Which was why Tanna was both surprised and annoyed when she heard the low growl of jet thrusters pierce the relative quiet of the trees. Picking up her pace, she broke into a dead run until she cleared the top of a ridge, giving her a clear view down into the bowl where she could see her cabin on its foundation near the small glacier lake at the bowl’s bottom. A bright speck of silver wound through the peaks high above, its unusual mechanized noise sending flocks of Clarity avian life scattering into the unpolluted air.
Tanna stood still, her chest pumping and her dog Jimbo pacing excitedly at her feet, occasionally barking at the silver speck as it lowered towards the cabin. Eventually the speck resolved into a small VSTOL transport, the silver craft casting up a fine mist as it hovered over the length of the lake and eventually touched landing gear to the meadow on the cabin’s east. Tanna watched as a squad of camouflaged troops expertly bailed out of the transport’s side doors, double-timing across the grass with rifles at the low ready.
A heavy-caliber pistol itched in the small of Tanna’s back, but she instead pulled off her tiny jogging pack and pulled out the binoculars she always kept inside. Putting them to her eyes she adjusted the range and focus until she could get a better look at the men and women who had quickly surrounded her house.
They’d formed a tight perimeter, each troop taking a knee and gazing outward. The pilot’s door on the transport snapped open and stairs extended down, letting a lone figure in a flight suit slowly step down and begin ambling across the meadow. Tanna watched the tall man walk up the flagstone porch and stop at her front door, rapping a gloved fist on it. When nobody answered, he peeked into some of the windows, looked around to either side of him. Finally he settled gently into the rocking chair that looked out on the lake, and took off his helmet.
Tanna frowned, then she took the binoculars away from her eyes and replaced them in the pack, which she tossed over her shoulders. She restarted her jog, though at an easier pace. It would be a few minutes still before she got home, and she wasn’t going to rush herself on account of these uninvited guests.
Almost half an hour later she came circling around the perimeter of the lake, the armed squad snapping heads and eyes in her direction, but their weapons remaining lowered. They watched her silently as she tromped up the packed earth to her porch. Jimbo went forward at a lope to investigate the pilot who’d taken up residence in the chair.
“Sonofabitch,” the pilot said, extending a hand, which Jimbo sniffed experimentally. Then the dog sat down and wagged his tail happily as the pilot began to scratch Jimbo’s ears. “Isn’t this dog a hundred years old?”
“Clean living counts for a lot, Bruce,” Tanna said as she went to stand beside Jimbo.
The pilot shot up out of the rocking chair — reflexes, from the old days when Tanna had been his boss — and held his arms straight at his sides. Tanna noted the fan of wrinkles around either corner of his eyes, and the increasing amount of silver that had crept into his military-perfect flat-topped haircut. Over his heart — sewn into the fabric of the drab flight suit — was a subdued set of sharp-edged wings: the emblem of the Emancipated Worlds Defense Force, which Tanna and he had co-designed.
“At ease,” Tanna said. “You’ll notice I’m not wearing one of those anymore,” she pointed to the wings.
“Let’s talk about that,” Bruce said, relaxing to parade rest. “Unless you think I came all this way just to go fishing.”
“I put Earth trout in the lake,” Tanna said, indicating with her head over her shoulder.
“I saw them jumping,” Bruce said with a smile. “Whatever bugs they’re eating here on Clarity must be keeping them fat and healthy.”
“Like I said,” Tanna knelt to scratch Jimbo’s head while he panted happily, “clean living.”
“We really do need to talk,” Bruce said, his smile fading. “Can we go inside?”
Tanna closed her eyes and drew a long, slow breath of incredibly clean air, then exhaled and said, “Right.”
She opened the door to her cabin — it had no lock, and only a roughly-crafted wooden handle — and stepped inside. Plentiful skylights shed warm rays across the two-story, open floor plan. Jimbo trotted in, and Tanna’s former executive officer — now supreme commander of the Emancipated Worlds Defense Force, judging by the crests on his collar — stepped in. Bruce looked around approvingly.
“Nice. I can see getting used to this.”
“Yup,” Tanna said, walking to the small kitchen when she pulled a plastic container from the refrigerator and emptied its meaty contents into Jimbo’s bowl on the floor. The dog quickly went to work while Tanna splashed water on her face from the sink, then wiped down with a hand towel. Bruce shut the door and stepped into the living room. “Where do you get meat for the mutt?”
Tanna pointed to the precision-scoped rifle hanging over the huge rock-and-mortar fireplace, its long barrel gleaming in the light.
Bruce grunted. “You’ve got fauna that big up in these mountains?”
“You’d be surprised,” Tanna said. “Some of it doesn’t taste half bad, once you get used to the peculiar gaminess.”
Bruce nodded his head, still staring at the rifle. A bit too long of a silence hung in the air.
“Okay, General Portland,” Tanna said, grabbing a water bottle from her fridge and talking between gulps, “let’s have it. And before you start, I just want to make it clear that whatever proposal you’ve brought, whatever price you’re willing to pay, my answer is no.”
“I figured that,” Bruce said.
“I didn’t work for your ass all those years without learning a thing or two about the way your brain operates. I knew you’d be giving me the negative, even before I broke orbit.”
“I see you still like to take the stick every chance you get. You’re robbing the kids of their flight time.”
“I’ve got a chippy little co-pilot who keeps me honest, besides, too long out of the hot seat and I start to get crabby. Bad for my staff to have me around when I am like that.”
“Uh-huh. So what kind of clusterfuck has the Senate handed you that you want me to come back and fix?”
“It’s not the Senate, Tanna,” Bruce said, still looking at the rifle. His use of her first name — the way he’d set it — suddenly made the hair stand up on end.
“The only thing that could happen to make me come light-years out of my way and disturb your retirement,” Bruce said, turning his sea-blue eyes on her. He wasn’t smiling. Not even a little bit.
Bruce nodded once.
“How bad is it?” Tanna asked.
“They’ve only hit one planet so far,” Bruce said, “using ships bigger than anything you or I have ever seen before. Slagged both poles, down to the goddamned ground.”
“We’re still digging through the rubble, but based on the preliminary report I saw, it’s not likely.”
Tanna placed both hands on the kitchen’s bar top in front of her, and lowered her chin to her chest. Somehow she’d always known it would be like this. Even in 25 years of relative peace, there had always been the lingering knowledge that the Colonial Administration Authority — the titanium-tipped spear of Earth’s United Nations — would not leave the Emancipated Worlds unmolested.
The first few years after the Secession War had been the worst. Little organization, constant fear of reprisal, a mad scramble to put some form of government together between all the squabbling and competing interests of the EW. During which Tanna and Bruce and the other officers had tried to construct a formalized fighting army — something they could throw at the CAA once the CAA got over the shock of seeing itself shamed by a band of rebellious upstarts.
The EW had expected the hits to come fast and hard, and when they didn’t come at all, everyone in the nascent Senate relaxed — which put the Defense Force on the back burner. Tanna, as nominal commandant, had been given a limited budget of supplies and manpower, told to soldier on as best as she was able. She lasted exactly fifteen years, before the collective stupidity of the Senate drove her to resign. She’d grown weary of playing Chicken Little for that group of bureaucratic assholes. The Secession War had been too quick and too easy. None of the Senators had had to shed blood or lose friends.
“How ready are we?” Tanna said, not looking up.
“I’m no slouch,” Bruce said. “I’ve managed to squeeze a lot out of the rocks they give me.”
“Pebbles,” Tanna corrected him.
“It’s a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty thing,” Bruce said. “Anyway, we’re lucky they only got one planet, and an unimportant one at that.”
“New Mojave. Sparse population. Peripheral to the economy. Sort of like Clarity, only arid, and on the other side of the EW, close to the Gulf.”
The Gulf being the hundred light-year thickness of relatively sterile star systems which separated the EW from the rest of human space. Few terrestrial planets to speak of, and no clement worlds anywhere in that stretch — clement worlds being essential to make colonization and infrastructure easily sustainable. The cosmologists called it “banding,” and it had been one of the surprising aspects of galactic topography, once humanity got outside the solar system — a supposed artifact of galactic arm formation, like ridges in the sand on the bottom of a shallow lagoon.
In many ways the Gulf had insulated the EW, both before and after the Secession War. If the CAA was making an effort now to cross the Gulf, even if only for a punitive expedition, it meant that the years of undisturbed silence between the CAA and the EW were over.
“New Mojave is an excalamation point,” Tanna said, her mind suddenly and unintentionally beginning to churn on the ramifications of the attack. “They’re going to try and scare the Senate into submission. ‘Glass the planet,’ like we used to say back in our CAA days. Get the EW government to shit its pants, and cry uncle.”
“That’s what it seems like, yes ma’am.”
“You said they’re using bigger ships?”
“They left one of New Mojave’s stations in orbit,” Bruce said. “As a witness. I’ve seen some images and telemetry of the fleet that hit us. The Peacekeeper General Command hasn’t sat on its hands. Not by a damn sight. They’ve developed some real dragons. Fire-breathers.”
“While we’re still pissing around with our converted crop of police wagons,” Tanna said bitterly.
“More or less,” Bruce coughed. “But like I said, I’ve managed to get some mileage out of what little the Senate has given me. And I think we might find more surprises among the Disassociated.”
“What do they care if the CAA is coming to kick our asses?”
“As soon as news of New Mojave reached my office,” Bruce said, “I dispatched couriers to the closest libertarian ports. The Senate might have been content to sit on its hands, but I wouldn’t bet on that being true of our eccentric cousins to coreward.”
The Disassociated were rogue colonies begun after the Secession War had ended. Peoples and parties who’d been interested in the battle just long enough to be sure that the CAA was out of their hair, then they’d high-tailed for the unexplored, unsettled deepness of space. They’d wanted nothing to do with the formation of the Senate or the re-invention of the many bureaucracies necessary for running a multi-planet, multi-system government. Bureaucracies everyone had grown to hate when all of humanity had been carefully pressed under the Colonial Authority thumb.
“Sounds like you’re doing everything I’d do in your place,” Tanna said, slowly raising her head. “So why in the hell come out here to talk to me?”
“You’re the missing piece,” Bruce said, arms out and palms facing upward in appeal. “You’re the name everyone remembers from the war — especially the Disassociated. You were at Morrowdown when we beat the last Authority fleet. You’re the Heroine of the Emancipated Worlds.”
Tanna barked a single, harsh, mocking laugh. Heroine. That was a title she’d had foisted on her in the wake of the war. When the politicians had needed something — someone — to cheer about, as the new economy danced with collapse and half or more of the population of the EW was seriously considering whether or not to trashcan the whole rebellion thing, and go back to the CAA with hat in hand. Her first year as commandant, she’d allowed herself to be dragged on a tour of every planet in the union — a tedious and exhausting affair filled with glad-handing and so many fake smiles, she’d thought her face would crack and fall off. She’d done it under protest, and just the thought of re-adopting that mantle made her stomach turn.
But… that was only part of the answer
“So you need me as a showpiece only?” Tanna said skeptically.
“They need you as a showpiece, the Senate. I need you more, though. It’s been an okay job, running a small peacetime military. I’m an okay administrator. But I never deluded myself that I’d be the right man to lead the Defense Force when the shit hit the fan. It’s why, wherever you went, whatever you did after you retired, I always kept track of you.”
“So you could blow your trumpet, and I’d just come running? Bruce, I thought you said you knew I’d say no?”
“I did know you’d say no,” he said. “But I also thought that if I presented enough evidence, maybe you’d think twice about your decision, and give me a reluctant yes.”
Jimbo had turned quiet, sensing the mood in the room. He padded over to Tanna’s feet and sat on his haunches, a tiny whimper in his throat as he looked at his visibly distressed mistress. Tanna looked down at him, her loyal companion, then up at Bruce, who had hung on her hip since she’d gotten her first command over thirty years prior. For a split second, she couldn’t quite tell the two apart — fierce loyalty being the best quality of any dog, or any XO for that matter.
How could she say no to either of them?
She reached down and affectionately tugged at one of Jimbo’s drooped ears.
“You’ll be working for scraps,” Tanna said, not quite sure for whom she meant the comment.
“Fresh,” Bruce said, showing teeth for the first time. “Not out of a can.”
“Never out of a can,” Tanna said, hating the resignation that had overtaken her. She’d steeled herself for ten years, to keep herself from getting dragged back into the hornets nest. But all her old friend had had to do, was show up, and that had been enough.
“Fine, fuck it, where do we start?”
Bruce pulled out a pad from the inner pocket on his flight suit, and presented it to Tanna. She looked at the first page on the display — details of the reactivation of her commission — and pressed her index finger to the recognizer.
“Welcome back, General Noribatu,” Bruce said.
“Stop smiling, before I knock your teeth in.”