The Wolfe Pack is military SF with a twist!
The auxiliary scout platoon known as the Cockroaches contains all the outsiders and oddballs the Galactic Defense Force doesn't want to have to deal with, but can't find a way to discharge from the Space Service. They're savvy, street-smart, wise (if not book-learned), intelligent, survival-oriented, and completely unconventional. Lt. David Wolfe is their new CO: young, idealistic, and gung-ho, but even he has a secret that forced Central Command to shift him out of the line of fire.
The Cockroaches get sent on what ought to be a simple courier mission to the greatest amusement park in the Galaxy, and end up defending the population from a ruthless enemy in the only way the Cockroaches know how: unconventionally!
"Ma'am!" The tawny-haired young man stood at attention before the uniformed, middle-aged woman behind the desk. His jaw was sharply delineated enough to suggest he might be related to the animal with whom he shared his name.
Certainly, Commander Voreca Mason thought, with grim humor, his family's history displayed most of the traits associated with canis lupus. Or should she say, Family? Even his nose, straight yet blunted at the tip, suggested a muzzle, and the golden-hazel eyes, almost yellow in the tawny-complected face, tilted up at the corners and long-lashed, she imagined, could burst into the savage fire of a wild creature. To be honest, Daivid Wolfe had never been reported baying at the moons or tearing his fellow troopers apart with his fangs, but he was every bit as dangerous to have around. She sincerely wished he was elsewhere.
None of her brother or sister officers wanted him, but they could say no. They had: Wolfe had been shifted from brigade to brigade as soon as his initial evolution had ended. She couldn't transfer him out. She was here on Treadmill for reasons she devoutly hoped no one outside Admin knew. She had no good choices. 1) Keep him, and risk her own career on handling a hot potato. 2) Boost him out, and risk annoying the Family. The army was taking that chance already. By trying to show the Wolfe Family they weren't so tough, the upper brass had shifted the eldest child and scion of the Old Man to what amounted to punishment detail. If anything happened to him, she'd be the one to take the blame. She'd always thought that half the punishment going on around here was being visited on her. Resigned to the thankless situation she had been handed, she returned the salute, and ruffled her graying blond hair with her fingers before folding her hands together on the desk.
"At ease, Lieutenant," she said. Eyes still straight ahead, Wolfe set his feet exactly shoulder-width apart and locked his hands behind his back. Ill at ease was more like it. Colonel Mason felt exactly the same as he did. "I should welcome you to Neutron Company and X-Ray platoon. Your first command. This is an irregular company. You won't be bored." Wolfe's Adam's apple bobbed up and down. Mason nodded to herself. He knew what the shorthand meant—it meant his unit got all the jobs no one else would touch. When a trooper was sent to X-Ray platoon, s/he knew what it was for. Every one of the men and women in it had been dumped into the detail by COs who didn't want them around any more, for whatever reason, but could not or didn't want to discharge them. There should have been a place on the transfer form for "Whom did you piss off?" X-Ray was the unit that was always sent in to attempt the unaccomplishable mission and take the blame, if need be, when it failed to be accomplished. Every man and woman in it was considered expendable. About half the transferees were killed in the first twelve months of duty. Another fifty percent of the survivors died within three years. The ones who'd survived … she had no idea how they survived. The upper brass was obviously hoping Wolfe would quit the military and go home before he became one of those statistics. So was she. "Your unit is waiting for your inspection on the parade ground. I'm going to give you a few days to break them in before I hand you an assignment. Do you have any questions?"
The Adam's apple bobbed again. "No, ma'am."
"Well, then, son, they're waiting for you. Dismiss!"
Wolfe spun on his heel and marched out of the room. Mason watched him go, feeling a little sorry for him. He was just a boy. It was only the accident of his birth that he'd ended up here in the Penalty Box.
O O O
"You want to join the army?" his father had asked him three years before, crinkling his thick black brows. "What are you, crazy?"
"I'm not crazy," Daivid had protested, glaring at the old man. Both of them had the yellow-hazel eyes that went back thousands of years in family portraits, holovideos and threedeeo images. In Benjamin's narrow, bony face they looked feral. Daivid's features were similar enough that people were always remarking on the resemblance to his father and their family's eponymous totem animal. Daivid hoped he looked more doglike. Dogs were loyal, brave and, above all, honest. A friend to man, not a foe or a rival.
"Look," his father had pleaded, running both long-fingered hands through his thick hair and making it stand up. "You don't want to be associated with the family, but you can't run away from your destiny."
"It's not my destiny!"
The old man patted the air with both palms. "All right, all right; your heritage, then. How about just going into one of the other businesses we own. Strictly legitimate."
Daivid remembered rounding on his father with all the fury of an idealistic youth. The old man sat there like the mandarin he was, wise with the experience of his years. "The money still comes from one of the illicit operations, or rolls over into one of them. No. I don't want anything from this family! I want to make it on my own. Completely legally. No cheating, no pushing, no threats."
"You don't want to do that," his father assured him. "Do you know what happens to people who never cheat on anything? They end up on public assistance. You don't want that, son. The government issue food's terrible."
Daivid's voice had risen to the ceiling in an outraged howl. "You're making fun of me!"
"Maybe," Benjamin Wolfe said indulgently. "But maybe your great dream isn't going to be all you think it is."
For once, Daivid Wolfe had to admit, his father might not have been all wrong. The scene before him now reminded him that the cosmos was not above making fun of its creations, either. He had once seen an ancient Earth flat-screen vid about a group of recruits so weird that none of them should ever have considered a career in the military. The assortment of odd body shapes, assorted costumes, and odd weaponry worn by the group assembled under the hot noon sun on the parade ground reminded him strongly of it. Only one, a very tall, pale woman with scraped-back blond hair, wore the traditional parade dress, her white tunic collar turned up and stiffened at the edges, just like his. Not one of the others had on a whole uniform. Daivid had laughed at the vid. At the moment he felt like doing anything but.
Looming above the dusty square was the main reason Treadmill had its reputation as a dead end: the Space Service brig, a three-storey square structure of grim, gray-blue plascrete. Those spacers who had been sentenced to prison sentences were sent here, a low-grade Terran-class world that would otherwise be an attractive planet for settlement, since it was positioned along four active spaceways in between major systems of the Thousand Worlds Confederation. To avoid burnout caring for prisoners who might once have served beside them, units were usually stationed here in six-month rotations, except for X-Ray platoon. It had been here three years.
Wolfe had gotten an earful from the other officers on the transport that brought him here. The only reason that the spacers in the company he was inheriting weren't in the brig, or out of the service, was that, like him, no one could find an excuse for dismissing any of them that would stand up under scrutiny. A friendly commander had taken him aside in the hopper that had carried them both from the spaceport to the base, and warned him he was getting the worst unit in the vast Space Service. The man, in his fifties and secure in his ascent up the promotions ladder, wished him well, but suggested that Wolfe might want to start studying his options in the private sector.
Daivid knew the higher-ups wanted to scuttle his career. At the moment, he could have turned around and gone back in to request a discharge and passage home. No, he'd pay for his passage home. He'd work for his ticket, if he had to. He stepped backwards, preparing to turn around. But it was too late. They'd seen him. The tall woman barked out a command, and a few of the troops stood up straighter. He threw back his shoulders and marched forward.
O O O
"Company, tenn-nn hutt!" the woman barked out.
Daivid hesitated a moment before striding the rest of the way across the yard toward the people he was to command. He was met at the leading edge of the squared-off formation by the woman and a man, his officers by their insigne, who marched him down the rows. He'd been inspected a thousand times, so he knew how to do the inspection walk all the way across the face of the block. The men and women stared straight ahead, but their eyes followed him as soon as they thought he couldn't see them. He knew they did. He'd done the same thing. It was the longest walk he could ever imagine taking. Daivid knew what they saw: a very young man who was trying to act as though he was not scared bloodless. His uniform was spotless and perfectly ironed. That made two of them, him and the blonde. Everyone else was dressed in a jumble-sale collection of uniform pieces and items that had nothing to do with the military. He saw ski pants, pieces of cryo-suits, hospital greens, fatigues from half a dozen other services on twenty different worlds. One beefy, muscular man with a rounded belly like a hamburger bun appeared in just the general-issue skivvies, hacked off at the knees to show hairy shins and calloused feet clinging by the toes to worn flip-flop sandals. The skinny, tawny-skinned male beside him had on a dress tunic over soaked swim trunks.
The ensign saluted him snappily. Wolfe looked at him with resignation. The dark-skinned man's uniform pants were creased like knife blades down his long, skinny legs to spit-polished boots without a scuff or a scratch anywhere. Above the perfect trousers he had on a sleeveless knitted vest of brilliant pink. His insignia was clipped to one shoulder strap.
"Ensign Thielind, sir. This is Lieutenant Borden. Ready for inspection, sir!"
"Carry on," Wolfe said, returning the salute.
"Yes, sir! Sound off!" Thielind barked.
The company reeled off its names. Wolfe listened to the rapid-fire roster, glad that all that data was in the chipboard that the adjutant carried and would be transferred to him at the end of roll call. Aaooorru, Adri'Leta, Ambering, Boland, Borden, Ewanowski, Gire, Injaru, Jones, Lin, Meyers, Nuu Myi, Okumede, Software, Somulska, Theilind, D-R-45, Vacarole. Three nonhumans: an itterim in cutoff shorts and suspenders, a shrimplike corlist one meter high with ten jointed limbs wearing a toilet plunger on its stalk-eyed head, and a semicat, one of the race of tall, muscular inhabitants of a cluster of star systems that had been enveloped by the human-dominated empire five or six hundred years ago, in coveralls with a drop-seat to allow free movement of its long tail. Twenty-two in all. With him, twenty-three. Even for a platoon it was a small group: two squads of eleven, plus a communications officer who stayed aboard their transport vessel while the company was on a mission, or three platoons of six or seven spacers each. Barely large enough to function.
One very large man in the second row, a chief petty officer by the half of his insignia that still clung to his cap, was wearing the tunic of the elite fighter pilot company that flew the single-man warp fighters. The guy didn't look like a star ace. His thick, short fingers and heavy arms suggested he fought in deployed troops on shipboard or planetary surface. Curiosity got the better of Wolfe.
"Chief…?" The big man straightened up.
"Boland," the aide at his elbow advised.
"Where'd you get that uniform?"
"Traded for it, sir," Boland said. Instead of eyes-front, he turned to grin at Wolfe. His eyes were a startling shade of green, with stubby, pale lashes sticking out from thick, creased lids. The executive officer at Wolfe's elbow gave a deep-throated hem! of disapproval. Boland snapped back to eyes-front.
"What'd you trade?" Wolfe asked, even though he suspected he'd regret the answer.
"Admiral's runabout, sir," Boland said.
Wolfe almost asked 'surplus,' and realized that it could never be true, and the question would brand him as a hopeless neophyte. Better to assume the worst and let him plead innocent.
"You stole a flitter and traded it for a tunic?"
Boland looked at him, eyes wide with wounded pride. "Oh, no, sir, I got lots of other stuff! My mama didn't raise any fools."
"Uh-huh," Wolfe said, helplessly, knowing that some kind of response was called for. He raised his voice. "Well, there will be no more stealing," he said, and instantly felt as though his words fell down the endless well of ignored orders that had come before. He continued on doggedly. "That book you threw away, find your copy, because we're going to be running by it from now on. No more disobeying rules. No more appearing on parade out of uniform. If you don't have one now, trade for it or put in for a replacement. I want to see you smartly turned out for the next inspection? Do I make myself clear?"
It didn't matter if he had, because they'd already tuned him out. He was too young, untried, possessed of no authority, and they knew it. He was off to a bad start trying to make a good impression on them. He glanced around, trying to find something that would reconnect him with them. He glanced over at the flagpoles. The first was the Galactic Union flag. The second was the army. The third was the brigade. The fourth was a gold field displaying a black, ovoid blob with legs. "And what the hell is that?"
"That's our company banner, sir," said the adjutant.
"What is it?" Wolfe demanded. "It looks like a cockroach."
"Got it in one guess," said Boland, grimly pleased. "That's what they call us. X-Ray Platoon. Brand X. Penalty Box. Screwup Company. The Cockroaches. Welcome to hell. Sir."
O O O
"Your luggage is in your quarters," the ensign said, interrupting. "Shall I arrange to have the cases unpacked, sir?"
"No, thanks," Wolfe said, grateful for the interruption. "I'll take care of it." He didn't want any hand-holding, and any babying he allowed himself to accept put him that many paces away from the spacers in his company. He needed to relate to them, not too closely, because he still had to be responsible for sending them into battle, and, when necessary, maybe to their deaths, but they were being thrown together under the worst possible circumstances. Their lives depended on one another. He needed to form a bond. Besides, he had a lot of questions about X-Ray Company. He had a better chance of getting an honest response out of them than he was from the brass above him.
"Company quarters ready for inspection, sir," the adjutant said.
"Thank you, Ensign …"
"Good. Let's see them."
Thielind threw himself into one of his skull-shattering salutes. "Sir! Company, about face! March!"
Shrugging, X-Ray more or less lined up and marched together toward the end of the parade ground where the barracks buildings stood. Wolfe trailed along behind them, his assistants on either side. The group veered away from the pristine buildings, heading instead toward a transportal.
"Uh, where are we going?" he asked the female lieutenant, as his soldiers popped open the last car on the three-pod train inside the transparent tube and found seats.
"Our quarters, sir," she replied crisply. "We're station-keeping on the launch facility. It's about half an hour from here. We commute in for occasions like this, and to visit the canteen and PX."
"Must suck," Wolfe observed, frankly.
"With considerable force, sir," she replied. The first hint of any kind of empathy appeared in her eyes for a second, but only a second. She climbed on board the transport and waited until he took his place on the blue-gray upholstered seat before she sat down herself.
He had wondered why the mapmakers had called this planet Treadmill. Once he got a look at the terrain, it wasn't much of a stretch to guess. Barren yellow and brown hills stretched out on either side of him, punctuated by the occasional green thornbush. It looked like a low-resolution animated treadmill workout with troughs and highs, seldom settling into flat plains. He'd gotten a look at the topography from above, eager to see the site of his first posting as a first lieutenant. Treadmill had looked kind of pretty from space, like a piece of ornate parquet-work in golds, greens, and browns. Now that he could see all of it up close, the lines in between fields and hills and sorry excuses for forests were jagged fault zones. A hiker trying to make his way in the dark was in danger of falling through the crust of the planet. Treadmill, according to his friendly source, had fairly active tectonics, making it unsuitable for heavy industry or company farms or ranches, but it had a T-class atmosphere and gravity, and it was well placed to send troops out to the rest of the Confederation when needed. The base and launch station were separated because not enough flat land existed in either place to accommodate the entire facility.
In fact, it took them forty minutes to ride down the high-speed tube to the end of the line. If Wolfe needed any further reminders that his company was the brigade pariah, the fact that the supports and substations along the way got more and more seedy was one more checkmark off the list. Transport tubes were supposed to run smoothly. He noticed about three-fourths of the way through the ride that his troops gripped the armrests and lifted their butts subtly off the shock-padded seats. When the train hit the first bump it felt like a shockwave striking his spine. Wolfe grabbed for a support, just in time to save himself from getting thrown out of his seat. Small wonder the officers had chosen to take a hopper from the spaceport directly to the base! No one would do this ride if s/he didn't have to. Every time he tried to sit down the train bucked and juddered some more. He did the rest of the trip standing. Grins passed among the members of his company. He kept his face straight. They must do this to all the greenhorns, officers included. Well, he wasn't going to hand them an easy victory.
"Been on this station long?" he asked Borden. His voice wobbled with every fresh bounce.
The officer never changed expression. "Three years, sir." The train swung wide to avoid a jagged fissure. Wolfe seesawed on one foot, swinging around helplessly. He grabbed for another ceiling loop with his free hand. The others bobbed gently on their seats like dressage riders. Daivid vowed to learn the topography of the route the very next time he rode this runaway whipsaw.
"When was X-Ray's last mission?" he asked, bending his knees to keep his equilibrium as the train rode over hills he saw approaching. The lieutenant wasn't impressed.
"It's all in the briefing summary in your quarters, sir."
Wolfe suppressed a sigh and concentrated on not getting flung out the curved window.
O O O
In spite of the bright sunshine X-Ray's compound was dreary. Daivid hadn't been in a camp that grim since he'd visited his great-uncle Robbile's fishing hideaway in the wilds of the northern continent on Tokumine IV, but Robbile Wolfe liked his haven bleak, so as to put off casual tourists if any had ever dropped by. The Cockroaches were stuck with their décor. Military beige, military gray and, for a final insult, military pink.
Beyond a compound fence from the top of which energy crackled, sentries in bubble flitters roved around and around the spaceport in which he had just arrived. The shuttle that had brought him down from the dreadnought still stood on the landing pad, its silver body sharply backlit by brilliant blue worklights as coverall-clad engineers swarmed over it, performing maintenance and making sure the fuel rods were intact. Hangars as large as small moons lined the field, also under the watchful eye of human MPs, high-response alarm systems, and guardbots.
Security measures around a spaceport were cursory in comparison with the watch kept on the surrounding spaceways: serious attacks upon a military base would almost certainly come from orbit, not ground level. Anyone who was already on planet could either fly the craft in the spaceport and were authorized to do so, or wouldn't know what to do to launch one if s/he managed to get into the cockpit in the first place. The most the ground-level military police usually did was prevent anyone from hurting him- or herself or damaging valuable systems. As a military base, Treadmill's administration had the authority to oust any civilian who caused trouble, no matter how much investment that civilian had put into profit-making infrastructure. Just that knowledge kept down the active protests. Grubstakes on T-class planets were hard to come by.
"This way, sir," said the eager ensign in the knitted vest. Daivid followed him to a small building to the left of the barracks hall.
O O O
No trace remained of Daivid's predecessor's belongings in the officer's personal quarters. Wolfe looked around the drab beige chamber trying to get a sense of the man or woman who had occupied it before he had. He couldn't find a clue. The rooms, a bedroom, a bath, a walk-in closet and a small office, had all been cleaned—hosed out, he guessed by the streaks on the blue-gray floor. Well, he couldn't smell anything unsavory. Chances were the former CO hadn't died there.
Wolfe unpacked his regulation trunk into the chest of drawers and closet provided. As usual, the closet contained five hangers, as per standard supply orders, sufficient for all his uniforms. Officers were expected to provide their own hangers for any civilian clothing they retained. Water glass, soap, towels, shaver, and hair dryer in the lavatory, water saver-purifier, small storage cabinet behind the sink mirror. Impersonal. That was one of the things he liked about the military. He didn't have to make choices about what he wore or what his quarters looked like. It didn't offend anyone when he chose one kind of suit, or put a company out of business when he stopped buying their shoes. Those selections were made for him.
The briefing clipboard lay on the desk in the small office. He scrolled up the company rolls and had the information sent as an oral reading to his personal communications unit. The receiver screen every trooper in the TWC forces wore rode the back of the left sleeve ten centimeters above the wrist. When a company suited up in battle armor the unit was inserted into a purpose-built protective slot to activate communications between troopers and command. They were all voice-activated, and had to be personally tuned so they couldn't be captured and used by the enemy to listen in on transmissions. For privacy, one could wear an ear-bud, though some officers had their audio receivers implanted in the mastoid bone behind the ear or in a piercing in the upper pinna. Daivid had decided to have a mastoid receiver. It didn't bang against the side of his head the way ear-implants did, he'd still be in touch with his command even if his ear got shot off, and the sound quality he got when he was listening to music through the unit was awesome.
"Aaooorru, Dompeter," the flat voice intoned directly into his aural nerves. "Corlist. Born Mishagui, Vom, Beta Antares system …"
He took off the uniform he had traveled in and put it in the cleaning trunk. Working just fine, he observed, listening to the hum that started up as soon as the lid dropped. His dress whites would come out spotless with perfect seams, perfect creases. Efficient. He brought out fatigues and laid them on the bed. Impersonal. Regulation. No hurt feelings involved. He wrapped himself in his white, service-issued bathrobe and turned on the shower. No sonic cleanser here, he was pleased to see. He hated having the outer layer of dead cells shivered off him by vibrations they told him he couldn't hear. They were wrong: he could hear the high-pitched whine just fine, and he hated it. Sonic cleansers were standard on all interplanetary transports except luxury liners. Space service personnel didn't travel on those.
He almost missed the sonic cleanser when he observed the thin stream of water dribbling out of the showerhead, like the output of an incontinent dog. He felt the water; at least it wasn't cold. The heating elements still functioned correctly. He'd have to see about getting a plumber out here to check the pipes and the pressure feed. He stepped into the stall and pulled the curtain closed.
The only non-regulation thing he had in his possession was a card the size of a credit chit attached with a glue-square to the skin over his sternum. Before he turned into the weak spray of water, he examined the card. It was the only thing he owned that he didn't dare let out of his possession at any time.
O O O
Wolfe dried himself off and shouldered into the singlet that went under his uniform, making sure the card was still firmly attached to his skin. He started when the adjutant came into the room behind him and cleared his throat. Wolfe hastily lowered his undershirt and shrugged into his blue-gray fatigue jacket.
"They're ready for inspection, sir," the adjutant said, saluting smartly, and swung around again, heading out the door.
Wolfe brushed imaginary dust off his insignia. Just before he stepped outside he felt the middle of his chest to make sure the card was secure.