Jak came awake all at once, sitting up in her narrow bed and pulling the pistol from beneath her pillow in one smooth, practiced movement. She’d been dreaming and the sudden noise confused her. It took a moment before she recalled where she was and the usual despair flooded back to her. She glanced over at the narrow bed on the other side of the room and averted her eyes just as quickly. The pounding on the door continued unabated.
“What the hell do you want?” Jak lowered her voice’s pitch and roughened her tone without even thinking about it. Too little sleep after too long a day added further grit to her tone.
The pounding ceased. “New orders for you, Sarge,” came the voice through the door. It sounded like Collins, the new private in the unit. Who had he pissed off to get stuck with being the one to wake her? “Captain McCullock says to check your messages.”
“Fine, tell Intel I got the message. Now fuck off.” She lowered the pistol and ran a hand over the stubble on her scalp. New orders on less than four hours of sleep. Perfect. But if it got her out of the camp, she’d take it.
“All right, Sarge.” He sounded affronted, and as his footsteps receded, Jak could hear him mutter “asshole.” She got up and tested the doorknob. To her relief, it was locked. She’d been so out of it after a twenty-seven hour-shift, a full day on the escarpment, that she hadn’t remembered if she’d locked the door or not. At least she’d worn her breastbinder to bed, so even if she’d forgotten to lock the door, her secret would still have been safe.
Her eyes tracked again to the empty bed in the room, and she allowed herself to contemplate it. Her heart constricted, as it always did. She’d looked at it every day for two years, and every day she still expected to see her brother’s form sprawled there. Jak had been unable to even bring herself to make his bed. Her side of the room was as tidy as always and his was still the pigsty it had been when he’d been killed. Sorrow tightened her throat, and she breathed hard through the pain for a few moments. She missed him. Johvah, she still missed him.
Bron had run interference for her when he’d been alive. His presence had filled whatever room he was in, and she’d been content to fade into the shadows and watch for threats. Without him, she had to take on everyone face to face.
Since her brother had been killed by a sniper’s bullet while they’d been out on assignment, she’d been alone, all alone, with her deception. She was by herself in the middle of a compound full of men who, if they discovered her secret, would—at best—imprison her. At worst, they would rape her and put her on trial for masquerading as a man, something which would likely end with her execution for treason. It hadn’t been her choice to join the army, but after their father died it had seemed like the only way for them to survive. When Bron was still alive, she’d been able to be herself with at least one person. She hadn’t felt like her own self since he was killed. The strain was getting to her. Some days she felt that snapping at her squad mates was all that kept her sane. It also served to keep them as far away from her as they could get. The more isolated she was, the safer she was with her secret.
She reached behind her and grabbed the cable coming out of the wall above the desk that was shoved against the head of her bed. She pulled enough of it toward her that she could plug it into the jack in the base of her left palm. A slight sensation of vertigo accompanied her immersion into the local net. Some people didn’t have to close their eyes to access the data that flowed through their local network, but Jak had always found it easier if she blocked out external stimuli. She accessed her in-box. As usual it was empty except for material related to her missions. There was no one who would reach out to her for any other reason.
“Stowell, you’re going deep into Orthodoxan territory, Sector 27 to be exact.” Captain McCullock’s voice grated on her, bringing his sneering, ginger-mustached face to mind. “Word’s come down that Colonel Hutchinson has an offworld visitor you need to take out.” She thought she detected a note of glee in his voice as he continued. “You’re going in under radio silence and on your own since you refuse to take a partner.” Why should I? They can’t keep up with me. “The insertion team will meet you at 1100 hours.” He paused; the usual contempt she heard from him was gone when he continued. “This one’s important, Stowell. More important than pretty much any other assignment you’ve ever been given. Don’t fuck it up.”
They were all important. What makes this one so much different? She didn’t think about it too much. As a sniper, she was a weapon that Command wielded. They pointed her at the target and she pulled the trigger. She accessed the attached files and downloaded the charts and maps for Orthodoxan territory between the fence and Sector 27. Images flooded her consciousness as materials were deposited to her brain.
The long-range weather report caught her attention. There was rain in the forecast. That in itself wasn’t unusual; it rained frequently. The strength of the forecast weather systems were what held her attention. They were in for some torrential downpours, which looked like they’d be hitting about the time she would be arriving at Hutchinson’s compound. That could complicate her getaway.
The pants and coat of her combat fatigues were folded and draped over the end of her bed. She donned them quickly, then pulled on her boots, stood up and stomped her feet to settle them. She removed the service cap from the small desk at the head of the bed and placed it upon her head. After settling it over the dark blond stubble that covered her scalp, she picked up her rifle, automatically verifying that the safety was on. No one went about without a weapon, even in camp. Raids occurred too frequently to be without one for any period of time. When they happened, every available person was expected to be on hand to repel enemy combatants. She picked her smallest scope up from the table and slid it into one of the many pockets on her fatigue jacket’s front. She took a deep breath, settled the habitual scowl over her features, then left her room.
There wasn’t much time to get herself kitted up before she had to meet with the insertion team. She nodded to the sentry outside the barracks’ front door and made her way quickly down the street. The quartermasters’ offices were only one street over. Tall swirls of blue dust blew down the center of the unpaved road. Men in uniforms or fatigues hurried to and fro on various errands. Camp Abbott was always busy, especially during the day. Even though they were grinding their way through their third decade of this civil war, the military never slumbered. It didn’t even nap.
The hulking building of the Quartermaster Corps sat on the outskirts of the camp against the three-meter-high wall that made up the perimeter. The wall was tall enough that most people couldn’t get over it easily. Someone would have to be plenty tall to be able to leap up, grab the top of the wall and pull himself over. In the time it took to do that the sentries would take him out. That was the idea, anyhow. In reality, the wall slowed down their enemies, but it didn’t stop them.
A large enclosure filled with vehicles of all types and sizes lay directly beyond the offices. No one stood guard here. The men inside were not only more than qualified to take care of themselves, they also had immediate access to all sorts of nasty weapons. Jak took the front stairs two at a time and rapped sharply on the main door before she let herself in.
“I hear you’re heading out again, Stowell.” A grizzled man greeted her from behind the desk. “What do you need this time?”
“Lambert.” She nodded in greeting. With Bron gone, she had done her best to stay on even footing with the quartermaster sergeant. It made for less hassle when she had to requisition supplies and a better chance of acquiring rarer and less conventional items.
Some of her compatriots treated the quartermasters with thinly veiled hostility, making their opinion of the noncombatant soldiers well known. Most of them didn’t realize that many of the so-called noncombatants had completed their ten years of required service and chosen to stay on to continue their service to their country. Well, if the others treated the quartermasters like crap, it only made her clumsy attempts at affability more effective. The fact that she would occasionally leave them gifts of her fresh kills from hunting didn’t hurt either.
“You heard right, as usual. I need supplies for a week.”
“I heard you were going after Hutchinson. Good, the man’s an animal and he’s killed more good men than anyone since Stinson.” Lambert spat into the cuspidor next to his desk. Chewing tobacco wasn’t frowned on in the service, but dirtying the army’s floor with dip definitely was. “You get him good. He commanded the opposing sectors when I was on active duty. Had a habit of sending our boys’ bodies back to us booby-trapped with explosives. Killed a lot of good men before we got wise. One of those traps finished me for active duty.” He leaned forward and gave his prosthetic calf a dull thunk.
Jak kept her face an impassive mask. It never ceased to amaze her how much Lambert knew about the supposedly classified workings of their intelligence operations. The man had a talent for pulling together small pieces of information into a surprisingly accurate whole. He was a little off on this one, but close enough not to make much of a difference. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just heading out that way to do some recon.”
“Recon my ass.” Lambert snorted. “McCullock had me put together your data dump. Sector 27’s three days past their lines. You’ll need more than a few supplies. I’m sending you out with a full pack of stims, since I doubt you’ll be sleeping when you’re in enemy territory. I’m upgrading your jacket. You’re about due for a new one anyway. This one has increased insulation and ventilation. It’ll keep you warmer or cooler no matter what the weather is. I’m sure you’ll need the cooling since you insist on dragging that ridiculous ghillie suit with you. I don’t know how you don’t get it hung up on every bush you walk past. Those strips of cloth have to make it impossible to move quickly and silently. You know—I could requisition a cloaking unit for you.”
“I’ve told you before,” Jak replied wearily. They’d had this argument more times than she could count. “I don’t need the cloak. I’m used to moving in it. The suit works better for camouflage and doesn’t give me away with that shimmer at the edges of the field. Sure, it’s heavier and hotter, but it won’t get me killed.” Bron had always preferred the cloak to the ghillie suit and had teased her mercilessly for her preference. But she was here and he wasn’t.
“Do what you will, you always do,” grumbled Lambert. “What else do you need?”
“Do you have any of those infrared scopes?”
Lambert grunted. “You know those are really hard to come by,” he hedged.
“If they weren’t hard to come by, I wouldn’t be asking you,” Jak pointed out.
He smirked, then shrugged. “You have a point. I do have one. You can borrow it for the mission, but it needs to come back. Try really hard not to lose or destroy it.”
“Got it. I promise to treat it with the utmost respect.” She waited impatiently as he heaved himself up from his desk and walked with a slight limp into the back room. While he was gathering the supplies she’d requisitioned, she stared out the front window. She found herself slipping into a state of meditative watchfulness. She let it flow over her. There was no way she could practice that particular skill too much.
Jak dropped back into real time when Lambert returned to the room with a pack and small carrying case. He dropped the pack at her feet.
“A week’s worth of food and water, plus the necessary stims. Also, I replenished your first aid kit. Try not to get shot more than a day away from base,” he admonished somberly, then spoiled it with a wide grin. “If you find water, there are purification tablets in the first aid kit. It will take care of most of the bacteria and other critters in the water supply. Enough that what’s left won’t kill you. Probably not, anyway.”
He handed her the jacket draped over his forearm. “That’s your new jacket. Don’t get any holes in it your first day out. And here’s the scope. Remember, it’s your ass if something happens to it. If it weren’t for the fresh meat you ‘accidentally’ leave here, you wouldn’t be getting it at all.”
“Thanks, Lambert,” Jak said gratefully. “I’ll try not to break any of your goodies.”
“Try to come back in one piece, that’s all I ask. I’ll miss the extra meat rations if you catch yourself a bullet.”
* * *
The slow-turning blue orb drifted lazily past her window, its brilliant azure in sharp contrast to the deep black of space. This corner of the galaxy was beautiful, she thought. A sizable nebula in brilliant shades of lavender and pink floated in the far reaches of the small solar system. Even though she’d been exploring the edges of the outer systems for years now, she still came across sights that took her breath away. She watched the nebula for a moment longer before turning her eyes back to the planet that was her destination.
Her thoughts strayed, as they often did when she came to a new world, to the first settlers who would have arrived here. Most of the Fringe worlds had been settled in the same way. Passels of settlers had been put into cryogenic sleep and crammed into transport vessels along with plants and livestock from Earth. Typically armed with little more than a basic survey report and the hopes of their people, hundreds of settlement ships had spread out from Earth. In their departure, they’d cut their last ties with the governments there. Those ships had been the first to leave the planet, only able to do so because of newly developed cryogenic technology. They’d ended up on far-flung planets at the edges of the known galaxy. They had to make do with what little they could bring with them and their adopted world’s flora and fauna.
Better them than me, Torrin thought. Her role in the galaxy might not be quite as influential, but she was happy with it. She could come and go as she pleased instead of getting stuck on one planet like those poor saps had been.
A few hundred years later, humanity had spread out from Earth again, this time working their way from one star system to the next, spreading steadily outward. Thus the League of Solaran Planets was born.
A strident, high-pitched chirp emanated from the console in front of her. Frowning, she scanned the console’s screens. The sensors had picked up another vessel on the far side of the planet. She danced her fingers across sensitive touchscreens as she uttered a low curse. She set a course that would bring her into the planet’s orbit but would keep her out of sensor range of the ship. Eyes glued to the display, she scanned for any hints that the other vessel had detected her presence. When her ship slipped into orbit, she sighed with relief. Quickly, she powered down all systems except life support and one console display, then double-checked that her transponder beacon was disabled. According to intergalactic law, it was highly illegal to disable a ship’s transponder, but given that the people who’d made that law were the ones she was currently trying to avoid, she wasn’t too worried about the ethics involved.
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