The blue Aegean Sea and the white beaches of Kourpolos beckoned Master Sergeant Nila Sunder with seductive visions of warm
sand, swimming, and solitude. She sighed and touched the tourist pic she had stuck up on the sill of her autoyoke, Curious George.
The pic nestled in a cluster of others, mostly homepix of her golden-haired daughter Caycea. She still had plenty of work to do.
The cylindrical flexor she had her grippers into was being stubborn. Somehow the lattice had picked up enough of a static charge to
prevent full contraction.
Her HUD blinked up the time: 1920 hours. Another ten to go. Nila yawned. She needed coffee in the worst way. Her head throbbed, and her eyes felt like someone had pressed grit into her sockets.
Strikeforce prep was the pits. She hadn’t seen her family in days. Thom’s leave was coming up, but it looked like she wouldn’t be joining him and Cay in Greece this year. The rebels had seen to that, damn them. She pictured Cay on the beach picking through shells and managed a smile. Her daughter was growing up so fast!
The Cave was busy. Techs swarmed over a dozen Hercs, a couple of Myrmidon tanks, and the cyclopean parts of a Nike siege gun. Everything was being retrofitted for the Martian environment, and the Terran Defense Force brass had set nightmarish deadlines. Nila wasn’t the only one pulling double shifts. She grimaced in exasperation. Every vehicle needed new seals and advanced dust filters, for starters. Although she’d never been to Mars, Nila had friends who’d served there. Judging from their stories, TDF had better get used to dealing with dust on a regular basis, one way or the other. They were going to need more than new filters.
But that wasn’t all. The AIs had to be programmed for the lighter gravity, which took time given the large number of slave units carried these days. Fear of possible Cybrid viruses had led to decentralization of AI tasks whenever possible, so any Herc needed ten or more separate checks.
Then there was the fear of rebel sabotage. There’d been rumors. Hunter knew the dustscum had friends here on Earth. Sure, the Edicts were tough on the colonies, but the Empire needed the materials if TDF was going to keep humanity safe from the Cybrids. Why couldn’t the colonists see that?
Nila’s hands moved in their synchrogloves and the gripper’s toolhands moved in response. Autoyokes were pretty indispensible in this age of anthropomorphic vehicles and monster tanks. Nila definitely appreciated George and treated it right. An autoyoke was essentially a platform mounted on a massive robot arm. The ‘yoke gave the tech mobility over the exterior of any vehicle, and the grippers and spythreads allowed most of the work, even delicate jobs, to be done from the outside. In the field, the smaller mobile ‘yokes weren’t quite as effective, but they could still lift that weapons pod onto the shoulder hardpoint of a Herc better than a crane or a swarm of exoskeletons. Here in the Cave, though, an autoyoke let one tech do the work of ten.
The Cave – officially Imperial Terran Defense Force Central Repair Base Nine, Metzone Glasgow, EuroAlliance, Earth - was one of the main TDF refit bays on Mother Earth, and it deserved its nickname. It was huge, a real maze for anyone unfamiliar with the layout. Arc lamps hung from an invisible ceiling. Catwalks laddered the walls, the ones around the larger vehicle festooned with hoses and spare parts. Black cables snaked along the floor everywhere, a hazard for the unwary. The hiss of cutters and shriek of metal echoed even through sonic dampeners. Nila had long since gotten used to the acrid taste of burnt metaplas and the ever-present tang of ozone, but the smell assaulted the noses of newbies. Autoyokes clustered around Hercs like metallic blossoms, reaching in with robot manipulators and tool modules. Sparks splashed up from a begoggled tech’s lastorch. Holowarnings glowed amber over opened vehicles and red around hot workzones.
Nila’s flexor finally responded to a phased-pulse therapy, and she hooked an interbleeder to the array so the flexor attices would retune. The unique anthropomotive engine of a Herc depended on the flexors operating in perfect concert. Each cylinder contained a superdense nano-engineered crystalline lattice that would expand almost instantly under an electrical charge. Cutting the charge caused near-instant contraction as the lattice returned to its dense state. Over time, exposure to excess heat and untuned energy fields like X-rays led to microfractures and static lag accumulating in the lattices. All in all, Nila thought flexors a pretty durable technology, but like any complex equipment, they still needed frequent maintenance to perform at their best. Nila finished by ubertorquing the stabilizers above the main bootlink and running a quick pressure test on the seals. Satisfied they’d hold, she retracted the grippers and told Curious George to hit the floor. Above her, the Gorgon she’d been working on loomed like a beast out of legend. A crippled beast, given its lack of plas cannons at the moment. Once the cannons’ feeder conduits were replaced, they’d be ready to reattach. In the meantime the Gorgon looked to Nila like a plucked toad.
"Sergeant Sunder, this is Gallarga at Station Fourteen," her earlink whispered. "We’ve got a situation here."
"On my way." She blew a kiss at her favorite pic of Cay before climbing off the ‘yoke.
Private Gallarga was pretty levelheaded. If he called, the problem was real. As one of the senior techs at The Cave, Nila was among the first people turned to when something bad happened. She snorted, remembering that fool Trooper last month who’d somehow swapped a Class Two weapon onto a Class One hardpoint. He’d blown some of his Herc’s electrical system on the shakedown field. Bad enough, but the laser mount had also fused to the chassis, which made the fix a real chore. Nila’d had to cut through nearly forty centimeters of ferrocomposite metaplas before she could remove the quad laser the idiot had grafted onto his Talon. Lasers weren’t cheap, and she’d wanted to make sure the job was done right. Hopefully the good Goddess would keep spoonbrains like that out of Nila’s future for awhile.
At Station Fourteen, Gallarga waited with two other techs by a Basilisk that hadn’t been popped yet. His normally placid features showed irritation. The other techs wore House colors, so they weren’t TDF. Probably served one of the Knights assigned to this strikeforce, which meant they’d officially be considered corporals in the TDF scheme of things. The Basilisk showed the same colors. Nila didn’t recognize the marks, but she didn’t pay much attention to the nobility beyond fixing their machines.
Someone was pulling rank, though. That much seemed clear. Nila wasn’t in the mood for it, especially when she saw the relief in Gallarga’s eyes as she walked up. The techs’ ID tags read Martin and Lindfors. Martin was the taller one and wore a bland expression that reminded Nila of milk. Lindfors carried more muscle and seemed angry, which suited Nila fine just now. Both, she noted with distaste, wore jumpsuits lacking even a hint of grime.
"Evening," she said coldly. "Master Sergeant Sunder, Senior Tech. There’s a problem?"
Martin answered in a surprisingly deep voice. "Shouldn’t be, Sergeant. We were simply requesting that someone begin outfitting this Herc for the strikeforce as soon as possible." He nodded to Gallarga. "The private here seemed to think it a low priority."
"Let’s see your authorization," Nila answered automatically.
That set Lindfors off. "Do you know who we –"
"Shut it," she said. "This is my turf, boys. The rules here say nothing is done without the right chop from TDF. As you can see, we’ve got a lot of work backed up, so you’d better have a damn good reason for cutting in." She looked at Martin again. "Well?"
His expression didn’t change. "Show her the chop, Private."
Gallarga handed his clipboard to Nila. Its display showed a document bearing the imperial seal and chopped with the sign of a member of the Imperial Council. Suddenly Nila felt very tired, even beyond the help of coffee.
"I assume this cleared security?" she asked Gallarga.
He nodded. "Yes, ma’am. I’m afraid so."
"That enough authority for you?" Lindfors sneered.
"Yes." Nila scanned the clipboard again, and alarms went off in her head. "What the frixin’ hell – a whole Sword? Plus backups? Hunter’s teeth, what kind of lunatic thought this up?" She looked up, fury banishing fatigue instantly. "We’re on a timetable here, a strict timetable! You can’t just come in here and dump a dozen Hercs on a Priority One Interrupt!" Nila swung her arm wide, taking in the Cave around them. "Just look! We’re already at Priority One! There’s thirteen Hercs in here, a siege gun, two tanks – that’s just in this bay! Next door we’ve got twice that number waiting, plus two wings of VTOLs! As soon as we get this stuff out, we fill up again! It’s been three weeks of this and we’re looking at another three weeks before the strikeforce lifts! This order is nuts!" She slammed the clipboard onto the Basilisk’s foot so hard that its screen flickered.
Martin held up a manicured hand. "There will be some inconvenience, certainly. We’ll do the work. All we need from you is space." He looked around appraisingly. "We’d like to keep the Hercs together, so you’ll probably have to clear out some of these stations." Then he favored them with a thin smile. "When can we start?"
Gallarga looked ready to explode. Nila knew how he felt. With an effort, she managed to keep her voice down. "Why can’t you wait for your employer’s Sword to cycle through? We’re going to get to everyone on the Strikeforce."
"Ah." Martin considered the question. "My lady has heard of … possible rebel sabotage. She merely wants to be sure her unit is in top shape."
Lindfors barked a short laugh.
Nila made herself unclench her fists before she was tempted to use them on those smug expressions.
"I’m going to check with my CO before anything happens on this." Martin shrugged. She checked the clipboard again as she stalked off.
Who the hell was Gideon Fairchild?
"The Grand Old Bastard of the Prefecture," the Captain said. "I’ll be damned."
Nila sipped her coffee and made a face.
The Captain raised an eyebrow. "Don’t like my coffee, Sergeant?"
"No, sir. Tastes like jointspray."
He laughed. "At least you’re honest, Sunder. Most folks just swallow and smile. They look like they just downed a rancid piece of krillsteak, but they never admit it."
Nila put the cup down impatiently. "Why is he dropping this crap on us, sir? I mean, what’s the point?"
The Captain frowned and steepled his hands under his nose. He was in his seventies, and his hair was just turning gray. His uniform looked sharp, but his hands bore the stains and scars of years spent servicing vehicles in The Cave. He stayed quiet for a long moment. When he answered at last he spoke in a measured voice.
"Fairchild has been around a long time, Sergeant. Almost since the founding of the Empire. No, wipe that look off your face – it’s true. He’s on the same kind of life support as the Emperor, although he’s not nearly that old. God knows how he’s hanging on. He’s showing no signs of mental deterioration, and he ran NorthAm Intelligence for decades. Now he’s the prelate of NAP West and has a seat on the Council. He’s been into politics for longer than your life and mine added together."
Nila waited as the Captain paused again.
"Did you check the Sword?" he asked.
She nodded. "Saber Sword, under the command of Knight-Commander Hokanson-Li. Must be some kind of special command group, I guess. Most of them are officers."
"All Knights are officers," he commented dryly.
"Yes, sir. But these are all senior officers."
"Hmm. Interesting. Did you check the names?"
"Uh…" Nila took the clipboard and scanned the names. The last one brought surprise followed by a renewed flush of anger. "It’s his daughter!" She looked up. "Sir, this is preposterous! He’s giving his daughter an early slot!"
The Captain leaned back and regarded her calmly. "You take your leave every spring with your family, don’t you, Sergeant?"
Nila frowned, not seeing where he was going. "Yessir."
"Well, you know the Knights have to drill with their gear before they lift?" He indicated the clipboard. "Now this group gets done early."
"Sunder, I’d be willing to bet you that Knight-Captain Letha Fairchild and her special friends will probably leave Earth with nice, deep tans."
Nila’s misery must have showed, because the Captain’s voice was gentle when he continued. "Just set her men up with what they want, Sergeant, then go home. Grab eight hours. It’s not fair, but if what I’ve heard about the Dustscum is true, the Knights are headed for a real scrap. And Miss Fairchild won’t be pulling any strings on Mars, I can assure you."