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“There is nothing moreexhilarating than to be shot at without result” Winston Churchillonce said.
There is great truth in that statement,especially when considering the alternative. Flesh and blood cannotstand up to a speeding, burning piece of lead. Nor can it survive alaser frying muscle and bone with the precision of a surgicalscalpel. Of course, today we have the advantage over soldiers ofthepast. The medical nanos jump into action, repairing blood vessels,rebuilding organs and creating new flesh to plug the bullet holes.You're as good as new if the wound is not too serious. However,whenhalf your body is blown away, there's little even the nanos cando.
But I've never liked using the memorydrugs to erase the knowledge of battle wounds. Civilians use memorywipes to cast bad memories into oblivion, and so are able to forgetabad childhood or traumatic events. Not soldiers. You learn hardlessons in battle, and you should remember, not forget them. A fewsoldiers use the drugs, but I never have.
But the nanos, as marvelously high-techas they are, are nature's liars. I look at my body in the mirrorandsee no scars, no rough, ragged redness on the pale skin. Nothing toshow the wounds I have received. But my mind remembers them. It'sincongruous to view the skin and know it should show the ravages ofbattle. Some soldiers have a though emotional time with that.
Eternallyyoung. And eternally waiting for the next battle. Because I'mGenrich, I age very slowly. When I look at my face, my mind tellsmeI should look older — and wiser for that matter. I guess Imight look twenty-five, maybe twenty-seven, but I have lived moreyears than that.
I have chosen this profession, so Ican't complain. I chose it because, thanks to a combination ofgenetics and other skills, I am good at it. Of course it alwayshelpsto have a cause worth fighting for. In this age of nanobites andmemory drugs, what often matters most are not high-tech skills butrather, as the poet said, the small, often unremembered, acts ofkindness.
Which is why I was so proud of theDistinguished Service Medal the Deltans bestowed upon me. After thewar they fought with the Critterrans, they didn’t have a lot oftime for thanks, so the ceremony didn’t take long. The Deltan vicepresident, an older man — there is no Genrich technology on theirplanet — awarded me the green ribbon with the gold star. His agedhands trembled slightly as he placed the medal around my neck. Heshook my hand and almost cried as he thanked me for helping to savehis planet and his people. I was touched. My friends, CommanderRembrante Cleed and Lt. Jade O’Malley, also received the DSM.They’re military professionals, while I’m in a private force andusually work for cash.
Unlike their enemies, the Deltans are abenevolent race who know and appreciate the concept of honor. Whichis another reason I was so pleased with the medal. When honorablemenand women present you with an award, it’s well worth keeping. As Isaid, it’s nice to have something worth fighting for.
Which is why I couldn’t turn Belendown when she asked me for help.
The mountain winds howled like adrunken banshee and plunked high-powered snow bullet into thewindshield. The heat evaporated the snow, only to have a secondvolley slam the plastic glass. I looked out the window and wonderedwhy Belen desired a mountain home. An ice mountain home.
The transport hummed quietly as itrolled along in the snow. Some people are uncomfortable withdriverless vehicles, but they don't cause me any anxiety. Thecomputer handled the wet, twisting roads like a NASCAR driver. Theswirling storm had stripped the leaves from most of the trees. Theyheld up their bare snow-covered branches to the sky, as if tosurrender.
Belen and I shared a friendly yetturbulent past, and I wondered why she wanted to see me. I assumedithad something to do with my profession as a soldier-of-fortune. Shedid have a fortune. A considerable one. Inherited some of it, andbuilt up the rest with talent, genius and hard work, 15-hour-a-dayambition. But she always held her cards close to her chest. She hadapenchant for secrecy that annoyed me at times. But when you havebuilt several successful corporations, you probably develop a fewannoying tics along the way.
When the car reached the house, thecovered driveway zoomed out to meet us. It attached itself to thecardoor, so that I was protected from the snow and sleet. For a manwhohas dodged bullets and lasers, I found the architecturalconveniencea bit amusing.
The door scanner pricked my thumb. Itwas painless, and cheap for that matter. It would run all the chemand bio tests, but I wouldn’t be billed. The green letters on ablack background screen asked, ARE YOU:
(2) An AI
There were a few other classificationsafter human. Looking at the list I became slightly depressed. Thelast time I saw such a checklist, humans were listed fourth. Thespecies must be dropping in prestige.
“Genrich human,”I said.
The security computer had a drab, huskyvoice. “Name?”
“Logan Ryvenbark. I’m expected.”
“Your gun, sir.”
“What about it?”
“Would you please deposit it on thetray?”
A silence followed. Perhaps thecomputer was baffled.
“Then, sir, I cannot let you in,”it finally said.
I turned around, then heard thefeminine voice override.
“Open the door, Norman. Mr. Ryvenbarkdoesn’t even like to shower without his weapon. This one time weshall indulge him.”
The computer whined and the doorclicked open. The house was a two-story spacious dwelling just this side of being amansion. I walked across the palatial front room and climbed thestairs. A robot servant escorted me to a second floor office.
Belen Morganthal rose behind the largeornate desk and walked toward me. She was tall, almost six feet,andwas wearing an elegant black pants suit trimmed with gold. Thesparkling brown hair fell across her shoulders. I always thoughthervoice held something of a military bearing. As she greeted me, Ikissed her cheek.
“Thank you for coming, Logan.”
“Please sit down.”
Mustbe important, I thought. Belen did not usually say“please”. Usually she just issued orders and people obeyed. Ieased down into a well-cushioned green chair and crossed my legs.Itwas a large room with a high ceiling. Deep carpet. The robotbodyguard, white with black trim, stood silent a few feet behindherdesk. He could have been a statue except for the menacing auraaroundhim, as palpable as the scent of death on a battlefield. The high,arched windows were not covered with drapes, so you could see thesnow-covered mountains. A few evergreens stood a defiant dark greenagainst the white background.
“Good to see you again, Belen. Whydid you want to talk to me?”
I admiredherbrown eyes. Belen had beautiful brown eyes. They sparkled and couldhypnotize you. They had a laser intensity that could melt steel.Whenshe made up her mind about an issue, it was impossible to changeit.
Hersteel gaze focused on me. “I am putting together an expedition toSandelingand I would like ittobe led by you.”
She eased her hips on the edge of theblack walnut desk and crossed her arms. “We have a long and rathercomplicated history, Logan.”
“Long, complicated, enjoyable.”
She nodded. “We had many good times.”
“You are one of the very few people Iwould trust toaccomplishthis mission.”
I was standing outside at the entranceto our base on Sandeling. But there was nothing to see onSandeling.It’s an ice world. Ten feet of snow, a dark sky, icy winds andswirling snow was all there was in view. Minus 80 on this piece ofmiserable frozen real estate. And this was one of our better days.Itwas 150 below at the poles, and the winds howled even fiercerthere.Or so I had been told — I wasn’t going to check it out myself.
I had the blue thermal suit on andcontinually gave a cheer for science. The thin blue coating over myskin allowed me to stay at 75 degrees. Even so, I still wore thebeige Arctic winter coat. It was almost impossible to tear or rip athermal suit, but I wasn’t going to take any chances.
Even with the suit, I didn’t darebreathe. The cold air would frost my lungs. The medical nanos gaveussome protection but, no matter how good the nanos, it wasn’t wiseto breathe minus 80 degree air without a mask. I sighed. I lookedaround and saw nothing but blue ice and white snow.
The squad was grumbling and I didn’tblame them. We were a military unit. The men and women were used toaction. They didn’t like doing nothing on a barren world with noidea about what our mission was.
The problem was I couldn’t tell themmuch. I heard the whiff of air as the entrance opened. Astrid wasstanding there in her Arctic suit.
“The squad is assembled, major.”
“Thanks. I wish I had something solidto tell them.”
The door closed behind me. I peeledback my hood. So did Astrid. She hummed a tune and smiled. She wasthe only one of Ryvenbark’s Raiders who felt like humming. Astridhas a pleasant personality and an optimistic nature. When I'dmarriedher, I'd told her we might have been called on to go to the mostunlikely, dangerous and miserable places.
“As long as you’re with me, I’mhappy,” she'd replied.
This planet was testing that mentalfortitude.
At one time this planet had an advancedcivilization. The corridors and technology of the undergroundpassages were impressive. Nobody knows what happened to the race.They must have been humanoids. The accommodations we had found fitatwo-armed, two-legged species. But they didn’t leave muchinformation about their race or what caused the permanent Arcticfreeze of their world. We had a few basics we'd been able todecipherand not much more. We were in the middle of a continent in thenorthern hemisphere of this world. But the southern continents werenot much better. Ice, snow, wind and nothing else. The North Poleconditions are everywhere on this planet.
There were huge caverns below thesurface that could accommodate, by our best guess, several millionpeople; but there was no sign of life. Nothing below surface andcertainly nothing above it.
The two dozen members of my squad wereassembling in a meeting room. They stood when I came in and walkedtothe podium. I waved hello and told them to sit down.
“Ladies and gentleman, I don’t liketo repeat the obvious, but I will this once. We have been on thedelightful frozen paradise for two weeks and, as you have noticed,nothing has happened. I know most of you are wondering why we’rehere.”
“Practicing for the Winter Olympics,major?” came a voice.
The line brought laughter from thecrowd.
“The fact is, I don’t know whywe’re here. As you know, we work for Belen Morganthal, who has astring of companies and contacts with the highest officials of theFederation. Ms. Morganthal has done favors for the Federation fromtime to time. I have a hunch this is a favor. But they did not tellher why they wanted an expedition to this planet. Knowing theFederation, it’s possible this is some type of huge mistake. But Iwas ordered to come here for an indeterminate amount of time, withthe maximum stay at three months. That’s why I asked forvolunteers. This is one of the few times we simply do not know whatour mission actually is. Apparently, we are going to be up againstboredom.”
Some laughter came from the crowd, witha few anguished groans too.
“However, I do know this. For theFederation this is a very important mission. The reason I know thatis we are expensive. We don’t come cheap.”
More laughter came from the crowd.
“So, even if you do nothing, you arebeing paid union wages, high union wages. Of course sometimesgovernments, since they’re spending other people’s money, caninvest in boondoggles. Perhaps they have with this mission.