Close to seven years ago, Gideon was still serving in the Colonial Infantry Corps, still wearing his twinned suns with pride, and still leading the 12th Company, a specialized unit loosely attached to the 63rd Regiment.
Specialized, in that Quinn’s Dirty Dozen tended to be deployed where and when a situation called for what the brass referred to as non-conventional warfare, and what Gideon referred to as crime.
Which made sense, given that Gideon had grown up dodging on the means streets of Tesla before signing on to the Corps. Once in the infantry, his unique approach to tactics got him noticed, and, surprising no one more than himself, promoted to full colonel.
Until the day everything went well and truly swarm.
“Why is it so smogging hot in Treicember?”
Gideon found it best to ignore the question put forth by Corpsman Walsingham because, to Walsie, a day without bitching was like a day without sunsshine.
He glanced up to where the suns did indeed blaze hotly, then forward to the rippling savanna, fragrant with flowering shrubs, and humming with insect life.
A flurry of butterflies danced over a clump of sage as he passed, and in the distance, a herd of mammoths slogged across the plain.
He adjusted the strap of his crysto-plas rifle, slung over his left shoulder, then that of his sword, which lay crossways over his back, as both tended to chafe through the thin fabric of his shirt.
Walsie wasn’t wrong. It was hot.
Hot enough that the entire company had stripped down to shirt sleeves, the iconic Corps long-coats rolled up and strapped under their packs.
“How could it not be hot,” Gideon heard Lt. Fehr reply to Walsingham’s question with one of his own, “when we are so near the equator?”
“Yeah, sir, I get that, but, it’s Treicember. That’s winter,” Walsie added helpfully, in case the LT was unaware of the season.
“Near the equator,” Fehr said, also helpfully, in case the Corpsman was unclear of their location.
“And?” Walsingham asked.
Gideon’s mouth twitched into an almost smile. He had more experience with Corpsman Walsingham than Fehr, who’d only transferred to the 12th Company from Colonel Singh’s 8th two months past.
“Do they not offer geography in the Dodge schools?” Fehr asked in his turn.
“They might offer it, sir, but I sure didn’t take it.”
“And so much is made clear,” Fehr said.
“Nothing, Corpsman. Carry on.”
Gideon looked over as Fehr jogged up to join him.
“The corpsman was joking, was he not?”
Gideon’s almost-smile became the real thing. “I wouldn’t count on it. Walsie’s a basic soul.”
He watched to see how Fehr would respond. Not only because he was Gideon’s second-in-command but because, besides being the finest swordsman in the regiment, Eitan Fehr was known to be a great believer in education.
According to the scuttlebutt, Fehr had taken his third levels at Chandrasekhar University in Fuji before joining the Corps against his family’s wishes. He even carried a few books in his pack, and not the penny dreadfuls the enlisteds pored over, but actual books; tomes covering everything from the astronomy of the Tycho/Nemesis system to ancient Earth politics to crystal-origin theory.
“Is he at least aware Fortune revolves around the suns?” Fehr asked, daring a glance behind, to where Walsingham had fallen back to walk alongside Sergeant Mulowa.
The sergeant was currently holding forth on the merits of her crossbow vs. Walsie’s plasma rifle for distance accuracy.
“I’ve never bothered to ask,” Gideon said, keeping half an ear behind (such discussions could get heated), while both eyes continued to skim over the landscape around them.
Not that the plains held any surprises. Unless the enemy were disguised as that herd of mammoths, they were alone out here. Satisfied, he continued. “I wouldn’t worry, Lieutenant. Walsie may not be much for the big picture, but he can read a compass, field strip his rifle blindfolded, and smell a hostile two hundred meters off. He’s basic,” he repeated his earlier estimation, “but solid.”
The younger man didn’t question Gideon’s judgment, though his expression showed some doubt. Which was fine. Gideon didn’t want a second who accepted everything his superior said as Apian Law.
From what he’d seen of the lieutenant thus far, Fehr would take his superior’s opinion under consideration, observe Corpsman Walsingham, and make his own assessments as to the man’s worth.
Much as Gideon had considered Fehr’s worth when he first requested assignment to the 12th. So far, the lieutenant’s performance gave him no reason to complain, and every reason to believe he’d soon earn a command of his own.
In fact, Gideon suspected Fehr’s transfer request came from his prior commander’s tendency to hold on to a good officer, preferring to lose them to the enemy than to promotion.
Wisely, Fehr preferred a different career track, and wanted it enough to break protocol by approaching Gideon directly about the transfer. That he was willing to think outside the hive was, for Gideon, the first mark in the young risto’s favor, and one of the reasons Gideon put his weight behind the transfer.
For a time they continued on, each conversant with his own thoughts and, in Gideon’s case, a mental review of the region’s map. If Sergeant Mulowa’s reckoning was correct, and Nbo Mulowa’s reckoning was always correct, the company would be reaching the rendezvous point before end of day—their ninth since being pulled off a covert demolitions job in northern Midas.
Only the past two days had been on foot. Prior to that, the 12th had been airlifted from the Midas border by the Atlas, a civilian cargo ‘ship conscripted for the purpose of the mission. The Atlas dropped the Dirties ninety klicks shy of Nasa’s border two days ago, with sealed orders that Gideon cracked open only after the Atlas took flight, and then summarily burned once read by himself and Lt. Fehr.
“Is this usual?” Fehr had asked as the blackened paper curled in on itself.
“No,” Gideon told him, “not the usual.”
Which was saying something, given the Dirty Dozen tended to receive the bear dog’s share of oddball missions.
Seen on paper, the company’s record could be read, depending on one’s point of view, as impressive, appalling, or just plain draco-shit crazy. But everyone agreed, Gideon’s Dirty Dozen got results.
Like the time last year when Command needed an Adidas supply shipment destroyed, it was the 12th who were sent in to do the needful.
It being the middle of December, however, Gideon decided at the last minute that the regiment could use those supplies, (winter campaigns being tough on the troops). So instead of destroying the target, he’d commandeered the thing and, with far more luck than skill, flown it back to Epsilon base, where he discovered exactly how difficult landing an airship could be.
To be fair, as he later told a chuckling Dani, those particular barracks were near to collapse anyway.
Shortly thereafter, he and the team exfiltrated a general’s wife who’d gotten herself left behind when the general’s regiment suddenly evac’d from their post at the northeast front.
Once the wife got home, the company was immediately shipped out to perform some carefully timed sabotage along the Hewlett border, and then again to safeguard a shipment of weapons’ grade crystal to their Stolichnayan allies, and then on a series of short recon missions in Adidas.
One such mission had taken them well behind enemy lines—into Exxon province—where they intercepted a Coalition courier.
This courier, who chose to commit suicide by drawing his sword on Fehr, turned out to be carrying intel from a Coalition spy inside the United Colonies, who went by the code name Odile.
It still rankled Gideon, how he’d been taken out of the loop before he could determine if this was a case of misinformation, meant to keep the UC forces chasing their own tails, or if this Odile person actually existed.
Because it continued to nag at him during the rare moments the 12th spent back at base, Gideon poked around Corps Internal Operations, hoping for some word on the whole Odile thing. As the discovering officer, Gideon reasoned, he should be read in on the investigation.
CIOD disagreed, but that didn’t keep Gideon from continuing to poke.
It was also in one of those rare moments on base that Gideon found a letter waiting, a thank-you note from Madame General Rand, the wife rescued by the 12th some weeks prior.
The note, written on personalized, non-recycled paper, was scented with something spicy and subtle and, he thought, cunning.
If a fragrance could be thought of as cunning, anyway.
After a generic “You're quite welcome” reply to the letter, he thought himself clear, but then another letter arrived, and another… and another.
Bold as he might be in the field, Gideon’s courage faltered in the face of an unwanted admirer.
Rather than deal with the unsought attention, he tossed the letters into the recycling bin and tried to forget their existence.
In fact, Gideon did such a good job at forgetting that he was more than a little surprised when Madame General Rand herself appeared in his quarters one day (opening a door Gideon was certain he’d locked), to find Gideon engaged in a fairly intense reunion with Dani while her assigned ‘ship underwent repairs.
Luckily for Gideon, both women possessed a decent sense of humor.
Both also chided him for not responding honestly to Celia’s (Madame General Rand had a first name, even if Gideon refused to use it) letters in the first place, as that would have certainly cleared the matter up, once and for all.
He then found himself sitting between the two of them over tea, feeling overly tall, and overly crude between the polished, aristocratic Celia Rand and the elegant, classically educated Dani.
Not that the women paid him any mind. They were too busy bonding over Gideon’s many quirks and failings, though Celia agreed with Dani that his views on marriage and monogamy were more charming than repressive, which then set them off on the concept of how pre-Fortune social mores continued to thrive in modern times.
The only thing that saved him was a teleph from Command, informing him of another assignment.
By the time he was on his way out the door, the two women had moved on to dissecting his stubbornness, most lately displayed by Gideon’s need to inflict himself on Internal Operations and the search for Odile.
That uncomfortable tea was the last Gideon heard of Celia Rand, and he and Dani had only seen each other one other time since, a hurried goodbye before he and his company hopped a scout ‘ship to the Midas border.
It was shortly after they debarked from the scout that Gideon’s radio operator got another comm, telling them to hold for further orders. These new orders, bearing General Rand’s mark, were delivered by the Atlas, the same airship which then ferried the company to Nasa.
As to said orders, the 12th was to meet up with one of Rand’s exploring officers.
It was stated, in the mission specs now burned to ash, the officer bore information hinting at the true identity of Odile. Such information, of necessity, needed to be delivered in person, lest Odile (whoever that was) came to learn they’d been discovered.
In reality, Gideon couldn’t help but wonder if this assignment somehow came by way of General Rand’s wife.
Appearances aside, maybe she harbored some ill will over Gideon’s fumbling rejection. Or maybe General Rand was more in tune with pre-Fortune views on monogamy than his wife believed.
Gideon blinked, clearing the sweat from his eyes and convoluted thoughts from his brain.
Far more likely, he told himself, the 12th got this job for the simple and thoroughly un-sinister reason that the Dirty Dozen got the job done.
So why, he wondered, ducking a bee the size of his thumb, did he have the feeling someone had set their sights on the back of his neck?
The uneasiness persisted for another two hours, easing only slightly when the company entered a forested apiary running along the edge of the Nasa escarpment, where Rand’s exploring officer was to join them.
“Betsim,” Fehr swore as he looked over the edge of the cliff to the river valley far below.
“Keepers,” Walsingham swallowed and eased away from the drop.
“Mulowa,” Gideon called back to his sergeant, “set up camp. No fires. Carver.” He turned to the radio operator, who’d just come to a halt, her dark face shining with perspiration as she unseated her equipment (almost half her own size), which she carried with her day in and day out. “Set up your kit and listen for chatter. If there’s enemy movement anywhere near this little slice of heaven, I want to know about it. Lieutenant Fehr, set the watch and make sure everyone knows the EO’s password. Our man could be here anytime.”