranoid HQ.
“Calm down, boss, I’m on the record as a loose talker,” Washi said. “They know I’m just killing time.”
“Anyway,” Ludmilla said, “What most fascinates me about the Saltcows…” Peregrine let the conversation fade away. He’d just slipped off to a stim-speckled nap when Ludmilla slammed the craft down on the pad at Redoubt Raptor.
“I had to listen to her for an hour and a half while you sat there snoring,” Washi hissed. “You owe me, you bald bastard.”
“Should’ve had it in writing,” Peregrine countered.
“Well, if you’re done ignoring me, Brigadier Desham wants you both in the command room ASAP,” Ludmilla sniffed. “Off my gunship.” Peregrine heard her mutter about overpaid meatheads and shrugged. A swarm of grunts buzzed aboard the gunship and grabbed their superiors’ gear from stowage.
“Mind that one,” Peregrine ordered one bleary-eyed private. “She’s Martial Drummond’s killer.”
“That was you?” The kid asked. Between his featherweight tenor and his freckles, Peregrine had to pity him. “I mean, uh, sir?”
“Naturally,” Peregrine said, and lifted the thirty-pound antimaterial rifle from the Private’s hands. He clacked the weapon’s bolt back, then forward, and took a few seconds to examine each lens of its bulky scope for cracks or smudges. “She’s an Earther piece. We can’t make ’em like this on Savar. Family heirloom, this, if I had any children to pass her to.”
He patted the recruit on the shoulder and marched past the landing zone’s railguns into the compound proper. Redoubt Raptor sat atop a bluff at the furthest point of the Wavelands, almost in the ocean. Soon enough there’d be another tsunami, and all the first time recruits would shudder and moan at the waves crashing below. Three broad, reinforced concrete towers formed the bulk of the fortress; each had its own armory, barracks, mess hall and comms center. A web of trenches, pillboxes and casemates outfitted with battleship-grade cannons covered the whole of the bluff. No bunker or dugout was too small for a cannon, a missile rack, a machine gun beneath its netting. To emphasize the thought, an ear-busting whumpf staggered everyone at the landing pads. A wave of dirt and a few dead fish swept through the gaggle, then a distant vrak-boom seconds later.
“Easy, lads, they’re just testing the main guns,” a pasty Second Lieutenant called. “Back to business, men!” Peregrine beckoned Washi with a jerk of his head and they set out for the furthest tower, the one facing the sea where attacks were seen furthest in advance. The guards at the blast doors glanced at Peregrine and stood to one side.
“Good luck, He-
“Don’t say that name,” Peregrine barked. The slow scrape of the blast doors sapped his briskness. “Sorry, Damian. Just, y’know-‘ The left-hand guard chuckled.
“It’s not a good name. Understood, Sir.” Within the blast doors sat a small atrium watched by five AI miniguns and a dozen (currently inactive) mines. A grimy concrete stairwell with rusted steel steps led down, and down, and down, past interior guard posts and firing ports. Dim hallways shifted from concrete to titanium, then finally to the iridescent gray of Strond A3 plating. The outward murmur of the sea and rattle of the landing pads fell away as a head cut from its torso. In its place the mercs heard the whispered poise of the command room, broken only by the clatter and rustle of aides-de-camp through another blast door. Peregrine stepped through first, Washi behind.
Brigadier Desham stood over a blank holographic display, flanked by a wraith of a man in a ridiculous maroon-silk suit. Next to the snow-pale, square-jawed officer in his dull gray fatigues, the tanned, oiled civvie looked like a hallucination. Peregrine considered reconsidering his stims.
“Captain Peregrine,” Desham acknowledged. “Glad you chose to accept.” Peregrine nodded gravely. Washi said nothing, and from Desham’s blank stare he wasn’t smiling behind Peregrine’s back. It almost inspired the sniper to religion.
“Why’s the blast door open, sir?” Peregrine asked. “Defeds could always sneak a strike team in.”
“Your kid there would annoy them to death,” Desham quipped.
Peregrine cleared his throat. “Elmer, you’ve never been much of a joker. What’re we looking at?”
“My daughter!” Maroon-suit burst out. Desham shrugged apologetically. Washi whispered, “Unfortunate phrasing.” Peregrine elbowed the other man to stop himself guffawing.
“This is Congressman Williks from the Upper Commonwealth.” Desham said. “His daughter Rhetta is a Lieutenant in the 9th Armored. She’s pinned down-”
“She’s going to die!” The Congressman wailed.
“Her unit is currently trapped in the Kadetsk Pocket,” Desham explained, with a tinge of vitriol. “Along with the rest of the Commonwealth 13th Corps. They have supplies for a month courtesy of their strongpoints, after which they’ll have to surrender. Defederated Troops are still driving north, so odds of relief are pretty slim.”
“And you want us to slip through the lines, remove the Lieutenant from her unit, and drag her back to the Commonwealth whether she likes it or not.” Peregrine declared.
“My Rhetta would never go against-” Williks began.
“Yes, those are your instructions.” Desham said. “The Congressman’s, erm, paternal affection may give him a rosier outlook than we have.”
“Give me the thorns, then,” Peregrine said. Washi snickered slightly.
“Clamp that, Raptor,” Desham snapped. Turning back to Peregrine, he said, “Lieutenant Williks holds nine awards for gallantry. Main ones are the Commonwealth Illustrious Combat Order and the Tarsian Adamant Shield.”
Peregrine quirked a brow. “Can’t speak to the first, but I’m familiar with the second. Tarse takes its awards seriously.”
Desham nodded. “It’s my opinion, as well as that of our analysts, that Lieutenant Williks is a model officer. She’d sooner die than abandon her troops.”
“Rhetta would never-”
“Congressman, why’d your daughter enter the service?” Peregrine asked.
“Well, er… she never-”
“The way you talk, I guarantee she did it to spite you. Shouldn’t blame her, myself,” Peregrine said.
“Captain,” Desham said, “I order you not to nettle the Congressman. Now, Lieutenant Ludmilla–”
Washi slumped audibly in his gear.
“–will carry you and two squads by Stratoskimmer to the Kadetsk Pocket. We’ll provide you with papers and a Commonwealth callsign. Provided you don’t get cute, these will guarantee no one shoots you-”
“But were I they, I’d never be to keen to help pull anyone else out and leave my arse for the sharks,” Peregrine noted. “Will do. Anything else?”
“What’s a shark?” Washi asked, echoing everyone’s thoughts.
“Nothing important,” Desham answered both questions, omitting the usual ‘negative.’ “Still, Captain, hold on a moment. Sergeant Nakajima, please escort the Congressman to the VIP lounge. I’ll meet him there shortly.” Desham watched as the two left. The command room staff made a point of fiddling with the instruments.
“Sheffield,” Desham said, “Figured I should only tell you this and let you decide who should know. Might just be posturing and God forbid Williks hear it, but our contacts in Tarse say they intend to relieve the Kadetsk Pocket.”
“And press the 13th Corps into their army?” Peregrine suggested.
“If they can,” Desham said. “Failing that, POWs for exchange or political leverage. Now, this is just a rumor, but I hear Lieutenant Williks has the eye of an old friend of yours.” Peregrine quirked a brow.
“Ours,” Desham admitted. “Marshal Grech. Supposed to have sent some supersoldier to get her. Some kind of cyborg sniper.”
(Episode Two Here)