Who has placed me here?
By whose order and warrant was this place and time
ordained for me?
The lieutenant awoke to darkness, but was too much of a newbie to know that was wrong. Instead of feeling concern, he lay there in his transit tube congratulating himself for knowing where he was after being asleep for so long. He’d traveled in this fashion once before, during a family vacation, but that had been a short Step between two galaxies and nothing like the multi-Threshold voyage now completed.
Unlike that earlier ship—a luxury craft befitting his father’s exalted station—this was a massive military transport ferrying him to his first war zone. Although humankind had been fighting the Sims for four decades and he’d grown up in the conflict’s lengthening shadow, he still felt a rush of excitement at finally having arrived. A lifetime of physical fitness and competitive sport, officer candidate instruction at university, and specialized infantry training after graduation had all combined to bring him to this moment.
He was to be assigned a combat platoon in the Twelfth Corps, the “All-Victorious and Ever-Glorious Twelfth” of the Human Defense Force. On earth the Twelfth was referred to as The Senate’s Own, but out here on the cutting edge they were simply known as the Glory Corps. The lieutenant already understood that the level of respect or mockery when uttering either nickname depended a lot on who was speaking. And where.
But that was all bullshit now. Soon a group of technicians would open his coffin-like transit tube, and shortly after that he would be delivered to his new unit. His platoon would consist of roughly forty soldiers, mostly combat veterans and many of them older than his twenty-two years. Three platoons to a company, all led by a Company Commander overseen in turn by a Battalion Commander directing three companies. As a team they would be facing an implacable enemy contesting humankind’s claim to the habitable planets of distant galaxies. A brutal opponent known for extreme cruelty and fiendish treachery. An enemy that spent the lives of its own troops with such abandon that it was believed to outnumber mankind drastically.
In the classified briefings he’d secretly received from his father’s personal staff, he’d been surprised to learn that even the Emergency Senate knew next to nothing about their opponents. Nothing, that is, except that the Sims resembled mankind so closely that some experts quietly asserted that they had once been human. Even their name suggested the link: Sim. Facsimile. Similar. The war had been in progress for so long that no one was sure how or where the name had first originated.
But none of that mattered either. Not now. He’d been warned that there was no way to completely prepare oneself for combat, and in the vanity of youth he only half-believed that. He could now make out the gray silhouette of his long legs inside the tube, using the dull light from the observation window just inches over his face, and he was pleased by the sight. Exactly six feet tall, well muscled and athletic, he felt he was as ready as he was ever going to get.
Let it come. I might not be ready, but I am prepared.
The face that appeared in the observation window was so unexpected, so close, and so white against the dark background that he gave out a brief scream.
“Easy. Easy. Take it easy.” Gentle hands helped him into a sitting position on the transit tube’s lid. The face that had startled him so badly belonged to a woman not many years his senior, clad in an olive flight suit. Her hair was dark and cut short, but it was hard to tell much more in the low light.
Her companion looked like a teenager, and so far he’d said nothing. Tall and lean, he wore a tan flight suit and waited a few steps behind the woman.
The cabin was a wreck, with cables looping from the ceiling like vines and an overturned transit tube lying next to his own. The lieutenant’s mind was still groggy from the long sleep and the compartment was cloaked in shadow, but he could just make out substantial cracks running across the white ceiling.
“There. Just sit still for a moment and let yourself come to.” The woman turned to the teenager. “See if anything’s working in here.”
Her companion nodded minutely and moved off, squeezing past the fractured transit tube toward a console set into the wall. The lieutenant watched him for a moment before turning back to the woman.
“What did you say your name was?”
“Amelia. Captain Amelia Trent. I’m a psychoanalyst.” She gave a slight smile. “I’m a counselor for Force personnel who are having difficulties.”
She motioned toward the printed label next to his thigh. “And you would be Jander Mortas. Lieutenant, Infantry. Well thank heavens for that.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll help you all I can. But I really haven’t got any survival training, and Force regulations are quite clear that in a circumstance like this the ranking individual with Combat Specialties training is in command.”
“Circumstances like this?” Mortas surveyed the ceiling cracks again. Obviously they’d been involved in some kind of a crash, but the true extent of their current situation wasn’t clear. “What circumstances?”
“I’m sorry, I should have told you this before we pulled you out.” Trent’s face adopted a look of true sympathy. “Apparently our Insert was ejected from the transport and Emergency Stepped to the nearest habitable planet. It’s the standard response to a catastrophic event on ship. I don’t know what happened—I was out cold same as you—so they might have been attacked, they might have hit something, or . . . I don’t know. So many things can go wrong out here.”
Mortas extended a hand and gripped her shoulder.
“You mean we’re alone?”
“So far, yes. We’ve checked the rest of the Insert, and apart from Chartist Gorman there—” she pumped a thumb over her shoulder “—and one other survivor who I don’t think is going to be any help at all, we seem to be the only ones left.”
Mortas looked about him, remembering the walk through the connected cabins of the Insert before he’d climbed into his transit tube. There were twenty tubes to an Insert, which was then slid into the side of the transport which would carry them. While individual passengers were sometimes revived and disembarked separately, the standard usage was to transfer the Insert with its contents all at once. Inserts sometimes passed from ship to ship traveling under their own power. This meant they could also act as escape pods or life boats, carrying their sleeping contents alive for an indefinite period or delivering them safely to the ground of a habitable planet.
That prompted a question, one which he was hesitant to ask. Trent seemed to sense it.
“There were fifteen other passengers with us.” She looked down. “Seems we landed pretty hard.”
The teenager now spoke, turning from the wall console that hadn’t so much as beeped no matter what he did to it.
“Hard is right. This one doesn’t work any better than the others.” He shrugged evenly, as if pronouncing a meal slightly overcooked. “I’m a Chartist First Class, but without a set of functioning gear I can’t tell you what planet we’re on, or even what system we’re in. I have no idea where we are.”
Mortas looked back at Trent, confused. “But you said this is a Hab planet, right? If nothing’s working, how did you know that?”
The captain smiled tolerantly. “Our Insert cracked in half when we hit the ground. You’re breathing planet air right now. If it wasn’t habitable . . . we wouldn’t be talking.”
“Most of my stuff is missing.” Mortas had recovered sufficiently to retrieve his uniform from under the transit tube, but the bag containing his personal effects was nowhere in sight.
“Not surprising.” Captain Trent had just finished searching the cabinet beneath the overturned tube. Mortas had been careful not to look after seeing that a rust-colored liquid had seeped out from the tube’s cover and dried on its side. “Some of the loading crews have sticky fingers.”
“The emergency gear all seems to be gone too.” The teenager, now identified as Chartist First Class Gorman, spoke in a soft voice. “No rations, no communications equipment, no medical kits. No . . . weapons.”
Something in the way he’d said the last word caught Mortas’s attention. He’d just buckled his gray fatigue pants, and now reached for the long shirt that went with them.
“Given the circumstances, I would have mentioned the weapons first.”
“Oh I understand that, Lieutenant. Don’t mind me; I’m Holy Whisper.”
The captain’s face appeared above the broken transit tube, surprised. “Really? And they sent you out here anyway?”
“Being an objector doesn’t necessarily get you out of combat duty, Captain. There are all sorts of assignments we can handle that don’t involve the taking of life.”
Mortas began fastening his multi-pocketed fatigue shirt down the front while still regarding the Chartist. Trent stood up slowly, brushing off her flight suit as if preparing for inspection. The lieutenant’s eyes had finally adjusted to the darkness, but it didn’t mean he liked what he was seeing.
Some platoon I’ve got myself here. A lady headshrinker and a pacifist mapmaker.
As if conjured by his thoughts, a figure appeared in one of the cabin’s connecting hatches. He was short, but his long-sleeved shirt hugged a tightly muscled chest. A black skull cap covered most of his close-cropped hair and much of his forehead, and he wore gray-and-black camouflaged fatigue pants over a set of black boots. He stopped long enough to look each of them directly in the eye, and then started to move toward the cabin’s opposite hatch.
“He’s the only other survivor, Lieutenant. The one I told you about. Says he’s a Spartacan Scout.” Trent’s voice was cold, and she directed a scowl at the short man as he passed from sight. Just before he vanished, Mortas noticed the handle of a black fighting knife in the back of his trousers.
“A Spartacan?” Mortas allowed the interest to jump into his voice even as his face lit up. He regretted it instantly, concerned that he might have hurt the others’ feelings, but then he dismissed the silly notion. If they were going to survive long enough to be rescued, they were going to need better guidance than a green lieutenant could provide.
Once again the captain seemed to sense his thoughts.
“Don’t get your hopes up. He told me not to mess with him. Not in those words. Said he’s a Spartacan Scout on a mission, and that it’s a death penalty offense to even question him about it.” Trent’s voice rasped bitterly. “Of course, out here just about everything carries the death penalty.”
Mortas was already aware of the harsh discipline exercised in the war zones, but he also knew that the Spartacans were considered the cream of the cream. A strict selection process followed by training that bordered on the inhuman had forged them into an elite reconnaissance element feared across the cosmos. The war had spawned many such units, frequently at odds with each other for resources and accolades according to his father, but the Spartacans were at the very top of that pile. They reported only to Command itself, and even a green-as-grass lieutenant knew that any Spartacan encountered by his platoon was to be aided in any way requested.
“Said he was on a mission?”
“Yeah.” Trent’s eyes roved over the wreckage with intent. “If you want to believe that.”
“No.” Mortas hopped down from the tube, the unmarked soles of his boots ringing on the deck. “No I don’t.”
“You know, the same regulation that puts you in charge of us puts him under your command too. This is an emergency survival situation.”
Tired of the goading, Mortas gave her a long, searching look and was pleased to see her shrink from it. “And how would a psychoanalyst know something like that?”
She recovered quickly. “I’ve been counseling combat cases out here for three years, Lieutenant. You’d be surprised what I know.”
There was better light in the next chamber, due to a wide crack in its ceiling. It meandered over his head like a bolt of lightning, and through several feet of pipes, insulation, and wires Mortas could make out a sky that was tinged slightly purple. Trent had tried to accompany him, but he’d made her stay with Gorman. If she’d managed to get on his nerves in such a short span of time, she was unlikely to be of help in convincing the Spartacan to cooperate.
The adjoining space was at one end of the Insert and twice the size of the transit tube cabins. Though it showed similar signs of destruction, at least one part of that disarray might have occurred since the landing. An access panel lay on the floor near a pair of legs in camouflage trousers and well-worn boots. The Spartacan Scout had burrowed underneath a console sporting numerous gauges that Mortas couldn’t have identified if given a year, and from the movements of his legs was struggling with something.
Mortas decided to try and establish some kind of rapport with the stranger.
“Need any help there?”
The legs didn’t stop moving, but the Spartacan did lean out just far enough to see him. The skull cap was slightly askew, and the blackened dagger was now in his hand.
“Sure.” The short man disappeared under the console, and reemerged clutching what appeared to be a handful of long, shiny snakes. He held these out in a clump, and Mortas bent over to accept them without a word. Standing back up, he decided that they were some kind of insulated tubing that the scout was harvesting for a purpose known only to him.
“What are these for?”
The other man began smashing at something, presumably with the butt of the knife, and Mortas was on the verge of repeating himself when the Spartacan emerged once again. This time he slid out fully, coming to a seated position on the floor while holding a metallic rectangle festooned with a number of small dials. He levered one of these off with the knife, and then held out an empty palm for one of the lengths of tubing.
Mortas handed it over with mounting annoyance, but this subsided slightly when the Spartacan jammed the dial into one end of the tube. It fit snugly, and curiosity got the better of him.
“What’s that for?”
“No food, you die in weeks. No water, you die in days.”
“So it’s a canteen of some kind?”
“Yep.” The short man drew his weathered boots up close to his buttocks and stood with surprising suddenness. The knife was still in his hand, long and thin and lethal, and Mortas took a step backward. The Spartacan noticed the movement, and glanced at the blade before reaching back to slide it into its scabbard. “Don’t worry about that.”
The voice was distant, bled of emotion, but Mortas decided this was a good moment to introduce himself. “I’m Lieutenant Mortas. New to the zone and . . . wherever this is.”
By then the short man was sorting through his harvest, measuring the tubes against his outspread arms and discarding the ones he found wanting. Studying him, Mortas was dismayed to notice that he seemed to be a teenager like Gorman. The scout stopped working at that moment, and fixed him with a quizzical expression. “Death?”
“Lieutenant Death. Your last name means death. Mortis. You know—rigor mortis.”
“Oh, I see. Actually it’s Mor-tas, with an ‘a’. What’s your name?”
“Cranther. Spartacan Scout.”
“What’s your first name?”
Cranther finished sorting the tubing and began tying off one end of each of the hoses he’d kept. “Listen, Lieutenant. Can’t interfere with me. Command will have your ass if you do. Stay out of my way, don’t ask me questions, and don’t follow me.”
There was no heat in the words, and for the briefest moment Mortas felt stymied. Bucking Command was unwise, and he knew so little of the Spartacans that he wondered if this busy little scout actually knew what he was talking about.
But that did it, of course; the Spartacan obviously knew a lot about survival and there was no way he could just let him walk off. The group needed him, and the notion that their crash landing on this place was part of some secret mission was so absurd as to be almost laughable.
“Yeah, I’m going to have to go ahead and disagree with you there.” Mortas spoke slowly, letting his voice take on the slightest timber of command. He’d heard this tone before, by officers and noncoms sure of their authority who were trying not to go directly to the yelling stage. He hoped it would be enough.
The short man’s head came up slowly, and he seemed to be taking Mortas’s measure for the first time. His hands were full of tubing and dials, but it wouldn’t take him long to get to the knife if he decided to go that route. Instead, he locked eyes with the lieutenant and scowled.
“Any interference with a Spartacan Scout is a death penalty offense. You’re new, so I'm not gonna . . .”
“Brand new, actually. Which means I don’t know much and you know a lot. Right now I’ve got a psychoanalyst and a chartist, no food and no weapons, and no idea where we are.” He gestured toward the scout’s makeshift canteens. “But you look like you might know what to do here, so you’re not leaving us.”
That sounded a bit too direct, and he decided to take it down a notch. “Heck, where would you go, anyway?”
“Never mind where I go.”
“You got eyes in the back of your head? Never sleep? Who knows what could be out there? Might be nice to have someone watching your back.”
Cranther gave him a slight, ghostly smile. “Don’t know much about how Spartacans operate, do you, Lieutenant?”
“No. Which is another reason why you have to stay with us.” He remembered Trent’s words. “I’m declaring this an emergency survival situation.”
The Spartacan cocked his head to one side, still looking into his eyes. He pushed his lower lip up as if giving the whole thing serious thought, and then let it go slack. “It is that. So I’ll help you out. Why not?”
He turned easily, corkscrewing downward to scoop up the discarded tubes and starting to drape them over his arm. Mortas headed for the hatch, pleased with his success and unwilling to push it, but still hearing what the scout muttered under his breath.
“We’re all dead anyway.”
Trent and Gorman were no longer in the adjoining compartment when he came back, but he could hear them in the cabin next door. They were obviously continuing the search for anything useful, and Mortas wondered bleakly if there was any chance that they might find some food. The scout’s estimate of how long it took for a human being to die without nourishment seemed wildly optimistic to him, as he hadn’t eaten since the moment they’d sealed him in his tube. Mortas knew that people emerged from the tubes in a state akin to low-level shock, but that once it wore off they quickly became ravenous.
He let himself ponder just what that meant in terms of the ‘weeks’ it would take for them to starve to death, and decided that the clock on that deadline had been running for quite some time. As if to confirm his finding, his intestines rubbed against each other and gave off a low growl. He reached out for the transit tube’s lid to steady himself just as Trent and Gorman returned.
“Any luck?” he asked, straightening slowly as if he’d only been stretching.
“No.” Trent shook her head, and then lifted her chin toward the hatch behind him. “How about you?”
“He’s on board.” Mortas took a step closer, inclining his head and speaking in a whisper. “I think he’s waiting for a reason to ditch us, so go easy with the comments. It won’t take much, and we need him.”
“Not sure about that.” The reply was also given in a whisper. “I’ve seen his type before, usually when casualties are coming in. Their buddies are all beat up, half of ‘em FUAD, and all they want to know is where the hot food is.”
Trent’s face took on a pained expression. “Oh, I didn’t mean to say that. I promised myself I wouldn’t pick up that kind of thing . . . it’s an acronym the triage techs like to use. It stands for ‘Fucked Up And Dying’ and I swore I’d never use it.”
“Captain, you don’t know anything about my type.” Cranther stood in the hatch behind Mortas, a dozen hoses draped over his brown top. Again the words lacked heat, spoken as if proclaiming an unassailable truth. “If we don’t locate something to eat right away, you’ll find out why my ‘type’ asks about the hot chow.”
Mortas was about to suggest that the scout busy himself with more important things, but Cranther had already moved on. He walked up to Gorman and held out the bundle of hoses. The chartist took them without protest, but seemed confused.
“What are these for?”
“You and I are gonna go fill them from the water heater’s reservoir.”
Gorman selected one of the tubes and flipped it back and forth in one hand. “This is the best we can do? How are we going to carry them?”
“Nothing but water has flowed through these. If you wanna drink hydraulic residue, small holding tanks make great canteens.”
Gorman nodded. “I guess you know more about this than I do. Let’s go.”
The scout turned to Mortas. “Don’t know how long we’ve been here, but judging from the burn marks on the hull it’s been at least a day. We need to get the water together, make one last sweep for anything worth taking, and get out of here.”
The sinister implication struck Mortas in a mix of both fear and embarrassment. This was his first trip to a war zone, and he’d completely forgotten the enemy. For all he knew, they’d landed on a Hab planet colonized by the Sims . . .
“You’ve been outside?”
“Of course. First thing I did. The place is mostly rock. We got lucky, the Insert’s hidden pretty well. Between two hills, one a lot bigger than the other. Went up on the low one, didn’t see much.”
Trent’s face had switched from anger to concern as Cranther spoke. “Did you see anything?”
“Yeah. I told you. Lots of rocks.”