Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr was a Confederation Marine’s marine. She’d survived more deadly encounters—and kept more of her officers and enlisteds alive—than anyone in the Corps, and she was determined to keep the record intact. But since her last mission, she’d been sidelined into endless briefings and debriefings with no end in sight.
So, of course, she’d jumped at the chance to go to the Crucible—the Marine Corps training planet—as temporary aide to Major Svensson. The major had been reduced to little more than a brain and spinal cord in his last combat, and he and his doctor were anxious to field test his newly re-grown body.
It should have been an easy twenty-day run. After all, Crucible was only set up to simulate battle situations so recruits could be trained safely. But they were barely on-planet when someone started blasting the training scenarios to smithereens.
And suddenly Kerr found herself not only responsible for the major and his doctor, but caught in a desperate fight to keep a platoon of Marine recruits alive until someone discovered what was happening on Crucible....
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“Fast-paced . . . The intriguing and well-designed aliens and intricate plotting keep the reader guessing.”
“Series fans will enjoy this fast-paced adventure, appealing to the same audience as David Weber’s Honor Harrington series.”
“As a heroine, Kerr shines. She is cut from the same mold as Ellen Ripley of the Aliens films: tough but humane, fiercely protective of her charges, and utterly determined to prevail. Like her heroine, Huff delivers the goods. Valor’s Choice does not make light of war, but at the same time it is incredibly fun to read. Howlingly funny and very suspenseful. I enjoyed every word.”
“An intriguing alien race, a likeable protagonist, a fast moving plot, and a rousing ending. What more could you ask for?”
—Science Fiction Chronicle
“This sequel to Valor’s Choice, featuring a gutsy, fast-thinking female space-marine protagonist, establishes veteran fantasy author Huff as an accomplished spinner of high-tech military-SF adventure.”
“This book is Rendezvous with Rama for the rest of us: exciting, mysterious and full of action and puzzles to solve. Torin is everything you want in an action heroine (or hero, for that matter), and this book will leave readers anxious for her next adventure.”
The Confederation Novels:
THE BETTER PART OF VALOR
THE HEART OF VALOR
THE TRUTH OF VALOR
THE ENCHANTMENT EMPORIUM
THE WILD WAYS
SMOKE AND SHADOWS
SMOKE AND MIRRORS
SMOKE AND ASHES
THE QUARTERS NOVELS, VOL. I omnibus:
SING THE FOUR QUARTERS | FIFTH QUARTER
THE QUARTERS NOVELS, VOL II omnibus:
NO QUARTER | THE QUARTERED SEA
The Keeper’s Chronicles:
SUMMON THE KEEPER
THE SECOND SUMMONING
LONG HOT SUMMONING
OF DARKNESS, LIGHT AND FIRE
WIZARD OF THE GROVE omnibus
CHILD OF THE GROVE | THE LAST WIZARD
I’d like to thank Steve Perry for artillery and general military advice, Steve Stavitzky, Dave Alway, and Gary McGath for helping find the words that gave the aliens a voice, and Bill Sutton and Bill Roper for assistance with metaphors. I’d also like to thank Olympic gold medalist Xeno Mueller, who graciously explained the dynamics of rowing machines.
Table of Contents
FROM HER POSITION ON ONE of the upper galleries, Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr studied the Humans, di’Taykan, and occasional Krai filling the public terminal from bulkhead to bulkhead. About half, the half who’d probably never left their home worlds before they boarded the recruiting shuttle, were gathered in clumps of their own species. The other half were showing off how much more socially evolved they were than their country cousins.
“They’re surprisingly cute when they’re young.”
Fighting to keep her expression neutral, Torin turned, came to attention, and snapped off a perfect salute.
“As you were, Gunny.”
Now she could smile. “Glad to see you up and around, Major.”
Major Goran Svensson returned the smile, carefully rearranging the muscles by his mouth. “Glad to be up and around.” Although his nose was as prominent as she remembered, his face had the shiny, unlived-in look of new tissue and the regrowth of silver-blond hair was as high and hard as any oldEarth drill instructor could want it. The fingernails of his left hand, the hand that rested on an old-fashioned wooden cane, were a pale greenish gray and, against the matte black of his uniform, his skin was an unfortunate corpse-white. Under his uniform, the major had been rebuilt almost from scratch.
That almost had wormed its way into nearly every conversation Torin had been a part of in the just under twenty-eight hours she’d been on Ventris Station. At what point did the pieces of the Marine put into the tank stop being a Marine and start being merely pieces? Had there been enough of Goran Svensson put in to get Goran Svensson out, or was this just something that looked like the major and sounded like the major but was nothing more than shaped meat?
As far as Torin was concerned, it was a no-brainer. Sh’quo Company and the Battalion’s heavy weapons company had been dropped on Carlong in support of Captain Svensson’s people, who were in imminent danger of being overrun. Unfortunately, imminent had proven to be a conservative estimate, and all three companies had fought a bloody withdrawal to the pickup point only to find the Others were keeping the Navy too busy to get them out. During the battle, the captain had proved himself a good officer and a fine Marine, and Torin had no intention of losing either.
It only validated her good opinion to later discover he was a M’taj, one of the forty percent of Corps officers promoted from the ranks. Until she had evidence to the contrary, the only change between the Marine who’d gone into the tank and the Marine who’d come out was that the former was a captain, and the latter a major.
“Congratulations on the promotion.” Major Svensson nodded toward Torin’s sleeve. “I hear you were busy while I was tanked. A few battles won, a new species courted, and an unknown alien spaceship outsmarted—I’m surprised they didn’t commission you.”
“It was mentioned.”
The major held up his hand and grinned, this second smile more like the one Torin remembered. “I don’t think I want to hear your response. Actually, I don’t think I need to hear your response, but I promise you, I don’t take it personally.” He let the hand fall but not before Torin noticed the way his fingers had started to tremble. “I also heard you took some time for romance.”
“Sir?” If he’d said he’d heard she’d taken some time to go exploring gas giants, she’d have been less surprised.
“With the civilian salvage operator who found said alien spaceship. Some of the medical personnel here on Ventris recently transferred off the Berganitan, and they’re very taken by your touching love story.”
Torin snorted. “Love story?”
“So no romance?”
“Too bad. The fine folk in PR would be all over a touching love story.” Tightening his grip on the cane, he moved to the edge of the gallery and glanced down. “How many do you think we’ll keep?”
A little taken aback by the sudden change in topic, Torin frowned. “Sir?”
“Most of them will finish their contract and go home. Some of them, the lucky ones, will never see battle even in the midst of a war. But in every new group there’s always a couple—like you . . .” The grin flickered again. “. . . like me—who find a home in the Corps and that means there have to be a couple down there.”
Ah. Keep. Now the question made sense. Torin studied the crowd again. The recruiting shuttle dropped off seventy-two recruits at Ventris every tenday—two full training platoons. 150 days later, between sixty and seventy Marines graduated from Basic. The major was asking her to distill down those sixty or seventy to the few who’d stay.
“Her,” she said after a long moment. “The di’Taykan with the lime-green hair and the orange jacket. The recruits closest to her are calmer than the rest, and she’s standing so that she can see both exits. She’s probably from a military family that’s served for generations, and she’ll stay until biology forces her out.”
“What about her?” The major raised his hand just far enough off the rail to indicate a tall, fair-haired Human staring at the inner entrance to the station as if she could open it through force of will alone. “She looks like she wants to be here.”
“A little too much. That attitude says I know what’s best, and it’ll be a fight to get her to listen. She’s probably from one of the first families, and she thinks it means something here. I very much doubt she’ll make it through Basic.” The fourteen first families off oldEarth were as close as humanity came to an aristocracy these days.
“I’ve got ten that says she does.”
“I don’t want to take your money, sir.”
“Commendable, but I’m more than willing to take yours.”
“Ten it is, then.” Torin turned slightly, not enough to draw the attention of those down below but enough to direct the major’s attention where she wanted it. “See the Human standing by the outer doors, just to the right of the terminal map? Brown hair, hands shoved in his pockets?”
“Looks like he’s wondering what the hell he’s doing here?”
“Yes, sir, that’s the one. We’ll keep him.”
“Put your money where your mouth is, Gunny.”
“I’ll give you twenty on this one, sir.”
She heard the rustle of fabric as the major turned to face her. “Now why would you do that?”
Torin watched the recruit lean back against the map and jump forward again, face flushed as the map announced where he was. “He reminds me of me.”
Torin kept her attention on the major as he pivoted carefully around the cane, wobbling slightly. Only when she was sure he’d successfully completed the maneuver and was now scowling down the gallery, did she look up at the Navy corpsman approaching at a run. Fuchsia hair whipping back and forth in agitation, the corpsman slid to a halt, looked into the major’s face, and clearly reconsidered taking his arm.
“Sir, you’re not supposed to be out of bed.”
For a di’Taykan, the most enthusiastically indiscriminate race in known space, to not turn that statement into a blatant innuendo, Major Svensson had to have detanked in an impressively bad mood.
“And yet here I am.”
“Sir, Dr. Sloan’ll kick my ass out an air lock if she finds out you’ve been walking around in the public areas of the station.” One hand rose to fiddle nervously with his pheromone masker, and eyes the exact same fuchsia as his hair widened pleadingly. “Please come back to Med-op with me.”
Major Svensson sighed. Torin suspected he was aiming for world-weary, but there was too much plain old weary in it. “If you put it that way, Corpsman. I’d hate for you to get into trouble on my account.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll get a chair.”
“No. I can manage.” Before Torin could protest, or even before she could quite figure out how to phrase a protest, the major added, “But if you’d be more comfortable giving me your arm so that I don’t wander off again, I could live with that.”
“Yes, sir.” No mistaking the relief in the corpsman’s voice.
Fingers of his free hand wrapped around the corpsman’s elbow, the major braced his cane and turned his upper body just enough to bring Torin back into his line of sight. “I’m glad I happened to run into you, Gunnery Sergeant,” he said formally. “Seems fitting we should spend a few minutes talking to each other since everyone on this station seems to be talking about us. Nearly everyone,” he amended, his tone lightening as he nodded toward the recruits. “If you get a few free minutes, I’d appreciate the company.”
“I’ll come by if I can, sir.”
“Major . . .”
“I know, I know. Don’t just stand there, Corpsman, start walking.”
The corpsman wisely refused to allow Major Svensson to set the pace; they moved slowly and carefully toward the decompression doors. He glanced Torin’s way as he helped the major over the lip, and just before the door closed she heard the older man snap, “Yes, it is.”
Had he asked if that was really Gunnery Sergeant Kerr?
Apparently everyone on the station was talking about her—except when they were talking to her and then they were talking about the major. Beginning to think it was no coincidence Major Svensson had happened to take a walk in her direction, Torin frowned down at the new recruits, not really seeing them.
She didn’t like being the center of attention; that never ended well. Once certain people started overreacting to other people doing nothing more than getting the job done, life tended to get interesting. Given that she was involved in fighting a centuries-old war with an indeterminate foe, Torin figured her life was quite interesting enough.
The sound of the inner doors opening jerked her attention back to the terminal.
“Listen up, children, because I’m only going to say this once.”
Torin stared in disbelief at the familiar figure standing just inside the open doors. Hands tucked behind his back, scarlet hair moving slowly back and forth, his uniform more like a matte-black shadow than actual fabric, stood Staff Sergeant di’Allak Beyhn.
A little over ten years ago, he’d stood in exactly that position, said exactly those words and had, over the next 150 days, gone on to be one of the main reasons Torin had become a career Marine.
It couldn’t be the same Marine.
It had to be another di’Taykan trained by him, another di’Taykan with the same coloring who’d picked up the same phrases and mannerisms. An imitation, not the real thing. He’d had more than a few years in back when he’d been her DI, so Staff Sergeant Beyhn had to have moved on to qui’Taykan—the breeding phase—and left the military.
“I am Staff Sergeant Beyhn.”
He swept a scarlet gaze over the recruits. “When I give the word, here’s what you’re going to do: you’re going to pick up your gear and move in an orderly fashion through these doors. Once inside, you’ll make a quick left, proceed to the end of the corridor, and arrange yourselves on the yellow lines. Anyone who can’t figure out how to accomplish that should consider enlisting in the Navy.”
A couple of the recruits snickered.
Staff Sergeant Beyhn’s expression made it clear he wasn’t kidding, and the snickering stopped. “This is your last chance to reconsider your decision to become a Marine,” he continued, redirecting his attention to the room at large. “No one will think any less of you if you decide to turn around and take the next shuttle home.”
Torin had never heard of anyone taking him up on the offer; the recruiters made sure that anyone who got this far would make it past the yellow lines at least, but she supposed there was always a first time.
No one moved.
She checked the brown-haired young man by the map. He was frowning thoughtfully.
“Gunnery Sergeant Kerr.”
All attention snapped suddenly to her as the recruits followed Staff Sergeant Beyhn’s gaze up to the gallery. She saw two or three heads dip together and was sure she heard a whispered “Silsviss,” the sibilants making the word carry.
“When you have a moment, Gunny.”
Fighting the urge to snap to attention and shout, “Sir, yes, sir!” Torin nodded. “I’m on my way down, Staff.” If he could use the diminutive, she could use the diminutive. She’d have to keep telling herself that.
He nodded in turn, one smooth dip of the head—it was hard to tell at that distance, but she thought the ablin gon savit was smiling, fully aware of what her instinctive reaction would be. Stepping back out of the doorway, he snapped, “Let’s move, people!”
The brown-haired young man was in the last group of recruits through the doors into Ventris Station. Torin made a note to check his name; he was going to win her an easy twenty.
The station studied her identification for a moment and then let her in through the decompression door at the end of the gallery—big open spaces in stations made people nervous, so the designers added redundancies to their fail-safes—and by the time Torin dropped down a level the recruits were moving off the lines and into the hygiene unit. Given that di’Taykan hair wasn’t hair at all but a uniform length, multistrand sensory organ and the Krai had no hair to speak of, the Corps had come up with a compromise for their Human recruits that acknowledged they were part of an integrated universe and managed to satisfy tradition as well. The hygiene unit removed dead tissue from all three species, so for the 150 days of Basic, it was business as usual for the di’Taykan, a slightly shinier scalp for the Krai, and on Human heads, stubble. If nothing else, the stubble made it perfectly clear that no Humans were going to get by on their looks.
Torin maintained her own hair at di’Taykan length, but she knew Human Marines who kept their personal hygiene units locked at the dead tissue setting. She thought it made them look like they’d just been detanked, but hell—if they were into an I nearly had my ass shot off hair style, who was she to complain?
Staff Sergeant Beyhn stood by an inner wall, watching the last recruits cross into processing. Up close, he looked tired, like he hadn’t been sleeping. di’Taykan didn’t get bags under their eyes, but he was close.
“They’re not mine,” he said as Torin joined him. “I’ve got a group coming up on one twenty I should be with right now, but for the last few days this place has been jumping like the seals are blown, and assignments have therefore been late coming down.” He turned to face her. “You wouldn’t know why, would you, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr?”
“I hear Major Svensson has recently been detanked, Staff Sergeant.”
He made a noise that from a Human would have been noncommittal but from a di’Taykan bordered on insulting. “Don’t give me that crap, Gunny. The whole station knows that you single-handedly brought the Silsviss in on our side and followed it up by outsmarting a big yellow spaceship and bringing your recon team safely home.”
“Not all of them.” Torin closed her hand around the memory of the small, metal cylinder that held the remains of PFC August Guimond.
Beyhn stared at her for a long moment, his eyes moving from near pink to scarlet as more and more light receptors opened. Finally he nodded, his expression relaxing, and Torin realized that she’d been measured and not found wanting.
A smart person would have let it go. “You thought I might be . . .”
“Getting too big for your britches.”
Torin blinked. “What?”
“Means full of yourself. Picked it up from a Marine who came through on his SLC.”
There could only be one Marine that fond of oldEarth idiom. “Hollice?”
“That’s the name.” He headed down the corridor, and Torin fell into step beside him. “So, since it’s unlikely they promoted you for just doing your job, I’m guessing you’ve got blackmail material on that General Morris who seems to like you so much.”
As it happened, she did, but since her old DI wasn’t actually digging for information, she merely said, “Ours is not to question why, Sergeant.”
He snorted. “Yeah, that’s what they keep telling me.”
*Your O930 briefing has been moved to L6S23C29.*
Torin tongued an acknowledgment and checked the time.
No need to hurry.
“New implant? You half winced just there,” the sergeant continued when she raised an inquiring brow. “Like you were reacting to the memory of pain.”
She fought the urge to cup the left side of her jaw, recently cracked by the techs back at Battalion who’d installed her new unit during the short time she’d spent with her company on the OutSector station before being ordered coreward to Ventris. The bone ached and the skin over it felt tender. “Good call.”
“Not really. Automatic upgrade when you hit Gunny,” he reminded her. “Been a long time since I got cracked, but I seem to remember them saying it wouldn’t hurt.”
“Yeah. That’s what they say.”
“Lying bastards. Where you heading?”
“You remember how to find your way around?”
An ability to negotiate Ventris Station was a hard-earned skill. The word tesseract had been mentioned on more than one occasion. Other, less scientific words were used more frequently, the Corps having a long history of creative profanity and two new languages to practice it in. Torin had refamiliarized herself with the more unique aspects of station navigation early that morning on her five k run.
“Well, if you find your way to the baby-sitter’s club sometime when I’m not hand feeding the future of the Corps, I’ll buy you a drink.” Then he glanced at the half dozen chevrons surrounding the crossed KC-7s on her sleeve, looked up, and nodded; that same single dip of the head. “Good work, Marine.”
He’d been the first person to call her Marine. She’d just finished two tendays on Crucible, her and the rest of Platoon 29, learning to actually use all the information they’d had crammed into their heads over the first 120 days of training. They’d been in ranks, bloody but unbeaten at the pickup point, and, as the VTA’s hatch opened, Sergeant Beyhn had yelled, “Double-time, Marines. We’re moving out.” That had been—and remained—the proudest moment of her life.
“Don’t get all choked up on me now,” he grinned as he opened the door into Hygiene and the sound of seventy-two recruits being sanitized drifted into the corridor. “I bet Sergeant Hayman you’d make Gunny before I got out and Jude’s just contributed a solid fifty to my offspring fund.”
Torin didn’t bother hiding her shudder. “That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“That I bet a fifty on you?”
“That you have an offspring fund.”
* * *
Level 6, Section 23, Compartment 29—according to the station directory, she couldn’t get there from where she was. Torin snorted and headed for the nearest vertical. All routes on Ventris Station led to the main parade square. Logically, from the main parade square, it was then possible to get to any address in the station.
They should never have let the H’san help with the design. She slowed to let an approaching captain into the shaft first, waited for the next available rising strap, and stepped across a whole lot of nothing to catch hold of it. The public terminal was on level one, but there were fourteen sublevels under that. Her stomach did a lazy loop in the zero gravity, then settled.
Even with the workday underway for almost an hour, the shaft was busy. She nodded at a descending technical sergeant, politely ignored a pair of officers sharing a strap while they discussed their latest liberty, and raised an eyebrow at a Krai recruit adjusting her uniform as she passed, one foot holding the strap, both hands attempting to straighten her collar. The Krai had no problem in zero gee—no nausea, no disorientation—but other species weren’t so lucky. Human and di’Taykan recruits who’d spent their whole lives dirtside were tested in zero gee modules before they were allowed into the shafts, but even then it was pretty much a guarantee that the rest of the station would be dodging wobbly globes of vomit and the embarrassed recruit trying to clean them up at some point during the first thirty days of every Basic course. Since a new course started every ten days, it paid to pay attention in the verticals.
At Level 3, Torin grabbed the bar over the door and flipped out into the deck. The link station was right where she remembered it. By the time the link arrived, there were eight Marines waiting with her, and she had less than twenty minutes’ travel time left.
Not a problem.
Like the public terminal, the main parade square had been designated as an “outside” area of the station. On her way around to the link station that would take her to Section 23, Torin snapped off three salutes and then stopped by a recruit who stood staring around at eighteen potential exits in rising panic.
“Where do you need to be?” she asked.
Pale gray eyes holding an equal mix of determination and fear locked on her face. “Sir! This . . .”
“Don’t call me sir, I’m not your DI. Call me Gunnery Sergeant.”
“Sir! Yes, si . . . Yes, Gunnery Sergeant! This recruit needs to be at L4S12 main administration.”
She checked his collar tabs. He was still in his first fifty. “Are you cleared for verticals?”
“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant!”
“Take that shaft . . . That shaft!” She reached out and turned his head. “Take it up two levels. Turn right immediately out of the shaft. Keep moving until you get to Section 12 then take the first vertical you see back down a level.”
He glanced at his watch. “I have to be there in four minutes!”
It was hard not to smile. “Then you’d better hurry.”
“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant!”
She watched him double-time off, turned back toward her station, and saluted a Krai lieutenant wearing a Ventris patch who was staring at her with disapproval.
“The recruits need to learn their way around on their own, Gunny.”
Stifling a sigh, she stopped walking. She really didn’t have time for this. “The recruits need to learn they can depend on other Marines when the chips are down, Lieutenant.”
“And what does he learn if you tell him how to get where he’s going?”
“That it isn’t a weakness to ask for directions.”
“He didn’t ask for directions, Gunny.”
“Now he knows he can, sir.”
The lieutenant’s nose ridges flared. “You can’t ask for directions in combat!”
Torin did not drop her gaze to the lieutenant’s chest and an absence of ribbons but was so obvious about it, she might as well have. “You’d be surprised, sir.” She snapped off another salute and was in the link and gone before he realized he’d been dismissed.
She reached L6S23C29 with three minutes and forty-two seconds to spare.
And found her reputation had preceded her.
“Congratulations on the promotion, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr.”
“Thank you, Captain Stedrin. And you on yours.”
The captain smiled, pale blue hair flicking back and forth. “I suspect the general thought it was easier to promote me than to break in another aide. Besides, we’ve got an actual staff now, and he probably believes the extra bar will make it easier for me to take command.”
“I don’t think you’ll have any trouble, sir.”
Captain Stedrin’s hair sped up a little. “That’s quite the compliment coming from you, Gunny.”
“Yes, sir.” She meant it, though. When they’d first met on the Berganitan, Lieutenant Stedrin had been a typical “stick-up-the-ass” young officer—not, as it happened too different from the lieutenant she’d just been talking to on the parade square although the attitude was temperamentally unusual for a di’Taykan—but he’d made the right decisions when it mattered, and while he might never be much of a line officer, she’d been in the Corps long enough to know that a good staff officer, one who cared about the Marines more than the paperwork, was worth his weight in ammo. Maybe not the impact boomers, but definitely the regular rounds.
She glanced across the front of the small lecture hall to where General Morris, still without that third star and his promotion to Tekamal and apparently destined to be her personal pain in the brass for years to come, was speaking to a di’Taykan major. The deep orange hair made it a sure bet that it was Major di’Uninat Alie, the Intelligence officer who’d debriefed Torin just after she’d arrived at the station. “The general’s filling her in on what he considers the pertinent points, isn’t he, sir?”
“I think that’s a given.”
General Morris had chosen her for the mission to Silsvah. She supposed it was a compliment that he’d believed her capable of doing what was necessary to bring the Silsviss into the Confederation before the Others could recruit them, but she’d lost thirteen Marines on what was supposed to be ceremonial duty, and while she had no trouble following orders, she disliked being manipulated. He’d also chosen her to lead the recon platoon into Big Yellow, the unidentified alien vessel found floating dead in space. Probably another compliment. He’d needed a senior NCO capable of riding herd on a glory-seeking officer destined for promotion to placate the Krai members of Parliament, but since Captain Travik had spent most of the mission unconscious, the official reports were slightly different than the reality of the situation.
Torin really hated politics.
Fortunately, she wasn’t expected to smile as the general approached.
“Staff Sergeant Kerr. Good to see you again. I’ve just been telling Major Alie what she can expect.”
“Sir.” Captain Stedrin cleared his throat, a Human noise the di’Taykan had adopted. “It’s Gunnery Sergeant now.”
“Why, so it is.” General Morris’ florid cheeks flushed darker as his gaze flickered to her collar tabs and back. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say.”
“About the Silsviss.”
He was staying? Well that was just fukking wonderful. “Yes, sir.”
With a final, patronizing nod, the general moved toward an empty seat in the last row. Captain Stedrin let him get most of the way there before he caught up and bent to murmur something in the general’s ear. Standing by the lectern, Torin couldn’t hear the captain’s part of the conversation, but the general’s, “What now?” came through loud and clear. After a moment, and an inspection of the captain’s slate, he shook his head and stomped off out the rear door.
Captain Stedrin shot her a very di’Taykan grin as he followed.
The bastard had waited until the last minute to clear the general out just to watch her sweat. Nice one. He’d known from the beginning they’d be leaving, or he’d have left his slate with the others on the table near the lower door. Torin had been warned her slate wouldn’t record—Compartments 21 to 39 were configured to prevent it—but slates were designed to be ultimately flexible, and there was only one way to be certain no one would enter the information with a stylus and that was to take them out of the hands of their owners. She suspected there were certain things about the way the Silsviss had joined the Confederation that the highest levels of the Corps preferred the general population never knew. Ultimately, there’d be no way to prevent it, but—in the here and now—the top brass was doing what they could to slow things down.
“Are you ready, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr?”
She faced Major Alie and nodded, an echo of Staff Sergeant Beyhn’s single dip. “Yes, sir.”
“You don’t look nervous.”
“Are they likely to shoot at me, sir?”
The major’s eyes lightened as she smiled. “I doubt it.”
“Then I’ll be fine.”
Torin assumed every one of the thirty officers in the room—there’d be other rooms and other ranks later—had read not only her report, but General Morris’ report, Lieutenant Jarret’s report and probably, depending on their clearance levels, both the diplomats’ and Cri Sawyes’ report. She wasn’t here to go over the facts of the mission one more time lest something crucial had been left out that effected the acceptance of the Silsviss into the Confederation and their eventual integration into the Corps. She was here because later, after the facts had been presented one more time, there’d be questions and she was the only one who could answer many of them.
It was both clichéd and dangerous to believe that insight into a species could be gained by wholesale slaughter, but Torin was willing to bet that, here and now, no one knew the Silsviss quite like she did.
Slate to hand in case she needed to refer to her notes, she faced the tiers of seats and began. “During the mission in question, I was a Staff Sergeant with 7th Division, 4th Recar’ta, 1st Battalion, Sh’quo Company. My orders were to put together a platoon out of able-bodied Marines to accompany a group of diplomats and their support staff—Mictok, Dornagain, and Rakva—to Silsviss under the command of Second Lieutenant di’Ka Jarret . . .”
There’d been diplomacy for a while, but then all hell had broken loose.
When she reached the point in the story where the Berganitan had returned to Silsvah and sent down a VTA to lift them off—the VTA they’d landed in having been lost in a swamp—she saw a few of the officers begin to stir. Either they hadn’t heard what happened after liftoff and they thought she was nearly done or, more likely, she was just getting to the part they were interested in.
“The Silsviss have a pack mentality. They know where each one fits in the pack, and the strong fight to rise. They’d just joined our pack, and they wanted to see how much they could push us around.”
“They wanted you to kill General Morris.”
The statement came from a Human lieutenant colonel. He might have felt safely anonymous in the dim light amid the other twenty-nine black uniforms in the room, but Torin had spent too many years pinpointing smart-ass comments from the ranks to let him get away with it. Glancing over at him, she abandoned the last 4.5 minutes of prepared speech and said, “No, sir. They wanted me to believe it was the general’s fault and then use what I had learned about the Silsviss to save the treaty by killing him.”
“And why didn’t you?”
“Because we weren’t joining them, sir. They were joining us.”
“General Morris’ report said he was willing to die.”
“I wasn’t privileged to read the general’s report, sir.”
“But you would have killed him if it had been necessary?” He was leaning forward now, one hand pale and obvious where it gripped the dark fabric over his right knee.
Torin lifted her chin, locked her eyes on his face, and said, “As it wasn’t necessary, sir . . .” She loaded implication into the pause. “. . . we’ll never know.”
The lieutenant colonel looked away first and, as his gaze dropped, Major Alie stepped forward. “Since we seem to have already opened the floor to questions, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr will now address any other points you may want clarified.”
Interesting emphasis, Torin thought as a Krai major began the official Q&A.
For the most part, the questions stayed fairly close to her observations of the Silsviss military and how well she felt they’d integrate. As they revisited the same points over and over again, Torin became increasingly grateful that she wouldn’t be part of the team designing the integration protocols. Given how long it had taken before the Krai joined mixed fireteams, she figured she’d be long retired before she had to worry about maintaining discipline with di’Taykan-sized lizards in the ranks.
When the briefing finally ended, just before 1300, Torin followed the major’s silent order and stepped back to let the room empty before she left. With the major acting as a barrier between her and any further questions, she kept her gaze locked on the far wall to give no one a chance to draw her into conversation.
As the last officer retrieved his slate and disappeared out the door, Major Alie turned toward her and smiled. “Thank you, Gunny. Grab some food, and I’ll see you back here at fourteen hundred. The officers attending this morning have orders not to approach you out of this room, so you should be allowed to get to the SRM in peace.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The captain who’d asked the first question had been Intell, seeded into the group by Major Alie. It was inevitable those particular questions would be asked, so the major had arranged for them to be asked under controlled conditions. The timing, before the Q&A officially began, had allowed her to cut the questions off when the information she’d wanted released had been covered. It was a smart move.
Torin appreciated smart, but she had no intention of mentioning that to the major. Intell got a little snotty when one of their subtle plans turned out to be that obvious.
The afternoon session was a near exact copy of the morning’s—minus General Morris’ small part. Finished at 1800, she skipped the Senior Rank’s Mess and headed to a pub she remembered fondly from her last course on station. She was expecting a call and didn’t want it going through the duty officer before it reached her in the SRM. Off-duty and in a public part of the station, the message would be bounced straight to her implant.
On the OutSector stations the lowest two or three levels of the center core were set aside for off-duty and civilian personnel. On a station the size of Ventris, certain broad concourses had been set aside for stores, bars, and cantinas. The recruits were given access to the lowest concourse on their last tenday. They never saw the other four until they returned to Ventris as Marines.
Sutton’s, on Concourse Two, was about half full. A group of privates and corporals were watching mixed league cricket on the big screen in the corner. Apparently it was an oldEarth sport the Elder Races had taken to the way the H’san took to cheese, but Torin couldn’t see the attraction. Along the other side of the bar, eight of the small tables were full, two of them pushed close so a group of four officers and their companions could eat together. Three di’Taykan sat at the bar itself, bodies close and looking about five minutes from heading to someone’s bunk for the night.
Torin took one of the small tables, where she could see both the door to the concourse and the door behind the bar leading to the kitchens, and coded her order into the tabletop. To her surprise, Elliot Westbrook, the grandson of the original owners, came out with the first part of her order.
“Gunny,” he said as he set down the beer, “I hear you single-handedly got the Silsviss to join up. Any chance you can give me a scouting report on their beverage selection?”
Seemed that Major Svensson was right; everyone on the station was talking about her. Still, it never hurt to cooperate with the man cooking dinner and, while information about how she’d single-handedly got the Silsviss to join up was classified, what the giant lizards drank was not. What’s more, if they were going to join the Corps, it was an important cultural touchstone. “The upper ranks drank fermented fruit juices, but the lower ranks usually drank beer.”
“Good to hear.”
“The beer was usually green.”
Elliot grinned. “So they’re Irish?”
When her pie arrived, he left her to it, heading back to the bar muttering notes about ales and lagers and fermentation times into his slate.
She was just mopping up the last of the gravy when the call came through.
*I’ve docked. Section 8, slip 17.*
Pushing her plate away, she tongued an acknowledgment and murmured, “On my way,” just loud enough for the implant to pick up.
They were naked twenty-two minutes later.
PUSHING DAMP HAIR BACK out of her eyes, Torin rolled up on one elbow and frowned down at her companion. “I get the impression you missed me.”
“Funny, because I got the impression I was right on target . . . OW!” Tugging her fingers out of his chest hair, Craig Ryder wrapped Torin’s hand in his, immobilizing it. Since she wasn’t planning on going anywhere for a while, she allowed him to think he could hold her. “You win,” he said. “I missed you. You’re just lucky I needed to register new salvage tags.”
“You’re talking like I’m the only one here who got lucky.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” He waggled his brows suggestively. “But you are saying you got lucky, then?”
She freed her hand, moved it lower on his body, and squeezed. “A couple of times.”
But this time when he grabbed for her, Torin rolled off the bunk and rose to her feet out of reach. “That thing’s too small for comfort.”
“You’d better be talking about the bunk, mate. And you are not sitting your bare ass down on my control panel,” he growled as she moved the very small distance to the other side of the cabin.
Torin snorted. “Not after what happened the last time.” Scooping his discarded shirt off the floor, she tossed it on the pilot’s chair covering the majority of the duct tape and sat. One of the reasons the bunk was too narrow for them both was that Craig Ryder was a big man. Undressed, there was a little softness at his waist, but most of his bulk was muscle, his arms and shoulders so broad and heavy, they distracted from his height.
All right. Maybe she had been staring. “Rumor has it that this is a romance.”
“Really?” Craig rolled up on his side, head propped up on one huge hand. He looked amused, the bastard. “Who’s been talking, then?”
She shrugged a shoulder, suddenly wishing she hadn’t brought it up. “Some of the medical staff off the Berganitan are on station. Apparently, I’m a topic of conversation.”
“Apparently?” When she shrugged again, he laughed. “Fuk, all you’ve done in the last year was convince a race of aggressive lizards to join up right before you outsmarted a big old alien spaceship. Can’t see why they’d be talking about you. Obviously, they’re talking about me.”
“Don’t mean to skite, but I’m the other half of the romance, aren’t I?”
Torin scratched at the drying sweat on her stomach. “There is no romance. There’s sex.”
“That’ll do, then.” Blue eyes gleamed. “So what the hell are you doing all the way over there?”
Later, when she stepped out of his shower—which meant stepping out of his tiny hygiene unit into the main cabin—he handed her a mug of coffee and said, “You ever hear what happened to the escape pod from Big Yellow.”
Torin took a drink, set the mug on the small, half-circle table folded down from one of the cabin walls, and started dressing. “It’s a piece of unknown alien technology, I expect R&D has it tucked away somewhere, probably somewhere on this station—although there’s always a chance that one of the Elder Races rabbited off with it. All I know is that the whole thing’s been classified Top Secret, and I have orders not to talk about it during my current the Silsviss are our friends tour.” Skimming her pants up over her hips, she reached for the mug again. “Why?”
“I rode it from Big Yellow, yeah?”
“Yeah.” She knew where this was going.
“That makes it my salvage, doesn’t it?”
“Technically, the Berganitan retrieved it.”
He folded his arms, the motion causing the worn sweats he’d pulled on to fall a little farther from his waist. “I was in it. And in salvage, like life, possession is nine tenths of the law.”
The vacuum jockeys from the Berganitan had rescued him, directing the spherical escape pod into a net in one of the ship’s shuttle bays. Given the mulish expression he was wearing, Torin decided not to remind him of that. “You must have made inquiries,” she said, buttoning her shirt.
“I did. No one knows anything about it.”
“That’s because it’s classified Top Secret.”
“No. They won’t talk about Big Yellow, but they don’t seem to know about the escape pod.”
“You’re a civilian. Neither branch of the military is likely to tell you what they know.”
“Please.” Fingers digging in his short beard, he snorted. “I deal with the military all the time. I know when they’re fukking me around and this was more like they honestly didn’t know.”
Torin set the empty mug back on the table and frowned. “Maybe they didn’t know. You couldn’t have been talking to anyone with a very high clearance.”
She stared at him for a long moment. “You want me to ask someone, don’t you?”
He grinned. “It is good sex.”
“Not that good.”
“Fine. There’s an Intell major running the Silsviss briefings I’m doing. If I get a chance, I’ll ask her.” She slid a foot into her right boot and bent to tie the laces. “How long will you be docked?”
“Odds are good I’ll be gone by 1400 tomorrow.”
His tone pulled her attention back to his face. If he was off station by 1400, this was it. They’d probably see each other again when she got back to her unit. Civilian salvage operators weren’t unknown at OutSector stations, but only the brass knew how long they’d keep her here. “All right, I’ll ask at the morning briefing.”
Both boots secured, she moved to the hatch and paused, left hand rising to touch her jaw. “The upgrade’s got a signal strong enough to reach ships in space.”
Craig’s brows rose when she stopped, clearly expecting more.
She didn’t have any more.
His fingers went back to his beard. “You’ve got the Promise’s codes.”
“I do.” Her left hand settled against the scarred surface of the hatch. The upgrade went to grades Gunny and above, so that if they had Marines dirtside, and the comm unit got hit, they could call for evac. They weren’t for . . . She glanced back at Craig; from the way the corner of his mouth was twitching, he knew exactly what she was thinking. Cocky bastard. Stepping out onto the ramp, she turned again. “Be careful.”
He nodded. “You, too.”
* * *
The major’s hair lifted. “Is there a problem, Gunny?”
“No, sir.” di’Taykan didn’t have the concept of personal space, so Torin stepped a little closer. They were standing, once again, at the front of Compartment 29 waiting for the morning’s group of senior NCOs to finish taking their seats, and Torin figured that her odds of getting an answer were better if the major thought she couldn’t be overheard. In the raw light of day, minus post-coital endorphins, this was obviously a bad idea, but she’d told Craig she’d ask—and that left her only two options. Keep her word. Or not. “The CSO who . . .”
“You’re seeing.” The words were tame for a di’Taykan. The innuendo was all it could be.
“Yes, sir.” Torin responded to the words alone. “He was wondering what happened to the escape pod off Big Yellow.”
The major’s hair flattened. “The alien ship is classified, Gunny.”
“And classified means you’re not to speak of it.”
“Not even to your vantru.”
Given the major’s expression, now was not the time to mention that vantru—more or less translated as primary sexual partner—was a bit strong, if only because of the di’Taykan weight the word carried and not because she was actually getting any anywhere else.
“I’ve got no way to keep him from mentioning it to me, sir.”
Like many sentient races, the primary Taykan religion had not only the concept of damnation but the profanity to go with it.
But while the major had said, “The alien ship is classified,” her expression had added, “What escape pod?” It was fast, gone almost before Torin saw it. Someone watching a little less closely would have missed it entirely, but Torin had spent years learning to spot bullshit and next to some of the di’Taykan she’d commanded, for whom bullshit was a vocation, Major Alie was an amateur.
Her anger at not knowing had given her away.
Intell hated to think there were things they didn’t know.
At 12:45, Torin set down her lunch tray and pinged the Promise from a table terminal in the SRM.
“What the bloody hell did you ask at that morning briefing?”
Torin poured creamer in her coffee, the artificial stuff significantly safer than the real cream in the other jug. There were no cows on Ventris Station. “I asked the major about your possible salvage.”
“Just like that, then?”
“You wanted to know.”
“I expected you to be a little more . . . I don’t know, circumspect.”
“I said I’d ask.” She took a preliminary swallow—the coffee had probably been started by the first cook on Ventris—and added a splash more creamer. “This is not the kind of thing that I can sneak about trying to discover for you. Nor would I if I could.”
“I had a visit this morning from a couple of Marines who thought I needed to be reminded of what classified meant.”
That wasn’t entirely unexpected. “And?”
“They pointed out that military salvage tags don’t grow on fukking trees.”
Neither was that. It was, after all, the only handle they had on him. “Happy ending?”
“They’re letting me bail, if that’s what you mean. In fact, they pretty much told me to rack off.” She heard him sigh, could see him sitting back in the pilot’s chair, feet resting on the spot his heels had worn shiny on the control panel. “I’m never going to see that salvage, am I? Never mind. Don’t answer that. Are you in the crapper for bringing it up?”
It surprised her that he’d ask. “Not so far.”
“Good. Let me know when you’re back at OutSector.”
“I will.” She cut the connection, ate her soup and her sandwich, and wasn’t at all surprised to find a Marine waiting for her in the corridor outside the mess when she left.
* * *
“Come in, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr. I won’t keep you long.”
Torin entered as ordered and came to attention in front of the desk, staring at the gray-green plaque on the wall just over General Morris’ head. It was the same color as Major Svensson’s fingernails and that led down paths she’d rather not travel—although artificial fingernail was not the strangest building material she’d ever seen used. She couldn’t quite make out what battle the raised letters commemorated.
“Damn it, stop doing that. You know I hate it.”
“Yes, sir.” She relaxed slightly into parade rest.
“What escape pod, Gunny?”
That drew her attention to his face. “Sir?”
Hands linked, he tapped joined index fingers against his chin. “You asked Major Alie this morning about an escape pod from Big Yellow.”
Not a question but she answered it anyway. “Yes, sir.”
“What are you up to?”
“There was no escape pod, Gunny.”
By the time she’d made sergeant, Torin could remain expressionless under any condition. That skill came in handy now. There had been an escape pod. She’d seen Craig Ryder get into it on Big Yellow and had seen the alien ship spit the pod out into space. One of the Jades from the Berganitan’s Black Star Squadron had caught it up in an energy field and maneuvered it back to the ship, tossing it into a net strung across shuttle bay one to catch it. General Morris had been there when Craig had emerged from the pod.
General Morris was a politician at heart, but he wasn’t that good a liar.
He believed there was no escape pod.
“I spoke of the escape pod in my mission report, sir.”
“No, you did not.”
Yes, I damned well did. “If I could see . . .”
“No, you can’t. The mission reports concerning Big Yellow are classified.” He leaned back, eyes narrowed within the folds of flesh. “But I assure you, Gunnery Sergeant, there was no mention of an escape pod in your mission report. Nor in any of the others. Nor at any of the debriefings.”
The recon team had been debriefed separately and then sent back to their respective units. It was possible, if unlikely, that no one else had mentioned the escape pod. But she had. She remembered it clearly.
“We’d lost the first one because we misinterpreted the controls, but the second one launched with CSO Craig Ryder inside.”
The Elder Races insisted they were against violence in all forms; Torin found herself wondering how they felt about mind control. And why would they wipe General Morris’ memory but not hers or Craig’s?
“I understand how the kind of attention you’ve been under lately can go to your head, but you, of all people, should know better than to exaggerate for the sake of your audience. Not that you should have an audience,” he continued as Torin blinked at him. “You know the information about Big Yellow is classified.”
Okay. Firm ground here, at least. Even the patronizing tone was familiar. “Yes, sir.”
“Thanks to Presit a Tur durValintrisy at Sector Central News, the greater part of the Confederation—those who were not actually on the mission—knows exactly what we want them to know. And we don’t want them to know anything else.” His eyes narrowed above florid cheeks. “Do I make myself clear, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr?”
“Good. You’re going to have to hurry to make your afternoon briefing.”
“Yes, sir.” She came back to attention, pivoted on one heel, and left the office. Well, that was a whiskey tango foxtrot conversation.
Torin stopped at Captain Stedrin’s desk.
He glanced toward the open door to the outer office, where two corporals and the Krai private who’d been sent to fetch her toiled over the general’s data entry, and beckoned Torin closer.
She leaned in.
“Look, if you were anyone else, you’d have been up shit creek for that stunt this morning. I’m finding it hard to believe that the Marine I knew would make up a salvage claim even for a vantru. You’re golden right now, Kerr, but don’t let it go to your head.”
Lieutenant Stedrin—Captain Stedrin—had also been there when Craig came out of the escape pod.
She made it to her afternoon briefing on time, but only just. Distracted by the certainty that something hinky was going on, she dropped into the wrong vertical and had to start again from the parade square.
Major Alie met her as she entered the compartment. “Problem, Gunny?”
Torin glanced at the multi-Sector chronometer on the front wall. She had thirty-seven seconds to spare. “No, sir.”
The matter-of-fact tone seemed to throw the major a bit; the movement of her hair sped up, and she frowned slightly.
Does she expect me to tell her that General Morris kept me late? Torin wondered. If Major Alie expected her to feel chastised and show it, well, the H’san would take up knitting first.
Maybe, because she was, after all, an Intelligence officer, the major was wondering why Gunnery Sergeant Kerr had asked about a nonexistent escape pod.
Probably not, Torin acknowledged as she stepped forward to lay out her experiences with the Silsviss for the fourth time in two days. The integration of large, aggressive lizards into the Corps was of more immediate concern than either the possible existence of escape pods or a possibly delusional NCO.
Two more days of briefings finished off the staff officers and NCOs, and she spent the day before she began at the Recruit Training Center going over her notes and making some of the changes Major Alie had suggested. She no longer ate alone; every meal in the SRM became a sort of mini-briefing. Since going out would only expose her to questions from officers and speculation by other ranks, she stayed in.
She was rapidly reaching the point where being shot at by the Silsviss would be preferable to having to talk about them. It didn’t help that most of the private questions—and many of the briefing room questions for that matter—involved second-guessing the decisions that had been made in the field.
“Contamination levels were rising slowly; why didn’t you stay with the VTA?”
“Why didn’t you empty the armory? Why wasn’t every Marine carrying two or three weapons?”
“Why didn’t you put your ammo for the emmy under cover so it couldn’t be hit?”
As that second-guessing was coming from Marines who’d spent most of their tour on their asses behind a desk, Torin figured it was inevitable that she’d end up in the gym late one night, pounding the snot out of some pompous desk jockey. When it finally happened, it started with a Krai technical sergeant demanding to know why she hadn’t killed Cri Srah when she had him in the choke hold. Then it moved into the declaration that, if it had been his people sent into ambush, he’d have made the Silsviss pay. Finally, it ended with him pinned to the floor, Torin’s knee on his throat.
She had a bite taken out of her padding—Krai invariably bit, but the padding slowed them down a little—and a few bruises.
The incident would have broken the monotony except that it had been so appallingly predictable.
She spoke to the one fifty recruits first. On their last tenday, they were almost done with Basic and, having returned from Crucible, were considered Marines—nothing left but finishing up the appalling amount of documentation the military required before posting. There were no recruits in one thirty or one forty; they were on Crucible and probably wishing, if Torin’s memory of those twenty days was anything to go by, that they were anywhere else.
It took a few years of actual combat to put Crucible in perspective.
The one twenty recruits included Staff Sergeant Beyhn’s Platoon 71 as well as Platoon 72 under the command of DI Staff Sergeant Connie Dhupam.
“You haven’t stopped by for that drink, Gunny.”
“Only time I’ve had free, you were with your platoon, Staff.”
“They’re keeping you busy.” He snickered, but not unsympathetically, at Torin’s expression. “This isn’t your job. You should be out there keeping the kids I’m sending you alive. Why the hell aren’t they putting your second lieutenant through this crap?”
“Lieutenant Jarret was unconscious for the final battle and in Med-op for the aftermath.”
“And you’re General Morris’ golden Gunny.”
Torin snorted. “For my sins.”
By day one hundred and twenty, recruits had survived long hours of training both physical and mental and were showing the arrogance that was a natural result of that survival. Two tendays on Crucible would temper that arrogance, but nothing would ever completely remove it. As Major Alie instructed the two platoons in the discretion expected of a Marine given sensitive information, every single recruit leaned slightly forward to show they were listening.
It was the appearance of rapt attention, at least.
Most of them looked intrigued, a few looked amused, all di’Taykan hair was in movement, and the half dozen Krai were showing teeth. One or two of the recruits were showing no expression at all, and Torin decided they were in Staff Sergeant Beyhn’s platoon only because that was where she’d begun.
They hadn’t read the diplomatic reports, but they’d studied every word written by Marines about the battle and the political aftermath. It was possible, Torin realized, that this group of recruits could represent the first Marines to integrate with the Silsviss. They were only on a three-year contract, so it was unlikely, given the speed of politics, but it was possible. As she talked, it became obvious there were going to be a lot more questions than usual; at least a dozen recruits looked as if they wouldn’t make it to the end of the briefing without interrupting.
They did, but Torin would have bet her pension that a couple of them managed to wait only because of the DIs standing behind and to either side of her.
The sergeants handled the Q&A, motioning recruits up onto their feet.
“Gunnery Sergeant Kerr . . .”
The standing recruit was a tall, medium-dark Human, her nose given remarkable prominence by the deadhead hair.
“. . . is it true you have the Silsviss skull the pack leader gave you in your quarters back on OutSector?”
“Essentially. I put it in storage when I got my orders to head here.”
“This recruit wonders why you kept it.”
“Seemed rude to throw it out.”
“Then this recruit wonders why you didn’t give it back to the Silsviss for proper burial.”
“Because that would have been dangerous. The skull is more than a battle trophy. When the new leaders of the pack handed it over, it symbolized them showing their throats to the victor. Giving it back would have meant we planned on killing each and every one of them.”
“But giving it back now . . .”
Torin raised an eyebrow and cut her off. When she figured the pause had continued long enough, she said, “What would giving it back now mean, Recruit?”
Her brows drew in. “Disrespect?”
“Are you asking?”
She jumped at the tone. “No, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr!”
“All right, disrespect and . . . ?”
The short sharp crack was the sound of a Krai in the second row beginning to snap his teeth together, suddenly realizing where he was, and trying to stop just a little too late. He managed to look sheepish and apologetic simultaneously.
“And what would a challenge mean, Recruit?”
“A fight,” Torin agreed. She found herself wanting to remind them that every species has their own way of treating the dead but knew their DIs wouldn’t appreciate her inference that they hadn’t already learned that lesson. Insofar as it didn’t interfere with the functioning of the Corps, the Corps respected those differences.
“A fight with who, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr?” This recruit was male, Human again, with the heavy muscle that came from working a physical job before he’d signed up.
“Depends on who received the skull.”
“So if it went back to the representative of the Silsvah World Council, would we find ourselves fighting the entire planet?”
“It’s possible.” And that would certainly interfere with the functioning of the Corps. Which was why she had the skull in her storage locker. Well, that and because a couple of the more politically correct NCOs at Battalion didn’t want the skull of a sentient species hanging in the SRM. They’d just have to choke it down when the Silsviss arrived because it was definitely going back up then.
“Gunnery Sergeant Kerr.” Even at parade rest, the di’Taykan recruit’s inherent grace was evident. Torin could see a long list of aristocratic forebears in his posture—no one got that self-assured in a single generation. He reminded her of Lieutenant Jarret and she would have been willing to bet his family name had no more than three letters in it. His cobalt-blue hair swept slowly back and forth as he asked, “Is there a chance we can see the skull, Gunnery Sergeant?”
Torin could feel Major Alie getting ready to step in.
“That is,” the recruit added, “if you don’t think the Silsviss would mind.”
There was no way the major could answer that. If she knew what the Silsviss would or wouldn’t mind, Torin wouldn’t be there.
With no doubt that the recruit had phrased the second half of the question so that the major would not have the deciding voice, Torin kept both expression and tone neutral. “The Silsviss would understand showing battle honors to the young. They’d also understand using the skull to explain Silsviss strengths.”
“What strengths can you learn from a skull, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr?” Krai, male; his voice on the edge of insolence.
“Why don’t we wait until you get a look at their jaws and you can ask me that again.”
“Gunnery Sergeant Kerr?” Another di’Taykan. Emerald-green hair this time. “When you were facing those hundreds of Silsviss and your platoon was surrounded and almost out of ammo, were you afraid?”
“Gunnery Sergeants don’t feel fear, recruit. We eat overgrown lizards for breakfast and wash them down with a side of H’san. However, since I was only a staff sergeant at the time, I can tell you that the moisture controls on a pair of Marine Corps Class As work to design specifications.”
That got a laugh.
“Gunnery Sergeant Kerr, is it true you knew Major Svensson before he was tanked?”
Motivated only by guilt for having not yet gone to see him, Torin let the major move in on that one and remind the recruits that they were here to discuss the Silsviss and only the Silsviss.
* * *
“Kichar’s in love.”
Miransha Kichar ignored him and continued polishing her boots.
The pink-haired di’Taykan lounged against the wall beside her bunk and grinned. “I saw the way you were looking at the Gunnery Sergeant when she snapped at you this afternoon during your little question and answer riff. You’re in love.”
“Is that a bad thing, Sakur?”
Sakur turned enough to direct his grin at the Krai on the next bunk. “Love is never a bad thing, Hisht. But the Gunny will never return Kichar’s affection, and that’s sad.”
Hisht’s nose ridges flared as he considered the di’Taykan’s words. His jernine lived deep in the forests, and until the day he’d climbed to the crown of the prayer tree and seen the airship go by, he had thought he would spend all his life surrounded by his extended family. Staring up at the silver ship, a deep curiosity had grabbed him, and he had left all he knew and followed its path and, eventually, when he finally became aware of just how much there was outside his small bit of forest, he had ended up here surrounded by people who were not people as he had known them and who did not always think the way people thought. It was exciting and confusing, and he did not always have the right words in his head to understand. “To love without love in return is sad,” he said at last, even though he knew that wasn’t the point being made.
“Even Hisht gets it.” Sakur laughed. Laughed harder when Kichar glared up at him.
In the forest, Sakur’s behavior would be that of a young male trying to get a female’s attention. In the Marine Corps, he was merely acting like a pain in the ass. That was a concept Hisht had no trouble understanding.
* * *
Staff Sergeant Beyhn took a long swallow of his beer and set it back down on the bar of the RT/SRM. “You run a good briefing,” he said. “Everyone seems to think so.”
Torin dropped her head into her hands. “God, help me. I’ll never see my unit again.”
It was beginning to look that way.
After she finished speaking to the remainder of the recruits, right down to the latest group to step off the recruiting shuttle, the Corps wanted her to look at a few simulations of the battle and finally review the official documentation that came out of her briefings. After that, Ambassador Krik’vir, the Mictok who’d been one of the diplomats on Silsvah, wanted her to address a Parliamentary committee.
“Parliamentary committee,” General Morris snorted, staring down at the request. “Half a dozen species rummaging around trying to reach a consensus on what beverage they should have on morning break. Ridiculous waste of time.”
Torin had never been so much in agreement with the general.
“Unfortunately,” he added, “we have no good reason to refuse them. I will, of course, accompany you to the Core.”
And her prospects went from bad to worse.
On the first day of her three/ten, Torin went for her run, took care of her kit, spent two hours at the range blowing away a target she mentally painted with General Morris’ face, and finally headed over to see Major Svensson. The station allowed her into Med-op, but there was a door, a desk, and a delay before she could get to the convalescent compartments.
“I’m afraid the major’s physical therapy’s running a bit late, Gunny.” The yeoman on duty at the desk peered down at her screens. “Ah. He’s with Elusoy . . .”
“Di’Taykan?” Torin asked as though that explained everything. Which, considering the circumstances, it pretty much did.
The young petty officer nodded and colored faintly. “You can wait.”
“Thank you.” Hands clasped behind her back, Torin wandered slowly around the small waiting room. The half dozen uncomfortable chairs were empty, but she had no desire to sit. She read the charts on the wall, checked the display of biscuits for her slate, discovered they were all at least three years out of date, and found herself back at the desk. “You were on the Berganitan, Yeoman?”
She looked up, startled.
Torin hid a smile. Major Svensson had mentioned there were personnel in Med-op whose last posting had been the Berganitan; that was why she’d looked. “You’re wearing the ship’s ribbon.”
“Oh. Right.” A quick glance down at the single ribbon on the left side of her chest. “Yes, I was there when you . . . When we transported you to . . . you know. And back.”
“I put together some of the data for your medical files.”
She shrugged narrow shoulders, a quick up and down motion, and smiled shyly. “It’s okay. It’s what I do. I did Craig Ryder, too. We scanned him—just a quick scan just in case—before he went back out for you.”
Her tone, her expression, pretty much everything about her explained the rumor of romance the major had heard. Rubbing one finger along the inert trim of her desk, she stared up at Torin like Torin was the heroine in a H’san opera.
“That’s right. I got my people out of Big Yellow, and I got the guy.”