2947-10-22 – Tales from the Service: A Mercenary’s Milk-Run

Two weeks ago, the delicate situation (and brazen profiteering) of mercenary commander Jacob Borisov at Adimari Valis appeared in this space (Tales from the Service: A Mercenary's Way). His story generated an uncommon amount of feedback; while most of this spacer-heavy audience sympathized with the needs of his bottom line and assumed the planetary governor could afford to pay for what he needed, I got plenty of messages (and I imagine Jacob’s public datasphere profile got more) saying that because his company was already engaged in the defense of the system, their unused groundside assets should have helped the governor with his security matter for free. 

Some of these messages made this case on moral grounds, others made it on the grounds that it was good business (a sort of loss-leader effect I suppose). Well-intentioned as I’m sure this advice is, Jacob is a veteran mercenary commander whose outfit has done just about everything from pirate patrols to treasure-hunting (as seen previously in this space with Tales from the Inbox: Jewel from a Junker) to defense contracts. 

Evidently unfazed by (and very likely enjoying) the brief spotlight this story has given his outfit, Jacob sent in a little more of the story several days ago. The planetary governor's job, evidently, was escort duty - protecting a crawler carrying several large artifacts from the Xenarch ruins dig-site to the spaceport. While the client insisted that the shipment was absolutely secret and that more than likely the fifty-hour trek through highland passes would be the most boring job possible, Jacob's groundside team discovered otherwise.

He seems to think that the difference between client expectations and field reality proved the value of his profit-seeking instincts (and later insistence on a sizable combat bonus on what the governor insisted was a milk run), whether or not it was the right thing to do. Barring any other stories better than his appearing in my inbox before then, I will pick out select bits of his account (well backed up with tactical-network datastreams and other evidence) over the next few weeks.

Jacob Borisov ducked behind a basalt boulder as a swarm of railshot buzzed over his head and crackled into ferroceramic dust against the barren rocks of the Adimarian upland. He’d begun Governor Yamaguchi’s “simple precaution” crawler escort mission outfitted in one of the suits of assault armor the company had secured after the Vinteri job, but the remains of that expensive exoskeleton now dangled from tie-downs on the side of the crawler, victim of the second attack, ten klicks and nine hours before. 

“Contact!” The belated radio-boosted bark of Cailean Vankov, one of the ten mercenaries whose assault armor was still working, accompanied the rattling hum of heavy railguns returning fire. Above Jacob’s head, several streams of white-hot railgun slugs converged on the source of the sudden attack. On his heads-up display terrain map, the mercenary took note of the ambusher’s position – a perfect blind in the side of a craggy hill, just like the last one.  

This time, the opportunistic attack had been clever – it had tricked Jacob into getting out of the crawler’s well-protected crew cabin in order to examine a wrecked civilian lighter crumpled against the rocks just off their line of advance. Sheer luck in the form of a glint of harsh sunlight on metal, along with a strong instinct for self-preservation, had saved his life, and prevented his platoon from being decapitated. 

As his mercenaries returned fire, Jacob unfolded the bolt rifle strapped to his atmosphere pack and checked the terrain map again. There were no other good places nearby to hide a crew-served railgun, but plenty of smaller crevices and hollows would make good places to hide a lone sniper with a smaller weapon. He tried to wiggle further into his meager cover, to avoid presenting a target to any of the potential hostiles in those scattered locations. “Felix, where’s that oculus?” 

“I put it up right away, boss. Someone slagged it with a laser. I can’t get a shot on him.” 

Jacob sighed. His groundside second-in-command had just proved his sniper hypothesis. The new attackers had learned from how quickly their predecessors had found themselves splattered among the rocks. Oculus aerial surveillance systems were far from cheap, but Jacob would rather lose a dozen of them than one of his crack mercenary troopers. “Flag the position. I’ll try.” 

Felix’s map-pin appeared on the heads-up display a second later. After orienting himself and trying very hard to forget that only a smart-fabric alpine suit and an insulated face-mask stood between him and incoming fire, Jacob snuck a peek over his boulder cover toward Felix’s sniper. He couldn’t see the attacker either, but his position let him at least put a shot close over the target’s head. 

Jacob ducked back down just in time to avoid the murderous hail of ferroceramic and rock splinters which filled the air above his boulder. “Get ready, Felix.” 

Felix knew exactly what Jacob was planning – the same trick that rooted out pirate gunmen holed up in their asteroid hideouts. “Ready, boss.” 

 Jacob jumped up again, leveled his bolt rifle, and fired. A tiny white-hot mote sped outward from the muzzle, zipped over the cleft in which Felix’s sniper was holed up, and buried itself in the hillside. The moment it touched rock, the bolt rifle’s heavy supercapacitors discharged half a million volts into the thin air. The discharge followed the mote’s path, appearing and vanishing in a flash and thunderous clap that left Jacob’s ear’s ringing. 

Eyes dazzled and neck-hair standing on end, Jacob dove back into cover as enemy fire converged on him again. Even as he did, he heard the solitary bark of Felix’s shoulder-mounted anti-armor cannon. “Bandit is history. Who’s next?” 

Jacob grinned into the dirt as stone chips and ferroceramic dust continued to rain down on him, its momentum fortunately spent. Even a near-miss from a bolt rifle produced hair-raising electromagnetic discharge and an eardrum-perforating thunderclap. Combined with the havoc the weapon played with electronic systems, this often panicked the target into breaking cover, if even for an instant – and Felix’s marksmanship had made that instant count. 

A rushing noise filled the air above Jacob’s head as one of the other troopers with a functioning suit discharged a rocket shoulder-box into the cleft where the enemy railgun position was. The gun answered with more railshot and Jacob heard the distinctive metallic hailstone sound of slugs glancing off armor, but it was too late – two dozen high explosive rockets pulverized the hillside, and the enemy heavy gun went silent. 

“Are we clear?” Cailean asked, as enemy fire ceased. The other mercenaries, manning the crawler’s antipersonnel guns and their own suit weaponry, stopped firing as well. 

“Report.” Jacob looked up in the direction of the crawler, relieved to see no bodies or suits on the ground. 

The nervous, high-pitched voice of the governor’s representative answered first. “Crawler’s in one piece. No alarms.” 

“Armor erosion and some minor pressure leaks.” Holtman, the mercenary who had gotten close enough to Jacob’s position to loose the rockets, stepped up to his boss’s covering boulders. “I’ve got you, boss. Get behind.” 

Jacob raised his head cautiously. There was no telling how many more snipers there were. “Get in there and grab what’s left of that crew-served, then let's get that crawler moving.” 

“On it.” Holtman’s suit boots crunched Adimarian gravel, and he loped into the gulch to claim whatever prize might be available. Someone else hopped up the hillside to retrieve the laser from the splattered remnant of Felix’s kill as Jacob darted for the recessed pressure lock on the side of the slow-moving vehicle. He had no doubt there were other raiders lurking in the hills, but nobody took a shot at him – without their strongpoint in the gully, it was unlikely any of the greedy low-lives would want to be a hero. 

As soon as Jacob was inside the crawler, he tore off the insulated faceplate and tossed it into an equipment bin. Joseph, his explosives expert, was waiting with a pouch full of food-processor coffee. “Client said this would be a milk run, eh boss?”  

Jacob snatched the pouch and sipped it carefully, making a face at the ever-bitter taste. “Milk run, my frostbitten ass.”