Authors: W. C. Bauers
Thank you for buying this
Tom Doherty Associates ebook.
To receive special offers, bonus content,
and info on new releases and other great reads,
sign up for our newsletters.
Or visit us online at
For email updates on the author, click
The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied so that you can enjoy reading it on your personal devices. This e-book is for your personal use only. You may not print or post this e-book, or make this e-book publicly available in any way. You may not copy, reproduce, or upload this e-book, other than to read it on one of your personal devices.
Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author's copyright, please notify the publisher at:
For my sons:
Andrew, Nate, and Caleb.
Do hard things.
Thanks to Lt. Col. Gary Foster, U.S. Army (Ret.); Cmdr. Mark Gabriel, USN (Ret.); and SSgt. Stephen Smith, U.S. Army. To John Duff, for your friendship and encouragement. To Evan Ladouceur for continuity and support. To my agent, Cherry Weiner, for keeping me grounded. To my editor, Marco Palmieri, and to Tor Books. To Stephan Martiniere for incredible cover art. To my family and friends for their ongoing support. To the freedom-loving women and men in uniform across the globe who stand in the gap.
IF I AM NOT FOR ME, THEN WHO IS FOR ME? BUT IF I AM ONLY FOR ME, THEN WHAT AM I?
âMoses Maimonides, twelfth-century teacher of the Torah, Pre-Diaspora
YOU MAY NOT BE INTERESTED IN WAR, BUT WAR IS INTERESTED IN YOU.
âLeon Trotsky, Bolshevik revolutionary and Marxist theorist, Pre-Diaspora
THE TRUE SOLDIER FIGHTS NOT BECAUSE HE HATES WHAT IS IN FRONT OF HIM, BUT BECAUSE HE LOVES WHAT IS BEHIND HIM.
âG. K. Chesterton, twentieth-century poet and philosopher, Pre-Diaspora
, 92 A.E., STANDARD CALENDAR, 0545 HOURS
REPUBLIC OF ALIGNED WORLDS PLANETARY CAPITALâHOLD
MARINE CORPS CENTRAL MOBILIZATION COMMAND
A round the size
of Promise's trigger finger hit her like a maglev. It tore through her mechsuit and mushroomed in her chest, just above her heart. Miraculously, it didn't go off. Promise stumbled backward and off the cliff's face, into thousands of meters of darkness. Neuroinhibitors flooded her system almost as fast as the pain.
This is it
flashed across her mind as her body flatlined.
Tomorrow I'm hero-dead.
Her vision grayed out and she lost all feeling in her hands and feet.
Promise rag-dolled in her mechsuitÂ â¦ fell and fell and fell, perilously close to the cliff's face. Her heel caught an outcropping several hundred meters below. Her AI, Mr. Bond, sealed the hole in her chest, and patched and packed it with cauterizing goo. Then Bond isolated the round kissing her heart in a null field, in case it decided to go off on its own timetable. Removing it was out of the question, and beyond the mechsuit's capabilities. A Marine Corps cutter would have to brave that. And there were more pressing matters to attend to. Her heart had stopped beating.
The mechsuit intubated her and zapped her pumper. One, two, threeÂ â¦ six times before her heart's arteries and connective tissues remembered how to work in concert. A single stroke came followed by another, and then a stable
thrum thrum thrum.
Promise gasped, and came to. Her heads-up display blared with error messages she couldn't process. Her ears weren't discriminating sounds. Her body felt disemboweled, as if someone had ripped her soul clean out and now someone else was trying to stuff it back in but the fit was wrong. Insert leg there. No, not there,
The tube down her throat was the worst violation. Mercifully, Bond pulled it out.
“SITREP,” Promise said, the words a faint, hoarse whisper.
“You're in an uncontrolled descent. There's an armor-piercing explosive round in your chest.”
“Is the APER hot?”
Promise exhaled, blinked hard, but still couldn't make sense of her HUD.
“Today is a bad day to die.” Her voice was stronger now, the sky a starless void. “Why aren't my lamps on?”
“Stand by,” said Bond at the same time that her proximity alarm howled.
Promise's forward lamps lit several milliseconds later. She gasped, and threw her hands out in front of her, which sent her tumbling backward end over end. Meters away, the rock face somersaulted in and out of view.
“CouldÂ â¦ haveÂ â¦ warnedÂ â¦ me,” she said through clenched teeth. Down became up became down until she couldn't tell the difference between them anymore.
“I tried, Lieutenant.” Bond sounded mildly put out. “Tuck your arms to your sides. I'll right you.”
Her mechsuit's ailerons bit into the wind, stopped the tumble, and reoriented her: head down, feet up, knifing toward the watery deck. The distance opened between her and the wind-carved face at her six o'clock.
“Twenty-five hundred meters.”
“There's an island up ahead, ten degrees to starboard, three klicks out. Because of the headwind, you'll cover one-point-three klicks before splashing down.”
That means a long swimÂ â¦ if I survive impact.
“Comm the gunny.”
“Your comm is out. The APER pulsed when it hit you, and the pulse knocked out most of your systems, including your heart.
secondary shielding held.
lost weapons, scanners, countermeasures, braking thrusters, and the gravchute. You're going to hit hard.”
“â¦ Of my armor? You've got to be kidding.”
“You tweaked my personality chip to make that impossible, ma'am.” Bond sounded a bit too sure of itself for Promise to be sure her tweaking had fully taken hold.
“Mr. Bond, I don't believe
Her AI made a
ing sound, three times. “Let's debate that later, ma'am, during my next inspection. Your beegees were recently upgraded. Use your microgravchute embedded in the fabric between your shoulder blades.” Her beegees, or standard-issue mechsuit underarmor, were good for a lot of things. Prevented chafing. Absorbed energy fire. Made using the head while suited tolerable. Barely. The microgravchute was going to come in handy. But first she had to bailÂ â¦ out of her armorÂ â¦ which was the only thing keeping her alive at the moment.
“It's double-shielded and should still work. Theoretically. I lost my link to it so I can't tell if it's operational. You'll have to manually activate it.”
“And if it doesn't work?”
now. “Passing three thousand meters.”
This is going to be fun.
“Did I see lights overhead while we were flipping?”
“Someone went over the cliff's face with us,” Bond said. “I can't tell friendly from foe, not without my scanners.”
“It won't matter if we botch the landing,” Promise said. She stretched her limbs to slow her fall, and then made a slight correction with one hand, and rotated onto her back. “Open up on three and stay level. I'll rise. You fall away.”
“Roger that,” Bond said. “Good luck, ma'am.”
“On my mark.” She counted down from three. “Mark!”
Her mechsuit's chest, arms, and shanks unsealed. The air chilled her to the marrow. She felt the slightest movement upward before the suction ripped her out of her suit and into the open sky. For a moment she felt like a leaf blown about the air by an unrelenting gale. She wrestled the wind for control for several seconds. Far below her the lamps on her mechsuit grew dim.
Promise spread-eagled to kill as much speed as possible. She pressed her right thumb against her pinkie for a two-count. Her mechsuit's lamps vanished.
Bond just splashed down.
She flexed the thumb again. Prayed the drive-by-wire backup transmitted the impulse from her thumb to her minigravchute. She was nearly panic-stricken when the chute deployed a second later and dislocated her left shoulder.
Her descent slowed to a survivable fall before reaching an all-stop. Her night vision intensified until the darkness around her lifted. The sun crested the horizon. Howling winds fell silent. Promise looked down, looked between her mechboots, looked at the endless indigo ocean for as far as the eye could see. Her arms flailed widely for something to grab hold of as the fear of falling warred with her other senses; contrary to the laws of physics, she was standing on air. No, she was floating. Flying, maybe? Somehow she was hundreds of meters above the watery deck, holding station. After a few moments of abject terror she willed herself to calm down.
I'm not falling. I'm safe. Relax, P, you can figure this out.
A far-off object entered her field of view. A door perhaps, maybe a person. It was moving toward her. The door became a human silhouette and then a heavily damaged mechsuit: armor crushed; helmet lost somewhere in the clouds. The driver's eyes were open, lifeless. Now she could see the rank on the driver's armor and her bloodshot eyes. Then another mechsuit floated into view. Promise turned her head and saw not one but three lifeless bodies, all suited, all closing in. None wore helmets. Their faces were cadaver blue. Their hair waved gently in the air though no breeze stirred it. With nothing to grab ahold of or push off from, somehow Promise was able to rotate in the air and look behind her. The sky was raining dead Marines. Above her. Below her. The nearest boot opened his mouth to speak.
“Lance Corporal Tal Covington, present.” The voice howled like a wind-shot cavern. Covington's eyes rolled up into his head and began to bleed. Then his body blew apart.
Promise threw her hands up without thinking, slammed her eyes shut to blunt the bright flash of light that followed. A moment later it dawned upon her that she was still alive, not blown to quarks. When she dared to look, Covington was still floating in the sky, two meters away, but his body was rent asunder. The explosion had frozen in process milliseconds after happening. Covington's armor was cracked a thousand ways, his organs and bones stitched together with little else but air.
To her right, Promise heard labored breathing, followed by an anguished cry that punched her squarely in the gut. A blast of heat swept over her, blistering the side of her face, her lips, and the inside of her mouth; the taste of death was on her tongue. Turning, she saw a mechsuit engulfed in fire. The wearer was desperately trying to put the flames out with what was left of his gauntlets. She couldn't look away from the hands. Metal and flesh clung stubbornly to skeletal hands. Then, as unexpectedly as the blaze had appeared, it simply went out. The smoking remains of a scorched mechanized Marine came to attention, and a blackened skull opened its mouth. Bits of charred flesh dangled from its upper lip. “Corporal Vil Fitzholm, present.”