Lt. Daivid Wolfe is a political hot potato. No one wants him in their unit in case something happens to him. His father happens to be a very powerful man, connected across the galaxy, with a large Family behind him. But Daivid is determined to be an effective leader and soldier in the Space Force. The brass assigns him to the punishment detail, the platoon where screwups, layabouts, and all those other undesirables are sent that the military can't in conscience discharge but would prefer not to have to deal with. Daivid sets about trying to organize them, and finds that his expectations are going to be difficult to meet.
They're handed an assignment that no one could possibly goof up: to retrieve an item from a planet-sized amusement park, from its inventor, CEO, owner and puppeteer Oscar Wingle. But they are not the only ones interested in the item. Daivid has to muster his misfit platoon into an effective unit, to save their lives and the lives of everyone else on Wingle World. He has few weapons but determination, a world more accustomed to serving happy customers than repelling them, the very creative minds of his company, and a private database of all the people who owe his Family favors. Daivid has to pull all of these meager resources together to save his mission, and his company's reputation.
Jody and I came into the field at the same time, and took remarkable similar career paths. We wrote everything we could while remaining true to our own vision. Jody wrote with her favorite authors, perfecting her craft while working with the very best.
It shows in Strong Arm Tactics. Somehow she combines military science fiction with humor and theme parks—and you'll just have to read it. Which is usually how I describe Jody Lynn Nye books. Because it's almost impossible to explain that little bit of Jody magic she manages to insert into everything. All I know is that once you start reading Jody Lynn Nye, you'll never stop. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"We still aren't addressing the problem," Ayala argued. "I need more trained pilots and better fighter ships. We have lots of volunteers. They're all newbies. I have plenty of cannon fodder, but no one I can really trust."
Borenik smiled, her sagging eye making the expression sinister. "I think I can fix the problem. If we had ships that could fight for us, then we wouldn't need to put more people at risk."
Ayala waved the suggestion away. "Fantasy. All the efforts to create AIs that are capable of sophisticated strategy without being plugged into the opposing system have had too many flaws."
"Ah," the old woman said. "What if I knew where a superprocessor was being developed that had the capacity not only to counter multiple-front input and deduce the strategy behind it, but read a situation and come up with its own ahead of time?
"Now, I agree with the human," Van Yarrow chittered. "That's such a fantasy."
"But it's not. In fact, one of the greatest inventors in the galaxy is working on the problem."
"Who? Who's got the funding for that kind of R&D?" Ayala demanded.
Borenik leaned back in her chair and took a plastic sheet out of an upper pocket. "My intelligence sources inform me that he is almost finished. And when I tell you where he is you're going to kick yourself in the behind for not figuring it out for yourself."
"Where?" Sams asked greedily.
Borenik threw a brochure on the table. The plastic sheet immediately began to emit flickering lights that coalesced into happy costumed figures of humans, animals, cuddly monsters and animated inanimate objects smiling and dancing together.
"Oh, happy happy happy. All of us are happy. Come with us and sing a happy tune! Happy happy happy, all the world is happy. Dance with us and you'll be happy soon!"
"You're joking," Sams said.
"No," Borenik smirked. "And if you hurry, you can get in before any of the other bidders."
Ayala grinned fiercely at his fellow officers. "It's decided, then. We're going to Wingle World."
"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 devoutely 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 expendible. 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.
** "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 hand 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-months' 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.
"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."