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The back of Bill "Pearly" Bousquette's neck itched as it had on and off since his first week of service during the previous war. He'd grown up on Choss, a no-account rock that guidebooks flippantly referred to as "New Moonxico" thanks to its absolutely uniform high-desert climate. Pearly had spent his younger days working in said climate, planning the elegant cliff-cities where wealthier men than him took their families and mistresses to luxuriate in the constant sun and dry air, to clear up their "ship croup" and "cruiser pallor" and get to feeling like the billion credits they were worth.
A life out of doors on Choss had left Pearly with a preference for a leathery neck—tanned and dry, even when you were working like a dog and the parts of you not exposed to the sun and wind ran in rivers of sweat. In the service, half the time they put you in a big tin can and flew that can around inside a bigger can, far away from light and air. The harness of the articulator inside the T-280 space construction vehicle made Pearly's neck sweat, and without the sun and wind to whisk it dry, a sweaty neck meant an itchy neck by the end of every workday. Pearly fancied that it itched worse when he was exasperated, and it was itching like hell now as he looked at his men gathered around the viewscreen, bitching to beat the band.
"Forget the mats. How in godless protoss heaven are we supposed to build the goddamn thing in the first place? A collapsible bridger that can support tandem siege tanks across a quarter-klick gap, but light enough to get storked in by a dropship with a full weapons complement. Fekk!"
The man speaking was Vigo "Tuna" Czark. In the world, Czark had been a crane specialist for the fishing fleets of Turaxis II, and up in space he was a fatalist to retire the role. Chewitel "Choosey" Wsoro (blasting man from Old Faithful, cherry-picked out from under the noses of the Confederate Mining Consortium) shook his head in response and clucked. "If it was me, mate, I'd be a fekk of a lot more worried that Raynor wants to start running missions that are gonna have us driving big boys two abreast across a quarter-k wash."
Pearly let his SceeVees whinge awhile as he studied them and turned the problem over in his own head. The men around him were not young; hell, the freshest face among them was already framed with the first gray hairs of middle age. Raynor had tried to give Pearly young men when he'd begun to put together this harebrained unit. He'd sent the best and the brightest right out of Umoja Central University (at least, after the Dominion, the Umojans, and the Combine had drafted their fill). All of 'em were chock-full of theory, but not one had built anything bigger than a model.
On top of it, most of 'em had been so green that they dropped their welders at the first sign of gunfire, and that wasn't the point of the unit. Raynor's Raiders were rebels, trying to fight the whole blasted Dominion with a hundredth of the enemy's resources. They were consistently outmanned, outgunned, and out of time, and yet somehow Jim Raynor'd managed to lead them to more victories than defeats.
With those impossible odds to play, Raynor needed a group of SCV pilots who would be able to take heat, to focus on stomach-churning engineering puzzles even under fire, raising arms to defend their work if necessary. Raynor had sought out Pearly—a man he'd seen complete the weld job on a hellion while small-arms rounds thudded arrhythmically into the back of his T-280—to lead this bunch of madmen. When Pearly had told Raynor that every man he'd assigned to the troupe was insufficient for the task, Raynor had been patient while Pearly fired them all and recruited from scratch.
And recruit he did. What Pearly needed was a batch of serious tradesmen, experts as tough as the No. 10 standard dessert cake in an old war ration. He needed lugs who knew their shinola inside out. He needed thirty of himself, and he'd set about finding them. Pearly had haunted ports and construction sites (and a considerable number of bars) across the sector, hunting every kind, from degreed engineers like him to self-taught plumbers who were so good they could make scat flow uphill on a hot day.
None of them was as young as the average marine, and two out of three had already been dragged from Pho-Rekh to Aiur in the old war. Those facts gave rise to the popular marine joke, "Be kind to a SceeVee; he might just be your dad!" That had kept the riffraff laughing until they watched the SceeVees build a command center and six bunkers while the rest of the Raiders were hiding from the full-on strafing fire of two banshees. All of a sudden the idea that the SceeVees were mostly mean-ass duffers and long-suffering soccer dads back in the world didn't matter too much. The truth was they could build a snow fort on an August afternoon in Hell with the Devil himself taking potshots.
Maybe that was why hearing them bitch like a bunch of Pridewater fishwives was such an itchy-neck experience for Pearly. He knew that if these men were grousing, they had a damn good reason.
They'd been ornery since Tuesday morning, when First Welder Steiglitz got the letter. Like most of the SceeVees, Steiglitz had a family at home—three boys and a patient wife—and the letter had been to inform him of the death of his eldest. Out of duty, the boy had joined his planet's defense militia and gotten blown to hell by "friendly fire" during an outer-atmo skirmish with the zerg.
Tuesday afternoon, Steiglitz had carved a brand-new raven he'd been jointing into a half dozen lumps of very expensive trash before Choosey and a fiber-pourer named Patel pulled him off his plasteel welding rig.
Pearly had seen younger grunts gripe about everything from the rations to the racks while SceeVees took second helpings and fewer pillows. But ever since the Steiglitz letter, their fuses were a helluva lot shorter.
Pearly thought of his wife and his own boys, both grown now, one running the Canyon Plaza back home, the other designing cutting-edge thrusters on Umoja. They were no less vulnerable than the Steiglitz boy had been, and when he pictured them, the image increasingly was of three figures in an open field, enemies on all sides. Time and distance always magnified that feeling of anxiety, and since the letter it had become a persistent weight in his stomach.
He shoved the feeling aside and cleared his throat. "Okay, listen up. If I wanted to hear can't, I'd have asked a Dominion politician. We'll try this again at 16:00. I want all three tac squads to have a logistically viable mat list by then. Any extra time's your own. Spend it on prayer or pinochle; I don't give a damn."
Pearly scanned the men, ragged and creased like a letter reread too often. "Couple of you look like maybe you oughta spend it in the gym." A few of the SceeVees chuckled. He slapped his own belly. "Me among you." A handful more grinned. "Dismissed."
Pearly watched as the SceeVees milled out, and he reached back to scratch his neck with the stylus from his remote console. He was in charge, and it was his job to do something about this. Shite.
Rory Swann set his mug down with a big, round thump. Rory did most things in a big, round way. He had an expansive quality Pearly liked, perhaps because he himself was so contained and never chose to be the one to fill a silence.
Rory was the ship's chief engineer. A few years earlier, the SceeVees had pitched in alongside the engineering crew to patch up the Hyperion after a particularly nasty engagement. Pearly'd made the best friends of his life while up to his elbows in gears and grease, and Rory was no exception.
The two men, temperamental opposites though they were, had an easy way of getting on. Pearly attributed that in part to the fact that they had roughly the same rank and the same expertise, but their duties never overlapped, as a rule. We can gripe to each other with total impunity and not risk ruffled feathers. Usually that meant Rory calling Jim Raynor a "goddamn hotshot" and lecturing for twenty minutes on whatever he and the commander had last locked horns over.
Today might be different, Pearly thought as Rory gushed over the merits of the diamondback assault vehicle for the thousandth time. The fact was, for all their squabbling, Raynor and Swann were thick as thieves. And since Pearly was trying to work out a way to convince Raynor to do something Pearly felt sure he wouldn't want to do, he knew Rory was the man to ask for advice.
Swann was finishing up a big fish story. "—hell, I doubt they'd even let me land on that moon again." Pearly chuckled (though he'd heard the story half a dozen times) and thought about how to phrase his concerns.
"What's on your mind, bud?"