Chapter 16 BROTHERS IN ARMS
The trio of Coalition soldiers caught up with Luca and Haides. Mazzo was in front, his eyes always moving, and his pulse rifle ready for action at the smallest provocation. Sarge walked a handful of meters behind, not too far away, but none too close either. Sarge wasn’t wearing a helmet, just a field cap. No pulse rifle. Instead, he carried an ominous-looking weapon with a large bore and twin drum magazines—an automatic shotgun of some sort. Rovo brought up the rear with a pulse cannon mounted on an articulated harness. With the war-torn landscape framing them, it looked like a scene straight out of a Coalition recruitment poster.
“Well, if it isn’t my bastard brothers from another mother.”
“You’re more like the sissy sister from another mistress. But hello to you too,” Mazzo replied. All four men started grinning like crazy, and there was much hand-shaking, back-patting, and shoulder-squeezing.
Haides noticed they—even while exchanging greetings—took care to stay low, in cover, and with one man always on the lookout. “This isn’t your first war together, is it?”
Sarge—the Colonel had called him by his name, but it seemed wrong to think of him as anything other than ‘Sarge’—gave the boy an appraising look and gestured towards him with the assault shotgun. “It isn’t. But it looks like it will be the last. And by the Gods do I intend to keep these three morons alive long enough to see them try their hand at farming and raising little kids.”
Sarge said that in a way that made Haides think he’d be sorry, really sorry if one of ‘the three morons’ ended up dead because of this mission.
“We’ve been soldering together for years, boy. Out on the Perseus Front,” Rovo added.
“Before there even was a Perseus Front,” Mazzo interjected.
“Garrison duty. Waving the flag. Fighting some local insurrectionist groups. The odd bug hunt. Nothing major. But then the Kull suddenly showed up—and we got stabbed in the back by the damned Combine,” Rovo added. “What started out as a pretty nice assignment turned into a chaotic free-for-all. We Coalition grunts fought Combine rebels, Kull assault troops, the Union army. You name it; we fought it!”
Up close, Haides could see Rovo’s gun had three barrels. It was the same type of gun he had manned at the guard post. Without the inertial assist from the harness, there was no way for him to carry such a heavy weapon without wearing an exo-suit. A thick cable connected the tri-barrel to a backpack-sized power cell.
Sensing Haides’s confusion, Luca picked up. “The Perseus Combine has been the battleground of choice between the Coalition and the North Stars Union since the Titanomachy. Last time they fought over it, the Coalition trashed the Union, and the Combine was pretty much relegated to just another Astro-administrative Circle under the Rose Throne. Things had been quiet for many years. Then suddenly, it exploded into our faces.”
“Our brigade fell below fighting strength,” Rovo added, “so we were rotated out. We were on our way back to Coalition space when this shit hit the fan,” he waved the assault gun at the surrounding ruins. “There was suddenly a desperate need for experienced soldiers. And next thing you know, we’re again fighting under strange skies.”
“I had the bloody discharge papers in my fucking hand,” Mazzo said, his fingers rolled up into a fist. “Instead, we got sent to a new warzone, with nothing but green GIs as far as the eye can see.”
Haides wasn’t really up to speed on the Coalition military, and it probably showed on his dirty little Akakian face.
Luca came to the rescue again. “It’s like this: when you join the general infantry—be it by draft or enlistment—it’s for a twenty-year term. If you’re lucky, you can just sit it out, never have to fire a shot. But typically, there are only two ways out. Death or victory.”
Sarge. “There are three ways—if you count the cripples, but let’s not go there.” The other men nodded in silent agreement.
“Victory for an infantryman is to survive everything the galaxy can throw at him for twenty long years. Or he can do something suitably stupid and heroic. That can earn him what we call la Décharge du Héros—the Hero’s Discharge,” Luca said.
Haides’s face was looking more confused than ever.
“What he means is: if it wasn’t for your peasant rebellion, we’d be back on Loches right now, pockets full of livres and a modest grant of property. We were the heroes sent home long before our twenty were up to show the good citizens why they should fight for the Archon. Instead, we got to fight—and die—one more time. And if we survive, we get to settle in this shithole, instead of going home. What a laugh the Gods must be having at our expense.” Mazzo clearly wasn’t the merry member of the four-man band.
“He means well, kid,” Roverto said. “It’s just that there are only us four of us left now—only four of the original members of K-company. There were six when we came to Thira. We’d rather not lose more old friends.”
“I think I understand,” Haides muttered. “I’ve lost my father. And I haven’t heard from most of my friends, or any of the neighbors, in a long while.” He added a little sniff for good measure.
Sarge threw a mean smile in return. “No kid, you sure as hell don’t understand. Not yet. But I’m sure the fucking galaxy will show you soon enough.” And with that, he turned his back to me and pretended I didn’t exist.
“Listen up, brothers,” Luca said in a calm but insistent tone. “You’re all as stupid and stubborn as any Kull I’ve met—and I’ve met a few. You wanna tag along, fine. I obviously can’t stop you. But we play this my way or no way at all.”
There was a general consensus in the form of harking, ground-stomping, and cleaning of nails.
“Let’s do it by the numbers. Let me know what we’ve got. Mazzo.”
Mazzo made himself comfortable on a slab of fallen nanocrete and made a half-assed salute from seated position. “Lance Corporal Mazzo, present and accounted for. Mark 210 pulse rifle. Ten mags total.” He tapped his five dual magazines in turn, first the one in his rifle, then the four in his vest pockets. “Tactical grenade attachment.” He slapped the tube under the rifle barrel. “The usual mix of launcher grenades. Six frag—one in the tube—three HEAT, couple of smoke, one starshell—don’t know how that got in there—and I’m still carrying around that old inferno grenade I found on Azania.” The twelve extra grenades were neatly arranged in various slots in his webbing, secure, but easily accessible.
Sarge, speaking without turning. “You don’t know it’s an inferno grenade, Mazzo. The markings are completely worn away, and that technomancer that ‘confirmed’ your crazy idea was even more insane than you. We’re so going to regret it when you pop the ‘inferno,’ and it turns out to be confetti.”
Mazzo continued, unfazed. “Got my bayonet and entrenching tool. Both have been recently sharpened—one of these days, I’m gonna get me some with that spade.”
Sarge turned around, crestfallen, but said nothing out loud.
“My lucky automatic,” Mazzo went on, touching a compact holster on his belt, almost hidden from view by all the ammunition and utility pouches. “One clip in, two in the holster.” The holster had a pair of pockets for spare magazines. Next, he pointed at two polymer tubes strapped to his combat pack, one on each side, flanking the entrenching tool in its form-fitted compartment. “Oh, and two of those disposable missile launchers the Colonel acquired for us before we hit Thira. Plus, the usual crap—I mean kit—stuffed in my pack.”
“And I have water,” he said, wriggling his hips to shake the two canteens hanging from his utility webbing. Haides nearly laughed.
“Nice moves there, brother,” Luca commented, evoking quite a bit of laughter from the other men. “Rovo, you’re next.”
Rovo replied promptly and professionally. “Infantryman First Class Roverto, present and ready. I got the multi from the guard post. The compensators are working just fine. Same with the smartsight and the tracking harness. Charge pack fully loaded and ready, fifteen hundred rounds at standard power.”
The charge pack was clipped to the back of his cuirass, while the multi-barrelled pulse cannon was mounted on a sort of telescoping arm bolted to the armor. The gun and the ammo pack looked like they balanced each other out, but even with inertial compensators, it must be a bitch to carry. Fortunately, Rovo was a pretty massive fellow, so if anyone could handle such a weapon, it would be he.
“I’ve got the Blood Eagle I cheated that Versaillan major out of.” A colossal revolver was strapped to his chest-plate, secured in a fast-draw rig. “Five in the cylinder. Two fast-loaders and a handful of spare ammo.” He nodded to himself. “Other than that, just my standard combat load. Trauma kit,” he said, patting a pouch on his hip, next to one of his canteens. “No pack. Mazzo, my little mule, has the rest of my kit.” With the charge pack strapped to his back, there was no way he could carry his own backpack.
He seemed about done, then remembered something at the last moment. “And Mazzo has the scanner, even if he didn’t report it. Sir.”
Mazzo waved the scanner about in response. “Sorry, Sir.”
Luca grinned in response. This exchange was something an old joke between the men.
“Staff Sergeant ‘Sarge,’ K-coy, present and ready,” Sarge said before Luca had time to call him out. “Primary weapon is the Syndicate AG12 Assault Weapon. Currently loaded with one drum AP-flechette and one AP-explosive. Got two extra drums of each of those, plus one with HD-penetrators,” a sly grin crept onto his face, “just in case we see any renegade warmongers.”
There was a great deal of chuckling from two of the other three. Mazzo, however, went stone-faced. “Fuck. You. Fuck all of you.”
Haides listened intently.
“How was I supposed to know they were dummies? They looked like real exo-suited warmongers to me, so I reported it in as per standing orders. You’d done the same if any of you had spotted them!”
Luca, struggling to keep his laughter in check. “Of course, we would.”
Rovo. “You sure they were renegade dummies?” The big man started giggling like a little girl. “Not just some other sort of dummy, maybe allied dummies?”
Even Sarge smiled at that. Mazzo fumed, but Haides could see it was nothing serious. He was having fun, too.
“My trusted pulse pistol,” Sarge said. Haides recognized the heavy, long-barrelled pistol from the encounter at the guard post. “Three extra charge packs. The phase blade I got off that Kull on Sisk. A brace of frag and smoke grenades. Six multi-charges stuffed in my pack. No bayonet on account of upgrading to phase blade. And I seem to have misplaced my entrenching tool…”
“Think that sums it up. The usual crap in my pack. Including, my brothers, an extra pair of fresh socks, straight from the d-pot.”
There was a final burst of laughter over the socks. Haides didn’t get that one, but found himself grinning madly alongside the soldiers—the mood was contagious. Even if the Coalition soldiers technically were the enemy.
Luca. “Corporal Luca, present and ready. I’ve got my usual kit—plus this kid.” He jerked his finger towards Haides. The other three soldiers smiled easy smiles in response. Haides made an effort to smile back at them.
“My rifle and the Eye are both ready. Got nine mags total,” he patted the power pack in the rifle and the four extra ones in his vest, “four stashed in the pack.”
Those would be the four he had taken from the shed. If he was going over his normal combat load, Haides figured he must be expecting real trouble, which was a reason for concern.
“Sliver pistol. Just one extra mag, but each is a hundred shots.” I could see a slender gun stuck in a holster at the back of his utility belt, where it would not interfere with his pulse rifle even from a prone position. “I have the tac comm set, plus I got a brace of these rover drones.” He plucked one of the charcoal containers Haides had taken for over-sized grenade canisters out of his backpack. Luca peeled away a sealant strip and opened the box. Inside was a small ceramics-and-polymer drone, almost invisible to sensors. “Not much of a fighter, but excellent for scout work.”
Mazzo. “I’ll see if I can patch them into the scanner. Those tiny flexi-displays they come with are crap.” Luca nodded.
Rovo had a wide grin on his face by now. “We’ve been worse off than this, my brothers.” He got a flat stare back from Sarge, shutting him up. The smile didn’t go away, though.
“So, what’s the plan?” Mazzo said while absentmindedly plucking at the loading mechanism of his tactical grenade attachment.
Luca got up from a crouch. “The plan is,” he says, turning to face me. “The plan is this: time to find your mother.”
About bloody time.