Five short novels by five masters of military science fiction.
The best action-packed military science fiction—FIVE BY FIVE showcases work by bestselling, award-winning authors: Five novellas covering battlefields across the galaxy. It's a war out there!
I edited and published a series of military SF, FIVE BY FIVE—five novellas by five military SF writers. In the second volume, I included successful and popular writers Bill Deitz (best known for his Legion of the Damned series), Rebecca Meluch (I love her Tour of the Merrimack series), Aaron Allston (great Star Wars writer, who sadly passed away a couple of years ago), Brad R. Torgersen (see below), and myself. This is a great, and varied collection. – Kevin J. Anderson
War makes thieves and peace hangs them.
George Herbert Standard year circa 1620
The moon HE24-6743
If the moon had a name, it was a Hudathan name, since the satellite was orbiting a world that the Hudathans laid claim to. But, like everything else in the sector of space sandwiched between the Hudathan Empire and the Confederacy of Sentient Beings, the moon was open to attack.
Legion Captain Damien Chozick was strapped into a chair located aft of the control well in which the ship's captain, pilot, and navigator were seated. And, as the thirty-year-old destroyer escort Mohawk crept even closer to the moon, all eyes were on the wrap-around screen in front of them. One side of the Hudathan base was obscured by dark shadows, while the other was brightly lit. Craters pitted the surface of the moon and some were filled with what Chozick assumed to be junk. Crawler tracks ran between them.
The purpose of the mission was to pound the moon base into submission, land, and gather intelligence. Then Chozick and his legionnaires were supposed to destroy key components of the facility on their way out. A hit-and-run operation of the sort that they had carried out many times in the past. Except that something was wrong. The ridgeheads weren't shooting at the Mohawk, but they should have been. Why not? Were the Hudathans incompetent? Never. What did that leave then? A trap? That made sense. The aliens were waiting for the Mohawk to get closer, and, once she did, the bastards would open fire.
The DE was only a couple of hundred feet off the surface and creeping along. A docking tower loomed up ahead. It was at least three hundred feet tall and, in spite of its flimsy appearance, capable of servicing two ships at a time. That was because each vessel would weigh only a fraction of what it would on an Earth normal planet. One landing cradle was empty but a Hudathan transport was cradled in the other. It was surrounded by a complicated tracery of robotic machinery, some of which was connected to the ship.
That was strange. The freighter should be making a run for it. And the trap, if there was one, should have been sprung by then. As the DE coasted toward the base, the ship's sensors probed the surrounding area for any signs of life. The technician's voice was tight but calm. "Scanning... Scanning... Scanning... There are patches of heat but all of them are static so far. The only sign of electromechanical activity is an automated docking system that is broadcasting in Hudathan."
Lieutenant Commander Angie Dickerson was the Mohawk's commanding officer. And like the ship herself, had been called out of retirement to fill a slot that should belong to someone twenty years younger. Her white hair was worn in a crew cut, her eyes were like chips of turquoise, and she had the no-nonsense manner of an officer who had seen most everything. "Alright Captain Chozick... This would be a good time to join your company. I suggest that you secure the Hudathan ship before going down to inspect the rest of the base. If the freighter blows, and takes the Mohawk with it, you'll have a long walk home."
The odds that the ridgeheads would blow up a ship and toast a docking tower to destroy the Mohawk were pretty slim, but it paid to be cautious. Chozick said, "Roger that," as he freed himself from the six-point harness and stood. The DE's argrav generator was on, so it was a simple matter to make his way down the main corridor to a sealed hatch. Once it cycled open he entered a second passageway. It led to another hatch and the sign that read, "UNPRESSURIZED COMPARTMENT". Racks of equipment were located on both sides of the entryway.
While at battle stations, all of the ship's crew members were required to wear skintight counter-pressure suits and keep their helmets close at hand. Chozick was no exception. So all he had to do to get ready was secure his brain bucket to the suit's neck ring and put on a combat rig with integral air supply. After running a series of tests to make sure that everything was operating properly, he entered the lock.
Once the air had been removed, hatch two opened into a cargo compartment that could be used for a wide variety of missions, including the transportation of ground troops. In this case, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion of the 4th Regiment. Bravo Company was an infantry outfit to which a platoon of cavalry had been attached to give it some extra heft. And that was potentially important when battling aliens who stood eight-feet-tall and weighed three to four hundred pounds.
Had Chozick been a different sort of officer, and had his company been comprised of the usual mix of ex-criminals, misfits and adventurers for which the Legion was known, someone might have shouted, "Atten-hut!" But Chozick had gone to considerable lengths to recruit only the most venal soldiers into his outfit. So his arrival was greeted with remarks like, "There he is", "Here we go", and "Listen up".
Most of the legionnaires were bio bods, but some ten-foot-tall cyborgs were present as well, and could be seen toward the back of the hold. "Okay, we're about to dock, so grab something solid," Chozick advised them. "And keep your eyes peeled once we're clear of the ship. The Hudathans should be shooting at us by now, but they aren't, so something strange is going on.
"The 1st platoon will remain here and guard the Mohawk. Once we get outside you'll see that a Hudathan ship is berthed side-by-side with this one. The 2nd platoon will enter and secure it. As that's taking place, the 3rd will make its way down to the surface and await further orders. Remember, there isn't much gravity out there, so if you jump up off the ground it will be a long time before you come down. If you come down. So follow the low grav protocols they taught you in basic."
Chozick's comments were interrupted as Dickerson's voice was heard in their helmets. "Standby for docking in five, four, three, two, one." The last digit was followed by a heavy impact as the Mohawk settled onto the cradle formed by four skeletal arms. One bio bod landed on his ass. That provoked gales of laughter from the others along with lots of snide remarks.
"Last, but not least," Chozick said, "it is our patriotic duty to liberate any valuables that the ridgeheads left laying around. But remember, all for one, and one for all. Anyone who tries to short the team will wind up on the KIA list. Do you copy?"
There had been three such deaths during the last ten missions, and all of the legionnaires were aware of it. So there was no response other than silence. Chozick nodded. "Good... Put your helmets on, seal 'em, and standby.
A light flashed two minutes later and the legionnaires heard a warning tone as Chozick led them into a huge lock. Once the door closed behind them an antibacterial mist fogged the lock. The moment the decontamination sequence was complete, Chozick led them across a ramp to the walkway that paralleled the ship. He went first because that was his inclination and because the men, women, and cyborgs under his command expected him to take the same chances they did. That was part of the unwritten contract that bound them together. The planet Krang hung over them. Most of the visible surface was tan, but the poles were white, and patches of blue could be seen through holes in the cloud cover.
The ramp bounced slightly as Chozick slip-slid forward, weapon at the ready. Now, he thought to himself. Now they'll spring the trap. But nothing happened as he led the 1st platoon across a connecting causeway to the alien ship. It was small and capable of landing on a planetary surface. The hull was aerodynamically smooth, but somewhat bulky, not unlike the whales in Earth's oceans.
After arriving on the cradle that supported the freighter, Chozick turned left and made his way to the point where an open hatch gave access to a large Hudathan-sized lock. Chozick waved a demolitions team forward. Then he turned to discover that the company's new Field Intelligence Robot was standing a couple of feet away. The name "Orson" was stenciled across the android's chest, but everybody referred to it as "Shithead."
Was the robot what it purported to be? An intelligence gathering device conceived by some fat-assed staff officer? Or was it somebody's effort to spy on him? Chozick didn't know or care because Shithead's life expectancy was less than two hours long.
There was a verbal warning followed by a soundless explosion, a flash of light, and a sudden trash storm as air rushed out of the compartment just beyond the lock. That should piss the ridgeheads off, but there was no response as Chozick checked the heads-up display (HUD) projected on the inside surface of his visor.
A variety of information was available to him; including a line diagram of where he was in relation to the Mohawk, POV shots for every person in the company, and more. At the moment, he wanted to ensure that his helmet cam was functioning properly so he would have footage for the battalion's Intel officer to look at. Not because he cared, but because it was necessary to look like he cared, and Shithead wasn't going to make it back. Fortunately the helmet cam was in good working order so that, plus footage from the rest of the legionnaires, it would give the chair warriors something to do.
The lighting was dim inside the ship—but not so dim that Chozick couldn't recognize the dead body for what it was. Or had been. Because the sudden loss of pressure within the ship had done horrible things to what had been a Hudathan. "He died of natural causes," Shithead observed, as it knelt next to the pile of raw meat. The robot's hands were steady as they took a tissue sample.
"How do you know that?" Chozick demanded.
"He wasn't wearing a pressure suit," the robot replied. "And, based on that, I think it's safe to assume that the rest of the crew died of natural causes as well. A highly communicable disease would explain it."
That was a breathtaking leap in Chozick's opinion, but one that seemed to be born-out as the legionnaires pushed deeper into the ship, and came across more bodies. Plus the robot's theory explained why none of the aliens were clad in pressure suits and didn't try to defend their ship. As for the base, well, time would tell.
Form follows function, or so the saying goes, so, even though Hudathan minds had been responsible for designing the, ship it bore similarities to Human vessels. Two main corridors ran parallel to each other. Passageways connected the corridors together and provided access to various compartments. The legionnaires didn't have enough time to investigate each nook and cranny. But when they saw something that might have some value they were quick to grab it. So it wasn't long before Chozick spotted bio bods carrying enormous back swords, bulky sidearms, and all manner of alien knickknacks. Would the loot slow them down in an emergency? Of course it would—but that was one of the tradeoffs Chozick had to accept in order to have the type of company he wanted. The kind that was going to put some serious money in his pockets one day. Chozick's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Dickerson's voice in his helmet. "This the Captain... Give me a sitrep. Over."
Chozick told her about the bodies and passed Shithead's analysis off as his own. "Okay," Dickerson said. "An epidemic would explain it. But remember that some survivors could be holed up somewhere—and a Hudathan ship could arrive at any moment. Should that occur the Mohawk would be easy meat for them. So finish the job as quickly as you can. Over."
Chozick wanted to say, "Get over yourself, bitch," but didn't. He acknowledged the order by chinning his mike two times, instead.
The next transmission was from First Sergeant Kobo. An especially brutal noncom who liked to punctuate his orders with a swift kick in the ass. "Got something, boss. I think you should take a look."
A straight up company commander would have insisted that Kobo use proper radio protocol but that was the sort of thing that Chozick's people resented. The officer was in the control room at that point. Two Hudathans were present but both were dead. "Yeah? Where are you?"
"In the hold."
"On my way." Chozick turned and saw that Shithead was seated in front of a terminal. Downloading data? That's the way it looked. Not that it mattered. "Take me to the hold," Chozick ordered.
Shithead had never been to the hold, but didn't hesitate. "Yes, sir." Chozick followed the android down a corridor and into a side passageway. It led to a lift. Once inside, Shithead chose one of five oversized buttons. That was when Chozick realized something he should have noticed before. The robot could read Hudathan! And, given its function, that made sense.
The elevator came to a stop, the door slid open, and Shithead stepped out. Chozick followed it down a corridor, past what might have been an engineering space, and through a lock. Kobo and a couple of bio bods were waiting in the compartment beyond. The noncom was big and looked bigger with the helmet on his head and the life support package on his back. Chozick nodded to him. "Whatcha got?"
"There's a bunch of boxes in the hold," Kobo answered, "but only one of them has a transparent lid. And it's located in the middle of the compartment, all special like."
Special treatment could be an indication of something valuable. Chozick nodded. "Show me."
Kobo led the officer back to the point where a large box sat resting on a couple of stands. Two lights were focused on the container which might be a further sign of its importance. Chozick stepped up to the container and looked down through the transparent duraplast. The first thing he saw was a skeleton, a Hudathan skeleton, with a long staff lying next to it. Chozick frowned. "You brought me down here to look at a dead Hudathan?"
Kobo was about to speak when Shithead answered for him. The robot had produced a thin cable which connected it to the jack panel at the head of the casket. "The body is that of Ho-La," it said solemnly. "He was a monk, a famous monk, who left Hudatha to live on a planet called Rain. His remains are one hundred and twenty-three years old and were on their way to Hudatha for safekeeping."
"Why?" Chozick demanded.
"Ho-La has a status similar to that of a Human saint," Shithead replied. "Though largely ignored, his teachings are greatly respected by all six Hudathan clans. It may be that the Hudathans were afraid that the Ramanthians would conqueror Rain, find the remains and desecrate them."
Chozick took the information in. A saint. A highly respected saint. How much would the ridgeheads pay to get the remains back? A million? Five million? It was a strange opportunity but one with considerable potential. "Sergeant Kobo, please accept my apologies. You are a fucking genius. Seal this container and move it to the Mohawk right away."
Kobo nodded. "Got it boss." Then, having turned to the bio bods, he growled at them. "Well, don't just stand there... Find something to protect the coffin with. I'll call for some T-2s. They can carry it."
Chozick looked at Shithead just in time to see the wire disappear into the robot's olive-drab colored body. "Lead me down to the surface."
Shithead departed with Chozick and some bio bods following along behind. They left the ship, followed a causeway to the tower, and were on their way to the ground when Dickerson pinged him again. "The Captain here... Why can't we see your video feeds? Or hear any radio traffic? Over."
"It must be some sort of technical glitch," Chozick lied. "But I'll keep you informed. We cleared the ship and we're on our way to the base. Over."
"All right," Dickerson said irritably. "But pick up the pace. "We're sitting ducks. Over."
"Copy that," Chozick replied. Then, after breaking the connection, "Bitch."
A platoon of bio bods and some T-2s stood waiting as Chozick and his party arrived on the surface. The bipedal cyborgs stood ten-feet tall, could run at speeds up to fifty-miles per hour, and operate in a complete vacuum when necessary. For the purposes of the current mission each borg was equipped with grasper hands and carrying an energy cannon.
In terms of firepower each T-2 was the rough equivalent of eight fully armed bio bods. Two of them led the way as the legionnaires crossed a large expanse of open ground to reach the base. Tracks ran every-which-way across the surface of the moon, but most of them converged on a single spot. And that was the entrance to what Chozick imagined to be the headquarters building.
Unlike the hatch on the ship, the outer door was closed. "Blow it," Chozick ordered. "We'll split into teams once we get inside. I'll take the 1st squad, Lieutenant Ember will lead the 2nd, and Sergeant Howers will be in charge of the 3rd. Remember, we could run into survivors, so be careful."
Chozick's words were punctuated by a silent flash and a sudden dust storm. The interior had been pressurized, just as the ship had been, and any Hudathan not wearing a suit was dead meat. And ugly meat, at that.
They entered a huge lock. Tracked ground vehicles were parked next to a stack of cargo modules. Incoming supplies? Outgoing garbage? Intel would want to know. Chozick pointed to the pile. "Check those modules Sergeant Howes... and take Shithead with you. It can read Hudathan."
As Howes and his party split off Chozick and the rest of them passed through an open hatch and entered the building beyond. Chozick turned left at the first intersection while Lieutenant Ember and his legionnaires went right. The deck was littered with trash that had been sucked towards the lock when it blew. Some of it crunched under Chozick's boots as he passed the first of what would eventually be eleven dead bodies. Hudathans who, with only a few exceptions, were stretched out on bunks. A fact that suggested that they too had been terribly ill.
But how? Had the ship brought the disease to the station? Or had the personnel inside the base been sick when the freighter arrived? That was the sort of thing the spooks would try to figure out. Personally, so long as he and his people were safe, Chozick didn't care. And, by his reasoning, there was very little reason for concern. First, because it was very unlikely that a Human would be susceptible to a Hudathan disease. But, even if he was wrong, the entire company would have to pass through the antibiotic mist before they could reboard the ship.
After a quick tour of the hydroponics section Chozick and his team were headed back toward the lock when Howes spoke. "Hey, boss... Do you read me? Over."
"Roger that, over."
"We got something here. A container of what Shithead says is hafnium. Personally I ain't never heard of the stuff but Shithead says that the brass would want us to bring it back."
Chozick knew the android was correct because the officer made it his business to understand which substances were valuable and why. Hafnium was used to make high-temperature ceramics and the nickel based super alloys that were critical to manufacturing nozzles for plasma arc torches and nuclear control rods. That meant hafnium was always valuable. But now, in the middle of a war, the stuff would be priceless! If Howes was correct. "You're sure?"
"Hell no, I'm not sure," the noncom replied. "Shithead is sure. It wants us to load the container onto the ship."
"Shithead is correct," Chozick said, as his heart began to beat a little faster. "Round up as many cyborgs as you need and take that container up to the Mohawk. Over."
"I'm on it," Howes assured him. "Over."
Chozick could hardly believe his good fortune as he and his team exited the building. He could see Howes and four T-2s up ahead. They were carrying a cargo module between them, and puffs of moon dust shot up with each step. This was what Chozick had been hoping for. A BIG score. More than that, his personal freedom. If he had the balls to take the opportunity and make something of it. But did he?
Dickerson was feeling antsy and struggling to conceal it from the bridge crew. The Mohawk had been docked for one hour, twenty-six minutes, and seventeen seconds by that time. An eternity from her point of view, because the DE was stationary and, therefore, vulnerable to any vessel that happened along, which was bad enough.
But the fact that she didn't trust Captain Chozick made the situation even worse. The legionnaire hadn't done anything wrong. Not that she knew about anyway. But Dickerson was sixty-two years old, had dealt with a lot of people, and had learned to trust her instincts. And there was something about Chozick's coal chip eyes, his bladelike nose, and his thin lipped mouth that left her cold. So the incoming radio call came as a relief. "We're about to re-board," Chozick said. "I'll come forward and give you a report as soon as all of my people have cleared decontamination and are strapped in. Over."
"How long will that take? Over."
"Fifteen, max. We'll hurry. Over."
Thus reassured, Dickerson gave orders for all personnel to begin their preflight checks. That was more of a formality than anything else, since the crew had been ready to lift from the moment the ship put down. Still, it gave them something to do as Dickerson watched Chozick and his ruffians enter the lock. She wondered what was contained in the cargo module that the T-2s were hauling aboard. The fact that it was the second container the legionnaires had brought back might be an indicator of success. Dickerson turned away from the screen as the external hatch closed and antibacterial mist filled the lock.
There were plenty of things to think about as the Mohawk's crew prepared to get underway—so Dickerson didn't notice when Chozick entered the control room fifteen minutes later. She heard his voice and turned to see that he wasn't alone. Three heavily armed legionnaires stood flanking him. Dickerson frowned. "This is a restricted area, Captain... Please order your subordinates to return to the hold."
"I'll be making the rules from now on," Chozick said, and aimed a gun at her. Dickerson raised her hands to block the bullets. I was right, she thought to herself, and then it was over.
The gunshots were unnaturally loud in the close confines of the control room and Chozick saw Dickerson jerk as the slugs struck her chest. Her head flopped forward but a six-point harness held her upright.
Chozick lowered the pistol as he looked around. The pilot, navigator, and three techs all wore expressions of shocked disbelief. "We have the XO," he said calmly. "And the chief engineer. Both have agreed to cooperate. The plan is to take the Mohawk out to a planet on the rim. Those who wish to join us, and share in the take, can. The rest of the ship's personnel will be dropped at a point where they can find transportation. That means you have every reason to cooperate. Are there any questions? No? Fine. Let's get underway."
Shithead should have been dead. Would have been dead had it been Human. That's because the robot had been standing in line, waiting to enter the Mohawk's lock, when Chozick shot it in the face.
But unlike Human beings, Shithead's CPU was located in its torso rather than its head. So although the bullet destroyed a sub-processor responsible for speech the rest of the android's capabilities were unaffected. That meant Shithead was "alive" to the extent than any robot was alive, but had the good sense to fake its death, and was lying on its back as the Mohawk took off.
As repellors flared and the ship grew steadily smaller Shithead didn't feel any sense of anger or hopelessness. What was, was.
Finally, once the DE was lost among the unblinking stars, Shithead knew it was safe to stand up. Chozick was supposed to destroy key components of the base as he withdrew but hadn't. Why? The answer was obvious. The Human had experienced a malfunction of some sort. It made no difference. Shithead's duty was clear: Find a way off the moon, convey what it knew to the proper authorities, and request a new speech synthesizer. . In that order.
So Shithead followed the causeway to the tower and stepped onto the elevator. Once the robot reached the ground it began to walk. Each step produced a puff of bone dry dust which took a long time to fall.
As Shithead approached the crater it could see a tangle of what might have been old hydroponics tanks, the remains of a crawler, and a pile of scrap metal. None of which were of any interest. No, the android's attention was focused on the Human-made space ship it had seen from the top of the tower. It looked like a navy tug and lay in two pieces. Shithead didn't know how the tug had been acquired, or why the Hudathans cut it in two, nor did it care.
What Shithead wanted to know was whether the vessel was equipped with one of the new FTL comsets. If it was, and if the robot could get the piece of equipment up and running, it could call for help.
With that in mind, Shithead made a beeline for the bow section, entered through a large hole, and made its way to the control room. But, after scanning the interior with its headlamp, Shithead was forced to conclude that the lowly tug wasn't equipped with an FTL comset.
What about message torpedoes? Every ship carried them, and as it turned out, the tug was no exception. Unfortunately the nacelle from which the missiles were launched was located under the hull. And even with the moon's light gravity that section of the tug was too heavy for Shithead to lift.
So the robot was about to start for the headquarters building when it noticed something interesting. The tug was equipped with two lifeboats! One on each side of the hull. However, due to the way the ship was positioned, the boat on the port side was inaccessible. Still, that meant the boat on the starboard side was exposed. Or would be if Shithead found a way to open the bay where the boat was kept.
First, however, the robot needed to enter the escape craft and verify that it was still operable. An easy task, and one that went well. Thus encouraged, the machine went looking for an accumulator that still had some juice in it. After locating a power source, it was necessary to run a jumper cable from it to the servos that controlled the bay doors. They opened smoothly.
Having exposed the lifeboat to space, the next task was to charge the launching system which, under emergency conditions, would blow the emergency vehicle out into space. Unfortunately, part of the launch mechanism was damaged beyond repair. That meant the robot had to remove the broken parts and replace them with components salvaged from the port bay. A process that took three additional hours.
Finally, having restored the launching system to full functionality, it was time for Shithead to enter the tiny cockpit and strap itself in. Lifeboats were intentionally easy to launch, so all the android had to do was flip a red cover out of the way, and push a green button. The response was instantaneous. The control board lit up, a five-second count down began, and a signal was sent to the newly rejuvenated air compressor. It blew the lifeboat out and up. And, thanks to the moon's microgravity, there was plenty of time for the little in-system drive to fire. Shithead was jacked into the vessel's NAVCOMP by then, and ordered it get clear of Krang's gravity well as quickly as possible.
Then, once the lifeboat was well underway, it was time for the android to issue additional orders. The ship wasn't large enough to rate a hyperdrive, so Shithead couldn't jump to its destination. But it could head into Human space, find a nav beacon, and use its emergency com capability to send a message. Would the plan work? Shithead didn't know and didn't care. In the absence of something productive to do, it went to standby. There were no dreams, just a state of readiness, and that was all any robot could ask for.