Chapter 1-2

1965 Words
Adeyemi frowned, now looking more annoyed than worried, and waved a hand in a negative gesture. “No way, no how.” He jerked a thumb behind him. “You can’t hit that target with your back turned. Smart lenses aren’t going to help you if you’re not using your cybernetic arm.” Erik lifted his right hand and waved the dart. “You’ve got nothing to lose but your pride, or are you ready to admit that I’m just that damned good?” He gave a lopsided grin. “Sure, why the hell not?” Adeyemi snorted. “Let’s see it, Blackwell. Show me the pride of the Knights Errant. Make me believe I didn’t shoot myself in the foot when I got a transfer here.” Erik laughed. “So if I’m good at darts, that makes all this worthwhile?” “It’s something.” Adeyemi shrugged. “Better than sitting around on my hands.” Erik turned around and closed his eyes, then took a few deep breaths and stepped a few centimeters to the right. After a quick jerk of his arm and flick of his wrist, the dart flew out of his hand. A thud and a familiar chime followed. The room filled with the roars and cheers of the other soldiers. Erik opened his eyes and faced the dartboard. His throw didn’t place the dart directly in the center of the board. It lay just inside the bullseye circle. Close enough. Adeyemi’s let out a loud groan. “You have got to be kidding me.” He slapped his forehead and pulled his hand down his face, his eyes focusing back on the board one more time. “I can’t believe what I just saw.” He pointed at the board but was talking to two of the guys to his left. “He didn’t have his freaking eyes open, and his back was turned!” Biyu smirked and popped him in the stomach to get his attention. “Told you. At least he let you off easy.” She reached up and patted him on the shoulder. “We all think he’s lucky, too. Our platoon hasn’t lost a single soldier since he took over, and we saw plenty of action before getting sent here to watch dust and rocks and wait for hissing aliens.” Erik’s mark looked around, exasperated. “You’re not a bunch of green scrubs,” Adeyemi argued, his hands up as if he were preaching to a bunch of sinners. “That’s not luck. It’s experience.” “Sure, but it’s like he said. It helps to have both luck and skill.” She winked. “And now we’re so lucky we’re sitting at the edge of UTC space doing nothing but playing darts and going on boring patrols. Maybe it’s a reward, as boring as it is.” She stopped for a moment, pressing her lips together. “Not that I wouldn’t mind a crack at the Zitarks,” she mumbled. “But I’m not all that eager to see if those bastards are tough little dinosaurs or not.” “Don’t worry.” Erik grunted. “There’s a reason the 108th is the last major platoon left on this rock.” Once the garrison relief arrives, we’ll move on to something more useful.” The passage of time had convinced Erik that some idiot desk ranger, or worse, desk Marine in intel, had freaked out too much about routine Zitark ship movements and spun the whole UTC military up into almost starting a war. He could imagine how they had loaded up thousands of troops and gathered a decent-sized fleet, only for absolutely nothing to happen for months. Say, the months he had been sitting on his hands here, for example. And that meant vital military resources which could have been used against humans who were actually causing trouble weren’t available. Erik was as eager as anyone in his group to go on leave and then get back to doing something—anything—useful with his platoon. How many terrorists we could have smoked are out there causing trouble? “Are you shitting me?” Adeyemi sighed. “It took me two months of travel to get here, and now it’s all over?” He shook his head. “I was good with a transfer here. I wanted to be there when the first intergalactic war started.” Erik grinned. “I was wondering why someone would suddenly request a transfer to 108th when we were stuck in the middle of nowhere counting dart scores. Sorry. The Zitarks aren’t going to make a move on human space. We’d promptly make them as extinct as the dinosaurs on Earth, and they know that. It’s probably why they backed off so much once they saw we were getting ready for a fight.” “Damned right!” Jekowski, and Butters in the back fist-bumped. They were both adrenaline junkies, but damned good when life showed up and bitch-slapped your plan for the day into next week. Adeyemi narrowed his eyes. “You really don’t think they’re going to be a problem?” Erik considered his answer before shaking his head. “Highly unlikely. You know they apologized for that crap they pulled last year, right?” Adeyemi shrugged in that way which suggested it rang a bell, but it was ringing in the other room. “Well, they did. Which is why we’re here playing darts instead of wasting space raptors in our exoskeletons. Besides, everything we know says there are a lot more humans than Zitarks.” Erik shrugged. “We stay out of their way, and they’ll stay out of ours. Hard to win a war when the other guy’s guns are as big as yours, and they’ve got a lot more people than you do.” Biyu snickered. “So, even if we couldn’t beat them, we would win by breeding them out?” “Hell, yeah!” Jekowski called. “In your dreams,” one of the ladies shot back. “Hey!” Jekowski turned to her. “We signed up for whatever it took to win this war, right?” Erik noted the mostly male grunts of agreement. Jekowski jerked a thumb to his chest. “It might not be the way you want to serve your world, but if I’m told to go breed for the benefit of mankind, I’m taking that shit seriously.” “Just call it the great human advantage.” Erik spoke over Jekowski. Adeyemi shook his head. “What about the Orlox? Can’t they just basically sneeze out new little fungi?” Erik chewed on the inside of his cheek in thought, then said, “It’s kind of hard to be intimidated by a bunch of glorified walking mushrooms. Trust me, I’ve seen one in person. They’re weird, not scary.” His hands outlined an Orlox’s shape in the air. “They’re not even all that intelligent by themselves. They’re only self-aware in groups. They won’t last long in war if they all start drooling when we shoot one out of four of them.” “Do Orlox drool?” Biyu asked. “Hell if I know. I’m not a xenobiologist. They look kind of…sticky.” Erik chuckled and gestured around the room. “The UTC might be pinned in for the most part by the Local Neighborhood races, but none of them seem like they’re going to mess with us anytime soon. It’s been almost forty years since first contact with the Zitarks, and the most we’ve had are a few border skirmishes. I’ve been in the Expeditionary Corps for thirty years, and I’ve only ever had to fight humans.” He scratched his chin. “There’s no Thucydides Trap when all the races are balanced in power already.” Adeyemi pondered Erik’s reply before trying again. “What about the Leems? They’ve been coming to Earth since 1947. You know, what was it…Roswell? That Leem ship that crashed, even if they didn’t admit it until recently. That’s got to mean they’re planning something.” Chuckles ran around the group. Erik snorted. “An almost three-hundred-year head start on having hyperspace tech, and all those little gray freaks did was run a few worthless experiments and buzz the occasional farmer? I’d put my money on the Orlox to win a war before I put it on the Leems. Please note, the minute we started sticking our satellites up, they were afraid to do much. And keep in mind, the Leems who were in the Solar System were stuck there because of some weird hyperspace accident. It wasn’t like they were in communication with the rest of them. It also doesn’t do a race any good to have tech if they don’t know how to fight. That’s the other great human advantage—the will to fight, honed over thousands of years fighting each other.” Erik thought about it for a moment. “That, and we have bagels and fried rice. I don’t think any of those other races have bagels or fried rice.” “The power of biryani will defend humanity,” declared another soldier, Lieutenant Ahuja. “It’s even better than fried rice.” Harold, known to most here as Lieutenant Sampson, made a face. “Ugh. Why are we talking about good food when we’re stuck with rations here? I’d kill for real food.” He turned to look over his shoulder. “Especially Jekowski.” “Hey!” came the automatic reply. This generated the expected chuckles, as well as the single-finger salute that seemed to go with mankind no matter what world, planet, planetoid, or barren rock humans took root on. Along with pizza. Erik agreed with Sampson’s thoughts. He’d be tempted to kill Jekowski for a bite of pizza. Sampson waved off the man’s complaints. “They say printed food is the same nutrient-wise, but it’s definitely not the same flavor-wise. I don’t care if it’s cheaper to ship out the nutrient paste tubes and print them into a meal. They should give us some real damned food if they’re going to stick us on rocks like this for so long.” The room became a cacophony as people shouted out the foods they missed. Erik shook his head, a slight smile visible in his eyes, if not on his lips. If you looked hard enough. The Knights Errant had earned a long leave, and he’d been promised one from up above. Just two more months and a garrison platoon would arrive. Too bad the Zitarks won’t let us show up and hit their beaches. They’ve got to have at least a few decent ones. A small silver card clipped to his belt vibrated; it was his PNIU, personal network interface unit. He tapped it and waited for a chime to signal connection, then put up a hand. Those around him lowered their voices and hit those who had loud voices behind them who hadn’t noticed Erik’s raised hand yet. “This is Major Blackwell.” “Sir,” came the response. The sound was transmitted almost directly to his ear, granting him some privacy. “That UTC auditor who is evaluating the mine just sent out an SOS. He says he’s under attack by terrorists.” What the hell? I’d believe the Zitarks showed up all of a sudden sooner than terrorists. “Terrorists?” Erik echoed. “What are you talking about?” “We don’t know, sir. Just got a garbled transmission about him being under terrorist attack.” Everyone fell dead silent and turned to look at him, excitement in their eyes. A little action, especially against terrorists, would be welcome. Erik frowned. “Do we have any drones in the area?” “No, sir. We’re getting some transmission errors. I’m also having some trouble communicating with the satellites.” His frown deepened. “Prep additional drones. We’ll launch them ourselves on the way. Send out an all-call alert as follows.” Erik glanced around. “We’re suiting up. Full battle-rattle. We have a possible terrorist incursion at the mines. Enemy number and capability unknown.” A moment later, a harsh alarm emerged from everyone’s PNIUs, the sound repeating from nearby rooms as his message was issued. There was intentionally no directional sound for full alerts. Erik gestured toward the door. “Let’s move. Some poor bureaucrat probably just hit his head and is seeing things in the shadows. I expect everyone in this room to be suited up and ready to go before the rest of the platoon even gets to the armory.” Terrorists? How could terrorists get from the gate all the way here without the destroyer picking them up? Infiltrators with the company workers? If this auditor idiot is wasting our time, we’re going to have a loud, vociferous one-way conversation.
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