Authors: Mike Moscoe
Tags: #Science Fiction/Fantasy
THEY ALSO SERVE
An Ace Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright © 2001 by Mike Moscoe.
Cover art by Scott Grimando.
Cover design by Diana Kolsky.
Interior text design by Tiffany Kukec.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized
editions. For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
To those who put on the uniform and find that it never really comes off.
I would like to thank doctors lisa Bick, M. D.,
Dan Sageser, Pharm. D., and Robert Moscoe, Pharm. D.
for their efforts to update my thirty-year-old
cellular biology. The effort was theirs. The mistakes, of course, are mine.
About the Author
RAY LONGKNIFE PUSHED himself away from his desk and levered himself up with his canes. He scowled at his empty in-basket; now he could do the only thing he hated worse than pushing paper-attend meetings. His scowl quirked into a half smile. Rita might be right; it could be a trap to kill him.
The newfound bureaucrat and the old soldier contended in Ray for a moment. His glance took in the office of Wardhaven's Minister of Science and Technology; he'd spent nearly every waking moment here for the past three months. The thick carpet, cold marble, and rich wallpaper were left over from the previous occupant, some Unity Party hack. Shadows on the wall showed where looted artwork had hung; Ray had immediately returned them. The blank walls and the canes Ray hobbled on were prices of a lost war. Ray's jaw clinched; he would win this peace.
On the desk were the only two objects in the office that were his. A double picture frame showed Rita in his arms on their wedding day. The other frame was empty; he'd fill it in a few months when the baby came. The second item was a lit plastic cube; suspended in it was the shrapnel removed from his spine. His mistakes that day had cost him his mobility and a lot of his people their lives. Ray knew the price of a lost battle. He'd pay any price to win the peace his daughter or son would grow up in. That he swore. For that little one, he'd be a bureaucrat.
"It's time to go." Ray turned to see his wife leaning against his office door, a hand on her stomach that had yet to show her pregnancy. Her words said one thing. Underlying them was a plea:
Rita Nuu-Longknife was still the sharp ship driver that had caught his attention—and his heart. Why she'd fallen in love with an old warhorse was anybody's guess. Ray was glad she had. But today, the gallant, balls-to-the-wall commander of an assault transport squadron contended with the frightened wife and mother-to-be. Ray knew the battle well. The wounded, frightened bureaucrat in him was ready to burrow into the carpet. The old warrior demanded he get back on the horse that threw him.
"They also serve who only go to meetings," Ray said, tossing her a grin, since both hands were too busy with canes to salute. "Besides, they asked for me," he said, letting that settle the matter.
"That's what worries me."
"I'm the man who killed President Urm. Was in all the papers." They both tasted the truth and the lie in that statement. "The spy wants me to take the measure of these folks. Somebody has to." That was the limit of modern communication; they did a poor job of measuring the human soul. Trust was built on the pressure of a handshake, the flinch of an eyelid, the quick glance away after a key statement. There were computer programs that purported to measure those things. Other programs guaranteed they'd take out of your transmission what you didn't want in. With your life on the line, you pressed the flesh. "It looks like a straight-up visit," he finished.
"If they're telling the truth. And if this oh so secret visit hasn't been leaked," Rita shot back.
He reached the door; Rita hugged him, burying her head in his chest. Her hair smelled of sunshine and spring, bringing back warm memories. He put his arms around her. It felt so much better to lean on her rather than sticks. They hugged, and for a brief moment the universe and its problems went away.
"You'll be careful," was muffled against his chest.
Before Ray could answer, "We'll take damn good care of him" came from the outer office. Ray glanced up. Captain Matt Abeeb, ivory teeth grinning against ebony skin, was already waiting. He had skippered the cruiser that changed the geography of human
space. Then he'd sailed the
for Earth's Society of Humanity and against Unity and had damn near blown up Wardhaven. Now he worked for Ray, captain of the armed merchant scout
for Wardhaven's Ministry of Science and Technology. Peace had a logic, war its own crazy rationality. The transition between the two was patently insane.
Beside him stood Mary Rodrigo, the chief of
security team. In civilian clothes today, she held herself rigid, as if still in the armored space suit she'd worn the day she fought Ray's brigade. That day, the intelligence estimate said the 2nd Guard faced only a handful of raw recruits. Intelligence had been right—and dead wrong. Mary had only one platoon, a mixed bag of middle-aged ex-miners and tough, young street kids. They'd put up a fight that stopped the proud 2nd Guard in its tracks. Mary had guided the missile that put the shrapnel in Ray's back. After the war he'd hired them all. Over beers, he and Mary refought the battle; each time, Ray ended up shaking his head. He had been surprised good.
Was this meeting another surprise? Then, as now, he had no way of knowing. Ray shook off the thought. "How's the ship, Matt?" he asked without letting go of Rita.
"The yard folks did a damn fine job of converting her back to a merchant ship. Well, half merchie, half gunship. Rita, when you see your papa next, tell him thanks for me?"
Rita rotated in Ray's arms. "Be glad to.
pass inspection?" she asked, one ship driver to another.
"We won't know for sure until we got space under her keel, but she looks sweet."
"You dug the crew out of their favorite bars?" Ray asked.
"Bars weren't the problem," Mary explained with a laugh.
"My number two, Cassie, used her shore leave to join a kind of skid row monastery. Getting her separated from her guitar dang near required surgery."
Rita broke from the clinch and stood aside to give Ray room for the swinging walk his legs and canes required. She took the time to brief him on things that hadn't reached his desk, reports that Matt was just as interested in. "Andy's search for boffins is getting interesting. Elie's set up a consortium with a batch of universities. They'll pay room and board if we'll let professors on sabbatical ride our scouts." That drew a laugh. As an ex-university professor herself, Ellie was bargaining the schools hard to get what Wardhaven would have paid for. Outfitting the scout ships with science teams had been one of Rita and Ray's biggest headaches. For now, they were making due with a batch of recent grads Matt had commissioned as temporary merchant midshipmen. Before the war, people on the rim of human space were barely able to educate their kids; science advancements came from the inner worlds. Wardhaven planned to change that, bringing those avid to push the edges of knowledge out to where humanity was straining at its leash.
Captain Andy Anderson had commanded the brigade Ray's troops failed to evict from a worthless piece of real estate only war made priceless. He and his drafted college professor, Ellie. had heard about Matt's return from a bad jump and come hunting for him after peace broke out. Ray hired both. Enemies they might have been, but Ray knew where their hearts were. While they started the job of exploring a very big galaxy, he and Rita and other powers-that-be on Wardhaven tried to sort out who was on their side—and who was still looking for a way to get even with Earth and her Society for
In war, the enemy wore different uniforms. In peace, you found your friends where you could. Like at the meeting he was headed for?
Damn! Life was easier in the infantry.
The elevator took them to the garage. Two limos waited. Ray's official car would whisk him and Matt out to the port. The other? "Dad sent his car to make sure I showed up for dinner. I'll stay with him and Mom while you're gone." Rita kissed him.
"I'll be back before you miss me," Ray promised.
That promise would haunt him in the months ahead.
Over the next several days, Mart's jumpmaster ran them out to the jump point with ease, a feat in itself, since jump points orbited several star systems at the same time. If you knew the right way to use the jumps, they took you to any one of them. If you didn't, you could get lost forever. Matt trusted his jumpmaster, as well he should; Sandy O'Malley was one of the reasons he was still alive. Ray watched from a bridge chair as Sandy goosed the ship's engines the tiny bit needed for the jump.
Then every light on the bridge died as the ship slammed into a five-gee acceleration.
"What's happening-" Someone's cry was cut short as acceleration crushed air from lungs.
Ray would have died right then, but Senior Pilot Rita had hammered into him that a good passenger never took his finger off his seat controls. Ray had a fraction of a second to switch his chair into high-gee mode before his back snapped.
Frozen in place, thoughts of Rita came. Rita, lecturing him on her ship's fusion engines. "Electricity binds the fusion plasma demons. They want out, but we trick them into making the very electricity that keeps them in by running the plasma through magnitohydrodynamic coils when it shoots out of the reactor and into the engines. Sneaky, aren't we?"
Ray had discovered the urge to kiss his pilot that day. As senior officer, he'd controlled himself. Now, waiting to die, he wished he had a more passionate vision of his wife. But Rita was passionate for her ship, and somewhere on
Ray prayed an engineering officer was just as passionately fighting to control the fusion before it was exhausted, creating no electricity to keep the final burst from blasting the ship to atoms.
In the dark, Ray felt the acceleration slow; the ship could not have exhausted its reaction mass this quickly. Something else was wrong. Beside Matt, his XO began tapping her board. A dim light reflected from her face as at least one control station came up. Without warning, the ship was in free fall. Ray sucked in a breath, waiting for the explosion. It never came.
Matt's XO activated more boards, bringing the ship up slowly without its central net. Ray missed most of their talk as he slipped a pain pill in to squelch the raw agony shooting up his back. He didn't miss Matt's first question. "Where are we?"
"Nowhere near human space," Sandy answered.
"Communications, sir. We're getting a distress call."
"Put it through," Matt snapped. Someone else in trouble!
"This is the explorer ship
We're abandoning ship. Help-" was followed by static before the message repeated.
Sandy breathed. "That was the first ship lost in a bad jump. Three hundred years ago!"
"Sir, I've got a first report on this system."
"Helm, on the main screen." A schematic appeared. Five rocky inner planets. Four outer gaseous ones. "We headed for any of those?" Matt asked.
"No, sir, we're headed out."
Ray spent a long hour twiddling his thumbs while good people did what they could to save his neck. He hated being a passenger, but Rita had burned him enough times for getting his fingers onto her board while she was carrying his brigade.
Matt's first call was to engineering. "Ivan, your engines having a bad day?" Matt's understatement brought a hint of smile to faces damn close to panic.
"Looks that way, skipper. Engines maxed when ordered to stabilize for the jump. We got another problem. Matt. Before the computer shut down, it opened the spacecocks on all the fuel tanks. We slowed down because we ran out of fuel."
Two ways to die! Matt took in a deep breath-and went on. "Sandy, where are we?"
"Thirty thousand light-years from home, halfway across the galaxy."
"At least it's somewhere we've been before," Matt quipped.
"Not really, sir. We're halfway around the other side of the galaxy this time." Ray suppressed a shiver; he was a long way from Rita and the baby in a ship sabotaged to keep him there.
Matt rubbed his chin. "Any records on how we got here?" That was why Ray had hired this crew. In three hundred years of bad jumps, they were the first to come back. They had figured out the combination of power and ship's spin that made the jumps yield all kinds of results, not just the single target that mankind had settled for before. But to repeat a jump, you had to put the ship through it exactly the way you did before.
"We went through deaf, dumb, and blind, sir," Sandy answered. When Sandy started "siring" Matt, they were in deep trouble. They were a long way from home, had no record of how they'd gotten here, fuel tanks empty, and headed away from the nearest fuel source too damn fast. Whoever planned this really wanted them dead.
Damn that somebody to hell,
Ray snarled to himself, but kept his face poker straight. He'd commanded in tough situations before; he would not juggle Mart's elbow.
"Ivan, how bad is our plasma situation?"
"In six hours, Matt, I'm gonna start tapping the sewage plant for reaction mass." Not good. Life support could last a long time, but not if their water went into the reactors. Matt rubbed his short-cropped scalp briskly with both hands. He stopped suddenly.
"Damage Control, we use reaction mass in battle to patch slashes in our ice armor."
"Anybody ever melted armor to fill reaction tanks?"
"Now would be a great time to start," was his answer.
"Helm, plot a course for a gas bag. Mary, get the marines ready to peel armor."
"You bet, sir," came quickly.
Ray'd had enough of passenger status. "Got a spare suit for an old soldier?" he asked, breaking his silence.