Friday, February 25, 2005

Freedom Still Ain’t Free (9)

by Leonidus
Chapter 8: Freedom Still Ain’t Free

So, with Farzam’s good word, I got odd jobs in the Agora, lifting, moving, guarding and being an all-around general-purpose laborer. As my reputation grew in the Agora, I wound up taking on more security and bodyguard jobs, and ended up with about ten Firebirds by the end of two months work. It was slower than I had hoped, considering I had to pay for food and lodging, and with the high level of transients living on the planet, rooms were at a premium.

By this time, I had checked into the Muster. You’d think that a guild full of mercenaries and slavers wouldn’t be too picky as to who they take on, but you’d be wrong. The Muster has a great benefits package, and the Muster guys are the ones that get all the best jobs they filled. Instead of using Muster people for the lowest level jobs, they use temps, independents needing a little cash. These temps get no benefits, and they definitely don’t get into the Muster. The big stumbling block to my getting in the Muster was a rock-solid rule they have: only freemen can be in the guild. While it might have been possible to lie and get in, the Muster uses an extensive set of contacts in House Torenson to provide background checks on all their potential candidates. My alias at the time was Salvador du Roc, a yeoman from House Li-Halan, and I had my doubts as to whether my story would hold up under the scrutiny of House Gossip, which was my little name for the Torenson. So instead, I kept working independently, trying to scrounge up a big enough stash to maybe bribe my way into the Muster.

My break came in the form of one of the local underworld figures, Nasir ibn Mazdak. Nasir was a big man in artifact and drug smuggling on Criticorum and his offer was one I couldn’t refuse. I had apparently whacked some of his guys while fending off an attack on one of my principals and he told me that he would forgive this affront if I would guard his idiot son (his words, not mine) while on a trip to Kish. I didn’t know what his kid was doing going there, and I got the impression that it wouldn’t be healthy to find out. I agreed, because I really had no choice, and we left for Kish in the middle of the night.

The trip to Kish was uneventful. Nasir’s son, Zal, was an all right kind of guy. We didn’t hit it off or nothing, but he wasn’t an arrogant little prick, and he was a hell of a card player. We said right from the start that none of the games would be for money, but I owed him something like 12,000 pretzels by the time we landed on Kish. Most of the time on Kish was pretty boring, for me that is. Zal was having a grand time, party after party with his dad’s underworld buddies, women, liquor, just a rip-snorting time, with me hovering in the background, waiting for whatever reason Nasir sent me with him.

Well, the deal was why he had sent me. One night, Zal met up with some Ur-Ukari folks. This was the first time I’d seen them up close, tall, thin, like what you might think of an elf looking like, but an elf in the Yakuza. Pale-skinned, light haired, with scar-tattoos all over their freaking bodies, these guys are plain scary. And their eyes…black, like all black, and they got this way of looking at you, like you don’t matter even a little bit. Anyway, Zal hooks up with these guys, and while I’m standing real close, hand on my gun the whole time, these guys talk to Zal in mutters and whispers, so that I can’t tell what it is they’re giving him. It was in a tiny box, whatever it was, and the box that Zal gave them was a hell of a lot bigger, and full of diamonds.

The deal done, Zal makes for the exit post-haste. We get out into the night, and he starts moving faster. I asked him what was wrong, and he said something about having a bad feeling about them guys. Turns out he was right, because no sooner had we reached the skimmer than bullets started flying out of the bushes near where we’d parked. Nasir had hooked me up with a loaner shield, and his kid and the other goons with us had them too, and it was a good thing. The night lit up with flashing energy shields as we started returning fire into the darkness. Suddenly, the skimmer goes clang, as it drops unceremoniously onto the ground. I turn around and see the Ukari from the deal, one of them with his hands outstretched, eyes glowing green. I open up with my pistol on freak boy, and his buddy steps in front of him. The bullets bounced off this guy! Flat out bounced off his skin! I’m freaked now, because these guys just ain’t natural, but it’s just me over that way noticing them, and the rest of the guys were shooting up the darkness real good. Groaning, I grabbed my axe and hauled ass right for the freaks.

Iron man drew a long knife and stepped up to engage me. Maybe all his efforts had gone into training in whatever demon magic he did, because he was not equipped to handle the rough stuff. I dodged a lunge and crushed in the side of his head with my axe. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice his buddy stepping up. Next thing I know, I’m lying flat on my back, feeling like a brute had kicked me in the ribs. All the guy did was touch me! Zal finally noticed what I was doing and started blazing at this guy with a blaster pistol. Lightning boy jumped off to the side and pointed at Zal, and suddenly Zal’s pistol stopped working. Laying on the ground, I pulled out my pistol again and peppered that Ukari. I emptied my clip into him and then got up and ran over to finish the job with my axe. I didn’t stop whacking him until his body was in a couple of pieces.

About this time, I headed back for the rest of the group. Two of the goon squad were down with bullets through various important bits, but the firing from the bushes was almost done. I figured, what the hell, I’d been lucky so far, so I borrowed a page from the Hazat training manual and charged wildly into the bushes, firing a borrowed submachine gun. By the time I got there, whoever had been helping the Ukari had split, save for one human that had been providing covering fire. He did his job. The rest got away, but he paid the price as I shot him full of holes. After I was sure no one was left, I came back to assess the damage.

Zal was fine, not a scratch on him. One of the remaining goons had a minor injury, and the other two were dead. I ran back to the shack, checking to make sure that no one else was in there. While there, I grabbed the chest of diamonds and headed back to Zal. He asked me how many of the diamonds I had swiped while ‘securing’ the chest. I told him none, and it was the truth. You don’t screw with a guy like Nasir ibn Mazdak.

He counted the rocks, just to make sure, smiled at me and told me I wasn’t as dumb as I looked. We stripped the bodies of the dead goons and the Ukari for anything of value, then got in the skimmer and made our way back to the spaceport. Meanwhile, Zal’s rustling in the box of diamonds. He hands me a small bag, hands the other guy a small bag, both full of diamonds, says real loud how it was a shame that the Ukari had made off with the diamonds before jumping us, but that at least we’d gotten what we came for. Zal kept about two-thirds of the rocks, but this was a hell of a lot less than what he could have kept, so me and the other guy were pretty happy. Of course, the warning was implied, stick to the story, that’s why you get the rocks.

Back in Acheon, Nasir heard that story and smiled a lot. Whatever the hell we got for him was obviously worth a hell of a lot more than a box of diamonds, and his boy not having any cuts or bruises made him even happier. He threw a big party, and while we’re all drinking up a storm, he called me into a corner.

“Sal,” he said, “you’ve done me a great service. Fighting Psi-devils is a very dangerous thing. Zal could have been killed, and he’s my only son.”

“Jeez Nasir, they was tryin’ ta kill me just as much. Wasn’t nothing special, just doing my job,” I replied, playing humble. Those guys had scared me pretty good, and I was just happy to be alive.

“Nevertheless, I owe you. You have repaid the debt of honor and then some. You have saved my honor, and you have saved my son. It is only fitting that I repay you. Ask, and it shall be yours, providing that I can do it.”

I sat there for a long time, mulling it over. Most of the things I came up with would wind up getting me stuck on this planet, relying on the continued kindness of a crime lord. I finished a drink, and then said, “Get me into the Muster.”

Easier said than done.

Nasir worked on getting me into the Muster for a month and a half. I told him everything about me, so that he could work on the sticky part of me being an escaped serf. He did have numerous connections in the Muster, but they all told him the same thing, I had to be a freeman, or at least I had to ‘become’ a freeman before that could happen. Since Torenson provided the background checks for the Muster, Nasir started working on that angle. One day, Nasir called me into his office.

“Good news, Sal!” he said, smiling and handing me a package.

“What is this?”

“Go ahead, open it,” he said, pouring us each a drink.

I did. In it was a declaration of release from serfdom, forged to look like Lord Loveridge had granted me freedom for heroic service to the cause of House Hawkwood, and along with it was a small seal, that I could have sewn into something or wear as jewelry that showed that I was now a freeman, for real, or for as real as a forgery can get you. Nasir handed me my drink and we toasted my new status.

“There’s just a couple things, Sal,” he began, and I had the feeling I wasn’t going to like what followed, “First of all, you can never go back to Ravenna. If you are recognized, it would go badly for you, since this is, of course a forgery.”

I nodded, that seemed logical.

“The second thing is this…it took me a lot to get this for you. I now owe a couple of Torenson favors, and it took more money than I cared to spend. I know it’s a debt of honor, but I am also a businessman. I may require something of you in the future…something small, but something you’ll need to do for me.”

“That’s fine, Nasir,” I agreed, relieved, feeling that that was well worth the benefit of freedom.

I would find out later that that turned out to be a bigger favor than I had feared, but not through any fault of Nasir.

Anyway, I was now free to go and join the Muster. I bade Nasir a fond farewell and went to outfit myself as a man would need to be outfitted if he was serious about joining a mercenary guild. It was a trip back to Farzam, who cut me a deal on what I needed. I bought a shocker axe, a regular battle-axe with a high-powered electrical attachment to further incapacitate people, an assault rifle and five clips, some polymer knit armor and some fragmentation grenades. All told, it ran me about 800 Firebirds, which was close to all I had left. I then went to visit the Muster recruiting office.

After a two-month stint of doing odd jobs hunting bandits on Criticorum while waiting for the Muster to check my background, they swore me into the Guild, after collecting my entrance fee to pay for said check, which held up, thank the Pancreator. They then shipped me off for proper training as a Muster soldier. There was a tense wait for me in the starbase at Gwynneth, a Hawkwood world that would later give me cause for much misery, but then it was off to Bannockburn, and my new life as a professional soldier.

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Edited mechanics

[Edited by Leonidus on Jul 21, 2004 at 04:56 PM]

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Criticorum, My First Taste of Freedom (8)

by Leonidus
Chapter 7: Criticorum, My First Taste of Freedom.

Freedom is a great thing. Being able to choose where to go, when to go there, and what to do once you get there. One thing they don’t tell you about: freedom is expensive! There ain’t nothing free about being free. Everything costs you. There really is no such thing as a free lunch…or a free anything for that matter. Disembarking at the spaceport, the smarmy al-Malik customs guy tells me I’ve got to buy a visitor’s visa to set foot on the planet, and that it would be one whole Firebird! If you’ll remember, I didn’t have a Firebird any more. With reluctance, I held out the gold chain I had, and asked if that would be enough. His eyes went all shifty and he looked around quickly, like he was going to say something, but instead said that yes, he thought it would be worth about that much.

He was a lying sack of shit, I knew it was worth more than that but there weren’t any pawnshops there at the spaceport. I sighed, got my visa, and headed out into Acheon, the capital of Criticorum. I stopped at a noodle shop about eight blocks from the spaceport, spent two of my Wings on food and something to drink, then headed for the Agora.

The Agora on Acheon is huge. It is easily the size of Pryat, back on Cadavus, and I wandered about aimlessly, trying to figure out some kind of pattern to the chaos. I finally found an information booth, of all things, near the edge of the bazaar and it had a map of general categories of shops. Since there were no permanent buildings in the Agora, I couldn’t just look up a shop and go there, but there was a sort of order to it, with merchants of various types grouped in areas. I headed for the weapon merchants, since weapons were one of the few things I knew anything about.

I spent many hours walking from merchant to merchant, seeing if they had any work available. Most of them, once they found out I had no affiliation, were not interested in speaking to me any more. Finally, about the time I was going to give up, this one guy, Farzam, said he could use some help delivering a large load of weapons and ammunition to a transport at the spaceport. This shipment was going to a unit of Imperials headed for Stigmata, where they were going to help fight the Symbiots. He said it was a one-time job, and the pay wasn’t much, but it’d be enough for my next meal, and maybe a place to flop before trying again the next day to find something more permanent.

I helped his two guys load up the wagon, and saw that these Imperials were going out loaded for bear. There was enough ammunition to supply almost a company for a month, and assorted specialty weapons that your average grunt doesn’t hump on his own. I was tired after just loading the crap and I realized this guy wasn’t paying me near what I should be getting. But I figured beggars couldn’t be choosers, and so resigned myself to check more the next time before accepting a job. The wagon set out for the spaceport, and I watched the Agora around me continue its business.

I saw people of every color and size, and even aliens, hustling about their business. Nobles, peasants, merchants, all side by side, united in a common bond of trying to not get screwed out of their hard-earned money…transients, like me, desperately looking for a handout or for the best deal they could find…pickpockets and thugs hanging around looking for an easy mark…and al-Malik police, trying desperately to keep an eye on all these different kinds. To their credit, they seemed to be really trying, but it didn’t look like there were near enough of them. Maybe some of these nobles would need bodyguards to keep away the riff-raff, I thought, or maybe the riff-raff could use a little help. Up there from the wagon, I could see different people that maybe I could hit up later for work. I decided that on the way back, I’d try to keep note of likely candidates.

About that time, we left the Agora, and clip-clopped up the city streets to the spaceport. I’ve got to hand it to Alexius; he outfits his boys in some of the most gaudy outfits. I remember being pretty awed by them as they bustled about their transport, getting it ready to launch. Since these guys were going to the Stigmata Garrison, a one-way ticket (but I didn’t know that then), the Empire did its best to see that they felt like heroes going off to Fight Evil Incarnate. They had real silver on their uniforms, and piping and braids and all sorts of useless crap that real soldiers would find kind of embarrassing. But there was this edge to them. They were real soldiers, and they had this air about them, like what they were doing really mattered…they had a sense of purpose. And they paid in Firebirds, a big chest of them.

Farzam’s boys kept a real close eye on me when it came time to get the money situated in the wagon. I couldn’t blame them, that was a damn heavy chest. One of them drove the wagon, the other sat in the back, on the chest, facing me, and I sat in the far back of the wagon, my back to both of them. They had blaster pistols, and as far as they knew, I wasn’t armed, so it seemed like a pretty secure arrangement. Besides us, one of the Imperials came along, to help on the return trip, and to talk to Farzam about further business. As we turned down a side street to get back to the Agora, I twisted to stretch out some of my aching back…and saved my damned life.

Gunfire erupted from all sides as guys jumped out from behind garbage cans and out of doorways. There was even two guys up on the roofs of the buildings, and it was one of them that nailed me. I had no sooner twisted and felt a gratifying pop as a vertebrae shifted than something slammed into my left shoulder, knocking me off the wagon. Of course, as I lay in the street dazed, I heard the gunfire, so I lay real still pretending to be dead before I made a hasty move and made like the real thing. Farzam’s driver got hit a couple times about the same time I did and he was laying sprawled backward in the wagon. Farzam’s other guy was doing his best to duck and weave and return fire, his blaster punctuating the smaller arms the bandits were using, blood streaming down his side. And the Imperial, damn if he didn’t look scary as hell, standing up in the wagon, energy shield blazing as it stopped shot after shot, blazing away with an automatic shotgun that must have been under his cloak.

That Imperial Legionnaire was chewing up the riff-raff pretty good, so I figured I could do something, since he was taking up most of the attention. I rolled slowly to one side of the street, then got up in a crouch next to a barrel. I took careful aim with my pistol and shot one of the bandits in the back, then ran forward and grabbed his rifle. Now this, this kind of shit I was familiar with. Years of training and experience took over and it was almost like watching another guy shoot, move to different cover, shoot again, then jump up on the wagon and snatch the reins and bring the panicking beasts under control. It was like all of a sudden, there I was, mystically transported from the street to the driver’s seat of a brute cart galloping hell-bent for leather down a city street.

Farzam’s remaining man was sprawled in the back of the wagon, the Imperial was hanging on for dear life, and I just kept snapping the reins, spurring the beasts, whatever they were, forward. I snapped out of the fear haze when I felt the Imperial reach over and grab my wrists. He yanked the reins out of my hands and pulled hard, bringing the cart to a shuddering halt, just before I would have run us into the Agora at speed, mowing down countless people. Farzam’s man took my place and drove us the rest of the way there, before passing out from loss of blood. It was just before getting back to Farzam’s tent that I realized I’d been hit again, this time in the ribs. I looked at it, and it didn’t seem like it’d gone in, but I was pretty sure a rib had shattered.

Farzam was in utter panic when we pulled up, shouting for the police and demanding to know what had happened. Of course he was real suspicious of me, and damn near started beating me, demanding who I’d been in cahoots with. The Imperial stopped him, recounting my deeds in defense of Farzam’s property. That calmed Farzam down and then his wife and kids came out to tend to our wounds. The Imperial had barely been scratched, thanks to his shield. Farzam’s driver was dead, his other guy was wishing he was, and I had a bullet wound in the left arm and the wound to the ribs. The police took us off to see the surgeons while the Imperial made his report to the remaining patrolmen.

I never did find out how that ambush got set up. Turned out I had helped save 8,000 Firebirds for Farzam. He paid for my medical bill and gave me three Firebirds as payment, about four times the amount that he was going to give me just for moving the goods. He also put in a good word with a bunch of the merchants around the Agora. All told, it was a pretty good deal, but it seemed like a pretty meager rate of return. 8,000 Firebirds would have set me up for a long time, but I’d agreed to do the job. I hadn’t made any deal with that Decados, so that was different. Even if the Imperial had bought it, I’d have still brought Farzam back his money. Probably.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Reports of My Death have been Greatly Exaggerated (7)

by Leonidus
Chapter 6: Reports of My Death have been Greatly Exaggerated.

Pryat was a small town on the way to the provincial capital, where the spaceport was. I knew that eventually I’d have to get there but I didn’t really know what to do at this point. So I decided that I’d enjoy just a little of my newfound wealth. My first stop was a bar, of course, what else are you going to do with new money but get some good drink and maybe some decent food? I paid with a Firebird, to get more change to work with.

Boy, that was both a mistake and a blessing, let me tell you.

Didn’t know it at the time, but there was a guy watching me from somewhere in the bar, because later that evening, as I was heading out to find a bordello, this guy comes up behind me and sticks a gun in my back, then pulls me down an alley, saying I’d better give him all my cash or he’d ventilate me. I was pretty scared at first, but then as I started digging in my pocket, I got mad all of a sudden. This bastard was going to kill me, one way or the other…fast with a bullet or slow by robbing me of my freedom! I brought out my fistful of Firebirds, then dropped down to the ground in a crouch as fast as I could and punched him in the jimmy. The first round missed me by a hair’s breadth as I dropped, and the next one went wide as this guy staggered back in pain. I kicked out with my foot and felt his knee shatter as it bent backward. He dropped his gun, and I snatched it up and pistol-whipped him. He stopped moving.

I stood back and panted. Now what? Do I let this guy go, or do I waste him just because he was a dirtbag? Then, inspiration hit. This guy was about my height. Didn’t look much like me but that didn’t matter, not really. I started taking off his clothes.

After a bit, he was in my Hawkwood uniform, and I was in his threadbare civvies. I propped him up against a barrel, muttered, “Picked da wrong guy to mess wit’, ya assbag,” put the gun to the back of his head and pulled the trigger. Most of his face got blown apart as the bullet went through. As the body slumped to the ground, I hoped rats and dogs would take care of the rest of the job. Salvatore Roccio was now dead in the eyes of House Hawkwood, or at least that’s what I hoped. I now had two more Firebirds in assorted change, so I was feeling pretty good. I found a bordello, got some things taken care of, if you know what I mean, then headed for the outskirts of town.

Two days later, I was still walking. I had stopped and asked directions at a local farmhouse…in the form of breaking in and stealing a map and some food, and a little of the local Decados currency. I found a back road to lead me into the provincial capital so as not to attract any undue attention. I made sure I dirtied myself up kind of, but of course, walking down a dirt road in midsummer was pretty good at doing that all by itself. Finally, some guy came by in a brute-cart and I was able to ride the rest of the way in. I had never been to this city, so after asking my ride for directions to the less-than-reputable side of town, I headed off to find what I could find.

I let a few weeks pass, doing odd jobs involving heavy lifting or intimidation, before I made my way to the spaceport. Ivan, a guy I did some thug work for, had arranged papers for me to get off the planet with, providing I had the money. I went for a transport passage, figuring that if anyone was looking for me, they’d figure I’d go out on the cheapest scow possible. I picked Criticorum as my destination, because I knew that it was a huge teeming sea of humanity to get lost in.

Unfortunately, that used up all my money. Every little bit, except for three Wings, enough to buy one meal on Criticorum.

I spent the weeks in transit thinking about what to do with myself from here on out. I inventoried my skills…such as they were. I came up with: I could kill people; I could drive a tank; I could lift heavy stuff; I could run a long way; I could move really well…and oh yeah, I could plow a freaking field. So, of all the things I could do, I came up with grunt labor, maybe construction work, exotic dancer (although I’d have to learn how to actually dance, of course), marathon runner, thug, mercenary or peasant. If I was going to be a peasant, I would have just gone home to Ravenna, so that was out. Organized sports did not exist, besides the gladiator games, with the Wars having claimed all the athletes, so runner was out. I toyed briefly with the idea of exotic dancer, figuring that hell, it’d be fun, and I’d probably make decent wages. But then I remembered that guys dancing in places like that were all too often required to dance for guys, and that creeped me out, and besides that was one step above prostitute, and that was really not the way I wanted to go.

So that left thug, mercenary, or skilled or unskilled grunt labor. Three out of the four options were the purview of one outfit, the Muster. Originally a mercenary guild, they had branched out into any endeavor that required people; construction, office jobs, factory labor, stuff like that. Being a peasant, the Muster brought up a lot of bad images…we called them the Chainers, because they were slavers…why pay your laborers when you can get them to work for free? The nobles had been doing it for generations, and had pretty well locked up the agricultural slaves, but the Muster had cornered the rest of the market. Either way, if I wanted to do anything besides goon work, I’d have to look them up. Until that point, thugging would be the fastest way to make money and contacts. So, I decided that, when I got to Criticorum, I’d start out as a thug, and see if I couldn’t work my way up to slaver.

Friday, February 18, 2005

BAck to the Plan (6)

by Leonidus
Chapter 5: Back to the Plan?

So really, until now, this story don’t sound too bad, does it? I really do sound like some hero from a three-Talon pulp novel. Well, just look at me now, you know that this has to end sometime. And just about here is where things get, er, less than heroic.

It was Midsummer, 4995, and I was on Cadavus in Decados space. The Emperor Wars were over. Everyone around me was ecstatic. House Hawkwood had won. It had won the greatest prize ever, the Empire re-unified under its rule. We went on stand-down, since this planet was now Decados property, yielded by Hawkwood during the negotiations for the Decados’ support of Alexius. The parties lasted a long time, with us being real chummy with our new friends, House Decados.

I sure wasn’t happy.

The brigade personnel officers had come around about a week after the parties had ended and started working on figuring out where all us useful tools were going to go after all this confusion had mixed up commoners and nobles, serfs and freemen. I picked it up through the grapevine that freemen would be offered positions in the Hawkwood military and Imperial Service, based on seniority. House Hawkwood would not need to keep such a huge military for mere security forces, since they were no longer actively trying to wipe out entire Houses. Imperial forces would be replacing House forces for organized warfare and border security, and since we were now One Big Happy Family, other Houses would also be providing Imperial levies. Basically, soldiering jobs were going on wholesale.

I was screwed. I was a serf. Serfs were to all be mustered out and returned to their rightful lords and sent back to doing whatever it was they had done before glorious service to the Greater Cause had given them a taste of freedom. Most of the other serfs I knew looked forward to this. Family, home, stability. They longed for these things. I looked on these with dread. Home was a death sentence of prolonged suffering, the kind that gets you without too much pain, just enough to rob you of whatever glimmer of humanity you had, until you were nothing but a two-legged brute working alongside the four-legged kind. I had to get away before they came for me.

My opportunity arrived by accident, literally. I was standing guard around the perimeter of our compound one evening when there was a loud crash down the road from me. Guard duty being the busy-work it was at that point, I radioed the watch sergeant and went off to investigate. I found a small skimmer, crashed into some trees. It had caught fire and there was a figure trapped in the cabin. I leaped up on the side of the thing and reached in to grab whoever it was and pull them to safety. I had time to see that it was a Decados lordling, and he was semi-conscious, having hit his head hard on the control panel while executing his drunken landing. The other thing I saw was Firebirds…a whole bunch of them.

Time froze for me. Glittering gold coins, spilled across the passenger side floor…injured driver, looking at me with groggy hope as he struggled against the safety belts…fire getting closer by the second. It took about a half a second for me to make up my mind, but it seemed much longer at the time. Firebirds represented freedom, a noble’s gratitude represented much less than that. I slithered into the flyer, muttered some words of comfort to this blueblood punk, then reached over and broke his neck.

Quickly, I scooped up all the Firebirds I could find and then snatched a gold chain off the corpse’s neck. The fire was nearly to the cabin, and I jumped out, gashing myself on the broken plastic of the window. I then took off my shirt and beat lightly against the most intense part of the fire, scorching the uniform and singing my hair. Just for good measure, I reached out and grabbed part of the body of the craft near the fire and gritted my teeth against the sizzling of my flesh. This was no time for half-measures. I skittered back from the skimmer and watched anxiously as the fire grew. I heard the sounds of approaching vehicles as I watched the passenger compartment become fully engulfed in flames.

I ‘staggered’ towards the ground cars, helped in this act by the Firebirds and gold chain stuffed hastily into my boot, my uniform smoldering, nursing my burned hand, and then delivered a heart-wrenching tale of futile heroism as I recounted trying to get that poor bastard out of the skimmer before the flames finally drove me back. The officer there watched as the last bits of the skimmer burned higher, then had me driven back to the infirmary. After being treated for burns and cuts and smoke inhalation, I was sent back to my tent, where I quickly jury-rigged a money belt that I could keep this treasure concealed in. Of course, while I did that, I counted it. The gold chain would have to be pawned off, somewhere else, but I had twenty-three Firebirds and a few Crests! This was more money than I had ever dreamed of having in my life. I wondered briefly if this was worth condemning my immortal soul, but that was over quick. I had killed at least forty-five people, that I knew of for sure, in my time in the war. Until just a few months prior, I had been paid to murder Decados people wholesale, why was one more at retail any different? I’ve thought long and hard about this rationalization over the past few years, and I have yet to really come up with a definite answer. I suppose I’ll find out when I meet the Prophet.

So, I had money. The only real difference between a noble and a commoner is money. I’ve met brilliant, noble commoners, and dull, common nobles, and it really all comes down to the Firebirds…now that I had them, what would I do? Until now, I had traveled through space under the auspices of Hawkwood military forces. I realized that I didn’t really know how someone not heading off to kill people arranged for transportation.

I spent two more days dodging the personnel clerks, and then my platoon was given a weekend pass to the local city, Pryat. I gathered up my personal mementos, a woeful collection of trinkets that I had gathered, strapped the money belt to my body and headed off to die. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what was going to happen.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Cavalry with Cojones (5)

by Leonidus
But wait...there's more...if you order now, operators are standing by.

Chapter 4: Cavalry with Cojones

So it was that the year 4993 found me back on Delphi, training to be a tanker. Needless to say, since can openers and assault rifles was all I knew about technology, this involved quite a bit more than your average training for a recruit from a high-tech world. I didn’t even know how to drive a cart much less a car. There are three types of tanks in the Known Worlds, petrol-driven, hydrogen-driven, and hover-tanks. Since I hadn’t specifically asked for either of the most advanced, I got placed in a petrol-driven tank training program. This involved a hell of a lot of reading. Tank crews are expected to know a little bit about every job, in case one of the guys get whacked. I was assigned to be a driver, the Pancreator knows why, but I didn’t care. Not getting shot at all the time was my goal, and at least, I thought, being the driver I could feel like I was in control of not getting shot. It took three months for me to qualify. Along the way, I learned a heck of a lot about fixing tanks, a little about shooting them, and a bunch about driving tracked vehicles. As a former infantry grunt, I found out much to my surprise that tanks don’t just drive up and blast the crap out of stuff, invulnerable colossi on the field of battle. Instead, there’s all kinds of strategy involved…where to drive, how to drive, where to get set up to shoot at things so that the risk of return fire is minimized, how firing is different on the move than stationary, and how to make your tank act like real artillery. I also had to learn about every single model of tank known to man, since each one of them has weaknesses different from the rest. Where you hit a tank determines whether it’ll be able to shoot back at you or whether it’ll cook up like so much fancy fireworks.

But finally, it was done, and I was the driver of tank three (lovingly called Ravager), 1st Platoon, B Troop of the Fourteenth Armored Brigade, Delphi Division, three weeks before my eighteenth birthday. Alexius was going to have some big shindig on Byzantium Secundus, and our entire Division was shuttled off to the Capital of all the Known Worlds!

We arrived there about two months later…it takes a long time to move an entire division of armor from one planet to the next…and what an overwhelming thing it is for an eighteen year old kid to see Byzantium Secundus! Massive, glittering cities, cathedrals, guildhalls…heck it’s still impressive now seeing it almost a decade later. We knew we were there for mostly ceremonial purposes, considering most of ByzSec is swamp. It’s not like we were going to be maneuvering a bunch. We were placed at the spaceport, glittering with fresh coats of paint on all our forts, each tank’s name painted in gold on the barrel of their main gun. We settled back to read, smoke or nap for the next few hours. The really nice thing about being ceremonial armor is that you don’t have to stand at attention for hours.

About three hours later, our tank commander got called out to Troop HQ. We figured someone had gotten caught doing something inappropriate and we were going to catch hell for it. First Sergeant Riley came back a little while later, and as he buttoned down the hatch, we could tell something had him tweaked. First of all, buttoning down a tank on ceremonial duty was uncommon. Secondly, he was sort of pale and maybe a little shaky. He gathered us together and told us to be ready for anything.

We couldn’t begin to imagine what was to take place next. The radio operator sat bolt upright and yelped. Hawkwood military frequencies filled up across ByzSec as a firefight broke out in the palace. Tony (the radio guy) let us know that Hazat and Decados noble contingents and their housecarls were fighting there way out of the throne room after they failed to assassinate Alexius, and that the spaceport was now a free fire zone for all armed forces other than Hawkwood. We were told to let all spacecraft launch without resistance, but that we were to let no ground traffic approach any vessel.

We were dumbstruck! This was the capital…neutral ground…no House skirmishes could take place here, by centuries of tradition. Oh, sure, you could fight on ByzSec, but not in the city itself. Decados landing craft began launching immediately. We let them go. We didn’t know it then but they were launching to rendezvous with Decados forces fleeing the planet. The Hazat, as always, decided to try to fight their way through. A few heavy infantry squads tried to light us up from down alleys and such but special ops squads that we didn’t even know were there got rid of them fast. One noble contingent did bust through the terminal and began moving across the tarmac toward their ship. We shelled them a couple times, and then they gave up. After that, Hazat ships began taking off to meet their passengers at less defended places across the planet. All told, Hawkwood forces captured many Hazat and Decados nobles that day, but most of the really big players got away.

Then we found out what was really happening. It wasn’t an assassination attempt. The whole ruckus had been resistance to Alexius taking the Imperial Throne! For the first time since Vladimir himself, one noble had gotten enough support and had enough balls to seize the biggest prize. The voice of Alexius…now Emperor Alexius…filled our tank on loudspeaker.

“Loyal forces of Houses Hawkwood, al-Malik and Li-Halan…Right Revered Patriarch of the Church and all Orthodox forces on planet and in space…members of the Guilds and Honored Guildmeister…for four hundred and forty-three years, the Imperial Throne has stood empty. As barbarians encroach on our worlds and the factions of these great Known Worlds fight and betray each other, our very existence is threatened, and all the while this throne has looked down upon us, an example of what we once were. For too many years, Mankind has lamented, longing for the days past when Man ruled the stars and the Pancreator smiled on our endeavors. Well today, my brothers and sisters, weep no more! With the blessings of the Church, the backing of the Guilds, and with a majority of Electors, today, I Alexius Hawkwood, have been crowned Emperor of the Known Worlds. The Imperial Throne, long vacant, is once again filled, and with this action, the last steps toward our renewed ascension can begin.

Houses Hazat and Decados have sworn to fight this decision by a majority of Mankind to the last, and are hereby declared rebels in the eyes of the Empire, and heretics in the eyes of the Church, for what the Pancreator has deemed right through his Minister the Patriarch, let no man turn his back upon! Today begins the final re-unification of the Known Worlds.”

Yeah, we pretty much sat there for about ten minutes, letting it all sink in…the Patriarch’s benediction, just as flowery, was lost on us. There was an Emperor, for good. If we, the peasants, could make it stick. Weep no more? No one cries for peasants, but it was going to be up to us to put down the Hazat and Decados.

It would be two more years before Alexius’ claims to unification of the Known Worlds would be final. Two more years of fighting for me, and four different worlds. I could go into immense detail at this point, but again, what would be the point? I fought a lot, got three tanks blown out from under me, watched as all but two of the original members of my platoon got killed and replaced, picked up some nifty scars, and killed a shitload of Hazat and Decados.

In the end, it was the Kurgans who did Alexius the most good. The Kurgans didn’t take the Hazat trying to muscle their way onto Hira well at all. They fought back, and while doing so revealed that they had a lot more in the way of resources than the Hazat had ever thought possible. As the fighting on Hira picked up and the Kurgans started fighting back on Vera Cruz, House Hazat became alarmed. They now had a two-front war going, and unlike the other Houses, whose rules they knew and understood, the Kurgans operated on some other set of protocols, and Vera Cruz was becoming the overriding concern. Decados pulling out and giving up to Alexius’ claim to the throne was just a way of speeding up the inevitable. Hazat couldn’t afford to fight for the Imperial Throne, when the forces of the Kurgan Caliphate were threatening their very existence.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Vera Cruz, STill (4)

by Leonidus
Chapter 3: Vera Cruz, Still

Much as I’d like to leave my fond memories of Vera Cruz behind, I spent a lot of time there so I’ve got to talk a little more about it. Long after our stunning victory at Eight Eggs, we were on patrol near San Diego del Mar Misericordioso. The area was supposed to be free of organized Hazat resistance, so image our surprise when we stumbled across a base camp for about a company-size group of soldiers. It was just after noon on a lazy day in late autumn of 4992 and I was on point. We were approaching the old estate of a Hazat baron that had been big into breeding warhorses, and the woods we were traveling through were thinning. I could just start to see the pasture fences of the estate ahead, and I was keeping an eye out for anything unusual. Sort of. You’ve got to understand that we hadn’t seen a Hazat in this area for some time, so it was about five seconds after I saw movement ahead that I realized it was something to be concerned about. I threw up my hand and waved. After I saw the next guy in line motion, I dove to the ground because if I could see them, they could see me, whoever they were. Suddenly, Ted was beside me, having teleported next to me for all I heard him crawling through the bushes. I pointed toward the fence, and he started slithering forward. I waited for the shouts and gunshots that would mean Ted was spotted, but as was usual with him, there weren’t any. He crawled back to me and told me that there was at least ten guys he could see and they looked like Hazat, but with strange clothing.

I waited while he made his way back to the lieutenant. Even though it was cool, I could feel the sweat starting. I really didn’t want to fight that day. It had been weeks since we had seen action, and we were all pretty happy about it. After about four hours, it seemed like, Ted came back and told me that my squad was to go forward and capture one of these guys if we could, since the description that Ted gave the LT was nothing he recognized. So there we went, up through the woods, to try and rustle out one of these guys.

Well, the long and short of it was these bastards were good. We got outflanked while trying to outflank them, and me and the rest of the squad were suddenly surrounded by about twenty of these guys with blaster rifles. They shouted in some speech that none of us recognized, but the tone and the eight-foot wide muzzles of blaster rifles pretty much spoke a universal language of their own. We threw down our guns, and they marched us up to the manor house. I was pretty worried at that point that the LT was going to call in artillery and blow these guys to hell while we preoccupied them, so it was with extreme urgency that I tried to find out who they were. They were not Hazat, that much we could tell once they got us into the manor. The guy in charge looked more like an al-Malik noble, so I used the one phrase in their court tongue I knew…which is essentially “do you speak al-Malik?” The guy looked at me kind of funny like and yammered something back. I looked at him blankly and shrugged my shoulders. He walked up to me and looked for a while at the Hawkwood badge on my shoulder, then walked back to a small chest and took out another shoulder patch. It was a Hazat badge, and it had bloodstains on it. He held this in front of me and made some sort of demanding question. I figured that either we were flat out screwed at this point if they were friendly to the Hazat, and if they weren’t, that they needed to know we weren’t either, so I took that patch, stomped on it with my boot, and spit on it just for good measure. One of the guards slammed a rifle-butt into my back drove his knee into my back for good measure and I figured we were toast right then and there, but this noble dude barked at him, and they hauled me to my feet. He pointed at me, spit on the ground and shook his head violently. I nodded my head, spread my hands wide and did my best to bow like someone in a court. Apparently spitting was a big no-no to whoever these guys were. He pointed at the Hazat badge and said something that might have been really old Urthish, then said something that sounded like ‘fight.’ I pointed at him and said fight, pointed at the badge, then pointed at me, said fight and pointed at the badge. This made some of the guys guarding us relax a bit.

Anyway, this noble pointed at himself and said “Miteb allawhaaneaiabeabebe” or something like that so I figured he was giving me his name, so I pointed to myself and said “Salvatore” and then he offered us all chairs. We sat down and as one of his men brought us water, it looked like we were settling down for some kind of pow-wow. But my lieutenant back in the woods was undoubtedly getting a little itchy, so I stood and did a little bow to this noble guy, Miteb, and then aped a bit. I pointed to all my guys, pretended like we had guns, then tried to imply there was more of us out there and that we were about to storm the place or maybe shell it. I don’t know how much he understood, and it was pretty tense there as I tried my best not to make any hand gestures that might be sexual or offensive. Finally he called one of his men over, gave him a green flag, and motioned for me and this guy, Jalil, to head on out and talk to the rest of the platoon. Of course I didn’t know what a green flag meant to these guys, but I grabbed a bit of towel on the way out and tied it to a stick for a white flag, just so my guys would understand.

That was about the end of that encounter for Sal and the boys of second squad. Me and this Jalil got back to the LT and our new friend yammered at the officer for a while, while everybody pretty much looked at each other as if we were seeing a talking dog. Finally, the LT got on the horn to Company Command and had this guy yammer in his language to the HQ boys. They yammered back, and eventually they got to a language this guy knew, and then HQ told us to wait. Me and Jalil headed back to the manor house so the noble there wouldn’t get too jumpy. In about an hour, a translator from HQ showed up with a baronet. After a couple minutes me and the squad headed back to the platoon and we continued our patrol.

When we got back to base, HQ told the LT what went down and he let us know. Turned out these guys we almost got into with were Kurgans. We didn’t know what the hell a Kurgan was back then, so it was kind of interesting to hear that they came from a Lost World and that they had sent this scouting party after a Hazat exploration party had landed on their world, Hira. As is usual with the Hazat, they had immediately followed up with a battle cruiser and landed a contingent of Marines on the world to establish an enclave. Diplomatic efforts had broken down, and they were not really at war, yet, but both sides were gauging the other’s strengths. Of course, the baronet had given this Kurgan, Bey Miteb (it turned out he wasn’t a noble, he just dressed like one), all the strategic information we had about the Hazat on Vera Cruz in return for information about Hira and the Kurgan Caliphate in general…nothing strategic mind you, but it was a whole lot of Lost Worlds, and the baronet hoped that finding all this out would be Good for Him Later.

What’s this got to do with Sal, you ask? Well, for one thing, our whole platoon got a Meritorious Unit Citation for not having gone hostile right away, and I got me a shiny Order of the Hawk for having played charades with a foreign nob. I also got promoted to Corporal and given my choice at next duty assignment. I felt bad for all of about two and a half minutes, but I knew I was saying goodbye to my platoon of buddies. I had been shot at enough, I had dug enough holes and trenches for a lifetime, and I wanted a little bit more protection on the battlefield. I asked to be transferred to Armor.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Trying Not to get Dead a Lot (3)

by Leonidus
Chapter 2: ‘Glorious’ Vera Cruz
Or: Trying Not to Get Dead a Lot

Vera Cruz. My God, I still wake up sometimes thinking I never left that place. Lots of my buddies didn’t. Obviously, since I’m talking to you, I did. Vera Cruz is a wonderful place to visit, provided you ain’t got an assault rifle and a bunch of nobles with dreams of glory ordering you to ‘just take that hill, lads, and it’ll all be over.’ Again, and again, one more hill, one more copse (that’s a fancy word for a small bit of forest), one more village…

The Hazat, for what it’s worth, are fearsome fighters. I swear that a Hazat punk ass kid is worth any handful of other House’s grown men. It’s like insanity is bred into these freaks. They either believe they cannot be killed, or think that the Pancreator is watching directly over them and no harm will befall them. Amazingly enough, it does happen a lot…some Hazat nobling will run forward across the battlefield leading his men on a charge and not get killed. Why is this? Mostly because that Hazat freakazoid will usually only have some kind of pig-sticker while his squad of serfs have assault rifles and killing them is the first priority. But, on a great number of occasions I saw Hazat soldiers take inordinate risks and not die. Whether they are just doing completely unexpected things (who charges a machine gun?) or fate really is smiling upon them, they’ll pull their asses out of spots I would never put myself in in the first place.

But, back to the travelogue. We landed in the Santander province, which was the base of operations for Hawkwood forces on Vera Cruz. This planet was very similar to Ravenna, in that it was a Terra-like planet, but unlike Ravenna, Vera Cruz was almost too ideal. I had that feeling long before I found out that it had been extensively terraformed. So the hand of the Pancreator laying down order was not right, but a Second Republic genius had taken liberal notes from the Pancreator’s diary and decided that he would set some things straight. The first forest we marched through was like an orchard…all the trees in straight lines, and of almost no use to infantry for cover. A few armor units or troops with squad-level lasers or blasters would have chewed us to bits in short order. The air on Vera Cruz was sweet, clear, and other than in habitations, pure. Even Ravenna had a pervading sense of industrial pollution, or maybe cabbages, it’s hard to remember all the way back.

Our task was to support infantry operations in the Ruiz province. There was an armor factory in the provincial capital and instead of bombing the crap out of it, Hawkwood wanted it to use in their war efforts. So, instead of a nice bloodless affair, at least from our perspective, it had turned into a massive infantry campaign. On both sides were infantry, some units of armor, and cavalry. Obviously I was in the first of those, and while armor is impressive, and cavalry is dashing, infantry is none of the above, but I’ll tell you what, we had a much lower casualty rate than either of the others.

But I couldn’t help feeling that those armor boys, even though they were big sitting targets, were on the whole happier. They looked on death by explosives and burning hydrogen or petrol as acts of the Pancreator…something that they could try to avoid but that might sooner or later get them. But they had a moving fort around them. We in the infantry were always scared. Infantry soldiers die of just about anything. Armor takes pretty much a direct hit to kill, for grunts, any close hit will do. And them poor boys riding horses…damn if we didn’t feel sorry for them. You can’t make a horse jump in a foxhole, or better yet dig one. First you’ve got to jump three more feet down to hit the dirt, and then your horse keeps standing there like a big sign saying “shoot here!” They had this whole macho thing going, and some bizarre chivalric code, and we thought that was just to make them feel better. I know every time I saw cavalry coming at us, I shot the freaking horse, then if the horse didn’t break the guy’s legs, I shot him as he tried to get free of the saddle. Poor bastards.

It was there on Vera Cruz that I discovered I had a talent as yet to be discovered. I was observant. I could read signs, as the woodsy types liked to say. I wasn’t a silent hunter, I’ve never been terribly good at sneaking up on stuff, but I could tell where things had gone before me, people, animals, vehicles, and I was very good at spotting things. I was soon put into the role of a scout or point man. Talk about getting punished for being good at something! Let’s see, you’re better at spotting ambushes and noticing stuff, so you get up there Rock, and get shot at first. Yeah, they started calling me Rock back in Boot…you know Roccio…Rocky O…Rock. As nicknames go, it ain’t that bad, and people always assume I’m an idiot, so I get the drop on people sometimes that way. Those months of taking point on patrols got me quick and jumpy. I lived, so I must be good at it, but now I can’t not be quick and jumpy if you know what I mean.

I also killed my first man on Vera Cruz. They say that this image stays with you forever, and will haunt you. Bullshit. I don’t even remember if it was the old guy, the kid or the scout that was my first. I know I killed an old guy, a kid and a scout for sure, I just don’t remember which one came first. I know the kid bugged me for a little while until another punk tried to shoot me in the jimmy after I offered him some water. The old guy was just in the wrong place and not acting innocent enough, and that scout was trying to kill me just as much as I was him. I do remember feeling bad about it, whoever it was that first time, but I got over it in a freaking hurry. Other than them three specific, I shot at a bunch of guys, and probably hit a lot too. Whether I killed them, whether they were just wounded, or whether another guy in my outfit hit them, I’ll never know, and honestly, it’s better that way.

What was the fighting like? Well I can sum it up with pretty much one battle. The battle for Ocho Huevos. I don’t know why that village was called Eight Eggs, but we were supposed to take it for the greater glory of House Hawkwood, and its Hero of the Decade, Alexius. There was an artillery observation post on the hill outside Ocho Huevos and it was my squad’s job to neutralize this before the main assault took place, so that we wouldn’t get crap dropping out of the sky on us. We had to do this quick, and unsupported, because as you might imagine, a large number of men rushing an artillery observation post is pretty much just asking for Big Hunks of Hot Steel to the Face.

I could give you minute detail at this point, but there’s no reason. We snuck up on these bastards. One of them was watchful and Ted put him down good…Ted being the sneakiest bastard of our bunch of bastards. Took him out with a knife. Then we busted in on the post, caught the rest of them guys playing cards, cut them down with swords and axes. Sometimes, the feeling of hacking a guy in half with an axe is just more fulfilling than shooting them. But we did it that way this time because we couldn’t let them get any warning off. Then we flashed three red lights and two green, and our whole company came forward. When they were about halfway across the big empty spots into the village, we found out that there was a squad of tanks in there…well, the rest of the platoon did…the hard way. I saw maybe fifteen guys get splattered in the first couple seconds. Then our platoon scattered and dug in where they could. There were some Hazat radios in the observation post, and after a tense couple minutes while the tanks started crawling out toward everyone we knew, Tom got one of them tuned to the right frequency and we called in artillery. Keep in mind that none of us there in the post was any good at that, but we managed to get more of the tanks killed than our own guys. So the tanks started withdrawing, see, and our platoon headed into the village. We had won, or so we thought. Then, as me and the boys started coming down off of that hill, artillery started falling all over the village. We didn’t know it then, as my squad and me beat feet back to the OP’s bunker, but them damn Hazat had been ready to pull out of that village to give it to us versus fight for it here, and had dialed in the whole place just in case the OP got taken out. Them tankers radioed Hazat command telling them that the manure had hit the oscillating air mover, and they just blew it all to hell. We lost a full third of the platoon, had to pull back, and then the armor boys flanked the Hazat artillery and wiped them out. So, all told, we had taken a cratered dump that used to be a village, gained nothing really and lost a third of our men. That was Vera Cruz for you.

Fun with Military Life (2)

By Leonidus
Re: No One Cries for Peasants

Chapter 1: Fun with Military Life.

Let me tell you, sometimes you think something’s going to be better for you and you’re completely wrong. I almost believed that when I got to Boot Camp on Delphi. Shit, I could write a book about Boot Camp all on it’s lonesome. However, unless you’ve been in a military Boot, it’d be pretty dull, and you wouldn’t get the ‘feel’ of it all. When analyzed long down the road, Boot Camp don’t sound all that bad. What do they do there? They teach you how to fold clothes, how to make your bed, how to shave, shower, dress yourself and be polite. And they make you do a lot of physical fitness drills…running, jumping, climbing, and general exercise. Then they give you pikes and teach you how to march all in a line and do all kinds of interesting things with a large body of men. That’s all the lead-in stuff. Sounds kind of like a summer camp, don’t it?

But it’s the way that they teach you. Teaching, to most people, is a kind, benevolent, relaxed sort of thing. Your Pa teaching you how to fish with long, rambling tales of what his Pa taught him…if you’re noble, some priest teaching you how to write all pretty and junk. Teaching is a kind word. I don’t know what the hell you’d call teaching in Boot, but it ain’t kind. Instructing might be a better term. Instructing is a kind of a cold word and has an edge of menace to it. If I teach you how to walk some place, that’s kind of like me being all warm and patient. If I instruct you how to walk some place, that implies I’m ordering you, and you’d better get it right the first time, you maggot! Boot teaching involves a lot of yelling, cussing and hitting…and punching and beating and cussing some more.

Years down the line, now that I’ve done a little instructing of my own, I understand why they do it the way they do it. All kinds of things involving psychology and tearing down of a person in order to rebuild you in the form that a) they want you to be, and b) in such a way that you don’t get dead as soon as your foot touches a battlefield. But back then, wow, back then I didn’t know a damn thing about it and it ripped me up something good. I thought for sure that my Drill Sergeant was out to personally kill me or make me kill myself to escape him. I made plans with fellow recruits to kill this man, to murder him in his sleep. But as all good Drill Sergeants do, he had so cowed us into believing that he was not only immortal but also the personal avatar of either the Pancreator or some Antiminous beast from the Outer Dark that we never did try.

Unlike a summer camp, they also teach you how to kill men. They teach you how to shoot whatever weapon it is that the People Up Top decide you’re going to shoot. They teach you how to take apart and put together one of these boom-sticks and how to scavenge parts from things like it to use in case yours gets messed up. In the dark. In the rain. While people are throwing grenades all around the mud-filled hole you’re hiding in to keep the training drones from shooting you.

Ah yes. Grenades. They teach you how to use them too, and what a great thing a grenade is. It’s like a whole squad of your buddies that you can throw at the enemy without getting them shot all to hell. A grenade is your best friend, and after all the infantry drills they gave us with maneuvering rifle squads into position and shooting us with fake guns that knock you down and don’t kill you…then they gave us grenades and showed us how to use them. A grenade saves lives, providing you’re the one hucking them and not the ones getting hucked at. Which reminds me. Yes, we got a guy blown up in Boot by one of these. Grenades are your best friend with a hot temper, but just like that buddy, you’ve got to be careful to not piss them off, because they’ll rip your head off just as fast as the enemy’s.

But where was I? Oh yeah, so I made it out of Boot Camp, alive and assigned an assault rifle as an infantry grunt. I had not been fortunate enough to understand a lot of the higher tech gizmos that people used, considering up until Delphi, the most innovative thing I had ever seen was a manual can opener. That and cans was about the most impressive thing our village had ever seen. They had been given to us as a reward for a terrific harvest one year, and we’d gotten a bunch of canned stew as our reward. I know now that this is some of the lowest grade swill turned out by food processing facilities, but back then it had seemed like a feast worthy of kings. But, this being the case, most of the stuff they let me try to use in Boot Camp I had looked at blankly, as if the Pancreator had produced these wondrous things from Heaven and only angels could use them.

So, assault rifle was what they gave me. They helped me learn fancy techniques for fighting with so called ‘primitive’ weapons as well. I was already decent with knife fighting, as that is the weapon of choice for a peasant, but they taught me how to use swords and dirks, which really are just longer knives, but there are distinct differences. Before you get any wrong ideas, they didn’t teach me any of that fancy shit nobles use…a bunch of fancy footwork and pinpoint strikes and such. They taught me down and dirty in close fighting where you’re trying to live, not impress a bunch of foppish people dressed up like girls.

So that’s the training I got before they shipped me off to Vera Cruz to fight the Hazat. We found that out the day they shipped us off, without giving us time to write a letter home (they’d taught me how to read and write enough to get by by that time), even though we were already on Vera Cruz fighting. It wasn’t like it was going to be a big surprise to the Hazat. But who knows why militaries do half the things they do? Either way, Vera Cruz would be the place I would find out if I could hack it in combat, and whether I would live or die.

Life Ill Spent (1)

By Leonidus
No One Cries for Peasants
[Message #1]
or...Sal's Story of a Life Ill-Spent Before I Ended Up with this Bunch of Freaks

----

I can still remember the moment that I decided to leave the predestined path that the Pancreator had set for me. I was plowing a field in the Felson province of Ravenna, home of the Loveridge family. I stared dully at the ass of the brute hauling the plow. Suddenly, it seemed to me as if I was stuck in a painting. Look, if you will as I did then, as little Salvatore follows the business end of a brute. What day is it? What year is it? Does it really matter, I wondered. It’s all the same I thought. One day to the next, one year to the next. I had been following this brute for three years straight. If it kept going as it did, I would follow this hairy ass until it died, then the next one in line until I died.

They speak in church of the Plan…the great Plan that the Pancreator sets for us all at our birth. Personally, I think it’s a load of crap…just a thing to tell the masses so that we all keep our place and don’t question the order that Man, not the Pancreator, has set for the Universe. And the Man had planned that I, Salvatore Roccio, was to follow the ass end of this smelly beast for all my born days so that I could provide grain to Lord Loveridge so that his noble ass could sit and get fat in the manor while fondling all the little girls from the village to pick the one he wanted for his next bang-toy.

Well, just at that minute, I had had enough of this Plan. My dad had had the same Plan made for him, but fate, or whatever, had interrupted this plan in the form of the Emperor Wars. Lord Loveridge, instead of going off to fight for his Hawkwood masters, sent us, his loyal serfs to serve in his stead, as so many nobles do. Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight, as has been said throughout all of eternity. My dear father, funny how death dulled the memories of drinking and beating, had died ten years previous, when I was only five, on some pathetic rock orbiting some shithole star. They never even told us where. “Died in service to the Noble Cause, in a place undisclosed for reasons of State Security…” Cold comfort, those words, to a mother of four kids who needed a man to do the drudgework in the fields. So of course, we children (the Hope of the Future, you know) were put to work and as time went on, we made up for and surpassed the work of our father. But it was still all the same. My brothers didn’t seem to mind the work, and they talked in the small words of the farmer. Weather. Animals. The blights and endless problems of grain growing. My sister was off at one of the manors doing housework and undoubtedly doing a little bedwork for whatever lecherous pig it was she worked for. But I couldn’t…I wouldn’t. This was not for me.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I was meant for Bigger and Better things. I am not, nor ever was, on the road to becoming the valiant hero of any freaking holovid or three-Talon pulp novel. But dying of a stroke in a pile of brute shit, to be plowed under as fertilizer myself? No way, not for this son of a dirt-farmer.

So yeah, anyway, it was 4990 and I was fifteen, when I walked into town and up to the induction sergeant for the glorious House Hawkwood Armed Services. This was the same man who would walk around with a squad of goons to ‘encourage’ peasants to join up when he couldn’t make his quotas. The War was chewing up peasants faster than an al-Malik Viscount at a State-funded buffet, and while we heard Hawkwood was winning (we always heard Hawkwood was winning, truth beside the point), the bone-mill was hungrier than ever. This guy didn’t even ask if I was old enough, he just had me scrawl something that might have been a signature at the bottom of some paper I couldn’t read, made me raise my right hand and swear an Oath before the Pancreator that I would serve loyally and do What I was Told.

Ma didn’t take it well at all. She smacked me around a bit when I told her, then cried and hugged me a bunch. I told her that she still had Vinnie and Tino to labor in the fields, and that maybe I’d get rich off of plunder. She seemed to feel a little better about it then, but she was still ticked that I hadn’t even asked. I apologized but told her that it was too late for me to go back.

See that was the idea. If I’d said something before going, she’d never have let me do it. I had to get off this planet if I was ever going to get away from the Plan. So, now that my fate was sealed, or unsealed depending on how you looked at it, I was freer than I had ever been in my entire life. Service to some officers looked a hell of a lot better than service to a plow. And it was with that misconception in mind that I took my leave of Ravenna forever.

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