"It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it." -- Robert E. Lee

Introduction: A Quick and Painless History Lesson

Anyone who tells you that "the only constant in the Universe is Change" is a damned fool ... or, at the very least, wrong. There's another: War.

Someone, somewhere, always is at war. Always. Why? Because -- pardon my grammar -- violence ain't just human nature. There are many different forms of life in this slab of sky, this hunk of the heavens we call the Galaxy -- some intelligent, whatever that means, some not ... with one thing in common either way: Savagery -- with a capital S.

Anyway, my point is: If you're good at two things -- survival, and cutting short others' survival ... and if you go to places where the socio-political climate is such that these skills are useful (read: where the action is), you can make good money. Better than "good."

Believe me, I know; I speak from experience. I was aboard the Harbinger -- a.k.a. the Tug of War.

I imagine that right about now, you're thinking, Hell, I already know all about the Tug of War. No offense, but ... I doubt it. Probably what you "know" is what the news-media spoon-fed to you and to the rest of what we used to call the T.S.I. (Terran Sphere of Influence). Five outlaw mercenaries, irredeemable thieves, heartless killers -- right? Well, what I'm going to tell you is The Real Story -- no sugar added; one hundred percent bovine-residue-free. I know The Real Story because, like I said, I was there.

* * *

Before we get started in earnest, I want to put these accounts into Historical Context for the benefit of you future generations. Here goes:

Once upon a time, all humans lived on planet Earth. No, seriously. Billions and billions of us, crammed onto a planet that's tiny in the first place but also is two-thirds water and four- or five-thirds pollution.

We had Problems -- with, as you can see, a capital P. We had the aforementioned pollution (the environment was all but ruined; Mother Nature was ready to check into a nursing home), we had crime, we had war, disease, poverty, overpopulation ... I would say Choose your poison, but, hell, you wouldn't have had to choose -- we had 'em all. Plenty of misery to go around.

Then we met the Siar.

More accurately: The Siar stumbled upon us.

How shall I describe the Siar? To this day, we really don't know much about them. In terms of intelligence and sophistication, they make -- made -- humans look like hermit-crabs. In terms of physical stature, they made us look like giants. The Siar had evolved beyond the need for physical bulk by the time they encountered us. Since then, they've evolved beyond the need for corporeal bodies at all, bulky or otherwise. Those, anyway, are the theories.

They spent 10 primeyears helping us solve most of the capital-P Problems I mentioned above -- and provided a few bonuses as well, such as putting us light-primeyears (pun intended) ahead of where we'd been on theories of interstellar flight. Before you could say X-space, those theories weren't just theories any more.

(Here's a mini-primer on interstellar travel: It is achieved by "injecting" spacecraft from primespace -- "normal" space -- into X-space, and back again. Spacecraft are equipped with injection-field-generators, commonly referred to as "injectors," courtesy of the Siar ... but we must use regular old fusion engines for short-distance trips.)

(Now, don't ask me what X-space is; I don't know. Nobody knows -- except the Siar, and we can't ask them. We did ask them, of course, when they still were around ... but it turned out that the answers were tougher than the questions.

All we have to this day are theories -- X-space is a tunnel-shaped parallel dimension ... time is compressed and distorted in very complex ways in X-space ... blah blah blah. All we really know about X-space is that it apparently is empty -- no stars, no planets; nothing but an endless black void ...

For some reason, ships can't change course in X-space -- once you've engaged your injectors, you'd better want to go to the destination you've programmed into your navigational computer. Just like in primespace, travel-times in X-space vary according to the "real" distance from points A to B.)

Then, one day, the Siar -- as abruptly and mysteriously as they had appeared -- vanished without a proverbial trace. They simply were gone.

That was in T-1 -- which was, as I write this, 130 P.Y. ago.

We then embarked upon the True Space Age. The T.S.I. grew rapidly -- we settled more than 250 planets in fewer than half as many primeyears.

Here's a quick gloss on how the Sphere works: At the top, you have the President ... who is answerable to the House of Governors -- each of whom represents/administrates at least one colony planet. The House of Governors is divided into various committees and subcommittees who see to the needs and affairs of the Sphere's citizens. Are you with me so far?

The Sphere is a democracy -- the government is answerable to the electorate. Interstellar law is enforced by the I.B.I. (Interstellar Bureau of Investigation) and I.C.A. (Interstellar Customs Authority); colonial law is enforced by autonomous local constabularies. There's more, of course ... but that's T.S.I. 101.

Anyway, as we spread out through the Galaxy, we encountered a variety of alien life-forms -- like I said before, some intelligent, most not; some friendly, some hostile ... most indifferent.

At the top of the list in the "hostile" column were the d'Absu (dee-OBB-soo).

The d'Absu are an insectoid species from who-the-hell-knows where. You probably would think that they're not technologically very advanced, to look at them. (Picture a walking-upright, two-meter-tall ant ... with semi-armored skin ranging in color from pea-soup-green to charcoal black.) But the d'Absu are every bit as advanced as we are. They also are highly territorial ... so the War probably was inevitable. As a very wise man once said, the two biggest boys on the block have to duke it out sooner or later. The d'Absu apparently figured we might as well do it sooner.

A number of historians, philosophers, politicians, bullstein artists, and even a few veterans have written/said/recorded a great deal about the War ... so, if you're interested in names and dates and such, you can look up such in a history text. I will include names, dates, etc. where they're relevant ... but, generally, all you need to know is that

(1a) the War began in T-120, ended in T-125 ... and,

(1b) in between, a hell of a lot of people and d'Absu were killed and/or injured.

(2) There was no clear winner or loser; both sides emerged intact -- with less than they'd had at the beginning in the way of

(3a) territory (unless you count a lot of scorched planets -- read: irradiated rocks, on which nothing can live naturally for the next few hundred thousand primeyears) and in the way of

(3b) population.

(4) There's a War memorial/museum that's well worth your time to visit, on Earth. Take the tour, but skip the gift shop and the restaurant, both of which are drastically overpriced.

The people who actually fought the War were the Terran Defense Service. The T.D.S. consists of two branches:

(1) the Terran Planetary Army (T.P.A.), its Reserves, and its "Gold Beret" commandos (I'm an Army "regular"); and

(2) the Astral Cavalry (a.k.a. the AstraCav; a.k.a. the Cavvies), its Reserves, and its "ICE_" (Infiltration/Combat/Espionage) Special Forces.

These are the people who risked (and, in far, far too many cases, sacrificed) their lives to protect the Sphere from the d'Absu ... kept them from overrunning us, wiping us out.

But I'm getting ahead of myself already. The stories of my experiences on the Tug actually begin before she was the Tug -- at the end of the War many people had thought would never have an end ...

* * *

Operation Firestorm
- a.k.a. the Battle of Farcry ...
27 June, T-125.

A T.S.A. battalion had tried to take a d'Absu fort in a planetside area known as the Shaw River Valley ... but all they'd taken had been one hell of a beating. We had performed what's called a retrograde action. That's Army-speak for Tuck your proverbial tail between your legs and get your proverbial butt outta here FAST!

We had made it to the extraction-zone -- a clearing atop Hill 770 (unofficially known as Hope Hill -- soon to go down in history as Hopeless Hill). d'Absu troops had pursued us all the way from their fort -- through the heavily-wooded valley, across the river, and up the Hill. Their pursuit had been, I'm sorry to say, highly effective; indeed, we had had to leave almost as many dead along the trail of our hasty retrograde action as we had had to leave at the fort.

(The river was, I believe, where we had lost the most people. Shaw is only about 25 meters wide, and, for a human of average height, is only waist-deep at its deepest point ... but moving in a hurry through the syrup-like stuff that passes for water on Farcry is impossible. We had made slow-moving, easy targets for the d'Absu when they had caught up to us.)

Then things turned bad.

The d'Absu quickly surrounded us, and began raining party- and pro-fire and SLaRGs into the Hilltop clearing.

(Party = particle-beam ... Pro = projectile ... SLaRG = Shoulder-Launched Rocket Grenade. The d'Absu didn't use these terms, of course ... but they did use weapons roughly equivalent to our party- and pro-guns and SLaRGs -- so we used the terms interchangeably, for their weapons and ours.)

One of the sergeants contacted the orbiting battleship Condor, and requested an arty- (artillery-) strike. This normally would have been done by the battalion- or company-commander ... but both of those individuals were among the many whom the d'Absu had turned into permanent River-residents.)

The Warlock O-2-G (orbit-to-ground) missiles now sliced down in rapid succession, right on target -- ripping a ring of huge craters around the top of Hope(less) Hill, and up and down its sides.

The noise of the blasts all but deafened us. The whole planet, or so it seemed, shuddered convulsively. Dirt and chunks of rock hurtled skyward all around us. d'Absu and chunks of d'Absu flew everywhere.

One of the men standing near me collapsed, trembled spasmodically for a moment ... then was still. I rushed to him, along with a couple of others. We knelt beside him, and turned him onto his back ... but he was dead. A long, thick splinter of wood -- I realized that it was, of all things, a piece of tree -- protruded from his right eye-socket. The splinter, traveling faster than sound, had pierced the eyeball ... and, presumably, the man's brain.

A cyclone of smoke and dust had enveloped us ... but, unfortunately, the air cleared quickly. The surviving d'Absu immediately resumed shooting.

At last, after several primeseconds (which = several eternities when you're under fire), the first horsefly arrived.

(A horsefly is a small ship used to transport personnel and/or light cargo to and/or from planetary surfaces -- or whatever sort of surface to which you want to send personnel and/or light cargo. The two types of horsefly referred to here are Type 11 -- its length, in meters -- and Type G, for gunship. The Type G is about half the size of the Type 11 ... and is built for speed and loaded for bear. The third type of horsefly, H, is a big, clumsy-looking craft made to carry heavy cargo -- vehicles, large ordnance, etc.)

(You future generations do know what a bear is, don't you ... ?)

At first, it was just a dot above the horizon ... then, the next thing I knew, the ship was braking to a hover, engines howling, above our Hilltop. The horsefly hovered for only a primesecond or so before dropping straight down, large hatch-doors opening on either side of its hull.

An instant later, horseflies were swarming in the air above the Hill. A number of these were, of course, gunships, sent to cover the extraction of the troops -- the usual T.D.S. methodology. Cover the extraction they did -- spitting ferocious party- and pro-fire and blackjacks (small missiles -- usually used against armored vehicles/structures -- fired either from a foot-soldier's shoulder or, as in this case, from flying craft) at the d'Absu ... while the other horseflies touched down, and what was left of the battalion sprinted to the ships, and jumped aboard.

We lifted off ... but we'd barely left the ground when one of the other horseflies -- not 10 meters to port -- was hit by a d'Absu SLaRG. The explosion shattered the ship and its passengers and crew, sending the burning pieces spinning in all directions. "Our" horsefly, miraculously, was not hit (as far as I could tell) by any of the debris ... but it was hit -- hard -- by the blast's shock-wave. We were slammed mightily to starboard ... I had enough time to think, Oh stein we're gonna tip over -- and then we smacked broadside into one of the gunships. Both crippled craft belly-flopped back to the Hilltop.

Our bones still were rattling from the force of the impacts when another horsefly -- its pilot apparently having seen what had happened -- set down beside us. We scrambled to it from our ruined ship.

I wish I could tell you that everyone made it. The d'Absus' fire had slackened greatly, thanks to our arty-strike and gunships ... but it had by no means ended entirely.

We jumped aboard the horsefly, and it lifted off. As we climbed, I looked down at the Hilltop. I saw ravaged terrain, rolling smoke, darting flames, smashed horse-flies, broken bodies ...

Over the din of the horsefly's engines, in the earpiece of my standard-issue field-communications headset, I heard a voice -- which was, I soon realized, our pilot's: "Halo flight, there's still one on the deck down there! Be advised, I'm goin' back in ... "

Translation: The pilot had spotted friendly personnel "on the deck" (a.k.a. the ground), meaning said personnel somehow had been overlooked, and needed rescue. I took another downward look -- and saw said personnel: It was the pilot of the gunship with which our other horsefly had collided. The woman was bloodied, bruised, and limping badly ... but, surprisingly (to me, anyway), she was alive.

We dropped with rock-like, stomach-spiraling swiftness back toward the Hilltop. The injured gunship-pilot stopped limping, and started hopping toward where we obviously were going to land. She moved as fast as she could -- not too steadily (twice, she lost her balance, and fell forward ... but, both times, she quickly stood again, and resumed hopping), dragging her right leg along behind. Her facial expression was a mixture of intense agony and more-intense determination.

As we touched down, I and another medic jumped out of the ship, and ran to the injured woman. We took hold of her by either arm, lifted her several decimeters off the ground, and hustled back to the horsefly. A few others helped pull the three of us aboard.

Someone shouted to our pilot, "GO GO GO!" and we lifted off again. The hatch-doors sealed shut.

No one spoke during our rapid climb to orbit (not that you can hear yourself think, much less carry on a conversation, anywhere near a horsefly when its engine is putting out that banshee shriek) ... I suspect because we all were too busy trying to calm down -- physically, mentally, and emotionally. It wasn't easy ... but by the time we rendezvoused with the Condor, I actually had managed to make myself stop shaking. Almost.

* * *

The Condor deactivated her P.M.A. (photomagnetic armor) long enough for the returning horseflies to settle onto the starship's flight-decks. We had to wait for represssurization and equalization ... then our horsefly's starboard-side hatch-door folded outward and upward, and we debarked.

I immediately made my way to the aloha chamber, as usual. (A Phantom-class starship carries 25 horseflies -- 15 Type-11 and 10 Type-G. Each horsefly operates from its own small, but fully-equipped, flight-deck. Each flight-deck is adjoined by an ante-chamber, which is outfitted for limited emergency-medical and full decontamination procedures.

The antechambers sometimes are referred to, somewhat sarcastically, as aloha chambers -- they are the last compartment one passes through before leaving aboard a horsefly, and the first compartment one enters upon returning; thus, aloha -- goodbye and hello.) Even if there were a reason to loiter on the flight-deck, I wouldn't; looking out at space makes me nervous, even though I know intellectually that the P.M.A. is in place, and functioning. The same sight on a monitor-screen doesn't affect me; with a monitor-screen, you don't get the feeling that the Universe is looming over you -- like a snake over a cornered mouse, about to devour you.

We sealed the chamber, and shed and secured our gear and clothes. Our horsefly-pilot, the other corpsman, and I helped the wounded gunship-jock with the shedding process. Despite our attempt to make this task as painless as possible for the young woman ... but, judging by the expressions that flashed across her face, we didn't have much success.

(Aloha chambers are equipped with first-aid kits ... but this young lady needed more than the handful of painkillers she'd swallowed, which weren't working very well anyway -- if, again, her facial expressions were any indication. We couldn't move her to the Condor's medlab, though, until after decontamination, which would take several primeminutes.

(Yes, people have died of wounds that might not have been mortal were it not for this delay ... but one of the AstraCav's strictest regulations is that absolutely NO ONE/NOTHING gets aboard a ship without first undergoing decontamination. This sounds heartless -- and, in a way, it is ... but it comes down to a matter of one life, or perhaps a handful of lives, against the danger that a ship's entire crew- and passenger-complement could become infected by a virus or viruses inadvertently brought back from an alien environment.

We hung there, weightless, each of us lightly grasping one of the many straps that adorned the chamber's bulkheads ... and floated in the cool glow of the decon lamps. Usually, this activity -- or, rather, this inactivity -- is accompanied by the low simmer of a half-dozen-or-so murmured conversations ...

But all conversation stopped when one of the infantry squad-leaders called out, "Hey. Hey. You! Pilot!"

Our horsefly-jock turned slowly in mid-air, and gazed calmly at the grunt. Now, I must admit, if the man had spoken to me that way (he had said the word pilot in the same tone of voice you might use to say vermin), I wouldn't look back at him calmly. He was roughly the size of a Phantom-class starship -- emphasis on roughly. His formidable appearance was reinforced by rows of tattoos marching up and down both his arms (grim skull-and-cross-bones designs, serpents, etc.) and a seemingly-permanent scowl.

The horsefly-jock -- who looked like he weighed maybe 70 kg -- didn't say anything; just stared at all 150-or-so kg of the grunt ...

... who demanded, "What's your name."

"Master Warrant Officer Five Franco Lewis," came the almost-matter-of-fact response. "What's yours ... ?"

"Specialist Mando Perez. I just thought we should know each other's name before I rip your felshin' head off."

Lewis didn't even blink. "Well," he said, "in that case, Specialist Perez, I guess you'd better call me Lou. Many people do -- or," the pilot added, "you could call me sir." Master warrant officer five is rated W-5; specialist is E-4.

Lewis's implication was obvious -- I'm a higher rank; if you do assault me, you could find yourself in a universe of trouble -- but Perez didn't acknowledge it. "You're gonna get hurt, sir," he said.

"Is that right."

The specialist said, "Yeah, that's right. See, I don't like it when my life is put in danger ... and you put all our lives in danger down there -- when you touched back down to get your girlfriend."

"We don't leave people behind, Specialist."

Perez said, "The way I see it, if we'd left her down there, she woulda been C.D., yeah ... but -- like I said -- when you touched back down to get her, we might've all been waxed. There's no sense in that!" (C.D. is combat death. Waxed is an Army colloquialism for same.)

"Then next time, we'll leave you on the deck, Specialist," Lewis said. "Would that make more sense to you?"

The decon lamps switched off. At the same moment, a small green light switched on above the inner hatch-door -- indicating that the hatch now was unsecured; we were free to board the ship proper.

"Decontamination complete," a synthesized voice advised.

We pulled ourselves into the adjoining compartment -- where more-or-less warm showers, and lockers filled with fresh clothing, awaited us.

(Null-gravity showers are an interesting challenge the first couple of times you use them. You hook your feet through straps on the deck. The water blasts you with heavy, steady pressure while you lather up. The soap-dispenser is on the bulkhead next to you -- press the button five or six times in rapid succession, and hold your other palm close to the spigot ... or, otherwise, you'll have bubbles and granules of pink goo floating, all but useless, all around you. Then you scrub, scrub, scrub. A suction-drain in the deck claims the water and suds. Sounds easy, doesn't it ... ? It is, eventually.)

Lewis and I eschewed the showers; we dressed, wrapped a couple of towels around the injured pilot (a token nod to discretion -- you can't have a speck of modesty in your psychological makeup if you want to travel in space, since you can't escape the decon requirement ... and you can't go through decon wearing clothes), and carried her quickly to medlab.

After we had turned the patient over to the Condor's flight-surgeon and a couple of his subordinates, Lewis introduced himself to me. I replied, "Lance Corporal Thomas Clark." We shook hands. Despite his slightly-smaller-than-average build, his grip felt quite strong.

"That was quite, uh ... quite an ugly scene in the aloha-chamber," I said -- and added, unnecessarily, " ... You and the specialist. Are you, uh -- are you thinkin' he'll try to jump you later?"

Grisby snorted derisively. "Hell with 'im," he muttered. "He won't try anything. If he does, he'll get thrown into the brig -- and then the stockade, when we get back home. He knows that. I'll see 'im court-martialed." Lewis then leaned slightly toward me ... and, in a hushed tone of voice, said, "You said he might 'jump' me?"

"Right," I said.

"I assume that that means an ambush. A surprise-attack."

"Right," I said again. "It's an old Earth expression."

Lewis said, "Never been there. I'm from Azaru." (You pronounce it uh-ZAH-roo.)

The flight-surgeon, Dr. Pembrooke, approached us ... and said, "She's not gonna fly any missions for a while, but none of her injuries is life-threatening -- thanks to you two, I take it."

"Mostly him," I said, with a sideways nod toward Lewis.

He began, "Well, if you- "

Dr. Pembrooke interrupted: "Whatever, whatever. You both are dismissed. Take the Mutual Admiration Society somewhere else, all right? Somewhere besides my medlab."

Fine with me ... I wanted to go back and get the shower I'd skipped before. But even as I was thinking this, the bosun's whistle sounded.

"Warrant Officer Lewis," an unseen audio-speaker said, "report to the C.I.C. immediately. Warrant Officer Lewis ... "

* * *

I tagged along to the C.I.C. (combat information center). Cmdr. (O-5) Upton and Lt. Cmdr. (O-4) Garland (the Condor's C.O. and X.O., commanding officer and executive officer, respectively) greeted Lewis (they ignored me) with grim expressions on their faces. Upton said, "We have a problem."

This, as it turned out, was an understatement.

What I learned, listening from the figurative sidelines, was that we were soon to go home -- back to Earth. Our planetside losses amounted to almost 70% (!); there weren't enough survivors to send back for another try at the d'Absu fort. We could have waited for reinforcements ... but Uppy, who was nominally in charge of Operation Firestorm, considered this unwise; a fleet of d'Absu warships might break primespace at any moment. (Their planetside personnel had had plenty of time to call for help.) So -- if you'll pardon my using a very old expression -- the commander had commanded us to get the hell out of Dodge.

Before we could do that, though, there was one final task which needed attention. Uppy and Gar wanted Lewis to take care of it.

A squad of infantry still were trapped planetside.

"They lost their way during the fallback from the enemy fort, and ended up in a wooded area about a klick from Hope Hill," Upton explained. "They're keeping their heads down ... but d'Absu troops are prowling all over the place, hunting for anyone or anything we might have left behind. It's only a matter of time -- probably not much time, at that -- before our lost squad becomes a found squad ... "

... And after that, our people wouldn't live long. We had to extract them -- and we had to do it NOW.

The situation called for a small-scale operation of the kind that are the forte of the T.D.S. Special Forces -- the Army's Gold Berets, and the Cavvies' ICE teams. Gar had ordered three of each flavor to handle the extraction. One Type-11 horsefly and two gunships were at the disposal of the mini-mission -- which was to leave the flight-deck in 10 primeminutes.

I invited myself along, of course. I hurried to the appropriate aloha chamber. I barely made it in time.

Tigereye -- Farcry's parent-star -- was setting over Hopeless Hill as we descended. One of the two gunships was ahead of us, the other was astern. In the gathering darkness below, we could see a number of small fires still flickering stubbornly on the Hilltop -- wrecked horseflies burning. As we passed over them, hurtling southwest, I tensed, expecting that we would start taking d'Absu fire at any moment ... but, much to my surprise, none came. Was that a good sign, I wondered, or a bad one?

The next thing I knew, we had braked and were hovering at an altitude of about 15 meters. The hatches yawned ... and the six commandos were in motion. They used rock-climbing ropes -- three tossed from either side of the ship -- to rappel to the ground. (To vary another old saying: We couldn't touch down in the forest for the trees.) I stayed behind -- telling myself, You'd only get in the way. Besides, you have a perfectly adequate view of current events from up here.

That last part, anyway, was true. It was almost dark enough to make infrachromatic ("night-vision") glasses a necessity ... but Lewis deployed a magnesium flare, ostensibly so our troops could see What the Hell They Were Doing. Unfortunately, the brilliant flare also made it possible for the enemy to see What the Hell Our Troops Were Doing. A fraction of a primesecond after the flare ignited under its tiny parachute, newly-furious party-fire began.

It was, of course, instantly apparent that the flashing beams were coming from about 60 or 70 meters to starboard. (We had arrived just in time. Later, I heard one of the grunts say to one of the Gold Berets, "By the time you guys came in, the motherfelshing d'Absu had come close enough for us to hear them chittering in their weird language. They woulda walked right up to us in a coupla more primeminutes.") Both gunships immediately darted in that direction, blasting away with party-fire and blackjacks.

Moments later, "friendly" SLaRGs, fired in rapid succession, tore down several trees to port, creating a landing-zone for the horsefly -- and a brief-but-fierce blizzard of splinters. (I couldn't help but think of the man I had seen killed by a splinter earlier -- couldn't help but wonder whether or not I was about to meet the same end ... )

The ship quickly dropped through the resultant smoke. We still couldn't touch down all the way to the ground -- the trunks of the toppled trees made it impractical to even try ... but we could, and did, hover at an altitude to which the troops could jump. (Not that jumping is easy when you're carrying 25-30 kg of combat gear ... but most of the gear was discarded, an item or two at a time, by the grunts as they ran into the new clearing.) The d'Absu, despite our gunships' efforts, managed to continue intermittently providing our people with incentive both for light traveling and expeditious movement.

The flare went out ... but, by now, we no longer needed it. I helped a couple of the grunts, then a couple of the commandos, scramble onto the ship. The side-hatches folded shut (I glimpsed the gunships turning to follow us), and we began climbing.

I did a quick count. There should have been 16 people, not including me. There were 14.

We were back aboard the Condor before long. Two of the grunts were wounded; we had to help them out of their gear (what remained of it) and their clothing. One of the two apparently had been hit in her right arm by a projectile (a bullet), or perhaps (a) grenade-fragment(s); she couldn't move the arm, and was in terrible pain. I gave her a shot of painkiller ... and hoped that it would "hold her" until we could get her to medlab. As the patient began to drift on the fringes of sleep, another corpsman joined me in changing the bloody rags of the woman's field-dressings.

The other grunt had been conscious -- barely -- when two of his fellows had carried him to the horsefly, and had lifted him aboard, but he now was passed out. He was, in my paramedical opinion (corpsmen are not M.D.s), better off. I couldn't discern the nature of his wound(s); he was a scarlet stain from head to foot. He looked as though he had taken a bath in blood.

Two others had been "wounded" in a different way: mentally. One of these was crying in small, shuddering fits. He was facing the bulkhead, but you could hear him struggling to control his sobs. The other was staring hard at nothing, whispering to himself ... or perhaps staring at something and whispering to someone only he could see.

Several Cavvy medtechs were waiting with stretchers on the locker-room side of the inner hatch when we were through with decon. They took the wounded and hustled toward medlab.

I had my shower at last ... and then went to the messdeck, where the coffee-dispenser was calling my name.

* * *

I was taking my first sip when the inship address speakers hissed, and the bosun's whistle sounded.

"Attention, all personnel. This is Commander Upton. Be advised: At this time, we are headed for home. We will inject in approximately one primehour. After that, as most of you know, it's ten primedays in X-space.

"Secure from stat red -- go to blue. Repeat: Secure from stat red -- go to blue. That is all." (More AstraCav terminology. Stat = status; red = battle/emergency conditions; yellow = battle/emergency conditions are expected; blue = all is well. (Cavvy slang offers one more: Stat green = space adaptation syndrome -- a.k.a. space-sick.)

I had never heard such beautiful words as ... we are headed for home. I was seriously contemplating early retirement.

I sat and sipped at my coffee for a while, savoring the quiet -- I had the messdeck to myself ... which wouldn't last long, I knew, now that Uppy had downgraded the ship's stat from red to blue. (Privacy is, at the risk of dire understatement, an extremely rare thing aboard spacecraft -- even the massive AstraCav ships ... unless you're O-4 or higher, or a V.I.P., very important passenger.) Sure enough, within a few primeminutes, spailors and grunts began filing two, three, and four at a time into the spacious compartment, lining up at the coffee-, cold-drink-, and food-dispensers.

Among the first to arrive was Franco Lewis (freshly showered and dressed), talking with someone I didn't recognize.

They still were waiting in line when Specialist Perez and two of his friends appeared.

Lewis and his friend watched placidly, saying nothing, as the three men slowly approached.

Evidently, word of the earlier confrontation already had spread; as Perez strode to within a few paces of Lewis and stopped, a hush fell over all conversation on the messdeck.

In the same parody-of-politeness tone of voice as before, Lewis nodded, and said, "Specialist ... " Gesturing, Lewis continued, "This is Warrant Officer Four Eva Strang. We call her Goldilocks, for a reason that surely is obvious to even you.

"Goldie, this is Specialist Porridge. It's very important to him to know your name."

This drew some snickering from the onlookers, which Perez ignored. He said, "The name is Perez."

"Oh, right, right ... I'll remember that." Again, Lewis's tone of voice suggested that he wouldn't "remember that" for longer than it would take the echoes of his words to die on the bulkheads.

Perez said, "I've been looking for you."

"So I hear," Lewis said. "I'm so sorry I haven't been available, Specialist. Ya see, I've been busy -- busy felshing your mother. Oh, by the way, she says I'm a lot better than you."

As you would probably have guessed, that was the end of the Verbal Exchange portion of the event.

It all happened very quickly. Perez took a forward step ... and, at the same time, threw a punch at Lewis.


Lewis blocked the punch, and then threw one of his own. There was a ¡CRACK_! of the clear, improbable kind you hear in movie fight-scenes -- Perez's jaw shattering. He was on the deck, dazed, a moment later. Did Perez have a glass jaw? No ... I would not learn this for some time, but Lewis had a probernetic (prosthetic-cybernetic) arm -- the result of a wound he had sustained early in the War.

Even as Perez collapsed, his two buddies attacked the next-closest target -- Warrant Officer Goldilocks.

Second mistake.

See, here's the Thing (there is, as I'm sure you know, always a Thing): You don't assault Gold Berets except under precisely the right circumstances. What, you ask, are "precisely the right circumstances"? Well, you'd better have precisely a starship's worth of explosive ordnance, and your Special Forces opponent had better precisely fit the following description: blind, deaf, unconscious quadruple amputee. Failing these things, you'd better have a precise death-wish.

Goldilocks showed remarkable restraint (any restraint would have been remarkable, really, since Special Forces training does not include the concept) in that Perez's buddies still were alive when they joined him on the deck a moment later. All three definitely were destined for the binnacle list, though.

(The AstraCav borrows this term, like so many others, from the old seagoing navies. A binnacle is/was a stand or housing for a compass on a ship's bridge. A binnacle list is a list of crewpersons who are sick/injured; ships' doctors used to leave these lists on the binnacles for captains to see.)

So ended The Big Fight. A handful of Condor security officers appeared and escorted the participants away ... presumably to medlab and, eventually, the ship's brig. The messdeck returned to its former state -- lots of milling and more-or-less quiet murmuring ... and now some not-so-quiet snickering.

No one was surprised when, some primehours later, Lt. Cmdr. Garland made the following announcement: " ... All personnel who were present on the messdeck today at fifteen hundred are ordered to report back to that location at oh-eight hundred tomorrow. That is all." Gar did not utter the phrase captain's mast ... but that (the AstraCav equivalent of a field court-martial) was exactly what was in the offing -- you didn't need the brains of a genius to make that deduction.

I attended the proceedings, of course; after all, I had witnessed The Big Fight. As it turned out, though, I was not asked to testify. Only a few of the dozen-or-so witnesses had been heard -- along, of course, with The Big Fight's participants -- when Lt. Cmdr. Garland (who had no desire to spend one moment more than necessary on "this monkey stein," as he put it) decided that he had heard enough. He asked, "Does anyone have anything to add?" No one did ... so Gar deliberated for about two primeseconds, and then passed judgment and sentence.

Perez and his buddies were T.P.A., but -- since they had committed their offense aboard an AstraCav ship -- Gar had every right to throw the book at them, as the old saying goes. He didn't, though; he ordered Perez and his pals confined to the Condor's brigade until the ship reached Earth ... whereupon an Army tribunal would decide whether to pursue the matter farther, or drop it. The X.O. found Lewis and Goldilocks not guilty of any misconduct (the definition of misconduct doesn't extend to sarcasm), noting that both had acted only in self-defense. Case closed. Amen.

* * *

The next primeweek was delightfully boring -- by which I mean no one was shooting at us. I'll take that kind of boredom any day over the kind of excitement we'd had on Farcry.

Anyway, as you probably know, spacecraft passengers and crew have at their disposal a number of different ways to reduce in-flight ennui -- reading, writing, exercising (of which you must do a certain amount every day, anyway, aboard AstraCav ships; it's a regulation), sex (which is absolutely forbidden aboard AstraCav ships ... and absolutely goes on anyway), etc. to name just a few.

Then, of course, you have the 3-S games.

Once upon a time, 3-S (three-sense simulation -- sights, sounds, scents) was called virtual reality. You still can find "V.R." gear in certain museums. The sound FX aren't bad; there are no scents; and as for the images -- well, they aren't very convincing ... at least, not when compared with today's technology. This partly is because the simulated "world" in V.R. is generated through a set of wrap-around glasses, and you control your actions -- while sitting -- with a handset, or even a joystick.

In other words, the real world maintains a constant presence within whatever it is you're trying to simulate -- maybe you're bounding across the surface of the Moon with Armstrong and Aldrin, or you're standing with Columbus on the deck of the Santa Maria, or stalking dinosaurs in prehistory, whatever ... but you're never unaware of the chair against your backside, the joystick in your hands, etc.

With 3-S, you step into a booth, start the game ... and you're completely immersed in an "environment" you'd swear was completely real if you didn't know better. In fact, you might stop knowing better if you're immersed for too long. That, anyway, was the government's stated reason for requiring game-manufacturers to put a maximum duration of 25 primeminutes on every simulation.

(Anyone with a reasonable amount of technical savvy can bypass this restriction. Plenty have ... and plenty of them now are machine-tended catatonics, unable -- or unwilling, or both -- to return from whatever simulated world they entered ...

The almost-nightly 3-S matches on the rec deck were popular events aboard the Condor. There was a surprisingly well-organized system of wagering in place ... with dozens of spailors and grunts risking who-knew-how-many M.P.V. (military pay voucher)s each on who would emerge at the mission's end as THE All-Time Grand 3-S Champeen of the Universe.

(Gambling, like sexual activity, is prohibited aboard Astraav ships ... and, like sex, it goes on anyway. With regard to both of these regulations, most Cavvy officers will tell you -- way off the record -- that they deliberately don't notice violations; gambling and sex are, they know, great stress-relievers ... and stress-relief is an important thing aboard a starship, especially battle-craft.)

Lewis had won the "outbound tournament" (on the way from Earth to Farcry), and, after a primeweek or so in X-space, it looked as though he had a good chance of taking the inbound as well. I had the impression that he was heavily favored among the bettors.

I was on the rec deck one day, sipping coffee, when Lewis surprised me by approaching me where I sat.

He said, "I'm tryin' to get ready for the match tonight. I could use a sparring-partner. Interested?"

"Sure," I said. I now was doubly surprised -- there were several other grunts present, and a few Cavvies ... but whom had the horsefly-jock chosen to approach -- ? Yours Truly!

I asked, "Tired of playing against the machine?" He'd been doing so for about a primehour and a half. I, along with most of the others on deck, had been watching on the flatscreen monitors.

"Yeah," Lewis said. "It isn't the same."

I'm sure you're wondering, If Lewis was such a great 3-S-player, why would you agree to spar with him -- ? weren't you setting yourself up for humiliation? Well, yes ...but, the way I saw it, I also was setting myself up to establish a rapport with Lewis. I didn't think he and I would become buddies, and the mission was practically over, anyway ... but you never know what the future might bring.

Besides, if you'll overlook my saying so myself, I'm not completely without 3-S-game talent ...

Lewis waited more or less patiently while I looked at the machine's extensive menu: