Book: Forget Nothing
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About The Authors
BY JASON ANSPACH
& MICHELLE C. MEYERS
Copyright © 2020
Galaxy’s Edge, LLC
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without the prior written permission of the publisher and copyright owner.
All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or any other U.S. Government agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information or CIA endorsement of the author’s views. This material has been reviewed by the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information.
All rights reserved. Version 1.0
Edited by Lauren Moore
Published by Galaxy’s Edge Press
Cover Art: Thomas Wievigg
Cover Design: Ryan Bubion
Formatting: Kevin G. Summers
Newsletter (get a free short story): InTheLegion.com
Sometimes, when I run, I see the faces of the people I’ve killed.
There are three of them, though I’m sure the actual number is more than that. But I remember three clearly. They were all human.
The first was an old man with curly black beard streaked with white. I was a newly minted Republic Marine—a hullbuster—fresh out of academy and on my first deployment. It was my second day in company. We caught him setting up a roadside IED. Told him to back away. He tried to detonate instead. We all shot him. Filled him full of blaster holes. I know I hit him, and as he died, he stared at me. Wouldn’t look away from my face until the light went out of his eyes and he slumped down into the dirt.
I think he blamed me for killing him. And when I run, he sometimes comes back and extends that death stare.
The second was a man in his forties with a terrible scar that ran from right above his top lip down to his jawline. I remember the hate in his eyes as he swung his rifle around to me. But too slow.
The third was just last year while deployed on Ulori. She had been part of a failed ambush trying to kill my Marines, and I was leading a squad through the ferns and evergreens to find her after she broke and ran.
I thought we’d lost her, but by chance, I spotted red on the moss lining a blue cedar. I flipped the safety off my N-4 and stalked around the tree. And there she was, just standing there. Like she had no idea we were so close.
We both froze. She looked just like me. So much so that you’d think we were sisters. I think the shock of seeing a reflection where we expected an enemy stopped both of our minds for an instant. And while she had whatever meager training the Mid-Core Rebellion provided, I was a Marine.
I came to quickly and sent two blaster bolts into center mass.
She let out a “hup!” that I can still hear with perfect recall, and then fell flat on her back, half buried in scrubby ferns blanketing the forest floor between the old-growth trees.
My fire team, being the warfighters that they were, ran to the sound of weapons fire and then, seeing that the threat was gone, stood in a crowded circle, looking down at the girl.
“Damn, Cap’n Broxin,” my gunny had said. “She looks just like you.”
I knew I needed to reply, to say something, but I didn’t want to. It was as if I was looking at myself in death. Like I’d been taken through time and given a chance to see how it would all end. Or maybe I was seeing what could have been had my life been different. Had my father not been a legionnaire. Loyal to the Republic. Instilling in his daughter honor, perseverance, faith, loyalty, and hard work the way other, more normal parents, instill sugar, spice, and ballet into their daughters.
“You all missed your chance,” I said to my Marines. I could tell they were watching me. Wanting to know how I’d handle that unique situation. “That was the closest you hullbusters will ever come to being able to shoot your captain and not face court-martial for it.”
Gunny had laughed at that, which gave the rest of the Marines permission to laugh as well. “No one ever accused me of understanding women, Captain. And I understand officers even less. None of these boys ever wanted to shoot you, though. If anything, they’re disappointed they can’t ask this here dead MCR out on a date. Marines ain’t never been picky, and she’s a sight better looking than them water buffalos lookin’ for an easy benefits package I see stalking outside the barracks back home. Some of you boys were probably just about ready to take her up on it, too, I’d say.”
It was all automatic from there. Gunny called it in, got the team ready to march back to the rest of the unit. But I stood there for a while. Just staring at her.
That rotation before Ulori is what bumped me from Captain to Major. You could say that my star is on the rise. Enthusiastic lieutenant colonels tell me there’s no way I won’t make at least Brigadier, provided I stay a hullbuster long enough.
I can’t help but feel like that would be a disappointment.
My father was partial to a Legion saying: Forget nothing.
He told me all the ways life could be boiled down to those two words. Drilled it into me from the time I first walked. Reminded me of it while I was in school and then facing the wrath of my drill instructors.
Of the three people I know I killed—up close enough to remember their faces—the girl is the one I can’t forget. The other two are infrequent haunts. But I see her daily.
Usually on runs. Like right now.
I’m running outside, feeling the wind and smelling the soil of Ulori. Every planet has its own smell, and Ulori smells fresh, like rain and growing grass. Before landing here to relieve the Marines of 19th Battalion, I spent a week on a transport cruiser. I could never stand for stationary running if I could avoid it, so I would run the lower decks of the ship, each lap encompassing 0.93 miles, which was just enough to be inconvenient for someone like me who enjoys round numbers. Start at the lowest deck I could access, run it, sprint the stairs, repeat.
Ships never smell fresh to me, no matter how advanced the air scrubbing system is. There’s no scent of life in what those ducts push out. That’s what had me looking forward to the run outside the perimeter of Camp Puller. And I’d been enjoying it too, moving outside the wire, a nice, even five kilometers start to finish. Even the ground was comfortable, just burnt grassland—kept free from the camp for about a kilometer out.
I can hear the grass swaying in the wind, feel the cool of the breeze blasting my thighs and rifling up my running shorts as I pick up my pace, determined to outrun that face. That’s how it usually works. I zone out, maybe from the sound of the grass or my own breathing—from the steady beat of my stride.
And then she comes. Visiting me from the grave again.
So I move faster. Run harder. Determined to make some ache in my ribs or knot in my legs appear and drive the girl from my thoughts.
Ahead, I see a group of Marines running in olive T-shirts and black shorts. Men from the 19th, moving along at an easy pace. Probably happy to be rotating out of Ulori. It’s not the worst spot in the galaxy, but it’s had its share of trouble.
I fix my eyes on them, burning holes in their backs as I stretch my stride and move my legs faster.
They hear me coming, right about the point where they can’t do anything about it—my momentum is too much. I’m moving too quickly. I see their faces as I run past their little gaggle of testosterone. Most are sweating, indifferent. A few seem amused, eager to watch me pass them by. That we’re all hullbusters doesn’t mean they won’t ogle.
Oba, do they ogle.
But a couple seem bothered at the thought of being lapped. We started off our PT at about the same time. I left the gates not a minute before them. Only I ran while they jogged, leaving them far behind. And now I’m back in their midst.
I can hear a couple of them take off after me, picking up their speed to try to run me down while their buddies yell for them to “go get her!”
They yell other things, too. Things that will cause them to blush and squirm if they see me in the camp later, wearing a major’s leaf. A part of me hopes that does happen. But then I see the face of the girl—my reflection—and I run faster still. Until I hear my pursuers curse and give up chase.
And still I go, not sprinting, but getting a full stride so that I feel like I’m gliding. Like I belong out in the grassland among those delicate four-legged animals native to this world; those graceful creatures with horns growing along their slender necks. I wonder what they’re called.
I turn a corner, running under the shadow of a guard tower manned by a Marine with a slim conically-shaped bot meant for spotting threats in the distance. Those bots are lousy company, but they never fall asleep, at least.
This is the home stretch. I can see the main gate ahead—where I started from—marking completion of kilometer fifteen. I pull back, wanting to get into a rhythm that will drop my heartrate down a bit and make me cool off faster, but not slow enough to let those hullbusters catch up and regain their pride. Otherwise I’m liable to shower too soon and sweat in my uniform—I’m on a schedule.
The girl’s face is gone. Coming only if I purposefully bring it to mind. It’s funny, but she never looks as real when I try to recall her. And she doesn’t look that much like me, either. Different color hair, eyes set farther apart than mine. Smaller ears. Sometimes I wonder which her is real and which one is a figment of my imagination.
As I ponder this, I hear heavy footfalls behind me despite the muffling effect of the burnt and cutback grasses in the perimeter’s kill zone. Maybe I did let my pace slow too much and the Marines caught up. But no, instead a group of four legionnaires in their dark gray-green armor have emerged from a knocked down path through the grasslands and are now a hundred meters behind me, running the perimeter.
I can’t see their faces as I glance over my shoulder at the noise. They have their helmets on. Other than their rifles, their kits seem meant for PT, just a bunch of charge packs, rocks, and anything else they can find that will weigh them down, all stuffed into their pockets the way a boy might fill his jeans with candy and shiny objects of treasure.
These legionnaires are attached to Camp Puller, though they operate independently of the Marines. And they’re constantly training. To the point that the smell of ozone drifting from their blaster range is a part of the Camp, as is the sound of near around-the-clock target practice. I frequently find myself wishing I was on the blaster range with them instead of building rosters and org charts behind a datapad in the climate-controlled command center. The legionnaires are fanatical, and without regulations keeping them close to Puller’s perimeter, they often go for marathon-length runs through the countryside. I’m guessing that’s what this group did and now they’re coming back.
Probably while feeding themselves only three-quarters oxygen, just to make things harder. My father used to say that being a legionnaire meant wanting everything the hard way, deep down.
“Dini,” he would say, or sometimes “Andien,” if he was serious enough to use my full name. “When your time is up, you won’t never know what you could have really been unless you always chose the hard way. You go easy, you’ll forget something. And someday, you’ll regret it.”
The legionnaires coming in from the field were living life the hard way—the hardest way. The most difficult training to endure the hardest fights on the most violent planets in the galaxy.
I could hear them gaining on me, the rustle of their weighted vests and the thump of their armored boots spurring me to pick up my own pace. They would catch me. But not yet.
The four men split into a pair of uniform rows to move around me. Two men on either side, running in formation with myself in the middle. I get a sense for their speed and increase my stride, stretching my legs as far and fast as they can move.
And the five of us run together.
But it’s not enough. I push myself faster and harder, running for what seems like forever though it couldn’t be more than ten or fifteen seconds. My lungs burn like they’re on fire, and I rasp out my exhalations through fiercely gritted teeth. My legs feel heavy as marble.
I won’t stop. I see the main gate loom closer with each agonizing stride. If I can just make it to the gate with these legionnaires…
But the warfighters don’t stop at the gate. They keep running along the perimeter. And even though my race was supposed to be done, I stay with them. To the next turn if that’s what it takes. Another five kilometers around if it comes to it. The only way I’ll break from this pack is if they peel back off into the prairies, something I know they won’t do.
One of the legionnaires turns his head and looks at me. “You’re pretty fit for a Marine.”
There’s no fatigue in the man’s voice, and though it sounds hard and almost robotic through the external speaker of his helmet, it seems warm and kind. He means it as a compliment.
But the fact that he’s even able to utter a sentence while I feel as though my heart is liquifying in my throat makes me angry. I can’t even manage a grunt in reply.
And then, as if by instinct—like birds all taking flight at once—the legionnaires find another gear and leave me altogether. I’m still running. Moving as fast as I can, giving everything my body has to give without care for the pain that will surely come the moment I let things stiffen up with rest.
They just keep going. As though until now, they hadn’t even started to run.
I stop, hearing an involuntary cry of exhaustion as I slow down. My chest is heaving for want of air and I can feel my heartbeat in my neck and ears. I know I should be walking right now, gradually reducing my heartrate. But all I can do is stoop over and hold my knees while the sweat drips down my arms and from my face, falling in quick droplets from my nose and overwhelming my eyebrows to obscure my vision.
I look back at the main gate and see Marines being marched by a sergeant whose voice booms unintelligibly outside the wire. I turn to watch the legionnaires, who are small now, still running. Far away.
Finally I drop my head in acceptance.
“Sket,” I say, and then straighten out and jog back to the gate.
It’s 0712 when I arrive at the command information center—CIC. My hair is wet, pulled up beneath my cap. I had to shower as fast as I could, and it didn’t quite take. I’m still hot, cooling down beneath my uniform with just enough sweat to uncomfortably trickle down the small of my back. Not so much to sweat through the uniform though.
The extra run cost me. I’m supposed to report at 0730, but in my opinion, twenty minutes early is on time and anything after that is late. One of those things my father pounded into me. At dinner, or arriving to practice, church, anything.
It’s not exactly a universal standard, though. When I arrive, I find only a few staff officers going about their work. Colonel Gerlach is still in his office and none of my peers are on hand yet, either.
As a major, I’m supposed to move into more of a logistical role, making sure my captains are making their lieutenants listen to their sergeants. But a quick check of the command rosters tells me what I’ve suspected since I arrived on Ulori—we aren’t at full strength, and I’ll likely be doing what I did before my recent promotion for a while yet.
And that suits me fine. Because it means I’ll be up front, moving with my Marines. If not pulling triggers, at least on hand to make sure those kids who do are put in the best possible situation. Making their sergeants’ jobs—to keep those boys alive—easier if not easy.
I’ll miss it when I can’t be out there any longer. It will likely be the last time I get to work so closely with Marines at a small unit level, and I will miss that immensely. My career path determined by the Republic Marines from here on out as a major will likely lead me to more time spent in a CIC than in the field. But that’s the way it goes if you want to make it a career and move up. And the higher you move up, the more you can do to help keep Marines safe.
I stand there in the small briefing area, cap in hand as the staff officers quietly give instructions to comm officers hunched over glowing holographic displays. I strain to pick out individual words, if only to have something to do. Most of the discussion is about verifying intelligence reports called in by the Ulori—the native species on the planet.
They would almost pass for human if all you saw was their face, up close. But they look a bit more avian when you take them in as a whole. Their hair is really a trail of feathers that runs from their brow across and then down to the middle of their backs. Their feet resemble eagles, five-toes with sharp talons. Their hands are more human, but with only four fingers and another sprouting of feathers that run from their wrists back to their elbows.
They’re good people. Extremely loyal to the Republic. And it’s on their behalf that this increased military presence is happening. Like most planets in the galaxy, there are a lot of humans. And the humans on Ulori don’t share the natives’ love for the Republic. I don’t know why.
But they’re making life harder than it already is. Bloodier than it needs to be.
No matter where you go in the galaxy, you always find people who want blood. It’s the one thing that seems to connect every species. Blood and its flow. They all want it and yet it never really solves much.
The door to Colonel Gerlach’s office opens with a whispered swoosh. The man is not yet fifty. Just old enough for his own children to be reaching adulthood. His head is shaved and shined. He looks like the dad who very much could beat up all the other dads. But his smile is friendly.
“Major Broxin,” he says, holding out a cup of hot kaff as though giving a toast. “It’s good to see my new officers arrive early.”
He takes a sip, looks around, and adds, “Even if it’s just one.”
“Thank you, sir.”
I hear footsteps come up behind me and turn around, expecting to see my fellow officers. Instead a troop of four legionnaires step inside, their helmets off and clipped to their chest rigs. They’re loaded down with fraggers, charge packs, and their rifles.
These men are prepared for war.
“Colonel Gerlach,” the lead man says.
He’s wearing black shades that completely hide his eyes. His hair and beard are both red and he walks with a swagger that very much suggests he owns this camp. I feel a sense of resentment I can’t quite justify. He hasn’t actually done anything to deserve ill feelings.
“Nice to see you this morning, Lieutenant,” Gerlach replies. He gestures to me. “Have you met Major Broxin?”
“No, sir. We have not had the pleasure.”
The legionnaire holds out a hand and tells me he’s, “Lieutenant Ellek Owens,” as I shake it.
“Andien Broxin. It’s good to meet you, Lieutenant.”
Owens tilts his head, seemingly to study me from behind those dark glasses. He holds up his finger, as though a thought has just come to mind. “You’re the girl who was running with us this morning, aren’t you?”
I feel my face flushing at this. “You’ll have to tell me. I was the only one not wearing a mask.”
“It’s not a mask, it’s called a bucket,” chimes in one of the legionnaires with Owens. “And that’s her, LT.”
“Thought so,” Owens said, looking down for a moment and sniffing before meeting my eyes again. “You run well. Most Marines can’t stay with the Legion for five steps.”
“Maybe you haven’t met the right Marines.”
Owens smiles. “Maybe not.”
Colonel Gerlach interjects himself into the banter. “Were you boys doing PT this morning, Ellek? Seems a bit late for Dark Ops.”
“Only a little, sir.”
Getting over my initial disdain, I find myself intrigued by this legionnaire. First, because he’s Dark Ops, the elite of the elite. Small units tasked with completing the most vital and difficult missions the Legion needs doing. And second because of how he’s handling himself. I’ve known enough legionnaires to know that they’re hit or miss when it comes to giving respect. They all have a swagger, and rank isn’t a distinction that carries across branches in the mind of a legionnaire. Not like it does in the Army, Navy, or Marines. To them there’s the Legion and then there’s everyone else.
But Owens, despite the swagger, doesn’t behave that way. He calls the colonel “sir” and seems aware that he’s a guest on a Republic Marine camp. And not the guest of honor, at that.
“We did an extra five k just for fun,” Owens continues. “That was when we found Major Broxin running the perimeter. We had just returned from recon for today.”
“Good,” Gerlach says. “I’m about to brief my team, once they arrive. They’re not all as punctual as the major. Do you have your A-O set, then?”
“Yes, sir, we do.”
Owens hands over a datapad, elaborating as the colonel studies the screen.
“The Ulori have been providing fairly accurate details on the insurgents’ troop movements. But not enough that the AIs have been able to predict a reliable estimate about where they might pop up next.”
Gerlach casts the datapad onto a holodisplay in front of him, causing a map of the area surrounding Camp Puller to appear three dimensionally. He points at a sector, which shades red in response. “So then you’re patrolling here: east of the north-south road leading from the camp. And that patrol is… just a guess?”
“Maybe something a little better than that, but not much,” concedes Owens. “We know they’ve been humping explosives to places along Liberty Drive.”
That’s the name we’ve given the north-south road leading from Camp Puller to the Ulori’s capital city—Perdth.
“And we know they’re using some limited repulsor sleds to make the job easier. Or at least were.” Owens nods at me and then gestures to one of the legionnaires standing beside him. “Kopp dusted a trio of the insurgents a few days before your Marines arrived. That’s when we saw they were using sleds.”
Gerlach shook his head. “I’m afraid I’m not seeing whatever it is you are.”
Owens nodded. “Well, like I said: it’s probably little more than a guess. But if I was to pull a repulsor cart in this region, the one thing I’d avoid as much as possible is taking it through the grasslands. Because it’ll leave a trail—bent stalks and all. Just waiting for someone to find. And so after our wee hour recon run, we think we found a place that can get you close to the road only without leaving that little trail. Lots of rocks and scrub bush.”
“And that’s where your team will be positioned?”
“Yes, sir. We ate your hullbuster cuisine enough to tide us over for a while. So we’re heading straight back out.”
“For how long?”
“Long as it takes,” Owens says. “Or until we run out of water and ration gels. But that’s not for a spell.”
At this point I interject. “And you’re going now?”
It didn’t make sense to me for them to move across the open ground to set up an ambush with the sun up and exposing them for all the planet to see.
“Yes, ma’am,” Owens says, making me pause to consider how much I dislike being called that. “They won’t be about in the day. You see, we’re on separate cycles. They prep at night and kill you Marines with IEDs in the day. We prep in the day, and we’ll kill them in the dark.”
I can see the lieutenant wink at me from behind his glasses. He’s proud of his prose.
“That’s too bad, Lieutenant,” I say, letting a smile creep across my face so he knows it’s in a spirit of comradery. “Those glasses you’re wearing indoors don’t seem like they’d be much use at night.”
Owens doesn’t miss a beat. “I take ’em off when the helmet goes on, Major.”
One of the other legionnaires leans out from behind the lieutenant so he can better see me. “Only because they won’t fit. He showers with those things on, ma’am.”
“Stow it, Drayus,” Owens says, turning around to address the legionnaire. “I only do that so you won’t feel so uncomfortable with me watching.”
Gerlach again clears his throat. Maybe out of a sense of propriety, but I’ve heard much the same and worse from my fellow Marines.
The door opens, and a passel of lieutenants walk in. Ten minutes early to the briefing, but clearly feeling late as they see how many are already in the room. A few of them check their chronometers to make sure they hadn’t gotten the time wrong.
“Would you like to stay for the briefing?” Gerlach asks Lieutenant Owens.
“Thank you, sir. But no. We’ve got another run ahead of us and we’d best get going.”
“I can arrange for a SLIC to insert you,” Gerlach offers. “You boys have done a lot of running today already.”
“Thank you again, sir. But that’s something the MCR might notice. And I figure we’ll have plenty of time to rest once we arrive.”
The two men shake hands, and then Owens nods at me. “Major Broxin… a pleasure.”
They leave as the incoming Marines take their seats.
The briefing went about as I expected it to; the duty roster wasn’t lying, and I’m commanding a patrol along Liberty Road. A show of force as much as anything else. Something meant to show the Ulori that we’re here and they have the Republic’s support, and something to show the human insurgents that their strong-arming the natives won’t be tolerated.
“Major, what’s wrong with these bird people?”
I turn and see a young Marine, kitted out in an olive green flak jacket, open-faced helmet unstrapped, smart glass lifted up. Just a kid. Maybe nineteen. He’s the only one not inside the combat sleds, idling and waiting to go.
I want to ask him what in the hell he’s doing out here, but I’m in a good humor, and I see Gunny O’Neill walking his way up, making sure everyone is where they’re supposed to be before we can roll out.
“What makes you think there’s something wrong with the Ulori, Private Polost?”
“Just seems like most of the time, it’s the aliens that cause the trouble. Feels weird to go huntin’ humans is all.”
Gunny O’Neill cuts into the conversation. “Lots of humans in the MCR, Private. You ain’t gotta be no alien to hate the Republic, and humans get kilt by Marines just as good as humanoids. Maybe better. Oorah?”
“Oorah, Gunny,” Polost shoots back, but then stands there dumbly for a moment.
“Polost, you dumbass,” mumbles the Marine manning the twin blaster turrets on the top of the sled. Loud enough for the private to hear him, but not so loud as to draw attention to himself.
“Hell, Polost, don’t just stand there!” Gunny O’Neill shouts. “Apologize to the major for spilling stupid on her and move ass onto that sled!”
I watch the private run to the back of his assigned combat sled, one hand holding his rifle and the other on top of his helmet to keep it from falling off. In these instances, it’s hard not to laugh. And so I usually let myself get angry at the unprofessionalism instead. But Gunny is in rare form.
“Hol-ee sket, you’re a disgrace, Private! Strap that helmet on! I swear, all your mama wants for Unity Day this year is a folded flag!”
I cover my mouth as Gunny O’Neill turns around and walks up to me. “They are un-assed and ready to move, Major.”
“Gunny. You have a way.”
“Hell, Major. If I had my way I’d be pulling guard duty on Pthalo by some pool with an Endurian on each arm. But killin’ MCR is good enough for second.”
Most Marines share that sentiment. I do. The Mid-Core Rebellion isn’t a real threat to the Republic. Nothing really is—how can it be with the number of fleets and the Legion standing between whatever belligerent the galaxy props up and Utopion? But they seem to be growing after their initial spark that started with the Kimbrin and their human allies on Pardith and in the Muratawa system.
No planet has attempted to secede from the Republic. And none likely will. Even Kima, the Kimbrin’s home planet, is still in the Republic and officially opposes the MCR. But the rebellion is growing in size if not capability.
It’s a far cry from the days when I first joined the Marines and spent my time hunting down pirates.
The MCR manages to infiltrate planets with anti-Republic propaganda and then bleed Marines, soldiers, or spacers until the Legion is sent in to root them out and put them down for good. Enough of us die to make us good and bitter, but not so much that the rest of the galaxy seems to care. It’ll take something much larger for that to happen. Something I’m not convinced the MCR is capable of achieving.
The Republic is far from perfect, especially the House of Reason. But the MCR is a violent group of loosely allied idealists who seem to think “not the Republic” is enough of an ideology to kill kids in uniform.
I disagree. Which puts me here, trying to keep my Marines from being killed. Which usually involves killing MCR who sometimes aren’t much older than kids.
Warfighting tends to be a young person’s business.
“We’re loaded up, Major.”
O’Neill’s voice comes in clear as those waters of Pthalo he was dreaming about.
“Roger, Gunny. Verify unit comms.”
I step inside the command sled. Most of these repulsor sleds are designed to rapidly transport troops, loading and unloading them from scissoring ramps at the rear of the craft. The command sled does that, too, except it has an enlarged cockpit so I can stand behind the drivers and monitor the battlefield through the display nodes.
Waiting for me behind a bio-encoded firewall is access to every holocam, observation bot, and comm channel relevant to our mission. I log in and begin cycling through the holofeeds being recorded from various angles on each combat sled and then turn to introduce myself to the sled’s drivers.
“We’re ready to speed out, pending Marine comm integration.”
“Copy that, Major,” the lead driver says. She flips a comm switch on her console. “This is Duster One, to all sleds: spool up and prepare for departure.”
A series of acknowledgements follow and soon I can hear the sound of the vehicles’ repulsors growing with intensity. The sled, which had been operating under its lowest power setting, just an inch or so above the ground, is now thrumming and hovering thirty-three inches from the dirt, sending the carbon remains of burnt grass and dust swirling around the sides of the vehicle, obscuring my holofeeds in a cloud.
Gunny comes over the comm relay. “Red Devil Two to Red Devil Actual.”
“Go ahead, Two,” I say.
“Comms are set, charge packs are fresh, and I got a bunch of hullbusters ready to kick ass.”
“Copy, Two. Let’s not keep them waiting any longer.”
I see the driver looking at me. I give her a thumbs up and say, “Let’s move, Sergeant.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the driver says. “Duster One to all sleds: we’re speeding out.”
There’s an anticlimactic moment where we wait for the lead sled to move and gather enough distance that the second sled can follow, and so on, properly spacing the vehicles out in case of IEDs or ambush. We try to stay a hundred meters apart. Close enough to be able to quickly respond to whatever is in front of us, but far enough back that the MCR doesn’t get a two-for-one if that’s what the day brings.
Finally I feel the combat sled smoothly push forward, its repulsors sending it skimming above the ground with the whine of its engines sounding distantly outside. It’s a sound I like, at least when I’m inside a sled. It reminds me of putting a conch shell against my ear as a girl to try to hear the noise of the ocean. The beach—water—was always my favorite place.
“Duster One to Poppa.” The driver is calling in to Camp Puller’s CIC.
“Go for Poppa.”
“Duster convoy has cleared the wire, en route to patrol waypoint alpha-five.”
“Copy, Duster One. Happy hunting. Over.”
And with that we’re moving along the road, the tall grass of the plains gently bending beneath the gentle push of the wind, only to be stopped and sent the other way by the repulsor wash emanating from our sleds. The stalks of tall grass nearest the road swirl in confusion as we pass by, only to fold back with the wind’s hiss once we’ve gone.
I see one of those antelope-like creatures running after a start, as though it thought the sleds were predators coming to take it down. More of the animals spring up from the grass and leap out in front of us before turning hard and dashing away from our path.
“Do you know what those things are called, Sergeant?” I ask.
“Have you been at the camp long?” I ask, thinking maybe the driver came as part of the partial relief.
“Eight months, ma’am.”
It seems like the driver should have found out in that time. But maybe she just isn’t the curious type. I’ll make it a point to find out when we get back to base. But for now, I have other things to do.
We’re about a half-click out from the base, which is about as far as I’m willing to travel without getting our observation bots up to watch the road ahead. The guard sentries and scanners should have a good fix on anything inside the line we’re about to cross, but beyond that is open game. And based on this morning’s briefing, if there’s going to be a problem, it’ll happen within the next two or three kilometers.
I call up three observation bots—drones—and then send them forward. One to watch the road itself and the other two to span out on either side and look for anyone waiting in the grass.
“Red Devil Actual to Poppa, how copy?”
“Copy, R-D Actual.”
“O-Bs are in the air. Requesting confirmation of signal feed.”
I wait as the comm officer verifies that the tech in charge of validating whatever the bots flag through their limited AI programming actually sees the feed. It all looks good on my end. I can see the thermal holofeed on each respective display, and I’m able to switch from thermal to infrared to high-def. But I’m not the one who’ll spend the rest of the mission with eyes on screen. I have other responsibilities, like making sure my team is doing what they should be doing. Looking at my gunners up top on the sleds manning the twin barreled blaster cannons, I can see that they could do a better job of watching our flanks.
“Gunny,” I call into the comm. “Make sure the shooters have a full field of vision. The first three sled gunners are all looking the same direction.”
The comm officer reports back in. “Link is secure and O-B tech is monitoring, Red Devil Actual.”
“Roger. Red Devil Actual out.”
We drive for another two kilometers, not seeing anything. Ten more pass by. Then another twenty. I start to think that we’ll have our run on the highway go nice and smooth when the comm chimes and I hear from the observation bot tech.
“Red Devil Actual, possible IED detected.”
“All sleds,” I call into the convoy’s comm channel. “Suspected IED ahead. All stop.”
The combat sleds come to an immediate halt, and I grab hold of a stabilizing rail to keep my balance. I watch the observation bot feeds on my display, examining our surroundings, looking for trouble. There are a lot of things that could be happening. The suspected roadside bomb might be nothing. Or it could be the real deal, just done poorly and easy to spot. Another possibility is that it’s a live bomb, but it was left visible in order to get us to stop—standard operating procedure for anyone who doesn’t want a battlefield conversion for their combat sled into a starfighter.
That’s the one that has me most worried. The grass hasn’t gone away, and a patient enough ambushing force could be lying on their stomachs somewhere out there, just far enough to keep our passive bio-sensors from recognizing them. Of course, that’s what the bots are for. And they’re not showing any displacements in the sea of waving green vegetation that I can identify.
I can hear the chatter of sled gunners over the open comm.
“You see anything?”
“Nah. Road looks clear, man.”
“Watch the grass, kelhorns.”
“I can watch both, Dispotto.”
“If I was gonna lay an ambush, it would be here. Look at those hills.”
Those hills are a concern. We’re not in a valley, but there are rolling hills on either side of the road. It wouldn’t be difficult to hide yourself from view just by lying on the opposite crest. Still, the observation bots aren’t picking anything out.
“Major, are we good to dismount?”
“Affirmative, Gunny,” I say. “Looks clear. Dismount and set up a perimeter while we get the ordnance bot to move forward to the S-IED.”
A moment later I hear the thrum of our combat sled’s rear transport door yawning open. Marines run down the ramp and space themselves, taking knees just off the road so that only their heads and rifles are visible atop the grass.
The ordnance bot is in the lead sled. That’s protocol if not required. The thinking is that if you find an IED in time, you want the bot in the sled closest to it. And if you find it too late, well, it won’t matter whether you have a bot to disable it after the fact.
I’m about to ask my lieutenant sitting in the lead sled what the bot’s status is when he reports in. “PIES-7 is deployed, Major Broxin. Optics on holofeed Charlie-Sierra-Two. Over.”
“Copy. Dismount and link up with Sergeant O’Neill. Broxin out.”
I switch displays and link into the ordnance bot’s optics. These models are named PIES as a reminder of what comprises a working bomb—Power source, Initiator, Explosives, Switch—just in case we find ourselves looking at one without a bot to fix things for us.
The bot itself is speeding toward the location of the suspected bomb on three impervisteel omni-balls, allowing it to handle most terrain. These things are built solid, armored enough to withstand not only a significant explosion should it make a mistake, but also any blaster fire it may come under from those not wanting it to disarm whatever it has in front of it.
“Remote observation acknowledged,” the bot says to me. “Greetings, Major Broxin.”
“Hello, PIES. Link display says your ETA to S-IED is two minutes.”
“Report assessment upon arrival.”
I check troop positionings, scanner readings, and everything else I can fit into the small window before the bot arrives. When it does, it shows me a feed that would be comical if it weren’t so dangerous. It’s almost definitely an IED, and about a quarter of it is exposed on the shoulder of the road. Like they didn’t dig a deep enough hole and thought, What the hell, this’ll do.
“Go ahead, PIES.”
“I have yet to examine the device directly, but my sensor array detects trace elements of excidium with enough parts per million to indicate a significant explosive payload is nearby, if not the device in question.”
“Sounds like confirmation,” I answer back, relaying the info to my team via text message.
“Great,” complains a Marine over the open net. “Gonna bake in the sun now while we wait.”
“Which one of you kelhorns is crying on my comm?” Gunny O’Neill roars. “Grandma don’t get the Marine comm transmissions, you damned broken-homed disappointment. But I got a message from old Nana: You’re the reason Mom and Dad got a divorce! They couldn’t stand to live with someone too stupid to use a private comm channel. It’s only your fellow Marines who have to share air with your dumbass because the Republic says we don’t get paid otherwise!”
Shaking my head at Gunny’s inventiveness, I turn back to the holodisplay to watch the bot work. It’s moving in low, carefully removing the dirt from the partially buried explosive when the screen fills with a violent orange flash. I jerk my head and blink my eyes, hearing the thunderous boom a split-second later. The eruption of the bomb causes the command sled to bounce and rock as tremors shoot along the highway.
The sounds of the explosion seem to echo on, and then I hear a plinking against the hull of the sled. As if dirt and other debris from the blast site are raining down on top of us. But there’s too much substance in the sound for it to be that. And in the seconds it takes for my mind to realize what’s happening, I hear a Marine shout, “Contact! Hilltop!”
There’s always a lot of yelling when contact is first initiated. Someone is trying to kill you, and the spike in adrenaline makes a lot of it only natural. You’re trying to call out targets, trying to make sure your buddies are aware of what’s happening so they don’t get shot standing around—it’s something the Marines try to train for through live-fire exercises and other war games. But there’s something about knowing that you’re the target, you’re the one the person at the other end of the barrel wants dead that ratchets up the intensity, and we can’t simulate that in live-fire for obvious reasons. The first time I was in combat, as a lieutenant, I don’t think I lowered my voice until a good ten minutes after the engagement ended and the threats were neutralized. I couldn’t.
It takes a certain level of veteran experience to keep your voice calm under fire. That’s what makes experienced NCOs like Gunny O’Neill invaluable to a platoon. He could be outgunned one hundred to one and still have the ability to speak without a flutter of nervousness in his voice. Men like O’Neill only shout because they want to, because they know their Marines will listen.
That’s what makes what I hear over comms right now so disconcerting.
I mumble curses beneath my breath and flip through cam feeds as I make contact with Camp Puller. There’s an order designed to keep us fighting as optimally as possible. And while I’m assessing the situation and making larger tactical decisions, Gunny is supposed to be making sure my Marines are where they need to be: fighting hard but staying alive. Only I didn’t figure Gunny to go down so quickly.
And from the look of things, it had to be a hell of a lucky shot to have done the job. The ambush came from the top of the grassy hills that line our right-hand side. Lesson learned; don’t trust tech over your gut. So far though, just that right side. We’re ranged about five hundred yards. That’s close enough for a marksman to do some damage, but far enough to be a tough shot for anyone lacking skill or equipment.
The sound of the combat sled’s twin blaster cannons rips through my thoughts, as the partially exposed gunners send return fire to the top of the hills. I position my drones to get a better look, only to see their feeds wink out as the bots are shot down. No sense sending up the backups—they’re looking for them.
“Lieutenant Graham,” I call into the comm, going to the appointed officer for what I would have otherwise sought from Gunny. “Get me an idea of enemy troop strength. I’ve lost recon visuals.”
I can hear the concern in his voice. And not without reason. Just from scanning the horizon I count at least fifty muzzle flashes. And they’re coming furiously our way. The Marines have pulled back behind the cover of the sleds, those who can firing around the side of the front and rear of the vehicles. Our gunners are hammering back, but it’s clear they’re the primary targets of the ambushers.
And in the span of a few moments, two of my Marines are hit in the turrets. Calls for a corpsman fill the comm, and two medically trained Marines run into the sled to attend to the wounded. My sled’s driver turns to face me.
“Major Broxin, we’re getting eaten up. Nothing the hull can’t handle, but I can’t say the same for your Marines on the guns.”
I nod and go to comms. “Red Devil Actual. Gunners drop down for cover. We’ll see if the AI targeting system can at least keep them suppressed. Out.”
I know they won’t do nearly the same quality work at this range, but I’m not interested in cycling Marines up through those turrets only to have them shot down.
“Lieutenant Graham… what’s the word on opposition strength? Or do I have to go outside and count them myself?”
“Sorry, Major. Estimating fifty to one hundred and fifty hostiles atop or behind the hill.”
That’s a pretty big margin of error. But I’d rather he overestimate than guess too low.
“Copy, Lieutenant. Keep eyes on the opposite hills and make sure you don’t get shot in the back. How’s Gunny?”
“Alive, I think. Got clocked in the head pretty hard, though. Would’ve died if he wasn’t wearing a helmet.”
“Designate Duster-4 as the CCP and get him loaded aboard. If Puller can’t get us air support soon, we’re going to have to move.”
“It’s pretty hot out here, ma’am. I don’t think we can swing around and inside yet.”
“Do it when you can. Broxin out.”
It can be unsettling, how much can happen in the span of a minute or two. We’d been driving along peacefully for a long while and now it feels like everything has turned to chaos. But the Marines have an equalizer available to root out enemies behind cover... if we can get it here in time.
“Red Devil Actual to Poppa. We are engaged in a firefight following a roadside ambush. Requesting buzz ship support. Over.”
“Request received, R-D Actual. Overwatch frigate is orbiting on the planet’s dark side. Ulori forces should be able to do a gun run in fifty standard minutes.”
“Acknowledged. This fight will probably be over by then.”
“That’s the best we can do with the assets we have. Will monitor situation and do what we can. Over.”
“Roger, Poppa. Red Devil Actual out.”
I ball my fists on my hips and yell, “Sket!”
“No air support, ma’am?” asks the driver.
“Not soon enough.”
I look up at my display feeds to see what effect the AI targeted guns are having. They’re about what I expected. While accurate, they tend to focus on a single target, fire, and then quickly cycle to the next. This is useful at close range where the computer’s processing power can quickly go from one enemy combatant to another, dropping them in rapid fashion.
But the attackers have excellent cover and are making good use of it as they pop up, fire, drop down, and then repeat in a new location. The AI is spending its time picking out a target and sending a searing volley of blaster bolts at it, but more often than not, the original shooter has ducked back down by the time the first shots eat up the grass and dirt at the crest of the hill.
Still, they’re not charging. They aren’t using anything heavier than small arms, and they only seem to have occupied one side of the hill. A poor ambush, but not something I’m going to complain about.
Yet sitting here and taking whatever these attackers want to dish out isn’t in any Marine’s playbook, especially not mine. And I honestly don’t know if the hulls of these sleds can withstand near an hour of blaster fire at range. I don’t intend to find out.
There’s a lull in the blaster fire. Not enough to make me think the ambushers are pulling out, but something we can take advantage of.
“Lieutenant Graham, get Gunny and the wounded back on the sleds.”
“Major, I still feel like it’s too hot back here. We’ll get shot…”
Stinking nine hells.
Everyone is prone to get scared in combat. It’s human nature. It happens. But I need him to un-ass himself and get on the sleds.
“Lieutenant, these sleds are moving in one mike with or without you.” I switch comms to the company band, no longer willing to wait for my lieutenant to comply. “R-D Platoon, this is R-D One. Get yourselves and the wounded on the sleds on my mark; we’re resuming manual fire on the turrets. Broxin out.”
I turn to my driver. “Be ready to move.”
“Yes, ma’am. Our sled doesn’t have a gunner left inside, so we’ll have to keep the AI on it.”
I furrow my brow. “Ours was one of the gunners who was hit?”
I nod and then open the partition that separates the cockpit of the combat sled from the troop transport. I can see the Marine, a gaping hole in her shoulder lying flat on her back, arms crossed over her chest. A corpsman must have done what they could, stabilizing her in a medical coma, and then moved on. It’s an ugly wound, but she’ll survive. I squint against the glaring light from the opposite end of the sled, spilling in from its open doors. Blaster fire is skimming by, keeping anyone hiding on the other side of the transport from getting back inside.
“Ma’am?” the driver calls from behind the sticks.
I take a step into the compartment and then pause to turn around. “I’m going on the guns to provide cover. Once the sleds are loaded, I’ll swap out with a Marine and return. But you make sure the column moves once everyone is inside.”
The driver takes a moment before saying, “Yes, ma’am.” I’m sure she knows other phrases, but this one seems popular today.
I let the partition door swish closed behind me and move for the turret in the middle of the sled floor. On either side are fold down seats that need to be filled with Marines in the next minute or so. I’m not about to let an armed convoy of combat sleds be pinned down by small arms fire on my first mission in country. It sends the wrong message about aggressiveness to my Marines and the wrong message about our ass-kicking ability to whoever is shooting at us.
And these Marines are ass-kickers. We don’t take this kind of sket.
“Devils, let’s get on these guns and show the AI how hullbusters shoot.”
I get a few enthusiastic “oorahs” in reply as I climb into the turret, my vision settling on a splatter of blood left by the PFC lying at my feet. But soon I’m up above the hatch, feeling the wind against my face and creeping up my hairline, cooling the heat caused by my helmet. The attackers aren’t shooting at the turrets. They likely gave it up as a threat once they determined that the precision AI was trying to snipe them at range. Which means we’ll get a window to surprise them and then it’ll be a test of wills until they break or we get shot out of our seats.
“Light ’em up!” I shout over the comm, and then squeeze both thumbs into the firing buttons, my pointer fingers pulling on the butterfly triggers just because I like the way it feels.
All you really need to do is press the buttons. But I’ve never been a bare minimum kind of girl.
Red arcs of energized kinetic blaster bolts flash on target, issuing a rhythmic dat-dat-dat-dat as the bolts explode into the distant hillside. I walk my blaster fire to a clump of surprised insurgents and see them disappear in a spray of mangled body parts as they attempt to duck back down on the other side of the hill—too slow.
The other sleds are firing now, and we’re getting some in return, but not too much. The ambushers seem focused on keeping our dismounted Marines behind the combat sleds. Which makes me think that maybe they’re waiting on someone getting around to hit our flanks. Whether it’s that or something else, we need to move.
“Get back in the sleds!” I shout over the all-comm, and then grit my teeth as I send another burst of fire into a patch of rebels. Shouldn’t bunch up like that, boys.
If these sleds have a design flaw—and almost everything the Republic rewards a contract for does—it’s that the troops can only reliably enter from the great snake-like jaw on the back. While the command sled has access from the cockpit to the troop compartment, none of the basic service models have the same. One way in, one way out. A kelhorned death trap.
The Marines are making use of the sudden suppressing fire we’re providing with the sleds’ twin blaster cannons. They stream into the back of the vehicles, hugging the impervisteel hull as closely as possible as they turn the corner and dive inside.
A blaster bolt singes just wide of my head, causing the air to crackle from the heat of it. I smell the ozone of the near miss and keep hammering back. We’re regaining momentum, becoming the aggressors. If the ambushers don’t have something else up their sleeves, reinforcements or an equalizer like anti-vehicle rocket launchers, all that will be left for them to do is retreat.
“Lieutenant Graham is down!”
I turn my head for a moment at the report of the comm, instinctively trying to get a look at the situation. The lieutenant is just a sled over, within my view. But the priority of keeping the ambushers pinned down draws my attention back to the cannon’s sighting reticules. Still, I listen to the comm carefully to try to get a sitrep.
Within seconds it becomes obvious that while the lieutenant is hit, it’s not bad. He’s hollering over the comm about his leg, but it’s an indignant, angry sort of cry. In pain but upset that he was the one who got it. I’ve heard men and women, mortally wounded, before. There’s a different quality to screams of agony. A different sound that comes from a panicked or fearful moan. Sometimes the person is so angry they’ve been hit that they go on fighting, fueled by hate, despite the fact that they’re dying.
You start to pick up these minute details when you’ve been around it long enough. One of the many things in war that can’t be taught in a classroom. You live it. Experience it. And by the time you realize that you’ve become an expert of misery, suffering, and death… it’s too late to ever become anything else.
Anyway, I’m not worried about the lieutenant. He’s cursing the situation (and coming as close to cursing me for ordering him back on the sled as he can without going for full insubordination). But I am worried about the effect his histrionics will have on my Marines. Most of them are young. Teenagers and early twenties. Kids. And this sort of thing never leaves a good impression.
Usually I would mute the LT’s comm from the command sled and tell the corpsman to shut him up over private comms. A microinjection of the right pain cocktail would send the lieutenant to dreamland and Gunny would explain how some officers ain’t always the fighting type. But I don’t have the luxury of that discreet route. I’ll have to take care of the situation directly.
“Someone strip Lieutenant Graham’s comm from his helmet and get him off net until a corpsman can help him calm down. Everyone else, make sure you’re seated and ready to speed. We’re taking the fight to those kelhorns.”
This elicits a resounding number of oorahs. Every good hullbuster lives for the opportunity to get in the fight.
I half expect a Marine to tug on my pant leg and see about taking my place on the twins, but no one does. At least not by the time my driver informs me that the sleds are loaded with all Marines accounted for.
I let out a burst at one of the few heads I still see firing on our position. “All sleds: proceed off road to engage hostiles on hilltop.”
And then we’re moving, rushing through the tall grass toward the hill, the sled turrets still blazing away. A small flock of prairie birds erupt from the grass’s concealment ahead, flapping slender white and tan wings as they disperse in all directions. A trio flies right up into my line of fire, and involuntarily I release the trigger, letting them rise up unharmed. It’s not a decision I thought I would have made. But it happened.
The return fire from the hill is practically nonexistent. Likely the ambushers have dropped back to hide in the grass and hope our sensors can’t detect them. Or maybe they have repulsor bikes or some other means of escape.
I send another burst in the general direction of their last position, but I can’t actually see anyone. I think of those birds, and think about how when we crest that hill, if we see other humans, they won’t be afforded the same opportunity of escape. And it makes me wonder if that’s crazy, or exactly how things need to be.
“Top o’ the hill,” shouts one of my fellow Marines in the gunner’s turret. “Time to wax these kelhorns!”
I’m still on the twins, scanning for targets. And the thing is, I know I should get down because there are other Marines just as capable of using these heavy cannons as me, but not capable of doing what I should be doing right now—overseeing the action. Officers are issued weapons, but it’s a damn shame how little we get to use them. Usually if that time comes, you end up wishing it weren’t on you because it means something bad is going down.
But right now, things are good. The ambushers are hardly putting up any resistance—most of them have broken and are bounding down the hill. Some of them rolling wildly, having lost their footing, and others in that arm-flailing sprint where all you can do is keep moving your legs in big, jumping strides while hoping you stay vertical. There’s a trail of equipment spread out like breadcrumbs behind those fleeing. And the ones who decided to stay and fight it out, well, they’re seeing firsthand who wins in a fight between blaster rifles and twin blaster cannons.
I see a glint from the grass to my right and swing the turret, opening up on a kneeling rebel as he tries to line me up in his sights. The blaster cannons eat up the vegetation around him, sending the stalks of green flying into the air like threshed hay. Clots of dirt spray up as the cannons obliterate everything at this close range—including the shooter. I didn’t get a glimpse of his face and now there isn’t enough of it left for me to make a memory from. Which is fine by me.
But what’s feeling less than fine is the weight of my responsibility. I can’t sit up here and play combat Marine when my place is in command. Not when the fighting has died down to something akin to routine cleanup. We only need to secure the area, send a sled or two to overtake those fleeing, and gather up what intel we can before the promised bombing run happens. I plan to be out of here by then, because experience has taught me that once you call in a joint force strike, it’s not easily called off. Better to assume it’s happening and be elsewhere.
“Turret on command sled going to auto,” I call into the comm channel, and then give the AI control before sliding down and back into my sled’s troop compartment.
I point to the first Marine I lay eyes on. A young private named L’traise. “PFC L’traise, get up top.”
She drops her ruck and climbs up, sending a test round before scanning for targets. I can see her legs slowly rotating as the turret gives its pneumatic whine, rotating a full three-sixty. The rush of what needs to be done hits me full on in the face when I see Gunny lying unconscious on a stasis board in the middle of the sled floor.
“How is he?” I ask the corpsman watching over him.
“Gunny’ll be okay.”
I scan him over but don’t see any signs of blaster damage. “Was he shot?”
“No, ma’am,” the corpsman says. He rummages for something beneath a nearby jump seat. “Got hit by this.”
I catch the head of the bot we’d sent out to disarm the roadside IED. “This is PIES-7.”
The corpsman grunts. “Guess the insurgents heard that Gunny is blaster-proof and thought that might do the trick. He’ll be okay, though. Helmet was on.”
“Do we need to evac him? Anyone else?”
“I think we’re good to return at the same time. All in all, we made it out of there fine. Lucky.”
“Good. Keep me informed if anything changes.” I turn for the cockpit door, stepping inside as it recognizes my bio-signature and swishes open.
I pull up my battle roster and key in a direct comm link with Sergeant Abreu. “Sergeant, this is Major Broxin.”
“Gunny and Lieutenant Graham are out of action. What sled are you in?”
“Uh… my team is in Duster Four now. Started off in D-5.”
I mark it on my battle screen. “Take your current sled and Duster Five in pursuit of the retreating rebels.”
“Copy that. Prisoners?”
“Only if you can take them without harm to your Marines.”
I can hear the hint of a smile in the sergeant’s voice as he says, “Copy that, Major. Abreu out.”
The sleds speed off down the hill, and I watch what amounts to a shooting gallery outside through my holofeeds. It looks like most of the ambushers fled, and the ones who didn’t… aren’t in any condition to fight. Not anymore.
“Cease fire,” I call into the comm. The order is repeated and the heavy racket of the twin blaster cannons subsides into memory. “Marines, dismount and sweep for intel, but be quick. This is a rush job. Five minutes tops.”
The sled doors open, letting my Marines go about the business of searching for intel. It’s rare to find anything of value in a situation like this, but not entirely unknown. We might find a comm number or name that intel can follow up on, maybe one break leads to another… things like that.
I key in Camp Puller to get an update on the airstrike.
“Still waiting on word from the local defense force to see if fighters have been scrambled,” came the comm officer’s reply. “ETA is ten minutes based on last communication.”
“Abort mission,” I say, checking my chronometer and feeling like we need to rapidly be any place but here. I have my doubts about whether the pilots will be able to identify our sleds as friendly in time to avoid cooking us. “We’ve taken the hill and are sweeping for intelligence.”
“Copy, Major Broxin. I’ll call them off. Advise you vacate target site, ma’am.”
“Working on it. Broxin out.”
I turn to the driver to let her know I’m stepping outside. I need this search to be wrapping up.
“Corporal,” I say, calling out the first Marine I see who doesn’t look like a wide-eyed boot. “What’s the status on intel?”
The corporal straightens involuntarily. “Nothing of note, Major. Sergeant Yee is looking through things to the west. There was a clump of ’em that stayed behind to fight over there.”
He points in the sergeant’s direction. “Not much of ’em is left.”
“Never a good idea to anger a Marine,” I say, and then move to Yee’s location.
With the guns no longer firing, the silence of surrounding wilderness hits me. Other than the rustling grass, the only sound I make out is our voices, hushed for the most part. As though they too are aware of the newfound serenity and don’t want to disturb it.
Most of us grew up on populated worlds. There’s only a couple of kids I know of who grew up at galaxy’s edge, where the worlds are more barren, alien, and hostile. I grew up on a small farm that was a ten-minute drive from a city. It was quiet, but never silent. You could hear speeders moving over the road or humming in the overhead repulsor lanes until evening came and everyone returned to their homes. There’s something about remote silence that seems to still your heart and calm your mind.
I hear something like a bird trilling from the grass, probably warning my Marines not to get any closer. I could stand and listen to this for hours, and not feel bad. But that’s not a luxury I have. And I certainly don’t want to do it in the middle of the bloodbath that this hill has become. We need to get moving and the level of confidence I have in non-Marine forces is low enough that I’m willing to leave now and either come back later to pick up where we left off or go through whatever charred remains are found after a bombing run.
“Sergeant Yee,” I call, cupping my hand over my mouth. “Time to go.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the sergeant says, motioning for his Marines to come along. “These don’t have nothin’ on ’em. Not even holos of girlfriends. Just charge packs and field rations.”
I nod. “Get everyone back on the sleds. I don’t trust the locals not to drop a few bombs on us.”
The sergeant gathers up probing and searching Marines like a mother hen and then motivates them to double-time it back to the combat sleds with a few choice curses.
I get an incoming comm transmission from Sergeant Abreu—first name Guido. His soldiers call him Sergeant Gwid, and I always have to fight the urge to do the same.
“Go for Broxin,” I say.
“Major, we’re rounding up the survivors. They ain’t got no fight left. Most of ’em lost their weapons on the way down and were pretty much just hopin’ not to get waxed.”
“Copy that. Read them the Republic articles of capture and then we’ll see if we can get anything from them in the sixteen hours we have before release.”
Republic doctrine says that we only have that much time to interrogate suspected prisoners, and then we have to let them go unless they confess. The smart ones know about it and just stay quiet. The rules are different if you capture them with weapons in hand, but the smart ones know to drop those. You would think a Marine could put two and two together—the insurgent was firing a weapon, I saw him drop it, and the weapon at his side was indeed his—but that’s not how it works. We live in a galaxy where the House of Reason loves to send people to war but tries to make itself feel better about the fact by making things as hard on us as possible while we do it. But those aren’t thoughts I share, though every Marine not appointed by the House of Reason thinks them.
“Yes, Major. I read them the articles, but at least one of them is the desperate sort. Says he has some info we’d like. Had to separate him from his buddies so they’d stop trying to break his jaw to keep him quiet.”
“What’s he saying?”
“Says there’s an artillery battery somewhere nearby they were making for.”
I move farther along the hill, almost tripping over the severed arm of an insurgent. It’s still holding its rifle.
“I don’t see anything like that… how far did they plan on running, Sergeant?”
“Can’t say, but I can ask him.”
“Okay. Just make sure you follow the procedures or we’ll lose any of the info we get out him.”
“I’ll make the bots cross-checking our procedures happy, Major.”
“Bots don’t get happy, they only get you in trouble. Broxin out.”
I can see that the Marines are loaded on the sleds, waiting to roll. Being the last cause of our delay, I begin to jog back to my sled when I hear a distant crack that causes my head to swing in the direction of the noise. There’s a thin trail of smoke in the distance, maybe a thousand yards beyond the farthest sled that pursued the fleeing rebels. And the sound… I know it intimately.
Field artillery. Probably brought in by repulsor.
My stomach drops and I sprint for the sleds, expecting a high-explosive round to drop on top of us. Or worse yet—through an open turret to wipe out an entire sled’s worth of Marines.
But as I move, I realize that the time for impact is long past. Whatever the thing was shooting at, it’s farther away than us.
So what’s the target?
Another crack sounds, and then two more. Three more. And I can see that the field of grass beyond is seeded with artillery pieces. Compact, invisible in the tall sea of green.
Someone is about to have a bad day. And while I’d normally think these attacks were meant for Camp Puller, the smoke trails streak in the wrong direction.
I reach my command sled and tell the driver to move to engage the field pieces.
“Right away, Major.”
Whatever’s going on, the odds of it being the sort of thing the Republic would like to keep going are slim. I get on the comms, taking a moment to listen to open channels before calling into Puller.
“This is Red Devil Actual. We’ve spotted mobile artillery emplacements in action. Presuming hostile and moving to engage. Over.”
“Major Broxin.” It’s the colonel. “Those field pieces are what our legionnaire friends have been looking for. And I fear they’re being used to target the leejes.”
I swallow and nod, despite the fact that the colonel can’t see me. “Roger that. We’ll destroy them.”
“Oorah, Marine. I know you will. I’m sending you a comm code to reach the Dark Ops team so you can coordinate directly with them. But be advised, they don’t always answer.”
“Roger. Moving to engage. Broxin out.”
The sleds charge toward the grassy field where the mobile artillery are barking. I can see right away that these are unmanned devices, probably controlled remotely or by a pre-programmed algorithm. That likely takes away the threat of getting into another blaster fight with the humans causing so much trouble on planet. But I’d actually prefer that scenario to what we have here, because it opens up a number of potential threats that need to be dealt with.
“Reduce speed and get these sleds moving in a radius around the guns.”
“Yes, Major.” And my driver makes sure the sleds alter their direct intercept course.
There’s a variety of ways to protect unmanned field batteries. In the Republic, it tends to be done with expensive auto-turrets or anti-vehicle turrets, capable of offering stiff resistance to anyone who enters the kill zone. Most pirate kings, rebellious militia, or other political dissidents don’t have the credits for automated guns and turrets. But mines are cheap. And my suspicion is that had we shot straight into the midst of those guns for the easy kills, more than a few of my sleds would have been rocked and destroyed.
“Run transmission interference, all suites.”
That’s step two. If these are remotely controlled, we can try to gum up their transmissions. It would take a tech to actually slice in and assume control of the weapons, and I don’t have one of those, neither bot nor human. But if nothing else, jamming now will prevent any targeting adjustments from getting through, unless the guns are following a pre-programmed firing sequence.
My team makes use of the twins on top of the combat sleds to disable the guns. But those things are built solid, and it’s taking quite a bit of concentrated fire to take one down. That we’re moving to avoid becoming stationary targets in the event that these things could lower their trajectory and fire head-on is also slowing us down a bit. But it’s the best we can do without dismounting and chancing a walk to the firing batteries in the hopes of using what explosives we have on us to disable the guns.
There are ways around all of this, of course. Robotic dogs that can move ahead of us. Aero-precision missile launchers. Sleds equipped with anti-vehicle missile batteries. Main battle tanks that deliver the fist of Oba from their big gun. Orbital bombardments. Smart bombs dropped from tri-bombers.
But that’s not what we have. Because none of that was considered necessary to the task we started today. If there’s one thing I admire about the Legion—and there’s considerably more than one thing—it’s how they move prepared for anything. You won’t catch a platoon of legionnaires without the missiles, multiple SABs—squad automatic blasters—and anything else they can scrounge up to be as lethal as possible. In a galaxy that seems to be perpetually at war, they’re the one military branch that seems focused on actually winning whichever one they find themselves in. And they get a whole lot of scorn from the House of Reason as a result. Which is something I’ll never understand. Why a government would send its citizens to war and then get flustered when its soldiers try to win. But that’s reality.
I decide to call the Dark Ops team.
“Dark Ops element, this is Major Andien Broxin, Republic Marines.”
As the colonel predicted, I get no answer. But I figure they can at least hear me, so I continue.
“We are engaging hostile artillery batteries and have initiated jammers.”
“Thank you, Major.” It’s the voice of the lieutenant I spoke with earlier, his accent unmistakable. Ellek Owens. “We noticed that the rounds coming in stopped adjusting—they’re just hitting the same spot now. Good work.”
I can hear furious blaster fire in the background of the comm transmission. Like they’re in a real movie-level gunfight. But Owens sounds utterly calm.
“Do you require assistance?” I ask. “We can send a pair of combat sleds to provide support.”
Maybe they need more than just a pair. But I’m not confident we can take out all the guns in a timely manner if I send the bulk of the sleds to support Dark Ops. I will, of course. Should that be what’s needed. But jamming and signal warfare are tricky things, and there’s no guarantee that what’s working now will keep working. Whoever is on the other end of the field guns is surely doing what they can to regain control.
“I’ve never been one to turn down extra guns, but we can hold out, I think.” There’s a pause, but Owens keeps his comm open. I can hear blaster fire and him giving orders. “Watch the grass in E-1, looks like they’re trying to crawl up close again.”
“On it,” responds another legionnaire over the ambient comm.
“Get the guns out of the picture for us. That’s what we were out here for in the first place. These boys we’re up against have a lot of guns, but they ain’t exactly marksman qualified, if you follow me.”
“Copy that,” I say, watching on my feed as one of the batteries we’ve been focusing on collapses into the ground and explodes in a small whump of flames and smoke.
“We’ll be waitin’ for you, Major. Owens out.”
We take out the last of the field pieces without facing any resistance. And though it takes us all of fifteen minutes, it feels like an eternity. I’ve tried checking in with Lieutenant Owens, but haven’t gotten a reply. If he were a fellow Marine, that would have me worried. But he’s a legionnaire—a Dark Ops legionnaire, no less—and it’s to be expected with that type. Still, I’m worried for him and his team.
It’s a twelve-minute drive at top speed to reach Dark Ops’ position. One that takes us skirting around the hill the ambushers had used to fire on us. Our coordinates take us directly over the opposite hill that overlooked the valley road we had been traveling on when all this trouble started. The one that any capable commander would have set up troops on in order to ambush us with shooters on either side, setting up a cross fire that would have been far more difficult to deal with. Which makes me think maybe that was the plan, but the discovery of Owens and his team caused things to change.
I try to reach Owens again. “Lieutenant, this is Major Broxin. We’re closing in on your last detailed location. ETA is less than five minutes.”
“Take your time,” Owens says, his voice cheerful. “We’re good.”
Cavalier attitude aside, I’m not sure how that could be the case. The fighting sounded terrific, and unless there were more legionnaires than I was introduced to, that meant only four men to handle it.
“Say again,” I reply, and not because I didn’t hear him the first time. “You’re good? No medical or combat assistance required?”
“Roger. Insurgents are dead like Deluvia. You’ll see when you get here. Which we appreciate. We’d much prefer to hitch a ride home with you than take in another run.”
“Copy that.” I’m not sure how much of this is legionnaire swagger… but then, the Legion is the galaxy’s most capable fighting force. That’s not up for debate. “We’ll pick you up in a few.”
“We’re still holed up under our rock. But you’ll know us when you see us. Owens out.”
We speed along another minute or so before seeing the first bodies. They look like they were the victims of friendly artillery fire, whether from our interference or bad luck, I couldn’t say. But there are pieces of them scattered about, and the grass is flattened in concentric waves from the airburst. It’s not a pretty sight, and I know that any of my Marines who haven’t gotten this close to the realities of war are going to have some mental wrestling to do. Even when you grow up playing the games and watching the entertainments, actually seeing what all this can do to a humanoid is sobering. And it impacts everyone differently. It’s never bothered me for the most part—beyond those faces. But some guys start to show the signs of stress almost immediately, and it takes some tonal therapy under the watch of a medbot to get them readjusted.
I watch the ground speed past on my holoscreens and then hear one of the gunners utter, “Holy sket…”
There’s weathered gray stone perhaps fifteen feet high and sitting atop a slight hill. The grassland leading up to the hill is trampled, and smoking. Some of it has been flattened by artillery. A few craters are visible from blasts that exploded on impact. And all around that stone are corpses. Like in a ring. If I had to guess, I’d say eighty.
Sergeant Yee pings me on my comm. “You seein’ this, Major?”
“I see it.”
“I don’t think we got room in the sleds to take back the platoon of leejes who did this.”
“Not a platoon,” I answer. “Just four.”
“No way,” Yee scoffs, before quickly adding, “Major.”
We bring the sleds in close to the rock. I don’t see Owens or his team. “Red Devils: dismount and set up a perimeter. Eyes open in case any of these are just playing dead.”
The familiar whir of the combat sled doors opening sounds at once, and my Marines step out into the fresh graveyard. I leave the cockpit and step outside, thankful that we have bots to handle messes like this. I can’t imagine the stink that will come after these bodies have lain out beneath the sun for a few hours.
As my Marines set up fields of fire and verify that the dead are indeed dead, I look for Dark Ops.
“Lieutenant Owens,” I say, speaking softly into my comm as I kick a discarded blaster rifle away from its owner—just in case. “We’re here.”
“Yeah. We see you. Make sure your Marines are ready. Don’t want to survive this just to get dusted by a spooked hullbuster.”
“Red Devils: the legionnaires are coming out from concealment. Do not fire. Repeat: do not fire.”
I wait for the message to be reinforced more colorfully by my sergeants and then tell Owens he’s clear.
There’s a scurrying sound from the base of the rock, and four legionnaires emerge from beneath it, as though they’d tunneled holes and defended from within. Which, most likely, is exactly what they did.
And then used that position to utterly destroy a wave of attacking infantry.
Lieutenant Owens strides toward me, his helmet off and his shades on. There’s a sheen of perspiration on his forehead. He’s chewing bubble gum. All of them are wearing that matte black armor, with long stalks of native grass banded on to break up their profile.
“Appreciate you comin’, Major,” Owens says.
I nod and shake his hand. “I didn’t get the impression that you were planning a last stand based on our talk this morning.”
Owens chuckles. “Wasn’t planned, but it worked pretty damn well, I’d say. We were spotted sneaking to our hide is what I figure, and that brought a whole bunch of trouble that was probably waiting for you to travel up the road.”
“Makes sense. We were ambushed, but it was half-assed.”
“I’ll take that every time over the alternative.”
I look around. “So what was all this? It’s a lot more organized than the type of harassment the Ulori have been reporting.”
Owens nods. “Probably the start of an MCR cell. But don’t let word of that get out. House of Reason says the MCR aren’t a problem. So… this problem must be something else. Reason, you see.”
“Well, I suppose we both have some paperwork and after action reports to get on once we return to Camp Puller. I can leave behind a trio of sleds to guard the site until Intelligence has a chance to comb it over.”
“No need. We sent out some intel crawler bots while we waited.” Owens retrieved one of the speedy, fruit-sized bots from a pouch on his webbing. “These poor bastards were just shooters. Dumb, but not so dumb they brought anything useful on their persons.”
I nod. “Alright, well, your men can load up wherever they find room. I can fit one in the command cockpit.”
“I’ll take that offer,” Owens says.
We walk toward the command sled when the sound of repulsors races through the skies. Looking up, I see a surplus Republic Lancer painted in the violet and white color scheme of the Ulori planetary government. It streaks overhead, followed by two more. On the distant hilltop we’d taken fire from, billowing clouds of fire erupt to accompany booms we can still feel, even at this distance.
“How long ago did you call that in?” Owens asks, watching the blossoming infernos rise higher, black caps of smoke twisting at their highest point.
“A while,” I say. “It was supposed to be scrubbed.”
Owens snorts. “Well, word of advice: don’t trust anyone but yourself out here… Oh. And the Legion.”
The thrill of combat wears off quickly once you get back inside the wire. At least that’s always been my experience. Then again, the paperwork requirements put a damper on any adrenaline still coursing through my veins, and perhaps for that reason it might not be the same for the enlisted Marines. But then after turning in gear, they usually get the opportunity to shovel in some chow and decompress, depending on how late we return. Swapping notes, teasing each other, and recounting close calls has a way of keeping the excitement of action alive. Enhances it. Makes it something almost mythical in the minds of those who went through it.
And that’s good. These Marines are special, and shared experiences like the ambush today will help them recognize that they are the hullbusters their drill instructors always wanted them to be. That there were no fatalities makes it all the better.
It makes my life a bit easier, too. Not just because of the obvious reasons of grief and having to record holotransmissions for soon-to-be-grieving family members on whatever planet the unlucky Marine hailed from. But also because it gives me permission to put things behind me. I review, look at what could have been done better, what we need to maintain moving forward, and I move on. But that’s not the case on missions where someone doesn’t come back.
I never leave those behind.
I still think about them. Obsessively. What I could have done to change the outcome. To bring that Marine back alive. Sometimes I’ll think I have a good answer. Because I didn’t follow my gut and the SOP resulted in disaster. Or because I followed my gut too much and wasn’t ready for what was waiting for us.
But those cases are easy enough. I make penance in the gym or on a run, cleaning myself by pushing my body past all the usual limits of pain.
It’s when, for the life of me, I can’t think of any way it could have turned out differently that I’m ever really bothered, though. It’s the faces of those Marines who seemed destined to die that always come back to me. Waiting their turn to haunt my thoughts behind those I’ve killed by my own hand.
Why me? Why couldn’t it have been you?
And I never know the answer.
I spent the last few hours in my office writing up my report. Which had to be thorough since my lieutenant is still convalescing and I was already filling the role my yet-to-be-assigned captain should have done in this situation. But, at least I have an office. A perk of being a major that was waiting for me at Camp Puller. When I was a captain, usually I had to write up these reports while stretched out in my bunk, datapad on my lap as I dictated the events of the mission.
Dusk was here, and the camp was glowing in the cool and easy light that comes right after the sun sets. I walk by the chow hall to see if—hope against hope—it’s still open and someone left a light on for me. But no. The locals running the place are long gone and the door is locked.
Oh, well. Not the first time this has happened thanks to paperwork. I’ll see if I can scrounge up a ration pack, and if not, it would hardly be the first time I went to bed on an empty stomach.
I walk to the barracks, Camp Puller not being the type of place where anyone below the rank of colonel gets their own dormitory. Unlike a lot of places I’ve been, Puller is relatively modern. The camp was built in the middle of one of the grass seas, but it’s paved and the printed buildings are all modern, well furnished, and with functioning climate controls. One of the benefits of being stationed in the mid-core rather than galaxy’s edge, where conditions tend to be much harsher and you pretty much only have what your transport can bring in with you.
The camp lights haven’t come on yet. Whether because of poor programming or because Colonel Gerlach has those artillery pieces on his mind and would rather not shine in the darkness, I can’t say. But the Republic Marines are uniform, if nothing else. And whether you’re on one of the rare core world bases, mid-core, or way out in galaxy’s edge, every camp is laid out the same. Some are bigger than others, and some make use of rudimentary building materials like composite lumber and hardened foams, but once you familiarize yourself with one, you can pretty much make your way through any other.
I find the barracks without trouble and step inside the officers’ wing as the security door swishes open upon recognizing my bio-sigs. The hall is empty and the doors are closed, meaning nobody is particularly looking for conversation or company. Which suits me fine. I always dread when some lonely and forlorn officer is sitting on the edge of his bed, door open, hoping for someone to take the edge off his loneliness, whether by talking or any other way they might think of. It’s a stale trick, one I’ve always seen right through. But that doesn’t stop them from trying.
I’m hoping that being a major will dissuade some of that. But somehow I doubt it.
Suddenly the door to my room slides open, and I see Gunny stepping outside. He has a knot on his head that pushes its way out just above the line where the sides of his head are shaved, making what little hair he lets grow on top look misshapen. Like a lump in an otherwise perfectly manicured front lawn.
“Glad to see you back on your feet, Gunny,” I say. And by the look on his face when he turns to greet me, I can tell he was hoping to not have been seen.
“Thank you, ma’am. Doc gave me something for the headache, and the nanites are reversing the concussion. Should be ready to peel back the impervisteel on a destroyer by tomorrow morning. Unless I have a few drinks. Which I do intend to do now, ma’am.”
“What’s the point of surviving if you can’t enjoy life, right?”
I move next to my door, causing it to swish open. Then I glance inside. On my desk is a plate of food. Nothing special. Just some cheese, crackers, and some kind of cold cuts.
“Looks like somebody brought me some chow. Must’ve known I missed chow hall hours.”
For years, Gunny has been doing this. When I’m too late with paperwork or seeing after something that needs to be done, he sneaks into my quarters and leaves something for me. I don’t ever count on it, but I’m always thankful for it. It took a long time for me to figure out who was behind it, though. I wouldn’t have guessed it to be Gunny—I initially thought it was a second lieutenant looking to score brownie points when it first started happening. But a captain from another platoon ratted him out once, and it’s been a game of plausible deniability ever since.
Gunny acted like he wasn’t aware of what I was talking about. Like he hadn’t just left my room. Like he wasn’t even here.
“I wouldn’t know nothin’ about that, Major. But if food is what you needed, I’m glad you have it. Us old Marines don’t need no eatin’. I ain’t had a bite of nothin’ in over fifteen years. Just live off of hate and kaff, like intended.”
I smile. “Well. Hopefully I reach that point someday. It sounds better than tortilla-lime-chicken ration gels.”
“Wouldn’t know, Major. They didn’t have those fifteen years ago.”
With that, Gunny turns and heads down the hall to find his beers.
“Thanks, Gunny,” I call after him.
He doesn’t break his stride or turn his head. “Don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, Major Broxin.”
Oba, I’m going to miss working with that man.
I move inside my room and set the outside status light to do not disturb. Before collapsing onto my bed, I grab a handful of the cheese cubes and pop a few in my mouth. They have that soft texture and smoky flavor that tastes better than it has any possible reason to because I’m so hungry. I find myself standing there, finishing off the cheese and meat, but leaving the crackers. Too late for carbs. Especially when all I plan to do now is lay on my bunk until it’s time for sleep.
When I power up my datapad, I see that two priority channel messages are waiting for me. Both are from colonels, but I only recognize one of the names—Gerlach. I listen to his message. It’s brief, but he’s well pleased with what we achieved today. I suspect that our bailing out Dark Ops is as much of a thrill as stumbling upon those guns, really. Every branch looks for evidence that we help the Legion as much as they help us. And while it’s not technically true, it’s nice to have some ammunition to use when a cocky leej feels like puffing out his chest.
“Your willingness to get on the sled turrets to break the stall won’t go unnoticed, Andien,” the colonel says in the message. “I think today is worth a recommendation for a Silvene Star.”
The message continues, but I’m not really listening at that point. I’m not sure how I feel about that sort of request, because I don’t feel I did anything all that special. But a Silvene Star will go a long way in helping me make the jump from major to colonel and on up the ladder. And because of that, when you have a CO who is behind you, they’ll look for ways to get you noticed. Especially older guys like Colonel Gerlach who pretty much have to count on someone younger than them surpassing them in rank and then giving them the nod to make them a colonel before they retire.
And it’s been made clear that the next level of brass see me as someone with a jump jet strapped to my back, moving up the ranks.
I open the next message. From one Colonel Logarus, whom I’ve never heard of. Unlike Gerlach’s, this one is text only. I scan to the bottom of the message to get right to the signature line, but the message is so short that I read it on the way down.
Thank you for your assistance to Dark Ops legionnaires on 15.06.41. Your commendable work was reported to me by Lieutenant Ellek Owens, and you have the Legion’s gratitude for your dedication as a Marine to the ensured success of the Republic.
Colonel Ijo Logarus
Commander, Dark Ops
I archive the message and look over to the tray Gunny denied leaving me. The cheese hasn’t magically replenished itself, which is too bad. I’m still feeling like I could go for a bite. So long as it isn’t crackers. I grab a unit of water from beneath my bunk and take a drink, knowing that in a few minutes it will take the edge off.
Then I call my dad. It takes all of two chimes once the hypercomm transmission connects. His face warms at the sight of me. I can tell his datapad is sitting on his lap, because he appears to be looking straight down at me, giving me a good view of the hair in his nostrils and the sags of skin beneath his otherwise iron jaw. He’s fit and strong for his age, though you might not immediately guess it from this angle. The blue flashes of his holoscreen light up his face as One Republic News blares in the background.
Stieg Broxin. Former legionnaire. Veteran of Psydon. Incurable news junkie.
“What’s the latest crisis they’ve conjured up, Dad?”
My father smiles. “Conjured nothing. Thirteen months and the House of Reason still hasn’t approved a budget for the Legion. It’s a wonder they haven’t had to resort to using swords and clubs out there on the edge.”
“I’m sure they’d still be just as effective.”
“You’re damn right they would,” my father says, swelling with pride. He looks at me with sudden concern. “You hullbusters aren’t seeing any supply shortages, are you?”
I shake my head. “Plenty of charge packs. Plenty of combat sleds. And they feed us at least once a week. We’re fine.”
“Good.” My father smiles. “Now. Let me look at you, Dini.”
I give a wry smile, and stare directly into the datapad like I was posing for a holopic. I hold the pose for several seconds. “Satisfied?”
“Yeah,” he says, the warmth of his smile giving away the underlying truth to that answer. “There she is.”
For almost as long as I can remember, my father would have me hold still so he could examine my face, looking for his late wife in the visage of his daughter.
“Took you a while.”
“Well, you have my eyes, and they’re so damn striking that’s all you can take in for a while, as you well know.”
That’s true enough. I’ve heard from enough people—not just relatives—how pretty my eyes are. And they’re identical to my father’s. It’s the nose, lips, and chin that belong to my mother.
I’m visited by a sudden tinge of sadness at the thought of her, and decide to change the subject.
“Apparently I’m getting recommended for a Silvene Star.”
“No shit?” My father leans in, clearly intrigued. “What for?”
I recount the day’s events, stopping to answer my father’s points of technical order or other tactical questions.
“How ’bout that,” he says when I bring him up to speed. “I’m proud of you, Dini. You’re a damn fine Marine. I remember something similar back on Psydon. Only I was on a SLIC instead of one of those combat sleds. Anyhow, the doros were firing something fierce at us and everyone—door gunner included—was tucked up inside that bird with our arms and legs pulled in tight, hoping to Oba’s tits that none of us got shot.
“Finally the pilot says that if we don’t get those dog-men suppressed, we’re gonna greet the trees real quick. So we all look to the gunner, and he stares at us and just shakes his damn head like, ‘no way I’m getting back on that thing.’
“So I pop up, get on the guns, and just start raining holy hell down on them doros, figuring that one of ’em is gonna dust me at any moment. But they didn’t. So I kept shooting until each one of them rotating blaster barrels was glowing like campfire coal. Didn’t let up until I felt the door gunner clap me on the shoulder—a big man again now that the trouble was gone.”
My father licks his lips, and I seize the opportunity to deliver the last line of his story a second before he resumes talking.
“I put down more dogs that day than a kelhorned veterinarian does in their entire damn career.”
I smile at my father as his mouth closes into a slight, square-jawed frown at my having stolen his punchline.
“I maybe told you that story before, huh?”
“You might have. A few times.”
“Well, don’t think it’s the only one I got. Psydon was a real piece of work.”
“And yet,” I say, twisting my hair and looking off screen as though thinking. “They didn’t nominate you for a Silvene Star.”
My father laughs. “They didn’t make me a major, either.”
“You would have gone insane.”
“Maybe. Probably. Anyway, just because I was never no officer, doesn’t mean I didn’t get a Silvene Star recommendation.”
“I don’t remember ever seeing one in your office.”
“Recommendation is what I said. They didn’t give the damn thing to me. And if I could do it all over it again, I wouldn’t. Let that sonofabitch die is what I ought’ve done.”
This is a story I have not heard. But I can tell from my father’s face that he’s not looking to talk about it further. Maybe another time. It’s best not to force these things, I’ve found.
He sighs and then brings the conversation back around to Mom. “Listen to us. Your mother, she would not be reacting to what happened to you today by sharing war stories.”
“She probably wouldn’t have reacted well to anything I’ve done since taking my commission, Dad.”
“No, I think she’d have been proud of your becoming a Marine. Not like you joined the Legion.”
“Not like I could.”
“No, but still. So long as you had the rank and uniform, she’d be happy. It’s the danger she’d have had me calling friends up to get you out of.”
“Sounds like she’d want me to be a point.”
“Points have mothers, too. And no mother wants to lose their baby.”
I smile. “That reminds me of something Gunny said this morning to a boot caught skating when it was time to load up the sleds. He told him that all his mother wanted for Unity Day was a folded flag.”
Dad laughs real hard at that, until he’s almost wheezing. I can see the happy tears in his eyes. “I love your Gunny, Dini. That man should’ve been a legionnaire.”
“He says his tongue and liver hold up better than his knees, and so he never passed selection.”
“Most don’t. One percent of the one percent and all.”
There’s a lull in the conversation.
“What time is it over there?” my father asks.
“About time for bed.”
“Hey! Same as here. Nice to be on the same cycles for a change. That means one of us won’t have to wake up at some ungodly hour just to say I love you.”
“I love you, too, Dad.”
“Good night, Dini. Remember: don’t forget nothin’.”
“Good night, Dad. I won’t.”
House of Reason
“We really should have hammered this out at Bouchar. Getting in wouldn’t have been a problem.”
Legion Commander Keller eyed the House of Reason delegate. A junior member named Nimh Arushi. She was an up-and-comer representing a core world district. Raven-haired and known to appreciate the finer things—even for a House of Reason delegate. Her holdings on Gallobren were said to surpass the trillion credit mark.
Keller looked at the silvene pitcher of water on the conference room table, perspiration causing big rivulets to dampen the white tablecloth the House of Reason caterers had set up. He had a fine porcelain china kaff cup in front of him that contained the best cup of kaff he’d had in months.
“I think this is fine,” Keller said, nodding to the far wall where a banquet of exotic hors d’oeuvres presided, representing the finest the galaxy had to offer to humans, and a few items that could only be consumed by Ootari, which meant Arushi likely had one of the insectoids on her personal staff.
“Hardly,” Arushi scoffed. “Utopion catering is barely a step above cafeteria food. Delegate Kaar’s personal staff exempted. Honestly, Legion Commander, I’m surprised you didn’t want to change the meeting location to Bouchar. I thought you legionnaires liked steaks.”
“I love steak.”
“Then you missed out on the best damn steak you’ll ever eat.”
Keller nodded thoughtfully. “Maybe, once this budget negotiation is completed, I’ll go have one to celebrate, then.”
Arushi leaned against a wall, watching the door and checking her datapad. “You won’t get in,” she said dismissively. “Two-year wait. And that’s only because you’re a Legion Commander. Three years for anyone else.”
“I guess I’ll just have to make do.”
Arushi tsked, and for a moment Keller thought she was going from passive aggressive to outright aggressive. Something he’d experienced in negotiations like this before from House of Reason politicians who saw the Legion, and everything it stood for, as a backward, troglodyte waste of resources that could be better spent elsewhere—say like buying off voters.
But it was her comm who’d received her consternation. Or rather, whoever was on the opposite end. “Kip, where are you?”
She paused to listen.
“That’s why you pay for the damned sky taxi, Kip… Five minutes? Fine.”
“Staff running late?” Keller asked.
Arushi gave an unsympathetic frown. “They went to the restaurant.”
Keller had brought no staff of his own. Usually his aides were a tremendous help, but when things got as volatile as they were now between the Legion and the House of Reason, Keller had found that being able to communicate directly and with as few people in the room as possible was the best course of action.
Humanoids were funny. They behaved a certain way when things were tight, small, and intimate. But put them in front of an audience, and they became something else. Something less genuine. A performer. Someone looking to score points with the right people or avoid arrows from their critics. They became a sort of projection of themselves. Not really who they were, but not entirely phony. More like a mix of who they are and who they wanted others to think they were.
Keller always tried to be the same in public and private. It was an attitude that got him in no small amount of trouble in a galaxy—or at least a core—that felt that what you thought was far more important than what you did. Not that any of them liked what Keller and the Legion did.
But then… they kept sending him to do more of it.
Which exemplified the divide Keller saw in the House of Reason and to a similar extent, the Senate. When the audience was watching, they hated the wars, the fighting, the death… and the Legion. But when the security council closed its doors and called on Keller to face some burgeoning threat to the Republic… they couldn’t deploy legionnaires fast enough.
And all that would be fine, because it was pretty much how things always went as far back as the history texts could reliably report. But when they insisted on sending young men as exceptional as the legionnaires to die, but couldn’t be bothered to spend the credits needed to let them do their jobs… that got Keller’s blood up. He’d made many sacrifices that would have long-term impacts for the short-term health of his men. The number of government appointed officers joining the ranks of the Legion—the points—was one of them. They’d nearly tripled under Keller’s watch. And he was keenly aware of how unpopular that made him.
But the man was a bulldog in battle, and a son of a bitch at the negotiating table. And those in the know understood that it was because of Keller that the legionnaires weren’t parading around in flimsy reflective armor developed by cut-rate contractors. Or that the assignment of main battle tanks to Legion companies and HK-PP assault mechs to the same only happened because Keller made it happen.
The House of Reason would send the legionnaires to battle with sticks and curses if they could. Keller saw things differently. He understood war. What it took to win. Both in sacrifice and determination.
And today, though he was friendly enough to the delegate, would be like any other day. He would get the budget approved, and he would keep his boys alive. At least for another four years when the whole thing repeated itself.
He sipped his kaff and rose to seek a warmup.
“I wouldn’t know about the food side, but I know kaff as well as anybody, I imagine. And this is a fine batch, Delegate.”
“I don’t drink the stuff,” dismissed Arushi.
Keller figured that just meant more for him, though he knew better than to say it aloud. He also decided to give up the small talk.
The door to the conference room whooshed open not long after. The insectoid Ootari came in first, holding a datapad between its mantis-like front arms. Its mandibles clicked its peculiar language, translated by a gold and platinum necklace on the creature’s chest.
“Sorry we’re late, Delegate Arushi.”
Keller stood up from his seat, waiting for Arushi’s incoming staff—all of them female—to be seated. It was an archaic gesture, he knew. One that had gotten him in trouble before. But it had been ingrained in him by his mother, and he felt he did her a disservice any time he failed to rise when a woman entered the room.
The Ootari sat down and spread out her datapad, a holo recorder, and a few other pieces of tech. She was dressed in a gray, flowing gown that seemed at odds with her green carapace. Or maybe it was just the sight of Utopion high fashion on a species that—every other time Keller had encountered one—was naked and armed with blasters, seeking to dust his legionnaires. The Ootari was flanked by two young women, both of them looking more like they worked for a fashion magazine or high-end clothing designer than a House of Reason delegate. Or at least what Keller thought someone working for a statesman ought to look like.
One had snow-white hair that was standing straight up, as though she were a cartoon character caught in a perpetual state of fright. An inch-wide trail of blue eyeliner ran from her eyebrows down her face, beneath her chin, and along her neck until it disappeared into her clothing.
Keller had seen something like that at a wedding he’d attended once. He’d joked with his wife that she might want to try that look out sometime. She elbowed him in the ribs for his efforts and tried to hide a smile as the priestess began talking about vows.
The other aide had magenta-colored hair that Keller thought looked nice. It was all combed to one side, like a wave had crested and was flowing into a waterfall down to the girl’s shoulder. Her head was shaved close on the opposite side of the cascade, close enough to make any Legion barber proud—bot or otherwise.
Neither the Ootari nor the human girls so much as looked at him, though they did gaze adoringly at Nimh Arushi when she took her place at the table, sitting opposite from Keller.
Well. At least they were here and could begin. Keller was looking forward to getting this deal worked out. The thought of having a good, juicy steak before leaving Utopion had worked its way into his mind. The Republic’s capital planet was a cesspool, a hive of scum and villainy as one of his favorite entertainments said, but it had some outstanding restaurants.
“Legion Commander Keller,” Delegate Arushi said as she nodded to the Ootari. “This is Kim Pattoo—not her actual name, mind you, just something she graciously goes by that humans can pronounce.”
Keller nodded and repeated the name by way of greeting. It seemed to him that the delegate gave the wrong sort of emphasis on the word human. Like she disdained the idea of them, despite being one herself. That sort of thing was too common on Utopion for Keller’s liking. The Legion fought for humanity against the post-human Savages, dying in untold numbers and now, just a couple of generations after those wars ended, you have leaders who seem ashamed to belong to that very humanity.
None of that made any sense to Keller. Something he figured was due to age. A generational thing that forever repeated. He was older now than his father had been when Keller first entered the Legion. Sometimes he would think about that, but he never knew what to make of the fact.
“Kim will be summarizing some of our conversations and bringing to focus areas where we may be closer to agreement than we would otherwise realize. Her ability to identify such things is lauded even among the Ootari, who evolved with a special ability to find consensus among their hives—a trait that has led to a sustained, centuries-long peace on their home world.”
“A shame the same couldn’t be said on worlds other than their home planet,” Keller said, giving a curt, knowing smile.
The remark was calculated and had its effect. Kim Pattoo stroked her necklace with her claw-like arm and swiveled her antennae in a way that the Legion Commander understood to communicate nervousness. No one on the other side of the table seemed to know what to do with the comment. Delegate Arushi frowned while her two human aides looked down, occasionally exchanging a quick look as if to silently say, “Can you believe he just said that?”
But it was true. The Ootari, while capable of negotiations, were also calculated fighters. And colonies often took to the stars as mercenary units, turning to crime or fighting against the Legion at galaxy’s edge in exchange for credits.
“Uh,” Pattoo began, her clicks translated by her jewelry, “Delegate Arushi has tasked me with bringing the months-long stalemate over the Legion’s outstanding budgetary needs to a suitable close by finding common ground that will benefit the Republic as a whole, and not just its military.”
“And as Orrin Kaar said,” Arushi added, “a temporary Legion shutdown to offset costs by furloughing legionnaires—the doomsday option—is on the table at this point.”
Keller sat back and crossed his arms. “It was hot air when Kaar said it and it’s cooled off considerably coming out of your mouth, Delegate Arushi. We both know that the Legion is keeping too many fires at bay throughout the galaxy for something like that to happen. You want these talks to be fruitful? So do I. So let’s start by not making threats that we both know aren’t good for anything but holonews talking heads to get foaming at the mouth about.”
“We could always utilize the Marines and Republic Army,” Arushi countered.
“And yet you don’t.”
A silence fell over the room. Keller took a drink of his kaff, then looked at the humans. “You ladies should have a cup.”
They smiled painfully, but made no effort to even look at the silvene carafe holding the drink, much less get up to try some.
“Your loss,” Keller said, smiling and giving a slight shake of his head before he took another drink.
Five minutes into the negotiations and the four people the House sent in against him were already rattled and second-guessing their every thought. At this rate, the budget would be approved by suppertime. Keller had a way of knowing how serious Delegate Kaar and the defense committee really were based on who they sent to negotiate. If it was serious, Kaar himself might have come. Sending Arushi—the rising star—was for show.
“Now, Legion Commander,” Kim Pattoo began, breaking the awkward silence that had only otherwise been filled by Keller’s sipping of kaff. “There are a number of items on this budget that the committee has deemed unnecessary to effectively wage war.”
She scrolled through her datapad, causing an illustrated list to pop up three dimensionally on the table through its holoprojector.
“The continuation of the MK-100 instead of transitioning to the more economic ST-7, which is ready for mass production.”
“That shiny garbage doesn’t do squat in combat. No.”
Kim flicked the shiny, reflective armor away, causing it to disappear from the holographic display. Keller doubted the House of Reason would make the stuff a sticking point. Not yet, anyway. The contractor had its money from the initial reward. They wouldn’t really start hollering until they needed the funds that would come from the assembly line.
“The reliance on aero-precision launchers. Quite costly should the practice of keeping each squad equipped with them continue. Their use of assault shuttles and buzz ships can be mitigated by a retrofitting of old Psydon-era SLICs—”
“Those budgetary requests,” Keller said, tapping the table with an index finger, “aren’t arbitrary. Nor are they capricious. They are what is necessary to do the job the House of Reason has asked the Legion to do, and to be prepared beyond that should an outside threat ever come into existence.”
Delegate Arushi scoffed. “We have seven fully capable combat fleets, Legion Commander. Plus thousands upon thousands of individual destroyers and cruisers seeded throughout the galaxy. There’s not a force in this galaxy who could withstand that. I doubt the Legion would even be needed should some imaginary boogeyman ever show up from beyond the dead zone.”
“The separation is in the preparation, Delegate. And the Legion stands above all others because of that.”
Keller pulled out a data pad and synced it to the holoprojector. “I’ve asked my generals to give me a bare-bones account of everything we need to make it to the next budget cycle where, hopefully, we’ll be met with a bit more sanity on the part of the House and Senate. It results in a multi-year paring down; not replacing retired legionnaires; relying more on Army, Marine, and Naval pilots and vehicles to support the Legion through joint-force operations. But it gets you to that magic spending number Orrin Kaar likes to talk to the reporters so much about. And it’s the deal we’ll agree on, or we have no deal.”
Another silence fell over the room. Which was fine. Keller could see from the body language of the negotiators across from him that he’d given them what they were instructed to come back with, even if it wasn’t what they wanted. Now he just had to wait for them to find some way to accept it while making it seem like their idea. Which would probably mean asking for more appointed officer slots to fill in the retiring legionnaires. Which the House of Reason would graciously pay the additional salary costs of, naturally.
Still, it would keep his boys alive and keep relations with the House of Reason from getting so volatile that people would begin getting jumpy about an Article Nineteen or civil war. There was no shortage of people who wondered why the Legion hadn’t already put a stop to what they saw as extreme government overreach on the part of the House of Reason in particular.
For a long time, none of the House negotiators spoke. And then the conference room doors swung open and Colonel Scontan Washam entered the room.
“My apologies. I was informed this meeting was taking place at Bouchar…”
Washam sat down, striking a cutting look in his Legion dress uniform. He had been one of the first appointed officers to serve as a legionnaire. A veteran of Psydon, he participated in what Keller saw as a reckless and unauthorized mission that led to the end of that war. But it made Washam—and his friend, another point named Berlin—heroes. And the House of Reason had been using Washam to get what they wanted done ever since.
Keller kept his face impassive, but inside he wore a scowling frown. If Washam was here, it meant the House of Reason wanted something big after all.
“Scontan,” Keller said, not bothering to stand at the man’s arriving and not offering his hand, either.
“Legion Commander,” Washam replied with much more warmth. “I hope I haven’t missed much?”
Kim Pattoo brought Keller’s skeleton budget up for all to see. “The Legion Commander has offered an alternate budget that allows spending to meet the limits suggested by Delegate Kaar.”
Washam looked to the negotiators in the room, to Keller, and then back to Delegate Arushi. “Well. I suggest you take it, in that case.”
“We intend to,” Arushi said, a wry half-smile curling her lips up. She wore a dark shade of lip color, a red that seemed almost as black as her hair. “But there are other issues that need addressing.”
“What sort of ‘other issues’?” Keller asked, uncomfortable with where the conversation was going.
“Indeed,” echoed Washam, and Keller wondered if the man was playing a part, or if what was coming was news to him as well.
“It’s a matter of optics,” Arushi said. “The Legion is painfully homogenous in a galaxy filled with diverse and capable species. Humans may comprise the majority of life in the galaxy, but we’re hardly the only ones living in it.”
“Who ever said otherwise?” Keller asked.
Arushi looked amused by the question. “The Legion. By their archaic practice of keeping its ranks closed to all but humans. They speak in actions, if not words.”
Keller sighed and traced his finger around the rim of his empty kaff cup. He’d heard this argument too many times to count. Of course it was this.
“Delegate, as you well know, the Legion limits its membership to humans because of a number of shared factors including physiology, mental capacity, morals, ethics, and a variety of other fancy terms that boil down to this: we fight well together, and we lose that edge when we mix something outside into it. Do you know how a wobanki acts when it’s scared?”
When the delegate didn’t answer, probably imagining the question to be rhetorical, Keller pressed her.
“And neither do most humans. Which means, until they get to know the wobanki in their ranks—and some species, like Hools, you just won’t ever understand—they’ll have to guess at what’s going on, where the line is, and what’s happening in combat. The Army, the Navy, hell even the Marines—play your sociological games all you want over there. But the Legion is meant to be the most lethal force the Republic has at its disposal. And it is.”
“But surely,” Kim Pattoo cut in, “there are innate advantages other species bring that would complement the Legion.”
“Like the strength of a Drusic,” Keller suggested. “That sort of thing?”
Keller began scrolling through his datapad, not looking up as he spoke. “Dark Ops has for years trained pro-Republic species into their own cohesive and elite commando forces. The Legion is doing its part and shouldn’t be asked to sacrifice its cohesiveness because some stuffed shirt—present company being no exception—says it’s bad optics.”
Delegate Arushi pressed her tongue against her lower lip, causing it to jut out in annoyance. “I’ll lay everything out on the table, Legion Commander. Optics do matter. Maybe not to someone whose idea of a job well done involves killing every potential threat they happen to come across, but for the rest of the galaxy, it matters quite a lot. And this deal, even with your concessions, won’t happen unless the House of Reason is able to show some progress in dragging the Legion out of the backwards mire it formed in during the Savage Wars.”
Keller paid the comment no attention, looking through his datapad instead. He tapped the screen, causing a still image to queue up, paused on the holodisplay. “I want you to watch this.”
“What is it?” Kim Pattoo asked, her antennae delicately rising and falling with the question.
“Training footage,” replied Keller. “Classified.”
Bot footage of a tactical training house began to stream as Keller pressed the play button on his datapad. Stacked outside the door were four Dark Ops legionnaires and two hulking Drusics—gorilla-like creatures who towered over the human legionnaires.
Washam cleared his throat. “You ladies… may not wish to view this. I’ve seen it before.”
“They need to if they’re serious,” insisted Keller.
The holovid played, and the group watched as a breacher placed a strip-charge on the side of the door, took cover, and blew the door open. There was no sound. Another legionnaire tossed in a banger—meant to disorient anyone inside. One of the Drusics did the same.
A single flash erupted on screen and the camera cut as the breach team stormed inside, an armored legionnaire first, followed by the two Drusics. And then the second banger erupted, delayed by a faulty timer. The deafening boom and dazzling light caused the image to wink out in a bright white light. By the time the camera sensor refocused and came back on line, one of the hulking Drusics held the lead legionnaire by the ankle, swinging him around like rag doll, smashing the soldier’s body into the ground and against the walls over and over again as though he were a snake caught by the tail being thrashed to death by a farmer. The other Drusic slammed its fists into the floor and walls, leaving gaping holes and breaking drab and dingy furniture into splinters.
Finally, the legionnaires stacked behind the Drusics entered and fired less-than-lethal stun rounds repeatedly into the raging aliens until both lay on the floor next to the battered body of the first legionnaire, whose armor was cracked and discarded throughout the room, a pool of blood flowing freely from him.
Keller stopped the holo and arched an eyebrow expectantly. The negotiators—all but Washam who had certainly seen worse—looked sick. One of the two aides, the one with her hair standing on end, aggressively fanned herself with a folded cloth napkin.
Delegate Arushi was the first to regain her composure. She began to scold. “Really, Legion Commander, if you think—”
“The Drusics,” Keller interrupted, “are an intelligent, powerful species. Fierce warriors employed as private security and mercenaries throughout the galaxy. Some of the most effective bouncers you’ll ever see. They also respond at a primal level to bangers—flashbang grenades. Something about their evolutionary past is the way it was explained to me. So when that banger went off late, they reacted without even knowing why or what they were doing.”
Keller took a quick sip of the cold dregs of his kaff while his audience processed this information. He set his cup down, sad to see its contents gone.
“The Drusics themselves felt terrible about what happened. One of them left the SF forces she’d been in. Which was a shame.”
“What about the man who was…” Kim Pattoo paused to find the right word. “Assaulted?”
“Died before his teammates even entered the room. Wife and kids. Legion funeral. Condolence letters and the fight to get the House of Reason to make good on the death benefits package… everything that comes with something like this.”
The atmosphere of the room grew heavy, almost solemn. And Keller felt that the negotiators opposite him understood where he was coming from. He figured as much. This wasn’t the first time some prole sent by Orrin Kaar had come asking for a fundamental change to the Legion. The events in the holovid were nearly twelve years old. But they’d never lost their effectiveness.
Keller drove his point home. “We have a civilization that allows us to talk and reason freely and peacefully. For the most part. They keep moktaars and wobanki from traveling on the same passenger star cruiser for a reason. But just because we can all function, more or less, in a low-stress peaceful society, doesn’t mean the same will happen in the decidedly more high-stress atmosphere of war.
“And the Legion has been at war since its existence. The House of Reason shows no real indicator of wanting anything else.”
Keller nodded to Washam, who sat quietly, smoothing his neatly trimmed mustache as the Legion Commander spoke.
“Colonel Washam knows something about that, don’t you?”
Washam inclined his head, as though he weren’t sure what Keller was going on about.
“On Psydon. I read those reports. About your encounters with the doros who were guarding prisoners.”
The mention made Washam look sad. His head drooped ever so slightly.
“When the doros are startled, they don’t behave the way some species would. Running. Taking cover. Not at first, anyway. Do they, Colonel?”
Washam slowly shook his head. “No. They don’t.”
Delegate Arushi and her staff watched the exchange between the two legionnaires, both of them career men, one a point, the other having worked his way from enlistment to the top of the Legion, with rapt attention.
“They don’t,” repeated Keller. He looked directly at Arushi, and then Kim Pattoo. “The doros, they just kill anything that isn’t part of their pack. Out of instinct. Eliminate the threat. Even if it’s a prisoner of war. Even if they’re bound and unarmed. Even if they were never any threat. They’ll kill them, all the same.”
Washam cleared his throat. “Delegate Arushi, Ms Pattoo… I was sent here by Delegate Kaar to offer my opinion as a fellow legionnaire. And again, I say that the best course of action for this government is to accept the Legion’s offer. Pursuing the inclusion of alien species—even those more human-like such as Endurians or Kimbrin—would be a mistake.”
Arushi sighed and shook her head. “I’m sorry. But unless I can come back with something that will diminish the bad optics the Legion is making for itself, that deal cannot be accepted. My instructions were clear.”
“If non-human species are nonnegotiable,” said Kim Pattoo, “perhaps the compromise is to allow more humans into the Legion. And I do not mean more appointed officers, but rather that the Legion lift its long-standing ban on female legionnaires. Provided they are… human.”
For the first time in the discussion, Keller felt as though, perhaps, the other side had played him. Had gotten one over on him. That perhaps this had been their aim the entire time. He opened his mouth to voice the reasons why the Legion kept itself exclusively male. Tradition. Strength and endurance requirements. Battlefield psychology.
But Delegate Arushi spoke first. “That… would be an acceptable compromise, yes. Your ability to see through obstacles to find paths to agreement is truly remarkable, Kim.”
“It is merely the gift all of my species maintain,” answered Kim.
Keller gave a half-shake of his head. “All due respect to the ladies in this room, but there is no agreement on this issue. We’re a dimorphic species, and the Legion standards are—”
Arushi poked a finger at the Legion Commander. Her voice was hot, matching the contemptuous glares of the two human aides at her side. “If you think for a moment that we’re going to allow you to waltz in here, dictate terms, and insult a little more than half of human biology—”
Washam held up his hands. “Things are deteriorating. I’d like to suggest we take a slight break and that you allow me to speak with the Legion Commander in private.”
Arushi crossed her arms, still steaming. “Fine.”
She turned and stormed out of the room, Kim Pattoo and her aides following in lockstep.
When they’d left, Keller crossed his arms and peered across the table at Washam. “You’re not going to change my mind on this.”
“No, I’m not,” Washam said, standing up to get himself a cup of kaff. “Want a refill?”
“No,” Keller lied.
Washam filled his delicate cup and blew across its surface, sending a vapor of steam billowing away from his face. “I’m not going to change your mind, because you know this is the way it has to be. There’s nothing to change.”
Washam smiled. “Legion Commander, I know what you think of me.”
“You think so?”
“I know so. An appointed officer who led the way to a whole lot more points, each class becoming progressively more problematic than the one that came before.”
“The first class didn’t exactly leave the bar high.”
Wash gave a thin smile. “Agree to disagree. But I’ve spent my time in the Legion serving on Utopion. And I will tell you exactly what will happen if you don’t take this deal.”
“And what’s that?”
“The House of Reason will talk up its willingness to compromise. How it would keep a reduced Legion fully staffed and equipped, able to fight the dwindling fights as the galaxy stabilizes in this post-Savage Wars period.”
“We’ve got the beginnings of a major insurgency in the Mid-Core Rebellion,” Keller said. “Hardly stability.”
“Doesn’t matter. The MCR isn’t a threat until something big—galactic—happens. Until then, it’s no different from the usual brushups against pirates and micro-planets controlled by petty warlords. The galaxy doesn’t see things the way a Legion Commander does.”
“So what do they see?”
“A misogynist. One willing to leave his legionnaires ill equipped because he can’t stand the idea of allowing females into the Legion.”
“Damn it, Washam. You know that’s not the reason. You know what’s expected of a legionnaire, even if you and your point buddies skipped all the courses. It’s damn hard and there are damn few who can do it.”
“I know. So what are you afraid of?”
“If you don’t make a deal here today, the House of Reason will roll out that chintzy armor that can only stop home defense–rated blaster weapons. You know what military-grade rifles will do. They’ll accelerate plans to cut back heavy armor, instruct destroyer captains to deny orbital bombardments or air support… You’ll lose your combat edge and your legionnaires will die as a result.”
“And what do you care?”
Wash shrugged his shoulders. “My job is to make sure these deals get done for the Republic. I don’t care about what happens to your soldiers, and I know enough that you and your ilk don’t give a damn about a point like me.”
“And so… what? Open the flood gates to people who can’t lift enough, can’t fight hard enough, can’t march fast enough, far enough, quick enough? Let them die instead?”
Washam took a drink. “It’s like you said. We’re a dimorphic species. If they can’t achieve the standards you’ve set, then they can’t. And you can get by until retirement pulling out the Drusic holo and whatever new footage you obtain in the training trials. But you have to at least let them try and fail. It’s the only way.”
He took another drink. “This is good kaff. And… another thing comes to mind. If you don’t open training, don’t be surprised if the House of Reason just appoints female officers. There’s nothing stopping them and we both know that if you tried an Article Nineteen over something like that, the galaxy would finally find something to unite behind now that the Savages are good and gone.”
Keller sat stock still. He drummed his fingers on the table. He wanted another cup of kaff.
The officers’ mess hall is usually a quiet place. There aren’t many of us at Camp Puller. But today, as I stand in line, it’s as loud with conversation as I’ve ever heard it.
Almost all of that is due to the newly arrived platoon of legionnaires. Men dropped off by a shuttle while the rest of their company stayed on their destroyer to go do some policing somewhere outside the Altara Cluster. Or that’s the rumor.
The legionnaires, men from the Iron Wolves—whose lore is an interesting account of a coalition Marine force who formed a Legion Company way back in the Savage Wars (they still say Oorah)—aren’t buzzing about the buildup of local hostilities. Which was why they came in the first place. In spite of our takedown of those artillery pieces a few weeks back, the human minority on this planet are still systematically harassing the locals, with each attack costing at least one life.
We’re instructed only to refer to these attackers as “terrorists” or “insurgents,” but the feeling is that this is part of the Mid-Core Rebellion. MCR.
No one’s allowed to say that, though. The MCR isn’t supposed to be a legitimate threat. And I guess no one is really thinking of them as such if they’re only willing to send a single platoon of legionnaires to support the Republic Marines tasked with containing this mess.
But like I said, it’s not the trouble with the MCR that’s caused the hubbub in the officers’ mess. It’s what’s being played on the holodisplays stationed around the mess facility.
I walk to the chow selector screen and enter my nutritional requirements. I typically eat twice a day when I can, breakfast and dinner. As an officer, I don’t get to select what I’ll actually be eating—same boat as the enlisted hullbusters. But I do get to dictate my balance of fats, proteins, carbs, total calories per meal and just about anything else you can fathom. I select a standard suite of vitamins and minerals for my sex and age, and then set my percentages, keeping sugars non-existent and loading up on proteins with enough carbs to keep me fueled without making me bloat. That’s a perk the enlisted don’t have. They press the button and are loaded up with whatever the data scientists and nutritionists working in the Repub defense system decide they need.
I move to the receiving end of the line, awaiting my tray of steaming chow set to my exact specifications so long as you exclude what it’s made of and what it tastes like.
While the machine that feeds us does its work, I look up and watch the talking heads on the holodisplay gush about the latest triumph out of Utopion. There are three people on display, each one confined to a parallel box. One is the impossibly attractive blonde host of whatever show we’re watching—probably CGI or a bot with a holographic projection. The other two are a dark-haired House of Reason delegate with “Delegate Nimh Arushi” beneath the close-up of her head and shoulders, and Legion Colonel Scontan Washam rounding out the bunch.
“You’re right, this is significant and this is historic,” Arushi says in response to something the host said. “It shows a willingness by the Legion to catch up to the other branches of service from an outdated and, quite frankly, broken exclusionary policy.”
“It’s certainly a dream come true for any little girls who’ve dreamed of being legionnaires,” the host says, nodding approvingly so her gilded bangs continue shaking long after her head stops moving. “But how will this move be received by the Legion itself, Colonel? Is a strong pushback expected?”
“Well, I think the fact that this trial is moving forward is a strong indicator of how well the Legion received the House of Reason’s suggestions that this was the right step. When I served on Psydon, something like this would never have taken place. The leadership was still living in a Savage Wars mentality, and so what we’re seeing is a good thing: this is an acknowledgement that the galaxy is finally free to move on from the oppression of the Savages and able to become a better, more fully realized version of the ideals we all share as a Republic.”
“Shut up, point!” yells one of the legionnaires, inciting a fresh round of laughs and more buzzing conversation.
These legionnaires are all enlisted, and shouldn’t be here, technically. But the Legion exists outside the typical rank and file of the rest of the Republic military. They were an independent fighting force that answered the attack of the Savages over a thousand years ago. It was behind that force that the galaxy united, formally becoming a Republic. The Legion oversaw all of it. Its Legion Commander helped write the Republic’s Constitution, and the Legion serves as a sort of quasi-independent military branch of government. They select their own leaders, have a constitutional ability to “reset” the government—Article Nineteen—but they also serve the House of Reason and Senate. They go and fight where they’re told.
Anyway, I’m a major as far as the Republic Marines, Navy, and Army are concerned. But that doesn’t mean anything to the Legion unless they want it to. And neither do the typical rules separating an officers’ mess from enlisted. You could try to complain, but it won’t do any good. No Legion CO, unless he’s a point, will back you up. You’ll likely just hear about how the legionnaires need the right blend of proteins to stay in their elite fighting shape. Which is true. They usually subsist off of kaff and ration bricks or gels. Alcohol when they can get some leave.
But it does bother me the way they act like they own the place. Not all of them. But enough of them that they’ve developed a reputation for it. They’re the Legion. They do what they want. Screw you.
That type has never sat particularly well with me, though I’ll gladly take them at my side in a firefight.
I’m still listening for exactly what the big deal is here, when I see the answer scroll across the bottom of the screen: LEGION TO ALLOW HUMAN FEMALES TO QUALIFY AS LEGIONNAIRES FOR FIRST TIME IN ITS HISTORY…
Well… damn. That’s big news.
“You, uh, gonna pick that tray up? Or are you waiting for it to cool?”
The voice is Lieutenant Owens’s. I didn’t realize he was behind me in line.
“Oh. Sorry. Yes.”
I grab my tray, which looks to be some kind of scrambled egg spread over roots, maybe potatoes but you never can tell, slathered in a gravy with what looks like a cinnamon roll the size of credit chits stacked five high. Barely large enough to chew three times before swallowing. But then I did say to keep the sugar low, and that artificial stuff will kill you. I’m sure of it.
As soon as I pull the tray away, the chow machine beeps and Owens’s tray comes out hot on its heels. He grabs it and walks with me toward the waiting dining tables. I stop to sit at an empty one, but he says, “Nah, don’t eat alone. Unless you want to. Otherwise sit and talk with my guys.”
We reach a table that seems in danger of tipping, a tight group of legionnaires packed in at one end, and Lieutenant Owens’s three kill team mates sitting at the opposite end of the long table—which practically runs wall to wall.
“We’ve got a hullbuster joining us today,” Owens announces. “Best behavior.”
One of the men scoots down, his mesh workout shorts making a zipping sound as he slides across the bench to make room for Owens and me. They’re all wearing T-shirts still a little damp from a post-PT shower. I read them over, a few are just the stuff you get from the commissary on a destroyer. Owens is wearing black shorts with a black T-shirt that says “KTF” in big, white letters across the chest.
“You can be on your normal behavior,” I say, sitting down and going straight to my food. My D.I. always told me that the Marines expect me to eat the food, not taste it. I’ve been a shoveler ever since, eating fast and with a spoon. I chew a mouthful and then, not quite swallowing it, say, “Can’t be any worse than Marines.”
“Oh, Major,” one of the Dark Ops legionnaires says, his tone imploring and corrective. “We’re much worse.”
I glance down at the boisterous end of the table holding the enlisted legionnaires, men from the Iron Wolves. Sitting a few tables away is a group of Marine officers, the recuperating Lieutenant Graham among them. They’re staring lasers at the legionnaires, but the war fighters don’t notice. Or, more likely, aren’t paying it any mind.
“That sounds like a challenge to me,” says one of the Dark Ops leejes in response to my comment. He’s the only one to offer his hand. “I’m Mike Drayus.”
His biceps are about as big as my head, but he’s a gentleman enough not to try to crack the bones in my hand as we shake.
“So I have an idea that will answer the challenge,” says one of the Dark Ops four, a man with an elaborate trident tattooed on each arm. “Let’s go around swapping curses until we run out. Obscure stuff only, though. Let’s get sket, kelhorn, mukk’ka, shit—”
“Shit’s not a swear word, Trident,” interrupts Drayus. “It’s a thing you gotta shovel. Ask any farm boy whose old man couldn’t afford bots.”
“You grew up on Utopion, Kelhorn,” Trident spits back. “What do you know about farming?”
I can see from the corner of my eye that Lieutenant Owens is watching me, an amused smile behind his bushy red beard. He’s wondering how I’ll react. Or maybe wrestling with whether he ought to change the conversation.
Setting my spoon down, I shake my head. “We’re all in the military. Everyone’s cuss-qualified. But if I wanted exotic usage of foul language, I’d go sit with my Marines and make them uncomfortable. Your challenge? It’s boring. What I’d like to hear is your thoughts on what’s all over the holodisplays this morning.”
“It’s bullshit,” Trident says, then looks across the table to Drayus. “And, no matter what you might think, I’m using that word in the most offensive way possible.”
“Why?” I ask.
Trident shrugs. “Waste of time. Waste of money. All for show. Being a legionnaire is something that, on any given planet, in any generation of fighting age, maybe—what?—ten men are physically and mentally capable.”
“Depending on population,” Owens says.
“Right. So ten for a small planet, a thousand for a big one. And that’s assuming they even want to be legionnaires. If you’ve got the physical skills, it takes something to walk away from all those millions of credits waiting for you in the sports world. If you’re mentally tough enough… there’s no limit to what you can do.”
I incline my head, thinking on what the legionnaire just said. “Based on your mental toughness metric, a woman couldn’t pop up from the probabilities because…?”
“Because it’s just not possible for our species,” Trident continues. “Not unless you play with DNA and genetics or give someone a cybernetic edge. And even then, you’ll only get them through the sheer physical trauma of Legion selection. That’s the easy part. Mentally, I don’t know how to say it… It’s god-like.”
Drayus laughs at this. “Sorry. I know what you mean, but when I think of your mental acumen, the word ‘god-like’ isn’t what comes to mind.”
“Screw you, kelhorn.” But Trident has a smile on his face. “I mean, it’s like you realize deep down that you can’t be broken. Ever. Your body, sure. But you? You’re impervisteel. Tougher. You’re untouchable. Those are the people who qualify for the Legion.”
“Unless you’re a point,” counters Drayus.
“Well, screw those guys.”
I finish off another shovel-full of chow. “And so you don’t think a woman can be that mentally tough?”
“No, ma’am,” Trident answers. “They can. Absolutely they can. But to be mentally able and physically able and wanting to be sent to the ass-end of the galaxy to be constantly worn thin, shot at, sleep-deprived, and miserable, all while the rest of the core and mid-core savage you in the press as a bloodthirsty animal—”
“While still sending us to go fight a new war for the Republic,” Drayus interjects.
“Exactly,” says Trident. “That isn’t the type of person who’s gonna show up for this selection class.”
“So who is?” I ask.
“Someone that wants to be famous. Wants to have books written about her for shattering a glass ceiling. Only it ain’t glass. It’s solid brick. And when they wash out, they’ll just pile on, vilify the Legion, and make a career out of what they almost did.”
I tap my spoon on my nearly-empty tray, wondering if I want that cinnamon roll or not. Lieutenant Owens and the fourth man in this Dark Ops team have been quiet as Drayus and Trident went on. So I ask them directly, “What about you guys?”
“Agree with Trident,” the fourth legionnaire says as he chews his food. I realize I don’t know his name. But now it feels a bit awkward to ask it.
“If someone can fight, can carry the weight,” Owens begins, “I don’t care who or what they are. We’ve all shared foxholes with leejes who might have passed selection, but didn’t belong there.”
This garners nods from the other men.
“So if someone—a woman—did it the right way,” I prod, “you’d be good with it?”
Owens lets out a contemplative sigh as he chews his own cinnamon roll. It prompts me to go ahead and bite into my own, which I soon regret. Too much cinnamon, not enough sugar, and though warm it somehow manages to taste stale.
“I have a wife at home. Pretty thing. Wise as a sage and fierce as a tyrannasquid if she needs to be. We have a little one coming. Baby girl. Part of the reason why I do this is so that she, and my daughter, don’t have to. They could, mind you. I wouldn’t have married a woman who didn’t know how to shoot. But the things I’ve done and the things I’ve—” he pauses and spirals his finger in the air, pointing to his team, “—all of us—have seen. I don’t want them to have to go through the same.”
“In the end, though,” I say, squashing the remains of the miniature roll beneath my spoon, “it’s the individual’s decision.”
“Always is.” Owens smiles and pushes his ever-present shades against the bridge of his nose. “But you’re talking with Dark Ops. And we’re a minority in the Legion. You want a clearer answer to your question, you go ask the Legion regulars like them Iron Wolves over there.”
He whistles, a piercing shriek that silences the cafeteria. “Hey, wolves, how do you feel about the new lady legionnaires Utopion is about to issue to ya?”
A chorus of answers bursts forth, each voice competing with the others at random. An explosion of opinions that deteriorates into a maelstrom of laughter or jokes, smaller discussions or hoots and hollers. My fellow Marine officers glare harder from their table, tucked way.
But I make out the sentiment of the whole from the shouts of the part.
“I’m all for it—gets lonely out on the edge.”
“Pregnant on their first deployment. Guarantee.”
“I volunteer to make that happen!”
“What are their tits gonna look like with the armor?”
“Just like the points. Legion in name only.”
“Sket’s messed up.”
“Gonna get someone killed.”
“Instructors better make sure they don’t pass.”
Maybe there are some who feel the same way as Owens and his Dark Ops team. But if so, they’re quiet. Their voices aren’t the ones rising to the top, floating on the raucous laughter.
It’s been quiet around Camp Puller in the few weeks following the arrival of the Iron Wolves. The legionnaires have been patrolling the Ulori grasslands surrounding the camp and most of the region at least twice a day. Occasionally we’ll do joint force operations if we have reliable intel of a sighting of MCR—we’re openly calling them that now. Those are few and far between, though.
Which means most of what my Marines are doing now is pulling guard duty and fighting off the mind-numbing boredom that comes with deployment when there is no action. Gunny has been busy breaking up fights between testosterone-fueled young men. We decided to just let them form their own amateur MMA league, since they weren’t going to stop fighting and we had enough to do without all the extra incident reports.
A few of my Marines have had to cycle out due to pregnancy, which also picks up in times like these. Even when there’s nothing to do, there’s always something to do.
The positive side of that is that the replacements that came in included the captain I’ve been waiting on since first arriving on-planet. Cole Chapman. I’m walking him through the camp just as the sun begins its rise from behind the horizon.
“I think it would be good for morale, Major,” Chapman says as we pass the latrines, bots with eyes glowing in what remains of the night doing their best to keep clean what Marines and legionnaires love to desecrate.
“It would be good, Captain Chapman. But with the Legion already locked into two patrols a day, there really isn’t an opportunity for us to take the sleds out for a patrol of our own. The drivers need at least some rest.”
“We have the QRF sleds just sitting around.”
That’s true enough. Four combat sleds are held back in case the Legion ever finds itself in real trouble. That hasn’t happened, though. What contact with the human rebels that’s taken place has been over almost before it started, with the Iron Wolves facing no real danger from the considerably less skilled force.
When we use those sleds, it’s typically to speed out with some bots and clean things up. Body recovery and intel searches. The Legion likes the killing just fine, but they tend to leave the after-work for Marines. That hasn’t made them any more popular on base.
But that’s not something any leej has ever cared about.
Still, if things keep up the way they’ve been going, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Legion pulls out. There hasn’t been an MCR sighting in a week. Not even a roadside bomb to dispose of. They seem to have pulled back entirely. Or maybe they were wiped out—though Dark Ops doesn’t think so. Whatever the case, the shooting has stopped, and even the alertness my Marines once had when things looked hot is dissipating.
We’re getting used to monotony. Accustomed to boredom. Not a good place to be.
“I think I can get Colonel Gerlach to go along with that,” I say, nodding approvingly. “Good thought, Captain.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“Run it by Gunny O’Neill first, though. He’ll know the flaw if there is one.”
“Uh… yes, ma’am.”
Camp Puller is a lot quieter this time in the morning than it was when I’d first arrived. The colonel placed orders to stay inside the wire unless leaving on authorized business. No more runs around the perimeter. No more open gates. The friendly, almost civilian feel the place once evoked is gone, the closest thing being the native Ulori who still work in the chow halls, exchanges, and the like.
The captain and I walk past Tower Four, both of us craning our necks up to verify that the Marine stationed is up and doing his job. After this, there’s a long stretch of curling razor wire that rolls in like a tide to the first perimeter wall. It’s short enough that you can see over it when walking by—there’s an inner wall about twenty feet behind it that provides more substantial concealment, mostly hiding buildings from any prying eyes.
“Another thing I’d like permission to do is get Lieutenant Graham better acquainted with—”
I cut Captain Chapman off with the hush and an outstretched staying hand. Along these low walls is a sort of rampart. Just stands, sandbagged and manned by two Marines tasked with watching the unending horizon of grass outside the wire. They’re spaced about a half-click apart all around the camp and we’re approaching the first one after Tower Four.
In the distance, I can hear the Marines talking to each other, the bass of their voices unmistakable in the still of the early morning. They’re probably not trying to be loud, but they’re almost definitely lost in one of those timeless heated debates that all Marines have had about irrelevant and imaginary matchups, such as who would win in a fight between a Hool and a Drusic. It’s not the conversation itself, but the volume and inattentiveness that warrants a reminder delivered by Gunny. It’s not ideal, but it happens.
But the silhouette of their rifles, left unattended and propped on the sandbags behind them… yeah, that’s a whole lot more problematic.
I motion for Chapman to stay silent and quietly follow me. Going into a squat, I move slowly toward the lookout. The captain’s breathing is louder than I’d like, but the two Marines are speaking loud enough that they’re not going to hear him.
The entrenched position hiding the hullbusters is really an elevated platform with stairs on either side. I’m able to climb up the back of it, using its foam-printed supports as stepping stones to reach above the wall of sandbags where the rifles sit. I grab one and quietly lift it up and over the edge, making sure its sling doesn’t catch anything and give me away. Clear, I hand the weapon to the captain and repeat the process.
With an N-4 rifle in each of the captain’s hands, I nod for him to stay put and then loudly climb up the steps. The two Marines quickly turn, see me, and straighten themselves. I recognize one of them—Private Polost.
“PFC Polost,” I say, using the voice I keep reserved for when I need to chew ass.
The private nearly flinches when he says, “Yes, ma’am?”
“You’re dead, Private Polost. Assume a plank position to reflect your new status in the galaxy.”
Polost doesn’t argue or stand around dumbly like he did outside the sleds incurring Gunny’s wrath when I’d first met him. He drops into position almost as quickly as he would were he still in boot camp and I were his D.I.
“Elbows on the ground,” I say, correcting his form. The private was going for the easier, push-up position. “This isn’t the Navy.”
The other Marine, a corporal, is standing at attention, eyes occasionally darting down to Polost, whose muscles haven’t yet started quaking—waking up—from the strain.
“Corporal Mays, I have just killed your buddy. You have five seconds to kill me. Find your rifle.”
The corporal moves to the back of the enclosed sandbag pit and sees that his rifle isn’t where he left it. He looks over the edge where Captain Chapman is waiting, holding each rifle in his hands.
“Corporal Mays,” I say, keeping my voice even and free of emotion. Just facts, like a med bot without empathy software. “You are now dead. Assume a plank position.”
The Marine drops and joins his partner, who is starting to show the first signs of struggle from holding himself in a plank.
“Captain Chapman, please hand me those rifles.”
The captain walks up to the platform and gives me the weapons. I rest them against the sandbags where both of my planking Marines can see them. “A Marine will not survive long without his rifle.”
I set my chronometer and watch the Marines in front of me as they hold position. The first quiet grunts come at about ninety seconds. But they can go longer. They’re still Marines, even if they were sloppy today.
“You have thirty seconds to kill me, Marines.”
“Ma’am?” grunts Polost, looking at up me, sweat trickling around his eye and dripping off his jaw.
“Hold that plank. You’re dead.”
Another thirty seconds go by. “Since, being dead, you were unable to kill the enemy, more Marines have died.”
I turn to Chapman. “Captain. Proceed to the next watch post and inform them that Private Polost and Corporal Mays were derelict in their duty and as a result have gotten them killed. Have them assume plank positions.”
I look down at my Marines, who are now vibrating in their attempt to hold the plank. “You two corpses have another ninety seconds to kill me.”
Now they’re both openly gasping and grunting, trying to keep their spasming cores straight. I ping Gunny on the comm, just a quick burst reporting my position. And then the time runs out.
“Captain Chapman, tell the next sentry position that they have been killed as a result of Private Polost and Corporal Mays losing track of their weapons. Make sure they behave as corpses.”
“On my way.”
“Tell the Marines you’re leaving that I’ll be following you and I better find them still dead.”
“Roger that, Major.”
I wait while the minutes tick away as Polost and Mays sweat and groan, and shake. Their fatigues are darkening with sweat and the platform beneath them is growing wet with a puddle of sweat dripping from their faces. I hear the purposeful, pissed-off sound of Gunny O’Neill’s boots stomping through the camp—the man never walks anywhere; he only travels in stomps or parade march. Sending up a hand, I wave for him to come up the platform.
Gunny pounds up the steps and looks at the Marines struggling to hold a plank. “Holy hell, Major! What happened to these pukes? You two looking for somethin’ down there? Must be real microscopic. Major, did you order these two hullbusters to find their balls? It’s the only thing small enough to require that kind of nose to the floor lookin’.”
“Gunny, these dead bodies you see here left their rifles unattended to the point that I was able to walk right up and take them. Captain Chapman has moved ahead and is killing the rest of the sentries in his path as a result.”
I key in my comm. “Captain, you can stop looking for new targets. Gunny O’Neill is here and the rebels are dead.”
I nod to the gunnery sergeant. “Gunny.”
“I’ll take it from here, Major.” He looks down at the Marines, who seem to be at the point of collapse. “Rest easy, hullbusters!”
The pair drop on their stomachs, gasping and panting, their arms stretched wide.
I step off the platform as the realization that, however bad things felt when they were in my doghouse, they just got worse with Gunny’s arrival.
“Got yourself and a bunch of hullbusters killed ’cuz you was too squeamish to carry a rifle?” he bellows, loud enough for anyone inside the camp to hear. “Hell, them N-4s ain’t your prom date. They won’t call the police if you try and touch ’em.”
I smile, hoping the lesson will be learned. Even if it isn’t, at the very least the bots that keep the latrines clean will likely have a rest for the next few days.
Camp Puller’s fitness center is usually a busy place. Marines keep themselves fit most all the time, but especially while deployed. There really isn’t much else to do. But with the arrival of the regular legionnaires, it’s gotten hard to find space to do much of anything. The inability to leave the wire has the various cardio machines in perpetual use, which in turn fills up the fixed weight machines as gym rats crank out exhausting routines of low weight, high rep circuits.
The synthprene floors are covered in sweat and testosterone. And while the bots do a good job of cleaning up the puddles of sweat, they can’t do anything about hormones… they’re not that kind of bot.
But, it’s as bad as I’ve seen it. Much worse than deployment on a capital ship, where there’s an ample mix of the sexes and full medical stations that make life as similar as it’s ever going to be to the civilian world. I already mentioned the number of Marines I’ve lost to pregnancy, and in an environment like this, where a four easily comes across as a nine due to scarcity… well, let’s just say that if leering stares alone could get the job done, I’d be on maternity leave along with every other female who stepped foot in the fitness center.
Of course Gunny thinks it’s hilarious now that he’s an old man who can actually control himself. He has great fun showing me some pinup rendering of myself done by an artistically inclined Marine or legionnaire. I’ve seen a few, maybe by the same artist, and I’m always wearing something decidedly in violation of the dress code. Oh, and arching my back in ways that aren’t physically possible. Other than that, it’s a flattering likeness. Not something I’d show my father, though. And, naturally, the pictures include the title of “Ice Queen” because—gasp!—I shoot down any Marine dumb enough to try to flirt with me harder than a colonial at a Savage picnic.
I had asked Gunny what the enlisted are thinking when they try something like that.
“Mostly they ain’t thinkin’, Major. Not with their brains at least. I’ll see if I can’t smoke the heat out of them boys at the next PT, but you know, I sincerely doubt it.”
Anyway, all of that has led to my training outside the fitness center, occupying a less-used section of the base called the bone yard because some Marines dug up a bunch of Ulori and other animal bones from who knows how long ago when leveling the ground. That was all before I ever got there. The area was thoroughly excavated and now is a place where those who prefer a less orthodox way of working out congregate. There are hardly any leers here, because the men—mostly legionnaires—who frequent this place are too in love with their own bodies to bother looking at mine.
The bone yard is hot, with low walls on either side that never seem to provide much shade—it runs east to west, and the sun perpetually sits overhead, drying the sweat that drips into the dusty crushed-rock spread over the charred grasslands wherever the Marines opted against the use of duracrete pavement. There are pull-up bars all over the place—never a wait. Lots of dumbbells, medicine balls, suspended rings… old-school stuff that has worked for centuries.
I gather up my equipment for the session and lug it to my station while a row of shirtless legionnaires still wearing their helmets do pull-ups to exhaustion. My goal today is to get in some high-intensity cardio conditioning along with some practical strength training. I place two thirty-five-pound dumbbells on the dirt and grip one with each hand, dipping into a push-up and then while holding the plank lifting the weights one-handed, alternating each arm. That motion is one. I do nineteen more and then bear crawl as fast as I can twenty meters along one of the low walls to a duffel bag I have waiting, stuffed with a hundred pounds of sand. Stand, hoist the bag up and drop it behind me. Turn, jump over it. Burpee. Repeat.
Just ten of those and then a jog back to the starting line for the second set.
I’ve finished eight sets like that before I start to really feel the drag. Everything is slower. Where I was scrambling like a moktaar from station one to station two at first, now I’m lumbering slow enough that I feel like a bear. The same thing goes for everything else. My jumps over the duffel bag are just barely clearing, and I have to remind myself to pull my knees to my chest. My burpees are either me dropping to the ground so fast I jar my wrists or lowering myself so slowly you’d think I was bedding down for the night. I’ve sweat through every article of clothing I’m wearing, my fingers feel numb, and my muscles are doing their best to tell my brain that they’re injured and need to stop working immediately. But I know better. I know what pain feels like and I know what injury feels like. You can push on when it hurts. You have to. But you also have to recognize an injury so you don’t make it worse. And right now, it hurts… but I ain’t injured.
Still, the slowdown gives me a lot more opportunity to see what’s going on around me. The legionnaires in our little out-of-doors training team are like mad men, going harder and heavier than any Marine I’ve ever seen. They grab hundred-pound dumbbells between their ankles and shoot out chin-ups as easily as the skinny kid in boot camp. And they don’t stop or slow until well into the hundreds. Then another leej yells at them for slacking and they burn out another fifty and then drop, soaking in sweat but immediately starting another exercise, usually sending fifty-pound medicine balls flying as fast as possible at the zenith of a sit-up, back and forth, flinging them at one another’s face, going down, coming back up, the ground greedily wicking the moisture from their skin and embedding tiny pebbles into their back and shoulders, sometimes causing a trickle of blood to seep out where they hit the dirt too hard.
But they don’t stop.
It’s like they’re waiting to see if they can outlast the universe itself. If they can go so hard that even the sun grows tired and sets, ceding the bone yard to men who make it their job to add more bones to a galaxy already full of them.
Harder. That’s the only thing I can do. Go harder. Move faster. Tell my fatigue to space off and push. Until I have nothing else to give. Until every ounce of strength is spent and I can look back and say that I didn’t forget anything. I did everything I could to complete my routine as ruthlessly, violently, and efficiently as possible.
I’m grunting now, forcing my body to find a reserve that it is loath to give up. Gone are the niceties of politeness. Toweling down. Excuse me. Please and thank you. I’m tapping into a primal part of myself, forcing my last few sets to be more intense than the first.
And the legionnaires with me, they know it. Some of them seem driven by my efforts, making themselves go at it even harder. Maybe to show me just how much of a separation there is between a galaxy-class athlete and a girl from Teema. But I don’t think so. I think it’s because that drive is something that, when it’s out there and exposed… if you’re in the fight when that happens, you fight harder.
Others had finished their workout and were winding down. Cooling off. Rolling foam. And they’re watching me now.
“Go get it, Major!”
That’s the first cat call. Only it isn’t a cat call because nobody laughs. They just add on. Compliment.
“You got this, hullbuster! Dig it out!”
And I’m digging it out, digging it deep down for everything I’m worth. I finish my last push-ups and move on all fours like an animal, feeling my fingertips grow raw from the way they race across the dirt, aware of the grit and dust that’s clogging my cuticles, forcing itself deep beneath my fingernails so that it’ll take a sand blaster to get them clean again. But I don’t care.
All that matters is finishing.
I don’t stop for even a breath at the sandbag; I hoist it up, feeling like my form is perfect—no wrenching of the back or waddling from hip to hip trying to even the load—it just comes up like it was stuffed with feathers and then floats so slowly over my shoulders and back to the earth that I’ve turned to make my jump by the time it lands. I drop into the burpee and spring back up as though breaking the surface of the water after pushing off from the bottom of the pool.
I jump to the other side and repeat. But this time I feel it. The alarm bells in my mind are clanging wildly, a claxon sounding every excuse to slow it down.
Save some of yourself.
And I shut it all off. Exhale the thoughts with a straining breath as the sandbag goes up again and drops behind me, clipping my heel because I didn’t throw it far enough over my shoulder. I let it drop. And that makes me hot and red with anger. I take it out on the next burpee.
And back to the sandbag. And this time I lift it and throw it over my shoulder far enough that I have to take a step to close the gap and be able to jump over it.
I feel hot. Like I can’t see straight. Like everything is red and blurry except what’s in front of me. The legionnaires are probably still watching. Maybe even still talking. But I don’t hear them.
Until I do.
It’s not a legionnaire. The voice is too soft. Too high-pitched. But it’s excited. Eager to get my attention.
The sandbag is on my shoulder, and in that moment it triples in weight and sags cumbersomely, threatening to fall forward, or back, or down my arm as I pant. It’s all I can do just to heave it behind me and let it fall.
I turn to face whoever called me. The one who brought me from the realms of primal strivings and back into Camp Puller. It’s an officer, a second lieutenant. One of the fresh-faced Marines who works on Colonel Gerlach’s staff.
“Yes?” I say. Or maybe I don’t say it. Perhaps I only think it and breathlessly mouth it between heaving inhalations. I feel like I don’t quite know what’s in my head and what’s happening; mind and body are slowly reuniting.
Because that’s where I was. Out of body. I’d left my frame to let it do the work. It toiled, but I was elsewhere. I had receded to make way for what physically had to be done.
“Colonel Gerlach wants to see you urgently, Major.”
I nod, and this time I know I didn’t say anything. The second lieutenant scoots off. And the legionnaires have already left to finish their own workouts or to call it a day. Maybe they weren’t really watching. I just thought it was so.
I want to say something to them as I leave. But I don’t. I just place both hands on my hips and make my way to the CIC. Soon though, the urgency I heard in that lieutenant’s voice hits me. I wipe the sweat from my eyes and begin jogging. If something is happening—an attack by the MCR—and Gerlach wants me to mobilize my Marines instead of sending the Legion, I need to hurry it up.
I’m still warmed up when I arrive at the CIC, drawing confused looks from the staff officers and techs inside.
“Major Broxin?” one of them asks, and I can tell by the tone of his voice that he isn’t sure why I’m here, sweating in gym shorts and a soaked-through T-shirt.
“Colonel Gerlach sent for me,” I say, trying to control my breath, my body not yet recovered. “Was told it was urgent.”
“Yes, ma’am,” says another officer. “He said to show you in on arrival.”
The clean-cut Marine, wearing a uniform so neat you’d think it was fresh from the factory, stands up and leads me to a door I know well. He waves his hand in front of a bio-sig panel and the door swishes open, revealing the colonel at his desk, bent over a datapad. The staff officer stands aside as Gerlach says, “Andien.”
He looks at me appraisingly. “Come in, come in.”
I do, thankful for the door swishing shut behind me.
“You sent for me, Colonel?”
“I did… though you could have stopped for a shower first if you wanted, Major. Guess you couldn’t wait to hear the news, eh?”
He says it with a smile on his face. Warmth. No derision or mocking. No attempt to make me feel small or second-guess myself.
I can see from the colonel’s face that he expected me to know what this meeting was about. And perhaps he feels bad for making such a presumption. “Would you like to sit down, Andien?”
He motions to a leather chair in front of his desk.
“All due respect, but your furniture will be happier if I keep standing.”
Colonel Gerlach chuckles. “I, uh, probably should have clarified to Lieutenant Lowel about the nature of this meeting. I assumed you knew and would want to find out the answer right away.”
I’m not sure what to think of this. Did something happen to my father? A surgery or treatment he didn’t bother telling me about—so I wouldn’t have to worry? That fits his personality. But then, the colonel doesn’t seem grave in the slightest. I’m not sure what we’re talking about.
“Know what, Colonel?”
“The status of your application to the Legion.” He shakes a datapad in his hand as though it were a piece of paper. “You’ve been selected.”
Colonel Gerlach smiles and stands up. “I know you’ll make us hullbusters proud, Andien. I’m not happy to lose you, but if anyone is going to make history in that Legion, it’s you.”
But I’m barely registering his compliments. I hadn’t applied for this. In fact, I’d barely given it any thought after the day it was all over the news. And yet, the prospect excites me in a way I can’t put my finger on. Could I actually do it?
“Colonel, is there some mistake? I didn’t apply for this. I didn’t even know you could.”
Gerlach looks at his datapad and then turns it around for me to see. There’s my staff photo, rank, serial number, RCN—Republic Citizen Number—all correct. All mine. “No mistake. At least not who they’ve selected. You might not have applied, but they’ve chosen you. Perhaps they’ve picked out some candidates they feel have the best likelihood of success. That’s you if it’s anyone. Still, it seems odd they wouldn’t have spoken to you about it before now.”
“Is this… is it something you want?”
“I… I’m not sure, sir. I’m sorry. The challenge is appealing, but I’m proud of the way I’ve served the Republic as a Marine and I’m not sure if tossing that aside is what I ought to do. I don’t… I don’t know what I should do, Colonel. That probably sounds terrible.”
Gerlach shakes his head. “No. It sounds levelheaded, honest, and thoughtful, which are some of the qualities I admire in you, Major. The orders give you until the end of the day—local time—to confirm. Otherwise they’ll fill out the selection class with someone else. Take some time to think about it, Major.”
“Thank you, sir.” I nod slowly and a droplet of sweat falls from my nose and onto the colonel’s floor.
“Of course,” Gerlach says. “Showers are a good place for thinking. You might want to start there, Major.”
I smile and salute. “Yes, sir.”
I’m drying the back of my hair with a white towel I liberated from the showers and brought with me to my room as I wait for my datapad to connect me to my father. The thin screen serves as a mirror as it displays a black background with a spinning blue star that flashes the word “connecting” on repeat.
I see bags under my eyes that aren’t usually there. But I don’t feel any more tired than usual. I’m getting enough rack time. Chalk it up to stress, I suppose.
“Hey, there’s my girl!” The datapad comes to life with my father’s face. He’s in the backyard and the sun is shining. I can hear the prequee birds in their nests, calling out a beautiful song that is little more than oaths of violence and threats of trouble for any who come near.
It’s nice to see him away from the glow of the holoscreens and constant news networks.
“Hi, Dad!” I wave, and feel like a schoolgirl. How many conversations started like this when I was living in the dorms?
“Well, let me look at you, Dini.”
“Dad,” I say, protesting despite the fact that I’m holding my face still and doing as he asks. “I have some important news. Can’t this wait?”
“Not on your life, Dini.” My father scrutinizes me. “Aha! There she is.”
He smiles, utterly satisfied.
“You know, you’re the best part of my life, Andien.”
“Ha. You need to get out more, Dad.”
“I mean it. Now… what’s the big news?”
I look around my room, verifying I’m alone. Don’t ask me why. It just feels like what I ought to do right now. “Well, it’s kind of strange, too.”
“I was already curious, for Oba’s sake. Spill it, Dini.”
“I’ve been selected for the Legion. Part of that new program to see if any women can pass the selection requirements.”
My father’s eyes go wide. “Well, damn, that is big news. I, uh, I didn’t know that was something you wanted to do.”
“Follow in my old man’s footsteps? Why else do you think I became a hullbuster.”
He tilts his head in a sort of sidelong nod. But his face is impassive.
“So what’s the strange part? I’m not surprised that my girl with her Silvene Star recommendation is getting the green light if this is the way the Legion Commander wants to go.”
I lean forward and keep my voice low. “I didn’t apply. Didn’t sign up. Nothing. I just found out a little while ago that I’m in, though. Colonel Gerlach thinks they may have selected some candidates they thought would have a higher chance of success from the branches.”
“Huh.” Dad scratches his chin and then looks off to the side, temporarily distracted by something in the yard. “I mean, I dunno, Dini. Are you gonna do it?”
“I’m leaning towards it. But then sometimes… I don’t know. What do you think I should do?”
I roll my eyes. “Aside from that?”
“I think,” he begins, and then lets out a sigh. “You need to do what you want to do here. Don’t let the moment or what I might want or what anyone else wants get in the way. Don’t give a damn about any of that. Because if you’re going to do this, Dini, it has to be something you want with every last part of yourself or you’ll never have it.”
I don’t answer right away, and my father doesn’t say more. The birds continue their song in background. I hear the wind rifling through the leaves of the trees in the home where I grew up and find myself wishing I were there right now.
“Do you think,” I finally ask, “that I can do it?”
“You don’t need my affirmation, sweetie.”
“Is it possible?”
“For a woman?”
“If there’s a woman in the galaxy who can physically and mentally tough it out, it’s you, Dini.”
I smile. Weakly, because I just don’t know what to say or feel.
“I’m proud of you. Just being considered for this is an honor—I hope you know that. But the decision of it all rests with you. You’re not gonna find any shortage of people who want one thing or another for you. People who will make up your mind about what you should think and do before you even met them. But what you need to do through all—”
My father’s voice is abruptly drowned out by the wailing of the all-hands alarm, blaring throughout the base. A second later, I hear a boom from somewhere in the center of the camp. My room shakes and dust falls down from the lights hanging from my ceiling.
I spring up from my bed, out of view of the datapad.
“Dini, what’s going on?”
My father’s voice is edged with concern—real, helpless concern. The type that lives on the border next to panic.
The alarms keep wailing. We’re under attack.
“Dad, I’ve got to go. I love you.”
I power off the datapad before he has a chance to respond, grab my helmet, and run outside as more booms sound within the camp.
My senses assault me with data the moment I’m out of the officers’ quarters. Though I’m squinting against the abrupt daylight glare, I can plainly see columns of smoke drifting up in the air from throughout the camp. A building somewhere farther inside is on fire, maybe the chow hall? I can’t quite tell but it’s in the same proximity, the fire not out of control but threatening.
Marines are running in all directions, and I find myself running with them, heading straight for the CIC.
A shriek pierces the air and makes my eardrums warble, like someone is trying to suck them out of my head.
“Rockets!” a hullbuster shouts next to me, his amped up voice competing against the whistle of the incoming projectile.
There’s a boom just behind one of the watch towers that throws a lot of dirt and rock into the air, but otherwise doesn’t seem to cause any harm.
Okay. We’re taking indirect fire. Presumably from the same MCR that have been hiding from us since the Legion regulars showed up. Definitely hiding because something like this says that they’re hardly whipped. All that aside, this is either a harassment where they’re hoping to cause some damage, maybe kill a few Repub soldiers, and then squirt away before we have the chance to mobilize sleds and engage them…
Or it’s the precursor to a full-on assault.
I don’t hear any blaster fire from the sentries. Not that I can discern, at least. So if it’s a rush, it isn’t happening yet. And they would have seen any sleds or other vehicles moving through the grass toward the perimeter. So if it’s an attack, they’ve crawled low beneath the line of sight or they’re not there.
Either way, I need to make it to the CIC and make sure my Marines are ready should this turn from a shelling into something else.
I see Gunny waving a few Marines toward the smoke from the fire at camp’s center. He notices me and runs my way.
“This’ll sharpen ’em up!” he calls out, a chaotic smile on his face. Gunny is a man who lives for moments like this.
I nod in reply. “I’m heading to the CIC. Platform Charlie-Four only has one Marine watching it.”
“Next on my to-do list is to make sure we’ve got eyes where they need to be in case the mids are hoping to do more than get their hands up our skirt.”
I nod. That’s good enough for me. I can trust Gunny to have this sector of the base ready for whatever else may come. “Copy. Let me know what you need and I’ll make it happen.”
The race to the CIC is heightened by the continual impact of rockets inside the wire. It’s never more than one at a time, like they have maybe a single launcher somewhere that they’re manually reloading. Still, they’re efficient enough that it’s nerve-wracking, with a new impact every thirty to sixty seconds. I’m struck by the fact that all I see are Marines moving frantically through the base. No legionnaires.
As I run by the repulsor pool I see why. The only combat sleds present are the ones reserved for the quick reaction force. Meaning the Legion must be somewhere outside the wire right now—hopefully turning around or at the very least hunting down the launcher that’s giving us what for.
It makes sense that they’d wait to hit us until the Legion was gone… Then my stomach drops.
“Gunny!” I shout into the comm. “Make sure you have hullbusters ready to defend the perimeter.”
“Roundin’ ’em up now.”
“Fast as you can, Gunny. Broxin out.”
I’m running for everything to the CIC. The fatigue I should be feeling from the exercise earlier today—that beast mode experience—hasn’t hit me yet. I’m jetting on adrenaline. I time my stride so as to enter the combat information center with the swishing open of its door.
Staff officers join Colonel Gerlach in looking up suddenly at my arrival, and then just as quickly drop their heads back to their screens and datapads.
“Major Broxin,” Gerlach calls, “on me.”
I join his side where he’s instructing a cadre of officers. He doesn’t fill me in on what’s already been said, rather he continues wherever he left off before I burst in, trusting me to gather the situation from whatever context I can pick up.
“Captain Chapman, I want your first and second platoons spreading out on foot beyond the wire. There’s a spotter in the grass—I’m sure of that much.”
I grab Chapman’s arm, stopping him from moving.
Colonel Gerlach notices, but doesn’t comment. Instead he looks to Lieutenant Graham. “Load third platoon into the combat sleds and begin a reconnaissance probe. The Legion is searching for the launcher and they’re about fifty clicks out. You’ll be looking—”
“Colonel,” I say, attempting the near-impossible task of interrupting a senior officer politely.
“—up close,” Gerlach continues. “And they’ll try to run when you get near, so move at all possible speed. Yes, Major?”
“Sir, I advise against sending Marines outside the wire at this moment and recommend we deploy the remaining combat sleds to provide additional fire support at perimeter’s edge.”
Gerlach straightens himself and takes in a breath. “What’s led you to make that recommendation?”
“Timing, sir,” I say, thankful for a CO who isn’t a point. Who’s willing to listen to his juniors and doesn’t get stuck on something once he’s said it out loud. “The MCR launched this attack after the Iron Wolves left.”
“Not many people want to go toe-to-toe with the Legion,” counters Captain Chapman.
I give him a quick, sidelong look to let him know I don’t appreciate him chiming in right now.
“You’re right about that. But if this were only a rocket attack—” another boom sounds, a near miss that shakes the CIC and emphasizes the word, “—then we should ask ourselves why they would do it now while the Iron Wolves are patrolling. If they’re going to harass with indirect fire, they’d want the chance to snuff a few leejes if they could.”
“Why fire on an empty base?” Gerlach asked, overstating the situation but seeing where I was going.
“Sir, maybe it’s just the timing, but these insurgents have been in hiding. They attack now, on their terms, at a time when the Legion is gone from the base. Deliberately waiting to attack until the Iron Wolves were on patrol makes sense only if they’re planning something more than just a few rocket salvos. It makes sense if they’re looking to overrun Camp Puller.”
A silence hangs over the makeshift command table. Eyes are fixed on Gerlach, who is in turn staring at me. Devoid of malice, no sense of being shown up or any of the petty twarg dung that so often accompanies the power struggle that is rank and promotion. Gerlach isn’t that kind of a leader. He’s thinking it through, watching me to get a sense of how much I believe what I’m saying.
“What’s the status of the camp’s defenses?” Gerlach calls out into the air.
A tech turns from her holodisplay. “Difficult to say, sir. Cams show most of our sentries are staying low. A few of the positions look like they’re empty, but that may just be Marines hugging deck and keeping out of the holocam’s sight.”
“Damn well better be,” I hear Captain Chapman mutter under his breath.
Gerlach crosses his arms as another rocket booms somewhere inside the camp. “All right. Major, you make an excellent point. But I don’t like just sitting here and having bombs dropped on our heads. That doesn’t mix well with this Marine. Lieutenant Graham, take the sleds beyond the wire and do a sweep for any human or bot spotters. Captain Chapman, get your platoons prepared to leave or defend. Stage them to reinforce our fighting positions but don’t let them sit out in the open. We don’t want to give the rockets any help. Set up and await further orders.”
The two men along with the remaining platoon leaders hurry out to their business.
“Thank you, sir,” I say, wanting to get back out there but knowing my place is here in the CIC. “Gunny O’Neill is reinforcing the south end. I’ll have Captain Chapman put his focus on West and North since the sleds will be moving from the east gate.”
I hurry to send the orders to Chapman and then join the colonel as he beckons me to his side. He shows me a display listing close air assets.
“This is the nearest non-Ulori air support we can hope for,” Gerlach says, bringing up a list. “We have some buzz ships that can move from the Army base out by the coastline, but those aren’t the fastest birds. Ulori says they can scramble and be here in fifteen minutes, but I told them that won’t be necessary.”
I nod in agreement. Neither of us are willing to put our trust in the local air support given our last experience with them.
“Can we get the buzz ships en route to cut down on response time in case we need them?” I ask.
Gerlach shakes his head. “Army doesn’t want to send them over unless we’re sure we need them. They don’t like to share their toys with the Marines.”
“Well, we do tend to break them.”
Another rocket blast hits. And then another.
“That was close together,” Gerlach says.
He’s right. They were maybe… ten seconds apart. Another falls as I compute the time, and then a second right after it. So much for there just being a single launcher.
And then, just as quick as the increased barrage started up, it dies down again. The sound of its booms are soon replaced by the unmistakable shriek of blaster fire. And then the familiar thunder of N-4s and emplaced N-50 blaster cannons returning fire.
“Contact West!” a report rolls in over the comm.
It’s followed by similar reports from throughout the base, corresponding with holocam feeds that show the tall grasses in the perimeter suddenly erupting with blaster fire as too many human soldiers spring up and fire at the walls with blaster rifles and shoulder mounted rocket launchers.
Three rockets slam into one of the combat sleds, causing it to spin and tilt on one side, in flames.
As the carnage on the screens unfolds, the chatter of too many voices reporting at once fills the CIC. The attackers are sprinting for the wire, getting cut down by the gunners in position, but advancing considerably. Too few Marines man the walls and towers.
The comms buzz with enlisted Marines trying to respond to the attack, link up with units, or report casualties. Med bots and corpsmen scurry everywhere, attending to the wounded where they lie inside the base.
“This is going to hell real quick,” Gerlach says, his attention fixed on a stream of reports flying before him in real time. He opens the comm channel to the combat officers in the company. “Get your hullbusters to the walls and shooting! Pronto!”
The CIC swishes open, and Lieutenant Owens and one of his Dark Ops legionnaires come inside. “Colonel, I’ve got two of my men trying to keep back an unprotected section of the perimeter by Tower Seven. But they can’t do it by themselves. I need someone to round up some Marines and provide support.”
He doesn’t wait for an answer. And as the legionnaire leaves for the fight the way he came in, Colonel Gerlach looks at me.
“Go round up who you can and stop the threat, Major. I’ll handle things in here.”
I hadn’t been in the CIC long, but the exterior of Camp Puller feels like a completely different place than I’d left it. There’s a haze of smoke blowing through the air that makes my eyes water and feel red and irritated. The loud whine of pitched blaster fire is near constant, with the heavy N-50s emplaced on the guard towers spewing a nonstop stream into the grass where more and more rebels seem to be located. The heat from the weapons’ blaster bolts has lit some of the grass on fire, sending that wet, green smoke into the camp.
Everywhere I look I see MCR. And yet it’s not as though we’re up against an army. At most there are a couple hundred, but that’s close to one-to-one odds for this fire base.
Blaster fire flies everywhere, most of it streaking over my head from errant shots sent from outside the camp. Still, it’s a reminder that people are trying to kill me. I draw my service pistol and move toward Tower Seven, trying to harangue stray Marines into following me as I move.
The task proves difficult.
Most of the Marines I see are instinctively grouping together, but after that it’s an erratic mix of finding cover from the rocket attacks that seem to have ceased, or sprints to already defended sections of the camp’s perimeter. Lieutenant Owens and his fellow Dark Ops leejes have disappeared into the maelstrom, and I’ve got four Marines following me to the designated section of the wall that’s being defended by two lone legionnaires.
A burly private runs toward me, about eight Marines following him. A few of them look as though they’d just woken up. There’s stubble on their faces and a daze in their eyes. They all have rifles at least.
I wave the group down. “Private!”
The big Marine halts, panting.
“You’re with me. We’re reinforcing the wall by Tower Seven.”
“Ma’am, we’re supposed to join with Fourth at Tower Three.” He points to the tower, standing behind me in the distance, the same direction he’d been running.
“I understand that,” I say, turning my head to look at the tower. Its blaster cannons are blazing away. “Seven is critical. We need—”
My voice is temporarily drowned out as a rocket slams into Tower Three, sending sand and shards of the printed structure flying into the air. The Marines around me duck from the sudden explosion. We’re far enough away to be safe from any shrapnel or debris, but this is a new problem. The gun on Three is now silent, and there’s no movement from the tower platform itself.
Sket. With no idea of the strength of the defenders at that section, I can’t deny them these Marines. But… Seven is in trouble, too.
“Take four Marines and move on to Three,” I say, waiting as the private nods and moves with his allotted troops.
“The rest of you are with me. Let’s go!”
With seven Marines in tow, we run for Tower Seven. Each tower in the camp and its corresponding sectors of perimeter have pre-assigned defenders. For Seven to be defended by only a pair of legionnaires means something has gone wrong. Maybe a confused NCO leading his Marines to the wrong stretch of the fort or perhaps a panicked officer who wanted to bolster his own section at the expense of others. That happens, too. Or maybe they got into a firefight and just couldn’t get to where they were supposed to be.
The sound of battle is everywhere, but the intensity picks up as we near Tower Seven. The tower itself looks intact, but the N-50 mounted up top is quiet and the only weapon I see firing from the raised platform belongs to one of the Dark Ops legionnaires, who is using an N-18 sniper rifle to drop a surging force of rebels one shot at a time. The sniper’s partner is at the ground level, using the high-cycle firepower of an SAB to keep the rush of attackers at bay.
The legionnaires lay their firepower down so effectively, so fiercely, that you’d think there were more than two of them if your eyes didn’t prove it otherwise. They’re using what cover they can, but not at the expense of reducing offense. Maybe that’s a risk they take because of the armor they wear from head to toe, but I think it’s just the way they like to fight. All offense. Aggression. And a violent ferocity that is almost startling—and that’s when seen as an ally. It’s probably demoralizing from the perspective of the enemy.
But they aren’t stopping. And ultimately, they outnumber the pair of defenders significantly. Rather than breaking and running, they’re peeling off into small groups, splintering into new assaulting units that spread out across the perimeter. They’re making progress, and they’re spaced well enough apart that they’re going to get right up in the leej’s face if the soldiers don’t get help.
“Push them back!” I call out to my team. “Get on that wall and do not let up!”
My Marines practically hurl themselves against the walls, spreading out along the raised platforms and firing over the top or standing at ground level and making use of the shooter’s windows built into the outer wall itself. Parts of the perimeter fencing are blown open, lying twisted on the ground. The razor wire is still intact, but not everywhere. Entire sections seem to have been blown clear—maybe the result of rocket or mortar fire.
“They’ll push for the clearings in the wire,” I call out over my squad’s comm. “Make sure you have intersecting fields of fire on those points in case they push up that far!”
Marines are capable in a fight, but my team is comprised entirely of privates. And so while I’m pretty sure they heard me, no one is making any moves to follow through. And I know they’re not set up to do what I asked them as things stand. If Gunny were here, he’d be manhandling the hullbusters one at a time and making sure they were exactly where they needed to be to survive what might be coming.
But he’s not and I am.
I rush up to the defensive wall in order to go from Marine to Marine to get them in position. But as I get close, I can see why I didn’t get a response to my orders. The MCR are already pushing and making for the gaps. And the Republic defenders are throwing everything they have at them, locked in a trance of fire that only death or victory will dispel. The trouble with that being, pockets of MCR are getting dusted by the defending fire, but larger pockets are staging to make a push and the limited shooters on the wall don’t seem to see it happening.
“Watch right flank, two o’clock!” I yell at the first Marine I reach, not sending the message over comm out of fear that this time it will get through and the whole fire team will shift and thereby create a new hole.
The Marine I’m yelling at keeps shooting, so I grab his shoulder and get in his face. “Two o’clock!” I yell, using my knife hands to show the massing MCR weaving a path through the destroyed razor wire that will bring them within scaling distance of the wall.
“Oh, sket!” the Marine shouts in reply, lifting his rifle from the barrier wall and setting back down in the direction of the oncoming rebels. He begins to fire, dropping rebels together with the Legion sniper up in the tower. But there are enough troops coming at us that it feels like we’re merely plinking away at the edges.
It’s like something out of a nightmare—a dense grouping of spiders or roaches all skittering for you. One of those dreams where you somehow know that if you don’t figure out how to stop what’s coming at you, you’ll be dead. Only in a dream, that just means waking up with a start. Here… we really will die if we don’t stop this.
I move to the next Marine in line to get her rifle to help with the surge at the two o’clock side, but she’s shooting at her own group of attackers—one that needs to be put down just as much as the other. It dawns on me that this is how positions get overrun. You can be well equipped, in a defensive position, and capable of fighting… but all of that only counts for so much. If the enemy can throw enough at you unabated, the numbers will do the job eventually.
With everyone in the best position they can be, I call in to the CIC. “Broxin to Command, we are engaging a numerically superior force. Enemy is threatening to circumvent perimeter defenses and breach. Requesting additional support at Tower Seven.”
“Copy, Major Broxin,” comes the harried voice of Colonel Gerlach. “No additional units are available at this time. Hold your position until you can no longer reliably do so. Fallback position is CIC inner compound wall.”
“Roger. Broxin out.”
This is bad. If we’re to the point where there’s no relief available, then either every Marine is fighting for all they’re worth against a force much larger than we anticipated or we’ve lost a lot of hullbusters and attrition is limiting our ability to keep the MCR out of Camp Puller. Either way, all I can do now is help to defend this stretch of the base. The best way to think of an officer in the military is akin to a coach on a seamball team. You help the players make the plays needed to win the game, but you’re not an everyday player yourself.
Unless it’s a day like today. When no one can stay on the sidelines.
I make another scan of the battlefield. Most of my Marines are hammering at the rebels from twelve o’clock to ten o’clock. That sector is as locked down as we can make it. The two Dark Ops boys and the hullbuster I pulled aside are taking the other side of the field. And they’re the ones that need what support I can provide now.
Blaster pistol in hand, I take a position near my Marine, slapping him on the shoulder as I come so as not to surprise him in setting up on his periphery and getting myself shot.
The attackers are closer than they were before, but dead and dying bodies litter the area between the tall grass and the wire, a testimony to the price the attackers have paid to get this far. And they’re close. I can make out their faces clearly, the little distinguishing features that are lost at range. An upturned nose. A double chin. Facial scars. The kinds of things that make the attackers seem less like a swarm of humanoids carrying weapons and more like individuals bringing hate and destruction with them, all of it etched on their faces.
I dial my blaster pistol’s charge up to full. That will give me about eight shots per charge pack, but the likelihood of them killing or disabling my targets are much higher. I take aim, shooing away the thought that having a rifle would be far better, and line up a rebel who is spraying blaster bolts up at the tower. I stare through my rear sights and watch for the white, holographically projected dot at the barrel of the weapon to flash—it’s a nice little program that lets you know when you’re on center mass of a humanoid target. Good shooters just squeeze the trigger at that flash and move to the next target.
I consider myself a good shooter. I shoot twice in rapid succession, knowing that these attackers will overrun my position well before I can use up all my charge packs. Best to be sure each target is killed or incapacitated than send a single bolt spread out over too many men. That’s something a lot of people don’t realize. Just because you’ve been shot, doesn’t mean you’ll stop fighting. Some people quit, sure. But I’ve seen more than a few careless Marines get themselves shot because they assumed the blaster bolt they put into a hostile would end the situation.
No. The situation doesn’t end until you end it. Never rely on the other person to stop fighting for you. You must make them stop.
The shots take the assaulter down. I follow up with the same on the next target, a scrawny man with a ratty beard, and aim high, hitting him in the neck. He goes down and I don’t take a second shot at him as he does. Sometimes it’s obvious.
I take a breath and focus, not taking my attention from my targets. We’re going to lose someone in a fight like this… it happens. Pay attention to the threat. That’s what will keep others from joining that Marine’s fate.
I see the legionnaire heading toward me. It’s Drayus. Next to Owens, I like him the most. He’s holding out his N-4.
I holster my sidearm and take the rifle, but notice he doesn’t have another one standing by. “What will you—”
“Just shoot!” he yells, and unclips fraggers from his webbing.
I begin sending bursts of blaster fire into the swelled ranks of MCR, doing my best to imitate the destruction its former owner wreaked with the weapon. Each shot sends three charged blaster bolts into center mass. Done properly, a squeeze of the finger means the end of a threat. Usually.
“Shoot where I throw!” Drayus calls.
He hurls a fragger amid the rushing MCR. Several of them push forward, oblivious, but those caught in the immediate blast radius stop to do something about it. One man stoops to pick up a grenade with the hopes of throwing it back. The sniper in the tower sends a bolt into his head for the effort. I send similar bursts of fire into the area. Someone looks as though they’re going to take a dive to cover the thing but is too late.
The fragger detonates, sending a radial blast of needle-sharp fragmentation all around. The primary explosion sends a smaller ball upward, which in turn makes a smaller explosion hurl still more shrapnel into the assault, this time at eye level.
A thick ring of rebel troops drop, as through an invisible fist from Oba slammed into the earth where they once stood. Drayus throws another, and we repeat the process, but not before he sends more. I glance to my left and see that the Marines defending the other side are similarly making use of their own fraggers.
Confusion and desperation are starting to grip the attackers. They’ve slowed, and that makes them easier targets. Bodies are piling up at the front, and wherever a fragger explodes.
One of the rebels near the front decides it might be wise to try to turn the tables. He pulls his own fragger, arms it, and tosses it toward our defensive position. A moment later he’s lit up with blaster bolts.
The grenade sails and falls just short of its target, exploding with a dust-propelling woomp at the base of the barrier wall we’re stacked against. A few of us duck, but most of us, myself included, just keep firing, trusting the barricade, geometry, and physics to keep us safe from the shrapnel ring. That’s the funny thing about grenades. They’re dangerous, but not the kind of tank-destroying fireball machines the holofilms make them out to be. They’re kind of underwhelming, although you don’t want to be caught in the blast ring of one, for sure.
“They’re breaking!” yells one of my Marines, and the joy in her voice is evident.
Sure enough, the attackers have turned and are fleeing for the relative cover of the high grass, hoping to disappear from sight and crawl to safety. The Marines slacken their fire, whooping in victory.
But the legionnaires, they aren’t letting up.
“Keep shooting!” I yell to my hullbusters. “You dust these kelhorns now so they can’t come back and do the same to you later.”
The Marines get back into their firing positions and gun down the fleeing rebels, striking them in the back and making their retreat even more frantic than it already was. When the last one has disappeared into the tall grass, which is smoking and rent by a volley of blaster fire, Drayus comes up to me.
“You’re wounded, Major.”
I look around, checking my body for signs. I feel whole. I feel… fine.
“Your cheek,” he says, rummaging in his kit.
I bring my hand up to my face instinctively. It comes away clean. I check the other side and find my fingers dripping with blood.
“Must’ve been… maybe the grenade?”
“Probably,” Drayus says.
He presses a thin strip of a skinpack onto the wound. It tightens onto my skin, feeling like I’ve just taken a dip in a salty ocean and let the sun dry me out. That will stop the bleeding and accelerate the wound’s closing and healing.
“Guess I’m lucky it didn’t hit something I needed, like my neck.”
“You’ll be even luckier if it leaves a scar,” Drayus says, almost absently, as if he knows the trick to quick and worry-free treatment is that small talk medics and corpsmen seem to excel in. “Nothing makes a person more interesting than a well-placed facial scar.”
I look around. My Marines are doing a good job keeping up a defensive perimeter, watching for signs that the MCR might be readying to reemerge from the grasslands. Two of them are tending to Private Bhatia, who’s slumped against the wall, a staining trail of blood behind him, beyond the help of skinpacks or any other modern medical tool.
I call into the CIC. “Broxin to Command. Tower Seven is secure. Over.”
There’s a pause and then one of the communications officers comes online. “Proceed to fallback position. Enemy troops are inside the wire.”
I spin to face the direction of the CIC, hidden behind the higher walls of the inner perimeter meant to obstruct snipers and other surveillance. The din of blaster fire sounds heavy from that direction, and more smoke rises above the walls.
Drayus is at my side. “Lieutenant Owens is already in the fight. Take your hullbusters and provide support.” He nods up at his compatriot in the tower. “We can keep this sector locked down.”
I find two things of note on my run to the CIC, hullbusters in tow.
The first is the fate of the initial squad of Marines sent to defend Tower Seven. I find what’s left of them around an impact crater left by one of the rockets.
The second is Lieutenant Owens, who is sprinting alongside his Dark Ops partner, streaking in from an adjacent section of wall. He’s moving almost at a sprint, but with his rifle up, looking down sights through the rectangular optic that floats at the back of the weapon’s rail.
I’m about to call out that we’re coming when he abruptly fires straight ahead. I don’t see what he’s shooting at, but a second later a blaster bolt returns in his direction. He and his partner fire again, and then I see a trio of rebels rush the legionnaires.
Owens shoots one point-blank as they press him, and ducks as the next attempts to swing his rifle like a club in the abrupt close quarters struggle. Putting his shoulder into the man, Owens lifts and throws the rebel over his shoulder like a bull goring a flat-footed intruder to his pasture.
The other legionnaire—maybe Trident—shoots the rebel as he hits the ground while Owens sends a thrusting kick into the midsection of the third rebel, using the space the blow creates between the two men to fire a pair of blaster bolts into the last human attacker.
They press on as if nothing had happened, disappearing between buildings in their rush to the CIC and fallback position.
“Let’s go!” I call to my Marines, who are already flagging from the run.
Usually this wouldn’t be a problem for them, but combat is emotionally and physically draining in a way most people couldn’t imagine. Even if all you’d been doing is firing from a fixed position behind cover, the level of intensity, alertness, fear, and adrenaline all take a toll. And when you’re in that state for an extended period of time, all you want to do is just fall down and go to sleep. It’s only the energy the situation produces, the desire to stay alive, and the need to be there for your brothers and sisters that keep you moving.
And that’s why you train hard. Why you push. Because when it all comes to a head, and it’s life or death, it’s the ones who kept pushing and didn’t forget anything—didn’t leave anything to chance or someone else—who have the best chance at making it out alive.
Private Bhatia’s face flashes before me. A reminder that a best chance still isn’t a guarantee. Not at all.
Bad luck is bad luck.
We push into the gap between the large inner walls of the camp and begin moving down an alley in between barracks. These buildings are on fire, and the heat they’re putting off grows with intensity. Enough that we must move single file in the middle of the makeshift street just to avoid getting overcooked on either side.
I see Lieutenant Owens ahead. He and his partner have slowed, moving in that smooth shooter’s walk, rifle at the shoulder as they methodically engage targets of opportunity. And there are a lot of them.
The central compound surrounding the CIC is a mass of Marines mixed with rebels. People are fighting hand to hand, knives out, or indiscriminately blasting those they come across in the back, only to be gunned down in revenge. It’s bedlam. A chaotic scene straight out of a hologame. A deathmatch.
I can’t tell who’s getting the best of it because everywhere I look there’s a new scene unfolding. Here a trio of Marines are holed up around a corner, firing at MCR who run by, dropping them as they go. Not twenty meters away, an MCR rebel holding a bloody knife dispatches a prone Marine. The rebels the newly deceased Marine was firing on pop their heads up from the sandbagged square of the camp where the Republic Marine flag flies beneath the flag of the Republic. One of them is shot in the face from a different direction. The others drop back down.
There’s so much going on that it feels almost impossible to know what to do next. But we’ve got to do something. The CIC building is locked down, and though a number of MCR have tried to force their way in, they’re cut down by the Marines defending the area. We could join the fray and see if we can out-kill the invaders, but tactically, that’s just rolling dice.
And then I see an admin building that sits at the end of what you’d consider one of the blocks built around the interior of the base square. It’s slightly taller than the others; a malfunctioning printer must have made the foundation larger than spec. Something not worth redoing. Usually it houses various bots meant for support tasks. The ones programmed to give psych evaluations or after action reviews. The kind meant to weed out anyone the Republic doesn’t want serving. The kind of bots you try to avoid.
I scan the roof and don’t see anyone up there. Running forward, I catch up with Owens, who seems to be processing his next move as he kills from the shadows of the alley we now occupy.
“Lieutenant Owens,” I call out over comm, making my voice loud enough for him to hear me in proximity as well. I don’t want to get dusted right now.
“Yeah,” Owens says, not looking away, still taking down targets. The MCR in the melee don’t seem to have noticed him yet.
“If we can get to the roof of that admin building, we can better keep these mids back. Can you help my team make it there?”
Owens glances behind him, confirming what his HUD likely already told him—that a small fire team of Marines are positioned to his rear. The legionnaire nods.
“We’ll have to move through the square,” he says, using a knife hand to direct my attention to the path. “We either run and hope we don’t get cut down, or we form a wedge and KTF our way to the other side. Everyone is fighting for their life. They ain’t gonna tangle with a death dealer if they can avoid it. They’re tryin’ to survive so I vote the wedge.”
I nod, surprised that Owens is giving me an option. “Wedge it is.”
“Good. I’ll be the tip of the spear. Trident a step behind and on my right. Your best shooter on his left, the rest fanning out from there.”
“I’m on Trident’s left,” I say.
Owens doesn’t say anything so I add, “No bravado. I’m the best shooter.”
“All right. Tell your team. I set the pace. Nobody moves faster than me, nobody moves slower. When I give the word, Trident will move ahead and storm the building in case anyone is waiting. You hullbusters follow in support.”
“And don’t none of you shoot me in the back,” Trident adds.
“That too,” says Owens.
I nod and tell my fire team what the plan is. I can see in their eyes that they’re committed to it, but scared to death at what we’re about to do. More Marines and MCR drop in the street, the fight raging on. If the rebels are able to take this square and secure a place for however many more of them are outside the wire to enter and push, we’re done for. They’ll eat us from the inside out like a cancer.
“Don’t worry,” I tell them. “They’ll shoot at the legionnaires first. We’re not sneaking our way across.”
We form up behind Owens. I tap him on his armored shoulder when my hullbusters are in place. “Ready.”
Owens nods. “On me.”
He moves smoothly out into the square surrounding the CIC. Almost immediately he and Trident begin to shoot, taking down any targets in front of them. I’m walking in step, looking down the sights of my N-4, a fresh charge pack in its well. Soon I hear the Marines behind me begin firing as well. We’re a wall of energy bolts, spitting out death as we creep across the opening to our destination.
And creeping is exactly how it feels. I keep resisting the urge to move faster, to sprint across the clearing. Which Owens likely knew would happen, prompting him to make it clear that he’s our speedometer. Still, I feel like we’re sitting ducks.
And yet, we’re not exactly crawling. We’re moving faster than most people walk. But our steps are measured and deliberate, giving us a stable shooting platform. A few bolts sizzle past my ear or chew up the ground at our feet, but these are invariably silenced by the phalanx of fire we’re sending back.
It isn’t long before we approach the halfway point, where there’s almost as much trouble behind the three of us in the lead as there is in front. Owens takes a knee, dipping down next to the pile of sandbags the MCR had been shooting from around the flagpole, and then orders Trident to “Go!”
The legionnaire takes off at a sprint toward the building.
“Go!” Owens shouts.
At me. I almost don’t register that fact but then take off after Trident. If he keeps yelling, I don’t hear it. My heart pounds so hard that it fills my eardrums as I sprint behind Trident, matching him step-for-step, though his longer stride is putting some distance between us.
He reaches the cover of the next group of buildings and halts there, still looking ahead. I soon reach him, panting from the run.
“Watch ahead,” he says, his voice even and without strain.
I do and he turns to face opposite, looking back the way we came from. I hear his blaster rifle bark out its whine as he shoots blaster bolts in the direction of the melee we just left. Soon two more Marines join us.
“Watch our backs,” I tell them, and then turn to see who else is coming.
I see a pair of Marines from our team lying dead in the streets, with Owens and the remaining Marines still kneeling at the flagpole, caught amid the firefight.
“Okay, they’re about to come,” Trident tells me. “Cover them. Don’t let up.”
We begin firing as Owens and the Marines with him sprint to close the gap. Another of my Marines—the big private who’d been leading the group before I ran into them—is hit and drops, left behind. An MCR runs over to the prone hullbuster with a knife exposed. I drop him only to see my Marine shot by someone else at a distance. I don’t see who.
Owens runs right past our position, moving directly for the building as we continue our covering fire. The surviving Marines running with him follow until they’re stacked up outside the target building.
“Move up!” Owens calls, and I can hear his voice over comm as well as amplified by his helmet’s external speaker.
We peel off and make our way to link up at the admin building. No one has followed us, and I don’t see anyone in this section of the base. It’s as if a memo went out to both sides that the CIC and surrounding square was where this fight would be decided.
“Trident and I will go in first,” Owens says. “Wait a while and follow after a minute. Or if you hear blaster fire.”
And with that the pair disappear inside. I wait, not hearing anything except the clamor of the fight continuing on outside the CIC. It’s so chaotic, I don’t have a sense of where the Republic stands. But the mere fact that everything is going down inside Camp Puller makes me think that we’re up to our eyes with rebels and on the verge of losing all hands. I’m sure the legionnaires on patrol are racing their way back, but repulsor sleds only move so fast.
But they are coming. Which means that we don’t have to win this fight, we just have to hang in there long enough for the invaders to get skittish and try to cut before the Legion shows back up. If they stick around too long, they’ll end up getting waxed by our reinforcements. And me getting to a good firing position on top of this building will go a long way to help make that happen.
After a minute passes, I prepare to take my team inside the building. I single out a Marine to stay behind.
“Watch the door. You two are with me.”
Only half of them are left. The thought strikes me as we move into the admin building, through the lobby where a bot dutifully sits, as if oblivious to what’s happening in the camp. It took the lives of three Marines to get me to this position.
“My apologies,” the bot says, standing as we rush past it. “All services provided in this building are temporarily—”
We move out of earshot of the machine, taking the stairs and bypassing the second floor to reach roof access. Lieutenant Owens and Trident are already there and in position.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” Owens says, waving me over. “Want you to set up before we start shooting. It’ll be harder to get into a good position after they know we’re up here.”
“Yut,” I say, and then find a spot with a good field of vision on the CIC and square. I tell one of my Marines to watch our flanks and rear.
“KTF,” Owens says, and then together with Trident sends plunging fire down on whatever pockets of MCR he can find.
I join in, but not before marveling at just how accurate the two legionnaires are. Maybe it’s the Legion training, maybe it’s the augmentation they get from their helmets and sights, likely it’s a combination of both, but it’s like they never miss. Every shot is a kill shot. No wasted movements. They change out charge packs the way a civilian might take off their shirt. It’s so automatic that they can do it without thinking. The same way every time.
We’re blasting away at clumps of rebels, wreaking havoc on their ability to put together any kind of an organized attack. We’ve taken out at least a dozen troops before they realize the direction of the threat and start sending shots up at us. But these go either too high and sail over our heads or too low and burn out in the side of the building.
“They know we’re here,” I tell my Marines over comm. “So be ready in case they try to rush the building.”
“Some hullbusters have found their way to us first,” replies the Marine I left at the door. “Should I send them up?”
“Negative. Set up security at the entrance and along the street. If you can keep the mids from getting to us, we can keep the pressure up.”
We keep pressing the attack. The pressure and suppression we’re sending into the zone is allowing our Marines to regroup and rally, forming firing positions that start to confound the stalled rebels. With whatever surprise they achieved in breaching, they’re now finding themselves in a grinder. The question being, do they have the numbers to push their way out of it?
“Broxin to Command,” I call in to the CIC. “We have secured the roof of the admin building in grid one. How copy?”
“We hear you, Major.” It’s Colonel Gerlach again. “The remaining effective combat sleds are trying to keep any new spots from opening up in addition to shutting down the current ingress. They appear to be pushing from an opening near Tower Five and moving from there. We’ll round up what reinforcements we have to secure the fallback position.”
“Tell him to get me the rest of my team,” Owens says, breaking into my comm.
I had no idea Owens, or Dark Ops, could do that. But he just did.
“Colonel, can you get relief to Tower Seven? We could use the two Dark Ops legionnaires guarding it over here.”
“We should be able to split up some of the defenders at Two and Three. Command out.”
“Thanks,” Owens says, and then goes back to shooting.
We continue to engage, but the targets aren’t as rich as they first were. The smart MCR have pulled themselves out of our direct line of fire, forcing us to take shots at any who attempt to enter our no-man’s-land. The ones that do join their buddies in the dirt.
“Changing packs,” Trident says as he deftly swaps a fresh charge pack into his rifle. “They’re isolated now. We should flush ’em out.”
“Yep,” Owens says. “Drayus, what’s your status?”
“Haulin’ ass. Two minutes.”
It occurs to me that I’m hearing them communicate on their L-comms, which only happens if they decide to patch me in. Usually legionnaires are a closed book, unreadable behind the visage of their helmets. You don’t get to listen in unless they deem it worthwhile. And from my experience, they usually don’t.
Owens lifts his rifle up and Trident follows suit. “We’re headin’ downstairs to meet up in the middle with the rest of my team. Keep us covered and tell your Marines guarding the door not to mistake us for MCR.”
“Be a shame if we had to dust ’em,” Trident adds, and then the duo disappears into the stairwell.
“Legionnaires are heading down,” I say, trusting the Marine at the door to relay the message. “Repeat, legionnaires heading down to exit the building.”
“Roger, Major. We’ll watch for them.”
“Copy. Broxin out.”
I see a squad of about six rebels seeking to charge across the kill zone we created. I open up with my blaster rifle, cutting into them from above while Marines set up opposite them and engage from their positions. Four of the rebels drop and the other two retreat back to what I assume is a reinforced position. We have them stalled. Now we need to set up to close the noose and cut them off entirely from retreat. Which is exactly what Lieutenant Owens and his Dark Ops legionnaires are seeking to do.
“Major Broxin,” the voice of my sentry below calls in. “The Legion lieutenant is gathering up our fraggers and spare charge packs. Should we—”
“Give him what he wants. Broxin out.”
I watch as Drayus and his sniper partner creep through the Marine controlled sectors of camp. And then see Owens and Trident moving beneath me. It’s clear they’re communicating, only now I’m no longer patched into their L-comm feed. I see both groups of legionnaires disappear.
And then Owens speaks to me. “The MCR are gathered around the CIC building itself. They’re not trying to get in, though. Looks like the combat sleds have slowed the reinforcements from the outside. We’re going around the rebels to force them out into the open. Get your Marines ready to meet ’em. Gonna need to hit ’em from the ground this time.”
“Affirmative,” I say, then turn to the remaining Marines on the roof. “Take over here.”
I make my way back down through the building, collecting hullbusters along the way. Quite a few straggled toward our position and are joining me now that someone is telling them what to do. I think we had enough security around the perimeter to cover a Mendella concert on Utopion.
I saw her once, back on Teema. It was a good show. My dad dropped me and my friends off and waited for us in the parking lot until it was over. One of those stretches between deployments where things felt… normal.
And now here I am, fighting far away from home. Wondering if we’ll ever speak again. Same as him. Roles reversed.
I lead my expanded team, maybe twenty Marines, the long way around the sector to avoid getting spotted in the open or having to cross in front of the existing battle lines. This takes time, but it’ll take Owens and his team time to flush the rebels out.
We come out several buildings to the west of the CIC. I can see the pocketed lines of Marines lying prone behind the scant cover available, trading blaster fire with MCR who have set up around the CIC itself.
“Move up,” I tell my Marines. “Get into position on the line and be ready to engage. They’ll be coming to us.”
The hullbusters fan forward, going prone or taking a knee behind whatever cover they can find. There’s sporadic fire coming from the MCR by the CIC, with matching return fire. It’s hard to spot any of the rebels out in the open—most only peek around corners, take a few wild shots, then duck back.
I ping Lieutenant Owens. “In position.”
“Good. Get ready. Owens out.”
A cascade of booms and barrages of blaster fire erupt, enveloping all other noise like an ambush—so that it’s practically all you’re aware of. Chaotic. Almost deafening because of the sheer volume of it all compared to what had been. And it’s not like things were quiet before.
At first, I think they’ve caught them. That the rebels detected the Dark Ops team and turned everything in their disposal on them, making sure to take them down. It just doesn’t seem possible that all this destructive racket could come from four legionnaires.
But then I see the rebels. They’re running toward us, but not with grim visages intent on a final, victorious charge. Fear is etched across each man and woman’s face. They’re running, rifles in hand or swinging from slings, not to engage but to escape.
More explosions ripple around the CIC building, some of it fraggers, but some of it from something larger and more potent. Like Owens and his team got their hands on det-bricks. Or, more likely, had some with them.
“Cut ’em down!” I scream, because everyone with me is stunned. Not quite sure what to do with this incredible tactical error the enemy is presenting us with.
They’re in the open. They’re not shooting.
My Marines open fire and don’t let up. We have the MCR caught in between what stalked them from the shadows and the great shield wall that is my hullbusters. It happens quickly, which is the frightening thing about war once it’s out in the open. When the bombs drop or the ambush is sprung. Or, in cases like today, which I’d read about but never experienced, when you have enemy in the open, moving in a wave so that all you’ve got to do is squeeze your trigger and watch them fall under the rapid fire of your blaster bolts.
That’s about all you do. Squeeze and watch. Observing all the different ways a human body can crumple, curl, stumble, and drop. Becoming a connoisseur of final breaths. And then your charge pack runs out, and you yell, “Changing packs!” because that’s how you’ve been trained. But no one hears you. And you don’t hear the others when they do it.
It’s just a buzz of blaster fire. And not even that. A sort of trace-like hum exists between your ears. As you shoot, and shoot, and shoot… and shoot.
I feel like I’m trapped in an infinite loop of firing and reloading, watching the dead fall, until I’m pulled back from the event horizon by a voice shouting, “Cease fire!”
It’s Gunny, and I find myself feeling a sudden warmth knowing he’s alive. My training kicks in, and I repeat the call a second after it’s uttered. “Cease fire!”
The order is carried along by shouts and comm relays until it penetrates the most ardent warriors trapped in the red hues of battle lust. I stand up, letting the blaster rifle Drayus had given me hang at my side as I push myself from my stomach.
There’s a smoky haze whipping through the now-quiet camp. The wind’s blowing traces of what still burns from the attack, forming a screen between us and the CIC building that skips in and out like clouds driven by strong winds, obscuring the sun.
Bodies lie everywhere. The rebels, certainly. But a lot of Marines. Far too many. It’s a graveyard waiting on bots to dig. And for a heavy moment, the camp is as silent as a cemetery. But whispers soon multiply, and then I’m aware of all the little noises that were drowned out by the blood pumping from the fight. Moans and calls for help. Animated voices, laughter at close calls. Anger. Weeping.
“Gunny O’Neill,” I shout, making sure the all-comm is on. So that everyone hears. “I want units re-formed and accounted for. Then push out and stay on the wall until the Legion returns.”
“You heard the Major!” Gunny yells almost immediately. “Un-ass yourselves and find your sergeant. If he’s dead, find a corporal. If she’s dead, find somebody else. As long as I don’t find your ass anywhere but on that wall where you belong, you’re good!”
The Marines, some of them still stunned by what transpired, begin to stumble to reorganize. Too slow for Gunny.
“Oba, cry me a new ocean to drown these hullbusters!” he bellows. “You’d think you Marines ain’t never seen a battlefield before. I guarantee there’s an ass-kicking worse than what these MCR got if you don’t move!”
Part of me wants to tell Gunny to lighten up a bit. Because this fighting was hard and brutal and Marines died. And it’s over now.
Only it isn’t.
Because this isn’t a holofilm where the credits roll after the big showdown. We’re still on alert. Still needing to prepare for counterassaults. To clear buildings for any rebels still hiding somewhere inside the wire. And after that… then we help the med bots and corpsmen assist the wounded. We check for survivors in the burned out combat sleds, the heat from their flaming charge units and repulsors igniting the tall grass in a smoky fire that sent the creatures living there loping away for survival. We mend broken defenses, work in shifts. We load the dead into body bags and seal them for a journey by shuttle and cargo ship back to wherever home was.
That’s the time to lighten up. To let those who need a chance to become human again have the opportunity. When the job is done. And you didn’t forget nothing.
I see Lieutenant Owens through the haze. He nods at me. I nod back.
Colonel Gerlach is out of the CIC, conversing with the legionnaire. Discussing options. Plans. I should join them, so I start walking in that direction.
I pass dead Marines. See the screw up, Polost, lying dead with a rifle in his hands and a charred hole around his heart, eyes and mouth open, looking as slack jawed and unsure as that day outside the combat sleds.
There are a lot more just like that. Wearing their death masks. Bodies lying unnaturally on the ground, mixed with rebels where the fighting grew closest and fiercest and every person died while killing.
It was bad. I hadn’t realized it when we’d pushed through. Hadn’t understood from the roof. But it was a fight. And from the amount of dead MCR I see, a fight that was poised to go from bad to worse. They had us. Outnumbered. Inside the wire. Staging behind the most armored building in the camp.
They had us.
All they had to do was push and they’d have overrun us. Easily.
Except for four legionnaires. Dark Ops, sure. But Legion.
And those men held Tower Seven and then flushed out a numerically superior force. Because that’s what they do. That’s their purpose. KTF—kill them first—isn’t one of those things they say, one of those little branch-specific morale speaks. It’s who they are.
And because of that… how many of my Marines who made it through did so directly because of what those legionnaires did?
All of them.
That’s the only correct answer. We’re still breathing because those four legionnaires were capable of fighting together like some sort of eight-armed ultra-beast. And if I can become that—if I have the opportunity to fight on a team like that and kill like that and save lives like that—how can I pass it up? I know that if I pass this opportunity by, I’ll always wonder what if. I’ll never escape the haunts of a decision to turn down an opportunity to be the best and have an even bigger impact in the Legion than I can as a Marine.
The Republic has been at war my entire life. Most planets never experience it. But it’s out there. A tiny number of humans in the galaxy are charged with fighting those wars. Too many of them are lying dead at my feet. And if I can make a difference…
Isn’t that a primary motivating factor for many other legionnaires who sought out the Legion in the first place?
I reach Owens and the colonel.
“The lieutenant tells me you were instrumental in defending this base,” Gerlach says, showing a calm that is off-putting. There’s no sense of urgency to retake the base from him. He must read the confusion on my face. He smiles and says, “Look around, Major. The Legion regulars have arrived.”
I turn my head and see men from the Iron Wolves hustling through the camp, clearing buildings and operating like angry hornets who returned to find their nest in the midst of being destroyed.
“They’ll be mad they missed the fight,” Owens says, nodding. His helmet is off and tucked under his arm. His red hair is wet and his sunglasses are in place. “But your work in coordinating the Marines, your fighting, was top tier, Major. You’re a good Marine.”
“Thanks,” I say, unable to bring myself to smile at the compliment. “But my aim is to become a damn fine legionnaire, too.”
Colonel Gerlach smiles, closing his eyes in a sort of grandfatherly satisfaction. “I’ll let ’em know.”
Owens arches an eyebrow above his glasses. “Well, good luck, Broxin.”
This time I do smile, a half grin. I give him the hullbuster motto, just to let him know what’s coming to the Legion. “Demons on duty; hell to repel.”
He turns as he leaves, looking over his shoulder. “KTF.”
Stieg Broxin rushed back inside his house the moment his daughter shut off their comm connection.
He heard his datapad clatter on the stone patio where he’d been sitting, out in the sun with the birds singing, as he abruptly bolted from his chair. The datapad was just as capable of accessing the holonews channels as the big display screen he had inside. But in Stieg’s mind, the living room, where his recliner and slippers and pictures of Andien from birth to commission and everything in between—next to the wedding invitation made from real paper that his wife had framed once upon a time and was now dustier than she ever would have allowed… that was where he watched the holonews.
And in the panic that set in after his daughter—his only daughter, the light of his life—had ended transmission, under attack in a part of the galaxy where bad things happened to good soldiers, when that happened, all he could think of was finding out what in the hell was going on. And the holonews was where he went for that kind of thing.
“Come on,” he mumbled. “Come on.”
The display was entirely capable of voice activation. But a reality about humans is that they don’t always like to speak. Even when it’s easier. Even when it’s direct. So he fumbled for the holodisplay’s little remote control and willed a breaking news report to flash on screen as he skipped between the hundreds of holostations dedicated to information sharing.
“Come on! Where is it, damn it?”
He almost threw the remote. But didn’t because he needed it. To keep looking. Searching. Only he’d practically cycled through and found nothing like what he needed to know. What was going on out there?
“Okay, calm down,” Stieg told himself. “Use your head.”
Information came quickly. But it wasn’t instantaneous. His daughter was serving on a Marine firebase somewhere and real-time combat information was only something you’d find when there was consistent fighting with an embedded journalist bot. Nothing about Andien’s situation as far as Stieg understood it was like that. Which meant that if something unexpected happened, it could be a while before the holonews networks caught wind of it. Especially if there was a tight-lipped sector commander who didn’t much like sharing things of war with the public. Which were the best kind, in Stieg’s experience.
“So maybe it’s nothing,” Stieg mumbled to himself.
It could have been a drill, though Andien’s expression made him doubt that. But it was possible. Or it could just be some punks with a refurbished mortar bot trying to land a surprise in the middle of a Marine camp. Scumsacks out on the edge pulled that kind of garbage a lot. Stieg knew a few leejes who were dusted that way, which seemed to him about the worst way to go. And the kelhorns who did it never made life easier on the populace they imagined themselves to be helping. Quite the contrary.
All there was to do was wait. So he sat down. Which was what he did more often than he knew he should. The recliner was comfortable and his body didn’t seem to relish standing or running or even… moving the way it once did. He was still a sight better than most of the old farts he knew, but he wasn’t good enough. Stieg Broxin remembered being a legionnaire.
He stopped on Spiral News for a while. They were talking about some kind of special investigative reporter named Steadron, who had spent two years embedded with a tribe of zhee warriors, documenting the hostile phobia the alien species faced from not only their Republic allies, but the native species on the world they were seeking to establish a sanctioned colony on, an act that had spiraled into bloodshed.
“The zhee find themselves the galaxy’s bogeyman,” Steadron said, his chest swelling as the news anchors next to him nodded their heads emphatically.
“Twarg dung,” Stieg growled at the display, settling in to spar with the talking heads lighting up his living room. The ritual of his life, now. Allowing worry for his daughter to slip a bit, because he couldn’t do anything else. If anything he felt he deserved it. Wasn’t this the life he’d made for his wife and then… later, for his daughter?
Five days went by. Stieg had made use of the voice commands of his holodisplay, remembering that he could do that: tell the device what sorts of programs to find. He scrolled through everything that matched “Republic Marine” broadcast across all spectrums since the day of the event.
And Dini hadn’t responded to any of his comm transmissions. Nor was there any message, even a word or two, saying she was all right. He went to the dusty, unused corners of his datapad, the social networks he’d signed up for and then never used. There was no sign of Andien there, either. Stieg tried to remember if she ever had an account on one of the sprawling wastes of time, and couldn’t recall.
He was worried. Right on the verge of terror. He’d been like that a few times before, where combat wasn’t involved and it always seemed to involve Andien. The time that stood out most clearly in his mind was a simple trip to the grocery market. When he and Andien, who was maybe six at the time, were going up and down aisles, efficiently checking items off their list.
“What do you think of that, Dini?” Stieg had asked, pointing out a display of beer cases stacked to look like an ancient castle complete with lowered drawbridge.
Only his daughter didn’t respond. And when he turned to see what was distracting her, he didn’t find her. At first he wheeled his cart an aisle over. Nothing. So he went to the next.
So he left the cart and looked down another aisle. And another. Still no sign. And that was when that feeling started gripping the pit of his stomach. The one that said that while, maybe, this was nothing and she was fine… maybe it was the opening sequence to one of life’s tragedies.
He found her a few aisles after that, walking slowly with an old man in a Legion hat from the Savage Wars, getting groceries for him that he could no longer stoop down to pick up for himself. Stieg was relieved… and proud then.
But the feeling of almost-loss stuck with him. He could recall it exactly. And it was what he felt that fifth day when there’d been no news. And she’d been out of contact while stationed in galactic armpits plenty of times, and for longer than this. But Stieg never got that feeling those times. And now he did. He couldn’t stand it.
Which drove him to do something desperate—call the man he least wanted to speak to except he was the one most likely able to help him.
The comm connected swiftly, and soon an academic, almost stentorian voice answered.
“Stieg Broxin. I didn’t expect to hear from you, old boy.”
Stieg ground his teeth. The man hadn’t spoken that way when they’d served together on Psydon. A pair of Legion trackers who led other legionnaires through the jungle, or laid in wait to ambush the vicious doros who sought to topple the Republic on their home world. Back then, the man talked like a regular guy. Now he was some spook who made a career of going all in on hunches and guesswork. Some big results, but mostly running a laughingstock division of the government spy and assassination program called Nether Ops—not that Stieg was supposed to know about them.
But he’d had his run-ins as a result of some of his more covert experiences in Dark Ops, a decade into his Legion career.
“I suppose you want me to call you X?” Stieg asked, rolling his eyes.
“That is what’s preferred, chap. How are things?”
“Let’s… let’s cut to the chase.”
“No time set aside to reminisce with a former war colleague? I can’t say I’m surprised. You always were to the point.”
“Can you… find me some information? About someone.”
“Find you ‘some information. About someone.’ We categorize that type of request under… ‘it depends.’ Who and what?”
Stieg made no attempt to hide his frustrated sigh. “I wanna know if you can do it before I say.”
“Old boy… I can do whatever I want to do. A lot’s changed since Psydon, my boy. You got fat… I got connected.”
“I ain’t fat. And you wouldn’t have gotten off Psydon alive if it weren’t for me.”
“I think you waited nearly a minute to make mention of that little affair.”
Stieg grunted. He didn’t care. It was true. They had been leading a patrol into some stretches of jungle they weren’t supposed to be in. Officially, they were lost, despite X’s and his reputation as premier scouts and trackers. Stieg had challenged X on where they were heading, warned him that they were moving far out of support and off-course. But X was confident he’d found a way that would get them where they needed to be under the doros’s snouts and ahead of schedule.
It wasn’t anything like that. They got pinned down and had to be exfiltrated by a SLIC piloted by a suicidal Marine featherhead and a repurposed war bot. Stieg remembered that bot pulling X through the grain fields flooded with choleric water, all of them, even the wounded X, firing nonstop in an attempt to reach the hovering SLIC and get away.
Stieg was awarded a Silvene Star for what happened that day. Rumor was the bot got an Order of the Centurion… if you can believe it. But the whole ordeal… it always felt unnecessary to Stieg. Like they shouldn’t have been out where they were. Shouldn’t have been getting shot up because someone who was supposed to know better led them to the farthest reaches of the Republic’s lines.
Stieg always figured there was a reason for it. And knowing X, it was a self-serving one. He had a theory that X was leading them on a foray to find something big, some hidden base or other high value target. Career-marking stuff. Only they caught doro blaster fire instead.
A lot of leejes died on that trip.
“Well, it’s often on my mind,” Stieg said. “I’m older. So I tend to dwell on my mistakes. Mostly during commercials. But, yes, you owe me your life and I want a favor.”
“What do you need?” X replied. He was so damn good at not sounding bothered that it ate Stieg up. But that quality, that aloofness probably suited him well for a career on Utopion.
“My daughter. Andien.”
“Ah, the Marine.”
“She’s stationed somewhere. We were talking. Base was attacked. Haven’t heard from her since.”
“And you want me to violate a number of laws and tell you what happened.”
“I want you to be decent and let a father know if his daughter is all right.”
There was a pause. “Yes, I can see how you’d want that, old boy. It’s a story most would understand. Give me a day or two.”
A wave of relief came to Stieg. X was a lot of things, and capable was high on the list. If he said he’d do it, he’d do it. One way or another, good or bad, Stieg would know what happened to his little girl.
“Thanks,” Stieg managed. The words were hard to speak, despite the gratitude he felt.
“Think nothing of it, old boy. You saved my life, after all.”
It was dinnertime that same day when Andien arrived at Stieg’s front door. She had a skinpack under her right eye, at the height of her cheeks, rising up and sitting on top of the huge smile that rested on her face. Over her shoulder was one of those big travel bags. The kind they let you pack when you’re moving between assignments. All the stuff you can’t trust the REMFs to pack and ship, because things got lost. “Borrowed” along the way and never returned. Andien had to let the big bag drop on the front porch so she could hold both arms out for an embrace before the shock of it all receded enough for Stieg to drop the stupefied expression on his face.
“Dini?” Stieg said, still confused as he squeezed his daughter tight and taking in a whiff of whatever fruits were infused into her hair. He’d forgotten how nice women could smell.
He pushed her back. “Let me look at you.”
Andien was smiling. She didn’t scoff or give her usual impatient looks as her father scanned her face.
“There she is,” Stieg said at last. “And there you are.”
Then he pulled Andien in close for another, tighter hug. So tight that he heard a few of the bones in her back pop, but he couldn’t let go of his little girl. Not for a long while. Not until he felt as though, if he didn’t stop, he’d start crying.
He never cried in front of her. Never cried in front of her mother. Couldn’t. Because he was supposed to be the one thing in the galaxy that wouldn’t break down on them. And now, with his daughter safely in his arms, he felt as though he was going to lose that battle for the first time.
“So what the hell are you doing, scaring me like that?”
Andien laughed. “I thought you might like to see what it was like to be surprised with an unexpected homecoming.”
“Not when the last thing I saw was you scrambling because your base was being assaulted. Holy hell, what happened out there?”
Andien pushed her father aside. “Let me come in and I’ll tell you.”
They ordered out and spent the evening recounting the battle. Its ebbs and flows, triumphs and regrets. She told him about the way Lieutenant Owens and his Dark Ops team kept the base from being overrun.
“We’re alive thanks to them,” Andien said, solemnly. And then finished off a glass of red wine as her father rolled an empty beer bottle back and forth across the surface of the kitchen table.
“I don’t doubt it. They’re the best of the best.” Stieg looked to his refrigeration unit and considered another beer. He didn’t feel like getting up. “It’s good to have you here, Dini.”
“It’s nice to be home.”
“I, uh, have a feeling it’s not gonna be a long stay.”
“Is it ever?”
Stieg shook his head. “No. Never long enough.”
“After that fight,” Andien said, “I was right in the middle of things. A lot of Marines died. So many that I’m pretty sure the House of Reason put a block on reporting about it.”
“And you said it was MCR?”
“I thought they were small time.”
“Not on Ulori. Not to us.”
Stieg shook his head. “Damn government is so secretive about things. Can’t stand to let the people know what’s really going on. Always gotta tell us what to think instead of just letting us know what happened. Makes me sick. You know, I was listening to Rhodo Linque and he said—”
“Dad,” Andien interrupted, holding up a hand and letting her head drop at the thought of having to hear another retelling of whatever holoshow had filled her father’s head with conspiracy theories. “I was going somewhere with all this.”
“Oh. So go, sweetie.”
“Seeing all that… I think it’s only going to get worse. With the MCR, I mean.”
“And I want to be able to do something about it. I want to make sure I’m doing whatever it takes to keep more Marines from getting killed by insurgents. Not to mention the local populace.”
“So I’m joining the Legion.”
Stieg nodded again, and then opened his eyes wide. “You said yes?”
Andien nodded. “This is my one-day stop and then I report to Legion Academy for Phase One.”
“Holy hell, Dini. That’s… is this what you really want to do? To put yourself through all of this?”
“It’s the best way I could think of to stop what’s coming. KTF. Kill them before they kill more of us. And keep doing it until they quit or all die.”
“Ooah,” Stieg replied. “Well, you’re talkin’ like a legionnaire, anyway.”
“I think I can do it.”
Stieg sighed and took both of his daughter’s hands. “Good.” He gently poked her forehead. “Up here, you’re as hard as anyone I ever met in the Legion. But unless they change the standards—and the holos all say they aren’t—the rest of your body may be destroyed trying to get through selection. It’s that tough, baby.”
Andien pulled her hands away, trying to hide her indignation with a smile that her father saw right through.
“I think I can do it,” she repeated.
“So do I. But you need to be ready to destroy yourself to get it done. And you won’t be the first to do so.”
Andien nodded. “You always taught me, forget nothing. Well, I either go for this, or I fail. I forget to do everything I could possibly do to achieve my purpose. Maybe this breaks me. Maybe I die trying, but I won’t have forgotten anything.”
Stieg felt a rush of pride. “You’d have made one hell of a House of Reason delegate, giving speeches like that.”
“And be a disappointment to my family? I don’t think so. We Broxins are fighters, remember?”
Later that night, the last night Stieg would have his daughter home in Oba-knew-how-long, he stood at the open doorway where Andien slept. He stood and watched his little girl—an adult—sleeping in the room she’d once lived in. He thought about the times he’d walk by, thinking she was asleep only to find her hunched over, her face and messy pigtails lit up by the glow of a datapad as she read a book well past her bedtime.
And now, she was going to a place that would punish her beyond anything she’d ever known. In ways that she couldn’t imagine. Pain that she could only guess at. Suffering and fatigue that make you ask whether death would be such a bad alternative.
Legion training was the hardest thing Stieg Broxin had ever done in his life. Harder than the wars and fighting. Harder than losing a wife. Harder than seeing his daughter off to the various corners in the galaxy.
And now, Andien was going to go through it all herself. Stieg found himself wishing he were younger. Able to do it all over again so she wouldn’t have to. Because it was the kind of thing you did so your children and your family would be safe. And though he was proud of his daughter for taking up the great lodestone and placing it upon her shoulders, he felt himself like a failure.
Because people still needed to make the sacrifice. Because in his time, all that fighting, all that war. None of it had been enough to make things any better.
Stieg had fought for his brothers. Fought for those back home.
And now others had to pick up that same fight. He hadn’t been able to stop that. Couldn’t break the cycle.
He thought about waking Andien up. About telling her the truth. About what a life of war and fighting—life in the Legion—would do to her. Not just physically, but how it changed the way she would view the galaxy and a thousand other things. But that was something she’d have to discover on her own.
If she made it. And that wasn’t a given. Not at all.
Stieg’s datapad buzzed and Andien turned in her sleep. He padded down the hallway to his own bedroom before checking it, not wanting to wake his little girl. It was a text message. From X.
Sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, old boy. Didn’t want to spoil the surprise. Wish Andien luck in her training. I’ll be watching her progress with interest.
But… Andien’s Story will continue.
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Other Galaxy’s Edge Books
Galaxy’s Edge Savage Wars:
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Galaxy’s Edge Season One:
Attack of Shadows
Sword of the Legion
Prisoners of Darkness
Message for the Dead
Galaxy’s Edge Season Two:
Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations:
Requiem for Medusa
Chasing the Dragon
Order of the Centurion:
Order of the Centurion
Through the Nether
About The Authors
Jason Anspach is a best-selling author living in Puyallup, Washington with his wife and their own legionnaire squad of seven (not a typo) children. Raised in a military family (Go Army!), he spent his formative years around Joint Base Lewis-McChord and is active in several pro-veteran charities. Jason enjoys hiking and camping throughout the beautiful Pacific Northwest. He remains undefeated at arm wrestling against his entire family.
An avid anti-water activist, you can find Michelle C. Meyers drinking fancy coffee, which transforms into bougie Bourbon at 5 o’clock, all in the comforts of the austere environments found only in Northern Virginia. Her contemplation of the importance of the self-rescuing princess inspired her to become an officer in the United States Marine Corps, out-shooting her male counterparts, and training and traveling all over the Pacific theater courtesy of U.S. Navy boats. After leaving active duty, she took her elite power point skills to the Army National Guard. When she’s not doing more pull ups than you, Michelle is beating the computer keyboard into submission working on projects she might not actually finish.
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Thomas Seth Bouchard
William Joseph Thorpe
Paul Van Dop