On the surface, the soldier was still struggling with the cleaning rod and muttering a steady stream of imprecations directed at the Army, USSF and someone apparently named "Damn Ted Armalite." It wasn't helping.
Sudden movement caught his eye; he looked up in time to see rocks, dust and ice hanging in the middle distance, then starting a lazy fall back down as the ground underneath shook. He missed the flash of movement to his right that could have been two men carrying large packs. They didn't miss the glint of reflected light from his faceplace and ducked behind a truck-sized rock.
"Snakecrap!" Hawkins said it; braided line connected the two men, clipped to attachment points at front and back of the harness built into the outer coveralls they wore over their leotard-like pressure suits. Mil/Space had thoughtfully included an intercom cable; mating jacks at each end connected it to an earphone and microphone in their bubble helmets. SOP called for VOX rather than push-to-talk, reasoning time and a free hand to flip a switch might both be in short supply if things went wrong. "You saw it, too, Lieutenant."
"Yes. He is not one of ours."
"Check. Now what?"
"We have a closer look." Griffon began to check his weapon as he spoke, then moved the sling to a looser, front position that would allow easy aim but hang out of the way until needed. Hawkins did the same, with a shorter loop to keep it mostly clear of the line between them. Hardly more than an oversized handgun, their "rifles" looked like nothing so much as something hastily welded together to lubricate heavy machinery. "He's out in the open. Looked like he was seated or dug in."
"Pretty sure he was seated, up against one of those rocks." Hawkins wasn't their top imaging tech — that had been Feelie — but manpower was too scarce for the Edgers who ran Mil/Space to assign any man to an imaging post who wasn't both sharp of eye and quick to grasp what he saw.
Griffon nodded. "Could be. Suggestions?"
Neither man had set out to be a professional soldier and neither one had undergone extensive training in the ancient skills of ground troops. Their employer, Mil/Space, was one of several contractors supplying skilled manpower to the Federation of Concerned Spacemen, still the only real ruling body on the Far Edge. Specialists, their war had been a matter of images on a screen, of the sudden flash that told of a hundred lives lost, of stealth and subterfuge, months of boredom punctuated by hours of frantic activity. The ground war on Ganymede had come as a surprise to the Edgers; confident of the technological advantage from the German 'Drive technology that reduced the effective mass of spacecraft and their own improvements that allowed safely controllable, albeit jerky, maneuvering near a planetary surface, even the recent loss of Peace-and-Prosperity, their most populous settled planet, to a USSF flotilla had not appreciably shaken their opinion. Nothing had until routine scans found a very large USSF/NATO fleet approaching from an unexpected direction and by then it was too late.
The officer had been born on Earth itself, a child of one of the original FCS conspirators, smuggled aboard along with many others. Most of his life since had been spent aboard spacecraft and space-based industrial facilities. While he didn't suffer the paralyzing agoraphobia that was the bane of many of his peers, he didn't have Hawkins' ease in the wide-open spaces, either. The Tech was from Peace-And-Prosperity, formerly Linden, of mixed Edger/German background; he claimed Ganymede reminded him of the mining camp at Pitty on his home world. Anyone who hadn't seen the place assumed he was exaggerating. "Ground's pretty torn up. I think there's enough cover to get a closer look before we plan too much. Might even be able to just grab him."
While they spoke, the subject of their discussion had managed to remove the KIT, CLEANING, XM-16E from its storage location and was assembling the contents, remembering the lecture: "These kits are scarcer than your rifle. You are the first soldiers to receive them and you will learn to use them!" Should'a tried it one-handed, he reflected. Locking the bolt back was going to be even more interesting, but it was a better bet than trying to get the receiver open. He looked up again, thinking he'd seen something. Shouldn't be anyone — or anything! — at all out here, not so soon after— After what? He couldn't remember. Hell with it. Clear the rifle, find out where you are, figure out what to do next. He turned back to his rifle, wondering what the chances were the body he'd spotted was still carrying any air.
He didn't wonder long. A figure in a funny-looking spacesuit popped out from behind a boulder to his right, pointing a nasty-looking grease gun at him and then ducked back out of sight.. He started to reach for his XM-16 with both hands, nearly dropped it at the stab of pain from his shoulder, but managed to bring it to bear, just as another guy slid down the rock he was leaning on, landed to his left, made a long reach and grabbed his gun, attempting to twist it down and away. He shouted and tried to stand as the second man bumped his helmet, grabbed him to maintain the connection and yelled tinnily, "Drop it!" While he was distracted, the first one closed the distance and yanked his rifle away. He was their prisoner, as fast and simple as that.
"He doesn't look too good," Hawkins protested. "And we're not in the greatest shape ourselves." They'd reattached the line and intercom between them. At their feet, the subject of their discussion still sat where they'd found him, deprived of his rifle and knife, trying unsuccessfully to read their lips. The shorter one was gesturing. "There's no way we can carry him and I don't think he can walk."
The Lieutenant was having none of it. "Are you a mindreader, then? We do not know that."
"Nossir. But he sure didn't try to stand when we grabbed him. Even if he can, we can't take him along."
"What else? Leave him? Shoot him?" Life was hard on the Far Edge but it was not cheap; there were rarely enough hands for any task. Extensive automation helped and aggressive recruitment of Earth's displaced, disaffected and unwanted had began to make a difference — possibly too much so on Peace-and-Prosperity, but that was Earth's problem now. Between the harshness of space and the shortage of manpower, few Edgers would consider leaving a man behind. Even if they had to invent reasons why. "We need to find out what he knows. General Filiaggi needs to learn what they know."
Hawkins almost rolled his eyes. The General — founder and principal of Mil/Space and one of the chief proponents of hired contractors rather than civil servants for nearly everything — was infamous for his strong opinions and fierce temper. Keeping him happy was both necessary and nearly impossible. "You think so?"
"I'm certain of it - and it's an order. We're taking him along."
The soldier wasn't having much luck making out what they were saying but frequent glances his way left no doubt it was about him. It's sure not about where to stop for lunch, he thought, and nearly grinned. Better to think about that than what the other two might do next. Or about what might've gone wrong with his arm. Their coveralls — clearly not spacesuits, open at collar, sleeve and cuff with something shiny that looked skin-tight underneath — bore familiar-looking name tapes and unfamiliar insignia, starting with some kind of star-and-rifle logo under a banner that proclaimed "MILSPACE ASSOC." or something similar along with a smaller design consisting of a star and the letters "FCS." One of them had upside-down chevrons-and-rocker on his sleeves, with a lighting bolt over a bowl shape at the center. The other had bizarre triple bars. Digging up a memory from his childhood in Chattanooga, he took a guess and when triple-bar bent down to bring their helmets in contact, spoke first: "Captain, what's the verdict?"
The other man made a sound like a chuckle, "Hah. Captains command ships. Call me 'Lieutenant.' Senior Lieutenant, about the same as one of your 'Captains.' Less confusing." His speech was almost unnaturally distinct, like a telephone operator's. "What is your name? Can you stand? Can you walk?"
"I might need some help standing. Walking, I could do that for—" he glanced at his air gauge and made a rapid estimate "—about forty-five minutes." Faces pressed too close and at a funny angle, he could still sense puzzlement change rapidly to annoyed comprehension. "And my name is..." This was nuts. How could a guy forget his own name?
The enemy officer wasn't waiting. "Insufficient air. Not good. What are your oxygen connections like? We might be able to jury-rig—"
He interrupted, "We might not have to." It took some explaining. The other Edger, "tech-not-sergeant" Hawkins, freed up the breather backpack from the partially buried body and brought it back. The nametag on the pack read, "Wilkerson, M." It didn't ring any bells. One tank was full; the other was just over three-quarters. The chemical bargraph on the CO2 absorber, the one you normally had to have a buddy read, showed ten percent gone.
While he sat with the pack on his lap, steadying it with his left arm and holding the pendant gauges in his right, his captors reconnected their intercom.
"Lieutenant, he's got threaded connectors. Fine threads! And manual valves!"
"Not quick-connects? Those big suits do hold a lot of air. As for manual valves, Tech, your suit has them, too. I am certain you follow S.O.P and use them; the check valves are merely a back-up." He suppressed a sigh. Hawkins did no such thing unless he was being watched. Planet-dwellers were easy to spot by their causal, sloppy observance of safety procedures, at least until the first time their luck failed. Afterward, well, the survivors were more careful. The tension between long-held Edger belief that stupidity ought to be self-correcting and not wanting to lose a man was usually subsumed in the larger concerns of the increasingly-heated conflict with Earth. Usually.
Hawkins, feeling unfairly chastised, folded his arms and tried to look resolute. The officer had other worries. "Is there a radio in that thing? Did you notice a radio on the dead man's suit?"
"No and no. And no antenna on his. Could be something transistorized, low-power, too small to notice. I doubt it."
"H'mm. And without quick-connects, he has only as much time as his pack and the one just salvaged will allow."
Griffon considered the options. Odd were good there was an Earth vessel, some kind of low-radar-image landing craft nearby, which it would not do to encounter even if only a skeleton crew was aboard. Closest friendly — if she'd made it — was Skidoo, a lightly-armed freighter that had been landing when his imaging installation had been hit. Next best was a tie between the another imager and General Filiaggi's "flagship," the mostly-hidden Not Minneapolis, a repurposed seagoing battleship "borrowed" under dubious circumstances. The freighter was out; it would have been an obvious target, for one, and if enough of the imagers had been taken out, odds of a successful landing weren't good. Heading for the next imager was a shorter trip but one that would take them farther away from the flagship, towards a destination in unknown condition with uncertain communication. And he didn't want to share credit for the capture, he admitted to himself with a sour grin. On the other hand, the Minnie was either intact or his destination didn't matter. And on the other other hand— Operational security was tight; he knew where the flagship was, offset from and little outside the ring of five imagers that surrounded the township-sized landing area, but he didn't know the intervening terrain or how to find the hidden accesses.
He was looking towards his prisoner but not really seeing him when the scene suddenly lit up. Hawkins, intercom still plugged in, yelled distortedly, "Holy howling snakes!"
He turned in time to see the fireball still growing and moving upward. Had Skidoo's captain decided to run for it and been hit? The location looked right, but it could have been an Earth ship hunting the freighter and struck by fire from his own side. It was an expanding blob of hot gas, molten metal and twisted debris now. Molten metal including the reactor. "Hawkins, help me grab the Earther, now. We need to be on the far side of the rock he's leaning on."
Unsurprisingly, the prisoner was staring at the fireball, too. Griffon and Hawkins rounded on him, hoisted him up in a chair carry with the spare air pack still in his lap, the lanyard a trip hazard between them and made good time getting the boulder between themselves and the explosion. Their passenger struggled briefly until Griffon put his helmet in contact and shouted, "Explosion. Rad hazard." It wasn't much cover — the glowing mass was still headed up — but it was better than nothing at all. The explosion was well distant, almost to the horizon, so their direct exposure couldn't have been significant. Or if it had, there was nothing to be done here and now. Indirect exposure was another story; "hot" debris was going to be settling gently down for a long time. Maybe even days; but the same low gravity that was going to keep material aloft for such a long time meant it wasn't raining rads yet.
"Set him down here, Tech." When had Earth become so bold? He was used to thinking of them as incompetent clods, timid navigators who lacked the closely held tricks and techniques that allowed FCS-allied ships to twitch and jitter their way down to a planetary surface, controlling their effective mass and altering their vector with tiny, subcritical Stardrive jumps. What had been a battle of infrequent feint and parry in which Earth's only gains were the result of blind luck had turned nastier, starting — as far as he was concerned — with their imager and who knew what else. With a nuke plant vaporized and sprayed across Mil/Space's landing field, the fight had to move elsewhere. Didn't it? He didn't have enough information; it didn't matter, he had to act. Six months ago, he'd been graveyard-watch imaging officer on an independent "covert freighter" little larger than Skiddoo, a watchstander-cum-engineering manager with a fancy title. Recruited by one of the several contractors hired by the Executive Committee of the Federation of Concerned Spacemen to provide "external security," he'd been run through a hasty military officer's school, most of it a stack of reading and a handful of lectures, then assigned to a series of imager installation much like his shipboard job. Or they had been until today, when a lot of material that had seemed dull, unlikely, even paranoid had suddenly become sensible.
Griffon's prisoner, picked up, hauled around the huge boulder and dumped on the ground with barely an explanation watched the enemy officer with gnawing worry. To him the man seemed distracted, almost alien, his body language close and cautious. He'd seemed not unkind but he was an enemy officer and by everything he'd been told, the enemy was sneaky, untrustworthy and profoundly different. The other one, the "Tech," (and what kind of rank was that?) acted a little more normal — he'd even been looking over the XM-16 he'd slung on his back when the lieutenant sent that around the boulder — but "Tech" was one of them, too. He took another look at his air gauge and did a little mental math: a half-hour, no, call it 40 minutes left. Sure felt like the last time he'd looked had been longer than five minutes ago. He looked back up to see the Tech looking at the sky and looked that direction himself to pick out three shimmering stars slowly descending. The enemy officer, Griffon, was beside him in a couple of loping steps; the "clonk" of their helmets colliding pulled his attention away.
"Are those are your side's ships?"
"How should I know? Anyway, I don't have to answer."
The officer was silent for awhile, as the lights grew larger and brighter, one clearly closer to them then the other two, shapes almost visible through the white light of the rockets. Finally, he spoke, "They're not ours. It's either yours or we both have company."
As they watched, Another light, dimmer, redder, joined the three, jittering and jinking, the light flaring and flickering. Griffin spoke again, "Now that is one of ours." Squinting, the soldier could almost make out its shape, like a hat with a narrow, conical rim. It seemed to jump from one position to another almost randomly; closer and then farther away, tilting and turning. It stabilized briefly, upside down and moving up, then vanished. Almost immediately, one of the three likely-USSF ships blossomed into a swelling sphere, reddening and churning. Griffon asked, "That is steam? Just how 'hot' are your landers?"
A whole shipload of good guys just died and this weirdo wants to talk shop? Not a chance! "Damifino. Wouldn't tell you if I knew." Bits of wreckage were starting to rain down, raising widely scattered puffs of dust in the distance, a vague wave sweeping towards their position. Griffon said something about "...Cover!" and waved the tech over.
The narrative breaks off there. Further specifics of their actions that day are unknown. Sr. Lt. Griffon stayed with Mil/Space during their re-organization from a corps of mostly specialists to the deadly "Space Marines" known today, a change prompted by huge losses during the fighting on Ganymede. The USSF soldier may have been Cpl. Lawrence Mathis, recorded with Griffon as having been treated for mild radiation exposure aboard FCS Saint Paul (the "Not Minneapolis," a converted former Brazilian seagoing battleship "borrowed" while being towed to the breakers) and repatriated in the war's first prisoner exchange some weeks later. Mathis was reported lost later that year when the USSF Mitchell went missing while investigating a reported Edger smuggling base on the far side off Earth's Moon; no wreckage has yet been found. As for Hawkins, he is known to have died on Ganymede; his body is interred in the monument there, a vast, faintly radioactive raised terrace bulldozed up from the former Far Edge landing field, site of the fiercest fighting and where four ships fell or were destroyed on the surface: USSF landers XL-5 and XL-17, the FCS armed freighter Skidoo and FCS "gunship," the privateer Extraneous.