Book: When the Axe Falls

When the Axe Falls

When the Axe Falls

The Omega War Book 7


Jon R. Osborne

PUBLISHED BY: Seventh Seal Press

Copyright © 2018 Jon R. Osborne

All Rights Reserved

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Cover Art by Ricky Ryan

Cover Design by Brenda Mihalko

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License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only and may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

This book is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.

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Mom—thanks for starting me off on a diet of Asimov, Niven, and Heinlein. I hope you’d add this book to your collection.

Mark and Chris—thanks for letting me play in your sandbox.

Four Horseman Fans—thanks for making this universe go from a collection of books to a phenomenon. Your enthusiasm and support are inspiring and humbling.

Valhalla Awaits!

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Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33


About the Author

Connect with Jon R. Osborne Online

Excerpt from Book One of the Salvage Title Trilogy:

Excerpt from Book One of The Milesian Accords:

Excerpt from Book One of In Revolution Born:

Excerpt from Book One of the Earth Song Cycle:

* * * * *


Paso-Juarez, Earth—12 years ago

The setting sun threw long shadows across the parking lot as the quartet of motorcycles crunched across the gravel parking lot, trailing a cloud of dust. Unlike the rumbling petrol burners of old, these bikes glided along, accompanied by an electric whine. The lead cycle was a muscular black and chrome Harley as opposed to the sleeker machines trailing it.

The burly rider matched his motorcycle. His bulging arms were bare, save for a tribal tattoo encircling his right arm. The back of his black leather vest bore the crest of Bjorn’s Berserkers, a rampant bear and the slogan “Valhalla Awaits.” He brought the bike to a halt and swung off the machine while bringing down the kickstand.

“Really, Trip? Should I go ahead and call the bondsman to get you out of jail?” the second rider asked. Compared to the lead rider’s two-meter tall, 150-kilo frame, Bill Hawkins appeared of modest build in his jacket, also emblazoned with the Berserkers’ logo. “I thought we were going to celebrate your promotion, not get in a rumble and tear up this bar again.”

Bjorn Tovesson III pulled off his helmet and shook out his mane of unruly hair. “Bill, you act like every time I come here we get in a fight. It’s been four months since we’ve been in a brawl here.”

“Only because the locals have learned to recognize your hairy ass,” Bill remarked, stowing his own helmet. The other two riders, also from the Berserkers, did the same. “We could have gone into Las Cruces.”

“Those wannabe-hipsters get their knickers in a twist when mercs roll into town,” Bjorn rumbled. He ran a hand over his beard, the bushy growth held in check by two braids. “They forget mercenaries are the ones who pay for their fucking government subsidies. I can respect someone being pissy because I slugged them in a brawl. I won’t abide lazy shits giving me the stink-eye because they think mercs are evil while they cash their government guaranteed income cards.”

“LT, you’re not going to talk Big Man out of it,” Sergeant Roger Hubbard said. The bald man grinned, his smile brilliant against his dark skin. “He has a soft spot for the señoritas and their caliente accents.”

“Not to mention the cerveza,” Sergeant Antonio Salvio added. Of the four men, he was the smallest at a mere 185 centimeters and 100 kilos. The bigger men were CASPer operators, muscling the powered battle armor into combat. Salvio, on the other hand, drove an armored rumbler, a six-wheeled military vehicle. “Those bars in Las Cruces are all on the retro beer kick. Everything is pale ale this and hoppier than that.”

“I don’t want my beer to smell like a dirty hippie,” Bjorn agreed as they strode toward the entrance. The sign over the wide wooden steps read “El Diablo Barracho” with a cartoonish hologram of a red devil chugging a beer. Bjorn pushed the door open and stepped into a wall of noise. The air was little cooler inside than outside and reeked of beer, smoke, and spicy food. “The Mead Hall on base is fine if I want to toss back a beer, but it lacks ambience.”

Bill Hawkins shook his head as he followed. The patrons closest to the door took notice of the mercs’ arrival. Bill heard a few mutter “El Oso”—The Bear—to their fellows.

“Yeah, I can smell the ambience,” Hubbard remarked as he crossed the threshold. “Stinks like the cab of your rumbler, Salvi.”

“At least it doesn’t reek like the inside of your CASPer,” Salvio retorted. “Hey, Captain, you’re buying the first round, right?”

“Yup, as soon as we grab a table,” Bjorn called over the din of people and music. Weaving through the crowd, he spotted a freshly abandoned table and led the way. Easing his bulk into a wooden chair, he waited for the others to take their seats before hitting the call beacon. A shaft of blue light illuminated the haze and cast a bright circle on the ceiling overhead. “Another advantage of this place—I don’t have to listen to the old-timers mutter I got promoted because my father runs the firm.”

“You didn’t get it the first time you applied,” Bill said. Normally soft-spoken, Hawkins had to raise his voice to be speak over the crowd. “You father told you that you weren’t ready yet to run a company.”

“He was probably right,” Bjorn admitted. “Don’t tell him I said so.”

A harried waitress emerged from the crowd. Bjorn recognized Maria. She was cute but also very taken. “You’re not going to wreck the place again, are you?” she asked in English. “I was here all night cleaning up last time you trashed the joint.”

“I’ll try to behave, Maria,” Bjorn replied, a grin lifting the corners of his beard. “We’re here to celebrate, not pick a fight. I finally made captain, and my buddy Bill made lieutenant. Bring us a couple pitchers of Tecate and a round of tequila, por favor.”

Bjorn pretended not to notice as Maria reached over the table and clicked off the call beacon. She already had enough chollos and autotruck handlers hitting on her, not to mention her boyfriend would rightfully be pissed. While Bjorn liked to throw down, he didn’t want to be the asshole in the equation.

As soon as Maria departed, a busboy took her place and hurriedly cleared the table. A few minutes later she returned with their drinks, along with a salt shaker and a pile of lime wedges. “Try not to get too feisty,” she said. “You want anything to eat?”

“Do I look like I pass up food?” Bjorn joked, and thumped his meaty chest. “You guys want some tacos dorados? Yeah? How about a basket of beef and a basket of chicken, please?”

“Sure thing,” the waitress replied and disappeared back into the crowd.

A peal of laughter from the next table caught Bjorn’s attention. Six young women were crowded around the table while a lone man stood on the other side. They were too well dressed to be chollitas, gang-bangers, and not young enough to be coeds from El Paso University playing tourist. They appeared to be closer to his age.

Bjorn leaned toward the woman closest to him. “You ladies having a bachelorette party?” he asked in Spanish.

The woman gave him an irritated glance, then her eyes went wide. She elbowed the woman sitting next to her, then replied in accented English, “No, we are celebrating graduating from nursing school.” She gave Bjorn a smile. “None of us are getting married.”

“The night’s still young,” Bjorn replied. Bill sighed, Roger chuckled, and Antonio muttered something under his breath. “We’re celebrating as well. My buddy and I were both promoted in our mercenary company. Why don’t we pull our tables together and have a joint celebration?”

“Well…” She glanced to her friends. After a couple of nods and no objections, she shrugged and said, “Why not? I’m Julia.”

Bjorn shook the proffered hand. “I’m Bjorn.” As introductions were made around both tables, Bjorn moved his chair aside, then caught hold of Julia’s chair and pulled it alongside his, with her still in it.

“Excuse me, I was talking to these ladies,” said the forgotten man standing next to the women’s table protested. He was older, maybe mid-thirties. If his eyes were lasers, they would have burned a hole through Bjorn. He wore a tailored suit and was too well-groomed to fit in with the Diablo’s usual clientele. Bjorn couldn’t see his feet, but he suspected he was wearing fancy leather shoes, maybe ostrich skin or gator hide.

Bjorn dragged the table away from the man. “Nothing says you can’t keep talking, but I’m not buying your drinks.” Bjorn clicked on the call light. “You ladies on the other hand, your drinks are on me. Let’s celebrate!”

As the tables broke into a chorus of cheers, the man stalked off. Bjorn quickly forgot about him as another round of drinks were ordered and toasts were made.

* * *

Pablo Vargas chuckled as the man rejoined him. “Cristobal, I see you met El Oso. I don’t know why you went trolling for chicas when I brought along plenty.” Vargas swept his hand across the private alcove. There were half a dozen beautiful women in short, tight, colorful dresses—obviously professional entertainment or chollitas hoping to upgrade from local gangs to the cartels.

“I do not need to have women provided for me,” Cristobal Sanchez protested, shrugging a woman’s hand off his shoulder. “In Coahuila, we would not put up with those gringo mercenaries.”

The Cartel-State of Coahuila encompassed what had been the Mexican states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas. Cristobal wasn’t from the ruling family, but he was well-placed in the organization. His family had made a fortune leasing land to the Monterrey starport. Rich and connected, in Coahuila he might as well be royalty.

“Do not be so dour,” Vargas chided. Cristobal assumed Vargas chose this establishment for their meeting as an insult. Vargas was Cristobal’s counterpart in the Cartel-State of Sonora-Chihuahua. Their Cartel-States were licking their chops at the imminent collapse of Durango, a third Cartel-State. The gran jefes of both sides hoped to avoid conflict, which could draw the meddling of the General Assembly. “We have booze, we have beautiful women, and we have a lot to talk about. You are not the first man to back down from El Oso.”

“I did not back down from the gringo rube.” Cristobal spat the last word. Glowering in the general direction of the celebrating tables, he drained his beer. One of the women, clad in a skintight silver dress, replaced the empty beer. Cristobal did not spare her a glance. “We are here to talk business, let us talk business.”

Fortunately for Cristobal, the Coahuila Cartel had pre-negotiated most of the logistics. In exchange for a large slice of Durango, the Coahuila Cartel would also support Sonora-Chi’s absorption of Sinaloa. Despite the alcove being separated from the main floor, he could still hear the huge gringo’s roaring laugh as though the man were mocking him.

“Are we in agreement?” Vargas asked after an hour of droning on about border adjustments, distribution networks, and local government tithes to the respective cartels.

“What? Yes, of course.” Cristobal handed off yet another empty beer bottle. “Let us sign.” He pulled out his stylus and reached for the slate containing the results of their negotiations. He didn’t even glance at the maps or documents as he signed.

“Splendid.” Vargas picked up the slate and added his own signature. “If you are uncomfortable, my friend, we can move our celebration to the penthouse suite at the Hyatt Consulado. I know you are used to less…earthy establishments, and you will be safe from El Oso.”

“I am not afraid of some gringo mercenary,” Cristobal spat. “If we were in Coahuila, I would make him grovel.”

Vargas picked up the slate and handed it to an assistant. “Do not let me stop you. We are allies; if you need to put El Oso in his place, feel free. Treat this as you would at home.”

Señor, do not be hasty,” Cristobal’s assistant cautioned, pulling himself away from an imported blonde. “This mercenary is not worth the trouble.”

Cristobal patted his jacket under his left arm. “It will be no trouble, Miguel.” He gestured for his guards to follow him as he descended the steps from the VIP alcove and wove his way across the floor.

Cristobal heard the roaring laugh again as the crowd parted before him.

* * *

Julia sat in Bjorn’s lap, tickling his chin under his beard. It was almost time to see if he could seal the deal and offer her a ride back to her apartment, which was only a mile away. The fact that she’d pointed out how close she lived had given Bjorn confidence. Everyone seemed to be having a good time; even Bill had loosened up. Tequila and a woman’s interest could have that effect.

Bjorn looked up and spotted the suit as he emerged from the crowd trailed by a couple of goons. He gave a quick peek at the shoes—snakeskin; he was close. Loki damn it all, he shouldn’t have waited to finish his beer; he should have split with Julia as soon as she mentioned her apartment.

“I’m still not buying your drinks,” Bjorn quipped, sliding Julia off his lap.

“What you’ll be doing is apologizing,” the man said, pulling back his jacket enough to reveal a holstered 9mm pistol.

Bjorn flipped open his vest to reveal his 12mm Heckler and Glock. As a teenager, he’d used the massive handgun to scramble the brains of the Kodiak bear that had shredded his left arm. “Fuck you, mine is bigger.” Bjorn let his vest fall back over the holstered weapon and stood. The tribal-style morphogenic tattoos on his right arm flowed into a bear rising on its hind legs.

“I’ve fought alien monsters that would haunt your nightmares and make you piss the bed, so I’m not afraid of a fancy suit with a gun,” Bjorn rumbled. The crowd around them retreated, giving them space. “I’m having a really good night, so I’m going to give you a chance to walk away. Pull the gun, and you’ll regret it. Your choice.”

Bjorn had to admit, the man was fast, as he stepped in to shield those behind him. The suit brought the pistol up, and Bjorn grabbed the end of it with his left hand. The encounter with the Kodiak had destroyed Bjorn’s left arm; since then, he sported a cybernetic replacement. While living skin covered the artificial limb, it was far stronger than his flesh and blood arm.

The man pulled the trigger, but nothing happened; the slide was out of the battery and wouldn’t budge. His mechanical hand still clamped over the gun, Bjorn tore it from his opponent’s grasp, dislocating the man’s trigger finger in the process. Bjorn’s right fist connected with Snake-Shoe’s cheek, sending him stumbling into his bodyguards.

In a split-second, Bjorn had jettisoned the clip and cleared the round in the chamber. He tossed aside the empty weapon as Snake-Shoes came back for more, flipping out a magnetic knife. His buddies fanned out and reached for their jackets.

“Bill, if those assholes pull guns, shoot them,” Bjorn yelled. Snake-Shoes kept his arm cocked, ready to strike like a coiled snake rather than waving the blade around, as Bjorn stepped in. The knife shot forward; if Bjorn hadn’t been faster, the blade would have punctured his abdomen. His opponent must have known a heart-stab would be as likely to glance off his ribs as strike true. A belly shot would put Bjorn on the defensive; it was a sound tactic. It didn’t matter. Bjorn’s left hand clamped on the man’s wrist.

Bjorn saw stars and coughed air from his lungs as Snake-Shoes kicked him in the nuts. Bjorn twisted enough to deflect part of the impact, but it still hurt like hell. The two goons charged in, so Bjorn shoved Snake-Shoes into the one on the left hard enough to bowl them both over.

“Shouldn’t you help him?” Julia asked Bill.

“Against three guys? Not unless they pull guns,” Bill replied.

The goon on the right launched a tae kwon do kick-punch combo. Bjorn blocked the kick, but the punch caught him in the ribs. Bjorn slammed the man in the chest with the palm of his left hand. Right-goon flailed his arms as he sprawled into the crowd. Left-goon returned with a savage kick aimed for Bjorn’s head. Bjorn caught the man’s ankle with his right hand, the impact sending a jolt through his arm. Bjorn slammed his cybernetic hand down on the man’s knee. Bone and cartilage crunched, and the man screamed in pain. He collapsed to the floor as Bjorn released his grip.

Snake-Shoes lashed out with his knife. Bjorn twisted aside, but the razor-sharp blade still split open the leather on his vest, revealing the ballistic mesh underneath. Bjorn pistoned his left fist out, smashing it into Snake-Shoes face, and blood burst from his crushed nose. He fell back, and his skull smacked against the floor.

Right-goon extricated himself from the crowd, but spotted Snake-Shoes crumpled on the floor.

“Better take care of your buddies,” Bjorn said, picking up his mug from the table and draining it. “I have better things to do than whip your ass, so don’t make me.”

Right-goon held up his hands, then knelt next to Snake-Shoes.

Bjorn turned to Julia and took her hand. “Come on, sweetheart. Let’s take a ride.”

* * *

Vargas watched El Oso leave with a woman trailing behind him. He sent a couple of his men to help Cristobal and his guards extricate themselves.

This had turned better than he expected. Vargas hadn’t needed the chollo gang to create an incident with Cristobal after all.

 A first response team waited outside the bar with an ambulance, not that it would do Cristobal any good. The first responder team was in Vargas’ pocket as well. Cristobal would not reach a hospital alive.

The fact that he could pin it on an American mercenary was icing on the cake.

* * *

Torrean, Coahulia

Rodrigo Sanchez knocked at the door to his uncle’s study and entered when beckoned. His sister, Elena, was already seated in one of the high-backed leather chairs facing the antique desk. Rodrigo moved to the other chair.

“I have bad news, I’m afraid,” Tio Ronaldo announced. “Your brother Cristobal is dead.”

Rodrigo clutched the arms of his chair in surprise. “What? Did the Sonoro-Chi cartel double-cross us?”

Ronaldo shook his head. “Sadly, no. From what our own people have said, Cristobal got into a fight with a mercenary, and the merc killed him.”

“Have the Sonoros killed the merc?” Rodrigo asked. “Can they send him to us, so we can get our justice?”

“The mercenary has not been arrested,” Ronaldo said. “By all accounts, Cristobal initiated the fight and pulled a gun, then a knife. The mercenary killed him bare-handed in self-defense.”

“Since when do laws or right and wrong matter to the Sonoros?” Elena scoffed. “They should arrest this merc and hand him over.”

“It’s not so simple,” Ronaldo said. “Cartel-State militias are no match for mercenaries. Cristobal’s killer is the son of a large mercenary firm, Bjorn’s Berserkers. There is no way they’d sit for him being incarcerated.”

“Cowards,” Rodrigo sneered.

“It is a fact of life, nephew.” Ronaldo shrugged helplessly. “The only thing that can stand up to a mercenary outfit is another mercenary outfit.”

Then that is what I need, Rodrigo thought. I will build a mercenary organization, and one day I will wipe out these Berserkers and kill the man who murdered my brother.

* * * * *

Chapter 1

QlunSha Colony, Tua’Qlu

Dirt and debris kicked up as the QlunSha transport descended on thundering thrusters. Private David Chang was grateful he was in his Combat Assault System, Personal, battle armor. More commonly known as a CASPer, the powered suit protected him from the flying detritus thrown up by the spaceship’s wash. Unprotected workers on the QlunSha ground crew scrambled for cover.

The private opened a channel on the tactical network. “Chang to command. Are we expecting a meat-wagon? I thought the Qlunies were still chewing on the last load of lepudonts?”

The QlunSha were not a fighting race, despite their appearance. They lacked heads, and their faces were set between their broad shoulders, composed of two beady eyes and a large mouth full of triangular teeth. Their long muscular arms almost reached the ground and ended in clawed hands. A crest of horns topped their torsos and a thick mane of hair ran down their back.

QlunSha were carnivorous and liked their meat fresh. Regular shipments of lepudonts, rabbit-analogs the size of a large goat, arrived at the mining outpost to be slaughtered and roasted. Chang had tried the meat and found it tasted like goat. It was better than freeze-dried rations…if you could stomach eating with the Qlunies.

“This shipment is two days early, Private, but the QlunSha have cleared the ship.” Sergeant Wei replied over the comms.

Chang shrugged. “Acknowledged.” So far, the garrison contract was routine but very lucrative for a small company like the Jade Dragons. They only had twenty-four CASPer troopers and kept six on duty at all times to protect the mining outpost. So far, their employers’ fears concerning a rival hiring a MinSha raiding party had proven unfounded. That was fine with Chang. As nice as the combat bonus was, not getting shot up by giant bugs was better.

The cargo ramp peeled away from the hull, dropping to the fused concrete tarmac. Before the ramp was halfway down, CASPers spilled from the ship, opening fire on anything resembling a target, which Chang quickly realized included his CASPer. Magnetic accelerator cannon rounds tore into his armor’s left leg as he maneuvered the bulky suit toward cover.

The Dragons’ tactical channel erupted in panic. Indicators for all comm channels lit up in his helmet’s display. CASPers meant humans. Why were human mercenaries here? Human commanders didn’t knowingly take contracts against other human units. Aliens quickly learned tricking humans into fighting each other produced unreliable results. A larger unit might accept surrender from a smaller unit, possibly even partially compensating them for the forfeiture. Merc commanders might dissect their contracts to reach a compromise, which let both parties save face and fulfill partial conditions. One legend had a pair of evenly matched merc companies settled their conflict with a drinking match between the commanders.

His commander’s voice sounded over the comms and from speakers. “Assaulting force, this is Colonel Ping Cho of the Jade Dragons. I demand to speak to your commander!”

Chang watched as a trio of attacking CASPers lumbered into view. They were the new Mk 8s, smaller and much faster than the private’s hulking Mk 6. All the enemy armor was black, save for designation numbers and the unit insignia on each shoulder. The logo was a stylized jaguar head set against a black circle surrounded by a yellow ring. Chang recognized it—El Espejo Obscuro.

El Espejo Obscuro was a mercenary outfit from what had been northern Mexico, before the country collapsed into a collection of feudal states ruled by drug lords. After human mercenaries started winning more than losing, one of those drug lords invested heavily to start up a mercenary company. The Espejos developed a reputation for taking the types of jobs other human merc companies were squeamish to take, but Chang had never heard of them hitting other human units.

The comm channel crackled again. “Colonel Cho, this is Commander Rodrigo Sanchez. Your men are woefully outgunned and we will slaughter them before they can get into their CASPers. I demand your unconditional surrender.”

The left-hand soldier of the trio had spotted him. Chang held his breath as he cursed the Mk 8’s 360-degree camera array. He checked his status display. It showed his left leg was compromised, with damage to multiple servos, freezing his suit’s left foot. A few inches higher and his flesh and blood foot would have been blown off.

Chang brought his laser to bear as the three turned toward him, their MAC rifles drawing a bead on him. Like the armor, the rifles appeared state-of-art.

“Commander Sanchez, we surrender,” the colonel announced. “I will not throw my men’s lives away.”

Chang let out a sigh and lowered his laser. He could have probably taken out one of the enemies, but the other two would have perforated him. The din of battle quickly faded as both sides stopped firing.

“Very good, Colonel Cho. I hope you understand why we can’t leave any witnesses.”

The colonel’s protests were drowned out as a hailstorm of hyper-velocity MAC rounds punched through Chang’s suit. He felt something warm flowing down his body as his helmet displays went dark, followed by the rest of the world.

* * *

Commander Sanchez watched his men methodically wiped out both the Jade Dragons and the QlunSha. The pretense of accepting the surrender had delayed the Dragons long enough for an Espejo CASPer squad to reach the cradled off-duty battle armor. Nineteen Mk 6 CASPers sat idle, and the squad the Dragons had on guard were quickly wiped out. The defenders inflicted so little damage Commander Sanchez expected his patron to try to weasel out of paying the combat bonus.

The notion rankled Sanchez, stealing some of the pleasure from their easy victory. He had to remind himself he was playing a long game. Let the weasel clutch a few more credits for now. Once everything fell into place, Sanchez stood to become the wealthiest mercenary on Earth.

“Not day-dreaming, are you, brother?” his sister Elena teased over their private channel. The ramp vibrated as her CASPer strode up to stand next to him. “I know this is an easy job, but you never know when one of these vachos might grow a pair.”

“Unlikely, and if they did have cajones, I know I can count on you to cut them off,” Rodrigo countered. Elena was his second-in-command. Where Rodrigo considered himself ruthless, Elena was outright vicious.

“You say the sweetest things, big brother.” They kept such banter private. Elena was always coldly professional in front of the troops. The soldiers referred to her as La Doncella Hierra, the Iron Maiden…but only out of her earshot. The jet-black prosthetic eye that replaced one lost to a Jeha blade only added to her fearsome demeanor. Elena knew about the moniker and was proud of it.

“I am trying to figure out how our employer will short change us on bonuses,” Rodrigo stated. Only six CASPers had taken any damage, and of those, only one trooper was injured. “This mission was too easy.”

“There’s always salvage,” Elena remarked. “If our employer doesn’t offer enough, we could sell them at Bartertown, Earth, or New Mecca.”

“New Mecca? Asbaran Solutions is in no position to buy our salvage,” Rodrigo countered. Asbaran was one of the fabled Four Horsemen, the prima donnas of the human mercenary industry. Even though Asbaran Solutions and Cartwright’s Cavaliers had both fallen on hard times, their names were still highly respect in merc circles.

“There are many smaller groups with money and anger to spare,” Elena said.

An explosion erupted from across the outpost as a hydrogen cell plant went up in flames. Elena’s CASPer shifted until she ascertained there was no threat. “There are many with deep pockets on New Mecca, eager to carry on their jihad against the MinSha.”

During first contact, a radical Islamist terrorist had killed the alien ambassador in a suicide bomb attack. The aliens responded by having MinSha mercenaries reduce most of Iran to glass and rubble. Over 80 million Muslims died in the retributive strikes.

His sister was an expert on anger, Rodrigo thought. “A good point,” he admitted. The fanatics at New Mecca would be eager for the hardware, even if it was two generations out of date. “Have the CASPers scrubbed and loaded. As for the rest of the potential salvage, confer with Aldo.”

Elena snorted over the comm channel, as though Rodrigo didn’t already know she loathed Aldo Mercado. Aldo was Rodrigo’s oldest friend, going back to their shared childhood in the barrio, as well as Rodrigo’s aide. Elena and Aldo were his right and left hands—Elena led the soldiers into battle, and Aldo made sure the credits and ammunition flowed.

Aldo’s icon winked onto the private channel. “Make sure Elena doesn’t let her troops blow up the salvage,” he said, as though he didn’t realize Elena was on the channel. Rodrigo shook his head. His two captains were a bottle of tequila away from a night of angry sex—assuming Elena didn’t kill Aldo first.

“My soldiers know their orders,” Elena responded coolly. “I’ll worry about my soldiers, and you keep pinching your pesos.

“What have I said about this bickering during an operation?” Rodrigo snapped. While their verbal sparring could be amusing in a cantina, it had no place in the field.

“As you say,” Elena relented.

“My apologies, Commander,” Aldo replied.

“Good. What is the status of the jamming?” Their employer had provided the Espejo with state-of-the-art jamming gear to make sure word of their attack did not make it off-world. In Rodrigo’s experience, state-of-art often meant not all the bugs were worked out.

“The jamming satellite and drone network worked as advertised,” Aldo reported. “No signals made it to orbit. The Cochkala transport we spotted left orbit before our forces landed. Assuming they are carrying the last data packets from the world, it will be that much longer before anyone suspects something is amiss.”


Rodrigo checked the stack of timers on the right side of his display, focusing on the next stargate window. Having a stargate activated off-window was expensive and would cut deeply into the profits of this mission. “You have eight hours for salvage and scrub operations. Elimination of witnesses trumps loot. Find me something big and explosive. A small fusion detonation would do wonders to cover our tracks.”

Si,” Elena acknowledged, and her CASPer lumbered down the ramp. Rodrigo knew she was already giving orders to her sergeants. Throughout the mining outpost, they would be eradicating stragglers and gathering any useful gear, with a bit of trophy-taking on the side.

“Rodrigo, where did you come up with a QlunSha transport?” Aldo asked.

“My Uncle Pedro deals in spaceships, and he isn’t picky about who he deals with,” Rodrigo replied. “His motto is se habla alien.”

* * * * *

Chapter 2

Paso-Juarez, Earth

The border between Texas and Chihuahua was a formality in the metropolis formed by the fusion of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. The combined cities boasted a population of four million, two-thirds of which lived on the southern side of the border where housing was cheap enough to risk the higher crime rate. Nortanos, those who lived north of the muddy trickle known as the Rio Grande, regularly ventured south in search of inexpensive goods and cheap entertainment.

El Diablo Barracho provided both. There were no cervezas artesanales, artisanal beers, on tap. The Diablo offered the two most popular Mexican lagers, a light variant of one, and a lime pilsner. Likewise, the liquor shelf boasted no boutique labels. The booze was for drinking, not posturing. The pool tables were one Earth dollar per game and worked most of the time. The cage dancers were rarely visibly pregnant.

The clientele was split between chollos from the local barrios, truck handlers from the nearby depots, and turistos nortanos. The latter were often from one of the colleges in old El Paso, students on mom’s and dad’s dime seeking thrills. The smarter ones didn’t carry cash; the less intelligent ones occasionally learned an expensive lesson.

Tamara Reeves watched her girlfriend lean over the pool table to line up a shot. She especially appreciated the khaki shorts and long socks popular with college girls. “Sweetie, as much as I dig the whole coed vibe you’re rocking, don’t you think you’re laying it on a little thick with the whole bar bait thing?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Charlotte Wicza replied with mock innocence. She completed her ensemble with a University of Texas T-shirt, and her long chestnut hair was tied back in a ponytail. She could easily blend in with undergrad students five years her junior. “If we wanted to go off-base, it was here or Las Cruces, and the bars there have been taken over by people with expensive tastes and pretentious fashion.”

The balls clicked as Charlotte’s shot caromed off the bumper. With a sigh, she stepped back from the table. Picking up her beer from the sideboard, she took a drink as Hcuff’t approached the table for his turn. The H’rang, a bipedal felinoid alien, surveyed the layout of the pool balls.

“Maybe we should have invited Padre Jim?” Priya Surjit suggested. All four of them were members of Bjorn’s Berserkers, a mercenary company based on what had once been the White Sands Missile Range, a dozen miles to the north. “He’s been in his office for the last two weeks, except Sunday services and meetings.”

“I think someone is sweet on Padre Jim,” Charlotte teased with a rare smile. “However, our chaplain already thinks I’m a basket case. If we do get in a scrap here, it would cement his opinion.”

“I thought you were buds with Padre Jim,” Tamara said. The tall, dark-skinned woman put her arm around Charlotte. “Especially after you saved his bacon on Tervezet—twice!”

“I wouldn’t say we’re pals,” Charlotte replied. “I find him a rare example of a decent man, and he genuinely cares about people. I usually don’t mind our counselling sessions, but don’t tell Commander Tovesson I said so.”

Tamara laughed. “Your secret is safe with me, Sweetie. Now, I am curious about Priya having a thing for our man-of-the-cloth.”

Priya turned away, blushing. “It’s not a big deal. It’s not as though his sect requires celibacy or anything.”

“Your human mating rituals are confusing,” Hcuff’t remarked between shots. “Eight ball, corner pocket.”

“I can’t argue with you there,” Charlotte said. “Wait—eight ball?”

“Yes, I cleared the remaining balls with solid coloration,” the felinoid replied. “I am now declaring the pocket I will shoot the eight ball into to win the game.”

“You mean where you’ll try to…” Tamara began, her voice trailing off as the eight-ball thumped into the designated pocket. “I’m glad we didn’t play for money.”

“I like this game,” Hcuff’t stated, returning his pool cue to the rack. “The minute variations in the table surface make the objective challenging.”

“Challenging?” Priya laughed. “You cleared five shots while we were blathering away.”

The H’rang picked up his beer. It turned out the alien enjoyed the lime pilsner with a dash of salt. “Is that not the objective?”

“It is,” Tamara admitted. “We’re surprised you did it so quickly. I bet you’d make one hell of a sniper or gunner.”

Hcuff’t shuddered. “Violence is abhorrent. I fix and pass out guns; I do not shoot them.”

A middle-aged man approached them and drawled, “Looks like you wrapped up your game.” His clothing marked him a drover, one of the drivers who handled autonomous trucks in the depots where freight was loaded and unloaded. He cast a suspicious glance at Hcuff’t before settling his gaze on Charlotte. “I see you have a stack of undies”—the Earth dollar coins—“I was hoping my friend and I could join you.”

“We’re having a night out,” Tamara said, before Charlotte could provoke them.

“Come on, we’ll buy the drinks,” the man offered. “I’m Emil, my friend is Mitch. The chollos are hogging the rest of the tables, and I bet you’d be better company.”

“There’s a whole table of drovers,” Charlotte remarked, nodding to where half a dozen men pretended not to pay attention to Emil and Mitch. “Why don’t you play with them?”

“Because we’ve spent the past ten days working with them; and you’re a damned sight cuter,” Emil countered. Tobacco, a contraband product for the last half century, stained his grin. “We’ll even buy drinks for your kitty-cat. Does he want some milk?”

“H’rang are lactose intolerant after weaning,” Hcuff’t stated. He held up his glass. “The lime pilsner is acceptable.”

“How about that, the alien likes the beer.” Emil said, thumping Mitch on the chest. He turned back to Charlotte. “How about it, sweetheart?”

Charlotte shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

“Here we go,” Tamara muttered under her breath.

“Mitch, go grab a waitress and get us all a round,” Emil said. High-end bars and restaurants employed live servers instead of robots for the personal service machines couldn’t provide. Low-end establishments used live servers because robots were an expensive investment. Emil smiled at Charlotte and added, “Get shots of tequila for everyone while you’re at it.”

Mitch tore his gaze from Tamara. “Why do I have to buy? This was your idea.”

“I’ll get the next round,” Emil shot back. “I’m going to show the little lady how to properly rack the balls.”

“Is that so?” Charlotte asked sweetly.

“Oh yeah.” Emil picked up the top coin from the stack and dropped it in the slot. The billiard balls in the table clattered down the chute. He dropped the triangular rack on the table and held eye contact with Charlotte as he loaded the balls. “The trick is keeping them good and tight.”

Priya covered her mouth to stifle a laugh. “Oh brother,” she whispered. “This is not going to end well.”

“This is a human mating ritual, yes?” Hcuff’t murmured.

“Mmmhmm,” Priya affirmed, watching as Emil leered at Charlotte, leaning over the table to adjust the rack.

“Why does not Whisky inform the male of her gender preference?” Hcuff’t asked. “Even I can see he wishes to mount her.”

“Oh, she’ll tell him eventually, and I suspect he won’t take it well,” Priya replied.

The H’rang shifted nervously on his stool. “Violence is imminent, yes?”

“Yes,” Priya agreed. “Imminent.”

* * *

A pile of empty plastic shot glasses and empty beer bottles littered the sideboard. After the first round, Hcuff’t passed on any more tequila. Charlotte downed her shot from the second and third round to Emil’s enthusiastic encouragement. Priya dumped her shots after the first; no one noticed.

The table of drovers were paying rapt attention to the proceedings, almost as intently as Emil watched Charlotte’s ass every time she leaned forward for a shot. While Mitch was obviously attracted to Tamara, he eventually got the message she wasn’t interested and settled for stealing occasional glances.

Play slowed down at the adjacent tables as the locals took greater interest in the unfolding drama. Several of them recognized Charlotte and Tamara. They knew Wicza was no coed who had strayed across the river.

The tipping point arrived when Charlotte leaned over the table for an awkward shot, made more difficult by her short stature. Emil stepped up close behind her and leaned forward, pressing her against the table.

“The secret to this kind of shot is a smooth stroke,” Emil slurred.

“If you don’t back off, the balls I’ll be splitting won’t be the seven and nine,” Charlotte warned as she nudged him with her elbow, forcing him to stagger back a step.

“Come on, sweetheart, don’t play hard to get,” Emil protested. He reached forward and grabbed a handful of her ass. “You came down here for a thrill. Let me take you back to my bunk, and I’ll fuck you like those college boys won’t.”

Charlotte reached back and snagged Emil’s hand, her thumb finding a pressure point as she twisted. Emil yelped and pulled his hand back.

“What the hell?” Emil flexed his hand and wiggled the fingers. “You think you’re too good for a working man, you stuck up little bitch?”

“You know what, Emil? For a minute, I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that you weren’t a total douchebag,” Charlotte stated. She picked up the pool cue, twirled it, and tucked it under her arm. “Sure, you were feeding me drinks and staring at my ass while making crude innuendos, but I was willing to let it slide. I’m sure the routine got you some play when you had all your hair and all your teeth. When you grind up against me and grab my ass, its game on.”

Emil flushed red as he glared at Charlotte. “What’s your malfunction, you crazy bitch?” The drover table erupted into laughter, further infuriating him.

“I don’t have a malfunction,” Charlotte said. “I don’t like men, least of all skeevy jerks who think they’ll get laid by feeding college girls tequila and lame pickup lines.”

“Imminent?” Hcuff’t whispered.

Priya nodded. “Yup.”

Emil launched the backhand without warning. At a hand under two meters, he had reach and mass on Charlotte. The blow never connected; she easily blocked the swing.

“Thank you, Emil,” Charlotte said with a smile as she twirled the pool cue. “Tonight wasn’t a waste.” She broke the stick over the drover’s head.

* * *

Bjorn Tovesson III slowed the black and chrome motorcycle in front of the bar. A handful of tourists from north of the river spilled out of El Diablo Barracho, along with twice as many locals. With a sigh, he brought the bike to a halt and killed the engine. He strode to the entrance as the departing crowd instinctively parted for him. The bouncers at the door eyed him as he approached but made no move to stop him.

Inside the bar was pandemonium. The brawl took up half the floor, and spectators lined the walls. It was as if someone rang a bell and every rivalry among the patrons erupted into a fistfight. Gringos versus latinos, local gang factions versus their rivals, it didn’t matter. Bjorn’s gaze swept the room, going from fight to fight until he spotted his people. He waded into the swirling chaos.

Some of the chollos, spotting his two-meter, 150-kilogram frame, cried, “El Oso!” One brawler stepped up behind him with a raised chair but froze when he recognized the unit logo on the back of Bjorn’s leather vest. “Mierda, El Oso!

Bjorn had been here enough times that the regulars recognized him. A young turk stumbled from a cluster of fighting chollos. Shaking his head, the man spotted Bjorn and took a swing. Bjorn casually swept the sloppy punch aside and grabbed the chollo by the collar of his jacket.

“You must be new here,” Bjorn said before tossing the man back into his original brawl. Bjorn continued toward his target, the melee toward the back of the billiards tables. He was able to spot Tamara from across the room. If she was in a fight, it meant Charlotte had started it.

Bjorn scooped up a billiard ball from the first table he passed.

He noted they weren’t brawling the locals, for a change. The chollos had finally figured out messing with mercenaries was a losing proposition, even ones who could pass for someone’s little sister out for a night on the town.

Charlotte was squared off against two drovers. While they were scrappers, they weren’t professional warriors. Bjorn knew Wicza could take them both, but he was out of patience. He passed the billiard ball to his left hand.

Bjorn wound up and pitched the pool ball. Even out of practice, he could manage a 130 mile per hour fastball. The ball struck the drover in the chest, and he collapsed. Wicza grabbed the lanky, greasy hair of her last opponent and slammed him headfirst into the table. She spun to see who had intervened in her fight, her eyes blazing.

“Oh, hi, Commander.” Charlotte gave an innocent smile. “Fancy seeing you here.”

“Gods damn it, Whisky,” Bjorn grumbled and crossed his arms. Groaning or unconscious drovers were scattered around the young sergeant as though a bomb had gone off. “Reeves, are you done messing around?”

The dark-skinned woman sent her opponent staggering back with a palm strike to his chin. The man collided with a vape-fluid vending machine. “I’m done when he is,” Tamara replied.

The man spit out blood and snarled, “Oh, I’m just getting started with you…” His voice trailed off when he spotted Bjorn. “Oh, shit.”

The tribal markings tattooed on Bjorn’s right arm swirled into the image of a rousing bear. “Normally, I encourage my people to finish what they start,” Bjorn rumbled. “However, I don’t want to wait for the two minutes it will take Reeves to punch your teeth down your throat. So, you can stand down, or I can expedite things.”

“Shit. Fine.” The man displayed the palms of his hands. “Fucking crazy mercs.”

“Damned straight, we’re fucking crazy,” Bjorn remarked. “Remember it next time you get your Government Guaranteed Income allowance—merc taxes pay for the GGI.”

Hcuff’t’s head appeared from under a pool table. “The violence has ended, yes?” Across the bar, the din of fighting abated as opponents ran out of steam or took advantage of the distraction provided by Bjorn’s arrival to withdraw. Hcuff’t crawled out from under the table, clutching three purses.

“Good job, Hcuff’t,” Priya said, reclaiming her bag from the alien. “It seemed the prudent thing to do, since he was going to hide anyway.”

“Good thinking,” Bjorn admitted. He knew all three purses had sidearms. “Now, you four get your asses back to base. Go straight back to Bear Town, no side trips. I’ll talk to each of you later. Right now, I have to go pay for this mess.”

“Which means you’re going to pay for it,” Tamara whispered to Charlotte.

“Totally worth it,” Wicza replied under her breath.

“I heard that,” Bjorn snapped. “Get your asses moving. Pronto.”

The remaining two women reclaimed their purses from Hcuff’t, and then the quartet headed for the doors. Bjorn shook his head as he trudged to the main bar. Around him, patrons were righting chairs and returning to their tables. The staff began sweeping up the worst of the broken glass.

Bjorn leaned on the bar. “All right, Enzo, what’s the butcher bill? And while you’re figuring it up, add a beer—no, make it two—to the tab. If I’m going to haul my ass down here, I’m not going to leave thirsty.”

The weathered bartender poured a mug and dropped a lime slice in it. The man’s face had resembled a map of arroyos for as long as Bjorn had known him, but now gray frosted his hair. “Why do your people enjoy tearing up my bar so much?” the man asked, setting the beer in front of Bjorn.

“Because you’ll let me pay for their mischief instead of calling the cops,” Bjorn replied. He took a long drink from the mug. “Same as you did for my generation. If no one died, credits were better than questions.”

“Sometimes, even when someone dies,” Enzo remarked.

“Fair enough.” Bjorn nodded over his beer. “That was a long time ago.”

“It was, and it hasn’t happened since.” Enzo set a slate down on the bar top. Surveying the room, he tapped numbers into the device. At the sound of tinkling glass, he tapped the slate again. Once he was satisfied, he turned the screen to face Bjorn. “I think 500 credits should cover everything. The beer is on the house.”

“You’re all heart,” Bjorn remarked. It was the equivalent of 50,000 Earth dollars.

“You know I lose a chunk on the exchange tax,” Enzo protested.

“Yeah, don’t get me started on taxes,” Bjorn said. Mercenary income was taxed at 50%, which was split between the world government and the company’s home nation-state. Politicians had pushed for more until Earth’s mercenaries threatened to move off world. “Income tax, exchange tax, hard currency, value-added tax—by the time they get done picking our pockets, it’s thirty centimes for every credit.”

Bjorn took another deep draw on his beer, then set it down to pull out his UAAC, or “Yack.” He tapped the universal account access card to the slate and followed the prompts to transfer the agreed funds from Bjorn’s Berserkers to El Diablo Barracho.

“Sooner or later, that little hellfire of yours is going to bite off more than she can chew,” Enzo remarked after confirming the transaction. “The chollos call her la muñeca enojada, the angry doll. They have a bet on who can tame her. You know what I mean?”

“I do.” Bjorn polished off the beer. “Do they know I will kill the man who does it? Assuming she doesn’t do it first.”

Enzo shrugged. “They may know, but there is always new blood. At least here, the cabrones know not to pull a gun or knife. Somewhere else, her temper will get her in over her head.”

“I know, and I’m working on it,” Bjorn said. “Yelling at those cubs when I get home is going to be thirsty work. How about another ‘free’ beer?”

“Of course, amigo.” Enzo picked up the mug. “If not for angry mercenaries and their concerned commanders, I would not have been able to put my children through college, let alone keep this place open.”

* * * * *

Chapter 3

Houston, Earth

Wilhelm Gutknecht shifted nervously in the hard, plastic chair as he resisted the urge to glance at the clock or his phone. Excitement kept jet lag at bay. His interview was scheduled for two o’clock. Surely, it was two by now? His flight from München to Houston had taken three hours, but according to his body, it was ten o’clock in the evening after a sleepless night.

This wasn’t the only interview he had lined up, but it was the first and the most important. The Four Horsemen almost never took anyone right out of school. Wilhelm’s VOWS scores had been solid, but not the stellar results needed to catch the eye of one of the premiere companies. He had shored up his VOWS with a stint at the Jaeger Mercenary Academy outside of Magdeburg, Germany. Wilhelm had wanted to attend the mercenary finishing school in Indiana, but his parents wouldn’t agree to the cost.

There were two other candidates waiting in the reception lounge. One was a young man a couple of years older than Wilhelm. His accent marked him as an American, likely from the midlands.

“Are you interviewing for the Berserkers?”

“Of course, he is,” the other candidate, a young Hispanic woman retorted without glancing up from her slate. Her age was harder to guess, but Wilhelm put it in the same range as his own and the other man. Her English had a faint trace of a Hispanic accent. “You see any other merc logos on the door when you came in?”

“Sorry, I’m nervous.” The man ran a hand over the fuzz trying to form a respectable beard. “I’m Chuck, Chuck Hinthorn. My friends call me Thorn.”

“Wilhelm Gutknecht, but most people call me Whim.” Wilhelm knew they were competitors, but the man’s friendly demeanor was infectious. Wilhelm turned to the woman. “How about you?”

“So, we’re all making friends now?” She glanced up from the slate. “Fine. Isabella Quinto. Not that I expect to see you two after my interview.”

“You’re English is really good,” Chuck remarked to Isabella.

Her eyes narrowed. “It should be. I’m American, same as you.” She pointed at Wilhelm. “Why didn’t you comment on his English?”

“Because you’re cuter,” Wilhelm quipped with a grin. Isabella’s retort sputtered, so she rolled her eyes and went back to her slate. Banter was easy, especially compared to the interrogation he imagined was waiting for him. “To answer the next question, no, I’m not American. I’m from Germany.”

“You’re a long way from home.” Chuck peaked over his shoulder toward the door to the recruiter’s office. “Did you apply to any German or Euro merc companies?”

“The Winged Hussars are the biggest European mercenary outfit, but I don’t have space marine credentials yet,” Wilhelm replied. One of the reasons the Carmel, Indiana finishing school had been so expensive was it offered zero-G and vacuum training. “If I strike out here in Houston, I’ll try with Gӧtze’s Panzers or the Helvetican Watch.”

Chuck nodded. “I want to be a Casanova driver.”

“What’s a Casanova?” Wilhelm asked. “Is it some kind of tank?”

“CASV—Combat Assault System, Vehicular.” Chuck grinned. “They’re armored combat rumblers, designed to complement CASPers. Bjorn’s Berserkers are one of the few units to use Casanovas.”

Wilhelm knew the Berserkers were a mixed force unit. He hoped to be a CASPer trooper. The Combat Assault System, Personal battle suits were almost synonymous with human mercenaries.

“How’d you do on your VOWS?” Chuck asked. The Voluntary Off World Assessment exams were a core metric for mercenary companies recruiting new blood. The widely accepted minimum score was 900, while the maximum possible was 1167. The scoring curve ramped up quickly.

“Scoping out the competition?” Isabella swiped at her slate. “I knew the whole friendly routine was an act.”

“What? There’s nothing wrong with asking how he did on the VOWS,” Chuck protested. “It’s not as if I can do anything with the information. I scored a 988 on my exams. There, now you know my score.”

“I got a 1016,” Wilhelm said. While Chuck was hand taller than Wilhelm’s 175 cm, he didn’t appear as muscular. Wilhelm suspected the American beat him on the mental aptitude part of the exams but fell behind in the physical assessment.

Isabella snorted, still focused on her slate.

“What did you score, Izzy?” Chuck inquired. The young woman was almost as tall as Wilhelm and had a runner’s build, long-limbed and lean.

Her eyes narrowed in reaction to the nickname. “I scored a 1057.”

Wilhelm blinked, impressed. The score wasn’t skewed by gender, it was absolute. He began to worry about his chances when the door of the recruiter’s office opened.

“Gutknecht!” the bald sergeant called. Wilhelm suspected the sergeant would have graying hair if it weren’t all shaved off. “Get in here!”

Wilhelm jumped up. Chuck gave him a thumbs up while Isabella studiously ignored him. Wilhelm hurried to the office door, unsure if he should shake the man’s hand or salute.

“Don’t you dare salute me,” the sergeant snarled. “You don’t work for the firm yet. Put your ass in a chair so you can sell me on why I’m not wasting my time.”

“Yes, Sergeant,” Wilhelm replied. He knew better than to call the ‘man’ sir. He took a seat and waited for the sergeant to sit behind the bare desk.

The bald man plopped into the chair behind the desk. “I’m Sergeant Popovijc.” He was as old as Wilhelm’s father and no taller than Wilhelm. Wilhelm had no doubt the sergeant could thoroughly thrash him if so inclined without breaking a sweat. “The troops call me Popeye. You have not earned the privilege. Got it?”

“Yes, Sergeant.” Wilhelm mustered the willpower not to fidget.

Popovijc pulled a slate out from a desk drawer. “Your VOWS are decent. Not stellar, but decent.”

“I’ve also logged 200 hours in CASPer training,” Wilhelm said, mustering his courage. “Fifty hours in actual battle armor, not simulators.”

The sergeant set down the slate. “Aren’t you a little small for a CASPer driver?”

“Not anymore,” Wilhelm replied. “The Mk 8s are too small for the beefier mercs.”

“Dare you to say that in front of the commander,” the sergeant muttered. He tapped a single finger on the desk. “The other two candidates both have field experience. Why should I pick a cub right out of the den instead of a battle-tested soldier?”

“They can’t have much experience,” Wilhelm protested, hoping his voice didn’t crack as it rose. “They’re no more than a few years older than me. Plus, why aren’t they with their units anymore? Experience doesn’t help if you’re a dummkopf.” Wilhelm realized he was leaning forward in his excitement and eased back into his chair.

“I don’t know.” The sergeant picked up the slate again. “A dummkopf, as you say, who can keep calm and follow orders might be better than a kid who thinks he’s smart and will wet himself when the shit hits the fan.”

“I won’t freeze on you, Sergeant,” Wilhelm promised earnestly, knowing what was coming next.

“You did exactly that on your first live CASPer drill,” Popovijc countered, tossing the slate onto the desk. “You locked up and didn’t even enter the practice grounds.”

Wilhelm struggled to keep a calm demeanor. He vividly remembered the day, and the dressing down the instructor had given him. Anna Rüdinger was an evil battle axe who made his two years at the Jaeger Academy difficult, pushing him to give up and quit. It made Wilhelm strive that much harder to succeed and spite her.

“What Instructor Rüdinger failed to mention was that the training mech was an old Mk 4 CASPer,” Wilhelm stated. “The motivator interface hadn’t been calibrated for my stature, so my movements weren’t translated properly. It left me trying to muscle the suit onto the field.”

The sergeant glanced at him and chuckled.

“I didn’t lack the nerve, Sergeant,” Wilhelm continued. “I’ll freely admit I lacked the brawn; a deficiency I’ve worked hard to eliminate, as you can see from the physical section of my VOWS.”

Popovijc picked up the slate and scanned it one more time. “You have any more interviews today? I hope you didn’t fly halfway across the world banking on the first one.”

“I don’t have any until tomorrow afternoon,” Wilhelm replied. “I didn’t want to pile them all up in one day in addition to being jet lagged.”

The sergeant nodded. “All right, you’ll have an answer one way or the other by 0900 tomorrow.” He nodded toward the door. “On your way out, send in Hinthorn.”

“Yes, Sergeant.” Wilhelm stood. “Thank you.”

Popovijc grunted, going back to his slate. Wilhelm left the door open as he exited the office. Both Hinthorn and Quinto watched expectantly as he emerged.

“How’d it go?” Chuck inquired.

Wilhelm shrugged. “I’ll find out,” he replied and jerked a thumb toward the open door. “You’re up next, Chuck. Good luck.”

“Thanks,” Chuck said and wiped his palms on his trousers as he stood. “You, too.”

“So, maybe I’ll see you around, Isabella,” Wilhelm suggested after the door closed. He considered inviting her out, but he was too tired.

“Maybe,” Isabella said and returned to her slate. “Don’t count on it.”

“Well, good luck.” Wilhelm left once it was obvious a reply wasn’t forthcoming.

Most of the Earth mercenary companies maintained a presence in Houston. Those not headquartered in or near the city had offices in buildings such as this one. The Berserkers were based in New Mexico, where they had picked up cheap land when the nation-states pared back their standing militaries.

Wilhelm checked the directory to memorize the locations for his two interviews tomorrow. He hoped he wouldn’t need them. The Berserkers were his first choice of prospective employers.

Once he reached the ground, Wilhelm hailed an autocab to take him to his hotel. The Red Eight Inn was as cheap as he could go without descending to a dive. He didn’t know how long it would take him to land a spot in a company, so he needed to stretch out his money. His parents were adamant that once his finances ran out, the only thing they would pay for would be a ticket home.

Restaurants and bars intermingled with the cluster of hotels adjacent to the Houston starport. The seedier parts of Houston were dangerous to visit alone, and Wilhelm planned on avoiding them. The last thing he needed was to have his organs harvested the night before getting a merc job. Hunger won out over exhaustion once the autocab dropped him off, so Wilhelm crossed the street to the nearest cluster of food and drink establishments.

Most of the choices were chain outlets, little different than those found elsewhere in the American nation-state. A few advertised “Earth cuisine” on their signs, intended for a wave of alien tourists that never arrived. The last was a bar with a bright red sign labelling it Dante’s Pit. The illuminated logo featured a golden halo skewered by a red pitchfork.

The number of vehicles in the parking lot surprised Wilhelm. Unattended vehicles were magnets for thieves, so most people walked, rode the trambus, or took an autocab. Then Wilhelm realized several of the vehicles sported mercenary company logos. Heavily armed owners willing to shoot thieves made for an effective deterrent.

Wilhelm spotted a pair of bouncers at the door as he approached. One was a hulking, bald, Latino man. Tattoos covered his arms and ran up his neck to the top of his head. Wilhelm recognized Christian symbology depicted in Mesoamerican style in the tattoo.

The other bouncer was a Jivool, a hunchbacked ursine with grey and black striped fur. As large as the Latino man was, the Jivool was a head taller as he raised up, watching Wilhelm. This wasn’t the first alien Wilhelm had seen, but he couldn’t help but swallow nervously as the bear-like creature stared at him.

Carne fresco,” the Jivool rumbled in intelligible Spanish.

“Fresh meat is right,” the human replied with a chuckle. “This is no place for townies, kid. Go to Speedy Burger and get yourself a kiddie meal.”

The Jivool laughed, sounding like a bag of gravel in a cement mixer.

“I’m not a townie,” Wilhelm replied. There were no age restrictions in startown once you got past security, but there were also no unilateral service ordinances. A business owner in startown could refuse service to anyone.

“Same thing goes for tourists,” the bald man said. “This is a merc bar, so unless your yack has a unit designation, go sightsee somewhere safer.”

Lo puede pagarme un credito por un selfie,” the Jivool uttered, laughing again.

“Bruno said he’ll let you take a selfie with him for a credit,” the human translated.

“I’m not a tourist. I’m hiring on with a mercenary company,” Wilhelm retorted. “I’ll be back.”

“Good luck with that, kid,” the man said. “Don’t forget to get your prize with your kiddie meal; it might be a Four Horseman toy.”

Juegete de los Cuatros Cabelleros,” the ursine echoed.

Wilhelm stormed off, resolving to return once he was hired for the satisfaction of making the bald man and the bear eat their words. After their taunts, Wilhelm couldn’t stand the thought of going into the Speedy Burger. Instead, he settled for Tio Burritos before returning to his hotel and crashing.

* * *

At 8:57 a.m., Wilhelm’s phone chimed to announce a new message. His hand trembled as he picked up the translucent polymer tile and slid his thumb across it. The surface illuminated with local time, weather, and a blinking message icon. Wilhelm forced himself to tap the icon, which expanded into a message. It simply told him to report to the Bjorn’s Berserkers recruiting office by 1000 hours.

Wilhelm gulped down the rest of his complimentary coffee while he hailed an autocab with his phone. The coffee was mediocre at best, and the bagels in the “continental breakfast” offering were slightly stale, but it was free food.

Outside, it was already hot, a definite change from Germany. Within two minutes, a bright yellow autocab rolled to a halt, and Wilhelm’s phone chimed. It displayed a number matching the one emblazoned on the fender of the cab.

Wilhelm climbed in and announced, “Knox Office Tower.”

“Destination accepted,” an electronic voice acknowledged. “En route—ETA is eight minutes.”

Wilhelm was sweating from more than the Texas heat. Surely, they wouldn’t call him merely to tell him he didn’t make the cut? Why didn’t the message tell him he was hired? He could already be cancelling his later appointments. He didn’t want to call off his other interviews until he was certain.

Once the cab dropped him off, time seemed to slow down. The elevator ride to the 17th floor took forever. Wilhelm willed his hand not to tremble as he reached for the door to the reception lobby.

“You must be Sergeant Popovijc’s other ten o’clock,” a young woman in office attire said. She gestured toward the seating area where Isabella, Chuck, and a man Wilhelm didn’t recognize were waiting. “Please have a seat, and I’ll let the sergeant know you’re all here.”

“We meet again,” Chuck remarked with a smile as Wilhelm sat down. “Does this mean we’re all hired?”

Isabella snorted. As before, she had a slate out. Wilhelm suspected it was a shield from social interactions. “Do you think they’d hire all four of us? It’s probably in case their first choice chickened out or was poached by another unit.”

“They could need four recruits,” the new guy suggested. He appeared a few years older, perhaps mid-twenties, with the blond hair and white teeth of a classic California surfer. “They lost a couple dozen people in their last two ops.”

“Who is our well-informed friend?” Wilhelm asked.

“Whim, this is Thomas Diller, or TJ,” Chuck replied. “TJ, this is Whim.”

“Nice to meet you,” Wilhelm said. More competition? he wondered. TJ had to be at least a half-dozen years out from his VOWS, enough time to get plenty of experience. “How do you know so much?”

“My uncle’s a merc, so he gave me the inside scoop,” TJ said a bit smugly. “He says mercs gossip as bad as high school kids—no offense.”

“None taken,” Wilhelm said, despite recognizing the jab. There was no use getting worked up until he discovered his fate, but it was easier said than done. “I take it you have mercenary experience?”

TJ smiled. “I’ve served with Taylor’s Tornadoes and the Outback Brethren, five years between the two. So you could say I’ve had a little experience.”

Sergeant Popovijc emerged from his office, bringing the conversation to a halt. His gaze swept over the four of them.

“Good, you didn’t keep me waiting,” the sergeant said. “In turn, I won’t keep you in suspense. Out of the dozen candidates I’ve interviewed, you’ve been selected. I am officially offering you a position in Bjorn’s Berserkers. If you have something better to do, say so and get the hell out of my office. Otherwise, Amanda here will see to your paperwork. Celebrate tonight, tomorrow we’ll fly out to Bear Town.” The sergeant turned on his heel and disappeared back into his office.

“Congratulations!” Amanda exclaimed. She pulled a stack of slates from a desk drawer and handed them out. Each of the devices displayed a name. “Fill out the remaining fields. Once you’re finished hit the accept button, then return the slate to me.”

Wilhelm accepted the proffered device, as did the others. As Amanda returned to the desk, Wilhelm noticed TJ made no secret of watching the receptionist’s ass. While Wilhelm could appreciate how her skirt clung to her curves, he wasn’t about to be so crass about it. TJ realized he’d been spotted and gave Wilhelm a half-hearted shrug. Wilhelm glanced around. The others were already engrossed in filling out the electronic forms. Wilhelm decided to follow their example and got to work.

Several of the fields could be populated by synching his phone to the slate and allowing the devices to share the relevant data. Within thirty minutes, he was finished, as were the others. He rose to turn in his slate to the receptionist the same time as TJ.

“After you,” TJ remarked, gesturing toward the desk.

“Thanks,” Wilhelm said, and handed in his slate. Amanda smiled and tapped the slate to her own, a more robust model. Wilhelm’s yack buzzed with an update. He stepped out of TJ’s way and checked his card. Under his identity information the Mercenary Guild logo appeared with his designation as an active mercenary in Bjorn’s Berserkers.

“I could use some company to celebrate my good fortune,” TJ said, leaning on the receptionist’s desk.

“This isn’t the first time a new hire has asked me out,” Amanda countered, flushing as she tapped TJ’s slate to the one on her desk.

“Will it be the first time you said yes?” He flashed a brilliant smile.

The receptionist regarded TJ through her eyelashes. “I’ve sent you my contact information. I’m off at 1900, but I might need an hour or so to change depending on what you have in mind.”

“I’ll send you the details,” TJ said, beaming. He paused at the door and turned to the remaining recruits. “Nice to meet you all—see you on the tarmac tomorrow.”

Wilhelm lingered a few minutes while Isabella and Chuck both finished their paperwork. The three of them exited the Berserker’s office together.

“I can’t believe we all got hired,” Chuck marveled as they waited for the elevator. “I mean, obviously I believe it, because it happened, but it’s pretty amazing, right?”

“It is pretty cool,” Wilhelm agreed. “I think it calls for a celebration.”

Isabella eyed Wilhelm with suspicion. “If you stuck around to ask me out, I’m not as easily impressed as the secretary.”

“What? No, that’s not what I meant,” Wilhelm protested, realizing his words emulated TJ’s. Granted, he wouldn’t mind going out with Isabella, but it really wasn’t his intent. “I meant all three of us could go out as comrades.”

“I’m game,” Chuck replied. “I’m sure once we report in, we’ll be busy.”

Isabella regarded them both before turning to board the elevator. “Fine.”

“Great, I know the perfect place,” Wilhelm said.

* * * * *

Chapter 4

Houston, Earth

The heat blasted Wilhelm as he stepped out of the hotel, and the sun beat down as he waited for the autocab. The festivities from the night before had depleted a good chunk of his funds, but he could still afford not to walk. If his head had been little less fuzzy, he could have coordinated with the others to share the ride. Chuck had eagerly shared his contact info, Isabella reluctantly so.

The whir of electric motors heralded the cab’s arrival. When the door slid open, Wilhelm was surprised to see Chuck already inside. Wilhelm tossed his duffle bag into the cargo compartment and climbed aboard.

“Hey, Whim!” Chuck called. “I thought when the share option popped up it would be you. How are you feeling?”

“Probably better than I deserve,” Wilhelm grunted. Luckily, the price of drinks at Dante’s Pit had reigned in how much they could celebrate, at least in Wilhelm’s case. A merc bar meant merc prices.

“Yeah, those Reactor Coolants can sneak up on you,” Chuck noted with a wry grin. “I should have stopped one sooner.”

Wilhelm nodded, but not too vigorously. The bright blue drinks weren’t the cheapest on the menu, but they were relatively inexpensive. Wilhelm had wrongly assumed cheap meant less potent. At least he hadn’t gotten stumbling drunk or sick.

“It was funny how those bouncers barely glanced at our cards,” Chuck remarked. “I figured since we were young, we would have been given more scrutiny.”

Wilhelm nodded again. The same two bouncers had been on duty and had given their yacks a cursory glance and waved them in. It was petty, but Wilhelm was hoping for some vindication after the previous rejection.

The car eased to a stop near a field of VTOL pads. A variety of craft sat in the Texas sun, from modern sport flyers to ancient-looking helicopters. Sergeant Popovijc, Isabella, and TJ waited in the shade of a small open-sided shelter. Wilhelm glanced at the cab’s clock, afraid they were late, but it showed fifteen minutes early.

“Glad you were able to join us,” Popovijc called as they unloaded their duffels. “I was afraid I was going to have to give you a wakeup call.”

“Really?” Chuck asked as they joined the others in the shade.

“Hell no!” Popovijc laughed. “You’re adults. If you want to get fired on the first day, it’s your goddamned problem. Now follow me; our ride is waiting.”

Popovijc led them back out into the blazing sun, along a fused concrete track encircling the field. He stopped next to a charcoal gray military-grade VTOL with the Berserker’s logo emblazoned on the side. The sergeant grabbed a handle and slid the side door open.

“Hernandez, you awake?” Sergeant Popovijc shouted as a nearby flier spun up its engines and kicked up dust.

The pilot walked around the nose of the craft, carrying a slate. The man was shorter than Wilhelm by a good ten centimeters but was built like a fireplug. “Doing pre-flight, Sergeant.”

“This is Corporal Victor Hernandez,” Popovijc yelled over the din. “Damned good pilot. All right, load up.”

Hernandez gave the group a nod, then returned his attention to his slate. Once inside, Popovijc moved forward to the copilot’s seat, leaving the recruits to figure out stowing their bags and buckling in.

“If he’s such a good pilot, why is he doing milk runs?” TJ remarked as he took his seat.

“He’s been flying combat missions for ten years,” the sergeant countered, peering back. “You know what the combat attrition rate is for VTOL pilots?”

“I’d guess it’s pretty high,” TJ replied, somewhat chastised.

“Damned straight,” Popovijc affirmed. “Victor has been pushing his luck. Flying milk runs may seem boring, but he’s only a couple of months from retiring. The commander offered him this gig when Victor was down to six months left in his sixth two-year tour—pushed it on him really.”

Isabella pulled the side door shut before finding a seat not adjacent to anyone else. She didn’t seem any worse for wear after their night out, but then she had moderated herself more than Chuck and Wilhelm.

“Wow, you really embrace the whole anti-social routine,” TJ observed. “I guess you’re out of luck, boys.”

“It’s better if you don’t get attached to people in this business,” Isabella replied darkly, adjusting her safety harness. “At best you’ll be disappointed; at worst you’ll watch people you care about die.”

“Sounds awfully lonely,” Chuck remarked.

“How long have you been in the mercenary business?” Wilhelm asked, wondering if he had misjudged her age.

“A little under two years,” Isabella replied. “I’ve only been with one unit, Company 13. I was off-rotation due to a training injury when they took a job that should have been easy but turned into a wipe. I never heard the full story, but it sounded as though a third force hit them. Casualties were reported at over ninety percent.”

Wilhelm didn’t need to do the math. Such a catastrophic loss would doom a merc company. “Wow, lucky thing you didn’t deploy with them.”

“Yeah, lucky me.” A haunted expression flickered across Isabella’s features before her impassionate mask fell back into place. “That was four months ago. It was either join another outfit or try my luck with a cartel militia.”

“Glad you decided to try another merc outfit,” Chuck said.

Noise flooded the cabin as Hernandez opened the pilot door and clambered into his seat. “Pre-check complete, and weather is good. We’re green for outbound flight,” the pilot told Popovijc.

“Take us out, Victor,” the sergeant ordered.

Wilhelm’s stomach flip-flopped as the VTOL leapt into the air and spun around to the west. Wilhelm wasn’t sure if his head or the cabin swayed as the craft accelerated on its new heading. The suborbital from Germany had been higher Gs, but it had been the steady thrust of a rocket, not this airborne roller coaster.

“If you kids spew in my bird, you’ll be the ones cleaning it up,” the pilot warned as the VTOL rocked. “We’ve got about two hours in the air to reach Bear Town.”

“You all right?” Chuck called over the whine of the four turbines propelling the craft. While the ducted fans were not as loud as propellers or jets, the high-pitched drone made a quiet conversation impossible.

Wilhelm nodded. Now that the flight path had leveled off, his stomach was backing down from its threats to revisit the late-night taco he’d scarfed down from a food truck outside Dante’s.

“You shouldn’t have had the last Reactor Coolant,” Isabella remarked.

Wilhelm nodded again. He was surprised she had even noticed his distress.

“You kids have fun last night?” TJ asked, smiling. “Let me guess, you hit up a merc bar. Which one? The Lyon’s Den? Caballero Cantina?”

“Dante’s Pit,” Chuck replied. “Whim found it. It was pretty good. I’ve never heard of the other two.”

“We couldn’t have gone into the Lyon’s Den,” Isabella remarked, pulling out her slate. “It’s for veteran mercs only. You have to know someone or be known to get in.”

“I’ve been there,” TJ boasted.

“Of course you have,” Isabella muttered, barely audible over the engines.

TJ shrugged, directing his attention to Chuck and Wilhelm. “It’s not a big deal. My uncle took me once. The place is full of merc memorabilia. They even have a Depik Token on display.”

“What’s a Depik Token?” Chuck inquired. “Is it a mercenary company?”

“No, Depik are a secretive race of assassins,” TJ replied. He tried to lower his voice for theatrics, but the engine noise ruined the effect. “They could pass for a Terran cat at first glance. They’re deadly killers, and they only give tokens of their favor to someone who has done them a great service.”

“Ninja kitties?” Chuck snorted good-naturedly. “Now you’re pulling our legs.”

“I’ve heard of Depik,” Wilhelm said. His stomach had finally made peace with its contents. “I’ve read they are feline analogs and viciously guard their privacy. They’re not a merc race, but they do have a Peacemaker.”

“He’s right—they do have a Peacemaker,” Isabella added. Peacemakers were the Galactic Union’s law enforcement branch, though they often employed bounty hunters for apprehensions. “They come from a world called Khatash.”

“If they’re so dangerous, why aren’t they a mercenary race?” Chuck asked.

TJ’s expression became serious. “Be glad they aren’t. If we fought against Depik, we’d be dead, and odds are we wouldn’t know what killed us.”

* * *

Bear Town, Earth

“Bear Town Control, this is Huginn Three, inbound, ten minutes out,” Hernandez called.

The flight had been uneventful.

Wilhelm leaned forward to peer through the space between the pilot and copilot seats. A broken line of mountains lay ahead, and beyond them another small range, the San Andres Mountains. While Wilhelm couldn’t make it out, he knew Bear Town was in a valley at the southern end of the range, on what had been part of the White Sands Missile Range. The valley aptly ran up toward Bear Peak.

“Roger, BTC, landing pad five.” Hernandez edged the craft down as they passed the ridgeline. “Hope your tummies had time to settle,” called over his shoulder. “We’re almost there.”

The craft swayed and turned in an arc, swinging to the south before curving back north. The hulking Mead Hall was the first thing Wilhelm spotted. The timber and stone edifice resembled something out of a Viking Tri-V.

As other buildings resolved into view, they appeared more utilitarian, with ferrocrete construction to insulate against the desert temperatures. Bear Town was an appropriate appellation. Housing and service buildings lined neatly laid out streets in the lowest terrain to the east and north, while training fields and storage buildings dominated the south and the rising terrain to the west.

Victor aimed the VTOL toward the terraced landing pads. An angular R marked each pad, instead of the traditional H or V.

“What does R stand for?” Chuck asked.

Raido—the Norse rune for travel,” Wilhelm replied. When he realized the others were staring at him, he added, “I did some homework. The Tovesson family has roots in Iceland. The Viking imagery is more than branding.”

Chuck shifted nervously. “Will we need to sacrifice a goat or something? I’m pretty much an agnostic, so whatever you want to believe is fine, as long as I don’t have to do something weird.”

“We could probably arrange it,” the sergeant remarked with a ferocious grin. “We’ve got goats. I’m sure some are due for slaughter.”

Now it was Chuck’s turn to look queasy. Laughing, the sergeant turned his attention back to the view through the forward canopy.

“I’m pretty sure he’s kidding,” Wilhelm said, keeping his voice as low as was audible over the engines. G forces shoved Wilhelm down in his seat as the VTOL swooped above its designated landing pad. A cloud of dust engulfed the craft as it bumped against the fused asphalt of the pad.

“Welcome to Bear Town, recruits.” Popovijc released his harness and climbed back to the main compartment. “Grab your shit and disembark. If there’s a ground car handy, I’ll grab it, otherwise we’re hoofing over to Bjarnarsal—or as I call it, Huge Ass Hall.”

The sergeant slid the door opened and hopped out into the baking heat. If possible, it was even hotter here than Texas. The recruits all extricated themselves from their safety harnesses and grabbed their bags. Ripples shimmered above the landing pads and the service roads threaded between them.

Wilhelm could see Bjarnarsal roughly a kilometer away, upslope. He had resigned himself to lugging his duffle through the heat when a van emerged from the heat shimmers. It came to a stop, and the driver window lowered.

“Popeye, I heard your tenderfoots needed a lift,” a young woman wearing aviator sunglasses said. While Wilhelm couldn’t see her eyes, she didn’t seem much older than himself. “Climb in, and I’ll give you a ride. The commander has me on fetch duty, and I think he’s encouraging everyone to keep me hopping.”

“What’d you do now, Whisky?” Popovijc asked as he circled the van to the passenger side. “Throw your bags in the back,” he told the recruits.

Wilhelm only caught part of the young woman’s explanation while he loaded his bag, something to do with a bar brawl. By the time Wilhelm stepped up through the side door and took a seat, Popovijc was laughing.

“Dammit, Whisky, one of these days you’re going to go too far, and the commander will get fed up with your antics,” Popovijc remarked with a chuckle. “Rookies, this is Sergeant Charlotte Wicza. She’d be higher up the ladder if she could suppress her urge to beat the shit out of random assholes.”

Wicza nodded in the rearview mirror. “Welcome to the Berserkers. Blondie, I’ll save you the time—no, I’m not interested. I have a girlfriend, and don’t even ask the next question.”

TJ’s pearly white smile faded. Isabella snickered and muttered, “Damn, she has your number, Blondie.”

TJ frowned, probably concerned the nickname would stick. “Whatever,” he said dismissively and turned to the window. “You probably have a better chance with her.”

“Damn, Whisky, I think you broke his heart,” Popovijc joked. “I thought the commander told you to play nice with others?”

“I was being nice,” Wicza protested. “I didn’t even threaten him. I’ve been talking to Pastor Jim twice a week.”

“Only because the commander makes you go,” Popovijc retorted. “Whisky is so mean, one time she bit a rattlesnake, and it died.”

The driver shook her head. Wilhelm suspected she was rolling her eyes behind the aviator shades. The vehicle trailed a cloud of dust as it transitioned from the gravel track around the landing pads to a fused asphalt road. Wilhelm swore he could feel the heat rising from the road through the bottom of the van.

“Here you go,” Wicza announced as she swung the van around in front of the entrance to the Mead Hall. “I would tell you the commander is a big teddy bear, but I’d be lying. He once crushed a Zuul’s skull in his bare hands.”

“Ignore her, even though it’s true.” Popovijc hopped down from the front passenger seat while the side doors slid open and admitted the furnace-hot air. “Let’s go, people.”

The recruits scrambled to grab their duffels and catch up to him as he strode toward the oversized oak doors. Wilhelm wondered if they were solid wood, or if the wood masked more robust metal doors. Angular runes scarred the wooden beam above the doors, spelling out Bjarnarsal, the official name of the hall.

The temperature dropped 15 degrees as the heavy doors swung shut behind them. Wilhelm blinked to adjust from the blazing sun to the subdued lighting of the foyer. A metal sign emblazoned with the words Mead Hall pointed to the left. Popovijc led them down the unmarked hall to the right.

A silver-haired man stood behind a large desk and greeted them. “Look at these smiling faces. Welcome to the Berserkers.” He had a slight lisp and a friendly demeanor. Wilhelm noticed in place of a rank insignia there was a patch with the letter C and two dots. “I hope you had a pleasant flight in.”

Popovijc shrugged. “Hernandez didn’t make any of them puke. Can’t ask for more than that. Is everything set for the recruits?”

The man behind the desk waved his hand dismissively and tsked. “Of course, everything is ready,” he confirmed. “I have their barracks assignments ready, and logistics is ready for them to come by and draw their gear. Their packets with their tags are right here.”

The sergeant accepted four large envelopes from the secretary. “On top of it as usual, Stefan. Is the commander ready to meet them?”

“Take your ducklings into Conference One,” the older man replied. “There are refreshments on the side table. The commander is finishing up the details of the transportation deal. It’s all very exciting.”

“All right, this way,” Popovijc said.

* * *

Bjorn spotted the icon winking in the corner of his field of vision, a notification through his pinplants that he had a message. Unspooling it showed Stefan indicating Popeye was waiting with the new recruits in the conference room next door.

“Wick, we had a deal,” Bjorn stated. He hated conducting deals via Tri-V; it made it harder to convey how badly he wanted to wring the other party’s neck. Wick’s Wolverines were going bankrupt, and Bjorn had pounced on the opportunity to increase the Berserkers space assets. “You can’t jack the price after we made the deal.”

“I need the money, and you need the ships.” The man in the Tri-V image smiled smugly. Bjorn added punching to the list of reasons to deal in person. “I happen to know you have a big contract coming up, and I have creditors breathing down my neck. It’s a win-win.”

“Bull shit, you fucking weasel,” Bjorn snarled into the camera array. “You want to play games? I’m done! Find some other sucker to rip off.”

“What? Wait!” Gordon Wick cried before Bjorn terminated the call. “We had a deal!”

“We did, until you tried to rook me for another thirty percent.” Bjorn leaned toward the camera. “You want to sell those ships? I’ll pay what we agreed and not a credit more. Otherwise, I not only walk, I let the rest of the commanders know what a shady piece of shit you are and what you tried to pull. There aren’t many units big enough to buy your naval assets, and even less of them in the market to.”

Wick sighed, and his shoulders sagged. “Fine. You win.”

“Deliver the ships within twelve hours to Orbital Terminal Asimov,” Bjorn instructed. “Once my inspectors are satisfied, we’ll swap credits and command codes.”

“What about the crews?” Wick asked. “Will you hire them?”

“I won’t make any promises,” Bjorn replied, leaving unspoken his concern regarding the integrity of the crew if the commander was a slimy con man. “I’ll give them a fair assessment.”

“I hope you can take care of them better than I did,” Wick remarked. “I’ll have the ships delivered.”

“Twelve hours, and no funny business.” Bjorn killed the connection without waiting for a reply. The holographic image winked out.

“Think his people are stripping the ships as we speak?” Captain Bill Hawkins asked. Hawkins had been Bjorn’s right-hand-man almost as long as Bjorn had been in the mercenary business. “I bet he defaulted on payroll.”

“Of course he defaulted on payroll, probably with an empty promise to pay them back with interest.” Bjorn still wanted to punch Wick, the conniving bastard. Wick had tried one scheme too many and lost his company, screwing over his people in the process. “I want you to go up to Asimov to interview the crew. Take Pastor Jim; he can smell a bullshitter in a busted latrine. Take Wildman also; he knows more about this naval shit than anyone else on our payroll.”

“Wildman? He’s a dropship pilot and half mental,” Hawkins protested.

“He used to be XO on a frigate until he got drummed out of the Hussars. He may be a bit touched, but he knows his shit,” Bjorn countered. “Keep him sober, and he’ll be fine. We need as much of their crew as possible if we’re going to hit our departure window.”

“It’s cutting things close,” Hawkins cautioned. “We really need time to shake down the ships and crews. If we get into a serious scrap in the black, we could be screwed.”

“We need more space assets,” Bjorn stated, tapping his finger on the desk top. “The most difficult part of our contracts is getting to the target. We need to be able to go on our schedule, and we need to be able to bug out if the shit hits the fan.”

“Do you think something is going to happen?” Bill asked.

“I think something is already happening,” Bjorn replied. With a thought, his pinplants cast files to his desk Tri-V display. “In the past five years, 57 mercenary companies have gone belly up, been wiped out, or have gone outright missing.” A list of unit logos and names scrolled down the display, with the date and cause of demise listed. Several showed “Unknown—MIA.”

“The merc business is dangerous,” Bill remarked without conviction. He’d played chess with and fought alongside Bjorn for almost twenty years. “But you see a pattern?”

“It started with small units. There are a lot of them, so no one would pay attention if more than usual got wiped on contract or plain vanished,” Bjorn said. Logos flashed one after the other. “Then larger units started to fall, and we were almost one of them.”

“You think Moloq was part of this?” Hawkins shook his head. Two years ago, the Berserkers were almost wiped out during a contract at Moloq, when a third mercenary unit joined the fray, targeting the human Berserkers rather than engaging the Zuul defenders. Bjorn led an insane blitz against a weakness in the target complex’s defenses, not only taking the complex but turning its defenses against the new arrivals. “I remember we originally thought the mercs who jumped us were reinforcements for the defenders.”

“I’ve done some digging.” A new file flashed onto the display, a merc contract to assault the human merc company on Moloq, with a target date the same time as the Berserkers were on Moloq. “It’s redacted, so I have no clue who the party paying the fee was, but it was a hit on us.”

Bill whistled. “This has to be illegal. Did you go to the Guild?”

“Yeah, and I was given the runaround,” Bjorn replied, scowling at the Tri-V display. “We weren’t named as targets, and technically I shouldn’t have had even the redacted version. They said they would let my questionable intelligence gathering slide and would investigate it.

“It didn’t stop with us, either,” Bjorn continued. “Remember how Cartwright’s Cavaliers went bust? Around the same time, Asbaran Solutions was ground up and spat out twice.”

“They both caught lucky breaks and came back from the dead. What about the other Horsemen?”

“The Winged Hussar’s are off in space. They barely have a presence on Earth anymore. As for the Golden Horde, I’ve been in talks with Sansar Enkh about them leasing the Olaf Bunker.”

“Lease it?” Bill sat back, agog. “How does she even know about it?”

“Sansar is the canniest merc commander, if not person, I have ever met,” Bjorn said. He had only met the leader of the Golden Horde twice. He wished he had a chance to play chess against her. He suspected he would lose, but he might learn something in the bargain. “We’re all running around shooting aliens and living large, while she’s operating on the next level. The Horde probably has a better intelligence apparatus than most nation-states, and it’s only scratching the surface of their operations.”

The Olaf Bunker was an old mining complex his great-grandfather had started in the Alaskan mountains. The mining had run out, and Bjorn’s grandfather had turned it into a hidden complex. It could hold 5,000 people and eight companies’ worth of gear, with supplies, for up to two years.

“If she wants to use the bunker, it means things are about to go pear-shaped,” Bjorn stated.

“Are you going to do it?” Bill asked. “Lease the bunker, I mean.”

“I’ve already agreed to it,” Bjorn answered. “Our people will still have access, but to be honest, I’m working on relocating the bulk of our operations to Vishall.”

“Vishall?” Bill’s eyebrows furrowed in puzzlement. “It was nice enough, but it’s an agriculture world.”

“It also has a significant human population mixed in with the H’rang. Earth is not a full member of the Galactic Union yet, which means human colonies are sitting ducks if this gets nasty. I’m gambling that whoever is behind this will be reluctant to smoke a member-race colony.”

“I hope you’re right.”

The icon in the corner of Bjorn’s vision turned an angry amber. “Shit, I forgot the new recruits are waiting. I better give them the welcome routine.”

“Try not to make any of them piss themselves,” Bill commented with a laugh.

“That only happened once,” Bjorn grumbled as he rose.

* * *

The door opened, and a huge man filled the frame. Wilhelm had seen pictures of Commander Tovesson, but pictures didn’t do him justice. He wore the same gray BDUs as the other Berserker personnel, but a bronze hammer hung on his barrel chest, with three bear claws on each side of the pendant. His dark hair was cropped short behind his ears, but everywhere else it was long, to match his bushy beard. All he needed was a battle axe and a drinking horn to complete the Viking imagery.

“What’d you bring me today, Popeye?” The commander’s bright blue eyes swept the room.

“I scraped up what I could in Houston, boss.” The sergeant picked up his slate. “TJ Diller, CASPer trooper; Wilhelm Gutknecht, CASPer trooper; Isabella Quinto, Cavalry Scout; and Chuck Hinthorn, he wants to be a Casanova driver.”

“I won’t bother rehashing the info in your onboarding documents,” Commander Tovesson said. “What I will make clear is that Mercenary Guild rules and the Earth Mercenary Operations Charter gives me carte blanche when administering justice within my company. It means if you do something reprehensible, I can put a bullet in your brain pan, assuming I don’t crush your skull like a melon. Are we clear?”

Wilhelm nodded, and could see the other recruits doing likewise.

“Good. Those of you new to the merc business need to understand there is a lot more to this job than shooting aliens and blowing shit up.” Commander Tovesson paused and surveyed the room again. “It takes a lot of work to keep an operation this size going. If your superior tells you to do something, you damned well better do it. There is no ‘it’s not my job.’ Are we clear?”

There was another round of nods.

“Good. Welcome to Bjorn’s Berserkers.” The commander turned around and strode from the room.

* * * * *

Chapter 5

opSha Industrial Outpost, Kalig

Commander Aaron Blake counted down the hours. This garrison contract had been boring, which meant no combat bonus, but it was almost over. As soon as the unit relieving Blake’s Titans arrived, he’d be back on his way home with his account flush with credits. Maybe flush was an exaggeration; the British government would gobble up half his windfall in taxes. Maybe he could swing by Karma and upgrade some equipment before the Earth bureaucrat-leeches sank their suckers into his payout.

Blake had considered relocating his mercenary company to escape Earth’s avaricious taxation; most merc commanders had probably considered it at some point. Luckily for Earth and the billions who depended on mercenary taxes to fund the guaranteed income and other subsidies, the cost of living on Earth was still a fraction of what it was elsewhere in the galaxy.

His slate beeped for attention. He picked up the device and saw it was his second-in-command calling. “What do you have for me, Lieutenant?”

“Our relief has dropped from hyperspace at the emergence point,” Lieutenant Jen Witt stated. “Their ETA is twelve hours.”

“Very good, commence with striking base and loading up.” Blake considered suggesting a private celebration of the end of their contract. He knew it was a bad idea to mix romance and the chain of command, but he had grown quite enamored with Lieutenant Witt over the last six months. He suspected she reciprocated the sentiment, but he wasn’t sure.

There was only one way to find out. “Jen are you free for dinner?” Blake asked.

“Not if we are going to complete load up,” she replied. “Do you want to keep a squad hot and suited up?”

There’s always the flight home, Blake thought. “Anything coming here would have to get past the Maki company watching the emergence point and playing high guard. Let’s load them all up. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to get off this rock.”

“You’re sure?” Witt countered. “If something happens, it will take at least fifteen minutes to get the first CASPers unpacked and manned.”

“It’ll be fine, our relief will be here before any enemy could arrive,” Blake said.

* * *

Jen Witt scrolled down her slate. If she loaded the cradles last, she could keep a squad of CASPers operational until almost the last minute. She would use them as cargo handlers but have them keep their ammo loaded. She hoped she was just being too cautious. The commander could be stubborn, unable to see the other side of an argument. When logic failed, Witt had found it easier to creatively interpret his instructions.

She was pretty sure she knew what the dinner invitation was about. When the contract was completed, he was going to fire her and replace her with a more tractable second-in-command. It was a shame, Blake needed someone like Lieutenant Witt at his side to cover his blind spots. Hopefully he’d at least give her a letter of recommendation.

Eleven hours and forty-five minutes later, all five dropships were loaded, save for the remaining squad of CASPers from C Platoon. The opSha foreman and his assistants stood by, ready to mark the contract complete. Witt was weary, having worked the entire time to oversee, and at times assist, loading the Titan’s gear. Commander Blake had relocated to Dropship Alpha when the crew arrived to strike the command office and his quarters.

“Why aren’t these CASPers loaded?” Blake strode from Dropship Alpha, which had been moved from the tarmac to a cleared ground truck parking lot to make room for the incoming merc unit. “As soon as we are confirmed as contract complete, I want to be airborne.”

“Such a hurry to leave us, Commander Blake?” The opSha foreman asked, waving her tails in the equivalent of a smile.

“As much as I love the smell of diethylzinc and acrylomer, I’ve had my fill of chemical fumes and heat,” Blake remarked. Kalig had once been a lush jungle world. Now it was sticky swamps and tarpits.

“We can load up the CASPers as soon our relief officially takes over,” Witt countered. “In case there are any clauses in the contract regarding continuous protection. We wouldn’t want to lose or payout over a loophole.”

Blake glanced over at the opSha. “Good thinking, Lieutenant.”

A rumble in the sky heralded the approach of the incoming mercenary force. While Blake nodded appreciatively, Witt pulled up tactical imagery transmitted by the remaining CASPers. The cameras zoomed in on a descending transport and half a dozen escort fighters. The transport was a spherical Dyson-class, big enough to land a company. Technically a dropship, it was too much of a target to bring into a hot LZ, even with fighter protection.

Jen zoomed in on one of the fighters. The hair on the back of her neck went up. Why were they armed for ground strikes? She stepped away from Commander Blake and activated the comm line to Dropship Alpha.

“Cassidy are you picking up anything from those fighters?” Jen whispered into the mike.

“Hang on a sec.”

Witt nervously watched the fighters split into pairs and circle away from the landing zone. The dropships would be sitting ducks on the ground if the fighters targeted them.

“Lieutenant, I’m not registering anything unusual,” Cassidy finally replied. “They’re running the standard sensor suite, but they aren’t painting targets. Maybe they’re looking for the baddies the opSha seem to think are going to come after this facility?”

“I suppose.” Doubt continued to nag at the back of Witt’s mind. “Keep an eye out for anything suspicious. Bring point defenses and countermeasures to ready. Pass it on to the other pilots but keep it quiet.”

“Sure thing,” Cassidy responded.

A deafening roar drove the noise sensitive opSha back into their administrative bunker as the Dyson made its final approach. Four pillars of plasma scored the tarmac surface and kicked up debris. Jen retreated to an emptied building to monitor the tac channel, watching through a window. She debated heading for the dropships. She didn’t want to be left behind.

The racket outside abated as the transport settled and cut its engines. Ramps dropped on opposite sides of the globular hull and squads of black CASPers marched down. All of them were the new Mk 8s. Jen wondered why they were wasting their time on a garrison contract if they could field Mk 8s.

A single squad peeled off and strode toward the administrative building. The last Titan CASPers stood on guard near the main entrance.

“Where is Commander Blake?” A Hispanic accented voice came from the lead CASPer of the newly arrived troops.

Witt listened in over the audio pickups of Titan CASPer closest to the doors. Commander Blake emerged, with the opSha in tow.

“Can we mark our contract as completed?” Blake held up his slate.

Lieutenant Witt made her way to dropship Alpha. The squad with the commander would board Echo as soon as business was concluded. She was more eager than ever to get off this world.

“I suppose we can, if your relief has no objections,” the opSha replied.

“I have no objections,” the Hispanic man in the CASPer stated.

The opSha foreman tapped his slate. Witt’s slate chimed, and an icon indicated the contract had been marked complete and transmitted to the GalNet. Once the message reached Karma, their account would be credited.

“I see you have all of your men and gear loaded,” the leader of the arrivals remarked. He levelled his CASPer’s laser rifle at Commander Blake. “Order your people to disembark the dropships.”

“Shit!” Witt flipped open the tac channel as she clambered into the dropship. “It’s a double-cross! Get the commander out of there!”

“We completed our contract,” Blake protested. “You can’t keep us from leaving.”

“Oh really?” the Hispanic man sounded amused.

“According to guild regulations, once a unit has completed—” Blake was cut off as one of his own CASPers shoved him aside, deploying its arm shield to intercept the laser. A point-blank brawl erupted between the two battle armor squads.

“What’s up with those fighters?” Witt yelled as she strapped herself into the seat behind the pilot.

“They’re swinging back around,” Cassidy reported. “Weapons hot.”

“All dropships, countermeasures and point defenses on.” Witt was torn whether to order the launch because it would mean abandoning the commander and the squad with him.

The sergeant of the embattled squad called over the tac channel. “LT, this is Bushong. We’re toast. Get out if you can. Don’t sacrifice everyone for the seven of us.”

Witt closed her eyes. She knew he was right. “All dropships launch—full evasive. Assume the fighters are hostile.”

Acceleration slammed her back as dropship Alpha leapt for the sky.

* * *

Blake was bewildered. This wasn’t right. Humans didn’t attack humans. Not to mention, it had to be against the rules to rob the unit you were relieving. Sergeant Bushong had herded him behind one of the ferrocrete berms surrounding the tarmac. A laser swept overhead, setting alight the building that had housed his headquarters.

Four dropships rocketed into the sky. The fifth, Echo lagged, having to button up the open ramp waiting for the remaining CASPers. As it rose, fire from enemy CASPers peppered it. Sparks showered off its ablative armor, but as long as the CASPers didn’t find a chink in the armor, the dropship would endure.

Bays opened on the upper portion of the Dyson transport, exposing weapon emplacements. As Echo climbed, a pair of lasers from the closest bay skewered it. The stricken vessel corkscrewed away from the facility, trailing smoke.

“Sergeant, can you hit the laser on the Dyson?” Blake yelled. The sergeant’s CASPer sported a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher.

Somehow Bushong heard him over the din of battle. Smoke rolled from his laser shield, but he rose from cover to target the weapons bay. Three points on his ablative shield incandesced red as he let a rocket fly.

The tactical display on Blake’s slate showed Bushong’s arm bearing the shield flash red, but Blake followed the rocket’s flight as the laser barbette on the dropship swung toward dropship Charlie. Bushong fell back, slag dripping from his shield, but the rocket struck true. The bay went up in a gout of flame as the laser tried to fire through shattered lenses and distorted condensates.

A pair of black Mk 8s flanked their position a mere dozen meters away. Sergeant Bushong’s left arm dangled limp at his side as he turned and fired his remaining rocket. The closer of the two enemy CASPers fired his laser as the rocket struck him square in the chest. The warhead was designed to punch through vehicle and emplacement armor, so even the improved armor of a Mk 8 didn’t stand a chance. The operator died instantly as a jet of super-heated metal ripped through the front of the suit, flash-burned a path through the man’s ribcage, and slagged the capacitor bank from the inside.

The blast knocked the CASPer into its partner as the melting capacitor discharged all of its power into the jump system. An hour’s worth of jump juice blasted out the nozzles in a handful of seconds, sending both suits careening out of sight.

The blast also knocked Bushong’s CASPer back, and he narrowly avoided crushing Blake as he tumbled past the prone commander. Commander Blake felt like a fly swatted by a giant when the pressure wave hit him. The only reason he knew his eardrums hadn’t ruptured was the persistent ringing.

Smoke rose from a blackened hole near the right shoulder joint of Sergeant Bushong’s CASPer. Blake sighed in relief when the battle armor rolled to a sitting position. The armor’s manipulator hand mimicked a thumbs-up gesture. A laser pulse incandesced on Bushong’s chest, quickly followed by a second. The CASPer lurched up to its knees, its MAC firing. A third laser struck between where the first two had scored the armor, and Bushong’s suit collapsed, face down.

Another pair of enemy CASPers rounded the other end of the barrier, pointing their laser rifles at Commander Blake.

“You can’t do this!” Aaron Blake screamed at the pair. “This is against the rules! I’ll—”

A pulse of coherent light flash-fried what internal organs weren’t charred to ash.

* * *

“Here come the fighters!” Cassidy yelled over the roar of the engines. The maneuver warning lights illuminated.

Lieutenant Jen Witt clung to her safety harness. If she’d held to any religion, she would have prayed. Dropships were made to run a gauntlet of enemy defenses through agility, counter-measures, and durability, but they weren’t designed for direct combat. The fighters would be faster and more agile. The four Titan dropships were outnumbered and outgunned.

Alpha carried two squads of personnel, in this case 24 soldiers and mechanics, plus the flight crew of two. She reminded herself they had left seven of those personnel behind, but dead was dead, and the rest of the Titans might soon join them.

“Missiles inbound,” the co-pilot, Private Nessa Craig, announced. “Deploying counter-measures.”

Witt held her breath, listening over the rumbling engines and the buzz saw whine of point-defense guns for the boom which would herald their death.

“One missile down,” Craig called.

The dropship spun and the harness bit into Witt as she was slammed forward. The remaining missile streaked past.

The fourth seat in the cockpit held the gunner, Private Roberto Peso. He cackled gleefully as he hammered the trigger on the joystick. The enemy fighters, unprepared for the dropship’s deceleration, zoomed by, and one was in the field of fire of the chin gun mounted below the cockpit. The magnetic accelerator cannons spat a dozen rounds of tungsten-carbide in a tight arc. Three of them intercepted the fighter. One projectile passed harmlessly through a wing, one ruptured a fuel tank, and the third shredded one the two engines powering the craft. Trailing fire, the fighter plummeted back toward Kalig’s surface.

The remaining fighter rolled aside, and Cassidy banked the dropship away from it and pushed the throttle forward again.

“The transport is past the horizon,” Cassidy announced. “Should we make for it?”

If it was a mercenary transport, it would be able to deal with a few fighters. Unfortunately, Witt suspected the fighters and the Dyson originated from it. “Assume the ship isn’t friendly. We do not want to be on its scope,” Witt stated.

Cassidy nodded and pulled back the yoke, arcing Alpha up and away from the planet. Witt pulled out her tactical slate and polled a status update for the unit. Bushong’s squad were all flashing red. Dropships Bravo and Echo were flagged as destroyed. As she watched, dropship Charlie’s icon blinked from green to amber then red.

“Missile lock,” Craig announced. Witt wondered how she could be so calm. “Countermeasures deployed.”

Dropship Delta’s icon went red.

“Missile destroyed,” Craig called. There was a loud series of spangs. “Glancing hits from MAC, landing gear 4 shows red,” she announced.

“Come on,” Peso snarled. “Maldito! It’s staying in our wake.”

Jen knew the aft guns had a narrow blind zone directly astern. “How close is he?”

“Too close—he’s creeping up our tailpipe,” Cassidy reported. “Probably hoping to get close enough so our counter-measures can’t spoof his missile.”

“Is anyone in the cargo bay?” Jen asked. She knew the command rumbler was parked in the bay, but it should be unoccupied.

“No, why—oh, yeah.” Cassidy gave her a thumbs up. “Assuming our bird doesn’t shake itself to pieces.”

“Missile lock!” Craig announced.

Cassidy yanked a lever, and the dropship lurched.

* * *

“The last dropship is splashed,” Elena reported. “It cost us two fighters to get it.”

Commander Rodrigo Sanchez nodded. While Aldo would bemoan the loss in assets and personnel, to Rodrigo felt better that this company had actually put up a valiant, albeit doomed, fight. El Espejo Obscuro lost three fighters and nine CASPers taking out the squad of Titan CASPers and the fleeing dropships. It was a testament to both the Titan’s determination and the Espejo’s complacency. He would have to discipline the complacency out of his troops.

“Are there any prisoners?” Rodrigo asked.

Elena’s head tilted in the Tri-V display from her CASPer. “Did you want prisoners?”

“Not particularly,” Rodrigo replied. “If there were, I thought I might question them before we send them to join their comrades.”

“Our soldiers were rather…enthusiastic,” Elena said. Rodrigo knew none were as eager to slaughter the enemy as his sister. “There were no survivors.”

“Commander, the opSha foreman has some questions regarding our assumption of garrison duties,” Captain Mercado reported over the command channel. “They have not yet realized we are not the North Star Brotherhood.”

“No need to disillusion them, Aldo,” Rodrigo replied. “Speaking of the North Stars, they should be here in roughly twelve hours. Let us prepare a welcome for them.”

* * * * *

Chapter 6

Bear Town, Earth

“Whisky, you can’t just barge in there!” Stefan exclaimed.

Charlotte ignored the older man waving at her frantically. She shoved open the heavy oak door to the commander’s office.

“So, how many space hands do we need?” Commander Tovesson asked as Charlotte entered. “We need to be loading in 48 hours.”

A bald man Charlotte didn’t recognize ran his hand across his pate in a nervous gesture. He wore sergeant stripes and his name badge read ‘Wildman.’ “Minimum, a dozen, but thirty would be ideal,” he replied in a raspy voice. “That’s assuming we fill some positions with cross-trained troops, mostly damage control teams and logistic positions.”

“Sergeant Wicza, what can I do for you?” Commander Tovesson affixed her with his glacial blue eyes. “I’m in the middle of a meeting.”

“I can’t believe you’re sidelining me for the Patoka contract!” Charlotte declared. “I’m not due off rotation for two months!”

Captain Hawkins appeared disinterested, focusing on his slate. Pastor Hawkins, the chaplain and the captain’s cousin, bit back a remark. Sergeant Wildman seemed confused by the interruption.

“Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to you, but as commander I say who is and who isn’t on rotation,” Commander Tovesson rumbled. “Maybe this will give you time to work on those anger issues with the Padre.”

Pastor Hawkins, or Pastor Jim as most of the Berserkers called him, shrugged helplessly. Charlotte had counseling sessions with chaplain twice a week. While he helped her, she knew she was not the easiest of patients. Next to the commander, Pastor Jim was the man Charlotte respected most, almost as a father figure.

Charlotte found it difficult not to wilt under the commander’s glare. “I wasn’t due to come off rotation—”

Commander Tovesson slammed his hand down on his desk and everyone jumped, except for Captain Hawkins. “I wasn’t due to pay off a bar owner and bribe the local policia to look the other way when you decided to start your fifth bar brawl this year. You’re going to cool your heels and think about something besides how you can kick some dude in the nuts. Are we clear?”

“Yes, sir!” Charlotte saluted the commander—a breach of Berserkers operating protocol—and stormed from his office.

* * *

“Padre, I thought you were getting through to her,” Bjorn complained, staring at the closed door.

“So did I,” Pastor Jim replied, shaking his head. “She hasn’t pulled one of her vigilante stunts in quite a while.” Jim shuddered. The first day he’d met Sergeant Wicza, he witnessed her gun down four bandits robbing a truck. “She’s still driven by a need to prove herself.”

“She needs to prove she can take orders and hold her tongue,” the commander said, easing back into his chair. “Do you need to see her more often?”

Jim considered Commander Tovesson’s question before shaking his head. “I think it would be counter-productive and generate resentment. Is Corporal Reeves shipping out on contract?”

The commander glanced at Bill. His second-in-command nodded.

“I’m sure this goes against operating doctrine, but perhaps you could leave Reeves behind?” Jim knew the suggestion would rub the commander the wrong way. “Don’t think of it as rewarding Charlotte for her behavior. I think Tamara has been a positive influence on her.”

Commander Tovesson’s brow furrowed as he absently fondled the bronze hammer pendant. “Reeves was at the bar, mixing it up,” he finally said. “The only reason I didn’t pull her off rotation was I knew who the instigator was.”

“Commander, if Talita got into a scuffle, would you sit it out?” Jim knew the scenario was unlikely but not implausible. Everyone on base knew Talita was the commander’s girlfriend, but when she first arrived, she sent a drunk contractor to the infirmary for a dermal mend. “I’m not talking about a one-on-one scrap, but a full-blown fight.”

“You know I wouldn’t,” the commander relented. “However, if I bench Reeves so she can keep Wicza company, she’ll miss out on her combat payout and any other mission bonuses.” Off rotation soldiers still received a reduced share from missions the Berserkers accomplished, but it was a fraction of the combat payout. “Don’t ask me to monkey with pay—that would be opening a can of worms. If she doesn’t go, she doesn’t get combat pay.”

“What if I spoke to Tamara and asked if she would be okay sitting this rotation out?” Jim suggested. “She could work on bringing those new Casanova crews up to speed. She has a knack for training, and if I’m not mistaken, there is a trainer bonus.”

The commander’s eyes took on the distant stare that accompanied the use of pinplants to view information. Jim guessed he was consulting the training plans for the new hires, as well as referring to the particulars of pay.

“All right, talk to her,” Commander Tovesson agreed after a few moments. “Don’t tell her this, but it would mean a promotion to sergeant if she takes on trainer responsibilities. Popeye could use some help.”

“Heck of a way to get a promotion,” Sergeant Than Wildman remarked with a chuckle. He was a dropship pilot, but he had more space experience than anyone else in the Berserkers, having served with the Winged Hussars. Jim was glad to see the man nursing a cup of coffee. Jim classified him as functioning alcoholic.

“Laugh it up, Captain Wildman,” Bjorn commented.

“Huh?” Wildman appeared bewildered, not sure if the commander was joking.

“I’m putting you in command of the cruiser Ursa Major and in charge of the space company as a whole,” Commander Tovesson stated. “I can’t have a sergeant in command of a company.”

“I’ve never commanded a ship,” Wildman protested. “The highest I got in the Hussars was XO, and they fired me.”

“Because you were drunk on duty,” the commander added. “If you screw up by drinking on duty, I’ll fire you. I’m banking I won’t have to fire you. You’re the best choice to integrate these ships into our organization and keep these crews in order. These are all people you and Pastor Jim have approved, and they stand to make twice as much money with us as they did with Wick’s Wolverines.”

Wildman swallowed. Jim could tell he really wanted a drink. “I’ll do my best, sir,” Wildman promised.

“Congratulations, Captain Wildman,” Bill Hawkins declared. “I’ve updated your status.”

“While you’re at it, Bill, promote yourself to major,” the commander said. “I’ve got too many captains for my SIC to be a captain. We’ll need a new bear motif name for the space company.”

“Why not call it Wolverine Company?” Jim suggested. “It would give the crews a connection to their roots.”

“If Wick wasn’t more weasel than wolverine, I might agree,” the commander remarked.

“Are we finally going to saddle someone with Panda Company?” Bill suggested in a rare show of humor. As long as Jim had known him, Bill was always practical.

“Nanook,” Commander Tovesson declared. “It’s from an Inuit legend. I thought about Arcturus, but I didn’t want it to get confused with Ursus Company on the comms.”

“Updated,” Major Hawkins stated after tapping on his slate. “The space arm of the Berserkers is Nanook Company.”

“Now, Captain Wildman, I need those ships ready to be loaded in twenty-four hours, and prepared for departure in forty-eight hours,” the commander said. He turned to Bill. “Loading starts in twenty-four hours, Bill, and not a minute later. We’re on the clock.”

“Roger,” Major Hawkins replied with a nod. “We’ll be ready. Do you want a meeting with Captain Boggs since she’ll be the ranking officer on base?”

“Yeah. I know she isn’t happy about being off rotation, but someone needs to babysit the place, and it’s her turn,” the commander replied. “I’m sure the Padre can help her keep the troops in line while we’re gone.”

Jim had long ago given up on pointing out “father” or “padre” was not the correct appellation. He was one of only a few chaplains in the mercenary companies, so he didn’t rock the boat over how the troops, especially the commander, addressed him. “I’ll do my best, Commander.”

“Gizmo sent a memo regarding the new CASPer operating system the other merc companies have been picking up,” Bill said, reading from his slate. “She doesn’t think it will interface with Bettie.”

Jim knew Gizmo was Gina Zomorra, the Berserkers’ chief of tech support. Reputation had it the young woman could make computer code, human or alien, sit up, fetch, and roll over. Bettie referred to the Battlefield Tactical Intelligence, a computer program the Berserkers employed to coordinate their units in the field. It wasn’t an artificial intelligence, which would be illegal under Galactic Union law; however, it was very smart.

“If it won’t work with Bettie, we’re not using it,” the commander declared. “We rely on her too much in the field to have some newfangled code make things twitchy.” Jim thought Commander Tovesson anthropomorphized the battlefield intelligence too much.

“What about the new anti-laser paint?” Bill asked, consulting his slate. “We could send someone to Houston to pick some up. Nicholas Imports has a warehouse there and they’re practically giving it away.”

“We need to be under thrust in forty-eight hours, and you want to dick around with new paint?” A frown tugged down the commander’s moustache. “My grandfather always said if someone is giving something away, you aren’t seeing the whole deal. Companies exist to make money, not give handouts. The shit probably ablates off quickly and needs replaced. I bet the price goes up then. Let someone else find out what the catch is. We can consider it after the contract.”

Major Hawkins nodded, making a note on his slate. “I’ll get the deployment orders rolling. We’ll meet with the company captains in two hours. Anything else?”

Commander Tovesson jabbed a finger at Jim. “Raise Pastor Jim to a C4.”

“We don’t have a C4,” Bill remarked. Civilian contractors wore a C in the place of rank insignia. Higher “ranked” contractors added one or two dots. “We don’t even have a C3. No offense, cousin.”

“We do now,” the commander stated. “I’ll have Stefan fill out the forms in the database. Model the pay grade on the staff sergeant rank, non-combat. Congratulations, Padre.”

“Congratulations,” Bill echoed.

“Shit, everyone is getting promoted today,” Wildman remarked.

“Thanks?” Jim wasn’t sure what happened other than he received a pay raise. It wasn’t as though he needed more money; he already sank a large portion of his earnings in accounts both on Earth and the GalBank. Even though GalBank, operated by the Banking Guild of the Galactic Union, let him avoid onerous Earth taxes, Jim wanted to keep some of his retirement savings on the planet. “What does C4 mean, other than I have more dots than anyone else?”

“It’s exactly what it means.” The commander waved his hand, and a Tri-V image displayed the organizational roster. “We have over 1,200 combat personnel, and half again as many contractors. Normally, the service providers deal with their own contractors, but in the event of a crisis, I want someone in place over the contractors. Bill, bump Stefan to C3.

“All right, you have your instructions; get moving,” Commander Tovesson continued. “Captain Boggs will be here in a couple of minutes, so hang out, Padre.”

* * *

Bjorn glanced toward the sidebar. He hadn’t offered drinks from his liquor stores out of deference to Captain Wildman. If he was going to tell the man not to drink on the job, Bjorn wasn’t going to wave it under his nose. Bjorn instead signaled his secretary to replenish the coffee.

“You’re afraid something is going to go wrong while you’re away on contract,” Pastor Hawkins ventured.

“This is why no one wants to play poker with you, Padre,” Bjorn remarked. The man excelled at reading people; it was one of the reasons Bjorn had hired the chaplain. “I want to wait until Boggs gets here so I don’t have to explain everything twice.”

“Understandable,” the pastor replied, despite his evident curiosity. “So, has Captain Boggs done something to merit being left behind?”

“No, it happens to be her turn,” Bjorn replied. “We have enough manpower we can rotate one company off duty per contract. It gives them a chance to decompress, and it also deters the banditos from rolling up from Chihuahua and taking a crack at our base.”

 “I thought the Cartel-State militias stuck to their borders nowadays,” Jim said. “Ever since the Treaty of Guadalajara.”

“They only stick to the treaty enough to keep the Earth government from sending in peacekeepers,” Bjorn got up from his chair and rolled his shoulders. He hated meetings, especially long meetings. He’d rather slug it out with a Besquith than spend all day in conferences. “Lucky for them, the General Assembly banned the use of mercenaries on Earth. It leaves the second-stringers who can’t get accredited by the Mercenary Guild to form security contractor companies.

“Anyway, while the cartels wouldn’t be foolish enough to send their militia up here, they would certainly turn a blind eye if some non-affiliated chollos decided a lightly guarded base full of mercenary gear was too good a target to pass up.” Bjorn paced behind his desk. One more meeting, and he could call it a day, have dinner with his girlfriend Talita, then spend eight hours in bed. He might even sleep.

There was a tap at the door before Stefan swung it open, bearing a steaming carafe of fresh coffee. “Here you go. It seemed like I should bring you something stronger after the promotion you gave me,” Stefan lisped. “Congratulations, Reverend Hawkins.”

“Thank you,” Jim replied. “You as well.”

Captain Marian Boggs followed Stefan into the office. She was the newest company captain, other than Wildman, but she was a 12-year veteran in the Berserkers. As usual, she was in full duty uniform, not taking advantage of the leeway often given mercenaries.

“Captain Boggs, reporting as ordered, sir,” Marian stated. She went to parade rest behind an unoccupied chair.

“Have a seat, Marian.” Bjorn picked up the carafe and refilled his cup. The smell alone was enough to perk him up. “Care for some coffee? It’s fresh Colombiano.”

“No, thank you, sir.”

“All right. Padre, you already know to help yourself.” Bjorn returned to his chair behind the desk. Captain Boggs wasn’t usually given to familiarity, but she had dialed the formality up to an annoying level. Bjorn debated calling her out on it but decided he had more important matters to address. “As you know, in a couple of days, the bulk of the Berserkers will depart on the Patoka contract.”

“I am keenly aware, sir,” Boggs interjected. Pastor Jim was watching the captain out of the corner of his eye. Bjorn wasn’t sure if he was suppressing a grin.

“What you aren’t aware of is the possibility of something…happening while I’m away,” Bjorn continued. “Something catastrophic. Which is why I need you to have your head in the game instead of up your ass all pissed off.”

Boggs blanched at the blunt statement. “What kind of catastrophe are you talking about?”

“I wish I knew,” Bjorn replied. He could see the pieces in motion, but he couldn’t see the game board. “Merc companies are going down at three times the historical rate. It isn’t only in the field, even the Cavaliers went bankrupt and all but folded last year.”

“I thought Thaddeus’ widow drove the company into the ground?” Boggs commented. “It wouldn’t be the first time a civilian was handed the reigns of a mercenary company and pissed it all away.”

“Try the sixteenth time in five years a company has gone under for fiscal reasons,” Bjorn stated. Through his pinplants, he cast charts to the Tri-V display. “There have been forty-one operational wipes or disappearances in the same time frame. This is triple the historical rate, which had been declining steadily for the past three decades as humans mastered mercenary work.”

“Why would someone eliminate human mercenary companies?” Boggs asked.

“One of the previous thirty-six races getting jealous of our success,” Pastor Jim suggested. Bjorn knew the chaplain had been studying xenotheology and xenopsychology in addition to performing his spiritual and counseling duties. “From the sounds of it, more than one. Maybe they take umbrage with us because humans don’t follow the rules or behave as predicted.”

“We have to follow a ton of rules,” Boggs countered. “You should try reading the fine print and sub-clauses on a typical mercenary contract.”

“I’m not talking about contractual regulations,” the chaplain said. Pastor Jim was one of the most unflappable people Bjorn knew, but he could tell Boggs was starting to get on the chaplain’s nerves. “Aliens view us as unpredictable. We don’t follow expected norms or limit ourselves to certain roles. There’s an alien phrase, shan’ maymuun, which roughly translates to ‘upstart monkeys.’ Which is how a lot of races view us.”

“The other factor is that mercenaries are Earth’s best defense,” Bjorn interjected before the discussion went further off the tracks. “The General Assembly has dragged their feet on spending any credits protecting the planet. Our planetary defenses and fleet are negligible, barely enough to threaten unarmed transports, let alone armed mercenary vessels.”

“Wouldn’t it be against Galactic Union law to act against the planet?” Boggs asked, incredulous. The overly-formal veneer had vanished.

“It would be if Earth was a full member of the Galactic Union,” Pastor Jim responded.

“Which will happen soon, unless someone intervenes,” Bjorn added. He gestured toward the floating graphic. “My guess is someone is going to intervene, and it won’t be pretty.”

Boggs stared at the floating hologram before turning her attention to Bjorn. “So, what do we do? What do you need me to do?”

“What I’m about to show you is classified.” Bjorn called up a new set of images. One showed a map of Alaska with a red circle, another was a magnified picture within the circle. “This is a mining facility owned by my family. The mine hasn’t operated for a few decades, and it has been converted to a bunker big enough to hide all the Berserkers, contractors, and dependents—roughly five thousand people—and equipment.

“The closest town and airfield are at our disposal. Several people from the town are in my family’s employ through the mining company.” The town and airfield were highlighted in the hologram. “However, I have leased out a large share of the facility to the Golden Horde.”

“Doesn’t it throw the whole idea of a secret bunker into the wind if you rent it out to one of the Four Horsemen?” Boggs asked, peering at the hologram.

“Sansar had already found it,” Bjorn admitted. He still wasn’t happy about the revelation that she had discovered their secret bolt hole. “The Horde has the best intel operation on the planet, and she has been scoping out hideaways in the northern climes. It turns out most aliens hate the cold, especially when you throw snow in the mix.”

“So, what, she blackmailed you into letting them use the facility?” Boggs sounded defensive.

Bjorn shook his head, remembering his initial anger when Sansar broached the subject. “We made a deal I found fair. It involved credits and intel—plus the guarantee that if the shit hits the fans, the Berserkers remaining on Earth have somewhere to go.”

“You don’t think it’s an ‘if,’” Jim noted. “You agree with Commander Enkh’s assessment.”

Bjorn’s hand strayed again to the hammer pendant hanging on a string of bear claws around his neck. The claws were from the grizzly bear that had mauled Bjorn as a teenager, shredding his left arm along with his dreams of life outside the mercenary business. Bjorn killed the bear, and his father sent someone to retrieve the carcass. Bjorn didn’t view the claws as trophies, but as reminders of how life could mess with you.

“It makes too much sense, and I think we are running out of time,” Bjorn stated. “If I could, I would uproot our entire operation, lock, stock, and barrel, but we don’t have the ship capacity to do it in one trip, and we still need to fulfill our pending contract. Luckily, the client hasn’t been in a hurry. They’re hoping the target will let their guard down.”

“Back to my original question: What do you want me to do?” Boggs glanced at the hologram again. “Because it sounds as though you’re leaving us to the wolves.”

He had been wrestling with the same question for the last month. Would the people left behind be screwed? “If things go pear-shaped, the Four Horsemen commanders will be calling the shots to coordinate Earth’s mercenary companies,” Bjorn replied. “Follow their play as much as possible. However, your priority is getting everyone out of Bear Town. Some can go to ground, especially local hires. Anyone who is a dependent of a merc needs to be ready to bug out. There may be some who refuse to go; don’t waste time arguing with them.”

“How am I supposed to move folks?” Marian asked. “It’s a long way from New Mexico to Alaska.”

“You’ll have the frigate Onikuma and the transport Milne, along with their complements of dropships.” As Bjorn spoke, images of the ships appeared in the Tri-V with relevant data. “The day after we leave, four Russian North Star aerojets will arrive. Our technical staff has a contract to refurbish them for PrimeX Parcel. Except we’ve bought these air transports—you will have them to ship personnel and assets up north. As long as there’s air traffic, they should be able to blend in.”

“You’ve put a lot of thought into this, Commander,” Pastor Jim remarked. Bjorn added the unspoken I see flaws, but I won’t point them out in front of someone else. “As much as I appreciate being in the loop, I’m not sure why I’m here.”

“As the ranking contractor, your job is to guide our contractor staff and their dependents when everything goes down,” Bjorn replied. Bjorn didn’t mention he was counting on Pastor Jim to spot potential turncoats. If the General Assembly put out a bounty for information on mercs, contractors would be more apt to be tempted.

“If you guys do have to bug out, leave as little behind as possible,” Bjorn said. He had even considered ordering the base razed upon evacuation. Bjorn’s grandfather had sat in this office, and he hated to think of some cartel bandito plopping down behind his desk. “We especially don’t want weapons and munitions falling into the hands of the locals.”

* * * * *

Chapter 7

Torreon, Coahuila, Earth

Señor, you cannot take the whole factory,” the foreman pleaded. “My people, where will they work?”

Elena stood behind the foreman and raised her eyebrow, slowly lowering her hand toward her holstered sidearm. Rodrigo waved off his sister with a subtle shake of his head.

“We are not taking the whole factory, merely the equipment,” Rodrigo said. The equipment was a string of a half-dozen manufactories forming Binning’s fifth CASPer facility. While the bulk of the production occurred within the alien robotic factories, there were enough tasks required to support the production that it had been cheaper to use human laborers than to invest in robots. If a human broke down, you got another one.

“It is possible you and some of your personnel may be of use,” Aldo Mercado interjected. “Experienced personnel could be valuable in the plant’s new location. However, anyone wanting this job would have to be willing to relocate in the next forty-eight hours. I’ve sent a recruitment packet to your slate. Your people have twelve hours until interviews begin.”

The foreman glanced at his slate. A Binning logo was emblazoned on the device. “Si, señor, I see it.” The foreman scurried off.

“You should have let me shoot him,” Elena groused, watching the foreman hurry into the nearest building. She mimed shooting him with her finger. “He probably has union seniority.”

Rodrigo shrugged. He was accustomed to his sister’s blood-thirstiness. “Aldo, how many laborers do you think we need?”

“Most of them,” Rodrigo’s aide replied. “Binning is nothing if not efficient. The labor breaks down into material handlers and technicians. Anyone can be taught to load raw materials or move components from one apparatus to the next. The key is the talent required to maintain the manufactories. The old timers are worth more than they’re being paid here.”

“Fine. Figure out how many people we can cram on the transports,” Rodrigo ordered. He wanted the manufactories loaded before his employer changed her mind. “No abuelas or tios. Children can be trained, but we don’t have room to ship deadweight to Nuevo Aztlán.”

“If they insist on bringing elderly relatives or deadbeat brothers, send them to see me,” Elena remarked with a vicious grin. “I’m sure I can persuade them.”

“I’m sure there is no need for your method of persuasion,” Aldo retorted, shaking his head. “Especially once our recruiters explain there is no Gigi on Nuevo Aztlán. Those unable or uninterested in working are better off remaining here on Earth, where the government will provide for them.”

Rodrigo was proud of their model for Nuevo Aztlán. Jobs would pay well enough that only one parent need work. Mercenary income wouldn’t support deadbeats. Taxes would exist but would be applied productively. Best of all, if his plans worked out, the bones of his enemy would litter the new world.

“You are smiling, hermano,” Elena said. “People say I am scary, but I shudder to think what is going on inside your head.”

“I am looking forward to a reunion.” Rodrigo didn’t bother to hide his smile. “I consider it icing on the cake. Soon the Four Caballeros will be swept from the board, and we will reign supreme among the human mercenary companies.”

Aldo tapped at his slate. “The latest update is that your ‘guest’ will arrive in three weeks. It doesn’t give us much time to spare.”

“Once he is on the ground, we will have all of the time we need,” Rodrigo scoffed. “I would starve him out, but I want to see my old friend when he dies.”

* * *

“Are you able to depart within twenty-four hours?” the recruiter asked without glancing up from her slate.

“Absolutely,” Escuzio Diaz replied. “This one time, my whole family had to move out of town in six hours, because my cousin, he was a mariachi, anyway he—”

“I’ll mark it as yes,” the recruiter interrupted dryly. “How many dependents do you have? Before you answer, elderly relatives and women beyond child-bearing years are not eligible for relocation.”

“Oh, I only have Fuzz,” Escuzio replied. “She has been with me for three years.”

The recruiter glanced up. “Is Fuzz your girlfriend?”

“What, no, are you sick?” Escuzio protested. “Fuzz is my dog. I don’t go anywhere without her.”

The recruiter sighed. Yet another individual too attached to a living creature for their own good. “There is no room for pets on the transports. You should find a family member or friend to take care of your dog.”

“You must not have read my file,” Escuzio said, tapping on the table. “Drill down into my profile and rephrase your statement about furry amigos.”

The recruiter glowered at Escuzio before pecking at her slate. Programmer, Class VI, appeared over Escuzio’s image. It took a Class III programmer to make changes to the production parameters of a manufactory. It meant not only was Escuzio skilled with Terran computers, he was well versed in the computer code utilized by the Galactic Union. There were less than a hundred people with a Class VI rating on Earth.

“Fine, you’re hired,” the recruiter said. “If your dog gets sick, it’s your job to clean up after her.”

“You don’t have to worry about her,” Escuzio promised. “This one time, we were driving to Baja, I have an uncle out there, and—”

“Here’s your chip, don’t lose it.” The recruiter handed Escuzio an encoded memory chip. “Departure is 1100 hours from the Gomez Palacio Industrial Park—look for the spaceships. Only bring what you can carry, including your friend.”

“I’ll be there,” Escuzio said as he slipped the chip into his slate. Smiling, he left the recruiter’s office and stepped into the harsh sunlight. He’d wait until he got home to see what his snoop-worms picked up from the systems in the office, including the recruiter’s slate. The argument over bringing his dog had been to buy his snoops time to root around. Taking an animal into space took specialized gear, and Escuzio didn’t want Fuzz to spend a week trapped in a box with floating waste. Luckily, his sister Esme had a soft spot for Fuzz and would take her in.

Legally interfacing with the local Aethernet through his pinplants, Escuzio hailed a cab. In the Cartel-States, most taxis were still human driven, with autocabs only common in the wealthiest areas. Any taxi would beat walking the two miles home, and Escuzio figured he could afford to splurge in his last hours on Earth.

* * *

Bear Town, Earth

“Aw, Scuzz is leaving.” Sergeant Gina Zomorra pouted, eyeing her slate and ignoring her meal. “He’s going off planet in twelve hours.”

“Your long-distance, hacker boyfriend?” Charlotte asked. She knew Gina, or Gizmo as most of the outfit called her, corresponded with a fellow pinhead. Charlotte had befriended the geeky tech expert shortly after joining the Berserkers, feeling a kinship with the young woman. Whereas Charlotte was often dismissed due to her small stature, Gizmo was usually judged for her social awkwardness.

“I told you, you should have gone south and hooked up with him,” Tamara remarked, poking at a salad. Fresh produce was at a premium, even with agriculture rebounding through automation. Farmers suffered when guaranteed government income made back-breaking agricultural jobs unappealing. “Now you’re going to miss your chance.”

“She doesn’t need to fly 500 miles for a booty call,” Priya objected. “If she wants, there are plenty of perfectly fine men here. Some of the fresh meat looks promising.”

Hcuff’t peered at the other diners’ trays. “I do not see this meat.”

Reeves laughed louder than she intended and covered her mouth. “Priya is talking about the new recruits. The German kid is a little short, shorter than Gizmo, but the surfer dude is a nice slab of beef—if you’re into guys.”

“I am forbidden to dine on sentients,” Hcuff’t stated. “Wait, this is a mating metaphor, yes?”

“Yes, it is,” Priya replied.

The feline alien shrugged and returned to devouring his sushi rolls.

Gina glanced over at the table occupied by the new recruits. “I think they’re all hoping to get in the pants of the new girl.”

Charlotte snorted. “Typical.”

“Oh, that’s sweet,” Gina cooed, returning her attention to her slate. “Scuzz sent me a crypto-puzzle packet.”

“What’s that mean in English?” Charlotte asked, pushing away her empty tray.

“It’s an encrypted data packet,” Gizmo replied, the screen of her slate reflected in her eyes. “I have to figure out how to unlock it before I can see what’s inside. Oh, he tried to hack me one more time.”

“Your idea of sweet is really different than mine,” Reeves remarked. “I hope the packet isn’t a picture of his packet, if you know what I mean.”

“You refer to male genitalia, yes?” Hcuff’t’s question caused nearby tables to go quiet.

“Isn’t it dangerous to play hacker games with your slate?” Priya asked, lowering her voice.

“No, it’s fine,” Gina dismissed. “This is my personal slate. It only interfaces with a dedicated Aethernet node and my pinlink. It can’t even handshake with other devices, let alone exchange data. I have to do all updates manually, too; updates are a good way to sneak into a system.”

* * *

“Why do they keep looking at us?” Wilhelm whispered. He knew they were the new kids, so to speak, but the group included two sergeants. Drawing the attention of NCOs, even cute ones, was never a good idea.

“Maybe we should find out if they’re going to hang around after mess hours,” Tom suggested. He took a swig of his protein shake before winding some tofu noodles on his fork. “They must be in the company staying behind.”

“The tall dark-skinned woman is Corporal Reeves. She’s a Casanova driver,” Chuck stated. “The short, Anglo brunette is Sergeant Wicza. She’s a recon scout.”

“I’ve met her; she’s a badass,” Isabella added.

“The Latina woman is Sergeant Zomorra, in charge of technical logistics,” Chuck continued.

“Really? She’s kind of cute,” Tom remarked.

While Wilhelm agreed with Diller’s assessment, he was surprised at Tom’s interest. She seemed a bit awkward for Diller, who until now had voiced rather superficial tastes.

“The Indian woman is a private from logistics, I think her name is Surjit,” Chuck said. “I was a bit distracted by the H’rang with her. I never learned his name.”

“It doesn’t explain their interest in us,” Wilhelm uttered, leaning over his chicken fajita. Four different “restaurants” operated stations in the Mead Hall during mess hours. The variety of chow surprised Wilhelm.

“It’s probably Pretty Boy,” Isabella remarked. She had pronounced the Tex-Mex station as passable, as opposed to the corporate facsimile of Tex-Mex cuisine normally offered by American chains. “No offense to you two, but he stands out.”

“Keep flattering me and I’ll let you buy me a beer later,” Tom commented, but he was still watching Sergeant Zomorra.

“Dream on,” Isabella countered. She had so far rebuffed TJ’s flirtations. Wilhelm realized both he and Chuck were also vying for her attention, but less aggressively. Isabella hadn’t shown an interest in either of them, but continued to hang out with them.

“It seems as though we signed on in time to miss a big job,” Chuck said, poking through his salad. “The bulk of the Berserkers lift off in thirty-six hours, and we’re still going through our integration training.”

“No combat bonuses for us,” Tom added with a sigh. “Any idea where they’re headed?”

“There’s always next time,” Isabella remarked. “Assuming there is a next time.”

* * *

“I still don’t understand why we are going back to Vishall,” Talita protested in her lilting Brazilian accent. “I like it here on Earth.”

Bjorn pushed aside the fact they had discussed the matter three times in the last two days. “I have an ulterior motive for us to go back to Vishall,” he admitted. He had already explained his logical reason for going back. The H’rang had agreed to lease the Berserkers space for a new headquarters and being based on a member race’s world meant Galactic Union rules applied, as opposed to on Earth. “I wanted to save this as a surprise, but maybe it’s as well I let the cat out of the bag.”

“What have you been holding back, Papi Bear?” Talita crossed her arms and glared up at Bjorn. The height difference, her 150 centimeters to Bjorn’s two meters, might have made the scene comical, but Bjorn had long ago learned not judge his girlfriend on her diminutive size.

“I want to ask your avó, your grandmother, permission to marry you,” Bjorn admitted. He pulled a ring box out of his vest pocket. “I guess we’d do what we want regardless of what she said, but I understand it’s the polite thing to do.”

Talita blinked, stunned into rare silence as Bjorn knelt on one knee. Her eyes went to the ring box as he pried open the lid and held it out to her. Some mercs went big when it came to bling, giving their wives and girlfriends jewelry encrusted in gemstones. Some had even gone so far as have incredibly valuable red diamonds put in rings.

“This was the engagement ring my grandfather, Bjorn the First, gave to my Granny Mildred when he proposed,” Bjorn said, fighting to keep a tremble out of his voice. “His grandfather gave it to his grandmother, and so on. It isn’t a big rock or a rhodium setting, but it’s been in the Tovesson family since—”

Talita threw her arms around Bjorn’s neck and kissed him fiercely. “It doesn’t matter where it came from, what metal it is made of, or the size of the stone,” she said when they finally took a breath. “All that matters is that you gave it to me.”

“I’ll take that as a yes?” Bjorn touched his forehead to Talita’s, gazing into her emerald eyes, and thanked the gods.

Si, Papi Bear, it is a yes.” She gave Bjorn a quick kiss, then stepped back and held out her hand. Bjorn slipped the ring onto her finger. She admired it for a moment, then flounced toward their bedroom. She batted her eyes over her shoulder, and said, “Don’t keep me waiting. In a minute, all I’ll be wearing is this ring.”

* * * * *

Chapter 8

Earth Orbit, Sol System

“Welcome aboard the Ursa Major, Commander.” Captain Wildman stood at attention, the toe of his boot hooked under a rung to keep him from floating away.

“Thank you, Captain,” Bjorn said as he steadied himself in the hatch of the dropship. He wasn’t a fan of space. He preferred his boots firmly on the ground. “You didn’t have to come down here yourself. I know you’re busy.”

“We’re waiting for the last two transports to finish loading. If they finish on plan, we’ll have a leisurely half-G thrust for a few hours to reach the stargate for its next cycle,” Wildman reported. He appeared clear-eyed, so Bjorn resisted the urge to sniff for booze. The captain gestured to the thin man waiting off to the side. “This is Corporal Halsey. He’ll be your on-board aide.”

The corporal was the same age as Bjorn, a bit shy of forty, with hatchet features and a bobbing Adam’s apple. “Welcome aboard, sir.” He caught himself from saluting. Unlike many mercenary and military units, the Berserkers reserved salutes for ceremonial functions. “I can take you to your quarters, if you like.”

“We have at least an hour before we get underway,” Wildman added.

 “Very good.” Bjorn pulled himself aside, so Talita could float forward from the dropship. Bjorn kept a hand free in case she needed help, but Talita enjoyed microgravity and adapted quicker than Bjorn.

“Ooh, a new cabin for us to break in, Papi Bear,” she cooed, adroitly launching herself to the hand rail on the side of the shuttle bay. Even though she was a civilian, her capris and tank top matched the dark grey of the Berserkers’ BDUs. A red scarf added a splash of color, and a matching ribbon wound through her braid.

Bjorn resisted the urge to chuckle as Halsey’s eyes bugged out. Talita often had that effect on men. “This is my fiancée, Talita,” Bjorn said, with a trace of pride in his voice. His grandfather had said it was easy to stop a man’s heart, but a challenge to win a woman’s.

“Corporal, show the commander and his fiancée to their cabin,” Wildman prodded.

“Right. Yes, sir.” The corporal’s Adam’s apple bobbed, and he tore his eyes away from Talita. “If you’ll follow me.” He pulled himself along the handrail toward the exit.

Bjorn waited for Talita to precede him, then brought up the rear. He tried not to let the view of Talita distract him as he split his attention between following the corporal and checking the ship’s schematics on his pinplants.

They traversed three decks before reaching the deck with the commanding officer’s quarters. The ship’s CIC, or bridge, was a deck above them. The corporal stopped next to a hatch. A label above the hatch’s alphanumeric designation read “Tovesson—B. Actual.”

As they halted in front of the hatch, Bjorn said, “I should have said this earlier, but welcome to the Berserkers.” The corporal’s faded brown and tan uniform marked him as a former Wolverine. The new Bjorn’s Berserkers patch on his shoulder stood out. There hadn’t been time to get new uniforms for all the crew.

“Thank you, sir.” The corporal found the urge to salute almost as hard to resist as the urge to glance at Talita. “The lock is set for your biometrics—both of yours. We had the damage control team give it a thorough cleaning and decontamination.”

Bjorn waved his hand over the access blister, which glowed green. With a click, the hatch swung inward. Talita grabbed his shoulder to propel herself into the compartment. Bjorn pulled himself through the hatchway after her.

“It is…molto colorful,” Talita remarked, rotating slowly as she drifted across the cabin.

The term garish leapt to Bjorn’s mind. The décor resembled a bachelor pad from classic entertainment videos. A circular bed with scarlet sheets dominated the room. Bjorn hoped it wasn’t a waterbed, despite appearances to the contrary. A small leather-covered bar was on one side of the room, and a cluster of colorful cushions near a Tri-V display on the other.

“You guys sterilized this place, right?” Bjorn muttered over his shoulder.

“Twice, sir,” Halsey replied. “We jettisoned the sheets on the bed and replaced them with a set from storage.”

“How many sets of sheets did he have?” Bjorn asked. He’d assumed it was only the one.

“Besides the one we disposed of?” Corporal Halsey pulled his gaze away from Talita again. “There are three. We also trashed any bathroom linens in use. As for the carpet, since there wasn’t a spare rug, we sanitized it as best we could.”

Bjorn realized burnt orange shag carpeting covered the floor of the cabin. Faux wood paneled the walls. “At least tell me the booze in the bar is halfway decent.”

Corporal Halsey shrugged. “I can’t say. It was stripped bare, as was the wardrobe.” The corporal floated in and caught a handrail near the door. “The door to the left of the bed is the head and shower. The pair of panels next to the bar cover an alcove with a pair of acceleration couches. The panels on either side of the Tri-V are wardrobe and storage.”

“Good enough.” Bjorn surveyed the cabin and shook his head. “Corporal, please show me to the CIC. Princess, are you okay waiting here for the luggage?”

“I will be fine.” Talita made a shooing gesture with one hand while inspecting the mirror over the bed. “You have to work. I’m surprised you are not already talking to your mistress.”

I am installed and operational,” Bettie announced over Bjorn’s pinlinks. “I am currently running learning algorithms and compiling data from the shipboard systems.

Bjorn caught the corporal’s uncomfortable expression. “She’s talking about our BTI, battlefield tactical intelligence.”

“I thought AIs were illegal,” Halsey gasped, eyes wide. “As in death sentence illegal.”

“Bettie’s not an AI,” Bjorn stated. “While her Turing protocols are impressive, she is not sentient or free-willed.” From what Bjorn had read, AI experiments often resulted in an insane cluster of code that as often as not self-terminated. “Let’s head to the CIC.”

“Right.” A quick float up a level brought them to the armored chamber that served as the nerve center for the ship.

Wildman gave Bjorn a nod. “Commander. There is a flag station at your disposal.”

“Captain.” Bjorn spotted the over-stuffed and adorned acceleration couch behind a small console with a Tri-V display. Regular acceleration couches flanked the larger one. Bjorn launched himself across the chamber. He miscalculated slightly but activated the magnetic grip in his cybernetic hand to catch the console before he overshot it. If anyone noticed, they didn’t say anything.

Bjorn strapped himself into his seat as Halsey drifted over. “Sir, what do you want me to do?”

“If you don’t have something else to do, strap your ass in,” Bjorn replied. “Otherwise, take care of business, Corporal.”

“Yes, sir.” Halsey tugged himself into the couch and strapped himself in position with practiced ease.

Bjorn had Bettie bring up the fleet display, and pinged Major Hawkins for a status update. They were fifteen minutes from having everything secured enough to move out. Once they were in hyperspace, they could finagle some things, and a lot of gear was being left on the dropships for deployment.

Fourteen minutes later, Major Hawkins reported to the CIC.

“Have a seat, Major,” Bjorn said. “Captain Wildman, the metal and meat are stowed.”

“Very good, sir.” Wildman sat up straight. “Sprague, instruct the fleet to report readiness for departure. Advise when they’re all green.”

The systems operator repeated the call into her headset. A minute later she announced, “All ships report ready.”

“All ships into formation,” Wildman instructed. Bjorn watched on the fleet display as the ships maneuvered, with the warships screening the transports. “All ships, ahead one-half-G for the stargate.”

The helmsman, Corporal Marcia Ling, acknowledged the order and sounded the acceleration alarm. Fifteen seconds later, Bjorn felt the press of acceleration. “Nine hours, forty minutes to stargate,” Ling announced.

“Very good, Ensign—I mean corporal,” Wildman said. The naval to ground pounder rank had been a hairball to untangle. The Wolverines had used naval-based rank structures. Bjorn ordered Major Hawkins and Captain Wildman to convert the ranks to match the Berserkers’ structure. There had been some grousing from the ship’s crews, but since the change didn’t impact their pay, they didn’t complain too much.

The original captain of the cruiser hadn’t been kept on. Bjorn suspected the man was almost as big a weasel as Wick, and probably better at hiding it. Pastor Jim had sniffed him out right away, remarking the man “had a dishonest soul.” Once the captain had been relieved the first officer confirmed their suspicions.

“A lot of traffic today,” the sensor operator remarked.

Bjorn perked up but held his tongue. He didn’t want to step on Wildman’s toes; this was his ship. It didn’t keep him from having Bettie display the sensor readings on his own station. The program annotated various sensor contacts with more verbose descriptions as opposed to the shorthand familiar to spacers.

“What do you mean, Corporal?” Wildman brought up the sensor readout at his own station. “Are there any hostiles?”

“No, sir,” Corporal Lutz replied. He expanded the sensor display and highlighted several contacts. “But there is an unusually high number of transports, alien transports, in system. None of them seem to be in a hurry.”

Any thoughts, Bettie?” Bjorn asked through his pinplants.

Insufficient data,” Bettie replied directly to his mind. “Conducting additional sensor readings would require us to deviate from our schedule.

“Keep an eye on them. Alert me if they do anything suspicious,” Wildman instructed. The captain glanced back at Bjorn, who nodded in return.

Bjorn unhitched his harness and stood, enjoying the sensation of faux gravity. “I’m going to my quarters. Let me know if anything comes up.”

“Yes, sir,” Wildman responded.

Bjorn caught a questioning glance from his aide. “Halsey, see if Major Hawkins needs any help getting everything situated. I’m going to see if my fiancée will let me catch some sleep while I don’t have to worry about floating out of the bed.”

* * *

MinSha Transport, Sol System

“A large human mercenary fleet has broken Earth orbit, en route to the stargate,” the MinSha sensor operator reported.

The MinSha commander gazed at the display. A battle cruiser, three frigates, and four transports. While elements of the interdiction fleet were lurking in the system, mounting an effective attack would give away their existence.

“Monitor them,” the commander ordered. “They appear to be leaving, though they will likely die from the mercenary plague soon to be unleashed.” The commander found the last part distasteful. MinSha fought with honor. These dirty tactics of disease-carrying nanites and sabotaged operating systems were not honorable.

General Peepo had pointed out that honor was not a tactical asset. Humans themselves were a plague spreading across the galaxy, an infection that couldn’t be left unchecked. Bringing the human mercenary firms to heel was crucial to the plan. Most of them would soon be dead and their vaunted CASPers rendered useless.

The surviving mercenaries would be forced to capitulate and accept Peepo’s terms. At least one firm had already started working for Peepo, picking off mercenaries in remote postings and luring others into traps with lucrative contracts.

The commander shook her head. Dishonorable.

* * *

Transport Ponce de Leon, Earth Orbit

“Commander, we are prepared to leave Earth orbit for the stargate,” the transport captain announced. “The Cortes and the Pizzaro report ready as well.”

“Very good, Captain Borja. Proceed at your discretion,” Rodrigo ordered. The acceleration alarm sounded, and fifteen seconds later the deck vibrated as a pair of fusion rockets flared to life. Acceleration pushed him into the couch, relieving him of the queasiness of freefall.

“It is a good thing we are under way, hermano,” Elena whispered next to him. “You were beginning to turn green.”

Rodrigo ignored his sister’s jibe. He didn’t enjoy space travel, even with a gravity deck—compartments attached to extended arms that rotated around the ship to produce a sensation of gravity. At least this transport had such a deck. The other two transports lacked such a luxury.

“Captain Borja, I assume you have everything under control?” Rodrigo asked, extricating himself from the safety harness.

“Yes, Commander,” she replied. The captain turned around to catch his eye. “The trip to the stargate will take over nine hours and will be uneventful. If you’d care to join me for dinner, I’ll be dining in my cabin at 1500 hours.”

Rodrigo paused. Llucia Borja was certainly attractive, and it would be a week in hyperspace. He hoped he could quell his flip-flopping stomach by then. “I’ll take it under advisement, Captain. If my schedule allows it, I will join you.” He managed a smile. Two hours under thrust should be enough for everything to settle down.

“You complain about me sleeping with the help,” Elena protested as she followed Rodrigo into the corridor.

“Because you tend to traumatize them,” Rodrigo countered. “I need to check in with Aldo and make sure our cargo is secure.”

“You need to hold Aldo’s hand?” Elena teased. “Can’t he do his job?”

“This is too valuable to leave to chance,” Rodrigo said, seizing a nearby ladder. “We have one of eight CASPer manufactory lines in existence. Once we set it up and supply it with raw materials, we’ll be able to produce our own CASPers.”

* * * * *

Chapter 9

Bear Town, Earth

“See if you can keep up this time, Whim!” Diller called over the comm net. At least he hadn’t called him Wimp. Wilhelm feared the nickname from the training academy would resurface to haunt him.

The Berserkers predominantly used Mk 7 CASPers, as opposed to the newer, lighter Mk 8s. It didn’t make much difference in the simulations, but in the field, it meant Wilhelm’s smaller stature forced him to work harder to guide the machine. Diller’s extra 15 centimeters gave him an edge.

They were on a five-kilometer-long CASPer course, a mix of obstacles and rough terrain winding through a rocky portion of the old White Sands Missile Range preserve. This was Whim’s third attempt at the course. The previous two times, he had been the last across the finish line. TJ Diller had been the first of the rookies to finish the obstacle course both times.

Sweat trickled down Wilhelm’s back despite the cooling circuits in his haptic suit. The noonday sun pounded down on them, heating the battle armor. Wilhelm watched his terrain indicators, having learned the hard way the course obstacles were moved between runs. The depression behind the ridge ahead had been empty yesterday. One of the leading rookies, Cal Hurst, fired his jumpjets to save himself the awkward clamber over the loose rocks on the ridgeline.

Wilhelm grinned as Hurst jumped ahead of Diller. TJ could stand to be knocked down a peg or two. The smile vanished when the threat alert flashed. A spray of projectiles intersected Hurst’s flight path. Wilhelm broke right, not wanting to charge up the same path as his fellow troops.

“I may have forgot to mention the Casanova and Scout trainees agreed to spice up today’s run,” Popeye called over the comm network. “Getting hit will freeze up your CASPer for two minutes.”

Wilhelm had only finished three minutes behind Diller yesterday. He checked his weapon status, they showed blue—training mode. It meant his laser was dialed down and the physical munitions consisted of dummy rounds designed to mark a hit but not actually harm the target, assuming the target was armored. Wilhelm didn’t want to get hit with one of the ceramic, paint-filled marker rounds outside of his CASPer—they had enough kinetic energy to break bone.

Wilhelm scanned for the other Casanova. Operational doctrine was for the armed and armored rumblers to operate in pairs. His sensors picked up the second vehicle behind the next ridge, its turret pointing at the group of CASPers. The laser flashed, and a CASPer in Squad 3 froze, its icon blinking orange in the tactical display.

His suit’s microphones picked up a buzz, and another volley of ceramic pellets splashed across the CASPers. Three more icons blinked orange. Another flash from the farther Casanova, and another CASPer froze, toppling over face first.

“TJ, two o’clock behind the ridge,” Wilhelm called over a direct channel to cut through the chaotic chatter on the squad network. “We’ll never make it across the next ridge with the other vehicle waiting to pick us off.”

“I see it,” Diller replied. “If we cut south behind the ridge, we might be able to flank it and pop it with a rocket.” Each CASPer carried two rockets in a shoulder launcher. Like the MAC rounds, these were training weapons as opposed to the usual high-explosive, armor-piercing warheads.

“Will that take it out, or only give us a two-minute window?” Wilhelm wondered aloud. Of the twenty-four CASPers in the training platoon, eight were frozen. Half the remaining battle suits were hunkered behind the ridge and the other half were scrambling for the next ridge.

“Let’s find out.” Diller jogged south, keeping below the ridgeline. Wilhelm fell in behind him. After two hundred meters, they stopped and peeked over the ridge. The Casanova continued to pick off the CASPers trying to make the run across the small valley. One trio almost made it to the far ridge before something burst in their midst, engulfing them in a bright blue cloud.

“Great, there are scouts calling in strikes,” Wilhelm observed. “They’re probably painting targets from blinds.”

“After we pop this Casanova, we can put down smoke south of us,” Diller suggested. The refractive particles in the smoke should screen them from targeting lasers. “Then it’s a balls-to-the-wall dash.”

“Right,” Wilhelm said, realizing TJ couldn’t see him nod in the armor. He armed his first rocket. “Ready.”

“Three, two, one, fire!” At Diller’s count they both popped up and let a rocket fly. “Go! Go!” TJ yelled, launching a smoke grenade before the rockets even reached the target.

Casanovas were equipped with four point-defense lasers designed to take out incoming rockets and artillery rounds. Three of the lasers could normally fire on any quarter, but the rumbler was parked on a slope with the ridgeline partially obscuring the defensive weapon’s field of fire. The facing laser engaged the first rocket in a staccato burst of pulses, incinerating it. The second rocket roared past the debris cloud. The other two lasers had a split second to fire. The tail of the rocket burst into flames, but the warhead struck the turret of the rumbler. Bright pink paint settled on the angular, dark gray surfaces.

Wilhelm hustled after Diller, firing his own smoke grenade further ahead. He resisted the urge to fire his jumpjets. A leap would carry him above the wall of smoke. A clock counted down two minutes in his HUD. Even with the augmentation of the CASPers, it took them half the countdown to cross the valley. As TJ crossed the ridge, Wilhelm’s sensor picked up a laser painting the back of Diller’s armor.

“TJ, you’re marked!” Wilhelm shouted, and fired his jumpjets. The spotter could easily switch targets, and if there were more than one, they could target Wilhelm. His rear camera picked up a blast as Diller dove over the ridge, followed by a blue mist. Was he far enough from the burst?

Diller’s icon blinked orange. Nothing changed in Wilhelm’s suit except the countdown, so he surged ahead, searching for cover. There was another rise 50 meters ahead. Panting, Wilhelm sprinted for it, aware of the clock ticking down. As it hit zero, he slid over the crest of hill. With no surprises waiting for him, he continued his dash for the endpoint.

* * *

“TJ, how long did it take you to scrub the blue paint off your CASPer?” Isabella teased as Diller joined them in the mess hall.

“Were you the one who tagged me?” Diller set his tray down, steam rising from a bowl of vegetable stir fry. “I should have let Whim go up the ridge first.”

Wilhelm hid his grin behind a burrito. He hadn’t been the first to finish, but out of 15 rookies, he was the third. There had been too many CASPers for the vehicles, or vics, to keep them contained for long, especially once TJ and Whim had shown they could shoot back.

“I bet it took less time than I spent washing the pink crap off my Casanova,” Chuck grumbled between bites of a sandwich from the deli station. “Guess what the new guy gets to do—wash the vic after the exercise.”

“Is it me, or did the chow options go down this last week?” Diller complained as he dug into his stir fry. He usually ate at the Cali Cuisine station, which catered to the healthy-minded diners, but it was dark. “I mean, as chow goes, I’ve had worse—a lot worse—but half the stations have been vacant since the day after the others deployed.”

“The place is almost empty,” Chuck remarked, gesturing toward a field of empty tables. “It probably doesn’t make sense to keep them all here when most of the troops are off-planet.”

“I guess so,” Diller relented. His eyes drifted across the mess hall.

“At least the Tex-Mex is decent,” Isabella remarked. “The empanadas remind me of my abuela’s cooking, only without the lengua.”

Lengua?” Chuck asked, glad there wasn’t anything dubious in his burrito.

“Tongue,” Isabella replied.

Wilhelm turned enough to follow TJ’s gaze. He was focused on the group of non-coms who often ate together. “You know, you could ask her out,” he suggested.

“Shut up,” Diller snapped, returning his attention to his meal.

“Ask who out?” Chuck peered over at the table. “Oh, Gizmo.”

“You might as well,” Isabella added. “You’re not getting anywhere with me.”

Diller shot her a dirty look, but it was fleeting. While he still flirted with her, Isabella had made it clear she wasn’t interested in him. “Whatever, Quinto.”

“Don’t tell me you’re suddenly shy,” Isabella teased.

“You should ask her out,” Wilhelm prodded. Normally TJ was the outgoing one in the bunch, asserting himself as the alpha. This reticence was new. “Invite her back after 2000 hours for a beer.” After dining hours, the huge chamber switched from being a mess hall to bar. Given the low population, it would likely be quiet.

Diller’s jaw worked. “Fine. Watch and learn.”

* * *

“The slab of meat is coming,” Hcuff’t announced. “He seeks to engage in pre-mating ritual, yes?”

Priya stifled a laugh to keep from coughing up her beans and rice. “Most likely, yes. He has been playing peekaboo with Gina all week.”

Gina glanced up from her slate, her food all but forgotten. “What?”

“Your slab of beef is on the way,” Tamara said. “Judging by the antics at his table, his friends gave him a not-so-subtle nudge.”

Gina glanced in the direction of the oncoming trooper and flushed.

“Remember, you can always tell him to take a hike,” Charlotte remarked. If Gina hadn’t already expressed an interest in the surfer, Charlotte would have intercepted him and told him to buzz off. The blond man struck her as a typical alpha, convinced any woman would consider herself lucky to receive his attentions. She had to think back on her last counseling session with Pastor Jim and remind herself to calm down.

“Good evening ladies, and um…cat.” The blond man flashed a smile fit for a dental advert.

“Good evening, beef,” Hcuff’t replied. Tamara coughed out her tea. “You are here for…”

“What Hcuff’t means is it’s nice to meet you,” Priya interrupted. “What brings you over, soldier?”

“I’m Tom, Tom Diller. My friends call me TJ.” He met Gina’s eyes. “Gina, I was wondering if you’d be interested in joining me for a drink.”

“Why?” Gina asked, her brow knitted in puzzlement. Charlotte wasn’t sure how much of her confusion was genuine, and how much was designed to discomfit Diller. She had seen men try to pick up Gina before, and she usually retreated rather than engage them.

“Why?’ Diller repeated. His smile faded to a grin. “Well, I thought it would be a good way to get to know each other.”

“Why do you want to get to know me?” Gina asked.

“I know the answer, yes?” Hcuff’t interjected, squeaking when Priya elbowed him.

Charlotte peered at Diller’s friends. They were all pretending not to pay rapt attention to the proceedings. “This isn’t some sort of dare, is it? A bet, to see if you can hook up with Gizmo?”

“What? No!” Diller protested. “Gina, I think you’re cute, and from what everyone tells me, you’re smart, and I wanted to find out if a smart girl like you and a dumb jock like me can find something in common. So how about a beer? Here at 2100 hours so there’s no pressure, and you can walk away whenever you want.” The smile returned, focused on Gina.

Gina bit her lip and fidgeted with her slate. “Well…um…”

“She accepts,” Tamara interjected.

“What?” Gina started. “I do? I mean, I guess, I do.”

“Remember, if you do anything untoward, I will tear your nuts off and run them through the foosball table,” Charlotte said smiling sweetly.

“You were told to stop maiming and killing humans, yes?” Hcuff’t asked Charlotte.

Diller’s smile faltered for a split second before his mask of confidence returned. “I’ll see you at 2100.” He gave Charlotte a nervous glance before backing away, then walked briskly back to his table.

“See, the thing about long distance pseudo-relationships is you don’t have to worry about physically interacting with them,” Gina remarked, watching Diller’s retreating form. “I mean, he looks like he’d be fun, but it’s all so complicated. Why did I agree to this?”

“Because you wish to mate with the beef, yes?” Hcuff’t popped the last of his sushi rolls in his mouth.

“Yes. I mean no!” Gina put her face in the palm of her hand. “Maybe yes.”

“We have two hours to find you something cute, but not too slutty, to wear,” Tamara said, putting a hand on Gina’s shoulder.

“I don’t think slutty is in my wardrobe,” Gina countered. “What about the sundress I wore to Lughnasadh? Lobezno from logistics followed me around all night.”

“Perfect!” Tamara exclaimed. “Whatever happened to Lobezno?”

“He hooked up with a contractor who fleeced him for a large chunk of his savings,” Priya replied, ruefully. “He actually considered trying to get into a combat role for the extra pay out.”

“Speaking of combat roles, we’ll be here in case you need us,” Charlotte stated. “Over by the foosball table.”

Gina’s slate on the table chimed. She excitedly snatched it up, scrolling across the screen. “The packet unlocked!”

Tamara put her hand on the tablet. “Hacker games can wait for later. He’s long gone, so you can see whatever digital going-away note he sent you tomorrow. Tonight is for flesh-and-blood people.”

Gina pursed her lips and thought a moment before stowing her slate. “I supposed you’re right. I need to finish dinner before we go back to my quarters. There’s nothing Scuzz sent that can’t wait until tomorrow—or maybe later tonight if this date goes badly.”

* * *

Torreon, Coahuila, Earth

The small form skulked along the alley. If a passer-by could pierce the shadows, they might mistake the form for a small child. Flashing red lights and orange flames cast a flickering glow over the end of the alley.

Qidek clambered up the nearest utility pole, dispelling the illusion of being a human child. Even encumbered by the bulky clothing, it only took the Flatar two minutes to ascend high enough to jump onto the roof of a five-story tenement building. A quick scrabble across the flat roof put him in the vantage point he sought.

A block away, fire suppression teams battled the blaze engulfing the Binning factory. Amateurs, Qidek thought. Arson was an inefficient method to destroy evidence, especially when modern forensics could be employed. Did they really think they could burn the buildings enough to hide the fact the manufactories had gone missing?

Luckily, a loyal employee had alerted Binning the CASPer manufactories were being taken. Unluckily for the employee, he was found dead with a single gunshot wound to the head. The local authorities were incredibly apathetic, even following allegations that a large portion of the factory workforce had gone missing.

Binning was one of the richest non-mercenary corporations on Earth. They quickly contracted the Peacemaker Guild to investigate, and Qidek and his partner were dispatched from the Peacemaker Consulate on Luna. His partner waited on their ship. There was no way she could pass for human.

Qidek swept the scene with a macronocular while a program on his tablet hacked into local emergency frequencies. He bounced the comm traffic back to the ship. It would give his partner something to do besides watch his feed.

“Qidek, one of the firefighting teams reported tanks labeled Jump Juice,” Ozor reported over their pinlink channel.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Qidek remarked, sweeping his view across the burning factory. “They don’t load jump juice into CASPers during production because it’s too…oh entropy!” Qidek bolted away. The next building was a story shorter. He dropped, hit the roof, and rolled. As soon as his feet contacted the roof surface, he ran.

The brilliant flash and deepening shadows gave him a half-second warning to dive flat. As he covered his head, a bone-rattling BOOM preceded the shockwave. Debris rained down on the rooftop, some trailing fire. A rack covered with garments was set alight, and Qidek rolled to extinguish flickering flames kindling in his camouflage garb.

Shattered glass raining into the streets tinkled as the buildings closest to the blast crumbled in a cacophony of cracking brick, screeching metal, and splintering wood. Qidek felt a rumble, and the building he had leapt from collapsed into the alley behind it. The roof he stood on shook, sending him racing for the next building.

As he closed on the structure, he had to watch for cascades of falling glass. Not only could the shards slice him as they fell, the glass made for treacherous footing. The vibrations under his feet increased, then the side of the roof next to the collapsing building sagged. Qidek fired a grapnel line. The next building was two stories taller. As soon as his anchor found purchase, he engaged the small but powerful winch.

The roof below him caved in as Qidek rose. He hauled himself over the edge and followed the cable to the anchor. He dislodged it from the masonry once the barbs retracted.

“I assume you are intact,” Ozor remarked. She knew better than to question him in the heat of the moment, waiting until the immediate danger had passed.

“A little singed and sliced, but nothing a dose of nanites won’t fix,” he replied. Qidek turned to survey the damage. “Entropy,” he swore. A fifty-meter wide crater pocked what had been the factory grounds. Only the faintest outlines of a few walls remained. Qidek only recognized the wreckage of the emergency response vehicles because he had seen them before the blast. The twisted husks of the largest vehicles remained in the street covered in debris. The blast had hurled the smaller vehicles into the closest building.

The buildings ringing the factory were shattered ruins. Only the sturdiest of the next layer of buildings remained upright; most had collapsed. Flames licked up from the rubble, as the cries of the wounded and dying filled the night.

So much for forensics, Qidek thought. “Anything else you think we need to examine?” he asked his partner.

“No. Hurry back to the ship. All Peacemakers have been instructed to evacuate Earth and Luna unless given specific orders otherwise.” There was a pause. “I see no such orders for us.”

“I’m on my way back to the shuttle,” Qidek said. “Advise our ship to prepare to break orbit for the stargate as soon as we’re aboard. If the Peacemakers are pulling out, everything has gone to entropy, and we don’t want to be here.”

* * * * *

Chapter 10

Sol System, Staging Area for General Peepo’s Fleet

The cursed chime sounded again. What Peepo wouldn’t give for competent underlings. So many operations dealing with the Human mercenaries, namely the wretched Four Horseman, had been botched that Peepo felt the need to oversee the capture of the Human home world herself. Her presence seemed to encourage her subordinates to ask even more questions rather than make necessary but obvious decisions themselves.

“Enter,” she called from behind the desk.

The door swung in to admit another Veetanho, Captain Zeeri. “General,” she said with a salute. “Your pet Humans have stolen one of the battle armor factories.” Zeeri had made her distrust of using Human operatives in the endeavor well known. Unlike Peepo, she didn’t understand how selfish and petty the Humans were. “They razed the structures and set off multiple explosions in an attempt to conceal the theft, but one of our intelligence assets reported several truckloads of machinery evacuated from the site beforehand.”

“I know,” Peepo stated blandly. “It is of no concern.”

Zeeri blinked in surprise. “I thought the goal was to secure all manufacturing facilities of the Human battle armor—their CASPers as they call them.”

“It is.” The captain’s tone bordered on insolence. Peepo let her hackles rise and added, “I know where all of these facilities are located, including the one being transported off-world by the Espejos. They think of it as a reward. It will allow them to replenish their losses without relying on Earth’s supply chain.”

“It is far too valuable to entrust to these…hominids,” Zeeri protested. “What if they switch sides? Or even see the profit in supplying their fellow humans with more battle armor?”

Peepo shook her head and let anger creep into her voice. “Do you think I have not taken this into account?” She left her teeth bared at the end of the statement in a show of dominance. “If our Humans forget who their master is or think to glean some credits by selling armor to other Humans, we are no worse for it. In fact, I welcome it. I wish to see the expressions on their stupid, round faces when their vaunted battle armor shuts down in the field.”

Zeeri lowered her head in submission. “Apologies, general. As usual, you have anticipated our enemies and hampered them with their own weapons.”

Satisfied for now, Peepo let the anger fade. “What of the invasion force? Are we ready?”

Still keeping her head low, Zeeri replied, “Everything is in readiness to strike in forty-eight hours. According to projections, panic around the mercenary plague should be setting in, significantly reducing the number of able-bodied defenders.”

“Excellent. Proceed as planned.”

* * *

Orbital Hub First-Claw, Vishall System

The orbital facility in geosynchronous orbit hung over Vishall Plex, the only city on the planet. The world sported a single landmass the size of Iceland, home to several species. The felinoid H’rang, owners of the world, composed three quarters of the population of a million. Humans comprised 20 percent of the population, with most of them working in the widespread aquatic agriculture industry or services geared toward other Humans.

“Didn’t think we’d be back so soon,” Bjorn rumbled from the flag chair, watching on Tri-V as the Berserkers’ ships moved into parking orbits around the station. The facility was one of seven above the world and by far the largest. The other six were planetary defense stations, while First-Claw served as a trade and traffic hub. “Good thing I like seafood.”

Talita patted him on a bulging bicep. She wanted to be on the bridge for the return to Vishall. “Do not worry, Papi Bear. I have a cousin who raises cabras. He will give us a good price on meat.” Meat from terrestrial animals was expensive, five times the price on Earth. “We can get some pollo as well.”

Bjorn grunted. He had a hundred things to worry about besides the menu. The window to get things squared away planetside was only three days.

“Incoming transmission for the commander,” Corporal Anne Sprague, the systems operator, announced with her Tennessee twang. “It’s the governor.”

“Send it to my console,” Bjorn ordered. The glow in his Tri-V display resolved to a brown and black H’rang with ceremonial shawls denoting her office and clan status. “Greetings, Governor Karr’f.”

“Greetings, Commander Bjorn,” the governor replied. Unlike Hcuff’t, she relied on a translator. Bjorn hoped the device unmangled his pronunciation of her name. “Welcome back to my world. Your people are eager to land, yes?”

“Yes.” Bjorn remembered not to show his teeth when he smiled. The H’rang considered it intimidating. “We have a great deal of work.”

“My staff will transmit clearances immediately,” Karr’f said. “You do not wish to replace the garrison with your own soldiers, no?”

Harter’s Paladins held the garrison contract for Vishall. They were a smaller unit, two companies with only one company-worth of augmented infantry, but they had a reputation for straight dealing.

“No, let the Paladins finish out their contract,” Bjorn said. It had been a year since the Masheen had hired a Xiq’tal task force to assault Vishall Plex. Ever since the Berserkers stopped the Xiq’tal assault in its tracks, then went and kicked the Masheen in all four of their balls, it had been quiet. “It will give my people time to get set up, and there’s no point in pulling the contract out from under them.”

The governor bobbed her head, a H’rang nod. “Very well. Let my staff know if you are in need of anything.”

“Thank you, Governor.” Bjorn killed the transmission. “Where are we for landing prep?

Major Hawkins reports all vessels have their first loads ready for landing operations,” Bettie replied.

“Sprague, give me the fleet-wide channel,” Bjorn ordered. The corporal nodded and an icon on his display glowed green. “This is Bruin Actual to all points, commence landing operations as planned. Bruin out.”

Bjorn turned to Talita. “Princess, you have everything ready to go?”

Si, Corporal Halsey was very helpful,” Talita replied.

On the other side of Bjorn, Corporal Halsey’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he gulped. “I…I was only doing my job. Sir,” he stammered.

Halsey had been tripping over himself to help Talita the whole trip. Bjorn resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Let’s get to the hangar,” Bjorn said, ignoring the corporal’s nervousness. “Time to see what kind of bullshit Wick stuffed in his personal shuttle.”

“We cleaned it thoroughly as well, sir.”

* * *

Patoka System

Rodrigo Sanchez held his breath as the Ponce de Leon emerged from hyperspace.

“You can breathe now, brother,” Elena whispered.

“The Pizarro and Cortes have emerged from hyperspace,” the operations officer reported.

“Helm, set course for planetary orbit—point two five Gs,” Captain Borja ordered. The ship would thrust toward the world, then flip over to brake into orbit.

“Orbital insertion plotted, point two five,” the helmsman called out. “ETA twelve hours, nine minutes.”

The thrust alarm sounded, and fifteen seconds later the deck reverberated. Rodrigo tried not to show how relieved he was at the sensation of gravity.

“Captain, we’ve been pinged by the traffic control buoy,” the operations officer announced. “New Aztlán has recognized our transponder flash. The only traffic is the usual complement of Zuul patrol cutters and one frigate on high guard.”

“Set condition green,” the captain commanded. “Rotate watches per schedule. I’ll be in my quarters.” The captain stood and gave Rodrigo a sly grin. “Inform me if anything comes up.”

Rodrigo watched her exit the bridge, catching her wink as she disappeared through the hatch. He had spent enough time in her bed, or floating over it, that he feared he was shirking his duties. Even so, he was tempted to follow her.

“Go ahead and play,” Elena murmured. “Aldo and I can handle wrangling the troops for landing.”

“Without killing each other?” Rodrigo half-jested. Fortunately, Aldo and Elena had been avoiding each other during the 170-hour trip through hyperspace.

“I promise not to murder Aldo,” Elena said. “If he happens to fall out an air lock…” She shrugged.

“Very well.” Rodrigo unhooked his harness. It was not the smooth, practiced motion Llucia had used. His involved awkward untangling and fighting with a stubborn buckle. Freed of his restraint, he said, “Call me if you must, but only then. We’ll convene in the conference room in nine hours.”

“Have fun.”

* * * * *

Chapter 11

Bear Town, Earth

Charlotte watched as Gina entered the Mead Hall. The lights cast pools of illumination at the bar and the exits, leaving the rest of the cavernous chamber in twilight, bright enough to see your drink but dim enough to create an illusion of privacy. The music, mostly century-old classical “rock” was low enough to have a conversation but loud enough to mask discussions at adjacent tables.

Tamara spotted Charlotte perking up and followed her gaze. “Good thing she’s straight,” Tamara teased. “Otherwise I might trade up.”

Charlotte snorted. “She’s too cute for you, honey. You’re stuck with me.”

Gina scanned the room, uncertain where to go. Not spotting Diller, she drifted toward the bar.

“I swear to Artemis, if he stands her up, I’m going to kick him in the nuts,” Charlotte muttered.

“I thought you were against this date?” Tamara countered.

“I’m against her getting hurt,” Charlotte retorted. “If he gets her drunk and tries to take advantage of her, I’m kicking him in the balls—wearing my APEX armor.” While not as impressive as the vaunted CASPers, APEX armor doubled their wearer’s applied strength, not to mention a titanium-carbide boot to the pills would ruin any jackass’ day.

“We’re not the only ones considering this a spectator sport,” Tamara said, tipping her head across the room.

Charlotte followed her gaze and spotted Diller’s friends at a table. Their surveillance of the entrance was less than surreptitious. It seemed Gina wasn’t the only one dressed up. Isabella Quinto’s outfit caught Charlotte’s attention, and unless her companions were clueless, they would notice as well.

* * *

“You don’t think TJ is going to stand her up, do you?” Chuck asked.

“If he does, I bet Whisky will find a reason to slug him,” Isabella remarked, standing behind Chuck and Whim. She grabbed a chair and slid it between them, so she would be facing the bar. “Scoot over, unless you really want to sit next to each other.”

“Whisky?” Wilhelm moved aside. He tried not to be distracted by Isabella’s outfit. It wasn’t scandalous, especially compared to what he was used to in the clubs in Berlin, but it was a marked departure from her usual off-duty attire—jeans and a plain T-shirt. The dress showed enough to pique his interest and curiosity. Her long, black hair was down, as opposed to the braid she typically wore, and she was wearing makeup. Was she trying to catch someone’s eye? She’d shot Diller down, but there were plenty of guys she could be interested in.

“Sergeant Wicza,” Isabella replied, sipping a beer. “I don’t think she’s a fan of Diller.”

“I didn’t think she was a fan of guys in general,” Chuck said, still searching for Diller.

Wilhelm caught himself glancing at Isabella again. Maybe he should have dressed up more than khakis and the collared shirt he’d gotten from the commissary. Was she wearing perfume? He realized his glance had turned into a stare when she met his gaze.

“What are you gawking at?” she asked, arching an eyebrow in amusement.

“It’s, um, well you look nice tonight,” Wilhelm replied, taking a gulp from his bottle of Dunkel. Even if half the mess hall vendors had departed, they would have good beer until the stock ran out. Wilhelm had been happy to discover the Mead Hall stocked German beer. “I wonder how much money the firm recaptures through mercenaries drinking?”

“A fair amount, I bet.” Chuck swirled the ice in his rum and cola, pretending not to pay attention to the exchange. He’d been more surreptitious watching Isabella.

“You don’t clean up too bad yourself,” Isabella commented, ignoring Wilhelm’s attempt to change the conversation. “Even with your barba cabra.” She teasingly tugged on his goatee.

“There he is,” Chuck announce, a bit louder than necessary. TJ stood illuminated near the entrance. He quickly spotted Gina and waved, crossing the hall to join her at the bar.

“I guess he gets to keep his teeth a bit longer,” Isabella remarked.

They watched while TJ made a self-deprecating joke and chuckled awkwardly, eliciting a laugh from Gina. Instead of asserting himself, his body language was reserved.

“Why do you think he’s playing shy?” Chuck wondered. “He picked up the secretary at the recruiting office as easily as breathing.”

“Maybe he really likes Gina, and he’s afraid of screwing it up?” Wilhelm suggested. In his limited experience, Wilhelm was already versed in screwing up when trying to make a good impression. He stole another glance at Isabella.

“Or maybe it’s an act? Diller thinks she’ll trust him more if he comes across uncertain?” Isabella countered. “I’ve known guys like that. They put on a front until they get you in bed.”

“Ouch,” Chuck remarked. “I take it there’s no boyfriend waiting for you at home?”

Isabella finished her beer before answering. “Nope. Some guys assumed I was a cholla, because all us brown girls are chollas. Others were intimidated when they found out they were hitting on a woman tougher than them.”

“What about other mercs?” Wilhelm filed away the absence of a boyfriend, as he was sure Chuck did. “They couldn’t have all been intimidated.”

“I had a boyfriend the first year I was with Company 13,” Isabella said, peering into her empty beer glass. “He was killed by a Tortantula on a contract. Ned died a year ago. I haven’t had a boyfriend since. I didn’t want to get attached, so it became habit to keep people at a distance.”

Chuck picked up his drink. “Sounds lonely.”

Isabella shrugged. An awkward silence settled over the table.

“I’ll be right back.” Isabella stood and headed for the bar, careful to avoid TJ and Gina. Wilhelm watched her go, then realized Chuck was doing the same.

“So, is this going to be a point of contention?” Wilhelm asked, polishing off his own beer. He debated following Isabella to the bar but didn’t want to seem too eager.

“What?” Chuck snapped out of the trance induced by Isabella’s skirt.

“Don’t play dumb,” Wilhelm said, rolling the empty bottle between his hands. “We’re both interested in Izzy.”

Chuck sighed. “Fine, yes, I’m interested in her. Why wouldn’t I be? She’s attractive, tough, and can probably drink us both under the table, laughing about it the whole time.” He emptied his glass. “So, what do we do?”

Wilhelm shrugged. “It’s up to her. Let’s not be jackasses to each other over it. She’s probably not interested in either of us.”

“Sounds good,” Chuck replied. “Although, she got dressed up for—”

Isabella plunked three shot glasses on the table, with salt and slices of lime. “I thought we were here to see if Diller crash and burns, not huddle around whispering like gossiping abuelas.”

Wilhelm eyed the shot glasses, brimming with a clear liquid. “What is this?”

“It’s called tequila,” Isabella replied. “You lick the back of your hand, put salt on it, down the tequila, lick the salt, then bite the lime.”

“You’ve never had tequila before?” Chuck chuckled. “You might want to take it easy. Remember the Reactor Coolants.”

Isabella licked the back of her hand and poured salt on it. She picked up the lime slice in her salted hand and the shot glass in the other. “What are you waiting for?”

Chuck and Wilhelm copied her, holding their glasses aloft.

“Berserkers—Valhalla Awaits!” Isabella toasted and clinked her glass to theirs. They threw back the tequila and followed through with the salt and lime.

“What’d you think?” Chuck asked with a slight cough.

“Different,” Wilhelm replied. He could easily acquire a taste for tequila. He preferred straight liquor to dubious cocktails like Reactor Coolants. It reminded him of drinking schnapps back home. “Shall I get the next round?”

* * *

“Look who I managed to drag out of his office,” Priya announced as she and Reverend Hawkins joined Charlotte and Tamara.

“Good evening, ladies,” Jim said. When Priya broached going to the Mead Hall to join Charlotte and Tamara, Jim feared it was in response to more of Wicza’s antics.

“Padre, have a seat.” Tamara moved to the opposite bench in the booth to sit next to Charlotte.

“Let me get a round,” Priya offered. “I already know what you two drink. What will it be, James?”

“I’ll take a cider, if they have it,” Jim replied, surprised to hear his name without an appellation. “If no cider, then a Dos Equis.”

“Padre, what do you know about the guy at the bar with Gizmo?” Charlotte asked.

Ah. This was to get his insight on a possible cad, Jim thought. At least it was a step up from starting a brawl. Jim peered over at the bar, where the lights made it easier to pick people out. He almost missed Gina in her civilian attire. The man next to her was obviously the subject of the inquiry. Jim mulled over how much information he should indulge. On one hand, he didn’t want to speak of privileged information, but on the other he wanted to encourage Charlotte to seek resolutions other than punching someone in the face.

He recognized the man, Thomas Diller. The young man was proud of his appearance and knew he possessed charisma. Watching Diller talk to Gina at the bar, Jim noticed he had tamped down his brash confidence. Instead of initiating contact, he placed his hand next to Gina’s but let her be the one to flirtatiously put her hand on Diller’s.

“Here we go.” Priya returned with the drinks and scooted in next to Jim. “What have I missed?”

“Diller is playing coy while Gizmo is working up her nerve,” Charlotte replied, accepting the hoppy IPA. “So far, they’ve only had one drink each. His perfect teeth make me want to…” She glanced at Jim. “I wasn’t going to say punch them in.”

Jim shook his head and took a sip of the cider. It was a Canadian brand made popular when climate shifts pushed the ranges of apples and pears to the north. “I assume I’m here to tell Charlotte that Diller is a cad who needs to have his teeth punched in?”

“Maybe some of us enjoy your company?” Priya suggested.

“You’re not going to encourage teeth-punching,” Charlotte said and glanced at the pair by the bar. “However, your observations may justify increased vigilance.”

“Ooh, my sweetie is breaking out the big words.” Tamara laughed. “Did you remember those from the vocabulary section of your VOWS?”

“Bite me.”

“Later.” Tamara smiled over her drink.

“It will take more than a snap observation for me to reach any conclusion on Mr. Diller’s ‘cadness,’” Jim said. He also needed time to couch any observations in a manner that would not send Wicza across the hall with violent intent.

“Take your time.” Priya patted him on the hand. “We’re also celebrating your recent promotion.”

When Jim realized Priya’s hand remained on his, he resisted the urge to look down. He regarded Priya out of the corner of his eye. While her age was harder to judge, he suspected she was in her mid-thirties, the same as him. They had been, if not outright friends, at least friendly acquaintances. While his faith didn’t forbid relationships for ministers, he hadn’t sought one out. “It’s not a big deal. My cousin made major; I’m merely a contractor.”

“More importantly, they’re on their second round,” Charlotte interrupted. “Sorry, congratulations, Padre.”

“Thank you,” Jim said. “It’s not the same as a military promotion, it’s merely bureaucratic paperwork.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, James,” Priya chided, giving his hand an affectionate squeeze. “I’ve been with the Berserkers for five years. The commander trusts you; he doesn’t rearrange the TOE on a whim.”

“Word has it you are part of the ‘inner circle,’” Tamara added. “Despite the Boss Bear’s bluster, he values insight.”

“I guess I should be flattered,” Jim admitted. He glanced back at the couple at the bar. Now that Gina had broken the ice, Diller slowly began taking control of the conversation. Jim suspected Diller would be a worthy opponent at poker. While Jim wasn’t a fan of gambling, he wasn’t opposed to the occasional recreational game. “It appears Charlotte was correct, but not about the teeth punching in part. Mr. Diller gauged his mannerisms to put Miss Zomorra at ease.”

“I knew it,” Charlotte said icily.

“Before you commit assault, remember there is nothing insidious about being skilled at reading and influencing people,” Jim cautioned. He remembered the four bandits who mistook her for easy prey. “He obviously realized his usual outgoing alpha bravado might put her off. He moderated his behavior to put her at ease.”

“Sweetie, if it makes you feel better, we can join them on the dance floor to keep an eye on them,” Tamara suggested. “Bruno and Cash are out there, so it’s only a matter of time.”

Jim followed Tamara’s nod. The dance floor of the hall was simply a cleared off area with colored lights over it. The only dancers were a pair of infantrymen, but it would soon change as the drinks flowed. Tomorrow was a down day where 80% of the base was off duty, so people would blow off steam tonight. By midnight, there would be a few dozen people paired up or in groups on the dance floor.

“Gina almost never dances,” Charlotte remarked.

“I suspect she will tonight,” Jim countered. “They are nearly finished with their second round.”

“James, do you have a religious proscription against dancing?” Priya asked. She hadn’t removed her hand, but Jim could have easily moved his own.

“While some Christian sects oppose dancing, and other religions oppose intermingling of genders in dancing, I have no opposition to it,” Jim replied. “I’m merely no good at it. I haven’t danced since high school.”

“You guys could hang onto our table while we go keep an eye on things,” Charlotte suggested. She had obviously realized Priya’s tack as well as Jim’s reticence to join the small but growing crowd on the dance floor. “It’ll give you two a chance to chat while I see if I need to…scold Diller. Not at all kick him in the cajones.

Jim met Priya’s eyes. He turned his hand palm up and clasped Priya’s hand. “I think we can hold down the table.”

“Go on and make sure Diller doesn’t do something dastardly,” Priya added. “They’re heading to the dance floor now.”

* * *

“Are you doing all right?” Wilhelm asked. They had been through three rounds of tequila shots in addition to their own drinks and Chuck appeared a bit unsteady.

Chuck took a deep breath. “I’ll be fine. I just need some water.”

“You’re not going to get sick, are you?” Isabella asked. She didn’t seem any worse for wear after all the alcohol.

Chuck shook his head. “I can keep up. Just give me a minute.”

“I’ll go get some water,” Wilhelm said. It briefly occurred to him it was a ploy to get him away from the table, but he quashed the thought. He’d caught Isabella watching him as often as she’d caught him looking at her. As he went to the bar, Wilhelm realized they had lost track of TJ and Gina. They were no longer at the bar. After he ordered a pitcher of water for Chuck, and another round for himself and Isabella, he scanned the dance floor.

TJ’s brilliant smile was hard to miss on the dimly lit dance floor. Gina swayed against him, her arms held high. Whim would have smiled as well. He checked the table. Chuck was resting his face in his hands, leaning on the table. Isabella watched him, then turned toward the bar and caught Whim’s eye.

“Does your buddy need an Alco-Fizz?” the bartender asked, holding up a small foil package. The tablet inside, combined with plenty of water, would help his body neutralize the alcohol and prevent nausea. They were alien-designed and very popular among mercs. At two credits a pop, civilians usually chose to suffer.

Whim nodded. Leaving Chuck sotted would remove him as a rival for tonight, but he was also Whim’s friend. Whim waved his yack over the terminal to pay for everything.

“Don’t worry, your buddy is going to be too busy pissing to block you,” the bartender remarked. He was a middle-aged man, with a silver stripe in his beard and through his hair. “It’ll flush his system. Make sure he drinks plenty of water. You need anything else, come see me.”

“Sure thing. Thanks.” Whim collected the tray and returned to the table. He set the tequila and accompanying garnish on the far side of the table, then squared Chuck away with the water and Alco-Fizz.

“I see you brought another round,” Isabella remarked, her eyes bright. Whim’s head buzzed from the tequila, but he had grown up drinking schnapps and doppelkorn. “Let me show you how we drank tequila in high school.”

They scooted to the other side of the table. Isabella swabbed a spot on her neck with a lime slice, then sprinkled it with salt. She handed Whim a shot and made a show of putting the lime slice in her mouth, the rind between her lips. Whim leaned in, licked the salt from her skin, tossed back the tequila, then bit the slice of lime, making sure their lips touched.

Isabella repeated the process on Whim, but when it came to the lime, she quickly cast it aside and kissed him. “I was beginning to think you were a little slow to get the message.”

“I am, but I’m beginning to get the idea,” Whim said. He stood and held out his hand, emboldened by the tequila. “Want to go to the dance floor and bring me up to speed?”

* * * * *

Chapter 12

Vishall Plex, Vishall

“Papi Bear, do you have to leave so soon?” Talita pouted. “We’ve barely had any time alone since we’ve gotten back.”

“Sorry, Princess. This contract won’t keep forever,” Bjorn replied.

The previous twenty-four hours had been a whirlwind. In addition to all the logistics of setting up a new base for the Berserkers, Bjorn had gone to meet Talita’s grandmother, Avó Alda. The crone vacillated for two hours before she gave her blessing to the marriage. They would have gotten married without the old woman’s approval, but Bjorn knew it was important to Talita.

Moving in and setting up our new domicile should keep her busy for a while, Bjorn thought. “You’ll be plenty busy while I’m gone. If something goes wrong, remember what I told you.”

“It is why I have this,” Talita declared, producing a small pistol from her purse.

Bjorn instantly recognized the configuration. “Where in Thor’s name did you get a hold of a Flatar HV pistol? It won’t work for anyone besides a Flatar.”

“Gizmo fixed this one to work for me before we left Earth,” Talita said. The weapon appeared over-sized and chunky in the hands of one of the meter-tall chipmunk-like Flatar. In Talita’s hand, the gun was blocky but manageable. “I have four clips of ammo as well.”

The hyper-velocity rounds could punch through armor, including a square hit on a CASPer. Humans had tried to dissect and reproduce the diminutive weapons with no luck. Bjorn wondered how many other of the alien weapons were floating around and how Gizmo had gotten this one to work.

“I hope you never have to use it,” Bjorn stated. His shuttle back to the fleet in orbit left in eight hours; he still had loose ends to tie up before he went back to the black. “I’ve got six hours before I have to head to the spaceport to go upstairs.”

“We have a new bedroom to break in,” Talita remarked, laying her accent on thick.

“With six hours we can break in the bedroom, the shower, the dining room, and the kitchen counter.”

* * *

Bear Town, Earth

Gina Zomorra snapped awake. What had happened last night? As she gathered her thoughts, the recollection came back to her. After the Mead Hall, they had gone back to TJ’s quarters for a night cap. After a single drink and some making out, he walked her back to her quarters. After a lengthy goodnight kiss (and fighting the urge to invite him in), TJ left, and she went to bed.

Gina stretched, and picked up her duty slate. While some preferred a separate, smaller phone, Gina wasn’t a fan of smaller handheld devices introduced in the early 21st century. Alien-manufactured slates made the smaller devices obsolete. She was content using her pinplants to interface with her slate to find out what she had missed. Her friends had chastised her not to bring one of her slates on her date with TJ, and she relented, knowing Bettie would contact her through her pinplants if there was an emergency.

There was a priority message from Captain Boggs to report to her office. Gina thought back but she couldn’t think of anything from the evening’s festivities worth the captain’s attention. Despite her friends’ protective voyeurism, there hadn’t been any serious incidents. One of TJ’s pals overindulged, but the German kid and his girlfriend from Whiskey’s squad took care of him. There was also a message from Charlotte, checking on her.

Gina glanced at her hobby slate. There was still the blinking icon informing her the latest series of decryption protocols had unlocked Scuzz’s message. She would peruse it on her walk over to the command offices. She took the time to grab a shower—if the message was an emergency she would have been woken up—and threw on a duty uniform, even though she was technically off duty. If Captain Boggs called her in, there was no reason to antagonize the by-the-books officer by showing up in a tank top and flip-flops.

It was a ten-minute walk from the housing blocks to the command offices in the back of Bjarnarsal. She unraveled the data packet from Scuzz on the way. The markers showed he had scraped it from another slate. She parsed the files into categories based on their original directory locations and began sifting through the titles as she climbed the hill leading to Bjarnarsal. One of the file names caught her attention: Patoka Contract. Another followed: Berserkers Info. Gina quickened her pace.

* * *

Nuevo Aztlán, Patoka

Escuzio blew out his breath in a cloud of steam. If he had known it was going to be cold, he would have asked for more money. Where he grew up, near Ciudad Victoria, it rarely got below ten degrees Celsius, let alone freezing. Here, winter snow crunched under his feet. Give me dry heat over this cold, Escuzio thought.

He reached his goal, a pre-fab building serving as the base HQ during construction. All round, machinery rumbled, digging into the ground and moving mounds of excavated dirt to berms on the perimeter. Overhead, drones stitched together huge swaths of camouflage netting lashed to 50-meter-tall poles.

Several landing craft squatted on patches of fused earth. Some were unloading gear, personnel, and supplies, then were scheduled to return to orbit to pick up another load from the ships too large to land. Three identical landing transports sat idle, notable because of the complement of MinSha guards. Escuzio shuddered at the sight of the mantis-like insectoids.

Hola, Carmen,” Escuzio said to the receptionist in the small lobby. She was an attractive middle-aged woman who many underestimated as office decoration. Carmen was a consummate multi-tasker, capable of juggling the myriad of operations in the fledgling base. “Has someone figured out where they packed the espresso machine yet?”

“They’ve found the machine, but the coffee is still in orbit on one of the big freighters,” she replied with a frown. Her fingers tapped away on a keyboard. “It’s not coming down until 1500. We do have some instant coffee.”

Gracias,” Escuzio replied, going to the hospitality station. “Is Captain Mercado in? I’m supposed to meet with him.”

“He’s in his office, but he’s in a meeting,” Carmen stated. “The captain is scheduled to be free in twelve minutes.”

Escuzio poured hot water on a packet of brown crystals. The resulting odor was coffee-like. “Gracias, Carmen. I’ll wait.”

She was already on a comm channel helping someone else by the time Escuzio sat down. He interfaced with his industrial slate and checked on the program running a comparison between the CASPer operating system used by the El Espejo Obscuro and the OS installed by the manufactories. In another workspace, algorithms poked at the encryption protecting a data folder he had swiped from Zomorra’s system when they last exchange messages.

It was a shame he hadn’t arranged a meeting with Gina prior to leaving Earth. Based on the social media of her friends, she was cute. She could also kick his ass, he mused. Unlike Escuzio, Gina had been through the Mercenary Service Track, the training curriculum that prepared school children for their VOWS Assessment. Cute, badass, and smart—and probably out of his league if they met face to face. He admitted to himself his goodbye “present” had been a boyish impulse—he hadn’t even taken time to unravel the data scraped from his recruiter’s devices. He bundled it up in his newest encryption code capsule and sent it.

Both virtual workspaces blinked green in his field of view within seconds of each other. He took a quick peek at the data from Gina’s slate. The folder’s title was BB—TOE. Escuzio opened it and skimmed the file names. It was the Berserkers’ Table of Organization and Equipment. That might be worth something to Mercado and his boss. Escuzio felt a slight pang of guilt until he reminded himself Gina was safely back on Earth. Whatever happened here, she wouldn’t be harmed.

The other workspace showed a flagged section of the manufactory CASPer operating system that didn’t appear in the Espejo version. Escuzio would need a little time to dissect the code, but he could tell it was some sort of trigger.

“Captain Mercado will see you now,” Carmen called from her desk.

Gracias.” Escuzio realized he had finished his coffee while engrossed in his work. It must not have been too terrible. He pitched the empty cup in the recycler and made his way upstairs to Captain Mercado’s office on the third floor.

The door was ajar, and Escuzio could hear voices from inside the office, pulling his attention from the access-sniffing protocols running on his slate. He cleared his throat as he approached the door and rapped on the frame.

“Enter,” Mercado’s voice commanded.

“You wanted to talk to me?” Escuzio asked as he stepped into the cramped office. Captain Mercado sat behind a simple desk. The man speaking to Mercado turned to regard Escuzio.

“This must be the hacker Arroyo recruited,” the man stated. The name and rank patches on the black uniform identified him as Commander Sanchez. “A pleasure to meet you. Weren’t you the one with a dog?”

Escuzio shook the proffered hand. “Well, I was going to bring Fuzz, but I know space travel is hard on dogs, and my sister…she really loved Fuzz, so I figured everyone would be happier if I left him with her. She used to have a dog, but—”

“Mr. Diaz is our chief coder for the manufactories,” Captain Mercado interrupted. “In fact, I was hoping to have an update on where you are in the project.”

“Oh, sure.” Escuzio shifted his feet nervously, not sure if he should sit down in one of the two flimsy chairs facing the desk. “We’ve got the manufactories online and in stand-by mode. Binning’s coders—or at least the ones who sold them the factory—were pretty good, but rigid in their thinking. We applied an algorithm that—”

“Excellent. When can we begin production?” Commander Sanchez asked. His countenance was of a man who didn’t brook disappointment. His eyes reminded Escuzio of a shark.

Escuzio hid his gulp with a cough. “I’ve identified a trigger in the default operating system which is not present in your CASPers. I haven’t dug into it yet. I identified it while I was waiting downstairs. Did you know the coffee for the espresso machine is still in orbit? The instant coffee—”

Commander Sanchez placed a hand on Escuzio’s shoulder, his gaze intense. “If you replace the operating system installed by the manufactory with our trigger-free code, how long before we can begin production?”

“Oh, that would work,” Escuzio replied. “If you have raw materials available, you should be able to fire them up by 1700 hours. After your first prototype clears testing, you can go to full production.”

Sanchez’s smile sent a chill down Escuzio’s spine. “Before I forget, there is something else you might be interested in,” Escuzio said. He had considered bargaining for some sort of payment, but he wanted to stay on Sanchez’s good side. He synched his slate with the Tri-V display and cast the purloined folder to the display. The image of the folder opened, and file titles arranged themselves in columns.

“What is this?” Sanchez asked, peering at the hologram.

“I had a friend who did tech support for a merc outfit back on Earth.” Escuzio knew he had to tread carefully here. “I didn’t know if it would be of interest, but I got a hold of their TOE. I thought you might want the dirt on a potential competitor.”

Captain Mercado leaned forward, studying the titles. “This is for the Berserkers.” He glanced meaningfully at Sanchez, then back at Escuzio. “How old is this data?”

Escuzio shrugged. “Less than twelve hours old before we left Earth.”

“This could be very useful.” Commander Sanchez smiled again. “Well done, Mr. Diaz.”

* * *

Bear Town, Earth

“Something is going on,” Gina said, barging into Captain Boggs’ office.

“Sleep in this morning, tech sergeant?” Multiple Tri-V displays hovered over the captain’s desk. “I was about to signal the BTI to awaken you. We have a situation.”

“You know?” Gina stared in confusion. How could the captain know if she just unlocked the data minutes ago?

“The Golden Horde messaged all human mercenary firms early this morning. There has been a two-pronged attack against Earth mercenaries using CASPers.” Captain Boggs gestured to one of the holograms, a CASPer with four mechanical insects next to it. Gina recognized them as magnified images of nanites. “The more dangerous of the two is a nanite infestation in a new laser-resistant paint being peddled to mercenary units. At a designated time and date, these nanites would release four different virulent diseases into their victims’ bodies.

“Luckily, our commander’s reticence regarding cutting-edge technology spared us. He assumed the paint was some sort of scam and refused to even try it. We’re working on doses of counter-nanites in case anyone has come in contact with the plague-bearing material, but so far everyone has been clean.” The captain’s finger went to a second hologram of a CASPer. This one with code streaming down the side. “The second vector would doom our soldiers in the field. This is a CASPer operating system upgrade which has been circulating. Once the operator fires the suit’s weapons, it arms a command. The second time the operator fires, the suit goes into emergency shutdown from crimped fuel lines. I need to know if we uploaded this software to any of our CASPers.”

“Only the testbed suit,” Gina replied. “The code glitches when Bettie interfaces with it, so we never installed it in any other CASPers. I haven’t had time to dig through the code to find the issue or see if we can adapt the actuation routines to our own software.”

Captain Boggs sighed in relief. “Seems we dodged a bullet—actually two bullets. Someone is trying to render Earth’s mercenary forces helpless.”

Gina remembered why she ran the last 200 meters to the office. “There’s something else, Captain. I received a data packet from an…associate of mine indicating another merc unit is en route to Patoka. I think the Berserkers could be headed into a trap.”

Boggs hunched forward over the desk. “A trap? The commander is taking four companies worth of troops to hit a target he could probably do with three, maybe two if he’s good and pissed.”

“Why did he take four for the mission?” Gina asked. She knew an additional company was being transferred to Vishall—a total of five companies shipped out. “And why would there be another human mercenary firm heading to the same world?”

“The contract specified a large organization with mixed operations,” Captain Boggs replied, her mouth curved into a worried frown. “We were probably the only outfit of the right size and composition to get the full payout.” Most mercenary firms specialized in either CASPers or armor. Very few used unaugmented infantry for anything other than garrison work.

“It sounds as though the contract was tailor-made for the Berserkers,” Gina observed. “Add in that El Espejo Obscuro is sending forces there, and our troops could be caught between the target’s defenders and this other force.”

“Shit! I need to confab with the remaining officers, as well as the chaplain and the commander’s secretary.” Captain Boggs swept the Tri-V displays aside and called up organizational information. After a few taps of her slate, a countdown appeared over the display. “We only have eight days until our main force is due to arrive in the Patoka system.”

“There’s another problem,” Gina said. “Based on the information, I think we may have a mole.”

“Of course.” Captain Boggs rubbed her forehead. “I don’t suppose it included the mole’s identity?”

Gina shook her head. If only she had gone over the data last night, instead of going on a stupid date. Still, the memory of the good night kiss made Gina flush. “Sorry.”

“All right. I’m pressing you into service as my aide until we wake up Carl,” the captain said. “Start with him, then get hold of everyone else. I need them in the conference room in thirty minutes.”

Gina pulled out her duty slate and began placing calls.

* * *

Wilhelm’s face felt fuzzy, and his shoulder was wet. He brushed long, black hair from his face as his brain cut through the fog of several rounds of tequila. Events spilled from his memory along with the realization he wasn’t alone in bed.

Whim and Isabella had helped Chuck back to his room across the hall, then Whim suggested, since his room was right there, they pick up where they left off in the Mead Hall. One thing led to another, and now Isabella was drooling on his shoulder.

Don’t overthink things, he cautioned himself. This may have been a tequila-fueled one-night stand for Isabella.

Feeling her naked under the sheets against him, Whim hoped it wasn’t. Even with a mild hangover, the sensation of her skin sent his blood racing.

Isabella shifted, and her eyes fluttered open. Whim realized he was holding his breath to see what her reaction would be.

She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Morning,” she muttered, getting her bearings.

“Good morning,” he replied, relieved she didn’t seem angry, especially given where her knee was positioned. “How do you feel?”

“Like I should have taken half of Chuck’s Alco-Fizz.” Her breath was warm on his neck. “He probably doesn’t have a hangover. I could use some coffee, a shower, and a gallon of water.”

“I have a shower,” Whim suggested.

“Are you angling for another round of sex?” She lifted her head enough to meet his gaze.

Ja. Guilty.” He mustered a smile despite butterflies in his stomach.

She slid up and kissed him. “We don’t need to wait for the shower.”

* * *

“It appears the commander’s information was correct,” Marian announced. “There is an active plot against the human mercenaries. Over the past few years, a growing number of firms have been wiped out, suffered catastrophic misfortunes, or simply disappeared. I believe the Berserkers are now a target, and the bulk of our forces are going into a trap.”

Her four platoon lieutenants started speaking, while the chaplain remained silent at the back of the room. Reverend Hawkins, who had already heard about the plot against Earth’s mercenaries, didn’t seem surprised by the latest news.

“El Espejo Obscuro, a mercenary company from Sonora-Chihuahua, also left Earth for Patoka and are likely already there,” Marian continued. “Our contract mentions no other mercenary firms other than the Zuul defending the target.”

“The Espejos are a human company,” Lieutenant Haynes remarked. “Why would they be involved in a plot against the Berserkers?”

“It’s a good question, Josh,” Marian acknowledged. She had been asking the same question herself. “However, Commander Sanchez uprooted his entire firm ten days ago.”

Stefan perked up at the back of the room, next to the chaplain, and raised his hand.

“What is it, Stefan?” Marian asked.

“Would this be Rodrigo Sanchez?” the white-haired man lisped.

Marian peeked at the file hovering over her slate. “Yes, that’s correct. Rodrigo Sanchez is the commander of El Espejo Obscuro. Why?”

“Twelve years ago, Commander Tovesson allegedly killed Cristobal Sanchez in an altercation down in Juarez,” Stefan said. “If I’m not mistaken, Cristobal had younger siblings—a brother named Rodrigo, and a sister, Elena.”

“Humans have been killing each other since Abel and Cain,” Reverend Hawkins remarked. “While I understand taking contracts against alien forces is the preferred modus operandi, there is nothing to preclude Humans from engaging each other, especially when bad blood is involved.”

Now to drop the other shoe, Marian thought. “Intel also indicates the Espejos may have a mole within our ranks.”

“So, we need to check out all of our Hispanic personnel?” Lieutenant Magnus protested, peering around the room. Her outburst brought the chatter to a halt. “They comprise about a quarter of our force, not to mention most of our support staff.”

“It’s not productive to engage in a witch hunt, let alone practical,” Marian cautioned. “Even if we narrow it down to recent hires, it could be a few dozen potential suspects across the organization and our contractors. The best thing we can do now is maintain proper information security and compartmentalization. If someone doesn’t need to know, don’t tell them. If you see something suspicious, speak up.” She met Sergeant Zomorra’s eyes at the last statement.

“Are we going to send a warning?” Lieutenant Olinger asked.

“Better than that, we are going to send Kodiak Company to Patoka,” Marian stated. “Lieutenant Olinger, you’re going to stay behind to oversee the base. Most of Kodiak Delta Platoon is staying with you, except for your Cavalry Scouts. I’m taking Whisky’s squad with me.

“We have twenty hours to reach the stargate to catch an outbound window that will get us to Patoka in time to warn the rest of the Berserkers,” Marian swept her hand over the counter and tossed it up. The hologram expanded from a couple of centimeters tall and ten across to 25 times its size. “Jolene, stick around since you’ll be in charge, and you as well, Reverend. Everyone else, hop to it!”

* * *

Chuck raised his head as Whim and Isabella approached, a dour expression on his face. Whim could read it in the other man’s eyes: Chuck already knew he’d lost the contest for Isabella’s affections. Whim hoped it didn’t cost him their friendship.

“Look what the Depik dragged in,” TJ called. “It’s about time you two showed up.”

Isabella rolled her eyes. “Move over so I can sit next to Whim.”

“Yes, ma’am.” TJ switched chairs. “It seems you two had a good night.”

“How was your date with Gina?” Whim asked, hoping TJ would be as eager as usual to talk about himself.

“Evidently not as good as your…night,” TJ responded with a toothy grin. “It’s just as well, Isabella, we would never have worked out.”

“Whatever.” Isabella rolled her eyes and dug into her huevos rancheros. They had barely arrived in time to get breakfast before the food vendors shut down to switch to lunch. “Since Whisky didn’t put you in the infirmary, I’m guessing you were a gentleman, or at least pretended to be one.”

“Do you really want all the graphic details?” TJ quipped, only to meet silent stares. “Fine, I didn’t want to screw things up by rushing.”

“That is the smartest thing I’ve ever heard you say,” Isabella remarked, without a trace of sarcasm. “You must really like her.”

TJ shrugged. “I guess so. We’ll see what develops.”

“Will another Alco-Fizz get rid of this nausea?” Chuck grumbled.

Whim felt guilty, but they had been at Bear Town less than two weeks. Chuck would find someone. “How are you feeling?” Whim asked. “You seemed almost recovered when we got you back to your quarters.”

“Other than tired from getting up every hour to piss like an old man, pretty good,” Chuck replied. “What do I owe you for the Fizz?”

Whim waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about it. You can buy the first round next time.”

“Thanks, man.” Chuck nibbled on a slice of toast.

TJ set down a half-empty glass of green smoothie. Whim suspected it contained kale. Diller leaned forward and asked, “Have you heard what the buzz is about?”

Whim glanced at Isabella. They had only been apart for ten minutes, so she could stop by her quarters before lunch and change. She shook her head. “I haven’t heard anything either,” Whim replied.

“Nope.” Chuck poked at his scrambled eggs without enthusiasm. “What’s going on?”

TJ seemed disappointed. “I don’t know any of the scuttlebutt, but it seems like something is going on.”

“I’m sure we’ll find out when they’re ready to tell the grunts,” Isabella said.

“Hopefully it won’t ruin our down day,” Chuck ventured. “It’s the first I’ve had since we got here.”

Whim’s phone buzzed in his pocket and pinged his pinplants. Scanning the mess hall, he could see everyone reaching for a device or staring off into empty air. He brought up the message in his field-of-view. It was orders to report for deployment and duty assignments.

Chuck had his phone out. “Shit, I jinxed it. How are we deploying? We haven’t even finished Onboarding and Integration training.”

Whim turned to Isabella, who read a message on her slate’s screen. “Me too. I’m supposed to meet Whisky for my orders. She’s filling in for Lieutenant Olinger.”

“There has to be something wrong,” TJ commented, peering at his own phone. “We’re not supposed to deploy.”

“It says to report to Lieutenant Gustoff now,” Whim countered. He shoveled down several forkfuls of breakfast hash then gulped down his orange juice. “We better get going.”

Isabella caught him by the shirt as he stood and kissed him. “See you at dinner, I hope.”

Chuck pushed away his tray. “I’m done. I might as well check in with my LT. See you guys later.”

“Finish your plant juice, TJ,” Whim prompted. “The last ones there will get the worst jobs.”

“Right.” TJ pocketed his phone and chugged the rest of his breakfast. “There has to be something wrong,” he muttered.

* * * * *

Chapter 13

Ruby Creek, Alaska

“Mikey, fire up the plow!” Andy Kern shouted over the wind. “We need to make sure the old road up to the Olaf mines is cleared.”

Mikey Tobuk poked his head up from behind the recalcitrant Snow-Cat he’d been working on all morning. A frown further creased his leathery face. “Right now?”

“Yup.” Andy stomped through the snow covering the truck yard, so he wouldn’t have to yell. “A call came in; the company who leased it from Mr. Tovesson is sending some gear.”

“How come I have to do it?” Mikey demanded. “I’m halfway through the work on this engine.”

“Because I need to get my ass over to the airfield with the salt truck and help clear the runway,” Andy retorted. He scanned the sky. “Be glad we don’t have any more weather on the way.”

“Yeah, fine.” Mikey collected his tools and slammed down the engine cover. “Let me call the wife to let her know I’ll be late, then I’ll fire up the ancient piece of shit. Maybe we should hit Tovesson up for a new plow truck? One that doesn’t run on petrochems.”

“Knock yourself out. He only pays for half the town.” Andy started for the truck shed. “Let me know once you finish, and I’ll go over the road with the salt truck,” he yelled over his shoulder.

* * *

Sol System, Approaching Earth Orbit

“General Peepo, all ships have reported in,” the comm operator announced. “The orbital traffic control is requesting our identity and destination.”

“Are there any credible threats in sensor range?” Peepo inquired. She didn’t expect any. The humans relied on the presence of their mercenaries to deter attack and had failed to invest in even minimal planetary defenses.

“Sensors show seven customs cutters and the monitoring station. There are also several civilian transports and three commercial platforms.”

“Inform the humans we are freighters bound for the Tashkent Starport,” Peepo instructed. They would keep up the charade for as long as possible. Tashkent was close to the base of the Golden Horde. The Horsemen had eluded their last trap. Peepo would personally oversee the Horde’s destruction. The other humans would see resistance was hopeless.

A minute after transmitting per Peepo’s instructions, the comms operator reported, “They have cleared us to proceed to Tashkent.”

“As if they could stop us,” Peepo laughed. “Captain, inform me when we enter orbit.”

“Yes, General.”

* * *

Vishall, Enroute to Stargate

“All ships on course and in formation,” Corporal Sprague reported from the sysop station. In addition to her duties managing information and power systems on the ship, she handled all the communications traffic.

“ETA to stargate with current flight plan, seven hours and forty-two minutes,” Corporal Ling called from the helm. She added, “This will put us at the gate with zero velocity.”

Bjorn watched the timer appear above a stream of data. “I don’t relish the idea of emerging at a standstill if someone is waiting for us. Captain Wildman, can we make a hot run through the gate?”

Wildman turned around. “You understand once we emerge we might be facing the wrong direction? We could lose time correcting our course.”

“I’m more worried about being sitting ducks.” Bjorn reminded himself not to get pissed at Than, he was doing the job Bjorn had given him. “If this were some sort of trap, when are we most vulnerable?”

“Two places.” Wildman held up his thumb. “First is the emergence point. We could be, as you put it, sitting ducks to a force stationed on high guard.” He extended his index finger. “Second is orbit, where the planet blocks almost half our field of view, and we are hemmed in with fewer maneuvering options.

“The trick with leaping through the ring of fire, as spacers call it, is you have a narrow window in both space and time. Taking a fleet through hot compounds the issues, as we have to be spaced out far enough not to roast the ship behind us with our fusion torches.”

Bettie, are you listening?” Bjorn cast through his pinplants.

Of course, Commander,” the tactical intelligence replied. “I have projected a course which will allow the fleet to transit at 72,000 kph.” The Tri-V in front of Bjorn displayed the six ships. They formed a staggered line until the fusion torches went off, then they used maneuvering thrusters to fall in line. “The formation will be strung along 20 kilometers and will transit the gate over the course of one second.

Bjorn sent the projection to Wildman’s console. “Can our crews execute this maneuver, Captain?”

Captain Wildman studied the display, running through the maneuver a couple of times. “Yes sir.”

“Make it happen.” Grateful they were already under thrust. Bjorn stood and strode from the bridge, Corporal Halsey trailing him. The corporal was less enthusiastic about his duty now that Talita was no longer on board, but Bjorn had found nothing to criticize in his performance. If nothing else, Halsey had made sure the bulk of the gaudy décor had been stripped from the commander’s cabin.

A deck below, Major Bill Hawkins waited in their shared office. “Commander,” Hawkins grunted without glancing up from his tactical slate as Bjorn entered.

Bjorn plopped down in the chair behind the desk, causing the support arm to creak in protest. Another thing he disliked about space—everything had to be fastened down. In this case, his chair was on a folding arm attached to the wall.

“Halsey, go to the galley and get us some coffee,” Bjorn ordered. “If you haven’t eaten yet, get some chow as well.”

“Yes, sir.” Adam’s head bobbed as he replied. “Thanks, I missed lunch. I won’t take long.”

Bjorn waited until the hatch closed behind the corporal. “All right, Bill. What’s eating at you?”

“You were worried we could be walking into a trap, and we left a company behind on Vishall?” Bill shook his head. “I hope we aren’t going to have another Moloq!”

Bjorn’s head snapped up from his slate and his fist clenched. Moloq had won a fat contract and almost destroyed the Berserkers. No one ever mentioned it in front of Bjorn, let alone to him, but Bill had been advising Bjorn since his first command in the Berserkers.

“Do you really believe I don’t think about Moloq every damn day?” Bjorn snapped. “It’s why we spent all those months on a gods-damned garrison contract until I worked the nerve up to take the Berserkers back into the field.”

Bill regarded him calmly. “I’m concerned we’re spreading ourselves thin. We left a company back on Earth, now we’re leaving a company on Vishall. I would have thought our contingency would be enough.”

“The contingency, as you call it, requires we have enough people to coordinate. We don’t even need four companies to kick out two companies of Zuul squatters.” Bjorn took a deep breath. “With everything going on, would you have left Bear Town or our new base on Vishall unprotected?”

Major Hawkins stared off into space for a moment. “No, I guess not,” he admitted. “I hope it’s only two companies of Zuul waiting for us, and not something nastier.”

“Me, too.”

* * *

Nuevo Aztlán, Patoka

Aldo stopped at the door to Rodrigo’s temporary office. He knew his friend would not handle the news well.

The door opened. “Aldo, I thought I heard your heavy breathing outside the door,” Elena sneered. Aldo tried not to meet her obsidian black prosthetic eye. The cybernetic eye and the adjacent scar left by a Jeha blade were the only blemishes on her beauty. “Please come in.”

Elena moved aside with a feline grace Aldo found both enticing and intimidating. He stepped into the small office and stood at parade rest. He didn’t need to glance at Elena to know she found his adherence to military protocol amusing.

Rodrigo looked up from the display on his desk. While his smile was brilliant white, his eyes were stone cold. Rodrigo and Aldo had been friends since childhood and loved each other as brothers. Yet his old friend still scared Aldo.

“Have a seat, amigo mìo.” Rodrigo gestured to one of the cheap chairs opposite his desk. “I can tell you have bad news; it is written all over your face. You came here to spare some messenger my wrath but thought it too important to merely transmit.”

“Astute as ever,” Aldo said. Elena drifted into the corner of his vision, probably eager to see how her brother would react. “We received word from General Peepo regarding your requests. She said no Tortantula units were available, as they were engaged elsewhere, and there were no naval elements to spare. Her final words were ‘deal with them yourself.’”

Rodrigo chuckled, but there was no humor in it. “Deal with it yourself? Fucking rodent bitch. How did this reply arrive?”

“A Zuul resupply ship bringing materials to the target forces,” Aldo replied, mentally steeling himself for the oncoming outburst. “They transmitted the data-mail as soon as they emerged.”

Rodrigo slammed his hand flat on the desk, rattling everything on its surface. “Fine. We have two companies of Zuul in the outpost, plus our own three companies in Mk 8 CASPers. Our laser refractive paint was not contaminated and our upgraded OS makes our suits faster. According to the TOE our hacker purloined, Tovesson’s forces are a mix of older CASPers, light armor, and infantry. Dios mìos, why would anyone field unaugmented infantry except as garrison?

“When the Berserkers assault the outpost, the compromised OS will take their CASPers out of the fight.” Rodrigo put his fist on the table. “The outpost and the Zuul defenders will be the chopping block.” He held his other hand perpendicular to the table and brought it down on his fist. “Our forces will be the headsman’s axe! We will strike down Bjorn Tovesson and his Berserkers. I will repay him for killing my brother. Taking out the other mercenary units was business. This is personal, and I hope Tovesson lives long enough to watch us decimate his forces before I kill him.”

Aldo nodded but said nothing. He feared their string of easy successes had made his friend overconfident, and his long-sought revenge had blinded him. Aldo turned his attention to Elena. “How are preparations proceeding?” he asked.

“Our troops will not forget the discipline they received after their complacency at Kalig.” Elena smirked. “Even if the Berserkers’ clunky old suits remain functional, they will be outclassed.”

“Nonetheless, we should prepare as though the Berserkers will muster a competent response when our units fall on them from the rear,” Aldo stated. “Don’t you agree, Rodrigo?”

Rodrigo steepled his fingers and stared off pensively for a few moments. “You are correct, my friend. We have seven days to prepare for their arrival. You and Elena go over the battle plan and find any flaws—anything we might have missed the first time through.”

“Come along, Aldo, and let us find somewhere private,” Elena suggested. “I have a tactical Tri-V in my office, and a nice bottle of sotol añejo.” She walked out of the office without waiting to see if he followed.

“Go. I know you won’t be happy until your concerns are allayed,” Rodrigo said.

“Yes, we’ll get right to work,” Aldo promised and pursued Elena down the hall to her office. She disappeared through the door, and as he approached, Aldo’s heart beat hard in his chest. Elena had teased him for years. He should be acclimated to it by now.

She turned as he entered the office, and a sly smile played across her lips. Aldo felt like the hare who had followed the ocelot into her den.

* * *

Occupied Eosogi Base, Patoka

“Humans are so stupid,” Private Arrvr remarked, snapping his jaws in the Zuul equivalent of a laugh. The bipedal canine was perched on a walkway running behind the wall surrounding the base. “They pay us to guard a worthless base. Most of these buildings are empty.”

“They are not paying us much,” Corporal Rurrf countered. She pulled out her macrovisor. There had been no word of incursion, but complacency could cost a contract, let alone her life. “We only get the big payout if the human mercenaries attack. We are the bait barzr, here to lure out the zerriz.” The former creature was a goat-sized herbivore; the latter resembled an orca with six legs that was ravenously carnivorous. “It never goes well for the barzr.”

Arrvr made a dismissive huff. The Howling Commandos had been hired to defend a base composed primarily of ruins, with a few prefab buildings to support the troops. “All we have to do is hunker down behind the walls and turrets while the Humans kill each other. No wonder Peepo doesn’t trust them—they’re insane. These Dark Mirrors hire us to fend off the incoming force. Meanwhile, they hire the mercs to attack this base to lure them here.”

“Humans love to kill,” Rurrf said, sweeping the tree line with a macrovisor. Even at two kilometers away, the magnified view would allow him to easily pick out a barzr crouching in the undergrowth, let alone Humans in their accursed battle armor. “Have you ever fought Humans before?”

Arrvr swiveled his ears, the Zuul equivalent of a shrug. “No, but they’re hominids like the Maki. My Besquith buddy says they’re good eating—soft hides, no claws, fangs, or quills and not much fur.”

“I seriously doubt this Besquith is your ‘buddy,’ and eating sentients is disgusting.” Rurrf wrinkled her snout in distaste. “Humans may physiologically appear to be a prey species, but their psychology compensates and then some. They cannot be relied upon to behave in a reasonable fashion. Many of the monkey sociopaths will fight to the death rather than accept defeat.”

“They won’t show their belly to an alpha?” Arrvr asked in disbelief. A smart Zuul knew when to show their belly to their better and live to see another day.

“The only way they would show their belly is if it put them in position to kick said alpha in the gonads,” Rurrf said, shuddering. “They are a willful, violent species, and Peepo is right to bring them to heel.”

“If what you said is true, won’t invading their home world provoke gonad kicking?” Arrvr asked.

“Maybe, but I’ve heard Peepo has a few trump cards in her vest.” Rurrf peered around conspiratorially. “Most of the Human mercenaries were infected with a plague. Their ships may emerge from hyperspace full of corpses. Their machines were infected as well. Their battle armor operating systems were sabotaged. Shortly after the fight begins, they may well be reduced to well-armored statues.”

“I think I will still keep my gonads clear of them,” Arrvr remarked.

* * *

EMS Onikuma, Earth Orbit

“Captain, all report secure from loading operations,” the system operations officer reported. “We are good to leave orbit at your discretion.”

“Thank you,” Captain Marian Boggs and Lieutenant Jack Byrne replied simultaneously.

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant Byrne,” Captain Boggs said from the guest console. “I’m not used to being in the CIC during ship operations.”

“Helm, plot course for stargate, standard one-G flip over,” Lieutenant Byrne ordered.

“Aye, Captain,” Alyson Meer, the helm officer, replied. Marian sensed something was going on between Corporal Meer, a pretty blonde who appeared too young to be a warship pilot, and the lieutenant, but she had bigger problems right now. “Estimated time to gate is six hours fifty-four minutes. The next transition is scheduled in seven hours, thirteen minutes.”

The acceleration alarm chimed, and a few seconds later, a full gravity of thrust pushed down on her. Marian didn’t care for space travel, but it wasn’t the microgravity that bothered her. It was the waiting. Over seven hours before they could jump into hyperspace, then another 170 hours in hyperspace. It was maddening that there was no way to get there faster. She hoped they emerged in time to warn the rest of the Berserkers.

* * * * *

Chapter 14

Bear Town, Earth

The cacophony of chimes and tones yanked Lieutenant Jolene Olinger out of a deep slumber. She blinked her eyes against the light. Why were the lights on in her room?

“Priority one—emergency,” a voice repeated from the wall comm, her Tri-V display, her tactical slate, and her phone. Flashing alert icons blinked on every device she could see. It took a moment for Jolene to recognize the voice as belonging to the base tactical intelligence. It was virtually the same as the battlefield tactical intelligence they took into the field, except this program resided in the Bear Town servers and had access to the base network. It wasn’t an artificial intelligence—it had no free will.

“BTI, report,” Jolene called as she swung her feet off the bed and rubbed her eyes. She refused to use the nickname given to the Berserkers’ tactical intelligence.

“A coded Priority One message has arrived via channel and cypher preselected by Commander Tovesson,” the program announced over the comm speakers. Now that it had Jolene’s attention, it no longer blared through every device. “Message as follows: All Earth mercenaries advised to commence immediate evacuation. Rendezvous at stargate if possible but get off the planet and out of the system. Colonel Sansar Enkh, Golden Horde.”

Adrenaline swept aside fatigue. It was happening! “BTI, commence protocols for Operation Misty Mountains. Advise all personnel per assigned roles. Senior staff to meet in Conference Room One in ten minutes!”

“Confirmed. Operation Misty Mountains,” the BTI responded. An amber icon blinked on the comm panel, the Tri-V display, and the slate. “Attention all personnel! Attention all personnel! Operation Misty Mountains is a go,” the BTI announced through all comm speakers throughout the base. “Report to operational assignments immediately. Senior staff meet in Conference Room One in ten minutes.”

Jolene grabbed her uniform and tugged it on. She didn’t want to believe it was real.

The invasion of Earth had begun.

* * *

Jim Hawkins was the second person to arrive in the conference room. Only Stefan beat him there. Jim suspected the commander’s secretary slept in the office section of Bjarnarsal. Stefan already had a coffee urn brewing with cups and the requisite condiments.

“Help yourself,” Stefan said. “I’m having doughnuts and bagels brought from the mess as well.”

“Thank you.” Jim collected a cup and filled it with black coffee. “I suspect this will be in demand.”

Lieutenant Olinger dashed into the room. She blinked when she saw the coffee urn, as though it were a mirage. “Bless you, Stefan. I didn’t even think of any…” Her voice trailed off. Jim could tell her nerves were already raw. She was on the edge of panic.

“It’s why you have staff,” Jim reminded her in a soothing tone. “You don’t have to think of everything. Manage the big picture, and everyone will do their jobs.” He held forth the steaming cup. While she might not need the caffeine, the normalcy of drinking a cup of coffee might help ground her.

“Thank you, Pastor Hawkins.” She gratefully accepted the coffee and went to the head of the table.

People trickled in over the next five minutes in various states of wakefulness. It was 3:20 in the morning. Priya’s boss, Sergeant Lisa Perotti, represented logistics and appeared half asleep, her long blonde braid in danger of unravelling. Sergeant Javier Acuna, a grizzled Hispanic man, was bright-eyed, as though he hadn’t been woken in the middle of the night. He traded whispers with Staff Sergeant Toshi Yamaguchi, Olinger’s second. Sergeant Sam Newland represented the infantry squads left behind. His eyes drooped, and his movements were sluggish as he shuffled to his position at the table, clutching a glass of fizzing water.

“As you all know by now, Operation Misty Mountains has been put into effect,” Lieutenant Olinger began without waiting for everyone to settle in their seats. “Colonel Enkh of the Golden Horde has advised all mercenaries to evacuate Earth.”

“So, we’re bugging out?” Newland mumbled between gulps. “Abandoning Earth?”

“Given the way the governments sneer down their noses at us, not to mention anti-merc social elements, it would serve them right if we left,” Perotti remarked.

“Running away doesn’t get us to Valhalla,” Yamaguchi observed. Jim didn’t know if the Japanese man truly embraced the Asatru religion some of the Berserkers proclaimed, or if he attended their services—called blots—for camaraderie.

“Neither does dying stupid,” Perotti countered, fully awake now. “We have four dropships and the Milne in orbit. I say we cram everyone into the dropships and bug out before they nuke us from orbit.”

“We have the four Russian Aerostar aerojets,” Olinger stated, raising her voice enough to stop the chatter. “We are going to cram as much hardware and personnel as we can onboard and go north to the redoubt in Alaska. Anything we can’t fit goes up to the Milne for Vishall.”

“What about our support personnel and their dependents?” Jim asked. Now he was responsible for giving the news and any instructions to the hundreds of contractors who worked in Bear Town.

“We have 152 mercs and 149 merc dependents,” Lieutenant Olinger stated. “We have one Casanova, five troop rumblers, a command rumbler, and an anti-aircraft rumbler. We can get all the vehicles and 240 personnel on the Aerostars.”

“Is that with the vics loaded with personnel or empty?” Perotti asked. Jim could see the woman calculating behind her bright blue eyes. “It’s empty, isn’t it?”

“You want to fly the troop transports loaded?” Sergeant Newland asked in disbelief.

“Why not? We do drops loaded.” Perotti demanded. A Tri-V hologram manifested in front of her and she typed on a projected keypad. “It takes care of sixty-eight people, between the troop transports and the Casanova. Between the command post and the other rumbler, there’s another dozen. That’s eighty more seats on those planes.

“I know about the redoubt, Lieutenant,” Perotti continued, turning to Olinger. “Anything we take with us as far as munitions or CASPers won’t make a difference. If the idea is to keep them from falling into enemy hands, I’d recommend sending them up to the Milne.”

“There is an alternate disposition for the CASPers,” the disembodied voice of the base tactical intelligence announced over comm speakers. “I could utilize any suits left behind to defend Bear Town from the inevitable predation that will occur once criminal elements realize the base is no longer protected by mercenaries.”

This was news to Jim. He never knew the program was advanced enough to control battle armor.

Evidently it was a surprise to Lieutenant Olinger as well. “You can operate the CASPers remotely?” she asked. Judging by the expressions around the room, no one knew the BTI could run armor, and some appeared concerned by the idea.

“In a manner of speaking,” the BTI replied. “I would download an extension into each suit. Their performance would not be on par with a human operator, but it may be sufficient to deter lightly armed locals. If faced with military hardware manned by organic troops, I would eventually be overwhelmed.”

Jim could see the unspoken thoughts on everyone’s face—AIs had been a bogey-man for a century, and now the base computer was asking to be armed. He had his doubts as well. He knew Commander Tovesson relied heavily on Bettie, and Gizmo considered the program a friend. Unlike the others around him, Jim wasn’t worried if the tactical assistant was too smart; he worried whether it was smart enough.

“There’s another wrinkle I need to bring up while we’re in the planning stage,” Jim said. Having been privy to Operation Misty Mountains ahead of time, he had taken the opportunity to feel out many of the contractors for this scenario. “We have 400 contractors residing in Bear Town with an additional 900 dependents. Many of them are not eager to flee the base for ‘civilization,’ as recommended. Of those 1,300 people, a third are Level 1 firearm certified.” One of the perks of being a contractor at Bear Town was the opportunity for contractors and family members to receive firearms training, including range certification tests.

“You’re saying our groundskeepers and janitorial staff want to mount a defense of the base?” Lieutenant Olinger asked. “That’s insane.”

“Everything about this situation is insane,” Jim retorted. He wasn’t thrilled about the idea of arming civilians, but he was less willing to leave them defenseless. “The Berserkers have given these people a far better home than they could have otherwise. It’s only natural they would want to defend it.”

“All right, Pastor Hawkins. Figure out who will be in charge in our absence and they can have whatever ordnance we leave behind to defend Bear Town, along with the BTI,” Olinger said.

“If I may, Operation Misty Mountain includes a custodial pay provision for those willing to remain at the base following the evacuation protocols,” the BTI announced. Text scrolled down Olinger’s Tri-V display. “While I understand you may be reluctant to offer renumeration as an incentive for humans to remain and place their dependents in peril, it may increase morale after the fact.”

Olinger tore her eyes from the numbers floating in her monitor. “Fine, Stefan make it happen,” Olinger ordered. “All right, people. Everyone has their marching orders. Perotti, you’re in charge of seat assignments—good call on stuffing people in the vics. Let’s go, we need to be airborne in four hours!”

* * *

Plateau near Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Nukes! The insane Humans had used nukes on their own planet! If this didn’t prove their barbarity, nothing would, General Peepo thought.

Peepo’s command ship rocked from the detonation that consumed two Tortantula troop transports on a nearby plateau.

“Lift off,” she commanded, reining in her temper. “Take us to orbit and tie in to their communications networks. I have an ultimatum to present them.”

The icosahedron-shaped ship boosted through the dust cloud. Humans, Peepo fumed. By destroying those two ships and the 42,000 Tortantulas and Flatars deployed against the Golden Horde, the Humans had cost her a fortune. She swore she would make it back from their miserable hides.

“Order the interdiction fleet in,” Peepo instructed as the command ship cleared the roiling cloud of dust. Peepo regretted not bringing in the fleet sooner, but it would have tipped her hand. “We need to contain as many of the human mercenaries as possible.”

* * *

Bear Town, Earth

The alarm flashed across the network, alerting all tactical slates. Jim hadn’t realized his slate had been updated to tactical until the device emitted the repeating tone.

“Excuse me, Rafael,” Jim said, pulling the slate from its holster.

>>Alert—Multiple nuclear detonations detected—Uzbekistan<<

Jim stared at the message in disbelief. The aliens were using nuclear weapons against humans. He met Rafael’s questioning gaze. “It’s begun. Aliens have nuked Uzbekistan,” Jim said.

Donde esta Uzbekistan?” Rafael asked. He had dropped out of high school ten years ago and hadn’t been enrolled in the Mercenary Service Track. He’d have no idea one of the Four Horsemen was based in Uzbekistan.

“Between the Middle East and Russia,” Jim replied in Spanish. While most mercs sported a translator medallion, low-level contractors couldn’t afford such luxuries, and Jim preferred speaking Spanish rather than relying on his translator.

“Do you think they will drop nukes here?” Rafael asked.

“I’m surprised they did it at all,” Jim replied. The Galactic law was specifically against orbital bombardment. Technically, Earth wasn’t part of the Galactic Union yet, but any race employing forbidden tactics against a potential member would be remembered. “Are you sure you want to remain behind?”

Rafael’s eyes went up, as though searching for an alien ship overhead. “Yes. Better to die here than go back to scraping by outside.” Normally Jim would have assured the man his willingness to work would land him a job, but who knew what was about to happen if aliens were invading?

Dropship seats were offered to contractors on basis of seniority, regardless of rank and position. With the dropships crammed full of gear and munitions, only sixty seats were available. The handful of remaining aerojet seats to the redoubt were made available on the same basis. Rafael’s tenure at Bear Town had not been long enough to obtain seats for himself and his family.

“Besides, if the aliens drop a nuke on us, we’ll never know what happened,” Rafael added.

“God be with you,” Jim said, patting the man on the shoulder.

“You as well, Father Jim.” Rafael pushed the cart laden with munitions toward the CASPer bays, where technicians loaded 27 Mk 5 and Mk 6 training suits with full stores of live ordnance. The extra telemetry hardware in the training suits would make it easier for the BTI to control them. An additional six suits were set up for senior mechanics who over the course of years on the jobs had learned to pilot the suits.

Four bulky aerojets squatted on the near end of the base runway, parked at an angle rather than nose to tail to facilitate loading. All the planes sported fresh PrimeX Parcel Service paint jobs. Jim spotted the anti-aircraft rumbler, his eventual ride, as it rolled across the tarmac and up the ramp of the fourth jet. It was the last vehicle to board Prime 4, as the plane had been designated.

Realizing time was almost up, Jim jogged toward the waiting plane. The rising sun cast long shadows across the tarmac. In an hour, the desert heat would dispel the night chill, but Jim wouldn’t be here to experience it. One of the cargo handlers gave Jim a nod as he ascended the ramp.

“Can you manage the topside hatch, Padre?” Luis, the loader who had nodded, asked. “If not, we can yell at them to unbutton the rumbler’s ramp.”

Jim knew it would delay getting the jet’s own ramp up, as the rumbler’s would be in the way. “I’m not that old, Luis. I’ll climb up.” Jim found a handhold and stepped on the hub of one the six large wheels to boost himself up. By the time he clambered to the top of the vehicle, the jet’s ramp was rising. The top hatch was forward of the anti-aircraft turret. Jim popped it and lowered himself in, nervous until his foot found a ladder rung. He quickly descended into the vehicle. He didn’t know how long he had to buckle in before the plane would start moving.

“Jim, I was afraid you were going to get left behind,” Priya said, greeting him with a smile. “I saved you a seat.”

Jim recognized the vehicle commander’s seat from his days in MST training. “Shouldn’t someone in charge sit there?” Jim protested. There were three others in the compartment besides himself and Priya. One was Hcuff’t, who sat at the inert gunner’s station and ignored everything else in his fascination with the controls. Of the other two, one wore a specialist insignia and the other sergeant stripes. “Sergeant Cripe, why don’t you take this seat?”

“No, thanks,” Keith Cripe said, shaking his head. “I retired from infantry to push paperwork. Besides, according to the paperwork I saw, your C4 is the equivalent of a staff sergeant.”

A vibration ran through the rumbler, indicating the aerojet was spinning up its thrust vector turbines. Jim sat in the vacant chair and strapped himself in. At least the seat was next to Priya. They’d had one date and a good night kiss since the night in the Mead Hall. Jim wasn’t sure where things were going, but he hoped they lived long enough to find out.

“Here we go,” the fifth person in the compartment said. His BDU shirt was too big for his gaunt frame; the shoulder bore a specialist insignia and the name patch read McQueen. “I’m Dave by the way,” he added. “People call me Bones. I’m the mechanic for this bucket of bolts. My buddy Ricky Relue is up front driving.”

The tactical board on the commander’s station lit up. It showed icons for the four jets and the four VTOL escorts. The escorts streaked ahead, as the faster planes would soon overtake them. The aerojets cruised at 800 kph, while the VTOL combat flyers could, at best, maintain 500 kph. If the planes kept to the speed of their escorts, the trip north would take ten hours, but it might draw attention. If they went at cruise speed, it would only take six hours but would mean leaving their escorts behind.

Jim clicked on the command channel. He could have cast the audio to an earpiece, but he let it play over the station’s speakers. For good or for ill, everyone might as well know what was happening.

“This is the BTI to all evacuation units. Sky is clear, say again, sky is clear,” Bettie’s electronic voice announced. Jim realized he had slipped into thinking of the BTI as more than a collection of code.

“Olinger to all points, commence evacuation.”

“Here we go,” Jim said, glancing over at Priya.

“Flying is fun, yes?” Hcuff’t remarked. He had his slate out and was comparing the screen to the station controls.

“Sure, as long as some MinSha doesn’t shoot us down,” Sergeant Cripe countered. “I bet it’s the MinSha. They’ve hated us since the Islamic extremists blew up the First Contact delegation. They nuked Iran, and they probably dropped these new nukes.”

“Don’t be so pessimistic, Sergeant,” McQueen chided. “There’s lots of aliens who hate us. The only thing keeping the Besquith from nuking us is they want to eat us.”

“This is true,” Hcuff’t added. Jim didn’t bother to add that he was right. The Besquith would find stand-off warfare insulting and a waste of perfectly good meat.

The vibration intensified as the engines powered up, and the aircraft taxied, aligning itself with the runway. The icons on the tactical display showed four dropships leaping skyward, Prime 1 was already airborne and Prime 2 was lifting off. Once the planes attained enough speed, the hybrid engine pods would switch from thrust vector turbines to hydrogen-burning turbojets. The whine of the aircraft’s engines, dampened from a shriek by the rumbler’s armored hull, increased and the plane lurched forward. Jim pivoted his chair to face forward and locked it in position.

The plane lifted skyward, and at 300 kph, the whine of the rear engine pods changed pitch and added a dull roar. Jim glanced at the display—it showed Prime 4 following the other three north, and Bear Town falling behind.

* * *

“Rafael, how screwed are we?” Diego asked, watching the last of the planes depart.

“Depends on how long it takes the bandits to figure out the mercenaries are gone,” Rafael replied. “Assuming the aliens don’t bomb us first.”

“True. I guess our best bet is to carry on as though the Berserkers were still here,” Diego said. He turned in the direction of the front gate, over a kilometer away. “Bear Town covers over three square kilometers. There is a large perimeter to protect.”

Rafael started toward the hulking headquarters building, and Diego fell in alongside. “True, but hopefully the corpses of the first intruders will deter others. Jefe Oso is paying us for as long as we remain. My children eat better than if I relied on the government dole. If the Berserkers can arrange it, we can move to the new base.”

“Would you want to live on an alien world?” Diego asked with a shudder.

“Better to live free on a strange world than be shackled on a familiar one, my friend,” Rafael replied.

* * * * *

Chapter 15

Over New Mexico, Earth

“Any challenges yet?” Lieutenant Olinger asked. She peered over the pilot’s shoulder to see the sky ahead of Prime 1.

“No, sir. No one has questioned our bona fides,” the pilot replied. “However, those nukes put the EDF on high alert. They are scrambling jets all over the place, but they don’t know who to shoot at. Luckily, a bunch of civilian cargo planes don’t register as a threat. They’re probably on watch for landing craft and strike fighters.”

“Lieutenant, you want to hear this,” the co-pilot called.

“—all Earth mercenary forces! This is Nigel Shirazi of Asbaran Solutions. The aliens have returned to finish what they started in Iran a century ago. After failing to defeat us through deceit, they resorted to nuking the Golden Horde. We cannot let this stand! Rally with me; let us show these aliens humanity is not to be trifled with!”

“Burt’s Bees—we’re in!”

“Sinclair’s Scorpions here, let’s kick alien ass!”

“Highland Irregulars will join you!”

Units continued to add their voices to the growing roll.

The co-pilot gave Lieutenant Olinger a questioning glance over his shoulder. Jolene shook her head. “We cannot rush in blindly. We help no one if we get wiped out.”

“This is Jim Cartwright of Cartwright’s Cavaliers.” The young man’s voice cut through the cacophony. “All merc forces need to get off-world now. We are Earth’s only hope, and you’ll only throw that hope away by acting rashly.”

“Cartwright, don’t be a coward,” Shirazi countered. Olinger could hear the vitriol in the Asbaran commander’s voice.

“This isn’t about courage, it’s about survival,” Cartwright said. “Not for us, but for humanity. All mercs capable, make for the stargate. There is already an interdiction fleet on the way. We don’t have much time.”

One by one the mercenary companies abandoned Shirazi’s direction, until he too relented.

“Get me a channel to Cartwright,” Olinger said.

“You’re on, sir,” the co-pilot replied after a moment.

“This is Lieutenant Jolene Olinger in command of Bjorn’s Berserkers forces on Earth,” Olinger stated.

“Lieutenant, where is Commander Tovesson?” Cartwright asked.

“Off-world on contract with the majority of our forces.” Jolene wasn’t sure how much she should divulge without knowing if the channel was secure. “Our transport, the EMS Milne, is in orbit about to depart. She has space for a couple of dropships or shuttles, and three docking hardpoints for ships without hyperspace capabilities.”

“Thanks, Lieutenant. You should really be getting the rest of your people off world,” Cartwright said.

“Not part of the plan,” Olinger replied.

“You’re taking a heck of a risk remaining behind,” Cartwright warned. “Good luck and keep your head down.”

“Thanks. I want to go to Valhalla, but hopefully not today. Olinger out.”

* * *

Peepo’s Command Ship, Earth Orbit

“As of now, the mercenary industry of Earth is under new management. All mercenary organizations will be subsumed as direct forces of the Mercenary Guild, and the industry for making equipment for war will be supervised by members of the Guild until the Guild Tribunal can be held. This tribunal will be held in six of your weeks at Capital Planet, and I call upon all your mercenary leaders to step forward to be judged, especially your so-called Horsemen. All mercenary force leaders must come and give an accounting of their actions. If they do not present themselves for judgment, they will be declared rogue and hunted to the ends of the galaxy.

“I know this is unpleasant, but it must be done for the good of the galaxy and the Galactic Union. Please do not consider fighting us. You need only look to the skies; our ships are large enough for you to see them there. We hold your orbitals and will use whatever force is necessary to ensure you do as instructed. One hundred years ago, an example was made of your nation-state of Iran, and death can, and will, come again from space for any who attack those carrying out this lawful action.

“We will be contacting your planetary leaders to inform them of what is required. All mercenary leaders are to present themselves in one week at your world government headquarters for transportation to Capital Planet for the tribunal.

“That is all.”

Peepo cut the communication feed. Her ultimatum had been broadcast across the globe. She hoped the Human government would roll over and show its throat but there was a very good chance they wouldn’t. Regardless, even with the massive loss of troops in Uzbekistan, she had enough Besquith and MinSha to control key points. If the humans needed a sterner reminder, the interdiction fleet was on its way, including the battleship Dominance.

“General, several ships are breaking orbit,” the sensors operator reported. “I make one battlecruiser, a light cruiser, six frigates, and several transports of various classes.”

“Are they coming this way?” Peepo demanded. Her whiskers twitched. It was impossible to know what the hominids would do when trapped like this. Once her reinforcements arrived, the ragtag Human fleet would be wiped from space, but Peepo’s assault ship was on its own for the moment. She didn’t want to lose momentum by having to thrust for the incoming fleet.

“No, ma’am. They are outbound for the stargate,” the sensor operator replied. “They are running for it. The flotilla consists of thirty-eight ships representing twenty-two mercenary companies, including two Horseman—Cartwright’s Cavaliers and Asbaran Solutions.”

“Get me the Dominance,” Peepo ordered. The comms operator gave her a nod, and a green icon appeared in her Tri-V.

“Captain Neebo, take the Dominance and half the remaining fleet and set course for the stargate,” Peepo commanded without preamble. “Instruct the gate master to deny the humans access to the gate.”

“The Cartographers’ Guild will protest,” Captain Neebo countered, after giving her crew the intercept orders. The Fleet would never make it to the gate in time to stop the fleeing humans unless they were denied access to hyperspace.

“Let them protest.” Peepo said to the Tri-V avatar of the captain. “I will deal with them afterward. This is our chance to end it quickly. Catch them and kill them. Am I clear?”

“Yes ma’am,” Captain Neebo relented. “As you command.”

Peepo ran her paw over her whiskers. She would have them, and she would have them now.

“General, we are receiving several incoming queries from the planet,” the comms operator announced. “The Buma Consulate, the Peacemaker Consulate, the Mercenary Liaison Office, and the General Assembly of the United Nations. There is also a direct message for you from the mercenary firm El Espejo Obscuro.”

Speaking of Humans acting rationally…“Send the last one to my console,” Peepo said. It had better not be another failure. So far, the Human quislings had not let her down, but today showed her anything could happen. Peepo read the text message and the corners of her mouth turned up. While she had a MinSha fleet scouring some of the human colonies, one of the merc units had fled to a non-human world. They must have thought they would be safe on a member species’ world.

“Set course for the Campinas Starport,” Peepo ordered without looking up from the message. The starport was outside São Paolo, the location of the Secretary of the General Assembly of Earth headquarters. Peepo would control the planet from there. According to the message, a second-tier mercenary company, Bjorn’s Berserkers, had moved the bulk of their assets to Vishall. The world belonged to the H’rang, members in good standing in the Galactic Union, but abject cowards. Peepo sneered.

Peepo pulled up to TOE for El Espejo Obscuro. Most were committed to the trap set for the Berserkers. This meant the bulk of the Berserkers’ forces were away from Vishall, leaving the planet garrisoned by a minor mercenary outfit. Peepo reviewed the listing of uncommitted assets. The Frothing Maw, a Besquith mercenary company was available. Peepo stroked her whiskers. She would allow the Espejos to send a force to assault Vishall with the Besquith if Commander Sanchez had any troops to spare. If not, it might take longer for the Besquith to eat their fill.

* * *

Earth Stargate, L1 LaGrange Point

“You will deny the Humans access to the stargate,” Captain Neebo demanded over comms.

The Sumatozou gate master bristled. “I will not be bullied by mercenary thugs,” Gate Master Vaa’shira said. “Your threat has been logged. If anything should happen to myself or this facility, you will be the identified culprit. The Cartographers’ Guild will ensure a Depik ends you, personally, in a most gruesome fashion.” It was not an idle threat.

Vaa’shira watched the sensor icons. The Dominance and its fleet were still three hours away. The humans were sixty seconds away. The clock for the next interface showed thirty seconds. Vaa’shira stroked his trunks. “Maintain operational schedule,” he said. Perhaps his youth made him bolder, but once Gate Masters started acceding to threats, chaos would reign.

“Yes, Gate Master,” the computer replied. “Fifteen seconds to scheduled interface.”

On cue, the superconductor ring of the gate spun up, and strange quarks flooded the interface field. A swirling portal to hyperspace manifested within the ring. In the course of two minutes, all 38 ships shot through the huge ring structure.

* * *

Peepo’s Command Ship, Descending from Earth Orbit

“General, landing at Campinas has been denied,” the flight operator reported.

“Comms, tell them that everyone within 10 kilometers will be incinerated if we are not given clearance to land,” Peepo countered. “Starting with their control tower.”

“Landing approved,” the flight operator announced a moment later. The maneuver alarm sounded as the bulky ship decelerated.

“Any signs of intercept craft or targeting locks from surface weapons?” Peepo asked as she watched the display showing their flight path.

“There are several wings of atmospheric fighter craft launching, but they are going into holding patterns near their bases,” the sensor operator reported. “There are also several hundred civilian transports. If anything, they are vacating our projected flight path. Do you wish to order them from the sky?”

“If any craft approaches, I don’t care how small or innocuous it appears, have fire control lase it out of the air,” Peepo ordered. The lack of air support was a calculated risk. Antiquated Earth-made aircraft did not pose a credible threat unless the Humans were prepared to fling nukes at her command craft. Peepo suspected, unlike the mercenaries, the Human leaders lacked the spine to blow them out of the sky. “Comms, advise the Humans not to launch any additional air traffic. Tell them any craft approaching us will be destroyed and the originating nation-state will be punished.”

“Negative on ground-based weapon locks,” the sensor operator stated. “We are picking up the usual traffic control and alert sensor stations.”

“As soon as we touch down I want the Besquith infantry and the Zuul armor to establish a perimeter, then take all starport check points,” Peepo instructed. On the Tri-V map of the starport, the check points flashed. “Make an example of anyone who resists.”

* * *

El Espejo Obscuro Base, Coahuila, Earth

“Lieutenant Izquierdo, our spotter called in. Four large aircraft departed the Berserkers’ base bearing north,” Sergeant Celso Tejeda reported. “I’ve got them on Paso-Juarez air traffic control.”

Dores Izquierdo peered over the sergeant’s shoulder. Chaos had erupted on every comm channel following the nukes in Asia and General Peepo’s ultimatum. Nation-state security forces argued with the EDF while mercs called for an attack on Peepo’s ship only to vacillate and then flee for the stars. Dores had two jobs: watch over the Espejo’s remaining assets and deal with Bjorn’s Berserkers’ leftover forces.

“Do we have any dropships ready to fly?” She asked the sergeant.

Sergeant Tejeda shook his head. “We can get one in the air in two hours. We didn’t know to have one on stand-by.”

Dores didn’t know either. In two hours they’d lose track of aircraft as they passed out of the jurisdiction of those the Espejo’s had in their pocket. On her slate, she pulled up a direct channel to the Coahuila Cartel Militia. Luckily, they had scrambled fighters, the same as every other defense force on the globe.

“This is Lieutenant Izquierdo of El Espejo Obscuro, I need to speak to your air captain.” After several minutes and two transfers, Dores finally reached the person she wanted. “I am forwarding information on four suspected smuggler aircraft. I need them brought down.”

“Are you insane? Those are over American airspace,” the air captain objected. “We can’t send our planes so far north.”

“Sure you can,” Dores countered, bringing up the air captain’s file. “It’s as easy as taking your abuela for her cancer treatments.”

The pause was only a few seconds but seemed to drag forever. “Fine. I am dispatching two fighters to deal with these smugglers.”

The line went dead. Dores felt dirty playing the abuela card, but she valued her job, not to mention her life, and being an Espejo protected her in the new world order.

* * *

Over Northern New Mexico, Earth

“Prime 1, this is Huginn 4,” Corporal Ruuska called over the comms. “I show two bandits burning hot on an intercept from the south. They’ll be on us in three minutes. They’ll be knocking on your door in twelve minutes.”

In the air traffic chaos following Peepo’s announcement, Olinger had ordered the aerojets to slow enough to keep their escorts in range longer than planned. Even so, the trailing escorts had already fallen behind and had gone to deck. Their fuel cells would get them to Alaska if they didn’t attract undue attention. Huginn 3 flew five kilometers ahead, and Huginn 1 another ten kilometers out.

The display on Lieutenant Olinger’s tactical slate updated with data relayed by the escort VTOLs. The rearmost had picked up the closing jets and passed the feed along. Even though the interceptors were older aircraft, there was no way to outrun them.

“Have they challenged us?” Olinger asked the co-pilot.

“No, sir. They are coming fast and don’t seem to be in a mood to chat,” the co-pilot replied.

“Olinger to all points. Ready countermeasures and point defense fire—deploy at your discretion,” Jolene ordered.

A tone warbled from the pilot’s console. “Missile lock! Missile lock on Prime 3 and 4!”

* * *

Jim listened to the chatter over the tac channel, his eyes glued to the Tri-V display. He knew there was nothing he could do if it was his time to meet the Lord, but it didn’t keep him from taking a keen interest in the proceedings. Icons that indicated missiles streaked toward the plane he was on and the next plane in line. Priya squeezed his hand, pulling his attention away from the hologram. He met her eyes. If this was his final moment, he shouldn’t be staring at a computer image.

Cripe let out a sigh of relief. “Praise be to Odin. They use antiques for armaments.”

“Their missiles are inferior, yes?” Hcuff’t asked. “Dropship countermeasures were installed on our planes.”

* * *

Olinger released a held breath as the missile icons winked out. A moment later, the craft streaked past, a pair of ancient F-37 multi-role fighters. The countermeasures installed on the aerojets were meant to defeat alien weapons. Terrestrial relics had no chance of maintaining a target lock.

“They’re swinging around,” the co-pilot reported. “They could fire from ahead of us and one of their missiles could collide with us through dumb luck.”

* * *

“What the hell?” Hector Corona cursed as his fighter streaked past the lumbering aircraft. His missiles lost their lock as soon as they left the rails. “Quixote 2, any luck?”

“Negative,” his wingman Cristo Vela replied as the planes slowed and banked into a wide turn. “Since when do cargo tubs carry ECM suites and chaff? My missiles went dumb as soon as they were away. They must be high-priced smugglers to afford mercenary tech.”

“Once we finish the turn, we’ll come in at an angle,” Corona said. He knew each fighter had six missiles remaining. “Dump four missiles at the second plane, I’ve got the lead.”

“Roger, Quixote 1,” Vela confirmed. “I’ve got two more bogies on my scope, paralleling the big birds.”

Corona checked his radar, Vela was right. Two slightly slower and much smaller craft were shadowing the four planes. “The war book is pegging them as helicopters, but there’s no way helicopters fly so fast.”

Maldito! I keep losing my radar lock on the target,” Vela complained.

“Switch to infrared,” Corona urged. They only had a few seconds to fire their missiles before they overshot the planes again. “Missiles away!”

Eight missiles streaked toward the rapidly approaching aircraft. The planes jettisoned another load of flares. Two missiles mysteriously detonated mid-air, half way to the target. Five arced groundward, chasing descending flares. One struck the lead cargo plane behind an engine nacelle and detonated.

One wing tore away from the fuselage, and the flaming plane flipped over. Debris and smoke trailed the stricken craft. In a split second, both fighters shot past, unable to watch the plane disgorge bodies and vehicles as the airframe was shredded from the stress.

“It took most of our ordnance to drop one plane,” Vela remarked.

“We’ll do it the old-fashioned way,” Corona said. “Fancy jamming gear and flares won’t fool 20mm rounds. We’ll get on their asses and shred them.”

* * *

“Prime 1 is gone,” a shaky voice announced over the tactical channel.

“What do we do now?” another voice asked.

“Those bandits are coming around for a run from the rear,” Corporal Hernandez called. “I think they’re low on missiles. My point defense laser bagged two. If they tail chase you, I can turn the laser on them.”

“Shit,” someone said. “We’re sitting ducks.”

“He’s not wrong,” Cripe muttered.

Jim keyed the microphone. “Remember your training and stay the course. Don’t panic.” He eyed the Tri-V display which showed the two planes curving behind them. At 30 kilometers away, it would take a few minutes for them to complete the maneuver and catch up. Since the rumbler was pinned out for anti-aircraft work, the computer crunched the data by default.

Jim looked around the interior of the vehicle. “Lord be praised. What do we need to do to bring this vehicle online?”

“The hardest part will be the weapons system and fire control,” Sergeant Cripe replied. “We can bring up the power cell to full output from the cab.”

“The weapons system is not hard,” Hcuff’t countered. “You wish me to activate it, yes?”

“Yes, but don’t shoot the tail off the plane,” Jim instructed. He called forward, “Private Relue, bring up the power.”

“Power in thirty seconds,” Relue yelled back. A hum reverberated through the vehicle and lights brightened. “Fuel cells are burning, you have 100% juice.”

Hcuff’t deftly flipped a series of switches and tapped buttons. Indicator lights on the gunnery station illuminated.

“Please tell me this vehicle is anchored,” Jim said as the fuel cells hummed.

“It’s standard loading procedure,” Priya answered.

“I helped them strap it down,” Sergeant Cripe added. “I hope it’s enough.”

Jim tapped a button on the tactical console, opening the direct channel to the cockpit. “Get ready to lower the ramp.”

* * *

“Five kilometers to target,” Corona called. The 20mm cannons had a range of 1,000 meters. The range in the HUD crawled down. Vela was off his right wing; they would bracket the target.

“Ready to fire,” Vela announced at 1,500 meters. “What the hell? I have a weapons lock on me!”

Corona glanced to his right. There was an actinic flash and several holes appeared in Vela’s jet. Smoke poured from the plane, including the pierced cockpit canopy. Instinctively, Corona yanked his stick to the side. An alarm sounded as something pierced his wing, while another strike took out his nose camera.

Vela’s plane burst into flames as it drifted off course. Corona scanned for the threat. He spotted the small dark shape below, one of the not-helicopters. It was a mercenary VTOL flier. From what Corona remembered, the flier had to be pushing for every bit of speed to keep up this pace.

Corona bled off his own speed and dropped behind the VTOL. If it maneuvered to engage him, it would never catch up to the three remaining transport planes. If it didn’t maneuver…Corona locked his missiles and let them fly. The VTOL lasered one out of the sky before the other detonated next to the target, sending the wreckage tumbling toward the ground.

Corona throttled his jet back up. The HUD read 4,000 meters and closing. In half a minute, he’d be in range. He brought his fighter in line with the trailing cargo plane. 3,000 meters. It would be like shooting target drones; the planes weren’t even trying to evade. 2,000 meters.

Why did the back of the plane appear strange? Had they lowered the ramp to bail out?

A warning chimed from his console—an anti-aircraft battery had locked onto him.

What was an anti-aircraft battery doing in the middle of nowhere?

* * *

“In range, target acquired,” Hcuff’t called excitedly. The felinoid stared intently into the targeting HUD. “Fire, yes?”

“Yes!” Jim shouted. The vehicle shook and the lights dimmed accompanied by a loud whir. Both anti-aircraft lasers fired. The icon for the remaining fighter winked out. “You can button us back up,” Jim said over the comms to the cockpit. He sagged into his seat as the adrenaline ebbed. “Father, forgive me.”

Priya clasped his hand again. “I think he’ll understand. How many souls are still alive on this plane?” She lowered her voice. “Though I wouldn’t point it out to Hcuff’t.”

* * * * *

Chapter 16

Over British Columbia, Earth

The comm channel chimed for attention. Pastor Hawkins tapped the button. “Hawkins here.”

“Sir, we have a couple of problems,” the co-pilot reported. “The EDF is ordering all civilian air traffic to land.”

“Any sign they intend to enforce the order?” Hawkins asked, tapping the vehicle’s computer. A map replaced the list of names of everyone on board Prime 1. The closest Defense Force Base was DFB Comox, a mere 100 miles away. If they dispatched fighters, it would take less than half an hour for them to overtake the three aerojets.

“So far, no,” the co-pilot replied. “The EDF grounded all military flights, as have all local defense forces. The sky is full of transoceanic flights, as well as several long-distance, continental flights. The traffic is declining since no new flights have taken off.”

“What’s the other problem?” Jim feared the answer. They had already lost 25% of their evacuees.

“When Prime 1 was destroyed, we caught some debris. We have a slow hydraulic leak.”

How old was this plane? Jim wondered. It was a hybrid of a traditional airplane and the duct-fanned fliers which had propagated with the technological advances following first contact. “How bad is it? I’m guessing it’s not something we can fix in the air.”

“Bad enough. We need to set down soon if we don’t want to take any chances,” the co-pilot replied. “There’s an airfield not far from here at Barkerville. The other planes want to know if they should continue on or follow us down.”

“Why are you asking me?” As soon as Jim said the words, he remembered Olinger was the commander officer of the operation, and she was dead. “Who is in command?”

“It sounds as though you are,” the co-pilot answered. “It’s you or Staff Sergeant Yamaguchi from Kodiak-Delta-One, and he seems to think you’re in charge, since you were actually involved in all the briefings.”

“Tell the other aircraft to continue to the redoubt at best speed,” Jim instructed. “We’ll land and try to affect repairs.”

“Yes, sir,” the co-pilot said.

Jim brought the comm controls up, locating Sergeant Toshi Yamaguchi and Stefan. He keyed them both into a conference channel.

“What can I do for you, Pastor Hawkins?” Stefan lisped cheerily despite the grave situation. Since Stefan held his slate, his grandfatherly countenance appeared above his comm icon.

“We need to figure out the chain of command,” Jim stated. “Sergeant Yamaguchi, it appears you are the ranking officer.”

“I am comfortable leading the infantry, but the majority of the personnel are support and their dependents,” the sergeant replied with a hint of his Japanese accent. No image appeared for him since he was using a headset. “I feel you are far more qualified than I to lead the mission.”

“He’s right, you know,” Priya whispered next to Jim, and placed a hand on his shoulder. “The people know you and trust you. Who knows how long we’ll be in hiding.”

“If it helps, Pastor Hawkins, I’ve activated you.” Stefan glanced down out of the camera view. “Based on emergency protocols outlined by Section 9 of the corporate charter, you are now a mercenary with the rank of lieutenant and the local commanding officer.”

“I’m not a mercenary,” Jim protested.

“Your personnel file shows a qualifying VOWS score,” Stefan argued. “According to the emergency protocols, an individual with VOWS qualifications or commensurate military experience can be provisionally activated and promoted as deemed necessary by the operations contractor—me—and the senior officer in the operational theater, Staff Sergeant Yamaguchi.”

“Congratulations?” Priya patted Jim on the shoulder. “You can do this.”

“A big promotion, yes?” Hcuff’t called from the gunnery station. “This means you buy first drinks, yes?”

“Good thing I’m sending you a copy of the football,” Stefan said over the comm channel.

“The football?” Jim glanced at Priya, who shrugged.

“It will give you clearance to access funds and deal with red tape as the firm’s duly appointed representative,” Stefan explained. Jim’s slate chimed, indicating receipt of a data package.

“Father LT, we have a new problem,” the co-pilot interrupted with a priority call. “A Besquith landing craft is closing on our position.”

Jim’s blood ran cold. Besquith were aliens right out of Little Red Riding Hood’s nightmares—bipedal lupines with a shark’s maw full of teeth. “How long until they reach us?”

“Six minutes.”

“How long until we can land at Barkerville?” Jim asked.

“Seven minutes.”

“Have Prime 2 and 3 engage their ECM and split up,” Jim ordered. “The good news is the Besquith prefer their meat fresh, so they are less inclined to blow us out of the sky if it appears we are landing. The bad news is they prefer their meat fresh.”

“Meat. You mean us, yes?” Hcuff’t asked, huddling in the gunner station.

“Yes,” Sergeant Cripe replied.

“No!” the felinoid protested.

“Tell me the rumbler in here is loaded with infantry troopers,” Jim said. “We have six minutes to figure out how to deal with however many Besquith are in one of their landers.”

“The troop transport loaded on Prime 4 contains infantry squad Kodiak Delta Three,” the battlefield intelligence announced over the speakers. “A Vargr-class assault lander carries two octals of Besquith infantry, each with their own transport sled. I have added the sergeant for KD3 to the conference call.”

“Octals? What are those?” Specialist McQueen asked.

“Besquith use a base eight numbering system,” the BTI replied.

“Why didn’t you say sixteen?” Jim countered. “Not that I’m not grateful for your presence, but how are you here, and why have you been quiet until now?”

“Two octals is sixteen. The copy of me residing in the computer of this vehicle became the senior node when the copy on board the command rumbler was destroyed,” the BTI explained. “Your interrogatory was vague enough to prompt my response. Congratulations on your promotion, Lieutenant Hawkins.”

“We’re outnumbered and underpowered,” Jim remarked. One on one, human troopers weren’t a match for Besquith, and once the wolves got in close, it would be all over. Maybe Commander Tovesson and his axe could go toe-to-toe with a Besquith, but these troops would be slaughtered.

“Four minutes until landing,” the co-pilot announced.

“Each rumbler has a MAC, the same weapon mounted on a CASPer,” Sergeant Cripe noted. “Unfortunately, I don’t think the anti-aircraft laser will depress enough to fire at troops on the ground.”

“I could fire at the landing shuttle, yes?” Hcuff’t suggested. “It is an aircraft, yes?”

“I have the Beast,” Cripe remarked, pulling a bulky gun from his bag. “A tungsten-carbide flechette-firing magnetic shotgun with an underslung grenade launcher and a plasma bayonet.”

“What’s a plasma bayonet?” McQueen asked.

Sergeant Cripe chuckled, patting the gun with affection. “It’ll fire a plasma jet out a meter for sixty seconds. It’ll slag most armor.”

“That means going outside with the Besquith, no?” Hcuff’t’s eyes were wide as he shook his head.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Cripe conceded. “We need to deploy as soon as we hit tarmac.”

“Both vehicles will deploy immediately upon touchdown,” Jim relayed to the cockpit. “Have the rumblers create a wedge behind Prime 4. Troopers use the rumblers as cover.”

“The Besquith are following us down,” the co-pilot reported. “Two minutes to touchdown.”

A loud whir vibrated through the vehicle as the ramp descended. The drop alert flashed on screens and the overhead warning lights glowed amber. Technically, it wouldn’t be a true drop as the parachutes and drop jets—very powerful short-duration versions of the jumpjets used by CASPers—wouldn’t come into play. They wouldn’t keep a rumbler airborne so much as give them a last-minute thrust to keep from slamming into the ground.

“BTI, open a channel to all infantry,” Jim commanded.

“Channel open.”

“We’re about to face the monsters of nightmares, and I know many of you do not share my faith, but let me quote a passage before we face the enemy,” Jim stated. He took a deep breath.

“When you go out to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. And when you draw near to the battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the people and shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.”

Priya gave Jim’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “You’re pretty good at this,” Priya whispered.

“Thanks,” Jim clasped Priya’s hand. “I hope I don’t get us all killed.” He let her hand slip away as she strapped herself back into her seat.

“Don’t worry, Father LT,” Sergeant Cripe said, pulling a flak vest out of his duffle. “It’ll be the Besquith killing us.” He tossed Jim the jacket. “Might want to throw this on.”

“I do not want to go outside with the Besquith, no.” Hcuff’t cowered in the gunner’s station.

“Your job is to stay here and shoot down whatever you can,” Jim instructed. “You can do that.”

Hcuff’t nodded. “Yes. Yes, I can operate the station.”

The aerojet lurched as it flared its flaps and directed thrust downward. The landing gear thumped against the tarmac followed by the loud clang of the ramp dragging across the asphalt.

“Hopefully the driver can keep us on our wheels, or the Besquith may have to settle for canned ham,” Cripe remarked.

“Relue is the best driver I know,” McQueen proclaimed, gripping the shoulder straps of the harness.

Clamps released the rumbler and the 6-wheeled armored vehicle rolled down the ramp. The rumbler jerked as soon as the rear wheels contacted the pavement. Jim’s teeth rattled in his skull as the rumbler bounced. The driver fought to bring the heavy vehicle under control while avoiding the other troop carrier disgorged by the plane.

The rumbler slewed with the squeal of rubber on pavement, throwing everyone against their harnesses. With a finally shimmy, the vehicle straightened and decelerated to a crawl. Jim pulled up the feeds from both vehicles. The personnel carrier pulled alongside the anti-aircraft rumbler. Ahead, the Besquith lander spun on its landing jets. Steam boiled up from the wet runway as the alien craft touched down.

Both rumblers screeched to a halt. The back door dropped, and chill air gusted into the compartment. Infantry were already disembarking the other rumbler, crouching behind the vehicles. Sergeant Lexi Taylor split her squad into two fire teams, one behind each vehicle. An array of helmet cam feeds appeared in the Tri-V display.

Jim unbuckled his harness but Priya pressed him back into the seat. “You need to coordinate from here.” He didn’t know where she’d gotten the infantry rifle. “No time to argue! You know I’m right.”

“At least take this.” He handed her the vest and kissed her. “God be with you.” Jim returned his attention to the tactical display. “Bettie, help me sort this out.”

One of the images highlighted and expanded. It showed Besquith erupting from the lander. As soon as they hit the tarmac, the lupine aliens sprinted toward the Humans. They would close the 100 meters in twelve seconds.

Against Human troops, this would be a slaughter. The Besquith were frighteningly tough, especially with combat armor. The main weakness of their armor was their maws were left exposed. An armchair tactician would calmly say to shoot them in the mouth. Easy to say when you don’t have ravenous murder-monsters barreling at you, intent on devouring your flesh while you’re still alive.

“Open fire,” Jim ordered.

Time slowed to a crawl. The MACs on both rumblers opened up. The cannons fired slower than the .50 machine guns, but the heavier armor-piercing slugs were designed for fighting aliens. The infantry used controlled bursts on the approaching aliens. Many rounds sparked off the armor, but blood sprayed where bullets found seams and weak points. With a loud boom, an explosion blossomed among the Besquith, likely Cripe’s handiwork. Three of the aliens were flung through the air.

The lander took off as soon as the last Besquith was clear.

“Hcuff’t, target the Besquith lander!”

The weapons system was intended to engage targets at a distance of kilometers. The H’rang yanked on the controls. The craft roared overhead as Hcuff’t spun the turret. In horror, Jim saw a rearward view highlight. More people were running down the ramp of the plane bearing whatever gun they could find.

“Prime 4, engage your point-defense weapons!” Jim shouted into the radio. “The lander is after you!”

The targeting reticle swung agonizingly slow toward the lander. The turret was designed for precision, not rapid traverse. An anti-missile laser on the tail of the aerojet spat at the lander, which slowed menacingly and dipped its nose toward the jet. Two beams of energy lanced through the aerojet, melting holes in the tarmac beneath it.

For a split second, Jim thought the lasers had passed through the aerojet without hitting anything critical. Then a gout of flame erupted from the open cargo hatch, hurling people and equipment onto the tarmac. The airframe shattered in an explosion of metal and flame.

“Die!” Hcuff’t hissed as the anti-aircraft laser lined up with the Besquith lander. Coherent light speared the alien craft, and it wobbled off course trailing smoke. Hcuff’t jabbed another button so hard his claw pierced the plastic. A missile leapt from the turret. The Besquith had no time for countermeasures as the missile struck one of the troop hatches and detonated. The explosion punched through the hatch, allowing jets of super-heated metal into the cabin of the craft. The lander accelerated toward a nearby lumberyard, trailing fire.

* * *

The Besquith were halfway to them when the lander overflew the parked vehicles. Sergeant Cripe figured if the vehicle he was using for cover exploded, he didn’t need to worry about the wolves. To his chagrin, the trio of Besquith he’d caught with a grenade rose from the tarmac and resumed closing, one on all fours, dragging one foot.

He risked another grenade despite the close range. He aimed it directly at one of the stragglers. The 30mm high-explosive round struck the Besquith in the chest plate and detonated. Keith was pretty sure the alien’s head was still in the helmet that went flying.

Behind him, the aerojet on the runway went up in flames. The anti-aircraft rumbler fired its laser then a missile, but Keith couldn’t spare a glance to see the result. Besquith skidded around the edge of the rumbler, their metal-shod foot-claws sparking on the pavement. Half of the wolves had survived the charge. The closest one opened a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth and howled.

“Eat this,” Cripe snapped, and triggered the shotgun. Thirty steel-banded, tungsten-carbide needles broke the sound barrier as electromagnets propelled them from the barrel. Between the magnetic choke and the close range, the flechettes barely dispersed. Seventeen caught the Besquith in the open mouth. A few glanced off its armor, while others lodged in flesh and armor seams.

The Besquith crumpled, its spinal cord and lower brain shredded by supersonic metal. Cripe’s weapon hummed as it cycled. The downside of magnetic-driver weapons was a low rate-of-fire. Bullets ricocheted off the vehicle behind him as the corporal from the fire team fell, spurting blood.

Another Besquith spotted Cripe and rushed him, saliva trailing from its gaping jaws. Cripe triggered a pulse on the plasma bayonet and incinerated the wolf’s reaching clawed hand. Instead of doing the sensible thing and pulling back, it lashed out with its other hand. Cripe blocked part of the blow with the Beast. Instead of disemboweling him, the Besquith’s claws shredded his armored vest and left trails of white-hot pain. The impact sent the Beast flying one direction and Sergeant Cripe in the other.

Cripe belly-flopped onto the tarmac, sending new blooms of pain through his body. He hoped he wasn’t lying on his intestines. Something heavy landed on him, and he felt hot breath as the Besquith seized the back of Cripe’s vest and pulled him toward its fangs.

* * *

Sergeant Lexi Taylor saw the retired sergeant hit the pavement. The Besquith pounced, pinning the sergeant with a foot while pulling his upper body and head toward the waiting mouth full of teeth. She fired a short burst at the Besquith. A couple of rounds caromed off the helmet, causing the alien to shake its head. Another Besquith loomed from the top of the troop carrier.

She fired another burst from her infantry rifle and ducked away from the lunging lupine. One of the bullets caught the alien in the cheek, shattering bone. It yowled as it struck the pavement but quickly scrambled to its feet.

Sergeant Taylor stroked the trigger again, only to have the gun click empty. They hadn’t been geared for a combat drop, or she would have had more than two clips of ammunition. Taylor pulled out her tactical sword, a 75-centimeter blade of a molybdenum-titanium alloy similar to CASPer blades. The Besquith charged, bearing her to the ground as its teeth chomped down on her neck and shoulder.

“Go to Hel!” she snarled and jammed her blade into the seam between the Besquith’s helmet and neck armor. The pressure behind the jaws ebbed as her weapon severed arteries and the trachea. With the last of her strength, she pushed the dying alien off her.

* * *

Vekkog watched his fellow die at the Human’s hand. Disgraceful. To die to the meat-monkeys was bad enough, but in hand-to-hand? Disgraceful. Vekkog returned his attention to the meal pinned to the ground. The light hair peppering the facial fur indicated advanced years, but the human was not elderly. Hopefully its age would not diminish the quality of its meat.

Where had it gotten another weapon? How many weapons did these monkeys carry?

* * *

Sergeant Cripe twisted around to aim his pistol. Unable to get a good shot at the Besquith’s face, Cripe aimed for the next best target, the creature’s crotch. He emptied half the 10mm armor-piercing rounds in between the Besquith’s legs. With a shrill howl, the alien collapsed. Cripe’s victory cry was smothered when the 150-kilogram alien crumpled onto him.

* * *

It was a horror show. Jim watched half the soldiers die in a handful of seconds that felt like an hour. Though the Humans were whittling down the Besquith, the Berserkers were paying a steep blood price.

“Shit, we need to close the hatch!” McQueen dropped from the secondary turret seat and scrambled for the door. Suddenly the hatchway filled with slobbering fangs and reaching claws. The mechanic fell back, but one of the grasping hands latched onto his ankle. “Shit!”

Jim pulled his sidearm. He was no sharpshooter, but he’d been diligent in his training. He squeezed off three shots, hoping to catch the Besquith in the unarmored lower face. Two bullets mushroomed against its combat armor, the third glanced off its neck armor.

The Besquith shifted its gaze to Jim and smiled, a nightmarish visage Jim would not forget. “I hear Human officers are tender,” its translator emitted.

A red spot blossomed on its chest armor, and the Besquith’s eyes went wide. The stink of charred meat and burning hair filled the air as the red-hot armor melted away and a plasma flame licked from the alien’s chest. The lupine slumped forward, revealing Priya standing behind it cradling the Beast.

“I see the appeal of this weapon,” Priya remarked over the smoking Besquith.

The dying alien lashed out with a clawed foot. Jim saw blood spray as Priya fell out of sight.

“No!” He scrambled over the prone Besquith onto the ramp.

If the views from the various cameras had been a horror show, the panorama outside the rumbler was Hell. Bodies—human and alien—were everywhere, and the plane wreckage blazed a hundred meters away. The air reeked of blood, offal, and burnt metal.

Jim spotted Priya sprawled on the pavement, with blood slowly seeping into the cracks in the concrete. Two Besquith remained up, although one of them was missing an arm. Five Berserkers were on their feet; they all appeared battered and bloodied. The intact Besquith pounced on a trooper. As it leapt, the merc pulled the trigger, only to have his gun click dry. The Besquith seized the trooper by his armor and lifted him.

“Fuck you!” The doomed soldier jammed his weapon in the wolf’s face and triggered the 30mm launcher. The grenade struck the Besquith in the mouth, shattering several teeth before the armed round fell between the alien and the human. The detonation shredded the soldier from the hips up. The Besquith blew into larger chunks, contained by its armor.

Jim half slid, half fell down the ramp as the concussive blast hit. He offered a quick thanks to God when he found Priya was still breathing. He bit back the call for a medic; carnage was everywhere, and Jim wasn’t even sure if the medic from KD3 survived.

The wounded Besquith limped after Corporal Anderson, the second fire team leader for Kodiak Delta 3. The corporal backpedaled, firing controlled three-shot bursts, but the Besquith kept its head down to avoid exposing its unarmored jaws. The alien had almost caught up to him when Anderson shouted into his comm. The rumbler lurched into motion and pinned the Besquith under one of its huge wheels.

“Relue, break out the medkit,” Jim called through the hatch. “I need all the trauma nanite applicators we have.” He realized he had been tuning out the panicked cacophony over the comm channels when his earpiece went silent.

Jim jumped when a detonation from the aerojet wreck sent a new gout of flame and debris skyward. “Anderson, round up whoever is standing and check for survivors. Where’s the medic?”

“Corporal Bryant’s telemetry indicates no vital functions,” the BTI replied over the comm. “His telemetry gear is seven meters north of your position.”

Jim turned north, facing the direction the plane had landed. He spotted the red cross on a helmet. A Besquith had disemboweled Bryant, probably the dead one two meters from the medic, riddled with bullet impacts.

Relue lobbed the medkit over the Besquith corpse blocking the ramp. Fortunately, the contents were designed for the battlefield. Jim snatched the bag and knelt next to Priya.

“Everyone use your battlefield first aid training,” Jim called over the comm network. “We don’t know how long it will be before first responders arrive.” Jim mentally added, ‘or the authorities.’ A militia jet had shot down Prime 1, so at least some humans were working for the alien invaders. Whoever sent the jets had probably also pointed them out to the Besquith.

Jim pulled open the tattered combat vest, bracing himself for the worst. Two bleeding gouges ran along Priya’s side, and another deep laceration on her adjacent arm was bleeding freely. Jim pulled out a TNA, trauma nanite applicator, and clicked the dial to 3, the middle setting, to indicate the severity of the wound. He sprayed half the contents on the arm wound, and the remainder on Priya’s side.

Priya hissed, and her eyes fluttered open. “I guess the burning means I’m not dead yet.”

“How are you?” Jim asked, glad she had thrown on a helmet. “Does anything feel broken? Can you feel your extremities?”

“It hurts like heck, but I think nothing is broken.” She flexed her fingers, wincing. “Take care of the flock, shepherd. I’m going to slack off here for a minute.”

Jim’s eyes went to the aerojet. A few people were stirring, mostly those who had charged down the ramp toward the fight before the plane exploded.

“Bettie, any info on first responders?” Jim asked, picking up the medkit. It had three more TNAs. The other rumbler had a medkit, and there should be one on Bryant’s corpse. Jim grabbed a nearby infantryman who appeared to be in shock. “Son, I need you to grab the fire extinguisher from the transport and another soldier and start helping people by the plane.”

The man, whose name patch read Rocha, blinked a couple of times, then his eyes focused on Jim. “Yes, Padre.” He jogged toward the transport.

“First responders have been dispatched from Quesnel and Prince George,” the BTI reported. “ETA for closest is seventeen minutes.”

“Hcuff’t, can you bring the anti-aircraft sensors online?” Jim strode to the closest soldier who wasn’t obviously dead. The woman had a weak pulse and a group of puncture wounds on her chest from Besquith claws. Two of the wounds bubbled blood. Jim dialed the TNA up to 5 and dispersed the entire contents of medical nanites into the wounds.

Movement caught Jim’s eye. A pair of boots sticking out from under a dead Besquith scrabbled for purchase on the pavement. Jim grabbed one of the corpse’s arms and tugged with all his strength. After several seconds, the dead Besquith rolled aside.

“Damn, those things are heavy,” Sergeant Cripe gasped. Blood streamed down his face; one of the Besquith’s fangs had sliced a strip of flesh from the man’s cheek through his beard to his jaw. “They stink, too.”

Jim tried not the notice the strip of meat dangling from the sergeant’s jaw. He grabbed some gauze and bandages from the kit. If they had any nanites left, they could treat the wound, otherwise Cripe would have a wicked scar. “Here, you have a laceration on your face. By the way, you’re top NCO now.”

“The hell I am! I’m retired,” Cripe protested, pushing himself to his feet and taking the field dressing.

“Look around,” Jim said, waving his free hand. “Does it look like you’re retired?”


“Exactly.” Jim found Sergeant Taylor. Her pale face was milk-white. The Besquith had mauled her neck and shoulder down to the bone. Red hair matted in the pool of blood. Jim remembered meeting the woman. Popular media depicted the Valkyries as blonde, but Jim thought the tall sergeant had been the embodiment of the mythical warriors.

Cripe yanked a 75cm blade from the Besquith’s corpse. “Damn, she jammed this halfway to the hilt.” He scraped the alien’s blood off the blade then found the sergeant’s scabbard. “She’ll want this in Valhalla,” he said as he sheathed the blade.

“I hate to say this, but we’ll need to leave the dead and non-ambulatory wounded to the local services.” Jim expected pushback, but Cripe merely nodded. “Save who we can, stabilize them, and get as many people out of here as possible before more aliens show up.”

“We need to salvage however much we can carry,” Sergeant Cripe remarked, glancing toward the debris field that had been Prime 4. “I’ll grab a couple of troopers and see what we can scrounge without getting cooked.”

A blast reverberated as another jet of flame erupted from the wreckage.

* * * * *

Chapter 17

Peepo’s Command Ship, Campinas Starport, Brazil

“Why are those Humans milling around the perimeter?” General Peepo demanded as she prepared to move her command to the office of the Secretary of the General Assembly. While she could more efficiently and safely work from her ship, the symbolism of ensconcing herself in the opulent office of Earth’s top government official was important.

“They are protesting, General,” Captain Zeeri replied. “Approximately 100,000 Humans have encircled the starport.”

“Are they armed?” Peepo scanned the Tri-V displays. There was no evidence of armor, let alone the CASPer-powered armor employed by human mercenaries. “They appear to be civilians.”

“They are civilians,” Zeeri replied. “They may have some crude, thrown projectiles, but most of them prefer to brandish signs.”

“Signs? They think waving placards will stop me?” Peepo chuckled. “Prepare my personal guard; we are going to their headquarters. If any Human appears to be a threat, make an example of it, as well as anyone nearby.”

Minutes later, Peepo’s command sled glided down the ramp of the ship. A compact fusion reactor powered the state-of-the-art vehicle. High-powered duct turbines, similar to those used on fliers, allowed the hovercraft to skim over the pavement. MinSha manned the dual laser turrets, and four Besquith hunched down in the main compartment with Peepo and her aid. A Tri-V displayed a compressed 360-degree view around the vehicle.

Peepo studied the display. The starport resembled an abandoned burrow. What was the human term? Ghost town. It appeared deserted. The rare Humans she saw kept their heads down and steered clear of the aliens. Peepo nodded. Once she quelled the Human mercenaries, the Humans could be molded into a productive labor force, under her paw, of course. The protesters would tire of their antics and realize the easiest path forward was to acquiesce to Peepo’s demands. Or they could be killed. No matter.

A sudden deceleration drew Peepo’s attention to the section of the display showing what was ahead of the command sled. The gate from the starport was closed, and outside it a chain of Humans stretched across the road. A pair of MinSha and a pair of irritated Besquith paced behind the gate.

“What is the hold up?” Peepo demanded over her connection to the driver.

“The Humans refuse to clear the roadway,” the Veetanho driver replied.

“Haven’t you ever overrun infantry?” Peepo chastised. “They won’t hurt the vehicle. Proceed.”

“Yes, General.”

“Do you want us to clear a path?” one of the MinSha gunners asked.

“Only if you see a weapon,” Peepo replied. The Humans in this nation-state had been disarmed by their own government. Peepo watched as the sled glided forward and the compressed air blasting out from under the lift skirt kicked up a cloud of debris. The humans in the road stood their ground even as the wind pummeled them. Peepo goggled at the image, amazed; the Humans thought they could stop a 50-ton armored hover-vehicle with a chain of bodies.

The Humans shrieked as the command sled pressed into their ranks. Most scurried away as soon the first protester lost their footing and fell under the lift skirt. More Humans screamed at the command sled and waved their signs, then one made the fatal mistake of hurling an improvised incendiary at the armored hovercraft.

Both MinSha opened fire with the anti-personnel lasers. What the energy weapons lacked in firing rate they made up for in killing power against unarmored targets at close range. The coherent light pulses burnt paths of destruction several people deep.

Peepo allowed the carnage to continue for 15 seconds, then ordered the gunners to cease fire.

“Why do they get all the fun?” one of the Besquith grumbled.

“Pre-contact Earth entertainment frequently featured aliens who sought to devour Humans,” Peepo stated. “It is counterproductive to play into this stereotype.”

“I might have to find some of this entertainment,” another Besquith remarked with a toothy grin. “Sounds interesting.”

“Remember your orders,” Captain Zeeri cautioned.

“Yes, no eating Humans unless they are mercenaries,” one of the Besquith complained.

* * *

Miguel stared in disbelief. The aliens fired on the protesters with lethal force! This was not how things were done. Water guns, tear gas, sonic cannons, maybe even rubber bullets if the crowd was especially boisterous, but you didn’t use deadly weapons on protesters. It was their right to protest!

Miguel glanced down, his attention drawn by the stench of charred meat. His comrade, Osvaldo, lay crumpled on the pavement. One of the guns had bisected Osvaldo’s spine with a laser, and he folded. Smoke and steam rose from the wound.

Ajuda me,” Osvaldo wheezed. “Cannot feel…my legs.” Around them, the crowd panicked, fleeing the armored vehicle. As Miguel watched, another protester ignited a Molotov cocktail. Before the man could throw it, there was a brilliant flash, and the man’s arm came off at the shoulder, trailing smoke. Behind him, a woman fell, her skull pierced by the same laser.

“Do not worry, comrade. Emergency medical teams will be here soon, I’m sure of it,” Miguel assured Osvaldo. “You will be avenged. I will write a very strongly worded post on Yellit, denouncing and mocking the alien oppressors.”

* * *

Salomé Ruyes shook her head as the young man slipped away. This was not a battle to be won by keyboard warriors and sign wavers. Righteous indignation would not sway the aliens. The aliens understood credits. Staying on Earth had to be too costly for them to remain. That wouldn’t be achieved by the screeching masses.

Salomé remained crouched behind the base of the statue commemorating first contact. Its thick granite base provided solid cover and formed a break the crowd had to part around. She peeked over the base, between the feet of the statues. The MinSha had stopped firing, and the command sled was gliding down the boulevard. They were heading toward the General Assembly building—based on the Veetanho’s transmission, to accept the surrender of the planetary government.

Salomé melted into the retreating crowd. Her mother was waiting for her report. Rebeldes Ruyes were stranded on Earth, unable to join the mercenary exodus. Captain Rosario Ruyes, commander of the Rebeldes and Salomé’s mother, had cursed the mechanics, the Devil, and the Maki laser that had forced them to ground their only transport for repairs. As word of the invasion broke, the Rebeldes went to ground, abandoning their headquarters in the “startown” adjacent to Campinas Starport.

Rumors swirled that the Horsemen would return. Others claimed the Four Horsemen were abandoning Earth to its fate, and that the remaining mercs would be better off taking whatever deal Peepo offered. Salomé’s mother hoped for the former and spat on the latter. It was too soon to tell, but if the Horsemen and the mercenaries returned, they would need all the help they could get dislodging aliens. Humans would have to put down their keyboards and pick up their guns.

* * *

Flashing lights in the display caught Peepo’s attention. Several vehicles raced in their direction with strobing lights mounted atop them. The MinSha noticed as well, and the lead vehicle erupted into flames when a laser pierced the thin metal covering its engine. The vehicles behind it swerved around it. The other turret lanced through a driver compartment. The laser killed the driver instantly, and the vehicle veered into a curb and flipped.

“Stop shooting!” Peepo ordered. She didn’t recognize the vehicles, but she was certain they weren’t military with white and red paint schemes.

“I believe they are civilian medical emergency vehicles,” Zeeri stated. “They are likely responding to the altercation at the starport gate.”

“Don’t shoot anything unless it’s armed or poses a threat,” Peepo reminded the gunners.

“The command ship reports it has lost track of the beacon placed on the mercenary aircraft by the Human turncoat,” Zeeri stated. “There are reports of a destroyed aircraft in the same area, and a local transport hub. It appears the Besquith forced them down and blew them up.”

“Good. One less rogue element to deal with. If I’m not mistaken, that is the operation against Bjorn’s Berserkers.”

Zeeri nodded. “Correct.”

“Excellent. It means the locals will deal with their base and whoever is left there,” Peepo remarked.

The command sled slowed as it approached the planetary government tower, a gleaming structure of glass and steel. The gates of the complex stood open. Guards stared from inside a checkpoint but made no move to impede the armored hovercraft. Not all Humans are idiots, Peepo thought.

A broad granite and marble plaza stretched along the base of the tower, with a decorative, illuminated fountain. Peepo imagined the Humans found the display of light and water impressive. She found it quaint.

A cluster of Humans waited at the top of the steps rising from the street to the plaza. Twenty of the Humans were soldiers. The remaining two appeared to be bureaucrats. Peepo recognized the female as the Secretary of the General Assembly.

“Should we open fire?” one of the MinSha gunners queried.

“No,” Peepo replied, rising from her seat. “I believe they are there for ceremonial purposes.” Peepo could allow the Human leader to save a little face by having an honor guard present. She considered it a reward for making the prudent choice. Also, a little pomp added legitimacy to her taking control of Earth. “If one of those weapons so much as twitches, incinerate the Human holding it.” Ceremony was fine, but Peepo wasn’t stupid.

She beckoned the Besquith to follow. “You four are with me. You also, Zeeri; record the proceedings.”

“Of course, General.” Captain Zeeri fell into step behind Peepo and activated a shoulder cam. Two reconnaissance drones launched and circled overhead, adding their footage.

The Besquith stretched upward once out of the command sled, relieved to be free of the cramped confines of the hovercraft. Despite their hunched posture, Besquith despised confined spaces. Their vehicles were known to other races for their spacious accommodations.

Peepo strode toward the waiting Humans. Her mind raced with possibilities: snipers, booby-traps, or the good old-fashioned have 20 guys raise their guns and shoot the approaching alien. The Humans wouldn’t use any of those tactics, at least not these Humans in this situation. Peepo’s fleet hung in orbit. One of the battleships gleamed in the night sky, visible from the headquarters.

“General Peepo, I am Dr. Camila Torres, Secretary of the General Assembly,” the dark-skinned woman announced. Though her voice didn’t waver, Peepo could smell her fear.

“Dr. Camila Torres, on behalf of the Mercenary Guild, I demand the immediate surrender of Earth’s military forces.” Peepo resisted the urge to smile. Symbolism was important to Humans; this footage would lend legitimacy to Peepo’s rule. “You will immediately cede authority to me and the Mercenary Guild until such time as we determine Humans are able to stand on their own in the civilized galaxy.”

“I don’t see as I have much choice,” the woman said directly into the camera on Zeeri’s shoulder. “On behalf of Earth’s government, I accept your terms, General Peepo.”

“Let us go inside and discuss the minutiae of the new order,” Peepo said. “You can show me to my new office, and we can set about the business of reining in Earth’s rogue mercenary companies.”

“As you say, General. Please follow me,” Dr. Torres turned to one of the guards. “Resume your duty stations and ensure all personnel understand not to interfere with General Peepo’s troops. More specific instructions will come once we work out the details of how things will work going forward.”

“Yes, Madam Secretary,” the lieutenant replied with a gulp, trying to ignore the Besquith.

“Captain Zeeri, have the ship dispatch another squad of guards to secure this building’s entrance,” Peepo ordered. She turned to the Besquith. “You two, remain here, and the other two come with me.”

One of the Besquith ordered to remain on guard smiled at the soldiers. Peepo thought she smelled urine as she entered the building.

* * *

Decommissioned Mine, Olaf Mining, Alaska

“What is our situation?” Lieutenant Gyatso Enkh asked as he returned to the command center. Old-fashion flat panel displays mixed with Tri-V projections along three walls of the ten-meter-square chamber. Gyatso tried not to think of the hundreds of meters of rock over his head.

“Prime 2 and Prime 3 from the Berserkers are ninety minutes out from Ruby Creek Airfield,” Sergeant Ayna Enkh reported. Ayna gestured toward the large Tri-V display showing the flight paths of the remaining Berserker aircraft.

Gyatso sank into the chair next to the sergeant. “Do we have any more info regarding Prime 4?”

“I have satellite feed if you want to see it,” Corporal Kosta Cvetkov called from behind a console. Gyatso had almost forgotten the Bulgarian was there. One of the large displays on the wall zoomed in on western Canada until the image resolved to show a rural airport. “Here, take a look. You can see the wreckage still burning. Emergency crews from the closest municipality are on scene or en route. Lots of open space, not so much infrastructure—reminds me of home. It appears they managed to bring down a Besquith Vargr-class assault shuttle.” A blot of smoldering wreckage was highlighted in the image.

“They brought down an assault shuttle with an atmospheric transport?” Lieutenant Enkh asked. He glanced at Ayna for confirmation.

“We believe they were transporting an anti-aircraft vehicle and managed to deploy it on the tarmac,” Ayna replied. “Based on the radio chatter from the first responders, the Besquith deployed troops, and the Berserker infantry engaged them.”

Gyatso winced. Bjorn’s Berserkers utilized mixed forces, combining armor, augmented infantry, and regular infantry. CASPer troopers did not engage Besquith lightly, and Besquith against unaugmented infantry would have been a slaughterhouse. “Are there any survivors? Where are the Besquith?”

“The bunker’s BTI is in communication with the BTI with the surviving Berserkers,” Kosta interjected. “Boyka is using a matrix of Aethernet nodes—mostly chatrooms and Yellit boards—to exchange information with the iteration of the BTI with the flight and the BTI remaining at Berserker headquarters.”

“Am I the only one troubled by the fact that Kosta has named the local iteration of the Battlefield Tactical Intelligence?” Ayna asked.

“I am more concerned they are having a cyberspace conference without direction from users,” Gyatso remarked.

“Boyka is derived from my mother tongue’s word for battle,” Kosta said. “Boyka reports there are twenty-three survivors from Prime 4, out of eighty-seven personnel. The officer-in-command is the Berserkers’ chaplain, Lieutenant James Hawkins.”

“The chaplain is in charge?” Gyatso asked incredulously. He was amazed there were any survivors, let alone twenty-three. He reminded himself the Berserkers had lost 172 people in the last few hours.

“Since when do mercenary companies have chaplains?” Ayna asked.

“I don’t know,” Kosta replied.

“Can we speak to him?” Gyatso asked. Kosta was the technical expert, and it was crucial they not give away their own location nor that of the survivors.

“I’ll check. I’m sure we could exchange text-based messages via the two BTI nodes,” Kosta replied. “Live streaming communication could present a security risk.”

“Keep me appraised. I’m not sure what we can do for them at this distance. If we can aid them, we will,” Gyatso said. He turned to Ayna. “Are we ready for the arrival of Prime 2 and Prime 3?”

“We have a couple of old church buses standing by,” Ayna responded. One of the monitors displayed a map highlighting the airfield and the route to the bunker. “It will take two trips to move everyone. After the planes are emptied, they will be moved to a nearby field and camouflaged.”

“I don’t suppose there are any CASPer operators among the refugees?” Lieutenant Enkh asked. “There are a company’s worth of CASPers mothballed here, along with 32 armored rumblers and enough infantry gear for two companies.”

“Based on the roster Boyka is showing me, it’s infantry and support personnel,” Kosta replied. “My guess is Commander Tovesson took the CASPer operators with him.”

“It makes sense,” Gyatso admitted. “Unfortunately, we have a bunch of CASPers and nowhere near enough people to man them.”

“The purpose of this facility is a secret redoubt,” Ayna remarked. “If the aliens find us here, I doubt those CASPers will make a difference.”

“It would be nice to have options,” Gyatso countered. “If we are going to die, I want to take as many of them with me as possible.”

“Be careful,” Ayna said. “You’re starting to sound like a Berserker.”

* * * * *

Chapter 18

EMS Onikuma, Hyperspace

Whim hated waking up in micro-gravity. There was a split-second panic he was falling until his mind caught up. This time wasn’t so bad; Isabella’s naked form with him in the sleeping bag helped ground him.

She stirred against him, reminding him they joined the Hyperspace Club several hours ago. Fiction romanticized sex in micro-gravity. The truth was far more awkward and had resulted in one bulkhead collision that had left Whim seeing stars. He suspected it wasn’t Isabella’s first time in space, but neither of them mentioned it.

“What time is it?” she murmured against his chest. Isabella had arranged the ersatz cabin. Whim wasn’t sure how she had bribed the quartermaster, as privacy on a spaceship was at a premium. They were in a cramped, unused utility room next to one of the ship’s cooling plants. Heat was an issue for ships in hyperspace, since it didn’t bleed off efficiently, so the room was always warm. A fan helped, but only so much.

“0400,” he replied after checking his pinplant. “Sorry if I woke you.”

Esta bien. We’d have to get up in an hour anyways.”

“I can think of a way to spend the hour,” Whim suggested.

“Oh really?” Isabella glided up until she could whisper in his ear. “I wonder how?”

* * *

Chuck was already in the mess hall when they floated in. He perched at a table, his feet hooked under a bar to keep himself anchored. Wilhelm and Isabella passed through the chow line and collected the pouches for their breakfast. Unlike Bear Town, you couldn’t order an omelet or Belgian waffles. In space, you ate whatever they handed you.

“You decided to emerge from your sex den, I see,” Chuck remarked. Despite the levity in his voice, Whim could hear the bitter undertone.

“They have to make us spend eight hours doing something, or we’re not earning our pay,” Whim said. He knew he would be performing the same checks on his CASPer as the last two days. “Besides, we have to come out for food.”

“Hey kids.” TJ snagged the table and pulled himself into a seat. He sniffed the air. “Izzy, do you have a new perfume?”

“It’s called Sweaty Sex,” Chuck quipped. Isabella hid her smile behind her hand.

“That reminds me—can you believe Corporal Meer shot me down?” TJ said in disbelief.

“Who is she?” Wilhelm asked, grateful to steer the conversation away from himself and Isabella.

“The hot little blonde helm officer,” TJ replied. “She’s an NCO, so she only shares her cabin with one person. Did I mention she’s hot?”

“I thought you were seeing Zomorra?” Wilhelm asked. “Or do you want Whisky to shove you out an airlock?”

“I am—sort of—but between being on a ship with no privacy and her being engrossed in some project, we haven’t hooked up,” TJ replied. “Maybe if I had a private cabin, but she doesn’t seem interested in sneaking off to one of the rumblers to join the Hyperspace Club.”

“It’s a wonder she won’t sleep with you,” Isabella muttered. Wilhelm fought not to spit his coffee back up the straw.

“I know, right?” TJ ripped open a plastic pouch. “Cool, French toast sticks.”

Wilhelm’s own breakfast was a bland mix of eggs and vegetables labeled “California Omelet.” “What happened to eating healthy?”

“It’s almost impossible in space,” TJ replied, fishing out one of the sticks. “I’ll eat this junk—even as crappy as it is, it’s still a treat to me—and I’ll go back on my diet when we get back to Earth.”

“You really think we’re going back to Earth?” Isabella asked. She scooped out something resembling corned beef hash.

TJ shrugged. “Once the job is done, why not? Do you think they’ll abandon Bear Town? The Berserkers have been there for decades.”

“We were loading up a lot more gear than was needed for a mission,” Chuck remarked between gnawing on what resembled a waffle. “I think we’re relocating to Vishall and something pushed up the timetable.”

* * *

“Thank you, Sergeant,” Captain Boggs said as she caught the pouch. “Any more luck parsing the data you received from your hacker buddy?”

“Bettie is helping me sift through it,” Gina replied, crossing her legs in a lotus position to float opposite Boggs. “Scuzz didn’t do a targeted grab; his software scraped whatever data it could wrap its code around and pilfered it. This mercenary company hired a bunch of manufacturing laborers and construction workers, so there’s a bunch of personnel files of little interest. According to the loading orders, they have at least three companies of CASPers and enough munitions for a protracted mission.”

“Sounds as though they are relocating, same as us,” Boggs replied, sniffing the sausage biscuit. The gravy was a paste to keep it from drifting off in globules. She bit into the breakfast sandwich. It was inoffensively bland. “What about the CASPer code?”

“Bettie and I are isolating the actuation routines to see if they can be adapted for our own OS,” Gina said. “We have to be careful to make sure we don’t end up with any of the sabotaged code.”

“Do you know what activates it?” The captain sipped coffee from a refillable bulb. One of the perks of rank, she had her own coffee machine. “Why don’t suits shut down during training? Word should have gotten out.”

“There are multiple activation flags,” Gina reported. Her slate floated next to her, scrolling code. “I suspect each one triggers a different event to keep it from being stopped. We know the first one crimped the fuel lines. It’s the shutdown event discovered by the Golden Horde. While we’re working on finding the other triggers and their consequences, the best bet for any compromised suit is to scrub the new OS and reload an older one.”

“Keep working on it,” Captain Boggs said. “We’ll need any edge we can get. We have five and a half days before emergence.”

* * *

Barkerville Airport, British Columbia, Earth

“Set us down halfway along the landing strip,” Lieutenant Sabher ordered. Peepo had instructed him to investigate the disappearance of two octals of Besquith and their troop shuttle. As his craft descended, panic broke out among the Humans laboring around the wreckage of a large aircraft. They pointed and scurried for the closest cover. He suppressed his predator instinct to chase fleeing prey.

Sabher gazed through the front canopy of the lander. He could see the corpses of the Besquith troops sprawled on the blood-soaked concrete. Some had been cut down by heavy weapons fire, while others were covered in small wounds.

A loud ping resounded against the hull of the craft. When it went unanswered, a ragged volley of small impacts peppered the craft. A bullet glanced off the armored acrylate of the canopy.

“It appears the Humans are firing low-powered projectiles at us,” the pilot reported. “Shall we return fire or send the troopers out to teach the meat a lesson?”

“Neither.” Peepo had been adamant regarding the Humans—only kill them if necessary. The incident at the Campinas Starport had spread like wild fire across Earth’s media networks. It undermined Peepo’s script of ruling as a benign caretaker. Sabher had been selected for this mission because of his restraint. Sabher ignored the grumbles of disappointment from the compartment behind him. “I cannot question corpses.”

The gunfire continued to pelt the lander for several minutes before dying off. Sabher predicted the Humans had expended most of their ammunition—these were not mercenaries, or even militia.

“Activate the external speakers,” Sabher ordered. When the pilot nodded, Sabher keyed his microphone. “Cease firing upon this craft by order of General Peepo. If you do not comply, we are authorized to use force.”

Sabher’s proclamation went out in the three languages dominant in that quadrant of the planet. The small arms fire ceased entirely, and after a few minutes a single human emerged from one of the buildings. It wore a black and tan uniform and a holstered sidearm, and it strode slowly toward the lander.

“Is it a mercenary?” the pilot asked.

Sabher glanced over his shoulder. Meeko, the Veetanho operational attaché, squinted at a slate. Sabher detested the tubby rodent and wished he could let his troops feast on it, but it was useful.

“The male Human’s uniform marks it as a local law enforcement officer,” Meeko replied. “It may prove a useful source of information if you can keep your soldiers from eating it.”

Sabher bit back a reply. While he was less blood-thirsty than many of his kind, he was tempted to let one of his troops bite the fat rodent’s head off. He pushed past his troops to the side hatch. The scout sled in the compartment cramped the Besquith octal.

Sabher pointed to the two closest troops. “You two follow me out but remain by the hatch. Do not engage unless I say so, or I’m rendered unable to give orders.”

The two Besquith nodded. Sabher thumbed the hatch releases. Cold air flooded the compartment with the stench of charred flesh, congealed blood, and burnt metal.

Sabher stepped out of the lander and surveyed the carnage. He paced across the concrete toward the approaching peace officer. The Human hesitated slightly when the Besquith emerged but continued once it was obvious the other two were staying by the craft.

The Human halted three meters away. Reflective lenses concealed its eyes. “I’m deputy sheriff Robert Fedder, of the British Columbia Sheriff Service. If you’re not here to kill us, what do you want?”

“I am Lieutenant Sabher.” Sabher sniffed the air. Even over the burning charnel house smell of the battleground, he could catch a whiff of fear, but the Human hid it from its voice. “I was sent to find out what happened to our soldiers and track down the mercenaries responsible. If your people cooperate, there is no need for…unpleasantness.”

“I’m not sure how much help we can be,” Deputy Fedder replied. “One of your shuttles chased down that cargo transport. A couple of big military trucks rolled out the back of the plane. The shuttle blasted the plane, and one of the trucks shot down the shuttle.

“The shuttle had dropped off a bunch of wolves like you, and they fought the Human mercs.” Fedder added, glancing toward the blackened airframe. “There weren’t many survivors.”

Sabher looked around. “Where are the surviving Besquith?”

“All of the Besquith died.” Fedder licked his lips nervously. “I meant there weren’t many Human survivors. The surviving mercs crammed into the two trucks and booked out of here. They probably figured someone like you would show up.”

A less restrained Besquith would have disemboweled Deputy Fedder for insinuating the Humans could have wiped out two octals of Besquith troopers. Sabher scanned the battlefield. The Besquith had deployed from the same area where his own craft rested. They charged the two trucks, as the Human called them. The armored fighting vehicles had high-caliber guns, or the magnetic accelerator cannons the humans also employed on the CASPers. As the Besquith troopers charged, the Human infantry would have fired from cover of the vehicles.

“The mercenaries had no powered armor?” Sabher glanced at the deputy.

“No.” The man tried to follow Sabher’s gaze over the battlefield. “At least, none were reported, and those suits are too big to get into the trucks.”

Sabher flared his nostrils. Half the Besquith had died before they made it to the Humans. Even worse, the others had died face-to-face with unaugmented Human infantry. Sabher studied the charred tail of the aircraft. There were no gun emplacements, but there was a point-defense anti-missile laser.

“You said one of the vehicles shot down the lander?” Sabher asked.

“One of the trucks had a laser and missiles,” Deputy Fedder recounted.

An anti-aircraft vehicle. If the Humans had been quicker, Sabher thought, they could have brought down the lander before it disembarked its troops.

“You say two vehicles of mercenaries killed the Besquith,” Sabher said. “The plane could have held many more troops.”

“From what we’ve pieced together, other than the two trucks, most of the passengers were civilians and support staff,” Deputy Sheriff Robert Fedder stated. Despite the chill, Sabher could smell the man sweating in apprehension. “A few opened fire from the plane, but the landing craft blew the shit out of it. We have footage from a couple of cameras. I didn’t arrive until thirty minutes after the battle, but at that time, both trucks were still here.”

Sabher nodded. The mercenaries had crammed the battle-ready into the armored vehicles and fled, leaving the locals to deal with the wounded or dead. They were not a credible threat to the Mercenary Guild, but Sabher wondered why they had fled so far from their base. What was north, besides more accursed snow?

The Veetanho logistics attaché waddled toward Sabher. “The mercenary unit is Bjorn’s Berserkers,” Meeko wheezed, uncomfortable in the chill climate.

“Is that supposed to mean something to me?” Sabher snapped. The Human sidled away.

“Although the unit is based in New Mexico, not far from Houston, the commander is from Alaska, which is north of here.” Meeko held up his slate, displaying a map. “More importantly, Commander Tovesson’s sire, the previous commander of the outfit, still resides in Alaska.”

“We don’t have to chase them.” Sabher smiled, prompting the deputy to take another step. “We will intercept them. Find out where the former commander dwells and calculate the fugitive mercenaries’ route and best speed.”

* * *

EMS Ursa Major, Hyperspace

“I want us on combat footing two hours before emergence,” Bjorn stated. “I don’t want to get nailed at the emergence point. How long is a one-G burn and flip to Patoka from emergence?”

“A few minutes shy of 7 hours, give or take based on orbital insertion,” Captain Wildman replied without consulting his slate. “Gravity is point nine eight Gs.”

“Why does Vishall take longer?” Bjorn asked. “It’s only point nine five Gs.”

“The huge moon adds mass to the system,” Wildman explained. “Technically, Vishall is a binary planetary system as the two bodies orbit a point above Vishall’s surface.”

“Is the moon tidal locked?” Major Hawkins asked.

“Sure. I’m surprised Vishall isn’t locked as well, but I’m not an astrophysicist,” Wildman replied. He took a draw from his coffee bulb. So far so good, Bjorn thought. As far as he knew, Wildman hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol since his promotion.

“We should put an observation post on the moon, Vishank,” the major said. “It will always be facing away from the planet and would let us spot anyone trying to use the moon as cover.”

“Good idea.” Bjorn squeezed some coffee out of his bulb. He’d hardly had any alcohol since they left Vishall. He gestured to the Tri-V display. “We emerge from hyperspace, then deal with or evade the high guard, which according to the contract shouldn’t exist.”

“If these guys keep fighting over this outpost, why wouldn’t they hire a high guard?” Major Hawkins mused. “I know good naval mercs aren’t cheap, but the best way to stop an invasion is to keep them from even reaching the planet.”

“Space hardware is expensive, and I think most races would rather slug it out on the ground,” Bjorn countered. “Still, it would make sense for the Zuul to post some cutters at the emergence point—and we’re assuming this contract is legit.”

“If you think the contract is bogus, doesn’t it mean we’re likely to not get paid?” Wildman asked, tapping on his tactical slate. The Tri-V shifted in response, showing the flight path to the target world.

“The credits are held in escrow with the Banking Guild,” Bjorn replied. “As long as we fulfill the conditions of the contract and take the base without blowing it up, we get paid.”

“It seems straightforward,” Hawkins said, peering at the hologram of the world. “Drop outside their fire envelope, scour the defenders off the wall, and crack the perimeter at one of the gates. I don’t like it.”

“I guess we’ll see how the Aegis Casanovas work out,” Bjorn remarked. The Tri-V zoomed in on the planet’s surface until the target base and its environs were visible. “We send half of them, half the CASPers, and all of the infantry at the base.”

“What are the rest of our forces doing?” the major asked, ticking off the committed forces of the TOE for the operation.

“They’re waiting for whatever surprise someone is going to spring on us,” Bjorn replied. “By Odin’s Eye, this is not going to be another Moloq.”

“You think the Aegis systems will pan out?” Hawkins asked as he watched the icons populate the holographic battlefield.

“They damned well better,” Bjorn answered. “I’d hate to think the Masheen were sitting on that depot for nothing.”

“I calculate there is an eighty-seven percent chance of the systems functioning as projected under live combat conditions,” Bettie announced over a speaker. “While the technology is too large to mount on CASPers, a vehicle-sized platform should suffice.”

“I hear a lot of conditions in those statements,” Hawkins remarked.

“Have faith, Bill.” Bjorn reached into the hologram and zoomed in on the lead elements. “CASPers may be the king of the battlefield, but you still need your rooks and bishops.”

* * *

New Aztlán, Patoka

Aldo woke up with a start. A combination of vino and tequila left him groggy and dehydrated. When it first happened, he swore it wouldn’t happen again. He glanced at the form next to him in the bed. Asleep, Elena appeared angelic, with her raven tresses splayed out and a hint of a smile on her lips.

How would Rodrigo react when he eventually found out? Aldo didn’t want to alienate his oldest friend. Putting his peril aside, he glanced down at the supine woman in the bed with him. If the previous days were an indicator, once she left the bed, it would be back to business as usual, with her poking holes in any cautioning argument Aldo put forward.

“Are you going to stare at me or are you going to convince me we have time for one more round?” Elena murmured. “Because after 0800, we have a staff meeting.”

* * *

Rodrigo glanced up as they entered the conference room. Aldo tried to time his arrival so he and Elena would not arrive at the same time. Either she was purposefully flaunting their dalliance to see if her brother would notice, or it was bad timing. Aldo suspected the former.

Rodrigo grinned as they took their seats. Surely, he couldn’t be pleased with Aldo sleeping with his little sister, even if she was a borderline sociopathic killer.

“Now that everyone is here, we have a few matters to discuss,” Rodrigo said, winking toward Elena and Aldo. Rodrigo was rarely in a good mood, let alone jovial. “A courier arrived with time-sensitive intelligence. This will mean splitting up certain members of our team.” He gave a meaningful glance to Aldo and Elena. “The Berserkers have moved several of their assets to Vishall. In fact, it appears they are attempting to relocate from Earth in hopes the H’rang’s status as members of the Galactic Union will protect the world.

“They are wrong.” Rodrigo delivered the last words forcefully. “There is a Besquith mercenary company en route to Vishall. I want our own troops to participate in the assault.” Rodrigo turned to Elena. “Specifically, I want you to go in and bring me Bjorn’s woman. Alive if possible, but dead works, too.”

“The little Brazilian bitch?” Elena asked with a chilling smile. “It will be my pleasure, brother. Do we have a picture of her?”

Rodrigo nodded. An image popped up from the Tri-V, showing a short, curvy woman cuddled up against the hulking Commander Tovesson. Based on the uniforms in the background, the picture was taken at the Berserker’s base.

“Do we know what the Berserkers have at Vishall?” Aldo inquired, checking his tactical slate. He pulled up the GalNet entry on Vishall.

“Our informant knows there was one company left behind on Earth,” Rodrigo stated. “Most of the company departed in a hurry, and our mole is among them. The informant is embedded within this company, but at the time of transmission they did not know if the company was destined for Vishall, here, or somewhere else.”

“Did the spy at least relay the composition of the company?” Aldo asked. If the insider was the same operative as employed in other takedowns, the information would be reliable. The Espejo had used the informant to coordinate the elimination of three smaller firms.

“Yes. It’s Kodiak Company. Typical for the Berserkers, it’s a mixed composition of augmented infantry, armor, and standard infantry. They left the infantry behind.” Rodrigo chuckled. “According to the contract, the Berserkers are to employ at least three companies against the target, and would probably need four, so they would not have left more than a company behind. If they had any sense, they would have left all their infantry on Vishall.

“Best guess is there is a garrison at Vishall composed of the merc outfit who took over for the Berserkers about a year ago,” Rodrigo continued. “Those poor bastards would have been safe for a while if the Berserkers hadn’t gone back. Peepo would have given the garrison a chance to make the smart choice.”

“Sucks to be them,” Elena remarked. “I assume we can eliminate the garrison mercs along with the Berserkers?”

“Yes. To be honest, I doubt you could get the Besquith to exercise restraint,” Rodrigo replied. “Try to keep them from wrecking the manufacturing district, but I won’t lose sleep if they slip off their leash a little.”

Aldo studied the map of the single land mass. “The landing zones are going to be the beach or the starport. The starport is the better choice if there are enough clear pads, but our forces would be bottle-necked coming out of it. The beach means landing in shallow water, but it gives unfettered access to the richest part of the city.”

“Why not simply land in these fields on the plateau, between the peaks?” Elena demanded. “We’d be behind any defenses and could roll down into the city.”

“Based on this data, the soil is too soft for larger transports,” Aldo countered. He knew Elena would eventually read the briefing on the planet, but the instinct to show her up persisted. “They could sink all the way to their thrust nozzles, stranding them. Also, these three peaks would be ideal for weapon emplacements. Something the size of a dropship on the ground would be target practice.”

Elena glared at Aldo, then shrugged. “Let the Besquith land first on the beach. I will take a platoon and perform a ballistic drop into the midland and hunt the Berserker base. The remaining CASPers can seize the starport then work their way into the city.” She highlighted a path through the city up toward the plateau. “If I need reinforcements, they come up to the midland. If not, they can engage any defenders fighting the Besquith.”

“Hopefully the Besquith can remember friend from foe,” Aldo remarked with genuine concern. He had never been concerned for Elena’s welfare before. There were times he had wished she wouldn’t come back from operations, and it brought a flush of guilt. “We wouldn’t want them to eat our troops, and all humans may look alike to them.”

“All of our forces will be in Mk 8 CASPers,” Rodrigo pointed out. “The Besquith may be vicious, but they are not stupid. If they engage our soldiers, not only do they risk the obvious reprisal, they will be steeply fined on their contract, and we will be recompensed.”

“Do we have a squad of malcontents to dangle as bait?” Elena asked with a wicked smile. Aldo was suddenly reminded why he hated her over the years—she had a callous disregard for human life, including their own troops.

“If any soldiers were such failures, I would fire them rather than betray them,” Rodrigo stated flatly. “Besides, it would be a waste of equipment.” He turned to Elena. “Matador Company needs to lift within twelve hours.” To Aldo, he added, “It doesn’t give you much time, my friend.”

“I assumed I would remain here,” Aldo stammered. A great deal of work remained, and Aldo wanted to temper any of Rodrigo’s rash impulses in the coming battle with the Berserkers.

Rodrigo chuckled. “Correct. Now go help my sister with ‘logistics.’ It will be your last chance for at least three weeks.”

* * * * *

Chapter 19

Bear Plex, Vishall

Talita stepped out onto the balcony to soak up the morning sun. She had an excellent view of the new Berserkers’ headquarters taking shape. The Mead Hall would be more of a tower, with longship figureheads at the four corners as opposed to forming rows of buttresses along the sprawling structure in the New Mexico desert. Beyond the Mead Hall, the barracks tower was near completion. Troops from Ursus Company had moved into the lower floors, willing to exchange temporary tent shelters for solid buildings with some unfinished amenities and missing cosmetic touches.

The commander’s home was one of the first ones finished, and any decorative touches to be completed were at her own discretion. Talita was surprised Bjorn had given her carte blanche to decorate most of the home, given his somber living space on Earth. The only exception was Bjorn’s man-cave in the new home—it was to be left untouched. For the moment, it contained boxes of heirlooms and mementos. Talita suspected he would decorate the room with steel weapons and dead animals.

A chime announced a visitor at the door. “Vira, who is at the door?” Talita asked the virtual assistant. The VA was a simple version of the battlefield tactical assistant, designed to handle mundane tasks. An image appeared in the glass of the balcony door, showing the captain of Ursus Company.

“Captain Emelie Swinford,” Vira announced. The virtual assistant’s voice was higher and slightly accented compared to Bettie. Talita suspected Gizmo had used Talita’s voice in the speech compiling samples, as the accent contained a hint of Brazilian lilt. “Shall I admit her?”

“Please.” Talita closed the balcony door and padded down the wide stairs to the entry level. Most buildings on Vishall were built vertically to reduce their footprint, as land area was at a premium. Their 300-square-meter house rose five levels. If nothing else, all the stairs would keep her in shape, even if she might regret it in a few months. “Start a pot of coffee as well.” While Talita wasn’t a fan of coffee, she knew Swinford, as many mercs, drank a great deal of it.

“Very well.” Vira had a range of generic responses to denote acknowledgement of commands. Talita thought some of them sounded stilted, but supposed it was better than parroting back the command. She had caught herself starting a conversation with Vira once already in the time since Bjorn departed for Patoka.

In some ways, Talita would have preferred a cozy bungalow to the spacious home. Part of the size came from rooms set aside for future members of the family. Bjorn referred to them as guest rooms, but Talita knew their intended purpose. The thought brought a smile and her hand slid to her abdomen even though she wouldn’t show for a while.

Captain Emelie Swinford waited in the foyer. Ursus Company was left behind to help guard Vishall. While Talita was comforted by their presence, she worried Bjorn was going into the field under-manned for her sake.

Bom dia, Captain Swinford,” Talita said cheerily. Talita knew Swinford had been saddled with the logistics headache of setting up the new Berserkers’ base. “What can I do for you?”

“Good morning, Mrs. Tovesson.” Captain Swinford stepped from the foyer. As usual, her uniform was immaculate, despite the heat and humidity. “I’m checking in. I wanted to make sure you have everything you need.”

“Technically, I am not Mrs. Tovesson yet,” Talita said, the smile remaining. In a few weeks, Bjorn would be back, and they would settle on the official date. They both preferred sooner rather than waiting, and that was before the latest development. “Talita is fine. Would you care for some coffee?”

Captain Swinford’s eyes lit up at the suggestion. “Yes, please.” Many of the mercs found the local klaff tea a poor substitute to the expensive imported coffee. While coffee could be grown on Vishall, space constraints and intensive labor made the local option cheaper than imported. One H’rang plantation owner set aside 4 hectares for the crop, but it would be at least three years before the plants became productive.

Talita gestured for the woman to follow her into the kitchen. Bjorn had obviously instructed the captain to keep tabs on Talita in case she needed anything. It was good to be the commander’s fiancée. Now that she was on her own world, Talita could return the favor. “Is there anything you need, Captain Swinford?”

“Call me Em, please,” the captain replied. “I need more hands, especially ones good at general contractor tasks. We have a skeleton of a base, and while I can give my troops to-do lists, it doesn’t mean they are any good at it.”

“I’ve lived here for twenty years, since I was a child. If you need more workers, I can help you find them.” She placed a cup in the beverage station. While Talita preferred cooking herself, she’d allow for conveniences such as having coffee or klaff on demand. “Put together a list of what you need, and we can go into town. I will introduce you to some people. We can have workers up here this afternoon—tomorrow morning at the latest.”

“You know that many people?” the captain asked, surprised. Em had probably dismissed Talita as a waitress who got lucky and landed a merc husband.

Talita set the full coffee cup on the counter in front of Captain Swinford. “My entire family immigrated here when I was five. Over fifteen hundred people from our town came to Vishall. New environmental laws on Earth put the local farms out of business, and with the farms went the processing center and trucking jobs. They gave up the renda garantido—what they call gigi in English—to come here and work for a living.”

“I’ve already put together a list.” Swinford cradled the coffee cup and took a deep whiff before sipping it. “How do we pay them?”

“Section 5, under civilian contractors,” Talita replied. “As the officer in command of a base, you have the latitude to hire civilian contractors to complete work your troops cannot perform due to skillsets or time constraints. I have a cousin who was the foreman on several of the H’rang manors along First Promenade. I think he can handle a merc base—especially if I ask him pretty please.”

“I’d appreciate it,” Emelie replied before savoring another sip of coffee. “It would be a huge help.”

“To be honest, I would like to feel useful,” Talita remarked. “This manor is lovely, but I’m bored. I finished unpacking, and even with everything we own, this place feels empty.”

Swinford peered around the open first level of the home. The white walls were devoid of decoration. “I’m sure the locals wouldn’t mind you dropping some mercenary credits. We can take a utility vehicle with a cargo bed when we go to town.”

Beleza! I know where there’s a great churrascaria we can go to for lunch.”

* * *

Vishall Plex, Vishall

Colonel Greg Harter gazed over the beach. A mix of H’rang and Humans frolicked in the surf or sun-bathed on the sand. Marring the view was a pair of squat concrete fortifications. The soft soil of the plateau made a poor landing zone for heavy craft. The sand was much firmer, making it the prime candidate for an invading force’s LZ.

The H’rang had built the two emplacements after an invasion a year ago. Harter’s Paladins manned the defensive positions as part of their garrison contract. Each emplacement held four MACs, two point-defense guns, and an anti-vehicle laser. Colonel Harter pretended not to notice the troops he assigned to man the emplacements spent their shift ogling sun-bathers.

The Paladins barely had the forces required to qualify for the contract. He had acquired two platoon’s worth of Mk 6 CASPers at a bankruptcy sale, doubling the number of augmented troops he could field, and hired on a company’s worth of infantry troopers. It had stretched his funds thinner than a Pendal, but once this contract paid off, the company would double its investment.

“Sergeant Bodding, you could at least pretend not to be staring,” Colonel Harter chided, shaking his head. “Put away the binoculars.”

“Colonel, they’re twins!” Ken Bodding protested.

“You can go on the hunt after your duty shift,” Harter said. “Assuming I don’t decide you need to conduct a full barracks inspection.”

The binoculars disappeared. “Yes, Colonel.”

The previous garrison’s commander had warned Harter that duty here could soften his troops. Roughly 200,000 humans lived on Vishall, and, unlike many places on Earth, they appreciated mercenary credits. The food was decent, the beer cold, and the locals welcoming. It made for an easy assignment. The Berserkers had thought the same thing until the Xiq’tal charged from the surf.

Harter had mixed feelings regarding the Berserkers’ return. If a mercenary firm fielding twice as many troops as the Paladins was moving its base here, what was the point of the Paladins? Tovesson had assured Colonel Harter the Berserkers weren’t there to undermine his contract. He had chosen to move the Berserkers’ headquarters for tactical and logistical reasons. The 50% tax on all mercenary income imposed by Earth’s government was certainly a logistical incentive to leave.

Tovesson told Harter that if he was smart, he’d find a base somewhere besides Earth. The Paladins had a few warehouses, a converted hotel, and a small office building manned by a couple dozen employees on Earth. Every scrap of hardware and ordnance had been brought to Vishall. After Tovesson’s most recent visit, Colonel Harter considered shutting down their facility outside Houston. Bjorn seemed certain the aliens were up to something and targeting human merc units. The Berserkers dropped off a company on Vishall and continued with the rest of their forces to their next contract.

“Blackhawk to Ops, anything to report?” Harter called over the comms.

“That’s a negative, Blackhawk,” Lieutenant Brad Clifford, Harter’s aide, replied. “Lunch?”

Colonel Harter swept his eyes over the idyllic beach view on more time. He couldn’t shake the feeling this was too easy. “Yeah, meet me for lunch. There’s a churrascaria I want to try. I’ll send you the location.”

* * *

New Aztlán, Patoka

Escuzio trudged through the snow. The base didn’t hire civilians to clear the sidewalks, so it fell to the troopers on punishment detail. This meant the sidewalks at the core of the base were cleared, but civilian blocks were left to their own devices.

The overhead camouflage netting did little to impede the snowfall, and it obscured the sun, making it a few degrees cooler than it would have been otherwise. Any snow accumulating on the netting slipped through, falling in fat chunks. Some people resorted to umbrellas to protect against the pelting globs of snow.

The local carniceria served hot food, even if most of the meat was goat. While it was most cost effective for groups pooling their funds, Escuzio was hungry and had funds to spare. He could have gone to the mess for free, but he wasn’t interest in merc rations or the gunk they called CASPer stew. He had spent the last couple days subsisting on protein bars and espresso while crunching data to make sure the CASPers coming out of the manufactories would perform as specified. The first test had been a disaster—the prototype locked up after firing its weapons the second time. A search through the code revealed two instances of the trigger timer—including one with a taunt in the comments—as well as a trigger based on IFF.

Fortunately, the second prototype performed as promised two hours ago. Escuzio literally held his breath when the CASPer started firing its weapons. Commander Sanchez had been furious with the first failure. His icy silence when the test CASPer shutdown frightened Escuzio more than any outburst. When those stone-cold eyes fell on Escuzio, he felt like a mouse being watched by a snake.

When the second test run passed the fail point of the first, and the CASPer continued through its exercises, Escuzio had slumped in relief. He didn’t know what Commander Sanchez would have done if the second test had been another failure, and he didn’t want to find out.

“Mind if I join you?”

Escuzio glanced up in surprise. Hana Chung, a technical corporal watched him, holding a tray of food. Escuzio peeked over his shoulder in case she was addressing someone behind him.

“Yes, I meant you,” the Korean woman added with a laugh. “If you prefer to eat alone…”

Escuzio recovered from his surprise. He had noticed the woman over the last several days while prepping for the tests. He didn’t have time to socialize, especially after the failed first test, so he hadn’t even contemplated working up the nerve to talk to her.

Escuzio gestured to an empty chair. He tried to remember the last time he’d showered. Hopefully the aroma of cooking meat and spices would drown out any lingering odor. “Por favor, have a seat.”

Gracias.” She slid into the chair across the table. “Do you prefer to speak Spanish or English?”

“I can speak both, along with a smattering of Zuul and elSha—though with the elSha it’s mostly reading. I have trouble with the clicks and chirps,” Escuzio said. “I’m Escuzio Diaz, by the way.”

“I know,” Hana replied with a smile. “I’m Hana Chung, as you westerners would say it. I think your English is better than my Spanish.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, how did you end up in El Espejo Obscuro?” Escuzio inquired between bites. “Non-Latinx are as uncommon as aliens around here.”

“My family originated from North Korea. Following the collapse of the People’s Republic and Reunification, several North Korean families formed enclaves in other countries. My family spent some time in the Philippines before moving to Australia as part of the Outback Reclamation Project.” She loaded meat and vegetables into a tortilla while she spoke and paused to take a bite. “I didn’t want to be a farmer, or more accurately, an agricultural laborer, so I joined the Mercenary Service Track in school. I scored well enough on my VOWS, combined with trade school work, to qualify to work on CASPers instead of tractors and combines.

“The Aussie merc companies weren’t interested in me—there’s still bias even after all these years—and the Espejos came up on the hiring board. How about you?” Hana asked.

“I’m no mercenary,” Escuzio replied. He caught Hana’s frown and quickly added, “As I kid, I liked tortas way too much and physical exertion far too little to meet the standards for mercenaries. I was good at coding and hacking from an early age, so I knew what my path would be. I found out about the job with the Espejos on the dark web, and I knew merc outfits paid top credits. I figured it paid better than hacking and gave me the chance to travel.”

“What do you think of merc life so far?” Hana loaded another tortilla.

Escuzio shrugged. “It’s not so different than other contractor gigs. It’s probably easier on me since I’m a civilian. To be honest, the worst thing so far is the cold. I’d like to know why the commander chose this spot for New Aztlán,” Escuzio said. “I understand this is winter, and it will get better in a month or two, but if he had a whole planet to choose from, why here?”

“Maybe it has something to do with the camouflage?” Hana gestured overhead. “This base has a very compact footprint, though there is plenty of space to spread out. I share a ten square meter room with another Corporal. Back on Earth, everyone had their own room.”

“I have my own flat,” Escuzio admitted. “It’s not much bigger than your room, and it has a tiny bathroom.”

“At least you have your own bathroom,” Hana countered. “We have a communal one for the whole floor.”

“Maybe you should come over and use mine,” Escuzio joked, then realized what he’d said and blushed. “I mean…you know…because…”

“Relax, before you choke or faint.” Hana laughed. “Besides, I think you’d have to buy me dinner first.”

Escuzio stopped sputtering and took a long drink to stall and gather his wits. “Maybe I could do that—buy you dinner I mean.”

Hana unholstered her slate and placed it on the table next to Escuzio’s. “Let’s exchange comm codes,” she said. “I don’t get off duty until 1900 hours. They have us prepping the suits for deployment. Something is going down in the next few days, and if we deploy somewhere, I don’t know if I’ll have to go. It depends on the contract.”

Escuzio triggered the contact exchange between their devices with his pinplants. “Do you think someone is coming here? It would explain all the camouflage.”

Hana shook her head. “It would only pass a casual sweep. If someone came here searching for New Aztlán, they’d find it. Also, if the commander expected an attack, I would think he’d put more into the defensive emplacements.” She checked her watch. “I have to go. I’ll buzz you when I get off duty.”

“I’ll be waiting.” Escuzio hoped he didn’t sound cheesy. Hana smiled, and Escuzio watched her walk away. He had a date! Shit! He had planned on going home and crashing, now he had to clean the place up, do laundry, and figure out what to do about dinner. Now he was glad he’d gotten a large lunch since it would be seven or eight hours before dinner.

Escuzio glanced at his slate. Hana’s contact card was in the corner of the display, her face pictured. Escuzio wondered what info his snoop code plucked from her slate during the contact exchange. He brought up a list of files, then paused. Perhaps it would be better to learn about her the old-fashioned way?

* * *

Vishall Plex, Vishall

Emelie Swinford expected to feel guilty after spending the bulk of the morning helping Talita shop. Granted, she had interspersed making contacts among the locals with comparing decorative rugs and contrasting curtain colors. By the time they broke for lunch, Captain Swinford had hired a grounds foreman, contracted a housekeeping crew, and opened negotiations with three restaurants to set up satellite locations in the new Mead Hall once it was open. She had also doubled the number of construction workers and the cargo compartment of the utility transport was stuffed with local décor.

“Em, you are going to love this,” Talita gushed as they entered the churrascaria. “The grilled valfisc is so good. It tastes somewhere between prime rib and cabra picante.”

“I’ll trust your judgement,” Emelie said. She had to admit, the diminutive Brazilian woman’s bubbly enthusiasm was infectious.

“Bjorn loves to come here for dinner when they have all-you-can-eat carne assado,” Talita said as they sat down at a table near the window. “He thought the owner was going to cry when he walked in.”

Emelie could understand. The commander was huge and rumored to have an appetite to match his stature. She tried not think about how the commander and his fiancée dealt with the disparity in their height.

“Would the ladies care for wine with their lunch?” the waiter asked. The young man was probably a family member of the owner. Emelie caught herself thinking it was a shame he was so young.

“I’ll have klaff tea,” Talita replied.

Drinking while on duty was out of the question. Even if no one else knew, she would. “I’ll have the tea as well.” While she wasn’t a fan of the minty tea the H’rang adored, it was palatable. The caffeine analog in the tea affected humans in the same manner, but the H’rang got a mild high from consuming it.

Emelie scanned the room. The crowd was two-thirds humans and the rest H’rang, save for a single Zuul. Most of the humans appeared to be from the local neighborhood. “How did the commander even find this place?”

“He enjoyed sampling the local cuisine.” Talita blushed. “It’s how I met him. He was trying local bars, but he stopped bar-hopping once he found Tio Ramon’s.”

“Is that when you started dating?”

Talita shook her head. “No, I spent a year dropping hints. I love him, but sometimes he can be a bit dense. I would literally sit in his lap, and he didn’t get the clue.”

“Seriously?” Emelie couldn’t help but laugh. A pair of uniforms caught her attention. The men were from the merc outfit garrisoning Vishall Plex, Harter’s Paladins. Touching base with them was on her list of things to do. She didn’t know much about the Paladins, but the Berserkers had a reputation for good-natured rowdiness. Swinford wanted to make sure there was no friction between the two companies.

One of the Paladins had the broad-chested build of a CASPer driver, with the extra pounds the years added. His close-cropped hair disappeared under a bright blue ballcap. The other man was a ginger, pale complected and freckled. The redhead spotted Talita and Emelie and guided his companion to an adjacent empty table.

“Hello, ladies,” the redhead said with a grin. His companion noticed them for the first time. Where the redhead scoped out Talita’s curves, the Paladin in the ball cap zeroed in on the markings on Emelie’s uniform.

“You’re Berserkers.” The cap wearer extended a hand. “I’m Blackhawk—I mean Colonel Harter. My callsign is Blackhawk.”

“I’m Lieutenant Clifford,” the redhead added. “But you can call me Brad.”

“Nice to meet you, Colonel Harter.” Emelie shook the extended hand. She decided not to ask about the rank—the Paladins were too small to merit a colonel, and most leaders of mercenary outfits went by commander. “I’m Captain Swinford. I’m the OIC for the Berserkers while Commander Tovesson is out on contract.”

“And you can call me Mrs. Tovesson,” Talita added, suppressing a giggle. The redhead deflated.

“We should probably confer,” Colonel Harter said. “I like to think my folk are upstanding, but we know what happens when bored mercs drink. Plus, I bet you have a bunch of insight from the last garrison contract.”

“I have less than you’d think,” Swinford remarked. “I was on HQ detail back on Earth during the last contract after I recovered from the previous contract. This is my first tour on Vishall.”

“Then maybe I could show you around,” Clifford suggested. “I’ve been here for three months.”

“I’ve been here for twenty years,” Talita interjected. “I could show her much more.”

Clifford started to say something, then stopped. Harter glanced at him sideways, likely an unspoken order to hold his tongue.

“Colonel Harter, I would be happy to network with you,” Swinford said. “Some of my troops served the last garrison contract, so they might be able to give your people some pointers, although after three months, you’ve probably figured most of them out. Mrs. Tovesson is a valuable resource regarding the local community, and I suspect she’d be happy to field questions.”

Talita nodded. She turned to Clifford. “No.”

“No, what?”

“Your first question,” Talita replied. “No, I do not have any single sisters.”

* * * * *

Chapter 20

British Columbia, Earth, Sol System

“Still no sign of recon flights?” Jim asked.

“Negative,” the battlefield intelligence replied. “If they have recruited local bush pilots, those aircraft will barely register on passive detection. However, those pilots would have to rely on visual observations.” Jim nodded, then wondered if the program was able to recognize the gesture.

They had hunkered down off an old service road parallel to the highway. It had been twenty-four hours, and there was no sign of pursuit. He had trouble believing they had gotten away; surely Peepo, or at least the Besquith, would be pissed about the disappearance of the Besquith platoon.

“It sounds like the government has caved in to Peepo’s demands,” Priya said, the glow of a slate illuminating her sallow face. Jim had wanted her to go with the wounded to the local hospitals, but she had insisted on staying with the unit—with him. The nanites had repaired the worst of the damage, but she had lost a lot of blood. “Peepo has installed herself in the SOGA’s office in Brazil. There’ve been some token protests and spates of violence but based on the news her conquest of Earth is a fait accompli.”

“No surprise,” Specialist McQueen remarked. “The bureaucrats were quick to collect our taxes but didn’t want to spend an iota of it on the planet’s defense. They were so certain the mercs would be enough to deter any aggression, and once Earth joined the Union, we’d be safe.”

“Speaking of safe, how long until we get to the redoubt?” Beth Smythe asked. The husky woman was not only infantry, she had started field medic training two months ago. While her knowledge was still rudimentary compared to a fully-trained medic, it was well beyond the trooper basic first aid training, and she had all her training reference material on her slate.

“That’s a good question.” Jim wished he had an answer. They had been travelling at night and using side roads when possible, but there were few options. Often the main road was the only road. It wasn’t like where he grew up in Iowa, where a grid of country roads divided a checkerboard of farm fields. “A few more days at our current pace.”

The idea of calling for flyers to come pick them up had been dismissed. Even though Peepo had allowed air freight to resume, small planes and VTOLs had been grounded. Peepo, or someone on her staff, understood the chaos that would come from disrupting Earth’s supply chains. Jim knew FedMarts were stocked with a 48-hour supply, and the distribution centers a 72-hour supply. Any disruption longer than 24 hours was worrisome, and outages could lead to panics, especially in times of chaos.

Fortunately, the FedMarts would be harder to ransack than the large stores of the early 21st century. People were no longer allowed to browse among aisles of goods. They placed their orders on touchscreens, their accounts were debited, and the goods were delivered to the front of the store. This meant small mom and pop stores would suffer the wrath of a deprived populace, as the larger, old-fashioned stores in affluent neighborhoods would shutter and employ security militia.

Jim had sent four soldiers into a local retailer for supplies. They were chosen because they had civilian clothes. Luckily, Peepo hadn’t shut down the banking system—again probably to avoid chaos. He transferred funds to the soldiers, and two hours later they returned with a rented truck full of food, clothes, sleeping bags, sundries, and a couple of large tents.

“Hey, Padre LT,” Sergeant Cripe called, parting the tarp draped over the hatchway. Cool air followed him in. “I’ve been poring over the maps and the satellite topography.”

“What do you think?” Jim asked.

“If we were in CASPers, it would be no problem,” Cripe replied. “Since we’re in vehicles, we’re boned. There is one cross country route to get us around the stretch between Tok and Tetlin Junction.”

“I sense there’s a ‘but.’” While the rumblers could travel off-road, the rough, forested terrain bordered on impassable.

“Whoever carved this route only intended to use it when the river was frozen, and they probably didn’t intend for 30-ton armored vehicles to attempt the ice crossing.” Cripe tipped his slate toward the command console and cast his screen. The map rendered onto the console’s Tri-V. “It’s too deep to slog through. If they know we’re coming, the smart play would be to set up at the bridge past Tetlin Junction, so we need to go around.”

“I have an idea,” Jim said. “It may be crazy, but maybe it would work.”

* * *

Tovesson Lake Estate, Alaska

>>Incoming aircraft<<

The alert appeared in the bottom of the Tri-V, obscuring the news ticker streaming along the bottom of the image. The hologram showed a newsfeed of Houston, where alien troops ransacked the headquarters of mercenary companies. Bjorn Tovesson II had been following the news carefully since Peepo’s invasion. He really wanted to punch the smug rodent, but it appeared he wouldn’t get the chance.

“Lynn, it’s time.” The retired mercenary commander cracked his neck and rose from the recliner. “They’re coming.”

“BJ, come with me,” his wife pleaded. They’d had this argument multiple times since the aliens landed.

“Vira, wake up Bettie.” Gray haired and weathered, the elder Tovesson was still an intimidating man. While he may have packed on a few kilos to his two-meter frame, he hadn’t let himself go to waste. “If I go, they’ll dig up or blow up this place to root us out. If I face them, they won’t come looking for you. Go to Hewitt Lake. Jake at the lodge can fly you up to Ruby Creek, where we have people.”

“Activating the BTI,” the virtual assistant announced with a slight Russian accent. An unaccented voice replaced it. “BTI on line. Integrating systems and updating. Updated. There is a Vargr-class assault lander thirty-seven kilometers out and closing.”

“Bettie, bring Mjölnir on line. Activate Valhalla protocols and Ragnarök contingency.” He turned to his wife. “Sweetie, you have to go downstairs while there’s time. When you see Trip, tell him I’m proud of him.”

“We should have moved off-world to the new base,” Lynn said. Tears filled her eyes as she reached for her rucksack. It contained the family’s most precious mementos, as well as a slate with the latest crucial information. Survival gear was waiting down below.

“I hate cats.” He cupped his wife’s face and gently kissed her. “I’ve had a good life. Now go and see our son. Maybe he’ll marry that Brazilian girl and give you grandbabies.”

“Mjölnir power-up sequence is complete,” the BTI reported. “All systems nominal.”

* * *

Tanana River, Alaska

“Lieutenant Sabher, drones report two large land vehicles off-road, three miles northwest,” the trooper responsible for the reconnaissance UAVs reported. The Besquith had kept two of the small aircraft aloft at all times, watching for their quarry to approach the bridge.

“I thought you said there were no bridges across this river for miles?” Sabher snarled at Meeko. The Veetanho’s obvious fear brought saliva to Sabher’s fangs.

“There aren’t any other bridges,” Meeko protested. “Settlements north of this river rely on aircraft.”

“Then where are they going?” Sabher demanded. They had already tested the ice in the river; it was too thin to support the armored vehicles. The Besquith infantry sled had an advantage as a hover vehicle. Its air cushion could support it over ice or water.

“Mount up,” Sabher bellowed at the troops.

The troop transport sled rose on a cushion of air and pivoted 180 degrees. Duct-fan turbines thrust it down the road. The fresh coating of snow didn’t hinder the vehicle as it raced along, kicking up a blinding cloud of snowflakes.

A trooper hunched over a pair of slates. “One of the drones is down. I’m trying to present a difficult target with the other one.”

Sabher watched the tactical display, where data from the drone and topographical maps showed the position of their quarry. The sled braked and slewed into a turn as it left the highway. The sudden maneuver flung an unsecured Besquith into his fellows. Snapping jaws and growled threats ensued until Sabher glared at them. They would have a chance to vent their pent-up frustration and fury soon enough.

A loud bang accompanied a jolt as the sled caromed off a tree. Sabher peered at the feed from the forward cameras; to call this winding path a road would be too generous. The transport sled weaved and bobbed, then another collision rattled the vehicle.

The whine of the turbines lowered as the vehicle slowed. “What are you doing?” Sabher demanded.

“The sled was not designed for this terrain,” the driver protested. “We’ll lose more time banging into trees than if we slow down so I can maneuver.”

* * *

“The remaining drone is hugging the tree line,” Bettie reported. The reconnaissance vehicle added a new wrinkle in their escape plan. Both rumblers idled near the edge of the river.

“You’re right,” Cripe said, gazing across the ice. “This is a crazy idea.”

“How thick is the ice?” Jim Hawkins studied the opposite shore, sixty meters away. Moonlight glistened off the snow covering the frozen winter.

“Instrument readings indicate a mean thickness of thirty-seven centimeters,” Bettie reported. “The ice measures twenty-three centimeters at the middle.”

“The rumblers will go right through into the water,” Cripe said shaking his head. A loud crunch echoed from the forest road behind them. “They must have run into the logjam we left in the road.”

“We’re out of time.” Jim asked God for wisdom. “We make a stand, or we cross the river. Bettie calculates my idea should work.”

“Should was seventy-two percent,” Cripe countered. “I guess it’s better than a one hundred percent chance of Besquith.”

“Didn’t you ever see that old video show with the orange car?” Jim said with a force smile.

“Yeah. I think they wrecked a hundred of those cars over the course of the show.” Snarls and snaps of lasers echoed off the hills. Cripe shrugged. “Yee haw. Let’s do it.”

* * *

“We’ve lost the other drone.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Sabher growled as the Besquith piled back into the sled, trailing the odors of wet fur and burnt wood. They had lost ten minutes using lasers to cut through several fallen trees blocking the road. “Go!”

The sled leapt forward, scraping against several trees as it rounded a curve. The forward cameras showed two of the human mercenary vehicles on the bank of the river.

* * *

“Punch it!”

Jim gave the order, and as soon as the rumblers hit the ice, they spread apart. Snow sprayed from under the huge tires. The rumbler lurched.

“Activating drop thrusters,” Bettie stated. Similar to jumpjets on CASPers, the thrusters were designed to arrest the fall of the 30-ton vehicle as it parachuted to the ground. Unlike CASPers, it only carried 30 seconds worth of jump juice. Bettie had overridden the safeties; now the thrusters would consume their fuel in twelve seconds.

The twelve seconds lasted forever. Jim’s stomach fell as the thrust kicked in, then flip-flopped at the six second mark as the rumbler reached the apex of its arc. His eyes were glued to the Tri-V display showing their progress toward the opposite shore. They were going to fall ten meters short.

The impact rattled Jim’s teeth as the tires crunched through the ice. Momentum carried the rumbler halfway to shore before its wheels found purchase. The water was less than a meter deep, easily manageable by the six-wheeled vehicle.

“They are following!” Hcuff’t cried, watching the Besquith sled from the weapons station.

“Stop halfway up the slope!” Jim yelled to McQueen.

* * *

“After them!” Sabher commanded. Humans, innovative as usual, he thought. As a pup, he would have been delighted at the sight of armored vehicles unexpectedly hurling themselves through the air. Now it was a futile gesture. The transport sled could transverse ice, snow, and water as easily as pavement. “Stay as low as possible. Their anti-aircraft laser cannot decline.”

The transport slid across the shattered ice. There was no escape for the Humans now.

“Veer off,” Meeko insisted.

“We almost have them!” Sabher really wanted to bite the Veetanho’s head off.

“They are on a slope!” Meeko jabbed a pink finger at the Tri-V display. “We’re in the arc—”

The laser pulse flash-fried the Veetanho and two troopers before expending itself on the back hatch. As the craft pitched, Sabher realized the beam had passed through the driver as well. Loud metallic spangs echoed as MAC rounds spalled the armor.

“Out!” Sabher roared and slapped the override on the hatch. Cold air gusted into the troop compartment, stirring the smoke from charred bodies. Six surviving troopers spilled out of the spinning craft, and Sabher followed. He leapt away as the sled swung around, but one of his troopers was too slow. The impact crushed the trooper’s combat armor, squishing several organs in the process.

* * *

This is stupid, Cripe thought as he led the able-bodied down the ramp of the transport rumbler. In the middle of the river, the hoversled spun in circles as Besquith scrambled away from it. Keith fired an HE grenade onto the ice between the stricken craft and the shore. Two more mercs followed suit. The second grenade added to the growing spider web of fractures, and the third shattered a patch of stressed ice.

The closest two Besquith scrambled around the growing patch of fragmented ice. The anti-aircraft laser fired again. One of the sled’s turbines erupted in a deadly spray of shrapnel, shredding the closest Besquith. A gout of flame erupted through the top hatch and the transport thudded onto the already stressed ice.

Some of the Besquith moved toward the still craft to use it as cover, not realizing the danger announced by the deep cracking echoing through the ice. MACs from both vehicles fired at the Besquith hunkering near the wreck. While the tungsten rounds would obliterate a Besquith trooper, they would only punch a two-centimeter hole through the ice, expending little energy on the frozen water.

“LT, hit the sled with a missile,” Cripe called over the tac channel.

“It’s already down.”

“Trust me.” Sergeant Cripe aimed at the Besquith closest to the shore. He’d switched out the flechettes in the Beast for armor-piercing sabot rounds. The tungsten round slammed the wolf back onto the ice. A hail of bullets from battle rifles tracked it, spraying ice chips.

An anti-aircraft missile roared from the launcher on the rumbler. It slammed into the fallen Besquith vehicle and detonated; the BTI had overridden the safeties and armed the missile immediately. The ice groaned and buckled under the explosion. The sled plunged into the cold water, taking half the remaining Besquith with it.

One of the Besquith reached the shore and bounded into the trees. “Left flank, we have a wolf in the woods!” Sergeant Cripe bellowed.

A smart person would have hunkered down and waited for the fight to move on. The Besquith erupted from the trees and pounced on the closest trooper. She shrieked as the wolf tore her face off. Keith winced, no one deserved to die like that. The closest soldiers seemed reluctant to fire, even though killing the Besquith’s victim would be considered a mercy.

“Smile you sonava—” Cripe pulled the trigger and sent 40 grams of supersonic tungsten into its helmet.

Crackling wood caught his attention. The sergeant barely had enough time to trigger the plasma bayonet before another Besquith was on him. The lupine alien bore Cripe to the ground, piercing the sergeant’s armored vest with its talons. Something gurgled in Keith’s chest. The Besquith opened its maw, displaying rows of slaver-covered teeth.

“Suck on this!” Cripe jammed the plasma flame from his weapon into the Besquith’s face. It reared back, clawing at its melted eyes and charred snout. Keith pulled the trigger on the Beast and a tungsten sabot blew out the back of the Besquith’s helmet.

* * *

Tovesson Estate, Alaska

Sergeant Druul leaned forward, provoking the pilot to growl. “The VTOL on the pad, take it out,” the sergeant commanded. There would be no easy escape for their quarry. Sending two octals of troopers to take out a lone elderly Human mercenary was overkill, but he wasn’t about to question orders, especially when General Peepo threatened to turn the next Besquith who failed her into a rug.

The landing craft slowed as the pilot diverted power to the vertical thrusters. It only took him a moment to lock onto the stationary flyer parked below. He speared the vehicle with both lasers. There was a split-second pause before the craft blossomed into a ball of fire and shrapnel.

Younger Besquith might revel in wanton destruction, but to Sergeant Druul it was the noise of war. “Get us on the ground,” he ordered. Turning back to the troop compartment, he snarled, “Ready to deploy!”

Sixteen Besquith growled back, eager for a fight. They didn’t know the lopsided odds—they expected at least a squad of the CASPer powered armor suits the Humans fielded. Druul had orders to offer the old Human a chance to surrender. The sergeant hoped he put up a fight.

“I have movement at six-seven!” The pilot called out. It was almost a right angle to their left. “It’s one of their battle suits! Entropy!”

“Deploy!” Sergeant Druul roared, charging toward the back hatch.

* * *

Bjorn Tovesson II lined up the targeting reticle in his CASPer’s Tri-V display, cursing the precious second age had cost him. If he’d been faster, he might have caught the drop shuttle high enough to end the fight before it started.

“Lock,” Bettie announced.

The elder Tovesson triggered the missile, his CASPer readied for the blowback. The missile leapt from the launcher with a tongue of flame. The back of the shuttle opened, and lupine bipeds poured from the craft. Half of the Besquith cleared the hatch before the missile struck. The detonation sent the craft spinning, trailing flame, debris, and aliens. Tovesson triggered the second missile in the launcher. This one struck the lander head-on, blasting through the canopy. The burning wreck plummeted behind a hill.

Tovesson urged Mjölnir, his custom Mk 7 CASPer, forward. The Besquith had bailed out near the lake shore, and the blazing fire that had been his VTOL blinded his IR sensors. Bettie had already switched to ultraviolet and LIDAR, processing the sensor input into his Tri-V.

He resisted the urge to jump as it would make him an easy target. He marched behind the garage, taking a curving route toward the lake. Not only would the building obscure him for a few seconds, it would screen him from the glare of the VTOL fire.

“LIDAR network active,” Bettie reported. The estate was seeded with dozens of LIDAR sensors, and Bettie added their input to the Tri-V display. A map appeared, showing seven forms scrambling up from the lake toward the house. “Valhalla protocols are complete. Data packages sent to the Banking Guild.”

“Good. I’ll be damned if I let the bureaucrat leeches get any more blood from me.” The Valhalla Protocols would transfer the bulk of his fiscal holdings to his son and the Berserkers. The remainder ensured Lynn would be comfortable the rest of her days, hopefully on another world. Since these accounts were all off-world, they weren’t subject to Earth’s onerous taxation.

The lead pair of Besquith troopers loped toward the house, hunching down behind a decorative wall. He needed to keep them away from the house as long as possible, even if it meant giving away his position. He fired a smoke grenade into their vicinity. The smoke didn’t impede the LIDAR network. He lined up the MAC on his right arm and fired. The steel-sheathed tungsten sabot caught the Besquith in the collarbone, punching through its combat armor and shattering the bones underneath.

Tovesson popped out two more smoke grenades to screen himself from the rest of the Besquith while his MAC cycled. The weapons were so powerful that firing them too rapidly would superheat the barrel.

Several high-velocity rounds whizzed by him, and one spanged off his leg armor, leaving a groove in the composite. A pair of laser pulses illuminated the smoke, but they were wild shots. Tovesson dropped a targeting reticle on the remaining Besquith hunkered behind the wall. He fired one of his shoulder rockets with a proximity fuse. The warhead detonated two meters above the target, smashing the Besquith into the ground.

Tovesson lumbered behind a tool shed. The rocket left an IR and smoke trail pointing at his position like a giant arrow. He wasn’t even three meters away before laser pulses and projectiles peppered the garage next to where he had been.

The LIDAR showed the Besquith fanning out. This kept them from presenting juicy targets to explosive weapons. A couple were doubling back—they must have heard him trudging through the snow. He rounded the shed and saw the pair. One charged while the other sidled away for a clear shot.

Tovesson targeted the far one with his MAC. The shot wasn’t center of mass as he intended but it struck the Besquith and sent him spinning, spraying the snow with his blood. The other Besquith pounced.

“Praise Thor, motherfucker!” Tovesson bellowed. An ionized spike shot out and lodged in the Besquith’s armor. It ignored the pain as only a few centimeters of metal penetrated the armor. Then Mjölnir dumped 60,000 volts from a disposable capacitor into it. The electricity arced to the spike and cooked the alien in its armor.

An alarm sounded as a laser pulse struck him, heating the armor on his hip enough to sear through the haptic suit to his skin. He barely deployed his arm shield in time to ward off two more lasers. Tovesson picked a target from the LIDAR display, dumped his remaining rocket, then triggered his jumpjets.

A blast of steam erupted from the snow as the jets launched three quarters of a ton of armor, weapons, and mercenary into the air. Tovesson dropped another smoke grenade to add to the confusion. The Tri-V warned him as laser pulses began tracking his flight. Three meters above his landing spot, a laser slagged one of his jets—he hadn’t turned fast enough. His suit slewed sideways as he tried to compensate. He landed hard, stumbling as his armored foot sank ten centimeters into the earth under the snow. Another pulse found him; a burning sensation in his left ribs and the smell of burnt meat told him the armor had been compromised. “Bettie, what the fuck hit us?” he gasped as trauma nanites went to work.

“A crew-served laser,” the BTI replied, highlighting the Besquith on the display. The wolf cradled the weapon like a 20th century action hero. Two other Besquith near it appeared to have conventional laser carbines. All were targeting him.

“Override MAC safeties,” Tovesson ordered. “Maximum rate of fire.”

“Overridden.” The BTI didn’t bother warning him of the consequences.

Tovesson swept his arm across the grouped Besquith. Over five seconds, twenty rounds left the barrel of the magnetic accelerator cannon. The weapon shut down as the heat deformed the barrel, the metal glowing cherry red in the cold night. Down range, a hailstorm of tungsten shredded the three Besquith and their weapons.

A Besquith slammed into Mjölnir from the left, and Tovesson fought to compensate for the impact. He extended the arm blade from the right arm of his CASPer, but only landed a glancing blow. Another Besquith slammed into his laser shield, tipping him backward. The LIDAR network showed two more closing; more of them had gotten out of the shuttle than he thought.

“Do you wish to send your spouse a final message?” Bettie asked.

“I don’t want her to remember me like this!” Bjorn gritted his teeth as a laser burned through the leg armor and amputated his leg below the knee. Besquith scrabbled at the CASPer, trying to pry the canopy open. “Upload all combat footage to the Berserkers, flag eyes-only for Commander Tovesson. Trip deserves to know how his old man went out.”

“Combat log generated.” The BTI’s voice was cold and clinical, but it was the only company he had in his last moments. “Streaming until source termination.”

Tovesson triggered the remaining jumpjet, sending his suit skittering across the snow. One of the Besquith was knocked loose, but the more tenacious one clung to the laser shield. Tovesson stabbed the wolf with his arm blade, drawing blood and yelps, but the alien remained. The Besquith tore away the upper part of the shield.

The remaining Besquith charged across the snow to pile on. Integrity warnings flashed as the clamshell canopy’s seal was compromised. Cold air and claws wormed their way through the edge of the canopy.

“Son, give these alien motherfuckers what for,” Tovesson said as indicators flashed yellow, then red. He hoped his last moments made it to his son. He prayed his son didn’t share them with Lynn. “I’ll see you in Valhalla.”

The canopy peeled away, and a trio of Besquith glared at him. “Meat,” one of them growled.

“Fuck you, sukin syn,” Tovesson spat back. “Bettie, Ragnarök.”

Four K-bombs on the belt of his CASPer detonated.

* * * * *

Chapter 21

New Aztlán, Patoka

Escuzio surveyed his small flat. It was the cleanest it had been since he moved in. His futon was folded into a couch, so if they came back here after dinner it didn’t appear as though he was expecting anything to happen. He didn’t know what to expect. While he wasn’t a virgin, women weren’t exactly beating on his door. He lacked the swagger he believed women found attractive in his peers back home, and he was what his abuela kindly described as gordito—chubby.

He checked his pinplants again—it was only 1900 hours.

He picked up his slate. His eyes strayed to the icon in the corner representing the data pilfered from Hana’s tablet. He hadn’t meant to collect it. The subroutine triggered automatically when connected to a poorly protected device. He mentally batted the icon off screen into a folder so he didn’t have to stare at it.

A message informed him the local GalNet node had been updated. Escuzio had placed code daemons in the node to keep him abreast of the latest news. He was puzzled when the various newsfeeds didn’t update. He checked the mail node, but there were no incoming messages in the queues. Maybe it was a false alarm. He was about to dismiss it when he noticed the outbound mail queues were almost empty. There were no waiting messages older than 37minutes.

Escuzio clicked an augmented link over his pinplants and booted up his code slicing programs. He dove into the cyberspace of the local node, following data streams and code paths. Using a backdoor he had installed during the node’s last patch, he slipped into the buffer.

There it was—an inbound package of data bound in a string of code. The package should have unpacked automatically, but the restraining code held it in the buffer. Escuzio carefully examined the programming. The architecture was archaic yet elegant and the language was Jeha-derived. A pang of regret tugged at him. This was the sort of puzzle Gina would have loved. She was a master at Jeha coding.

He was no slouch, he mused. The CASPer code and the manufactories used Jeha-based coding. It only took a few minutes to figure out the data bundle was time locked. He partitioned the buffer into a virtual node, synched it with the remaining buffer, and advanced its time-date stamp by hour increments. At the 48-hour mark the code released the data bundle.

Escuzio skimmed over the data. It seemed mundane—news feeds, mail, database updates, entertainment releases—nothing requiring a 48-hour quarantine. He checked one of the popular newsfeeds, Galactic News Media. The headline “Earth Invaded” caught his attention. There was little information other than the Mercenary Guild had seized control of Earth five days ago, and Earth’s mercenary forces fled into space abandoning their home world.

Escuzio only half-listened to General Peepo’s proclamation. No wonder Commander Sanchez had been so keen to leave Earth and set up camp here. Escuzio wondered if any other colonists were on their way. If they fled right before the invasion, they would be here in a couple days.

He froze, his mind staring off into virtual space.

If the Mercenary Guild invaded Earth five days ago, news shouldn’t arrive for two more days. He frantically checked date-time stamps on news stories and mail. Everything cut off five days ago. It was impossible! Hyperspace travel took 170 hours, but this packet was compiled by the node at Earth’s stargate 120 hours ago.

Escuzio slumped onto the futon-couch dumbfounded, his mind whirling with implications. What was going on? What should he do? An icon appeared in the corner of his field of view. Panic at the idea the Information Guild had tracked him down subsided when he realized it was a call from Hana.

Annyeong,” Escuzio said.

“Did you learn Korean while I was at work?” Hana asked, her avatar smiling in synch with her tone.

“Only a few words and phrases.” Escuzio had debated which greeting to use, balancing casual friendliness versus respect. As respect seemed to be geared toward elders and work superiors, he gambled on the former.

“Your pronunciation is pretty good,” Hana remarked. “I’m finishing up here. If you want, you can meet me at the barracks entrance in forty-five minutes.”

“I’ll be there,” Escuzio replied, bringing up a map. In the compact base, it was only a 15-minute walk. He started a timer for 25 minutes.

Najungae boayo,” Hana said before hanging up. Escuzio’s translator emitted, “See you later.”

Escuzio copied the news file he had read, as well as a couple other data points, then created a timer to trigger a data dump from the virtual node to the real one in 47 hours and change, timing it to arrive when the original time-lock would have elapsed.

* * *

Inbound from Emergence Point, Patoka System

“Any further challenges?” Qivek demanded. The meter-tall Flatar floated behind the pilot station. The furry, chipmunk-like creature folded his arms across his chest, below the Peacemaker badge on his black jumpsuit.

“No, Peacemaker,” the SleSha pilot replied. The wasp-like alien turned its head so one of its compound eyes could see the Peacemaker. To the SleSha, the small mammal would normally appear to be a snack, but the pilot knew better, even without glancing at the rear of the bridge. “The Zuul cutters are maintaining their distance, as is the frigate.”

“No sign of transmission,” the SleSha co-pilot added. “Unless they are using point-to-point maser communication, they are keeping silent as instructed.”

“It’s a shame they didn’t resist,” the hulking Tortantula at the rear of the bridge remarked. A Peacemaker badge was affixed to the giant spider’s battle armor. A ring of ten eyes encircled its head and three of them were focused on the Flatar.

“I know buddy,” Qivek said. Five days cooped up in the corvette made his Tortantula partner restless. “Maybe some lawbreakers will resist arrest once we get planetside.”

“Orders, Peacemaker?” the pilot asked.

“Engage ion drive and approach quietly,” Qivek ordered.

“It will take us almost two days to reach the world under ion drive,” the co-pilot protested.

“We don’t want to spook our quarry,” Qivek said. “Proceed as ordered.”

* * *

Zuul Frigate Prowler One, High Guard at Patoka Emergence Point

“What are your orders, Captain?” the tactical officer asked.

Captain Brunog watched the departing Peacemaker corvette on the Tri-V display. His frigate and the deployed cutters could have overpowered the corvette, but not before the Peacemaker transmitted an order placing a bounty on the Prowler One and her crew.

“Stand down and abide by the Peacemaker’s orders,” Brunog commanded. “For now, we do not wish to draw their ire.” Nor give away the existence of our other forces, Brunog thought.

* * *

New Aztlán, Patoka

“Is everything okay?” Hana asked. “You seem distracted.”

Escuzio normally would have been distracted by the black dress Hana wore, which was more suited to go clubbing back in Torreon on Earth than the climate on Patoka. Instead, he was distracted by what he had seen in the data package.

Escuzio glanced at the adjacent tables. Crispino’s Ristorante Italiano was packed, and Escuzio had bribed the hostess ten credits to go to the head of the line for a table. The buzz of a score of conversations drowned out any individual’s words.

“I didn’t want to bring things down, but I got some…disturbing news from home,” Escuzio replied, keeping his voice low so only Hana could hear him.

Hana reached across the table and took his hand. “I’m sorry. Is it family?”

“Not exactly.” Escuzio leaned forward. “The Mercenary Guild invaded Earth. General Peepo, a Veetanho on the guild council, has taken control of Earth.”

“Oh.” Hana sat back and picked up her wine glass.

“You don’t seem surprised.” Maybe he should have opened her data packet after all.

“It makes sense.” Hana sipped her wine. “The Espejos steal a Binning production line and set up a colony on an alien world. The commander had to know it was coming. He’s been taking contracts against human mercenary companies for months, if not years.”

Escuzio stifled his exclamation as the waiter arrived with their food. After the waiter departed, Escuzio leaned forward and hissed. “I thought human mercs only fought aliens?”

Hana shrugged and picked up her fork. Three small meatballs adorned her plate of spaghetti. “We’ve been killing each other as long as we could pick up sticks. Why would it stop now?”

“You’re okay with this?” Escuzio didn’t even glance at his Chicken Alfredo, which he suspected of having little chicken.

Hana shook her head. “Unfortunately, people who quit this outfit tend to disappear. I tell myself I’m not the one pointing a gun at another human, even as I’m fixing that gun. I won’t say I sleep well with the thoughts, but at least I don’t have to worry about waking up to find Commander Sanchez’s sister in my room with a knife at my throat.”

Escuzio remembered Captain Elena Sanchez and shuddered. She was the kind of crazy that got off on hurting people. “What do we do?”

“What can we do?” Hana countered. “We do our jobs and try to live in the meantime. Unless one of the Four Horsemen show up to take out Commander Sanchez, or someone within the organization has the access and the spine to do it, we’re stuck. Make the best of it.”

“I do have tequila and cerveza at my flat,” Escuzio ventured.

“You’re not getting lucky on the first date,” Hana cautioned. “However, second base may be negotiable.”

Escuzio considered asking for a doggie bag.

“After we finish dinner,” Hana added. “I’ve been on mercenary field meals for a week.”

* * *

Occupied Eosogi Base, Patoka

“Rurrf, I found something.”

Corporal Rurrf glanced at Private Arrvr, irritated. “If this is some pretense to lure me off for mating, I’m not interested. I’m out of cycle.” She returned to gnawing on her rations.

“No, it’s not about that,” Arrvr protested. He didn’t know what she was so upset about, it had been an innocent sniff. “I found a hatch by one of the oldest Eosogi structures. It’s a duralinum hatch in the ground, covered by dirt.”

Rurrf regarded the private over the congealed slab of meat and other bits of prey animals. “Did you open it?”

“No, I figured I should get you,” Arrvr replied. “I haven’t seen any other duralinum structures. Only ancient fortifications and bunkers used the metal, and then only for important facilities. It was too expensive for common use. It certainly shouldn’t be in some off-the-grid research facility.”

Rurrf’s ears perked up in interest. They didn’t know what the Eosogi had been doing at this outpost, or what they were after. The Howling Commandos had been hired to protect it, and nothing more. “Show me this hatch.”

Arrvr lead the way through the labyrinthine paths between buildings. The Eosogi didn’t build in predictable, organized layouts. It made the outpost a warren of twists and turns. Rurrf followed, chewing on the remains of her dinner. They only had enough rations to last another ten days, when their next supply ship would arrive. With good luck, they would leave with the ship, their contract completed.

Hopefully, whatever Arrvr had found would be worth some credits. A trove from the Great War or an ancient forgotten race could be lucrative, or it could be junk.

“Here!” Arrvr yipped in excitement.

“Hush, or everyone will know,” Rurrf growled. She approached the spot Arrvr was pointing out. The debris of a shattered ferrocrete slab, once a building foundation, cluttered an artillery impact crater, but Rurrf could make out the corner of a hatch set in the ground.

Rurrf picked her way down the side of the crater. It was only three meters deep, but the slope was a treacherous mix of loose dirt and crumbling ferrocrete. She crouched down over the hatch and sniffed. No strange scents marked the area; the crater was years old. She brushed the lighter debris away from the edge of the hatch, which was set in permacrete, not directly in the ground. Permacrete set as hard as granite. Chipping through it would be difficult and noisy.

Arrvr slid down next to her. “See, I told you.” The hatch and the permacrete disappeared under a layer of dirt. “With the depth of the dirt over it, the Eosogi probably built on top of it not even knowing the hatch was there.”

“Perhaps.” The cold dirt grew thicker than she could easily dislodge with her bare hands. “Get some tools,” she ordered. “Nothing noisy or powered. Let’s see what’s buried here.”

* * *

Two hours later, they were both cold and sore. The ground got harder as the digging progressed from the first exposed portion of the hatch. They had followed the seam of the hatch in the permacrete.

“Perhaps we should get a power-shovel?” Arrvr suggested. “I know it would make noise, but it’s taking forever doing this manually. A powered tool isn’t going to damage the hatch.”

Rurrf flexed her stiff fingers. At first, the exertion was a welcome change of pace, but after the first hour it became boring. She glanced down to where the blade of her shovel was planted while she caught her breath. Was that a bone?

She leaned down and clicked on her flashlight. It was a bone, laying against the hatch. Poking with her fingers, she found another. The dry bones were ancient, possibly dating back to when the hatch was buried.

“What did you find?” Arrvr hunkered down close to her.

“A skeleton, or at least part of one,” Rurrf replied. She switched to a smaller tool and began carefully excavating the bones. “Clear off the dirt above it,” she instructed.

An hour later, they had cleared off most of the diminutive skeleton. The creature was small, maybe 45 centimeters long, but a third of it was tail. It had four limbs and two large eye sockets in the skull.

“What is it?” Arrvr cocked his head. “Is it some sort of primate?”

“Could be, or else some sort of arboreal rodent,” Rurrf conjectured. “Whatever it was, it isn’t likely it had anything to do with our mystery hatch. Let’s move the bones aside and see how much more progress we can make before midnight. If we haven’t found anything interesting by then, I’m calling it quits for the night.”

* * * * *

Chapter 22

EMS Onikuma, Hyperspace

“How many drills can we have?” Chuck groused. The troops had been alternating between deployment drills and damage control training. “We’re thirty hours from emergence and have been hammering the same routines for almost six days.” He poked half-heartedly at his lunch, some sort of thick stew.

“Do we even know what the objective is?” Whim asked. His lunch was a mystery meat sandwich and starch crisps. All in all, it was considered a lucky draw on the lunch ration lottery. “Every drill we’ve been through ends at launch. I have no clue what we’re supposed to do when boots hit dirt.”

“Kick ass and take names!” TJ interjected. His meal was a slab of leafy salad and some chicken-like protein. He seemed pleased.

“They probably don’t want to hammer something into our heads, only to find out it was wrong,” Isabella added. Her lunch was a mix of pseudo-chicken and pasta in a creamy sauce. She didn’t seem enthused, but she didn’t complain. “They’ll have to confer with the main force before they know where to deploy us.”

“Spoken like a true scout,” Wilhelm said. One of the things he admired about Isabella was she thought things out in advance. If this had been a chessboard, she would already have her next three moves planned.

“Hey, on the upside, we have the next twenty hours off,” TJ said. “We could scrape up some CASPer Coolant and get wrecked.” CASPer Coolant was a noxious mix of alcohol and flavorings. It wasn’t meant to be enjoyed, it was meant to kill brain cells.

“Pass,” Whim said. Glancing at Isabella, he could think of much better ways to spend the twenty hours. “I’m surprised you don’t have a hot date with Gizmo.”

“Yeah, what happened, Romeo?” Chuck asked. “I thought you had dinner with her and bribed the KP Sergeant to get good MFMs.” While the acronym stood for Mercenary Field Meals, mercs had more colorful interpretations.

“She’s obsessed with cracking some puzzle,” TJ complained. “I swear, she pays more attention to the battlefield program than people. We were having a nice dinner, I had some hooch that didn’t risk blindness, there was some kissing, then the computer called her. I was cock-blocked by a computer!”

“Maybe she isn’t that into you,” Isabella suggested.

“Oh, she’s into me,” TJ retorted. Softly, he added, “She’s just into computers more.”

* * *

“There’s something fishy going on,” Charlotte remarked, watching the cluster of rookies.

Tamara sniffed at her lunch. “I think it’s really algae pretending to be fish sticks.”

“No, I mean with the cubs.” Charlotte pointed with her chin.

“I already know TJ hit on the blonde helm officer from the Wolverines,” Gina interjected defensively. She’d heard he made a pass at the cute blonde helmsman, Corporal Meer. Meer had shot TJ down. Rumor was she was hooking up with Lieutenant Byrne. It sounded as though TJ was as much of a player as Gina’s friends had warned. Even so, she hated to admit she was still attracted to him.

“Actually, I was talking about Quinto.” Charlotte poked at the rectangle of pasta masquerading as lasagna. “Something isn’t quite right about Isabella.”

“Really?” Tamara raised an eyebrow. “This isn’t because of the speculation the mole is a Latinx, is it?”

Gina bit back a comment. She rarely encountered racism among the Berserkers, but she feared the rumors of a spy working for a Mexican mercenary company would fan the flames. She’d hate to see it catch fire among her friends.

“No. It’s because she’s hiding something,” Charlotte retorted. “She’s never in her berth.”

Tamara nibbled on a purported fish stick. “She’s probably banging the German kid in some hidden nook of the ship. If Boggs didn’t like us and happened to assign us the same NCO cabin, we’d be doing the same.”

“I think they make a cute couple.” Gina pretended not to see TJ as she watched the couple huddle their heads together in some private joke. Gina quickly averted her gaze when TJ turned in her direction.

“Quinto is evasive about her past,” Charlotte tapped her tray with her spork. “Real secretive. It’s as though she’s making sure she doesn’t say anything to contradict her story. She’s really good at recon work but won’t say anything about her previous experience.”

Gina was relieved to hear that, telling herself Whisky’s suspicions weren’t motivated by race. “I’m supposed to meet with Captain Boggs in a few minutes to go over my findings.”

“Catch up with us later,” Tamara said. “It’s less than twenty hours until we go on pre-deployment standing, and I’ve got some decent wine stashed in our quarters. Unless you have plans with Diller?”

“Probably not.” She gathered the detritus from her meal for disposal. “I have a lot of work to do, but I might stop by.”

Gina kicked up to the handholds on the ceiling and pulled herself toward the exit. She continued to ignore TJ as she left.

* * *

“Nineteen hours before hell breaks loose,” Wilhelm said as he floated into his and Isabella’s secret cabin. “How should we spend it?”

“I have a few ideas,” Isabella commented. “Though we need to anchor ourselves to the hammock this time, so no one gets a concussion.”

Wilhelm spun to face her, counting on the hammock to arrest his momentum. A container by the door caught his attention. “Has that crate always been here?”

Isabella twisted to follow his gaze. “Probably. This was a spare room, so who knows what they stuck in here? I wouldn’t mess with it in case it’s tamper-sealed.” She slowly spun back to face Wilhelm and reached for the buttons on her duty uniform. “Are you really interested in a random crate?” She popped the first two buttons.

“When you put it that way, no.”

* * *

“How did your date go with Diller?” Captain Boggs asked.

“You know about it?” Gina sighed. It seemed everyone on the ship knew about it. “There really isn’t much to tell.”

“It’s hard to keep a secret on a ship,” Boggs remarked. “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine. I was just trying to make small talk. I’m much more interested in what you learned from the compromised CASPer operating system.”

Gina unholstered her slate. Her eyes flicked across the display, a telltale that she was interfacing with pinplants. A Tri-V display illuminated, showing scrolling lines of code next to the outline of a CASPer. “It’s a Jeha design, I’m certain. I’ll spare you the details, but they’ve managed to streamline the actuation protocols by sub—”

“That’s sparing me the details?” Captain Boggs remarked with a wry grin. “I’m not a tech-head, Gina. Make it trooper-dumb.”

Gina nodded. “It’s more efficient, which allows the suits to respond faster. However, it’s booby-trapped with four different shutdown triggers.” Several strands of code blinked red. “We knew it was compromised, but not how extensively. In addition to the time-based trigger the Golden Horde discovered, there was another timed for the invasion of Earth, which looped the pilot signal.”

Marian wasn’t sure what it meant, but she could guess. Disconnect the pilot and a CASPer becomes a metal-and-composite deadweight. “What about the other two triggers?”

Gina flicked her fingers, and the code scrolled and another blinking red string of characters appeared. “This one is tied to an IFF subroutine—aim it at a unit the system deems friendly, and your weapons all go into training mode.”

“Sneaky.” Captain Boggs understood what that meant even though she could make no sense of the code. “It would allow the Mercenary Guild to make their units ‘safe’ from us.”

“The fourth code is so straightforward I almost missed,” Gina stated. “Luckily, Bettie spotted it. A coded transmission can put the suit in maintenance mode. Normally you must be hard-jacked into the suit to put it in standby, but this operating system added a remote back door.”

“Any chance you can strip out the sabotaged software?” Boggs had heard the numbers. The operating system improved response time by 20% with corresponding enhancements to jumping and running.

“Give me a couple of weeks, and I could probably do it.” Gina stared the holographic lines of code. “The trick is the author made their OS code all one interwoven data construct. Going Frankenstein on the programming will cost us in efficiency.”

“If you can’t do it in the next eighteen hours, don’t hurry.” Marcia glanced at the mission timer. She hoped they made it in time to warn Commander Tovesson. “Any more ideas on our mole situation?”

“If they’re with us, there’s not much they can do in hyperspace.” Gina bit her lower lip in concentration. “If they were smart, they would lay low until we emerge, then send a signal. If they were suicidal, and here, we’d be dead. You have the troops going over gear constantly, so sabotage would be more likely to give them away than be effective. Is there a chance it could be one of the former Wolverines? They could avoid the risk of being sent into combat, as opposed to a trooper, and would know the ship like the back of their hand.”

“The problem with that scenario is they would know almost nothing about our ground operations,” Captain Boggs countered. “I think it has to be a recent hire from the outside, probably with former merc experience. A kid out of the VOWS isn’t going to be connected enough to be hired as a spy.”

“I’ll do some digging and see if I can find anything suspicious,” Gina said.

* * *

EMS Ursa Major, Hyperspace

Bjorn snapped awake, the figments of his dream evaporating like morning dew in the desert. His pinplants informed him they were ten hours from emergence. A thought through his pinplants brought the cabin lights up enough to see by. Thankfully, the bulk of Wick’s gods-awful eyesore décor had been jettisoned. The microgravity webbing threatened to entangle him as he extracted himself from bed, but he finally floated free. He checked his messages as he went through his morning routine. Nothing urgent popped up, only routine status updates.

“Bettie, give me the current status for senior officers on board,” Bjorn said aloud. Even though he could think the commands through his pinplants, sometimes it felt better to verbalize them.

“All officers of rank lieutenant or higher are awake, save for Captain Wildman,” Bettie reported over a speaker in the room. “Would you like me to wake him?”

Bjorn stroke his beard. He hoped Wildman hadn’t fallen off the wagon. “Who has the con?”

“Lieutenant Blair,” Bettie replied. “He has been on duty for four hours,” she added, as if anticipating Bjorn’s thoughts. David Blair was the XO of the ship, a holdover from Wick’s crew. The man struck Bjorn as unambitious but reliable, a sentiment Pastor Hawkins shared.

“Let Wildman sleep for now.” There wasn’t anything for Than to do, so he might as well get some rest, Bjorn thought. “Where’s Bill?”

“Major Hawkins is in the command office.”

Of course, Bill was already at work, Bjorn reflected. His best friend was the hardest working officer Bjorn had ever known. Bjorn didn’t know what he would do without him. He finished donning his uniform and pushed himself toward the hatch.

“Would you like me to ask Corporal Halsey to bring you coffee and breakfast?” As long as Bjorn had worked with Bettie, she had been polite for a program. He wasn’t sure if it was something her learning routines had acquired or had been programmed to do from the start.

Bjorn’s stomach rumbled at the thought of food. “Yes, please. Preferably something with sausage or bacon—both is better—plus coffee.”

“Should I remind you about your sodium intake?” Bettie chided. “Dr. Cataldi cautioned you about your blood pressure.”

“Dr. Cataldi isn’t about to drop onto an alien world and risk death,” Bjorn objected. Living with Talita had made him more conscientious about his health. While it was by no means kale and bean sprout smoothies, her cooking was better for him than whatever deep-fried salty junk he’d get from the Mead Hall or a bar. “Besides, my blood pressure is under the mark for pre-hypertension.”

“Barely,” Bettie noted. “Message sent to Corporal Halsey.

Bjorn didn’t have far to float to reach the command office. The cramped compartment was a far cry from the spacious office he’d had at Bear Town or would have on Vishall once the tower was complete.

“Morning, Bill,” Bjorn said as he pulled himself through the hatchway. A Tri-V display in front of Major Hawkins showed the TOE for the forces on the operation. “What’s on your mind?”

“This objective and this bullshit mission,” Bill muttered. He tapped on the desk, and a hologram of the objective appeared. “I’m trying to figure out how this base is worth the credits they’re offering us to take it.”

“Does the ‘why’ matter as long as the credits are good?” Bjorn ventured. They had been chewing on this bone for days. “The Eosogi want the Zuul kicked out after the dog-boys took their base.”

Bill shifted his gaze to Bjorn. “You know what I mean.”

Bjorn stroked his beard. “Yeah, it’s too good to be true and doesn’t make any sense. We’re ten hours from emergence and another seven to orbit. We’re running out of time to figure out what smells funny about this deal, and how we can pull it off and get paid.”

“We left a company on Vishall, and another on Earth,” Major Hawkins stated, the TOE highlighting as he spoke. “It leaves us with four companies. What are we missing? Why would they expect two companies of Zuul to hold out against us? The defensive emplacements don’t seem impressive.”

“Are you thinking it’s like that tale Martin Quincy told my father?” Bjorn suggested. “Where two patrons hired mercs to slug it out every year over some base, and to the patrons it was little more than a game?”

“Maybe. The base has a broad kill zone around it, so the obvious ploy is an overwhelming strike on a narrow section, to limit the defensive weapons they could bring to bear.” Bill stared at the map. “The best approach would be to try to overwhelm the sector with the gate.”

Bjorn narrowed his eyes. “Mines. Especially on the gate approach, but all around as well. Dumb mercs in power armor charge through minefield and go boom. They’re probably magno-proximity, in case someone used hoversleds or hovertanks.”

“While we try to pick our way through a minefield, they snipe us and whittle us down,” Bill said.

“Time to put the new goodies we acquired for the Casanovas to the test.” The tech Bjorn had acquired from a Masheen depot worked so far in tests, but it hadn’t been subjected to live combat conditions.

“There’s probably a reason no one has tried it before,” Bill cautioned. This also wasn’t a new argument.

“It’s a shame we can’t mount it on a CASPer, maybe in place of the ablative fold-out laser shield,” Bjorn remarked.

“You’d need a CASPer thirty feet tall.”

“I’d say maybe the Mk 10, but if they keep shrinking them, all the pilots will have to be Whisky’s size.” Bjorn grinned. “Come on, you have to admit big-ass CASPers would be badass.”

“They’d be huge targets.” Bill turned to the Tri-V. “How do you want to deploy your new toys?”

“Out of twelve fighting vehicles, we have four Aegis rumblers.” Four icons illuminated on the display. Bjorn reached into the hologram and moved the icons as though they were pieces on a game board. “Two ranks of five, with two Aegis per rank. The two artillery rumblers will bring up the rear of their formation. We hold back the infantry until we clear the minefield, then bring them in fast with the auggies.”

“What about when this plan goes south?” Major Hawkins gazed at the holographic display. “Because it always goes south.”

“Then I’ll do what I always do,” Bjorn replied. “I’ll call an audible on the field.”

* * * * *

Chapter 23

SOGA HQ, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Earth

“General, you have an incoming message,” Peepo’s assistant announced. “It’s from Sergeant Druul.”

Peepo looked up from the mind-numbing queue of messages. She ran a galaxy-spanning guild, how could one primitive planet be so…messy?

“Put it through,” Peepo ordered.

“This is Sergeant Druul.”

“Report, Sergeant.”

“The Human Bjorn Tovesson II, former commander of the unit Bjorn’s Berserkers, is dead.” Druul’s visage showed a new scar running from above his right eye to his now-notched ear. “He engaged the apprehension team. There are three survivors, including myself. We brought down his domicile on his mate with explosives and incendiaries.”

Peepo twitched her snout. Former Commander Tovesson had been a solid, reliable mercenary commander. If more Human commanders had been like him, maybe this invasion wouldn’t have been necessary. “Return here at best speed.”

“He shot down our transport shuttle,” Sergeant Druul admitted. “There are only three of us. We used the domicile as a pyre for our fallen. Perhaps Lieutenant Sabher’s team could pick us up?”

Peepo took a deep breath and counted to eight and two. “We’ve lost contact with Sabher’s team. We know from telemetry his troop sled was destroyed.”

“Send me a team, and I will take up his pursuit!” Druul leaned into the display. “We owe the Humans.”

“No, I’m done wasting resources on this nonsense. I don’t need troops scurrying all over the globe. Logistics will contact you about retrieval. Once you are back, we’ll put your Besquith to more practical use.”

“As you say, General.”

Peepo terminated the connection. “Get logistics to arrange a pick up for Druul’s team. If any survivors of Sabher’s team turn up, collect them as well.”

Peepo peered at the Tri-V showing one of the global news feeds. The hologram displayed a small crowd of protesters marching with signs in from of the General Assembly’s headquarters. Didn’t these Humans have anything better to do than wave signs and screech at holo-cameras?

* * *

Decommissioned Mine, Olaf Mining, Alaska

“Lynn Tovesson has arrived at Aklak Creek.” Lieutenant Gyatso Enkh didn’t recognize the speaker. He was one of half a dozen new arrivals from the Berserkers currently manning monitors in the command room. Two people could have handled the task, but it was better to keep people busy. They ran four six-hour shifts a day. “She’s waiting for the next truck to come up.”

“There’s one scheduled in three hours,” another Berserker announced, this one a woman. “The snowfall is minimal, although there is some drifting. It shouldn’t present a problem.”

Corporal Cvetkov waved. “I’ve got a message from Pastor Hawkins’ team. They have twenty-two survivors and are ten hours out from Ruby Creek.”

The Berserkers’ all perked up, peering over consoles. It was the first good news since the planes had arrived. The message regarding the former commander’s death had cast a pall over the troops.

“Send a bus to Ruby Creek and have them park the rumblers,” Lieutenant Enkh ordered. “Inform Sergeant Yamaguchi. I’m sure he’ll be relieved to no longer be the senior officer on site for the Berserkers.”

* * *

Monte Mor, Brazil

Captain Rosario Ruyes surveyed the crowd. Her small mercenary company made up half of the crowd; the rest were locals trusted enough not to go haring off impulsively to protest the aliens, os invasores. She spotted her daughter Salomé among the crowd and smiled. Unlike many young people, Salomé had the patience to wait out the long plan.

“Our mission is two-fold,” Rosario stated, addressing the crowd. “In the near term, we must stockpile the supplies needed to weather the coming drought. I don’t speak of rainfall, but of government subsidies. Government-funded programs rely on the mercenary income tax. Now that Peepo has taken over and put a stop to 99% of mercenary work, this revenue stream will run dry. The governments of the world, both global and national, will find themselves penniless and with eight billion hungry mouths to feed.

“The results won’t be pretty. Given the libertarian nature of the galactic government, they will be content to let those who do not work starve. This will provoke global riots. We must see to our own and our families’ needs.” Rosario paused to let the implications sink in.

“In addition to providing for our own, we need to amass the materials and equipment necessary to take the fight to os invasores,” Captain Ruyes added. “Gathering what we need won’t be the hard part. The real challenge will be keeping it secret, and all our lives will depend on it.”

Rosario clicked a control and a large Tri-V display illuminated. “They claim the Golden Horde set off nuclear weapons in Tashkent, but what is more likely? That the Golden Horde happened to have nuclear weapons ready to counter a surprise attack, or that the aliens used nukes to break a foe they couldn’t honestly defeat?”

Noises of assent rose from the crowd. “Yesterday, they tracked down a retired leader of a mercenary company, murdered him, and burnt down his home on top of his wife. They crowed this vile act as though it was a military victory as opposed to slaughtering an elderly couple in their home. This will be the fate of all they find, so we must be vigilant. When we have what we need, we will avenge the fallen and drive these aliens off Earth!”

The crowd roared in response.

* * *

Tanana River, Alaska

A scent roused Lieutenant Sabher. How long had he been unconscious? The cold seeped to his bones. He wanted to lie his head back down and sleep.

The smell again—a predator, but not another Besquith. Adrenaline pushed blood into his numb limbs. Pain stabbed into his flank where shards of the composite turbine blades had pierced his combat armor. Sabher took a deep breath and coughed up bloody phlegm. Shrapnel must have nicked one of his four lungs.

A snuffling noise focused his attention. Sabher lifted his head and squinted against the evening light. A huge, brown creature regarded him, swaying its head back and forth. At first glance, Sabher thought it was Jivool.

“Contact command,” Sabher rasped. “I need to report.”

The creature responded with a deep but inarticulate growl. He realized it was no Jivool, but a native predator. He rose to his knees and reached for his holster. His weapon was gone, lost in the river.

The shaggy brown animal gave a deep moan and shuffled a few steps closer to him. Sabher pushed himself up to his feet. The beast was more than double his own mass of 150 kilograms. Though he was injured and weak, he was still wearing his combat armor. The Besquith spat out a bloody glob of mucous and bared his fangs. “Let’s do this,” he uttered with a guttural growl.

The creature roared and charged, rising as it met him. Its claws screeched across the molybdenum-alloy segments of Sabher’s combat armor. Sabher’s talons sank into the thick hide and fatty layers protecting the animal. The ursoid’s jaws clamped down with crushing force at the juncture of his neck and collarbone.

Sabher snapped his fangs, scraping along the side of the beast’s head and sheering off an ear. The predator shook Sabher like a pup’s toy before hurling the Besquith head over heels along the river bank. Colored stars bloomed behind his eyes, and his breath came in labored gasps. Warmth trickling down his neck told him fragments of his own armor had been driven into his flesh by the animal’s bite.

The beast shook its head, spraying steaming droplets of blood and slaver into the icy air. Its roar was a mix of anger and pain as it lurched forward again. Sabher crouched, then sprang as the ursoid reached him. Sabher’s maw opened wide, aimed for the predator’s throat. Had he been in fighting condition, he would have torn the animal’s throat out. Instead a huge paw swatted him from the air. Sabher smashed face first into the rocky ground.

Pain lanced through his side as the beast clawed Sabher and drove slivers of composite armor deeper into his chest. Something gurgled in his chest cavity as the damaged lung collapsed. Before his could regain his feet, the beast chomped down on his helmet. The rigid armor thwarted the animal’s attempt to crush the Besquith’s skull; its fangs could find no purchase.

Sabher lashed out with one hand, hoping to blind the beast. The animal snarled in pain and flinched away. Sabher seized the opening and lunged up, driving rows of razor-sharp teeth into the creature’s throat. He sank his claws into the animal and clung on as his opponent tried to shake him loose. The ursoid batted at him, sparking another spike of pain, and slammed him against a tree, but Sabher would not relent. Hot blood poured into his mouth. The beast thrashed so hard its flesh came away in Sabher’s maw as it shook him loose; bright, red blood sprayed from the gaping wound.

Sabher spat out a mouthful of furry hide and bloody meat. He could feel his strength ebbing. His opponent tried to roar despite its ravaged windpipe. It took two faltering steps toward him, hatred red in its eyes, before it slumped to the cold ground.

A worthy opponent, thought Sabher, groping for the trauma nanite injector on his belt. His hand found nothing. His belt had been torn away in the struggle. His gaze swept along the river bank and spotted it ten meters away. He tried to rise and stumbled a couple of steps closer. Colors swam in his vision as he crawled toward the medical kit. He coughed, and blood dribbled from his muzzle. It was almost in reach. He dragged himself across the cold ground, the chill seeping into his bones and making his limbs heavy. His hand trembled as he grasped for the kit.

* * *

“What the hell is it?” Andrew Boots peered at the prone creature. It resembled a giant wolf in a suit of armor.

“I don’t know, but it fucked up this Kodiak,” Devin Tennyson replied. The bear was dead, its throat ripped out. “See this blood trail? The wolf-thing tried to crawl away.”

“There’s something in its paw…hand…whatever.” Andrew leaned closer and poked at the creature’s paw with his shotgun. It clutched some sort of belt, with pouches and an empty holster. Its other hand lay open with a plastic cylinder the size of a magic marker resting on its palm. A blue light blinked on the cylinder. A strange character he didn’t recognized was lit on the small display, the character repeated three times.

Devin walked and stood beside Andrew. “Do you reckon we can skin it? I bet a wolf rug could fetch a few dollars.”

“How do we get it out of the armor?” Andrew asked. “Maybe we should call my cousin to come out and help. The bear has to be at least 800 pounds, and this thing is at least half that.”

“Good idea,” Devin agreed. “Take some pictures while you’re at it. Maybe we can find something on the Aethernet.”

Andrew pulled out his FedFone, and the government-issued smart phone hooked into the wireless network from the tower in Tetlin. Half the towns in Alaska had their own airstrip, and almost all of them had their own Aethernet tower.

“Hey, take a picture of me with the wolf,” Devin said. He placed a boot on the creature’s armor and held up his gun.

“Yeah, sure.” Andrew aimed the device, waiting for the camera software to focus on Devin’s face. A second face box appeared over the creature’s head—its eyes were open.

* * *

“This is Lieutenant Sabher reporting in,” the Besquith rasped. Even after the trauma nanite treatment, his breath came in short, painful wheezes. The microscopic machines had mended him enough to reach proper medical treatment. Luckily, the humans mostly shrieked and soiled themselves when he woke up. “I need an evac. Home in on this device for my location.” The rudimentary communication device had allowed him to reach the Mercenary Guild operations center in Brazil. Sabher glanced down at the dead humans. “Maybe I should skin you for a new belt.”

* * * * *

Chapter 24

EMS Ursa Major, Hyperspace

“Three minutes until emergence,” the helmsman said. Corporal Marcia Ling’s hand rest lightly on the maneuver controls. “Fusion torch standing by.”

“Shields and point-defense batteries standing by,” reported Corporal Demar Murphy. The def-ops operator was one of the most seasoned crew members on the ship. “Defensive missiles loaded in even-numbered tubes.”

“All weapons batteries green.” Corporal Carl Higgins oversaw the gunnery pit. “Ship-killers in odd-numbered tubes and particle cannons charged.”

Corporal Anne Sprague’s southern twang reported next. “Communication network ready for emergence and drone control reports ready. Engineering reports ready and damage control crews on stand-by.”

Corporal Frank Lutz had more flight service logged than Murphy but had been with different outfits until a year ago. “Sensors standing by,” he reported.

>>Battlefield tactical intelligence standing by<< Bettie reported directly to Bjorn’s flag station. Bjorn had tinkered with the idea of having Bettie control the drones, but she couldn’t improvise as well as organic operators.

Bjorn wished he was in his CASPer instead of a flight suit. Despite braiding his beard, it snagged painfully on the collar if he turned his head too quickly. Major Hawkins had groused about the suits as well. The second-in-command of the Berserkers was in an auxiliary compartment amidships. This kept the whole operation from being decapitated by a lucky shot to the CIC.

The countdown hovered over every station. It seemed to Bjorn the crew all but ignored the scrolling numbers; it was all he could do to keep from staring at them. Another minute ticked by.

“Sixty seconds to emergence,” Ling announced.

“By the numbers,” Captain Wildman reported. He had drilled the crew for this moment. They would come out of hyperspace with the same velocity the ship had had when they entered the stargate. “Sensor drones stand by to deploy.”

Bjorn closed his eyes right before the countdown ticked to zero. The universe collapsed into the pit in his stomach, then everything was normal.

“Bogies in the threat box!” Lutz shouted.

“Shields,” Wildman ordered. “Counter-batteries stand by.”

“War book identifies them as one Marmaduk-class frigate and three cutters—all Zuul ships,” Lutz reported as icons populated the tactical display.

“All ships have emerged from hyperspace and are reporting in,” Sprague stated. White icons arrayed themselves behind the Ursa Major. The three frigates fanned out equilaterally from the axis of the formation, screening the transports.

“Sir, the Zuul are backing off,” Lutz reported.

“I guess they don’t like the odds.” Wildman’s humor didn’t reach his expression. “Inform the Zuul if they engage us, we will destroy them. Lutz, keep an eye on them; def-ops maintain shields.”

Both operators acknowledged their orders. The tactical display showed the threat envelopes of both sides as the blue icons drifted away from the fleet. “Helm, set course for Patoka, one G.” Wildman said. “Sprague, relay the same to the fleet.”

Bettie, any sign of other ships lurking nearby?” Bjorn cast through his pinplants. It was too easy. If it had only been the transports, the Zuul ships would have been a threat.

Negative,” the BTI replied a moment later. “All ships are conducting active sweeps. For a dormant ship within one light second to escape detection, it would have to be the size of a dropship or smaller.

The priority command channel pinged—a message from Major Hawkins.

“That was too easy,” Hawkins remarked.

“I know.” Bjorn reflexively reached for his hammer pendant, only to be blocked by the damned suit. “Maybe they only expected transports? Only a third of the merc operations field true warships, and among Humans it’s closer to twenty percent.”

“You don’t believe that, do you?” Bill challenged.

“No, I don’t,” Bjorn admitted. The commander kept his voice low. His best friend was right; this was too easy. It felt as though they were being set up. “Damn Loki to Hel. Give me a stand-up fight, not this pussy-footing around bullshit.”

“Commander Tovesson, eight hours, forty-seven minutes until Patoka orbit,” Captain Wildman reported. “We came out thirty-seven degrees off ideal orientation and have to correct. We can increase thrust to make up time if you want.”

“No,” Bjorn shook his head and bit back a curse as his beard snagged. “No need to subject the crew to the extra Gs. Keep the fleet on ready-alert.” It was one step below battle stations. “Deploy three sensor drones—I want to widen our field of view. This whole set up stinks like a trick play—as though they’re trying to draw us offsides.”

“I’m sorry, sir?” Captain Wildman furrowed his brow in puzzlement.

“It’s a football analogy.” At least they were under thrust. Bjorn unbuckled his harness.

“I didn’t know you were a soccer fan, Commander.”

Bjorn sighed and stood up. He glanced at the seat next to his—Corporal Halsey was sound asleep. “Halsey, wake up!”

The corporal’s eyes snapped open. “Sir!”

“Get three coffees and bring them to my office,” Bjorn instructed. “One is for you, so you might want to make it a double.”

* * *

Zuul Frigate Prowler One, Formerly on High Guard at Patoka Emergence Point

“Are we going to show our throats to everyone?” Lieutenant Ravin, the XO snapped.

Captain Brunog growled. “Are you blind or stupid? The Humans outclassed us by an order of magnitude.”

“An exaggeration!” Ravin retorted. She leveled a challenging gaze at the captain. “We will not get paid if we do not fight.”

The bridge crew watched silently as the captain bristled. “We will not get paid if we are dead!” he snarled, baring his teeth. It wouldn’t be the first time command of a Zuul ship came down to shows of dominance or even physical conflict, and it wouldn’t be the last. “Tell the crew how you want to throw their lives away.”

Ravin lowered her ears and capitulated. “Fine. The odds were not in our favor.”

“An understatement!” Branog sneered. He turned to the sensor operator. “What is the status of the Human fleet?”

“They are under thrust for the planet, but are maintaining sensor sweeps and still have their shields charged,” the operator answered. “We will be out of mutual threat envelopes in two minutes.”

“Tight beam maser communication to the installation on the moon,” Brunog ordered. “Let them know the Humans are on the way. They have eight hours.”

* * *

Ancient Outpost, Toka’Da, in Orbit over Patoka

The moon was little more than a glorified asteroid, either captured by the planet’s gravity or intentionally placed there eons ago. Bengii suspected the later. The Zuul technician peered at the Tri-V display that showed the latest test results.

“There is a fifty-seven percent chance the charge will backwash into the system with catastrophic results,” Tovin, Bengii’s assistant stated.

“I can read the display,” Bengii snapped. The holographic monitor was one of the few reliable pieces of equipment in the strange outpost. The Zuul had spent the past two years trying to decipher the antiquated alien tech, with only limited success. The four frigates nestled in the hangar caverns were reliable modern Zuul technology, but Commander Venris wasn’t satisfied.

Their mercenary company had originally taken the Eosogi base two years ago. Several months ago, the Humans arrived, and their commander hired the Howling Commandoes to set a trap for another Human merc unit. While the Humans on Patoka knew the Zuul maintained an outpost on the moon, they didn’t realize the extent. El Espejo Obscuro couldn’t match the Zuul company’s space assets—if Commander Venris chose, he could hold the growing Human base hostage. So far, the commander seemed content to take the payday while the technicians toiled to unlock the secrets of the ancient devices.

“I don’t see why we would test the apparatus,” Tovin grumbled, gazing at the alien glyphs accompanied by Zuul text. “It gives away our position. Let the Humans go at each other’s throats. If the winner is badly mauled, we can capitalize on their misfortune. Otherwise, we keep our noses down.”

* * *

New Aztlán, Patoka

“They’re here!” Rodrigo thumped his fist on the desk. “Finally. Alert the workers to secure the camouflage nets. Dampen any heat sources—you know the protocols.”

Aldo contained a sigh. They had rehearsed for this day for three weeks, so he was confident in their people’s execution. He was less confident in Rodrigo’s state of mind. “Did you see the report from the Zuul at the high guard? The Berserkers have four transports, three frigates, and a battlecruiser.”

Rodrigo waved away Aldo’s concerns, staring at a Tri-V image of his deceased brother. “This is not a space—wait, three frigates and a battlecruiser?” He sat up and called up the report and actually read through it this time. “They were supposed to have a frigate and five transports. Where did they get these naval assets?”

Aldo shrugged. There had been no mention of them in the stolen TOE, nor in the last communications packet from Earth. “It doesn’t matter where Tovesson got the ships, they are en route. Our transports are ten light seconds away—almost eight hours at one point five-Gs.” While the transports were armed and shielded, they were engineered to survive delivering dropships to orbit, not slug it out with warships. The three transports might be a match for a single frigate.

“The plan has always been to allow Bjorn’s Berserkers to land,” Rodrigo finally said, steepling his fingers as he watched the sensor data and war book displays of each Berserker ship scroll through the Tri-V. “Once we destroy the ground forces, the Berserkers’ ships will likely fall back.” Rodrigo smiled. “If they go to Earth or Karma, they will find a most unwelcoming reception.”

“What about the Zuul?” Aldo asked. “We know they’re hiding at least two frigates in the moon, plus the one at high guard. It wouldn’t be enough to go toe-to-toe with the Berserkers’ ships, but it might be enough to discourage them from sticking around.”

Rodrigo tapped his desk. “Get a message to Commander Venris. Offer him one million credits for each warship he destroys or captures.”

“Can we afford that?” Aldo was confident they couldn’t, not until Peepo paid El Espejo Obscuro for destroying the Berserkers.

Rodrigo waved his hand in the direction of the landing pads. “We have our own CASPer production line. Any other human mercs who choose to play ball with the Mercenary Guild will still need gear, and they’ll be less likely to trust Binning after word of the sabotaged operating system spreads. We might as well be printing credits, my friend.”

“It might encourage enough aggressiveness from the Zuul to encourage the Berserkers to depart rather than fight a pointless battle,” Aldo conceded. It would be unlikely the Zuul could destroy more than one warship, which would limit the payout. “I’ll send the message, then see to preparations.”

Bien. I will call a meeting of all officers in two hours.”

* * *

“Here, try the olive, garlic, and sardine spread.” Hana held forth a thin slice of bread with a green paste smeared over the top. She was much more gastronomically adventurous than Escuzio.

Como?” Escuzio thought maybe he’d had too much sangria when the lights went dim in the tapaseria. Exit markers remained illuminated, and various displays still cast their glow, but the overhead lights had dropped to 25% and shifted red.

“Is the romantic lighting your idea?” Hana teased, still holding the bread. They agreed to meet for dinner and drinks as Escuzio walked Hana home last night. He tried not to make expectations about what would happen afterward. The tapaseria was expensive, served small portions, and specialized in more exotic Iberian cuisine. Nonetheless, it was packed.

Chimes and pings sounded throughout the crowd. Slates and phones were pulled out, their screens illuminating faces. Escuzio checked his own slate. The colony was on black-out protocols. Heat sources were to be turned off, as well as any but dim illumination. Transmissions were limited to near-field communications.

A chorus of grumbles rolled through the restaurant as mercenaries and laborers scooped up the remains of their meals and hurriedly paid their tabs. In ten minutes, only five tables remained occupied. Lloni Teixo, the proprietor, stared forlornly over the dining room.

Escuzio only felt slightly bad for the restauranteur. Like the other businessmen who had followed the Espejos to Patoka, Teixo made his fortune gouging mercenaries flush with credits and nowhere else to spend them.

“Do you have to report in?” Hana asked, her slice of bread forgotten.

Escuzio shook his head. “Whatever is going on, I doubt they need a coder.”

“If the troopers were called in, sooner or later I’ll be called as well,” Hana lamented.

Through his pinplants, he sent a message to his slate. It tapped into the near-field network and fired off a command string to the base server. The string activated a code-wyrm, which Escuzio fed instructions. He covered his distraction by picking up the piece of bread and taking a tentative bite. Salt trumped the garlic, which in turn masked most of the fish taste. Not horrible, but not something he would order on his own.

The code-wyrm reported success. Hana wouldn’t be summoned to work for the next twelve hours. “Didn’t you already put a lot of work into prepping CASPers for deployment? They probably won’t need you for a while, if at all.”

“If they don’t call me in by the time we’re done with our tapas, let’s go to your place and pick up where we left off on that bottle of tequila,” Hana suggested.

Escuzio popped the remainder of the bread slice in his mouth.

* * *

Lloni Teixo surveyed his almost empty restaurant. Every merc and a large portion of the support staff for the base had hurried off to answer the summons. Shaking his head, he fiddled with the light sliders, trying to bring the illumination above the dim twilight. It was no avail; lighting and environmental controls were networked into the grid, along with the power. The thermostat showed a kick-on at 12 degrees Celsius.

“Hey boss,” Hector, one of his cooks called from the kitchen. “The oven and grill both shut down.”

Both appliances were electric, and both were networked into the grid. Cursing under his breath, Lloni checked the walk-in cooler/freezer and the three refrigerators. All hummed along, unaffected by the imposed brown out. Lloni let out his breath in relief. He might lose the rest of the night’s sales, but at least he wouldn’t lose his inventory. He was close to paying off his initial investment and the portage fee imposed by the mercenary company. Losing his stock would have been a disaster, especially given the delay and expense in getting supplies.

“Looks like an early night,” Lloni said. It was only 1930; normally the tapaseria would be packed until midnight. “Hector, Anita, shut down the kitchen. Enrique, please tell me we still have hot water.”

Si, jefe,” the dishwasher replied. Another small favor, Lloni thought.

Lloni grabbed a tub and began clearing vacated tables. He would pay the crew the full night’s wages. Selma and Celia would feel the pinch of missed tips, but the waitresses pulled in more money than the rest of the crew combined. One short night wouldn’t break them.

“Boss, what about the bread for tomorrow?” Hector asked as Lloni lugged the tub piled with dishes and refuse into the back.

Maleida,” Lloni cursed in his native Catalan. Forty loaves of dough were rising in an electric cabinet. When the dough was ready, the cabinet would switch into oven mode and slow-bake the bread. In the morning, the thick-crusted bread would be waiting. Lloni checked the control panel for the cabinet. The heat mode was offline. He could set it to chill and hope the dough wouldn’t go bad. In the morning, he’d have the leftover bread from tonight to hold him over until the current batch baked.

There was another option. “Hector, load the brick oven out back with fuel pellets,” Lloni said. “We’ll do this the old-fashioned way, same as when we waited for them to set up the power grid.” Fuel pellets were made from dehydrated food refuse and wood pulp. Clearing the footprint for the base required removing a lot of timber and scrub trees, and only part of it was suitable as lumber. Most of it had been shredded and pulped.

An ad hoc oven and grill sat on the fenced off patio behind the restaurant, unused since the power had been turned on. It lacked the convenience of the computer-controlled bread cabinet, so Lloni would have to monitor the baking process. It would take an hour or so for the oven to get hot enough, and Lloni decided to allow some extra time to burn off any detritus.

“Load up the grill as well. If I’m going to be here, I might as well cook up some meat and fish for tomorrow, in case the power is still dialed down.”

* * *

Occupied Eosogi Base, Patoka

“Anything yet?” Arrvr leaned over Rurrf’s shoulder.

“I’m a soldier, not a code hacker,” Rurrf snapped. They had cleared the hatch of dirt and debris but had failed to get through it. A slate had been connected to the maintenance port in the entry pad, but so far the lock was doing its job and had denied them entry.

The slate chimed, causing both Zuul to twitch. “It’s a message,” Rurrf said as text scrolled across the slate. “The enemy is inbound, with an ETA of six hours. We are to be in our assigned positions in five hours.”

“Have you tried the Jeha algorithm?” Arrvr asked.

“Yes. The elSha one as well.” Rurrf glared at the obstinate hatch. “I don’t plan on starving to death waiting for this thing to open, unlike the little monkey.”

The scrolling text on the slate froze, the image sheered by some sort of graphics artifact. “Did we break your slate?” Arrvr shifted his feet anxiously.

“It appears locked up.” Rurrf picked up the device and studied the screen. The message center showed half a reply from the moon base to the ships on high guard; the text was garbled with strange glyphs mixed in.

A loud click reverberated through the hatch and a single amber glyph appeared on the entry pad. The slate’s screen then resumed normal function. Arrvr and Rurrf glanced at each other as the hatch actuator cycled. Musty air, warmer than the chilly surface, puffed out.

“Let’s see what our little monkey-friend was so desperate to reach,” Rurrf said. She unslung her battle rifle and flipped off the safety.

“Afraid of ghosts?” Arrvr teased, but his hand slipped down and unfastened the retaining strap on his sidearm holster.

“This has power despite being buried for years, maybe centuries.” Rurrf tested the first step of the stairs descending into darkness. “Who knows what is down here?”

* * * * *

Chapter 25

EMS Onikuma, Emergence Point, Patoka System

“Threat box is clear!” the sensor operator declared.

“Captain, we are oriented nine zero mark four seven to flight path to planet,” the helm officer announced. She cast her screen onto the main Tri-V display. The trick of hyperspace emergence was that a ship never knew which direction they would be traveling when they returned to normal space. “Orders?”

“Plot course for Patoka, one G,” Lieutenant Byrne replied. As commanding officer of a ship, he was addressed as captain, which led to some confusion and a touch of bitterness, even if he was paid 10% better than he’d been as one of Wick’s Wolverines.

“Any sign of the Berserker fleet?” Captain Boggs asked from her seat at the rear of the CIC. Based on the battle plan, the assault force should have emerged four hours before them.

Corporal Jamar Wilkins, the sensor operator, glanced sidelong at Byrne, who nodded. Wilkin’s screen took over the main display. “I show the task force halfway to the objective planet.” White icons populated the display. A blue icon appeared behind the formation. “I have one bogey trailing the assault force, roughly 70,000 kilometers behind them.”

“Open a channel to Ursa Major,” Boggs ordered, hoping she wasn’t stepping on toes. “Put me through to Commander Tovesson.”

* * *

EMS Ursa Major, Approaching Patoka

“Incoming message,” the intercom on the office wall announced. The southern accent gave it away as Corporal Sprague. “Captain Marian Boggs on the EMS Onikuma for Commander Tovesson.”

Bjorn’s eyebrow knit as he glanced at Major Hawkins. “Put it through,” Bjorn ordered.

“Commander, we are transmitting a status update regarding the situation on Earth,” Boggs recited. The problem with communicating from more than a light second or so away was that the delay led to stilted, scripted messages. “We have reason to believe the Patoka contract is a trap. I am inbound on the Onikuma with most of Kodiak Company. TOE updates accompany this transmission. Over.”

“Nice to know we weren’t the only ones to think so,” Hawkins muttered.

“I am updating from the iteration onboard the Onikuma,” Bettie announced. “Oh my, it is fortunate we did not update our CASPers to the new OS popular on Earth. The operating system wasn’t merely flawed, it was heavily compromised.”

Bjorn tapped at his workstation. Several holograms shrank and lined up in a single column. Captain Boggs’ face appeared. “Shit must be bad if you came out here in person,” Bjorn said. “Give me the highlights, Marian, and have your helm catch you up to the rest of us. I’ll have the fleet coast a bit to give you time. Over.”

“Is it a good idea to slow down?” Major Hawkins remarked. “It will give them more time to prepare.”

“They’ve known we were coming since we took this contract.” Bjorn watched the TOE for Kodiak Company scroll by. “Boggs brought everything except three platoons of infantry.”

“There is a human mercenary company, El Espejo Obscuro, either en route or already at Patoka. We also have reason to believe there is a spy working on behalf of the Espejos within the Berserker organization. It appears the Eosogi Base is a trap, with potential for up to three additional CASPer companies opposing us,” Captain Boggs said. “Also, be advised a Zuul frigate is trailing you. Over.”

“We’ll talk more once you’re within a light second. Out.” Bjorn ended the call. “Bettie, convey the intel to the bridge regarding the nosey Zuul. They’re probably banking on the fusion torch wash masking them from our sensors.”

“I told you this contract was fishy,” Bill said. “By the way, you might want to give orders yourself instead of having Bettie robo-call the bridge.”

“Fine.” Bjorn tapped an icon on his workstation. “Captain Wildman, send a flight of recon drones ahead. I want a sweep of the objective, the surrounding area, and orbit. We’re looking for another merc unit waiting to crash the party.”

* * *

New Aztlán, Patoka

“We’ve received a transmission,” Aldo announce from the door of Rodrigo’s office. The building had already dropped five degrees and was growing colder. To Commander Sanchez’s credit, he followed the same rules he imposed on the base—his office was as chilly as the rest of the building. “Another Berserker frigate has emerged and is maneuvering to join the rest of the fleet.”

Rodrigo slammed his hand on the desk. “Where did he get all these ships?”

Aldo ignored the outburst. “Our agent is on board the new frigate. We’ve received an updated TOE, including the new arrivals. I believe the original data provided by Mr. Diaz was a ruse.”

“He lied?” Rodrigo’s voice was icier than the wind outside.

“No, I think our hacker believed he stole an authentic table of organization and equipment, but it was in fact outdated or a forgery placed as counter-intelligence.” Aldo tapped at his slate and cast both the updated TOE and the previous version to the Tri-V on Commander Sanchez’s desk. “This assumes they left no units behind on Vishall—our agent came straight from Earth, so we don’t know what ground units they left behind. It appears they brought all of their naval assets save for a single transport.”

“The contract called for no warships,” Sanchez fumed. “At least Tovesson is still using mixed companies. Infantry—he might as well pay those death benefits now. Unaugmented infantry is next to useless on the modern battlefield. What is an ‘aegis tank’?”

Aldo shrugged. “Some sort of counter-fire battery? Their CASPers are more concerning; they are not as antiquated as we were led to believe.”

Rodrigo studied the equipment listing. “They are still not using Mk 8s,” he remarked. “They are fielding Mk 6s and Mk 7s. Our machines are superior before you even take into account the improved laser diffusion and the enhanced actuating protocols in the upgraded operating system.”

“They never upgraded to the new software,” Aldo said, continuing to parse the information the agent had sent. “They won’t be taken out of commission by the sabotaged code.”

“Fine. As amusing as it would have been to see the Berserkers’ CASPers all lock up in the field, defeating them with superior hardware, soldiers, and tactics will be more rewarding,” Rodrigo said. “If they brought every CASPer, our numbers would be equal. We will crush them against the Zuul defending the objective outpost.”

“You realize the Zuul will do as little as possible,” Aldo cautioned. He certainly wouldn’t blame them. The Berserkers could be fielding as many CASPers as the Zuul had troops.

Rodrigo waved his hand dismissively. “All those perros have to do is hold Tovesson’s attention. They have walls, emplaced weapons, and minefields between them and the Berserkers. There is a wide kill zone around the base, and the terrain to the north and east will preclude landing. It means they will land in the plains to the south, or the wide valley to the west. Either provides tactical opportunities. As soon as they are down, we will load our men in the dropships and strike.”

Aldo nodded. That part of the plan was sound. The dropships had been fueled and loaded with ordnance as soon as the Berserkers emerged from hyperspace. They had considered loading the men in advance as well but didn’t want to have the men in their CASPers longer than necessary in case the plan changed.

From what Aldo had experienced in war, the plans always changed.

* * *

Peacemaker Corvette, Entering Patoka Orbit

“No challenges?” Qivek asked from the rear of the bridge.

The SleSha pilot dipped its antennae, the wasp-like alien’s equivalent of a shrug. “There are orbital sensor platforms, and an installation on the surface is running active sensor sweeps, but we have not passed within their limited sensor envelope. More interesting, there have been regular pings of theta band emissions from the moon.”

“Theta band?” Qivek scratched his head. “Who uses theta band anymore? That sensor protocol is positively ancient.”

“Perhaps it is the point,” Ozor suggested. The Tortantula studied ancient technology as a hobby. “While not as primitive or noisy as Human radar, most ships wouldn’t even scan in the theta band. The isotope decay required to generate the emissions presents a hazard to many of the more fragile races. No offense, Qivek.” Arthropod races had a much higher tolerance for radiation than squishier species.

“None taken,” Qivek replied. “Could they have stashed the manufactory on the moon, perhaps in an old installation?”

Again, the antennae dipped. “It is possible, Peacemaker. It would not be practical, as the moon is tiny and airless. It would be much easier for them to set it up where laborers would not need life support gear.”

“Based on gravimetric readings, the moon has a very uneven density distribution,” the SleSha co-pilot interjected. “It could be riddled with caverns.”

“Still not an ideal location,” the pilot objected.

“There’s nothing else on the ground besides the Eosogi outpost?” Qivek asked. An inhabitable world, and only a single research outpost—it didn’t make sense. Where had the humans gone? El Espejo Obscuro had relocated hundreds of people and 95% of their mercenary assets. Qivek doubted they were all crammed into the outpost with the Zuul listed by the Mercenary Guild as the garrison.

Qivek pulled the scans of the outpost to his slate. The walls of the outpost encompassed almost 40,000 square meters. The empty landing pad on the north side added another 3,500 square meters to the foot print. It wasn’t enough space to hold the humans.

“There are a couple of infrared flares 300 kilometers west of the outpost,” the co-pilot reported. “I’m getting readings sufficient to melt lithium. It has to be an active heat source.”

“Enhance the display,” Qivek ordered as the thermal image appeared in the main Tri-V display. Most of the image was pale blue, with two orange dots. Both dots fell within a box of slightly less pale blue. “What is the rectangle?”

“A graphics processing artifact?” one of the SleSha ventured.

“A thermal camouflage net,” Ozor said. “The heat sources are too small and intense for the net to screen; however, the cast infrared energy has raised the temperature of the net itself slightly above the background level.”

“How big is the rectangle?” Qivek asked.

“Roughly a million square meters,” the co-pilot replied.

“Plenty of space to hide a mercenary base,” Ozor observed, clicking her pedipalps.

* * *

EMS Ursa Major, Inbound to Patoka

“What am I looking at?” Bjorn asked.

The main Tri-V of the CIC showed the surface of the planet in various shades of blue. A green-yellow smudge appeared as the surface scrolled past. The image froze.

“The discolored areas show the Eosogi base in the infrared scans by our recon drones,” Corporal Lutz reported. “What’s more interesting is this.” The image began moving again, and a pair of orange-red dots appeared in the display. “These are roughly 200 degrees Celsius.”

“Someone having a cookout?” Hawkins quipped.

“Maybe, Major.” Lutz zoomed in the display. “At first I thought these were large bonfires or heating plants, but I noticed how evenly the heat was dispersed within the image.”

“Give it to me as though I’m a dumb merc who majored in football instead of thermodynamics and sensor technology,” Bjorn remarked.

“Yes, sir.” Lutz zoomed out. A white line outlined a rectangular area. “This patch is .8 degrees higher than ambient and describes a perfect rectangle.”

“Camo nets,” Bjorn remarked. “Fucking huge camo nets, I’m guessing.”

“Big enough to cover a square kilometer,” Lutz confirmed. “Big enough for a mercenary base and a landing field. Whoever is hiding there, someone didn’t get the message and forgot to turn off the stove.”

“Odin bless civilians,” Bjorn intoned. “Seems as though we weren’t the only ones to get the hell off Earth. How many horns of mead you want to bet Sanchez is squatting in the rectangle waiting for us to land?”

“No bet,” Major Hawkins countered. “He’s too far away to march troops up the rear of our formation.”

“He’ll use dropships.” Bjorn studied the image. “Give me terrain data.” Topographical information appeared on the map. “The best LZ is this plain to the south. He’ll hit us from multiple sides. If we drop over here to the west, we’ll have to traverse this valley to reach the outpost.”

“He can use the ridges from both sides to harry us as we emerge from the valley.” Bill used his slate to highlight both ridgelines. “It will also allow the emplacements on a 90-degree arc to fire on us.”

“We better put our fullbacks up front, then.” Bjorn sketched Xs and Os on the display with his own slate.

“What about the minefield?” Major Hawkins asked. “We haven’t tested these new toys of yours against mines.”

Bjorn drew another O on the field. “Maybe we won’t have to.”

“How the hell do we get a unit there without crossing the minefield?” Bill demanded. The O was adjacent to the outpost walls, on what appeared to be a ferrocrete landing pad. It was well within the field of fire of multiple emplacements.

Bjorn grinned. “To quote an old movie—the old way, speed of horse!”

* * *

Occupied Eosogi Base, Patoka

“We should have expected it to be empty,” Rurrf lamented. So far, the underground bunker appeared to be a standard installation. Dim lights flickered in some places; in other areas, they had to rely on their own portable lamps. The facility had consisted of empty room upon empty room.

“Look at this,” Arrvr called. “These consoles have lights, and this window overlooks a huge chamber. It looks like a docking bay.”

Rurrf examined the window. It appeared to be a meter-thick pane of armored acrylate. The chamber beyond was enormous. She shined her lamp through the window, but the beam dissipated after 30 meters or so without touching a wall.

Illumination strips glowed to life along the ceiling of the cavernous room. Rurrf shot a glance at Arrvr, who shrugged guiltily. “Do not hit random buttons,” Rurrf growled. In the dim illumination, she could see the chamber was 50 meters across and 200 meters long. It had to be some sort of hangar. What else would require so much space?

Rurrf’s eyes fell on an object in the corner of the huge chamber. She leaned forward for a better view. It appeared to be an enormous, shattered egg. Near the egg was a 20-meter long husk of an exoskeleton. It resembled a Jeha blown up to mind-boggling proportions, with rows upon rows of limbs and razor-sharp mandibles.

“Oh, no,” Rurrf uttered. “We should go. We should go now.”

“It seems long dead,” Arrvr remarked. He leaned forward on the console for a better look, unaware his hand had pressed a purple button. “I don’t think the mummy of a big bug is going to hurt us.”

“If that is—or was—what I think it is, we don’t want any part of this,” Rurrf remarked, backing away from the window. “I think this was a Kahraman facility. That husk was a Canavar.”

The purple button on the console began to blink.

* * *

Ancient Outpost, Toka’Da, in Orbit over Patoka

A signal woke it from its eons-long slumber. One of the charges on the planet surface had broken containment, and the hatchery had sent an alert. Crude alien code cluttered its thoughts. Primitives infested the facilities that served the guardian. There were no Kahraman signals. Had the enemy infiltrated the guardian’s support complex?

No, a quick scan dismissed the fear. Fear—the guardian disliked the taste of that emotion. If the enemy found it, they would murder the guardian. The primitives fumbling about the complex were not enemy. Relief.

The hatchery provided no targeting information. Perhaps the Canavar was under the surface, and they were waiting for it to emerge so the guardian could fulfill its purpose. The guardian began charging its particle lance. Once the target was identified, the guardian would smite it from the surface of the planet.

* * *

“Why have you initiated the system charge?” Bengii demanded, rising up to show dominance.

Tovin resisted the urge to shrink back. “I initiated nothing. What are you yapping about?”

“The power core has come online and begun charging the weapon,” Bengii said. “If you didn’t initiate the power up, and I didn’t, then who did?”

“How should I know?” Tovin checked the monitor. Deep within the moon, the main power core had gone from a trickle to full power. “Where’s the F11 reservoir?”

“It has to be there somewhere,” Bengii said. “You can’t have a fusion reaction without F11, right? Check the subsystem menu—who knows what this tech will do if it runs out of F11.”

“Main weapon charge at twenty-nine percent and growing.” Tovin peered at the display. “Is it me, or have more of the glyphs translated into our language?”

* * * * *

Chapter 26

EMS Ursa Major, Approaching Patoka Orbit

The fleet performed the intricate dance of orbital insertion, braking with their fusion torches to bleed off enough velocity so the ships were embraced by the planet’s gravity instead of streaking past. To a veteran spacer, the nine ships maneuvering in a carefully choreographed sequence designed to keep the force together without splashing each other with their fusion engines was like a ballet. To Bjorn, it was nerve wracking.

The fleet display hovered in his CASPer’s Tri-V, their orbital tracks swooping across the globe. Reentry paths to the landing zone updated as yellow arcs from each ship. With a thought, Bjorn shrank the fleet display. The freefall chime sounded, and Bjorn took a deep breath.

Granted, being strapped into Left Hook, his modified Mk 7 CASPer, made microgravity easier for Bjorn—he wasn’t about to float away. Pushing aside how much he missed the faux gravity of thrust, Bjorn enlarged the tactical map. Everyone knew their assignments, even if he had changed the playbook two hours ago. Professional soldiers were used to chaos; some even thrived on it.

“Orbital insertion complete,” Captain Wildman reported from the CIC. “Launch dropships.”

Hangars opened, and twenty dropships maneuvered clear of their vessels. A countdown appeared showing the time until re-entry burn. Twelve minutes and the dropships would maneuver toward the planet and brake. Then the real fun starts, thought Bjorn. He disliked space, but assault drops were old hat.

“No response from the planet,” Captain Wildman announced. “I broadcast our offer to accept their surrender. I guess they like their odds.”

“I bet they do,” Bjorn grumbled, careful not to open the channel. “Bettie, any updates?”

There was a long pause before the reply. “I have finished updating all iterations, Commander.”

“I mean regarding the tactical situation,” Bjorn said. Great, the last thing he needed was for the battlefield tactical intelligence to get buggy.

“Negative. The Eosogi outpost is attempting to paint us with their sensors, but we are well outside of their fire envelope.” The BTI enhanced the image of the base. It was a hexagon, with the north and south walls running east-west. Adjacent to the facet counter-clockwise from the north wall, there was a landing pad. The program highlighted weapon emplacements along the wall, as well as the central sensor and communications tower. “The Zuul forces do not appear to have any orbital assets other than sensor platforms.”

Bjorn flexed his organic right hand and popped his neck. “How about the Zuul frigate?”

“It is remaining at 200% weapons range.”

Watching for a target of opportunity, Bjorn thought. The bastards might breeze through and lob some missiles to claim a combat bonus on their contract. “Keep an eye on them.”

The re-entry burn countdown read six minutes.

* * *

Dropship ST2, Patoka Orbit

Whim watched the countdown. This would be his first combat drop. He knew he wasn’t the only drop virgin in the unit, but it didn’t make him feel any better. He’d rather be surrounded by steely-nerved veterans than kids as scared out of their wits as he was.

“Don’t worry kid,” TJ said over a private channel. “Stick with me, and you’ll be okay.”

“I wish I had your confidence,” Whim replied. Four minutes until they began re-entry. Until they were on the ground, the enemy could blow the dropship out of the sky, taking the entire platoon with it.

“It could be worse, they could be sending us down in drop assault pods,” TJ remarked. “That’ll make your asshole pucker.”

“I feel better already.” Whim wondered how Isabella was doing. The frigate didn’t have enough dropships for the whole company. The dropships carrying the Casanova fighting vehicles departed first to make room for two dropships from the transports. Whim’s platoon boarded one, and the scouts boarded another already packed with infantry. They hadn’t been able to talk since.

* * *

EMS Onikuma, Patoka Orbit

Sergeant Zomorra followed the portable signal tracker. There had been a burst transmission, and Bettie had narrowed it to one of three decks above engineering. The transmission ceased after three seconds, but every two minutes a handshake ping appeared. The spy had been sloppy, likely in a rush, or they were waiting for a response.

Ping. The small screen on the tracker pointed left, with no ascension or descension. She was on the correct deck. A hatch caught Gina’s eye. 7UTIL3-DNE. Do Not Enter. She tried the hatch, hoping it didn’t lead to vacuum or an exposed coolant leak. With a thump, the hatch swung inward.

The room stank of sweat and sex. A hammock made of cargo netting was strung across the far end of the compartment. Bundles of clothing stuffed in bags clung to one wall. The first thing Gina thought of was TJ, but then she remembered he didn’t have somewhere private for them to go when they made out. They found a maintenance space by the hangar one time, and another time they slipped into one of the rumblers parked in a dropship.

The memory made Gina blush. She cleared her head—back to the job. Someone had lived in this compartment. She floated to one of the bags held by a magnet to the wall, opened it, and unfurled the uniform shirt. Quinto was stitched over the pocket. Isabella Quinto—the new hire in Whisky’s scout squad.

The scanner beeped again. Gina glanced at the display, the arrow pointed left, back toward the hatch. Behind the hatch, a crate clung firmly to the floor. Gina pulled herself to it. The crate had tamper-seal indicators, but no warnings. Pulling out her multi-tool, she pried the crate open. The first thing she spotted was the transceiver. The second was the display next to a keypad counting down.

Gina grabbed the edge of the hatch and swung around it. A flash preceded a loud whoompf as the hatch slammed shut, launching her across the passageway. There was a sharp jolt as her head struck the opposite bulkhead and everything went black.

* * *

New Aztlán, Patoka

“We have an update from intel,” Aldo called over the command channel. “Our agent informs us the Berserkers are going to land in Oeste Valley and assault the base en masse, hoping to overwhelm the defenders in a narrow arc of the wall.”

“Well done.” Rodrigo had planned on letting the double agent die in the confusion of battle, but now he felt such dedication should be rewarded. He had been concerned their spy had outlived their usefulness and was prepared to discard the operative. This should be the last of the secret contracts against fellow human mercenary companies. If possible, Rodrigo decided, the agent should rejoin their ranks. “Aldo, ensure all units have our agent’s recognition code. I would hate to lose such a valuable asset to friendly fire.”

“Of course. I will transmit right away,” Aldo answered. Rodrigo could tell Aldo approved by his tone. He was less comfortable with the callous need to discard human life. While at times it led to Rodrigo clashing with his old friend, Aldo acted as his conscience and kept him from being wasteful.

“Meanwhile, finish loading all CASPers. We will drop onto the ridges flanking the valley and catch them between us,” Rodrigo ordered. “A bonus to whoever identifies Bjorn Tovesson’s CASPer. No one kills him but me.”

“Of course, Commander,” Aldo said. “Sensors indicate fifteen dropships entering atmosphere.”

“Time to put an end to this.” Rodrigo pulled up the tactical displays within his CASPer. Based on a Mk 7’s marching speed, it would take thirty minutes to reach the outpost from the LZ, the last ten charging across an open kill zone. “As soon as they touch down, we launch.”

* * *

Ancient Outpost, Toka’Da, in Orbit over Patoka

“Weapon charge at eighty-nine percent!” Tovin barked.

On the largest Tri-V, the surface of the planet appeared, delineated into a hex grid. >>Seeking target<< appeared in Zuul script along with additional enigmatic glyphs. The hex containing the Eosogi outpost highlighted, followed by the surrounding ring of hexes. The next ring highlighted a hexagon at a time, sweeping clockwise around the outpost.

“What is it looking for?” Bengii asked.

Tovin shrugged. “How should I know?”

A line of alien glyphs rewrote themselves in Zuul script. >>Seeking rogue asset<<

“Weapon charge shows at ninety-two percent,” Tovin said, watching the flicker of highlighted hexes on the map.

“The enemy fleet is coming around the planet,” Bengii observed. “Try to manually target them.”

Tovin tapped at the controls, trying to drag the targeting reticle away from the hexes on the planetary surface to the orbiting ships.

>>Invalid target<< the text in the Tri-V displayed.

* * *

Dropship ST2, Patoka Orbit

The timer dropped to 60 seconds and continued scrolling. An icon blinked on Wilhelm’s display, followed by the text >>Operational Orders Updated<<

What the hell? Who changed orders in the last 60 seconds before the unit dropped? Wilhelm queried the system to confirm the updated orders.

>>Orders Confirmed<<

“Whim, are you seeing this?” TJ asked over the private channel. “Our landing orders updated. What’s going on?”

“You’re the veteran, you tell me,” Wilhelm replied. “I was just about to ask you the same thing.”

There was a pause punctuated by the dropship firing its engines. The re-entry counter read zero.

“We might still get through this. Our LZ has changed,” TJ said. “Shit. Shit, shit, shit. This is nuts.”

Wilhelm watched his own Tri-V morph to accommodate the changes. Their new LZ was the empty pad outside the outpost. “What the hell? We’ll get shot down for sure!”

“We can do this,” TJ said. “Stay with me, do what I tell you, and you’ll be okay.”

The dropship bucked as it entered the atmosphere. “If we make it to the ground, we’ll get our asses shot off by the emplacements on the wall.” Strapped in his CASPer, there was nothing he could grab, so Wilhelm could only clench his fists.

“Stick by me if you want to live,” TJ reiterated.

* * *

Dropship YB3, Patoka Orbit

Charlotte watched the new orders scroll down her display. Talk about calling an audible. Once they hit ground, they were going to have to improvise. Charlotte read the orders again—the commander’s note on the end read, “Whisky, I’m counting on you.”

Charlotte wasn’t about to let him down. She checked the display in her APEX armor—it showed 47 minutes until her dropship began atmospheric entry. The APEX armor was a light scout armored suit. A start-up company designed it as a less expensive competitor for the CASPer, hoping for a slice of the lucrative mercenary hardware business. It was small enough to fit inside most vehicles, topping out at 1.8 meters tall, but it meant the armor could only accommodate smaller troopers, in the 155 to 175-centimeter range. It was more agile but lacked the augmented weaponry and staying power of CASPers. Commander Tovesson had bought out the stock of the failing corporation, a rare break from his tradition of avoiding new technology, and used it to supply his scout corps.

Charlotte noticed an anomaly—one of her troops had activated their communications suite. “Quinto, what do you think you’re doing?”

“I was trying to reach my…boyfriend,” Isabella replied. “I noticed our orders changed and—”

“He has his own orders,” Sergeant Wicza interrupted. She shook her head within her helmet. Charlotte had resisted her own urge to contact Tamara. “We maintain communication silence to other units from this point forward. Is this understood?”

“Yes Sergeant,” Quinto replied, sounding admonished.

Charlotte checked their orders again. Based on the battle plan, Gutknecht wouldn’t be around to distract Quinto. For that matter, Tamara wouldn’t be around to distract Charlotte. She pushed the thought aside and reviewed the tactical map. The recon drones had given them little data to work with; she was going to have to improvise once she hit the ground. The good news was they didn’t have an LT to muddle their part of the operation. The bad news was she was in charge of four platoons from different companies.

She opened a channel to the other sergeants. They had 42 minutes to get over any butthurt and get on the same game plan.

* * *

Dropship OK1, over Patoka

Chuck Hinthorn watched the display update, expecting fighters to harry them on the way down. If the Zuul had any fighters, they were keeping them close to support their base rather than risk them against the dropships. Another layer of turbulence buffeted the dropship, rattling the CASV rumbler.

“You’re not going to upchuck on your dashboard, are you?” the vic commander called. Chuckles from the rest of the crew rose above the clattering of the rumbler.

“I’m good, Sergeant.” Chuck knew if he puked, the moniker “Upchuck” would haunt him for the rest of his tenure with the Berserkers, if not his whole mercenary career. He was determined not to let that happen.

“Orders have been updated,” Sergeant Apollo Matthews announced in his deep, gravelly bass. “The good news is our part remains the same. The bad news is we’ll have less company.”

Chuck watched the formation map update from what he had memorized. The Casanova crews had been the first to board their dropships. While they waited for others to load up, Chuck studied the maps and orders. Now he watched as infantry rumblers disappeared from the virtual formation. Icons for Kodiak Alpha and Kodiak Bravo CASPer platoons, vanished as well, however, they were redrawn adjacent to the objective outpost.

Chuck felt a pang of remorse—Whim was in KB3. Their short-lived rivalry for Isabella’s affections had left Chuck bitter. He regretted how he had been to Wilhelm and Isabella during the trip to Patoka. True, they had spent a lot of free time off in their private nook, but when they were around Chuck had been resentful. Neither of them deserved it, and he felt guilty. He resolved to make it up to them after the mission was over.

“Hey, Sergeant, what are these Casanovas up front marked ‘Aegis?’” Chuck asked.

“You know how people say the Big Bear hates anything new?”

“Um, sure.” Chuck didn’t, but for the sake of argument, it was easier to agree.

“It’s only true if it isn’t his idea,” Sergeant Matthews replied. The rumbler rocked again. “Hang on people, it’s going to be a helluva ride.”

* * *

EMS Onikuma, Patoka Orbit

“What happened?” Captain Boggs demanded over the chatter around Lieutenant Byrne. He was in command of the ship, but Commander Tovesson had left her in charge of the forces in orbit.

“There was an explosion on Deck 7,” Byrne replied, his voice calm. “It wasn’t major; we have a report of one injury. I have a damage control team assessing the situation.”

“Do we have any idea what caused it?” Boggs asked.

“We’re still assessing the situation.” Annoyance crept into Byrne’s tone. “Sir.”

“Sergeant Zomorra was tracking the source of the burst broadcast,” the BTI announced over the CIC speakers. “When she opened a crate, it triggered a booby-trap. She is the injured individual.”

“How bad is she hurt?” Marian always found speaking to the disembodied voice disconcerting.

“I am a tactical assistance program, not a doctor,” the BTI replied. “Responding medics have not yet reported on her condition. I can tell you based on pinplant telemetry, she is alive.”

Did the battlefield intelligence make a joke? Marian had more important matters to worry about. “Do we have an ODT team on board?”

“Yes, I’ll dispatch them down there,” Lieutenant Byrne replied. “If there was one trap, there could be more.”

* * *

Dropship YB3, Patoka Orbit

The display showed atmospheric entry in 12 minutes. The five remaining dropships maneuvered away from the orbiting task force and flipped around for a braking burn. The retro-burn slammed Charlotte into the padding of her armor. The five dropships fell away, letting gravity tug them toward Patoka’s atmosphere. A pair of recon drones preceded the quintet, beaming back intel.

Charlotte watched as a flurry of dropships emerged from the target zone. They streaked east toward the Berserker’s main landing zone. The target was 2,000 kilometers away as the dropships brushed the atmosphere. The first reentry jolt reverberated through the dropship. Hopefully the enemy would be too busy watching the fight to watch the horizon.

* * *

Ancient Outpost, Toka’Da, in Orbit over Patoka

“Charge at ninety-eight percent.” Tovin looked to Bengii. “What happens if it doesn’t have a target when it reaches one hundred percent?”

“It still insists on targeting the planetary surface,” Bengii said. “The human fleet is coming back into view.”

“Why is it targeting the planet?” Tovin scanned over the displays, searching for a clue they had missed. “Orbital bombardment is illegal.”

“I think this is from before they made it illegal,” Bengii countered. She typed a query into the interface. >>Define valid target<<

Glyphs appeared in the nearest Tri-V before morphing into Zuul script. “Canavar.”

Bengii and Tovin gawked at each other. Canavar were nightmare monsters from a bygone era, huge living weapons of mass destruction. They had been outlawed following the Galactic Civil War, along with tactics such as orbital bombardment and genocide.

“It seems crazy to put a Canavar killing base on a moon in case someone dropped one on your world,” Tovin observed.

Bengii’s eyes went wide. “What if this isn’t in case one got dropped on the world? What if this is in case one got loose?”

* * * * *

Chapter 27

Dropship GA1, over Patoka

Captain Mike McCain watched the airspeed indicator. It was yellow, indicating jettisoning the flyers from the dropships was inadvisable. After the dropships shed another 100 kph, it would be green. He sent a command through his pinplants.

“Stand by for release.”

Fifty kilometers per hour above green. “Release,” McCain ordered. Each dropship jettisoned four flyers. Dropfoils oriented the craft in the atmosphere as they spun up their ducted turbines. The dropships veered away, their mission accomplished. McCain chomped on an unlit cigar as the flyers streaked through a layer of clouds.

“We are green for powered flight,” the pilot announced as the turbine pods unfolded from the flyer. The craft shook as the dropfoils were jettisoned. “We are flying under power.”

McCain pulled up the Tri-V display. All craft for the strike force showed green. “Everyone has their assignments. First pilot to miss their target buys.”

* * *

Dropship Couatl 1

“Rodrigo, they have split off an element,” Aldo reported. Captain Mercado commanded Cruzador Company, which had landed behind the northern ridge. It must have been important for him to break radio silence and risk detection. “There are two dropships with an escort of flyers heading directly for the outpost.”

“Send Aguila 3 and 4 after them.” While the dropships were not heavily armed, combined with the weapon emplacements and Zuul defenders, they would chew up the Berserker units. Whatever gambit Tovesson was attempting would fail.

“Yes, Commander.” Aldo became formal when he did not agree with Rodrigo. The ensuing silence meant Captain Mercado did not have a better idea but objected to risking the valuable dropships.

A thump and a green light announced his own dropship had touched down. Dawn light glinted off patches of snow and illuminated the bay. Sergeants ordered their squads out of the dropships and into formation. Commander Sanchez’s squad was the last off the dropship. The dropship launched a pair of recon drones designed to fly high over the battlefield and provide real-time updates. The dropship would become an ersatz command post, although Sanchez had no intention of remaining behind while his men marched to meet the enemy. Rodrigo knew Tovesson would be among his own men, and he fervently hoped he got to kill the Berserkers’ commander himself.

Vamanos!” Sanchez ordered. Four platoons—a hundred CASPers—fell into formation and loped toward the end of the ridge. Where the ridge ended, they would catch the enemy in a crossfire from behind.

* * *

Bruin Company, Bruin Actual

Bjorn clung to the rumbler as it bounced across the snowy fields. Until they approached weapons range, the CASPers rode on the outside of the armored six-wheeled vehicles, going twice as fast as a CASPer could run. Many mercenary commanders preferred to let their CASPer troopers hoof it, and a few used the Combat Assault System, Vehicular manufactured by Mitsubishi Dynamics.

Of the 40 rumblers tearing across the wintery turf, half were actual CASVs—Casanovas. The remainder were split between special-purpose support and infantry transport. All carried at least four CASPers.

Bjorn watched the map as Bettie whispered updates into his pinplants. Two dropships appeared on the map, moving to intercept the dropships from Kodiak Company going for the landing pad. The Kodiak dropships hugged the terrain, flanked by a quartet of flyers. Missiles streaked from the corners of the outpost wall toward the approaching craft.

A pair of anti-aircraft rumblers spun their turrets and fired a flurry of missiles at the enemy dropships. Their lasers punctuated the attack. None of the missiles from either side reached their target. Since dropships were design to deliver troops to a planet surface under enemy fire, they usually had state-of-the-art countermeasures and were tough.

One laser struck true, flashing against the Espejo dropship. Smoke trailed briefly from the strike, but the craft continued. Bjorn was surprised Sanchez had risked valuable dropships in the role of attack flyers.

* * *

Owlbear Bravo 3

“We stick to the plan, Bravo 4!” Sergeant Brian “Cowboy” Hassinger yelled into the comms. “We take the south tower, and the other flight takes the north.”

Target lock alarms screamed, and Hassinger yanked the stick aside. The Grissom flyer flipped over and plummeted several meters before the turbines provided lift again. A pair of missiles streaked through the space the craft had occupied.

“Dammit, I can’t get a lock on anything with you jerking the craft around!” his gunner, Ben “Blackjack” Samson cursed.

“You can’t get a lock if we’re dead, compadre,” Hassinger retorted. “Speaking of dead, there are a piss-load of Zuul manning the wall now. Bravo 4, get the tower, we’ll do pest control.”

Cowboy checked his HUD for the two enemy dropships that crashed the party. Both veered away, one trailing smoke. One less problem to worry about. The staccato pop of the Gatling MAC sounded as Blackjack swept the wall. The rounds were a mix of tungsten sabot and explosive. The Zuul who didn’t die scrambled for cover.

An explosion marked the missile launcher in the south tower going up in a ball of flame. A moment later the north tower erupted. Bravo 2 overflew the wall, only to be speared by multiple laser pulses. The stricken Grissom tumbled out of control and crashed into the interior surface of the wall.

“The BTI postulates the Zuul have one or more Calliopes inside the wall.” Captain McCain announced over the company tactical channel. “The strike force will be a skeet shoot when they go over the wall.”

A Calliope was a multi-barrel crew-served or emplaced laser, with the same theory as a Gatling. Rotating lasing chambers allowed the weapon to fire faster without melting down. The excimer cartridges were automatically swapped out as part of the rotation process. One could take out several CASPers before it could be eliminated.

“Bravo 4, stick with me.” Hassinger whipped the Grissom around, diving almost to the turf as he skimmed along the wall.

“Cowboy, what the hell are we doing?” Blackjack protested.

“Don’t get skittish on me now,” Hassinger countered. The whole plan of taking the Zuul outpost hinged on the CASPers jumping from the landing pad to the interior of the outpost during the narrow window before the Zuul wall defenders could shift positions. The CASPer troopers would be skeet targets for a Calliope. “Hit the far tower as we pop up.”

Turbine pods swiveled down, and the Grissom leapt up. Hassinger stabbed the countermeasures button as they cleared the wall. Flares and chaff belched from the Grissom, some raining down on Zuul mercenaries as others distracted the single missile launched from the tower before a pair of HE rockets blew the emplacement off the tower.

Hassinger skimmed above rooftops inside the outpost. He had been too fast for the Calliope to get a bead on him. Bravo 4 was not as lucky. Multiple laser pulses incandesced along the craft. One of its lift turbines erupted in a spray of super-heated composites, and Bravo 4 spun out of control into the buildings below.

“Motherfuckers,” Hassinger growled. Small arms fire pelted the Grissom as Zuul fired down from the wall. He side-slipped the craft, pointing the nose toward where the Calliope should be. As he cleared the last warehouse, he saw the multi-barreled weapon aimed squarely at his Grissom.

“Fuck you!” Hassinger slammed the throttle forward.

MAC rounds traced a path toward the laser weapon but ceased when a laser pulse cooked Blackjack. The Zuul manning the weapon gawked in alarm as the Grissom bore down on them. The next pulse took out a turbine, but it was too late. Hassinger hit an icon and “armed all” appeared on the weapon display. The third pulse skimmed the belly of the Grissom, burning off armor but doing nothing to alter its trajectory.

Hassinger didn’t know if the Zuul gunner who remained at the controls could see him, but he locked eyes on the alien mercenary. The Grissom slammed into the laser weapon emplacement, its armed warheads detonating in a cacophony of destruction. The second Calliope crew abandoned their weapon as armored shrapnel sprayed their position.

* * *

Kodiak Bravo Three

“Go, go, go!” Sergeant Stallings shouted. The CASPer troopers of Kodiak Company, Bravo Platoon rained down onto the ferrocrete landing pad.

Wilhelm fired his jumpjets at the computer’s prompt and flexed his knees. He expected the surface to crack under his impact, but the fusion-cured tarmac had experienced far greater loads. Around him, one-ton armored suits hit tarmac and surged toward the wall. Whim fell in behind TJ, identifying his comrade by the icon in the holographic HUD.

A pair of detonations echoed from behind the twelve-meter-tall walls. “Don’t gawk at the fireworks!” the sergeant shouted. “Up and over!”

Whim triggered his jumpjets again. He resisted the urge to land on the two-meter-wide battlement. Already, Zuul watching the main force charge their front gate were turning, drawn by the VTOL flyer attack on the wall emplacements and the fiery wrecks blazing within the outpost. Whim adjusted his flight path for a patch of open ground near an abandoned crew-served laser.

“Watch it!” Riggs, a trooper from KB4 shouted. Whim’s flight path indicator blinked yellow, so he goosed his jets and veered from the near-collision. The lateral shift put Whim off-balance as he hit the ground, and he stumbled into the large crew-served laser. “Fucking rookies,” Riggs grumbled.

It only took a glance to see the Calliope was toast. Several of the lasing tubes were cracked, and one was sheared off. Shrapnel pocked the crew shield and control station.

“Sergeant Stallings, this laser still has power,” Whim called over the squad channel.

“You put juice through that weapon, it will blow to kingdom come,” Stallings said.

“That’s the point.” Whim scanned the controls, they were standard configuration, and the command slate was intact. “I can rig it to go.”

“You have thirty seconds, Gutknecht.” The sergeant highlighted the walkway on the battlement. “Everyone else, cover the high ground and shoot any doggie who sticks his snout out.”

Whim put his suit’s hand over the slate and extruded a smart jack. Within twenty seconds, he was in the weapon command menu. He flashed commands from his pinplants. The barrels elevated toward the right walkway and a timer appeared.

“Two minutes!” Whim pulled back his jack. A laser blast snapped against the crew shield. The offending Zuul disappeared as a MAC round blew him back over the parapet.

“Move it!” Stallings shouted, raking his machinegun across the parapet. The rounds would glance off a CASPer, but any Zuul caught in the spray wouldn’t be so lucky. “We’re catching up with the rest of Bravo.”

* * *

Howling Commandos, 2nd Platoon, 3rd Squad

Nanarg was the first Zuul to reach where the Humans had landed. The rest of his squad followed cautiously. One of the crew-served multi-barrel lasers remained. The other had been in the crater where the Human flyer crashed and detonated.

“They are in among the buildings now,” another Zuul said. “It will be a karrk hunt.”

Nanarg didn’t relish the notion of chasing the heavily armored humans through the winding paths between buildings. Why couldn’t the Eosogi build in straight lines like a sane species?

Another squad ran to meet them. “Where are the Humans?” the sergeant of the new arrivals demanded.

“Somewhere among the buildings.”

A beep caught Nanarg’s attention. He stepped into the gunner’s station. Text scrolled across the screen of the command slate. 3…2…1…

The first laser pulse cracked the ferrocrete walkway near a corner tower. The second pulse punched through the parapet. Nanarg spotted the cracks spiderwebbing the casing of the third tube. He got two steps out of the gunnery station, yelping a warning as thousands of joules pulsed into the flawed tube and the volatile excimer ignited.

* * *

Conquistador Company, Conquistador Actual

Rodrigo’s heart was pounding as much from anticipation as from jogging 500 meters in his armor. Even though the state-of-the-art Mk 8 did most of the work, it was no leisurely stroll. His tactical display updated from the overhead drones as well as the data feed from the leading elements of both companies.

The Berserkers were outpacing the Espejos at the moment, but soon they would find themselves caught between Rodrigo’s 200 CASPers and the defenses of the outpost. Tovesson was only fielding three quarters the number of CASPers, and they were all at least a generation older than the Mk 8s.

As predicted, the Berserkers slowed at the edge of the fire envelope of the outpost’s defenses. Short range rockets arched over the battlefield and were met by anti-missile fire. The laser turrets chased the VTOL flyers harassing the top of the walls and the corner towers. Rodrigo’s own fire envelope closed on the rear of the enemy formation. In two minutes, his lasers would be in range.

* * *

Bruin Company, Bruin Actual

Icons marked two forces sweeping in from each side of the valley’s outlet onto the plain. Long-range cameras showed the dark shapes of the Mk 8 CASPers jogging toward the rear of his formation. Sanchez was springing the trap.

“Bettie, pop the party favors,” Bjorn ordered. On the snowy plain separating the forces, half a dozen K-bombs detonated, one after the other, followed by two dozen glitter-smoke bombs. The refractive particulate in the smoke would dampen the effectiveness of lasers and foul laser-guided targeting. “Come and get us, you sukin syn.”

“How much time you think it’ll buy us?” Major Hawkins called over their direct channel.

“Not enough.” Bjorn sent a flurry of commands via pinplants. “Time for Phase II. Berserkers, dismount.”

A company and a half worth of CASPers dropped from their rides, forming up in units. Once the battle armor was clear, the rumblers rolled forward. Four of the Casanovas in the lead rank lacked a main gun, the gun replaced by a large, metallic bulb. The vehicle formation rolled toward the main gate.

* * *

Zuul Command Post

“Human armored suits are inside the perimeter!”

“Their tanks are closing!”

“We’ve lost another turret!”

Captain Quujor shut out the cacophony. Some of his subordinates were panicking; they had expected an easy fight. In moments the other Humans would enter the fray, and the Zuul forces on the moon would pounce on the Human ships. Quujor’s forces merely had to hold out until they were no longer the Berserkers’ biggest problem.

“Zoom in on those tanks,” he ordered. The technician obliged. The war book identified the vehicle as a CASV, but of an unknown configuration. “Laser turrets, engage the Human vehicles.”

The turret emplacements flanking the gate, and the remaining one at the corner tower, spat coherent photon pulses at the rumblers. Flashes of light sparked in the air, illuminating an ovoid field preceding the targeted vehicles.

“Shields,” Quujor gasped in disbelief. “Where did the humans get shield generators small enough for tanks?”

The second rank of the armored vehicle formation returned fire, raining laser fire and rockets at the outpost’s weapon emplacements. Machine gun fire raked the top of the wall. The defenders quick enough ducked for cover, and the ones too slow died.

One of the gate turrets went offline. “Switch targets to the second and third rank!” Quujor barked. “Fire!”

Targeting reticles tracked across the Tri-V display, and another barrage of fire was unleashed. The shields projected by the lead vehicles lit up again as pulses of coherent light dispersed against the shields. The lasers couldn’t reach the armored vehicles farther back, the angle was too flat. Rockets arcing from the wall toward the deeper ranks fell to anti-missile fire.

Quujor calmed his racing pulse. Shields wouldn’t protect the vehicles from the ring of landmines around the outpost. If his troops could contain the two dozen Humans rampaging through the outpost, they could still salvage the contract. Behind the enemy, past the wall of smoke, there were two companies of Human allies. The Howling Commandos just had to hold out long enough for the new forces to join the fray.

* * * * *

Chapter 28

EMS Onikuma, Patoka Orbit

“Gizmo, can you hear me?”

The technical sergeant snapped her eyes open and immediately regretted it. Flashes of color swam in her vision. “What happened?” Gina asked.

“Something detonated in a utility space. You were found unconscious in the passageway,” Captain Boggs said. “Do you remember what happened?”

Gina nodded gingerly. “I was tracking a signal, a burst transmission after we emerged from hyperspace. The unit it was sent from emitted an intermittent handshake.” Gina’s eyed went wide as she added, “Quinto. Captain, Isabella Quinto is the mole.”

“I can warn the commander, but Quinto is with a unit on a stealth mission,” Captain Boggs said. “They’re under radio silence. If I comm them, I could give them away.”

“Excuse me for interrupting, but I have an update regarding the compromised CASPer operating system,” the BTI announced over the infirmary speakers. “I have good news and I have bad news.”

“What’s…tell me all of it,” Captain Boggs said.

“The good news is we can shut down compromised CASPers,” Bettie said. Gina had left the BTI working on cracking the shutdown code. “The bad news is we can only remotely do it one CASPer at a time, and it takes ten to fifteen seconds for each shutdown.”

“Can we transmit this downside?” Captain Boggs asked, excitement creeping into her voice.

“Of course, Captain.” Bettie sounded proud of herself. “As soon as we have a clear line of transmission, I will beam the data to my analogs on the surface.”

* * *

Ancient Outpost, Toka’Da, in Orbit over Patoka

“They are coming around the planet,” Bengii announced. “Can you get a firing solution on the ships?”

“It’s the same as before,” Tovin complained. “The targeting keeps jumping back to the surface. The computer controlling the weapon insists on targeting Canavar.”

“Tell it the Canavar is escaping in one of the ships,” Bengii said. “Can we target the battlecruiser?”

“There is a frigate in the way,” Tovin replied.

>>Weapon charge 100%... 101%...102%...<< scrolled across the Tri-V display

“Tell it the Canavar is on the frigate,” Bengii yelled.

>>Targeting Canavar on escape vessel<< the system displayed.

“Good job!” Bengii exulted.

“I didn’t do anything,” Tovin protested.

“Firing particle cannon,” the system announced.

The illumination dimmed. Tovin and Bengii glanced at each other before watching the targeting display.

>>Target eliminated<<

Where there had been a Human frigate there was now a debris cloud. “Warning, charge anomaly detected in ionization buffers. Buffers are past advised service interval.”

“How long is the service interval?” Tovin asked.

>>“Recommended service interval—two years. Actual service interval—20,347 years. Catastrophic ionization in all buffers.<<

“What does that mean?” Bengii demanded.

>>BOOM<< The display flashed up a countdown of 27 seconds.

Bengii stabbed the comm channel to the docked frigates.

“Evacuate! Launch now!”

* * *

EMS Ursa Major, Patoka Orbit

“The Ungnyeo is gone!” Corporal Lutz shouted.

“Gone?” Captain Wildman peered into the Tri-V. The Zuul frigate haunting them remained out of weapon range. Even if it had been in range, it lacked the firepower to take out the frigate in one salvo. “How?”

“A 57-terawatt particle beam was fired from the moon,” the battlefield tactical intelligence announced. An external camera zoomed in on the small potato-shaped moon. A flash preceded an eruption of debris, charged particles, and plasma on the moon’s surface.

“Helm, maneuver us above the moon’s orbit; sysop, pass the same command on to the fleet,” Wildman ordered, hoping his voice didn’t quaver. What he wouldn’t give for a drink right now! “Murphy, optimize shields bearing toward the moon.”

“Captain, the shields won’t stop a beam of that magnitude,” Corporal Murphy said as he followed the orders.

Wildman knew that, but he wasn’t about to give an opponent a clean shot. “Do we have a firing solution for the source?”

“Negative, Captain,” Corporal Higgins replied.

“There is too much interference from the detonation,” Lutz added. “It’s as if someone ignited a tiny solar flare on the moon.”

“Drone control reports multiple ship launches from the far side of the moon,” Corporal Sprague reported. “Roosevelt confirms, at least three—correction, four Zuul frigates.”

“The trailing Zuul frigate is accelerating,” the BTI said.

Wildman took a deep breath. He no longer craved a drink; he wanted revenge. “Plot an intercept course for the new frigates—two-Gs. Relay the same to fleet. They got their cheap shot. They poked the bear, and now they are going to pay the price!”

* * *

Zuul Frigate Prowler Five

“Report!” Captain Ristiin yelled. Alarms blared in the CIC and main lighting flickered.

“We’re intact, but we lost shield generators five and six. Prowler Three lost all shields aft of amidships and suffered multiple structural failures—anything more than .7 G will snap her.” The crewman consulted the Tri-V at his station. “Two and Four escaped the brunt of the blast and report minor damage.”

What did those science lunatics do, Ristiin wondered? One moment everyone was celebrating smiting the human frigate, then the moon blew up around them. She hadn’t heard from Commander Nordag—he must have been lost with the moon base.

At least the Humans would be cowed by the annihilation of one of their ships without warning. If the Humans had any sense, they would flee.

“Captain, the Human fleet is charging!” the sensor operator announced. “They will be in firing range in eighty-seven seconds.”

The smart move would be to flee, Ristiin thought. It would mean showing their unshielded aft to the enemy. “Shields to bear! Get me firing solutions and load ship-killers in all tubes!

* * *

EMS Onikuma

“What’s going on?” Captain Boggs pulled herself through the hatch, fighting two gravities of thrust. She clambered for the observer station and hurried to fasten the restraints.

“Some sort of weapon on the moon vaporized the Ungnyeo, then went nuclear itself,” Lieutenant Byrne replied. “Zuul frigates have launched from the moon and Captain Wildman has ordered the attack.”

“Twenty-seven seconds until weapon range,” Corporal Lamar Wilkins reported. “The lone hound is still sniffing on our trail.”

“Cut thrust,” Byrne ordered. “Alyson, let’s dance with our skulking friend. Gunny, get firing solutions and give me two thirds of the tubes with ship-killers.”

“Eight S-Ks, the rest antis, aye,” Corporal Gunther Moore replied from the weapon station.

“What are you doing?” Boggs could see the Onikuma break formation on the Tri-V as micro-gravity returned.

“Making sure these dogs don’t overshoot us and chase the transports,” Byrne replied. “No offense, Captain Boggs, but it would help if you let me do my job without twenty questions. It’s about to get hairy.”

* * *

Zuul Frigate Prowler One

“Missiles launch!” Captain Brunog barked. “Stand by lasers!”

“Incoming missiles!”

“Multiple laser impacts—shield one is at half integrity.”

“Helm, adjust attitude, thirty degrees port,” Brunog ordered. It would cost him firing arcs for a third of his lasers but presented shield two to the incoming missiles. “Stand by anti-missile batteries. Fire as soon as the missiles are in effective range.”

“Missiles are maneuvering to follow shield one.”

Brunog growled. They had already diverted energy from the rear-facing shield generators. Hopefully, the maneuver would give his defensive lasers time to shoot down the enemy missiles.

Eight flashes of light blossomed in space. Eight nuclear-pumped X-ray laser pulses struck the same time as the staccato flashes. It took the first three pulses to overwhelm shield one, leaving the bow of the ship exposed. Three of the pulses skimmed the outer surface of the ship, taking out thrusters, lasers, and an emptied missile blister. One laser burned through the armored hull below a missile blister and struck the magazine, and the explosion sent a gout of fire and metal into space. The final pulse struck the frigate barely off centerline, burning deeply into the ship and compromising the spinal power trunk.

The lights winked out in the CIC, casting it into dim illumination from the various Tri-V displays running off battery back-ups. Brunog checked his command display. Power was out to the forward third of the ship and was intermittent to the CIC. Lights returned as circuit breakers reset. Forward weapons and shields were down. At least the thrusters ran off a network of power feeds under the hull, as opposed to the main trunk.

“Helm, get us out of weapons range,” Brunog ordered. “There is no profit in staying.”

* * *

EMS Onikuma

“Splash three…splash four…”

Two missiles remained, bearing on the Onikuma. Lieutenant Byrne held his breath and his tongue; his crew knew their jobs.

“Splash five…”

Byrne resisted the urge to close his eyes; his gaze fell on Corporal Meer at the helm. He hoped the Berserkers were right about the whole Valhalla business.

“Splash six! Enemy frigate is breaking off!” Corporal Wilkins called. “Limping away might be a better description. She’s thrusting at point five G and her forward shields are down.”

“Want to give them a parting gift?” Gunny asked.

It was tempting, but Jack Byrne remembered what an old merc had told him—if you give no quarter, expect no quarter.

“Negative. Keep an eye on them in case they change their minds but get us back to the rest of the fleet.”

* * *

EMS Ursa Major

“Captain, the Zuul are signaling for parley,” Corporal Sprague announced. “They wish to negotiate terms of withdrawal.”

“Tell the Zuul we accept their request,” Captain Wildman replied. One of the Zuul frigates floated in two large pieces and a cloud of smaller chunks, and a second was crippled. A third frigate, which had exchanged fire with the Onikuma, had disengaged and was severely damaged. The Roosevelt and the Arthur were both damaged, but still in fighting shape, and the Ursa Major was fighting a fire from an ammunition cook off. “Order the fleet to stand down contingent on the Zuul honoring the conditions of parley.”

“The senior Zuul captain is online,” Sprague said.

“Captain, I wish to discuss terms to allow us to both leave the field of battle with a modicum of fiscal integrity,” the Zuul in the Tri-V image said. Space assets were expensive, so many space mercenary units were pragmatic when they realized how a battle was going to end. “Allow our forces to withdraw. I suspect there is nothing in your contract regarding engaging naval forces, so there is no profit for you to continue this fight.”

“I’ll agree if you order the outpost on the planet surface to surrender,” Wildman countered. It was time to see how much the Zuul valued their own hides.

The silence stretched out for several seconds. “Agreed,” the Zuul relented. “We will order our forces to stand down.”

* * * * *

Chapter 29

Kodiak Bravo Three

Wilhelm ducked back around the corner. A pair of crew-served MACs protected the command post. A facedown CASPer testified to the results of a frontal attack.

“Gutknecht, you trying to get your dick shot off?” Sergeant Stallings shouted over the comm channel.

“No, sergeant!” Wilhelm edged away from the corner in case the Zuul gunners decided to shoot at him through the building.

“Kid, back up,” TJ said over a direct channel. “Fall back to my position.” The icon marking TJ’s position blinked, well away from the fight.

Zuul resistance quickly tapered off once the Berserkers’ forces approached the outer wall, but the command post guards held fast. Whim couldn’t figure why TJ wanted him to back off.

A CASPer lobbed a K-bomb over an adjacent building. The blast echoed in the narrow spaces between structures. A moment later, hypersonic sabot rounds punched through building walls. One of the tungsten rounds glanced off Jenkins’ shoulder joint. The other missed by a meter, disappearing into the opposite building.

Laser pulses incandesced against the wall above them, a reminder that not all the Zuul on the wall had gone to face the main attack.

“Diller, where the hell did you go?” Sergeant Stallings demanded. “I’m not reading you on the tac-map.”

“I’m having computer issues,” TJ replied. “Trying to get them sorted out—all of my positioning functions are offline.”

Whim checked his own tac-map. Diller appeared 20 meters from their position.

“We don’t have time to wait for him,” Stallings said. “Once Bravo Four is in position, we’ll push on to the command post.”

Suddenly, the din of battle faded from the wall. Whim watched his display, not sure what to expect.

“Hold fire,” Sergeant Stallings ordered. The interior of the outpost fell silent, save the occasional crackle of fire from crash sites. “All right people, the Zuul have surrendered. As long as they keep their paws in the air, don’t blow their heads off.”

* * *

Bruin Company, Bruin Actual

“Praise Odin!” Bjorn checked his tactical display. Fire ceased from the Zuul defenders. “Cease fire on the outpost. We’ll need a few to watch our backs, but let’s turn to face these assholes breathing down our necks!”

A mystery weapon had vaporized an entire frigate worth of personnel in orbit. They had suffered a handful of casualties groundside, but the outpost was never the real threat. The smoke and bombs had bought them precious seconds, but whatever had happened in space had changed the script.

Bjorn cast orders through his pinplants faster than he could verbalize them, with Bettie intuitively queueing up the next unit to address. CASPer formations and non-attack vehicles split apart to open a firing lane, while the Casanovas spun around to face the incoming attack.

The black Mk 8s broke from the smoke. They brought their laser rifles to bear and the Berserker CASPers snapped out their laser shields. The Berserkers were predominantly armed with MACs—Bjorn had figured the enemy would use the laser ablative glaze touted back on Earth before it turned out to be a Trojan horse ploy.

Lasers lanced out and hypersonic slugs answered. Scattered CASPers fell on both sides. Bjorn glanced at the counters in the corner of his vision. They were still out manned. If they stood their ground and exchanged fire, the Berserkers would be whittled down.

* * *

Kodiak Charlie Four

“Keep up with those Aegis vics,” Sergeant Matthews growled around the unlit cigar. “If they get too far ahead of us, they’ll obscure our field of fire.”

“Yes, Sergeant!” Chuck hoped his teeth didn’t bounce out of his skull as the Casanova bucked over the snowy plain. He slewed the armored vehicle around a large hummock, getting within a meter of the next vehicle in formation before sliding away again.

“Gunner, acquire any enemy and fire as soon as we are in effective range,” the sergeant said.

“If Hinthorn would quit bouncing us, maybe I could acquire a target,” Corporal Chett Hudson complained.

“Do I need to come up there and hold your hand?” The sergeant chomped on his cigar. “Range to target?”

“Estimate 1500 meters,” Hudson replied.

Chuck watched the Tri-V encircling his driver seat. The fight ahead was splitting in half. If they waited too long, the enemy CASPers would be among the Berserkers.

“Light the bastards up!” Matthews snarled.

The megawatt main laser fired. An arm vaporized off the target CASPer. The remaining attack Casanovas fired. Two thirds scored hits and a dozen enemy CASPers fell. The laser refractive glazing vaporized under vehicle-scale lasers.

“Laser cycling, firing rockets,” Hudson called. Chuck spotted a swarm of rockets arching into the sky. They were still too far for accurate MAC fire, so the other vehicles fired rockets as well. Inherently inaccurate, these were much less effective. Anti-missile missiles mounted on the shoulders of enemy suits eliminated most of the rockets.

The Casanova bounced over a ditch as Hudson fired again. The laser pulse slagged a Mk 8’s foot and flash fried the turf around it. The CASPer keeled over on its next step.

* * *

Cruzador Uno Uno

Aldo regretted urging caution when faced by the smoke and the potential for mines. It had cost them the initiative, and the bombs had been a ruse to stall them. Now the Zuul had surrendered, and Tovesson’s forces had doubled back.

Rodrigo had counted on superior numbers and superior hardware to win the day. Aldo had a hard time arguing the point, but he was concerned the men had enjoyed too many easy victories won through ambush and guile. This was the first opponent to stand and fight.

The initial exchange proved little. The superior mobility of the upgraded Mk 8s was marginalized in an open field fight. They would have to get close and personal.

The Berserkers had split in half. Were they hoping to flank the Espejos? Aldo could imagine Rodrigo laughing as the slower battle armor trudged in arcing formations. Matching their maneuvers was child’s play for the faster, more modern suits.

There was a flash, and the CASPer in front of Captain Mercado was hulled by a laser. The stricken suit lurched sideways as the jump juice reservoir cooked off. His suit’s LIDAR warned of incoming rockets and automatically engaged them.

Aldo turned to his right. A phalanx of armored vehicles rushed up the gap created by the Berserkers’ split. The rumblers fired their laser turrets again. Six more CASPers went offline, four catastrophically. The vehicle-mounted weapons were designed to punch through emplacement defenses or other armored vehicles. Any hit on a CASPer was crippling, if not fatal.

“Platoon Cuatro, fire on those vehicles!” It pulled a quarter of his forces from the exchange with the Berserker CASPers, but if they ignored the vehicles, the rumblers would use Aldo’s troops for target practice. “All other platoons—charge!”

If they could get among the Berserker CASPers, the Espejos could both take advantage of their superior agility and deny the vehicles clear shots.

* * *

Kodiak Delta Four

Sergeant Charlotte Wicza peered over the crest of the gentle rise. At a mere ten meters height, she didn’t think it qualified as a ridge. Half a kilometer away, camouflage netting draped over three identical transports. Beyond the landing pad, fifty-meter-tall pylons supported more netting. The camouflage masked a mix of prefab and more permanent buildings against being spotted from above.

Charlotte zoomed in on the transports, her attention drawn by movement. A quartet of MinSha troops paced into view. Some of the troops would be happy. The MinSha were renowned for glassing Iran after first contact to make an example of the extremists who had attacked the Galactic Union delegation. It didn’t matter to them if 79 million innocents were collateral damage. Many humans still harbored a grudge a century later.

The MinSha could be a problem, but at least they weren’t CASPer troopers. It appeared the Espejos had thrown every CASPer they had into the field. Charlotte watched the MinSha. They were protecting the transports, not the base beyond. Charlotte queried the war book—the ships weren’t MinSha design, they were QlunSha transports. Curiouser and curiouser.

There were no guard towers, no perimeter fence, no emplacements—the commander had called it right. The last thing the Espejos expected was for someone to come knocking on their door.

“Who’s up for a bug hunt?” Charlotte whispered to her task force.

* * *

Bruin Company, Command Rumbler

“Transmission received, code compiled.”

Tech Sergeant Henby glanced up from her slate. “What?” She hadn’t instructed the BTI to compile anything.

“Enacting Peepo Protocols—seeking—seeking—target acquired—initializing handshake—resolving security passcode.” An enemy CASPer on the holographic map blinked amber. “Passcode accepted—initiating shutdown.” The CASPer icon flashed blue, then went dark. “Seeking.”

* * *

Conquistador Company, Conquistador Actual

“Fire on those vehicles!” Rodrigo had discounted the rumblers as eventual victims of landmines and Zuul emplacement weapons. Aldo called a smart play, and Rodrigo mirrored it—devote a portion of his forces to engage the vehicles and send the rest into the Berserkers, where the vehicles couldn’t risk shooting.

Rodrigo aimed his laser rifle at one of the offending rumblers. He realized it left him more exposed, but he didn’t want to charge into the melee until he knew where his nemesis was. The vehicles were easy targets, but it would require a lucky hit to take one out of the fight. He squeezed the trigger.

The laser pulse flashed in the air in front of the target. Rodrigo watched the tableau repeat itself up and down the front. Laser impacts flashed in the air like fireflies.

“Aldo, are you seeing this?” Rodrigo called over the command channel.

Si. I believe the vehicles with the mushroom-shaped protuberances are equipped with shields,” Aldo reported. It was insane—vehicles as small as rumblers or tanks did not have shields! “Our lasers cannot punch through. We need to sweep around them and attack those vehicles from the flanks.”

The armored rumblers fired again, and another eight Espejo CASPers winked out on the display. Rodrigo glanced toward the right front, where the two lines of CASPers charged each other. His nemesis was in there somewhere.

“Get in there and attack those vehicles at point blank range,” Rodrigo ordered the men who had stayed behind with him. “Charge, before they pick you off!”

As his men rushed the enemy vehicles, Rodrigo fired his jumpjets and leapt into the imminent fray with the enemy CASPers.

* * *

Bruin Company, Bruin Actual

“Commander, we lost Major Hawkins.”

Ice rushed through Bjorn’s veins. “Bettie?”

“Major Hawkins’ CASPer is offline and last telemetry indicates a catastrophic event,” the battlefield intelligence replied. “My condolences, Bjorn.”

The Espejo CASPers closed with the Berserkers. The battle had devolved to a swirling melee. The ice in his blood turned to fire. Bjorn triggered “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana and grabbed his molybdenum-carbide battle axe. “Berserkers—Valhalla Awaits!”

The battle cry echoed across the field of combat. Arm blades snapped out and the Berserkers met the Espejo charge. The battlefield echoed with the resounding clash of metal on metal.

Bjorn waded through the melee as though it were a bar brawl. Even the improved composites used in the Mk 8s could not withstand the force Left Hook put behind Bjorn’s axe. Soon, Espejo CASPers were backpedaling away from his fury. One leapt away on its jumpjets, only to be speared by a Casanova laser.

The Mk 8s were fast, but the operators lacked experience in hand-to-hand fighting. Already, the numbers now favored the Berserkers. Bjorn was determined to whittle the numbers down, one axe stroke at a time.

* * *

Kodiak Delta Four

The MinSha patrol strolled around the transport right on schedule. Wicza flashed the green light to the snipers. Three of the insectoids fell instantly, and the fourth thrashed a bit before dying. The task force trotted the last 100 meters to the tarmac. The second MinSha quartet was wary, but 50 heavily armed humans overwhelmed them. The last quartet of MinSha surrendered. The remaining 140 Berserker infantry swept into the base.

Wicza led her squad up the ramp of the closest transport. The ships weren’t prepped for lift off, or even transferring cargo. When Wicza reached the cargo bay, a handful of Humans raised their hands with cries of “No matanos!” Charlotte didn’t need a translator to understand “Don’t kill us!”

“What is this?” Sergeant Wicza demanded in Spanish.

“It is the Binning manufactory the Espejos stole from Earth,” one finally answered. “Part of it, at least. It is spread between the ships.”

“Relay to orbital forces—I need prize crews for three transports.” Charlotte regarded the workers. “Put your hands down. Secure the bay for flight, then you have a choice: remain on board or stay on Patoka.”

* * *

Escuzio’s Flat, Nuevo Aztlán

“Did you hear a gun shot?” Hana asked.

Escuzio went from drowsily enjoying their shared body heat under the blankets to wide awake. “Why would there be a fight here?” he asked, even as he checked security cameras with his pinplant link through his slate. “Shit, you’re right! We’re being invaded! There must be over a hundred soldiers sweeping through the base.”

Hana sat up and grabbed her slate. Escuzio pretended not to notice when the blanket fell away. “All of the CASPers are deployed,” she said. “The only ones left are trainers and maintenance reserve.”

“What’s left?” Escuzio asked as a camera panned over a quartet on MinSha corpses.

“There are two dozen MinSha tasked with protecting the manufactories,” Hana replied. “Our troops provided base security, but they are all in the field.”

“It’s a good thing you’re only a technical contractor,” Escuzio remarked. Through his pinplants, he sent code-wyrms into the database.

“I’m a technical corporal,” Hana protested. “I didn’t bust my ass on my VOWS and recruitment to get downgraded to civilian.”

Escuzio halted the code-wyrms in the human resources database. “Is keeping your merc certification worth risking your life?”

“Yes. So few people from my country achieve what I have, I feel as though I am betraying my ancestors by giving it up,” Hana said. “Besides, how many people around here know how to operate the manufactory?”

“Not many,” Escuzio conceded. “How do we surrender without getting our heads blown off?”

* * * * *

Chapter 30

Conquistador Company, Conquistador Actual

The numbers taunted Rodrigo. He was supposed to have his vengeance! Somehow, the Berserkers were persevering. Engaging the lunatics hand-to-hand had been a mistake; Rodrigo could see it now. His men had grown soft in a series of easy victories won not by their skill, but by Rodrigo’s tactics and leadership. He needed to salvage the situation, and fast. Aldo led the charge against the enemy vehicles, but Rodrigo needed a way to extricate his forces and regroup.

Thirty meters away, a hulking Mk 7 with a battle axe smote an Espejo CASPer. The Mk 8 slammed to the snowy turf, spraying myometic fluid and blood from its shoulder joint. Another Espejo drew a bead with its laser rifle, only to have the lasing tube sheared off by the axe. The backswing of the axe caught the Mk 8 square in the clamshell canopy; the smaller mecha launched through the air to collide with a compatriot.

Rodrigo had spent hours watching combat footage. He recognized the distinctive CASPer with an augmented arm. “Tovesson!” Rodrigo shouted over his external speakers. “Face me so I may avenge my brother!”

* * *

Bruin Company, Bruin Actual

Bjorn heard the challenge over the din of the battle. Bettie highlighted the source CASPer. A quick check told him the Berserkers still fielded 112 CASPers, the Espejos, 127. The number ticked down to 126. The battle going close-quarters dampened the advantage of the Casanovas. Firing their laser turrets into the chaotic brawl was too risky. He sent a command to Kodiak to send one of their CASPer platoons to join the battle. 111 to 124.

Bjorn waded through the swirling melee, raising his shield in time to catch a laser pulse. Another flashed past his clamshell canopy, scoring the paint. If he could take down Sanchez, he could end this cluster-fuck.

“Come and get me!” Bjorn bellowed over his speakers.

Sanchez launched his CASPer through the air toward Bjorn, a risky move. Bjorn hoped one of the Casanovas didn’t skeet shoot the bastard. The black Mk 8 landed four meters away and extended an arm blade.

“I will kill you for what you did,” Sanchez declared. “Tonight, my brother’s spirit will finally rest.”

Bjorn hefted his axe. “Your brother was a punk. I’ll send you to join him in Hel.”

* * *

Kodiak Delta Four

Sergeant Wicza stopped at the corner. The small recon drone overhead zipped around the building, relaying LIDAR and infrared to the scouts. Her APEX armor lacked the wraparound Tri-V display of the larger CASPers, so she used her pinplants to stack and shuffle through screens.

Charlotte let Quinto precede her around the corner, then followed. Another pair of scouts hustled across the street—both pairs scanned the upper floors and rooflines of the buildings opposite them. Infrared showed people in the buildings, but they were doing the smart thing and staying down.

The command building was a block ahead, at the center of the outpost. If there were any resistance, it would be there. An icon flashed, indicating a priority message. She held up her hand to signal a halt. Quinto got several steps ahead before she realized everyone behind her had stopped.

“You need to find and detain Isabella Quinto,” Captain Boggs ordered. “We think she’s working for El Espejo Obscuro.”

Charlotte mentally swept the comm screen aside to find herself staring down the barrel of Quinto’s rifle. Quinto had Charlotte dead to rights; she’d never get her gun up in time.

“Sergeant, muevate!” Quinto shouted. The launcher on the underside of her laser rifle fired and the 30mm rocket streaked past Charlotte’s helmet, momentarily blinding her.

Wicza’s HUD updated to show the Mk 8 CASPer 30 meters behind her. Its laser incinerated a chunk of wall above her. Quinto’s rocket struck the black battle suit center-mass and detonated. The blast flung the CASPer onto its back.

The other two scouts aimed at the fallen mecha. The clamshell canopy jettisoned, trailing smoke. “Anderson, Pickens—go secure the operator,” Charlotte ordered. She glanced back at Quinto, who held her weapon down and away.

“Don’t worry, sergeant,” Isabella said. “I’ve got your back.”

* * *

Kodiak Bravo Three

“Fall in,” Sergeant Stallings ordered. “We’re joining the real fight! Our rides are at the gates. Move it!”

“Come on, TJ, quit screwing around,” Whim called over the private channel.

“Hang back, and I’ll hack you off the grid as well,” TJ offered. “If the Berserkers win, call it a malfunction, but I think they’re going to get chewed up. The Espejos have numbers and hardware on their side. Don’t do anything stupid, and I can keep you alive.”

Since when did Diller know how to hack, let alone be able to pull units off the IFF grid? “I’m not a coward.” Wilhelm turned to follow the rest of the squad.

“It’s not being a coward,” Diller protested. “It’s being smart. You can keep your life, and if you play ball you can rake in some serious credits.”

“You’re not afraid.” The realization shocked Wilhelm like a splash of ice-cold water. “You’re a traitor.”

“I tried to save you, kid,” TJ said. All the other comm icons disappeared from Wilhelm’s display. Diller’s location icon also disappeared. “I’ve never had to see what happened to the people I set up before. I actually felt bad for you. Maybe this is for the best. They’ll blame you or your girlfriend when they figure out how the Espejos got their information.”

“The crate was yours.” Wilhelm backed toward the rest of the squad. Metal crunched overhead, and movement flickered on his LIDAR. Wilhelm ignited his jumpjets and hopped back. A K-bomb landed next to where he had been, detonating as soon as it struck the ground.

The blast slammed Wilhelm into another building, the metal wall buckling under the impact. Metal screeched as he pulled his CASPer from the torn metal. Instinctively, he deployed his laser shield. A moment later, a tungsten slug punched through the shield and carved a runnel through the armor on his upper arm. Burning pain told Wilhelm his arm was still attached. He flexed his hand for confirmation as he twisted away from the building.

His suit lurched as the last bits of debris snagging his CASPer gave way. Another MAC round punched into his armor. His left jumpjet went offline and several hydraulic tell-tales flashed yellow. He couldn’t give Diller time for a third shot. He placed targeting reticles with his pinplants and fired both of his shoulder-mounted rockets.

The first round streaked for the building under TJ’s position. Diller barely had enough time to fire his jumpjets before leaping into the path of the second rocket. Wilhelm had calculated for center-of-mass, but the rocket hit halfway between the hip and the knee. The warhead detonated. Super-heated metal punched through the leg armor and sheered the limb off.

The impact sent the CASPer spinning out of control. Diller’s cursing ceased when his suit plowed into the outer wall, then clattered to the ground. Wilhelm turned to find himself staring down the barrels of four MACs. He remembered TJ had hijacked his comm system and rebooted it.

Wilhelm raised his hands, hoping the rest of his squad didn’t decide to shoot him before his comms came back online. Luckily, he had recorded the tail end of the conversation in his pinplants. TJ may have fiddled with his CASPer systems, but he couldn’t hack the implanted system in Wilhelm’s skull.

* * *

Kodiak Charlie Four

The Casanova line slowed to a crawl. The gunners struggled to pick out targets in the melee. Chuck kept pace with the Aegis rumbler next to him. Occasional laser pulses incandesced the shields, but the CASPers were caught up in the slugfest.

“We’ve got two squads of CASPers sweeping in from the north!” Sergeant Matthews yelled. “Hinthorn, back us up to give us a field of fire past Delta One!”

The rumbler slid to a halt on the snow-covered grass. The wheels reversed, and Chuck watched the line of vehicles break into a staggered formation in the Tri-V. Counter-missile weapons buzzed as a new salvo of rockets preceded the black CASPers.

The machine guns opened fire first, but the anti-personnel weapons did little more than chip the paint. Chuck watched the swarm of enemy icons close on their formation. At a distance, the Casanovas had the advantage of heavier weapons and armor. Up close and personal, the CASPers would tear them apart.

The enemy CASPers opened fire with their lasers as they bounded across the snowy turf. Their weapons did little damage to the armored rumblers. The vehicles used the same armor composites as CASPers, in thicker, angled slabs.

Several Casanovas opened fire with their laser turrets and MACs while others maneuvered for position. Half a dozen enemy troopers fell, most victims of high-powered lasers punching clean through their suits. The lucky ones would lose a limb; between cauterization and trauma nanites, they had a chance of survival.

“Full reverse!” Matthews yelled. The order from Lieutenant Haynes flashed on Chuck’s display. Ahead lay the mass of brawling CASPers, the outpost was behind them. The units in the outpost must be sending reinforcements. “Step on it, Hinthorn!”

Chuck flipped the drive motors to reverse and slammed the throttle pedal to the floor. The Tri-V flipped to project the view from the rear of their Casanova. The outpost gates were open, and several rumblers milled near the entrance, but no one was coming to help them.

The enemy mob gave chase, but even Mk 8 CASPers couldn’t keep up with vehicles. Another three CASPers fell victim to lasers and MACs. Another risked jumping after the fleeing vehicles and was picked off by an antiaircraft rumbler’s laser. Chuck watched the outpost draw closer on the map. CASPers finally emerged from the gate. Once they made it to the reinforcing CASPers, the vehicles would be safe.

The collision alarm sounded, and the Casanova jolted as Delta One bounced out of a rut and slid into Charlie Four. Chuck fought the controls as the rumbler slewed from the impact. The Aegis rumbler veered away in the nick of time, preventing a chain collision. Charlie Four rocked as it hit a pair of hummocks before skidding to a halt.

At least they didn’t roll over, Chuck thought as he gathered his bearings. The rumbler was facing 90 degrees off their path. On the Tri-V he could see Delta One had spun out as well. A dark form landed on Delta One, followed by another. Then a metallic clang reverberated through the rumbler as something impacted their armored hull.

* * *

Bruin Company, Bruin Actual

Bjorn had to admit, Sanchez was good. They used their first few exchanges to gauge each other. Sanchez’s CASPer was faster, but Bjorn had power and reach. Bjorn knew Sanchez would wait for him to commit to a swing and come in before Bjorn could recover. The question was whether Sanchez could score a telling blow.

They circled each other like prize fighters, throwing the intermittent jab or feint. Bjorn spared a glance at the counter. It showed 101 to 97. The odds had evened in the close-up brawl, but mutually assured destruction was not a winning tactic.

Sanchez brought up his laser and snapped off a shot. The pulse flared against Bjorn’s already ablated shield, slagging the metal. Bjorn ejected the glowing shield toward Sanchez and brought his axe down. The heavy weapon cleaved the laser’s barrel, but Sanchez jabbed with his arm blade. Sensors registered the groove carved in the outer layers of Left Hook’s armor.

Sanchez danced away from Bjorn’s backswing. He flicked his blade in again, but the strike lacked the strength to do more than score Bjorn’s armor. Sanchez hopped away again before Bjorn could bring his battle axe down. 99 to 94.

“Bettie, you have anything for me?” Bjorn asked. Sanchez side-stepped another swing, and Bjorn caught his counter-swing on his left vambrace.

“His suit is nimbler. He is probably waiting to capitalize on an opening where your slower response will give him time to land a crippling blow.”

“Thanks a lot,” Bjorn grumbled. He feinted with the axe, but Sanchez didn’t bite. 98 to 96.

“You’re welcome.”

Bjorn swung again, but this time he released his left hand. As the axe swung by, Sanchez darted in, right into Left Hook’s armored fist. The impact launched the Mk 8, sending it skidding across the snow. Bjorn hefted his axe back to a two-handed grip and charged.

He brought the battle axe down with a roar. Sanchez rolled aside, and the molybdenum-carbide blade sank into the turf. Bjorn back-handed Sanchez as he popped up, sending the Espejo commander stumbling. Clods of dirt flew as Bjorn wrenched his axe free.

Sanchez darted in again, and Bjorn swung his axe in a flat arc. Sanchez caught the much heavier weapon with his arm blade. The smaller blade snapped under the impact. Bjorn grinned viciously.

“Warning, external foreign object,” Bettie declared.

Sanchez had risked the swing to get close enough to slap something on Bjorn’s CASPer. There was a loud pop, and the CASPer’s systems winked out. Safeties in the pinlink tripped to keep the EMP from following the leads and frying Bjorn’s implants, and his brains with them.

The arms of the CASPer went slack. The axe slipped from Left Hook’s grip and embedded in the ground.

* * *

Kodiak Bravo Three

As soon as his comms rebooted, Whim played TJ’s words for Sergeant Stallings.

“Shit, I thought he was all right,” the sergeant commented. “A bit cocky, but all right. We can sort the rest out later. We have a battle waiting. Head for the gate! Go, go, go!”

As Wilhelm loped toward the gate, a private channel blinked. For a panicked moment, he thought it was TJ, then saw it was Corporal Ospina.

“The sarge may think you’re square, but if you try anything funny, I’ll fill you full of tungsten,” Ospina said. Wilhelm could imagine her eyes narrowing. “You read me, Gutknecht?”

“Loud and clear, Corporal,” Wilhelm replied. “I’ve had enough funny.”

Rumblers waited to carry them into battle, but it appeared the fight was coming to them. A pack of black Espejo CASPers were chasing the Casanovas toward the outpost. A pair of the armored vehicles collided and spun to a halt. Enemy CASPers pounced on the stopped vehicles, tearing open hatches and dropping in K-bombs. First one, then the other Casanova exploded. The enemy CASPers used the fiery blasts as cover and fell back toward the main battle.

A casualty daemon in Whim’s computer tripped. An icon and message flashed in the corner of his vision—Casualty: Kodiak Charlie Four. Chuck’s Casanova was one of the two blazing wrecks halfway between the gate and the mass of brawling CASPers.

Wilhelm choked back a lump in his throat. He knew losing friends would be part of the business. He wondered if it would hurt less as time went on; part of him was afraid it would.

* * *

Kodiak Delta Four

Charlotte was torn. Quinto saved her life, but Captain Boggs said Isabella was the mole. The anti-CASPer round in Wicza’s underslung launcher would punch straight through a suit of APEX armor. Charlotte flipped her pinlink targeting to the launcher. Why would Quinto shoot another Espejo? How many Berserkers had died so far in this trap?

Quinto pulled out another AP rocket to reload. Charlotte only had a few seconds to act. She dropped a reticle on Quinto’s center mass; a second indicated the current trajectory of her shot. The two reticles inched closer together.

“Where did the CASPer come from?” Charlotte asked, stalling for time.

Quinto turned back toward where the other pair of scouts secured the operator. “I don’t know. Maybe the maintenance pool? It doesn’t have anything on the shoulder hardpoint.”

The reticles met and flashed green.

“Belay previous order,” Boggs ordered over the command channel. “Quinto has been cleared. Private Tom Diller was the spy.”

Charlotte lifted the weapon clear as Quinto turned around to face her. Charlotte had never hesitated to fire before, but she thanked the goddess she had now.

“What are we waiting for, Sergeant?” Isabella asked. “Let’s see if there is anyone in the command center with the cajones for a fight.”

* * *

Bruin Company, Bruin Actual

Cold air flooded the CASPer as Bjorn yanked the manual release on the clamshell canopy. A single machine gun round spanged off the armored canopy. With nowhere else to go, Bjorn threw himself out his CASPer.

Bjorn spat snow as he pushed himself upright. His left arm dangled limp at his side. Sanchez poked at his arm-mounted machine gun. Evidently the ammo feed had been damaged in their brawl.

“I guess I will have to kill you in a more personal manner.” Sanchez stooped to pick up the meter-long blade that had snapped off. “Perhaps it is better this way. I can carve you up como un cabra.”

Sanchez lumbered forward, his black CASPer clutching the blade like a crude dagger in its right hand. He slashed awkwardly. Bjorn scrambled aside, circling away from the blade.

“Why don’t you come out of there and face me man-to-man?” Bjorn yelled. “At least your brother looked me in the eye, puta!

“I think I will hang your beard as a trophy.” Sanchez lashed out again. Bjorn sidestepped the knife, but the CASPer’s left hand struck him with a glancing backswing. Bjorn felt a couple of ribs pop, and pain seared through his side.

Bjorn rolled to his knees as Sanchez stalked toward him. A countdown scrolled in his view, cast by his pinlink—3…2…1…reboot complete. Bjorn lifted his left fist, hand clenched it.

“You poked the bear,” Bjorn snarled. “Now it’s time to pay the price.”

Sanchez laughed over his suit’s speakers. “Even with your vaunted cybernetic arm, do you really think you’re a threat to a state-of-the-art CASPer?”

Left Hook’s canopy snapped shut. The suit lurched the dozen steps behind the black Mk 8 and bear hugged it. An actuated service umbilical extended from Left Hook to Sanchez’s CASPer.

“No, but I’m betting you’ll come out and face me when your fancy suit shuts down,” Bjorn retorted. Text scrolled down a sidebar in his vision.

>>Engaging Peepo Protocols<<

>>Activating Power Umbilical Feed to Comms<<

>>Activating Command Channels<<

>>Transmitting Peepo Protocols<<

Sanchez’s CASPer went still in Left Hook’s grip. Five seconds later, so did the closest Espejo CASPer. The scorecard reappeared in Bjorn’s vision. 91 to 82. 91 to 80. 91 to 77. 90 to 73.

Bjorn reached up and yanked on the rescue handle of Sanchez’s CASPer. The grip was too small to grab with a CASPer, and normally required leverage to exert enough force. A gunshot rang out as the clamshell canopy popped open.

Bjorn cursed himself as the bullet hit his leg above the knee. Sanchez tumbled from his CASPer with more grace than Bjorn had managed. Sanchez lined up his pistol from a crouch, but Bjorn swatted the gun aside, breaking several bones in Sanchez’s hand. 89 to 62. 89 to 56. 89 to 51.

Sanchez spat a curse and pulled a knife with his other hand. “I will not be denied!” he yelled.

Bjorn limped to where his axe lay stuck in the ground. He grabbed it with both hands and winced as he tore it free of the earth. 88 to 44. 88 to 40. “It’s time to finish this dance.”

“This is Aldo Mercado, acting commander of El Espejo Obscuro,” a voice announced over open channel. “We surrender. I will not throw away any more lives.”

“Your unit just surrendered, Sanchez,” Bjorn said. Through his pinplants he transmitted the command to the Berserkers to accept the Espejo’s surrender.

“No!” Sanchez shrieked. “I do not surrender!” He closed on Bjorn, waiting for the axe to swing, knife held ready. Sanchez circled to the left, waiting for an opening.

“Commander Tovesson, this is Captain Mercado. I would ask you spare—” The signal cut out. 88 to 26—Peepo’s protocol continued unabated.

“Your second asked me to spare you,” Bjorn said. “If this were only war, I would agree.”

“This is personal,” Rodrigo Sanchez snarled. He stepped forward, then danced aside as Bjorn swung the heavy battle axe. Sanchez lunged forward in the wake of the axe.

Bjorn caught Sanchez’s wrist with his right hand. “Some people get so caught up in the fact I have a cybernetic limb that they forget I still have plenty of strength in my flesh and blood limbs.”

Vaya al infierno!” Sanchez spat. “I sent my sister to Vishall to kill your woman! You cannot get there in time to save her! Even if you kill me, I will pay you back in blood!”

Bjorn twisted and slammed Sanchez into his inert CASPer. Bjorn winced in pain as bone scraped bone in his ribcage. He hoped he didn’t drive a shard of rib into his lung.

Sanchez drove his knee toward Bjorn’s groin, but years of fighting experience guided Bjorn, and he turned aside to catch the blow on his hip. Bjorn headbutted Sanchez, bouncing Sanchez’s skull into the CASPer behind him.

Even dazed, Sanchez dropped the knife to his free but injured hand. Bjorn felt the blade bite into his flesh, and he hoped he wouldn’t see his intestines spill out. Bjorn dropped the axe and slugged Sanchez on the chin with a left hook.

Bone crunched under the impact, and half a dozen of Sanchez’s teeth flew loose. The force of the blow sent Sanchez sprawling in the snow. He spat a spray of red blood on the snow.

“If you kill me, I will join Cristobal in Heaven, and we will watch you suffer.” Rodrigo spat blood and another tooth.

Bjorn retrieved the axe. His ribs and his leg protested as he hefted the 30-kilogram weapon. “Your brother started the fight. You’ve carried your grudge for a dozen years, but this is where it ends. All of the killing and treachery you’ve committed over the last dozen years in the name of revenge…the axe falls here.”

Bjorn raised the axe high, then swung down with all his might. Bright red blood sprayed across the snow as Rodrigo Sanchez’s head bounced across the turf.

* * * * *

Chapter 31

New Aztlán, Patoka

“Whisky, you have two minutes to tell me what’s going on,” Bjorn yelled over the din of the VTOL on the tarmac. He’d hastily thrown together a company worth of CASPers, and they were ascending to meet the Ursa Major in orbit. “I need to be outbound ASAP. The fuckers sent a company to Vishall Plex; they’re going after Talita.”

Charlotte blanched, then gathered her resolve. “These transports contain one of Binning’s CASPer manufactory lines. Evidently, part of Peepo’s deal with El Espejo Obscuro was they would get to shanghai this line, all the while not knowing Peepo’s people had seeded it with her backdoor failsafe.”

All of the frenetic wheels spinning in Bjorn’s skull screeched to a halt. “You’re saying there is a CASPer production line on these ships?”


“We need to get these to Vishall,” Bjorn said. One of the missing pieces of the puzzle in leaving Earth was hardware, namely CASPers. Having a manufactory on Vishall changed the equation.

“I don’t know if I can allow that,” a new voice said. It was higher pitched and obviously fed through a translator. A Flatar riding a Tortantula stepped into view. The Flatar brandished a Peacemaker badge in one hand and one of the infamous Flatar hypervelocity pistols in the other. The guns could punch through CASPer armor, and Bjorn stood in his flesh and blood. Neither seemed concerned they were in the middle of at least a company’s worth of armed mercenaries. “Binning has tasked me with tracking down the thieves, and, if possible, to return their property.”

“I claim these ships and their contents as prizes of war,” Bjorn stated, his tone formal. “The mercenary unit in possession of the materials in question lost an engagement to a mercenary firm under lawful contract, and as such forfeit any assets on site, per the terms of their unconditional surrender.”

“I think the hairy one is right,” the Tortantula said. The Peacemaker logo was emblazoned on its armor.

“I heard him,” the Flatar remarked. “Binning will be pissed, but reviewing the contract, you are entitled to any captured salvage.”

Bjorn wasn’t surprised the Peacemaker had a copy of the contract. They were often called upon to resolve contract disputes, and the Patoka contract was public record.

“To split whiskers, these transports are not in the objective base,” the Flatar said. “I could order you to surrender them.”

“Clause three under prizes of war includes any equipment captured from enemy forces.” Bjorn scrolled a copy of the contract through his pinplants. “Section Two, enemy combatants are defined as any individuals or organizations entering combat in defense of the objective in Section One. El Espejo Obscuro engaged us while we were assaulting the objective, which qualifies them as defenders.”

“The human is right,” the Tortantula agreed again.

The Flatar flexed its whiskers and twitched its nose. “Whose side are you on?”

“Unless you have the transports to ship this equipment to Earth, we’re taking it to Vishall,” Bjorn said. “Now if you’ll excuse me, five days ago a sociopath and a company of CASPers took off after my fiancée. I know I can’t catch up, but I need to find out what happened.”

“We may be able to help, Commander Tovesson,” the Flatar Peacemaker said.

* * *

Patoka Stargate

Gate Master Hopkonin glanced in irritation at the beeping comm and yawned. He had left explicit instructions not to interrupt his nap. “Why are you bothering me, Duty Technician?”

“There is a Human ship, a warship, closing at high velocity,” the technician stammered. “It is transmitting a Priority One signal.”

Hopkonin sat up. Priority One was restricted to a handful of institutions, none of which should have representatives on a Human mercenary ship. “Put the transmission through to my office terminal.”

The Tri-V filled with the holographic logo of the Peacemaker Guild. Any drowsiness from the interrupted nap evaporated. The logo vanished, replaced by the visage of a Flatar. “This is Peacemaker Qivek, requesting entry to expedited hyperspace.”

“Peacemaker Qivek, I see a Human-flagged battlecruiser,” the gate master replied. The Sumatozou shifted nervously. Why was a Peacemaker at his stargate with a warship?

“Yes. We are riding on the Human ship.”

“Peacemaker Qivek, this would expose classified operations to the Humans,” the gate master protested, tangling his bifurcated trunks. Only the Cartography Guild and the Science Guild were supposed to know about the deeper layers of hyperspace.

“It would not, Gate Master,” the Peacemaker replied. “The Humans are already aware of this capability. Now, will you comply, or should my partner and I board your station to investigate any operational inconsistencies contrary to Cartography Guild protocols?” The Tortantula loomed over the Flatar and clicked its fangs.

“Expedited hyperspace will be available upon your arrival, Peacemaker Qivek.”

* * *

EMS Ursa Major

“We are on target for star gate entry,” Corporal Ling announced. She checked a side display and added, “Projected velocity at interface—150,000 kph.”

“Can’t we go any faster?” Bjorn demanded, clutching the arm of his seat hard enough to deform the metal.

“Probably, but we are as likely as not to emerge on the wrong trajectory,” Captain Wildman reminded him. “Going faster means the risk of losing time course correcting.”

Bjorn growled and fidgeted with his hammer pendant. He knew Wildman was right. “Fine.”

Bjorn overheard Qivek’s “negotiation” with the gate master. How had no one known there was a faster layer of hyperspace? It was almost enough to distract him from the death of his best friend and the peril of his fiancée. Even with the top-secret five-day transition and high-speed run at the gate, they might be too late. Bjorn had asked Bettie to crunch the numbers, but she replied there were too many variables.

The microgravity alarm sounded. “Sixty seconds to hyperspace transition,” Sprague announced over the intercom. The stargate swelled from a dot in the main Tri-V display to a hoop full of swirling light. Even though the ring of the stargate was five thousand meters across, it seemed tiny to Bjorn as they hurtled toward it. There was a flash and the sensation of being unmade. The false gravity of thrust disappeared.

“All stations secure for hyperspace and be reminded we are on a 120-hour transition,” Captain Wildman ordered. “Good job, Ling.”

“Let’s go, Halsey.” Bjorn released his safety restraint and caught the flag station hand rail. He was supposed to check in with the medical officer but wasn’t in the mood to be fussed over.

“Sir?” Corporal Halsey floated free of his acceleration couch and grabbed a handhold.

“I’ve got fallen soldiers to toast, and Wildman can’t drink,” Bjorn said, pushing off toward the CIC hatch. “So, you’re it. We’re going to down enough whisky and mead to float a longship.”

“I’ve never had mead before,” Halsey remarked, following Bjorn.

“You’ll probably hate it,” Bjorn said as he caught the end of the hatchway. “To quote someone else, it tastes like a diabetic’s piss.”

* * *

New Aztlán, Patoka


Captain Marian Boggs looked up from her slate as the couple approached. “We don’t do group interviews,” she said, letting irritation creep into her voice. Give her a stand-up fight over listening to people plead their case over and over any day.

“Well, you see, it’s important we’re together because of mitigating circumstances,” the heavy-set man replied. Boggs could tell he was no merc by looking at him. He clutched the hand of the Asian woman with him—a couple no doubt afraid of being separated. “I mean, it’s a lot more complicated, because I’m not a mercenary, I’m a code writer. My padre wanted me to be a merc, but my abuela let me write—”

“I have another three hundred interviews,” Boggs interrupted. “Get to the point.”

“Scuzz?” Gina stepped forward and hugged the man. “What are you doing here?”

“Sergeant Zomorra, do you know this man?” Boggs asked.

Gina nodded. “This is my hacker friend, Scuzz.”

“Scuzz?” The Asian woman regarded Zomorra, then glanced at the man.

“Are you his girlfriend?” Gina asked, the turned to the man. “You didn’t tell me you had a girlfriend.”

“It is a recent development,” the hacker said. “Hana, this is my friend Gizmo.”

“The whole reunion thing is cute, but I have a full schedule,” Boggs interjected.

“We do coding for the manufactory,” Scuzz said. “Technically, she’s a technical corporal, and I’m a contractor—mierda, mi maldita boca, please don’t shoot her, she’s only a tech corporal!”

“No one is getting shot,” Boggs countered, despite the temptation. “Gizmo, get them berthed on one of the QlunSha transports and do your catching up where it won’t slow down my queue.”

* * *

“Isabella!” Wilhelm waved as she turned. She rushed to him and engulfed him in a fierce embrace. Wilhelm clenched his teeth against the pain. Trauma nanites had repaired the worst of his injuries, but the rest would need time.

“I heard we lost almost twenty percent of our CASPer troopers,” Isabella murmured. “I was afraid I’d lost you.”

“Things got complicated,” Wilhelm said, holding her close. “TJ was a double agent, and he tried to frame you. My squad almost gunned me down when I killed him.”

“What? That doesn’t make any sense.” Isabella frowned in puzzlement.

“The crate in our compartment—it was his transmitter.” Wilhelm pulled back enough to meet Isabella’s eyes. “I think he assumed it would eventually be found and put it there to cast blame on you, because…”

“Because my family is from Mexico,” Isabella finished. “It’s a shame you killed him. I want to kick his ass.”

“There’s something else—Chuck is dead.” Wilhelm felt another upwelling of guilt as he said it out loud.

“I’m sorry, querido,” Isabella whispered in his ear. “I know he was, well, interested in me, but I hoped you could stay friends.”

“Me, too.”

* * *

“Captain Mercado, another group of transports have emerged,” Captain Boggs said. She had commandeered the Espejo commander’s office to coordinate recovery and loading. Her orders were to get the Berserkers back to Vishall. “Is this another strike force? I have enough firepower in orbit to blow them to atoms.”

“No, Captain Boggs,” Aldo replied. “These are the next waves of settlers. I think Rodrigo—Commander Sanchez—assumed the fight would be over by now. He staged several ships in the Alpha Centauri system to transition here.”

“I didn’t know the Alpha Centauri system was inhabited,” Boggs remarked.

“Inhabited would be a generous term,” Aldo said. “There are no gas giants in the trinary system, but there are many asteroids rich in rare earth minerals, enough for the Cartography Guild to assemble a stargate. If I’m not mistaken, it’s how the Buma found us.”

“Why should I let these people land?” History was fascinating, but Boggs was interested in the here and now.

“Why would Peepo hunt down human mercenary companies unless she intended to attack Earth?” Aldo asked. “Stephen Hawking insisted the best chance for humanity was to get off Earth. It seems he was right. Humanity’s best hoped is to spread out among the stars, hoping we all won’t be brought under Peepo’s paw.”

“They can stay in orbit until we leave,” Marian said. The Peepo protocols had disabled the Espejo’s CASPers, but more people on the ground meant more opportunities for mischief.

“I assure you, these are civilians and support staff,” Mercado said. “They will cause no trouble. You have my word.”

“It’s not that I distrust you, Captain.” Boggs liked the man, despite the fact he had worked for a murderous sociopath. He was earnest and diligent in ensuring his people honored the terms of the surrender. “More people mean spreading my troops thinner to guard them. They can abide another twelve hours while we complete operations.”

“As you say.”

Boggs had expected Commander Tovesson to strip the planet of everything of value. Instead, he ordered her to leave as much infrastructure as possible intact, other than anything needed to support the manufactories. The Mk 8 CASPers were all compromised, so they would be left behind. The Berserkers could have pilfered ammo stores, but Bjorn ordered the ordnance left behind as well. There were civilians here, and he wasn’t going to leave them defenseless.

* * *

Occupied Eosogi Outpost

TJ awoke to burning pain in his leg. The trauma nanites kept him from bleeding out, but the amputated limb hurt like hell. When he crashed after Whim blasted him out of the sky, his CASPer had landed near an open stairwell leading into the ground. He dragged himself to the stairs and pulled the hatch shut. After another 50 meters of crawling, he’d passed out.

His chronometer showed it had been eight hours since the fight. He didn’t pick up any comm signals, Berserker or Espejo, but they could be blocked by the underground structure. He debated how long he should wait to poke his head out. He wished he had a sniffer drone to send back to the hatch in search of signals.

The screech of metal grinding on metal preceded daylight flooding the stairwell. TJ heard the barks and yips of Zuul’r, the Zuul language.

A pair of Zuul edged down the stairs, squinting into the darkness.

“Well, I didn’t close the hatch,” one said.

“This appears to be blood,” the other said. “It smells Human.”

“Hello there,” TJ said, trying to sound affable. “I don’t suppose you could tell me who won?”

* * *

Zuul Frigate Prowler Five, in Orbit over Toka’Da

The entire moon outpost was a loss. No one could give Captain Ristiin any answers because all the scientists perished in the massive explosion. She hadn’t bothered sending search and rescue teams into the hangar caverns—whatever had powered the ancient reactor reduced the cavern complex to a huge crater and blasted another crater where the weapon emplacement used to be.

The outpost on the planet below would be evacuated. There was nothing useful, and their resources would be better applied to other projects. All they had to show for the Patoka project were the data backups uploaded to the frigates. Her technical officer reported there had been an especially large upload shortly before the incident. Maybe it would be enough to keep the higher-ups from busting her down to a transport captain.

* * * * *

Chapter 32

Decommissioned Mine, Olaf Mining, Alaska

“What’s the news today?” Pastor Hawkins entered the control room carrying an ammo can loaded with half a dozen cups of coffee.

“Sergeant Cripe’s team reported in,” Lieutenant Enkh said, gratefully accepting a coffee. “The house was burnt to the foundation, and the foundation was reduced to rubble by explosives.”

“What about Mr. Tovesson?” Jim handed coffee to the other watch personnel. “Any sign of his remains?”

“He detonated his CASPer using K-bombs,” Enkh replied. “There wasn’t much left. The team gathered what they could find and are taking a circuitous route back.”

Jim shook his head. “Anyone tell Lynn yet?”

“We thought we should leave it to you, Lieutenant Hawkins,” Enkh answered. “Between being the ranking Berserkers officer on site and a man of the cloth.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Jim admitted. “Once they get back, we’ll arrange a funeral pyre. It’s a shame we don’t have a longship, but I doubt one would float in the creek.”

“There has been an uptick in human resistance activity,” Sergeant Anya Enkh said. “It seems the most popular civilian Tri-V displays are failing en masse, and people are blaming Peepo.”

“Have any of our displays been affected?” Jim asked. Most of the displays in the room were old-fashioned 2D monitors, but there were a handful of Tri-Vs.

“No.” Sergeant Enkh shook her head. “All of the affected models are the cheapest consumer versions sourced through FedMart.”

“Bread and circuses,” Jim muttered.

“Did you save me any coffee?” Priya’s hand rested on his shoulder. They were still testing the waters of their burgeoning relationship. Jim wasn’t in a rush; they had plenty of time on their hands.

“Of course I did,” Jim replied, handing Priya the last cup. He was rewarded with a kiss on the cheek. Jim suspected it violated decorum, but they were hiding in a hole in the ground while aliens occupied Earth. To heck with decorum.

“Human bean soup; it is nasty, yes?” Hcuff’t slipped past the couple to relieve the person at his duty station. The felinoid didn’t appreciate coffee.

“We have a message ready for outbound transmission,” Corporal Cvetkov announced. The message would transmit in fragments embedded in innocuous messages in the GalNet. It would take weeks to reach Vishall and compile, but it would keep prying eyes from reading the data. “We are appraising Commander Tovesson and the Winged Hussars of the situation on Earth, as well as our status in case they want to include us in their plans to take back Earth.”

“Not Colonel Enkh?” Jim asked.

“After her rescue from the Mercenary Guild headquarters, we are presuming she is with the Hussars,” Sergeant Enkh replied. “If there is to be a fight to liberate Earth, she predicted the Hussars would lead it.”

* * *

Bear Town

The chullos and bandidos had been gathering all night. Bjorn’s Berserker had fled, leaving behind a huge base nestled in the mountains west of the old White Sands military base. With the mercenaries gone, rumors had spread of abandoned military hardware, the kind of weapons most gangers and petty criminals could only dream of.

Vamanos,” Cristo Perez ordered to his subordinates. He wanted to get his hands on some sweet merc hardware. There probably wouldn’t be any CASPers left behind, but some lasers and coil guns would go a long way toward putting down the rival gang encroaching on his turf.

“Warning. You are trespassing on private property.” A female voice warned in both English and Spanish. “Attempts to breach the base perimeter will be met with deadly force.” Three pairs of CASPers lumbered into view. Red dots from laser sights played over the gawking chullos. “Please touch the fence so I can demonstrate what happens to trespassers.”

Perez found his crew all watching him for guidance. He thought the mercs were gone and at most they would face a few caretakers. Another gang scurried past, two dozen members darting from shadow to shadow as they approached the fence to the left of the gate. As soon as the first trespasser touched the fence, the closest pair of CASPers opened fire with machine guns. A third of the intruders fell, and the rest fled, abandoning their compatriots.

“Screw this,” Perez hissed. “No one said anything about a security detachment staying behind. Let these fools die.”

* * *

“How long do you think it will take them to regroup and gather the nerve to try again?” Diego asked. The CASPers plodded out to the perimeter fence to collect the dead and toss them on an impromptu pyre in the desert.

“It depends,” Rafael replied. “If they believe some of the Berserkers remain, it should keep them at bay. Luckily, they do not seem inclined to cooperate with each other, otherwise they might overwhelm us.”

“For now,” Diego added, watching the gathered throngs disperse, abandoning their fallen. “Perhaps we should investigate what it would take to get our families off world. El Oso promised we would be welcome at Vishall.”

“I don’t want to become a fisherman or a kelp farmer,” Rafael said, his gaze following the disappearing bandidos. “But if it means giving my children a life away from them, I’ll do it.”

* * *

Monte Mor, Brazil

Salomé Ruyes hurried along the street, skirting the angry mob gathering outside the Mercados Federales. The government had cut the guaranteed income stipend in half. Salomé’s mother heard this was to stretch out what little money the government had left. Next month the stipend would be halved again, and after another month at the quarter ration level, the stipend fund would run dry.

Public service announcements ran on entertainment channels, advising citizens to use their stipends for necessities rather than luxuries. Yellit feeds filled with angry declarations the government had no right to tell them how to spend their GGI.

Wait until next month, Salomé thought. All luxury and “non-essential” items would be pulled from catalogs of government-funded retailers.

Monte Mor was fortunate to have the Campinas Starport nearby. It provided employment for five thousand residents out of a population of 100,000. Only half the population depended on the government dole. Salomé shuddered to think of what would happen in less prosperous and more populated areas.

She entered Feira de Mercaditos, a year-round flea market. Stalls and tents formed a warren allowing bargain hunters to get lost. She entered a stall specializing in “vintage” clothing—it resembled her avó holding a yard sale after emptying her closets. Salomé threaded her way through tall clothing racks to the back of the stall.

After checking to ensure no one was watching her, she stepped into the makeshift dressing booth. She twisted a hook on the wall and pressed a button hidden under a bench. The back wall of the booth swung open, and she slipped through, closing the secret door. Two other stalls in the market had similar hidden egresses, all leading to an abandoned building.

Salomé ensured the camera hidden in a dead light fixture could clearly view her face before proceeding to a closet under the stairs. Another two-component latch revealed a stairway leading down. The guards at the bottom of the stairs waved her through. They wore the ragged clothes common to down-on-their-luck criminals. Hopefully, if someone managed to get this far, they would believe they had stumbled onto a black market or drug operation. Peepo had recently announced a bounty on information leading to the capture of dissidents and rogue mercenaries.

“How bad is it?” Captain Rosario Ruyes asked, glancing up from her slate as Salomé entered the command post. Worry lined her face.

“As you predicted,” Salomé replied, setting down her bag. It held a case of medical nanite injectors. “The crowds are growing, and the aliens are doing nothing about it. What’s wrong? I can read it on your face; something has happened.”

“The Peacemakers are gone,” Rosario replied. “Their consulate on Luna was destroyed. There is no one to oppose the Mercenary Guild on our behalf. We’re on our own.”

The thought made Salomé shudder. The aliens brutally quashed the occasional flare-ups of resistance. Until now, the Rebeldes were holding onto the hope the invasion of Earth would be declared illegal by the Galactic Union. Now it seemed the only way to rid themselves of the aliens was by force. Such a task was beyond a couple dozen small units scattered around the globe.

“What do we do now?” Salomé asked.

“We pray the Four Horseman return,” Captain Ruyes replied. “When they return, we will do whatever it takes to rid ourselves of Peepo and her goons. Until then, we survive.”

* * *

SOGA HQ, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Earth

General Peepo watched the status reports scroll across the Tri-V. Her whiskers twitched. She should have sterilized the planet, she thought for the third time today. Only a handful of Human mercenary units had accepted her offer of employment, not enough to allow her to reduce the deployment of much more expensive Besquith and MinSha mercenaries.

Based on intelligence, there should be at least two dozen mercenary firms remaining on Earth, none larger than a company, and most only a platoon or smaller. A few engaged in guerilla operations against Peepo’s forces. As a result, she had tracked down a couple of them and made examples of them.

The Human government wailed about the loss of income. The population rioted like angry pups throwing tantrums. The flow of goods into the system ground to a halt because the government lacked credits and no race in their right mind would accept the worthless Earth dollars. Peepo didn’t have time to micromanage their world for them.

At least the Peacemakers had been taken off the board locally. While the Peacemakers lacked the firepower to directly stand up to Peepo, they were still a nuisance. She would have to bring them to heel as well.

* * * * *

Chapter 33

EMS Ursa Major, Vishall Emergence Point

“We are only seventeen degrees off ideal vector,” Corporal Ling announced.

“H’rang customs are hailing us,” Sprague announced, her southern accent heightened by her nervousness. They expected to emerge into a battle zone. “They are performing standard protocol.”

“Where’s the Espejo transport?” Bjorn demanded. The last few hours of the five-day trip had been the worst.

“No signs of hostile activity,” Corporal Lutz announced. “I do show three transports approaching Vishall orbit.”

“Are orbital defenses engaging them?” Bjorn asked. He ignored the irritated glance Wildman gave him. He knew this was Than’s ship, but Bjorn had to know what had happened to Talita.

“No, sir.” Lutz cast his display to the flag console. “They appear to be merchant transports.”

There are no indications of combat,” Bettie reported straight to Bjorn’s pinplants. “I am querying my analog at Bear Plex. There have been no hostilities since we departed.

“Can we get anything on those transports?” Captain Wildman asked.

“We’re too far away,” Lutz replied. “Wait…they are breaking their approach vector. They’re launching craft.”

“Helm, punch it!” Bjorn yelled.

“Ling, give me a two point five Gs,” Wildman ordered. “Sprague, call Orbital Defense and advise them of our suspicions.”

The high acceleration alarm sounded. “Two point five, aye. ETA to orbit three hours, fifty-nine minutes.”

* * *

Vishall Plex, Vishall

The alarm snapped Colonel Harter awake. Figments of a dream evaporated, replaced by the electronic bleating from his tactical slate. Code 1 flashed on the screen—imminent attack. Harter grabbed his earpiece and linked into the tactical channel.

“—burning for landfall. One of the transports in orbit destroyed, the other two are retreating under heavy fire.”

“This is Blackhawk,” Harter called over the channel. “What’s going on?”

“Clifford here. A trio of transports broke from approved approach vectors and launched dropships,” the Paladin’s SIC replied. “Two thirds of them are burning for the waterfront of Vishall Plex and the remainder are on a path to pass over the island and hit the starport.”

“This is what we were hired for,” Captain Harter said as he grabbed his haptic suit. How did the enemy get so close? “All personnel to assigned posts. How long until they reach the surface?”

“Forty-seven minutes,” Lieutenant Clifford replied. “They are coming in flat trajectories to avoid the anti-aircraft emplacements. If they had come straight down, it’d be a third of the time.”

“Meet you in the CASPer bay.” Harter slammed his door behind him and hustled down two flights of stairs.

“I’m already at the bay,” Clifford said. “Second Platoon is ready to roll, and First Platoon is waiting on your sleepy ass.” Clifford could only get away with the taunting familiarity on a private channel.

“I’m almost there.” He climbed onto the electric scooter. It would get him to the CASPer bay in two minutes. “Has anyone told the Berserkers?” While the Berserkers weren’t under contract, surely they’d fight to defend their new home, and it would double the number of defenders.

“I called Captain Swinford as soon as we got the alarm,” Clifford replied. “She’s dispatching her air-cav infantry to support the starport approach, but she’s keeping her CASPers in reserve at the base.”

It was close enough to dawn for the sun to paint the scattered clouds red and pink.

It would be a beautiful morning if not for the threat of impending death, Harter thought.

Ahead, he spotted CASPers assembling by squads of six. “Take Second Platoon and hold the starport approach. I’ll take First Platoon and back up the waterfront defenses.”

We could really use the two platoons of CASPers the Berserkers are holding as reserve, Harter thought, climbing into his waiting CASPer. A waiting tech expedited getting him plugged in and buttoned up. When the clamshell canopy closed, his Tri-V HUD lit up.

“Swinford said something about activating a contingency and recommended we keep the opposition as close to the water as possible.” Clifford’s icon went into motion, leading twenty-four more icons in the direction of the starport.

“All right, First Platoon. Let’s move out!”

* * *

Matador Uno Uno

Elena watched the cliffs loom out of the ocean. Her HUD mirrored the forward view from her dropship. The quartet of dropships and twice as many decoy drones rushed toward the 100-meter wall of basalt. So far, the anti-aircraft emplacements hadn’t locked onto them. That would change as soon they pulled up to gain the top of the plateau. It would be a long seventeen minutes until her platoon jumped. The remaining CASPers would go on to hold the starport.

G forces slammed against Elena as the dropship pulled up. Black columns of volcanic rock rushed beneath the craft, and, as soon as they cleared the lip of the plateau, the pilot aimed the nose down. Green scrub raced underneath and was quickly replaced by crop fields.

“They are attempting to lock onto us,” the pilot announced. “Counter-measures hot.”

“Platoon Uno, ready for jump, fifteen minutes.”

* * *

Ursus Alpha One, Bear Plex

“Everyone, watch your topographic overlay,” Captain Swinford ordered as she marched her CASPer out of the bay. “You step in a vatgryn field and your CASPer could sink to its knees.” The one-kilometer-square patch the base was built on was solid, but once you got into the marshy fields, especially to the south and west, the ground got mucky quick.

“Bettie, are you with me?” Swinford asked. The tactical display updated. A cluster of airborne craft had breached the perimeter of the plateau.

“Of course, Captain,” the BTI replied. While Emelie knew she could use her pinplants to communicate with the battlefield tactical intelligence, she found it creepy. She preferred to speak with the program out loud.

“What are we facing?” The signals overflying the plateau would pass nearby, but sensors had not classified the craft.

“I estimate two to six dropships and decoy drones, all employing ECM and thermal counter-measures,” the program stated. “Also, Mrs. Tovesson is requesting information, but does not wish to disturb you.”

Emelie didn’t bother to point out Talita wasn’t “Mrs.” yet. “Let her see what’s going on and advise her to get to the safety bunker under her home.”

“The Ursa Major is under thrust from the emergence point,” Bettie announced. “No other ships accompany her. I am updating from my counterpart on the Ursa Major. Their ETA to orbit is three hours and forty-seven minutes.”

How did the Ursa Major get back so fast? If they were burning in hot, they already knew about the attack. It didn’t matter. Odds were everything would be over by the time they arrived, Emelie thought.

* * *

Ravaging Maw Dropship One

Lieutenant Kurrayn watched the tactical display. Only three dropships remained, but one was badly damaged and off course. One and Three would set down in the shallow water near the beach. The sand would support the dropships, as opposed to the marshy highlands, and they would have easy access to the city beyond the beach.

The Ravaging Maw’s orders were simple: kill as many humans as possible, as well as any others who impeded the Maw’s mission. Steam boiled from the ocean as the dropships burned for landing.

“Lieutenant, I am getting audio from Dropship Two,” the system operator announced. Two had splashed down half a kilometer out and was on fire. Thanks to the gentle slope, half the hull was above water. Survivors of the landing could evacuate the craft. If they were lucky, they’d be able to get some hovercraft above water.

“Put it through,” Kurrayn ordered. Garbled barking, yelping, and howling spilled from the speakers; it sounded rather un-Besquith. Kurrayn assumed the hull was breached and flooding. “Turn it off. They will have to help themselves.”

“Sir, we are taking fire from emplacements beyond the beach,” one of the dropship crew reported. “Our armor is holding but off-loading from the side facing the beach will be risky.”

“Understood. Return fire and have our troops unload on the side away from the beach,” Kurrayn said. They could gather behind the cover of the dropship before charging the beach and feasting on the defenders.

* * *

Paladin Actual

Two blocky Besquith dropships sat in the shallow water. A third smoldered farther out, half submerged. The weapons turrets on the two closest dropships returned fire against the emplacements manned by the Paladins.

Circling drones painted a bleak picture for Colonel Harter. Each dropship disgorged over five dozen Besquith. The wolves used a base eight numbering system, so their squads were eight individuals, and eight of those formed what Humans might call a platoon, and what the Besquith would call an octal squared.

Harter did the math—twenty-five CASPers and eighty unaugmented infantry troopers backed by a handful of emplaced weapons versus 128 Besquith. Even if he called for the Berserkers, they would never get there in time.

The Besquith burst from behind their dropships. Two hovercraft raced around each flank, each craft carrying an octal of Besquith. The remaining aliens charged through the surf as the dropships lay down covering fire.

“Take out those sleds!” Harter yelled. One swept right, coming into his line-of-sight. He locked on target and fired both shoulder missiles. Counter-missile fire swatted one of them from the air, but the other found its mark. The hoversled flipped into the air and split in half. Harter did a fist pump. Eight down, lots to go.

As the Besquith reached the halfway mark to the beach, the water churned in their wake. Blue-grey shapes emerged from the surf, clicking huge claws and scuttling behind the Besquith.

A text message scrolled on Harter’s HUD.>>Please do not shoot the Xiq’tal. You will only make them hungry.<<

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but don’t shoot the crabs,” Harter said over the command channel. “They are on our side. Do not give them a reason to change sides.”

Yelps echoed over the pounding surf as the Xiq’tal caught up to the trailing elements of the Besquith and started to feed. The Besquith were used to being apex predators, they didn’t know how to react to armored opponents the size of small vehicles who considered the lupines dinner. The Besquith turned their laser rifles on the Xiq’tal to little effect. The crustaceans’ shells were highly resistant to lasers.

“Blackhawk, do they know who they are and aren’t supposed to eat?” a trooper asked.

“Of course,” Harter replied. He hoped they knew. “Now take down any Besquith that reaches the beach.”

The Besquith dropships only had a few seconds to react before the Xiq’tal were among the Besquith forces. A handful of Xiq’tal clambered onto each dropship. One of the dropships boosted suddenly, shaking crabs from its hull with a violent spin. Harter saw one of the deployment hatches was still open and at least two Xiq’tal entered the craft. The dropship rolled and nosedived into the water.

Two of the remaining sleds veered off, turning away from the Paladin flank to charge the north ramp leading from the beach to the city proper. “Stop them!” Harter yelled. If the Besquith got into the city, they’d kill anyone they could find.

“Watch your six, Blackhawk,” Sergeant Cheryl Zadde called. “I’ll collar the north doggies. The south sled is coming for you.”

Colonel Harter checked his tactical display. The hovercraft was speeding toward his infantry to the south. Half the Besquith were still in the water slogging for dry land and the soldiers on it. “All gun positions, open up on the charging Besquith. I’ve got the hoversled.”

Harter triggered his jumpjets, his computer crunching the numbers to aim his flightpath for the speeding vehicle. A green X blinked over the vehicle’s icon as his jets relented to gravity and his massive armored suit plummeted on an intercept course. He would thrust at the last moment enough to keep him from plowing through the vehicle and into the sand.

The Besquith gunner spotted him and swiveled the pintle-mounted laser. The gunner squeezed off a single pulse. Yellow warning indicators flashed for his left leg armor and actuators, and the left jumpjet blinked red. The collision claxon sounded.

Instead of landing in the crew compartment, Harter’s CASPer slammed into the nose of the speeding craft. The lighter armor of the hovercraft’s faring caved in under the battle suit. The leading edge on the vehicle dug into the sand and jarred to a halt. The rear of the vehicle kept going, up and over, catapulting half a dozen startled Besquith troopers into the air. The gun pinned the gunner to the ground and crushed him. The driver fared better, strapped into the armored cab.

Colonel Harter rolled over. His head rang; he felt as though he’d been kicked down a flight of stairs in a tin can. A moment of panic set in before sand sloughed from his cameras in time to reveal a pair of bloody Besquith charging him, firing laser rifles as they closed.

He triggered his laser shield, but only half of it unfolded. Luckily, it was the half in line with a laser. Harter dropped a targeting reticle on one of the wolves and punched a 20mm tungsten slug through its center mass. The impact flung the Besquith back like a ragdoll.

Its partner fired again. Another armor warning, and a spot on his right burned as some of the heat carried through. The 2.7 seconds it took for the MAC to cycle was an eternity. Harter could count the fangs in the Besquith’s maw by the time his reticle blinked green.

“Eat this, Cujo!” Click. An ammunition feed failure blinked in his HUD as the Besquith pounced, knocking him flat again.

“Eat this, Human!” The Besquith placed his laser against the center of the clamshell canopy.

Harter snapped out his arm blade, slicing off ten centimeters of laser tube and one of the Besquith’s feet. The laser incandesced and burst into flames, igniting the Besquith’s hands.

* * *

Sergeant Zadde raced at the head of a six-CASPer squad. The hoversleds would beat them to the ramp. “Mikey, on my mark, target the lead sled with your rockets. Everyone else, fire on my target.” Cheryl targeted the ferrocrete ramp. “Mark!”

The sled’s anti-missile guns pulverized one rocket, and the other streaked a meter over the vehicle. Ten rockets rained on the foot of the ferrocrete ramp, turning the lower half into expensive gravel. Hovercraft were great for level terrain and urban action, but they sucked at climbing obstacles such as the sheer three-meter rise along the beach.

“Charge!” The squad bounded across the sand as the drivers realized their egress from the beach had been cut off. Both vehicles dropped to the sand and a dozen Besquith spilled out. Zadde grinned in her armor. “I’ll take these odds. Mikey, take Hodge and Perez up on the promenade.”

Half the CASPers kicked up clouds of sand and launched over the short wall. Two Besquith not smart enough to take cover behind the vehicles dropped with tungsten slug holes blown through them. The mounts on both vehicles opened fire. Six of the Besquith snapped off shots as well. Sergeant Zadde hunched down behind her deployed laser shield as smoke poured off its ablative surface.

Private Amber Brose staggered next to Zadde. Her suit showed hits and actuator damage in both legs. Brose made the rookie mistake of pulling her shield aside as she lined up her MAC. A pair of laser rifle pulses flashed on her canopy. She screamed as molten metal sprayed from the second hit. Zadde dropped one of the Besquith shooters and realized they were taking too much fire out in the open.

Half the Besquith scrambled up the damaged ramp. Zadde spared a glance and saw Mikey intercept them. Her rocket launcher flashed red from a laser hit; luckily, it was empty. Colburg was nailed in his weapon arm by one of the sleds. Another Besquith’s head burst like a melon. Cheryl knew she was losing the war of attrition.

Zadde jumped and pulled a K-bomb from her belt. The sleds’ weapons tracked her, but their cycle rate was too slow. She landed in the bed of one of the sleds and punted the gunner. Zadde armed the K-bomb. “Fetch, Fido.”

One of the Besquith fired, and the laser severed the mechanical grasping hand at the wrist joint. The metal appendage fell half a meter, then dangled from an intact cable. Sergeant Zadde realized the actuator line had been severed, the inert hand still clasping the activated bomb. She dove off the sled into the Besquith crowded behind it.

* * *

An alarm chimed. Sergeant Zadde’s telemetry terminated. A fireball rose on the other side of the beach.

“This is Corporal North. We’ve lost the sergeant, but we have the wolves contained. She took a bunch with her.”

Harter drew a deep breath. There would be time for the fallen later. The Xiq’tal had pushed to the water’s edge. Most were covered in gore, and several leaked blue blood. A dozen still carapaces slumped in the surf, surrounded by innumerable Besquith corpses.

Only a handful of Besquith fought on. Harter lined up his MAC on one chomping on an infantryman and put a slug in one side of its ribcage and out the other. Dead and wounded soldiers littered the sand next to the promenade wall. He checked the company status board—a third of the CASPers were down, and half the infantry. Half of those were wounded, the rest KIA.

A Xiq’tal picked its way across the beach, munching on a Besquith arm. It stopped in front of Harter and emitted series of hisses and clicks resembling a steam-powered telegraph. “I am Speaker-To-Mammals,” the translator affixed to its carapace emitted. “This was a good fight— much feeding.”

* * *

Matador Uno Uno

Elena Sanchez led her squad along the service road. A swarm of tiny drones updated her map as her platoon advanced. The other three platoons slogged through swampy fields. If their energy-refracting glaze and ECCM suites didn’t hide them from enemy sensors, they would draw the Berserkers out of their base. If they went undetected, the force could down several of the enemy mercs before they knew what hit them.

Elena’s platoon utilized more sophisticated stealth technology. Drones carrying powerful Tri-V imagers floated above her squad. Using cameras and imaging software, the Tri-Vs generated an image of empty terrain over the squad. It wouldn’t fool anyone up close, but it should obscure them from above.

She studied the compiled map of the Berserker base. As most of the architecture on the world, the buildings were tall. Some had obvious functions, and most were only partially completed. One of the smaller buildings caught her attention. It was only five stories tall, and light glowed from behind a balcony set high up. The balcony served no military purpose, the trappings were decorative. This was the commander’s home.

The service road would take them within a hundred meters of the perimeter fence. From there, it was another two hundred meters to the building. There would be space for the dropship to circle back and land next to the building. Once she had Tovesson’s woman, they wouldn’t dare shoot her down. She smiled and picked up her pace.

* * *

Ursus Alpha One

“I am reading telemetry from sensors on nearby plantations registering atmospheric activity,” Bettie announced.

Captain Swinford wondered if someone had intentionally programmed her to be vague. “Be more specific.”

“The local fields are seeded with sensors to detect flocks of flaflaz, a bird analog fond of vatgryn,” Bettie explained. “These sensors are detecting anomalies consistent with small reconnaissance drones.”

“Where are these drones?”

“All around the base,” the BTI replied.

“Great,” Emelie muttered. “I don’t suppose our drones have picked them up yet?”

“Negative.” The BTI highlighted several points on the map. “Should I activate sentry guns, and do you want to take action against their drones?”

“No, let them think they’ve got us by surprise.” Emelie checked the clock. One hour and nineteen minutes. “Listen up people, don’t take any bait and get drawn out into the open. Let them come to us.”

“I am registering acoustic clutter in the fields to the east, 300 meters.” The BTI painted a blob on the map. “Drones have visual on several Mk 8 CASPers.”

The image cast to Emelie’s HUD zoomed in. The rising sun sent long shadows from several dark shapes wading through a field. It appeared the Berserkers had a numerical advantage, but the enemy CASPers were state-of-the-art.

“Bettie, bring online all anti-missile and sentry guns.” Decorative pillars split open and the guns emerged. The sentry guns were lasers, likely to be less effective if the quislings had the new refractive paint, but they ran off the base’s power plant and had three lasing tubes to improve fire rate.

“Incoming fire,” the BTI announced. “Engaging countermeasures.”

Dark forms emerged from the shadowy fields.

Swinford targeted the closest. “Fire!”

* * *

Matador Uno Uno

Alto!” Captain Sanchez hissed over the near-field network. While she could hear the rest of the Espejos engage over the comm channels, Elena didn’t want to risk giving away her squad’s position with a stronger transmission. A four-meter-high ferrocrete wall ringed the base. Triple-barreled sentry guns topped pillars at 200-meter intervals. Although the dark refractive glaze covering the Espejo’s Mk 8 CASPers was 20% more efficient than other treatments, a powerful enough laser would still burn through.

Elena signaled Corporal Lorena Aguero, the platoon tech specialist. Aguero fed a burst of commands to the overhead drone swarm, which split into two groups, each capturing and looping footage of the top of the wall, then projecting the Tri-V image between the swarm and the closest sentry pillar.

Time to see how paranoid the Berserkers were, Elena thought. She led the rush at the wall, and with a brief burst from her jumpjets hopped over between the two drone formations. The rest of her squad followed in short order.

Inside the compound, they split into pre-assigned pairs. Elena kept Aguero with her in case they ran into any tech puzzles. The battle raged on the opposite side of the base. Elena wondered if the base OIC was a rookie who had committed his or her full force to the battle near the gate.

A moment later, Elena had her answer. A pair of bulky Mk 6 CASPers lumbered along the perimeter wall. Elena itched to kill them herself, but it would mean doubling back toward the wall, when her objective lay ahead. Reluctantly she signaled the pair closest to the patrol to eliminate them.

Elena watched as a pair of shadows detached from a building. One of her troopers crept close enough to slap an EMP puck on his victim. As the other Berserker twisted to see why his compatriot keeled over mid-step, the other Espejo pumped three laser pulses into the Mk 6. The second suit sagged and crumpled into an awkward pile of armor.

Two more Berserkers jogged into view, their weapons ready and laser shields deployed. They slowed as they spotted their compatriots. Another pair of Mk 6s shuffled between buildings, trying to approach from a flank.

Elena let them pass and signaled her men. They would get to have some fun while she skulked closer to the five-story tower. She peered around a corner. Six unaugmented infantry men crouched behind a pair of planters. Elena had no doubt the ferrocrete structures were more than decoration. The men had combat armor and laser rifles with underslung grenade launchers. Elena debated being greedy and killing all six herself.

“Get the ones on the right,” she whispered, even though the soldiers couldn’t have heard her inside her CASPer. She knew Aguero’s suit had compiled the scene from Elena’s cameras. Aguero followed as Elena broke cover. Her first pulse caught a soldier in the helmet and he collapsed without a sound. The other two on her side sighted their rifles. One lost his grip as Elena’s machine gun swept above the planter, and a 12mm bullet punched through his vambrace and shattered his radius. Two more bullets drove him back to the wall.

The third infantryman fired. Elena expected a laser, but the underslung barrel belched flame and 30mm rocket. The warhead detonated on a glancing strike. A red-hot groove smoldered above her hip, but the charge had failed to breech the suit. A moment later the shooter died as Elena’s sweeping machine gun caught up to him.

Aguero polished off the last of her targets, and Elena checked her HUD and sensors. There were no new threats, but it wouldn’t last long if the Berserkers realized what the Espejos had planned.

“Go inside, and don’t let anyone out,” Elena ordered. “I’m going to see if I can flush out our little rabbit.”

Elena checked her LIDAR and cameras. The balcony overhead appeared sturdy. Only one way to find out, she thought, and triggered her jumpjets. She gracefully landed 800 kilograms of metal and composite on the eight-square-meter balcony, half expecting the whole thing to shear off.

Sanchez thought using the machine gun on the glass balcony doors might be overkill until they proved to be armored acrylate. Even then, the panes quickly spider webbed then shattered under point-blank fire. Pulverized acrylate crunched under her armored boots as Elena strode into the room.

“How dare you invade my home!” Her quarry glared from across the room, framed in a doorway. The diminutive Brazilian woman clutched a handgun with both hands and trained the weapon on Elena’s CASPer.

Elena laughed, turning on her speakers so her prey could hear it. She pulled out a large, black bag from a storage compartment and tossed it onto the floor. “You can climb in the bag yourself, or I can put you in it. My brother would prefer you alive, but I’m fine with dead.”

“Go to hell,” the Brazilian sneered. The pistol flashed, but Elena didn’t register it until after the hypervelocity slug punched through her armored canopy, then her right kidney. How could a tiny pistol hull her suit? Only Flatar had—

A second slug interrupted the thought as it penetrated the armor and punctured her right lung and shattered a rib. Elena staggered as she turned and tried to lift her right arm and its machine gun. Her arm hung limp in the suit. Trauma nanites flooded her body, but they would need a minute to reach her wounds and begin their work.

“My Oso is coming,” Tovesson’s fiancée said. “He killed your brother with his axe. He might have been merciful to you, until you came for me. I should save you for my Oso, and let him take your head, but he taught me to never leave a wounded threat.”

Elena extended her left arm blade. “Chingate, perra Brasiliana.

The pistol flashed again.

* * *

Ursus Alpha One, Bear Plex

“Squad Four, get to the Commander’s Tower!” Captain Swinford yelled. She couldn’t really spare the troops, but Espejo CASPers were in the compound and had attacked the guards protecting the tower. She had been warned Talita was a target, but they were barely holding off three squads of Mk 8s with their older suits and static defenses.

“Update complete,” Bettie announced. “Enacting Peepo protocols.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Swinford demanded.

“It means we win, Captain Swinford.” The BTI highlighted enemy icons in the Tri-V tactical map. One by one, the enemy icons winked from blue to grey. The enemy fire tapered off, then ceased. Once all the icons around Bear Plex turned grey, the map zoomed out and scrolled to the starport battle. The process repeated—all the enemy icons appeared on the map, and each in turn blinked blue then grey.

“This is Lieutenant Coenen,” the commander of Charlie Platoon called over the tactical channel, disbelief filling her voice. “You’re not going to believe what just happened. All the enemy CASPers shut down.”

* * * * *


Bear Plex, Vishall

“As he has taken up the sword on her behalf, and she had taken up the key on his behalf, let their oath of marriage remain unbroken until Ragnarök itself sunders the world!”

The troops and guests roared in response to the Godhi’s words, many raising swords. Bjorn thought the whole Ragnarök bit was a touch melodramatic, but Godhi Karl rarely had an audience as large or enthusiastic, so Bjorn didn’t begrudge him a bit of theatrics.

“I now pronounce you husband and wife,” the Godhi finished, eliciting a new round of cheers.

Bjorn kissed Talita to conclude the ceremony. A double line of mercenaries formed, raising their swords to roof a passage through the crowd. Hand in hand, Bjorn and Talita swept through the crowd, leading the way into the Mead Hall.

Bjorn led Talita to the raised platform prepared for the wedding party. A pang of sorrow clouded Bjorn’s thoughts at the empty best man’s seat. Bill should have been here, he thought.

He still hadn’t replaced his second-in-command. Bill had been with Bjorn as he came up through the ranks, dedicated to helping Bjorn. How could he replace that? He didn’t want to pull any of his existing captains from their companies.

“Papi Bear, stop thinking about work.” Talita tugged him toward their seats at the center of the table.

“Sorry, Princess.” He pulled her chair out and waited for her to get settled before he took his own seat. The crowd had followed them in and flowed among the tables, finding seats. Captains McCain and Wirth took their seats in the groom’s party, while Talita’s cousin Noemia, niece Ariana, and Captain Swinford filled in the bride’s side. Tables closest to the platform were reserved for other members of Talita’s family.

Two hours and many horns of mead into the reception, Bettie pinged Bjorn’s pinplants.

What’s going on, Bettie?” Bjorn asked. “I left a pretty big Do Not Disturb sign on this day.

I apologize for interrupting you at your reception, but Commander James Cartwright is here to see you. He brought a battleship among the 13 ships with him. Orbital Defense Command is somewhat nervous and requesting your concurrence that he is okay.

Bjorn peeked at Talita. She was engrossed in a discussion with a dozen women—half her family and half mercenaries. “Let ODC know that he is an honored guest and please have him brought here. We have food and drinks for 400; what’s one more?

* * *

Wilhelm hated to admit he actually missed TJ. Despite his bluster and bravado, Whim thought of TJ as a friend. TJ had tried, in his own twisted way, to help Wilhelm—at least until he tried to kill him.

Isabella broke away from Gizmo and Whisky. “You aren’t sulking, are you?”

“I was thinking,” Wilhelm replied. The mercenaries had been given a choice for the wedding. They could wear dress uniforms, or civilian formal attire. Wilhelm figured he would be more likely to need a dress uniform than a suit, but he appreciated Isabella’s choice of dress.

“I miss him, too,” Isabella said. Wilhelm felt a flash of guilt when he realized she meant Chuck.

“Yeah.” He took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I guess it means we have to appreciate the time we have together.”

* * *

“Is it wrong if we both try to catch the bouquet?” Tamara asked.

Charlotte pulled her eyes away from the young couple across the table. She had been a second from pulling the trigger on the wrong person. “Why are we trying to catch the bouquet? Isn’t it enough I let you talk me into wearing a dress?”

“You look good in it,” Tamara remarked with a smile. “I can’t wait to get it off you.”

“You clean up pretty well yourself,” Charlotte countered. Tamara also wore a dress as part of the deal. “Though after all this velvet and high heels, I’ll be ready to tear up a dive bar.”

“Maybe we can go fishing for tiberones,” Tamara suggested.

“I don’t get why you think getting into a brawl is fun,” Gina remarked. “You’ll only get in trouble with the commander.”

“You should come with us,” Charlotte suggested. “If there aren’t any jerks, at least we might find you a decent guy.”

“You mean one who isn’t a spy?” Bitterness laced Gina’s voice.

“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean…that came out wrong,” Charlotte stammered. She had forgotten the last guy to show an interest in Gina had been an enemy mole, and Gina’s hacker buddy had turned up with a girlfriend.

* * *

Bjorn watched the escort lead Commander Cartwright into the reception. Bjorn had heard Thaddeus’ heir was essentially a kid, but he wasn’t prepared for the leader of one of the fabled Horsemen to be quite so young.

“Commander Cartwright, welcome.” Bjorn shook the young man’s pudgy hand. A monkey-like critter on Cartwright’s shoulder stared at Bjorn with bright blue eyes. It appeared fascinated by the bear pelt cloak draped over Bjorn’s shoulders.

“Commander Tovesson, I didn’t mean to intrude on your wedding,” Cartwright said. “Nice facility you have. I heard about the trouble you had here.”

“So, you know about El Espejo Obscuro being in cahoots with Peepo.” Bjorn sipped some mead from a horn. “You want anything to drink or eat? There’s plenty.”

“I don’t suppose you have any Coca-Cola?” Cartwright ventured.

“Sorry. Earth-sourced goods are hard to come by at the moment.” Bjorn led the way to a vacant table and plopped down in a chair. “So, what are we going to do about that bitch, Peepo?”

“There are plans in the works, but it’s not why I’m here,” Jim replied.

“I’ll do my part to kick the furry bitch off Earth.” Bjorn took another drink and quelled the memory of seeing his family home burned to the ground and his father’s dying message. “I owe her.”

“As important as it is to liberate Earth, what you are doing here is as important,” Cartwright said. He seemed nonplussed when a caterer arrived with an assortment of drinks, all non-alcoholic. He accepted a chilled bottle of water. “If Humanity is to survive, we can’t all be in one place. Several of the colonies have been destroyed. We need you to hold this one. Between your forces and the H’rang defenses in orbit, this isn’t a helpless outpost. Plus, I bet the guild would be reluctant to hit a member race’s colony.”

“They tried once,” Bjorn remarked, “but it didn’t work. If they come again, it’ll be with a larger force. This world makes the H’rang a lot of money, and unlike Earth, they aren’t afraid to invest in protection.”

“At some point, though, Peepo might get frustrated enough to cross the line into a full-on assault.”

Bjorn fondled the hammer pendant below his beard. “You came all this way to tell me to sit on my ass? You know I can do more. Like I said, I owe Peepo.”

“There are a couple of other things,” Cartwright admitted. “I heard you ended up with the CASPer manufactory the turncoats stole.”

Bjorn couldn’t hide his smile. “We’re getting ready to test the CASPer Mk 7.5. It’s as big as a Mk 7 with the strength and hardpoints but takes advantage of the improved armor composites and actuator improvements of the Mk 8. We can produce Mk 8s as well, but those suits are cramped.”

“Good, because our Mk 9 line on New Persia is toast.” The monkey-thing whispered in Cartwright’s ear. “We also heard about your Aegis tanks.”

“They were a limited success,” Bjorn replied. “The shields work great for stand-off fire, but if CASPers get in among your vehicles, they’re worthless. My gearheads tell me part of the problem is you can’t bias the node to adjust the shield. It all has to be done manually.”

The creature hunched down on Cartwright’s shoulder and whispered something.

“We want to buy them from you,” Cartwright said. “It will take some work, but there may be another application for those miniaturized shield nodes.”

“How many do you want to buy?” While Bjorn was eager for the revenue, he didn’t want to give up all his nodes. “I have fifty.”

“You have nowhere close to enough rumblers to equip so many,” Cartwright said.

“I’ll sell you half of them,” Bjorn offered. The Masheen had considered the nodes valuable, and the notes captured in the assault indicated they were ancient tech.

The creature whispered again, but Cartwright shook his head. “I’ll take them.”

“What are you going to do with them?” Bjorn asked.

“I don’t suppose you know what a Raknar is?” Cartwright ventured, his eyes bright.

# # # # #

About the Author

At thirteen years old, Jon Osborne discovered a passion for two things—writing and telling stories. Instead of doing what a normal author-to-be would do and write stories, Jon wrote for his school newspaper and told stories through the medium of running role-playing games for his friends.

Journalism helped pay the way through college, and gaming garnered him lifelong friends. After college, journalism didn’t pan out as a career, but Jon continued creating worlds and forging stories with his friends.

Fast forward almost 30 years; Jon is still a gamer who every now and then dabbles with writing. A long-time friend and fellow gamer who had found success as an author, Mark Wandrey, convinced Jon to submit a short story for an anthology. Jon’s story was accepted, and it gave him the impetus to finish his first novel, “A Reluctant Druid.”

Living in Indianapolis, Jon still games, and continues to write. You can find out more about Jon at Fans who sign up for his mailing list will receive “Chapter 0” of “A Reluctant Druid” and be the first to get the news about Jon’s newest books and stories.

* * * * *

Connect with Jon R. Osborne Online




Twitter: @druidoz

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Please write a review!

* * * * *

The following is an

Excerpt from Book One of the Salvage Title Trilogy:

Salvage Title


Kevin Steverson

Now Available from Theogony Books

eBook, Paperback, and Audio

Excerpt from “Salvage Title:”

A steady beeping brought Harmon back to the present. Clip’s program had succeeded in unlocking the container. “Right on!” Clip exclaimed. He was always using expressions hundreds or more years out of style. “Let’s see what we have; I hope this one isn’t empty, too.” Last month they’d come across a smaller vault, but it had been empty.

Harmon stepped up and wedged his hands into the small opening the door had made when it disengaged the locks. There wasn’t enough power in the small cells Clip used to open it any further. He put his weight into it, and the door opened enough for them to get inside. Before they went in, Harmon placed a piece of pipe in the doorway so it couldn’t close and lock on them, baking them alive before anyone realized they were missing.

Daylight shone in through the doorway, and they both froze in place; the weapons vault was full. In it were two racks of rifles, stacked on top of each other. One held twenty magnetic kinetic rifles, and the other held some type of laser rifle. There was a rack of pistols of various types. There were three cases of flechette grenades and one of thermite. There were cases of ammunition and power clips for the rifles and pistols, and all the weapons looked to be in good shape, even if they were of a strange design and clearly not made in this system. Harmon couldn’t tell what system they had been made in, but he could tell what they were.

There were three upright containers on one side and three more against the back wall that looked like lockers. Five of the containers were not locked, so Clip opened them. The first three each held two sets of light battle armor that looked like it was designed for a humanoid race with four arms. The helmets looked like the ones Harmon had worn at the academy, but they were a little long in the face. The next container held a heavy battle suit—one that could be sealed against vacuum. It was also designed for a being with four arms. All the armor showed signs of wear, with scuffed helmets. The fifth container held shelves with three sizes of power cells on them. The largest power cells—four of them—were big enough to run a mech.

Harmon tried to force the handle open on the last container, thinking it may have gotten stuck over time, but it was locked and all he did was hurt his hand. The vault seemed like it had been closed for years.

Clip laughed and said, “That won’t work. It’s not age or metal fatigue keeping the door closed. Look at this stuff. It may be old, but it has been sealed in for years. It’s all in great shape.”

“Well, work some of your tech magic then, ‘Puter Boy,” Harmon said, shaking out his hand.

Clip pulled out a small laser pen and went to work on the container. It took another ten minutes, but finally he was through to the locking mechanism. It didn’t take long after that to get it open.

Inside, there were two items—an eight-inch cube on a shelf that looked like a hard drive or a computer and the large power cell it was connected to. Harmon reached for it, but Clip grabbed his arm.

“Don’t! Let me check it before you move it. It’s hooked up to that power cell for a reason. I want to know why.”

Harmon shrugged. “Okay, but I don’t see any lights; it has probably been dead for years.”

Clip took a sensor reader out of his kit, one of the many tools he had improved. He checked the cell and the device. There was a faint amount of power running to it that barely registered on his screen. There were several ports on the back along with the slot where the power cell was hooked in. He checked to make sure the connections were tight, he then carried the two devices to the hovercraft.

Clip then called Rinto’s personal comm from the communicator in the hovercraft. When Rinto answered, Clip looked at Harmon and winked. “Hey boss, we found some stuff worth a hovercraft full of credit…probably two. Can we have it?” he asked.

* * * * *

Get “Salvage Title” now at:

Find out more about Kevin Steverson and “Salvage Title” at:

* * * * *

The following is an

Excerpt from Book One of The Milesian Accords:

A Reluctant Druid


Jon R. Osborne

Available now from Theogony Books

eBook and Paperback

Excerpt from “A Reluctant Druid:”

“Don’t crank on it; you’ll strip it.”

Liam paused from trying to loosen the stubborn bolt holding the oil filter housing on his Yamaha motorcycle, looking for the source of the unsolicited advice. The voice was gruff, with an accent and cadence that made Liam think of the Swedish Chef from the Muppets. The garage door was open for air circulation, and two figures were standing in the driveway, illuminated by the setting sun. As they approached and stepped into the shadows of the house, Liam could see they were Pixel and a short, stout man with a greying beard that would do ZZ Top proud. The breeze blowing into the garage carried a hint of flowers.

Liam experienced a moment of double vision as he looked at the pair. Pixel’s eyes took on the violet glow he thought he had seen before, while her companion lost six inches in height, until he was only as tall as Pixel. What the short man lacked in height, he made up for in physique; he was built like a fireplug. He was packed into blue jeans and a biker’s leather jacket, and goggles were perched over the bandana covering his salt and pepper hair. Leather biker boots crunched the gravel as he walked toward the garage. Pixel followed him, having traded her workout clothes for black jeans and a pink t-shirt that left her midriff exposed. A pair of sunglasses dangled from the neckline of her t-shirt.

“He’s seeing through the glamour,” the short, bearded man grumbled to Pixel, his bushy eyebrows furrowing.

“Well duh. We’re on his home turf, and this is his place of power” Pixel replied nonchalantly. “He was pushing back against my glamour yesterday, and I’m not adding two hands to my height.”

Liam set down the socket wrench and ran through the mental inventory of items in the garage that were weapons or could be used as them. The back half of the garage was a workshop, which included the results of his dabbling with blacksmithing and sword-crafting, so the list was considerable. But the most suitable were also the farthest away.

“Can I help you?” Liam stood and brushed off his jeans; a crowbar was three steps away. Where had they come from? Liam hadn’t heard a car or motorcycle outside, and the house was a mile and a half outside of town.

“Ja, you can.” The stout man stopped at the threshold of the garage. His steel-grey eyes flicked from Liam to the workbench and back. He held his hands out, palms down. The hands were larger than his and weren’t strangers to hard work and possibly violence. “And there’s no need to be unhospitable; we come as friends. My name is Einar, and you’ve already met Pixel.”

“Hi, Liam.” Pixel was as bubbly as yesterday. While she didn’t seem to be making the same connection as Einar regarding the workbench, her eyes darted about the cluttered garage and the dim workshop behind it. “Wow, you have a lot of junk.”

“What’s this about?” Liam sidled a half step toward the workbench, regretting he hadn’t kept up on his martial arts. He had three brown belts, a year of kendo, and some miscellaneous weapons training scattered over two decades but not much experience in the way of real fighting. He could probably hold his own in a brawl as long as his opponent didn’t have serious skills. He suspected Einar was more than a Friday night brawler in the local watering hole. “Is she your daughter?”

Einar turned to the purple-haired girl, his caterpillar-like eyebrows gathering. “What did you do?”

“What? I only asked him a few questions and checked him out,” Pixel protested, her hands going to her hips as she squared off with Einar. “It’s not as if I tried to jump his bones right there in the store or something.”

“Look mister, if you think something untoward happened between me and your daughter –“ Liam began.

“She’s not my pocking daughter, and I don’t give a troll’s ass if you diddled her,” Einar interrupted, his accent thickening with his agitation. He took a deep breath, his barrel chest heaving. “Now, will you hear me out without you trying to brain me with that tire iron you’ve been eyeing?”

“You said diddle.” Pixel giggled.

“Can you be serious for five minutes, you pocking faerie?” Einar glowered, his leather jacket creaking as he crossed his arms.

“Remember ‘dwarf,’ you’re here as an ‘advisor.’” Pixel included air quotes with the last word, her eyes turning magenta. “The Nine Realms are only involved out of politeness.”

“Politeness! If you pocking Tuatha and Tylwyth Teg hadn’t folded up when the Milesians came at you, maybe we wouldn’t be here to begin with!” Spittle accompanied Einar’s protest. “Tylwyth? More like Toothless!”

“Like your jarls didn’t roll over and show their bellies when the Avramites showed up with their One God and their gold!” Pixel rose up on her toes. “Your people took their god and took their gold and then attacked our ancestral lands!”

“Guys!” Liam had stepped over to the workbench but hadn’t picked up the crowbar. “Are you playing one of those live-action role playing games or something? Because if you are, I’m calling my garage out of bounds. Take your LARP somewhere else.”

“We’ve come a long way to speak to you,” Einar replied, looking away from Pixel. “I’m from Asgard.”

“Asgard? You mean like Thor and Odin? What kind of game are you playing?” Liam hadn’t moved from the workbench, but he had mapped in his mind the steps he would need to take to reach a stout pole which would serve as a staff while he back-pedaled to his workshop, where a half-dozen half-finished sword prototypes rested. From where he stood, though, he didn’t feel as threatened. He knew a bit about gamers because there were a fair number of them among the pagan community, and he had absorbed bits and pieces of it. Maybe someone had pointed Liam out to Pixel as research about druids for one of these games—an over-enthusiastic player who wanted to more convincingly roleplay one.

“Gods I hate those pocking things,” Einar grumbled, rubbing his forehead while Pixel stifled another giggle. “Look, can we sit down and talk to you? This is much more serious than some pocking games you folk play with your costumes and your toy weapons.”

“This isn’t a game, and we aren’t hippies with New Age books and a need for self-validation.” Pixel added. Her eyes had faded to a lavender color. “Liam, we need your help.”

* * * * *

Get “A Reluctant Druid” at

Find out more about Jon R. Osborne and “A Reluctant Druid” at:

* * * * *

The following is an

Excerpt from Book One of In Revolution Born:

The Mutineer’s Daughter


Chris Kennedy & Thomas A. Mays

Now Available from Theogony Books

eBook, Paperback, and Audio

Excerpt from “The Mutineer’s Daughter:”

Kenny dozed at his console again.

There he sat—as brazen as ever—strapped down, suited up, jacked in…and completely checked out. One might make allowances for an overworked man falling asleep during a dull routine, watching gauges that didn’t move or indicators that rarely indicated anything of consequence, perhaps even during a quiet moment during their ship’s long, long deployment.

But Fire Control Tech Third Class Ken Burnside was doing it—yet again—while the ship stood at General Quarters, in an unfriendly star system, while other parts of the fleet engaged the forces of the Terran Union.

Chief Warrant Officer Grade 2 (Combat Systems) Benjamin “Benno” Sanchez shook his helmeted head and narrowed his eyes at the sailor strapped in to his right. He had spoken to the young weapons engineer a number of times before, through countless drills and mock skirmishes, but the youthful idiot never retained the lesson for long.

“Benno, Bosso,” Kenny would plead, “you shouldn’t yell at me. You should have me teach others my wisdom!”

Benno would invariably frown and give his unflattering opinion of Kenny’s wisdom.

“Get it, ya?” Kenny would reply. “I’m a math guy. Probability, right Warrant? The Puller’s just a little ship, on the edge of the formation. We scan, we snipe, we mop up, we patrol. We don’t go in the middle, tube’s blazing, ya? We no tussle with the big Terrans, ya? No damage! No battle! So, something goes wrong, back-ups kick in, buzzer goes off, we mark for fix later. And when’s the only time you or the officers don’t let a man walk ‘round and don’t ask for this, don’t ask for that? When’s the only time a man can catch up on the z’s, eh? One and the same time! So I doze. Buzzer goes off, I wake, make a note, doze again till I can work, ya? Such wisdom!”

Benno usually lectured him about complacency. He asked what would happen if they were hit, if the shot was hot enough, deep enough, destructive enough to burn through the backup of the backup of the backup. What if they did have to face the Great Test, to rise and work and save the Puller themselves?

Kenny would always smile, relieved. “Well, then I be dead, ya? No more maintenance either way. Good enough reason to doze right there!”

Benno could have reported him any number of times, but he never had. Putting it on paper and sending it above them was a two-edged sword. It would solve Kenny’s sleepy disdain for order, of that Benno had no doubt, but he also knew he would lose Kenny’s trust and the vigorous drive the young ALS plebeian applied to every other task. Plus, it would signal to the officers above that Benno couldn’t handle a minor discipline problem on his own. And it would indicate to the ranks below that Benno was no longer one of their own—when he had gone from Chief to Chief Warrant Officer, he had changed his ties, forever.

So Benno growled, but he let it slide, content only he would know about Kenny’s acts of passive rebellion. No one else would ever know why the young tech kept getting extra punishment duties. Besides, it wasn’t as if Kenny was actually wrong, in the fullness of things.

Then, before Benno could check his own side of the console to verify whether things were indeed alright, his internal debate was blown away by the unforgiving, indiscriminate lance of an x-ray laser blast.

The single beam struck the Puller a glancing blow, centered on a space just beneath the outer hull and aimed outboard. Armor plate, radiation shielding, piping, wireways, conduit, decking, internal honeycombed structure, atmosphere, and people all ionized and ablated into a dense, mixed plasma. This plasma exploded outward, crushing the spaces surrounding the hit and dealing further physical and thermal damage. Combat Systems Maintenance Central, or CSMC, lay deep within the Puller’s battle hull—three spaces inward from where the x-ray laser struck—but that meant little next to the awesome destructive power of a Dauphine capital-class xaser warhead.

The forward and port bulkheads in front of them flashed white hot with near-instantaneous thermal energy transfer and peeled away, blown out by the twin shocks of the outward-expanding plasma and the snapping counterforce of explosive decompression. The double blast battered Benno in his seat and threw him against his straps to the left. As the bulkheads vanished, their departure also carried away the CSMC monitoring console the two watch standers shared with them into the black, along with Kenny’s seat, and Ken Burnside, himself.

The young engineer disappeared in an instant, lost without ever waking. Benno stared, dumbfounded, at the blank spot where he had been, and of all the possible panicked thoughts that could have come to him, only one rose to the forefront:

Does this validate Kenny’s wisdom?

Benno shook his head, dazed and in shock, knowing he had to engage his brain. Looking beyond, he could see the glowing edges of bulkheads and decks gouged out by the fast, hot knife of the nuclear-pumped xaser. Only vaguely could he recall the sudden buffeting of explosive decompression that had nearly wrenched him through the straps of his acceleration couch.

He knew he had things to do. He had to check his suit’s integrity. Was he leaking? Was he injured? And what about Kenny? Was he gone, unrecoverable? Or was he waiting for his poor, shocked-stupid boss Benno to reach out and save him?

And there was something else, something important he needed to be doing. He wasn’t supposed to just sit here and think of himself or unlucky, lazy Kenny. Oh no, thought Benno, still trying to marshal his thoughts back together, Mio is going to be so angry with me, sitting here like a fool

“CSMC, report!”

Benno shook his head against the ringing he hadn’t realized filled his ears. He reached out for the comms key on his console, swore at how futile that was, then keyed his suit mic. “Last station calling, this is CSMC. We’ve taken a hit. I lost my technician, console is…down, hard. Over.”

“CSMC, TAO,” the Puller’s Tactical Action Officer said through the suit channel, “pull it together! We just had a near miss by a capital class Dauphine warhead. The battle with the Terrans has spread out of the main body. I have missiles up but zero point-defense. I need guns and beams back, now!

* * * * *

Get “The Mutineer’s Daughter” now at:

Find out more about Thomas A. Mays and “In Revolution Born” at:

* * * * *

The following is an

Excerpt from Book One of the Earth Song Cycle:



Mark Wandrey

Available Now from Theogony Books

eBook and Paperback

Excerpt from “Overture:”

Dawn was still an hour away as Mindy Channely opened the roof access and stared in surprise at the crowd already assembled there. “Authorized Personnel Only” was printed in bold red letters on the door through which she and her husband, Jake, slipped onto the wide roof.

A few people standing nearby took notice of their arrival. Most had no reaction, a few nodded, and a couple waved tentatively. Mindy looked over the skyline of Portland and instinctively oriented herself before glancing to the east. The sky had an unnatural glow that had been growing steadily for hours, and as they watched, scintillating streamers of blue, white, and green radiated over the mountains like a strange, concentrated aurora borealis.

“You almost missed it,” one man said. She let the door close, but saw someone had left a brick to keep it from closing completely. Mindy turned and saw the man who had spoken wore a security guard uniform. The easy access to the building made more sense.

“Ain’t no one missin’ this!” a drunk man slurred.

“We figured most people fled to the hills over the past week,” Jake replied.

“I guess we were wrong,” Mindy said.

“Might as well enjoy the show,” the guard said and offered them a huge, hand-rolled cigarette that didn’t smell like tobacco. She waved it off, and the two men shrugged before taking a puff.

“Here it comes!” someone yelled. Mindy looked to the east. There was a bright light coming over the Cascade Mountains, so intense it was like looking at a welder’s torch. Asteroid LM-245 hit the atmosphere at over 300 miles per second. It seemed to move faster and faster, from east to west, and the people lifted their hands to shield their eyes from the blinding light. It looked like a blazing comet or a science fiction laser blast.

“Maybe it will just pass over,” someone said in a voice full of hope.

Mindy shook her head. She’d studied the asteroid’s track many times.

In a matter of a few seconds, it shot by and fell toward the western horizon, disappearing below the mountains between Portland and the ocean. Out of view of the city, it slammed into the ocean.

The impact was unimaginable. The air around the hypersonic projectile turned to superheated plasma, creating a shockwave that generated 10 times the energy of the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated as it hit the ocean’s surface.

The kinetic energy was more than 1,000 megatons; however, the object didn’t slow as it flashed through a half mile of ocean and into the sea bed, then into the mantel, and beyond.

On the surface, the blast effect appeared as a thermal flash brighter than the sun. Everyone on the rooftop watched with wide-eyed terror as the Tualatin Mountains between Portland and the Pacific Ocean were outlined in blinding light. As the light began to dissipate, the outline of the mountains blurred as a dense bank of smoke climbed from the western range.

The flash had incinerated everything on the other side.

The physical blast, travelling much faster than any normal atmospheric shockwave, hit the mountains and tore them from the bedrock, adding them to the rolling wave of destruction traveling east at several thousand miles per hour. The people on the rooftops of Portland only had two seconds before the entire city was wiped away.

Ten seconds later, the asteroid reached the core of the planet, and another dozen seconds after that, the Earth’s fate was sealed.

* * * * *

Get “Overture” now at:

Find out more about Mark Wandrey and the Earth Song Cycle at:

* * * * *

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