Authors: M. ORENDA
Cover art: Adam Soroczynski
Copyright ©2014 Morgan Nicholas. All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced in any form, in whole or in part (beyond that copying permitted by U.S. Copyright Law, Section 107, "fair use" in teaching or research. Section 108, certain library copying permitted by U.S. Copyright Law, Section 107, "fair use" in teaching or research. Section 108, certain library copying, or in published media by reviewers in limited excerpt), without written permission from the publisher.
Published by Tahoe Scientific LLC.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
For Sonny and for “Z”
The author wishes to thank Jeanne and Edward Smith, for their tireless support and steadfast encouragement, without which this book would never have been published. The author is also eternally grateful for the friendship and inspiration provided by US veterans.
EARTH DATE: APRIL 30, 2225. 03:18.
The RS232 Light Bird drops through stiff turbulence, its nose dipping for the final descent, both engines screaming. Voss grabs onto the nearest handhold, bracing for the steep dive into no-man’s land.
Punch in fast. Don’t catch a rocket on the way in. Don’t get filled with lead. Don’t shatter us over the rubble. Just get us to the target area.
The aircraft plows through rough air, bucking as if it’s taking flak.
Voss draws a breath, a moist hiss in the battle suit’s helmet, and glances down the opposite row of troop seats. His team waits in the crimson glow, the three of them sweating in heavy armor, assault rifles slung and shoved between their knees, muzzles pointed at the deck, gear and metal rattling with vibration of the aircraft’s massive tilt rotors.
Welcome to Earth, post the War of Last Nations.
Welcome to what’s left.
A patchwork of hollowed out ghettos, lit solely by barrel fires and small generators, trembles in the compartment’s round windows. In the distance, the city towers still have power, glittering like the skyscrapers of the old days, their glitz muted somewhat by the toxic haze.
Voss waits for tracer fire and sees nothing… so far so good.
Would help if the intel were right this time.
It’s the third extract of the week, and they’re only getting harder.
This time, the package is a seventeen year old girl named ‘Niri”.
Last time it was… Sara, maybe? Voss can’t remember. But they took her out of a hot LZ with mortars raining metal, and he remembers that.
The girls all look the same to him now, which is to say… scared.
But they’re fortunate ones, the ‘gifted’ who get pulled from shanties and battlefields, from what little remains of the mother planet, and put on a ship bound for the New Republic of Mars, for the shining towers of Fort Liberty.
Because they’re born different.
Because they have attributes now crucial to the rebuilding of Earth.
In the back of his mind, maybe there are questions, especially when he looks at one of the girls he’s just rescued from the rubble, expecting her to babble in mathematics, or crack codes, and all she does is stare back, like she knows what’s coming, and it’s not good.
Shitheads like him don’t get know anything more. They get the green light, and they go. If they’re lucky, they come back.
Voss is luckier than most. Twenty-two years of service to Rhys Corporation, Earthbound Security Inc, and to the New Republic of Mars, and they joke about him being a ghost, though he’s spent enough time on a stretcher, spitting blood into a mask under the hot glare of lights, to prove he’s mortal. He’s tattooed and scarred, and he waits for authorization like it’s a Godsend.
He sees the girls afterwards sometimes, just like he sees the guys he’s lost, appearing beside him in the perpetual wasteland between sleeping and waking, that ominous feeling bearing down, even though there’s no visible threat, no movement, no enemy that he can detect.
They say nothing. Sometimes they even smile.
Like he should know what ‘gifted’ means.
“Two minutes, Colonel,” the pilot’s voice cracks on a burst of static.
“Roger that,” Voss responds.
The Light Bird thunders onto its approach path, aircraft leveling, hydraulics whining, nacelles transitioning to full vertical.
“Pucker up, girls,” says Wyatt. “Moon’s out, goon’s out!”
Voss laughs under his breath, knowing that with these words, Wyatt—the unit’s senior ranked sergeant and most feared prankster—is changing gears, slipping back into being the Earthbound’s most lethal hunter, the sniper who set the current record on confirmed enemy kills, more than few at record distance.
The other two guys on the team, Logan and Gojo, are the same, in terms of reputation, having made equally impressive names for themselves defending bases and hitting hostile targets.
Rhys Corporation only contracts the best, the best equipment, and the best soldiers, but even among their hallowed ranks, there is no better ground team.
The jump light flashes green. The cargo ramp’s actuators hiss, lowering to a rush of hot air. The aircraft’s engines scream in the close distance. Auto-gunners swivel on their mounts, both forward and aft, the AI units searching for movement, ready to open up waves of suppressive fire, or launch a few sonic rounds, or gas canisters, or whatever gets the job done.
But the neighborhood below is quiet, thermal scanners showing only families huddling in the dark, bright spots in a dark maze of shanties with aluminum slats for roofs, laundry, trash, whipping in the down draft.
“Blackheart, go.” Voss gives the signal, watching as Wyatt steps onto the short ramp then heaves himself into the twist of air and night, his suit firing small pulses of light; jets to control his descent.
He touches down on a pile of cinderblock, the last remaining corner of a collapsed building, and squats down under a tangle of twisted rebar. Scanning the high ground, he angles his rifle to cover the alley, then releases two skeetos—hovering AI attack units—to lead the way for the team.
They float like tiny helos, humming passively through the comm line.
“Clear,” Wyatt says.
Gojo leaps into the wind, then Logan, each landing in the wet muck between hovels and crouching low, their weapons up, multiple laser sighting beads fanning out into the darkness around them. Voss feels the drop, the hiss of propellants, the battle suit compressing as he touches down behind them.
“Fifty meters, right, yellow sash for a door,” he says, watching as Gojo crosses the alley, leading with the barrel of his M1050. The gun could level an entire block of these rusting stalls, but that wouldn’t mean much if they came up against the kind of traps frequently laid by trained Bounder Army units, their tech not as far behind as it should be, their fighters ready to take out civilians, crater entire villages just to get a company soldier on his knees.
Lots of good men and women, faces from former teams, have gone into situations just like this, thinking that Bounders were not present in a given area, only to discover—in the worst possible way—that they were wrong. If they were lucky, it was a quick death.
Gojo spots the yellow sash and motions to the AIs. Light streams over his visor as the skeetos whiz past him, banking through the slanted doorframe and darting into the squalid corners, scanning shapes. Images bounce back on the visor’s heads-up. No explosives, no wires. One adult male, armed with a crowbar, and two unarmed females.
There’s a whimper, a small cry of desperation from the dark.
“Go.” Voss gives the order.
“Going,” Gojo, rifle up, bursts through the doorframe. “Down!” he bellows at crowbar guy, his voice inhuman through the visor’s mouthpiece. “Drop that thing and get down on the ground!”
“I won’t let you take her.”
“Put it down! Now!”
Crowbar guy stands his ground, too small, too thin, a little brown man made of sticks, trembling in the pinpoint glare of laser sighting. His eyes are wide, the whites so big they shine, instantly glossing with tears.
“My daughter,” he pleads.
“Gojo,” Voss calls. “Watch the door.”
There’s no argument. Gojo is there one minute, and gone the next.
Voss lowers his weapon, addressing the man as gently as he can. “Sir, this is an opportunity. Your daughter isn’t safe here. You know that.”
“Shoot me with your guns. I do not care. She is my daughter.”
For fuck’s sake.
Voss reaches up to his visor and depresses the lock, instantly hit by the stench of human waste and rot as the shield slides up out of the way, revealing his all-too-human face, scars and all.
A rare twinge of sympathy hits him then, fragile at best, gone the second crowbar guy decides to take a swing, or carry on for too much longer. But in this fleeting moment, their eyes meet, and an understanding is struck, amid this hovel of human existence, a rancid space that had been organized, kept as clean as the conditions would allow, clothes hung up high, stacks of pots tilted on a makeshift shelf, one threadbare sheet of bedding for three people.
“This isn’t what you want for her,” Voss says.
“She’s not like you, not like them.” It’s a half-hearted argument, borne of sorrow. “She’s not like any of us.”
“She’s a citizen now. She’ll be protected.”
“Who would grant her that? Our family is nothing. You see where we live.”
“Like you said, she has gifts. We can’t save all. We save the ones who will make a difference, the ones we need to rebuild. Do you understand?”
Crowbar guy hesitates, still ready to swing, teeth clenched.
The girl’s mother puts her hand on the guy’s arm, urging him to relent. She’s small too, her face hidden behind a gauzy green veil, emotion expressed through the quiet method of her movement, graceful, knowing.
“It is the only way to protect her,” the mother says. “You know men have been coming, watching us. She must go, or they will kill her. She has gifts.”
The guy lowers the crowbar, his head bowed, defeated. “She will be alone. Who will protect her like her father and mother?”
“She will be safe.”
The guy lets out a sob and starts praying, hiding his face with his hands.
The mother steps to the side, bringing her daughter into the dim glow generated by Voss’s battle suit. She’s a slip of a girl, maybe seventeen, with dark eyes and thick lashes, black hair neatly braided.
Voss pulls the reader from his belt and scans her retina before she can look away, watching as the confirmation light glows green.
“Niri,” he says. “It’s time to leave this place.”
She looks pained.
The mother whispers something in her language, something Voss doesn’t understand, but it seems heartfelt, an encouragement to accept, to embrace it all maybe… a parting stream of affection.
Wyatt’s voice spats on the comm, all business. “Blackheart Actual, we have movement, thousand yards out, coming toward us.”
Voss slings his weapon and reaches down, picking the girl up. She weighs nothing, her breath a startled rasp. She grabs on to him out of necessity, her hands clinging to his shoulders, the mother urging her to cooperate, stay safe.
“Blackheart has the package,” he confirms over the comm.
“Promise me you will protect her,” the mother cries, desperate.
Voss locks his visor and pushes back through the doorway. Gojo’s on point, and they slip down the street, the team fast on the egress.
Fire blows out, a sparkling bloom where the shanty with the girl’s parents had been, the shock wave nearly shoving Voss off his feet. He shields the girl with his suit, holding her against his chest armor, mud, rocks, and flaming debris raining down in the alley.
The crowbar lands at his feet.
Wyatt opens up, the thud of the long rifle distinct, its massive barrel rocking back with the recoil. Sparks fly up into the murk behind them, battle cries issuing from down the alley. Wyatt’s keeping them at bay, firing one big slug after another, each precise, tearing through aggressors, man or machine.
The Light Bird sails closer, and hovers above the alley, launching gas canisters from its tubes, auto-gunners taking aim.
Gojo and Logan jump from the cinderblocks, suit propellants fire in spurts, turning one leap into a short, hair-raising ascent. Voss follows close behind, pulling a solid 3 Gs on the straight up and sweating in the exposed air, reaching forward to land on the ramp like it wasn’t work.