Read an Excerpt
By Michael Z. Williamson
Baen BooksCopyright © 2005 Michael Z. Williamson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe first time you suffocate, it's terrifying. It doesn't get any better with practice.
The airlock chuffed open, atmosphere hissing away in an increasingly sibilant, ever quieter sound that was familiar. The two goons grabbed us and tossed us out. I was already in the standard safety position, mouth and nose open to let the air roar out of my lungs. My ears were stabbing out of my head, and gas pressure shrieked unheard out of my guts through the obvious orifice. My eyes began to throb and flood with tears, and I spun myself around, grabbing quickly for a line, a stanchion, anything. Nearby, my buddy Tom Parker already had hold of a line and reached out an arm to me.
It's hard not to panic as the blood starts to boil in your lungs. Tom looked like a gaping fish, and scared. I assume I did, too.
I saw the two goons grinning through their faceplates, feet tucked under stanchions on the dark gray hull of the ship. I swung around Tom, snagged the line and jerked to a stop then ricocheted back toward them. They reached to grapple with me, and I snuck my left hand down and behind my back, slipping a knife from the tape sheath I'd built and stashed inside the belt of my ship coverall. It wasn't much of a knife. Just a bar of steel with a crudely ground and serrated edge with achisel point ahead of a tape-wrapped hilt, but it would suffice for this. And I'd been in a hurry.
Goon One looked shocked as I ripped it through his braided oxygen hose. He gaped like a fish, then gulped as I had while Tom caught him from behind and tangled with him. As Goon Two approached to see what the problem was and lend assistance, I swung over him and jammed the armor-piercing point into the edge of his faceplate, near the gasket. He imitated a carp also, and I twisted over him and back into the airlock, clutching for the safety bar. Tom was waiting, having levered the first goon out into space while I dealt with the second one.
As air roared into the lock from soprano to basso, the sweetest music anywhere, I heaved several deep breaths, the blotches in front of my eyes fading along with the twanging in my ears. I then opened the inner hatch, we swam inside and waited for the inevitable response one gets for outwitting the instructors.
They both tumbled back in a few seconds later, coughing and gasping. They proceeded to verbally ream us meter-wide rectums. I was worried it might actually turn into a real fight, when Captain Ntanga swam in from his observation post.
"Brace up!" he snapped. We did. It looks odd in microgravity. "I'm disgusted," he said. "How in the name of God and Goddess did you two screwups let a student get a blade in here?"
As they looked stunned and sheepish, he turned to me and said, "Chinran, you are a devious, non-regulation, bloodthirsty, vicious, murderous little bastard. You'll go far. If you live long enough." Then he left and it did turn into a real fight. I'm sure he knew it, he just pretended not to see it.
Higher praise a student cannot get.
* * *
It always bothers civilians, and more than a few military personnel, that it is a required part of our training to practice suffocation, drowning and surviving torture. But they're just exercises. We cannot, ever, panic in an emergency. We've made a career field out of hypoxia and pain.
Let me start at the beginning. This will be graphic, so don't read it if violence and human suffering bother you.
Everyone has heard of Black Operations, the utterly clandestine division of Freehold Military Forces Special Warfare. You probably know how badly we beat up Earth during the war. However, virtually no one knows what actually goes on within our ranks. This narrative is of course, not complete, since there's far too much that you as the reader have no need to know, especially about me. I'm the man who destroyed most of Earth.
* * *
I went into the military to get away from home. I suppose, looking back now, that my home life wasn't that bad. At the time, however, it seemed interminable, oppressive and objectionable. So I went into the military. The inconsistency in that should be obvious to all readers.
The recruiter I spoke to was honest, but did have a quota. He tried to get me into a slot in missile control. I didn't want missile control. It had few civilian applications and little activity or travel. I chose combat communications, which had some technical transference to the civilian world and lots of travel. A tentative date was set for me to depart and I took the battery of standard tests.
Less than a week after that, I got a phone call. "Is Kenneth Chinran there?" the caller asked. He was military, in uniform and looked sharp. In fact, he was huge. He'd make a good recruiting vid actor.
"That's me," I replied.
"Mister Chinran, you recently enlisted in combat comm. I'd be interested in offering you a different slot, with a bonus," he said. "Can we meet?"
"Sure," I said. I didn't figure I'd be interested in switching, but I'd give him a fair listen.
He flew in, dropped and landed on our apron a short while later. I walked outside into the glaring summer Iolight and met him as he left the vehicle. I really didn't want him to meet my parents. They'd be polite, hospitable and a bit condescending. They like to think they've done it all, but they come across as insecure.
"I'm Sergeant Washington," he said. He was as tall as I, had fairly obvious African ancestry with some of the local influx of Hispanic, Indonesian and American. His muscle tone was incredible and he was obviously very competent, deadly and self-secure. I knew I'd never look like that, skinny, gawky kid that I was.
We left as soon as I strapped down and we chatted as he flew. "You blew the tests off the scale, Ken. May I call you Ken?" he said.
I love hearing about how smart I am. I'm still waiting for someone to offer me money commensurate with my brains. "Sure. Or Kenneth. I don't mind," I replied.
"Good deal," he said. "Sure you want to go into combat comm? Can I ask why?"
I shrugged. "It has a bit of travel. The technical training is good, and it gets me out of here," I said. "Here" was New Rockville, a small suburb ninety kilometers south of Westport. It's an okay town, but hardly the center of Freehold culture, much less of the galaxy.
"I have a position available that's better. Not to put the combat comm guys down, I mean, but-"
"What is it?" I interrupted. I didn't want to hear a spiel, just the facts.
He shifted drive ratio fast and said, "Special Warfare. We get to travel too, and sometimes first class and in high circles. We get a lot more training, some of which has civilian applications, even though people might not realize it. If you want action, then we're your people."
I started thinking. I knew of Special Warfare, of course. I'd heard lots of stories, and had no idea which were real and which were rumors. The idea was appealing, but ...
"I couldn't possibly pass the physical," I said. Not a skinny guy like me.
"Sure you can," he said. "After Basic, we have our own course. You'll be in adequate shape then, and we'll build you up from there. You'll be hardcore by the time you're done."
Now that sounded good. I had no illusions about huge muscles, but strength and agility appealed. I loved gymnastics and dancing and I never backed down from a bully. The idea of being able to actually clobber them instead of being splattered gave me a warm feeling.
"Let's go to your office," I said. It didn't take much convincing to make me agree to switch over. I held out for the bonuses they offered, though. He scheduled me for another battery of tests, mental, physical and psychological, that made the standard military placement look like an elementary school assessment test. I was worn out when I finished.
My parents were convinced I was making a huge mistake. When I got home, my mother started in on me. "I thought you wanted to work with comms? That was the whole reason you signed up; for the school."
"I can still go to that school. I get to do other stuff, too," I said.
Then my father hit me from the other side, "There's very few real world applications for any of it, unless you plan to be a rescue tech in the Dragontooth ski resorts, or an evac vertol medic. There's no real money in it."
That was his gig: money. Money only concerns me as a means to put a roof over my head. As to career goals, I had already jumped in headfirst. I planned on being a military careerist. I wasn't interested in civilian applications anymore. I was convinced of my own immortality, and wanted to be a badass. I knew they'd never understand that. Besides, after building a few bombs in the back lot, I loved the idea of working with real explosives, and that did have civilian applications with all the inland construction going on as we developed the continent.
They tried to talk me out of it, and called the recruiters, but I was a sworn adult and they couldn't do anything to stop me. They did wish me the best and follow me to the port, where I was almost late from mom's hugs and kisses. While appreciated, it was a bit embarrassing.
* * *
There were other recruits on the flight, and we got along variously, from reserved to riotously righteously fun. I hadn't been on a ballistic flight in a couple of years, but the thrill of a spine-grinding lift was tempered by the fear of what lay ahead. Or maybe it was the booze. Still, high Gs, microgravity, swooping back to increasing Gs and a thundering rollout are never dull.
We debarked, were met by a sergeant in uniform, and marched out to a bus, then taken to a hotel.
I had expected to be treated like a number. I also had my own ideas on how to avoid that. I was a jokester, a goof, and had smuggled along a couple bottles of liquor. It made me popular with some of the recruits, avoided with headshakes and wary glances from those who thought me "strange." I never worried about people like that.
Shortly, I was the center of a party of about ten recruits. They were younger and older, men and women, including a few cute ones. I had no illusions about bedding any of them. Not only was I unsophisticated, with no idea how to approach a stranger, but we were all there for basic training. I admired a couple of them, though. There was a striking redhead with sapphire blue eyes who was on the slightly elfin side. Nice! I could only wonder what she was training for. We chatted briefly, but didn't really have much to talk about except our upcoming ordeal. We didn't want to talk about that. Her name was Denise ("Call me Deni. Everyone does.") Harlett, and she hit all my buttons for lean women. Her lion's mane of red hair was gently restrained by a static band behind her ears, her tattoos were temporary nanos, not permanent ink, so she could change styles without surgery, and what body art and makeup she did wear was quite restrained for her age, which I put at about my twelve, or eighteen Earth years. She seemed a bit odd; her clothing didn't match her style and was rather plain. It was as if she'd studied makeup and snuck some with her, but hadn't been able to afford clothes. Well, some people do get dressed by their parents until they escape.
We retreated to the only two chairs, in a corner of the room, and tried to talk for quite a few segs. ("Seg" is local time measure, 100 seconds.) Neither of us mentioned training. We discussed music and camping. It was safer.
It turned out she was another fan of Cabhag, at least a closet one. "My friend has a huge collection," she said. "I love the way they mix ancient and modern instruments."
"You dance?" I asked. Gymnastics had got me into dancing. I'm pretty good. And women love a man who can dance.
"No," she said. "Well, I've never really tried. Logan's a small town and pretty far north for any real clubs."
Miss. Damn. I looked her over again while trying to come up with another topic. Then I noticed one of the strange things about her: no ear piercings. None. Not even a pair of basic studs. "You don't wear jewelry?" I asked.
"No," she said. "I'm-"
Right then they came by and did a bed check. Some sergeant came through the door, filling it as he did so, and said, "Everyone to your assigned rooms, it's lights out." They were ensuring, already, that we were where they could keep us reined in. I guess it made sense, especially after we tried to remove a drunk from the room I was sharing with a military firefighter-to-be. It took both of us and the local sergeant, and Deni, who held the door and helped shove him through. She seemed to enjoy it.
I got a brief chewing out over the liquor, apologized, and watched as they dragged off the struggling body. His career was over already. They threatened to write me up, but at this point, I was still a civilian, a legal adult, and they couldn't do much except refuse to take me. I knew they wouldn't do that.
The next day, we moved officially on base, into another holding cell, basically. We sat there for hours as they called names, checked paperwork, etc. It took far longer than it should have, and I'm sure it was done on purpose to annoy us. What was even more annoying were the idiots who couldn't follow simple directions. We were told, for example: "We'll call off your name. If we mispronounce it but you recognize it, come on up. Don't try to correct us, because we don't have time and it doesn't matter."
Naturally, they pronounced mine "ChinRAN," instead of "SHINrahn." I answered "Here, ma'am," and stepped up. A moron shortly after me heard, "Chuvera" and said, "That's 'Kuvera.'" He received a good reaming.
Let me be honest. I was not the most self-secure person. That evening, we wound up standing in loose formation, bags by our sides, waiting for our Sergeant Instructors. I was a bit shaky. I was also tall enough to be in the front rank, and could see four of them gathered just inside the "admin" door to the huge barracks. I knew they were professionals here to do a job, and I also knew that this was designed to be intimidating. I also knew my legs were twitching like a rabbit in the sights of a shotgun.
My stress level went through the roof a few moments later. One of them kicked the door open, and they came out screaming. I didn't get one of them in my face, which was good. I did see the guy next to me-with peripheral vision, as I was not about to turn my head-get torn apart for having his bags on the right side. The staff who dropped us off clearly had said "left side" as they departed. I saw how this was going to play out. Despite that, my legs were still shaking from involuntary reflex. I was glad I'd worn loose pants.
I did as I was told. I didn't stand out. I tolerated the mindless exercise, the blistering days, the nights colder than the Outer Halo, and bugs, snakes, rocks, and the rest of the drill. It was almost two weeks into it, nineteen days to be precise, before they even knew my name to go with my face. Unfortunately, it fell apart after that. I felt perfectly comfortable talking back to an instructor who was being (in my mind) unreasonable.
She was bitching me out for not having "enough" uniforms in my locker. I was protesting that several were dirty, I was awaiting laundry detail, and that those I had were arranged as prescribed in the recruit training manual. I proceeded to quote from memory about "spaced equidistantly or 10 cm apart, as is feasible, shirts buttoned and facing the right, pants hung folded at the halfway point lengthwise and seam-to-seam along the legs . . ."
She claimed I'd simply dumped my extra uniforms into the laundry bag to avoid having them inspected. She was right. There was nothing prohibiting that, however, and I wasn't about to accept a gigging over it. She swore and threatened, I replied that she was violating regs. Another instructor came over, and it got louder. Then I was written up.
Excerpted from The Weapon by Michael Z. Williamson Copyright ©2005 by Michael Z. Williamson. Excerpted by permission.
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