Read about some of the contributors to issue fifteen and see excerpts from each article or story.
The brothel was too upscale to have an armored street entrance, but the doorman was a wall of solid muscle beneath a frock coat in the latest style. He frowned when the nondescript aircar hummed to a halt in front of the door.
Four hard-looking men got out. Hesitating only long enough to press the button warning those upstairs to keep an eye on the closed-circuit screen, the doorman stepped into the street. "I'm sorry, gentlemen," he said, "but we're closed tonight for a private party. Perhaps--"
"We're the party, buddy," one of the men said, placing himself alongside the doorman while his partner took the other side. The other two men faced the street in opposite directions. All four wore short capes which concealed their hands and whatever they might be holding.
A fifth man, small and dapper, followed the others out of the car. His suit was exquisitely tailored. The fabric had tawny dappling on the shoulders which faded imperceptibly into the gray undertone as one's eye travelled downward.
The man nodded pleasantly toward the doorman and started toward the stairs. Movement lifted the tail of his jacket enough to disclose the pistol holstered high on his right hip.
"I'm sorry, sir!" the doorman said. "We don't allow guns--"
He tried to step in front of the little man. The guards to either side of him--they were obviously guards--shoved him back against the wall.
"You're making an exception tonight," the little man said. His shoes touched the stair treads with the tsk-tsk-tsk of a whisk broom sweeping up ashes; the men who'd initially stayed with the car followed him. "I promise I won't tell anybody."
Madame opened the upper stairway door to let the little man into the parlor. Straight-backed and dressed in severe black, she was the only woman in the establishment. In the muted lighting which the mirrors diffused rather than multiplied, she might've been anything from forty years old to twice that age.
Her face was stony and her tone coldly furious. "You have no business here!" she said. "We have all our licenses. Everything is perfectly legal!"Useful Agonies © 2005 Gregory Benford
following the rules of engagement laid down for this theater,” the Exec
overall casualties, right,” I said. “But that increases risk for the men.”
to hold this position while negotiations go on,” the Exec said.
on and on and on,” I spat back. Nothing like two months in the field to
improve your disposition. That, and being on warmed-up field rations. “We take
incoming fire and try to minimize casualties, right.”
that’s what we’ve always – ”
grimaced in the twilight. “We minimize their
casualties. We used to minimize ours.”
well, different emphasis.” The Exec was the kind of officer who used words
watched the last light leave the bleak streets around us. Desert sunsets are
supposed to be pretty but this one was coming through the black plume of an oil
fire two klicks to the west. It licked at the sky as the last ruby light faded
from high cottony clouds. Out here in the Middle East, you watch the sunset and
hope you see the sunrise.
their AK-47s opened up, blamming away. Mostly just display fire, trying to get
us to show where we were. Our guys use silencers with flash inhibitors, so they
couldn’t see our return fire.
sharpshooter squad was ordered – by me – to keep it clean, precise, silent,
just enough to give them wounded. Shoot for the arm, the leg, keep away from the
body. Aiming low is best. Not easy to do when they’re just a profile in a
window, or running in the shadows.
gave the nod.
down go the AK-47 guys. Most of them would live, which to me is a shame, but
those were our orders.
still spraying slugs everywhere, Jihadi marksmanship. You can hear ricochets
humming away into the gathering night. I can see their flashes from the ruined
concrete prefab buildings down the street. It’s pitch black now, dusk totally
gone, and in my infrared goggles I can see they’re swarming in the alleys,
getting ready for yet another assault. Allah
call in some air support,” I said.
we got something new coming in.” The Exec jerked his thumb behind us, sardonic
mouth twisted in his idea of postmodern humor. I could hear the whack-whack of a chopper landing a few hundred meters back, in the
safe zone shielded by the burnt-out husks of apartment buildings.
were holding the center of the city. It was mostly big, blocky concrete slabs
with hollow-eyed windows, the locals long gone. Flypaper city, some smart TV guy
had called it. Let the vermin come in, get stuck, swat them. Better than they
come after us where we live, is the logic. Not mine, but a logic.
is like that. Except ... just who are you keeping the peace for?
GenCom leaned over the livemap. Constant updates rippled across it, of course,
but the main features were more enduring. After all, they were hills.
think the main concentration of enemy forces is here, then,” he said, tapping
his laser pencil. Speckles of color-coded lights pricked out patterns amid the
contours. The reflections played over the GenCom’s face as if he were swimming
in some strange-colored sea.
Chief of the General Staffs, who sat on the opposite side of the livemap, tapped
with his own laser pencil. “Most of the ordnance replenishment is concentrated
here and here, sir. From the outbound traffic, that’s a command and control
node. These are support-personnel rations distribution areas. Spectroscopic data
indicating the presence of cellulose fibre confirms the use of medium-level
information dissemination equipment here and here.” His subordinates, ranked
behind him, nodded unanimously in confirmation.
forward command bunker was low-lit, traditionally cool and quiet. Machines
ticked and twittered amid low murmurs of conversation. Colored light passed over
grave faces, clean-shaven, crop-headed, firm-chinned, clear-eyed. The Chief
breathed in as though appreciating a fine wine, and continued: “There are
higher levels of uncertainty as to the purpose of these structures here. The
CINTRAC satellite surveillance team leans towards the interpretation that they
form a dispersed redundant hardware disposal facility.”
GenCom glared up from under shaggy brows. “A what?” he growled.
Chief of Staffs cleared his throat. “A junkyard, sir.”
GenCom grunted and went back to studying the livemap. The Chief suppressed a
sigh. There were times when he found it difficult to be a good sport about the
GenCom’s adoption of this persona. The Chief had seen the GenCom in a real
fight, a hard, slogging campaign before an entrenched funding committee. The man
was actually about as plain, blunt and direct as the Palace of Versailles.
this?” the GenCom asked, pointing.
Chief looked down at the feature, a faint orange-red mist staining the lower
slopes of the first range of hills. He hadn’t the least idea what it was. Some
sort of field obstacle from the colour, as if the enemy were trying to deny the
ground. He sighed inaudibly. This would mean having to ask Milint for
information, a procedure the Chief tried to avoid. Usually they didn’t know,
rather often they wouldn’t tell you if they did, and if they did say anything,
the Chief frequently didn’t understand it. “General Tippetts?” he asked,
glancing behind him. Perhaps this time…
was instantly shattered. “Sir, wait one, sir,” rapped Tippetts, pressing an
earbug. He looked alert, keen, brisk and sharp, always a bad sign. It could only
mean that Tippetts didn’t know, either.
Chief of Staffs tapped his fingers on his knee as the muttered question was
followed by a long pause, and then by an inaudible response. Finally, Tippetts
swung round again.
it appears to be an ordered network of obstacles arranged in an
area-parsimonious grid pattern. Preliminary surveillance drones picked it up and
tagged it for attention, due to its rectilinear disposal and regular
patternation, sir. Interpretative resources scrutinized the reconnaissance
material and came to the conclusion that the subject installation is a complex
field denial system of uncertain nature, sir. There is a net debit radiant
energy signature that indicates use of solar power to enable the asset. It was
accordingly referred to Intelcom, who took the decision to paint it on the
general briefing overall master plan, with a designation …”
you, General Tippetts.” The Chief of Staffs closed his eyes briefly.
barked Tippetts, retreating into incomprehension. The Chief reflected that for
Tippetts, this was hardly any distance at all.
turned to the Commanding General, hoping that the General would have mercy. He
might as well not have bothered. The GenCom was waiting with exaggerated
patience. He smiled politely, as if about to invite the Chief to fire the first
Chief?” he enquired. His voice would have sweetened vinegar. “What, in fact,
Chief of Staffs closed his eyes again. “It’s a vegetable patch, sir.”
fell in love with Jendayi the moment he first saw her.
first glimpse was not of Jendayi, but of little Chipo, elbowing her way through
the crowded market like a pro, a mass of locks waving over a round, dark face
lit with an infectious little smile. She was seven or eight, maybe.
her lay the deafening riot of the Cosmograd central market district,
claustrophobic and heavy with the smell of cinnamon, incense,
not-too-recently-washed bodies, and life-support sealing compound. A burst of
dingy colors framed the tableau: dirty,
flashing advertisement bills for just about every need of daily life in the Mars
colony’s narrow, teeming streets.
of course, was on the lookout for people selling things you don’t need for
daily life, or for any peaceful pursuits. Still,
a small child on her own might be lost – he decided to introduce himself.
shouldered his rifle, knelt to her level, and said, “Hi there. I’m Sam. You
have anybody nearby looking after you?”
Chipo. Don’t need anybody to look after me,” she said, clearly offended at
the affront to her independence. “But I’m here with Jendayi.”
pointed back into the crowd; Sam looked up, first noting that a few people were
eyeing him sidelong, suspicion in their eyes. Well, that was one of the reasons
he’d put up his weapon.
he saw Jendayi.
walk was like the swaying of a willow; tall, lovely, her hair in tight rows
across her temples, she floated through the crowd with a preternatural grace,
her big, dark eyes flashing like lightning in a deep black, flawless face, a
smile that stabbed daggers through Sam every time she flashed it at a friend, an
acquaintance, a fellow Martian in the crowd.
eyes caught Chipo, then Sam. She took that moment of calculation that Martians
always did when regarding an ‘occupier’, then must have read good intentions
in his posture. Because then she smiled at him, and his heart felt as if it
better go back to your Mom, then,” Sam said, trying to sound
not my Mom, she’s in Heaven,”
Chipo said, innocently, calmly, as if her mother had died before Chipo knew her
– and as if any idiot would have known that. “That’s Jendayi.
Not Mom. Hope fluttered in his chest as Chipo ran to rejoin her.
finished here, Ensign Ribera,” Gatiss’ voice said from behind Sam. The older
man loomed over him, voice dripping disapproval.
time we come into contact with these people is an opportunity to buy goodwill,
Senior Chief,” Sam replied, turning to face him as he stood.
respect to the ensign, these people would cut his bloody throat without a fire
team at his back,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Jack Gatiss, his ice-blue
eyes smoldering in a thin, angular face. He pulled off a red-and-tan Mars camo
fatigue cap, smoothed back his graying blond hair, then added, “And we do have
work to do. Sir.”
let the implied rebuke pass.
got a problem over in Bravo sector,” Gatiss said.
problem ...” Sam began, reflexively tapping his headset, knowing immediately
why he hadn’t heard an alert.
flipping net’s down,” Gatiss said, if possible even more darkly. “Again.
We have no coms, other than line-of-sight. I only found out about it because I
passed a vid screen showing a bloody newsfeed.”
like an incendiary, at a cafe. Bunch of our people were there when it went
took a deep breath. Nobody really believed these communications outages were
Sam said. “Let’s collect the section and get on it.”
was all over by the time they got there. The wounded were en route to Trauma
One; even the one fatality – an Engineering Corps lieutenant – had been
thought of his first combat scared Sam – but waiting endlessly for it to
happen was driving him crazy.
gave Sam hell that night.
‘Tonio, he’s nearly as old as papa. He’s been doing this almost since
before I was born.”
just sat there for a moment, scowling. Sam’s senior by nine years, he’d made
captain in record time, and rumor had it he was on the fast track to major. He
was not about to watch his little brother mess up his first command – or so he
kept reminding Sam.
had some ideas about deployment,” Sam offered, hoping it would placate
your subordinate. You need to take
charge. Don’t ask his opinion, and for God’s sake don’t ask for his
permission. You give the orders, he enacts them.”
Etxeberria rattled against the full-body restraints when the drop-pod hit
Verde’s surface, his armor loud against the inadequate padding. Zakur, like
all the track-and-retrieve unit’s dogs on board, lay strapped and sedated in
his kennel at his partner’s feet, waiting for landing and his stim dose.
landing,” Serrano muttered over a live mic, and the veterans in the unit
kept his thoughts to himself. It had seemed like a good landing to him, but this
was his first mission drop after training. His first contribution to averting
war with the Nguyen Dominion. Today he’d start to lose his nuevo shine.
months to go until he was done with the dirt. Five hundred seventeen days and
counting until he finished his service and rotated home. Five hundred seventeen
days chasing feral humans with dogs – one animal after another. As soon as he
earned his freedom, he’d never leave the clean logic of stations and ships.
clear.” The pod pilot’s clipped voice echoed through the bay.
Botero, the unit’s captain, slapped the switch that unhooked his restraints
with a metallic whir, and hopped to the metal decking with a clang. “Wake your
partners and clear your gear. Double-time, you know the drill. We’ve got
roaches to track.”
followed the steps burned into his reflexes after six months of training: unhook
his restraints, unlatch Zakur’s kennel and restraints, jab the dog’s
yellow-brown flank with the stim, watch the readouts on his visor as his partner
shook his head and snapped alert. The drugs sometimes wonked, for no reason the
vets or handlers could explain, sidelining or even killing a dog; a track rat
was as useless without his dog as the dog without its human partner.
roaches had that calced. They targeted the dogs more than the soldiers they
chewed his lip as he ran through his weapon checks and tested his armor systems.
The sensors had a laughably short range up in the mountains where the roaches
had retreated. Without Zakur he was practically blind, deaf and helpless.
Orbital sensors were large-scale, useful only to red-light a five-klick grid for
T&R attention. If training had taught him anything, it was just how many
holes a roach could find in five klicks of rugged mountain.
that they trained against real roaches. Iberian forces had shut down other
illegal colonies on planets now off-limits according to the treaty, and most of
the feral humans refused to cooperate. The first batch suicided on the
resettlement stations, a form of insanity that made Joseba’s spacer stomach
roll and hardened his determination. Station
communities were too vulnerable for that brand of selfishness.
that, they dumped roaches on safe planets, far from the contested borders. There
they either lay down and died or found a new patch of wilderness to wriggle into
and live in comparative darkness. Tenacious, ungrateful vermin.
off, pack!” Captain Botero snapped.
one, the unit threw back their heads and howled, their dogs joining in until the
sound lost itself in echoes off the metal walls and deck. Joseba knew wolves
only as feral dogs, much as roaches were feral humans, and both of them only
part of his database since his first day of training. But his spine tingled up
to his skull when he joined in the unit howl. He was part of the Wolf Pack, the
best damn T&R unit in the service. They ate roaches for breakfast and ran
back for seconds.
out!” Captain Botero ordered over the last echoes of their howls.
Joseba snapped his fingers and Zakur moved closer, shoulder pressed against his left knee, ready for action. They filtered into the forming line and marched toward the hatch.
hand slapped his right shoulder and he looked over at Unai Nozal, his bivvy-mate.
Luck, J, Unai signaled in the hand
talk that flourished in the ranks.
he flicked back.
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