40 Years Serialisation - Chapter 1

40 Years Serialisation - Chapter 1 Copyright © 2012 by Bernd Struben and Strider Nolan Media, Inc.

40 Years was author Bernd Struben’s first novel. His latest work is The 13th Zookeeper, published by Strider Nolan Media, Inc.

Both 40 Years and The 13th Zookeeper are available in paperback and electronic format on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk


The Great Race is an interstellar competition between humans and the bug-eyed Pfrlanx, the only two species that have the technology and military might to claim and hold a world. After wars that claimed the lives of billions on both sides, they have come to an arrangement: the first to reach and claim a new planet is to have unequivocal dominion over it.

Any indigenous races have no say in the matter.

The Empire of Man sends forth fleets of interstellar ships to colonize—or, if necessary, pacify—new worlds. Planetside warfare is handled by Augmented Combat Personnel, soldiers whose physical augmentations and advanced weaponry make them more than a match for any planet’s inhabitants. These soldiers spend their lives in cryogenic sleep as they are transported from one planet to the next, only to be awakened when it is time to fight.


A string of data scrolled before my closed eyes like a cartoon train, a little line of zeros and ones searing white against the black backdrop of my eyelids. It was basic binary, ordinarily as simple for me to read as the New Danish alphabet, yet to my half-frozen brain it might as well have been ancient Mandarin. The data string flickered out of existence, providing a moment of tranquil darkness before reappearing and patiently repeating itself. It was impossible to look away, and for the life of me I could not remember how to turn it off. Somewhere around the tenth repetition, the little numbers began to make sense.

It was a simple message: We’re here. Wake up.

The hiss of oxygen rich air filled my ears, whirling around the confines of the cryo-coffin, ruffling my dark hair. I took a few deep breaths. The air was cool and dry, tasting vaguely of antiseptic plastic. With a subtle squeeze of my left eye I terminated the wake up message, then gave my fingers and toes an experimental wiggle. They seemed far away, dangling at the end of hundred-meter-long arms and legs, but eventually they grudgingly responded.

My eyes felt plastered shut. When I pried them open they were met with blazing light that stabbed to the core of my skull, as if I’d somehow woken on the surface of a nova. Protective second corneas dropped unbidden into place, cutting the light to a manageable glare. I’d had the military grade augmentations so long they required no more thought than squinting.

Staring through my clear plexsteel coffin lid at the row of light tubes affixed to the distant ceiling, I reached the marginally comforting conclusion that I was not on the surface of a nova, but in the cryo-bay of my landing carrier. I managed a thin grin, numb lips struggling to obey my command, dispelling the last of the deep-sleep hallucinations.

My left hand snaked to the control panel in the coffin’s cushioned lining. To avoid an errant thought during deep sleep from accidentally keying open the lid while in transit, it could only be opened manually. I tapped out the code and the lid released its triple seals with a hydraulic hiss, disappearing into its recess within the deck. Warm, fresh air washed over my naked body. I lay still for a minute, fighting off the customary headache that had an almost tangible grip on my skull.

With a Herculean effort I sat upright, swung my legs over the edge of the coffin, and slid to the padded deck of the cavernous cryo-bay. Though still a bit wobbly, my enhanced leg muscles held my weight against the half-G of shipboard gravity. I rebooted my nano-neural implants with a twitch of my left eye and ran a level one self-diagnostic.

Vast fields of information scrolled in front of my right eye, seemingly suspended an arm’s length before my face. I sorted through the data in a few seconds, confirming my suspicions: I’d survived another journey in stasis unharmed. There was no sign of debilitating muscular atrophy, no major organ failures, no cranial embolisms, nothing but the pounding headache and unsteady limbs that registered as a collection of cautionary yellow feedback.

I blinked off the program and cued the appropriate nano-implants to minimize sensory input from my aching skull. The headache diminished but refused to disappear. Inexplicably, our micro-neural augmentations had more difficulty dealing with cryo-hangovers than severe battlefield injuries. The hangover was an inevitable side effect of extended time in stasis, but it was nothing a day on my feet wouldn’t cure.

The panel beneath my coffin dropped open to reveal a one-piece black jump suit, a pair of soft-soled black boots, and a small hand laser in a stitched black leather boot holster. I pulled these on and stretched my powerfully muscled arms before me.

Captain Brink D’Mar, ready for duty.

I scanned the vast cryo-bay with a captain’s discerning eye, squinting beneath the dimmed light tubes despite the filtering second corneas. There were two hundred clear coffins in the bay, arranged in four rows of fifty. In each row, forty-nine men and women continued to slumber peacefully within the cold sterile confines, green and blue display lights confirming their well-being. To the untrained eye they appeared quite dead, and with a pulse rate below one beat per hour they were as close to death as current technology allowed us to come without stepping over the edge.

At the head of each row the first coffin stood open, mine and those of my three officers: Lieutenant Jack England, Lieutenant Finley Walker, and Lieutenant Kat D’Hing. Walker and Kat stood unsteadily on the padded deck, leaning on their berths for support. They were drenched in sweat and breathing heavily with the exertion of getting to their feet. They were both dark haired and brown skinned, their naked bodies impressively sculpted with augmented muscle. Standing only 5’ 10” tall, Kat looked diminutive beside Walker’s towering bulk, but only a fool would judge Kat D’Hing by her size.

“Morning, Captain,” Kat said, catching my gaze. “Sleep well?” “Like the dead,” I said. She laughed dutifully, though it was a well-worn joke.

Jack England’s berth was empty, and there was no sign of him in the bay. “Bastard,” I muttered, noting that one of the three elevators at the starboard end of the bay was already parked at bridge level.

Walker chuckled, a rough bark. He threw a pint bag of water my way. “Son of a bitch must have the computer rigged to wake him first,” he said, immodestly scratching his groin.

I spun the top off the bag and squeezed cold water down my parched throat. “Son of a bitch is gunning for a captain’s slot of his own.” I dropped the empty bag on the deck, attracting the attention of a long dormant cleaning drone. It zipped over and scooped up the bag, twittering happily as it rolled back to its niche in the bulkhead.

“I think it missed us,” Walker mused, flashing a lopsided grin. His lips and cheek had been expertly repaired following the needle laser blast that almost decapitated him during a routine mop-up operation on Nouveau Seine, but the nerves working the right corner of his mouth never fused properly, leaving his grin perpetually crooked. He could have opted for a second round of surgery, but Finley Walker was a warrior, not some vain civvie. Before he’d lost consciousness on Nouveau Seine, Walker had even managed to eliminate the alien sniper hidden aboard a cloaked mini-blimp in an overhead cloudbank.

Kat winced and rubbed her hands against the impact resistant bone grafts layering her forehead. “If it knows what’s good for it, it’ll miss us more quietly. Christ the Second, all the hangover of a quart of Tequila without any of the fun.”

“Not even so much as a wet dream to inspire the soul,” Walker commiserated, slapping a soothe-patch onto his wrist.

“When you two are done whining, put some clothes on and meet me on the bridge,” I said and I strode off, feigning indifference to my own lingering ailments.

The elevator zipped up five decks and deposited me in the narrow corridor outside the bridge. The landing carrier’s control room was a cramped, half circular affair with a curved slice of reinforced windscreen offering a narrow view of black space beyond. Navigation and targeting arrays took up most of the deck space. Four cushioned swivel chairs occupied the rest.

Jack England was in my captain’s chair, running a full system analysis. He couldn’t suppress a sly grin when I walked in. He was three inches shorter and thirty pounds lighter than Walker, but still a huge gorilla of a man by ordinary standards. His mop of fire retardant dark hair was plastered against the left side of his face. A pair of intense brown eyes flanked a hawk-like nose.

“Nice bed head,” I said

He combed meaty fingers through his hair and made a show of relinquishing my seat, stretching languidly as if he’d been on duty for hours, though he couldn’t have beaten me to the bridge by more than a few minutes. “Sorry, I meant to pop into the salon before anyone saw me. How embarrassing!” He dropped into the pilot’s seat to my right.

Jack was one of those rare individuals who came out of stasis like a bronco from a chute, suffering none of the common cryo-ailments that afflicted most of us. In more than one hundred and fifty missions I had yet to beat the man to my station. It was a running joke between us, though I could rarely appreciate the humor until after my cryo-hangover abated.

“You’d think once every goddamned millennium you’d let me reach my post first,” I said, taking my chair.

“If it helps your ego, just think of it as only sixteen years,” Jack offered.

Sixteen years our time was equal to over a thousand years of real elapsed time. Accrued time debt varied during Faster-Than-Light travel. On a short hop (say fifty light years), one week passed shipboard, while real elapsed time was two years. On longer runs a decade could pass in the galaxy while only a month passed aboard ship. And inside our coffins we didn’t even experience relative ship time, aging less than a day for every year spent in shipboard stasis. “Sixteen years then,” I muttered. “How’s she look?”

“Good. Just got the main systems booted up. You should have full access in a few seconds.”

“Any of the other captains on yet?”

Jack grinned, revealing a mouth full of square white teeth beneath heavy lips. “Just Zandy, but we beat her online by a minute.” My landing carrier was one of ten honeycomb shaped vessels attached in a cluster to the command pod which was captained by Major Saskia T’lak and manned by a crew of six junior Augmented Combat Personnel officers. Each landing carrier held one ACP infantry division: two hundred Soldiers born and bred for warfare. Together we comprised the 106th Interstellar Battalion, together we’d helped secure one hundred and fifty worlds for humanity, in what some pundit had long ago coined the Great Race for Space.

We were Humanity’s Soldiers, bioengineered to be the finest warriors Earth and the Empire of Man had ever known. Our lives were devoted to war, fighting battles that often only lasted days but were separated by years in stasis. We were born without parents and raised without families for a single purpose. We were lifers, hardened to the reality of our duty. We could no more resign than take early retirement. We knew only war. We would know only war.

The array of holo-tanks flickered to life, displaying reams of systems information. I fed the input to my neural net implants and waded through, hunting for problems. There were a few inevitable glitches––low hydraulic pressure in an emergency decompression hatch on B deck, a short in one of the claxons in the assault bay––but nothing crucial, at least nothing we couldn’t patch before landfall.

I performed a quick virtual fly-by of our inventory. Inside the hangar opposite the cryo-bay, our air and ground assault vehicles bristled with revamped ordnance, decked out with fresh coats of matte black stealth paint. The holds were fully stocked with everything we needed for two months of nonstop combat operations, including abundant spare parts and enough fuel and ammunition to wipe out several billion hostiles. The maintenance and supply boys were meticulous.

“We’re combat ready,” I said, sending a copy of the glitches directly to Jack’s neural net. “Get some teams to iron these out ASAP.” Jack’s brown eyes lost focus as he scanned the data stream. “Oh yeah, I’d hate to go into combat with one of the toilets inoperable.” “You know my motto.”

Jack rubbed the end of his prominent nose with a thick thumb. “A toilet for every man and every man for a toilet?”

“Not that one,” I chuckled.

“I always forget the other one. Something about tight ships, nuts and bolts, blah-blah-blah.”

“That’s the one.”

Finley Walker and Kat D’Hing stepped onto the bridge. Walker handed out steaming mugs of coffee.

“Bless you,” I said, taking a long swallow. “Jack, who’s online now?” “Everyone but Angelou.”

“Probably still puking his guts out,” Kat said, taking a seat and booting up her workstation. When it came to cryo-hangovers, Angelou was Jack England’s polar opposite. He was invariably the last captain to reach his bridge.

“I’ve got clean vitals on all the sleepers. Want me to wake ‘em?” Walker asked.

“Hold off until we verify this show’s a go,” I answered. “But activate the kitchen drones. No harm having a hot meal ready. You got a location for us yet, Kat?”

“Yeah,” she said. “We’re in high geosynchronous orbit above a class M world. Breathable atmosphere, 1.1 G, 78% water based. I’m getting multiple radio signals from the surface, but no sign of alien satellites or spacecraft.”

I pressed my nose against the narrow windscreen, craning my neck and staring past my reflection to catch a visual glimpse of the blue-green world, partially shrouded in white cloud, twenty thousand miles off our port side.

Kat continued behind me, “Our galactic coordinates are …. Wait a second; let me run these numbers again …. Yeah, that is right.” She fed the coordinates to my net and a virtual galaxy map displayed before my right eye.

It took a few seconds to comprehend, as most of the stars were unfamiliar. “Christ the Second,” I muttered. “We’re eleven hundred light years from the nearest Staging Area.”

Walker spit coffee back into his cup. “Shit. They’ve never sent us that far before.”

“That’s forty years real elapsed travel time––round trip,” Jack noted, cocking a thick black eyebrow. “Forty years from any kind of reinforcements.”

“Forty-point-six-two,” Kat D’Hing corrected, jade green eyes sparkling mischievously. How she’d managed to score her gorgeous emerald eyes remained an unsolved mystery of the recessive gene pool. Kat and I shared more genes than the average siblings, but my eyes were muddy brown, like the majority of Soldiers hatched at Staging Area Naught-Forty-Two.

“A long time. A lifetime,” Jack said, glancing my way. His words appeared to express unease over our solitude and lack of backup, should things go awry. But I knew that wasn’t his concern. Jack England wasn’t afraid of dying; Jack’s sole fear was more killing. Forty years from the nearest Staging Area, I was going to be getting an earful from my old friend on this mission.

“I’ve got signatures from Admiral W’a’s cruiser and twenty-eight tug boats hauling the settler pods and material barges, 0.6 AU distant,” Walker said. “Looks like they’re set up for full scale colonization.” “Once we pacify the indigenes,” I said.

In the Great Race for Space, in the mad planet grabbing frenzy of our times, only two species had the technology and military might to claim and hold a world: ourselves and the sinewy, bug-eyed Pfrlanx. In the last century alone, humanity had claimed six hundred new worlds, and the Pfrlanx had likely claimed as many for themselves. Exact figures on Pfrlanx expansion were considered a vital state secret and, as such, carefully manipulated to suit the current propaganda needs of our illustrious leaders.

Both species employed thousands of A.I. scout vessels, sniffing out “unclaimed” habitable or terraformable worlds inside the Milky Way. When a suitable candidate world was located, the A.I. vessel dropped a deed beacon and returned to the nearest Staging Area to deliver the good news. (Using the Void-Gap-Drive, our ships could travel far faster than sluggish radio waves.) Within months, one or more battalions were dispatched along with a host of eager settlers to claim the planet for mankind. In accordance with the Casper Treaty (the only treaty we’d ever signed with the Pfrlanx), once a world was claimed by either race, the other steered clear. The Casper Treaty had held for twelve hundred years to date, avoiding––or at least delaying––devastating galactic war.

Before Pfrlanx and humans had agreed to divide the Milky Way, kicking off the Great Race, the two super powers had frequently sparred along their frontiers, probing for weaknesses. Several settled planets were completely extinguished in battles that employed singularity bombs; dozens of others were rendered uninhabitable with antimatter and radiation weapons. Eventually, after billions had died on both sides, an uneasy agreement was reached: What’s yours is yours, what’s mine is mine, and everything else is up for grabs.

Translation: Any indigenes are shit out of luck.

Admiral W’a’s cruiser was along to protect the three million sleeping settlers (and to a lesser extent ourselves) from rogue human and Pfrlanx elements. In transit the settlers made easy pickings for slavers, and there were separatist factions among both species who objected to the whole concept of the Great Race for Space and would gladly lance our hulls to make their point. But few slavers or separatists could come close to matching the firepower of an Empire Class cruiser.

While we were awake W’a kept his ship at the regulation 0.6 AU distance. He wouldn’t come closer until we were safely back in stasis. Our vessels weren’t capable of interstellar travel, and the Brass rightly feared that given the opportunity to commandeer a fleet cruiser, we’d jump on it. W’a’s Navy boys did not share our combat skills or augmentations (nor our lifetime service contracts), and if it came to a deck-by-deck battle for the cruiser, his sailors wouldn’t stand a chance. I imagine it must have happened somewhere, at some time, for the Brass to concoct this rule. The thought of a liberated ACP battalion blasting freely through the galaxy always makes me smile.

“So we’re the only battalion out here,” Jack mused. “The only battalion inside forty years.” Though his words were deliberately ambiguous, he was laying it on, talking sedition, mutiny, in no uncertain terms. I rolled my eyes and looked away.

“Word must be out we’re the best.” Walker grinned broadly and crookedly, revealing too many teeth. He tapped at the keyboards arrayed before him, verifying manually what his neural net had already confirmed.

“Yeah,” I said. “We’re the best, and the Great Race has no bounds.” Major T’lak’s head materialized in front of us without warning, twice its actual size. The regular doses of Slowage that all Soldiers were administered kept her strong and vibrant, but her age was starting to show along the corners of her eyes. She’d only been in the service for six hundred years, serving as my commanding officer for the past three hundred, but with a true age of fifty-eight she was already twenty-two years my senior. As a major she spent much more time outside the cryo-coffins than us grunts, surveying our targets before combat and analyzing the aftermath when the smoke settled. ACP Majors also spent a few weeks outside cryo at Staging Areas to assist in strategy development, assess equipment requirements, and supervise upgrades for pending missions. It was one of the ironies of promotion. The chances were that after Saskia T’lak was dead and buried, we’d fight on for another thousand years.

Along both sides of the major’s inflated head, the real-sized heads of the other nine division captains flickered into being: M’Kohl and Prost, Zandy T’Ithe and H’Orht, Ortega and Flann, L’Sing, and the jet-black skinned Captain Ivory. Even Captain Angelou’s green tinted face was there, complete with a holographic thread of vomit clinging to the corner of his mouth. My head was now displayed on their bridges as well.

“So,” I said, unable to suppress a tickling sarcastic urge. “Who do we get to kill this time?”

Major T’lak’s giant head didn’t crack a smile. A huge, detached hand brushed absently through her blonde, fire-retardant hair. Her fair hair and skin had nothing to do with recessive genes but rather were the end result of selective breeding programs. Saskia had been born on a different Staging Area hundreds of years after I’d already entered the service. For whatever their reasons at that time and place, the Brass had chosen to breed Soldiers from pure Nordic stock. For inexplicable reasons most of us were mongrels, while others were pure Danes, or Chinese, or Central African, like Captain Ivory.

The hand combing through Saskia’s hair disappeared and she narrowed her gaze at me. “Captain D’Mar, we are not here to kill anyone. Our purpose is to spread the seeds of humanity, the democratic rule of mankind, and the innate justice of the Empire of Man to the unclaimed worlds before the indigenous populations are exterminated by Pfrlanx invaders. If these indigenes submit readily and we can accomplish our mission without collateral damage, no one would be more pleased than me.”

“Of course,” I said, not bothering to point out the discrepancies involved with an unclaimed world having indigenes. In the Great Race for Space, in the mad planet grabbing frenzy of our times, such logic was not appreciated. And with our next invasion only days away, I had far more pressing concerns to occupy me than the injustices of our universe.

But Saskia T’lak knew all this. She was a good commander with a bad job. She was in charge of two thousand ACP Soldiers and every sentient alien we killed weighed on her conscience. Her speech to me was purely for the record, and I nodded appreciatively, knowing our images and words were being recorded and would later be duly analyzed by the spooks at our next Staging Area.

Major T'lak’s giant head regarded her ten captains. “For the past ninety-six hours, my crew has been monitoring the planet below. I’m feeding vital stats to your neural nets now. Sift through them when you get a chance.”

I directed the gigabytes of incoming information to a temporary batch file without taking my eyes from the Major.

“The settlers intend to call the planet New Columbia in deference to their place of origin. Forty-one years have elapsed since our probe studied this world. In that time the dominant local species has made remarkable technological progress and their population has nearly tripled.”

“The buggers have been busy,” Captain M’Kohl said, noisily sipping from his coffee mug.

A new image shimmered to life, taking up the last available space on my bridge: a squat creature, three feet tall and sparsely covered in coarse black hair. It stood on two stubby legs and possessed four slender arms of equal length, two on each side of a barrel-chested torso. Its head was oddly cubic, flanked with flapping elephant-like ears and topped by a single droopy eyestalk clustered with a dozen crimson eyes.

“Ugh!” Kat D’Hing muttered.

“Shouldn’t be a problem with shore leave romance this time around,” Jack England said.

“Not unless they’ve got some mighty potent local hooch down there,” Finley Walker mused, sending a probing finger into the image’s groin area.

Fortunately they were not patched in and no one else could hear their comments. Major T’lak continued. “They’re called Borrels. In forty years, the Borrel population has expanded from 800 million to 2.6 billion. Borrel economies are an agrarian/industrial mix, and their largest cities claim over five million inhabitants. They’ve mastered the combustion engine, coal-fired electric plants, radio communications, a range of chemical based explosives, and fixed wing aircraft capable of supersonic speeds. There is no evidence of space faring, nuclear or antimatter capabilities.”

All the captains looked relieved. We’d conquered nuclear enabled societies before––it wasn’t difficult when Guardian satellites could lance their nukes from space. But spending the entire mission inside the confines of a radiation suit is no picnic, not to mention rather smelly over time.

“Be forewarned, Borrels are cold blooded and don’t show up well on thermal imaging. Our deep ground scans indicate the existence of lengthy tunnel clusters in the vicinity of population centers. High quantities of magnetic ore in the soil are inhibiting our mapping efforts. I will keep you updated, as this is an ongoing process. It remains unclear whether the burrows are for civilian or military purposes, but keep them in mind during operations planning.

“That aside, this looks to be a standard mission and we will proceed accordingly,” the Major continued. “Borrels speak a single language across the world with only minor dialectical variations between regions. I’ve sent you translation programs. Communicate with them; spread the word. We are here to protect them from a pending Pfrlanx invasion that would lead to their total annihilation. We wish to live alongside them in peace, to make them partners with the Empire of Man in the struggle for galactic justice. We have much to offer them; they have everything to lose. Once you touch ground, I’ll beam the same message across all their radio bands. Failing complete initial capitulation, you’ll have ten days to subdue all relevant resistance with minimal collateral damage. I don’t want a repeat of New Oslo here. I don’t care how many commendations the Governor gave out, that was an embarrassment!”

T’lak scrutinized her captains, icy blue eyes finally coming to rest on Captain M’Kohl. M’Kohl was caught with the coffee mug to his lips and he lowered it guiltily. His men, more than any, had gone ballistic on Kooldatmir (now New Oslo) after a rebellious group of the blue skinned aliens reneged on our day-old armistice and killed thirty-nine ACP Soldiers in a desperate coordinated attack across their planet. I lost three men myself, and it was one of my own boys, Private (now Corporal) Hamlin Rack who’d scored the most kills in the mad retribution that followed. Rack had taken off in his PAAV––Personal Aerial Assault Vehicle––against my orders and targeted a fleet of ocean liners carrying fleeing alien refugees, sending thousands to a watery grave, mostly civilians. In my own rookie days this would have earned a lifetime post manning a laser cannon guarding some isolated asteroid field, but times were changing. Instead of virtual banishment, Hamlin Rack was promoted (over Saskia’s and my strenuous objections) and received the Governor’s gleaming medal of valor to commend his bloodthirsty nature.

Saskia’s stance on civilian casualties was admirable. There were far too many battalion leaders these days who would just as soon slag every native rather than take time to distinguish between combatants and innocents. We were lucky to have Major T’lak; she was a dying breed. Pretty soon the Brass would cull her kind from the herd and we’d be left with commanding officers indistinguishable from their Pfrlanx counterparts.

“And no bullshit down there,” the Major ordered. “You’ve got ten days to subdue the indigenes and four days to pull out. Got it?”

“Yes Ma’am!”

“All right then. Wake your sleepers. Touch down is in forty hours. You’ll want to brief your men, bring the fresh recruits up to speed, and familiarize yourself with the new ordnance. You’ll notice the vacuum bomblets have been miniaturized so the PAAVs can hold twice as many rounds.”

“They still pack the same punch?” Captain Zandy T’Ithe asked. She was a powerfully built woman with close-cropped black hair and an unblemished face. I was one of few people privy to a slender scar running along her inner thigh where she’d been disfigured as a young private. It had been two years since I’d seen that scar, two years since I ran my tongue along its irregular length.

“Ten percent more punch,” Saskia answered, breaking my train of thought. “Your neural nets also received an upgrade. Memory storage was doubled, and you can now patch directly into the audio-visual feeds of anyone under your command. Practice with that; it’s a little disorienting at first. Any questions?” There were none.

Saskia T’lak’s giant head winked out of existence, followed by the nine captains and the disagreeable image of the Borrel. The cramped bridge now felt relatively spacious.

“Does that mean you can see and hear everything I do?” Walker asked, feigning revulsion.

I scrolled through my neural net and enabled the new program, then clicked onto Walker’s net access icon. Through my right eye I could now see myself in the command chair from Walker’s perspective, black jump suit stretched tight across my muscular torso. “Looks that way,” I said, hearing my voice both through my own ears and his. I blinked the program off. Saskia was right, it was disorienting.

“You’re doing it right now! Ugh, I feel so cheap and used. Don’t you be spying on me in the shower,” Walker rumbled.

“Since when do you take showers?” Kat ribbed, green eyes mocking. “You’ve gotten the upgrade too. You can patch into any of the Soldiers,” I said.

“Hey, that’s right.” Walker’s big mouth leered, right side drooping slightly. He ran his tongue across the augmented skin of his lips. “I’m definitely going to spend some time patched into Private L’Sool’s net.”

“She’s a fine piece all right,” Kat agreed lasciviously. Over the years Kat had had her way with half the crew; gender was no object. I counted myself lucky to be on that list, though lately she mainly had eyes for Jack.

“Well, I don’t know about you all, but I could use a drink,” Jack England said slyly.

“Don’t tease us,” I said. All the liquor was code-locked away until the end of our mission, when we were permitted a three day bender before shipping off to the next war. Even captains weren’t trusted with the key, though we could usually find some interesting substitutes dirt-side.

Jack pulled a silver flask from his jumpsuit with a sly grin. “Cognac,” he announced. “Courtesy of the Peacekeepers on Floris. Been aging for twenty years.”

“Where the hell did you hide that?” I asked. Admiral W’a’s boys were meticulous about locating contraband.

“Let’s just say it may have something to do with the malfunctioning toilet.”

“I don’t care if you hid it up your ass, let’s have some!” Kat demanded, holding out her empty coffee cup.

Jack poured a few ounces into each of our cups and drank directly from the flask himself.

I savored the aroma and took a sip. “Mr. England, you might make captain yet.”

“I give the man cognac and he curses me.” Jack smiled to take the edge off his words but didn’t meet my eyes. He was an ambitious man and a fine lieutenant, but there was something he wanted far more than his captain’s emblem. Hell, we all wanted it, except maybe a few rookies whose ingrained thirst for death had yet to be satiated. But the distance between desire and achievement is sometimes greater than the void between the stars.

“Borrels,” Walker shuddered and emptied his cup, deftly changing the subject. “That’s one of the ugliest fucking sentients I’ve ever seen.” “Better than the Klat,” Kat D’Hing said.

“Oh yeah. Slimy, carnivorous bastards. Ugh. They were a sight worse. At least it looks like you could get a hand job from one of these Borrels if push came to shove.”

“With four hands they could probably push and shove just fine––if push came to shove,” Jack laughed.

“The Klat are allies now,” I reminded them. “It’s been eight hundred years since we liberated their world.”

“Christ the Second. Has it been that long?”

“Seems more like twelve, doesn’t it?”

“As I recall, our Klat allies almost had your ass for breakfast.” Jack tapped the bottom of the silver flask to shake the last drop of cognac into his mouth.

“Yeah,” I muttered, subconsciously kneading my left leg. The Klat had been full of surprises, none of them good.

Klat were the most advanced race I’d ever encountered, having mastered nuclear fission, particle beam weaponry, and interplanetary space travel. They had colonies on both moons and on the only other planet that shared their solar system, protected by a formidable fleet of nimble, heavily armed spacecraft. If their engineers had stumbled onto the Gap-Drive before us, humanity would be the servile race today. Walker hadn’t exaggerated their vile appearance: bright red with slug-like bodies the size of a horse, lacking a discernible head, eyes, mouth, or asshole. Instead, the Klat’s mucus-coated, varicose flesh is pocked with hundreds of weeping, coin-sized pores serving all three of these functions in one handy package, allowing them to see and hear better than non-enhanced humans. Some of these pores hold coiled, resilient tentacles, capable of manipulating weapons and machinery with a maestro’s touch. At first glance Klat barely seem capable of motion, but they possess endoskeletons of malleable cartilage and can outrun a greyhound by shifting the ridged plates lining their bottom. Now add the odor of sour milk and you’ve got yourself a Klat.

Based on the A.I. scout’s data, the Brass predicted significant opposition and sent in sixteen ACP battalions supported by five Navy cruisers, under the command of Admiral Chekshenskov. (Admiral W’a would not be born for another three centuries.) Though vast improvements have been made in the past eight hundred years, the Navy cruisers of that time were still fearsome vessels. A thousand meters in length and bristling with armaments, the old model cruisers carried eighty attack craft, providing the Admiral with the most powerful strike force in that corner of the galaxy.

Sorely overconfident of his great fleet, Chekshenskov misjudged his enemy. To save a few days travel time through real space he spun his ships from the Void deep inside the Klat solar system. He’d expected the war to be quick and painless (at least on his end), but before his armada could regroup and coordinate they met with fierce resistance from advance elements of the Klat space defense. Rather than engaging in a rapid offensive, as was his custom, the Admiral was forced to fall back, scrambling to defend the settler pods and the sixteen battalions of Soldiers sleeping inside their clustered landing carriers.

Sensing weakness, the Klat pressed their attack home, committing the bulk of their space forces in a sustained assault on the reeling human fleet. In the ensuing conflagration, Chekshenskov suffered massive losses. Four settler pods were destroyed, killing 250,000 civilians. A command pod was annihilated, taking all ten clustered landing carriers and two thousand ACP Soldiers with it. More than a hundred attack craft were lost and a hundred others damaged beyond repair. Perhaps most humbling of all, the Klat managed to destroy a Navy fleet cruiser with fourteen hundred sailors still aboard.

But the aliens paid a terrible price for their brief military success, losing thousands of irreplaceable vessels in the assault. And when their offensive was finally exhausted, Admiral Chekshenskov wasted very little time licking his wounds before ordering his forces forward and returning their “welcome” with a vengeance.

The outposts on the Klat moons were decimated by a few salvos of antimatter-tipped warheads. The military base on their system’s second world (an inhospitable ball of rock and ice) received a rare gift in the form of a singularity bomb lobbed from a safe distance. The miniature black hole loosed from the bomb chewed a path to the planet’s core, devouring the entire world from the inside out within an hour.

The orbital defense platforms around the Klat homeworld were sterilized last. They were mobile but fairly sluggish, no match for the sustained barrage delivered from the fast-moving human fleet. Without the heavy guns from the defense platforms to support them, the last of the Klat space force was systematically blown to shreds.

After four days of nonstop combat, Chekshenkov’s fleet had won him his battle. But with complete dominance of space and fifteen remaining ACP battalions at his disposal, the Admiral again underestimated his headless enemies.

When they refused his demand for an immediate surrender, he woke the sleeping Soldiers and sent us down, supremely confident in our abilities to shock and awe any indigenous race into submission. But Chekshenskov still knew very little about the Klat, and it became our job to educate him. Like any good field grunts we did this the hard way.

On his return to our Staging Area he would find that the price of victory turned out to be more than just human casualties and lost hardware. His miscalculations had also cost him his career. Unfortunately, his forced resignation came too late to save many of my closest friends.

“We’ve got incoming, Sergeant D’Mar!” Kat’s voice warned in my ear implant.

Then-Corporal Kat D’Hing was sitting directly behind me in the narrow cockpit of the AX-4s we used to fly. The pulsejets were so loud conversation without our implants was impossible. “Seven o’clock low, ten o’clock high. Two full squadrons, sixty apiece.”

I examined the quickly closing armada on my holo-screens. They had us outnumbered six to one, hoping to catch us in a split wedge, hitting us high and low from two different angles. We were more nimble, better armored, and packed twice their firepower, but with their advantage in numbers it wasn’t a bad plan.

Three miles beneath our stubby wings, the frozen peaks of the planet’s tallest mountain range flashed past at Mach 4. The lower hills were thick with coniferous forests, lush with alien wildlife and occasional Klat ground patrols that we peppered with vacuum bombs (just the Klat patrols, not the wildlife) whenever an opportunity presented itself. On our second day of combat, things were still running smoothly for our platoon. We hadn’t suffered any casualties and had scored over a thousand verified kills. Now we’d been assigned to engage Klat air defenses on the middle continent, and we’d spread ourselves thin to do it.

We had twenty birds in the air under the command of Sergeant Margot D’Lar, our wing leader. Hatched from an adjoining uterus tank, she was as close to a sister as I had, and the best pilot I ever had the privilege to fly with. Her voice crackled over the comm, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got one-two-zero bogies coming in fast and furious. Intercept in 3.6 minutes, mark. Captain T’Nor will offer orbital support ASAP, however he is otherwise occupied at this time.”

Guardians––the indispensable defense satellites orbiting our operation zones these days––were not yet part of our arsenal. Instead, after a landing carrier dropped its payload, the captain and a small crew returned to space to provide orbital cover. The obvious drawback was that a single carrier can only be in one place at a time, and if our enemy knew this they could deprive us of our orbiting laser batteries by coordinating their attacks across the continent.

“Alpha Two,” Margot continued. “Take your wing low and greet that seven o’clock squadron for me.”

“Yes, Ma’am. We’ll give them your best,” I said, eager for a good fight.

“Alpha One’s wing is going ten o’clock high. Everyone copy?” Confirmations flashed across neural nets. “Fantastic,” Margot said. “On my command ... break!”

Although AX-4s could be flown by hand, pilots and navigators were remotely connected to the craft via our neural nets. It was far more efficient than laboring with manual controls, enabling a pilot to bank, decelerate, lock, and fire with a single thought.

I directed my plane into a steep dive as effortlessly as I would step off a curb. Nine planes peeled off with me, forming two groups of five in standard V formations. Margot’s wing rocketed skywards, disappearing within seconds. AX-4s were not equipped with containment fields, limiting our acceleration to 6 gees, but even so we were scraping over the treetops in no time while Margot was up at 50,000 feet.

Though the planet was teeming with twelve billion Klat, all of our dogfights had taken place over sparsely populated wilderness areas far from their sprawling urban centers. At first I’d written this off as coincidence, but now I realized they were purposefully drawing us away to minimize civilian casualties. In that respect the slugs showed more compassion than most humanoid species I’d fought.

“Intercept in two minutes,” Kat warned.

Private Olafson and Corporal Chikowski tucked their ships behind us, one to each side. I’d been fighting alongside these Soldiers since my rookie days and wouldn’t have picked anyone else to guard my flank. Olafson was a big Nordic Soldier with a square jaw and a bushy non-regulation mustache. He loved good steak and good women, and if there was any conversation going on, you could usually find Olafson bellowing in the center. On the other hand, Chikowski was a dark, quiet, barrel-chested man who preferred to listen in at the edge of conversations rather than jump into the midst.

“I’ve got missile lock,” Olafson drawled.

“Confirm missile lock. Permission to fire,” Chikowski requested.

“Granted. All LRTs away,” I said. Yesterday had proven our Long Range Tracking missiles ineffective against Klat fighters. They were able to jam the tracking systems and maneuver around our missiles at will. But we had a surprise in store for them today.

I released my stock of LRTs with a thought and watched them race ahead with the rest of my wing’s missiles, a hundred eighty contrails in their wake. Forty seconds later, they closed in for the kill.

“The Klat are jamming,” Kat said.

Having lost their acquired targets, the missiles should have continued in a straight line, easy for the skilled Klat pilots to dodge. But we’d packed the warheads with depleted uranium ball bearings and rigged them to explode once jammed. It was a cheap, effective ploy, and if the Klat hadn’t been so damned quick, it would have wiped out their entire squadron.

By the time they realized they were closing at 6,000 miles per hour with a swarm of depleted uranium ball bearings, the slugs only had seconds to react. We were too far off for visual (and I was not yet equipped with telescopic eyes), so I watched their astounding maneuvers displayed as tiny holograms on my 3-D screens. They zigged, zagged, dropped, and climbed with all the skill of a flock of humming birds. But the cloud of flak took its toll, tearing through seventeen planes. Some exploded in midair, others spun into the forest a few hundred feet below, too close for their pilots to eject. The rest of the squadron neatly reestablished formations.

“Goddamn they’re good,” Olafson complimented. The big blond Soldier had no qualms displaying compassion and appreciation for alien races we encountered.

“Maybe you want to invite them back to camp,” Kat said. “See what they can do with those tentacles.”

“Sorry, honey, I don’t swing that way,” Olafson chuckled. “But if you’re feeling the itch, I’m always game to watch.”

What they could, in fact, do with those tentacles was hardwire directly to their controls, much like we were hooked in through our nets, which explained their phenomenal talent in the air. And they’d been busy preparing a few surprises of their own.

“Intercept in 30 seconds,” Kat said.

Eight centuries ago, N-guns were too bulky for our airborne vehicles, and we were limited to a pair of high-output plasma cannons mounted on our wings. Up close they were lethal, but their effective range was restricted to two miles.

“Twenty seconds.”

“Fire at will,” I said, opening up with my own cannons and dropping down to avoid searing return fire from the enemy craft.

We tore into the alien squadron like a swarm of angry bees. Klat plasma lances raked my plane, but the armor held. Kat rerouted overloaded systems and I kept my net focused on the target-rich space around me. A Klat fighter had us in its sights, but I dropped away with a thought, came up on its flank, and blew it to pieces.

All things being equal, one AX-4 was worth five of their birds. But all things were not equal. Klat pilots were good, the best I’d ever encountered, but we were better.

My wing spun around for another pass without suffering a single casualty. I was already thinking about our triumphant return to base camp for fuel and munitions, envisioning the medals and promotions this war had to offer. I stood a good chance of making lieutenant before it was over.

Without warning a shooting pain stabbed my skull, like someone had taken an icicle and driven it through my sinuses. I was no more aware that I was screaming than I was aware the rest of my platoon was screaming right along with me. When it was over a few seconds later I was nearly deaf, dumb, and blind. Of course I could still see through the scarred canopy and could hear Kat yelling something into my ear, but my net was gone, fried. The AX-4 was taking bruising hits from a pursuing Klat craft, angling towards an icy peak, and refusing to respond to my thoughts. And Kat was in her seat directly behind me screaming the same word over and over again.

“Manual! Manual!”

I found the proper button and the control stick popped up between my legs. I pulled back hard and added enough thrust to rocket over the peak, the tops of some towering conifers snapping off against our fuselage. The pursuing Klat craft was not as nimble and met a fiery end amid rocks and trees.

“Nice,” Kat complimented.

“Thanks. So who the hell’s this Manuel and has he reported in yet?”

“Ouch,” she replied. “With jokes that ancient, we better keep an eye out for friendly fire.”

I climbed two thousand feet before looping back into the conflagration below. We’d already lost two planes and as I watched we lost a third. Kat had taken over our targeting system and opened fire, missing her objective and almost hitting one of our own. “Shit,” she spat. “We’ve been disconnected. How’d they do that?”

“Break off, they’re jamming our nets! Break off!” I ordered into the comm.

The six remaining AX-4s in my wing climbed hard, pursued by Klat pilots smelling victory. Olafson’s plane was trailing smoke and taking repeated hits from a Klat craft he couldn’t shake. I banked in sharply and Kat opened up with the cannons. Her aim was true, and the alien plane disintegrated in a ball of flame.

“I owe you a backrub for that one, honey,” Olafson’s relieved drawl hissed across the radio.

“Me too?” I asked.

“Sure. What the fuck, Sarge,” he laughed.

A burst of garbled static was followed by frantic words from one of Margot’s pilots. “... Nets jammed .... They’re all over us .... Alpha One is down. Alpha One is down!”

“Not Margot,” Kat whispered, firing wildly with the plasma cannons, managing to destroy one pursuing Klat craft and incapacitate a second. “No, no, no. Not Margot.” Kat had hatched from the same bank of uterus tanks; Margot was her sister, too.

Rage roiled inside me. I wanted nothing more than to slag every last slimy slug myself, and if some Klat civilians happened to get in the way so much the better. But today was their day. Tomorrow, Margot, my friend, my sister; tomorrow would be ours.

“This is Alpha Two, acting wing leader,” I spoke into the comm. “Disengage. All units disengage and return to base.” Confirmations were still crackling over the comm when we took a direct hit to our engines and lost power three thousand feet above the frozen wilderness.

I flared the flaps to stabilize our wild descent and toggled the burn switch in a failed attempt to re-ignite the pulsejets, but they were just so much scrap.

“We’re hit. Mayday, mayday, Alpha Two is hit; we’re going down. Both engines out; we are going down,” Kat chanted into the comm.

“Have to bail!” I warned.

“We’ll be easy targets.”

“No choice,” I said and slammed home the eject lever.

The cockpit’s micro thrusters blasted us free from the plummeting fuselage. The gee force tore at us, but our augmented spines held together and our enhanced hearts managed to pump enough blood to our brains to retain consciousness. Double chutes fluttered open a thousand feet above the forest, a most welcome sight. We drifted down inside the detached armored cockpit as the rest of the AX-4 slammed into the hills. I stared at the twin chutes and slender filaments coupling them to us, marveling at the simplicity of the design. Great inventions like the wheel and the parachute are irreplaceable. You can improve on the materials, making them lighter and more durable, but the basic idea can never be beat.

“We’re clear.” Kat sounded skeptical and with good cause.

“Not quite,” I muttered.

Two Klat craft broke off their pursuit of our fleeing wing. They banked hard and came screaming our way.

“It’s been good fighting with you,” I said as the lead craft opened fire, strafing the cockpit with searing plasma. The aft chute burned away and we canted backwards, still five hundred feet above the trees.

“It’s been an honor,” Kat said. And then she spoke three words she’s denied for the past eight hundred years. “I love you.”

The cockpit’s overheated armor gave way, and the next rounds blasted through. One shot hit my left thigh above the knee, severing the leg. Without access to my neural implants to block the pain, I found myself screaming for the second time that day as the lower part of my leg slid wetly to the deck, sickly smoking.

The remaining chute was on fire and we were falling fast, but even if we made it into the woods, the Klat pilots could pick us off at will.

Never give up. You will fight with your last bullet, with your knife, with your teeth, but you will never give up. These thoughts had been ingrained in us from the time we took our first steps at the Youth Academy. An augmented Soldier is able to strike out with both feet planted in the grave. But as the lead Klat craft bore down on us safely out of reach of knife and teeth, I could only pray that our debris would get sucked into its engines so we might take it with us.

I could actually see the giant red slug wedged behind its windscreen. Though it had no mouth, I imagined it smiling. With no viable weapon available I lifted my middle finger, and the Klat plane disappeared in a blinding flash. The second Klat craft hit its afterburners, accelerating fast, but not fast enough––and it, too, exploded in a ball of flames.

Olafson’s AX-4, streaming smoke from both engines, rocketed past overhead.

“Thought I’d repay the favor,” his voice drawled over the comm.

“Looks like we owe you the backrub,” I told him.

“I’ll settle for a cold beer. Hang tight. We’ll be back for you,” Olafson promised, already just a spot on the horizon.

There was no time to celebrate our reprieve. The cockpit broke through the trees and came to a jarring stop against frozen rocks. My helmet smashed against the control panel, and the world went dark.

Reality returned in fragments: the coppery taste of blood in my mouth, the biting cold pervading my body, the agony of my ruined leg, the bass drum of my heart sending slivers of pain reverberating through my skull with every pounding beat. And another, more sinister sound, like the wet slurping the grunts make eating spaghetti in the mess. The slurping was accompanied by a tugging on the stump of my leg, ratcheting up the throbbing pain to new excruciating levels. The odor of half-gone milk was insidious.

I forced my eyes open. Blood seeping from my cracked forehead obscured everything in a reddish haze. I was lying on my back near the remains of my cockpit. Kat D’Hing was not in the navigator’s seat; she was nowhere to be seen.


The rippling flesh of a large Klat was snuggled tightly against me. It was twice my weight, and my right arm and leg were trapped beneath it. Its attention was focused on the burned stump of my left leg protruding from the remains of my flightsuit armor. A number of its pores were attached to my stump, excreting powerful acids to dissolve flesh and bone into a stew suitable for Klat consumption. We were conditioned not to overreact to bodily injuries, but I’d never lost a leg before, and certainly never watched myself slowly digested by a sour-milk-stinking-slug. I confess it took some self-control not to react rashly.


Know your enemy, observe him, find his weakness, wait for the proper moment, then strike. As far as the Klat knew I was still unconscious. Any premature movement on my part would only alert it to danger.

Without moving my head, I rolled my eyes around in their sockets, surveying the vicinity. We’d crashed in a flat area near the base of steep cliffs. The trees were large and widespread, allowing me to see a few hundred feet. My sidearm poked from the snow beside the cockpit, out of reach, but I could feel my knife handle digging into my left side. At least I wasn’t down to my teeth quite yet.


The goddamn leech was working towards my crotch, tearing away the thin flightsuit armor with two wiry tentacles.

I was about to move for the knife when a flash of motion stayed my hand. Kat was crouched behind a tree a hundred feet away, holding her sidearm left handed. Her right arm was twisted behind her at a grotesque angle. She used her gun to gesture in the opposite direction, and I risked turning my head enough to see four more Klat lounging in the snow behind our wreckage, all with menacing long guns draped in their tentacles. Unaware of Kat’s presence, they seemed wholly relaxed. One of them initiated what sounded like a passionate conversation, communicating by vibrating various pores to force out puffs of air. To human ears it sounded like nothing more than a flatulence contest.

With our nets down our own communication was limited to a few furtive glances. But having trained together for combat since birth, a few glances were all it took.


The knife appeared in my left hand, and with the snick of a button the segmented blade grew from five inches to eighteen. I punched it into the Klat’s oozing body where it lay nestled beside my head, driving the blade home to the hilt. The surprised alien released my leg, emitting a dozen high-pitched farting sounds. Before it could move away, I pulled the knife towards my waist, opening a meter long gash along its side. Rancid white fluid gushed from the wound, covering my body.

Kat opened fire the instant I pulled the knife, her small-bore plasma pistol cutting two of the armed Klat to ribbons. The other two moved fast, sliding for cover behind the wreckage. They returned fire blindly, peppering Kat’s tree with projectiles, scaring dozens of scaly winged animals perched on the branches into panicked flight.

The Klat I’d cut was mortally injured. It shuddered violently, flung me away, and crept downhill, insides trailing behind it. I rolled in the opposite direction, towards my sidearm. The two remaining aliens had effectively pinned Kat behind her tree with a barrage of automatic fire, but they were unaware of my presence. Snatching the gun, I crawled to the far side of the ruined cockpit.

I would be lying if I said I did not take pleasure in blasting them to pieces. One of them had killed Margot, my sister. As far as I was concerned they were all guilty by association. “Margot sends her best,” I whispered and opened fire, continuing to shoot long after the Klat soldiers were dead.

It’s frighteningly easy to forget who the aggressors really are, once you start taking casualties and losing friends. I was young, angry, and self-righteous. It took a lot of years and a lot of death to see things differently, and that clarity has only served to make life harder.

Kat broke a path through the deep snow. She passed the injured Klat still trying to crawl to safety. It raised quivering tentacles in an apparent plea for leniency, but Kat was not feeling particularly merciful. Snapping her pistol up, she cut the slug roughly in half with a dozen rounds. “We’re the top of the food chain. No one feeds on us!”

She spat on its sizzling flesh before holstering her pistol and trudging over to me. “Good to see you, Sarge.” She tried to sound casual, but the strained expression on her face betrayed the obvious agony from her shattered arm.

“Likewise. Nice shooting. I almost ended up as so much lunch meat.”

“I’m sure you would have figured something out.”

Using her left arm she dragged me into a sitting position with my back against the cockpit. The world grayed for a moment and I thought I would lose consciousness again. “Jesus the First, Brink, you’re a mess,” she said, performing a quick field exam of my battered body.

“You took a bit of a beating yourself.”

She glanced at her mangled right arm hanging uselessly at her side. “This is nothing,” she dismissed stoically, though without her neural implants the pain had to be awful.

Kat dug through the first aid kit and slapped two soothe patches on my wrist, then took two herself. She liberally sprinkled some powder over my leg stump, which made it burn worse but gummed up the bleeding holes where the Klat had been feeding.

“The slugs figured a way to zap our nets, but many of our nano implants are working autonomously. They saved your life. After we crashed your leg wasn’t even bleeding at all and your vitals were stable. That fucker just tore it all open again.”

“How long have we been down?”

“Just over an hour.”

“Any sign of recon?”

“Not yet. The radio and emergency beacon are trashed.”

“They’ll be here soon. Maybe five minutes, maybe five hours, but they can get a fix on our heat emissions from orbit, and once T’Nor is overhead the Klat won’t be able to put anything in the air to stop them.”

Kat gently fixed a bandage to the remains of my leg and looked through the trees at the nearby cliffs. I followed her gaze to the towering cornices of snow stacked along the ridgeline. I was surprised the retort of the Klat machine guns hadn’t set them off, sending down an avalanche that would have buried us all.

“Five minutes we can do. Five hours ... no way.” Kat draped a thermal blanket over my shoulders and tucked it behind my back.

“Fill me in.”

“We’re up towards the end of a box canyon here. The trees taper off just over this knoll. It’s all open ground for a while; steep hills and lots of snow; very little cover. There’s a Klat ground patrol making its way down from the southern ridgeline. Twenty-five, maybe thirty slugs. They’ll be on us in half an hour.”

“This just isn’t our day.”

Kat nodded to the dead aliens a few yards away. “Not theirs either.”

I barked a harsh laugh, wincing at the accompanying pain. “Well, I’m not going anywhere with this leg, or stump, or whatever the hell it is now. I’ll make some noise, draw them off, try and buy you some time. You get moving downhill. If you can stay ahead of them long enough, someone will pick you up.”

Her jaw muscles clenched and her green eyes grew distant in a way that was all too familiar to me, even back then. “No way, Brink. I’m not leaving you for those leeches.”

“Don’t worry, they won’t take me alive.”

“No way. We live fighting together or we die fighting together. I’m not leaving you.”

“Why, because you love me?” I taunted, trying to make her mad, make her see reason, make her leave me so at least one of us might live.

“I’m an ACP Soldier, Sergeant. I don’t know what love is.”

“So you didn’t say you love me when you thought we were about to die?”

“You were hallucinating. Must’ve been because your leg got blown off, remember?”

“I could order you to leave me, Corporal.”

“And I could suffer a sudden case of deafness, Sergeant. Time’s wasting. Shouldn’t we start planning our defense?”

“Our best defense is to stay ahead of them. And with that shattered arm, two feet of snow, and my 280 pound bulk slung across your back, we’re not likely to do that for long.”

“On this planet you don’t weigh a pound over 250,” Kat said, still staring at the cliffs. “Even so I won’t be able to carry you far ... but I can pull you. Give me your arms, I’m going to have to move you.”

She dragged me away from the cockpit, my ruined leg leaving a thin trail of gore in our wake. Kat pulled the canopy off its hinges. She cut away safety webbing and reworked the straps until she had a feasible harness and a short leash with which she could pull the overturned canopy, like a sled.

Sweat ran down the smooth brown skin of her muscle-corded neck, darkening her flightsuit collar. She stood back to admire her work. “What do you think?”

“As fine a dog sled as ever I’ve seen. But you’re still not going to be able to pull me faster than that Klat patrol.”

“Maybe I won’t have to.”

Kat helped me into the sled without comment. She ducked inside the cockpit,