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A short story by

Kal-El Bogdanove

Pearly took a swig of beer and continued. "You married?"

Swann grinned. "More than once. Why? Somebody looking for a one-armed husband?"

Pearly grabbed a handful of pretzels and laid out the Steiglitz story—noting the grimace that flickered across Swann's face when he came to the demise of the raven—and finally worked around to his main concern.

"The thing is they'd never slack. They'd never let their asses drag. But it's getting to 'em. They're touchy without meaning to be, less brilliant than they used to be. It's like a background subroutine. You might not notice it immediately, but if you're paying attention, you know the CPU's being overtaxed. They need to see their families, Rory. For a few hours, even. They're getting... ragged."

Rory opened and closed the jaws of his bionic arm. "Hmm. Yeah. How could they not be? Hell... Most of the boys on this ship? This is their first war. Young men fight fer principle or vengeance. Sometimes fer fun. Not the case with you and me."

Pearly snorted. "Ya big liar. You still do it for fun."

Swann chuckled. "Yeah, well, maybe me. But not your men. They're in it for the folks at home. You gotta go to Raynor."

"And say what?"

"Say what you said to me. Hell, you're both tight-lipped rednecks from some backwater craphole or other. You should know better than anyone: best way with a cowboy is to be direct. Tell the man what you need."

"I hate asking."

"You're not asking. You're telling. Raynor's not a fool. He'll, ah, see the wisdom of the thing. Remember, every Raider who's slugging away in this hopeless hellstorm has one thing in common. I look at you, Raynor—any of the men—and I know I'm looking at a regular Joe who got tired of giving everything to a bunch of fascists who wouldn't spend ten fekkin' credits to save his life, nor any other person's. Start with that. Build outward. Like when you assemble an LAV."

Pearly sighed. "You're an optimist."

Rory guffawed. "And you're a strange bastard. You'd go bare-knuckle with a zealot and not bat an eye, but if someone tries to pry ten consecutive words out of you, you're a shrinking violet."

Swann reached over the bar and helped himself to the tap. "The answer's always no if you never ask. Step one is opening your mouth. Have another with me and then go give him hell."


"Can't be done." Raynor said it with the kind of casual confidence that made younger soldiers stand up straight and salute. It made Pearly's hand automatically rub the back of his neck.

"Our position's too tenuous. Takes a certain amount of resources to keep this bird in the air. Most of the boys are busy turning those resources into spent ammunition. Your unit brings in twelve times what any other squad pulls in a year of missions."

"Seven times what the equivalent Dominion engineering corps pulls, with a third of the operating budget," said Pearly. "I know the stats, Jim."

"You're proving my point." Raynor pulled out a bowie knife and carved a large disc off a Shiloh russet that had been perched in the bowl on the corner of his desk. "We can't spare you." He offered the slice of apple to Pearly on the point of the knife. Pearly made a small, polite no with his free hand and took in some air. Raynor continued.

"We're sitting in the saddle of a rebellion in full swing. Only way we pay for that is if we keep the Moebius folks happy."

Raynor took a bite of apple, chewed, swallowed.

"Leadership's a fiddly little thing. Budget can be as crucial as balls. Did you ever see yourself where you are now?"

Pearly thought about it. "I guess I mostly saw myself building vacation getaways for rich folk. Ranching when I had the spare minute. Getting fat, with grandkids climbing on my knee."

"Funny universe, isn't it?"

Raynor shook his head.

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