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Authors: David Sherman,Dan Cragg

Backshot

BOOK: Backshot
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Backshot
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the authors' imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons. living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

A Del Rey Books Mass Market Original

Copyright © 2005 by David Sherman and Dan Cragg

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Del Rey Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House. Inc., New York.

Del Rey
is a registered trademark and the Del Rey colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.

ISBN 0-345-46058-8

Printed in the United States of America

www.delreybooks.com

To:

Larry Smith

Corporal, USMC

1st & 2nd LAAM Bns

RVN, 1965–1968

Forever a Marine . . .

And a Good Friend

1946–2004

Semper Fi

PROLOGUE

“Look!” Jorge Liberec Lavager gestured heavenward at the meteor flashing across the sky. His daughter Candace was sitting on the bench beside him in the dark. “Some of the best things in life are free, Candie, and nature is one of them.”

“I hope it doesn’t hit anybody,” Candace replied sarcastically.

“That’s my girl!” Lavager responded cheerfully. He put his arm around her shoulders and drew her closer. “Most meteorites are harmless,” he continued. “They burn up in the atmosphere before they reach the ground. They’re nothing to be afraid of.”

Candace sniffed. “I know that, Daddy.” Although she was only sixteen, in the past three years since Annie Lavager, Lavager’s wife and Candace’s mother, had been killed in an assassination attempt aimed at him, Candace and her father had become extremely close. For his part, Lavager was impressed by his daughter’s solid common-sense attitude toward world affairs. She was a realist and not afraid to speak her mind, and he appreciated that. Too many of the people around the former general—his aides, his cabinet ministers—only told him what they thought he wanted to hear. She feigned a cough. “Daddy, must you smoke those foul cigars? You’ll die of something if you don’t quit. And besides, they’re far from ‘free.’ ”

“I am shocked!” Lavager said with mock outrage. “Shocked that anyone could refer to a prime cigar like this Davidoff Anniversario as ‘foul’!” He chuckled. “And when you discount the things in life that are free, with what’s left over you get only what you pay for. My first rule of economics, Candie. Besides, I’m going to die of something someday anyway, so while I’m alive I’m going to live.” Lavager drew deeply on his Anniversario, a terribly expensive smoke imported all the way from the other side of Human Space. He savored the cigar’s complex layers of rich flavors: a sweet earthiness tinged with a slight hint of leather and sweet spicy undertones, all blended into a smooth draw that burned perfectly. Slowly he let the flavors out through his nostrils.

“Father, don’t talk that way!” Candace waved the smoke away with a hand. Ever since her mother’s death, she had been very aware of her father’s mortality, and the fact that some people on Atlas wanted him dead only added to her growing sense of uneasiness. Atlas’s major moon wasn’t visible and the stars overhead shone with particular brilliance in the night sky. The lights from New Granum, the Union of Margelan’s capital city, far below the mountaintop that was Lavager’s getaway, glowed warmly down in the valley. Despite her best efforts to dispel the cigar smoke, a fine white cloud hung suspended in front of her father’s face. The thought occurred to her that with the tip of his cigar aglow in the night her father might make a good target for someone hiding in the foliage below. She hoped the presidential security team watching over them from someplace out of sight was alert.

“I’m going to smoke this cigar right down to the band, Candie. Your mother liked the smell of them, and what was good enough for her is good enough for everyone else, including you, my dear.” He drew again on the Anniversario.

Cigar smoke was a smell Candace had associated with her father for as long as she could remember, and she did really like the aroma of a good cigar. But their bantering about his smoking habit was a game father and daughter played, part of the ritual they followed when by themselves, which was not very often these days.

“Candie,” Lavager said suddenly, “let’s go to Ramuncho’s! I’m hungry.” Ramuncho’s was his favorite restaurant in New Granum. He often dined there when his cabinet was sitting or when the planetary council, of which he was a member, was in session.

“Daddy, it’s close to midnight! You have an important cabinet meeting in the morning.”

“So what?” Like his daughter, Jorge Lavager often spoke just what was on his mind, inflaming his enemies and sometimes even his friends. “I’m hungry, I want some of Ramuncho’s paella. Come on, let’s go. You can drive.”

“I can?” That offer almost made Candace start for the car. Then she caught herself. “What about your security detail? Daddy, you have to be more careful!”

Lavager made a dismissive gesture with one hand. “Let them sleep.” Ever since the assassination attempt that had killed his wife, Lavager’s aides had insisted on constant personal security for their head of state. Slipping off by himself, as he was proposing to do that evening, Lavager often gave his bodyguards fits. But giving in to the alarm in his daughter’s voice, he relented. “All right,” he sighed. “We’ll order up a snack—but only after I’ve finished this cigar.”

They sat quietly for a few moments. Candace hugged her father tightly. “Daddy, I don’t want to lose you too,” she whispered.

“Don’t worry, you won’t, Baby.”

“But so many people in this world hate you.”

“Yes, and some with good reason, Candie. I made a lot of enemies when I led our armies. I had to do things I’m not very proud of.”

“But you’re not a general anymore, Daddy. You’re a statesman.” She pronounced the word proudly.

“Yes, I surely am. But you know, once a general, always a general. You never really take that uniform off as far as some people are concerned. You’re always on parade, as it were.” He drew on his cigar and slowly exhaled the smoke.

Primarily an agricultural world, Atlas had early split into regional power centers that evolved into independent nation-states, rather than maintaining a centralized world government as had nearly all other human-settled worlds. Those nation-states, in the manner of nation-states throughout history on Earth, warred among themselves with the major center of power shifting from one nation-state to another over the years. The Union of Margelan, under a succession of astute leaders, most recently Jorge Lavager, had been highly successful for more than a century in defending its interests. Its military success had led it to impose certain demands upon the losers, mostly the cession of some territories and acceptance of Margelan’s hegemony over others. The Union of Margelan’s main adversaries had been the countries of North and South Solanum, Oleania, and Satevina. Margelan’s main advantage, aside from excellent leadership, was the fact that unlike the other nation-states it had developed heavy industry that could produce the weapon systems needed to wage modern warfare—but over the years this had proved a tremendous strain on its economy.

Atlas was fortunate in one way, however. When the world was first settled three hundred years earlier, it had been on the fringes of Human Space, but by Lavager’s time it sat astride one of the busiest spacelanes of the Confederation of Human Worlds. That enabled the nation-states of Atlas, when they weren’t at war with one another, to easily export their products to other worlds. Gradually it dawned on the politicians of Atlas that if they could attain a state of peace among themselves, no matter how uneasy, everyone would prosper. To that end it was agreed to form a League of Nations that would represent the interests of all the nation-states and, it was hoped, settle their differences amicably. The League had sat at New Granum since the end of the war that had established the Union of Margelan as the most potent military power on Atlas—Lavager’s predecessor once removed had demanded that as a major concession for peace.

The League of Nations was a league in name only and its success at keeping the peace had been limited at best.

“Daddy, will there be another war?”

Lavager did not answer immediately. While he often entrusted secrets of state to his daughter, whom he secretly hoped might someday succeed him, there were things he would never tell her. “Probably,” he admitted at last. “But,” he added, “I have a plan.”

“Daddy, the other day Beresford Tuchman stood up in the League and said that Margelan is not a state with an army but an army with a state. Everyone believes there’s another war coming and that you will start it. The League is a joke.”

Lavager laughed. “They’ve been saying that about us for years, Candie. Yes, the League has not been very effective, but it gives all the nation-states of Atlas a forum. That’s important. But Candie, if I live long enough I am going to impose peace on this world. I’ll do it by force if I have to but I’d prefer another method.”

“Which is?”

“Ummm. I have something up my sleeve.” Candace could not see her father’s smile in the dark.

“Can you tell me?”

“Nope. It’s something I’m working on.” The silence between him and his daughter grew pregnant.

“Damned fine cigar,” he said at last.

“Daddy!”

“I’m developing something in our labs, and once it’s ready I’m going to use it to impose order and tranquility on this world, and that is all I can tell you about it now, Candace.” She cocked her head; her father used her proper name only when he was very serious. “This information must remain between me and a few others—and you never even heard what I just told you.” What concerned Lavager most about his daughter’s knowing too much was not that she would tell anyone—he knew from experience he could trust her with the most sensitive secrets—but the possibility of her being kidnapped and subjected to any one of many methods used to extract information from unwilling sources. A realist, he knew that if he couldn’t prevent that from happening at least he could keep safe what he was doing in his research laboratories.

“A weapon,” Candace snorted, a statement, not a question.

“Yes, of a sort.” Lavager smiled. “Look, figure the politics. Our ambassador to the Confederation of Human Worlds recently filed a dozen dispatches reporting how a number of member worlds in the Confederation feel uneasy about our intentions in this sector of Human Space. We sit astride an economic lifeline here on Atlas. They’re afraid that if someone succeeds in unifying Atlas he’ll create a shipping bottleneck in these spacelanes and attempt to extract stiff tolls. As they see it, keeping us at each other’s throats is in their best interests. So until I’m ready to show my hand, I’ve got to keep my plan under wraps.”

“I understand,” Candace conceded.

Lavager put his arm around his daughter again and drew her close. “When the time is right—Well, I’d like a ham and cheese sandwich before bed. Care to join me?”

The pair stood and Lavager led the way back toward the house, followed silently by the presidential security team. In the sky overhead another meteor flashed brightly before disappearing over the horizon.

CHAPTER ONE

Fourth Force Recon Company, Fourth Fleet Marines, Camp Howard, Marine Corps Base Camp Basilone, Halfway

“Toon, ten-hut!”

The Marines of second platoon, Fourth Force Recon Company snapped to attention at the command from their platoon sergeant Gunnery Sergeant Alf Lytle.

“Section leaders, report!”

“Squad leaders, report!” first section leader Staff Sergeant Suptra commanded in turn.

“First squad, all present and accounted for!” Sergeant Jak Daly shouted. His three Marines stood in a rank to his left.

“Second squad, all present and accounted for!” Sergeant Wil Bingh and his three men were directly to first squad’s left.

The four Marines of third squad were also present. Fourth squad would have completed the front rank of second platoon, but it was on a deployment, running a reconnaissance mission for the army. Only the four Marines of fifth squad were present from second section; sixth, seventh, and eighth squads, along with their section leader, were on a mission in support of a peacekeeping operation somewhere else. All seven members of the platoon’s sniper squad were present in the third rank, as reported by the squad leader, Staff Sergeant Athon.

Once the reports were complete, Gunny Lytle faced about and Lieutenant Tevedes, the platoon commander, marched toward him. Lytle raised his hand in a sharp salute and announced, “Second platoon, all present and accounted for, sir!”

“Thank you, Platoon Sergeant,” Tevedes said, returning the salute. “You may take your place.”

“Aye aye, sir.” Lytle executed an about-face and marched to his position two paces in front of Suptra. Lieutenant Tevedes looked with pride at his Marines—
his
Marines. He’d previously served as a platoon sergeant and a platoon commander in a Fleet Initial Strike Team, a FIST. Before that he’d been first a reconman, then a squad leader in Seventh Force Recon Company. This was his first command in Force Recon, and he looked forward to the day when his entire platoon would be sent out on a mission. Individual-squad and multi-squad deployments in support of Confederation army units or the armed forces of Confederation member worlds were the bread and butter of Force Recon, but platoon-size missions were nearest to the hearts of the platoon commanders; those missions were when they got to demonstrate that they could do more than train their Marines and provide them with mission planning and support, that they could successfully lead them in harm’s way.

“I’m sure you will be happy to hear that sixth, seventh, and eighth squads have completed their phase of the peacekeeping mission with the army and will rejoin the platoon in a couple of weeks,” Tevedes said. The Recon Marines were too well disciplined to show a reaction, though they’d been looking forward to the return of the three squads—by tradition, when two or more squads returned from a deployment, the entire platoon was given a week’s leave.

“That’s what I thought,” Tevedes deadpanned at their stone-faces. “Fourth squad is still bogged down trying to instruct the army on the difference between unconfirmed reports and the hard intel generated by Force Recon, so it’ll be a while yet before they come home.”

That brought out snickers from several of the Force Recon Marines and hoots from one or two. “Leave it to the doggies to not know the difference,” someone murmured just loud enough for everyone to hear.

“Quiet in the ranks,” Gunny Lytle said out of the side of his mouth.

“In other company news,” Tevedes continued as though there hadn’t been an interruption, “first platoon is deploying on a six-month training mission to Carhart’s World, where they will establish a recon school and train the first generation of instructors for a new Carhart Armed Forces special forces reconnaissance unit. Add in travel time and whatever bureaucratic nonsense they’ll have to deal with when they arrive on Carhart’s World, and they’ll probably be gone for seven months or longer. In the unlikely event that any of you don’t understand the significance of first platoon’s extended absence, it means there will probably be additional deployments for the rest of the company for the duration of that deployment.”

There was little reaction to that news; as much as half of the company was on deployment at any given time anyway, and it wasn’t all that unusual for a squad to have as little as two or three weeks, Standard, between deployments, though the normal rest and training period was at least two months Standard, and occasionally five or six months.

“The same squads from third and fourth platoons that were on deployments the last time I gave you an update are still on deployment, but I don’t imagine we much care about when they’re due back, not unless it interferes with our coming leave.” Tevedes was right, his Marines were more interested in what they would be doing until sixth, seventh, and eighth squads returned. He gave his platoon a bland look that could be interpreted as, “Don’t ask me,” then said out loud,

“Everyone who’s been in Force Recon long enough has run into a situation where you didn’t expect to need a sniper, but suddenly you do. So we are going to spend the next two weeks on the range, where we will all fire sniper weapons for orientation and qualification.”

This again was the kind of announcement that didn’t provoke an overt reaction. They all knew that if a mission didn’t require a sniper, the squad or squads that went on it didn’t take sniper weapons either, so the training didn’t make much sense. But it was an opportunity to fire—and qualify with—more weapons, and the Marines all enjoyed spending time on the range.

“Commander Obannion,” Tevedes continued, “told me that came from very much higher-higher.” Which probably meant Obannion, the company commander, got the orders from Lieutenant General Indrus, the commanding general of Fourth Fleet Marines. “So get ready to head for the range. You know what that means. We leave at oh-dark-thirty tomorrow morning. Transportation will be provided. Platoon Sergeant, dismiss the platoon.”

“Aye aye, sir!” Lytle responded. He saluted Tevedes, who returned the salute, about-faced, and marched toward the company office.

Lytle waited until the lieutenant was halfway there, then faced the platoon and said, “You heard the man. Get your asses into the barracks and get ready to go play bang-bang with weapons most of us will never use.”

Camp Hathcock Controlled Ranges, MCB Camp Basilone, Halfway Camp Hathcock, like Camp Howard, was a small part of Confederation Marine Corps Base Camp Basilone. Camp Basilone itself sprawled over more than eighty thousand square kilometers, which was far more space than was required for the headquarters of a Fleet Marine Force and its attendant units. But Camp Basilone was also home to the Marine Corps Combat Development Center, where new tactics and most Marine-specific weapons and equipment were developed and tested—when six or seven FISTs assembled to run war games together, or in opposition to each other, they needed prodigious amounts of space to play in. Terrain and weather were also a consideration, and Camp Basilone provided a full range from semitropical swamp through desert, temperate forest, and savannah, all the way to alpine. The installation also included several built-up areas, ranging from rural villages to a mock-up of a major metropolis—every one of which could be used for live-fire training for the full panoply of Marine Corps weapons.

Camp Hathcock was the smallest of the “camps” that made up Camp Basilone, only five kilometers deep by ten wide, backed up against the Veridian Ocean, but its area of influence via firepower was far larger: Air and sea craft were banned for a distance five kilometers to its sides and twenty kilometers beyond the shore.

Warrant Officer Jaqua, Fourth Force Recon Company’s training officer and range master, was ready for the platoon’s recon squads when they reached the range. Masers slung over their shoulders, Staff Sergeant Athon and his sniper squad stood in a rank behind him. The four squads of second platoon available for that training evolution formed up in front of the company training officer the same as they had for morning formation behind the barracks. Jaqua stood, hands clasped behind his back, casually looking them over. “I know,” he said before his inspection could make anybody uncomfortable, “that most of you have already done orientation firing of various sniper weapons. A couple of you have even fired all of them. But not one of you has fired any of them for qualification. We are going to spend the next two weeks correcting that deficiency.”

Jaqua could say “deficency” without giving offense; in addition to his Distinguished Blasterman and hand-blaster Expert badges, his chest bore the uncommon Expert Sniper badge with the scarlet pips that indicated he’d qualified at that level with all three of the sniper-specific weapons.

“We aren’t going to overwhelm you with firing all of our weapons at once; we only have two weeks, and that’s barely long enough to familiarize you with them. Instead, we will spend the first week concentrating on learning the maser. On Frigaday, you will fire the maser on the qualification range. Next week you will spend four days firing the mid-range projectile rifle and the long-range sabot. Next Frigaday, if you feel sufficiently comfortable with either of them, you will fire it for qualification.”

He raised a hand to stop the groans of protest he expected and quickly added, “If you qualify with any of these weapons, that qualification will be entered in your Service Record Book and you will be authorized to wear the appropriate badge. If you fail to qualify with any weapon you fire for qualification, that failure will
not
be entered into your service record. There is no requirement in the Basic Reconman MOS for qualification with sniper weapons, so it wouldn’t be fair to officially note any failure to do so. But qualifying with additional weapons will look good in your record.”

He smiled. “Besides, some of you might decide you like firing sniper weapons and want to apply for sniper school. Force Recon can always use new snipers who have prior experience as reconmen.

“Now, I’ll hand you over to Staff Sergeant Athon and his snipers for basic orientation.” He made an about-face. “Staff Sergeant Athon, front and center!”

“Sir!” Athon sharply stepped in front of Suptra and saluted.

“Staff Sergeant, take command of the trainees,” Jaqua said before he cut his salute.

“Aye aye, sir!” Athon held his salute until Jaqua cut his and marched away, then stood with his feet at shoulder width and his hands on his hips, and ordered, “Lance Corporal Dwan, position!”

First sniper team’s Lance Corporal Bella Dwan broke formation and came to stand one pace to Athon’s left. She showed her teeth to the Marines of second platoon in a grin. Her grin was no more friendly than that of a hungry shark.

“Lance Corporal Dwan,” Athon said to second platoon, “will explain to you the operation and capabilities of the M14A5 sniper maser. She won’t go into any great detail about how it functions; none of you have the advanced degrees in physics you’d need to understand them.

“Lance Corporal.” He stepped aside. Bella Dwan was petite and had what on another woman might be called an elfin face—as long as one didn’t look into her eyes. The other Marines of Fourth Force Recon Company were about equally divided as to whether, if she was seen off base in nice civilian clothes, she would look more like somebody’s kid sister or like someone worth pursuing as a woman. But they all knew better—and no Marine who knew her ever saw her as a woman to pursue, much less as anybody’s kid sister. Her eyes were cold and hard, and had made many a strong man excuse himself and depart for other environs. They called her the “Queen of Killers.”

Dwan was a very unusual Marine. She was still under thirty and not yet through her first eight-year enlistment, which was the only excuse her chain of command had for not offering her a meritorious promotion to corporal. She was qualified as Expert with blaster, hand-blaster, and most sniper weapons. She wasn’t qualified as Expert with the maser because she had surprised the competition-shooting community by earning the treasured Distinguished designation with the maser after only three years of part-time shooting in authorized competitions. Dwan unslung her maser and held it across her body at port arms. “This is the M14A5 sniper maser,”

she said, in a voice only slightly less elfin than her face. The weapon was little more than a meter long. Its rear half resembled the buttstock and firing group of the standard blaster carried by Marine infantrymen and Force Recon. Forward of that, the “barrel” group was a dull metal cylinder about three centimeters in diameter sitting in a short, knobby, wood forestock for almost its entire length. The barrel was slotted at regular intervals. Midway along the cradle, a handgrip dropped down. The “muzzle” tapered to a point, circled by a series of tightly spaced rings that diminished in diameter as they approached the point.

“The M14A5 sniper maser is an electrically operated, tightly focused, single-shot, shoulder fired, microwave weapon. It has a maximum immediate kill range of two hundred meters, and a maximum effective kill range of four hundred meters.” Her grin broadened. “It can cause sunstroke at nearly a kilometer and severe sunburn at a klick and a half.”

Then her smile tightened. “The M14A5 is a very quiet weapon. Someone with keen hearing can possibly detect it at a distance as great as five meters, but no farther. It fires a tightly focused pulse of high-intensity microwaves. A three-quarter-second pulse, at two hundred meters or less, striking a human target anywhere from the crown to mid-thigh, will kill before the full pulse has completed. To kill at four hundred meters, the entire three-quarter-second pulse must hit in the same point, somewhere between top of head and groin.

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