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Quasiserious death blew past Cutter’s helmet, the sharp and hard whistle of a hypersonic rifle round.
The shiftsuit’s tacticals IDed and tracked the bullet, backwalked the angle, and a red enemysig lit on Cutter’s headsup display.
Red, because the suit’s computer was programmed to assume that anybody shooting at you was an enemy.
Must have taken the programmer a while to come up with that rationale.
Colonel R. A. “Rags” Cutter knew exactly where the sniper wasthat old resiplex, third floor, two windows south of the corner, 104 meters that way. If he wanted, he could get the shooter’s height and weight from the suit’s pradar, but . . . why bother?
Cutter ducked behind a recycle bin, a stackedeverplast tub full of enough garbage to provide cover and not just concealment. There were several of these bins on the curb, and the suit’s filters didn’t cut out all the odor of rotting organics.
Obviously, it was trashpickup day.
The suit’s computer ran a quick scan on the composition of the wall and spotted up a chart for what it would take to breach it: Their sidearms would be a waste of needles. Their AW explosive rounds would need a few hits in the same spotthe material’s Rockwell showed that it was apparently a local stone equivalent to marble, and fairly thick. The AP rockets would punch right through, of course, but at 1196 New Dollars each, those were better reserved for hard targetsspend one on a tank or a juggernaut, that was a good deal; piss one away on a sniper? Bad for the bottom line. Wasn’t like it had been in the real army, where you shot whatever you wanted and piss on the cost, Mama Terra had plenty more where those came from.
“Y’all all right over there, Colonel?” That was Gunny Megan Sayeed’s droll SoTerran vox in his sonicware. She was behind the next recycle bin, ten meters to local south.
She was aware that the sniper’s weapon was no real threat to the suits Cutter and the rest of the pent wore. As long as that was all the sniper had to throw.
If he could afford them, Cutter would use FullyAugmentedShiftsuits for every trooper on every standupshootback mission. Best technology available here in the late twentyfourth century, they were. Unfortunately, those leases also cost a small fortune, and his operating budget usually only allowed for a few unless the customer had really deep pockets. FAS’s were outstanding tactical wear. The soft and breathable fabric would harden to Class VI personal armor two milliseconds after any missile impact, and bullets would bounce right off. It would defuse chargedparticlebeam pulses up to eighty watts, and lasers and masers would take all day to raise the temperature inside the suit five degrees. Well, it would take most of a minute, which was practically all day. Plus the chameleon shift could make you virtually invisible to anybody seeing in the human visual spectrum . . .
“I’d be a lot happier if one of my loyal and efficient troops would lob a boomer into that window and shut down that sniper, you know, just in case he’s waiting for us to get overconfident before he starts shooting serious AP. And not to put too fine a point on it, why hasn’t somebody already done it?”
Boomers only ran about fifty noodle apiece. They could afford that.
There was a short pause, and Gunny said, “Well, actually, Kay was gettin’ kind of antsy, so Ah let her off the leash.”
Cutter shook his head. “You know we aren’t getting paid by the hour?”
“You just got here, so Ah got to choose. ’Sides, aren’t you the one always tellin’ us to accommodate the talents when we can? That’s old school up there, Rags, he’s usin’ a gunpowder hunting rifle, for chrissake. And besides, Ah don’t think it will”
There came a horrific scream; despite the adrenaline dampers circulating in his blood, the hair on Cutter’s neck stirred as his flesh goosebumped.
The terrified yell stopped as if cut off by a knife.
Or by a set of really sharp, diamondhard, alien claws delivered across a throat at inhumanly fast speed.
“take all that long,” Gunny finished.
Cutter could almost feel her smile. “Nobody likes a smartass, Gunny. That’s the last one, right?”
“Yessuh, Colonel, suh, ten for ten, and mission accomplished.”
Cutter stood. Gunny was already on her feet, and the two troopers also rising behind her.
All things considered, this hadn’t been a bad operation. They’d been hired to find and take out a bandit cell that had been hijacking TotalMart’s hovervans, when the local police proved ineffective. That turned out to be because the local police were part of the cellat least two of the KIAs were for sure, maybe more, the b.g. checker hadn’t run them all down, what with a couple of them being no more than small and bloody bits scattered over half a klick. What they got for riding in a pisspoor armored vehicle and eating an AP rocket.
An expensive rocket . . .
Cheop was a backlane planet, part of the threehabitableworlds Filay System, and a van full of highend augmentation gear, exotic foodstuffs, pharmaceuticals, or just semiintelligent robotics could be worth a million or two ND, easy. TotalMart rural vans were the size of twofamily houses, and packed tight, to maximize deliverytocost ratios. The bandits had hit three of them over a period of a few weeks. One had been destroyed, and they were holding the other two for ransom. Lot of balls to do that, the bandits; steal and clean the vans out, then charge the company to get the empties back. Since the vans were spendy hardware, the hijackers could have all retired richexcept they got greedy.
Smart crooks knew when it was time to leave the party. Always better a little early than too late. Stupid crooks stayed too long.
Enter Cutter Force Initiative, because the GU’s Army hated having to space to the middle of nowhere to protect the galaxy’s largest corporation’s bottom line. They would do it, because big money talks loud enough, so everybody has to listen, but they didn’t like it. And after the most recent revolution, they were stretched thin.
The fucking GU Army . . .
Don’t go down that corridor, Cutter. Living well is the best revenge, remember?
Yeah, I remember being booted out of the Detached Guerrilla Forces by the fucking GU Army, too.
Yeah. It was his gain, and since they were underwritten by TotalMart, it didn’t hurt to kick ass and have the veeps in Security nodding and smiling. And TM even paid on time, another plus.
TM would send people to collect the stolen trucks and a fair amount of the cargo would be retrieved. No, it wasn’t a bad op at all . . .
The purple flash on his HUD made Cutter glance toward the building. Kluthfem ambled out from the place and loped toward where he and Gunny stood. She was suitless but had a transponder. The tactical always purpled a Vastalimi’s sig, not that anybody with eyes would mistake one of them for human. They were about shoulder high to an average man and looked like a cross among a tiger, an ape, and a praying mantis. Bipeds, with a short, thick, orangish fur and almost humanlike arms and legs, but with tapering, wedgeshaped heads and big eyes, a Vastalimi was as deadly a soldier as you’d want.
Too bad more of them weren’t big on leaving their homeworld. Cutter would hire a whole platoon if he could. Some ops, when the enemy found out he had one Vastalimi working for him, they’d quit right then.
“Kay,” he said, as the Vastalimi arrived. Her real name was difficult for a human to pronounce properly, and Kluthfem was a generic that didn’t really translate exactly into Trade. The troops called her Kay, and she was good with that.
“Any problems?” It was a joke, but he kept his face serious.
She gave him a look, kind of like when a puppy hears a strange noise and turns her head this way and that to regard it. “No,” she said. “No problems.” Her Trade was clean, if somewhat inhumanly accented. A lot better than his Vastalimi. He could produce maybe fifteen or twenty words in their main dialect that a native speaker might understand: Well met; farewell; require a healer; interrogatives fortoilet, food, drink; Stop! Okay; and the insult Your sister fornicates with prey. It was a throatbusting language for humans, who weren’t rigged with some kind of vocalware.
One of his favorite war stories was about when a GU Army Recon Kill Team did a sortie on New Java a few years back. Recon KTs were badasses, they sported combatware augs out the asshormone pumps, auditories, ophthalmics, nerve boosters, viral/molecular tacticals. They were trained to razor sharpness, carrying major firepower and ready to wreck or die.
According to the tale, the KT octet, after a terrorist cell, had kicked the wrong door and charged inside.
Instead of terrorists, there had been a Vastalimi family on a vacation, having dinner. Male, female, a couple of halfgrown children. Fortyfive seconds after the RKT booted the door, they were all dead, and the Vastalimi family didn’t have a scratch on any of them. According to the most extreme version of the tale, they took out the Recon team, then sat back down and finished supper . . .
Gave a whole new spin on the term “top predator.”
Probably apocryphal, that story. But he had seen Kay move, and while she was as adept with small arms as most in the unit, she preferred her claws when it came to close combat. Retracted, you could barely see them, they looked like notparticularlylong dark nails. Extended, they were fourcentimeter curved needles, and she could tear her way through an isotet or wooden wall as fast as a strong man flailing with a pair of smatchets.
And Vastalimi didn’t mountor needcybernetic augmentation to outdo humans in much of anything, either . . .
Opchan Three, that was Sims, back at the field command vehicle.
“Go ahead, Jo.”
“We about done here?”
“Haven’t you been watching the feed?”
“What, and miss Chef Flambé on the Cooking Channel? We’re doing chocolate soufflés today.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, we’re done.” Jo had been PsyOps, when she’d been in the Army, a first looie. She liked to pull chains, and she was good at it.
“Gramps just called, and we have an offer for a gig on Ananda, an extraction.”
“Haven’t seen all the details yet, but looks like it.”
Cutter considered that. Extractions were sometimes iffybadly timed, the kidnappers would, often as not, just kill the victim and run. On the other hand, the pay was good, and the risks to the unit minimal compared to chasing pirates or dealing with rebellions, warlords, or other private militaries.
“We’re on the way in. Get the details.”
“Don’t slam the door when you get here, I don’t want my soufflé to fall.”
The Forward Command Vehicle was about the size of a doublewide pubtrans floatbus, and the medical suite aft was large enough to squeeze six gurneys into it in an emergency though it had only three that could make full use of the suite’s D&T units. With the diagnoseandtreat systems lit, a medic didn’t need to do much handson work, just monitor and stand by for problems the dins couldn’t manage, which, frankly, were apt to be beyond any but the sharpest combat docs.
Tomas Wink liked to consider himself among the sharpest, and he’d had enough time in grade to make the claim.
The UV lights kept the air free of most nasty pathogens though it gave the place a slightly scorched smell.
The trooper on the table was a question. He’d been hit by the blast of an IED shear that blew him into a tree four meters away from where he’d been walking. The suit had absorbed and deflected the explosion and the impact somewhat, but they weren’t magic, those suits. It was like the old joke about the problem with jumping out of a hopper at altitude: It wasn’t the fall that killed you, it was the sudden stop.
Physically, the trooperhis name was Fletcherlooked mostly okay. Some bruises, contusions, nothing broken or majorly torn. But his vitals were offpulse, respiration, BP were all too fast. His hormones were whacked, and his chem scans ajumble. Adrenaline and testosterone were skyhigh.
Easy enough to calm down, but better that he could find a cause.
Wink knew what it was generallysomething in his combatware augmentation was malfunctioning. But the Cscans had come up clean, the myoneurals showed the effect but not the cause, and everything on Fletcher’s implant or viralmolecular nanocircuitry list checked out as within normal parameters. He had the standard galacticmilitary issue: hormone reservoir and pump; auditory and optical sets; nerve enhancers. Nothing else listed.
Might have to get Formentara in here. Zhe would figure it out in a hurry, but he hated to give up that easily.
Wink looked at the naked man sitting on the exam table. He had a thought.
“My chart says your sexual preferences are hetero.”
“You ever see Captain Sims in the buff?”
Fletcher grinned. “I might have passed her in the shower a few times.”
As Wink watched, the soldier sported a sudden rampant erection. Jo Sims was dropdead gorgeous, and a lust magnet among those attracted to women. But to pop a boner with a doctor looking right at you?
Wink grinned. “Dickware,” he said. “You’re running dickware.”
Fletcher’s carnal grin vanished.
It wasn’t against regs to sport nonissue military augs, if you could afford them. Most couldn’t, and those who could paid for it in more ways than one. First, they weren’t cheap. A good highend combatrated aug could run six months’ pay, and the topoftheline stuff? If you had to ask what they cost, you couldn’t afford them.
Second, the more augs you wore, the more they chewed on your physiology. The old heuristic was, every generalsystem aug you got cost you five years of life span. At 150 standard years, ten or twelve augs would lop five or six decades off the end. Wink had known rich aughogs who ran twenty systems. Live fast, die young, and leave an absolutely hideous corpse, and that didn’t even speak to the psychological problems. Now and then, an aughog would unbalance and go amok, and those who sported military or assassinware could wipe out a lot of people before they got taken down.
Doubleedged sword, that.
“It’s not illegal,” Fletcher said.
“Not for the Cutters, though you got it while you were in the Army didn’t you?”
The kid nodded. “Yeah.”
The Army didn’t care for pornware. It made you a better killer? Hey, they were all for that. It made you a better fucker? They didn’t want the troops distracted going to, or in the middle of, a firefight. Make war, not love.
“I don’t care about exercising your willie. I’m your medic, son, and I need to know these things if I am going to keep you alive and fit. It’s piggybacked, isn’t it?”
“On the myostim adjunct.”
Wink nodded. That’s why he hadn’t spotted it. Kid had been hiding it from the Army docs, some of whom might have noticed but most who wouldn’t if they even bothered to look. He’d have found it eventually. That wasn’t the first place he’d have looked.
The kid did, and Wink went to adjust the D&T. The aug had been damaged from the impact with the tree. It was easy enough to fix once you knew what the problem was, and if he was in a good mood, Wink could repair it so it was better than before, just a matter of inserting the right virus and nanosires into the right gene and spinning it. If he was in a bad mood, he could shut it down, or even reverse it. Fix it so Fletcher couldn’t get it up with a crane and a roomful of pornoproj stars paid only if they got him off . . .
That would be cruel, and he wouldn’t do that. The troops needed to blow off steam, sex was as good a way as any, and better than a lot of other options. As he well knew personally.
Wink grinned. Formentara would still get a kick out of this story. It was hir kind of thing. Zhe knew way more about cybernetic biologicals than he did. Maybe more than anybody did. If Wink wanted wetware of any kind, Formentara was who he’d want installing and tweaking it.
The D&T hummed away, and Wink stood there watching. He was bored. He was usually bored. He needed to do something active. Preferably with some risk to life or limb. Sex was way safer, mostly. Unless you decided you wanted to do it with the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time, just to juice it up. Once, he had picked up a miner’s woman in a downlow pub near the big iridium mine on Far Bundaloh. Taken her into a stall in the public toilet and had noisy intercourse there. The miners were hardasses and they would have casually killed him for all kinds of reasons just because they felt like it, but that one, screwing one of their fems? That would have put him high up the todo list.
It had given the activity a certain spice . . .