Valor's Choice, page 1
Raves for Valor’s Choice:
“Want mystery, courage, humor, and suspense—wrapped in grab-you-by-the-throat excitement? Look no further! Huff’s latest provides all this and more. Don’t plan anything else once you’ve opened this book.”
—Julie E. Czerneda, award-winning SF author
“As a heroine, Kerr shines. She is cut from the same mold as Ellen Ripley of the Aliens films: tough but humane, fiercely protective of her charges, and utterly determined to prevail. Like her heroine, Huff delivers the goods. Valor’s Choice does not make light of war, but at the same time it is incredibly fun to read. Howlingly funny and very suspenseful. I enjoyed every word.”
“The action is solid, and the Marines are an entertaining mix of oddballs…led by the highly competent and eminently likeable Staff Sergeant Kerr…a rousing military adventure.”
“An intriguing alien race, a likeable protagonist, a fast moving plot, and a rousing ending. What more could you ask for?”
—Science Fiction Chronicle
“This book is Rendezvous with Rama for the rest of us: exciting, mysterious and full of action and puzzles to solve. Torin is everything you want in an action heroine (or hero, for that matter), and this book will leave readers anxious for her next adventure.”
The Confederation Novels:
A CONFEDERATION OF VALOR omnibus:
VALOR’S CHOICE | THE BETTER PART OF VALOR
THE HEART OF VALOR
SMOKE AND SHADOWS
SMOKE AND MIRRORS
SMOKE AND ASHES
THE QUARTERS NOVELS, VOL 1 omnibus:
SING THE FOUR QUARTERS | FIFTH QUARTER
THE QUARTERS NOVELS, VOL 2 omnibus:
NO QUARTER | THE QUARTERED SEA
The Keeper’s Chronicles:
SUMMON THE KEEPER
THE SECOND SUMMONING
LONG HOT SUMMONING
OF DARKNESS, LIGHT AND FIRE
WIZARD OF THE GROVE omnibus:
CHILD OF THE GROVE | THE LAST WIZARD
Copyright © 2000 by Tanya Huff
All Rights Reserved
Cover art by Jody Lee.
DAW Book Collectors No. 1148.
DAW Books are distributed by Penguin Group (USA).
All characters and events in this book are fictitious.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
First Printing, April 2000
DAW TRADEMARK REGISTERED
U.S. PAT. OFF. AND FOREIGN COUNTRIES
HECHO EN U.S.A.
This one’s for Sheila, ’cause she was willing to take a chance.
And for Gord Rose and David Sutton and Leslie Dicker and all the other men and women who actually do the work in military organizations worldwide.
Also for my father who, during the Korean War, made Chief Petty Officer. Twice.
Table of Contents
A writer and philosopher of the late twentieth century once said, “Space is big.” There are three well-known corollaries to this. The first is that the number of planets where biological accidents occurred in the correct order to create life is small. The second is that the number of planets where life managed to overcome the odds and achieve sentience is smaller still. And the third is that many of these sentient life-forms blow themselves into extinction before they ever make it off their planet of origin.
If space is big and mostly uninhabited, it should be safe to assume that any life-forms who really didn’t get along could avoid spending time in each other’s company.
Unfortunately, the fact that said life-forms could avoid each other doesn’t necessarily mean that they would.
When the Others attacked systems on the borders of Confederation territory, Parliament sent out a team of negotiators to point out that expansion in any other direction would be more practical as it would not result in conflict. The negotiators were returned in a number of very small pieces, their ship cleverly rigged to explode when it would do the most damage.
The Confederation found itself at a disadvantage. Its member races had achieved an interstellar presence only after they’d overcome the urge to destroy themselves or any strangers they ran into. Evidence suggested the Others had flung themselves into space without reaching this level of maturity. Clearly, in order to survive, the Confederation would have to recruit some more aggressive members.
Humans had a bare-bones space station and a shaky toe-hold on Mars when the Confederation ships appeared. Some fairly basic technology by Confederation standards, combined with the information that the Others were heading Earth’s way, convinced humanity to throw its military apparatus into space where they took to interstellar warfare the way the H’san took to cheese.
Some one and a half centuries of intermittent war later, borders had shifted, and Humans had been joined by first the di’Taykan and then the Krai. Much of the military terminology introduced into the Confederation’s common tongue remained Human although, as the three races became increasingly more integrated, di’Taykan and Krai words began creeping in. The Krai, for example, had sixteen useful adjectives describing the impact of an antipersonnel weapon on a soft target.
Although the induction of younger and more aggressive species had undeniably solved the problem presented by the Others, it had also irrevocably changed the face of the Confederation. Feeling just a little overwhelmed, many of the original species spent their spare time sighing and reminiscing about the good old days.
Reveillie was not the best thing to have reverberating through one’s skull after a night of too much and too little in various combinations. Making a mental note to change the program to something less painfully intrusive, Torin tongued the implant and tried to remember how to open her eyes during the five blessed seconds of silence before the first of her messages came in.
*At the chime, it will be 0530.*
The chime set up interesting patterns on the inside of her lids. What had she been drinking?
*Your liberty will be over at 0600.*
Which might be a problem, considering how much trouble she was having with basic bodily functions. Groping for the panel beside the bed, she applied what she hoped was enough pressure for dim lighting and cautiously cracked an eye. From the little she could see, these were not her quarters. The less than state-of-the-art wall utility suggested station guest quarters—for a not particularly important guest.
Finally managing to sort current sensation from memory, she turned her head toward the warm body pressed up against her side. The di’Taykan’s short lilac hair swayed gently in response to her exhalation, the pointed tip of an ear covered and uncovered by the moving strands.
That explained things. I
Sliding out from under the blanket, Torin stood, stretched carefully, and filled her lungs with air that hadn’t been warmed by the di’Taykan’s body heat. As memories returned, she smiled. Not only did Humans find the Taykan incredibly attractive, but a Taykan in the di’ phase was one of the most indiscriminately enthusiastic life-forms in the Galaxy and offered the perfect and uncomplicated way to chase the memories of that last horrible planetfall right back to the galactic core.
*Captain Rose wants to see you in his office at 0800.*
There were two piles of clothing on the room’s one chair, both folded into neatly squared-off piles. He must’ve been raised by one strict sheshan, Torin thought, grabbing her service uniform and ducking into the bathroom. It had taken most of her nine years in the Corps to achieve that precise a fold, regardless of distraction.
When she emerged a few moments later, fully dressed, all she could see of her companion was a lithe lump under the blanket and a moving fringe of uncovered hair. Relieved, she moved silently toward the door, pausing only long enough to turn off the lights. A di’Taykan considered, “Once more before breakfast?” to be a reasonable substitute for “Good morning.” And, with no time to spare, she was just as happy not to have to test her willpower.
Outside in the corridor, the familiar “something’s leaking somewhere” smell of the station’s recycled air drove the last of the pheromone-induced haze from her head.
*0547* her implant announced when she prodded. Thirteen minutes before her liberty ended and her flasher came back up on screen. Thirteen minutes to get to a part of the station that wouldn’t incite prurient speculation among the duty staff.
“I should’ve reset wake-up for five. What was I thinking?” she muttered, diving into the vertical—fortunately empty at this hour—and free-falling two levels. Grabbing a handhold, she swung out onto the lock level. Easy answer, actually. She’d been thinking that she needed to forget the carnage, forget those they lost limping back to the station on a ship that had won its battle but nearly lost its own little slice of the war, forget the messages she’d sent to family and friends, and forget that new faces, always new faces, would soon be arriving to replace those they’d lost.
And she had been able to forget. For a while.
A di’Taykan wouldn’t feel used. She didn’t think they could.
* * *
Considering the time, it was a good thing station guest quarters were on the same side of the core as the barracks. Another vertical, another lock, and she was in NCO country.
Heading for her own quarters, Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr had her implant scan the night’s reports for any of the names she kept flagged. Apparently, no one had died and no one had gotten arrested.
Things hadn’t fallen apart while she was gone.
No harm done, and it wasn’t as if she’d ever see that particular di’Taykan again…
* * *
At 0758, showered, changed, and carrying her slate, Torin approached the captain’s door, turning over the possible reasons he’d moved their morning meeting up an hour. As senior surviving NCO, she’d been his acting First Sergeant since the battered remnant of Sh’quo Company had arrived back at the station. Clearly that wasn’t going to last, but it was unlikely Battalion HQ would send out a new First before the recruits needed to bring the company up to strength—unlikely but possible, she admitted after a moment’s reflection. Battalion HQ had shown what could only be called unique leadership in the past.
It was also possible that they were promoting her and the captain needed to tell her in time for her to make the 1000 shuttle. With a war on, it didn’t take long to make sergeant, but after that, promotions tended to slow down, common wisdom suggesting that by the time a grunt got that third chevron, they’d learned to duck. Still, with the company losing their First, there’d be a gunny moving up and that’d leave room for her.
She’d have rather had First Sergeant Chigma back. The few Krai who went into the Marines usually opted for armored platoons or air support—their feet just weren’t built for infantry—so those few who not only chose to be grunts but rose in the ranks left big shoes to fill in more than merely the literal sense. Unfortunately, since Chigma had ended up on the wrong end of an enemy projectile weapon their last planetfall…
Maybe Med-op had scheduled the captain for new treatments at nine.
Look at the bright side, she reminded herself, laying her palm against the sensor pad centered in the door. We’re in no condition to be sent back out.
* * *
The presence of a two star general in the captain’s office did not come as a pleasant surprise. In Torin’s experience, when generals ignored the chain of command to speak directly to sergeants, it was never good news. And smiling generals were the worst kind.
“You must be Staff Sergeant Kerr.”
She nodded as he stepped forward. “Sir.”
“Staff, this is General Morris.” The regeneration tank around the lower half of his left leg kept Captain Rose from standing, but his voice, unexpectedly deep from such a small man, was enough to stop the general’s advance. “He has new orders for you.”
“Say rather an opportunity. But don’t let me interrupt.” He gestured at the slate under Torin’s arm. “I understand you’ve been acting First. We’ll talk once you’ve finished your morning report.”
“Sir.” Her face expressionless under the general’s smiling regard, she crossed to the desk and downloaded the relevant files. Right now, with no more information to go on than his smile and two dozen words delivered in an annoying we’re-all-in-this-together tone, she’d be willing to bet that, first of all, General Morris had never seen combat and, second, that Captain Rose liked him even less than she did. As the captain appeared to know what was going on, her sense of impending disaster strengthened.
“Doctorow’s no longer critical?”
“Regained consciousness at 0300. Woke up and demanded to know what…” Given the general’s presence, she rephrased the quote. “…idiot had taken his implant off line.”
“Good news.” Quickly scanning the rest of the report, the captain looked up, brows rising. “No one got arrested?”
“Apparently some vacuum jockeys off the Redoubt got into a disagreement with some of our air support in Haligan’s, and betting on the fight provided a sufficient diversion.”
“Wait a minute,” the general interrupted, one hand raised as if to physically stop further discussion. “Am I to understand that you expected your people to get arrested?”
Together, Torin and the captain turned, Torin shifting position slightly, unable to move to the captain’s side but making it quite clear where she stood as he answered. “I’m sure I don’t need to tell the general what kind of planetfall we had. After something like that, I expect my people to need to blow off.”
The general’s broad cheeks flushed nearly maroon. “You’ve been on station for six days.”
“Half of us have. Sir.” Like many combat officers, Captain Rose had come up through the ranks and he’d retained the NCO’s ability to place inflection on that final sir.
The two men locked eyes.
General Morris looked away first. “They say another company wouldn’t have got that many out,” he admitted.
“I have good people, sir. And I lost good people.” The quiet reminder drew Torin’s gaze down to the captain’s face, and she frowned slightly. He looked tired; his fair skin had developed a grayish cast, and there were dark circles under his eyes. Had they been alone, she’d have asked how the regeneration was going; as it was, she made a mental note to check his condition with Med-op as soon as possible. As acting First, he was as much her concern as the company.
“Yes. Good people.” General Morris straightened and cleared his throat. “Which leads us nicely into what I’m here for.”
Oh, shit. Here it comes. Torin braced hersel
“I need a platoon for a special duty, shipping out ASAP.”
“I haven’t got a platoon, sir.”
He looked momentarily nonplussed, then the smile returned. “Of course, I see. I should have said, I need you to put together a platoon out of the available Marines.”
“Out of what’s left of Sh’quo Company, sir?”
“Out of the survivors, sir?”
“Yes.” The general’s smile had begun to tighten.
Torin figured she’d gotten as much satisfaction from that line of inquiry as she was likely to. “A lot of them have leave coming, sir, but we should have new recruits arriving shortly.”
“No. Even if I had time to wait for new recruits, I couldn’t use them.” Folding his hands behind his back in what Torin thought she recognized as parade ground rest—it had been a long time since she’d seen a parade ground—the general fixed her with an imposing stare. “I’m fully aware of your situation, Staff Sergeant Kerr, yours and Sh’quo Company’s, and I wouldn’t be canceling leaves if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. The problem, Sergeant, is this: I’m putting together a very important diplomatic mission intended to convince a new race, the Silsviss, to join the Confederation and I need an honor guard. A military escort is absolutely essential because the political leadership of the Silsviss is dominated by a powerful warrior caste that we most certainly do not want to insult. After careful consideration, I’ve decided that Sh’quo Company is the best available unit.”
“As an honor guard?” Torin glanced from the general to her captain—who looked so noncommittal that the hope it was some kind of a joke died unborn—and back to the general again. “We’re ground combat, sir, not a ceremonial unit.”
“You’ll do fine. All you have to do, Sergeant, is have the troops apply a little spit and polish and then stand around and look menacing. You’ll see new worlds, meet new life-forms, and not shoot at them for a change.” He paused for laughter that never came, then continued gruffly. “It’s a win/win situation. I won’t have to pull a company out of their rotation for planetfall—which means Sh’quo Company won’t be rotated in before it’s their turn. As there’s no need for heavy artillery, company equipment can still get the overhaul it requires.”
TANYA HUFF SERIES:
Other author's books:
- Blood PriceChild of the GroveWhat Manner of ManBlood DebtThe Wild WaysBlood LinesBlood PactBlood Trail
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