40 Years Serialisation - Chapter 2

40 Years Serialisation - Chapter 2 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 claim a new planet is to have unequivocal dominion over it.

Captain Brink D’Mar leads an infantry division of Augmented Combat Personnel, soldiers whose physical modifications 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.

The latest target is a planet that is going to be called New Columbia, regardless of what the native population has to say. The indigenous race is called the Borrel, ugly creatures that put Captain D’Mar in mind of another race, the Klat. The A.C.P. had been forced to kill billions of Klat warriors, but after the invasion the civilian populace had been permitted to remain on certain parts of their world set aside specially for them. This was much more charitable than what the Pfrlanx would have done, which is to exterminate the entire race.

Captain D’Mar wonders why humanity didn’t try a third alternative: approaching them in peace.


Five hours before touchdown on the Borrel’s home world, already renamed New Columbia, 199 ACP Soldiers lined the gleaming alloy tables of the carrier’s mess hall for the traditional campaign-opening feast. Clad in black jumpsuits, freshly shaved and showered, and fully recovered from their extended time in cryo, they were ready to roll. Only Lieutenant Jack England was missing, having volunteered for bridge duty. The ship could essentially run itself, but protocol called for an officer to be present in the command center at all times.

Campaign-opening feasts mark the last time a division has to relax until achieving victory planetside, and customarily only food native to Earth is served. Though the mood was light, it went without saying that if the indigenes put up a stiff fight some familiar faces would be missing for the closing feast. But this was no time to reflect on mortality, rather a time to stuff faces, make jokes at each other’s expense, and idly boast about the coming campaign. A time to be human amid the company of the only family we’d ever known.

The carrier’s long narrow mess hall had all the natural warmth of a hospital cafeteria, polished alloy stools and tables reflecting light from the overhead fixtures in too many directions. Lieutenant Kat D’Hing had requisitioned a few volunteers in an admirable effort to give the antiseptically sterile room a homey touch—insofar as any ACP Soldier has a sense of home. They’d placed real wax candles on the tables, wrapped translucent colored plastic across the lights, and painted a mosaic of flowers somewhat haphazardly across the walls.

Four elongated oval portals set in the carrier’s starboard bulkhead revealed the inky black space beyond, speckled with brilliant stars. New Columbia, our target, currently lay to the port side and was not visible from the mess hall. Shoveling a forkful of salted, buttered baked potato into my mouth, I wondered how they kept the food so (relatively) fresh. Did they have cryo-coffins full of potatoes tucked away somewhere? I tried not to think about the ugly little four-armed Borrels completely ignorant of the lethal invasion force poised above their heads.

Kat was seated on my right side, gnawing on a spare rib dripping with sauce. She seemed to read my mind, as was often the case. “I wonder how many Borrels are eating their last meal right now without any clue it’s going to be their last?” she mused, licking barbecue sauce from her fingers.

Had I known the answer to Kat’s question, the true toll we were about to exact, I would have lost my appetite.

“More than a few, I’d wager,” Finley Walker said from his seat to my left, slathering butter on a hunk of wheat bread.

“Let’s hope it’s none,” I said. “It’s the Pfrlanx we’re at war with, not these poor bastards.”

“Waiter! Another round here!” Sergeant Olafson bellowed from the table next to mine, holding up his empty coffee cup. The big blond sergeant motioned to one of several bulbous serving drones rolling back and forth from the kitchen, laden with plates and mugs.

“Hard to find good help these days, eh Sarge?” Private Rindo joked. Rindo was a slender, narrow-faced tank operator from Olafson’s fourth platoon. This was Rindo’s fifth mission and Olafson informed me he was eager for some action. The rookies usually were.

Divisions were split into four platoons, each with forty-eight Soldiers under the command of a master sergeant. Olafson had been in charge of Fourth Platoon for forty-three missions and if the Brass listened to me—which they didn’t—he would have made lieutenant by now.

At the head of the next table, Sergeant Chikowski ladled more corn and peas onto his plate. Leader of First Platoon, Chikowski was a tough, quiet, barrel-chested man who had served with me on over one hundred worlds. Short and dark-skinned, he was the polar opposite of the gregarious, towering Olafson. In the field there was no man I trusted more than Chikowski. If I ordered him to lead his unit into the heart of a supernova, he would not bat an eye.

Sitting at the head of the table to my other side and wearing his customary smirk was Sergeant M’Ihn, platoon leader for Second Platoon. Standing 6’4”, M’Ihn was average height for a Soldier, his athletic frame packed with enhanced muscles. He kept his black hair cropped short and his easy smile belied a more devious nature. M’Ihn had a checkered record, with a host of citations for bravery counterbalanced by several reprimands for sneaking alien war booty back aboard the carrier. I usually let M’Ihn have the dirty jobs because his conscience never bothered him and Second Platoon had quickly gained a reputation for ruthlessness. With a brand new recruit joining three other relative newbies in his platoon, M’Ihn had his hands full on this mission.

Sergeant Fuller, currently forcing half a baked ham down his gullet, rounded out my list of platoon leaders. He was in charge of Third Platoon. Seven feet tall and built like a grizzly bear, his mere physical presence commanded respect. He was a veteran of the Frontier Wars, a true old-timer, having skirmished on three hundred worlds. He was the only man I knew who’d seen ground combat against the Pfrlanx in the years before the Casper Treaty ended all contact between us. On one occasion he’d even engaged in hand to hand with one of our bug-eyed nemeses, leaving the Pfrlanx trooper dead and Fuller with his jaw torn off. The field patch job had been shoddy, giving him a ragged scar from earlobe to chin, but Fuller refused to have it fixed. Born 1,530 years ago, Fuller’s real age was sixty-two, but with the benefits of Slowage he looked no older than most of us. After forty-two years of combat, he was only thirteen years from retirement, thirteen years from receiving his very own Quonset hut on Retreat. He probably wasn’t the brightest man under my command, but Sergeant Fuller was a loyal Soldier, and a prudent leader always looking to minimize the death toll he was invariably ordered to inflict on unsuspecting alien races.

Olafson loudly sucked gravy from the end of his non-regulation moustache, sticking one long leg into the narrow space between the tables to block the serving drone rolling past. “I said another round of java for me and my boys,” he drawled.

The semi-intelligent drone twittered its acknowledgement and rolled quickly to the kitchen.

“No tip for that one,” grunted Corporal M’Awl, a huge, flat-nosed tank operator from Olafson’s platoon.

“I’ll give it a tip all right,” Olafson said, one end of his moustache still in his mouth. “Hurry up with my fucking coffee or become the first drone in free orbit around New-Fucking-Columbia!”

Kat D’Hing had finished the pork and moved on to turkey, a sizeable pile of clean-picked bones on her platter indicative of her healthy appetite. “When are you going to rip that caterpillar off your lip?” she asked around a mouthful of turkey, motioning towards the big sergeant with a half-eaten drumstick.

Olafson’s eyes went wide with mock horror. He deliberately spat the sandy blond moustache from his mouth. “I’ve been growing this caterpillar for 300 years, Lieutenant. The only way it’s coming off is with a grenade.”

“What if I said you looked hotter without it?” Kat prodded, green eyes glimmering lasciviously.

“I’d say come by my berth with a pair of scissors, baby,” Olafson whispered huskily and both tables erupted in laughter.

I scanned the big room with approval. The energy felt good, a budding sense of anticipation but no signs of undue anxiety. A casual observer would have no clue that in five hours these men and women would step into their war machines and challenge three billion aliens to mortal combat. Even the rookies seemed more excited than nervous.

Private Katrine L’Sool sat two chairs down from Sergeant Fuller, her oversized platoon leader. L’Sool idly stirred peas around her platter with a steel fork. Tall, blonde, and stacked, she was every bit as attractive as Walker and Kat claimed, even with the augmented muscles and impact resistant bone graft enhancements. This was her second mission, having replaced one of my three tank operators killed during the revolt on Kooldatmir (now New Oslo). She was a skilled operator in the simulators but edgy in real combat. Fuller thought a few more missions would dull her edginess; I wasn’t sure.

I caught Walker looking her way, his eyes lingering longingly on her chest, and wondered if my big lieutenant had made good on his promise to tap her net while she showered. I wouldn’t put that past him, but he wouldn’t get any further than peeping. L’Sool only had eyes for Sergeant Davie Sherman, Fuller’s top pilot. Though Davie Sherman had seen eleven years of hard combat and could match even Walker for lechery, he retained that innocent schoolboy look and had no qualms using that to his advantage.

Private Aimess and Private Blachard had replaced my other two fatalities on New Oslo. Born from adjoining uterus tanks and inseparable in and out of combat, they were eagerly anticipating their second mission as tank operators in M’Ihn’s platoon. They were short for Soldiers, standing only six feet tall, but they were fast and corded with muscle. Both kept their heads shaved clean and, with identical cleft chins and pale brown eyes, were hard to tell apart. Their talent as operators was not exceptional, but their calm aggression in combat was. Like many young Soldiers they took real pleasure in killing. I could only hope they’d grow out of this.

My brand new recruit, Private Ling C’Lahm, sat directly across the table from Aimess and Blachard. A 20-year-old pilot fresh from the Academy, Ling was replacing a dynamic old friend, Corporal Leopold T’Nool, killed by a poisoned dart on Floris at the tail end of our last mission. T’Nool had made the mistake of raising his face shield near a crowd of indigenes being processed for relocation. Though the aliens had been scanned for weapons, the toothpick sized blow dart managed to go undetected, and when T’Nool slid his faceplate up to scratch his nose he got a lethal dose of toxin right in the eye. Twenty-five years had passed in the galaxy since T’Nool died writhing in the black Florian mud, but to me it was just last week, and I missed him.

Standing 5’ 7”, Ling C’Lahm was tiny by ACP standards, but she’d earned her post by handily outperforming all other cadets in combat sims. She also rated at the top of her class in hand to hand. She had a little pug nose, slender brown eyes, a flat muscular chest, and short black hair. Her training files indicated she was everything a captain could hope for in a pilot, but I had my doubts. She was far more confident than any rookie had a right to be, and overconfident rookies don’t tend to last long.

Sitting beside Ling and leering at her small breasts over the top of his steaming coffee mug was Corporal Hamlin Rack, he who was responsible for the one-man retribution campaign on New Oslo and promoted over my strenuous objections. He was a beefy man, with powerful arms, a shock of red hair, and a host of freckles scattered across his pale cheeks. This was his fourth mission and he had proved himself a capable pilot, one able to keep his nerves in check under the toughest conditions. Unfortunately, Corporal Rack was more than just a skilled pilot and a natural leader, he was also a sadist who delighted in slaughter.

The golden medal of valor from the Governor of New Oslo was prominently pinned to his jumpsuit. He leaned towards Private Ling, noisily slurping his coffee. “Can’t help staring at it, can you?” he asked, though Ling had taken no overt notice of the obnoxiously large gold medallion.

Beside me Kat rolled her green eyes. Walker grimaced, making exaggerated gagging motions.

Ling deliberately chewed her mouthful of cornbread before swallowing. “Impressive,” she said noncommittally.

“That’s for giving those fucking blue-skinned backstabbers what they deserved,” Rack boasted, aware that he had a growing audience. “They needed you on Troy,” Aimess said, trying to ingratiate himself with his idol.

“They needed a few antimatter bombs on Troy,” Blachard piped in, scratching a scab off his bald head and flicking it to the floor.

The information I had on New Troy’s rebellion was sketchy at best, and coming through official channels highly suspect as military propaganda. But the young recruits who’d been at the rumor-rich Academy at the time corroborated much of what filtered through official channels. Apparently the feathered aliens of Troy had turned on the human settlers a few months after the conquering Soldiers departed. By all counts it was an ugly bloodbath, with more than four million human civilians and outnumbered peacekeepers torn to shreds and devoured before help finally arrived.

The planetwide mutiny of New Troy had left an ugly mark on the attitudes of the younger Soldiers as well as the more militant members of the Ruling Council, leaving them questioning the wisdom of our millennia-old tactics. Why go to all the trouble of sparing alien life and allowing their surrender and cohabitation if this was the way we were repaid? Why not simply wipe out all sentient indigenes and hand the planet over to the settlers, swept clean? This would not only be safer for Soldiers and settlers alike, but could significantly speed up the pace of colonization and give humanity the edge we needed to win the Great Race. It was an age-old argument, one clouded in a hundred shades of gray but all too often viewed in black and white. I imagine tribal chiefs during the Stone Age faced similar dilemmas trying to decide the fate of weaker clans living in neighboring caves.

“Nah, antimatter tears the surface apart,” Corporal Hamlin Rack declared, vainly adjusting the oversized medal on his chest. “We should go in with MTs, boil the bastards in their skins, and leave the infrastructure untouched for the settlers.”

It did not surprise me that Rack would be a proponent of Microwave Transmitters, but I was not and I’d heard enough.

“Spoken like a true Pfrlanx, Mr. Rack,” I said, bringing an abrupt uneasy calm to the room.

“Sir?” Rack said, ruddy cheeks blushing.

“We cannot judge every race by the mutinous actions of a single species any more than we can judge all of humanity by the actions of one individual. Wouldn’t you agree, Corporal?” His new rank, acquired against my strongest recommendations, almost stuck in my throat.

“Well ... I ... yes, I guess,” Rack stammered.

“Good. Then I’ll hear no more talk of exterminating sentient aliens before they’ve been given every opportunity to surrender peacefully and join the Human Empire as allies. And I mean every opportunity. If we sink to Pfrlanx tactics we’ll be no better than them. Our existence will be meaningless and the Great Race pointless. Our strength lies in our humanity.”

“Amen,” Jack England’s voice spoke in my ear implant from up on the bridge.

“To the Empire of Man,” Walker boomed, raising his coffee mug in the air and breaking the tension

“To the Empire of Man,” the roomful of Soldiers dutifully echoed, raising their own cups.

“And to Lieutenant Finley Walker,” Kat said, getting to her feet. “A fine officer and brave Soldier, who today turns thirty-five.”

Her announcement was greeted with a chorus of happy birthdays from around the room.

Walker grinned sheepishly and his beige cheeks actually darkened a shade. “I thought I was turning a thousand,” he chuckled.

“You’re looking pretty trim for a thousand,” Sergeant Olafson barked.

“Well, I get plenty of sleep,” Walker said.

“Just forty more years until retirement, Lieutenant,” Sergeant M’Ihn said, smiling too widely.

A serving drone rolled up to our table holding an enormous apple pie topped with thirty-five flickering candles and a mound of melting vanilla ice cream. Additional drones deposited more pies, without candles, on the other tables.

Walker took a deep breath and theatrically blew out the candles. “Hey, more blowing less spitting,” Kat said.

“I’m not even going to touch that one,” Olafson drawled, getting a good laugh from his men.

“Make a wish,” I said, and Walker dutifully closed his eyes for a few seconds.

“What did you wish for?” Kat asked when he opened his eyes.

“Can’t say,” Walker rumbled, cutting a large slab of pie for himself.

“Shit, forty years from the nearest Staging Area, I’ll bet I know his wish,” Jack spoke in my ear implant.

“Don’t you have any work to do up there, systems to monitor, anything?” I sub-vocalized back to him.

Walker rose to his full towering height and surveyed the room. “Thank you all,” he boomed. “And a particular thanks to Lieutenant D’Hing and the decorating party. It looks downright cozy in here. Kat, if this soldiering thing doesn’t pan out for you, you could always opt for interior decorating.”

Kat grinned up at him as he sat and scooped a huge slice of pie into his mouth, ice cream and apple filling dribbling down his square chin. He swallowed and burped loud enough to earn a round of applause from the room. Walker flashed his lopsided grin and tore off another slab of pie.

“Happy birthday, Lieutenant,” I said and reached for a slice of my own.

* * *

The landing carrier sat half buried in the scorched ground of New Columbia, looking more like a crashed asteroid than any space faring vehicle. Both cargo hatches were open, and dozens of Soldiers and service-bots streamed up and down the extended ramps through the cavernous portals, unloading equipment in an impressive display of organized chaos. The Soldiers wore full combat gear, moving fluidly despite the bulky outfits.

Jack England and I managed the show from outside, leaving Kat D’Hing and Finley Walker in command of the carrier. Fifty minutes after touchdown, there was still no reaction to our presence. We hadn’t seen a single Borrel, military or civilian, and their radio babble had ceased the instant Major Saskia T’lak began broadcasting our message of peace.

As T’lak’s senior officer, my division was assigned to subdue the Borrel’s most populous continent, the second largest in area. I’d ordered the landing carrier down fifty miles outside their capital city in a vast swathe of undeveloped savanna. Lofty yellow, green, and blue trees carpeted much of this landmass, but the capital city lay in an arid zone above a saline inland sea, supporting only patches of large spiked mushrooms and thorny scrub trees. It was late morning in our part of New Columbia. The sky was pale blue, the air dry and warm, and the sun—appearing slightly smaller and brighter than Earth’s—cast long shadows across the parched ground. A few alien bugs, deep black with vicious mandibles, buzzed around in hopes of breakfast, but even without our impermeable combat gear our bioengineered skin was too tough for them to penetrate.

My carrier was cloaked from conventional radar, but the Borrels still must have seen us come down, and unless they were stone deaf (unlikely with those elephant-like ears) they couldn’t have missed the sonic boom. Yet we had neither been challenged nor greeted.

I bumped my retinal magnification up to fifty and stared at our target city, home to five million aliens. The buildings were a uniform gray, tubular in shape, constructed of what appeared to be a concrete amalgam, and dotted with oval windows reflecting the morning sunlight. Seen from a distance the city looked like a flat cone, with the buildings towards the perimeter standing two stories tall and gradually gaining height approaching the center, where they reached over fifty stories. A massive spherical structure marked the capital’s center, rising a hundred feet above the neighboring high-rises. Initial scans indicated it was a solid structure, likely some kind of monument, although to me it looked like the galaxy’s largest golf ball.

I patched into an orbiting spy-sat for a closer look. Thousands of identical tan ground cars were neatly parked along both sides of the narrow streets, but not a single one moved. The city looked clean, well ordered, and wholly deserted. There was no sign of panic, no indication of any hurried evacuation, yet only an hour ago it had been a bustling metropolis.

I replayed the spy-sat footage taken just before we touched down, a scene not so different from what human cities looked like two thousand years ago: pedestrians hustled back and forth along raised walkways, some carrying kids and packages, others empty handed; cars raced through empty streets and carefully weaved in and out of traffic on congested ones; a propeller-driven helicopter landed on the roof of a highrise, discharged its passengers, and took off again. Then, within seconds of Major Saskia T’Lak’s broadcast, all activity had come to an orderly halt. The helicopter landed, cars slid into parking spaces, and pedestrians gathered in tidy clusters. For the next minute every single Borrel stood stock-still listening to some kind of urban announcement system. As abruptly as the aliens had stopped, they began moving again, filing into nearby buildings in a coordinated withdrawal any ACP division would have been proud to emulate. There had been no sign of them since, not a single four-armed latecomer running for shelter or sneaking out to her car for a forgotten child. Nothing. No known civilian populace in the galaxy could accomplish that.

“Sergeant Olafson, you getting anything from up there?” I asked. The big blond sergeant and three of his best pilots were flying a tight circuit around the carrier. He brought his Personal Aerial Assault Vehicle to a hover two miles distant, surveying the vicinity.

PAAVs had replaced AX-6s three hundred years ago. Built for a single pilot, the machines are honeycomb shaped, heavily armored, and can accelerate at 18 gees in any direction, employing miniature containment fields to keep the pilot from being squashed into jelly. PAAVs can reach mach-10 and sub-orbital heights. Various weapons protrude on all sides, but the black, benign looking turret behind the cockpit is their most menacing tool, firing a beam of condensed neutrons at half the speed of light. At full power an N-gun can punch a hole through five feet of reinforced titanium.

“Negative, Captain. Nothing but a bunch of fat six-legged rodents hiding in the brush.”

“Any of them armed?”

“No,” Olafson drawled.

“Then let them be for the moment; but keep them in mind for a barbeque.”

“As guests or the main course?”

“Tell you what, you entertain them, we’ll eat ‘em.” I patched into Kat up on the bridge. “Lieutenant D’Hing, any news?”

Kat’s voice spoke into my ear implant. “I can’t read much through those buildings. The walls are two meters thick and laced with magnetic ore. Without heat emissions Borrels are tough to trace. They may be huddled inside those buildings or in the tunnels under the city.”

“Well, with five million of them they shouldn’t be too hard to find. Any idea what they were listening to before they all disappeared?”

“Still working on it. Initial acoustical imaging results sustain your hypothesis of an urban P.A. system, but the readings are erratic. It’s going to be tricky stringing them together into any kind of lucid structure,” Kat said.

“Keep working on it. What are the other divisions saying?”

“Major T’lak confirms,” Walker answered from the carrier’s bridge. “All divisions report negative contact. The planet’s entire population is holed up, both in the cities and the countryside.”

“Then we’ll have to bring the party to them.”

Jack strode up beside me, cutting an impressive figure in his combat gear. His dark eyes followed my gaze to the city. “Pretty quiet,” he said.

“Too quiet,” I joked.

A bead of sweat ran to the end of Jack’s hawkish nose and dangled indecisively before plunking to the cinnamon colored sand. “You think these four-arms have any surprises in store for us?”

“The smart ones always do.”

Many of the sentient species I’d encountered had barely mastered medieval technologies and were easily shocked into submission. On those missions we were generally in and out within a week. But more developed races tended to have a difficult time accepting that their era of supremacy had drawn to a close, and were rarely subdued without an ugly fight. Unfortunately for these races, when it came to ugly fights we were unparalleled, born and bred to pound the fiercest resistance into meek submission.

Once the Borrels were suitably pacified, Admiral W’a would wake the civilian peacekeepers traveling aboard the settler pods and we’d hand over control to them, staying to assist with alien relocation if needed. Peacekeepers lacked our enhancements and military implants, but they were well trained and well equipped. For a world like this, W’a had probably brought some ten thousand.

After our job was done, we had two days to celebrate the victory, generally entailing plenty of sex, booze, and inflated tales of battlefield heroics. Civilian settlers wouldn’t be brought down until the peacekeepers were properly entrenched and the indigenes suitably shunted aside. The best half of the world would be claimed for the colonists, who would begin breeding like vermin the moment they hit dirt side, pushing Borrels off to ever more distant reservations on undesirable corners of their own world.

“I always feel like a sitting duck before mobilizing,” Jack said, his piercing black eyes scanning the horizon for any sign of trouble. Jack was bursting with archaic analogies, an aficionado on everything relating to Earth, past and present. Though we’d never been within three hundred light years of the cradle of humanity, Jack had gigabytes of information stored on his net, thousands of stories and images of Earth’s species and ancient cultures, including ducks.

Archaic analogy or not, we were hardly sitting ducks, having scattered dozens of satellites into geosynchronous orbit above our operations zone before touchdown. A few were spy sats, serving as our eyes in the sky, providing detailed imaging of the vicinity. The rest were Guardians, equipped with pinpoint targeting systems and formidable lasers. My carrier also possessed its own impressive defensive arsenal, and if all else failed, Major T’lak could provide devastating cover fire from the command pod.

Still, having my entire division clustered in one spot was, to coin another of Jack’s phrases, like placing all my eggs in one basket. We’d all feel better once we mobilized.

Jack stretched his long arms to the horizon, as if to embrace the planet in a hug. “Not a bad world, Brink. A guy could get used to hot, dry weather like this, maybe build a little place on the waterfront and take up fishing—assuming they’ve got fish here.”

“Start a charter service, maybe take up sailing …,” I prodded, well acquainted with my friend’s aspirations. But I was unable to interrupt his train of thought.

“Beats a lifetime of killing. A lifetime, and we’re not even a third of the way there yet; shit, we’ve got thirty-nine years left before retirement! And then what? Teach the next generation the tricks of the trade at the Academy? Or sack down with the old war dogs in heavy gravity on Retreat? I’m telling you it’s true, they cut off your Slowage when you retire.”

Olafson’s PAAV blasted overhead.

“That’s an uncorroborated rumor,” I muttered.

My implants confirmed Jack was scrambling communications. This was a private conversation, but it still made me nervous. Soldiers disappeared for less.

“Who’s going to corroborate anything? They only offer one-way tickets to Retreat. And you know as well as I do the Brass doesn’t want a bunch of old war dogs hanging on for another fifty years. Too expensive; too risky. So that’s our light at the end of the tunnel. Seventy-five years old on a heavy gravity world without Slowage. How long do you think your bones will hold out sequestered on that hellhole? A year? Five? That’s the thanks we get for fifty-five years as assassins for the Empire of Man. A prefab shack on a world nobody else wants and we’re never allowed to leave for fear our old lips might flap in the wrong ears.”

I placed a gloved hand on his armored shoulder. I knew what he was asking, what he wanted. Hell, we all wanted it. But I had my duty to consider. The Brass had placed two hundred men and enough firepower to take on an entire world in my charge, trusting me to ensure this planet did not fall to the Pfrlanx. I couldn’t betray that trust, could I? “You’re a dreamer, Jack. Always have been, even when we were kids.”

Jack shrugged his shoulder away from me. “What’s wrong with dreaming?”

“Nothing. Just don’t lose track of reality.”

Jack’s dark gaze locked onto mine. “Then let the slaughter commence.” His communications flickered back online. “Platoon leaders report.”