They all realized that they were not in Uzbekistan when they woke up; they'd lined up for a shot and then proceeded into a waiting area. They'd been told that they would feel 'drowsy' from the shot.
Understatement of the year. They had several hours to get their shit together and get squared away -- walls were 'bulkheads' and floors were 'the deck' and latrines were 'the head.' That meant they were on a ship of some kind, but not anything anyone had ever served on before, and within the company, there were people that'd served on all kinds. Actually, this place was quieter than a ship, more sleekly furnished, with carpeted floors, and the rooms were fitted out like nice hotel rooms, or cruise ship accommodations. That was a far cry from the dusty, drab-colored, pitted concrete familiarity of post-Soviet decay, the lazy governance of an autocrat whose only investment was in well-equipped security forces to keep the people from demanding a better quality of life. The sterile, neutral air replaced the expected smell of fuel and bad sanitation.
When a call for assembly was made, the contractors were guided into a large audience room with a brushed steel dome overhead, made seemly of curved, overlapping plates, like a large Venetian blind. The commander of Centurion's force, Lieutenant General Alexander Mann, who was well past his retirement age -- the man served in Vietnam, Desert Storm, and was then retained by MRPI as one of the primary advisors for the Croatian war against the Serbians in the 1990's, which was a stunning success. But he was well past his expiration date, or so it was thought, but the old guy showed up during the training Centurion made everyone go through in Guyana looking something of the order of thirty years younger than he actually was, fit and strong.
It was the subject of rumors. And then, they lined up for the Jonestown koolaid shot and wound up in some metal box somewhere.
"All of you no doubt have questions, and this goes easier if I explain precisely where we are. Hit the switch."
All of a sudden, the ceiling started to peel back, plate by plate, revealing an utterly foreign panorama of inky black pierced by points of light, and, prominently in the foreground, a planet of emerald and purple and cloudy white.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, we are not in Uzbekistan. We are orbiting the planet Qadah, which we are hired to defend. That is the bad news as far as most of you are concerned. But here is the good news -- when you get back to Earth, you will all be multimillionaires. That's right, this job isn't what you signed on for, but you're getting paid a lot more than what you signed on for if you decide to stay on. I regret the bait and switch, but I couldn't just call you all to assembly in Guyana and tell you this. You had to see this," he waved to the planet overhead.
He paused to let the ideas sink in, and for the audience to catch itself before carrying on, "At this point, some of you are thinking, 'hey, I didn't sign on for this bullshit.' That's true, and we can give you the same hibernation shot you got to get you up here and be put back on ice. You will be shipped back with the contract pay you agreed to and no hard feelings. The rest of us will carry on." He seemed to manage to express a vague sense of contempt, "For the rest of us, we have a job to do. Our employers are the Grathik race. They are primarily scientists. They are snobbish and elitist ivory tower types on steroids, but they are brainy. They seem to think that we are their best hope for salvation against their enemies."
He paused again, "They are paying top dollar for top talent. You have a choice -- go home with a nice little payday or stay on, make history and huge money. This is the final frontier and this is no TV show."
Danny sat in that seat next to Soraya and Gideon, behind Brian and the Gunny, and the others were nearby -- dysfunctional at time, a squad was still a family, and this was a trying time, which was precisely why you wanted to be near the family. There was a sense of community there. You didn't always like everyone in it, but there was a sense of obligation involved. The entire place was murmuring now, apparently arguing a bit in hushed tones, but Danny took no part in the actual proceedings -- he knew how he was going to go on this one.
"Those of you who wish to leave now may do so; you will be safely conducted back to Earth. But only a few did -- the overwhelming majority, who'd been screened ahead of time for their suitability to the mission, stayed. Once those few had been herded out by the MP's, the briefing continued. "Our employers, the Grathik, are not fighters, and their war has gone on for a few decades. Initially, their enemies were much as they are, fairly hapless in a fight. But that changed when their primary enemy, the Plashi, hired a race called the Salvesh to fight. The Salvesh are a lot like us, they are on two legs and they evolved from predators. The Grathik tried to put another race, the Pilavians, into the fight, but it didn't work. They tried to build robots and that didn't work. So now they're hiring professionals to fight professionals."
There were slides of the aforementioned races; a picture of a one-eyed tentacle monster, a picture of something that looked like a teddy ferret that had cute eyes and fur, but with sharp teeth and little claws, and then a huge monstrosity that looked like a cross between crab and snail, eyestalks, a toothless slime-secreting orifice where a mouth was supposed to be, clawed appendages and one huge shell that overlapped like that of a scorpion, albeit lacking the tail. Then there was the Salvesh, male and female, one 30% larger than human norm with a huge crest, and the other about the size of the average human male.
"Our enemies, the Salvesh, are well-regarded interstellar mercenaries. They are evolved pack hunters, with a high degree of gender dimorphism. Each pack is its own small army. We are not fighting a large army, we're fighting a bunch of small tribes of warriors that work together somewhat. Some of you remember the sort of loose alliances of guerrillas you've fought in the middle east, this is similar, but it's very different..."
In another spacecraft in another star system, another briefing was being conducted, but the audience had tusks, snouts, three eyes, four arms, tails. The males had long ridges of hair atop their heads, a plumage that was a point of pride and competition for grooming among males, while the females were far more drab and smaller. They were seated by their packs, with space between the packs, because the rivalry among packs, group marriages that functioned as self-sufficient military units in the field, were fierce and no one wanted fighting in the War Room -- there was a huge and dazzling array of holographic maps and intelligence displayed for reading and downloading, though that was primarily the task of the females -- among them, it was the females that handled the staff work, that dealt with logistics and were responsible for deciding how to handle everything up to the fighting. The males were pointed in the right direction and let go. But the males led in the fight, and so it was a male giving a speech.
"The Grathik are desperate, and it shows. They've uplifted some backwater race and are telling us that these things are dangerous soldiers." Jaka paused to make a loud snort out of all four nostrils, "you know what that means. They've thrown in some cannon fodder savages to fight the inevitable merger. These hairless, clawless, blunt-toothed louts evolved from a class of animals that swings from trees, eats yellow plants that resemble our male sex organs and fling excrement from each other. That should tell you everything you need to know about these slaves the Grathik have brought for a last ditch defense."
"Some of you may well be concerned, this is a new species we've never seen before, but the Plashi have provided some intelligence footage captured from their planet's broadcasts." He started pointing to the briefing holos, which showed clips of Survivor, Big Brother and the Apprentice "As you can see, they compete among each other, but have no pack organization and no sense of community responsibility. They constantly backbite each other. They whine a lot. I'm not impressed by this race. In fact, I'm slightly insulted that anyone thinks these humans are anything but a pest we can sweep away. By the time we land, they'll be pulling each other's hair and gnawing at each other with those blunt teeth. Before anyone tries to claim him, the orange haired one, this Donald Trump, is regrettably not among them, though his scalp would make an amusing trophy. Neither," he added, "is Kim Kardashian."
After a half hour of watching "Keeping up with the Kardashians," the assembly of Salvesh were particularly eager to finish her off. There were groans of disappointment.
Yet another show was put up on the screens, a Japanese game show. The audience of assembled Salvesh warriors started roaring in laughter, but once it died down, Jaka continued the briefing, "This race are not fighters. They are entertaining buffoons. They grovel and abase themselves before audiences for scraps of cloth to adorn themselves with and try to avoid hard work. They are delusional, which you knew because they've agreed to fight us. Maybe the Grathik decided that hiring actors was cheaper than hiring warriors. On the other hand, watch out, these humans apparently are grandiose and delusional, and you can expect silly stunts out of them."
"Nonetheless, despite the insult to our dignity that this feeble defense represents, we have a job that we are contractually obligated to do. Our employers want these mercenaries torn to pieces for Xhol'H news because it'll make the merger go easier, so that's what we're going to do. Also, it's good for business if we make sure to remind everyone that we are the best. This ought to raise the rate for future contracts, or at least that's what my wife says, and I have to agree with her if I want to be fed tonight," That brought on a bit of laughter from the Salvesh assembled, "All that aside, I am now accepting bids for the first landings."
There was a howl of packmasters bidding their forces against these pitiful humans, eager for the glory of sacking the Grathik -- to establish a base on their homeworld's moon was likely to be the final offensive of the war. Once established on Saina, they knew that the Grathik down on Qadah would have no choice to surrender or face slaughter from lunar-launched kinetic weaponry. And everyone knew that the one-eyed mad scientists had no taste for warfare. This was a victorious final battle, the end of a long campaign. The Salvesh wanted to collect their pay bonuses.
Saina, Qadah's moon, was something of a homeworld to the Pilavians working for the Grathik, and but they seemed to be hiding, battening down their hatches to survive the invasion as the spoils of war in a new Plashi empire. The Pilavians were...well, they were nice enough, but a timid people. They'd fought, but they'd largely surrendered when thrown into it, and the Plashi were smart enough to offer a good deal for not resisting too much. Now there were families out there with hostages taken by the enemy.
The planet was heavily terraformed; landmasses moved and created, water converted from ice for the effort. It was a masterpiece of Grathik ecological technology, and designed as a living space for the Pilavians, who were very similar in their genetic makeup to humans...though that meant very little -- they shared proteins, basically. Along the equator, it was farms, made to produce Grathik and Pilavian food for all the different planets the Grathik used to hold, before the Salvesh took most of their planets in the name of the Plashi, and a lot of wilderness -- largely grassland, hills, long sight lines but some scrub foliage. It was a rather open sort of terrain, much like the African bush, with knots of treelike plants that resembled huge bunches of dill weed rather than having traditional leaves as humans knew them. Under Grathik orders, the Pilavians started seeding flowers...and the Salvesh had chemicals deployed to destroy them, detesting, most especially of all plant life, flowers. Fields of wild grasslike plants gave way to fields of food and the occasional Pilavian home, built into the ground like a burrow...quickly dubbed by some geek as "Hobbitholes."
Danny knew this much -- it was a hot bitch out there, and he was sweating in it.
There were some reliable Pilavians among the Grathik's support system for the Human mercenaries, but they seemed awkward and unsure in the presence of these human beings -- they kept their distance, not wanting to piss off the Salvesh when they landed, and only did as much as they were told when they were told and when they were watched. The Grathik had them followed by surveillance drones and seemed adept at doing the big brother thing, but even that could only go so far.
Danny sort of liked the Pilavians -- it turned out that a lot of humans did. Maybe it was because they were short, cute, furry and not threatening, and their cubs were cute. But they were fast breeding, poor and desperate, so they became clients of the Grathik. If the Plashi and the Salvesh won, they'd change masters. They had no real horse in this fight, and so they were doing what they had to in order to survive.
It was, as the squad batman, little K'tikki said, "We are not a race that fights for survival. We breed in great numbers and attempt to persevere through our calamities." The attitude made Danny, as an Israeli, sad, because it came from a tan-furred little alien with dark mask markings around the eyes and snout -- four eyes but otherwise very cartoonish -- that sounded just like a ghetto Jew from Poland in the 19th century.
That hadn't been the squad's only exposure to aliens -- the Grathik themselves were disgusting, but they'd only really been addressed by their grand high sociologist, the one that was responsible for hiring humans and seemed to be gurgling with joy at the idea of speaking to humans. He was, as far as he was aware, one of a handful of the Grathik on planet, and it was odd to speak to one, because they were not as easy to relate to as K'tikki was. The tentacle monster seemed intent on watching the proceedings first hand, though it had claimed that it watched humanity since the first radio broadcasts revealed the race to the Grathik. General Mann seemed to be well-acquainted with that particular tentacle monster; the thing had come to watch their squad do a mock drill, and even spoke words of Hebrew to him. "The others think you are not the equal of the Salvesh, they have watched so many of our worlds be taken by them, but I know humanity best of us all, and I have faith in your abilities. I am as proud of you as I am of my offspring..." It seemed a strange comment from a being that employed them as cannon fodder, but he was an academic -- the entire race were professor types -- and he sounded either mad, genius or both. His father was a professor, he'd met other academics that got that way over their projects, obsessions, life work.
The present, however, was an actual reconnaissance and security patrol, intended to deny the enemy eyes on Centurion's facilities on planet, as well as, secondary objective, to deploy a sensor net on the ground along routes the Salvesh might use in the course of their own operations, given approximate landing zones and anticipated targets of the Salvesh. After a week of familiarization with Saina, the first combat landings of Salvesh had started and the squad was mounting a patrol to smoke them out, and it was Danny on the point of the squad column, eyes open, ears open, weapon held in hands. He'd pause occasionally and visually sweep, particularly as they came upon distinct features of the landscape that might serve as ideal cover or an ideal position of concealment -- he did not want to get sucked into an ambush. They navigated around the hills and positions where they would be silhouetted for long distances. B was leading, while A was behind, keeping an eye on the flanks.
It was hot work, easy to fuck off on, but a bad idea to do so. Daydreaming was not his way. Instead, he counted. Steps, features of the terrain, taking note of the ground as they passed it for future reference. When he had a good position of concealment, he took a knee and took stock of the area. And it was as they were moving through those trees with that feathery leaf type, like dill, that Danny made the signal for the entire squad to halt.
He didn't move fast, but he got into a low crouch, his weapon up before him, though his finger was off the trigger and laying against the guard, a precaution against the sort of accidental discharge that'd really fuck them hard in this situation. He had the Israeli-style camouflage net on his helmet, the kind that broke up the shape of the head. Every military had their camouflage studies, but the IDF, for whatever reason, adopted the net thing for the helmet, and it had its advocates. He'd gotten his 416 in a flat dark earth color, which was more naturally occurring than black, and made a degree more sense. He had a high degree of confidence in his visual concealment. But it was an unknown enemy, unknown habits.
"Riddler," he hissed on the comms -- Brian got the heads up first, but the squad leader and other team leader were probably on the freq anyway. "I've got multiple hostile contacts. Three-wait, four enemies emerging from cover at eleven o'clock, range 250 meters, moving into our ten o'clock. More emerging, I count...uh, six more. Squad strength Salvesh, still moving in the same direction. They do not seem to have detected us."