Clean sweeps, p.1
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       Clean Sweeps, p.1

           Jonathan Maberry
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Clean Sweeps



  Jonathan Maberry

  Smashwords Edition

  Copyright © 2011 Jonathan Maberry Productions LLC

  All Rights Reserved

  Photograph by Roy Huf LaPish

  Smashwords Edition License Notes

  This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

  Clean Sweeps

  Cloaking devices are science fiction. Relics of old Star Trek shows from the last century. We don’t have cloaks, we never had cloaks. And we don’t have any chameleon circuits or shit retroengineered from alien craft.

  What we got is stealth technology. We got LOT—Low Observability Technology. It doesn’t make our birds invisible, but it pretty much makes the radar and motion scanners look in the wrong place, or misunderstand what they’re seeing. We can look like a big black hole in the middle of the sky. We can look like space junk. Or, we can look like feedback and sensor static. I always liked LOT that makes us look like static because most of the stations have been out here so long that their systems are older than dinosaur shit. Most of what they see nine to five is static.

  That works for me. It keeps us from getting shot out of the black before we can put boots on the deck.

  We tune our LOT systems to read the static backwash from the sensor arrays of any ship or base we approach, and then the computers work out some kind of math-wizard fluctuating algorithm that matches the normal radio-wave crap the universe has been kicking out since the big balloon popped.

  Surprise always helps, but we didn’t know how much of that was on our side. We were hoping to surprise the shit out of them. I’m a big fan of catching the bad guys with their dicks in their hands. Makes for a better raid.

  Yeah, I know what the press says. WorldNews and SolarAP both have this thing for firefights, which they insist on calling ‘shoot-outs’ like we’re the O.K. fucking Corral. Army PR sends them maybe six to eight mission video files a month, but do the clean sweeps ever make the Net? Nope. Not a one unless it’s a goddamn slow news day in the middle of August, where they’ll report on crop growth or dig up some old celeb for a ‘where are they now?’ space filler.

  But somebody pulls a trigger and it’s a breaking story. And these news fucks don’t give a red-hot flying shit if it’s a bad guy, a Federal Ranger, or one of our boys in Free-Ops that either fires the shot or takes the hit. Bullets and blood, man, that’s all they care about; and the bigger the body counts the bigger the ratings.

  We Free-Ops guys only ever get press if something goes wrong, so we’ve been on the news…what, maybe five times in four years? And of those, the first three were during the mine riots following the clusterfuck with the unions. That whole thing took less than a week. Since then the only time Free-Ops made the news was back in ’93 when Captain Lisa Stanley got killed while her team was running down some pirates running the alley between Phobos and Deimos. I mean, come on, Stanley was killed when a stray shot hit an O2 tank in the airlock. I saw the official reports, and the conclusion I drew from it was that she probably tripped on one of the landing sleds the pirates used when they breeched the cargo ship. She tripped and popped off a round that bounced all over the airlock until it punched into the O2 tank. It was her bad luck that it was after they’d repressurized. Twenty seconds earlier there’d have been no spark, and no death, and no story.

  The news jackasses made her a hero across half the Network. My guess? If Stanley hadn’t been a California blonde with yabos out to there the news people wouldn’t have run with it as long as they did. That and they’re always starved for action stories. There’s only so much mileage you can get from politicians making assholes of themselves or celebrities getting caught fucking the wrong wife.

  The other time was a real firefight—excuse me, ‘shoot-out’—between my team and the Chinese hit team that tried to declare sovereignty over the New Tibet colony on Io. That one was a real ball-burner. My boys—Jigsaw Team—were on point, with Delta, Baker, and Zulu Teams on fast-follow and a squadron of Jackhammers giving close air support. The Chinese team was sharp, even I have to give them that. There were a lot of them, they were well armed, well trained and they weren’t afraid of us. No sir, not one little bit.

  It wasn’t until we were on the ground that our forward spotters sent back the news that we were outnumbered and outgunned. Outnumbered like four to one, which can give serious pause even to a bunch of heartbreakers and life-takers like I got in Jigsaw. But by then were in the pipe, riding the adrenaline high, breathing the helmet gas that triggered all those useful dopamine receptors. We were juiced and jazzed, and when the smoke cleared we had a whole lot of dead Chinese. And some dead Tibetans, too, but what the fuck could we do? The Chinese hid among the colonists, and they even put Tibetans in their own uniforms. We shot anyone with a red star.

  Here’s how the bullshit plays out, though. First the press is up our ass all the way through the raid. They’re doing advance stories on the men and women of Free-Ops. You know, those schmaltzy human interest things where they show vidcaps of the soldiers as kids, riding horses on the farm or taking their first EVA at Disney Lunar. Then during the battle they’re getting video-only live feeds from helmet cams. The brass didn’t let them hear our team chatter during the raid.

  When the battle was over they spent two days canonizing everyone from the first wave of shooters down to the cooks in the galley of the drop ship. Heroes all.

  Then they find out that three colonists took fire during the raid. Suddenly we’re reckless killers who can’t tell a friendly face from an enemy’s—and remember, we’re talking Chinese and Tibetans here, and everyone dressed the same. We’re fried by the press. It’s a great story, it kept the news feeds buzzing for weeks.

  Then, when that cooled down they have the big clanking balls to ask if they can go on every other raid. And the fucking brass—our fucking brass—says yes.

  Tells you everything you need to know about why I think the whole Solar System is populated with nutcases.

  And, yeah…they’re on this run with us now. At least we don’t have it as bad as the Federals who have that weekly show. FEDS. You’ve seen it, where they do the fly-alongs with the Federals, following the busts with handhelds and helmet cams. Mostly busting mouth-breathing bozo drug runners or low-level pirates who are too stupid to know how to dodge a full-lit Federal wagon broadcasting siren calls on all frequencies. I ask you.

  We came at the Tower with the sun behind us, alternating speed and using LOT to look like feedback from old wiring to anyone who was looking. And they were looking, don’t get me wrong, but this was a clever stunt and we were pretty good at it. So good that on Jigsaw’s last six hard infils we’d had zero shots fired on either side. Before anyone knows we’re even a reality we’re breeching fore and aft airlocks and our Jackhammers are suddenly broadcasting sweetlock signals. The bad guys go from thinking they’re all alone in the big black to having twenty ugly-ass special operators coming into their ship from ass and mouth and every rocket and missile in the catalog cocked and locked from point blank. That’s not a time to make a stand. It’s a time to trigger an isolated EMP to fry your computer records, drop your guns on the deck, and stand around looking extremely cooperative.

  That’s what we were expecting on this run, too.

  The mission was routine. The Tower was a forty-year-old barrel-style deep-space manufacturing plant that
used to make ball bearings and alloy pipes before the company went bust. After that it was empty for ten years and then got bought by some investors who filed papers saying they were going to retool it for drilling equipment to supply mines on Jupiter’s moons.

  Then—-get this—our intel people got a hot tip from some news guy from SolarAP that the Tower was really making weapons. Nothing exotic, but enclosed gas shell rifles that you can use in any atmosphere including zero atmosphere. Only two kinds of people need guns like that. Guys like me and pirates.

  It was a no-brainer to order a raid. You don’t let assholes mass produce guns that you know for damn sure are not going to be used for hunting or home defense. Since the news guys brought us the tip they got to ride along during the raid. It was a dream come true for them.

  I didn’t like it, but I’m a sergeant. There isn’t one person above my pay grade who gives a hemorrhoidic rat’s ass what I like or don’t like.

  We planned it right, though, and even did some dry runs on the infil using a similar plant orbiting Luna. My team had the fastest in-time, so we drew the lead on the breech.

  Our tactical bird is a SV-117 Bullet, one of the new frictionless electric motor boats fired torpedo fashion from the bow of the transport. We go in fast and our battery power is used mostly for steering and braking. The Bullets are all short-range, and we were launched from two thousand miles out. The entire nose-package of the Bullet has jamming gear tuned to the transport so we don’t ring any bells unless they have towed metal detectors. Which this tub didn’t.

  What the Tower did have, though, was gravity. It was in a nice spin that suggested a 360 surface pull. Probably not earth gravity, but enough so that we could run rather than float. I hate floating in a fight.

  “Twenty seconds to soft dock,” our pilot called. We were all ready. Ten tough apes in EVA flexsuits, armed to the teeth and ready to kick a little gunrunner ass. We all had SolarAP cameras exterior-mounted on our helmets. We also had a ridealong in the person of Alex Tennet, a reporter for SolarAP. He used to be a big shot, but his career had been tanking for years. One of those guys who was never in the right part of the Solar System when anything interesting was happening. Bringing the tip about the gunrunners was the first big thing to happen to him in fifteen years, and he confided to me back on the transport, “You know, Sarge, if I hadn’t lucked into this…I’d be burning off the rest of my career doing weather reports on Ganymede.”

  “Lucky you,” I said. He was a news guy, so I hated him on principle, but he was okay when the cameras were off. I didn’t like having to take him along on a raid, but the brass thought it would look good. A nice PR hit for us.

  Like we need good PR. Or any PR. We’re soldiers. It’s not like we’re in the Navy. Nothing glamorous. Grunts with guns is what we are. But, like I said, nobody above my pay grade gives a shit what I think, and just about everyone’s above my pay grade.

  So Tennet got to come along. Luckily I could switch his audio feed off so I didn’t have to listen to him give a blow-by-blow account of all this.

  We docked without a sound, and the vibration was so soft through our ship that I knew it couldn’t be felt in the Tower.

  “Jigsaw in place,” I reported.

  “Zulu in place,” came the reply. Our brother team was soft-docked at the other airlock.

  “Deploy blowback skirt.”

  “Roger that, skirt deployed.”

  “On my mark,” I said. “Everybody watch your fire and check your targets. Nobody dies who doesn’t have to. Everybody lives, everybody comes home.”

  “Hooah,” I heard from everyone. The old Ranger cry was always a comfort right before a battle. It came with a hell of a lot of history, and most of that history was of success.

  By now the pilots of both bullets would have spinners on the airlock wheels.

  I counted it down.

  On zero, the pilots initiated the hard-rips that spun the airlock wheels faster than any man could manage it, and the airlocks were literally torn open. The blowback skirts caught any flying debris and shot-injected oxygen into the airlocks. Then our hatches swung open and we used the elastic slings to launch ourselves from the Bullets into the airlocks. The skirts kept the docking collars pressurized, so we went straight for the inner hatches.

  “It’s locked,” my corporal said.

  “Blow it,” I growled.

  He already had the burst patch attached with magnets and we wrapped our frag caps around us and did the ol’ duck-and-crouch as the patch blew apart the internal computers on the hatch. Tennet—the dumbass—tried to get a good shot of the blast, so I had to drag his ass down and under cover.

  The second the locks were toast, Corporal Hastings yanked open the door.

  “Go! Go! Go!” I bellowed and then we were all running into the Tower. I led the way with Hastings on my three o’clock and Tennet on my six. He could get some nice footage of my ass if he wanted. Maybe that would help his sorry ratings.

  The corridor was dark so I threw Starbursts ahead of us. The little marble-sized LEDs ignited and flooded the corridor with blue light.

  In my helmet mic I could hear the same process happening for Zulu team. Man, there’s nothing like military precision.

  We raced through one hatch after another, at first finding nothing but huge machinery whose purpose I neither understood nor cared about; and then we hit the galley. This poor cook looks up, bent over an oven, holding a big tray of pot pies.

  He had time to say, “What the fuck—?” before I kicked him in the nuts and pistol-whipped him to the deck. Yeah, I know, he’s just a cook. But if you’re working for the bad guys then you’re a bad guy. At least in my view, and it kept things nice and simple.

  The adjoining corridor spilled out into a huge manufacturing plant that smelled of oil and sweat. There had to be fifty guys in there. Big sonsabitches, with the arms and shoulders you only get from hauling around pigs of iron or steel in a gravity environment. No space muscles. No flab.

  Then something really weird happened, and from that point on everything went to shit.

  One of the bad guys, a Turkish-looking man wearing a Kufi, pointed a big wrench at us and shouted: “Pirates!”

  It all went crazy. The Turk swung the wrench at me with incredible force. The gravity was maybe half-earth, which means a big son of a bitch like him could swing a thirty pound wrench real damn fast. I tried to duck, but the edge of the wrench caught me on the shoulder pad and knocked me ten feet into a stack of pipes.

  My gun discharged as I was hit and I stitched a line of rounds across the floor. I didn’t see the bullets hit, but I heard the screams.

  And then the force of my body knocked the stack of pipes over and hundreds of pounds of half-inch pipes were hammering down on me. I dropped my gun and buried my head in my arms and curled my body into a ball. But even so I took a hell of a beating. Pipes whacked me in the shoulders and ribs and hips and thighs. The clang was like insanely loud. My visor cracked and I ducked inside my helmet to keep plastic splinters from blinding me.

  Through it all I could hear the chatter of gunfire, yells, screams, and the unmistakable thud of heavy metal on flesh.

  “Shit!” I cursed and tried to worm my way out from under. I had to get back into this fight. Suddenly two of the bars right over me were pulled back and I saw Hastings there, crouching down, pushing the bars aside. Tennet, the reporter, stood gawping behind him, his handheld camera shifting back and forth from the battle to me. He hadn’t lifted a frigging hand to help Hastings dig me out.

  “Sarge!” Hasting yelled. “You all right?”

  “Help me up,” I said. He grabbed my arm and pulled me out from under the pile, and I staggered as more of the pipes clanged and rolled down around me. There was a flash and a bang and suddenly Hastings was down, his faceplate smashed by a hard-shell flare and as I watched in total horror as the flare exploded inside his suit. Our flexsuits are designed to be fireproof. It’s saved our lives a hundred times…b
ut the fire is supposed to be on the outside. The flare burst inside his suit and within a second the suit ballooned out as the fire ignited the oxygen roasting Hastings alive. He screamed like I’d never heard a person scream before, and the gassed expanded his suit for a moment before he fell out of side. There wasn’t a goddamn thing I could do about it.

  A separate fire ignited inside of me. Pure white-hot rage!

  Tennet caught the whole thing on camera and for a moment our eyes met. His face was white with shock but his eyes were alight. Adrenaline can do that. Even at the worst of times it can make you feel totally alive.

  My rifle was gone, lost under all the debris, so I pulled my sidearm.

  The room was a melee. The gunrunners badly outnumbered us and two of my guys were down. Dead or hurt I couldn’t tell. The rest had taken up shooting positions behind pieces of machinery, and they’d littered the deck with bodies. But the numbers were bad. The gunrunners had a variety of weapons—flares, hatchets, wrenches, hand-welders. No guns, which was kind of weird. They worked in teams, two men holding up a big piece of plate steel and moving it forward like a shield while others crowded behind it, throwing stuff, popping flares over the barricades behind which my guys hid. We had the better weapons, but they sure as hell had the numbers. And I could see more men pouring into the room from the far end.

  I tapped my comlink and called for Zulu Team, but the unit was dead. It was smashed along with most of my helmet.

  I pushed Tennet behind me and took up a shooting posture, legs wide and braced, weapon in a two-hand grip with my arms locked in a reinforced triangle. I fired careful shots and dropped six men with seven shots, and for a moment it stalled the rush of the gunrunners. I was at a right angle to their advance, which created a nice cross-fire situation. If I conserved my ammo we might pull this out of the crapper.

  Then something occurred to me and it jolted me so hard that I took my finger off the trigger.

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