Someone is searching for the lost weapons of the H'san: powerful enough to destroy entire planets. Though the H'san gave up fighting long ago, the reappearance of their lost weapons would no doubt lead to a devastating war. It's up to Torin Kerr and her team to fix this problem before it explodes. But the more Torin learns about the relationship between the Elder and Younger races, the more she fears war might be unavoidable.
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“. . . And we will create a place for Humans alone!” Eyes blazing, nostrils flared, Richard Varga threw both arms up into the air, directing the roar of the crowd. When the sound began to die down on its own, he lowered his arms—giving the impression the sound had fallen on his command. “A place for Humans,” he continued, “where we will not be tempted by the di’Taykan. Where we will not be forced to live among those who use their bodies as licentious tools of conquest!”
Most of the di’Taykan Torin knew would laugh themselves sick at the phrase “licentious tools of conquest.” Taykans in the di phase were undeniably the most sexually indiscriminate species in known space, but when it came to conquest, a smarter man than Varga would remember that they’d only barely managed to broker a planet-wide peace—a peace enforced by half a dozen heavily armed satellites—when the Elder Races made first contact. And they’d been as happy as Humans had when given a chance to apply their knowledge of war to the Confederation’s engagement with the Primacy.
“A place where we will not live under the threat of the Krai’s unnatural appetites!”
As the Krai’s appetites weren’t unnatural to the Krai, Torin thought all-encompassing appetites would have been a better description; although Varga wasn’t particularly concerned with either accuracy or overt speciesisms. In fairness, even Torin found it a bit disturbing that the Krai considered Humans to be the tastiest thing on the menu—or would, had not a number of very explicit laws been put in place.
“We were there when the Elder Races needed us.” The fingers of both hands curled into fists, Varga shifted into an exaggerated fighting stance. “We fought in their war!”
Torin gritted her teeth and mirrored the reactions of the men and women around her who were stomping, howling, and forgetting that Varga had never been a part of the military we. Had never fought. Had never watched friends blown to pieces by Primacy artillery or seen them bleed out too fast to save. Had she not already been under orders, Torin would’ve taken him down for that lie alone.
Three years ago, Varga had been a less-than-successful actor who found his natural stage when he’d joined Human’s First. When he’d realized that true belief wasn’t as important as discontent and a willingness to blindly follow rhetoric, his rise to the top of the organization had turned a whiny fringe group with a misplaced apostrophe into an armed force. He’d gone looking for Humans trained to violence by the Navy or the Corps and unwilling or unable to settle into the peace of civilian life, then he’d layered the new shape of the organization around them.
Human’s First had stopped being a distasteful example of the Confederation’s belief in free speech and had become a threat when they took over the small station orbiting Denrest and killed the station crew, three of them the Humans they were supposedly putting first as well four di’Taykan, whose small freighter they stole after dumping the bodies out the lock. It wasn’t entirely clear if they’d taken a shuttle up from Denrest or if they’d had Susumi capabilities before they’d taken the station, but they definitely had them after, opening up all of known space.
Then they took another small station, another ship.
Having watched him in action for over two tendays, Torin would bet her pension Varga had referred to the dead as collateral damage.
“We have done their dirty work, and what has it got us?” he demanded.
The old garage, long empty of drills and excavators, rang with variations on sweet fuk all. The communication unit implanted into the bone of her jaw pinged twice short and fast. A heartbeat later, once more. Her people were on the move and not a moment too soon. Torin touched her tongue to the pressure point just long enough to make the ping distinct, snarled at the sallow-faced, young man who’d just stomped on her foot, and let the motion of the crowd carry her away from him toward the wall.
A tall, thin man, hair and beard gone naturally gray, stood in the half circle of upper echelon behind Varga on the dais, his eyes locked on his slate. He might have been checking on his kids—there were, unfortunately, no laws preventing assholes from breeding—but Torin’s intell said he was monitoring the crowd’s comm traffic, his own implant slaved to the slate. Implants significantly improved the odds of veterans finding civilian employment, so both officers and NCOs kept their military comm units when they left the service even though nonmilitary techs charged an arm and a leg for upkeep. Both legs if they had to crack the bone. Given the size of the crowd, Torin estimated another ten to fifteen implants in the garage creating sufficient background noise to hide her team’s coordinating pings.
Or the fraction of her team acceptable to Human’s First aggressive recruiting. Ryder. Mashona. Her.
Today, new recruits mixed with old hands in an abandoned mining facility on the dark side of a small moon, in the old heavy machinery garage that smelled of sulfur and sweat, having their stores of meaningless rhetoric topped up.
“No more . . .” The crowd around Torin quieted as Varga dropped his voice to a conversational level. She settled into the same expectant stillness, although her expectations were entirely different. “No more will the Elder Races keep us from what is rightfully ours. Humans first!”
“HUMANS FIRST! HUMANS FIRST! HUMANS FIRST!”
At least they drop the apostrophe when they’re chanting. Torin covered the last three meters to the open decompression hatch, stepped over the lower lip, and out into an access tunnel that had clearly been a part of the old mine. She drew in a deep lungful of air and said with complete sincerity, “Stinks like the latrines after burrito night in there. I need to breathe a bit.”
She found it interesting that Varga’s security stood facing the garage rather than down the tunnel. Had been facing the garage before Torin had moved toward the hatch. Varga was clearly smart enough to realize he hadn’t built stability into his organization.
At 1.8 meters, Torin wasn’t small, but the woman standing with impressive arms folded and a scowl that told Torin she’d made master corporal, at least, before leaving the Corps topped her by a good 15 centimeters. “Don’t wander off,” she growled.
Torin tongued her implant, grinned, and said, “Wouldn’t think of it.”
The guard’s scowl shifted to a frown.
First ping back.
“Think you’re smart, eh? You can’t be hanging around out here.”
The double ping back removed the need for Torin to respond.
Eyes locked on the guard’s face, Torin lunged forward, driving her fist into the other woman’s solar plexus, her weight behind the blow. “Actually, I can be,” she muttered, turned, and hauled the hatch closed to the sound of a large body hitting the floor and flopping a bit, the guard’s ability to give the alarm reduced to a barely audible wheeze.
Years of neglect had nearly rusted the locking wheel into place. Using the heel of her hand, Torin slammed it left, then right. Metal ground against metal and red-brown flakes drifted toward the floor.
Left. Then right.
Then all the way right. The battens slid home into the cleats on either side of the hatch.
The problem inherent in turning people into a mob was that, at some point, they had to be gathered together and people crowded into an area with limited access were inherently vulnerable. Control the access; control the space.
Torin tongued her implant and dropped to one knee, checking the guard’s diaphragm spasms had stopped when she’d lost consciousness. Labored but regular breathing suggested they had, so Torin hooked a thumbnail over the end of the zip-tie hidden in the outer seam of her military surplus trousers and yanked it free. Woven from Mictok webbing, the zip-ties were undetectable and unbreakable. Torin’d had to call in a few favors to get them, but she didn’t use plastic with another option available. The guard’s wrists secured, she pulled another zip-tie from the inner seam of the same leg, looping it around and through crossed ankles.
No implant. Torin let the guard’s mouth close and scrubbed her thumb against her sleeve. Trust the idiots who misplaced apostrophes to think size meant security.
Three of the garage’s four hatches had been dogged down. Yet to be closed were the old loading doors behind the dais; the moment Varga noticed something was up, he’d be out them faster than Havarti through a H’san. Unfortunately, with the crowd staring directly at those doors, they had to be closed last.
Through speakers mounted along the roof of the tunnel, she could hear Varga listing everything Humans had been denied. Where Humans equaled Richard Varga. It was a long list. Sooner rather than later, one of his less reflective followers would get bored, decide it was a good time to hit the shitter, and discover they couldn’t leave.
Torin raced for the fourth door, reached a T-junction, made a hard right . . .
Ten meters away, three men stood outside the big doors; three large men armed with black-market–acquired Marine Corps KC-7s. Guarding Varga’s back.
The paranoid bastard.
Given the way they filled the space, she could hear more than she could see Binti Mashana charging in from the opposite end of the tunnel.
Two of the guards turned toward Torin, the third turned the other way. All three raised their weapons and the largest of the three, a man with his beard divided into two braids, barked, “Hold it right there! Both of you.”
Torin smiled and kept running. At the other end of the tunnel, Mashona picked up speed.
“I said, hold it right there!”
When an approaching enemy declined to hold it right there, the correct response was to pull the trigger, not repeat a command already ignored. Of course, they couldn’t be positive Torin was an enemy; she could have been one of Varga’s people in a hurry to get somewhere, but it was still sloppy work. Torin decided to take that personally as the weapons raised the odds that all three of this lot were ex-Corps. Everyone in the Corps, regardless of specialty, trained first on the KC-7.
She ducked under the barrel of the raised KC without slowing and hit Bearded Guard at the waist, her shoulder driving deep into a layer of fat over muscle. He grunted, folded, and went down, crashing into the guard behind him hard enough to drop him to the floor as well. In her peripheral vision, she saw Mashona grab the muzzle of the third weapon, point it at the ceiling, and aim her knuckles at the windpipe of the man holding it.
Her weight on Bearded Guard’s chest enough to keep him temporarily on the floor, Torin grabbed the barrel of his KC, yanked it out of his grip, and swung it one-handed at the second guard who’d made it back up onto his knees. The butt slammed into his jaw with a crack of metal against bone and he went down again.
She jerked back in time to avoid a fist aimed at her nose, the blow glancing off her mouth instead, hard enough to slam her lower lip into her teeth, splitting the soft flesh. Mouth filling with blood, Torin rose up, dropped, and felt a rib give way under her knee.
Bearded Guard bellowed. Torin spat blood in his face.
The crack of a fired KC echoed in the enclosed tunnel, overlapping the high-pitched buzz of two ricochets and a grunt of pain Torin barely heard over the ringing in her ears. Early on in the war, it had been discovered that the more complicated and high tech the weapon, the easier it was for the opposing side to fuk with it from a distance. A contained chemical explosion propelling a piece of metal at high speed out a rifled tube could only be fukked up by the person firing it.
She couldn’t tell who’d been hit.
“Dipshit here had his finger on the trigger . . .” Mashona wrapped profanity around the muted thud of fist against softer flesh. “ . . . and shot himself in the leg. Apparently, he slept through . . .” Two fast blows. “ . . . Lieutenant Cole’s lecture on trigger discipline.”
Discipline dropped into silence. The list of Varga’s grievances had stopped blaring out of the speaker over the door.
All five combatants froze for a single heartbeat.
Torin braced herself against the sudden roar of sound from inside the garage.
“Gunny, they heard the shot!”
“Lock it up, I’ll deal with this.” Torin blocked an elbow with her forearm and rolled up onto her feet as Mashona dove for the door. She kicked Bearded Guard just above the curve of his gut, hard enough he lost interest in anything but puking and choking on it, both arms holding his rib cage together.
Ignoring the blood soaking into his pant leg, Mashona’s Dipshit pulled a knife from a boot sheath. Torin bent away from his first swing, spun around to his bad side . . .
“Gunny! Door’s stuck!”
. . . then kicked him in the thigh, driving the toe of her boot into the bullet hole. He howled with pain as his leg collapsed under him and was smart enough to yell for backup before he lunged at her again.
This one was definitely ex-Corps.
Catching his blade in the trigger guard of the KC, Torin twisted it out of his hand, continued the movement around behind him, and got an arm around his neck and choked him out with the strap.
Rusted hinges had jammed one of the big double doors with twelve centimeters still to close. A scuffed boot stuck out through the space by the floor and two, no, three sets of fingers emerged farther up. Torin slammed the muzzle of the KC into the shin above the boot—hard enough to break the skin and invoke a stream of impressive profanity—then she used the butt of the weapon on the reaching fingers. As they disappeared to slightly less impressive profanity—probably ex-Navy—she threw her weight against the pitted steel, her shoulder next to Mashona’s, and together they managed to move it far enough for the three big canted, coiled spring latches to finally snap into place.
The background roar from the speakers grew louder while over it a familiar voice demanded they open the doors immediately. Or else.
“Does he honestly think he’s still in charge?” Mashona wondered.
“He thinks Human’s First has an apostrophe.” Torin spat out another mouthful of blood, checked the magazine of the weapon she held, tossed it to Mashona, and bent to pick up the other two as Varga began listing the ways they’d pay when he got out.
Lifting one of the second guard’s arms into the air, her fingers dark bands around his pale, grubby wrist, Mashona shook her head. “Gunny, I don’t think this one’s going anywhere.”
“Is he dead?” Varga had trusted these three with weapons at his back, so she’d be willing to bet they’d been among those who’d attacked the stations and killed noncombatants. Torin wouldn’t mourn if she’d taken one out when taking him down, although the Wardens would be pissed. Again.
“No. But . . .”
“If he’s alive, secure him. There’s three of us against everyone else on this moon; if we sideline someone, I want them to stay out.” She rolled Bearded Guard up onto his side so he could breathe, cracked ribs topside. Then, avoiding the spreading puddle of vomit, she got out the zip-ties.