Book: Pursuit of Valor
Pursuit of Valor
The Tarvaax War Book One
Copyright © 2017 by Tripp Ellis
All rights reserved. Worldwide.
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents, except for incidental references to public figures, products, or services, are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations is entirely coincidental, and not intended to refer to any living person or to disparage any company’s products or services.
No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, uploaded, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereafter devised, without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
The Galactic Wars Series
Connect With Me
It had to be a malfunction.
Petty Officer Grierson blinked his eyes and stared at the screen again. This time it was blank. Everything else on the station was broken, why should he think this system would be any different?
Grierson refreshed the screen and ran a system diagnostic. These kinds of glitches were happening all the time. The Zeplovian Navy had recently updated their long-range detection scanners across the fleet. The retrofit had cost nearly a billion credits, and the new devices were not as accurate, or as reliable, as the old ones—bloated government and a failed bureaucracy. But someone, somewhere, got rich off the deal.
The diagnostic scan came back clean. No system faults detected.
Grierson chalked it up to a coding error and went about his business of monitoring the sector. He took a sip of his coffee—it was a necessary part of the job. Day in and day out he stared at the screen, monitoring the space around Zeplovia for threats. But there hadn't been a major attack on any of the Federation colonies in over 30 years. It was a thankless job in one of the worst outposts in the galaxy. Grierson required at least 6 cups of organic hazelnut coffee, grown in the lush tropical forests of Proclu, to get through his watch.
There it was again.
Grierson's eyes went wide, and he almost spit his coffee out. Then, with the blink of an eye, the screen was blank again.
His eyes narrowed, and he stared intently at the screen, waiting for the glitch to re-occur. At least, he hoped it was a glitch.
Grierson was nearing the end of his first deployment aboard Kamvel Station—a small, dilapidated space station located on the far side of Tycus (Zeplovia’s moon). Why the fleet even bothered to update the equipment on this old rust bucket was beyond comprehension. They should have scrapped the whole station and just built a new one. It had been around since before the First Dracovius War.
Tycus didn't have much of an atmosphere, but it was almost the size of Zeplovia. An enemy could easily emerge from quantum space on the far side of Tycus undetected—hence the reason for Kamvel.
The station was tiny and boring, and the rotations were long. Grierson hadn't been back to Zeplovia in six months. There were only a handful of people on board—the bare minimum to keep the facility operational.
The screen lit up again with a swarm of red icons. Grierson stared at the potential threats for a moment, expecting the screen to go blank again any second.
But it didn’t.
There were dozens of red icons. And, by the size of them, they were destroyers or carriers. This was an armada. And they weren't friendly. The IFF (identify friend or foe) system didn't match them with any known Federation or Zeplovian Navy ships.
Grierson hesitated a moment before he sounded the alarm. He wanted to make sure this wasn't a malfunction. He was on the graveyard shift and didn't want to wake his CO unnecessarily.
The red icons vanished again.
Grierson was getting frustrated. He stood up and walked from his terminal to the viewport. It offered a panoramic view of space. Grierson squinted into the inky blackness—he saw nothing but the flicker of distant stars.
He stood there for a moment, then shook it off. He walked back to his console and took another sip of his coffee.
The display lit up again. This time there were even more red icons.
This couldn't just be a malfunction. There had to be something out there. Grierson contacted Captain Connolly.
The old man's groggy face appeared on the display. “This better be good, Grierson."
“Uh, sir… I'm picking up something unusual on the scanners,” Grierson stammered.
Connolly scowled at him. He was a gruff man on a good day. On a bad day, he was nothing short of a tyrant. Waking the captain in the middle of the night without good reason could get you reassigned to an even worse location than Kamvel.
“What is it?" Connolly barked.
"I'm picking up what looks like an enemy fleet. There are dozens of them."
Connolly looked skeptical. “I’ll be right there.”
Grierson looked back at the scanner. The screen was blank again. His stomach clenched. Connolly was going to be pissed.
Kamvel Station was a crap assignment, and everybody knew it. Nobody wanted to be there. It was one of several less than desirable places the Zeplovian Navy would send you when they couldn't promote you, but were prohibited from discharging you. Zeplovia had implemented strict measures regarding the employment of government personnel. Most of the time, it was easier to send undesirables to a remote location rather than jumping through the hoops to discharge them.
Zeplovia had recently seceded from the Federation. They had one of the largest economies of any colony, and they seemed to be at odds with the Federation’s politics. They thought they’d be just fine on their own. There had been peace in the galaxy for so long, the Zeplovians felt their Navy was more than adequate in the absence of any real threat.
Connolly stormed into the command center. He took one look at the blank sensor display and gritted his teeth. His eyes blazed into Grierson.
“Sir, this thing has been acting weird all night. I swear, I saw dozens of warships.”
“Do you see anything now?” He said, dryly.
“No, sir.” Grierson's voice shook.
“Now take a look out that viewport. Do you see anything?" Connolly was almost baby talking him.
“Then there's nothing out there.” Connolly took a slow measured breath, trying to contain his anger. “How does reassignment to Alavatar sound?”
Grierson swallowed hard. “Not good, sir."
“Wake me up in the middle of the night one more time, and I’ll have your ass there so fast it'll make your head spin.”
Connolly was about to step away from the terminal when the scanner lit up again. It was full of red icons.
Grierson felt vindicated. He held back a slight grin.
Connolly grimaced. He marched to the viewport and stared into the inky blackness. There was nothing out there. His eyes narrowed as he scanned the void. Then his eyes went wide.
It started as a small pinpoint in the distance and grew larger. The object rocketed through space, spitting propellant. There was no mistaking what it was, and there was nothing that Connolly, or anyone else, could do about it.
“So this is how it ends,” the captain muttered to himself.
An instant later, the station exploded in a brilliant amber glow. A 20 megaton nuclear weapon had incinerated the dilapidated outpost.
It was arguably an improvement.
Zack Salvator knew this was going to be a really bad idea. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. He felt his stomach tighten and nerves tingle under his skin. He clenched his jaw and frowned, debating for a moment. He knew better than to get involved.
There was one little voice in his head that said just keep walking. Get to work. You can’t afford to lose your job. You need the money. But there was another little voice that was louder and stronger. It said this is screwed up, and somebody needs to stop it.
School had just let out, and he was on his way to work at the container terminal. He had a minimum wage job running a mechanized loader. It was a mindless job that could have been done by a robot, but government mandates required employers to hire a minimum number of human personnel. High school kids worked cheap, and Zack’s boss kept him around to fill the quota. Zack didn't mind the job. He liked driving the loader, and he listened to music during his entire shift. It didn't take a huge amount of brainpower.
It was a perfect spring day on Crylos 9—crystal blue sky, slight breeze, and 70°. As good a day as any to get your ass kicked, Zack thought.
He walked this route every day—up Fulton to Pierce, then across to Lankford, where he caught the bus to take him down to the terminal. Fulton Street was lined with older buildings. Mostly concrete, brick, and steel structures that towered into the sky. The city was going through an expansion and renewal. It wasn’t uncommon to see some of the older buildings demolished and new towering skyscrapers emerge in their place.
The trouble was going down in an empty lot on Fulton—the tattered foundation of the old McDougall building that had been razed a few weeks earlier. There were piles of rubble and rebar atop the cracked foundation slab.
Zack could see Dean Dully, and three of his buddies, harassing the new kid. He couldn’t remember the kid’s name, but he was in Zack’s English class. He had just transferred in today.
It wasn’t an unusual sight to see Dully throwing his weight around. He was freakishly large—6’9” and 300lbs. He had a slightly tubby face that was pocked and pitted with acne. He had droopy brown eyes and a pug nose that he never seemed to breathe through. His jaw was always hanging agape, dragging in breaths of unsuspecting air into his foul lungs. His hair was shaggy and matted, like it had never been shampooed. It hung down in his eyes and he constantly flicked it out.
The new kid by comparison was struggling to reach 5’3”. He had short dark hair and dark eyes and was lugging a backpack that seemed like it contained every book he owned.
“Pay up,” Dean grumbled, shoving the kid. The inertia from the heavy backpack almost toppled the little guy over.
“What for?” the short kid said with a defiant tone.
“Protection from what?”
“From me, you little twerp.”
Dean's gang of thugs chuckled.
“I told you, I don’t have the money.”
“Well, that sucks for you, doesn’t it?” Dean balled his hand into a fist and wound it back, threatening the boy. Dean’s fists were thick and meaty, like bricks.
The boy’s eyes widened, and he swallowed hard.
“Last chance. Empty your pockets and give me everything you’ve got. Otherwise, you get the fist.”
“I don’t have any money. And even if I did, I wouldn’t pay you.” The kid had guts. No doubt about it.
Dean's face twisted up and flushed red. Rage boiled over his face. He was about to hammer his fist into the new kid. The little guy cringed. He knew it was going to hurt. Dean could throw the kind of punch that loosened teeth and broke noses.
Just as he was about to let his fist fly, Zack interrupted. “Leave him alone, Dickhead.”
Dean craned his neck to get a glimpse of the fool that called him a dickhead. He had a look of utter disbelief on his face. For an instant, he forgot all about the new kid. Dean's gang focused their gaze on the crazy guy who was sticking his nose in where it didn’t belong.
Zack gulped. He really hadn’t given much thought to what his next move was going to be. He wasn’t a big guy by any stretch of the imagination. He was 5’10”, 150 pounds, with short brown hair. He was fit and had chiseled features, but he wasn’t a bodybuilder. Just an average high school senior.
“This ain’t none of your business, Salvator,” Dean said, stepping closer. He was like a slow moving freight train, and Zack was caught on the tracks. Dean's hateful eyes blazed into him with the ferocity of a wild animal.
The world grew smaller as the goons closed in on Zack.
“It’s kind of embarrassing for you, don’t you think?” Zack said. “I mean, he’s less than half your size. Is that all you can handle?”
Dean's nostrils flared. “You’re dumber than you look, Salvator.”
“Not going to argue there.” Zack knew this was a pretty stupid thing to do.
Dean charged at him, and wound his brick of a fist back. He swung with all his might.
Zack ducked as the meaty fist whooshed overhead.
The ogre’s weight carried him forward as Zack slipped around behind him. The giant turned around to face Zack with an even angrier look on his face. Dean was used to connecting with one punch and putting his opponent into a coma.
“Hold him,” the ogre commanded.
Two of Dean’s goons grabbed Zack by his arms. Their fingers dug into his biceps, holding him steady as Dean charged him. Zack struggled, trying to worm his way free. But he couldn’t break loose. He stared at the cinderblock of a fist careening toward his face. This wasn’t going to feel good at all.
“This sucks,” Aiden said. He was 15 going on 25. He had a look of perpetual angst on his face.
Ronan shrugged. “Look on the bright side, things could always be worse." He had little idea of how much worse his day was about to get. Thousands of alien fighters, bombers, and troop transports were descending on Zeplovia. The early detection systems had failed, and the alien technology made the invasion force virtually invisible on sensors.
"I don't see why I couldn't just stay with Mom for the summer."
"Because your mother is out gallivanting around the galaxy with some guy named Ma’aveo." Ronan's voice was thick with disdain.
"Ma’aveo is cool."
"I'm sure he is."
"Cooler than you."
"Your mother seems to think so.”
There was a moment of silence between them.
Aidan flipped his shaggy hair out of his eyes and gazed out the window. The pristine skyscrapers of Sol Vorta rushed by as they weaved through the crowded city streets.
"I can take care of myself," Aiden protested.
A knowing smirk curled up on Ronan's lips. "Oh, no. An entire summer unsupervised? I can only imagine what kind of trouble you, and those friends of yours, would get into."
Aiden glared at him. "What have you got against my friends?"
"Oh, I don't know. I suppose you were inclined to steal hover-bikes all on your own?"
Aidan sighed. "Why do we have to keep bringing that up?"
"Because you're still on probation. Do you have any idea what that little fiasco of yours cost me?"
"So it's all about money?"
"No. It's not all about money. It's about your future. And I'm trying to ensure that you have a decent one."
"I can't believe you're making me go to summer school."
"Idle hands are the devil's playground.”
Aiden's face twisted up. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Ronan shook his head. "It means I'm going to find as much for you to do this summer as I possibly can."
They pulled up to Aiden's school.
The disgruntled teenager grabbed his books and flung open the car door. "You know, I don't blame Mom for leaving you. You suck." Aiden slammed the door. The car shook and rattled.
Ronan rolled down the window and yelled after him, "Just remember that next time you ask me for money."
Aiden disappeared into the sea of teenagers flooding into the school.
Ronan shook his head and drove away. He had an appointment with a realtor across town. He wanted something with a little bit more room. Maybe a nicer place would entice his son to spend a little more time with him. He wanted to work on their contentious relationship.
Sol Vorta was the largest city on Zeplovia. The Wastoria building was located on the posh West Side, not far from the financial district. An apartment over here was definitely going to be a stretch for Ronan. But it was close to work and there were a vast array of restaurants and nightlife. It was the happening part of town.
Ronan pulled up to the Wastoria building. "Just drive around the block until I call for you," he said to the vehicle.
A soothing automated female voice responded, "Yes, Mr. Nash. Do you have an estimate of how long you will be?"
It was cheaper to let the car drive around for a while then it was to pay for parking.
"Excellent. I will adjust my route accordingly."
Ronan stepped out of the vehicle and strolled into the lobby. The glass door slid open. The building was lavishly appointed with marble floors and columns.
A beautiful young blonde in a navy skirt and blazer waited in the lobby, talking on her mobile. She caught sight of Ronan and quickly ended the call. A brilliant smile flashed across her face and she extended her hand as she strutted toward him. "Jessica Mills. You must be Ronan Nash?”
He smiled and shook her hand. "Yes. Sorry I'm late. Midtown traffic is a nightmare."
"No problem. I closed a deal while I waited."
"Sounds like business is good?"
"Business is very good." Her crystal blue eyes glimmered. This was an attractive woman.
They strolled to the bank of elevators. Ronan couldn't help but notice her toned legs, accentuated by her stiletto heels. They clacked across the marble floor, echoing off the vaulted ceiling. Jessica pressed the call button, and the lift arrived within a matter of seconds.
"This building has speed elevators, which drastically cuts down the wait time in the mornings."
The door slid open and they stepped inside. She hit the button for the 29th floor. The door slid shut and the elevator ascended—slowly at first, to minimize discomfort, then it moved at an incredible pace. As it neared the 29th floor, Ronan felt like he was going to lift off the ground as the elevator slowed to a stop. It gave him a little bit of a head rush.
Jessica winked at him. She could tell exactly what he was thinking. "Told you it was fast."
The elevator doors slid open and she led the way. "This building is practically brand-new. There's a fitness area, indoor pool, outdoor pool, and holodeck. There's also a theater, and they have movie night once a week. Plus there's a social in the bar once a week for young professionals such as yourself."
"I don't know if I fall into the category of young professional."
"You don't look a day over 25," she said flirtatiously.
It was difficult to tell someone's true age. Medical advancements had come a long way, and age delaying treatments could extend lifespan to several hundred years. Ronan was 38. He figured she was just saying whatever she had to in order to get a sale.
"What is it that you do, Mr. Nash?"
"Security consultant. Just got out of the military last year. Former Marine.”
Ronan shrugged. "It has its moments. For the most part, nobody shoots at me anymore. And that's the way I like it." He smiled.
Jessica opened the door to the apartment and showed him in. It was a stunning residence with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over the city. An ocean of skyscrapers towered into the sky. They were sleek and modern and glimmered in the morning sun. The kitchen was filled with sleek appliances. The shiny hardwood floors looked immaculate.
"1800 square feet, two bedroom, 2 1/2 bath, and a 600 square-foot terrace. Perfect for entertaining guests."
"I don't entertain that many guests."
Jessica's gorgeous eyes fixed on him. "I find that hard to believe, Mr. Nash."
There she was flirting again.
The place was to die for, no doubt about it. It was more than Ronan could afford. But he was already juggling the numbers in his head. Ronan followed Jessica as she stepped onto the terrace. She took in a deep breath and surveyed the city. "Isn't this just amazing?" She was positively radiating.
"It is an impressive view," Ronan said, his eyes lingering on her luscious form. He was partly describing the city, partly describing her. He figured if she could flirt, so could he.
A subtle grin curled up on her plush lips, and she blushed. She unconsciously brushed her fingers through her hair. It was a subtle signal she was interested.
Ronan wasn't sure if this was all part of her rehearsed game plan to sell more luxury apartments. Either way, it was nice to get a little bit of attention from the opposite sex.
"I told you the view was spectacular.” Jessica gazed at the skyline. She paused for a long moment of silence. Then, almost as if on cue, she said, "So, what do you think?"
Ronan inhaled deeply.
Jessica's blue eyes sparkled at him. She oozed sensuality, and her eyes urged him on. This woman was magnetic. It was as if she was staring into his soul. How could anyone say no to her?
Ronan stammered, "Uh, I like it."
"They're asking 7.5. But, between you and me, I think we can get them down to 7.2. I’ve got three other parties interested, but they haven't put money down yet. No contracts have been signed. It's going to go to the first person who moves on it. And I guarantee you, you definitely want to make your move sooner rather than later." Her eyes smoldered at him again. The double entendre made Ronan's pulse quicken.
Jessica leaned against the railing and eyed him like a hawk. Her supple curves were irresistible. But 7.2 million credits was a lot of money.
"Take some time. Think about it. I don't want to rush you into anything. If this one gets snatched up, I’ve got plenty more properties I think you'd like."
Ronan stared at her for a moment, trying to balance out his impulsive urges against his logical mind. But he wasn't balancing very well. "I'll take it."
Jessica's eyes lit up with glee. "I think you’ve made a wise choice. In two years, you'll be able to sell this place for twice what you paid for it. This area is hot right now."
"I'm sure you say that to all your clients." Ronan was fishing a little bit.
"Now, Mr. Nash, I wouldn't lie to my clients," she said, coyly. "I'll grab the champagne." She dashed into the living room and headed for the kitchen.
"You have champagne?"
"I always keep a bottle in the fridge of every property I represent," she called back to him. She returned a moment later with two flutes filled with sparkling blue liquid.
"I bet you drink a lot of champagne," Ronan said, taking the glass.
"I'm good at what I do."
Ronan surveyed the bubbling liquid. “Antarian?”
Jessica smiled. "Only the finest."
They clinked glasses and sipped the rare champagne. Ronan's eyes gazed at the striking vista. As soon as he signed the paperwork this would become his balcony, and his view.
His eyes caught sight of several aerial vehicles on the horizon. They were flying in formation. He didn't think much of it. They were little more than specs in the distance.
Jessica took another sip, leaving a lipstick stain against the glass. She swirled the expensive beverage around in her mouth and swallowed it down. Her eyes surveyed Ronan, almost like a predator stalking its prey. "I'm sure your girlfriend is going to love this place." Now she was the one who was fishing.
Ronan chuckled. "Oh, no. There is no girlfriend."
"Really?" Jessica perked up.
"I find that hard to believe."
"You don't know me that well."
"You don't seem so bad," she grinned.
Ronan smirked. "I already agreed to buy the place. You don't have to keep selling."
"I never drink on-the-job." She took another sip. "Business is over. This is personal. But, if you don't see anything you're interested in, I understand."
"Did you get the impression that I wasn't interested?"
She smiled. "No. I didn't get that impression."
Now that it was all out on the table, there was an awkward moment of silence between them.
Jessica looked at her watch. "I've got to get to another appointment, but you have my number. Perhaps you can invite me over for dinner when you get the place all fixed up. I'd love to see what you do with it."
The roar of the approaching aircrafts grew louder. They were close enough now to make out their shape. Ronan was familiar with every aircraft in the UPDF Navy. He didn't recognize any of these.
There were dozens more on the horizon. As he glanced around, he noticed they were everywhere. The sky was peppered with these vehicles. They were like a swarm of hornets. Suddenly, the sky came alive with weapons fire. Plasma bolts streaked through the air, blasting at the buildings below.
Ronan's eyes locked on one of the fighters as it approached the balcony. The alien craft screamed toward him, unleashing a flurry of weapons fire. Several of the glowing bolts slammed into the balcony, reducing it to rubble. Bits of concrete and debris scattered, tumbling to the ground below.
The enemy vehicle raced overhead, leaving a wake of destruction in its path. The blast had disintegrated the balcony beneath Ronan's feet, and he was left clinging onto a fragment for dear life. One hand clasped the jagged edge, while the other gripped Jessica's hand as she dangled over the sidewalk below.
Ronan looked down at her, then he glanced to the street. He could see the debris from the balcony slam into the sidewalk, smashing a parked car on the street. The roof crumpled and glass shattered. Car alarms were blaring. There was destruction all over the city.
It was amazing how fast fortunes could change. One minute, he was on top of the world. Now he was hanging on for dear life. Ronan was a strong guy. Years of special operations training had given him calm nerves under pressure. But he wasn't going to be able to hang on forever. His fingertips were slowly sliding over the edge, and Jessica's palm was growing slick with nervous sweat. He knew if he let go of her he could probably save his own life. He could swing the other hand up, grab the ledge, and pull himself to safety. But that wasn't his style. He had never left anyone behind during his time as a Special Forces Marine. He wasn't going to start now.
It was death itself. The massive alien dropship descended from the sky and landed in the middle of the street. Heat distorted beneath the thrusters as the hulking behemoth touched down. The landing gear compressed under its immense weight. Hydraulics whirred as the front ramp lowered. Dozens of mechanized vehicles marched out of the cargo bay—bipedal, armor plated vehicles with plasma cannons and rocket launchers. They stood two stories tall, and were thick tank-like ministers of pain. A dozen of them stormed from the dropship, weapons blazing.
They incinerated everything in their path. Nothing was spared. Men, women, children—it didn't matter. They mowed down civilians as they scurried in panic. Charred carcasses smoldered on the street and sidewalks. Motor vehicles were obliterated. The city was caught off guard. Law-enforcement was the only defensive entity on site—and most of them turned and ran. The ones that did stay and fight ended up barbecued. By the time the terrestrial army was mobilized, it was too late.
At first, some civilians thought it was a robotic invasion, but the mechanized units were piloted by the Tarvaax—a ruthless alien race of warriors.
Xorgon the Great was the son of Emperor Vuul. He was determined to establish himself as the rightful successor to the throne. He and his brother Aarnok were fiercely competing to prove their worth. Just because Xorgon was the eldest didn't automatically ensure him the throne. Among the Tarvaax, leadership was earned. Xorgon fought on the front lines with his men. To say he enjoyed it, was an understatement. He had his own personal camera crew capturing the destruction, showcasing Xorgon in all his glory. Cameras were mounted on his body armor and his mech unit. Camera crews scurried around him, trying to stay out of harms way. Sometimes they managed to survive, sometimes they didn't.
Xorgon's mechanized unit marched their way to the capital of Zeplovia, leaving a trail of carnage. A rifle platoon followed behind them. Xorgon marched up the steps and stood between the towering Doric columns. The mechs were too big to navigate the smaller corridors, so Xorgon ordered the rifle platoon to breach and clear the building. They moved with tactical precision, sweeping from room to room. They quickly secured the area and rounded up several hostages. They corralled them in the main lobby.
Xorgon pressed a button, shall and the cockpit slid open. He climbed out of his mechanized vehicle and jumped down to the ground. His heavy boots thumped against the concrete. He stood tall in full battle armor. At 8 feet he was an imposing figure. He had slick skin that was drawn tight around his frame. His muscles bulged and rippled. He had greenish-blue skin and angular features. Razor like fangs stabbed from his square jaw. His demonic eyes had a golden shine to them. He was humanoid in form. His hands were like boulders when balled into a fist, and he had sharp talons that could claw through an enemies flesh like razors. This was not someone you wanted to get into a fight with.
Out of the corner of his eye, Xorgon caught sight of his camera crew. He stomped over to them. "Did you get a good shot of me coming up the steps?"
"Yes, my Lord," the cameraman stammered.
"What about when I dismounted from my vehicle?"
"We've got an excellent shot, sir. You look very regal."
Xorgon's eyes narrowed at him. He was skeptical. "I want a low angle shot. I want you to focus on my boots as they hit the ground, then I want you to pan up to accentuate my stature."
"I can assure you, my Lord, what we have looks great."
"I want the shot!” He said the words in a slow, deliberate rumble.
"Yes, my lord,” the cameraman said, his eyes full of fear.
Xorgon walked back to his mechanized vehicle, climbed into the cockpit and waited for the cameraman to get into position. Then he repeated his dismount. The cameraman filmed the shot exactly as instructed. It was as if Xorgon was the star of his own movie. He was so confident in his ability to conquer Zeplovia that he didn't see his behavior as absurd.
Satisfied that he had obtained the shot, he entered the capital building. Once Xorgon was out of sight, the cameraman exchanged a glance with his assistant. There had been countless moments like this where Xorgon had insisted on specific shots as the Tarvaax rampaged throughout the galaxy. The current runtime for the compilation of footage that had been edited together for his biography was over 10 hours. No one was ever going to watch the entire thing unless mandated by decree—which Xorgon wasn't beyond doing.
"My Lord, we've searched the premises and have found no trace of the president," Sergeant Ragnoth said. "There appears to be a secure bunker in the basement of the building."
"She is there," he said with confidence. "Show me to the bunker."
The sergeant escorted him down a staircase to a composite blast door. It was pitted and scarred from several attempts to blow it open—all of which failed. It was going to take a high-powered plasma cannon to cause any damage.
Xorgon surveyed the door. There was a biometric access pad and camera. "Can you bypass the locking mechanism?"
"Perhaps," said the sergeant. Then he added, "Given enough time."
Xorgon grimaced. Patience was not one of his virtues. "Bring me one of the hostages."
The sergeant motioned to a corporal who darted away and returned momentarily with a terrified woman. Her face was red and puffy, and tears streamed down her cheek. "Please, don't hurt me," she begged.
Xorgon spoke in a soothing voice. "I promise, you won't feel a thing." He spoke the unified language of the Federation fluently and without any trace of an accent. The Federation had adopted the language over a century ago, and anyone who had any dealings with the Federation knew how to speak it—even the Federation's enemies.
The woman didn't know what to make of Xorgon. Was he telling the truth? Or should she be even more terrified? She began mumbling a prayer to herself.
Xorgon took her by the arm and pulled her in front of the camera embedded in the blast door. He spoke directly to the camera. "I know you can see me in there. By now you are aware that I have crushed your pathetic defenses. Your only option is complete and total surrender, which I will graciously accept. You have 10 minutes to respond. Failure to comply will result in the total and complete destruction of your planet." Xorgon grinned. He caressed the woman's head with his hand, gently gliding his talons over her scalp.
She trembled with fear.
Without warning, Xorgon pierced one of his black talons through her cranium, should like it were a pickax. Blood spurted out like a volcano. The wicked alien clutched her skull between his palms and sucked her brains from her skull like a monkey drinking coconut milk.
When he was done, he dropped her carcass to the ground. Blood covered his mouth and dripped down his chin. He smiled into the camera. "Do hurry if you want your staff to live."
The metallic, tinny taste of blood still lingered in Zack's mouth. He glided his tongue over his split lip. It felt like a canyon. His left front tooth wiggled slightly. These small traumas paled in comparison to his throbbing headache and blurred vision. It took a moment for the room to come into view—long enough for him to focus on the stabbing pain between his eyes. It was clear that Dean had broken his nose. Zack could barely make out the blurry edge of the bandage over his nose. Not only that, the back of his head hurt like hell too, and his left arm was in a cast.
Zack tried to sit up and look around the room. He paid the price for the movement. His head throbbed again from the increased blood pressure. There was a hazy figure standing in front of him, and he heard the beeping of a monitor next to his bed.
“You’re lucky to be alive,” a nurse said. “You took a pretty good blow to the head.”
The hazy figure came into view—a smiling nurse wearing teal blue scrubs. She had her light brown hair pulled back into a ponytail.
“How did I get here?” Zack asked, still a little confused.
The nurse motioned to the corner of the room. The new kid was sitting in a chair. “Your friend called emergency services. And it was a good thing he did. The doctor should be in shortly to talk to you.”
“I got punched in the face. Is it that serious?”
The nurse smiled. “The doctor will be in to see you in a few minutes.”
It was a disconcerting non-answer. She spun around and left the room quickly. Zack glanced to the new kid sitting in the chair.
“Thanks for standing up for me," the kid said. "Sorry you ended up in here.”
“Did I at least get a punch in? I can’t remember a thing, except for that fist.”
The new kid was hesitant to answer. Then he finally shook his head.
Zack frowned. ”That’s pathetic.”
He looked at the IV jabbed into his forearm. His eyes followed the tubing up to the bag of saline, electrolytes, and medication. Then over to the monitor that displayed his vital signs. Waveforms monitored his heart rate, O2 saturation, and blood pressure. “I hate hospitals.”
“What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Isaac.” Zack extended his hand and the two shook.
A few minutes later, a doctor entered the room wearing a white lab coat, examining his PDU. He thumbed through Zack's chart. He was a bald man in his late 50s. He spoke so softly that Zack strained to hear him. He smiled and held out his hand. “I’m Doctor Kaufman. Everything’s fine. You had a mild brain trauma, but nothing serious. You took two hits. One to the face, and one to the back of the head when you plowed into the concrete. Sort of a double whammy. I’ve given you some medication that will take down the swelling and the extra cerebral fluid. I’ve reset the bone in your nose and in your arm. There’s a regenerative compound in the IV that will accelerate healing, so you should be back to normal in a few days.”
“I don’t have to stay in here for that long, do I?” Zack had a panicked look on his face.
Kaufman smiled again, reassuringly. “No. But I would like to keep you in overnight for observation.”
“I feel fine. Really. Can I just go home?”
“I’m afraid I can’t discharge you just yet. Relax. Watch TV. Eat some ice cream. Think of it as a mini vacation.”
“This isn’t my first choice of vacation spots.”
Kaufman chuckled. “Tomorrow will be here soon enough, and you can go home.”
“If you experience any dizziness, nausea, or blurred vision, let one of the nurses know.”
“Will do.” Zack wasn’t about to tell him he was practically seeing double.
Zack waited a moment, listening to the sounds of the bustling hospital filter into the room. When it was clear, he looked to Isaac. “You’ve got to help me get out of here.”
Isaac looked confused. “But he says you need to stay in overnight.”
“Nonsense.” Zack began fumbling with the white medical tape on his arm. He peeled it back and slid the IV needle from his vein. Blood blossomed from the pinpoint wound. He used his thumb to put pressure on it until it stopped bleeding. Then he got Isaac to help him lower the guard rail on the bed.
Zack swung his legs over the edge and sat up. He was wearing a ridiculous green hospital gown that tied in the back. If you looked close enough, you could see the small blue snowflake pattern in the fabric. The gowns could make even a healthy person look sick. Electrodes, attached to his skin, ran to the vital signs monitor. He knew the minute he removed them an alarm would sound at the nurses station. “See if you can find my clothes. Check the closet.”
Isaac rummaged through the cabinet. It was slightly bigger than a gym locker. He grabbed Zack's jeans, shirt, and shoes and brought them to the bed.
Zack pulled on his pants and finagled his gown over the wires that were still connecting him to the monitor. “Come here.”
Isaac stepped next to him. He looked a little uncertain.
“Lift up your shirt.”
“Just do it.”
Isaac furrowed his brow. He was self-conscious about his lack of a physique. He was the kind of guy who wore a T-shirt at the pool. But he finally complied.
Zack peeled the electrodes from his chest and stuck them onto Isaac. The monitor flatlined for a moment and let out a steady tone until the electrodes were re-affixed. Zack placed the pulse/ox monitor on Isaac’s fingertip.
“I don’t see what this is going to accomplish.”
“It’s going to let me sneak out of here. Then, when I’m gone, you pull those off and leave. If anybody says anything, I got up and ran out and you couldn’t stop me.”
Isaac thought about this for a moment and shrugged. “I guess.”
Zack finished getting dressed and put on his shoes. He crept to the edge of the doorway and peered into the hallway. He scanned from one end to the other, then he craned his neck back to Isaac. “Meet me outside.”
Isaac looked uncomfortable. He was a rule follower, and this was certainly breaking the rules. But before he could object, Zack was gone.
Plasma blades sliced through the air, clanking and clamoring as they clashed. The edges of the steel blades were lined with glowing plasma beams that could sever flesh and bone with ease. Sparks flew as the swords connected. The two warriors battled each other with expert precision.
To the casual observer, it looked like they were battling to the death, not sparring. Emperor Vuul ferociously attacked his sparring partner, Master Xyn Kotaar. He deflected the Emperor’s advances with ease, despite Vuul being stronger and larger.
The mock battle raged. The swords slashed and stabbed, and the participants dodged and parried. The Emperor finally managed to sling Kotaar's blade aside with a twirling motion. He planted a foot in the master’s chest, sending him crashing to the deck. In a flash, Vuul's blade was inches from Kotaar's throat. The plasma beam crackled with energy. Kotaar stared down his nose at the blade with concern. Though he felt relatively safe, he had seen the Emperor kill sparring partners before.
An instant later, the Emperor deactivated the blade and sheathed the sword. He extended his hand to Kotaar and pulled him from the mat.
"You are a worthy opponent. If only we were true enemies," he said wistfully, “then I would face your full potential."
Kotaar grinned. "I can assure you, you have beaten me at my best."
The Emperor patted him on the shoulder, "I think we both know that's not true."
Kotaar wasn't exactly sure how to take the statement. But then a grin broke on the Emperor's face and all was well.
It was clear the Emperor had a genuine affection for Kotaar, much to the displeasure of Xorgon, who stood watching at the edge of the practice bay. "Father, we have achieved victory," he said, triumphantly marching into the bay.
The Emperor looked less than impressed. "When the scourge of humanity has been eradicated from the galaxy, then you will have achieved victory."
Xorgon tried to hide his displeasure, though his face involuntarily tensed for a moment. He tried to sound pleasant when he spoke. "Zeplovia has surrendered. We took the capital city in less than an hour."
"Zeplovia is the weakest colony in the galaxy. I'm not sure I would boast too loudly about the ease in which they were defeated. Anything less than what you achieved would have been an embarrassment. It will only be a matter of time before the Federation responds.”
"But they are no longer a Federation colony."
"They will protect their own kind. They always have, and they always will."
"Let them come. We are ready," Xorgon said. "Crylos is next. One by one, we will take each colony."
The Emperor's face tensed, growing frustrated with Xorgon's arrogance. "Do not underestimate the enemy. That is the surest way to defeat. The threat they pose is real. It has been foretold."
“I think you give those witches far too much credit, Father."
The Emperor leaned in and snarled at him. He spoke in a low gravelly voice. “Under the guidance of the oracles, I have risen to power. I have defeated all of my enemies. I've identified all would-be assassins. You would be unwise to ignore their prophecies.”
Xorgon cowered like a scolded child. "Yes, Father."
“You must destroy the one," the Emperor said.
“And how will I know this one?"
Vuul looked at him like he was an idiot. "Just kill them all."
“But what of the harvest?"
The Emperor's eyes narrowed at him. "I care not about your harvest.” He paused for a moment. "Perhaps your brother is better suited for the task."
Xorgon's eyes widened. “No. Aarnok is weak!”
"But obedient. Do as you're told, or you may find yourself under your brother's rule someday.” Vuul had not yet formally chosen a successor, and he lorded that fact over his two boys to no end. Both had aspirations toward the throne.
Xorgon tried to hide his displeasure. "Yes, Father."
The monitor tone went solid as Isaac peeled the electrodes from his skin. He marched for the door and stepped into the hallway, trying to look inconspicuous. He made it to the stairwell and gave a glance back down to the nurse’s station. There wasn’t anyone there, and no one seemed to be paying any attention to the fact that one of their patients had up and left. Isaac wondered what would happen if someone was truly dying. His faith in the medical system went down a notch. He slipped into the stairwell and spiraled his way down to the ground level. He strolled through the lobby and met up with Zack on the sidewalk.
“Everything go okay?”
“At this rate, they won’t notice you’re gone for until tomorrow,” he said, sarcastically.
Zack shook his head. “Let’s get moving.”
They walked to the bus stop at the end of the block. There was an aluminum shelter with a domed acrylic roof and a bench inside. The walls were made out of display panels that rotated a selection of advertisements. One of them was a recruitment poster for the Marine Corps. The image featured legendary war hero, Cyrus Cole. He had ice blue eyes that seemed like they were looking right through you. He had a square jaw and chiseled features. Salt-and-pepper hair that was more salt than pepper. He was lean and mean, wearing his full dress blues. Campaign ribbons and medals lined his chest. He was standing next to a mechanized infantry vehicle, MAV-X9—a state-of-the-art walking tank. It was a single person vehicle, equipped with two 50 caliber machine guns, matching P279 plasma cannons, 12 hell storm missiles, and powered by a 10,000 hp Hughes & Kessler turbine engine.
The stories of Cyrus Cole’s heroics were epic. At the Battle of Barvot, he was the only surviving member of his platoon. He had overcome insurmountable odds to defeat three infantry companies. The battle is considered by most historians to be a major turning point in the war. It was one of many triumphs. His book Courage in Combat was required reading in history class. There wasn’t a person in the Federation that didn’t know who Cyrus Cole was, and who didn’t at least have some degree of admiration for him.
Zack stared at the ad for a moment.
“Thinking about joining the Marine Corps?” Isaac asked.
“My dad was a Marine. I don’t think it’s for me, though.” Zack paused for a moment. “But I’ll bet you Dean Dully would think twice before messing with a Marine.”
Isaac grinned. “Cyrus Cole is going to be at school tomorrow. He’s on a tour of all the high schools, looking for recruits.”
“Sign up now, and you’ll be in the thick of it on Sirius 7, or some other colony, just as soon as you finish boot camp,” Zack said.
Isaac grimaced. The thought of combat didn’t sound appealing at all. “Do you think they’ll reinstitute the draft?”
Zack shrugged. “I don’t know. I keep hearing talk about it. I’d rather enlist than be drafted. At least you have some kind of choice that way.”
“I’m planning on going to college. Pre-med. What about you? What are you going to do after high school?”
“I haven’t thought that far ahead.”
Isaac looked shocked. The next 10 years of his life were pretty well mapped out. He couldn’t fathom that Zack hadn’t meticulously planned his future. “We graduate in a few months.”
“Plenty of time.”
The bus finally arrived. The brakes hissed and the doors swung open. Zack and Isaac stepped aboard. Zack placed his thumb on the ID scanner near the driver. All city buses had onboard AI that drove the vehicles. But an anthropomorphic robotic figure sat in the driver’s seat and pretended to steer. It made passengers feel better. If you were under 18, and enrolled in school, public transportation was free within the city limits.
Zack and Isaac took a seat, and the bus rolled away. The roadway was lined with all manner of hovercraft and traditional vehicles. Though, the hovercraft were limited to ground level. Tiered roadway systems were causing too many fatalities. And it was hard to beat the functionality and efficiency of wheeled vehicles. Hovercars were far more expensive, and more complicated to maintain.
It was a little after 10 PM by the time they reached Zack's house.
“This is my stop. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow at school?”
Isaac nodded. “Thanks again. That would have been me in the hospital if you hadn't stepped in.”
“Don’t worry about it. I learned something today.”
“Not to fight guys that are almost 7 feet tall.” Zack laughed.
Isaac tried to laugh with him, but he couldn’t help but feel guilty. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’ll be fine,” Zack said heading toward the door. “You’re not nearly as blurry as you were back at the hospital.”
Zack plunged down the steps to the street. From the bus stop it was another block home. He heard the bus pull away behind him, and the engine faded into the distance. An overhead streetlight buzzed and cast an eerie glow with long shadows. There were dark nooks and crannies and alleyways along the street. Ideal places for someone to hide. Zack couldn’t help but think Dean and his thugs were lurking somewhere in the darkness, waiting to jump out and ambush him.
Zack hobbled down the street with caution. To his surprise, nothing came lurching out of the shadows at him. He reached 11975 Preston Avenue—a 40 story apartment complex. Home.
He strolled up the walkway, pressed his thumb against the security pad, and pushed into the double glass doors. The lobby was dingy. There was a couch, chair, and coffee table. A flat-panel display was permanently set to the Federation News Network. The display was so old that it had terrible ghosting, and traces of the previous image would persist long after the scene changed. In all the years that Zack had lived there, he couldn’t remember anyone ever sitting there watching TV.
The leasing office was right next to the lounge, but it was closed at this time of night. It wasn’t the worst apartment complex in Utonia, but it wasn’t the best. Maintenance requests could take anywhere from six months to two years to be addressed. And the building manager, Patsy, loved to increase the rent at every opportunity.
Zack made his way to the elevators, which were painfully slow. They were out of inspection by six months, and would probably stay that way until Code Enforcement fined the management.
The doors dinged and slid open. Zack stepped in, knowing he was taking his life in his hands. The elevators were tiny, and seemed a little larger than a coffin. Zack hated them, and the feeling of claustrophobia they induced. But he didn’t feel like running up 29 flights of stairs at the moment. As the door slung shut, his heartbeat elevated, and a thin mist of sweat formed on his skin. He was already regretting the decision.
Every time he stepped aboard the elevators, it reminded him of the time he got stuck in a sewer pipe. Curiosity had gotten the best of him as a child. Exploring the various tunnels under the city resulted in a 24 hour stent trapped in a narrow pipe. The city engineers had to tunnel through 6 feet of concrete to get to him. The bill the city sent to his foster parents was astronomical.
Someone got stuck in the elevators about once a month. And if you lived in the building long enough, it was almost inevitable that it was going to happen to you at some point.
The elevator stopped on the 29th floor, but the door didn’t open. Zack's heartbeat skyrocketed. This was not the day he wanted to be stuck in the elevator.
The door shuddered, then finally stammered opened. The metal doors scraped against the enclosure as they retracted, making a disconcerting squeal. Zack leapt off the elevator as soon as the opening was wide enough to accommodate his size.
He strolled down the hallway and tried to slip into his apartment without making much noise. But he didn’t get more than a few steps. He was dreading the confrontation with his stepfather.
“Where the hell have you been?” Bob slurred. The room smelled like a brewery.
Zack grimaced. “After school project.”
Bob was a sloppy guy, even when he was sober. But well into his second six-pack, he looked like a bum. His shirt was untucked and stained, and his hair was tousled. His cheeks were rosy, and his eyes were dull and bloodshot, weighted down by the bags underneath them. This was Bob’s normal condition by this time of the evening. “The hospital called. They said you left without being discharged.”
“It’s not a big deal.”
“It’s going to be a big deal when they send me the bill. Do you have any idea what an ambulance ride and an ER visit cost?”
Zack shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never been to the ER before.”
Bob scowled at him. “Don’t be a smart ass.”
“What the hell did you do to get into the ER?”
“I got in a fight.”
“Looks like you got your ass kicked.”
“Brilliant observation,” Zack said dryly. He started for his room, but Bob wasn’t going to let him off so easily.
“Don’t you walk away from me when I’m talking to you.”
Zack sighed and faced Bob.
“You’re going to pay for the charges, do you understand me?”
“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life dodging bill collectors on account of you.”
“I said okay.”
“And how exactly do you plan on paying for it, seeing as how you don’t have a job anymore.”
Zack’s eyes widened. “What do you mean, I don’t have a job anymore?”
“Your boss called. He was short-staffed tonight. He says if you can’t show up on time, you don’t need to show up at all.”
Zack deflated and grumbled under his breath. His foster mom had heard the commotion and rushed into the living room. Her eyes filled with concern at the site of Zack's mangled condition. “Are you okay? We were worried sick about you.”
The we in the statement was a complete fabrication.
“I’m fine, Grace. I promise.”
“Are you hungry? You want something?”
“Oh, don’t coddle him,” Bob said, exasperated.
Grace shot him a nasty look.
Bob didn’t want to get into a fight with Grace at this time of night. He backed off and listed into his chair to finish watching his TV show.
“I’ll heat up some leftovers for you,” Grace said.
“That would be great. Thanks.”
Grace reheated the Parmesan chicken. It was synthetic from the food fabricator—but it wasn’t bad. He excused himself, cleaned his dish, and headed down the hall to his room. He put in his ear buds, flopped on his bed, and listened to some music until he fell asleep.
By the morning, Zack had dark black circles under his eyes. He was feeling worse than the night before. His neck was stiff and his head was still throbbing. At least his vision was clear.
The smell of bacon, eggs, and fresh coffee filled the air. Zack perked up at the aroma. He rolled out of bed and put on a pair of jeans and a shirt. He pushed into the hallway and strolled into the kitchen.
Grace gasped a little when she saw him. “That looks awful. Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I made your favorite. Real bacon. Real eggs.”
Zack looked impressed. Real bacon and eggs were hard to come by. “Thanks, Grace.”
“The kid goes out, starts fight, and winds up in the hospital, and you reward him?” Bob said, looking hung over.
Grace glared at him.
Zack inhaled his meal and did his best to ignore Bob. After breakfast, he got ready for school and headed out.
He made his way down the street and waited at the bus stop for about 15 minutes. It wasn’t unusual for the automated buses to be behind schedule. Kids could linger in the doorway, preventing it from closing. Due to safety protocols, the bus wouldn’t move unless everyone was in their seat, and the door secure. There were video cameras on board, and the students were monitored from the transportation hub. A supervisor could yell at them, and the students could be reprimanded if things got out of hand. Facial recognition ID’d and tracked everyone, so it was hard to get away with anything. Still, some kids tried. And some of the more creative ones got away with things.
Everyone stared at Zack as he stepped on the bus. A hush fell over the crowd of rambunctious students for a moment. The news had already circulated through the student body. Everyone knew Zack had gotten his ass kicked. Some looked upon him with sympathy. For others, it was just further confirmation not to cross paths with Dean Dully. And there were a couple of Dean’s buddies who felt compelled to hurl insults at Zack.
“What happened to you, loser? You fall down?” one of Dean’s goons said. He and his buddy burst into laughter.
Zack pretended to lunge for them, and the two goons flinched. They were nothing without Dean Dully to back them up.
“Just wait. Dean’s going to kick your ass again.”
Zack ignored them and plodded toward the back of the bus. He took a seat next to Isaac, and the bus rolled away.
“You look like crap,” Isaac said.
“It’s not that bad. Black eye, broken nose, broken arm—total chick magnet.” Zack smiled optimistically. “You watch, I’ll have girls asking to carry my books for me.”
“I feel terrible.”
“You’d feel worse if you were me.”
Isaac frowned. He hunched over, looking even smaller.
The bus pulled into the parking lot with a few minutes to spare. Zack and Isaac filed off, and strolled toward the main building. They pushed through the double doors and headed toward the senior lockers. Isaac’s eyes widened with fear, and he froze in his tracks—Dean Dully was at the end of the hallway. He hadn’t caught sight of the two yet, but it was only a matter of time. Isaac abruptly spun around and headed in the opposite direction. He looked back over his shoulder and called to Zack in a shaky voice. “I’ll catch you in English.”
Zack nodded and looked back down the hallway at Dean Dully. This time the ogre was staring back at him.
Zack took a deep breath and marched forward.
Dean had a cocky smirk on his face. Zack wanted nothing more than to wipe it off, but now wasn’t the time or place. If Zack had learned anything, it was that he didn’t have the skill or physical ability to match the ogre. If he was going to get revenge, he was going to have to find another way. In the meantime, his first priority was to survive the day—which wasn’t looking too likely at this point.
The two never broke eye contact as Zack trudged down the hallway. Dean grinned, thoroughly impressed with his handiwork. “I’m going to hit you even harder next time.”
“I hope so. You hit like my sister.”
Dean’s grin vanished, and his face twisted up. Anger flushed his face red, and he looked like he was about to pounce. But Principal Nakadate strolled around the corner at just the right moment to preempt the strike.
Zack took this opportunity to put as much distance between him and the ogre as possible.
“You just sealed your fate,” Dean yelled after him.
“Mr. Dully!” Principal Nakadate said. “Did you just threaten another student?”
The meathead stammered, “No sir. Me and Salvator are friends. I’m just messing with him.”
The principal’s eyes glanced down the hall at Zack, then back to Dean. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what had happened. Dean’s reputation was known to faculty and staff. “I don’t think Mr. Salvator needs to be messed with in his current situation. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“He looks fine to me.”
“May I remind you, Mr. Dully, one more infraction involving violence of any kind, and you will be expelled and forced to repeat your senior year. You don’t want that, do you?”
Dean smiled. “I kind of like being a senior.”
Principal Nakadate was confounded. There was no rationalizing with this neanderthal. “Wouldn’t you rather be out there attending college or in the workforce next year?”
“Dean shook his head. Not really.” I mean, seriously, go ahead. Expel me. Gives me more free time, and no homework. You people are morons if you think that is some kind of punishment.” Dean chuckled and walked away.
Principal Nakadate clinched his jaw. The kid was incorrigible.
Zack stopped at his locker and got his books for first period. He made it into the classroom right as the bell rang and took a seat.
“Please pass your homework to the front and prepare for your exam.”
Zack cringed. He had totally forgotten about his homework, and the test. Surely getting pummeled to the brink of death was a valid excuse? He raised his hand. “Ms. Vance. About the homework and the exam… There are some extenuating circumstances that I’d like to discuss with you.”
Her eyes narrowed at him, and she seemed to ignore his obvious injuries. “Oh, really? And what are your extenuating circumstances?” she asked, mocking him with air quotes.
"What exactly led you to acquire the injuries that brought you to the hospital in the first place?" Ms. Vance asked.
"I got in a fight, ma'am."
Ms. Vance's face twisted up in disgust. "I do not condone violence of any kind. That type of behavior is unacceptable."
"I didn't start it."
"I don't care who started it, Mr. Salvator." Her eyes narrowed at him. She paused a moment, contemplating his fate. "I’ll allow you to turn in your homework tomorrow. I see no reason why you shouldn't be able to finish the assignment in your current condition. As for the exam, however… this test has been on the schedule for weeks, and you should have been well aware of it."
Ms. Vance seemed to delight in her authority. She was notorious for being inflexible. Zack was a little surprised she allowed an exception for the homework. He ambled back to his seat and prepared to take his test.
"May I remind you, this test represents one third of your grade. Good luck, class." She had a devious glint in her eye.
The exam appeared on each student’s individual monitor. It was impossible to cheat because each test had been customized to the student. The numerical values in each equation were changed slightly.
Zack proceeded to give the exam his best shot, although he hadn't even cracked his textbook in weeks. He was a crammer. He much preferred to stay up studying the entire night before the exam, so it was fresh.
The 45 minutes allotted for the test evaporated quickly. The computer automatically locked the input fields after the allotted time. Exams were graded almost instantaneously. Within moments, Zack's grade was displayed on the screen. A smug grin curled on his face at the sight—97.
He sat back and folded his hands behind his head.
Ms. Vance took a seat at her desk and looked over the scores. The bell rang and the students hustled out of the classroom. Before Zack could shuffle to the exit, Ms. Vance’s stern voice called after him. "Not so fast, Mr. Salvator. Approach my desk."
Zack exhaled with frustration, then spun around and hobbled toward her.
"Do you mind explaining this to me?" She asked, pointing to his grade.
Zack shrugged. "I'm good with numbers."
Her eyes narrowed at him, incredulous. "I'm well aware of your study habits, and your apparent lack of preparation for this exam. I find it hard to believe that you could manage such an exemplary score."
Zack scoffed. “Are you suggesting I cheated?"
"I'm more than suggesting, Mr. Salvator. I intend to prove it. I will review the security footage and have the computer run a fraud detection algorithm."
"Go ahead. You're not going to find anything." Zack gave her a smug grin. "If you don't mind, I've got to get to my next class."
Zack marched out of the classroom into the bustling hallway. His mild case of senioritis was now in full force. He was tired of all the bullshit politics of this school.
He made it through the next few classes without any major events, then headed to the cafeteria for lunch. The menus on the food fabricators were extremely limited. You could choose from pizza, cheeseburgers, something that resembled a steak, a fabricated chicken breast, or soft tacos. They all had the same nutritional content. It was just a mix of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, combined with flavoring, coloring, and nutritional additives. The ingredients were mixed together on demand and pushed through nozzles and actuators and 3-D printed on the plate. After making a selection, the meal would appear within moments.
Fabricated food was the standard throughout the Federation. For the most part, it was pretty good. Sometimes even excellent. Higher end fabricators could manufacture a meal that was almost indistinguishable from the real thing. But the school was cheap. Everything that came out of these fabricators was bland, and pretty much tasted the same. Zack figured school officials were skimping on the flavoring and additives, trying to make them last longer, cutting costs wherever they could.
Zack ordered a cheeseburger. It was pretty hard to screw up, and he could always douse it with extra ketchup to enhance the flavor.
Zack weaved his way through the sea of kids to his usual table. Matt was already seated and plowing through his meal. He had blonde hair, blue eyes, and a round face. He was a little thicker about the midsection than he needed to be, but he didn't seem to be concerned about it in the least. He was devouring his food.
Matt glanced up, but didn't slow down. “Damn, son. I heard you took a beating, but I didn't expect you to look this bad."
Zack clanked his tray down on the table and took a seat. The air was filled with chatter and the clattering of silverware against the plastic green trays.
"You should see the other guy."
"I saw the other guy. You need to learn how to fight."
Zack couldn’t really disagree. He could see Dean Dully across the cafeteria, meeting with his goons. He seemed too preoccupied to start trouble. But Zack kept a cautious eye on him as he ate.
"Mind if I join you," Issac said, stepping to the table with a tray of indiscernible slop.
"Go right ahead," Zack said. He introduced Issac to Matt, and the two shook hands.
Zack bit into his cheeseburger. It tasted like cardboard, but it was going to have to do.
Matt pointed to the side of tater tots on his tray. “Are you going to eat those?”
“Yes. I’m going to eat those,” Zack said, defensively.
Matt backtracked. “Just checking. I wouldn’t want them to go to waste.”
“You can have whatever I don’t finish,” Zack said. He got halfway through his meal, then let Matt have the rest.
They finished up, and when lunch was over, they headed to the auditorium for Cyrus Cole’s presentation. It was an hour that Zack would have spent in chemistry class, so lounging in the auditorium was more than a fair trade.
The students took their seats, and after a few minutes, finally settled down. Principal Nakadate stepped on stage and strolled to the lectern. “I’m pleased to introduce a Federation hero, to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude. Please give a warm Spartan welcome to Gunnery Sergeant Cyrus Cole.”
The auditorium erupted in applause.
Sergeant Cole stepped on stage in his dress blues and marched to the podium. His medals glistened in the bright stage lights. He shook hands with the principal on the way. He paused for a moment as he surveyed the crowd of high school seniors. His voice was gruff and stern. No nonsense. His steely eyes looked as if they were piercing into your soul. His presence commanded respect. The auditorium grew silent.
“Good afternoon,” the students replied.
“I am Gunnery Sergeant Cyrus Cole of the Space Corps Marines. I’d like to thank Principal Nakadate for allowing me to speak today. As you know, our Federation is under attack. Our way of life, our very existence is threatened. The Space Corps Marines are on the front lines every day, defending our freedoms. If you are looking for the ultimate challenge, to prove yourself mentally and physically, to be a member of the galaxy’s most fearsome fighting force, then look no further than the Space Corps Marines. Ready to mobilize at a moments notice, we are the first to go, and the last to know. For over 640 years we have protected freedom and democracy. We’ve fought in places like Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Ceti Reticuli, Draconis Major, and hundreds of other hell holes across the galaxy. Our mechanized infantry is one of the most lethal in history. I’m here to find a few good recruits. Not everyone has what it takes to become a Marine. And even fewer possess the natural aptitude to pilot a mechanized unit.”
Cole displayed an image of an MAV–X9 on a massive screen behind the podium. There were wide eyes among the boys in the audience who gazed at the vehicle in awe.
“This is a state-of-the-art mechanized attack vehicle. Or, as we affectionately refer to them, Mavericks,” Cole continued. “The X9 is the most technologically advanced MAV in the galaxy. Composite armor plating. Z-core extended life fuel-cell. And the Evenflow™ synaptic interface. But it takes a special person to pilot one of these bad boys. Only a select few possess the necessary brain structure to interface seamlessly with the device. The unit is an extension of the operator. In the right hands, there is only .002 milliseconds of latency between the pilot’s input and the actual movement of the articulated arms. In the heat of battle, every millisecond counts.
“The neural interface provides real-time feedback to the operator. But if the operator is not perfectly compatible with the device, the sensory input can result in overload and brain trauma.”
Some members of the crowd lost their enthusiasm.
“You will all undergo mandatory testing for compatibility. For those who are a match, you will be given the opportunity to serve the Federation as a Space Corps Marine in the mechanized infantry. Plus, there is an enlistment bonus of 100,000 credits if you sign up.”
“Where are you going?” Isaac asked.
Zack plowed his way through the swarm of students in the aisle, heading toward the stage. The presentation in the auditorium had ended, and a small crowd had gathered around Sergeant Cole. Some were asking for autographs, others were ready to volunteer.
“I’m going to sign up to take my aptitude test,” Zack said. “Why not? 100,000 credits is a lot of money. Plus, I could get my mom out of that crappy apartment and into a house. That’s enough for a helluva down payment.”
“They’re going to get around to all of us anyway,” Isaac said.
“I know. But might as well get it out of the way.”
Isaac shrugged and followed him down the aisle, along with Matt.
It took a few minutes of waiting in line to get to speak with Sergeant Cole. The war hero regarded Zack, and his injuries, curiously. “You look like you’ve seen a little combat of your own.”
“A minor dispute that couldn’t be resolved diplomatically, Sergeant.”
Cole chuckled. “What’s your name, son?”
“Zack Salvator, Sergeant. I’d like to take my aptitude test as soon as possible.”
“I can arrange that. We’ve got a mobile testing facility in the parking lot. An important question is, do you want me to pull you out of class now? Or do you want to take the test after school?”
“I’m fine with anything that gets me out of class, Sergeant.”
Cole grinned. “I figured.” His eyes surveyed Isaac and Matt. “What about your friends?”
The two of them shrugged.
“Yeah, sure.” Matt said. “Getting out of class is good.”
“All right. Sign up on this list here, and I’ll get you priority testing.” Cole handed him a tablet that displayed a sign-up app. It was a thin piece of smart glass, only a few millimeters thick.
Zack pressed his thumb against the ID box on the screen and all of his identifying information filled into the application form, along with his most recent ID picture. The amount of information was staggering. His complete academic record, which was extrapolated from various data points in his personal record.
Zack checked the box agreeing to the test, waiving three pages of fine print that he didn’t bother to read. He handed the tablet to Matt who repeated the process.
"I like that you boys are showing initiative," Cole said. "There is no greater honor than serving the Federation. Enlisting in the Space Corps, in any capacity, has a wide range of perks. Healthcare, pension, money for college, not to mention you will be part of a brotherhood. Even if you are not a fit for the Mechanized Infantry Pilot Program, there are plenty of opportunities in the Space Corps." Cole leaned in and whispered, “And between you and me, I think the draft is just around the corner. The draftees don’t get near as many benefits. You might end up as a supply clerk somewhere and miss all the action.”
Isaac had a look on his face like missing the action wasn’t all that bad. He was anxious just agreeing to the terms of the testing. Going off to war wasn't on his agenda at all. “There’s no obligation to sign up just by taking the test, is there?”
Cole smiled. “No. Not unless they reinstitute the draft.”
The statement didn’t exactly reassure Isaac, but he signed anyway. He handed the tablet back to Sergeant Cole.
“Excellent. I’ll let your principal know that you’ll be fulfilling your civic duty for the rest of the afternoon.” He winked at the boys.
They hung around the auditorium for a few minutes while several other students signed up for testing. Then Cole led the students out of the auditorium, into the parking lot. There was a military dropship perched on the emergency landing pad. It was one of the coolest things Zack had ever seen. It had an aggressive stance and short swept wings with plasma cannons mounted fore, aft, and on sub-wing pylons on either side. It had active camouflage that had an urban green/grey pattern. There was a large cargo area that could hold an entire platoon of Marines. The interior had been converted to a state-of-the-art testing facility.
“Gentlemen, you are looking at one of the finest combat aerial vehicles the Marine Corps has to offer. The SV-760 Raptor.” He said it like a proud parent fawning over his favorite child. “When you’re in the thick of it, there is no finer sight, or sound, than a Raptor coming to save you. Life and death in the same package. Life for you, death for the enemy.”
The pilot was smoking a cigarette, inspecting the underbelly of the craft. Sergeant Cole led the would-be recruits up the back loading ramp into the cargo bay. It was loaded with scanners and displays—high tech equipment that each emitted a blue-green glow.
A technician sat at a console. He stood up as Cole introduced him. “This is Corporal Moriarty. He'll be administering the testing today. Just follow his instructions. It will be quick and painless.”
Corporal Moriarty looked over his PDU. “Austin Andrews, you’re up.”
Austin stepped forward and took a seat in the exam chair.
“Open your mouth,” the corporal said.
“Is this a dental exam?"
“I need a DNA sample." The corporal swabbed the inside of Austin's cheek. He put the sample in a collection container and labeled it. Then the corporal placed a neural ring around Austin’s head. It was a band about an inch wide. It attached at the temples and had multiple sensor points throughout the band. Austin’s brainwave activity appeared on a screen. Another monitor displayed a 3-D image of Austin's brain.
“Just close your eyes and try to relax. You may experience random sensations during the process as different areas of the brain are stimulated. You may get sensations of hot or cold, random transient pain, as well as possible feelings of euphoria. You may perceive random smells or tastes. And you may experience auditory or visual hallucinations. This will all be temporary, and will discontinue after the scan has completed,” the corporal said.
A wave of concern washed over Austin’s face.
The corporal pressed a few buttons on his PDU, and the scan began. All of the displays lit up with activity. After a moment, Austin’s nose twisted up like he smelled something bad. A few moments later, he winced. Then he smiled. Then he swallowed. He continued to run through a range of expressions. After a minute, the test was over.
“Thank you, Mr. Andrews. Proceed to room 125-C for the written exam.” The corporal removed the neural ring from Austin’s head.
Austin looked a little stunned that it was over so quickly. “That’s it?”
The corporal smiled. “The scan is brief. The computer will process your compatibility.”
Austin stood up and staggered out of the Raptor. He was a little dazed. The other would-be recruits stared at him as he left, unsure about what they were getting themselves into.
The corporal tested three more of Zack’s classmates, then called his name. Zack took a seat in the chair, and the corporal affixed the interface. He repeated the same instructions given to the others, then began the scan.
Zack felt his entire body tingle for a moment. He felt a rush of euphoria, followed by dizziness and nausea. But the discomfort was brief. He saw a rush of imagery flash in his mind. Long forgotten memories from childhood. He caught a momentary glimpse of his biological father. The rush of imagery was so overwhelming it was hard to make sense of, or gain perspective on anything. It was like someone had opened the floodgates of his mind. Everything was pouring out all at once.
He tasted apple pie, which was followed by the damp musty smell of a sewer pipe. The two sensations didn’t make for a pleasant combination. Then, as quickly as it began, it was all over.
The corporal removed the scanner. “Thank you, Mr. Salvator. Proceed to room 125-C for the written exam.”
The corporal's face was expressionless. Zack had no idea if he passed the test or not. The ground felt uneasy as he stood up, like he was on a ship at sea. He strolled toward the loading ramp, listing slightly.
“How was it?” Matt asked.
Zack shrugged. The sensation was beyond explanation. “You’ll see.”
The written part of the exam was a mind-numbing personality profile. Many of the questions seemed repetitive. They were true or false questions, and students were instructed to mark the answer that best described them.
I constantly worry about mistakes.
I perform better under pressure.
I'm easily distracted.
I have difficulty focusing.
I'm easily intimidated.
I like a challenge.
I get depressed easily.
I tend to be a pessimist.
I’m confident in my abilities.
Zack finished the exam within 45 minutes. He returned the exam PDU to the test proctor and waited in the hallway for Matt and Isaac to finish.
“That was weird," Matt said. "I sometimes like to hurt myself. I sometimes like to hurt small animals. What the hell is that?”
"They're trying to see if you’re a psychopath," Isaac said.
“Don't they want psychopaths to go fight wars?" Matt asked.
“It's a personality evaluation to determine mental toughness and resiliency—crucial components of becoming a special warfare operator. Conflicting answers on the redundant questions lead to poor scores, as well as answers that express self doubt and difficulty under pressure.”
"How do you think you did?" Isaac asked.
"I think I did just fine," Zack replied. "Isn't that the attitude they want you to have?"
The three of them left the building and walked across the parking lot, heading home. Zack hoped he wasn't going to run into Dean Dully.
“I'm assuming none of these kids are compatible?” Sergeant Cole said. He looked over the shoulder of Corporal Moriarty at the display screen in the Raptor.
“Actually, I think we've got a match," Corporal Moriarty said.
Cole looked pleasantly surprised. "Pull up his file."
Zack's image appeared on the screen, along with his full dossier—brain scan, test score, medical history, academic record, etc.
“And you're sure this guy is compatible?"
“His brain scan indicates a high level of compatibility. In fact, I think it's the highest I've ever recorded."
Cole looked impressed. "Really? Let's start digging and see if we can find anything wrong with him.”
They tabbed through various screens looking over his file.
"He scores high on intelligence testing, but his academic record is less than exemplary," the corporal said. "It also seems that he has a problem with authority. There are multiple disciplinary actions on his record.”
"I doubt you had a perfect record growing up, Corporal."
The corporal didn't respond.
"Does he have any major medical issues that would preclude him from service?"
“It doesn’t appear that way, other than his current injuries."
“Those will heal.”
"Looks like we’ve got a DNA match on a prior service member." The corporal pulled up the file on the display. An image of a Marine in his early 20’s appeared on the screen. It was an old picture from the Alvatrox War. "That must be the boy's father.”
Cole recognized the man instantly. "Well, I'll be damned." A grin curled up on Sergeant Cole’s face. He had found the needle in the haystack that he had been looking for. They had interviewed a thousand students, and none of them had been a match. "Pull up this kid's address. Corporal, do you know who this kid is?" he asked, triumphantly.
Zack split off from the others at Calhoun Street and headed on his own toward the bus stop. He was going to head down to the loading terminal and try to get his job back.
The sky was starting to cloud over, and Zack could smell rain in the air. He hoped that the weather would hold until he made it to the bus stop.
He had to wait 15 minutes for the next bus. A light drizzle began to fall, but the awning at the bus stop kept him dry. The sprinkle only lasted a few minutes. But the real storm was coming. This was just a precursor.
Eddie Bosko began ranting at him as soon as he stepped foot onto the terminal lot. "You don’t work here anymore.”
"I'm aware of that. Mr. Bosko. I really need the job."
“Well, you should have thought of that when you decided not to show up yesterday.”
“Circumstances beyond my control."
“You are responsible for your own destiny. There are no circumstances beyond your control."
Zack's face tensed with frustration. “I got beat up by a gang of guys.” He was incredulous at Bosko’s lack of sympathy.
"Then perhaps you shouldn't start fights you can't win."
“Look, Mr. Bosko. I really need this job.”
“It's bad enough the government mandates my hiring you people. And then you don't show up?” Bosko shook his head. "Let me tell you something, robots always show up on time. They don't get sick. They don't get in fights. And I don't have to pay them."
“You’re seriously firing me over this?”
"Yes, I'm seriously firing you over this. And I'm putting in a request for more robot waivers. This is ridiculous." Bosko stormed away.
Zack glared at him. A dozen expletives and insults ran through his mind, but he bit his tongue. He spun around and stormed off the lot. To make matters worse, he figured Mr. Bosko would short him on his last paycheck.
Zack took the transit bus back to his side of town. It dropped him off on Fulton. If he never set foot on that street again, it would be too soon. Walking past the spot where he got beaten to a pulp made a shiver run down his spine. He was hoping Dean Dully wasn't anywhere around. Zack strolled up a few blocks and cut over on Crawford. He heard the distant rumble of thunder by the time he hit Preston Avenue. He looked up at the angry sky, watching as the front rolled in. In the distance, it looked like the rain was coming down hard.
Zack focused his gaze back to the sidewalk ahead of him and continued toward his apartment complex. But Dean, and a few of his goons, stepped out of the alley way to block his path.
Zack's heart leapt into his throat. He was in no condition to deal with the ogre for a second day in a row. Zack took a few steps back and turned around to see two more of Dean's thugs behind him at the corner. There was no getting away from these creeps.
Adrenaline rushed through his body. He quickly tried to assess the situation. Should he try to run and plow through one of the smaller guys? It was doubtful he'd be able to escape. Besides, Zack was never one to run away from his problems. He'd rather go out swinging.
“Didn't we settle this yesterday?" Zack asked.
“Today's a new day," Dean said. The mouth-breather towered over him.
“I don’t blame you for wanting to fight again. Yesterday made you look weak.”
Dean scoffed. “How do you figure?”
"You needed your friends to help you. I don't think you can take me all by yourself." Zack was egging him on. He knew damn good and well fighting Dean was a losing battle, no matter how you sliced it. But one-on-one was better than five-on-one.
"I'm going to destroy you, you little punk.” Dean's nostrils flared. He grumbled to his buddies, "Nobody touches him but me!”
Zack breathed a little sigh of relief. At least the odds were a little better. Still not a fair fight.
Dean snarled and tilted his head down, like a bull ready to charge. His dull eyes glared at Zack from behind his furrowed brow. He lunged toward Zack, and cocked his arm back ready to strike. His 300 pound frame was slow to get moving. It was also slow to stop or turn.
Zack ducked and dodged as the ogre swung at him. The meathead's fist swooped overhead.
Dean's weight carried him forward. He finally stopped and turned around to face Zack. His chest was already heaving for breath. If Zack could keep moving like this, the big guy would wear out quickly.
Dean sprinted toward him again. Zack sidestepped, narrowly escaping another fist careening toward his face.
Dean hit the brakes and lumbered back around. Zack could see the frustration in his eyes. The two squared off and paced in a circle. Their eyes locked into one another. Dean was catching his breath. Zack knew he needed to keep the meathead moving.
The rain started to drizzle down. Thunder rumbled in the air. Tree leaves rustled with gusts of wind.
Zack took off running, and the ogre gave chase. Zack circled around a tree, trying to keep the trunk in between him and the ogre. He was running the big guy in circles, like a dog chasing his tail.
Dean's inertia made it hard for him to turn sharply. The fresh rain mixing with the oil on the surface of the asphalt made the street slick. The tree was between the sidewalk and the street. Zack kept circling, running down into the street, back over the curb, along the sidewalk, and back to the street. He did this over and over again until the big guy’s side was aching.
Zack caught a lucky break when the big guy slipped on the asphalt. All 300 pounds smashed into the roadway. It was like an elephant had fallen. Zack could feel the rumble in the soles of his shoes. Dean scrambled to get to his feet, but Zack swooped in and swung at him with all his might. His hard cast cracked Dean in the jaw. It wrenched his neck to the side. Crimson blood sprayed from his lip onto the asphalt, mixing with the rain. Zack's white cast was now stained with blood.
Dean shook his head and spit a pinkish mix of blood and saliva onto the street. He lumbered to his feet, looking even more ferocious.
Zack realized that all he had probably accomplished was to make the big guy mad.
Dean charged at Zack, tackling him in the middle of the street. He reared his fist back, ready to pummel Zack into the ground. His massive fist loomed overhead like a giant boulder. A mix of rain and blood dripped down his chin.
Zack cringed in anticipation. Everything happened in slow motion. This was probably the last thing that Zack was ever going to see. A few punches from the ogre would likely kill him.
At the last second, someone grabbed Dean's arm, keeping the punch from connecting.
Dean looked up in disbelief at the man holding his arm. It was Sergeant Cole. His car was in the street with the door ajar. He had driven by during the altercation and intervened.
"Fight’s over for today,” Sergeant Cole said. He stared the bully down with the eyes of a man who had seen a thousand enemies die before him.
For an instant, Dean contemplated getting in Cole's face. But the glimmering medals on his chest caused Dean to have second thoughts. He staggered to his feet and jerked his arm free of Cole’s grasp. He stared at the war hero, dumbly.
"Why don't you run home to your mama before you get hurt!”
Dean didn't say anything. He just turned and ambled away. The rest of his thugs followed after him.
Sergeant Cole extended a hand and helped Zack to his feet. "You ought to start picking on people your own size."
Zack chuckled. "I like a challenge. What can I say."
“That’s what I like about you, kid."
“I’m lucky you showed up when you did.”
“Yes, you are. Cole motioned to his car. "Hop in. I'll give you a ride home."
“It's just down the block."
“If you’d rather walk in the rain, that's fine by me." Cole walked back to his car and slipped into the driver seat. He pulled the door shut, and Zack ran around to the passenger side.
“Where’s your home?”
“Just down on the left. 11975." Zack was drenched, and the cool air blowing out of the vent made him shiver.
Sergeant Cole turned the fan down.
“What are you doing in this neighborhood, Sergeant?"
“Looking for you.”
“Am I in some kind of trouble?”
"You're used to getting in trouble, aren't you?"
“I seem to find my fair share of it,” Zack said.
"I wanted to talk to you about your test scores, and your compatibility."
“Did I do okay?”
“You could say that.” Sergeant Cole tried to hold back his delight.
“I'd like to offer you a challenge contract for the Mechanized Infantry,” Sergeant Cole said. "I can guarantee you a shot at pilot training, provided you make it through MCRD.”
“The Marine Corps Recruit Depot.”
“I don't know. I have to think about it."
Rain poured down, glazing the windows. The drone of the wiper blades swished back and forth as Zack sat in the passenger seat of Sergeant Cole's vehicle. It was a brand-new Vexan Coupe. Plush leather interior, hand stitched seams, and sleek instrument gauges. Fully automated, but with the option for manual driving. It was far more than someone of his pay grade could afford. But Cole was far from your average Gunnery Sergeant. He was the face of the Space Corps, and the United Planetary Defense Force. He had book deals and product endorsements. His latest book had sold to one of the major movie studios and was soon to become a blockbuster action flick.
"You had one of the highest compatibility scores we've ever seen. And your resiliency test was perfect. I think you'd make a great mech pilot. Perhaps one of the best. Especially with your legacy." Sergeant Cole took a solemn pause. "Some people go their entire life without finding their true calling. I think the Space Corps could be yours."
“What if I don't make it as a pilot. I don't want to get stuck as a maintenance tech.”
“I understand, son. Though, I think you'd be outstanding at whatever you chose to do.”
“I appreciate the confidence."
“With a challenge contract, you are under no obligation until you complete all phases of your training and accept the position as a mechanized pilot. You won't get stuck anywhere you don't want to be."
Zack pondered this for a moment.
"I'm going to be honest with you. The Federation needs your skill. Young men with your aptitude are few and far between. Everybody wants to make a difference, yet so few actually do. You have an opportunity to defend this Federation. To save lives. To change the course of history. You can either take the contract and fulfill your destiny, or ignore the opportunity and always wonder what your life could have been."
“No pressure, or anything.”
Cole chuckled. "Sorry. I didn't mean to lay it on so thick. But when I see talent, I don't want to let it go to waste.” Cole paused. "Take some time. Think about it. Discuss it with your family.”
“I don't think my family really cares what I do. Well, my foster mom does.”
"At the end of the day, you're the one who must live with yourself, and the decisions you make. No one else."
Zack sat in silence for a moment.
“If there's anything you need, or you have any questions, here's my card. Call me anytime. Day or night." Cole handed him a thin piece of smart glass about the size and thickness of a credit card. It had his picture and information on the face of it. All Zack had to do was press a button and it would connect directly to the Gunnery Sergeant.
“Thanks. And, thanks for saving my butt back there."
Cole smiled. "No problem. That's what Marines do for each other."
Zack grabbed the handle and was about to push open the door. He hesitated a moment and looked back at Sergeant Cole. "Especially with my legacy? What did you mean by that?”
Cole looked a little surprised. “Your biological father was in the Marine Corps.”
"I know. But he was a supply clerk."
Cole had a knowing glint in his eyes. “He was far from a supply clerk."
Zack's eyes widened. “Did you know him?”
Cole nodded. "We served together. Your father saved my life."
It was a lot of information for Zack to process. "I was told he was killed during a bombing at OP Reticulon.”
Cole shook his head.
“Why wasn't I told the truth?"
"A lot of the details of your father's career require security clearance.” Cole pursed his lips. He knew the boy deserved to know the details of his father's service, but the data was still classified. "Tell you what. I'm going to see if we can get the classified restriction lifted. Or, somehow, get you clearance."
“I’d appreciate that.”
"I'll try to get you that information whether you sign up or not. I promise.”
Zack thanked him again and pushed open the door. He ran up the walkway to the lobby of the apartment complex. He pushed in through the glass double doors and made his way to the stairwell. The elevator was especially finicky during storms. He spiraled his way up 29 floors to his apartment. He was used to it, but his quads still burned by the time he reached the top. There was a light mist of sweat in the small of his back that stuck to his shirt.
Bob was on his first six-pack, so he wasn't at his most belligerent. Still, his personality couldn't exactly be described as charming. "I hope you were out looking for a new job. Don't think you're just going to lollygag around without one.”
“What, like you?”
“Bob glared at him."
“I'm on disability.”
Zack rolled his eyes. Bob had faked an injury, and collected a nice settlement from his previous employer, plus a monthly disability check. He had blown the lump sum fairly quickly on booze and gambling. Now they were scraping by month to month, and Zack's paycheck helped make ends meet.
“Actually, I've been interviewing for a new job. I think I might have found one."
"You don't have what it takes to become a Marine," Bob slurred.
Zack clenched his jaw, seething. "We'll see about that.”
Grace looked on with worried eyes. “Are you sure this is what you want to do?”
“I’m still thinking about it.”
"They'll have you off on some godforsaken planet, fighting a war that no one cares about. You will be cannon fodder.”
“Have you been watching the news?” Zack said. “The Federation is under attack.”
"What happens on Zeplovia is none of our business."
“First Zeplovia. Then us.”
“That recruiter doesn't care about you,” Bob said. “He cares about his bonus check for every sucker he enlists.”
“Gunnery Sergeant Cole is not a recruiter. He's a war hero.” Zack had enough of Bob and stormed to his room. He flopped onto his bed and folded his hands behind his head.
A few minutes later, Grace knocked on his door. She pushed it open a crack. "May I come in?”
She stepped into the room and closed the door behind her.
“You don’t think I should enlist, do you?”
Grace hesitated a moment. "I think you should do whatever you feel in your heart to do. I just worry about you, that's all. If you want to join the Marine Corps, I will support your decision 100%. And then I don't think I'll ever get another night’s sleep again."
“Sergeant Cole says I have a gift.”
“You have many gifts.”
Zack was silent a moment. He was ready to get as far away from Bob as possible. "Why do you stay with him? He treats you like crap. He's never sober."
“He wasn't always that way," she said, sheepishly.
“You deserve better.”
“We’re talking about your life, not mine.”
“If my life is open for debate, so is yours,” Zack protested.
“There's a good man deep down inside of Bob. At least there used to be.”
“I’ve never seen it.”
“Don't you remember all the trips to museums, amusement parks, and ball games when you were a kid?"
They were vague recollections of the distant past. "Sort of."
"I'm too old to start over. And where would I go anyway? I guess I'm waiting around, hoping for a miracle." Grace sighed. "I miss the man he used to be."
“How much did you know about my biological parents?"
"They didn't tell us much. Just that your father was killed in the war, and your mother in a car accident.”
“They didn't tell you anything about his service?"
Grace shook her head. There was a long moment of silence. "Just promise me one thing. If you join the Space Corps, please take care of yourself out there. And come home in one piece.”
“And you have to keep in touch. You don't have to check in with me every day. But once a week would be nice."
Zack laughed. "I haven't even made up my mind yet, and you guys are all ready to ship me off.”
"I know you. I've seen that look in your eyes before. When you get something in your head, there's no getting it out. I've never met anyone as determined or focused as you. I'm sure that will serve you well wherever you go."
“Do you want to go now, or after you graduate?" Sergeant Cole asked.
“I want to get out of here as soon as possible." Zack said. "But I still want to graduate high school."
“No problem. You can test out of high school and earn your degree. I can have you off to MCRD in a few weeks."
“Sounds good to me."
“You have to take your Federation Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, as well as a few other tests. Then you need to pass your Physical Strength Test, which shouldn't be a problem. And you'll need to be cleared by medical. How are your injuries coming along?"
"Pretty good, I guess,” Zack said. "Still sore."
"Your arm and nose will need to be fully healed. You can't show up to the recruit depot wearing a cast." Cole called for a corpsman.
Petty Officer Edwards appeared within moments. "Yes, Sergeant?"
“Give recruit Salvator a shot of compound RXV9.”
"Yes, Sergeant." The corpsman stepped out of the compartment and returned shortly with an injection gun. There was a small cartridge of clear liquid loaded into the receiver.
“What is that?" Zack asked.
It's a regenerative compound, exclusive to the military. Far more powerful than anything you could receive in a civilian hospital.”
Zack rolled up his sleeve, and the corpsman pressed the injection nozzle against his skin. He pulled the trigger, and Zack felt a slight sting, followed by the rush of fluid into his deltoid. Warmth emanated from the injection site and flowed throughout his body. It was like someone had turned up the heat in the compartment. Zack's skin was beginning to grow slick with perspiration. His eyes grew concerned. It was an uncomfortable feeling.
"Don't worry. The sensation will pass in a few moments." Cole handed a PDU to Zack. "All I need you to do is sign here."
Zack took the device and stared at the blank signature space. "How long is my commitment for?"
"Because of the advanced training, we require mechanized pilots to serve six years."
Zack took a deep breath. Six years seemed like such a long time. At this point, it was a third of his life.
Sergeant Cole’s intense eyes watched with anticipation as Zack pondered this decision. Then he smiled as Zack finally signed his name.
He handed the tablet back, and a mix of excitement and regret washed over his face.
“You made the right decision. Welcome to the Marine Corps."
Zack got a wake-up call at 0400 hours. He hadn't slept much the night before in anticipation of the day's events. Plus, his roommate snored. He was staying at a budget motel near the Military Entrance Processing Station. This was where they evaluated recruits to see if they were qualified and ready for military service. If you didn't pass MEPS, you didn't get into the military.
All of the new recruits from the city had checked in the day before. The hotel was under contract with the UPDF. Paul Wilson had been assigned as Zack’s roommate. Wilson was going into the Navy, and wanted to fly fighters. It had been his lifelong dream since he was a kid. His father was a pilot, and his grandfather before him. The MEPS liaison thought he and Zack would be a good match.
Zack pulled himself out of bed, showered, and went down to the lobby for the complementary breakfast, courtesy of the Marine Corps. He was at the station by 0500 hours to begin processing.
The recruits passed through the security scanners, and were greeted by the liaison for their specific branch of service. They were given a briefing of the day’s events, then shuffled down to medical. The doctors examined the recruits with a fine tooth comb, leaving no stone unturned. They were poked and prodded and probed. It was awkward to say the least.
Zack took a slew of tests to evaluate his physical and mental condition. Hearing, eyesight, colorblindness, blood pressure, etc. The recruits were given a drug and alcohol test, and blood was drawn to check for pathogens. Female recruits were also tested for pregnancy.
After the medical evaluation, Zack was required to take the Federation Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test. It was a little ridiculous, because Zack had already established an aptitude for the mechanized infantry. But the inane bureaucracy of the military contained numerous inexplicable redundancies.
Each recruit underwent an extensive background check. They were fingerprinted and retinal scanned. Their DNA was processed through the database, and all of their biomarkers were cross-referenced against the Federation’s criminal information records.
Zack was fully healed by the time he took his tests at MEPS, but he still had a little weakness in his arm. He was repeatedly drilled by the Staff Sergeant about his medical condition. Cole had advised him not to mention the broken arm. He said there were only three correct answers to give the NCOIC (Noncommissioned Officer in Charge) at MEPS—no, none, and never.
"Have you ever broken any bones?" Staff Sergeant Bowen asked.
"No, Sergeant," Zack said.
"Have you ever done any drugs?"
“Not even a little bit? One toke at a party?"
"No, Staff Sergeant."
"You sure about that?"
“You know, lying to me is a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in jail."
"I'm not lying, Sergeant."
Bowen folded his arms and gave Zack the evil eye. "Okay. This is the last chance to tell me the truth.”
“I’m telling you the truth.”
“Then can you explain to me how your test results came back positive for majuva?”
Zack's face twisted up. "That's impossible. I've never smoked majuva.”
"That's not what the test says.”
“The test is wrong." Zack was emphatic.
The Staff Sergeant assumed a casual demeanor and tried to downplay the significance of it. "It's no big deal. You're not gonna get disqualified for it.” He leaned in and whispered, “Just between you and me, you’ve at least tried it once in your life?"
"No, Sergeant. I haven't." Zack stared back at him with unflinching eyes.
Bowen glared at him for a long moment, waiting for him to crack, but he never did. "I'm just messing with you. Your drug test came back clear."
Zack breathed a sigh of relief. He knew he hadn't done any drugs, and he didn't appreciate the mind game one bit. But he figured it was the first of many to come.
“You sure you haven’t broken any bones?”
“Okay. Just checking.” Bowen said. “And you’re not aware of any physical characteristic that would prohibit you from performing your obligations.”
Zack was able to pass his physical fitness test with ease. The PFT required 3 pull-ups—Zack did 20. He was allotted 28 minutes for a 3 mile run and finished in 17. Then the recruits had to perform a duck walk. Zack didn't have a problem with it. But he couldn't for the life of him figure out what the purpose of this exercise was. Some recruits just couldn't do it. They’d take a few steps and topple over. Failure to complete the duck walk was grounds for disqualification. For those that failed, they could apply for a waiver, and come back in a month to retake the test. Zack saw Paul Wilson topple over each time he tried. He felt bad for him. Wilson looked crestfallen when he got a temporary DQ.
After all the paperwork and processing was complete, Zack took his oath of enlistment. “I, Zack Salvator, do solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United Federation against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United Federation and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
With the processing complete, Zack was shuttled back home. He would ship out for boot camp the following Monday.
"Are you nervous?" Matt asked.
Zack shrugged. "Anxious."
“I can't believe you're going. It's going to be weird around here without you."
“You can always go with me.”
“Nah. I don’t think I’m cut out for that kind of thing.”
“Yeah, me neither,” Isaac said.
The three of them strolled down the sidewalk. Zack could hear the low-frequency thump of music from around the block. They were heading to a senior party in an abandoned warehouse. This kind of thing was a common occurrence, and the party would usually rage on until the cops broke it up somewhere around midnight. It was Zack's last night as a civilian, and Matt and Isaac wanted to give him a good sendoff.
Kevin Kirk was working the door at the warehouse. "It's 20 credits apiece.”
"What?" Isaac said. "That's outrageous."
“Somebody’s got to pay for the keg.”
“I got it," Zack said.
"No. You don't pay for a thing tonight. We’ve got you covered." Matt placed his thumb on Kevin’s pay pad, transferring the money.
The three of them entered the crowded warehouse. It was packed with teenagers dancing and drinking and having a good time. There was a DJ on a riser that kept the tunes pumping. Lights and lasers flashed, and a fog machine hazed the air. It was a full on event.
Matt scanned the premises and spotted the keg in the corner. Zack and Isaac followed him as he weaved his way through the horde of teenagers. It was hot and muggy from the swarm of bodies, packed like sardines.
The line for the keg's took 10 minutes to get through. Matt filled a plastic cup full of beer and did the honors for his two buddies. They toasted each other, and Matt guzzled the cup down. He let out a triumphant gasp when he finished. “Must be a hole in my cup.” He filled it again.
“Easy there, cowboy. The night is young,” Zack said.
“Son, you are talking to a professional.”
Isaac took a sip of his beer, and his face crinkled up with disgust. He had a little bit of foam on his lip when he pulled the cup away.
“Don’t tell me that’s your first sip of beer?” Matt asked.
Isaac nodded, sheepishly.
“It’s an acquired taste,” Zack said.
“I can’t see how anyone could acquire a taste for that.” Isaac said. “It tastes like stale socks and piss.”
Zack chuckled. He surveyed the crowd as the music pumped through massive speakers—a sea of heads bobbing in rhythm with the beat. But he saw one familiar head that towered above them all, making a beeline straight for the keg.
Dean Dully and his crew were plowing through the herd.
Zack cringed. “Hey guys. I think it’s time to go.”
“What? We just got here? I didn’t just pay 60 credits for two beers.”
Zack motioned to the approaching ogre.
“On second thought, you might be right.”
“I can’t afford to get my ass kicked before I ship out,” Zack said.
The three of them shuffled away from the keg and disappeared into the crowd before Dean caught sight of them.
“Let’s go hit the clubs on 6th Street,” Matt suggested.
“How are we going to get in?” Isaac asked.
“Leave that to me,” Matt said with confidence.
The bouncer at Lush made Dean look tiny. He had blonde hair, trimmed tight on the sides, and a goatee. A gold chain dangled around his neck. He wore a white tank top under a yellow pressed button down.
Zack and Isaac hung back on the sidewalk while Matt conversed with the bouncer. There was no way they were going to get into the club, Zack thought. It was a trendy bar on 6th Street, and even if you were of age, it was hard to get in.
The blue glow from the signage cascaded across the sidewalk, reflecting in the windows of parked cars. The city was bustling with nightlife. The bars and clubs stretched for 12 blocks. Revelers moved up and down the sidewalks, hopping from club to club. A kaleidoscope of lights illuminated the area. This was THE place to be on a Friday or Saturday night.
Zack's eyes flicked back to Matt, who was still working his powers of persuasion. The bouncer's intimidating eyes glanced to Zack and Isaac for an instant, then back to Matt. A few moments later, Matt waved the lurkers on.
Zack and Isaac rushed to the door, and the bouncer pulled back the velvet rope and let them slip inside ahead of the rest of the line. They didn't even have to pay a cover.
“Semper Fi," the bouncer said to Zack as he passed.
Zack grinned, and the bouncer pulled his collar aside, revealing a UFMC tattoo on his neck. It was the insignia of the 1st Mechanized Battalion, 1st Marines—a dagger against an arrowhead background with the number 1 on either side.
“Your buddy tells me you're headed to Omaha Island soon.”
“Good luck, recruit.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Zack filed into the club with his buddies. The club was crowded, but it wasn't the sweat pit that the warehouse had been.
Zack followed Matt as he weaved his way to the bar. He flagged the bartender down and ordered a round of tequila shots for the trio. The bartender pulled a bottle from the well, spun it around and expertly filled three shot glasses with the amber liquid, moving from one to the other without spilling a drop in between.
Matt pressed his thumb on the pay pad, then distributed the shots between his buddies. He held his glass in the air. "To the Marine Corps."
"To the Marine Corps," Zack and Isaac replied.
They clinked glasses and slugged the tequila down. Isaac's lips puckered, and his face contorted. He looked tortured. He gasped and clutched his throat. "Oh, my God. That's horrible."
“Want another one?" Matt asked.
There was a long pause. “Okay."
Matt ordered another round, and the trio knocked them back. Isaac didn't look quite as distraught this time. The second one didn't burn as much. The first one had numbed his throat.
With two beers and two tequila shots in his belly, Matt was feeling pretty good, and damn near invincible. His eyes scanned the club and locked onto three gorgeous women at the end of the bar. They all wore skimpy black cocktail dresses that looked like they were painted on. Svelte curves, long toned legs, and stiletto heels. There was a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead.
Matt watched as a couple of guys slithered up to them and offered to buy a drink. But the girls didn't seem interested at all. The guys slinked away moments later
“Watch and learn,” Matt said to his buddies with a cocksure grin.
Zack and Isaac watched as Matt strolled to the women. He had a little extra swagger in his step.
“No way. He's going to embarrass himself,” Isaac said.
“I don't know about that. The man has a gift."
A few moments later, Matt was waving the two over.
Isaac look dumbstruck. “How did he do that?"
The girls were even more beautiful up close. Stunning eyes, sculpted cheekbones, plush lips. Zack felt his heartbeat elevate. These women were breathtaking.
“I'd like you to meet my buddies, Isaac and Zack," Matt said. "This is Ashley, Honor, and Evelyn." He gestured from the blonde to the brunette to the redhead.
Zack was so nervous, it took a moment for him to choke the words out. He finally stammered, “It's nice to meet you."
Isaac just nodded. He couldn't speak at all.
"These girls are all models with the Omega agency."
“That’s not surprising," Zack said.
“Zack is leaving soon for the Marine Corps, Matt boasted. He knew how to play the game. He was going to build Zack up. "He's one of the most loyal guys I know. I think he’s going to make a great warrior."
“My dad was in the Navy," Honor said.
“What did he do?” Zack asked.
“He was a pilot. He's retired now and flies commercial."
Honor's crystal blue eyes were mesmerizing. She had raven hair and her voice was smooth like velvet. Zack was instantly smitten. He fumbled for something to say, but couldn't think of anything.
"How old are you guys?" Evelyn, the redhead, asked. Her green eyes narrowed at them suspiciously. "You look like you're barely out of high school."
Matt flashed a nervous grin. "It's my boyish good looks, what can I say."
Evelyn arched an eyebrow at him. She wasn’t buying it. "You boys are cute. Look us up when you're old enough to get in here." She pulled her friends away.
Matt winced as he watched them depart. "Damn. That's downright criminal!” He sighed.
“At least they talked to us," Isaac said.
“The goal is to do more than talk,” Matt said.
“I don't know, I could listen to Honor recite the phone book,” Zack said.
“I think she was into you."
Zack shrugged, unsure.
“The night is young," Matt said. “I'm sure there will be plenty more opportunities to get rejected."
"I can't feel my face," Isaac said, poking his cheek with his fingertip. "I can't feel my nose either."
“That’s why people acquire the taste, my friend,” Matt said.
It was hard to say if they were leaning against the bar, or if the bar was holding them up.
“I gotta take a leak,” Zack said. He ambled toward the restroom. He saw Honor at the sidebar, and the two locked eyes for an instant, then she looked away. He figured she just wasn't interested.
The line for the restroom was long. It took almost 15 minutes to get inside the men's room. By the time he came back out, he figured that Honor would have moved on from the bar, but he gave a quick glance over to see if she was still there.
But there was a complete tool hitting on her. She didn't seem to be reciprocating, and the guy wasn't getting the message. Then he started getting a little handsy, and she shoved him away.
The loser still didn't get the message.
"I think the lady wants to be left alone," Zack said.
The jerk was more than a little drunk. He looked at Zack in disbelief and laughed. "Why don't you run along? I think your mom is looking for you."
Honor slipped away from the idiot and moved behind Zack.
“I think you're the one who needs to move along,” Zack said, standing his ground.
"I'm going to beat your ass, you little punk."
“Bring it!” Zack glared at him. He figured that most of the time when you call a bully on their bluff, they back down. But this guy was to inebriated to think logically. Bar fights usually end with one, or both, parties going to jail. Or, at the very least, getting removed from the premises. The last thing Zack needed was to get arrested before he shipped out.
Zack’s menacing glare didn't work. The guy lunged at him.
Zack sidestepped. He stuck his foot out, tripping the guy and shoving him to the ground.
The jerk slammed against the floor. A rush of adrenaline gave him momentary awareness. He sprung to his feet and tackled Zack. He straddled him, ready to do the old ground and pound.
But the blonde bouncer yanked the man off Zack before he could do any damage. The former Marine lifted the jerk by his collar like a kitten. The bouncer pointed at Zack. "Sorry, recruit. You and your buddies just lost your party privileges. You're out of here."
Zack frowned. He climbed to his feet and dusted himself off.
Honor gave him a hand. "Are you all right?"
“Yeah. I’m fine. I've gotten my ass kicked way worse than that before." Zack smiled.
"Now, recruit!" The bouncer yelled, growing impatient.
Zack followed him to the exit. He looked back at Honor. "It was nice to meet you."
“Likewise." She smiled, and her blue eyes sparkled. Zack figured it was probably the last time he would ever see her.
Zack, Isaac, and Matt listed down the sidewalk. They weaved through the crowd of revelers.
“I’m not sure if this was a good night, or a bad night,” Zack said.
“The night’s not over yet," Matt said with devious optimism.
Isaac looked pale. It took everything he had just to put one foot in front of the other. "I don't feel so good."
Matt and Zack exchanged a worried glance. They knew what was coming.
Isaac’s stomach twisted in knots. He felt the angry shots of tequila coming back for revenge. His cheeks bulged, and he dashed into a nearby alleyway.
Zack could hear him retching his guts out. “Maybe we should go check on him?”
“I'm a sympathetic vomiter,” Matt replied. "I can't look at that kind of thing."
Just as Zack was about to turn around and head down the alley, Isaac emerged, wiping his lips on his sleeve. His eyes were bloodshot, and his skin had a green pallor to it.
“You okay?" Zack asked.
Isaac nodded. "I don't think I want to drink ever again."
"You gotta pace yourself," Matt said.
“I’ll pace myself—as in, never again.”
"Let's get him something to eat,” Zack said.
“Do you think you can keep something down?" Matt asked.
There was a pizza by the slice vendor at the next block. There was a walk-up window where you ordered and got served. The place did a good business on Friday and Saturday nights, selling New York style pizza to hungry drunks. A foul-mouthed automated service bot in the window took their order. It's speech algorithms were based on interactions with patrons, and the constant stream of rowdy drunks made the android somewhat salty.
The trio scarfed down two slices each of gooey cheese pizza. It could have been the worst pizza in the world, but it still would have tasted divine at that particular moment in time.
Isaac looked uneasy for the first few bites. But after he got those down, it was smooth sailing. The food seemed to rejuvenate him a bit. His color improved, and he was steadier on his feet. He still didn't ever want to have anything to do with tequila again.
The pizza place was right next door to an oracle. There was a glowing display in the window that enticed passersby to have their fortunes told.
"Learn your destiny," Matt said, reading the display.
“You don’t buy into that nonsense, do you?” Zack said.
Matt shrugged. "I don't know. There might be something to it." He gazed at the display for a moment, contemplating whether or not to step inside. "I'm gonna do it. Why not?”
Matt strolled into the oracle's establishment, followed by Zack and Isaac. The lighting was dim. Amber orbs hovered in the corners without any apparent support, casting a warm glow about the room. The smell of incense filled the air. It had a comfortable, cozy vibe. There was a couch and a coffee table with some digital magazines. There was a large aquarium against one of the walls with colorful exotic fish.
“Hello?" Matt called out. "Is anybody here?"
There was no response.
"Let's get out of here," Isaac said. "This place is creepy."
“Hang on a minute," Matt said.
Beads hung in a doorway that led to another room. Matt stepped to the passageway and called into the darkness. "Hello? Is anybody here?"
There was still no reply.
“You’d think a fortuneteller would know when customers walked in," Zack said.
“Good point," Matt said. He strolled back to Zack and Isaac. Matt shrugged, and the three of them turned for the door.
Just as they were about to reach the exit, a soft ethereal voice called after them. “Can I help you?”
The trio turned to gaze at the woman. She was dressed in a white flowing gown, and her porcelain skin was almost as pale. It had a translucent quality to it. She was beautiful, but not entirely human.
“Shouldn't you already know what we want?" Matt asked.
She arched an eyebrow at him. It wasn't the first time someone had made the smart-ass comment. She gave him an equally sassy response. "You want to know the future."
Matt rolled his eyes and nudged Zack. "Come on. Let's get out of here."
“You have two paths you can choose. you'll always wonder which one you should have taken if you walk out that door, Matt.”
He stopped in his tracks. His face twisted up, perplexed. "How did you know my name?”
The oracle shrugged. “Maybe it was a lucky guess." There was a hint of snark in her voice.
“Okay. What are their names," Matt said, gesturing to his comrades.
“Zack and Isaac." She lifted her brow. "Are we done with the parlor tricks?"
“Um, yeah. I guess,” Matt stammered. "How much for a reading?"
Matt balked. "That's outrageous.”
"I'll do all three for 300."
“Do we get a happy ending with that?”
Zack elbowed him. "Okay. Fine."
Matt looked at him like he was crazy.
"I'm buying,” Zack said.
"We are supposed to be picking up the tab for tonight."
“Come on,” Zack said. “This is the last time I get to spend money on you guys."
Matt grinned. “Well, if you insist.”
"Come this way, gentlemen." The oracle motioned for them to follow her beyond the beaded passageway.
Matt whispered into Zack's ear. "If she breaks out a crystal ball, I’m leaving.” They all took a seat at a small round table.
The oracle looked right at Zack. Her eyes were hazy, and he realized that she was blind, though she had perfectly navigated her way around. "Since you’re paying, you can go first."
"Okay." Zack was taking it all in stride. He didn't know what to expect, and was looking at it as entertainment.
"Place your hands on top of the table, palms up.”
Zack did as she requested. He felt a little silly.
She placed her hands on top of his and took a deep breath. She closed her eyes and was silent for a long moment. Then she abruptly opened her eyes and stared at him. It was eerie. Zack wondered how she knew exactly where his eyes were.
“I don't think you want me to continue,” She said.
Zack scrunched his brow. "What? Do you see something bad?”
"You can’t drop a bomb like that and just stop," Zack said.
“I’ll refund your money,” the oracle said.
“Now I’m intrigued."
"I'm not in the business of giving bad news."
“I think you already have.”
The oracle took a long pause.
“It’s going to take a lot more than guessing our names for me to put stock in what you say,” Zack said.
“Your father was killed in the war. Your mother was killed in a car accident shortly after that. You were raised by your foster parents, Grace and…” She paused in thought for a moment. “Robert. But he goes by Bob. You excel at athletics, but you're not a jock. You tend to keep to yourself, and you’re just quiet mostly, but you have a few close friends who you’d do anything for. You’re a protector."
Zack's disbelief was fading.
“Do I need to keep telling you things you already know?"
Zack shook his head.
"A great responsibility rests with you. The fate of many people lies in your hands. But with great responsibility comes great sacrifice. You've already made your choice to serve the Federation. And while many things are unclear, aspects of your destiny are set in stone.”
"War is coming. It is inevitable. You will play a major role. But you will not return."
Zack’s jaw dropped.
Matt's face tensed with anger. "You can't say that. The guy is leaving for boot camp in a week."
“I warned you, you would not like my prophecy.” The oracle pondered Zack’s fate. “The path you must take is a treacherous one. Only through courage and honor will you achieve victory.“ She turned her gaze to Matt.
"Oh, no. I don't want to know anything about my life." He stood up and grabbed Zack by the sleeve. "We're getting out of here. Thanks for nothing, lady."
The trio staggered toward the door. They stumbled onto the sidewalk. Crowds still milled about.
“I'm sorry, man. That was a bad idea," Matt said.
"It's no big deal. Like I said, I don't buy into that stuff."
"It was weird, though," Isaac said. "She knew a lot about you."
"She's probably got a facial recognition scanner" Matt said, trying to minimize her prophecy. "It ID’d us when we walked in. She probably pulled up our background."
“I don’t know," Isaac said. "Spooky."
“I think we need to bounce back from that," Matt said. "Where to next?"
Isaac was still looking terrible. "I think I'm done for the evening. If you guys don't mind, I want to go home."
“Home is good," Zack said.
“Home it is," Matt agreed.
A car pulled alongside them, and the window rolled down. A familiar velvety voice called out to the trio. "You boys need a ride?"
Zack's eyes perked up as he saw Honor poking her head out the window. Zack tried to hide his enthusiasm, and exchanged a glance with Matt. They couldn't believe the girls were offering.
"Sure, we'll take a ride," Matt said, answering for Zack.
Honor pushed open the door and slid over. And the three of them piled into the back seat. It was a tight fit, and Honor sat on Zack's lap. He didn't mind at all. She felt amazing. He just hoped she didn't feel too good. That could be embarrassing.
An automated voice emanated from the vehicle. "Warning: maximum occupancy exceeded."
“Oh, shut up." Evelyn pressed a button on the dash to deactivate the warning. She was sitting in the driver's seat, even though the car was in automated driving mode. She looked over her shoulder at Zack and his buddies. “Where do you guys live?”
She breathed a sigh of relief. "Oh, thank God. That's not too far from us. What's the address?"
Evelyn programmed the address into the system, and the automated car drove away. The glitz and glamour of 6th Street faded in the distance as buildings blurred past.
"I thought you ladies didn't hang out with high school kids," Zack said.
“Oh, please," Honor said. "Evelyn only thinks she's out of high school.”
Evelyn’s green eyes narrowed at Honor in the rearview mirror.
“We’re only 18. We got in with fake IDs. It's not like they’re real strict. Every club wants a high ratio of available women.”
“So you ladies are available?" Matt asked with a delicious glint in his eyes.
Evelyn shot him a look that said don't even think about it.
“Are you really leaving for boot camp? Or was that just a pickup line?” Honor asked.
“No, I’m really leaving for boot camp,” Zack said. Some of the enthusiasm had left his voice since meeting with the oracle. He had tried to dismiss her prophecy as nonsense, but there was no doubt it was bothering him.
“Thank you for standing up for me. That guy was a jerk. I'm sorry you got kicked out of the club because of it."
“It's no big deal."
“It was to me.” Honor smiled at him.
“Where do you girls go to school?” Matt asked.
“Bayside," Honor responded.
Evelyn’s face twisted up, perturbed. “Great, Tay. Tell them everything about us. What if they’re psychotic killers?”
Matt laughed. He asked Honor if Evelyn was always this friendly. That seemed to ruffle Evelyn's feathers even more.
“She's only this rude to strangers. Once you get to know her, she's not that bad."
Evelyn’s eyes seared into Honor through the rearview mirror.
“I seriously doubt these boys are killers,” Honor said. “Just look at them. They look harmless.” She smiled.
Matt looked at Evelyn then flashed a brilliant smile. It was going to take every ounce of charm he had to break through her wall. But that wasn't going to stop him from trying.
By the time they had arrived at Zack's apartment, Evelyn had warmed up a bit. She wasn't quite as snarky with her responses.
“So, are you girls really models,” Matt asked. “Or was that some BS pickup line?”
Evelyn’s eyes narrowed at him. “It was not a pickup line. The three of us are going to New Vanaas after we graduate. We have a contract with a top agency and everything.”
“So, you're like models in training?" Matt was trying to get under her skin.
"No. We are New Faces.”
“Like I said. Models in training.”
Evelyn grumbled under her breath.
“Don't get me wrong, you're all hot enough to be models.”
Evelyn didn't have a snarky comeback for that one.
“What about you? What are you going to do after high school?"
Matt shrugged. "I don't know. I've been doing a lot of thinking about that recently." He glanced over to Zack. "I don't know if I can let my best friend go fight a war alone."
Zack's eyes widened.
“I think I'm gonna do it. I think I'm going to enlist."
"Are you serious?" Zack asked.
"Yeah," Matt replied.
“I don't think this is a decision you ought to make after way too many shots of tequila."
“Nonsense. I'm going with you, buddy. I don't know why I just didn't sign up when you did. Hell, we've been inseparable since the second grade. You're my best friend, man."
Zack smiled. "You've always had my back.”
“Alright. Don't start getting all mushy on me."
“You guys are definitely my only friends,” Isaac said.
“Awe, the three of y'all are so cute," Honor said.
“If Matt’s going, then I’m going too,” Isaac said.
“Don’t you have a full scholarship to Vanden?” Zack asked.
“Maybe you should stick with that?” Zack said.
“The war is going to affect every colony,” Isaac replied. "It's only a matter of time. There won’t be a college to go to if we don't stop them.”
Zack held on for dear life, white knuckled. His fingers dug into the armrests. If he squeezed any tighter, his fingers were going to snap. His face looked a little pale, and his skin was misted with sweat. The shuttle rumbled and shook as it rocketed through the upper atmosphere. The contents of his stomach rumbled, and he could feel the sour acidic taste creeping up in the back of his throat. This was Zack's first trip into space, and he wasn't sure he liked it.
“You better get used to this kind of thing," Matt said. “We’re going to be Marines. We’ll be constantly trekking across the galaxy, dropping in and out of hostile locations.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“Maybe this is something you should have considered before you enlisted."
Zack mustered a scowl. “I'll get used to it.”
"You better hope so."
The turbulence didn’t look like it bothered Matt or Isaac one bit. The mood aboard the shuttle was electric. Most of the recruits were filled with excitement and anticipation, mixed with fear. Pride and patriotism swelled in the hearts of these would-be Marines. But they would soon learn it wasn't going to be anything like the movies.
Zack sat alongside Matt and Isaac in plush leather seats. It was the last bit of comfort they were going to get for quite a while. They were all going to go through boot camp together, but they'd certainly be split up, each going to a different specialty school afterwards.
Finally, the turbulence settled, and so did Zack’s stomach. The ride became as smooth as glass. Zack felt his ass lift from the seat—his body only held in place by his safety harness as the shuttle entered the weightlessness of space.
Zack was sitting by the window, and the view was incredible. The sun was cresting the horizon of Crylos 9, and the city lights below lit up the globe. He watched as his home world grew smaller as the SX-127 transport sped away from the planet.
“That sure is a sight to see,” Matt said in awe of the view.
“It sure is," Zack said.
Matt handed him a barf bag that he grabbed from the seat-back in front of him.
“What’s this for?”
“If you thought the air turbulence was rough, just wait till we make the quantum jump."
A wave of concern washed over Zack's face. Before he could say another word, the bulkheads rippled and warbled. A quantum distortion washed through the ship. Time seemed to dilate. It was like a bad acid trip. His stomach twisted up in knots. It only lasted a few seconds, but it felt like half an hour. Suddenly, everything snapped back to normal as the transport completed the transition to slide-space. It allowed the Navy to travel vast interstellar distances in the blink of an eye. The quantum drives were reverse engineered from alien technology.
Zack didn't understand how or why they worked, but he knew he didn't like the transition phase. Somehow, he managed to keep the contents of his stomach where it belonged. Some of the other recruits weren't as fortunate. And not all of them had the presence of mind to grab a barf bag. Weightless chunks of spew drifted through the cabin, and the sour smell triggered a few more sympathetic vomiters. Now Matt was the one who was feeling queasy. He held his nose and closed his eyes. He didn't want to see or smell it, or even think about it.
There were groans and grumbles from those unlucky enough to get splattered. Small air-quality drones deployed from the overhead compartments and vacuumed up the debris.
Even with the miracle of faster-than-light travel, it was still going to take several hours to get to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Zack figured it was best to get as much sleep as possible. He knew that was going to be a commodity during the coming months. He tilted his chair back and adjusted the headrest. It didn't take long for him to sac out.
It was 4 o’clock in the morning when the recruits arrived at Omaha Island. It wasn't an island at all, but rather a small planetoid in the Zangavi sector. The recruits might as well have been marooned on a deserted island, because they weren’t going to get off the rock until they graduated.
The shuttle landed, and the loading ramp opened. Within moments, a drill instructor stepped on board. His uniform was stiff as a board. There wasn't a wrinkle on it. It hugged his muscular form perfectly. The brim of his cover angled low, obscuring his eyes. The only thing Zack could see was his square jaw and ferocious teeth. He was thick and wide and carved out of stone. Campaign ribbons and metals lined his chest. He looked mean and angry. It sounded like his throat was full of rocks when he spoke—his vocal cords covered in nodules from years of yelling at recruits.
“I am Gunnery Sergeant Stone, and I am your Senior Drill Instructor. Welcome to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Omaha Island. From here on out the only words that will come out of your mouths are yes, or no sir when asked a question, or aye-aye, sir when given a command. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir," the recruits responded in unison.
"I'm not convinced. You look like a bunch of morons to me. Do you understand?"
The recruits screamed even louder. "Yes, sir."
“When I give the command, you are going to grab your belongings and fall out onto the yellow footprints. You will move quickly and efficiently, and nothing will come out of your mouth. You will put your paperwork on the deck in front of your feet. Do you understand?"
The recruits launched from their seats and scurried off the shuttle.
“Move! Move! Move!" Sergeant Stone screamed.
There were three rows of yellow footprints painted on the asphalt—heels together, toes at 45° angles. The recruits fell into formation as instructed and stood at attention. Several drill instructors marched up and down the company of new recruits, eyeing them like vultures waiting to feast on their carcasses. It was pure chaos. Yelling and screaming. Shock and awe. It didn't take long for the recruits to realize they were not at home anymore. This was going to be their life for the next three months.
One of the kids was still holding onto his paperwork. Oliver Lewis, from Watovak. He was 6 feet tall, had a round face, glasses, short brown hair, and was a little tubby.
Sergeant Stone jumped down his throat without a moment’s hesitation. “I said put your paperwork on the deck. You do know where the deck is, don't you?"
“Are you disobeying a direct order?"
“Then put your paperwork down in front of your feet, scumbag!”
“Okay,” Oliver stammered. He knew the mistake he had made as soon as the words slipped from his tongue.
Stone's nostrils flared. He looked like somebody had pissed in his pancakes. His face was red, and the veins in his neck bulged. Spit flew from his lips as he screamed. “Did you not hear me? The only words out of your mouth when given a command will be aye-aye, sir! Do you understand?”
Stone's eyes widened. “That was a question. Do you know the difference between a question and a command?"
Oliver hesitated for a moment. "Yes, sir—“
“Are you defective, son?"
“Are you sure?”
“I think you’re defective. I think we need to put you in the special platoon. Would you like that?”
“Are your parents related?”
“Then put your paperwork on the deck!”
“Aye-aye, sir.” He bent down and set his paperwork at his feet.
“Pick it up!”
Oliver looked confused.
“I said pick it up!”
“Aye-aye, sir.” Oliver knelt down and picked it up.
“Set it back down!”
This little exercise repeated a few times before Stone moved on to his next victim. “Private Lewis is a prime example of what happens when cousins marry. Do we have any other inbred rejects in this platoon?”
“No, sir,” the recruits screamed.
“All of you look at my red and yellow sign,” Stone yelled, pointing to the wall of the receiving building. “I'll read it for you since most of you are probably too stupid to read.” He marched up and down the formation of recruits. “Uniform code of military justice. Congress shall have the power to make rules for the government and regulation of the terrestrial and space forces. United Federation Constitution, Article 1, Section 8.”
The sign listed five articles.
“Article 15: Nonjudicial punishment. This means that a commanding officer can punish you at his discretion. Step out of line, and I will NJP your ass so hard you'll wish you were dead. Do you understand?"
“Article 31. Compulsory self-incrimination prohibited. This means you’ve got the right to shut your pie hole. Just like in civilian life. Do you understand?"
"Article 86. Absence without leave. If you decide you don't have what it takes. That you just can't hack it. That you miss Mommy and Daddy. And you leave my base without permission. I will hunt you down. And you will be thrown in jail. Is this understood?"
“Article 92. Failure to obey orders or regulations. This should be obvious, but since we have some mental defectives in our midst, let me spell it out for you. You must do what you're told to do, when you're told to do it. If you fail to follow orders, you will be punished. Is this clear?"
"Article 134. General article. If you bring dishonor upon yourself, or the Marine Corps, you will be punished. Do you understand?”
“We have a zero tolerance policy for drugs. If you are caught with any contraband, or test positive for any illicit substances, you will be punished. Have I made myself perfectly clear?”
“When I give the command, you will move quickly and efficiently into my contraband room. You will line up in front of the red bins and empty the contents of your pockets. You will put all of your personal belongings in the bins in front of you. From here on out, the Marine Corps will provide you with everything you need—food, clothing, medication, and toiletries. We will also provide you with honor, dignity, and most importantly the ability to kill.” Stone eyed the recruits. “MOVE OUT!”
They hustled into the contraband room and turned over all of their possessions. From there they were ushered into a room with a bank of communication terminals. They were allowed to send a scripted video message home, letting loved ones know they arrived safely and would be in contact soon. They were then issued military clothing and toiletries. Then they were shuffled off to the barber.
“Just take a little off the top," Matt said as he sat in the chair.
The automated barber bot didn't seem to have a sense of humor. It's robotic arms trimmed Matt’s hair with a few quick strokes. Tufts of hair floated to the ground and were quickly vacuumed up. Matt's head was smooth and shiny.
He rubbed his head as he stood up out of the chair. Zack took a seat after him and met with the same fate.
From there, they went to medical, underwent more tests, received more shots and vaccinations, filled out paperwork, and then moved on to receive their M7 plasma rifle.
It was the finest small arms weapon the United Planetary Defense Force had to offer. Light, durable, and perfectly balanced. It had multiple power settings, and operated in single shot, three shot burst, and full auto mode. At full power you could put a hole through a concrete wall, or incinerate the entire thoracic cavity of a human, or similar bipedal alien. Each charge magazine was good for 500 rounds. And when all else failed, the weapon could be set to overload, making it an effective anti-personnel weapon. The receiver would explode sending blistering hot shards of shrapnel spraying in all directions. Occasionally, a recruit would try to get out of the Marine Corps by shooting himself in the foot. But there wouldn't be much left below the ankle. There was one incident where a disturbed recruit set his plasma weapon to overload within the barracks. The blast killed 27 recruits, and wounded 32 others. Ever since then, the recruits underwent multiple psychological evaluations during training. But there was always the possibility that someone unstable might slip through the cracks.
For the next three months, and the rest of their military career, these recruits would be inseparable from their weapon. They would work, eat, and sleep with it. A Marine without his weapon wasn't the most effective killer. And without a doubt, making killers is what the Marine Corps did best.
As they crawled into their racks and prepared for lights out, the recruits recited the rifleman's creed. “This is my plasma rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless…”
The chorus of voices echoed throughout the squad bay as they chanted the creed. It was an ominous mono-voice that would certainly strike fear into the heart of any enemy who heard it. Perhaps they should broadcast it into space for the Tarvaax to hear—they might turn around and leave, Zack thought.
"Is that all you got?" Sergeant Stone shouted.
Zack's biceps burned and his lats ached. It felt like his shoulders were going to rip out of their sockets.
“One more, you worthless piece of dog dung.” Sergeant Stone tried his best to avoid the use of profanity. He tried to be creative with his use of words, sometimes to humorous effect. But old habits die hard, and foul language slipped out every now and then.
Some inane bureaucratic regulation had come through prohibiting the use of certain words by drill instructors during recruit training. It seemed ridiculous that some senator somewhere was concerned about recruits being exposed to harsh language, yet had no compunction about sending these young men and women off to fight and die. They were just words, after all. A collection of letters. But the new regulations didn't hinder the drill instructors from demeaning and demoralizing the new recruits to the best of their abilities. That was the point of First Phase— break down the recruits, strip them of their civilian habits and ways of thinking, and build them back up again the Marine Corps Way.
Zack struggled to get one more pull up, but he had no strength left in his body. He dropped to the ground after 11. It was more than most recruits.
“You’re weak, Salvator. Work on it."
The pull-ups were part of the Initial Fitness Test. The recruits had to run 3 miles in less than 25 minutes, do three pull-ups, and 50 sit ups within two minutes. If they couldn't pass the IFT, they were in jeopardy of being rolled back to a conditioning platoon.
Matt didn't fare well on the pull-up bar. The added weight he was carrying wasn't helping. He struggled to get a single pull up.
“That's it, Private Carver. Just hang there long enough and the bar will come down to you. I've seen turds with more motivation than you. From now on, you’re Private Pork Chop. Do you like that name?"
“No, sir." He could barely get the words out. Matt's face strained as he pulled with all his might. His face was red, and he grunted and groaned.
"Come on, Pork Chop. One more!”
Matt tried, but he couldn’t lift himself any higher. He finally let go and dropped to the ground.
Stone snarled at him. "You disgust me. You ought to be the poster child for birth control. Get out of here!”
Isaac stepped up to the bar.
Stone's eyes went wide. "Holy dick snot! Can you even reach the pull-up bar?”
“Yes, sir." Isaac leapt up and grasped the worn metal pipe. He proceeded to knock out six pull-ups.
"Impressive. I've never seen an abortion do a pull-up before. Give me one more!"
Isaac's face was twisted up, and the veins in his neck looked like they were going to rupture. He barely inched his chin over the bar one more time, then dropped to the ground.
“Not bad, Half-pint.”
From there it was on to the sit ups and then the run. Afterward, the recruits lined up in formation and prepared to receive their evaluation.
Stone marched up and down the line, looking more than a little displeased. "I have never seen a more pathetic bunch of individuals in my entire life. If you are the future of the Marine Corps, we should just surrender right now.”
The recruits stood at attention, still gasping for breath.
“Carver, Fenton, Lewis, Sanchez, Burns… Congratulations. You made the doughnut brigade. Report to the physical conditioning platoon ASAP."
"What are you waiting for? Get your fat asses out of here."
Matt glanced at Zack and shrugged, then fell out of line with the other recruits.
“Double-time! Move! Move! Move!"
Matt would stay in the physical conditioning platoon until he could pass the IFT. Then he would class up with another platoon to complete training.
“For the rest of you rejects, welcome to Hotel company, Echo platoon. Everything is based on the success of the team. There are no individuals here. You will not refer to yourself in the first person. From here on out you will refer to yourself as this recruit. Is that understood?"
"There will be many challenges here that you cannot face alone. You will have to learn teamwork. If the team succeeds, you succeed. If one of you fails, the team fails. If one of you screws up, you will all be punished. Is that understood?"
“Right now you're all a bunch of pathetic meatballs. But if you survive my training, you will be made of steel. You'll become the toughest fighting force in the galaxy. You’ll be born again killers.”
There were a few recruits already regretting their decision to join the Space Corps.
“Sergeant Stone, I want to DOR,” Perkins said.
Stone rocketed to him. He was so close, the brim of his cover bounced against Perkins’s forehead as the sergeant yelled. “I don't think I heard you correctly. What did you say?”
“I want to DOR, sir. This recruit doesn’t think he’s cut out for this."
“You pathetic dirt bag. You can't quit. The Federation owns your ass. Hell, we haven't even gotten to the hard part yet.
“That’s what this recruit is afraid of, sir.”
“Well, I would hate for you to be afraid of anything. God forbid a Marine should have to face his fears.” His angry voice was dripping with sarcasm and mock compassion. "Do you really want to get off my base, Private?"
“There are two ways off of my base. Death, or graduation. Which one is it going to be, Private?”
Perkins said nothing, his eyes wide with fear.
Sergeant Stone unholstered his sidearm and placed it against the private’s temple. The barrel dug into his flesh. Perkins trembled with fear.
“Which one is it going to be?” Stone's eyes blazed into the nervous private."
Drill instructors weren't allowed to physically harm students, much less shoot them. At least, that was the official policy. Sergeant Stone seemed to be making up his own rules. Perkins wasn't about to push his luck and find out.
Perkins finally stammered, "I'll graduate, sir."
"Outstanding. You're smarter than you look. I'm going to be watching you." Stone's bulging eyes were inches from Perkins’s face. He stared him down for a long moment, then stepped back and addressed the rest of the platoon. "I am here to give you the tools and the motivation to become Marines. Quitting is not an option. Failure is not an option. You can't quit on the battlefield. Do you understand?"
“Yes, sir," the recruits responded in unison.
“Is there anyone else here that doubts their ability to complete recruit training? I'll be happy to find ways to motivate you."
The piercing sound of an air horn filled the squad bay. It felt like an ice pick stabbing through Zack's eardrums. He dismounted his rack and stood at attention in front of his footlocker.
The drill instructors swarmed the squad bay like angry hornets. The recruits counted off to make sure everyone was accounted for. Then they scrambled to get dressed.
“Port side, get in the head,” Stone yelled.
The port side of the squad bay rushed to the restroom for morning hygiene, while the starboard side made their racks.
This was how every morning began.
The recruits were from all across the Federation. Fitzpatrick was a short stocky guy from Beta Epsilon 7. Always quick with the joke. Garner was a country boy from Arcturus Minor. His main focus was beer, girls, and single engine Skyhawk racing. Milby was a nice guy, but dumber than a stump. Griffin was the strongest athlete in the platoon. He was gung-ho all the way and just loved this shit. He had all the general orders memorized before he even showed up in boot camp. Clark was a skinny, geeky kid who knew more about theoretical physics than most university professors. Why he enlisted in the Marine Corps was anyone's guess. He should've been off at college, or on the officer track, at least. Rick Reed just wanted to kill something. Anything. It didn't really matter. He was just one of those guys looking for a legal way to inflict pain-and-suffering on others. Darrell Vaughn was an obnoxious dick. He was 6’3”, 250 pounds, and built of solid muscle. He had excelled at athletics in high school, and the Marine Corps was just another way for him to prove his toughness. But he wasn't a team player. He was used to doing the hazing, and having to take the abuse from the drill instructors wasn't sitting well with him at all. Cooper Sims was, perhaps, the most unusual recruit. He was a pacifist. He joined the Marine Corps for the enlistment bonus and the college money. He had the unusual belief that he might be able to make the war less violent.
First Phase lasted four weeks, during which the recruits learned the fundamentals of military life. There was a lot of classroom time with the recruits learning the history of the Space Corps and the culture of the Marines. They learned ranks, customs, courtesies, and the 11 General Orders. They learned how to make their racks and wear their uniforms in regulation.
Close order drill taught the recruits timing, precision, and attention to detail. It brought the recruits in synchronization with one another, training them to work as a cohesive unit.
By the end of the third week, Zack was able to disassemble and reassemble his M7 plasma rifle in under two minutes. There had been several issues with the M6s. They were supposedly self-cleaning, which wasn't true—they were initially issued without cleaning kits. It led to all kinds of problems in the field. There were also issues with corrosion and jamming. Most of those complaints had been worked out with the M7, which typically only failed in 1 of 6000 firings.
Marines needed to be effective killers, with or without plasma rifles. The Space Corps Martial Arts Program ensured that. The recruits were taught the Basic Warrior Stance, from which all maneuvers were executed—hands in the air guarding their face, bent knees with a low center of gravity, and a short solid base. They were taught various punches and counters—hooks, uppercuts, jabs. They learned leg sweeps, eye gouges, hammer fist strikes, elbow strikes. Front kicks, round kicks, vertical knee strikes. They learned how to escape choke holds and bring their opponent off balance with a leg sweep. They mastered wrist locks and arm bar takedowns. They learned muzzle grabs, and how to counter them. Every maneuver was executed repeatedly, until it became ingrained in their muscle memory.
Not only did they learn how to attack and defend against other humanoid forms, an equal amount of their training was focused on non-human opponents. Defending against the muzzle grab from a six tentacled Proflaxian was a much different maneuver. Escaping a chokehold from a four armed Velusaan required precision and strength.
The ominous chants of kill, kill, kill were repeated over and over again throughout the maneuvers. The Marine recruits were taught to attack everything with urgency and force. It didn't matter if it was a training exercise, the obstacle course, or a meal in the chow hall. Attack breakfast. Kill it. And do it in the Marine Corps Way.
Their hand-to-hand combat skills were put to the test on a regular basis. The recruits were paired for fights by the drill instructors. Sometimes the bouts were woefully mismatched. But war wasn't fair, and neither was recruit training.
Zack squared off against Darrell Vaughn. Both of the recruits were wearing headgear, protective chest padding, and gloves. But the gear didn't keep you from feeling the punches. And when someone the size of Darrell Vaughan hit you, it left a mark—pads or not.
Zack assumed the basic warrior stance and kept light on his feet. The two circled around each other for a moment, sizing each other up. Darrell had a dangerous grin on his face. He just knew he was going to destroy Zack.
What the hell are you waiting for?” Stone shouted. "This isn't prom. Kill each other."
Darrell lurched forward, charging at Zack. He had explosive speed. He swung a hard right. His fist careened through the air.
This wasn't at all like fighting Dean Dully.
Dean was a lumbering oaf whose size was his only advantage. Darrell was an athlete. Fast, strong, and with a killer instinct. His fist pounded Zack square in the jaw. The impact lifted him off his feet and sent him crashing to the ground.
Darrell was on top of Zack within seconds, pummeling him into the ground.
“Kill him! Kill him!" Stone shouted.
Darrell’s eyes looked crazed, like a vicious, merciless predator. Fist after fist hammered down on Zack. Blood spewed from his lips and nose, despite the headgear.
Finally, Stone interrupted the beating. "All right, that's enough. Outstanding, Private Vaughn."
Darrell stood up and thrust his fists into the air in victory. He circled the makeshift arena as the recruits hooted and hollered.
Zack staggered to his feet. Pinpoints of light flashed before his eyes.
"Congratulations, Private Salvator. If that was a real battlefield, you'd be dead."
“Yes, sir,” Salvator slurred.
“Get to medical and get checked out. Then I want you back here for another fight."
"Move, Private Salvator!"
He shuffled off to the medical facility, where a corpsman ran a brain scan, and put a regenerative compound on his split lip.
“You're all clear," the corpsman said, after reviewing the scan.
“Are you sure there’s nothing wrong with me?” Zack wasn't enthusiastic about the prospect of another beating.
The corpsman chuckled. "You're fine. Try not to get hit this time."
“Easy for you to say.” Zack hustled back to the martial arts facility and watched the rest of the bouts as the platoon worked through their initial matchups. The junior drill instructors were taking bets on some of the fights. It was against regulations, but no one was going to report them.
Stone created another matchup for Zack, and he soon found himself in the ring again. This time he was squaring off against Isaac. He hated to fight his friend, but he didn't have a choice.
“Maybe you can actually get a punch in this time, Salvator," Stone shouted.
The crowd of recruits laughed.
“Attack!" Stone yelled.
The two assumed the basic warrior stance and circled each other for a moment, then Zack advanced a few steps. Zack decided he was going to let Isaac win. But he needed to put on a good show. He led with a few jabs, then snapped a right that cracked Isaac across the bridge of his nose. Isaac took a quick step back, and Zack advanced again.
Isaac countered with his right hand. He put his body into it and swung with everything he had.
Zack stepped aside as Isaac’s fist rushed past his face. Zack slammed the palm of his left hand into the back of Isaac's right elbow as he completed his swing. The inertia carried Isaac’s center of gravity forward. Zack planted a swift knee strike in Isaac's belly, then finished with an elbow to the back of his head.
Isaac crashed to the ground. It happened in a flash, before Zack even had a chance to think about what he was doing. Muscle memory and training took over. He didn't mean to put Isaac on the ground so quickly.
“Finish him!" Stone yelled.
“He's down, sir,” Zack mumbled over his protective mouthpiece.
“I don't care. Get on the ground and beat him."
Zack clenched his jaw and glared at Stone.
“Don't make me tell you again, or you will end up in the brig, Private."
Isaac staggered to his feet, and the two engaged each other once again.
“Never give your opponent a second chance," Stone yelled.
Isaac had a determined look in his eye. He didn't want to get his ass kicked. They may have been buddies, but Zack could see that Isaac wasn't going to hold back. The little guy charged him, and Zack did a front kick to his chest. It stopped Isaac in his tracks. He tumbled back a few steps, then regained his footing.
The two circled each other for a moment.
"Stop dancing with each other, and start beating the crap out of each other," Stone yelled.
Isaac inched forward and threw a few jabs. The two exchanged a flurry of punches. If Isaac wasn't holding back, Zack wasn't going to hold back either. Suddenly, it turned into an all-out brawl.
Isaac crouched down, then sprang with an uppercut. It connected perfectly to the bottom of Zack’s chin. It snapped his head back, and he tumbled to the ground.
Isaac leapt on top of him, pummeling Zack to a pulp.
"Kill him! Kill him!" Stone shouted.
The platoon screamed and hollered.
Zack pushed Isaac off of him and sprung to his feet. The two collided again, exchanging furious blows. This went on for a few minutes. They looked like boxers in the 12th round, throwing empty punches.
Zack mustered all his strength and threw a right cross, trying to finish him. But Isaac sidestepped and clocked him with an elbow to the face.
Zack crashed to the ground. He must have blacked out for moment, because when he came to, one of the drill instructors was pulling Isaac off of him.
“You’re pathetic, Salvator. The smallest recruit in the platoon just kicked your ass. The worst part is that you could have finished this early on. You’d better get the killer instinct, son. Or you're not going to make it out there." Stone shook his head. "I'll say one thing about private Norton… He's got heart. This entire platoon could learn a thing or two from him.”
It was a rare complement from Sergeant Stone, and Isaac couldn't help but grin.
"Vasquez, Henderson… You're next," Stone yelled.
Isaac walked to Zack and helped him to his feet. "No hard feelings?"
Zack still looked dazed. "No. But I'm not going to go easy on you next time."
Isaac laughed. "Me neither."
They pulled off their head gear and gloves and stepped out of the arena.
Zack wiped the sweat from his brow and blinked his eyes, trying to shake off the hit. His temples throbbed, and the metallic taste of blood filled his mouth. He spit a glob of slimy pink goo on the dirt. "Man, I didn't think you had it in you."
“Neither did I."
The recruits were heading into the final week of First Phase, and they were about to face one of their biggest challenges. It was the event that caused the highest percentage of recruits to fail MCRD.
If you wanted to quit the Space Corps, you could. The drill instructors didn't like to admit it, and they did everything to keep recruits from dropping. But Sergeant Stone’s assertion that there were only two ways off of his base wasn't exactly correct. The easiest way off the base was to fail the physical fitness test, or fail the gas chamber.
The DIs knew that the longer you spent at boot camp, the less likely you were to quit. You had endured too much pain-and-suffering to let it go to waste. Private Perkins had turned himself around and gotten his ass squared away. A month into recruit training and he was turning out to be a good Marine. But the gas chamber was a critical point for many recruits.
CN-X 40 was vile stuff. It was a skin, eye, and respiratory irritant. Within seconds of contact, mucous membranes would burn and swell. Eyes would water. Breathing would become painful and difficult. It would be hard to swallow. A brief exposure made you feel like you were dying. It made actual death seem like a pleasant relief.
Recruits were required to enter the gas chamber, remove their gas mask, and perform several minutes of calisthenics in a chamber filled with thick, noxious CN-X 40. Then they were required to perform various tasks.
The gas was technically non-toxic. But several chemicals contained within were known to be carcinogenic to humans. It was commonly used for crowd control, and its effects were temporary, lasting about 45 minutes. It was essential that the recruits remained calm during the exercise. The ability to perform complex tasks during a chemical or biological attack was essential. Invariably, some recruits would panic and try to escape the chamber before the evolution was complete.
Today, Sergeant Stone had a particularly devious exercise planned. “Listen up, dirtbags. This is a G-120, standard issue gas mask.” He held up the black full-faced rubber gas mask. “This is your new best friend. Capable of filtering particles down to .02 microns. It will also monitor air quality within the mask. A heads up display will report to you vital statistics including heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen saturation. The device will also let you know if the filtration system fails.”
The recruits exchanged a wary glance.
"But all of that is a moot point today, because you will be breathing in unfiltered air for two minutes once inside the gas chamber. Afterwards, you will place the mask over your face, making sure the seal over your nose and mouth is secure. At which time you will disassemble and reassemble your weapon.”
The recruits’ eyes went wide. It seemed like an impossible task. The rumors of the gas chamber had been floating about since day one of receiving. Eyes swollen shut, and the inability to breathe. How could one ever begin to assemble a plasma rifle?
"To make things even more challenging, you will be performing the task in a Zero G environment. This isn’t the Space Corps for nothing.” A nervous anxiety washed over Zack’s body. He felt his heart thud in his chest, and he was beginning to sweat.
The recruits were issued their gas mask and a black satchel containing a rifle cleaning kit. They were ordered to march into the gas chamber in groups. Zack and Isaac waited outside as the first group began the evolution. 15 minutes later the group emerged from the chamber, hacking and coughing. Some pulled off their gas mask and puked. Others fell to the ground, dizzy and nauseous.
Zack almost wished he had been in the first group. Seeing the repercussions of the gas made him even more anxious. By the time he stepped into the chamber, his heart was pounding. The remnants of the previous group’s gas was already stinging his eyes. The vents opened and white smoke billowed into the room. The space was only 30 x 30, but within seconds the air was thick with CN-X 40.
Zack's eyes seared with pain. It felt like someone had splashed a scalding pot of water on his face.
Stone’s voice crackled over the loudspeaker inside the chamber. "Take a deep breath, scumbags. Fill those lungs.”
It was like breathing fire. It was as though a million ants had crawled down his throat and lungs, biting every inch of exposed tissue. His throat grew thick, and his eyes swelled. His airways narrowed. It was like drowning on dry land.
“Drop and give me 20 push-ups," Stone commanded. “Count them off.”
The recruits dropped to the deck and started to push them out. Their weak voices could barely choke out the numerals. “1… 2… 3…”
By this point in training, 20 push-ups should have been nothing. The recruits had been banging those out multiple times per day. But with a chest full of CNX-40, it was damn near impossible.
With each breath, Zack’s lungs and eyes burned more. By the time he reached 20, he could barely take in a breath.
“Put on your masks," Stone shouted.
Zack pulled the mask over his face and secured the strap behind his head. Within seconds, the noxious fumes cleared from his mask and the heads up display indicated perfect air quality.
The damage had already been done to Zack's mucous membranes. But at least the air was clean, and his body could start the recovery process. It wasn't quite as difficult to breathe, but his airways were still considerably narrowed.
Zack felt himself float from the deck as the antigravity was activated.
“You’ve got five minutes to disassemble and reassemble your weapon. Begin."
Zack's eyes were narrow slits. He could barely see the weapon in front of him. He made sure the weapon was on safe, and removed the magazine. He surveyed the upper and lower receiver. He looked over the plasma generator assembly and the cooling shroud. There were dozens of small pins and machined parts that needed to be removed during disassembly. Trying to keep track of those in a weightless environment seemed like an impossible task.
The components of the M7 plasma rifle floated in the air—pins, coils, covers, assemblies. They were hovering mostly in one place, though some were drifting in various directions. Zack had to constantly reposition them to keep them from escaping his grasp.
A milky haze still hung in the air. Recruits were coughing. Some had to lift their masks to retch, which only exposed them to more residual CN-X 40.
Zack managed to reassemble his weapon and have it in working order before anyone else. He finished somewhere around the three minute mark. He floated in the antigravity chamber, relaxing as he watched the other recruits’ frenzied attempts to assemble their weapons. Machined parts drifted across the chamber in all directions. Milby and Garner were never going to get their rifles back together.
“Time's up, dirtbags!” Stone's voice crackled over the loudspeaker.
The antigravity switched off, and everyone and everything in the chamber crashed to the ground. Parts of plasma weapons pinged off the deck. Recruits scrambled to find all of the components of their weapons.
Zack pulled himself from the ground, grabbed his rifle, and rushed out of the chamber. As soon as he was outside, he pulled the mask off for a breath of fresh air. His lungs were so raw, it still burned to take a deep breath. His eyes were red, puffy, and brimming with tears. Snot was dripping down his nose. He felt miserable, but elated to be out of the gas chamber.
Stone was waiting to inspect their rifles. “Private Salvator, present arms."
Zack glanced down to the receiver to make sure it was set on safety and that the plasma rifle wasn't armed. Then he handed the weapon to Sergeant Stone.
The drill instructor’s steely eyes surveyed the weapon with sharp aggressive movements. Then he thrust it back to the beleaguered private. "Outstanding, Private Salvator."
After the evolution, the recruits were checked by corpsmen to make sure they weren’t experiencing any serious reactions to the chemical gas.
Henderson’s airways had narrowed so much, that he passed out. His body was covered in hives. The corpsman could barely get him breathing again. He was dropped from the program and ordered to the Recruit Separation Platoon. He was going home.
First Phase was drawing to a close. By the end of the week they would hit the tower and learn to rappel. If you were afraid of heights, you had to get over it quickly.
It was amazing to see the transformation in such a short period of time. The platoon looked tight and precise during close order drill, just like the platoon Zack had seen when he first arrived. Everyone was keeping up on the PT runs, and had improved on their physical fitness scores. They knew how to respond to orders, and most people were passing their tests.
First Phase was definitely the weed out period. Zack was looking forward to getting on to the fun part, if you could call boot camp fun. Second Phase focused on weapons training. They would spend countless hours at the range, learning to shoot and qualify with their weapon. In order to continue training, and earn their marksmanship badge, recruits were required to qualify at 200, 300, and 500 yards. But they weren’t just shooting at paper targets.
In the old days, Marines qualified against paper silhouettes of human targets. Now, holographic 3D shapes of various alien forms appeared on the range at multiple distances. They moved and took cover behind objects on the range. The recruits had a limited amount of time to make a kill shot. Each creature was anatomically correct. Recruits had two options to ensure a kill shot—the brain, or the heart. Since each of those organs were in different locations, depending upon the alien species, recruits had to be familiar with the anatomy of multiple intergalactic creatures.
All that time in the classroom studying anatomy, which seemed ridiculous at the time, paid off on the range. Zack qualified as an expert rifleman.
The platoon with the highest cumulative marksmanship scores won a trophy. Like everything else at boot camp, there was a competition. Winning was rewarded, and losing was punished. When the marksmanship trophy went to Foxtrot Platoon, Sergeant Stone had a conniption fit. They had edged out Echo Platoon by a few points. Stone stormed into the squad bay, spit flying from his lips, face as red as a tomato. He looked like a horned devil with fire blazing from his eyes as he screamed at the platoon. “You are the most pathetic bunch of losers I have ever seen. I've seen Girl Scouts shoot better than you. Hell, if you ask me, Foxtrot Platoon is a bunch of Girl Scouts. So what does that make you?"
The recruits stood at attention in front of their footlockers. “We've definitely got way too many pussies in this platoon, sir,” someone said.
“Who the fack said that?” Stone's eyes scanned the squad bay. They narrowed on Darrell Vaughn.
Stone stomped toward him, stopping inches from his face. Darrell towered over the sergeant, but he still seemed small in Stone’s presence. “Was it you?"
Darrell hesitated. "Yes, sir."
"You're absolutely right, Private. And you're one of the biggest pussies here.”
The platoon busted out with laughter.
Darrell's face tensed and he clenched his jaw.
"You had one of the worst marksmanship scores. Hell, you're probably the reason Echo platoon lost.” Stone proceeded to march up and down the squad bay. “Because of Private Vaughn’s inadequacy, you must all pay the price. You will field day the head. I want those toilets so clean, you could eat chow off the seat. And when you're done, you'll clean Foxtrot’s head. And guess what… That's exactly where you will be eating.”
There were groans amongst the platoon. “When one of you fails, you all fail. Keep that in mind, ladies. There is no second place on the battlefield."
“Hey, how are you?" Honor’s gorgeous face appeared on Zack's PDU. She had a brilliant smile and her blue eyes were glowing. She looked excited to see him. Zack was thrilled.
At the beginning of Third Phase, the recruits’ PDU became unrestricted. Previously, they had limited access to the mil-net, and were only able to browse materials related to the core curriculum of MCRD. Now they were able to send and receive video messages, electronic mail, and access a limited number of news sites.
“I’m good. It’s tough. We don’t get a lot of sleep. Days are long and hard. But, we’re shaping up.”
“You’ll be a Marine before too long.” Honor smiled.
“Another month, if all goes well. Are you coming to graduation?”
“Is that an invitation?” she asked, coyly.
"That is most certainly an invitation."
“Then I will most certainly be there." Honor's eyes sparkled.
“How are Matt and Isaac?”
“Isaac’s good. Matt got bounced to the donut brigade, so I haven't seen him since we got here."
“He and Evelyn have been exchanging messages. I think there might be something there.”
Zack looked shocked. "Really?"
“Way to go Matt,” Zack said, impressed. "I miss him. It would've been so much cooler if we could have gone through this together."
“You guys will catch up after graduation, won’t you?”
“I'll be off to Mech Pilot Training. I don't know where he'll end up."
Honor frowned in sympathy.
“Listen, I've gotta go. My personal time is almost over." Zack paused. "It was really great to see you.”
She smiled. “It was really great—“
Darrell snatched the PDU from Zack's hand. “Ooh, Salvator's got himself a girlfriend.”
“Give it back, Vaughn!”
Darrell ran across the squad bay with the device. He took one look at Honor, and his eyes widened. “Baby, if you ever want to talk to a real man, you give me a call.”
Zack chased after him.
Darrell tossed the PDU to Griffin. Zack leapt for the device, but it arced through the air just above his fingertips. Griffin caught the device and Zack lunged for him. Griffin tossed it back to Darrell. The two played keep-away, tossing the PDU back and forth. With each throw, they grew farther and farther apart, and the flight of the device became more precarious. Zack looked like he was caught in a hot box between second and third base, chasing after the device.
The inevitable happened when Darrell fumbled a catch. The PDU tumbled to the deck and the screen shattered.
Zack was furious. He clenched his jaw, and his face flushed red. He charged Darrell, and shoved him. It caught him off guard, and he took a few steps back to catch his balance.
Darrell's face went from amusement to rage in the blink of an eye. He didn't like to be pushed. "You're a dead man, Salvator."
Concern washed over Zack's face. Maybe shoving the big guy wasn't exactly the smartest thing in the world to do. He assumed the basic warrior stance.
Darrell charged at him and swung hard. His fist raced toward Zack's face. It swished by as Zack dodged to the side. As Darrell carried forward, Zack blocked his elbow, just like he was trained to do. Then he kneed the big oaf in the groin.
Vaughn doubled over. Zack planted an elbow into Darrell's mid-back. He hammered down with all his might, putting his weight into it like a pro wrestler.
Darrell flopped to the deck, slamming his head into a support post. His nose shattered, spraying blood everywhere. The light lime green paint on the post was now speckled red.
Zack spun around and assumed the basic warrior stance again, waiting for another attack.
Darrell staggered to his feet. He looked like a rabid dog—his eyes barely edging out from behind his knitted brow. Blood trickling from his nostrils, down his chin. His eyes already had black circles underneath them. “You're going to regret that, Salvator. Now I'm really going to hurt you.”
Darrell was about to charge him again when Stone marched in. "What in the hell is going on in my squad bay?”
The platoon raced to the position of attention in front of their footlockers. Darrell and Zack were left in the middle of the squad bay, standing at attention, waiting for the tirade that was soon to follow.
Stone's eyes narrowed as he surveyed the two combatants. His angry gaze found the broken PDU on the floor. Then his eyes flicked back to the recruits. He looked a little perplexed by the fact that Darrell had a broken nose and Zack looked unharmed.
“Whose PDU is that?" Stone asked.
"The PDU belongs to this recruit," Zack said.
“How did it wind up on the deck in multiple pieces?"
"It was dropped, sir."
Zack stammered. He glanced to Vaughn for an instant, then back to Sergeant Stone. Vaughn was seething.
"This recruit, sir,” Zack said.
“Is that so?” Stone asked, doubtful.
Stone knew better. He turned his gaze to Vaughn. "And what happened to you?"
Darrell paused for a moment.
“Answer me, dirt-bag!”
“This recruit fell, sir.”
“You fell?” Stone said, incredulous.
“Well, at least you made an improvement. Now you have an excuse for looking like you were beaten with a hammer.”
Darrell gritted his teeth. "Yes, sir."
Stone surveyed the blood splatter on the support post and the deck. “I suppose if I asked the rest of the platoon, they will all give me the same story?"
Vaughn and Zack exchanged a nervous glance, then answered in unison. "Yes, sir."
Stone wasn’t buying a word of it. "Recruit on recruit abuse is not tolerated in my Marine Corps. Neither is the destruction of government property." Stone said. "Private Salvator, that PDU is coming out of your paycheck."
Sergeant Stone turned his attention to Vaughn. "As for you, you weren't worth much to begin with.”
“May I remind you, that fighting is a violation of Article 128, and shall be punished as a court-martial shall direct.”
Zack swallowed hard.
"As for the rest of you limp-dicks… you have failed to maintain cohesion among the platoon. Drop and give me 50.”
“Yes, sir," the platoon shouted in unison. They hit the deck and began to push out the reps.
Stone's eyes blazed at Zack and Darrell. “You two, in my duty hut. Now!”
Darrell and Zack stood at attention in Sergeant Stone's office. It was a drab compartment with a desk, a few chairs, a coffee maker, and a water-cooler. There was a Marine Corps flag on the wall with the Eagle, Galaxy, and Anchor. There were a few pictures of Stone with other Marines in the field. There was a picture of his wife and two kids on his desk.
“You boys have put me in a difficult position," Stone said. "As your Commanding Officer, I have convening authority in this matter. If I refer charges to a court-martial, the best you can hope for is a dishonorable discharge, which will haunt you for the rest of your civilian lives. In the worst case, you'll be breaking rocks on Avelok Minor. The surveillance video from the squad bay is not in your favor.”
The two recruits looked worried.
"I think you both have the potential to be good Marines. But you're going to have to square your asses away. We train you to fight. We instill aggression. But that aggression must be controllable. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, sir," they replied in unison.
“I am not going to refer charges. Instead, I'm going to NJP your asses. You just lost your personal time for the rest of MCRD. Instead, you will engage in IT during what used to be your free time. Understood?’’
Incentive Training was a disciplinary action for minor infractions. It consisted of a drill instructor cycling a recruit through a range of exercises like sit-ups, push-ups, scissor kicks, etc. It was a continuous barrage of calisthenics with no rest in between exercises. It could go on for as long as a drill instructor deemed necessary—which was always too long.
“And if I have any more problems with you two, rest assured, you will learn the meaning of suffering."
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Zack said.
“Vaughn, go see a corpsman. Get that face fixed.”
“Get out of my duty hut!” Stone screamed.
“Aye-aye, sir,” the recruits shouted in unison. They hustled out of the duty office.
In the hallway, Darrell muttered to Zack, “Payback’s going to be a bitch, you little punk.”
“Listen up, you little dick-worms. You have a chance to redeem yourselves. Tomorrow you will begin Basic Warrior Training. It will be the practical application of everything you've learned so far. We will teach you land and space navigation. You will learn basic squad tactics and the fundamentals of modern warfare. And there is no better way to learn than trial by fire. Tomorrow you will go up against Foxtrot Platoon. In the morning, you will be briefed on your mission objectives. It will be up to you to implement a solution to achieve those objectives. You will be firing simulated rounds. Your battle armor will be linked to the central computer, which will assess battle damage. You will have to manage casualties and KIAs, and adjust your resources accordingly. Griffin will be your platoon leader. You will follow his commands until he is relieved of duty, or killed in action. Is this understood?”
“Yes, sir." The squad bay reverberated with the booming voices of the recruits.
In the morning, Echo Platoon stood in formation in front of the barracks. They were in full battle armor, with an additional 60 pounds of gear on their backs.
The armor was state-of-the-art TXL-50—War-Tek™ Ultralight Tactical Armor. It was made of a bullet resistant composite material with adjustable camouflage patterns. It provided protection for the chest, shoulders, forearms, groin, thighs, knees, and shins. The entire rig weighed 2.7 pounds. The CP-120 helmet provided enhanced impact resistance. A multiyear study had concluded that the composite materials, and active cushioning, reduced traumatic brain injuries by up to 27%.
The composite materials could withstand the force of a 7.62 mm round at point blank range, or a 160 kV plasma projectile. Though, a plasma projectile would cause secondary burns on exposed skin.
Stone informed the recruits of their mission objective. Then he marched up and down the formation, and his steely eyes surveyed the recruits. “Alright, dirtbags. This is your opportunity. Do not embarrass me. Move out!”
The platoon began the long march to the combat simulation field.
Zack's squad was pinned down. Simulated training bolts rifled through the air. Sounds of battle, explosions, and screaming wounded were pumped into the area. It was as close to the actual chaos of battle that you could get.
Zack crouched down behind a low wall that was mangled and mutilated. There were gaping holes in the concrete, and piles of rubble and ruin lay strewn about. Training bolts impacted the other side of the wall.
The training bolts hurt like hell, simulating the pain of an actual plasma bolt. They would also paralyze the affected area for up to 45 minutes. A hit to the thoracic cavity could completely immobilize a person. It may have been a training exercise, but there were real consequences. Real pain.
The recruits were in the middle of the ruins of an urban sprawl. There wasn’t a structure that had been left untouched by the devastation of previous live fire training exercises. Foxtrot Platoon was several blocks ahead on the upper floor of a four-story structure. A steady stream of training bolts rained down on Zack's squad from the structure.
Stone's voice crackled over the comm line. “Echo One-One, Alpha, this is Overlord. Do you copy?" Zack's earpiece kept him in constant communication with command, and the rest of the squad. His tactical goggles gave him situational awareness of the battlefield, and the platoon. All of the recruits were networked, and troop movements were updated in real time. Targets were identified and labeled as either hostile or friendly in the heads-up-display.
“Overlord, this is One-One, Alpha. Go ahead,” Griffin said.
“Why aren't you advancing on the target?"
“We’re taking heavy fire, sir."
“What were you expecting? Complementary cocktails?"
“Advance your platoon, and secure the objective.”
“Yes, sir." Griffin's face tensed with frustration. He scanned the platoon, trying to decide on a course of action.
The bodies of 2nd Squad lay in the street ahead, immobilized from training bolts. A frontal assault on the structure had led to a less than desirable outcome.
“Vaughn, take 3rd Squad up the middle,” Griffin said. “Milby, take 4th Squad east. I’ll take 1st Squad west, and we’ll flank them. Move out on my order.”
“Why do we have to go up the middle?" Vaughn asked. “Because you’re the diversion. And I need my best men on it. I need you to keep them occupied and draw their fire.”
Vaughan's ego was a way to get him to do anything. He didn't like the idea of going up the middle, but he wasn't going to argue with being called the best.
“What about us?” Zack asked.
“Stay here and cover 3rd Squad. I don't need you guys screwing this up."
Zack's face tensed. He didn't like being relegated to the B-team. Clearly Griffin didn't think much of his squad, made up of Clark, Norton, and Sims.
“Move out!” Griffin shouted.
Vaughn and his squad leapt over the wall and dashed across the street. Training bolts impacted at their feet, zipping all around them.
Zack and his squad sprayed a steady stream of suppressive fire. Even the pacifist, Sims, unleashed a torrent of training bolts. From time to time, Zack would catch a slight grin on Sims’s face. He clearly enjoyed firing the M7.
Vaughn made it to the other side of the street and took cover. He threw his back against what was left of a building, and edged his way to the corner. Training bolts nipped at the brick as he tried to peer around.
Garner took a training bolt to the chest. He was lucky this was a training exercise. If that had been a real plasma bolt, his thoracic cavity would have exploded spewing crimson sludge in all directions. His body flopped to the asphalt in the middle of the street. He could no longer participate in the exercise, even once the paralysis wore off.
It was going to be a long hard road up the middle.
"I'm moving," Vaughn shouted into his comm link. He sprinted around the corner and ran to the next batch of cover. He could hear the zip of training bolts all around him as they rifled through the air. He took cover behind another dilapidated wall. He swung his barrel around the edge and fired as Rick Reed charged up to meet him.
Fitzpatrick brought up the rear. But he only made it a few steps before a projectile hit him in the face. It wasn't going to cause any permanent damage, but it had to hurt like hell. His body collapsed to the ground.
“Son-of-a-bitch," Vaughn muttered to himself.
“Man, we’re going to end up just like second squad,” Reed said.
“No. We’re not. I'm completing this objective, come hell or high water.” Vaughn edged around the rubble, only to have a flurry of gunfire blast inches away from him. He ducked his head back behind the concrete.
Zack and his squad kept blasting down the corridor, taking turns popping their weapons over the wall, firing, then ducking down.
“Moving," Vaughn shouted. He launched from behind the rubble, blasting his weapon at the structure. He made it three steps before a training bolt hit his torso. His muscular frame slammed into the dirt.
Rick Reed decided to stay put. He backed down an alleyway, looking for a better way to approach the enemy. A training bolt caught him in the chest, dropping him to the ground. An enemy sniper had threaded the needle, making a precision shot through a hole in the wall. Reed never saw it coming.
“What do we do now?" Isaac asked, watching the chaos unfold.
Zack was silent a long moment. He closed his eyes trying to think—trying to visualize. He tuned out the chaos around him for a moment.
“It’s a diversion.”
“What's a diversion?" Sims asked.
There was a glint in Zack's eyes. An epiphany. “The target objective isn’t in that building.”
The rest of the squad gave him a skeptical look.
“Sure. Good location. High vantage point. They clearly have the majority of their forces defending it. But it's not the best location.” Zack pulled out a small black cartography disc from a pouch on his tactical vest and set it on the ground. It displayed a 3D map of the area. He pointed to the four-story structure where the enemy was. “I think there are four people maximum in the structure. They're moving around, firing from different windows, making it look like the entire platoon is there.”
Zack pointed to a building a few blocks east, then another building a few blocks west. "There's a squad here and here. They’re waiting to ambush anyone who tries to flank the main structure.”
"How do you know this?" Sims said, skeptically.
“It's what I would do,” Zack said. “Look at the natural typography of the area. This structure to the north has the best defensive vantage point. It backs up against the river. You can't approach from the east, west, or south without crossing 100 yards of open field. Anyone who tries is going to get caught in the crossfire between these three units here.” He pointed back to the main structure, and the two ambush locations.
“He's right,” Clark said.
“So how do we capture the target?” Isaac asked.
Zack tapped his earbud. “One-One, Alpha, this is One-Five, Alpha. How copy?”
A few moments later Griffin's perturbed voice crackled back. “Stay off comms, Salvator.”
“I think you're walking into an ambush."
“Maintain radio silence.”
Zack shook his head. He could see their exact position in his HUD. Within moments, he heard a flurry of weapons fire erupt. It didn't take long for the flashing green icons of 1st and 4th squad to turn yellow, indicating casualties. “We're going to head north to the river. My guess is that there is no more than a squad guarding our objective. We’ll infiltrate the building and capture the target.”
“Ooh-rah!” Isaac cheered.
“Sims, I need you to stay here and keep firing at that structure. Keep changing position. Make it look like we've got an entire squad here. If they're keeping a body count, they’ll know there's only four of us left. If they think we’re all located just here, they won't bother to look behind them."
“Won’t they send a squad to take me out?”
“The price of victory is never cheap," Zack said with a grin.
“Okay. Fine. I'll make the sacrifice for the team. It's only a simulation.”
“It's more than just a simulation,” Zack said. "That's Foxtrot Platoon out there. This is our chance to redeem ourselves. Maybe they'll have to field day our head.”
The squad laughed.
Zack grabbed a smoke canister from his tactical vest and lobbed it into the street. It popped and sprayed thick white smoke into the air. It filled the street, obscuring their current position.
Sims angled his rifle over the wall and began showering the corridor with training bolts.
Zack, Isaac, and Clark sprang to their feet and ran to the east. They made a wide berth, angling north. They advanced with speed and precision, moving silently through the ruined city.
Zack stopped at 33rd Street and peered around the corner. He could see the main four-story structure in the distance, and the building to the east where the ambush squad was. He zoomed in with his tactical goggles for a better look. All of the units were firing at Sims’s position.
Zack motioned for the squad to move forward, and they dashed across the street. No one in Foxtrot Platoon seemed to notice them. From there on out, it was smooth sailing to the river.
They paused at the water’s edge to regroup. Zack caught sight of a dilapidated structure. Its wooden door was barely hanging on the hinges. "Give me a hand with this," he said to Clark.
They trotted to the door and ripped it out of the door frame, then carried it down to the river. He and Clark set it into the water. It wasn't much, but it floated, and would provide a modicum of cover. The three recruits entered the river and immersed themselves. They clung on to the door and floated down the river, keeping their heads as low in the water as possible.
The M7 was technically rated at depths up to 50 meters. The only caveat was that the barrel needed to be completely drained of water before the weapon was fired. Otherwise, catastrophic failure might result.
Zack could hear that Sims was still exchanging fire with Foxtrot Platoon. He wasn't going to last much longer. Surely they had sent out a kill squad for him.
As Zack and his squad reached the target structure, the recruits let go of the door and it continued drifting down the river. They slipped out of the water and slithered on their bellies up the berm. Within seconds, they were at the north entrance. It was a 40 story building, and Zack's guess was that the target was on the roof. That's where he’d position it.
Zack and his squad breached the entrance and cleared the hallway with technical precision. They leapfrogged through the hallways to one of the stairwells. Zack quietly pushed through the steel door, careful not to let it squeak. There was no doubt in his mind a guard would be standing at the 40th floor landing, protecting the roof access point.
The stairwell was black as midnight. The structure had no power. None of the buildings did. Zack flicked on his night vision, and the stairwell illuminated. Modern night vision goggles weren't anything like the old monochromatic green displays of the past. They were full-color, and amplified any available light to such a degree that it almost looked like daylight.
The rest of the squad followed Zack into the stairwell. The squad climbed the metal steps without making a sound. They moved like special forces operators, one behind the other, hugging the outside wall and keeping their weapons in the firing position.
It didn’t take long for Zack's quads to burn. His heart raced. By the time he hit the 30th floor, his lungs were on fire. As they drew closer to the 40th floor, Zack peered over the railing and looked above. He could see a member of Foxtrot Platoon pacing back and forth on the landing.
Zack lined him up in his sights and sniped him. Two quick shots dropped him to the landing.
The squad filed up the stairs. At the top, there was a metal ladder that led to a hatch, which opened to the roof.
“What are we going to do now?" Isaac asked. “We're at a serious disadvantage attacking from this position."
Zack looked over the uniform of the fallen member of Foxtrot Platoon. The name tape on his chest, and stenciled across the back of his helmet, read Murphy. Zack climbed up the ladder, and surveyed the construction of the hatch. “This may, or may not work."
He pushed open the hatch. It angled on its hinges, obscuring Zack from the view of the members of Foxtrot Platoon on the roof. “Don't shoot! It's just me, Murphy. I'm coming up."
“What the hell, Murphy?” one of them yelled. “You just went down there."
“I know, but I gotta piss,” Zack said.
“Piss in the stairwell.”
“Then I’ll have to smell it for the next hour.”
“You're such a pansy.”
Zack angled his weapon around the hatch and fired at the two guards. One dropped, then the other. Zack climbed the rest of the way out of the hatch onto the roof. Clark and Isaac followed.
The roof was covered in piping, HVAC units, and industrial fans that had long since stopped working. In the middle of the roof was a small orb about the size of a soccer ball. It had a display panel that was illuminated green, with a switch on top.
Zack advanced across the roof, grabbed the device, and pressed the switch. The display turned red. Zack had an ear to ear grin on his face. “Mission accomplished, boys."
Clark and Isaac cheered. Their screams of joy echoed over the desolate landscape.
Stone’s voice crackled in Zack's ear. “Nice work, son. Looks like we've got a new platoon leader.”
Zack smiled. "Thank you, sir."
“Gather your platoon and head back to base.”
“Aye-aye, sir.” Zack couldn't stop grinning, and he shouted with joy.
All the commotion had roused the guard in the other stairwell. He pushed through the hatch and opened fire on Zack and the others, unaware the exercise was over. The blast zipped past Zack. He watched it scream by, barreling straight toward Isaac.
It wouldn’t normally have been a big deal. But the stun bolt had just enough energy to knock Isaac backwards. He tripped over a horizontal piece of conduit. The energy bolt caused his muscles to go limp, and he couldn't brace his fall. Isaac crashed down to the roof, landing on a vertical pipe vent that skewered the back of his neck. It was a one-in-a-million freak accident. It stabbed him in the narrow space between his helmet and his back plate armor. The pipe burst through his trachea, protruding through the front of his neck, erupting blood like a volcano.
Isaac gurgled as his lungs filled with fluid. His body twitched for several moments, and finally went limp.
Zack's face contorted and he screamed. He raced across the roof to Isaac’s body, but there was nothing he could do. Isaac was dead by the time Zack reached him.
Zack's eyes brimmed, and tears rolled down his cheeks. He sobbed over Isaac's body, and a wave of guilt rushed through him.
"This is all my fault, sir,” Zack said. He could barely choke out the words. His eyes were red and puffy, and still brimming. It took everything he had to fight back tears as he stood at attention in the duty office.
“Son, this is not your fault,” Sergeant Stone said. “The incident has been officially reviewed, and it has been deemed a no-fault accident.”
The statement did little to comfort Zack.
“I know you two were close. And I'm deeply sorry for your loss. This is a dangerous job we do. And it won't be the last time you lose someone close to you."
“He never would have joined the Marine Corps if it wasn't for me. He was supposed to go to college. He had a full scholarship.”
Sergeant Stone frowned. As much of a hard ass as he was, he genuinely cared about his men.
“I don’t think I’m cut out for this, sir. I want to DOR.”
“I think you're an excellent leader. You demonstrated that during this exercise."
“I was too preoccupied with victory. I let my guard down. Had that been an actual combat situation, more people could have died. I should've secured the remaining guard."
Stone took a solemn pause for a moment. "I know it may be hard to believe, but I was once a young corporal. It was my first deployment to Velicuas Minor. We were on patrol in the Mik’aar Valley. The platoon was ambushed by insurgents. Our 2nd Lieutenant and NCO were killed. Command of the platoon fell to me. I had very little combat experience at the time. I had to decide between two very bad options. 3 Marines, out of a platoon of 43 men, walked out of that valley. Not a day goes by that I don't second-guess the decisions I made. When I close my eyes I can see their faces and hear their screams. Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night absolutely sure that I'm back in that valley. And for an instant, I think I can save a few more of my men. But then I realize I can't. The only thing I can do is keep moving forward. On the battlefield we make decisions in a split second that will haunt us for the rest of our lives. If you ask those two men who walked out of the Mik’aar Valley with me, they'll tell you I saved their life.”
“It was a training exercise, sir. No one should've lost their life."
“Agreed. But you need to look at today's event in the broader context. Each and every Marine on this base has the potential to save lives. Not just on the battlefield, but back home. Our Federation is preserved because young Marines put themselves in situations that most people would rather avoid. They make the tough decisions, they make mistakes, and they keep moving on.” Stone took a deep breath. “If you want to leave the program, I'll put in the paperwork and have you transferred to the Recruit Separation Platoon. I won't even yell at you. But if you decide to do that, I think you'd be doing yourself, and the Federation, a disservice. Take a day. Think about it. If you still want to drop, come see me in the morning."
Zack left the duty hut and entered the squad bay. There was a somber tone in the room, and all eyes fell on him as he entered. Some of the recruits gave him nods of sympathy as he strolled to his rack.
Darrell Vaughn was waiting for him at his footlocker. Zack's body tensed, and he approached with caution. The last thing he needed right now was attitude from Vaughn. He didn't think Darrell was dumb enough to start anything in the squad bay after the previous incident. But Zack anticipated the worst.
Darrell stared at him for a long moment, then stammered, “Hey, I'm sorry about Isaac.” He looked uncomfortable expressing any type of emotion.
Zack was shocked. “Thanks.”
“The dude had a lot of heart. I'll miss the little guy."
Zack couldn't believe what he was hearing. Darrell had hardly said two words to Isaac during their entire time at boot camp. Zack wasn't sure if Darrell was just saying that, or if it was a genuine expression of sympathy. Either way, the gesture was appreciated.
It was personal time for the rest of the platoon, and many of them were writing messages on their PDUs, or watching one of the approved military network channels.
Staff Sergeant Hawkins, a junior drill instructor, marched into the squad bay. “Vaughn, Salvator… Time for your daily IT.”
Zack grimaced. The last thing he wanted to do after a day like this was a series of never-ending calisthenics. But maybe it would take his mind off things for a little bit.
Hawkins ran them through his standard methods of torture—sit ups, push-ups, scissor kicks, jumping jacks, burpees. They pounded out the exercises on the quarterdeck. Hawkins’s ragged voice screeched at them the entire time.
After they were sufficiently abused, Hawkins let them return to the squad bay. A commotion was brewing among the platoon.
“Hey, Salvator, aren't you from Crylos 9?” Clark asked.
“You might want to have a look at this." Clark handed him his PDU.
Zack’s face went pale as he watched the live news feed. His knees went weak and he felt like he had been punched in the gut.
It was stacking up to be the worst day of Zack's life. The Tarvaax had invaded Crylos. The Federation News Network cycled through images of destruction and chaos, while a reporter commented. First responders carried bloodied and broken bodies from the piles of devastation. Buildings were in ruin. The roadways were pocked and scarred from bomb blasts. Terrified civilians ran for cover.
The Tarvaax Navy dominated the space around the planet. Ground forces were attacking the major cities. Communication was spotty. Most of the satellite relays had been destroyed, and the Tarvaax were jamming the communication devices that remained.
Zack tried to contact his mother, but he couldn't get through. A call to Honor failed as well. He sent them both electronic messages from Clark's PDU, but they bounced back within a few moments—server unavailable.
Anger swelled within Zack. Any ideas of quitting the Marine Corps evaporated. He was going to complete his training, and do his part to exact revenge. He couldn't get through boot camp fast enough. He was ready to hop on the next transport and join the fray.
He handed Clark back the PDU as Sergeant Stone marched into the squad bay.
“By now you've heard of the most recent attack. For those of you who have family and friends on Crylos 9, I know what a difficult time this is for you. I’ve tasked Corporal Harper with tracking down your family members. We will keep you advised of their status as soon as we hear anything. Now, more than ever, you must maintain focus on your training. You will be the next generation of Marines, and you have a job to do.”
Over the next few weeks, the recruits honed their skills to perfection. They became a tight, cohesive unit. All of the small personality conflicts faded. They became unified of purpose—to become Marines, and to defeat the enemy.
The Gauntlet was the final test. It was a grueling 4 day trial that would forge the recruits into Marines. With little food and little sleep, they completed obstacles and combat simulations that could only be overcome through teamwork. The event was the culmination of everything they had learned. Zack was given 2 MREs (meals ready to eat). Those rations would have to last him for the entire four days. Over the course of events, the recruits would march over 70 miles, humping 50 pounds of gear.
The Gauntlet was designed to break the recruits, and see who had what it took to make it. There were ammo resupply missions, casualty evacuations, martial arts challenges, night infiltrations, leadership tests, core values training. On one of the casualty evacuation drills, Zack was paired up with Darrell. He had to carry Darrell on his back for 2 miles. By the end of it, Zack’s lower back was killing him. It seared with pain. He felt like an 80-year-old man who couldn't stand up straight. Darrell carried Zack on the return, and it gave him a little time to recover. It was a helluva way to start out the four days of torment that was the Gauntlet.
One of the more technically challenging evolutions was a ship to ship invasion, conducted in the Combat Space Simulator. The CSS was a massive enclosure that simulated a zero gravity environment. It was about the size of a baseball stadium. In the center was a mockup of a small warship. The recruits would load into an AAV (armored assault vehicle) and storm the warship. It was one of the most common scenarios that Marines would encounter during actual combat.
The AAVs would latch onto enemy warships like barnacles. The mouth of the craft would form a magnetic hard-seal, and plasma torches would cut through the hull. The recruits would then storm through the corridors of the enemy craft, seeking to assume control.
The recruits practiced these drills both with and without gravity, and with and without the use of magnetic boots. There were some alien ships made of composite materials that weren’t magnetic, and the recruits needed to know how to handle these situations.
The use of self-contained, pressurized battle suits, like the War-Tek T9000, were beyond the scope of boot camp. Those recruits with an infantry MOS (military occupational skill) would learn the intricacies of the T9000 in Advanced Infantry Training.
A 15 mile uphill march capped off the torturous four day event. When they reached their destination, the recruits were awarded the Eagle, Galaxy, and Anchor—the emblem of the Space Corps. They were now officially Marines.
“Congratulations, Salvator. You earned it,” Sergeant Stone said, shaking his hand. “I’m glad you stuck it out. The Space Corps needs more men like you.”
“Thank you, sir.” Zack's chest swelled with pride as he clutched the emblem in his palm. But it was a bittersweet moment. He couldn't help but think of Isaac.
The recruits once again took the oath of enlistment, then they were rewarded with the Warrior’s Breakfast. The newly minted Marines flooded into the chow hall where they could eat all they wanted. Every conceivable dish was available. Steak, chicken, turkey, hamburgers, pizza, bacon, eggs, hash browns, biscuits & gravy, pancakes, waffles, toast and jam. All of it was real. Nothing came from a fabricator. After three months of less than stellar options, it was a meal to end all meals. Zack loaded up several trays, stuffing his face with a little bit of everything that was offered. It was the most delectable meal he had ever tasted. At least, that's what it seemed like. He was so hungry, anything would've tasted good.
His stomach had been churning in knots for the last four days. He had lost 10 pounds during the event, and he didn't have it to lose. He was dehydrated, weak, and shaking. There were times during the march where he felt like he was going to pass out. But he kept going. He wasn't about to stop so close to the finish.
By the time he finished breakfast, he had gained most of the 10 pounds back. He felt like he was going to burst at the seams. He had eaten too much, and his belly ached for several hours afterward. But it was worth it.
He was so amped up from lack of sleep and adrenaline that he was practically shaking. When he finally got into his rack, it felt like heaven. He was fast asleep the instant the lights went out in the squad bay. Morning reveille came all too soon. He felt like he had just closed his eyes. His body was sore and achy. It would take a few days to recover from the brutality of the Gauntlet. But it was over, and he would never have to go through it again.
Graduation somehow seemed anti-climactic without the presence of his mother and Honor. He had no one to share the moment with. He didn't even have time to speak with Matt before he shipped out for Mech School.
Since Zack came in as a contract E2, was Platoon Guide, and named Company Honorman because of his academics and field performance, he was pinned an E3 upon graduation. He left boot camp as a Lance Corporal.
Zack said his goodbyes to the platoon. And oddly enough, he and Darrell Vaughn had acquired a mutual respect for one another. Especially during the Gauntlet. Zack wouldn't go so far as to call them friends, but they weren’t enemies. This ragtag group of strangers from all corners of the Federation had become brothers. It was a bond that would last a lifetime.
MCRD was behind him now. He had earned the title of Marine. But Zack knew that the road ahead of him was going to be much worse than anything boot camp had to offer.
“Sir, Lance Corporal Zack Salvator reporting for duty." He shouted over the noise. Zack saluted and stood at attention on the tarmac.
The Raptor that had dropped him off was already floating into the air behind him. Its massive Hughes & Kessler engines rumbled, and the air beneath the thrusters rippled with heat distortion.
“You can cut the sir crap. I'm Staff Sergeant Paxton Willoughby. Welcome to Camp Creighton on Avlaar 7.”
“Thank you, sir. I mean, Sergeant."
Willoughby gave him the eye. “Relax. This isn’t boot camp.”
Willoughby took a deep breath and shook his head. It was going to take a little while for Zack to break the habit. Willoughby was calm and cool. He had one of those faces that always looked like he was smiling. He was easy-going, and you couldn't help but like the guy. He had brown hair and blue eyes and a gentle disposition. He was the complete opposite of the drill instructors at boot camp.
“Follow me, I'll show you to the barracks."
There were rows and rows of MAVs on the tarmac. They stood about 2.5 stories tall. Imposing figures. Thick and bulky, they looked like metallic green-grey guerrillas. Walking tanks. Plasma cannons were mounted under each forearm. Rocket launchers on each shoulder. Their legs were thick and beefy, with hydraulics and shock absorbers. Wide feet stabilize the anthropomorphic vehicles. The skull emblem of the platoon was emblazoned on one side of the cockpit, and a pinup queen on the other. They each had phrases written across the chest. Kill them all, let God sort them out was written on one of them.
They were a sight to behold. Zack gazed at them in awe. "I thought I was supposed to be going to Fort Knispel for the Mechanized Infantry Pilot Program?”
"I need pilots now, not in nine weeks. Besides, a trained monkey could pilot one of these things—provided that monkey has the right brain structure."
Zack looked perplexed. "So I'm not going to Mech School?”
“Oh, you're going to school all right. You're going to get on-the-job training."
Zack's eyes went wide like saucers. “I’ve had a couple of classes in basic, and logged a few hours in the simulator, but that's it,” he protested.
“More than enough."
Zack couldn't believe Willoughby was so cavalier about his lack of training.
“I’ll introduce you to the guys," Willoughby said as they entered the barracks. It was a far cry from the squad bay at Omaha Island. This thing looked more like a college dorm room. Pictures of scantily clad women hung on the walls next to the racks. None of the men conformed to the grooming standard. Some had beards, mustaches, or long hair. They looked more like Special Warfare Operators than Marines. There were a few women in the platoon as well.
“That's Nails, Cosmo, Bugs, Apex, Diesel, Specter, Hollywood, Knuckles, Venom, Magnum, Caboose, Ozone, Sidewinder, T-Bone, Big Poppa, Mad Dog, Diablo, and Surge,” Willoughby Said. "This is Lance Corporal Salvator.
They seemed less than impressed, and continued about their business, giving little more than a passing acknowledgment to the new member of the platoon.
“He doesn't have a callsign yet, but I'm sure you'll appoint him with one soon enough." Willoughby patted Zack on the shoulder and muttered in his ear. "A couple rules about call signs… You don't get to pick your own. You won't like the one they give you. And if you complain about it, you'll get something worse."
Zack hesitated for a moment. "What's your callsign, Staff Sergeant?"
Willoughby grinned and proudly said, “Bad Ass. Diesel, show him the ropes."
Diesel’s pretty face scrunched up. She was a tough brunette with ice blue eyes and sumptuous lips. Her olive drab tank top hugged her perfect form and ample endowments. Her shirt was cut off, exposing her sculpted midriff. She was a fierce, athletic beauty. “No. Sarge! Come on… I trained the last FNG,” she whined.
“Yeah, and that turned out well,” Nails said with a heavy dose of sarcasm.
“Eat me, nails." Her eyes blazed into him.
“Name the time and place.”
"That's an order, Corporal,” Willoughby snapped.
“Aye, Sergeant,” Diesel muttered.
Willoughby flashed an exaggerated smile at Zack. "Welcome to Crusher platoon!”
Zack forced a smile and hauled his gear to his new rack. He wasn't particularly fond of the bottom rack, but that was the only thing available. He stowed his gear and attempted to introduce himself to his bunkmate. "You’re Magnum, right?"
He was laying atop his bunk, reading on his PDU. "Don't even try to talk to me, new guy. I don't want to know you."
Zack shrugged. "Well, it was nice to meet you."
"Don't mind him," Bugs said. "He's just an angry little man." She measured out an inch between her thumb and forefinger. She was a creamy skinned redhead with short hair and green eyes. She held out her hand. "I'm Bugs. It's nice to meet you."
The two shook hands.
“Might want to wash your hand, new guy,” Magnum said. "No telling where hers has been."
Bugs sneered at him. "Not anywhere near you."
Magnum ignored her.
“Don't let first impressions fool you," Bugs said. "Every platoon has their undesirables, but overall, Crusher Platoon is not a bad unit."
"Have you seen a lot of action?"
“She’s seen a lot of action,” Magnum said dryly.
Bugs glared at him. "The platoon has seen quite a bit. We've been back on base for a few weeks for maintenance and upgrades.”
“Where were you?”
"What was it like?"
Bugs frowned and shook her head. "We took heavy losses. Second and third platoon were devastated. They merged us all together. We’re the only platoon left in the company. That is, until we get more replacements. And don't be offended by guys like Magnum. Statistically, new pilots are more likely to get killed early on."
“Hang around long enough, and I'm sure the guys will warm up to you.”
“I won’t count on it. But I appreciate your kindness.”
She smiled, innocently. “No problem. I figure you're probably going to die soon, so I might as will be nice to you."
"You have any actual time in one of these things?" Diesel asked.
“Not exactly," Zack replied.
Diesel shook her head. "All right, let's start with the basics.”
They stood on the tarmac in front of one of the MAVs. There were rows and rows of them. At the far end of the formation was a lone unit that looked unlike any of the others.
“Is that a Tarvaax mech?” Zack asked, pointing at the strange vehicle.
Diesel glanced over her shoulder at it. “Yeah. It was captured during a battle on Zeplovia. Nobody's been able to pilot it though. About the only thing we've been able to do is power it on. But interfacing with the unit is another story.”
"I'd like to try.”
Diesel laughed. "Why don't you worry about getting proficient in one of these first?” She pointed to a Maverick. “Operating one of these vehicles is a physically demanding endeavor. You must keep yourself in excellent physical fitness, and daily PT is a must.”
“No problem there.”
“Some of these struts weigh 150 pounds. Something breaks in the field and needs replacing, you need to be able to handle that kind of weight. She looked over his physique. “Bulking up a little wouldn't be a bad idea."
Zack looked at her, incredulous. He had put on a good 10 pounds of muscle since entering boot camp. But it wasn't enough.
“I want you to spend every free moment studying the manual. Your life, and the lives of the platoon, may depend on your technical ability. You understand me?"
“When you're working on that thing, no jewelry, no watches, no electronic devices on your person. There are high-voltage electrical currents under the hood that will sizzle your insides. Smoke will be coming out of your ears. I've seen it happen, and it's not a pretty sight.”
“I've worked on loaders before."
Diesel's eyes narrowed at him. "This isn't a loader. It's much more complex. That thing is 72 tons. It's not a toy. You screw up, people can die.”
“Not a toy. Got it."
Diesel scowled at him. “Let's get one thing straight, Lance Corporal. Since I got stuck with the shit job of training you, you've got to play by my rules. You will do what I say, when I say it. As far as your training is concerned I am God, do you understand?”
“I’ll teach you how to drive. I'll teach you the weapons systems. I'll teach you how to load, and how to do PMCS (preventive maintenance, checks and services). It's your responsibility to keep your unit in tip top shape. You'll need to check fluids and lubricants. You’ll need to make sure everything is tightened down, and recognize when parts are missing or malfunctioning. You can't always rely on the self diagnostics to accurately troubleshoot a problem. Sometimes a faulty chip reports a malfunction when there isn't one. Sometimes a good part reads as bad, and sometimes a bad part reads as good. Are you starting to get the picture?”
“You need to take care of the MAV, cause it’s going to take care of you in combat. It is your new best friend and you will be loyal to it.”
“Do you know your left from your right?”
Zack's brow crinkled. "Yes, Corporal."
“You'd be surprised how many come through here that get those two mixed up. When I talk about the left or right side of the Maverick, I mean as if you were sitting in the cockpit.” She surveyed Zack for a moment. Point to the Maverick’s left arm.”
The MAV's left arm was on Zack's right side. He pointed to it.
“Excellent. You’re smarter than you look.”
Diesel wore a smart watch that acted as a remote for the Maverick. She tabbed through a few screens on the display and pressed the button. Moments later, the interior cockpit illuminated, and the engine spun up. An increasingly high pitched whine emanated from the thoracic cavity until it reached full idle. Intake vents near the shoulder sucked in air, blowing it out the back exhaust ports, leaving a wake of rippled heat distortion.
Diesel pressed another button, and a small hatch opened on the side of the torso. "Here's a small storage compartment. Comes in handy for gear. There's one on the other side as well." She pressed another button, and the massive assault vehicle squatted down. She grabbed onto the small metal rungs on the side of the torso, and climbed up to the cockpit. It was a tandem seat training unit with the pilot up front, and the gunner in the rear. "What are you waiting for? Get up here."
Zack climb the rungs after her.
Diesel crawled into the gunner's position. Zack hopped into the pilot position. He strapped into the harness that affixed around his waist and shoulders. He put on his helmet and prepared to interface with the vehicle.
The helmets were state-of-the-art vectron fiber, with multiple neuro-sensors. They cost upwards of 500,000 credits each and weighed less than a pound. Small cameras embedded in the exterior armor of the Maverick fed into the helmet, giving the pilot a 360° view. Without the cameras, vision was limited to the narrow viewports of the canopy.
The cockpit had just enough room for Zack to move his arms and legs in every conceivable position. But you wouldn't call it spacious, by any stretch of the imagination. It felt like being in a cramped elevator, and Zack hated cramped elevators.
Diesel pressed a button and the canopy slid shut with a solid seal. The interior compartment pressurized. It was a precaution in case exterior environmental conditions changed. The Mavericks were rated up to depths of 300 meters. It gave a whole new meaning to amphibious landings.
“When you're strapped in and ready, activate the merge button to sync with the unit."
Zack felt his stomach flutter, and his skin mist over, slick with nervous sweat.
“Just relax and go with it. You're going to feel a bit of a rush when you sync with the device."
“Thanks for the warning.” Zack pressed a button and activated the sync. A rush of sensory input overwhelmed him. It was similar to when he had first been tested for compatibility. His skin tingled, and he felt a rush of adrenaline.
The exterior of the maverick had thousands of transducers embedded into the composite armor. They were the equivalent of nerve endings, and they transmitted electrical signals back to the pilot that registered as sensory input. Zack had a tactile sense of feeling. It was as if he and the Maverick were one.
Zack lifted his arms, and so did the Maverick. He opened his hands, then clenched into a fist. The Maverick responded without any delay. They were in perfect sync.
“How are you feeling?”
“I feel amazing.”
“Most newbies experience dizziness and a sensation of vertigo. Be careful on your first step. The device has Gyro stabilizers that will assist in keeping us from toppling over, but it's not impossible to lay one of these things down. And I'd rather not hit the ground."
“I'll be gentle, I promise," Zack said.
“I’ve heard that one before.”
Zack took a step and the Maverick stepped with him. Its massive right foot lifted into the air, then slammed down on the tarmac.
Zack took another step. Then another.
“Easy there, cowboy.”
“What? I got this.” He had a wide grin on his face. He was like a kid playing with a giant toy. He hadn't had this much fun since before he left for boot camp.
He took several more steps, growing more confident with each one.
“Look out,” Diesel screeched. Her face washed with panic.
“I see it.” Zack maneuvered the Maverick, narrowly missing a supply truck that was racing across the tarmac.
Diesel exhaled. But she was holding on, white knuckled. She was a pilot herself. She wasn't used to being a gunner. It was easy to see she didn't like being out of control. "Okay, why don't you slow down. Let's start going over some fundamentals."
I thought that’s what we’re doing?” Zack didn't slow down. He picked up the pace and began to jog. The giant armored beast plowed across the tarmac. It's heavy feet slammed against the asphalt with thunderous booms. The ground shook with each impact, and you could feel the vibrations all the way in the barracks.
Diesel looked almost queasy as she bounced around in the gunner’s chair.
“How fast will this thing go?”
"It tops out around 100 clicks an hour. But let's not push it today. It's easy to get this thing moving fast, it's quite another to stop it on a dime.”
Zack sped up to a full sprint, then tried his luck at stopping.
Diesel looked terrified.
Within a few steps, Zack brought the Maverick to a halt. Diesel had barely caught her breath when Zack changed directions and started sprinting again.
It was clear Zack had a gift. He had taken to the device quicker than anyone Diesel had ever seen.
Zack's face lit up with glee. “When do we hit the weapons range?"
Diesel rolled her eyes.
"Let's wrap this up. You don't want to stay synced for too long your first time.”
“Why not? I feel great."
“Come talk to me in an hour when you have a splitting headache. Sometimes the sensory input can be too much. It's enough to kill most people.”
"I'm fine. I'm totally psyched. I'm ready to blow stuff up."
Diesel paused for a long moment. "All right, hot shot. Head to the weapons range."
Zack marched toward the east end of the base. The range was several miles from the main compound. The area was fenced off with a red containment beam. There was a big red and white sign that said restricted area, authorized personnel only.
Zack stopped at the guard gate.
Diesel spoke into the comm line and identified herself. "Corporal Dawson. I'm taking a newbie out to the weapons range."
A few moments later, the guard's voice crackled back. "Go ahead, Corporal. I've got you slotted for sector A 23.”
The containment beam deactivated at the gate, and Zack marched through.
“Take a left here and follow the path north.”
"Aye, Corporal.” Zack pulled up a map of the weapons range on his heads-up display. He could hear the low rumble of heavy weapons fire in the distance. The display indicated that a tank unit was in section C9.
"Where are you from, Lance Corporal?"
Diesel frowned. "Sorry." Her voice was solemn.
"I'm itching for a little payback."
“I’m sure you’ll get your chance."
“If you don't mind my asking, how did you get the name Diesel?”
She shrugged. "Because I’m built tough."
There was no doubt about that. She had the physical conditioning of a high-level athlete. And at the end of the day, that's what these mech pilots were—athletes. Superstar gladiators, without the exorbitant paycheck.
Zack marched the Maverick along the path and navigated to his assigned sector. In the center of the area was a mockup of an urban setting, made with primitive concrete structures. The dummy buildings were pocked with blast marks. What was left of them, anyway. They had taken plenty of abuse. The entire sector was rimmed by a high ridge-line to contain any stray munitions.
"The typical scenario that we encounter is an urban warfare setting. You'll need to maneuver and fight within a confined space. Situational awareness is critical. You’ll be facing enemies from within structures, on rooftops, and in alleyways. It's easy to find yourself in a situation where you are cut off, with no escape route."
There was a rusty tank in the field near the dilapidated buildings. It was peppered with holes. Weeds were growing up from its undercarriage, sprouting around its tread.
"Before we get to the more complicated stuff, let's start with the basics. You have two, 50 caliber machine guns. They are capable of a thousand rounds a minute."
“Nice,” Zack said.
“In the tandem units, both you and your gunner will have access to your weapons systems. Just make sure you're on the same page so you don't step on each other's toes. Not an issue in the single seaters, obviously.”
The Command-Tech™ helmet had a context aware optical targeting system. The system monitored eye movement along with brain impulses. A pilot could select a weapons system by either looking at the selector icon in the heads up display and mentally choosing to select the weapons system, or by audible command. Targets were selected and fired upon in the same manner. It was truly a hands-free environment.
“Go ahead and make your weapon selection," Diesel said.
Zack made the selection mentally, and the 50 cal icon in his heads-up display illuminated.
“Great. Now target the tank."
Zack's eyes scanned downrange. The reticle in his HUD lined up over the rust bucket.
"Fire when ready."
Zack fired the 50 cal. A dozen rounds ripped out of each barrel. Sparks and muzzle flash spit from the barrel. The sharp rattle rumbled through the cockpit, and Zack could feel the vibration in his chest. Plumes of blue smoke wafted in front of the view ports. Bullets the size of bananas streaked downrange, pelting the dilapidated tank.
As massive as the bullets were, they did little to the armor plating. They pinged off the composite material, merely leaving dents and chipped paint.
“As you can see, it's an ineffective weapon against a heavily armored tank. But it's fantastic against soft targets. It will rip an enemy soldier into shreds.” Diesel had a devious glint in her eyes.
“Let's try something with a little more punch," Zack said. He switched to the plasma cannons. He lined up the tank in his sights and fired. Two blue plasma bolts from either cannon rocketed downfield. The projectiles exploded in a fury as they impacted the armor plating. The massive cannons incinerated a section of the hull, leaving blackened score marks.
Zack hollered with excitement.
“A much more effective weapon," Diesel said.
“You've got rocket launchers mounted on either shoulder. Why don't you give those a try?”
Zack targeted the tank once again. Seconds later he launched a Hell-Storm missile. The guided smart rocket spit fire and propellant as it raced across the field. It slammed into the tank with a brilliant explosion. An amber ball of flames billowed into the sky, followed by thick black smoke. When the chaos cleared, Zack could see the turret had been severed from the body. The rust bucket smoldered in ruin.
"Now that's what I'm talking about!”
“Okay. I'll admit it. You're pretty good with stationary targets. But let's see what happens when things start moving,” Diesel said. "I'm going to activate some holographic targets, and we’re going to switch to simulated weapons fire.”
“Where's the fun in that?"
"It will hone your skills and it won't cost the taxpayers quite as much. Just one of those Hell-Storm missiles cost 243,000 credits.”
Zack's eyes bulged out of their sockets. "That's not going to come out of my paycheck, is it?"
Zack winced, rubbing his temples. His head throbbed with every pulse. He sat on his rack trying to concentrate on anything but the pain. It was all consuming.
Magnum smirked. "You've got an ice pick, don't you?”
Zack squinted at him in agony. “What?"
"An ice pick. It feels like an ice pick is jamming through your skull, doesn't it?”
“You got any Neuromodix?”
“No. And if I did, I wouldn't give it away," Magnum said. "You need to go see a corpsman for that."
Diesel strolled up to his rack. "I told you to go easy out there today."
"It's not that bad, really,” Zack said, doing his best to hide the pain.
Diesel grinned. "You newbies never learn." She sauntered away and both Magnum and Zack couldn't help but watch. She had mesmerizing assets.
“You get some of that today?” Magnum muttered.
Zack almost looked confused. "No.”
“Are you not into girls, newbie? I mean, that's cool and all, but… I’d be all over that.”
“We trained at the weapons range."
“I’d like to instruct her on a few things," Magnum said with a lascivious glint in his eyes.
“Besides, I sort of got a girl back home."
“You either do, or you don't. And if she's back home, you ain’t got her no more."
Zack's face tensed, and his cheeks were turning red.
By the look in his eyes, Magnum could tell it was a touchy subject. “Ease up there, Champ. I'm just messing with you.”
“She's on Crylos, and I haven't heard from her since the attack.”
Magnum realized he had put his foot in his mouth. “Oh, shit. I’m sorry, Bro.”
Zack exhaled and calmed down a little bit.
Magnum gave a somber pause.
Zack made a trip to the med center, but didn't find much relief.
“No. I’m not giving you Neuromodix,” the corpsman said. "It will take away all of your pain, but that stuff is highly addictive, and you'll develop a tolerance quickly." The corpsman stared at his PDU, looking over Zack's file. He reached into a cabinet and pulled out a sample blister pack and handed Zack the pills. “Try this and see how it does. Take two every six hours, not to exceed six in a day.”
“What is it?”
“Zotrix. It's a mild pain disrupter. Not habit-forming. Just take it on a full stomach.”
Zack looked at him skeptically. "So take six every two hours?”
The corpsman laughed, “No. Two every six hours.”
“More is better, right?" Zack said with a sardonic grin.
“More is not better. Now get out of here."
Zack grabbed a glass of water from a nearby cooler, popped out four pills from the blister pack and gobbled them down. After 45 minutes, they had barely touched the pain. It was just something he was going to have to deal with, and hope that it would lessen over time.
For the next several weeks, he honed his skills on the weapons range. His maneuvers became precise, and his accuracy impeccable. He spent every free moment training. And when he wasn't in the cockpit of a Maverick, he was either in the gym, doing his best to bulk up, or doing conditioning runs around the base.
Zack was able to drive and fire the MAV by himself with greater accuracy than most two-person teams. And his performance didn't go unnoticed.
“I've never seen anything like it," Diesel said, watching from an observation tower on the weapons range.
“The boy’s got a gift, that's for sure,” Willoughby remarked. “Training and simulations are one thing. How do you think he’ll perform under pressure?"
“I haven't seen anything to indicate that he would fold. He's mentally tough."
“The only thing I care about is whether or not he's an asset or a liability on the battlefield,” Willoughby said.
“Put it to you this way… I wouldn't want to go up against him. And he's only been at this for three weeks." It was high praise coming from Diesel. Not too many people managed to impress her.
When Zack was synced with the Maverick, he was free of the crushing pain. But within minutes of disconnecting, the agony returned. The longer he spent connected, the deeper the pain and the greater the duration. It wasn't lessening up either. The pain usually diminished within a few weeks for most MAV jockeys. But not for Zack. He wasn't sure if the headaches would ever relent. It seemed his hyper compatible brain structure came with a price.
Zack stood on the tarmac, gazing up at the Tarvaax mech. He jumped up and grabbed ahold of the lowest rung on the torso. He climbed into the cockpit and put on the interface helmet.
In basic, he had taken several classes on enemy vehicles. The recruits learned to identify the silhouettes and were given a cursory overview of their functionality and capabilities. Marines needed to be able to distinguish friend from foe on the battlefield, especially if the computer assist was unavailable.
The recruits had also been taught the basics of the Tarvaax language. It was essential to be able to communicate basic commands with prisoners of war and to read common terms that might appear on weaponry or vehicles.
Zack was able to power up the mech. The massive engine wound up, and the cockpit came alive with glowing displays. The Tarvaax were physically larger, and the cockpit felt cavernous compared to that of a Maverick. Zack felt like a little kid playing in a grown-ups’ vehicle.
He took a moment to familiarize himself with the controls. The layout was different, but the concepts were the same. He could read most of the labels, but he wasn't sure about a few of them. When he felt comfortable, he took a deep breath and activated the sync interface. It was like connecting with a Maverick, but way more powerful. The rush of sensory input was overwhelming. His ears rang, and his vision whited out. He felt like he was falling, spiraling into an abyss. It was like his brain had short-circuited. He could barely form a thought, other than this was a bad idea.
After a moment, his vision and hearing returned. The dizziness faded. He regained his composure and looked over the controls. The heads up display indicated a successful sync. Zack was a little surprised.
He decided it was time to take his first step in this alien vehicle. The mech listed forward, unsteady. Zack shifted the vehicle's weight to the other foot, and the massive vehicle teetered to the opposite side. He countered with another step, but dragged the foot. The metal behemoth tripped, falling face forward, crashing against the tarmac. The impact rumbled through the entire base. It wasn't long before Zack had unwanted attention.
Zack struggled to get the unit back on its feet. By that time, he saw Sergeant Willoughby marching toward him, yelling. Zack couldn't hear what he was saying. He powered off the device and opened the cockpit. Willoughby's booming voice came roaring through.
“What in the hell are you doing, Salvator?”
“Just seeing if I could get it to work, Sarge.”
"Get out of that cockpit now!”
“Aye, Sarge. Do you want me to put it back into position?”
“I don’t want you to take another step in that thing. It hasn’t worked out for you that well so far."
“I've taken more steps than anybody else,” Zack added boastfully.
“You’ve also crashed more than anybody else. Now get down here. We’re going to be Oscar Mike shortly.”
Somebody yelled, “Attention on deck!”
The platoon snapped stiff like boards. 2nd Lieutenant Sutton had entered the barracks. “Our orders just came in. We’ve been mobilized. I need every mechanized unit we have prepped, loaded, and ready to transport to the USS Endeavor. This is what we've been waiting for. Operation Steel Fury. It’s time for a little payback. We’re going to liberate Crylos 9 and send those slime-bags back to where they came from. Let's get a move on people. I want to be wheels up by 1400 hours."
The platoon scrambled to prep their gear. One by one, Mavericks were loaded into MLVs (mechanized landing vehicles). They were modernized versions of the old Gators. An entire mechanized platoon could fit in the cargo bay. The front ramp opened like mammoth jaws, allowing Mavericks to rapidly deploy into the field.
They were slow, lumbering behemoths, piloted from the rear. They were heavily armored, but their size and speed made them particularly vulnerable during insertions. Heavy plasma cannons mounted fore and aft, each manned by its own gunner, provided some degree of protection. Launched from the flight deck of a star destroyer or super-carrier, they were the Marine Corps's only method of terrestrial landings for the mechanized infantry.
“It's too bad we've got more mechs than pilots," Willoughby said.
Zack stood next to him on the tarmac watching Cosmo march his mech backwards up the ramp and into position inside the cargo hold of an MLV.
Zack hustled to his Maverick and stowed his gear in the storage compartment. A boatswain’s mate was painting Zack’s name across the torso, near the cockpit, putting on the finishing touches. He completed the last stroke and climbed down.
“How does it look, Lance Corporal Salvator?”
“Outstanding.” Zack squinted his eyes for a closer look. It was painted in a classic handwritten font. It looked so perfect, it could have been laser etched. It read Lance Corporal Zack “Ice Pick” Salvator.
Zack shook his head. Ice Pick was his callsign, and he was stuck with it.
He pressed a button on his wrist remote, and the giant beast squatted before him. He climbed up the rungs and hopped into the cockpit. He put on his helmet and strapped himself in. He closed the canopy, and the seal sucked shut. He stepped the MAV to the ramp, and waited for his turn to load into the MLV. He marched the Maverick backward up the ramp and got in line with the rest of the platoon. An automated harness extended from the roof deck and latched on to the Maverick, securing it in position for the flight.
When the last of the MAVs were loaded aboard, the massive jaws of the landing vehicle slammed shut. The thunderous clank reverberated through the cargo hold.
It was almost pitch black inside. The only light came from the glowing cockpits of the Mavericks. Each Marine stayed in their vehicle for the duration of the flight. It was like being cocooned inside a giant coffin. It reminded him of the elevator in his apartment complex back home. He hated the feeling of being closed in, but he was adapting. That's what Marines did.
The military was all about hurry up and wait, then move fast. Carry out orders with explosive action. Then wait, and wait, and wait. It seemed like they sat on the tarmac for an hour, snug as bugs in a rug. Finally, the MLV's engines rumbled to life, and the craft lifted off the ground. Zack felt the craft pitch and roll, then angle for the upper atmosphere. They went through a heavy patch of turbulence, which made Zack feel uneasy. He had lost all sense of direction, unable to see the horizon line. The MLV dropped when he thought it would rise. It shifted left when he thought it would shift right. It threw off his equilibrium.
Zack's stomach rumbled, and he could feel the sour juices climbing their way up the back of his throat. It took everything he had to keep it in the proper place. Slow and steady breaths. The last thing he wanted to do was spew in the cockpit. He’d never get the smell out.
After a few minutes, the turbulence stopped, and the ride became as smooth as glass. He felt the weightlessness of space as he lifted slightly in his harness. The sensation was a welcome relief.
The USS Endeavor was in a low orbit above Avlaar 7. Within a few minutes, the MLV was landing on the flight deck. The jaws opened, and the ramp lowered. Zack squinted as the bright light from the flight deck cascaded into the dim cavernous cargo hold.
The flight deck was a beehive of activity. Flight crews in multicolored uniforms scampered about, prepping attack fighters and drop ships, loading ordnance, and topping off fuel cells.
Zack activated the canopy. Pressurized air rushed out as it slid open. He unlatched his safety harness and climbed out of the vehicle. With the Maverick standing fully upright, the bottom rung was almost 10 feet off the ground. Zack hung from the bottom rung, his feet dangling 4 feet from the deck. He dropped the rest of the way and marched down the ramp with the rest of the platoon.
The officer of the deck greeted them on the quarterdeck.
“2nd Lieutenant Elwood Sutton. Permission to come aboard?”
“Permission granted," said the OOD. “Your platoon’s birthing quarters are on 2nd Deck, Section 125-L. I sent the specific compartment assignments to your platoon’s PDUs. Colonel Matthews has scheduled a mission briefing at 1900 hours. If you need anything, please don't hesitate to ask. Welcome aboard the Endeavor."
“Thank you, Lieutenant," Sutton said.
This was Zack's first time aboard a super-carrier. He glanced around the flight deck in awe. It was a well oiled machine, and the slightest screw up could cause a catastrophe. Fighters and transports were constantly landing and taking off. The air was filled with the rumble of engines, the clatter of crews scurrying about, and the smell of steel, grease and ion exhaust.
The platoon marched into a corridor, heading for their quarters. It was a maze of passageways that all looked the same. You could spend days on a carrier, wandering the hallways if you got lost. If you knew the labeling system, it was relatively easy to navigate.
The hallways bustled with activity. Sailors coming and going, moving with a purpose. It was like a living breathing organism. Like a hive of bees, everyone had their purpose, all in service to the captain.
The atmosphere was electric. There was always something going on, and everything was urgent. It was the kind of place that took some getting used to. There was never a moment of absolute quiet. There was always the dull rumble of the engine, and the constant clatter of activity. Footsteps traipsing up and down the corridors. But once you got used to the bustle, you missed it any time you were away from it. Like you were missing out on the action, and you probably were.
Zack followed Willoughby and the Lieutenant. He would never have found his compartment on his own. There were six racks in his berthing compartment. They were 2.5 x 2.5 x 7, and the passageway between them was, at most, 3 feet.
The platoon stowed their gear and hit the 2nd Deck mess hall. Might as well go to war on a full belly.
Zack's heart sank when he saw the image of Crylos on the display screen in the Ready Room. The planet was surrounded by enemy warships, dominating the orbit around his home world.
Lieutenant Colonel Kubiak, the battalion commander, addressed the packed room of Marines of the 1st Mechanized Battalion. “Operation Steel Fury will be the most ambitious offensive ever undertaken by the UPDF. Together with the USS Tempest, the Iron Heart, the Thrasher, the Intrepid, the Freedom, Gladiator, and the Normandy, we will emerge from slide-space at Crylos 9 and engage the enemy in a coordinated attack. The Tarvaax dominates the skies. The Navy will do what they do best and disable the enemy’s fleet. But make no mistake about it, this battle will be won, or lost, by what we do on the ground. We will punch through their defenses, and take back our cities one by one. Our primary objective is to establish a forward position capable of withstanding any counterattack, then reinforce and expand that position. We will accomplish this through landings at multiple insertion points near the south side of Utonia. This is where we believe their defenses to be the weakest.” Kubiak took a deep breath. "I'm not going to sugarcoat this. Many of you are not going to come back. But what we do here today will affect the sovereignty of the Federation forever. The Tarvaax will not stop until they have exterminated, or enslaved, all of mankind. Good luck. And may God be with us all."
The UPDF fleet had emerged at a rendezvous point a short distance from Crylos 9. From there, it was a short slide-space jump to the battlefield, no more than 15 minutes.
Crusher Platoon marched across the flight deck to their MLV. Dozens of other units scurried across the deck, preparing for the offensive.
“Maps have been sent to your PDUs of the AO,” Sutton stammered. His eyes were wide, and his face was pale. He had already said it previously, and was about to continue repeating instructions.
“Don't worry, LT. We got this," Willoughby said with a grin. He didn't look nervous in the least.
Zack wondered if he just hid it well, or if he was able to truly remain detached. Zack felt like he had imbibed a pot of coffee. Adrenaline was coursing through his veins. His stomach fluttered. No amount of training could ever fully prepare you for your first battle. Targets on the range didn't shoot back.
Crusher Platoon had been in the thick of it before, and most members of the platoon had long ago accepted death as a possible outcome.
Zack followed the platoon up the ramp. He jumped up, grabbed the bottom rung, and climbed into his MAV. He put on his helmet and powered up the vehicle. The jaws of the transport slammed shut, then the platoon was once again shrouded in darkness. Exhaust from the Mavericks was vented out of the cargo hold, but it didn't take the air long to become stiflingly hot. The bulkheads rippled and warbled as the Endeavor made its final quantum jump to Crylos. It was the last moment of calm before the storm.
Zack focused on the task at hand. He took slow steady breaths and pushed out any negative thoughts, doubts, or concerns. He was going to approach it like it was just a big video game—one in which you couldn't re-spawn.
"I hear they're rounding up civilians as slaves," Ozone said, his slightly shaky voice crackling over the comm line. “But they aren’t taking any military POWs."
“Don't get captured, and you will be fine," Diesel said.
“I don’t plan on it.”
Zack was hoping against hope that his foster parents and Honor were still alive. But he hadn't been able to contact them since the attack. The only ray of hope was that they hadn’t been officially reported as deceased.
Zack felt his stomach twist in knots again as the Endeavor emerged from slide-space. It was like another shot of adrenaline. His heartbeat skyrocketed. This was the moment of truth.
Zack could hear the rumble of cannon fire as the Endeavor’s massive turrets swung into position and pummeled the enemy warships. The mammoth super-carrier quaked as the enemy returned fire. Directed energy blasts slammed into the hull. It was like two prizefighters standing toe to toe, trading punches. Zack wondered how long the Endeavor could hold out.
He felt the MLV lift off the flight deck and accelerate out of the bay. The space surrounding Zack's home world was in chaos. Plasma bolts streaked across the star field in all directions. Swarms of UPDF fighters clashed with the enemy. It was like someone had kicked a nest of angry hornets. The fighters dodged and weaved and dove and rolled. The heavy warships fired nuclear missiles at each other. Defensive targeting systems attempted to incinerate them before impact.
Hundreds of MLV's launched from the fleet and descended toward Crylos. The slow lumbering barges were like sitting ducks.
The Endeavor fired several smart missiles down to the surface of Crylos in an attempt to soften up the landing area.
Zack was able to glimpse at the maelstrom by tapping into the landing vehicle’s camera feed. A neighboring MLV exploded in a blinding fury as a plasma cannon incinerated it. Despite the armor plating and electromagnetic shielding, it was no match for the high-powered weapon. It was a grim reminder of how fragile even the toughest of vehicles could be.
Hordes of enemy fighters attempted to shoot down the landing vehicles. Several swarmed around Crusher Platoon’s MLV. The plasma turrets swung into action, spraying a stream of projectiles at the attackers.
Several Navy fighter escorts swooped in to defend Crusher’s MLV. There may have been a good degree of inter-service rivalry, but at times like this, they were all thankful for one another.
Between the attack fighters and the turret gunners, short work was made of the enemy fighters. One by one, the alien ships exploded, spiraling debris into the vastness of space.
The MLV shook and rumbled as it entered the violent upper atmosphere. They were lucky to have made it this far. Zack had witnessed dozens explode in the short distance between the flight deck and the stratosphere. The MLV rattled, and it sounded like it was going to rip apart.
They had beaten the odds by making it past the destroyers. A small wave of relief washed over Zack. The next challenge would be the landing. They would have to evade the anti-aircraft guns and the enemy’s mechanized divisions on the ground. Hopefully the brass had planned well and weren’t putting them down in the middle of the ant pile.
The MLV broke through the clouds, and the ground below became visible. It was hardly recognizable to Zack. The once stunning landscape was now war-torn. The architectural marvels had been razed.
Brilliant orange plasma bolts streaked toward the landing vehicles from ground plasma cannons. It was a sight to behold. Watching the glowing projectiles as they vaulted upwards was almost mesmerizing. Almost.
A massive bolt rocketed within inches of the MLV. Other landing vehicles were dropping like flies, exploding in brilliant balls of amber flame. They billowed black smoke as their twisted carcasses tumbled to the ground.
Zack watched as another stream of plasma bolts blasted toward his MLV. It was a disconcerting feeling, having no control over the situation. There was nothing he could do to alter his fate. One of the bolts clipped an MLV ahead of Crusher Platoon’s, shredding the vehicle.
Zack could see fragments of the hull spiral away, along with bits and pieces of the Mavericks contained within.
A massive chunk of shrapnel slammed into Crusher Platoon’s left engine. The impact rattled Zack's skull. The engine exploded, and the MLV spiraled out of control, plummeting to its doom.
The MLV quaked and tumbled through the atmosphere. It was a disorienting spiral of chaos. If Zack wasn't feeling queasy before, he was now.
Zack saw glimpses of the ground below flash across his HUD as the landing vehicle twisted out of control. His first thought wasn’t of panic or fear—it was that he wasn't going to get to fight. His platoon was going to end up as a mangled pile of wreckage on the ground.
The MLV pilot pulled hard on the controls, trying to stabilize the descent. With a skillful use of landing thrusters, along with port and starboard navigational thrusters, the pilot was able to get the death spiral under control. The craft leveled out, and the descent slowed to something more manageable. The MLV listed along, sputtering on one engine.
Navy strike fighters targeted the artillery positions with guided smart missiles. But it did little to minimize the incoming weapons fire.
Crusher Platoon’s battered MLV made its final descent. The heavy behemoth thundered to the ground with a violent jolt. The steel jaws opened, but the front ramp ground to a halt halfway down. It was stuck.
Nails was in the first row of Mavericks. He marched forward and kicked the ramp with the foot of his mech repeatedly until it flopped to the ground. The platoon flooded out of the vehicle and got their first taste of the battlefield.
Plasma bolts filled the sky, zipping in all directions. The platoon had landed on the outskirts of the city of Utonia. They had touched down in Hurst Park, though it took Zack a moment to realize where he was. It was anything but a scenic, recreational area. The Tarvaax had lined the park with a modernized version of the old Czech hedgehog obstacles—crossed and angled iron I-beams that looked like giant jacks. Despite the several hundred-year-old design, they were effective against tread tanks and mech units. Rings of concertina wire were threaded between them. The hedgehogs were a nuisance and slowed down forward progression. The extra pause that it took to navigate the obstacles could be the difference between life and death.
Walker tanks navigated the obstacles with a little more ease, but their elevation made them prime targets, drawing the attention of the heavy cannons in the enemy bunkers.
Hurst Park began in the suburbs and ran through the center of Utonia. It was a perfect way to funnel a large number of troops into the city, except for the fact that it was heavily defended now.
More MLVs had landed, and swarms of Mavericks poured out of the transports. They formed a moving wall that extended as far as the eye could see. The battalion of mechanized warriors marched forward, peppering the enemy positions with plasma bolts. Regular infantry were marching alongside. Zack was glad he had the protection of a mechanized vehicle. But even that wasn't enough—a walker tank not far from him crashed down after taking a massive hit. The ground quaked as it slammed in the dirt, twisting into a smoldering heap of metal.
Navy and Tarvaax fighters clashed overhead. The rumble of explosions and the sound of plasma weapons filled the air. The battlefield was quickly covered in haze. The acrid smell of scorched tanks and mech units mixed with the sharp scent of plasma bolts, blood, and oil.
Hollywood only made it a few steps off the transport when he was hit by a heavy plasma blast. The impact tore off one of his mechanical limbs and knocked his vehicle back. He staggered to regain his balance. But two more quick blasts were more than his armor could handle. They pierced the armor plating, turning the cockpit into a flaming bucket of hell. Sparks and fire showered from the torso. The giant mech collapsed to the ground, billowing smoke and fire. It was a grim reminder how perilous the situation was.
The onslaught of Marines pummeled the enemy positions. But it wasn't doing any good. A force shield deflected every plasma bolt hurled at the enemy. The shield lit up with a bluish glow at each impact, then quickly faded.
Zack crouched down and took cover behind a hedgehog. It wasn't much, but it was better than nothing. A rifle platoon huddled around him. They liked to stick close to the mechs for added protection.
Zack used his optical zoom to survey the battlefield and get a better look at the enemy positions. The Tarvaax had dug a massive trench that spanned for miles, blocking this side of the city.
There were multiple bunkers. Enemy mech’s lined the trench. Heavy cannons were positioned on rooftops. Behind the trench were tanks. The Tarvaax must have known the Marines would attack from this position. The enemy was well prepared for the invasion.
“Either they've got really good intel, or someone leaked our plans," Diesel said.
“Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity,” Nails said. “Probably those nimrods in the press."
"These are the cards we drew, now we've got to play them,” Willoughby said.
Zack switched to his 50 caliber machine guns, but they weren’t getting through the force-shield either. A horrible helpless feeling washed over him. Marines were dying left and right. Explosions detonated all around. It was madness, and there was nothing they could do to stop it. The gut wrenching reality that they probably weren't going to survive was starting to seep into the minds of the invasion force.
The cannon that took out Hollywood was protected in one of the fortified bunkers. It was making mincemeat of the approaching Mavericks. The strike fighters had pummeled it several times, but nothing was getting through the force-shield. It didn't matter how many bombs they dropped on it, or plasma bolts they fired—after the smoke cleared the bunker was still there, and the enemy canon kept flinging molten death at the invading Marines.
“We’re totally fucked!" Cosmo screeched.
"Priority one is taking out those bunkers,” Sutton said. "If we can take one down, we can take the others down."
Willoughby tried to contact the Endeavor to call in a fire mission, but the Tarvaax were jamming transmissions. It was difficult to communicate with the other platoons, much less the super-carriers battling it out in space.
“What about the mobile artillery?" Diesel asked. "Are they in position yet?"
“How come they don’t ever go in first?” Big Papa asked.
“Because they’re not as dumb as we are," Cosmo said.
“Call in an artillery strike," Sutton commanded.
“It’s not going to work, sir.”
“We won't know until we try it. Call in the artillery strike!”
Willoughby focused on the bunker, and marked it with the reticle of his sight. The bunker’s grid coordinates popped up on his HUD. “Rainmaker, this is Crusher 1-Alpha, do you copy?"
There was no response.
Willoughby barked into his comm line again. “Repeat. Rainmaker, this is Crusher 1-Alpha, do you copy?"
“Rainmaker 2-Bravo. Go ahead, Crusher."
"I need a fire mission to bust this bunker ASAP. Grid coordinates 1-7-5-6-2-3. Danger close. How copy?"
“That's a solid copy, Crusher. Coordinates 1-7-5-6-2-3. Danger close.”
“Copy that. Sending a special package your way, express delivery."
It didn't matter how advanced modern warfare had become, it was hard to beat good old-fashioned artillery in certain situations. Shells could be launched from rear positions with pinpoint accuracy.
The Krüger-Schmitz M-298 was a mobile artillery platform that fired 155mm rounds in a variety of flavors. The preferred munition for busting bunkers and armored positions was the M788-S9-HAPDU (heavy armor penetrating depleted uranium) round. It was affectionately known as the Terrible Turd. It had an incendiary liquid gel core (S9) that when oxidized burned at over 4000°. A round could pierce through damn near anything, then spray the molten liquid throughout the impact site. It was like the devil himself had taken a big crap on the enemy. It was a fan favorite among infantry personnel.
The Krüger-Schmitz had a barrel that was 20 feet long, and the entire unit weighed 65,000 pounds. It had 4 Hughes & Kessler engines, and could be deployed from a destroyer or super-carrier, or nearby forward operating base. Once on the ground, and in position, it could be ready to fire with less than 20 minutes of set up time, and had an effective range of 20 miles.
Willoughby could hear the low-frequency thud of the M298 firing in the distance, but he was less than optimistic.
The whistle of the artillery round grew increasingly louder. It tore through the sky and slammed down, detonating against the force-shield. The explosion was blinding, splattering S9 gel in all directions. The molten liquid dripped down the side of the force-shield, pooling on the ground in flaming puddles.
Zack watched with somber eyes as the last bit of hope vanished. His eyes scanned the battlefield. It was strewn with the carcasses of walker-tanks, mechs, and Marines.
“We're going to have to move on those positions," Sutton said. "I want first, second, and third squad to advance through that force-field and take out that bunker.”
It was the worst idea the 2nd Lieutenant had ever offered up. And he had offered up some bad ones in the past.
“Sir, with all due respect, nothing has been able to penetrate that force-field so far,” Willoughby said. "I have my doubts that a mech unit is just going to be able to walk through.”
"It must be velocity sensitive. A slow moving vehicle should be able to get through." The LT didn't seem to be basing his supposition on any observational fact, and the entire platoon knew it.
Willoughby didn't like it, but he was going to carry out the order.
“I think I might know another way into the city," Zack said.
Sutton dismissed him. “Son, the only guaranteed way into the city is through the enemy.”
Willoughby grimaced. ”You heard the man. Move! Move! Move!"
Zack grabbed the hedgehog in front of him and tossed it aside. He ripped through the concertina wire and barreled forward. Then he dropped his Maverick to all fours and bear crawled across the ground. His cockpit and weapons rotated parallel to the ground. It gave the mechanized vehicle a lower profile.
Crusher Platoon advanced toward the enemy trench. A torrent of plasma bolts rifled in either direction. Enemy artillery rounds exploded all around them. It was a miracle that anyone made it more than a few steps. Ozone took a direct hit. When the smoke cleared, his mech was scattered across the terrain in a dozen pieces.
Zack plowed forward, blasting at the enemy mechs in the trench with a combination of plasma bolts, bullets, and rockets. Nothing was effective. Even without a protective force-field, they would have been difficult targets to hit, with little surface area exposed.
Zack continued his drive forward, pushing aside the hedgehogs as he encountered them. A rifle platoon followed behind him, using his mech as cover as they advanced.
T-Bone tripped some kind of mine or IED. It tore off one of the mech’s appendages and splintered shrapnel through the cockpit. Sizzling metal sliced through T-Bone’s flesh, painting the interior bulkheads red.
Zack could hear the screams of agony over the comm line.
A steady onslaught of plasma fire was coming from the trenches. Zack tried to keep the Maverick as low to the ground as possible, weaving his way through the obstacles.
A wave of enemy fighters streaked overhead, pummeling Marines with rockets. There were explosions all around him, and mech units were falling right and left.
The platoon held up a little over half way to the shield in a depression that provided a modicum of cover. Their numbers had dwindled considerably. At this rate, there was only going to be a handful of them left, if any at all.
“This is madness. Nothing is getting through that force-field," Cosmo said.
Plasma bolts rifled overhead.
“Keep moving,” the LT barked over the comm line. He was in the relative safety of the rear area.
Willoughby's face tensed. He didn't like the idea of sending his troops to die on a futile errand.
“I’d like to see the LT charge that bunker,” Big Poppa muttered.
Zack watched as a phalanx of mechanized Marines from another platoon stormed the perimeter. They marched toward the shield in a single file line. They launched a series of smoke grenades, that billowed thick clouds over the battlefield, obscuring them from view.
They charged forward through the smoke—plasma bolts darting all around them. They emerged on the other side of the thick haze, steamrolling toward the perimeter. The point man took the brunt of the enemy onslaught. After a few blasts, the lead Maverick fell to the ground, and the phalanx continued. One by one, the Mavericks dropped like dominoes. But they were inching closer. The last one managed to slam into the force field before becoming eviscerated by heavy weapons fire. There was now irrefutable evidence that the force-field couldn't be breached by slow-moving objects.
“Crusher 1-Actual, operation Storm the Castle is a no go,” Willoughby said. "Repeat, operation Storm the Castle is a no go. How copy?"
Sutton was still back at the drop point, cowering his mech behind a berm.
“Are you sure?”
"Ask November platoon," Willoughby said. Then he corrected himself, “Oh, wait. You can't. They're dead."
There was a long pause.
“Fall back to the rally point."
“Be advised that we lost over half the platoon advancing this far Willoughby said. “I’m not inclined to move without good reason.”
Sutton began to say something, but he was cut off mid-sentence. Static screeched over the comm line. Willoughby looked back to Sutton's position—all that remained was a plume of black smoke and dirt hanging in the air. An enemy artillery round had pummeled his position. Willoughby's eyes scanned his heads-up display for the platoon status indicator. The entire platoon was networked together and could share data—location, vital statistics, and even field-of-view imagery. The LT's icon was flashing red. It indicated that a particular unit was off-line and no vital signs were being reported. Willoughby wasn't exactly sad about it.
“If anyone's willing to listen now, I think I know a way into the city,” Zack said.
"Where's your CO?" Major Kathryn Malone asked.
She and another Maverick had scampered to the relative safety of the depression in the terrain where Crusher Platoon had taken cover. Malone had a Marine Special Operations Command logo emblazoned on her cockpit.
"In about a dozen pieces out there," Willoughby said, pointing to the battlefield behind them.
Malone surveyed the ragtag group of Marines. "Is this all that's left of your platoon?”
"Yes, Major,” Willoughby said.
"Well you're part of Kilo Platoon now."
"Yes, Major,” Willoughby replied.
“Any word from the fleet, Major?” Diesel asked.
“The Endeavor and the Saratoga have been destroyed.”
The platoon deflated.
“This has been a real Charlie Foxtrot. My unit got dropped on the wrong side of the AO.”
Major Malone pulled up a map on her display. She shared her screen with the rest of the platoon. She highlighted a section of the map. “The shield generator is located here. That’s our objective. It’s not far from the internment camp.”
“Internment camp?” Zack asked.
“They’re holding several hundred thousand,” Malone replied. "Those that weren't slaughtered in the initial invasion."
It gave Zack a fleeting moment of hope. Perhaps Honor, and his foster parents, were still alive? It was doubtful, but there was a chance. “If we can get to the container terminal, we might be able to get into the city. The main outlet for the storm drain empties into the bay. It runs through the heart of the city. We can go underneath the force-shield.”
Malone’s interest was piqued. "And you think a Maverick is going to fit in the storm drain?"
“It's the central line. It's massive. We used to explore down there as kids.”
“Well, what are we waiting for,” Malone said. “Let's move out.”
The platoon followed as Malone fell back toward a more secure position. The battle was still raging, and any movement drew fire. Zack and the others crouched low as they crawled on all fours. The mangled carcasses of tattered mechs lay strewn about the field. Smoke and haze filled the air. The sounds of fighting in the distance rumbled.
Zack, Willoughby, Magnum, Diesel, Cosmo, Apex, and Knuckles were all that was left of the original Crusher Platoon. They marched fro 20 minutes with Malone and Corporal Nunez to the container terminal. It was a massive port with seemingly endless stacks of shipping containers. Towering gantry cranes almost looked like mechanized warriors. There were dozens of them for loading and unloading cargo ships. The terminal was capable of handling any size commercial shipping vehicle. One section was dedicated to seafaring vehicles, and the other was a dedicated spaceport. Oceangoing vessels were an economical method of transporting heavy goods across the globe. It just took considerably longer.
The port was far enough outside the city that it wasn't contained within the energy shield. It looked in pristine condition, having remained untouched during the initial Tarvaax invasion.
The platoon held up several hundred yards away to survey the area. It appeared that only two mechanized vehicles and a handful of infantry soldiers were guarding the location.
Malone sent Apex and Diesel to the right, and Knuckles and Cosmo to the left to flank the sentries. She ordered Zack and Willoughby to stay with her, and assault up the middle.
They sprang into action, attacking with ferocity. Weapons fire pelted the unsuspecting enemy forces. The squad moved with tactical precision, devastating the aliens. Parts of mech units lay scattered about the port. Blood oozed onto the concrete. The enemy had been neutralized before they knew what hit them.
Malone and her newly formed platoon rallied in the terminal near the carnage. She cautiously surveyed the area, looking for any lingering enemy warriors lurking in the shadows.
“Now that's what I'm talking about," Nunez shouted with glee. "I was beginning to think I wasn't going to get to kill anything all day."
"Stay frosty," Malone barked. It was a precarious situation. Any number of enemy forces could've been loitering among the rows of containers. Just because they had only seen a handful of troops, didn't mean there weren't more.
Malone regarded Zack. "Where is this drain outlet?"
"This way." He led them to a large culvert that ran underneath the terminal and poured out into the blue water of the bay. There was a marked difference in the color and contents of the water emptying out of the storm drain. It was scuzzy and dirty.
Zack climbed down the incline and made his way to the mouth of the storm drain. It was smaller than he remembered. It seemed so large as a child. Now, in a mechanized vehicle that was 2 stories tall, the drain looked tiny.
Malone had a skeptical look on her face. "Are you sure about this, Corporal?"
Zack dropped his Maverick to all fours and crouched low. He crawled toward the opening. If he was going to make it through, it was going to be a tight squeeze.
Zack edged the cockpit into the storm drain. The rim of the mouth was a little smaller than the rest of the tunnel. Zack moved forward cautiously. The last thing he wanted to do was get stuck in the storm drain. Memories of childhood flooded back. His heartbeat skyrocketed, and sweat covered his body. In a flash, he was back to being 12 years old—the terrified kid that was stuck in a storm drain. It felt like the world was collapsing in around him. Like an elephant was stepping on his chest.
Zack took a few slow deep breaths to calm himself down.
“Is everything all right, Corporal?" Malone asked.
“Yeah. I'm fine." He inched forward, and the thick torso of the Maverick cleared the opening with less than an inch to spare on either side. The shoulders were the widest part of the vehicle. The rest was smooth sailing. Once inside, the passageway was considerably wider, though not spacious by any stretch of the imagination.
Zack kept crawling through the drain. The platoon followed behind him. Like it or not, he was going to be on point for the duration of their journey. There wasn't enough room to pass him by. And if one of the vehicles malfunctioned, the whole train would stop.
The light from the opening quickly faded, and the passageway became pitch black. But the Maverick’s night vision could amplify imperceptible amounts of light, displaying a full-color image that looked almost like daylight.
Zack sloshed his Maverick through the tunnel. Smaller tributaries emptied into it at junction points. For the most part, it was a straight shot, a steady incline upward of only a few degrees. The passageway adjusted course every now and again, but it was easily navigable—until they reached a section of the tunnel that was blocked. A bomb blast must have collapsed the passageway.
"What's the holdup?" Malone said, bringing up the rear. She was too far back to see the obstruction.
“Minor problem,” Zack said. “Back up, I'm going to need some room. I'll try to blast a way through this."
"Whoa, wait up," Cosmo protested. He sounded nervous. "That could cause this whole thing to collapse on top of us.”
"You got a better idea?" Zack took a few steps back and blasted the pile of debris. A small portion of the rubble incinerated. The force of the impact sent rocks and debris scattering in all directions. But more tumbled into place to fill the gap. At this rate, it would take days to dig their way through the blockage.
A small shaft of light shone down from above. There was a tiny opening at the top of the pile that led to the surface.
Zack took another few steps back and aimed his plasma cannons at the ceiling. He unleashed plasma bolts at the small opening. Chunks of concrete and rubble tumbled down.
When the dust settled, the opening was wider, but not near enough to fit through. He kept firing until it was large enough to accommodate a Maverick. "Let's just hope we've made it past the shield."
Zack climbed his mech up the pile of rubble and emerged in the middle of the street. He scanned the area, trying to get his bearings. The street sign read Norfolk Avenue. The roadways were pitted and scarred. The once sleek and pristine skyscrapers were now cracked and splintered. Some of them were demolished completely. Steel beams, rebar, and wiring hung from buildings like spaghetti. The tops of the skyscrapers vanished into the thick gloomy clouds. Glass and bits of debris lined the streets and sidewalks. There were burned-out shells of demolished cars at parking meters. He saw a Bulvari Vega, a once sleek and elegant sports car, now nothing more than a beater—a 4.5 million credit beater.
Zack climbed out of the hole and took cover near a demolished building. The platoon followed after him. Zack looked at his positioning data on his heads up display. They were just barely a few blocks inside the shield perimeter. He breathed a sigh of relief.
Malone had an ear to ear grin on her face. "Nice work, Lance Corporal.”
But the moment of triumph didn’t last long. Attack fighters rocketed overhead, patrolling the skies. One swooped down beneath the haze, threading its way between the canyon of buildings. It strafed the platoon, spitting a flurry of plasma bolts. The sidewalk erupted with bits of concrete and dust as the platoon of Mavericks dashed for cover.
Zack could hear the enemy fighter circle back around. It came in for another strafing run. Zack had ducked into an enclave at the entrance to a building. He angled one of his weapons around the corner and targeted the incoming fighter. His plasma cannon fired, then recoiled, then fired again. Over and over again, he lobbed bolts of plasma into the sky. One of them slammed into the fighter’s thruster. It exploded in a blinding flurry, showering sparks down to the ground. The wing tore off, and the vehicle tumbled out of control, smashing into one of the skyscrapers. Shards of glass and debris showered down to the sidewalk. The attack fighter plowed through three floors, finally coming to a stop, lodged into the side of the building.
“Impressive, Ice Pick," Diesel said.
“I had a good teacher.”
“That you did.”
The platoon pushed forward. Nunez took point, leading the way. The ragged platoon of Mavericks fell in line and marched through the ruins. The bulk of the Tarvaax forces were at the perimeter, leaving scant patrols to guard the interior of the city. The Marines were moving toward the objective, unopposed until Nunez tripped a proximity mine.
The blast sounded like a crack of thunder and echoed off the buildings. The explosion ripped one of Nunez’s Maverick’s legs off, and the vehicle tumbled to the ground. The hot metal popped and pinged, and hydraulic fuel sprayed from a severed hose.
Nunez slid open the cockpit and crawled out. He surveyed the smoldering wreckage. "Son-of-a-bitch!”
Shrapnel had torn through the cockpit. It was a miracle Nunez had escaped unscathed.
“You're one lucky bastard, Nunez,” Malone said.
“If I was lucky I'd be on a beach somewhere, sipping a piña colada."
He held out his thumb like a hitchhiker. “Anybody want to give me a lift?”
“Grab your weapon,” Malone barked. “Looks like you're on foot from here on out.”
Nunez grabbed his M7 from the rack in the cockpit. “Somebody else needs to take point now. I met my daily limit of booby-traps."
“I'll do it," Zack said. He marched ahead and proceeded cautiously.
Nunez waited for the mechs to pass him by. He glanced around to make sure nothing was coming up behind them, then fell in line. He had to jog just to keep pace with the long strides of the Mavericks.
A section of the sidewalk ahead had been cratered by a bomb blast. The Mavericks stepped over the pit with ease. But it was far too big for Nunez to traverse. He dashed into the street and ran around the crater, trying to keep up. He only made it a few steps into the roadway when he tripped another proximity mine. This time he wasn't so lucky.
The explosion shredded Nunez into unrecognizable chunks. The side of the Brookfield bank building was painted with his crimson blood. Chunks of bone and meat littered the sidewalk. Smoke wafted over the carnage.
Malone's face tensed and flushed with anger. Her eyes brimmed. She had lost everyone in her original platoon. They had done two deployments together, and the entire unit was tight.
"Nobody move!” Malone shouted. “They must have seeded this area.”
“I'm not picking up any mines on the scanner,” Diesel said.
“We’ve got movement ahead," Zack shouted.
Plasma bolts blasted down the street, whizzing all around the platoon. The MAVs scrambled for cover. The behemoth’s heavy feet clamored against the concrete.
Zack crouched low behind a burned out vehicle and returned fire. Others slipped into alleyways or enclaves.
An enemy tank was several blocks ahead, along with several mechs. They unleashed a torrent of weapons fire.
Zack lined the tank up in his sights and fired a missile. It blasted from the launcher and blazed down the street, leaving a thick trail of smoke in its wake, spitting sparks and fire. The glow reflected in the cracked and tattered windows of the buildings.
With a blinding explosion, the missile slammed into the bucket of the tank. The stout walker-tank plowed forward without so much as a scratch.
A flurry of plasma bolts whizzed over Zack's head from behind. He flipped his HUD to display the rearview. Another enemy mechanized unit was approaching from behind. The platoon was cut off, and there was no telling how many proximity mines had been scattered in the vicinity.
The Tarvaax weaponry was more powerful. There was no doubt about it. The enemy advanced, swarming in Zack's direction. The tank’s massive gun aimed and fired an enormous plasma projectile.
Zack ran toward an alleyway for cover, narrowly avoiding the bolt. It incinerated the car he had been crouching behind, and the blast overpressure sent his Maverick tumbling to the concrete.
Zack scrambled to get the machine upright, then sprinted into the alleyway.
The massive tank spewed more fiery projectiles at him.
Zack entered the safety of the alley as the plasma bolt slammed into the corner, showering brick and debris in all directions.
Zack hugged the wall and angled one of his weapons around the crescent shaped cut-out the blast had made. It was charred and still smoldering. Zack fired several blasts at the encroaching enemy forces.
The air was dotted with chaotic weapons fire, streaking back and forth. Zack heard the distinct sound of Tarvaax fighters approaching. The roar of their engines grew louder as they rocketed through the canyon of skyscrapers. There were four of them, and they flew with technical precision in the narrow space. Rockets launched from sub-wing pylons. They hissed through the steel canyon, pummeling the platoon.
Multiple explosions lit up the avenue, creating a wall of fire. Amber balls of flame mushroomed into the sky. When the smoke cleared, the street was littered with Mavericks. Bits and pieces were strewn about. Struts, actuators, armored panels. The mangled carcasses smoldered. Apex and Knuckles were dead. So was Willoughby.
There was no time to grieve. The enemy was closing in on them.
"Fall back!" Major Malone yelled over the comm line.
Zack watched as the major charged toward him. He blasted at the enemy, covering for her.
Diesel and Cosmo filed into the alley after Malone.
Zack stayed at the mouth of the alley and laid down a stream of cover fire as the rest of the squad moved deeper down the passageway. He followed after them, deploying a slew of proximity mines as he fell back. They were black orbs the size of tennis balls, with dozens of sensor prongs. They looked like sea urchins, and the grunts referred to them as such. They could detect micro vibrations, identifying gait patterns and vehicular movement. They had the ability to differentiate between a stray dog and an enemy platoon. An IFF transmitter gave the devices the ability to distinguish friend from foe, and they could be remotely deactivated at the end of a conflict. The safety features had been mandated by the Galactic Convention in an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of traditional landmines, which had plagued conflict zones for centuries. There were over 310 million active landmines scattered throughout the galaxy from previous wars. 30% of the casualties they inflicted were civilian.
Diesel and Cosmo provided cover fire for Zack as he fell back to their position. They leapfrogged down the alley as they searched for an escape route.
Enemy mechs began filtering into the narrow passageway. They were easier targets in the confined space. They pushed deeper into the alley, but the proximity mines Zack had left behind didn't detonate.
Zack's face twisted up confused. “They must have figured out our IFF signal.”
“Impossible," Diesel said. "It's encrypted."
“Then they broke the encryption."
A rocket launched down the alleyway, screeching toward them. Zack dodged and crouched behind a dumpster. The missile slammed into the wall near Cosmo, leaving a gaping hole in the brick. Dust and debris sprayed out.
More enemy mechs were pouring into the passageway. Zack and the others continued to pummel them with plasma bolts and rockets, but they weren't going to be able to hold the Tarvaax off forever.
Cosmo plowed through the hole in the wall, demolishing the structure as he went. He ripped through the first and second floors, carving a path with the Maverick’s massive fists. They were like wrecking balls. He barreled through the building, screaming like a crazed maniac. He used his plasma cannons to help clear the way, blasting a flurry of superheated energy bolts.
It was an old office. There were desks and cubicles. Debris fell from the second story down to the first. Data banks, chairs, computers. Looseleaf paper twirled in the air amid the chaos.
Major Malone, Diesel, and Zack followed behind him, escaping the attacking Tarvaax. Halfway through the building, Zack stopped.
"What are you doing, Ice Pick?" Diesel asked.
"Leaving behind a little present." He activated a switch and opened a storage compartment on the torso of the Maverick. With his articulated arm, he grabbed a neutrontium grenade and left it on a desk.
Cosmo continued his way through the structure, bulldozing through another wall that led to 6th Avenue. The squad darted into the street and ran up the sidewalk toward Commerce Street.
As they turned the corner, enemy mechs were spilling onto the street after them. Zack remotely detonated the neutrontium grenade. The first three floors of the building exploded, showering shards of glass and debris. The enemy mechs shredded to pieces.
The blast shook the ground so violently, and the overpressure was so great, Zack and the squad couldn't maintain their footing. The Maverick’s gyro-stabilizers made the vehicles almost impossible to topple, but they couldn’t compensate for the force of the explosion. The Mavericks crashed to the ground.
Every window in a three block radius had been shattered. A moment later, the entire building collapsed upon itself. It looked like a controlled demolition. The building disintegrated in a plume of smoke, burying the remains of the Tarvaax in the rubble.
“Keep moving," Major Malone said as she stood up. The squad climbed to their mechanical feet and clamored away.
“How are we doing on ammo?" Malone asked.
“I’ve got a handful of rockets left, and half my ammo is gone,” Zack said.
"I'm in the same boat," Cosmo said.
“You've got more than me," Diesel said.
Zack led the way, racing his Maverick through the tattered city. He took cover in the lobby of the Utonia Hyton—a once posh, luxury hotel. He smashed his way through the revolving glass doors into the spacious atrium. It was one of the few interior structures big enough to accommodate the size of the Mavericks. The central courtyard vaulted up 47 stories. Skylights at the top cascaded sunlight down to the lobby. The hotel rooms circled the open courtyard providing each with a stunning exterior view of the city.
The lobby was lavishly appointed. There was a pond, and a small man-made waterfall that had long since stopped operating. When it was functional, it created a soothing environment. Fake trees and holographic birds helped to simulate a natural environment, promoting a calm and relaxing vibe, when it was operational.
The hotel had sustained relatively little damage during the initial invasion.
“This is nice, Ice Pick," Cosmo said. "Are we on vacation now?"
"If we go up high enough, we should have an unobstructed view of the shield generator. It would be good to know exactly what we're getting into, don't you think?"
"If we get through this, I'm going to put you in for a commendation," Malone said. "Lance Corporal Salvator uses his brain. The rest of you should try it sometime." The major marched her Maverick to the elevator bay. The others followed. The alcove concealed the vehicles from the street view.
Malone opened her cockpit and climbed out of the vehicle. Her boots slapped against the marble floor as she landed.
"I don't think the elevators are going to work, Major,” Cosmo said in a dry, sarcastic voice.
"We're taking the stairs, numb-nuts."
The rest of the squad climbed out of their vehicles and followed Malone into the stairwell. They marched up 35 flights, then filed into a corridor. Zack’s quads were burning, and his chest was heaving for breath. Major Malone hadn't even broken a sweat.
Cosmo looked like he was about to collapse. "I hate stairs," he muttered to himself, breathless.
The hallway was open to the courtyard. Cosmo moved to the railing and peered over the edge, looking down to the lobby below. It was a long way to the ground. He honked a big glob of spit over the railing. The gluey blob of saliva plummeted down and smacked against the marble floor several seconds later. The sound echoed throughout the courtyard.
Diesel shoved him forward, playfully. Just enough to make him freak out. He snapped back away from the ledge. "His face twisted up with a mix of both anger and fear. "Hey, that's not funny."
“What's the matter? You're not afraid of heights, are you?" Diesel said, baby talking him.
"No. I'm not afraid of heights. I'm afraid of slamming into the ground at 120 miles an hour."
"You ought to try it sometime. Might be an improvement on that face of yours."
Cosmo sneered at her.
Diesel followed Malone down the hallway, and Cosmo followed after.
Malone slung her M7 into the firing position and blasted the locking mechanism of Suite 3515. The plasma bolt burned a hole in the door, and she kicked it open.
The platoon filed into the luxurious suite. There were two pristine queen size beds with large fluffy pillows. Cosmo flopped on the bed and relaxed. He looked like he was in heaven. A euphoric grin curled up on his face. "Now this is what I'm talking about."
There was a large flat-panel display, an office area, chairs, a couch, a coffee table—all the appointments of a junior suite.
Malone marched to the sliding glass door, stepped onto the terrace, and scanned the horizon. Zack followed after her.
Cosmo pulled himself off the bed and raided the minibar. There was no power in the room, so everything in the small refrigerator was lukewarm. But that didn't stop him from stuffing his cargo pockets with the miniature bottles of liquor. "Anybody want anything? There's soda, water, juice?"
"I'll take a bottle of water," Diesel said.
He tossed it to her. She twisted off the lid and guzzled half the bottle down in one slug. Cosmo popped open a soda. It fizzed and dripped down the side of the can and onto the carpet. He slurped the foam from the lid of the can. It was an obnoxious sound, and Malone gave him the evil eye.
"You want anything, Major? Ginger ale, perhaps. You look like the ginger ale type." Cosmo seemed to enjoy pushing his luck.
Malone glared at him. "Corporal, I would hate for my weapon to accidentally discharge and shoot you."
"So, definitely not the ginger ale type."
Malone shook her head in frustration.
"There," Zack pointed. "That's got to be the generator."
Malone pulled the visor of her helmet down, gaining access to her HUD. The high resolution cameras embedded in her helmet gave her the ability to zoom in on the structure. The generator was lightly guarded, but it was near the main base of operations for the Tarvaax. Getting in and out of there was going to be difficult.
"How exactly are we gonna take this thing down?" Cosmo asked. "There's a division of troops in the area."
"We need to create a diversion. Then a second squad will have to infiltrate and destroy the generator." Malone pondered the situation. She continued to scan the surrounding area. Her eyes fell upon a charging station used for cars and commercial vehicles.
Depending on usage, fuel-cells could last up to a month before needing a charge. It took only five minutes to recharge the average fuel-cell. If the station’s charge banks were still operational, they contained an enormous amount of energy. Highly volatile energy. A well-placed rocket could generate a detonation the rough equivalent of a 1 kiloton nuclear warhead. It would certainly be enough to garner the attention of the enemy forces. Unfortunately, the blast radius wouldn't be enough to affect the shield generator. The station was too far away.
"Cosmo and I will create a diversion. You and Diesel will detonate the generator." Malone said. "One of you will need to take an overwatch position, while the other places the charge. A neutrontium grenade should do the trick."
The squad filtered out of the hotel room. Zack could hear commotion in the lobby, echoing its way up through the atrium. He crouched down and edged his way to the railing. He carefully peered over the side and saw an enemy mech in the lobby below. It was surrounded by several infantry soldiers. They had discovered the Mavericks that had been parked in the enclave near the elevator bank.
Malone’s face tensed.
"What the hell are we supposed to do now?" Cosmo grumbled quietly.
"They're going to search the entire building," Diesel said.
"At least that will take some time," Zack said.
There were guards posted at the entrances and exits. As they spoke, patrols were making their way into the stairwells and searching room to room.
"Back into the room. Now!" Malone commanded.
The squad scampered back into the suite. Malone closed the door behind her as she entered the room. It wasn't going to keep anybody out and the damaged door would definitely draw attention to the suite.
"We can't just sit in here and wait for them to find us," Cosmo said.
"We're not going to sit in here." Malone opened the sliding glass doors and stepped onto the balcony. She peered over the railing, looking down at the street below. It was a long, long way down. There was a mild breeze, that whipped up into an occasional gust from time to time. She tugged on the railing to gauge its steadiness. It didn't budge. Wrought iron bars were anchored into the floor.
Cosmo watched her with wide eyes. He knew exactly what she had in mind, and by the look on his face, he didn't like it one bit. "You're not serious, are you?"
Major Malone surveyed the construction of the balcony. Each one was a freestanding unit that jutted out from the side of the building. She looked up at the balcony above her. There was an overhang with a narrow lip. It wasn't much, just barely enough to grip. She jumped up and grabbed onto it, hanging there for a moment. The lip was narrow, maybe 2 to 3 inches long. She seemed satisfied and dropped back down.
Malone swung her leg over the railing, straddling it. She gripped the railing tightly and hoisted her other leg over. One slight mistake would ensure doom. She climbed down the iron bars until her hands were clinging onto the floor. She reached under the overhang and wedged her fingers atop the lip. Then she swung herself toward the lower balcony and dropped down to safety. She moved with the agility of a monkey swinging through a rain forest. She leaned over the edge of the railing and looked at the squad above her. "Piece of cake. What are you waiting for?"
Cosmo swallowed hard as he glanced at the street below.
Malone descended another level, getting into a groove.
Zack followed after her, mirroring her every move. His heart was pounding. He had never been particularly afraid of heights. But the thought of becoming intimately acquainted with the sidewalk wasn't appealing. For the first time since boot camp, he was thankful for all the pull-ups he had been required to do. It was making the maneuver easier. Within moments, he swung to safety on the balcony below. One down, 34 more to go. He was careful to maintain focus on each and every maneuver. A momentary loss of concentration would be catastrophic.
He proceeded down the side of the building, descending from balcony to balcony in the same manner, but the textured concrete was wearing away at the tips of his fingers. It was a small price to pay if he made it down safely.
Diesel followed after him, and she took to it like a fish to water. There wasn't anything you could throw at Diesel that she couldn't handle.
Cosmo, on the other hand, was still on the first balcony. He was contemplating taking his chances against the Tarvaax. A plasma bolt seemed like a better way to die than breaking every bone in your body against the pavement. He backed away from the railing, moved through the suite, and spilled into the hallway.
It didn't take long for Zack's hands to ache. His biceps and lats burned. He was going to be sore as hell tomorrow, if he lived that long. By the time he reached the ground he barely had sensation left in his hands. His fingers felt like they were going to fall off. But he had never been more thankful to be on solid ground.
Malone glanced up the side of the building. Cosmo was nowhere in sight. "Where is that weasel?"
Diesel shrugged. “I guess Cosmo decided to use the stairs."
Malone grimaced. "He's on his own. Get to the generator. I'll take care of the charging station myself. Good luck."
"You too, Major." Zack said.
Malone dashed across the street and disappeared into an alleyway.
Zack and Diesel headed north on Colfax Avenue. They weaved their way through the war-torn streets, avoiding Tarvaax patrols. They held up at a warehouse on Paper Street. It was damp and dingy, and lined with old rusty equipment. The windows were glazed and shattered, letting a minimum amount of light in. Invoices littered the floor—some of them were more than 30 years old. They found a stairwell that led up to the roof. It offered a clear view of the shield generator a block away. It was an ideal location for Diesel to take an overwatch position. With her M7, she could snipe at targets and provide some cover for Zack as he attempted to infiltrate the structure.
"Are you sure you don't want to take overwatch?" Diesel said.
Zack grinned. “I joined the Marine Corps so I could blow stuff up. I'm not going to miss out on this opportunity."
"How are you going to detonate the generator?"
"An overheated weapon should be enough.” Zack had a concerned look on his face. "Hopefully that allows me enough time to get a safe distance away." Zack had a sobering realization. "If Major Malone is using her weapon to detonate the charging station, she won't be able to clear the blast radius."
Diesel’s face looked grim. "She knew it was a suicide mission.”
"Let's hope blowing up the shield generator isn’t a suicide mission either."
The two exchanged a somber glance. They both knew the odds of pulling this off and making it out alive were slim.
"Good luck,” Diesel said. "Come back in one piece."
"I intend to." Zack left her on the rooftop, climbed down the staircase, and made his way toward the generator. Security at the tactical operations center was lax. With an active force-shield, there was no need for the Tarvaax to be hyper-vigilant about security.
Zack hid behind a row of supply crates and surveyed the compound. The shield generator was next to the landing area. A few guards were positioned out front. Several Tarvaax dropships were perched on the tarmac. Crews were loading them with ordnance from the ammo dump—rockets, charged plasma projectiles, and tactical nukes. There was no telling what other type of weaponry was stored in the ammo dump. Detonating the shield generator might make a bigger explosion than anticipated.
A massive column of energy beamed into the sky from the generator. It almost looked like a giant cannon. The beam terminated in a relay point high above the city which then encased the area in the domed shield. Zack didn't really know the mechanics of how it all worked, or how many relay points there were. But he knew detonating a plasma rifle would create a secondary explosion that would be more than enough to disable the entire facility.
Not far away, there were rows and rows of empty mechanized vehicles, just waiting for action. Zack crouched behind the crates and waited for Malone to work her magic. He waited and waited for the explosion, but it never came. Instead, he heard the whirr of hydraulics and servos, and the clomp of heavy metal feet. He knew exactly what it was.
He craned his neck to see the barrel of a giant plasma weapon staring him in the face. The weapon was attached to a Tarvaax mech unit. A soldier was leaning out of the cockpit, barking commands at him in the indecipherable language of the Tarvaax. Probably saying something along the lines of, “Drop your weapon. Get facedown on the ground."
The Tarvaax soldier was adamant about Zack complying with his orders. He didn't look too happy. Zack slowly set his rifle on the concrete, then raised his hands and put them behind his head.
The Tarvaax warrior drew his sidearm and climbed out of his mech. He said something else, but Zack didn’t comply.
The soldier got perturbed at Zack's inability to comprehend the language. So he did what everyone does when speaking to someone who doesn't understand their native language—he spoke slower and louder.
Zack still didn't understand. Or, at least, he pretended not to understand. The recruits had learned basic phrases in boot camp. But by this time, it didn't matter. A massive explosion quaked the ground beneath his feet. The force of the blast almost knocked the soldier off balance. Momentarily distracted, he glanced at the blooming mushroom cloud on the horizon. It was just enough of a distraction for Zack to grab his rifle from the ground and fire a single shot into the soldier’s abdomen. Malone must have hit the charge station.
The Tarvaax warrior’s guts erupted in a viscous stream of goo. The plasma bolt had left a serious hole in the soldier’s stomach. He collapsed to the ground amidst the slime, his body still twitching.
Zack launched to his feet and focused his attention back on the shield generator. The guards had left their post, scurrying across the tarmac to see what the commotion was. The outpost was in chaos with soldiers swarming about in all directions. It was like someone had kicked a mound of ants.
Zack dashed across the tarmac to the shield generator. All of the soldiers were too busy watching the plume of smoke in the sky to notice him.
Zack pressed a button on the bulkhead, and the door to the structure slid open. He pushed inside and blasted two engineers operating the device. They flopped to the ground, oozing blood. The massive generator hummed with an almost deafening whine. The air was charged, and the hairs on the back of Zack’s neck stood tall. It seemed like the kind of place that would give you cancer and cause your cells to mutate if you spend too much time exposed to it.
In the center of the room was a towering cylinder that was at least 20 feet in diameter. It was essentially a giant cannon that shot the energy beam to the relay in the sky. Dials and gauges monitored the output of the device. Diagnostic screens displayed temperature, throughput, and capacity. Even with insulation, it radiated a massive amount of heat into the compartment.
Zack set his M7 plasma rifle to overload. He wedged it in between some piping that ran along the main beam cylinder. He'd have roughly 10 minutes to get a safe distance away.
Zack unholstered his pistol and moved to the exit. He pressed a button on the entry pad, and the door slid open. He peered out, scanning the tarmac. The mechanized vehicles were beginning to mobilize. Soldiers were scurrying about. Zack dashed back across the tarmac to the supply crates. With any luck, the enemy mech would still be waiting for him.
Xorgon was climbing into his mech when he happened to catch a glimpse of Zack out of the corner of his eye. He climbed into the cockpit of his vehicle and powered it up. The engine spun up and the control panel inside illuminated. Xorgon put on his helmet and lowered his visor, then marched across the tarmac toward the supply crates. His documentary camera crew chased after him.
Flies buzzed around the carcass of the dead Tarvaax warrior. Zack pulled the alien’s helmet from his head. He knew he needed it to interface with the mechanized vehicle. He jumped up and grabbed the rung on the mech’s torso. He climbed up and hopped into the cockpit. He hoped this time he’d do a little better than the last time he tried to drive an alien mech. He powered up the vehicle and the gauges came alive—glowing hues of green and blue.
He activated the switch to engage the neural interface. The rush of sensory input was overwhelming. Combined with his already splitting headache, it sent an excruciating stab of pain through his temples. His vision blurred, and he felt like he was going to pass out.
The disorientation lasted for a moment, then his vision began to clear. He took a wobbly step forward, then another, and finally his gait began to normalize. He planned to casually stroll out of the compound, but all of that changed when two plasma bolts streaked across his bow.
Zack saw Xorgon approaching, unleashing a torrent of weapons fire.
Now was not the time to stand and fight, he thought. The supply crates were the only thing keeping Zack from getting eviscerated by Xorgon's onslaught. Zack took off running in the enemy mech as fast as he could. He barely had control of the vehicle. He staggered and weaved, like a drunk trying to run the hundred meter dash.
Xorgon plowed through the supply crates, sending them scattering in all directions. He followed Zack down an alleyway and maintained a continuous barrage of weapons fire.
Plasma bolts exploded all around Zack, showering dirt and debris. Some kind of warning light flashed on his heads up display, but he couldn't decipher it. It was something about a cracked fuel-cell, but he wasn't absolutely sure. He checked the status of his weapons system and learned that the vehicle was completely out of ammo. Apparently the soldier had been on his way back from the front lines and was heading to the maintenance facility when he came across Zack.
He kept pushing the vehicle as hard as he could, weaving through the ruins of the city, trying to keep out of Xorgon's line of fire. His main concern was to get a safe distance away from the generator before it blew.
The reticle of Xorgon's sites locked on to Zack’s vehicle. An instant later, a rocket launched, spitting sparks and propellant. It screeched down the street on a mission to obliterate Zack.
A proximity alert sounded inside Zack’s vehicle. He sidestepped in the nick of time, and the missile impacted the building next to him. It erupted in a brilliant ball of fire, knocking Zack’s vehicle to the ground.
Shards of glass and debris littered the road.
Zack scrambled to get the mech back on its feet.
Xorgon marched toward him, no doubt preparing to launch another missile.
Zack righted the machine and kept running, but he didn't get far. He heard one explosion, followed by a secondary explosion that dwarfed the first one in size. The shield generator had exploded in a blinding fury. It was far greater than anything Zack had anticipated. It made the explosion of the charge center look tiny.
A brilliant dome appeared on the horizon that kept expanding. It looked like the sun was coming out of the ground. A wave of hot air ripped through the city ahead of the explosion. Then the blast itself consumed everything in the vicinity. A mushroom cloud of smoke and fire billowed into the sky.
Zack had managed to get far enough away not to be incinerated. But the overpressure slammed his mech unit to the ground. The instrumentation went dead. The glowing dials faded, and the vehicle became non-responsive. No matter what he did, he couldn't restart the vehicle. Perhaps it was some kind of electromagnetic pulse that disabled the mech. But he could see Xorgon's mech, climbing to its feet. Perhaps it was a combination of the blast and the cracked fuel-cell that disabled Zack's mech. But it didn't really matter what the cause was, the damn thing wasn't starting, and Xorgon was marching toward him.
Zack tried a few more times to power up the vehicle to no avail. Then he decided it was best to get the hell out of there. Without power, he wasn't able to get the cockpit to slide open. There had to be some kind of emergency release, he thought. With wide eyes and a pounding heart, he frantically scanned for a manual release as Xorgon drew closer.
Xorgon tried to fire his plasma cannon, but all it did was spark and crackle.
Zack found what he was looking for and pulled the release lever. The canopy popped free. It clattered against the concrete as he launched out of the vehicle on foot. He sprinted as hard and as fast as he could. His legs pumped, and his chest heaved for breath. He could hear another rocket tear through the air behind him. He glanced back over his shoulder and saw the missile slam into the fallen mech behind him. Zack dove for cover behind a parked car.
The blast sent parts scattering in all directions. Twisted bits of metal and electronics spewed into the air. Stinging hot debris rained down all around him.
He took off running again. Bullets exploded at his feet, chipping away at the concrete. Xorgon had switched to machine guns. Apparently those still worked, unaffected by the blast.
Zack dashed into the ruins of a building. He had one advantage being on his feet, he was more nimble. He could fit into nooks and crannies where the giant mech couldn't.
Xorgon unleashed a hailstorm of gunfire, peppering the structure. Muzzle flash lit up the machine guns, and smoke wafted from the barrels. The bullets chipped away at the ragged structure. Zack could hear the projectiles snap past his ears. It was a terrifying sound. He could feel the hot breeze on his skin of a bullet that had narrowly missed him.
Xorgon plowed into the structure, bulldozing his way through, chasing after Zack. Walls collapsed around him.
Zack dashed into the street, racing for cover in another structure.
Xorgon opened fire. Bullets raked the ground at Zack's feet. Chips of concrete and debris pelted him as he ducked through a doorway.
Zack quickly realized it was a bad move—the building had partially collapsed and there was no way out but the way he came in. Xorgon was about to come crashing through the wall after him. Zack darted down the dark corridor and made his way to a stairwell. He figured if he could get to the roof, maybe he could jump to the next building—if there was a roof left at all.
He sprinted up the staircase as Xorgon slugged his way through the building. Zack’s lungs ached, and his legs were beginning to feel like jelly. He made it up to the third floor landing when Xorgon swiped a mechanized fist through the stairwell. It felt like an earthquake as the steps below him disintegrated. Zack kept climbing up the stairs, and Xorgon kept swinging. Zack managed to stay a few steps ahead of the destruction, as the stairs crumbled behind him.
He reached the top landing and pushed through the roof access door. Half of the roof was gone, and the majority of it sagged. Zack ran along the solid edge, stepped onto the ledge of the building, and leapt across the chasm just as the entire structure collapsed behind him.
The jump seemed to happen in slow motion. For a moment, he felt like a bird that could fly. Then he felt like a stone.
His chest slammed into the concrete wall of the neighboring building. His hands barely gripped the ledge above. He dangled four stories above the ground as Xorgon peppered the wall with bullets.
Zack pulled himself up and rolled over the ledge, flopping onto his back. Then he sprang to his feet and ran across the rooftop. Sections of the roof were missing. He weaved his way through HVAC units and large pipes, leaping over the missing sections of roof.
Xorgon circled around the building, lighting it up with weapons fire. Clouds of dust flew into the air from the bullet hits. The sound of the machine gun was almost deafening. But then Zack heard the most beautiful sound in the world. Both of Xorgon's machine guns locked out—empty. He was out of ammunition, out of rockets, and his plasma cannons weren’t working.
Xorgon look like an angry ape as he circled the building. He began pummeling the structure with his mech’s fists. He was going to bring it down one way or another.
With the shield generator down, UPDF forces could begin to move on the city. Strategic targets could be hit from space with plasma cannons, if there were any destroyers left in orbit.
Atop the roof, Zack had run out of options. There was nowhere else to go. The nearby buildings were either too high, too low, or too far to jump to.
Xorgon bashed at the structure, trying to bring it down. Zack peered over the ledge at the crazed alien. Before long, Xorgon would demolish the building and Zack would be crushed in the rubble. That didn't sound appealing.
The top of Xorgon's mech unit wasn't far from the roof of the building—maybe only 10 or 15 feet below. Zack climbed onto the ledge and jumped down, landing on top of Xorgon's mech.
Zack's ankle hit the vehicle’s shoulder at an awkward angle, twisting in a direction that ankles don't normally go. Pain stabbed through the joint. He slid down the vehicle, almost plunging to his death. But he managed to snag a groove in the armor plating and hang on.
Xorgon twisted trying to shake him off. He flailed his arms, attempting to swat the pesky Marine.
Zack positioned himself on the back of the mech's neck. It was the one area the articulated arms couldn't reach. The vehicle's giant fist swooshed over Zack's head, never getting quite low enough to obliterate him. As long as he stayed in that position, he’d be safe from Xorgon's crushing blows.
Xorgon bucked and writhed. Zack did his best to hang on. It was like riding a mechanical bull in a western bar.
Zack opened a maintenance access panel on the vehicle’s back. The compartment was filled with wiring and hydraulic tubing. There were several circuit boards and a diagnostic port for accessing the vehicle's CPU. There was also a release mechanism that opened a back panel that allowed access to the engine.
Zack unsheathed his tactical knife from his utility belt and sliced through several hydraulic lines and wires. Fluid spewed from the hoses, like blood from veins. He jammed the knife into the circuitry. Sparks flew, and a shock jolted his hand. He recoiled involuntarily, and the knife fell away. A few seconds later it clanked on the ground.
By this time, Xorgon's unit began to malfunction. The alien had lost all control. The heavy beast staggered, and the steady hum of the engine ground to a halt.
Zack felt a glorious triumphant rush. He had disabled the damn thing. But his sweet victory only lasted a moment. The giant mechanized vehicle swayed, then began a long, slow fall. It was like a giant redwood tree that had been cut down. The unit tipped, then smashed into the side of the building. Zack bounced around like a rag-doll, crashing to the ground.
The impact from the fall left him unconscious. His body lay lifeless among the rubble, not far from the fallen mech. It was eerily quiet for a moment. Then the canopy opened, and the massive alien crawled out.
Xorgon looked pissed. He pulled off his helmet and slammed it to the ground. His eyes found Zack's body and his face contorted, snarling with rage.
Xorgon's camera crew had finally caught up to them. They fanned out, covering the event from multiple angles.
Zack began to stir. His vision was blurry, and it took him a moment to realize what had happened. There was a momentary gap in his memory, but as soon as he saw the angry alien approaching, it all came rushing back to him.
Before Zack could scramble to his feet, Xorgon grabbed him. The hulking alien heaved him through the air, sending him crashing into the remains of a brick wall. Zack crumpled down with the wind knocked out of him.
Xorgon closed in on him.
Zack scampered to his feet and squared off against the angry beast. One look at this ogre, and Zack knew he was going to take a beating worse than he had gotten from Dean Dully, Darrell Vaughn, or any other bully he had ever encountered.
Zack tried to keep light on his feet. He knew Xorgon had a size advantage, but Zack had speed and maneuverability. Unfortunately, his maneuverability had been greatly diminished. His ankle felt like someone had jabbed a knife into it. Each step sent a jolt of pain into the joint.
Xorgon unholstered his plasma pistol and tossed it aside. It probably didn't work anyway—none of the other plasma weapons were functioning after the blast. Even if it were, he would have tossed it aside just the same. He wanted to kill Zack with his bare hands.
The big beast charged in and swung a right cross. He had fists like a Mack truck that could turn a face into hamburger with one punch.
Zack ducked and dodged as Xorgon's massive fist whooshed overhead.
The alien scowled at him, a tad frustrated with Zack's maneuverability. Xorgon charged him again, faked right, then swung a devastating left hook. It connected with Zack's jaw, snapping his neck to the side. Blood sprayed from his lips as he crashed to the ground. The metallic taste of blood filled his mouth. He spit crimson goo onto the ground, then staggered to his feet.
Zack’s jaw ached. His incisor wiggled as he tongued it.
Xorgon seemed amused.
The two fighters circled each other, like boxers in a ring. This was going to end badly for Zack, and he knew it.
Xorgon exploded at Zack. His big meaty fist crashed through the air. Zack ducked and dodged, throwing an elbow into Xorgon's ribs as he passed by. It did nothing. The behemoth lumbered to a stop, then pivoted around to look at Zack. He was starting to breathe a little heavier. All of this chasing the little runt around was starting to wear on him.
Xorgon launched at him again. He swung wildly, and Zack ducked underneath. He spun around to face the alien as Xorgon flipped his massive frame to face the little runt. They were standing toe to toe again.
Xorgon sprang forward, and Zack ran to the side. This time the beast was able to snag Zack's arm. He hoisted Zack up, then slammed him down against the concrete.
Zack felt his ribs crack, and all the air rushed from his lungs. He couldn't breathe, and he was seeing stars.
The big ogre dropped down, pinning Zack to the ground. He wound his fist back and pounded Zack in the face. His nose shattered and blood spewed from his nostrils. The back of his head cracked against the concrete. It was like two hits for the price of one. He wasn't going to survive too many more of those.
The ferocious alien recoiled his fist, preparing for another strike.
Zack turned his head away, shying from the impending blow. On the ground, the glimmer of something reflective caught his eye. Through blurred vision, he recognized his tactical knife. He reached out and clasped it as Xorgon landed another devastating punch.
Zack could barely see out of his left eye. It was swollen, and a laceration had opened up above his brow. Blood and sweat trickled into his eye, further obscuring his view. Xorgon appeared as a big hazy figure above him. He saw the beast cock his wrist back for another punch.
Zack swung his arm up, jamming the blade of his tactical knife in Xorgon's neck.
Blood spurted from the carotid artery.
Xorgon clutched the wound and tumbled to the side. Zack sprang to his feet as the alien tried to regain his composure. Xorgon pressed the palm of his hand over the wound, trying to stem the tide of blood, but there was no stopping it. He attempted to stagger to his feet, but with every beat of his heart his life force ebbed from his body. He collapsed down to one knee.
Zack kept a safe distance, clutching the bloody knife.
Xorgon mustered all of his strength and sprang to his feet. He plowed forward for a few steps before he fell again. He made one final attempt to stand, then collapsed in the street. His hand fell from the wound, and his body went limp. Blood oozed onto the dusty concrete, and Xorgon's last breath emptied from his lungs.
Zack breathed a sigh of relief. He wiped the blade on his pants leg and sheathed it. With his sleeve, he wiped the blood from his face. He felt the laceration above his brow with his fingertips, wincing as he pressed on it. It felt wide and slick.
He glanced to the camera crew that was still filming. Their eyes were wide, mouths agape, in complete shock. They weren’t sure what to do next.
After a moment, they glanced to Zack, then took off running. They disappeared into the ruins of the city.
Zack grinned. But his feeling of relief was short lived when he heard the crushing steps of a mechanized vehicle approaching. It had the distinct sound of the Tarvaax engines.
Zack's whole body tensed.
The enemy mech rounded the corner and squared off against Zack. They were like two old-fashioned gunslingers standing in the middle of the street facing each other. Only Zack didn't have a gun.
He clinched the handle of his tactical knife. He had taken down one mech with a knife, why not two? But he knew that was wishful thinking.
Zack watched as the machine guns took aim at him. He didn't even bother to run, or to take cover. It seemed futile at this point. He was just going to accept his fate. Maybe the oracle had been right all along? He had done his best and destroyed the shield generator. With any luck the UPDF forces would take back the city. Maybe he’d be awarded some kind of medal, posthumously.
An RPG ripped through the air. It slammed into the junction of the torso and the pelvis of the mechanized vehicle, cutting it into. The blast toppled it to the ground—a smoldering heap of twisted metal.
Diesel emerge from around the corner with a rocket launcher slung over her shoulder. She had a confident grin on her face.
“I told you, I’ve got your back.”
“You could have shown up a little sooner," he teased her.
“What? Did I miss something?“
Zack just shook his head.
“You look like crap, by the way.”
“Thanks. I feel like crap,” Zack said. “Come on. We need to get moving.”
“Where are we going?"
"To find the internment camp and rescue the prisoners."
“All by ourselves?" she asked, skeptically.
“What? You're not going to back down from a challenge, are you?" Zack said, egging her on.
Diesel had a sly glint in her eyes. "Hell no! Let's go free some prisoners."
Zack smiled, and the two headed north on another adventure. He hobbled along on his twisted ankle. Each breath sent stabbing pains through his chest from his broken ribs. He had definitely seen better days, but he was optimistic. He could hear the distinct sound of UPDF aircraft rip through the skies. With the shields down they were regaining air superiority. Ground forces were making their push to take back the city. He felt like the tide had turned. With any luck, they’d drive the invaders away. And maybe, just maybe, Honor, and his foster parents, were still alive.
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I'm just a geek who loves sci-fi and horror. I was abducted by aliens and forced to travel the galaxy as the official biographer of an evil galactic ruler. This is where I learned to hone my craft. Fortunately, I escaped and made my way back to Earth, and now I write about my adventures. I hope you enjoy!