/ Language: English / Genre:sf_space, / Series: Soldier of the Legion

Soldier of the Legion

Marshall Thomas


Soldier of the Legion

Marshall S. Thomas

PART I-NEW WORLDS

Crista Cluster, 1,400 light years from Sol

When the first Outworlder refugees approached the Outvac fleeing System oppression, the Crista Cluster beckoned them onwards with a view that appeared to form a starry cross in the vac. ConFree's ancestors settled those worlds as a free people and vowed in a Constitution written in blood to uphold liberty, justice and freedom, no matter what the cost, and to remain eternally vigilant against all forms of tyranny and slavery. The ConFree Legion was formed to accomplish those objectives.

Chapter 1: Fortune’s All-Sub Crimson Souls

“Stand by. Redhawk is on the way.” Snow Leopard’s icy whisper hissed in my ears, though he was nowhere in sight.

A muted red glow bathed the interior of my helmet and the darksight built into my faceplate lit up the black forest better than daylight. It was the dead pit of the night on this obscure world. Merlin and I crouched in our A-suit battle armor in a tangle of undergrowth, surrounded by tall, spooky trees. The silent forest was calm and serene. All appeared to be well.

But it wasn’t.

For what seemed like the thousandth time, I checked my E. The E Mark 1 Multi-Ordnance Battlefield Superiority Rifle was a compact, general-purpose electronic weapon that never malfunctioned and never missed. I raised it and slid the stock against my armored shoulder. Biostats blinked in the upper left corner of my faceplate. My heartbeat had just sped up. I swear I could taste the adrenalin on my tongue. Deadman! I would probably start shaking soon.

I was completely protected inside my A-suit, with its powered, lightweight, superdense, self-sealing cenite armor. According to our instructors, it was the most effective personnel armor yet devised. In fact, I had yet to take a single breath of air from this planet’s atmosphere-I was still on suit-air. Suddenly, though, I felt naked.

This was insane! I was insane! Joining the Legion had seemed like a good idea at the time, and now, here I was, about to get killed on our first real action. My past was gone forever and now I was Beta Three. They called me Thinker because I had a tendency to over-think things. I was convinced I should have been re-named Psycho for even being here, but Beta Five had me beat, hands-down. The numbers were our official designations: Snow Leopard was Beta One, our leader; I was Beta Three, and Merlin was Beta Four.

The night was spectacular. I glanced up at stars beyond the treetops. Velvet hush, I thought. It won’t last long.

“You know, Thinker,” Merlin remarked thoughtfully, “When they told us the Final Problem was a live fire exercise I kind of thought it would consist of us shooting up lots of targets with live ammo while they shot over our heads. I never suspected the targets would be trying to kill…us, that it was a combat mission.” He sounded a little worried. Merlin was a tech’s tech, our own lab rat, an absolute genius. He had headed his own research effort before deciding to join the Legion as a common soldier and sure didn’t belong in an A-suit, but there he was, right beside me, peering into the dark.

“Getting scared?” I asked. My heart pounded. It promised to be one hell of a final exam. Planet Hell had been bad enough, but that had all been training. We hadn’t known about the Final Problem until the last moment. The problem would be different for every squad, of course-a whole lot of opportunities existed out there, a whole galaxy of problems.

“I’ve been scared since I walked through the Legion gate!” Merlin confessed.

A titanic blast lit up the night, casting an eerie electric green flash over the night sky. Blazing phospho gold tracers ripped over the forest, crackling and screeching. A series of deafening secondaries savaged the earth. Multiple micro-nuke tacstar clouds writhed into the heavens, glittering crimson and gold. Redhawk, Beta Ten, had just arrived in the aircar and made a good hit on the Ain’t No Lady. Scratch one slaver starship! The fools had softlanded it downside, but I guess it wouldn’t have lasted long in orbit, either.

Legion training took over. “That’s it!” I shouted.

Merlin and I bolted forward toward Slavebloc 1, smashing our way through the forest like a couple of human tanks. Xmax, explosive high velocity rounds set on maximum-yield, suddenly opened up ahead of us. That would be Coolhand, Beta Two and Warhound, Beta Six, hosing down Barracks 2 with their E’s. I saw them on my faceplate tacmap, riddling the building from outside, taking their time. Ironman, Beta Seven, and Dragon, Beta Eight, approached Slavebloc 2 from the North, opposite us. They held their fire. The tacmap also showed Beta Nine, Priestess, springing to her position where she could cover Barracks 1 when the slavers came tumbling out the doors.

A tacstar flashed and boomed to our left, that terrifying silken rip that always raised the hairs on the back of my neck, followed by an elemental blast from the gates of Hell. Snow Leopard and Beta Five, Psycho, attacked the Headquarters building in the center of the sprawling complex.

Slavebloc 1 stared out of the dark, brilliantly illuminated in green by my darksight. The luxurious prefab with four interlocking two-story residential blocs contained a central rec area. Painstaking recon showed that it held both female slaves and their male captors.

“Thinker and Merlin entering Slavebloc 1,” I announced, blasting the door to fragments with a burst of auto xmax. Merlin fired a starflash grenade into the doorway and it spewed about a million glittering white phospho tracers back out the door towards us. We jogged straight into it and I felt the debris ping harmlessly against my armor. The starflash would blind everyone unarmored inside.

“Slave!” Sweety announced, as a scantily-clad female stumbled out of the glittering white smoke, blinded and lost. I had been just about to blast her. Sweety was my suit tacmod. She had proven most useful on Planet Hell, saving my butt more than once.

Merlin crouched beside me, E up and scanning. We knew exactly how to clean this place-one slaver at a time. It was just like our training sims. Except that these were real people in front of us.

“Target!” I fired standard-yield x, and Merlin lased it just as glowing green x tracks flashed over our heads. A gory specter appeared out of the smoke, wide-open chest spraying black blood, forehead squirting a thin stream of blood from a single hole. He collapsed to the deck, dropping his DefCorps StarGuard rifle. He wore only shorts. Prominent cheekbones, sparse whiskers, slit eyes and long dark hair. An Assidic. The SG was functionally equivalent to our E, though it was more compact. It was an ugly reminder of System tolerance for the slave trade.

“Target!” Sweety announced again. I’m not sure if I fired or Sweety fired but the round took off the second enemy’s head. He had been stocky and powerful-evidently an Outworlder. He, too, wore only shorts.

Merlin forced a laugh. “We caught them with their pants down.”

“Targets in red!” Sweety colored them on my faceplate. The thick carpet beneath our armored boots probably cost more per square mike than a year’s earnings back in my civilian life. We barely noticed the luxurious surroundings, the carpet, rich tapestries, couches, canopied beds and abundant bowls of exotic fruits, all looted from countless worlds, along with the abundance of nubile slaves.

I shouted at the slaves and my suit amplified my voice to godlike proportions, “Get down!”

We advanced into a confusing tangle of female slaves and hostiles armed with SGs-they couldn’t see a thing, but the slavers fired x blindly, on full auto. Merlin and I shot short bursts of x, laser, x, laser, each round downing a target.

I remembered my weapons instructor: The A-suit tacmod assures one-round hits for all ordnance. Until now it had all been training. A grueling abstraction. Now real people were dying.

Sweety’s color scheme enabled us to pick the bad guys right out of the crowd, though even inside the protection of our armor, the racket deafened us. Blood splattered up the walls and girls shrieked. We kept firing, trudging through bodies and exotic debris down one corridor after another, shrapnel pinging on our A-suits, firing more starflash for luck and leaving a trail of corpses in our wake.

“Targets!” Xmax burst all around us, the walls erupting with hits, lasers flashing. Two, three, no, four hostiles, coming right at us! I fired blindly and Sweety did it all, controlling angles and trajectories. The hostiles went down.

We advanced, stepping over body parts amid surprisingly intact corpses-some with their skin shredded away and some with blood still squirting from arteries. We marched through pools of blood, leaving behind trembling young girls huddled against the walls, gasping and splattered with blood. Too scared to shake, I moved in icy shock, an automaton, doing whatever Sweety ordered.

I noticed Merlin hadn’t made any more bad jokes, or spoken at all, for that matter. I didn’t feel much like conversation, either.

A hostile lay twitching on the deck. I shot him through the head with a laser burst and felt only cold horror. A Cyrillian, with black satin skin, tribal scars and sharpened white teeth. The slavers had given their group a name, Fortune’s All-Sub Crimson Souls. They were a diverse bunch. Assidics, Outworlders, Cyrillians, even a few outlaw Mocains and Ormans-the Crimson Souls welcomed all. Being a merciless homicidal maniac was the only qualification. They had found a nice hideout here on Alshana 4, but their good times were ending fast.

The Legion didn’t negotiate with slavers, and we didn’t arrest them. We killed them. According to our initial estimate there were more than two hundred fifty of the bastards in the complex. With only ten of us, including Redhawk in the aircar, we had strong motivation to terminate the engagement as rapidly as possible.

“Damn it,” someone said on the net. “DefCorps armor!”

Merlin and I were vaguely aware of an intense firefight raging outside.

“Snow Leopard, Psycho, Dragon. They’ve got some kind of reaction team. Looks like a whole squad in armor. Get ‘em, Priestess.” The voice belonged to Dragon, our most experienced soldier. I could hardly believe how calm he sounded. A squad in armor! Bad news, very bad news.

“Dragon, Snow Leopard. Responding. Thinker, Merlin, break off your target and engage their armored squad.”

“Snow Leopard, Thinker, tenners!” I replied. The rest of our assigned Slavebloc would have to wait. Merlin and I shot our way out of a door on the east side and ran along the wall toward Barracks 1.

“We’re entering Priestess’s line of fire!” Merlin and Sweety exclaimed in unison. We skidded to a halt amid dead and dying slavers littering the plaza in front of the barracks. Two more slavers with SGs charged out and ran right into Priestess’s precision xmax, one round apiece. Unarmored, they were torn to pieces instantly, going down spraying blood. Damned good shooting by our medic, Priestess. A very talented little girl.

We converged on the enemy squad through the dense white smoke drifting through the plaza. The armored slavers could see through it as well. Five-no, six DefCorps A-suits bounded towards Slavebloc 2. They opened fire on Ironman and Dragon with x as I raised my E and fired auto xmax. Snow Leopard and Psycho moved up on my left as Ironman and Dragon returned fire from the north side of Slavebloc 2.

“Targets!” I watched one of the armored slavers go down in a blinding flash of hits as I walked the xmax down his chest. Another went down as well-an obscene tracery of xmax and laser crisscrossed their path.

“Relax, gals, we can handle this bunch!” I recognized Psycho’s obnoxious whine. Then his Manlink spoke, auto tacstar, ripping open the world. Most of the armored slavers vanished, replaced by dazzling brilliant white hot cores, screeching gibbering actinic gold tracers, precision nuclear flowers writhing upward, with blinding lightning strikes flashing down all around them. Tacstar Goddess, Flower of the Legion, annihilating our enemies. The Manlink was effective tactical, shoulder-fired artillery. Merlin and I fired at the stragglers nonstop, xmax and laser. Priestess, Ironman and Dragon laid down a deadly crossfire of xmax while Snow Leopard switched to laser as the last of those A-suited bastards went down.

The firing stopped, and I got my first look at what a tacstar can do to armored troops. Cenite was supposed to be just about indestructible; however, a direct tacstar hit was beyond the limit. What remained of the enemy squad glowed like a junkyard of fused, blasted, cenite armor. My weapons instructor’s intonations suddenly had real-world meaning. The tacstar is a micronuke designed for shock troops to rapidly impose tactical superiority over the enemy. I guess if anyone qualified as shock troops, we did.

“All right, gang,” Snow Leopard said with finality. “Let’s mop up.”

Our helmets now off, Merlin and I ended up in the central hive of the obscenely opulent HQS building. Slaveblock 1 had been impressive, but the slavers had saved the best of their stolen riches for their headquarters. Rare and exotic woods paneled the walls and ceilings. Tapestries that surely could have ransomed small planets now lay shredded, blood soaked and crushed by Legion boots. Millennia-old pottery and glassware lay shattered, bits and shards strewn with a careless abandon that must be the stuff of archaeologists’ nightmares.

Here the Fortune’s All-Sub Crimson Souls had planned their raids, counted their loot, and raped and tortured their captives. Here it had ended for many of them. They’d terrorized countless worlds but now their bloody, dismembered corpses littered the floor. Smoke still hung in the air and stunk heavily of gore and exhaust gasses of E’s and SG’s.

The smell was getting to me. I started to put my helmet back on, but several of the nearby slaves saw what I was doing and gasped, apparently terrified that more fighting was imminent. I stopped. The young, attractive girls, some of them still naked, huddled in groups of two and three in the corners, consoling each other. Most were on one side or the other of absolute panic. Looking them in the eye seemed to calm them down a bit. I don’t think they really understood what was happening. Some probably thought we were just another bunch of slavers.

“Whooo!” Psycho careened into the room, popped off his helmet and strutted around in his armor, the Manlink thrust out in front of him like a great cenite penis. “Mother did it again! Did you see those stars?” A little guy, he had short blond hair, vacant blue eyes and a wild grin. “Say hello and die! Thank you, Mommy. Thank you!” He stroked ‘Mother’, his Manlink. “Deadman! I haven’t had this much fun since…well, since yesterday!” Psycho had earned a reputation as a total maniac. He’d actually liked Planet Hell.

“Snow Leopard, we’ve ID’d Saint Mongro.” Coolhand stood over a large corpse sprawled in a pool of blood. The dead man’s blue, pockmarked face was frozen in a harsh scowl. His filmy eyes stared into infinity. A dead slave girl lay crumpled beside him.

Someone on Veltros had said it, and now I understood. The dead always look the same, like lumps of clay.

Coolhand poked Mongro gently with his E, consulted a datacard and muttered to himself, “That’s certainly him.” Tall and rangy, Coolhand had a thin, handsome face and wavy brown hair. He seemed perfectly casual about having found the Crimson Soul’s notorious leader.

Snow Leopard drifted over and glanced down at the corpse. He removed his helmet, revealing straight white-blond hair, hot pink eyes and a chunky face so pale we could see blue veins pulsing at his temple.

“Record it,” he said coldly, and turned away.

“Get any interesting kills, Thinker?” Dragon asked me. His sweaty forehead sported a nasty bruise, but he didn’t seem to notice. He moved like a great cat, balancing his E on one shoulder. His deep-set eyes glared at me. Dragon was a first-class killer. I always felt better with him around, tattoos and all.

I wasn’t sure if he really expected an answer. “Well, nothing worth writing home about,” I replied.

He actually smiled. “Good! Keep it that way. Interesting means you let them get the drop on you!”

Before I could figure out how to reply, a commotion broke out down one corridor. Shouting, shrieking, a gang of girls went at it, jumping on each other wildly. A catfight! I ran, but by the time I arrived Warhound and Ironman had separated most of the combatants. One girl writhed on the floor as the others continued kicking and spitting at her, screeching invectives and convulsed with hatred.

My natural voice needed no amplification this time, “Break it up! What is this? Stop that!” I threw the attackers to one side, straddling the downed girl to protect her. The others very quickly learned not to hit me in my armor. Cradling bruised knuckles, they circled like wild dogs, bristling with hatred.

Ironman interrupted, “It’s Black Ice, Thinker!” He held several of the slaves back. “That’s what they’re saying. It’s Black Ice!”

Black Ice! I suddenly recognized the girl as a Mocain, hair cut short to the scalp, hooded eyes and no eyebrows. Her pale skin had a greenish cast. As the Deputy Chief of the Fortune’s All-Sub Crimson Souls, she bore responsibility for the deaths of thousands. The Mocains were our enemies. They were also the System’s master race, but this one had turned outlaw. Clad in a torn top, litepants and boots, she bled heavily from the nose and mouth. Black Ice-alive!

Snow Leopard arrived and took charge. “Priestess, I want a genetic ID on this one. These Mocains all look the same to me.”

Priestess elbowed through the crowd and pressed a medprobe to the girl’s neck, then consulted it and checked Coolhand’s datacard. Priestess was Beta squad’s angel: dangerously beautiful, with silky black hair, smooth pale skin and vulnerable lips. Every day that passed drew me closer to the realization that I wanted her to be my angel. My heart always sped up when she was nearby, but I certainly didn’t want her or anyone else to know it.

“That’s her all right,” Priestess said. “Black Ice. Genetic ID is confirmed.”

“Thank you, Priestess.” Snow Leopard lowered the barrel of his E to the Mocain’s forehead. Her eyes widened for just a frac. Then her head exploded, spraying everyone with blood and gore.

I blinked back the horror. Several of the former slaves shrieked in terror, but more than a few danced gleefully around the room, not bothering to wipe away the blood. They held hands and sang some unintelligible rhyme with wild, feral looks on their faces. I wouldn’t forget this one.

“Prepare to evac the civilians,” Snow Leopard said calmly. He had ice water in his veins. I sometimes thought he could have been a biogen, one of those synthetically grown humans engineered for specific, singular tasks. To me, he was the ultimate squad leader. Only a few years older than the rest of us, he was certainly different. How could he be unmoved by this?

Priestess paused beside me and said in a low, hopeful voice, “It’s good, Thinker,” she said. “What we’re doing here is good.”

I looked up at her. “If you say so,” I replied as I reached for an embroidered shawl to wipe the blood and brains from my face and armor. Welcome to the Legion, I thought.

The rest was a blur. I did what I was told and moved like the efficient machine the Legion had forged. Now that the area was pacified, tech-teams moved in to gather what intelligence they could from the ruins. We sedated many of the former slaves, and evacuated the lot of them off-planet to our ship, the cruiser C.S. Spawn. The lifies, our med-techs, took custody of them. I didn’t envy them their jobs. There would be many tearful reunions as the Legion reunited them with their families, but I knew that despite our best med-tech and therapy, many would never be quite sane again.

I was exhausted, tired beyond anything I believed possible. It was time to report. Our squad assembled, still in armor, hauling weapons and equipment, in the Captain’s small office. We struggled to fit everyone inside. Snow Leopard stood at attention in front of the Captain’s spartan desk. The Captain waited patiently.

Snow Leopard was all business, “Sir! Squad Beta reports successful completion of the mission on Alshana 4. Two hundred sixty one slavers terminated, six hundred eight female captives recovered. Squad had zero casualties. Thirteen captives were killed in the crossfire. Thirty were wounded and are under treatment.”

“Thank you, Beta.” The Captain stood up, dressed in his blacks. He appeared to be very young, but in the Legion it was hard to tell. Our biotech kept us young and virtually immortal. His slightly slanted eyes hinted at a little Assidic blood. “It’s a shame about the captives, but it can’t be helped. You did a good job, troopers.” The Captain knew all about how the raid went. Everyone knew that he’d closely monitored our every move. Snow Leopard’s report was just a formality.

“Let’s see,” the Captain said, sifting through a pile of printouts and datapaks on his desk. “All right.” He picked up a printout. “Snow Leopard, based on the results of your Final Problem on Alshana 4, your squad has been certified by 22nd Legion Training Command as graduates of the Hell Course and fully fit for regular combat. Reassignment is authorized to an active-duty unit.” He paused and looked up, smiling, “Congratulations to all of you and welcome to the ConFree Legion.”

We greeted the news with a stunned silence. Finally Psycho said, “Aw right!”

It had been a long hard road, but we’d done it. We’d arrived!

“Thank you, Sir!” Snow Leopard spoke up.” On behalf of Beta, we thank the Legion!”

The Captain chuckled with a knowing expression. “I’ve got your assignment here, too. 22nd Legion, 12th Colonial Expeditionary Regiment-that’s the Black 12th-CAT 24, Second of the Ship-BE 14, Atom’s Road. That’s the Spawn’s battlestar. She’s a good ship.”

“Sir! We are honored to be assigned to Atom’s Road!”

“We’ll be underway to Atom as soon as we transfer your refugees. Atom will be starlaunching as soon as we arrive. The entire 12th has been recalled and will be on board. We’ve got a major mission, boys-a Systie intrusion into ConFree vac. It’s very serious. We’ll be facing the DefCorps this time, not some half-assed slaver gang with a little borrowed DefCorps hardware.”

“Sir! We won’t fail you! What’s the target?” Snow Leopard asked.

The Captain looked down at his notes. “Andrion 2,” he said. “It’s in the Outvac-quite a ways out. Over 750 light-years from the Crista Cluster. Nobody’s ever been there. But we’ll fix that.”

“Yes, Sir!” Snow Leopard sounded supremely confident.

The Black 12th, the 12th Colonial Expeditionary Regiment, under the 22nd, the Black Legion! The 22nd had an ancient and glorious history. In the Plague War, it had been known as the Rimguard, and the Rimguard motto, Deliver Us From Evil, had a special meaning for all Outworlders. We still carried those words on our blacks.

I swallowed hard. Into the Outvac. Seven hundred and fifty light-years. I must be insane! In a few days, I would really do it. Until now there had always been the vague idea that if I wasn’t good enough or brave enough the Legion would just send me back home. I didn’t expect or want to go back-it was just a kind of mental back door or escape hatch. Nice to know it was there. It was just a dodge, a way to avoid accepting the full reality and consequence of joining the Legion. Some part of me hadn’t quite grasped my decision to forever leave my old life behind.

Not anymore. The final string was cut and I was suddenly dizzy.

Then Psycho was shoving me, “Come on, Thinker, wake up! Time to go and get out of these stinkin’ suits and grab some eats!”

The meeting was breaking up and I was impeding the rough flow of tired, armored troopers making their way out of the Captain’s office.

“Yeah,” I said. “Time to go.”

Chapter 2: Year Zero

As we approached Atom’s Road on the Spawn, I found a small viewport. Atom hung silently in space, a blinding silver dart that reflected all our hopes and dreams. As we drew closer, Atom’s immense size became clear. Two other cruisers were already affixed to their docking blisters, and they looked almost like toys in comparison to Atom. Deadman, she was lovely-crafted by the Gods! I knew she was also the ultimate killing machine, capable of knocking a planet out of orbit. We all knew her mission and her stats, but I best remembered that last line of the official description: “The C.S. Atom’s Road represents the united power and resolve of the citizens of the Confederation of Free Worlds.” She was ours-and she was a mighty weapon.

“Stand by for vac run red.” A star jump! The announcement found me in my tiny cube on Atom, trying to activate the wall desk. I knew that all elements of the 12th had arrived, all four cruisers were secure and power was building to open the artificial wormhole. Atom would hold open the dimensional vortex all the way to our destination, where it would slam shut behind us with a light show that would announce to everyone in the sector that we’d arrived.

At first, I assumed I would be sharing my cube in shifts, but Priestess had burst in, almost giddy with the news that they were our own cubes. We weren’t used to such luxury.

Without fanfare or further warning it came, with a great shudder and a high-pitched whine. Atom poked a hole in the universe and hurled us through it. Into nothing, nothing to see because nothing was there. We all felt it, though. There was a kind of pressure that closed in on you, and seemed to reduce your field of vision a bit. I asked one of the techs if the dimension we were traveling through had existed before or if we had created it-and why was it that there was nothing in it but us? He looked at me with pity and just shook his head. I resigned myself to my fate. I was a great believer in fate.

The void between the stars is like the hand of death. I was a spark, hurtling into the dark, my past forever gone. A bitter cold numbed my bones. My soul froze, I think, but not from the cold. I knew we were never coming back.

I thought a lot. I had plenty of time to think, lying in my bunk, staring at the overhead. I’m not sure, anymore, whether or not thinking’s good for you. As best as I can recall, every time I’ve gotten in trouble, it was preceded by heavy bouts of thinking. I’ve got to give it up one of these days. But not between the stars.

Atom’s open mess was full of Legion troopers in camfax fatigues and black-suited Fleet Command personnel; FleetCom vacheads, we called them. It wasn’t lunchtime but every table was taken and there was an awful racket. I spotted Warhound sitting alone, writing something with a lightpen on a starlink datascreen. As I approached, he shifted a hand to conceal the screen.

“What you doing, Warhound?” I asked as I pulled out a chair.

“I was…just writing my mom.” He lowered his eyes. Warhound was a good kid with sandy hair cut close to his scalp. Sunken, pale blue eyes dominated a rugged crudely-cast face.

Writing his Mom. Deadman! Many of the younger troopers had only known a mother’s love, never a lover. We’re innocents, I thought, in the service of a savage god.

“How’s the headache?” I asked. He seemed to suffer more from the effects of our wormhole transit than most. Priestess had given him medication for the pain. Stardrive sure didn’t help. The pressure made it hard to take even without a headache.

“Better. Thanks.” Warhound resumed writing his letter, forming the words carefully.

I called up a dox from the table menu and popped the cap. Breaking the seal heated the dark liquid instantly and the rich, sweet aroma flowed over us. Hot dox. Undoubtedly better than sex!

Warhound may have been an innocent, but I knew that, if need be, he would die for us, without hesitation. He was as loyal as a dog. Warhound was not the brightest star in the heavens but he was one of us now. He knew, after Planet Hell, that we’d die for him, too.

As I sipped my dox, my mind drifted. This trip wasn’t a pleasure cruise. If Outvac Sector Command wanted to retask Atom’s entire group to the far side of the Outvac, there must be more at stake than they’d told us. A couple of vacheads at the next table chatted about how unprecedented this deployment was, and I listened carefully. According to them, moving Atom would leave a huge gap that would have to be filled with forces drawn from elsewhere, and moving those forces would require further adjustment. Command was spooked about something and very little spooked the Legion.

“Hi, guys.” Ironman joined us, setting down a tray with ice water and a power bar. Ironman was Beta’s youngest soul, just out of mid-school and still growing. He faced the future with hope and faith. Long brown hair hung over one eye as he stirred his ice water with a straw. Strikingly handsome and superbly fit, Ironman was a lifter, proud of his growing physique. I happened to know that he came from a Legion world, a privileged world. What a fool! He was underage, why had his parents consented? Bright, dynamic, handsome, strong-he had it all, his whole life ahead of him. Everybody liked Ironman. What in the name of Deadman’s death was he doing here? The Legion wasn’t for innocents like Ironman. The Legion wanted the dreamers, the drifters, the doomed and the lost.

“Is everything tenners, Thinker? Something wrong?” Ironman smiled tentatively, revealing even white teeth.

“No. It’s nothing, Ironman.” I felt very protective of him, though I’m not sure why. Every night I prayed to Deadman for his soul. But then again, I prayed for everyone in Beta.

I found our pilot, Redhawk, in Spawn’s aircar bay with his lover. A long line of fearsome black birds filled the bay, gleaming with slick, silent and deadly. My blood stirred, just looking at those lovely ladies. I located our own car by the tail number-24B. Coiled like a snake, ready to strike. I ran my fingers over her wet, icy cold skin.

I loved aircars. They could hover like bees with the airblast from fans hidden under the fuselage or hurtle through the sky like a fighter. Fully armored and heavily armed, the assault aircar was a true battlefield superiority weapon. Aircars were equipped to insert a squad into the target area as well as provide tactical air cover and retrieval.

“Don’t touch my girl.” Redhawk stepped out of the shadows under the fuselage. Tangled red hair fell to his shoulders. His pale splotchy face was spattered with slick. His sparse mustache and scraggly beard looked even rattier than usual. Clad in filthy sleeveless coveralls, he clutched an angular tool I couldn’t identify.

“How’s she doin’, Redhawk?” I gave him a big grin. I couldn’t help it. I really liked the guy.

He laughed. “She’s hot and wet. No foreplay required. Give us the word, we lift.” He looked up at the car with fierce adoration, scratching his chin absently. Redhawk was a free spirit. He could work on the aircar for days without sleep or sustenance. At other times, he would collapse in a stupor, seemingly developing laziness as a serious art form. Once in the cockpit, however, his genius came to light.

“Come on in, Thinker.” Redhawk stepped up through the open assault door into the aircar. I joined him, settling back into one of the crash seats. Laughing, he produced two icy cans of dark bitter from a refrigerated equipment rack, and tossed me one. I popped the cap and let the freezing lager sluice down my throat. Bitter was illegal in the aircar bay but Redhawk had never been bound by the rules.

I had to stop thinking about my fate, about Command’s fears and my own. Lost, hopeless and undoubtedly insane, I had been drawn to the Legion, as if sleepwalking. It seemed as though the twin angels of Love and Death haunted me day and night. In my dreams of home, Tara beckoned to me, a symbol of my lost life. She’d laugh at me, and say I was too soft. I wanted only to forget her, but I couldn’t. Death, my other angel, stalked my dreams as well.

“Getting scared?” Redhawk asked. He draped himself over his seat lazily, his coverall zip half open, exposing a sweaty, hairy chest.

“I get braver with every sip of this stuff,” I replied.

“I ran into Valkyrie in Supply,” he said. “She asked about you.”

I hesitated. “Yeah? What did you say?”

“I told her you had some serious second thoughts about the relationship. And I reminded her that I was available and damned good in bed. She told me to…well, never mind what she told me. It wasn’t very ladylike. So I guess she’s still stuck on you.”

Visions of Valkyrie, Gamma Two, came to me, faintly. What kind of dark magic, what kind of evil alchemy, could find love in the Legion? Visions of silky golden hair, and a great hush. We’d slept out under the stars, on Hell. I’d been Gamma Four then-it was before I was transferred to Beta Squad. Once, we’d camped by a cold, black ocean with luminous silver waves and a beach of silver sand, with death waiting in the night. I blessed the Gods when she first came to me, but it got to be lonely after awhile. She was always there, but her thoughts were far away. For all I knew, she could have been a biogen. But I knew she wasn’t-I could understand biogens.

“Thinker, you still with us?” Redhawk slouched in his seat, finishing off his bitter. “Man, you’ve got it bad!”

I smiled. “Yeah. I guess so.” Here, even Hell seemed like the distant past-a previous life.

The rumor mill spread the word long before the official announcement: We were about to exit the wormhole and re-enter normal vac. I was lost in a crowd of troopers facing a giant d-screen in one of the rec rooms when I heard a faint whining. Reality languidly stretched in on itself. The pressure that had given us all mild tunnel vision abruptly vanished with a jolt. For a moment, I fought for control of my stomach. Then it was over. The ship shuddered and groaned, and the screen filled with stars. A savage cheer ripped through the ranks.

This was routine for the vacheads but good news for us. We made it! The future was dark, but we were right on course.

Troopers pointed excitedly at the screen amid cries of, “Look at that!” and “It’s beautiful!”

Andrion 2, itself in orbit around Andrion’s yellow dwarf star, grew larger and larger, glowing on the screens. It was truly lovely, truly marvelous, with great luminous green oceans and continents covered with brightly tinted forests. Rugged black mountain ranges spawned cold blue rivers that traced aimless patterns through endless flowerfields. Vast silver deserts of sand dominated cold plateaus. The polar areas gleamed white, and wispy clouds streaked brilliant skies. It reminded me a little of Veltros, and I tried to put the thought away. My heart beat faster. The future would depend entirely upon us.

Back in my cube, I collapsed onto my bunk, slid a datapak off the shelf and triggered it. I must have seen it a hundred times, but it still stirred my blood. A thin, silvery line, almost invisible, etched into the dark. It was the long-range image of the Systie antimat track entering this system. No doubt it was very much like the one we had just made on our wormhole exit. It was why we were here, prepped to drop onto this far-off world.

Outvac Sector Command-Starcom-had detected the Systie track quite by accident, in the vicinity of the Andrion System. When a ship exits an artificial wormhole, the negative energy slams the portal shut and the ship leaves a searing antimat trail-an unmistakable footprint on the cosmos-as the ship powers onto vac drive.

Why would the Systies be interested in the far rim of the Outvac? The Andrion System was the only habitable system in the sector, and we could think of no conceivable reason for a System starship to be here. It was, after all, deep in ConFree territory, our territory, and the Systies had seriously breached the treaty by intruding. CI had concluded their target was Andrion 2-what else could it be? There were no other obvious choices. The Legion had reacted immediately. ConFree had had no active colonization plans for Andrion 2, a Phase Four planet. The Systie antimat track changed all that.

Our mission: seize the planet, repel any Systie intruders, establish control, and find out what they were up to.

ConFree and the System were not officially at war, but the Legion and the DefCorps knew better. In this uneasy truce, both sides knew that only the survivors compiled the incident report. Regs were regs, and we took them seriously in the Legion, but when we were in a remote sector and up against the DefCorps troops on the far side of the Outvac, there weren’t any rules. It didn’t matter what the diplomats said later.

“You still lookin’ at that?” Coolhand stood in the open door to my cube. I always left it open to make the tiny cube a bit less claustrophobic.

“Hi, Coolhand, come on in.” Coolhand had earned his name by his relaxed attitude to our dangerous profession.

“They’ve launched the recons.” He pulled the little wall seat open and settled his lanky frame onto it. His knees hit the edge of my bunk.

“Yeah? Are we going to see it?”

“I’m afraid the reserved seats are all taken, Sir. Standing room only.” He laughed easily. My first friend in the Legion, Coolhand was a tall, handsome youth who always seemed to have the answers. As our Two, he served as Snow Leopard’s backup. I admired him, and trusted his judgment.

Star Survey had mapped Andrion 2 decades before, and that’s all we had. That, and the Systie antimat track. Sending another automated probe would only have postponed the problem-so ConFree sent the Legion instead.

The probes brought back a lot of data, but I knew we couldn’t trust the probes. All the biotech in all the sensor systems wouldn’t provide the kind of information that one Legionnaire plodding along in the mud could.

Andrion 2, the second planet of a seven-planet system, orbited a single, hot-yellow prime, similar to Veltros. Only two of the seven planets interested us, the second and the third. Both were in the life zone. Andrion 2’s status had been rated Class A despite its somewhat lighter-than-standard gravity. We knew from the probes that it was inhabited by human stock.

We had only a few, fleeting images of a frail, savage-looking race, apparently dwelling in the deep flower forests like animals. They had not always been savage. A great pre-industrial civilization had once flourished here. There were hundreds of ancient, crumbling cities and fortresses of stone, all deserted, dotting the planet, disappearing in the tightening grip of the forests, or stark and lonely on high plateaus and mountains. This had once been a growing culture, laid low by some unknown disaster. A warning for us. We had many images of strange texts carved in the stone, but no one could read them.

I knew the images of the natives by heart; we all did.

I’d made a solid of two of them frozen in mid-leap. I kept it on a little shelf above the fold-down desk. A young female, dressed in a ragged, filthy tunic of animal scales, fleeing the probe in terror into a tree line, long tangled dark hair streaming out behind her. She wore a gold bracelet on her left arm. Another scale-clad savage, a male with matted brown hair, looked up from a forest clearing, yellow teeth bared, clutching a crude metal-tipped spear.

Coolhand followed my glance to the solid and plucked it off the shelf. “She kind of has your nose, Thinker, she could be your sister. So marriage is out…sorry!” He chuckled. I had a reputation as a lover, because of Valkyrie. “Remember, they’re mortals. This shot was taken long before you were born, so she’s a wrinkled grandmother by now. Maybe even dead.”

Images, at the end of infinity, to tell us what we had to know. A dead civilization and savages in the forests and a Systie antimat track. What possible interest could the System have in this world? The natives are delicately built, I thought, not quite as tall as we are. Clean features, pale brown skin. The male had cold grey eyes; hers were a smoky brown. No records in the history of how they got here. Had they sprung from forgotten, kidnapped slave labor? Someone had brought them here in the dim past, but it was not a unique story. It had taken the Systie intrusion for anyone to take an active interest.

The human stock on Andrion 2 had sprung from the warm, shallow seas of ancient Planet Earth, like all of us. I could trace my ancestors to the Inners, but when had Andrion 2’s human ancestors departed Earth? It sent a chill down my spine.

In stark contrast to Andrion 2, Andrion 3 was a violent, volcanic world, bleeding flame and lava from millions of glowing wounds, cloaked in eternal clouds of thick, black, poisonous smoke, and rocked by spectacular explosions from great volcanic mountains. Andrion 3 was also inhabited: by exosegs. That would have been bad enough, but these exos were giants, horrific primeval eating machines. Planet Hell had swarmed with exosegs, but I didn’t mind them; they seldom grew larger than my foot. I prefer foot-sized exos, they’re easier to squash.

Andrion 3’s exos were a nightmare. I hate exosegs. I especially hate large exosegs. And very large exosegs terrify me. The techs labeled them Exoseg Gigantic.

Tens of thousands of different species thrived on Andrion 3, mindless swarms scrambling about madly through a world on fire, feeding off whatever lived in the bitter, black, rocky soil and off each other, most of them burrowing deep underground to live in teeming hives in total darkness. I wanted no part of them.

Survey had noted a dominant species. It held the edge over the others in intelligence as well. These two factors do not necessarily go together, but in this case they did. My programming warned me to be suspicious of any creature that shows the slightest spark of intelligence, and especially of a dominant species that is intelligent as well. The Dominants had established a total control over the other species, which they used to perform a variety of tasks for them. We had no idea where the basis for control lay, but it was not physical size or strength or aggressiveness, for the Dominants thoroughly controlled a larger soldier species which should have been able to tear them to pieces at will.

A hive life! My skin crawled every time I looked at the images. We had no plans to visit Andrion 3, but it was always a good idea to know the neighborhood.

There was nothing of value here, yet the Systies were evidently interested in something. If they seized power on Andrion 2, the inhabitants were doomed.

The System, we called them Systies, was a vast, rotting galactic empire, ruled solely by force. It spanned more than half of the inhabited galaxy. The Mocains, the dominant race, were humans, but they sure didn’t act like it. Slavery nurtured the System, and the Legion was their nemesis. We killed slavers whenever we found them, and left their ships running red with blood. Justice obsessed the Legion and we were utterly merciless. The memory of the faces of those tortured slave-girls haunted me. I had no doubts. We were on the side of the angels. Avenging angels.

Atom’s recons darted into orbit around Andrion 2 and proceeded to do a fastmap. The results showed no power systems, no Systies, and no human stock.

I admit that I felt a little relieved. No Systies! Perhaps ConFree had over-reacted. Maybe the Systies were not interested in Andrion 2 after all. But where were the natives? We could only assume they had hidden in the forests. It seemed strange that a total sweep of an inhabited world had turned up not a single sign of the most advanced species on it.

I didn’t like this, not one bit.

Nearing assault orbit, we took every precaution. Four cruisers detached themselves from Atom and launched a swarm of smaller ships. Fleets of scouts and fighters and probes swept near and far throughout the system. Nothing stirred. Only the noises of nature, hissing and chirping and whistling into our sensors. A task force of fighters orbited Andrion 3, just to be sure. Recon dropped into the atmosphere of Andrion 2, and swept over the planet.

We watched the show on the d-screens in the aircar bay, next to those sinister rows of armored aircars. Snow Leopard expected something. Our whole Combat Assault Team had gathered, all seven squads, and the other CATs in nearby bays. The tension built.

A sacred moment, I thought, quietly watching the flickering images. Great forests covered the land. Ponderous, ancient trees covered with brilliant multicolored blossoms towered into the sky, bursting with fruit and seeds and festooned with long tangles of hanging vines and moss. Rolling flowerfields of scarlet and gold and blue and silver reflected every color in the spectrum.

Small, leathery birds with great translucent wings glided effortlessly high above the trees. Under the forest canopy, the probes revealed an endless variety of delicate plants and animals crawling and climbing and hiding in the vegetation.

Out on the plains, diaphanous flying creatures floated silently on the wind like angels, awash in sunlight. Light grav, atmix close to perfect. A tranquil, dreamy world, the sky a brilliant blue, flecked with powdery white clouds.

Legion paranoia clawed its way through the fairy-tale scenes. My skin crawled. Who could believe such images?

A rainstorm swept past one of the scouts, and a rainbow glittered in the spray. The pilot shouted for joy. We found no sign of Systies. No sign of the natives. We swept the spectrum. No advanced signals of any kind. A primitive, quiet, virgin world. More perfect than we ever dared imagine.

I didn’t believe it for an instant.

Recon darted over the forests, swooped low over great raw mountain ranges, and flew over vast deserts of black sand and frozen wasteland. Nothing. Where were the natives? Survey had originally spotted them in the forests, and I had a view projected on the bulkhead over my desk that showed three separate smoke trails rising from a vast forest. I thought it quite a shot. But there were no smoke trails now-only silent forests.

Firefall, the expedition leader, didn’t like it. Nobody liked it. It was very peculiar.

Off to one side, a shout drew our attention. Squad Delta surged over to the arms lockers, excited.

“Listen up!” Snow Leopard raised a hand as he listened to the command channel on his headset. “All right, here it is. Command’s sending a heavy task force down to launch a max-assault on our initial objective. Beta will be participating! Move it, troopers! Armor and arms-NOW!”

We scrambled to the lockers. The whole aircar bay surged as Legion troopers fought to get at their A-suits and weapons. It looked like the entire CAT was going!

“Seal the car! Lock restraints! Night vision! Beta! Count off and weapons report. Mark!” The overhead lights flickered and went red as we counted off in response to Snow Leopard’s shouted commands. In my armor, I strapped into the seat, my E glowing softly at my chest, all systems green. My adrenalin was already flowing for the long ride down.

“Sir, Beta is A amp;A, aircar sealed.” Snow Leopard reported our status.

“Tenners, Beta. Pilot, AC gate is open. Roll to launch tube.”

“Rolling!” The aircar jerked forward abruptly and shot along the guide rail. We sluiced into the tube with a deafening metallic shriek, slamming us against the restraints. We were now in our assault carrier, and it would deliver us and the other six aircars of CAT 24 into the lower atmosphere of Andrion 2. I had no idea how many other CATs were participating, and I knew better than to ask.

In assault orbit, we watched the screens, A amp;A-armored amp; armed. All systems on, blood pounding in my ears, breath echoing in my helmet. My comrades rode beside me in their gleaming black armor and glowing red faceplates. As cold as death and all juiced up, every nerve ending on full alert. Our assault carrier slowly fell out of orbit, into the dark side, leaving Atom’s Road far behind. A glittering armada of death followed us, a night sky full of fighters and assault craft, alien warriors from far across the galaxy, come to stay. The date on my chron read 312/10/02 CGS, but I knew that was crap. It was Year Zero for Andrion 2.

And for us.

The chosen landing zone was a great, flat, flowered plain. Good killing ground and lots of room. We christened it ZA, Zero Alpha. It reminded me of all the ZAs on Planet Hell.

Being creatures of the great dark, we brought darkness with us. And light. Yes, we certainly brought light. We watched them prep ZA on the screens. Eye-searing antis flashed to life in the dark, again and again and again, turning the night into day. The planet shuddered. Antis scared me. We used antimatter for our star drives, our vac drives, and to settle serious arguments-it was nasty stuff. The screens gave us a view from the Ship, tiny intense brilliant white pinpricks burning on the night side of Andrion 2. The Hand of God, glowing with irresistible power in an alien night.

Come on, Systies-show yourselves!

We dropped opvacs onto ZA, great vacuum bombs, punching huge holes in the atmosphere, creating a horrific windstorm. Then we lit it, a flaming sky, burning it all, right down to the bare rock, a great searing white glow in the night. Then gamma, saturating the landscape, enough to fry the very microbes. Then biobloc-every bloc we could imagine, in the human range. Biobloc was even scarier than antimat-if it was set to your genetics you died a horrible death. We threw in everything we had. We did not want any opposition in ZA.

“Thinker, why are we doing a max?” Merlin was on the private channel. “Doesn’t that mean we’re expecting opposition?” Merlin took everything very seriously, even his occasional bad jokes. He was basically unfamiliar with reality.

“It could be they just don’t want to take any chances. Don’t worry, we’ll do all right, Merlin.” I wasn’t sure we’d do all right, but I wanted to think so.

Ironman broke in, also on private. “Thinker, keep an eye on me on the tacmap, will ya?” He was just a kid-like my little brother.

“Tenners, Ironman. No worries.”

Snow Leopard stepped on our conversation, cutting in on the override squad command channel. “We got it, gang!” He was brimming with confidence. “First wave. We all know what to do. I want this to be better than any of the drills we did on Planet Hell. Beta rules, all the way down-and no chitchat. We do it right!”

When we entered the atmosphere, the assault craft shuddered, and bounced wildly. We were totally helpless. If anything went wrong, we would all die, burnt to cinders, with perhaps an instant or two to realize death was at hand.

The drop song came on. It drove me crazy, I hated it, but they played it every time.

“The past is dead and gone,

The scent of flowers in a tomb,

A half remembered tune,

From a half-remembered time.

Open your eyes, cast off old dreams!

A New World awaits you-

A New World to love you-

Drop, drop, drop!

The Past is dead and gone!”

I switched over to my own sounds. I closed my eyes, and the music of the stars overwhelmed me. I had stopped listening to other music on Hell. Now I had only the music of the stars, hissing and humming and roaring in my ears. Sweety played the recording on demand and it was quite an orchestra, the high pitched howl of blue-white supergiants, the crackling hiss of yellow primes, the awful shriek of stars being ripped apart by black holes, awesome rumbling from gas clouds giving birth to young stars, the hopeless moaning of a black dwarf-it wasn’t really music but I loved it.

As the assault craft approached the target, we saturated the area with opstars, tactical nukes, just in case. This set off another massive firestorm, a great ring of fire all around ZA. Then we blitzed the atmosphere with deceptors. The fighters rushed into the center of the target and left behind long lines of fire, greasy black smoke roaring up into the night, highways of fire for our attack.

The general order from command swamped all channels, “Launch aircars!”

We launched with a lurch and bang that rattled my teeth. It looked like we were invading Dante’s version of Hell. We fell into a roaring inferno, an evil night sky blazing brightly with the flames of Armageddon over a glowing, blasted wilderness of black smoking rocks and burning earth.

Despite my fears, I felt right at home. As we rode the flames to our assigned objectives, a wild cheer burst into my ears.

Snow Leopard barked the warning, “Prep to decar!”

We crowded by the assault doors underneath the glowing red tac lights.

The assault doors snapped open and Snow Leopard led the way into the darkness beyond. “Decar…death!”

We burst from the car into the smoking night, weapons ready, equipment dangling. The firestorm raged around us. Legion fighters blasted overhead, punching holes in the sky. Aircars shot past us, kicking up a wake of black dust.

We dashed to our assigned positions. Oily black smoke hung close to the ground.

“Command, Snow Leopard. Beta is in position!”

We were arrayed in attack formation, tingling with anticipation, weapons at the ready. Nothing stirred, except the Legion. We could see everything, and there was nothing to see. All around us, the land smoked in the darkness. We’d blasted a healthy chunk of real estate into a lifeless moonscape and landed in force, and there was no one there to fight.

Chapter 3: Grim Reaper

Days later, we’d settled into routine patrols, crisscrossing the planet in search of what wasn’t there. Gradually, boredom and frustration clawed at the ragged edges of our resolve. Then it happened! A native!

“Set your E’s on minimum V-stun rounds, ladies. Repeat, v-min.” Snow Leopard was already harassing us-he never let up. I was in the aircar, slipping the comtop helmet over my head. We were at last closing on a native! We’d been called in to pick up the search from the air for the native that Alpha squad had spotted in the forest while on foot patrol. He had gone to ground in a tangle of shrubbery. Redhawk spotted a nearby clearing and swooped down for a hot decar.

We hit the ground running in armor, but it was a short pursuit. He had disappeared into a very narrow tunnel leading down into the earth at a sharp angle. It was just the right size for a Scaler-our name for the scale-clad natives. They were smaller than us, but we could all see that a Legion soldier could fit in there as well-without armor.

Merlin launched a trio of microprobes and they showed a well-worn passageway extending a long, sinuous distance. It didn’t get any wider for a long time, so blasting a larger entrance was out.

I slipped my comtop on and activated the tacmap on my translucent faceplate. The comtop was a scaled-down version of the A-suit helmet. It provided light armor head protection and communication when we weren’t in our A-suits. We hurriedly changed into A-vests, litesuits and comtops.

“Stun rounds!” Psycho quipped. “Yes, sir! We sure wouldn’t want to hurt anybody.”

What a bloodthirsty little smartass. Psycho was a mental case. Snow Leopard spent a lot of time holding him back, but he was smart and fast.

I was not happy about the V-min, either. V rounds would stun and normally induce unconsciousness but minimum power didn’t pack much of a punch. I exited the aircar, adjusted my gloves, draped my E across my chest and yanked at the jumble of equipment strapped to my waist.

Snow Leopard looked appraisingly at the extra equipment I carried and cracked a grin, letting his guard down for a moment. “You look like a military surplus sale, Thinker.”

Dragon chimed in, “Hey, Thinker, can I borrow something if I need it down there? You know I don’t like to carry stuff.”

Psycho could be more obnoxious than Dragon. “Hey, Thinker, can you haul my gear, too?”

“Blackout, will you?” I didn’t mind. I always took as much stuff as I could carry. I knew the only way I’d really need something was to leave it behind.

The forest darkened. I glanced up at the clouds blotting out the sun. Violet shadows and a fine mist filled the air. Angel wings hovered above me. We’d named the delicate, jelly-like creatures air angels.

The entrance lay at the edge of a blackened, crumbling, dead city, choked with vegetation. Enormous tree roots snaked around the city, strangling it with glacial patience. Massive green trees rose amid the shattered stones of a fossilized past. Tiny, colorful flying creatures glided past, trailing the air angels. A stronger breeze stirred the forest. Nothing on screen.

We stood in the heart of the past. Broken stone blocks rested all around us, the tomb of a city, now part of the forest. It was officially designated Site 5543. The mist turned to pelting rain. Perfect-the tunnel will fill up with water and we’ll all drown.

We gathered around the entrance, along with a few life techies that had just arrived in another aircar. Then Squad Alpha arrived to guard the area and watch our backs. It could be a trap. We still didn’t know what we were up against or where the damned Systies were hiding. This tunnel or passageway would be a lovely spot to trap and kill a few Legion troopers.

Our camfax automatically blended with the surroundings. At that moment, we looked dark and wet. I re-ran the system checklist on my comtop. The darksight worked fine. So did the breather and the comset. We wouldn’t need the breather except for the water. Unless the tunnel caved in. Or they used gas. Or smoke.

Hardly anything to worry about.

“This could be tremendously amusing.” Coolhand had perfected his rather grim sense of humor on Planet Hell. A tall, slim youth, he came from some lost, hopeless spacer ratworld. Curly dark brown hair, friendly green eyes, a narrow, clean-cut face, tanned a pale brown. He was a musician, happiest when strumming his ionic lektra, his only real possession. In the field he was cautious, but good, so they made him a Two.

He looked up as three more aircars converged on our location from different directions-the clearing would soon run out of room. “I feel kind of sorry for this Scaler,” Coolhand said, gesturing towards the aircars. “All this attention. I think the brass are upset ‘cause they haven’t found anybody to shoot yet.”

There had been no opposition to our landing. No evidence of Systie intrusion at all. The fireworks had been for nothing, but we had no regrets, not for an instant. There is only one way to land on a new, potentially hostile, planet-successfully! And that meant kill anyone or anything that got in the way. There’s no time to quibble over philosophy, or to chat with the natives, discussing your benign intentions.

Back on Atom, during the long voyage, I’d admitted the truth to myself. I’d loved Hell. It was my darkest secret. I must be insane, I’d thought. Somehow I slipped past the psych tests. Would they send me back? Eventually, I discovered the others were just as crazy. The Legion knew exactly what it was doing. We were the scum of the Outers, the dreamers and the lost. We looked up at the stars and found the Legion gate. It was a one-way gate-no one who went in ever came out. No information ever came out, either-except what the Legion wanted to tell.

Whatever you want, you get. That’s what they told us as recruits. I didn’t believe it, of course. Nobody did. It was a complete shock, then, when we discovered it was really true. Whatever you want, you get. We could write our own ticket, and if the final stop did not turn out to be quite to our liking, we had no one to blame but ourselves.

Hunting Scalers-nonsense! The Systies were the only real objective. But we hadn’t found them, so we’d find the Scalers, and interrogate them.

“It looks scary, Thinker.” Priestess spoke on private to me. Priestess had walked into the face of death for us on Planet Hell. We all loved her, but nobody had yet touched her. I guess we didn’t want to spoil it. This way, she belonged to us all and us to her.

“That’s a ten,” I responded, pleased she had confided in me, and not somebody else. “I’d rather stay here.” She knew I did not like tunnels. The nasty, nasty, narrow tunnel made its way down to a very unpleasant-looking underwater stream.

It would be difficult. Difficult, but probably possible. Probably possible, a favorite phrase from Planet Hell, used as a prelude to many grim adventures. A wave of fear edged its way into my bloodstream as I watched the scan again on my faceplate. My legs turned to jelly.

“Tenners, let’s go.” Snow Leopard slipped into the hole, crawling in head first, followed by two Life Science techs.

We had been through a lot with Snow Leopard, and trusted his judgment. He was from Magna 4, a gigantic iceworld best described as a hostile environment. He resembled a white shadow, with blue-veined, almost translucent skin, pale pink eyes, and hair so blond it looked almost white. We knew we could trust him to do the sensible thing. He had changed since the early days in Providence. They did strange things to those that they made a One. Some members of the squad thought that he was no longer quite human, but we’d all follow him anywhere.

Into the dark, headfirst into that evil hole, squirming down at a steep angle. I was in the rear, following Priestess. Wet, muddy earth, all over my suit. The darksight on my faceplate adjusted gradually and soon everything appeared to be glowing a faint green. It was an incredibly tight fit, my comtop pressing against the tunnel ceiling. There was barely room to move my arms, barely room to breathe. I felt awkward with my weapon cradled in my arms and my equipment scraping the walls.

The dark closed in, and there was only me, crawling, and Priestess, ahead. I can do this forever, I thought. Just don’t stop; if I stop it will close in even more. My claustrophobia had amused my instructors in basic.

“Beta, Snow Leopard.” The voice crackled on the tacnet. “The probes we sent ahead have been hit, they are blind. Coolhand, Psycho, move in and let’s take that Scaler.”

I cut in, “What do you mean ‘hit’? Hit with what?”

“Don’t know.” Snow Leopard didn’t waste words on bad news.

A voice I didn’t recognize interrupted, “Keep it on v-min, guys.” Must be one of the techs getting anxious about his specimen.

I kept crawling.

Snow Leopard grunted over the comm and I heard a splash. “Damn it. All right, gang, I’m in the stream.” More splashing. “It’s a little slippery.”

I willed myself forward. Priestess’s boots were right in my face. The blood rushed to my head, my heartbeat pounded in my ears. The tunnel seemed to go on forever.

The boots disappeared and suddenly I was sliding and falling. An instant later, I landed in an icy black stream on top of an indignant Priestess. We scrambled apart and I followed her again, swimming like a snake in a sewer pipe.

“Hold it,” Snow Leopard was breathing hard. I stopped and waited. “All right, guys, it’s a little tight here. I just got through, but I had to take my helmet off. You can’t get a good grip…with your comtops on. When you get here, take your comtop off and keep your nose above the water. Push the comtop ahead of you, then pull yourself through with one arm.”

I heard a chorus of off-channel curses up ahead of me. That wasn’t what I wanted to hear either.

We moved on, water rushing past me. Suddenly the tunnel narrowed drastically. My comtop struck the limestone ceiling. Priestess’s boots thrashed in the water, glanced off my faceplate.

She cried out, gurgling, “No!” I grabbed her boots and tried to steady her.

“Priestess, are you all right? Answer!” I felt the beginning edges of panic. I triggered my flash. It lit up the water, and sent eerie liquid shadows flickering over the rocky ceiling.

“I can’t do it, Thinker!” She gasped, hyperventilating. “I can’t get through! I can’t move!!”

“Priestess, Thinker, Snow Leopard-you still with us?”

“Nothing to report,” I replied.

“Get out of there,” he ordered. “Now! We’ve all done it, even the techs. You have to take your comtops off, or you won’t have room to get a grip on the rocks and pull yourself through.”

“Priestess…” We were stopped and my claustrophobia closed in. “We’ve got to get out of here, Priestess! Have you taken off your comtop?”

“No.” She almost sobbed.

“Do it! Mouth against the ceiling! Then move out. I’ll be right behind you!” I knew if she didn’t move, we were probably both going to die. Miserably. I forced myself to unlink my comtop. Icy water poured in. I shook uncontrollably. Wrenching the comtop off, I slammed my face up to the bitter stone roof, sucking desperately for air. Only a few mils clearance, a few mils between life and death. I saw Priestess’s pale, frightened face, a fragile mushroom in a river of ink. She’d done it.

“Oh, my God.” A horrified whisper, barely audible. We both felt the cold wings of the angel of death.

Priestess kicked off into the dark, leaving me alone, numb with terror.

I took a deep breath and forced myself forward, the water swirling all around me, into the narrowest portion. Tons of rock above me, an immense presence, the tunnel almost full of icy water. Blind and deaf and shaking with fear, kissing that obscene stone, I heard the music of the stars. I felt the slimy walls. The earth held me in its teeth. My hands tore at the rocks, and now I edged forward, slowly. I forced my head between two great rocks, thrust the comtop ahead of me, and pulled myself through. I popped up into a wider portion, water streaming from my face. Air! An unfocused green glow. A limestone shaft, heading gently up.

“Thinker! Are you all right?” Priestess’s voice echoed down the shaft.

“I’m fine,” I gasped, stretched out on the rocks, exhausted. “Be right there!” Eagerly, with shaking fingers, I put my comtop back on.

We made our way out of the stream and eventually found ourselves walking upright but slightly stooped due to the low ceilings, deep within the cramped catacombs, the bowels, of the dead city. We fanned out through the corridors.

“Beta, Snow Leopard. Keep alert. Fire v-min at any movement.”

Ghostly stone doorways loomed all around us, leading to past worlds, deep inside the earth. Only the dead lived in the dark of this tomb.

Priestess and I moved in tandem. More chatter crackled on the net, the lifies moving into position, Coolhand and Psycho tracking the Scaler. My tacmod silently extended the tacmap. Doorways and corridors branched off everywhere. Priestess and I moved along a wall, scanning our surroundings carefully.

It was a silent, dead underground city, glowing a faint green through our faceplates. A phantom city carved from stone, empty doorways gaping blindly at us like the eye sockets of ancient skulls. The rot of history covered this world. We could sense it, we could see it all around us, crumbling under our boots, floating specks of the past, settling on our litesuits. The air carried the cold breath of the dead.

We turned a corner and sloshed through ankle-deep slimy water. I saw Snow Leopard up ahead, at the end of a long corridor.

He raised a hand and spoke quietly on all channels. “Hold fast!” We stood immobilized.

Priestess whispered to me on private. “Sorry about that mess back there, Thinker. I kind of panicked. I kind of thought…we were going to die.”

“Yeah. I noticed that, too.”

“Beta! On me! We’re going in.” Snow Leopard’s voice crackled in our ears. We moved up fast, crouching, our comtops scraping the rough ceiling.

A crumbling stone staircase led up to a blackened doorway. Another bleak dark corridor. The ceiling was a little higher now and we could stand upright. We moved forward cautiously at a fast walk. My tacmod showed the others up ahead. The walls flowed past us, featureless. If anything had been here, it was long gone.

The corridor ended in a vast, darkened hall, a cavern cut out of the rock. We stepped in cautiously and I triggered the darklight on my E. The sheer size of the place dwarfed us. It was like a cathedral of stone. I stopped breathing. Facing us, glowing a mysterious green, stood two massive stone figures, carved right from the face of the rock wall.

The two great sentinels, a male and a female, stood side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, clutching fantastic implements. The entire chamber was evidently their crypt. Even through the mold, I could see the fine, clean features of those two incredible messengers from the long dead past. Vertical lines of spidery runes spoke to us from so long ago that we could understand nothing. In between the runes were figures-thousands of people, from far away and long ago, from ages lost to history, engaged in elaborate, mysterious activity. These must have been the ancestors of Andrion 2’s human inhabitants. There were colors, faint pale colors in the green of the darksight, and I realized that it had all once been blazing with color, brilliant, radiant color, all the way down here in the bowels of this fossilized city. This had been the pinnacle of thousands of years of development and sacrifice and learning and culture. What had happened to them?

“Thinker! Move it!” Priestess pulled at my arm. I had been transfixed for a moment, lost in the past. I tore my eyes away from them. There was another dark doorway, right in the wall, between the massive legs of the two great figures. We trotted forward, our E’s pointed up ahead. The doorway led to a long straight tunnel, plunged in eternal darkness, far beneath the earth.

“Priestess. Wait.” I raised a hand to the corridor wall. I could see it in the darksight, haloed in green. The walls, the walls-my holy God! The walls were lined with life-sized figures, ghosts from the ages, carved and painted, a long procession, males and females, faded and peeling, hundreds of them, thousands of them, along both sides of the corridor, carrying strange devices, holding up banners that had not seen the light in thousands of years. Phalanxes of brutal soldiers, troops of sweating laborers, streets full of long-haired girls dressed in sheer garments, hundreds of little children holding hands. A royal court, a golden king and a silvery queen, and princes and princesses, and torches and incense and great ships and magnificent palaces. Heavenly landscapes, forests and rivers and waterfalls and great far-off mountain ranges. All of this, following us along that corridor.

“Priestess-look at…”

“They’ve been dead a thousand years, Thinker-let’s go!” I tore myself away from the wall, and followed Priestess into the dark. All those long-dead people. I never asked for this. The world up above in the sunshine was beautiful-why would anyone live down here?

“Priestess, Thinker, take the first left,” Snow Leopard ordered. “We’re going straight.” My tacmap showed the plan. “There are several corridors branching off this one. Watch your map. It’s a real maze, and he’ll be trying to get past us. You’ll be in a blocking position there. The map still says there’s no way out.” He sounded excited, anxious to bag the Scaler.

Nobody said a thing about those great stone figures, although everybody had seen them. The Legion was very task-oriented. Lord, we are barbarians!

Another corridor loomed on the left. Priestess hesitated at the entrance, waiting for me.

Into the unknown, again, with just enough blood in my adrenalin flow to keep my systems going. We looked into each other’s eyes through our faceplates and struck fists. The Legion salute-we would return together or die.

A dead, dark tunnel of black stone, with wet rot coating the walls. We always fought the unknown in the Legion. Once we know our enemy, it is always so much easier. But dealing with the unknown is bad for the soul. The enemy might be a harried, helpless savage, or it might be a DefCorps squad, waiting in the dark to slice us into bloody pieces before we could even react.

The corridor widened. We stopped, every sense alert. Little warnings tingled in the back of my mind and my skin crawled, but Sweety was silent. A large stone chamber faced us, murky pools of black water on the floor, scraggly black vegetation growing up the walls and hanging from the roof. I did not want to go in there.

“Hold it,” I said. Priestess had already stopped. We paused at the entrance to the chamber. Ancient metal rings, coated with rust, studded the walls.

An empty chamber. “I don’t like it,” I said. “What do you suppose this is?”

“It could have been anything.”

“I don’t like it,” I repeated.

We scanned the chamber carefully. Sweety noted mold, tiny parasites, slugs, worms, and billions of airborne microorganisms. It looked all right, but it did not feel all right.

Suddenly our tacnet exploded and we could hear autovac, shattering the dark, echoing through the corridors.

Snow Leopard screamed, “Fire! Fire! Fire!…Stop! Cease Fire! Freeze!”

Priestess and I froze as well, listening to the transmissions.

“I got him!”

“Don’t move!”

“He went down!”

“Don’t move!”

“Where is he?”

“Cease fire! Cease fire.”

“He moved!”

“Tenners, cease fire!”

Priestess and I leaned against the wall, side by side, our E’s pointed into the darkened chamber.

“Sounds like they got him,” I commented.

“That’s good,” Priestess said. “Good.”

“Element, up! Lifies up! On me!” Snow Leopard ordered. Evidently they were securing the Scaler.

“Thinker, Priestess, remain in place.” Snow Leopard never stopped thinking. He didn’t need us. I let myself slide down the corridor wall to a sitting position, my muscles relaxing. Priestess did the same. I felt good, despite that awful tunnel. This empty chamber was creepy, but there was plenty of room so I could breathe. We weren’t going to be meeting the Systies after all-at least not today! It was wonderful, sitting there looking at Priestess. I felt the blood pumping through my veins. I had never been so alive.

Snow Leopard was in his element. “Careful, zap him if he moves. Medic up!”

Priestess’s arms twitched, a reflex to the call for a medic. The life team leader called his own medic, the other man on the capture team. Priestess started giggling. I put my arm around her shoulders and squeezed. I just wanted to hold her, to look into her eyes. Even with the faceplate and the mud, even with the green glow and the dark, she was youth and beauty and life. We embraced, silently, awkwardly, and I swear I could hear her heartbeat. I never wanted to leave her.

I felt a faint shudder in the floor and we tensed, the moment of tenderness evaporated. Suddenly, the chamber floor erupted before us with a tremendous crack. Rock shrapnel ricocheted wildly in all directions, peppering us with jagged flecks of stone. Dust and earth filled the air. A scream echoed in my ears, and we were airborne. I landed on my back, breathless. I raised my head. Dust swirled all around me.

A new sound consumed the room, a metallic chittering, harsh and bone-chilling. I raised my E. The dust cleared. A grotesque, massive exoseg head appeared, covered with coarse black bristles, jerking from side to side in super-fast motion, giant bulging compound eyes glittering black. Long, nasty antennae probed and snapped like great whips. A hideous wet mouth emerged, pincers open, front legs brushing the rubble aside as the creature rose up out of the hole.

“Exoseg Gigantic Soldier…” Sweety warned me.

Too late, Sweety!

I stared stupidly at the impossible apparition. My comtop shrieked with alarms and Sweety relayed information to me in a rapid-fire staccato. I could not believe how calm she sounded.

The creature seized Priestess bodily in its two front legs, raising her in the air. She screamed a nightmare scream, arms pinned, her E still strapped to her chest. The creature opened its maw. It was going to eat her headfirst!

I came out of my shock at the last possible instant. My E had been aimed at the exoseg but I had been unable to use it. Now it was all instinct. I hit the trigger just as my thumb snapped the setting from v-min to xmin. I did not even think about it. There simply was no time. I aimed for the creature’s eye, just past Priestess’s struggling form.

The explosive round burst inside the creature and shattered half its head. The flash lit up the hideous scene briefly. The giant exoseg’s two front legs jerked apart, and Priestess fell to the floor. Ricocheting shrapnel peppered my faceplate.

That bone-chilling chittering-shrieking, freezing my blood. It was still alive! Something smashed against the back of my head, and I hit the floor face-first, stunned and bleeding. My faceplate was scarred and Sweety flashed me a warning. The darksight faded quickly. I groveled in the rubble, blind and helpless.

“Priestess! Priestess!” No response. Shrapnel had penetrated the darksight layer in my faceplate, but I still had my E. An icy fury convulsed me. We will die, but I will take that thing with me. I pointed my E into the smoking darkness and activated the light.

A nightmare scene. The sudden glare of my E’s white light, a chamber full of dust, the great grotesque exoseg snapping back and forth wildly above me in convulsions, its movements faster than the eye could follow, leathery chitin, gore and foam spraying through the air like a shower of meteorites. It was only halfway out of the hole in the floor.

“…exoseg still functioning…” Sweety told me that and a great deal more, but I was not listening.

“Thinkerrrr!” Priestess was trapped underneath one of the creatures black legs, crumpled in the smoking rubble at the lip of the crater in the floor-alive! Covered with blood and gore, she lifted her arms, reaching out to me.

I raised the E and aimed carefully again at the exoseg’s shattered head. I set it on auto xmin and fired. Multiple detonations annihilated the remainder of the creature’s head and brought down much of the ceiling as well. A white-hot pain burned into my left cheek. My litesuit was riddled with hits and the whole world shook. But still the exo did not die.

Headless, it groped wildly about with the pincers on its long front legs. Green pus spattered all over me. I screamed, overcome with horror. I held the E with both hands, the stock tight against my shoulder. My flash tore loose from my suit and triggered itself, bouncing around at my feet, casting giant obscene shadows that danced from wall to ceiling to wall.

I aimed for its thorax and fired again. Glaring white-hot flashes from multiple hits illuminated the creature as though it were exploding in slow motion, splattering all over the chamber, an ugly hot sticky sickening death, gobs of green and yellow pus bursting off the walls, wet leathery chunks of exoskeleton tumbling wildly through the air, stiff spiky exoseg legs twitching in spastic death throes, a fountain of gore erupting from the abdomen, all illuminated harshly by the flash.

Movement. Priestess crawled slowly away from the exoseg. I kept my E trained on the creature’s abdomen. It slumped back into the hole and disappeared.

I jumped over debris and exo-parts and grabbed her elbow. She screamed and wrenched herself out of my grip. Then she turned back, looked at the hole in the floor and threw herself in my arms, shaking violently.

“It’s all right, it’s dead. It’s dead, and we’re alive. It’s all right.” I held her in my arms. We both shook in horror. We were alive. We would return together after all.

“I wet my pants,” she confessed weakly.

“It’s all right,” I responded hoarsely. “It’s all right.” I was not about to admit that I had done the same.

Chapter 4: Slave of the Future

Whenever I opened my eyes in the body shop, Priestess was by my side. We had been admitted the same day, evak’d to Atom to treat our wounds. Her wounds were minor but she stayed on to look after me. I had a few broken bones from where the exo had whacked me, and several nasty shrapnel wounds. Nothing that couldn’t be repaired in a few days. Priestess the seductress, in hospital whites. When I awoke, she reached out and touched my hand. Who could ask for more? She had survived. I thanked the Gods of War.

Priestess and I had uncovered the secret of Andrion 2. Snow Leopard and the others had captured the Scaler-a boy savage armed with a spear and a slingshot, covered with filth, all wild eyes and animal screams. They had to zap him with blues to calm him down. He had evidently taken out the probes with his slingshot. They didn’t get any info from him at first.

We knew something was very wrong.

The giant exoseg we’d run into was one of the more aggressive species from Andrion 3: Exoseg Gigantic Soldier, the techs had labeled them. The dominant species on Andrion 3 used them as enforcers. It did not belong on Andrion 2. Their presence must have something to do with the Systies.

Command rearranged our defenses immediately, covering Zero Alpha with geodetic sensors and preparing for a planetary attack. We clearly needed more information. We launched our CATs into the wilderness while the lifies went to work on the Scaler.

Priestess briefed me regularly on the captured boy. He was just a kid, but his fine features brought me back immediately to those two defiant stone figures carved into the cold heart of the underworld.

Then, without warning, Valkyrie came. She appeared suddenly in the doorway to the recovery room. My heart raced when I saw her. She always had that effect on me. She was a green-eyed blonde, a princess carved from ice, a true child of the Legion-a baby, a genius, a killer. All the wisdom of the ages, behind those lovely eyes. It’s easy to fill a Legionnaire with info. Atom gave us more every night in our sleep, but all that knowledge was dangerous. It took a while to get it all under control. Valkyrie was still working on it.

She posed in the doorway dramatically, her face cold and distant, her golden hair carelessly tangled. A chill shot through my body. She wore her camfax litesuit, all covered with red dust. Her perfume was the scent of Andrion 2. Gamma patrolled the far West, a cold desert of dust.

I floated on a warm cushion of air in the tank while Priestess stood beside me. She had been cleaning my face with a medpad, checking the wounds. She paled when she saw Valkyrie, and drew away from me, almost guiltily.

“Hello, Thinker.” Valkyrie acted casual, as if she had just dropped by on her way to class.

“Hello, Valkyrie. I’ve missed you.” Damn, she looks good!

“You look a little tired, Thinker. You really should be more careful.” Her voice was quiet. Almost a whisper. She approached the tank slowly and ran her slender fingers along the rail-so erotic! How does she do that?

Priestess stood rigid, silent, the medpad still in one hand.

Valkyrie looked into my eyes. That faint, confident smile was there now. God, she could eat me alive whenever she wanted, just like before.

She turned to Priestess. “You must be Priestess. My, so much trouble for such a little girl. You really should thank me, you know, for saving your life. You see, I taught Thinker everything he knows.”

Valkyrie could be very nasty with competition. And she had just declared war on Priestess.

“Yes, Sister.” Priestess bowed her head and said the right words. She knew Valkyrie by reputation as a third level Sister of the dark arts, deadlier than many of her male colleagues, and very dangerous when she grew angry. I had seen her in ice-cold fury on Planet Hell, killing without remorse, splattered with blood as we’d fought side-by-side for our lives. I did not want to see that again.

Valkyrie turned away from Priestess in contempt and ran a fingernail along my upper arm, smiling faintly. It sent a surge right through my body. She was pure bitch, but I wasn’t about to complain.

“I can only stay a few fracs, Thinker. Can you ask your friend to leave?” She had a cruel streak that I did not like.

“I am leaving, Sister. Goodbye, Thinker.” Priestess looked ready to cry. I really felt for her.

“Goodbye, Priestess. Thank you.” I knew Valkyrie would not like my thanking Priestess, but there were limits to my cowardice.

“Try to hold on to your E next time,” Valkyrie hurled after her as she left.

“Valkyrie, did you have to do that?”

“Close your mouth, Thinker.” She gently touched a finger to my lips. “I just want to look at you.” A quiet, dreamy voice. “I’ve missed you. Missed you for ages. We’re in the desert now. It’s incredible. I love it, Thinker. I only wish you could come with me.”

“We’ll get together. I’ll be out in no time.”

“And back in Beta. Nice, personalized service you get here. What’s she doing here?”

“She was injured. She just got out of the tank.”

“Then she should be back with Beta downside, not playing wet-nurse to my man. You stay away from her, Thinker.”

“Oh, come on…”

“Don’t you ‘Oh, come on’ me. I know you perfectly well. And I know her type too. ‘Yes, Sister.’ Such a sweet little girl. Sugary little drip! She does whatever you say, doesn’t she?”

“Valkyrie…stop it, will you? Just stop it. Forget about her.”

“You stay away from her! She almost got you killed, just because of her stupidity. She didn’t get a single shot in, did she? What was she doing, anyway?”

“It happened very quickly, Valkyrie.” She was right. But it wasn’t just Priestess. We’d both been stupid and slow.

“People like that shouldn’t be in the Legion. How’d she get through Hell? Was she everybody’s hot little dolly? I’ll bet Beta carried her all the way! You just stay away from her, you hear?”

“Yeah. Yeah, sure. Stay away from her. Tenners.”

“You remember that! You belong to me, and if she comes after you, there’s going to be trouble!”

“Right.” I looked into her cool green eyes. She smiled. I laughed. She knew me so well, it was scary. But it was good to see her again. Damn, she looks good!

###

Valkyrie knew me better than I knew myself. She also had a habit of showing up periodically to reinforce her claim on me. The visits were always intense and memorable. It occurred to me that there were other occasions when I’d been hurt worse and I’d never heard from her. It was as though she had some kind of radar that detected…

After she left, I thought about what she had said about Priestess. It wasn’t fair. I picked up my tacmod and called Priestess on private.

She answered, “Priestess.”

“Priestess, Thinker. Can you come by?”

“I’m sorry…I can’t. I have to stay here.”

“She’s gone. I want to see you. It’s important.”

“All right.”

She agreed! My heart leaped.

When she came, she hung her head. I reached out of the tank and took her hand. A warm rush shot up my arm. It was a bit scary.

“I’m sorry, Priestess. That’s the way she is.”

“It’s not your fault. I’m such an earther.” She sounded very depressed.

“No, you did right. I’m sorry she’s such a pain. I’m grateful for your help, Priestess. I’m sorry she gave you such a bad time. It was wrong. She’s just jealous.”

“Jealous? She’s jealous of me? Ha!” Priestess still hung her head, but she had not let go of my hand. Have I ever really looked closely at her before?

Priestess was dangerously attractive. Although a few years younger than Valkyrie, she was a Legion immortal like all of us, and nobody could call her a baby.

We were all immortals, of course. It was easy, with ConFree’s science, to keep people alive and young indefinitely-aging was a horror from the past. But getting shot through the head was just as fatal to an immortal as to a mortal-and our job description ensured we’d have plenty of opportunity to discover that.

We all held the knowledge of the Legion. She hid it well. She had delicate, very fine features. Warm smouldering brown eyes, a small mouth with ripe lips, and thick, gleaming black hair, almost covering her eyes. She called up the demons from the dark side of my soul, without even looking at me. It was hard to believe she had fought through Planet Hell with the rest of us.

It would be easy, so easy. I did not want trouble. Not between Valkyrie and Priestess. I owed Valkyrie a lot and I would never hurt her. I still loved her. Priestess remained silent and I held her hand and closed my eyes. I was in deep, deep trouble.

###

I woke up the next day, floating in the tank, with Priestess close by. My wounds were healing fast. Our lifies could regenerate entire limbs and organs, so broken bones and shrapnel wounds were easy. Priestess had somehow arranged a duty slot in the body shop to be with me. I didn’t ask how. Beta awaited us both.

I slept and dreamed. I was deep underground, in my armor. I could not move and I was burning alive in a lake of fire. Just as I was about to die, I awoke with a start, drenched with sweat.

Priestess was shaking me. I sat up and discovered that I was out of the tank and in a bed. The sheets were soaked but the bed was already drying them for me, soundlessly drawing the moisture away from my clammy skin. Priestess didn’t ask about my dream. Atom spied on our dreams and that was enough. We had enough demons of our own without worrying too much about anyone else’s.

I blinked hard and rubbed my eyes. “Anything on the Systies?”

She paused before answering. She seemed to have to force herself to return from some distant place. “Completely negative,” Priestess replied. “Not a sign.”

I scooted back on the bed and propped myself up on a pillow. “They’re out there…waiting. Blink once and we die. That’s what I think.”

She bit her lip. “You could be right.”

“How about the exosegs?”

“Nothing. The lifies worked on the remains of the one that…the one you killed, but they bitched that you didn’t leave much for them.”

I rubbed the back of my neck and snorted, “Oh yeah? I’ll try to be more careful next time. Next you’re going to tell me that Psycho wanted me to save him a mandible for his bulkhead.”

She didn’t laugh and she wouldn’t look at me. It was starting to get to me. “Snow Leopard asked how you’re doing.”

“When are they letting me out of here?”

Her voice was small. Distant. “Tomorrow. We’ll go together.”

“Hey, you don’t have to wait for me, you know. If I’m boring you…”

That brought her back. She closed her eyes for a moment, then wet her lips and looked me in the eyes for the first time. “I know.” She tossed her hair back, revealing her lovely, perfect face. Her dark eyes were burning, and the rest of the universe simply ceased to exist.

There was nothing else that mattered. My heart…I don’t know what it did but I know that it was something serious. The tech would be here in fracs, to check on my heart attack. It was as though I’d never seen her before and I suddenly realized that I would never see her the same way again.

“Priestess…” What could I say? I wanted to tell her that we were sworn, Valkyrie and me. I wanted to tell her all about it, to explain that I could not possibly have another lover. Not after Valkyrie, not after Hell, not after all that we had meant to each other. I wanted to say it. But I could not find the words. All I could do was look into her eyes and realize that this was different.

“I don’t care, Thinker. I don’t care.”

Lord, such beauty. “Care? About what?” I could hardly breathe. Surely the tech would come soon, to rescue me.

“About her! I don’t care!”

I had never seen her like this. “What do you mean…”

“You know what I mean! I mean Valkyrie!”

I fell right into those bottomless eyes. Trapped. I wanted to tear my gaze away, but I could not. She would not release me and I began to pray that she never would. I loved Valkyrie-cherished her. We’d been through so much together and…

“I’m yours, Thinker, if you want me.” She stood up abruptly, tossing her hair back again, defiantly. I could only sit there in total amazement, gaping at her.

“Body and soul, Thinker. Body and soul!” Her eyes flashed and a bleak vision seemed to pass over them. She backed toward the door, still holding me with her eyes. I knew she meant it. “Tomorrow, Thinker. Together.” She slipped out the door.

I knew that something had changed in both of us. Suddenly I knew that I would never be a possession to her. Never a convenience when the mood struck or green jealousy reared its ugly head. I would die without hesitation for Valkyrie, but I wanted to live with sweet Priestess.

We went back the next day, dropping into the atmosphere in an assault craft. We sat next to each other, but an uneasy tension lingered between us. We’d crossed a line. A big one. It scared me more than the exosegs. Would we feel the same after we returned to Beta and our dance with death?

The ship bounced wildly, its skin glowing cherry-red and Andrion 2 coming at us like a heavenly vision. Great silver oceans glittered molten sunlight, soft white clouds streaked by far below, endless green forests rolled by, bursting into every color of the spectrum as we approached.

Zero Alpha had been transformed into Alpha Base, our first foothold. With countless tons of equipment and cargo flowing down from Atom, it was Andrion 2’s first starport and a growing military base. Around the raw, dusty red earth, endless rows of ugly building modules dominated a bleak landscape scarred by hastily excavated storage bunkers and pitted with construction sites, aircar parks and other Legion installations. The whole base was ringed with a heavily fortified defensive perimeter.

That night, I visited a small chapel at Alpha Base, open to the stars and the soft breezes of the night. A simple Godmod, as we called it, with Deadman and the cross of the Legion on the wall. A chapel, for soldiers without souls.

Several other troopers from CAT 24 had arrived, suited up with helmets off. As I knelt before Deadman, I was surprised when Priestess slipped in beside me, kneeling by my side. She set her helmet before her.

I only knew one prayer, the battle chant of the Legion. I whispered it, and Priestess joined her words to mine.

“I am a Soldier of the Legion.

I believe in Evil-

The survival of the strong-

And the death of the weak.

I am the guardian.

I am the sword of light

In the dark of the night.

I will deliver us from Evil.

“I accept life everlasting

And the death of my past.

I will trust no Earther worm

Nor any mortal man,

But only the mark of the Legion.

I have burnt the book of laws

To serve the Deadman’s cause

As a soldier of the Legion.”

Priestess gazed into the distance, innocent and vulnerable. Her lips formed the words, but I could barely hear her.

“I am the slave of the Future

At the gateway to the stars,

Where I can see-Eternity.

For I walk in the shadow of death

And yet I fear no Evil

For I am the light in the dark

I am the watch on the mark

I am a soldier of the Legion.

“I will have no talk with Evil.

The arts of death are the tools of life

And in the end I will send

A maxburst to advise

The Omnis come by surprise

And though we kill them where they stand,

We know it’s death’s dark land

For a soldier of the Legion.”

We had taken the same pledge on joining the Legion. It was the creed of the Outworlder race, and a reaffirmation of our faith. It always calmed me down.

I glanced at Priestess. Her eyes glistened. I reached over and took her hand. Yes, we might die this very day.

We went outside where we could taste the still before the dawn, under a sky full of icy stars. Her eyes seemed to glow in the dark.

“I believe in Evil,” she said abruptly. “That thing was Evil, pure and simple. And you killed it where it stood! You lifted me right out of the grave.”

I drew her to me silently, and she rested her head on my armored shoulder. Her hair smelled like morning rain. “It’s all right,” I said. “You would have done the same for me. I was lucky. We both got lucky.” Priestess would not let go, but I didn’t really mind.

Finally she spoke. “Thinker, I want you to be extra careful on this op. Please don’t leave me.”

“I won’t leave you, Priestess.”

“I want to be close to you. I think…something may happen. And I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’ll lose you.”

“We’ll stay as close as they’ll let us.” She knew it wasn’t really up to us.

She looked up at me, a new light in her eyes. She tried a smile, and it worked.

“No worries…Priestess.” Nothing mattered, I thought. I did not want to resist. We kissed, and a meteor shower flashed through the quiet sky, just before the dawn. And for the moment, the future did not matter.

A kiss in morning starlight. The start of the Scaler Campaign. We had only the vaguest glimmering of the horrors that awaited us all. As a newborn warrior from Planet Hell, a Soldier of the Legion, I thought I understood Evil. But I was a child without the slightest concept of the real fabric of terror. I had not yet tasted of Evil. Exosegs weren’t evil, they were mindless. Evil awaited us all, holding its breath in the dark.

The Inners never understood Evil. Their worlds had been purchased in blood by the Legion, generations in the past. It’s easy to lose track of reality if nothing has ever tried to eat you alive.

We faced the cold wind of the stars; we reached out and touched the sworn enemies of humanity, and killed them where they stood. We faced the Systies, the slavemasters, and held their corrupt empire at bay, allowing ConFree to prosper. At the gateway to infinity, the Omnis writhed, an alien scourge. Facing the O’s was like facing God. Our fathers had died like bacteria in the Plague War, but the Legion had finally shattered the Omni fleets. It had been a total war, a war of extermination, wherever they appeared. Grim, fantastic battles fought far, far away in the Outvac, in the empty spaces between ConFree and infinity. The Inners never knew or cared, not about Legion blood. They would never know, not unless the Legion died. Only then would the Inners learn about Evil. But it would be written in the heavens for them all to see, long before it happened to them. They would have time to think. They would look up from their fat, safe, happy little worlds, and see the stars burning brightly in the night, a new universe of supernovas. For we would go down fighting.

Chapter 5: Gravelight

Ahead of a storm front, squad Beta dropped right into the crumbling heart of a dead city. We came by aircar in the still dark hours just before dawn, with the temperature dropping and rain on the way. Sweety flashed a weather scan in a corner of my faceplate. The cloud deck was thick, and the frontal system extended across a quarter of the continent. Lightning flashed silently far away to the north of us. We swept into the ruins, a phantom fleet of alien aircars hissing past scores of massive, ruined towers, hovering over great courtyards overgrown with wild waist-high grass.

The assault doors opened and we emerged like alien warriors, glittering in black armor, bristling with weapons and sensors. Pilgrims of violence on an unholy mission of war. That’s how the Scalers see us, I thought, as alien invaders. But there were no Scalers in sight. They were the mission now. We’d tagged and set the Boy Scaler free, and tracked him here.

I landed running from the aircar, just behind Coolhand, and we rushed through tall grass and brush to our positions. My faceplate lit up the dead city for me in false colors, shaded for IR emissions. Power, EM or other emissions would show up in high contrast. Huge, grotesque ruined towers loomed all around us, covered with vegetation. This was Site 2012 on our charts, a vast ruined tomb, once a massive fortress dominating a high plateau that overlooked a great river cutting through a trackless jungle. All this, now only a semi-fossilized memory. The people who had once lived here in power and comfort had vanished ages ago. Now it belonged to us.

“You are in position.” Sweety spoke in her calm, clear, feminine voice.

“Thanks, Sweety.” There was no need to answer, but the truth is that I felt rather close to her. I remembered some graffiti I’d seen in a latrine on Planet Hell: ‘I think I’m falling in love with my Persist’. But it was true, Sweety understood me. I knew I could depend on her. She was always on top of things. Of course, she was only the outcom of my tacmod, a cleverly bioteched micromass of artificial smarts, but to me she seemed a lot more than that. Sweety had developed a personality as well.

A temple loomed in front of me against the dark sky. Lightning lanced through the night behind the structure. Sweety automatically dampened the brightness of the flash enough to protect my eyes. Even so, the electric brilliance briefly froze the temple against the night. Great, grassy stone steps led up a massive, elaborately-carved artificial mountain of rock to four great domed cones of crumbling stone, fringed with moss and vines. I stiffened as a deep rumble rolled overhead.

“Thunder,” Sweety explained. I did my tac check and nothing stirred, only the Legion, now moving into position. A night breeze rustled around me, blowing aimless patterns through the tall grass that filled the courtyard. A few drops of rain spattered against my faceplate while the tacsit map glowed on the lower corner. There were plenty of entrances to the structure. Our probes cautiously advanced inside. No action yet. A shadow in the sky, glowing, growing silently in my faceplate.

“Aircar,” Sweety told me. She normally would not have mentioned it, but my adrenalin had given her a little jolt.

“Normal vision,” I whispered. Sweety cancelled the darksight, and darkness rushed over me. Lightning strobed, illuminating the temple, a flock of fleecy angels and a handful of passing aircars. It hurt my eyes a little. The trees danced in the rising wind.

“Restore it,” I commanded. My faceplate lit up again. I liked little glimpses of reality from time to time. But too long could get you in trouble. Sweety didn’t like it because it affected my eyes’ sensitivity to her carefully selected palette of enhancement colors and shades.

Tacsit showed that the probes had uneventfully progressed to the planned distance and depth for us to proceed. The probes kept moving and it was time for us to move as well.

“Beta, assault.” Snow Leopard ordered, already moving up the stairs. “Command, Beta…we are assaulting Structure 02.”

I moved up the stairs to his left, all sensors on max, my E at the ready, set on v-min as ordered. Steep stairs, weak grav and powered armor. I felt like a God. We arrived at the top in moments, not even breathing hard.

We had a tremendous view from atop the temple, huddling against the gritty stone walls of four towering domes. The plan was to follow the probes into the heart of the temple and then down further, into the underground. The probes now swarmed far below, mapping a subterranean world. Somewhere down in the bowels of the temple, the Scalers were waiting.

“Command, Beta-we’re in place on Structure 02.”

There was no hurry. CAT 24 was swarming all over the bones of this dead city, and Beta would hold its position until we got the word. We settled in, moving into the gaping doorways of the domes to get out of the rain, and found comfortable positions in the rubble.

Snow Leopard moved around the temple’s edge restlessly. Coolhand posted himself on the west side, observing the progress of the assault. I squatted just inside one of the domes, watching the sky. The wind and the rain hissed gently.

“Ahh, death.” Psycho settled himself down near me and rested his Manlink against the wall. I did not say anything. Priestess stood beside Ironman in the doorway of the opposite dome, her E at the ready.

“Think we’ll find any extra-large exos down there, Thinker?” Merlin asked. He crouched near Psycho, balancing his E on one knee.

“If we do, I’m putting in for sick leave, Merlin,” I informed him. “I don’t ever want to see another one of those things.”

“You think too much,” Psycho cut in. “Always scheming to get into Valkyrie’s pants. Anything for sick leave. You knew she’d visit her wounded hero. I wish you’d tell me how you arranged that run-in with the exo. I wouldn’t mind a few days in the body shop.”

I ignored him. “I should have used the laser,” I said quietly. “Slice off its legs. They can’t hurt you without legs.”

A short silence ensued as Merlin and Psycho pondered my comments. I knew Psycho would probably say something crazy.

“You know what I’d like to do?” he finally said. “I’d like to take on one of those critters with this.” He raised his hot knife and triggered it. It flared to life, hissing blue-hot. The light from the knife flooded his faceplate, revealing his evil, boyish features. “Can you imagine that,” he asked, his eyes glowing, his mouth twisting. “Man Kills Bug With Knife. They’d laugh in the Inners, of course. But I’d be famous out here.” His eyebrows rose, and I could not help laughing. I knew he was serious and crazy enough to try it.

“A shame, Psycho,” I responded. “We’d have to get another Five.”

“Thinker’s always thinking,” he said, putting away the knife. “What a pain. You can screw up your life, thinking all the time.”

He was right, of course. During Basic, I’d been known as The Thinker, for over-thinking everything. I’d probably missed a lot, by agonizing over the possible consequences of my actions. Psycho had not missed a thing. It amazed me that he survived.

“What do you think the Scaler was trying to tell us with his drawings, Thinker?” Merlin had a talent for guiding conversations. Then he would sit back and listen. His IQ probably topped the rest of us put together. He certainly didn’t need our opinions. I had no idea why a scientific wizard like Merlin hauled an E instead of working in a biolab somewhere. He tended to be nervous, a bit clumsy in the field. I could not fathom his friendship with Psycho. I suppose he secretly admired his brash approach to life.

I thought about the drawings. “I’m not sure,” I said. “It’s strange.”

The lifies had thought they were making progress with their catch, the Boy Scaler. When he settled down, they showed him all sorts of wonders, in an effort to communicate. He calmly took it all in for a while, silent, eyes glittering like black gems, cold and hard. And then he showed a wonder or two of his own. He sketched out the night sky on a datascreen. He drew it expertly, with all the stars right where they should be, seen from his forest. He drew a moving star, and traced it right down to the horizon. After that, he did another sketch, an exoseg, Exoseg Gigantic Soldier, eating a man. Then he smashed the d-screen with the lightpen, suddenly convulsed with rage and tears. The lifies could get nothing further from him. But it gave us something to work on.

They took Boy Scaler by aircar to the edge of the flower forest near where he’d been captured, and released him. Dressed once again in his tunic of scaly skin and armed with his slingshot and spear, he bolted into the forest and disappeared. The lifies had injected a c-cell into his scalp. It would lead us to him, wherever he went.

He’d gone here, to Site 2012. The probes quickly confirmed that the bowels of this dead city crawled with Scalers. Now we had what we wanted: a big Scaler community. We were ready to come calling.

We knew so little we could have been blind, but the primary mission was certainly to defend this planet from the Systies. Everything else was secondary. I munched a mag, leaning against the doorway of the dome.

“It’s simple,” Psycho declared. “The star was a Systie ship. The exos came from the ship. Command knows it, they just don’t want to get the troops upset.”

The rain eased off. It would be dawn soon. “It seems obvious, Psycho,” I said, “but why would the Systies want to transport exosegs from one world to another? It’s crazy. Why would anyone want to do that? Even Systies aren’t that crazy.”

“How should I know? Ask Merlin. He’s the brains of the outfit. I just work here. Maybe the Systies are using the exos to do something for them.”

“Do what? They’re not smart enough to do anything.”

“How do you know? They sure know how to eat people. Maybe the Dominants are running the show for the Systies.”

“Come on…they’re not that bright.”

“We don’t know how bright they are,” Psycho insisted. “Not until we capture one of the Dominants alive, and disassemble it. Then we’ll know.”

“The Dominants are not intelligent. They live in holes in the ground, and the high point of their day is when they get to suck on somebody’s abdomen. They couldn’t be doing anything for the Systies.”

“Why not? That’s the high point of my day, too!” Psycho exclaimed. “Look-the exo soldiers are from Andrion 3-fully developed natives of Andrion 3. They didn’t develop here. But they got here somehow. They don’t have wings, and they can’t breathe vac. Why couldn’t a comet or asteroid blow a chunk of Andrion 3 to Andrion 2, with some exo eggs attached? I don’t know. I think they came here by ship. It’s the only way to get from planet to planet.”

“What do you think, Merlin?”

“I think we’ll know the answer when we find the Systies,” he replied.

“Do you think they’re here?”

“I don’t know. But somebody’s been here. And done some mighty strange things. I don’t think there’s much doubt it was the Systies.”

Strange! The exosegs were natives of Andrion 3. And if the Systies had transported them, where were the Systies? We had swept the planet clean and found no advanced signals or power sources. It’s not easy to hide a starship. Despite all our biomag wizardry, there could be whole cities, whole nations, whole empires, hiding from us in the forests, in the mountains, and deep underground. But if there were any Systies here, they weren’t using power systems.

“All right, you tell me how they got here. Soldier exosegs, from Andrion 3.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But we’re going to find out. Probably sooner than we’d like. And if the Systies show themselves, we’re certainly not going to be worrying about exosegs.”

Psycho let it go. He got bored easily. It was one of his problems. I let my mind wander back to the moment when Priestess and I had suddenly come face to face with the exoseg. Instant combat. Two worlds meeting. Our reactions had been correct. Only an Inner could doubt it. An Inner would have tried to reason with the creature, tried to communicate with it. An Inner would have been lunch.

“You know,” Merlin quietly interjected, “if the Scalers think the exosegs came from a ship, they may not be too thrilled to meet us.”

He was a master of understatement.

“Bring the psycher to Alpha,” Lowdrop’s voice crackled over the tacnet. Lowdrop was CAT 24’s commander and he was right up front for this op. Alpha was to make first contact with the Scalers and Beta was backup. We had followed the probes and now we were crouched against a corridor wall in the underground city, guarding Alpha’s flank. The Scalers were a few levels below us. It was as black as a tomb down there, but with our darksight we could see just fine.

As we waited, I wondered which psycher they had assigned to the mission. Psychers were a solitary breed, desperately lonely, trapped in the prison of their own talents. They did not even associate with other psychers.

Painful memories asserted themselves from my previous life. Tara, close beside me in the warm night of my own lost world, a silken cascade of glistening brown hair and faraway liquid brown eyes, exotic Assidic eyes and pale brown velvet skin. I could still feel her heart beating next to mine, but she had never really been mine. I think she knew what she faced, but it was her own dark secret, and she didn’t share it. Not even with me. I had sensed that something was wrong. I’d always felt that her mind functioned in another dimension. I only had her for a year, and then they came one night and she’d left with them without a fight or a word. I never knew if she really had a choice, but she never looked back. Never even said goodbye.

She was so far ahead of me, so damned brilliant, that I never even came close to understanding her. Yet we were drawn to each other, as if by an overwhelming magnetism.

She had always been sad when I talked about the future. I didn’t realize until later that she was a psycher. I only had a ring now to remember her by. A silver friendship ring, which I had treasured all the way through Basic. I always suspected that she had gone to the Legion. I never even thought about the Legion until after she left. I suppose I half hoped to meet her again, somewhere out in the vac.

Our psychers came from many worlds. They kept to themselves. I never wanted that kind of power, but the Legion needed it. Now we could hear the psycher at work. Number 8388-Gravelight, they called her. I recognized her voice. I knew her as a pale, thin, nervous phantom of a girl, with limp golden hair. She had evidently reached Alpha’s position a short distance behind us, although I could not see her.

“Voices,” she said. “Voices. Fear, they are terrified. Many, many of them. They are trapped. I feel fear. Terror, waves of terror. Tears, and hatred. They hate you-you have come to kill them. Leave them alone!” She shrieked it, a command. Psychers often got excited.

I heard her crying. “They are all going to die. The mothers are gathering up their children,” she sobbed. “They all have knives. Sharp stones, I can feel the edges. When you get too close, they will plunge the knives into the children’s hearts. The men are singing a death song. They will kill you, they will defend the women. The traps are ready, they will put out the eyes of the seekers, and when you come you will die. They sing the death song…”

“The traps, what can you tell us about the traps?” Lowdrop interrupted.

“Silence!” She shrieked. “Tell him to blackout! Blackout! Who the hell do you think I am? I can’t work like this!” She was a nervous wreck. Someone calmed her down, and a long silence ensued.

“You know what they’re doing now?” she whispered. “The men are crawling along the side tunnels to get in position to kill you when you come down the corridors. Those are dirt tunnels-the probes haven’t discovered them yet-ahh! They got a probe.” One of the probes winked out of existence on the tacmap on my faceplate.

“They’re good,” Gravelight said. “Gooood. They don’t care if they die, now. They’ve decided you are with the Beasts-you control the Beasts. Earthers! Traitors! You betray your own race!” She began crying again. “We will kill you all! Oh, the women-they are dipping their knives into poison. Ahh, you will die like worms, deep under the ground. Crushed, smashed. They will dig to find your bodies. If any survive, they will roast you over fires so you will die slowly. The corridors are all trapped! They will cave in on you, you will not get out. Another probe!” It winked out of existence. “Stupid probes. They only use rocks. Oh, you will die if you go further! They will fight to the death. You cannot talk to these people, you are Death, you are Evil. They will not talk with Evil.”

I will have no talk with Evil-the chant of the Legion.

“It’s the end for them,” Gravelight said sadly. “The end. They pray to their Gods. They know you come with the Beasts to kill them all. Now they only want to make a good end, a good death, to kill as many of you as they can. Even the young boys are out with the warriors. They will cover themselves with glory. They have knives and swords and axes and slingshots and spears and tridents. But the corridors will do you in. Those are one-way roads. You will not come back.”

She went on and said if we went further we would become the beasts that the Scalers feared. She said we would be criminals, murderers of children. Let them alone, she said. And she would not stop crying. Gravelight refused to say any more.

Firefall finally gave the word, and we edged forward. Gravelight had calmed down again. She knew we offered the Scalers a better chance at survival than the Systies. The plan was for Alpha and the lifies to go first, and try to talk.

We all said our prayers. I slowly separated my mind from my body, and became all eyes and ears and muscles and nerves and blood, rushing, pounding through my veins. It was as if I had the view on a d-screen from someplace far, far away. I knew it would not hurt if I got hit. This time we would do it right. We were fully equipped, A amp;A and ready for anything. Each of us wore a plasmapak strapped to our back just in case. Into the unknown, again. If it all worked out, nobody would get killed. But I didn’t believe that. I don’t think anybody believed it, except maybe Warhound, and Warhound was a little slow.

Nothing ever worked the way it was supposed to, no matter how hard we tried. Today, we would try Plan A and when that failed we would go to Plan B, and when that exploded in our faces we would go to Plan C, my favorite. Plan C was to retreat before the Scalers committed mass suicide. No matter which plan worked, we figured we would get some live specimens out of it, thus accomplishing the object of the exercise: to establish contact, preferably friendly contact, and ask some questions about the exosegs and the Systies.

###

“I can’t get the leader,” Gravelight said. “It’s all jumbled. Can we get closer?”

Someone answered, “Can do, let’s go.”

We continued moving slowly down the corridor, in sync with Alpha. We could see the Scalers on our tacmaps, still two levels below us.

“Ohhh, I read them now.” Gravelight said. “They’re all waiting. They know…they know you are coming. They’ve sent more soldiers back to the city, because they’re not sure what you’re up to. There are no traps in the hall-the great hall. The side tunnels are death.

“They’re all very tired now. The fear has worn them down. You can capture the women and children in the shelters. Some of the girls are with the men, ready to fight you.” Her voice broke. “Excuse me, I’m going to be sick.”

A long silence. We waited for her. Central sketched out the probsit on our tacmods. I could see it all on the tacmap. The probes were stationary, waiting for us. I hated waiting.

“It’s very confusing,” Gravelight continued. “There are many war leaders. You cannot talk with them. When they see you, they will fight. All I get is fear and hatred. I’m going to try to reach the nearest war leader, the one in the outside corridor.”

We all prayed she would be successful. I did not want to begin our stay in this new world with a city full of dead children.

She began moaning, “It’s so hard…he’s so hard. He’s as hard as stone. Hatred. Terror! I try…I try to reach him…” she trailed off, and we all waited.

“He is so right, how can you oppose him? He wants life, for his people. He will die, for them. I try to give him love, he returns fear. He brushes me off. Shall I control him?”

“Yes, can you get him to hold off his men until Nomad gets to him?” It sounded like Lowdrop.

“Yes, but if it goes wrong, you have to attack immediately. Because otherwise, we are all going to die.”

“Tenners, we’ll do it right,” Lowdrop said.

“You’re damned right we will.” She was a tough little girl. I’d never dream of talking to Lowdrop like that.

Alpha and Beta were together now, in the same corridor. The lifies set up a portable spotlight and waited for the command to turn it on. Nomad was to make the initial contact. He was out of his armor, stripped down to his jox, streaming sweat. I imagined he was flying pretty high right then.

Lowdrop appeared with Alpha One, watching his tacmod. I could see Gravelight, by his side, on her knees, stringy hair soaked in sweat, her eyes closed. Her helmet lay on the ground and she looked sick to death. Alpha One and Snow Leopard did a quick check on the troops. The Scalers were on our level now, approaching our position.

“Initiating contact,” Lowdrop announced. “To the death.” The Legion battle cry was oddly inappropriate in this situation.

“Death!”

A chill whisper, our release from fear. Ahead of me were Snow Leopard and Coolhand, against the wall, and an empty, darkened stone corridor. Back there, the spotlight, not yet activated, sat in the middle of the corridor. Gravelight and the lifies huddled around it.

Movement. The tacmap flashed an update on my faceplate. The Scalers were coming down the corridor. We remained against the wall, frozen.

Soldiers of the Underworld approached, phantom shadow soldiers, glowing with faint phosphorescence. They hesitated, creeping closer to the corridor walls, peering up ahead. We were in the deepest shadows. I raised my E.

The spotlight flared incandescent. White-hot light glared directly into the eyes of the Scaler soldiers, ripping the darkness open. Our faceplates instantly adjusted. The Scalers were caught, frozen in mid-step, a whole corridor full of wild-looking dirtmen, filthy savages with matted hair, dressed in scale-skins, armed with spears and tridents, axes and slingshots and knives. Glaring vacant eyes and savage mouths caught in mid-gasp, black teeth snarling in rage and terror. A sudden, barbaric splendor, all on display for just that one moment.

Then Nomad stepped out, almost naked, right in front of the spotlight. The light ripped out all around him, and he was a creature of the light. He stood there, silent and motionless. The Scalers collapsed, groveling in the dirt, huddling in confused, terrified groups of two and three along the corridor walls. We could hear their chatter, a high-pitched wailing.

Nomad moved. He stretched out his arms, his hands open. He took a step forward, toward the Scalers, a Sun God, stepping out of the light. Open. Unarmed. There were at least ten different ways he could die in the next few moments.

Gravelight exclaimed, “I’ve got him!”

The dirtmen shielded their eyes from the brilliant light. Some of them got up carefully, still cringing from the light but slowly raising their weapons.

One of the dirtmen stepped out into the center of the corridor, a sharpened stone axe in one hand, the other hand half-raised in a signal of caution to his companions. He was a small-framed man, encrusted with dirt, wild white eyes glittering in the light, strange filthy objects dangling from his waist. Nomad took another slow step forward. To the dirtmen, he must have looked like a silver god from another world. A low growling arose from the dirtmen. It sent chills over my skin. I centered my E on the closest group of soldiers. They were completely unaware of our presence because of the light. All they could see was the Light-God.

There was no mistaking the gesture the war leader now made with his free hand-holding back his warriors. He crouched, coiled, bristling, axe ready, right there in the path of the God, hypnotized, staring right into the eyes of Death.

Gravelight whispered fiercely, “Do it. Touch him!”

Nomad slowly stepped forward, arms held out away from his body, hands open, fingers outstretched. Radiating light, a human star, burning out of the dark. The war leader trembled, snarling silently, eyes wild, axe poised, left arm still holding his warriors back. Nomad gently reached out his right hand to the dirtman, palm open.

In slow motion, the dirtman’s left arm moved. It came around slowly, trembling, flat to the ground. His warriors stirred. I heard their ragged breathing. The whole world focused right there, on Nomad and the dirtman. Slowly, ever so slowly, they reached for each other. They hesitated that way for a terrible moment, fingers almost touching, one hand encrusted with dirt, the other molten silver, as if from the core of a star. Two worlds, on the brink. The dirtman tensed, ready to explode, then he cautiously touched Nomad’s hand.

Fingers on fingers. A slight hesitation. See, it doesn’t hurt-not at all! Then their palms touched. Hand to hand now, reaching out to each other. Two worlds, coming together, across the brink, across the gulf, across the ages. All the way from the shallow seas of ancient Earth, and now, at last, together again, out on the far edge of the Galaxy.

The war leader’s axe slowly started to come down from the strike position, down all the way, now dangling from his right hand, the arm slack at his side. The war leader’s whole being, his whole soul, was in that outstretched left arm, and in his eyes, now face to face, eye to eye, with the God.

Nomad was glorious, perfect, a creature of silver and mercury and liquid light, a true messenger from the Cosmos. He was as cool as ice, and if he never did anything else in his life he would always be remembered for that one magnificent moment. I hardly knew Nomad, but I could feel for him, hanging out his body in front of all that evil, sudden death, and I could feel for the dirt-covered war leader, too. He had more courage than I did, to reach out there and touch that God, even with Gravelight’s magical fingers wrapped around his mind. Gravelight was good, but even she could not turn a coward into a hero.

Make it work, make it work, I prayed! We were all frozen, and the dirtmen warriors were frozen, too, as still as death, all eyes on the two figures in that blazing field of light. The war leader slowly rose up from his fighting crouch, and eye to eye with Nomad; he knew the creature of light was a man, now. Only a man, offering friendship. Almost naked, obviously unarmed. There could be no doubt of his power, because of the manner of his appearance. But there could also be no doubt of his intentions. Enemies do not appear naked, with open hands.

And then it happened.

A shriek, and one of the dirtmen exploded into action, his arm a blur of motion. I fired as he moved. All of Beta fired. A wall of V bolts knocked him head over heels like a rag doll, a halo of dirt flying all around him, the noise a continuous ear-splitting thunderclap. Too late! Nomad threw up his arms and fell backwards, his face spraying blood. Something black and evil glittered between his eyes. The war leader cringed in shock, and falling backwards, raised his axe, confused. The spotlight suddenly cut off as Alpha and Beta both fired continuously into the Scaler warriors, the noise and shock waves echoing off the corridor walls, dirt and dust filling the air, the commands ringing in my ears.

“All units attacking!”

“Attack! Attack! Attack!”

“Fire biogas!”

“Clear the corridor!”

“Second, Lowdrop, we’ve got hostilities, Alpha and Beta engaging!”

“Alpha, recover all casualties!”

“Medic, up!”

It was all a ghostly green again. I fired continuously on v-min, directly into the enemy, now only flying limbs in a cloud of dust. V-min rarely kills, but it will certainly ruin your whole day. Psycho and Dragon crouched in the center of the corridor, firing gas probes in opposite directions along the corridor. The gas probes took off trailing plumes of yellow smoke, the smoke bursting outwards. In moments, the biogas would fill the underground, and every Scaler who breathed it would fall like a stone, unconscious. Amtacs were on the way. Plan A had failed, and Plan B was now in effect.

Chapter 6: Dancing in the Dark

“All right, gang. Drag ‘em in.” My heart pounded. Still underground, we had launched a messy humanitarian rescue mission. The damned Scalers had set fires to drive us out, and the entire underground complex had filled with smoke. Most of the Scalers would surely die of smoke inhalation unless we got them out. Terrific!

Psycho found a smoke-free corridor, but it just didn’t feel right. He led the way, carrying two bodies. I dragged an unconscious Scaler girl behind me, probing the corridor with the flash on my E. Merlin and Priestess followed, dragging more Scalers. The stone walls were featureless and my skin slicked with sweat inside my A-Suit.

Priestess said what I’m sure we were all thinking, “This is crazy.”

“That’s a ten!” I agreed, “Where does it lead?”

“It leads nowhere, gang,” Psycho said, “The room is blocked with big vertical iron bars, and I’m not sure what’s behind them. We’re going to have to cut through and hope they aren’t load-bearing.”

“What?” My Scaler girl was still out cold on the corridor floor. They could all breathe in here. I reached out and touched the bars. I didn’t like it.

Priestess grunted and asked, “Is Snow Leopard coming?”

Right on cue, Snow Leopard broke in on the net, “Thinker, report!” Apparently, he was busy with the rest of the squad, evacuating more Scalers.

“Nothing to report,” I responded. “Have you got our breathers for the Scalers?”

“We’re working on it, Thinker. Keep your position, we’re sending an element to assist you.”

“Tenners,” I replied.

Why bar the room? I looked up at the stone ceiling. A root snake dropped down from somewhere and slithered away. My entire being ached with fatigue. Stay out of the corridors, they had said, stay out of the tunnels. And save the women and kids. Wonderful! Strangely, I felt no rush to leave. I didn’t like the smoke out there. That root snake and I had much in common, after all.

A root snake? My heart gave a little jolt. I pressed my armored fingers against the ceiling. The stone was smeared with a thin layer of earth. I switched to local and yelled, “All right! Psycho! Priestess! Merlin! Get out! Now. Leave the Scalers!”

A terrible metallic screeching deafened me, even through my armor, then it felt like the entire planet fell on me as the ceiling collapsed on top of us. My world exploded in a cosmic flash of glaring white lightning, a great red roar overwhelmed me and the lights went out. My face plate lit up with red warning lights. I gasped and found I could not scream. Dying, blind and helpless and paralyzed, lying on my back, buried beneath tons of earth. Sweety was with me, whispering a sitrep into my ears.

That poor Scaler girl must be dead already, I thought. Now I will join her, another immortal entering the ranks of the dead. They will add my number to the honored lists of the front rank of the Legion, that phantom army that goes into battle with every Legion unit. I will be a footnote in the history of the First Scaler Campaign. Valkyrie will mourn for me. Priestess will feel my loss…Priestess!

Rage and terror and shock coursed through my body. Priestess! I strained every fiber of my being to fight my way out. The A-suit gave us superhuman strength. But even so, I could not move my arms.

“Strength at maximum, Thinker,” Sweety whispered soothingly. “Try the right arm. It’s meeting less resistance.” I tried. Nothing. “Try again, Thinker. It moved a micromil.” Encouraging! Sweat popped onto my forehead. I strained every muscle in my arm. Nothing!

“You’re making progress, Thinker.”

“Yeah, how long is it going to take, Sweety?” I gasped.

“I estimate six hours at the current rate to dig up to the surface of the dirt. However, it is unclear how much dirt is above. And it is unlikely that you can continue at the current rate. This is just an estimate because…”

“Blackout, will you, Sweety? Just blackout!”

“Yes, Thinker. I’m sorry. You should not give up hope.”

“I said blackout!”

“Yes, Thinker.”

Think! The plasmapak strapped to my back, useless. I was going to die! Rescue! They had to rescue us!

“Snow Leopard,” I choked out. “Nova! Tunnel collapse! Thinker, Merlin, Psycho, Priestess need help! Nova! Nova! Nova!” My words died on my lips. A dead, hollow silence in my ears. Surrounded by tons of earth, I realized my comset was down.

“We have no communications, Thinker.” Sweety calmly informed me. No, they could not hear me-but they would know! We would be off scope and off map, and there would be an immediate response. Snow Leopard would be rushing to the scene right now, cursing me for being a damned fool. All of Beta would be digging for us. It was only a matter of time before they found us. I might even live! But Priestess and the others-were they still alive?

It did not make me feel better. I could hear Death, laughing at me. I remembered Priestess in starlight, eyes closed, in my arms, and I knew I did not want to die. All I wanted was to touch her again, to hold her in my arms and fall into those dark eyes, again.

The earth moved.

Moved! Right over my chest, movement! Someone was chopping at the earth with some kind of hand tool. Salvation! A warm wave rushed over me-a full-body orgasm of sheer delight, the blood pounding in my ears.

The earth loosened and I still could see nothing, but my left arm moved. I forced it up, and the earth gave way. Someone grabbed my arm, and pulled. I struggled frantically, wrenching my body from the grave with the full power of the A-suit. The earth gave, loosened, and I burst free.

I clawed at my dirt-encrusted faceplate with my one free hand. Movement, across my vision-a green glow, coming at me quickly. An explosion of jagged pain shattered my skull, and a silent white-hot flash of searing agony burst through my brain.

“Get down!” Priestess, blessed Priestess, screamed into my ears. “I’m going to fire!”

Where the hell is my E? I struck out blindly with both arms, and ghostly figures swarmed over me. My armored fists struck flesh and bone.

A sudden series of loud, sharp explosions jolted me. V bolts! Something heavy fell on my leg. I saw only green dust, swirling madly. My arms were free, where was the E? I seized my hot knife and struck upwards. The knife burned its way into something, and shuddered to a stop.

I had to see! I grabbed my flash and triggered it. It burned into focus. Chaos, through swirling clouds of green dust. A Scaler, mouth open, eyes glazed. He collapsed slowly, like a rag doll, and I pulled my knife free. Another Scaler, whirling, snarling like a swarmer, blinded by the light. He raised his metal axe up and back, poised it to bash out my brains. I lunged up at him with the knife. It burnt with an icy blue flame, and sank into his thigh. My head exploded with pain.

“Get down!” Priestess pleaded. I collapsed, the knife glaring in a hopeless, wobbling arc, then fading as I lost my grip. The Scaler’s chest flashed, the sharp crack of a V bolt.

“Get down, Thinker! Get down!” I lay in a tangle of bodies, Scaler warriors draped over my armor. A tomb of earth surrounded me, a tunnel of black dirt and smoking dust, figures coming out of the dark and V bolts exploding all around me.

Priestess continued firing and I cringed in the dirt, clenching my teeth to stay conscious, swirling in a whirlwind of throbbing, gritty pain, wondering just what it was that had clobbered my helmet. I was still in my A-suit but my head had taken a beating. I caught a foggy glimpse of Scaler warriors, dirtmen, crouching behind mounds of black earth and jagged rocks, peering into the searing light from the torch, mouths open, shielding their eyes. I had dropped the hot knife but I still had the flash.

“Point the flash right at them, Thinker,” Priestess calmly instructed me. “Keep it right there.” She fired again, a continuous burst, knocking the Scalers senseless, blowing them away into the dark. My flash wobbled. It pointed down tunnel, illuminated only swirling dust. My vision was narrowing and I knew I was about to pass out.

“Love you, Thinker. Love you!” Priestess exclaimed. Somehow it made perfect sense. But I could not respond. Sweety zapped me with a stim, but it did not work.

“I’m going under, Priestess. I need you.”

“I’m coming, my love. You stay awake! They’re still out there. Keep that light shining!”

And then she knelt close beside me, aiming that big, beautiful E down the tunnel. She had her medpak out in a frac and pressed something into an access port on my armor. Strength burst into my veins, driving the webs from my mind. The pain began to fade.

“Priestess-Deadman, that stuff makes Green obsolete! What was that?”

“I gave you a biotic charge, Thinker. How do you feel?”

“What happened to me?”

“I saw the Scalers dig you out,” she replied, scanning the tunnel with her E. “One of them hit your helmet with an axe, just as I fired. He didn’t hurt the armor, of course, but the shock must have been transmitted to your head. Concussion.”

“That’s a big ten,” I confirmed. “What happened to our nice little smoke-free road?” I could almost move now. I kept the flash pointed shakily down-tunnel. It wasn’t much of a tunnel. We crouched in a great pile of collapsed earth, the soggy roof close overhead.

“It was a trap,” Priestess said. “Percy says it was a false ceiling, holding up tons of dirt-and we bought it! Then they came to dig out the dead, I guess.” Percy was her Persist. He had a voice like the hero in a subgirl’s sex fantasy. I always imagined him as a big, blond goon with a prominent chin and a tiny brain. It made me wonder about Priestess. But I had no complaints at that particular time, with Priestess hauling me back from dreamland and Percy scoping out the neighborhood.

“Sweety, what about Merlin and Psycho? Report!”

“I have a fix on Merlin up ahead as marked,” Sweety said calmly. “He is accompanying the enemy. I do not detect Psycho.”

Accompanying the enemy! I checked my tacmap. The tunnel ran on up ahead. There, B4 on the chart, surrounded by the enemy, a dark red glow. Scalers! Merlin, a captive of the dirtmen! My head cleared up fast.

“It’s Merlin!” I could hardly believe it.

“They’ve got Merlin,” Priestess echoed in amazement.

“How could they do it? It’s incredible!”

“How could he let them do it? Oh, no!”

“Merlin, Thinker! Merlin, Thinker! Report!” A faint hissing in my ears. Why couldn’t he hear us?

“Where are our people, Priestess? We must call Snow Leopard in!”

“No commo, my darling. There is no exit…no exit to our side. We’re cut off.” She seemed as cool as ice. “Be calm. We are together now. Together. How do you feel?”

Together. No exit. The tunnel went on. Dead quiet, the dust still hung in the air, smoking in the beam of my flash. My E was gone, but I still had my handgun, the mini, and we both had plasmapaks. I picked my hot knife up from the dirt.

“Estimate Psycho’s situation, Sweety.”

“Situation unknown. I do not detect him in this area.”

I said something rude.

“That is not within my capabilities, Thinker.”

“Blackout, Sweety!”

“Yes, Thinker.”

“They’re up ahead,” Priestess said. “Waiting. We’d better dig our way back out.”

It rushed over me, the certain realization of what we had to do.

“Merlin is up ahead,” I said.

“Yes, Love. Yes, yes, yes, I know that. But Psycho must be buried. And the Scalers…”

“We have to go after Merlin.”

“But what about Psycho? What about the Scalers?”

“Psycho’s in armor. He’ll survive. Beta will dig him out. And don’t tell me about Scalers! It’s because of them that we’re in this mess!”

Sweety sent an alternating charge across the outside surface of my faceplate and the mud and goo that clung to it melted away. I turned off the flash. We wouldn’t need it; we’d be safer without it. The Scalers needed light to see, and we didn’t. The tunnel faded to a dark green glow…only phantoms, in the dust. No further decisions necessary, I thought. I could feel that cold rush, again, crawling over my skin. I always accepted it, when only one possible course of action remained.

Now the Gods of Fate had us in their hands.

“Let’s go, Priestess. I’ve got my handgun, you use that E.”

“Thinker.” She reached out and touched my armor. “I…” She hesitated. “I want you to know. We might die…” She stopped, embarrassed. “I love you. I want to be yours…I want you to be mine. Please tell me…if I’m dreaming. Am I crazy? Do you love me?”

I reached over and touched her helmet. She was a shadowy creature of the dark, a demon in green, a lover from Hell, reflections glittering off her A-suit and helmet and that long evil E. Yes, yes, just the two of us, Thinker and Priestess against the world. Wasn’t that what I wanted? What I really wanted? Stop fighting it!

“I do love you,” I said. “And I want you. But what about Valkyrie? She’ll kill us, if she finds out.”

“I told you. I don’t care about her! All I want is to live with you. Forever!” The Gods of Fate. She knew exactly what she wanted. She was everything I was not. The dirtmen waited for us, up ahead.

“Yes. Yes, of course.” It was like a dream. No more decisions needed to be made. Just pledge myself to her forever, and walk down the tunnel together, to meet the dirtmen. I knew I wanted her more than anything.

“Do you take me forever, Thinker? So long as we both shall live?”

“Thinker and Priestess. On the cross. Forever!”

“Forever!”

“Let’s go, my Love. We have work to do.”

This unusual wedding may have been the most decisive thing I had ever done in my young life, short of joining the Legion. I knew that Valkyrie would certainly go out of orbit. But I did not feel that I had any say in the matter at all. Fate rolled over me in an irresistible wave. And if Valkyrie did find out, it would mean that we had survived. What, then, would there be to worry about? In the Legion we worried about life and death. Everything else was secondary. And my only worry at that moment was whether or not my marriage with Priestess would end in sudden, violent death before we even had the chance to explore the hidden secrets of each other’s hearts and bodies.

We began moving down the tunnel and found Scaler bodies with their heads crushed. It looked as if Merlin had put up a fight, but he must have lost his weapons in the cave-in. We switched our plasmapaks to the front for easy access in case the tunnel fell on us again. We had to hunch over to avoid the dirt ceiling. Priestess stopped, and held my arm.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I can’t see,” she said. “Just a moment.” She stood there, silent.

“What’s the trouble? Is your faceplate damaged?”

“Tears, my Love. Tears of joy. I’m all right now. Let’s find Merlin.”

“They’re right up ahead. A whole gang of Scalers.” Priestess watched her tacmod. I prepped to fire. I could see from the tacmap that Merlin was not with them. A wet, filthy tunnel, a dirty place to die. If it got any smaller, we would have to use the plasmapaks. I was slimy with sweat inside my A-suit. We paused for a moment.

“Put it on xmin and blow them away,” I advised Priestess. I wanted to show the Scalers we were serious. They had tried to kill us, and we still played around with V bolts. Priestess adjusted her E and aimed up the tunnel.

She fired, and the xmin flashed brilliantly up ahead, the sharp crack echoing down the tunnel. A large chunk of the tunnel roof collapsed up ahead. No worries, we had plasma. I raised my mini, but there was no movement. Priestess aimed again. I glanced at my tacmod.

There was a sudden snapping, then the roof and walls of the tunnel around us burst in on us, showering us with dirt. Ropes whipped through the air, entangling us immediately.

A net! It jerked me right off my feet and I fell backwards. Another rope whistled past me, singing as if shot from a gun. I landed on my back, stunned. Priestess had fallen right beside me, on her side, already fighting the net. The net drew tighter around us. Thick leathery strands wrapped all around me. I moved my arms, and the A-suit strained. My mini had reeled itself back to the holster on my u-belt, and I could not reach it. The plasmapak was in the way. Priestess tried to raise her E to fire through the net.

“Get it loose! They’re coming!” I heard the dirtmen shrieking, coming at us like a pack of killer bloodcats.

“I can’t get it loose! I can’t aim it! Help me!” Priestess struggled to get the E pointed down-tunnel but it was hopelessly entangled. I could not reach it. I strained at the net. It began to give. A single strand popped open, freeing my right arm. I could only reach my hotknife. I triggered it and forced it upwards, the strands of the net ripping open in its wake. Then the Scalers pounced on us, triumphant.

With a blood-curdling scream, a dirtman landed on Priestess. Torches danced in the dark. Four more Scalers leaped onto Priestess, axes smashing at the E as if to kill it. Someone landed on my chest. A savage, with upraised axe. I slashed upwards with my knife and it burnt into his chest effortlessly, hissing and spitting. He shrieked and fell backwards, spewing a fountain of blood, his entire chest carved open. I forced myself to my feet, slashing wildly with the knife. My helmet slammed against the tunnel roof and the cords fell away. I groped for my mini, but my left arm would not move. Something smashed my wrist, a hot bolt of pain shot up my arm. I held on to the knife, but the net was still wrapped around my legs and now someone pulled it and I went down again. Two dirtmen seized my knife arm. I hacked right through them, opening one up from the face to the navel, then caught the other across the chest. Shrieks of pain and terror and rage echoed in the tunnel.

More dirtmen piled onto my arm, heedless of the knife. On my knees, I lifted my right arm up and slammed three Scalers against the roof of the tunnel. Then I reached back and tore another one off my back, over my head and into the tunnel wall. A wild-eyed Scaler hit me on my faceplate with his axe. I countered with a right cross to his face, pulverizing him with my armored fist. His nose and cheekbones and temple smashed, blood burst forth from his eyes and nostrils and mouth.

More dirtmen landed on me, all glaring eyes and flashing teeth, battering at my helmet with large rocks wrapped in leather thongs. Another net fell over my head. No! My left arm popped out of the net and seized a dirtman by the throat. I squeezed and crushed his neck, lifting him right off his feet. Blood poured down my arm. I still had my knife and I opened up another dirtman, skewering him. My arm was buried in his chest, suddenly caught inside his rib cage, his body jerking like a puppet out of control. Axes smashed down onto my knife arm, and suddenly it went numb. A swarm of dirtmen covered Priestess, smashing downwards with their axes and rocks, shrieking. Priestess moved, using her armored hands, crushing arms and heads. The dirtmen screamed. Another net snapped around me, and I went down under a swarm of Scaler bodies.

Fiery torches lit up the scene with an eerie yellow glow. My right arm was useless and I could not see the glow of the knife. Bright, soundless explosions flashed through my mind. I could not move my arms. I could not hear Priestess. o

Death was a tunnel. They drag your corpse down a flaming tunnel, the road to Hell. A bumpy road, I thought. My head roared curiously as flames flashed from side to side along the tunnel. The Scalers had my body tightly wrapped in the net, dragging it somewhere. There was no need to be gentle with the dead.

The Scalers held smoky torches to light the way to Hell. Something jostled my body. Priestess was right beside me as the Scalers pulled us along, all wrapped up in the net. My plasmapak was no longer there, but we still had our A-suits.

“Priestess!” Oh, Deadman, let her be alive! “Priestess! Priestess! Answer me!”

“Thinker! Oh, my God, thank you. I thought they had killed you!”

“I’m alive. Did they hurt you?” We jostled together as the tunnel curved. The Scalers shouted among themselves; they could not hear us talking on the tacnet.

“They beat me until I stopped moving. They took the E.”

“Deadman! I thought we were finished.”

“I’m sorry, Thinker. I’m sorry.” I didn’t know why she was sorry, and had no time to find out.

“Sweety! Report!”

“Yes, Thinker,” she said. “Your E is missing. The enemy has taken the ampak, the plasmapak, the mini, the hot knife, the cold knife, the flash, the medpak, the bootknife, the U-belt, the excan, the toolpak and the ratpak. Your A-suit is fully functional. You have several injuries but none are serious. We have no commo as yet. The enemy attempted to open your helmet but failed. However, they may succeed on the next try. There are several layers of cords wrapped tightly around the A-suit. It is difficult to break free as the arms are securely tied.”

“Wonderful! Do you have any good news?”

“Yes, Thinker. If you break free of the net they will have difficulty restraining you.”

“You’re damned right they will! Suggestions!”

“Keep working on the restraints.”

The Scalers began to sing, a savage, rhythmic, haunting chant, chilling my skin. My helmet banged against a rock, and Priestess bumped up against me. I could not move the ropes, even with all the power of the suit. I had really botched this one. And all because I tried to save some Scaler women and kids. I should have let them die, instead of us!

A savage cheer filled the smoky air. We were dragged into a vast stone hall, a great cellar, somewhere under the temple. The floor was flooded with shallow, filthy water and the walls were coated with green moss and slime. The ceiling was smoke-blackened stone, glistening with moisture, supported by a forest of great stone columns. A jostling crowd of shouting, excited Scalers surrounded us, holding their torches high. Our captors continued chanting, dragging us through the water, the crowd splashing alongside, poking at us curiously with spears and tridents. Filthy Scaler children and fragile Scaler girls and the horrible walking corpses of the incurably aged all prodded and probed at us for a reaction. Metal axes banged off our armor. They wanted our blood. Priestess whimpered. My terror was complete but I did not want her to know.

“Thinker! Is that you? Who is that?” Merlin, the object of our quest, called out to us. But his voice wasn’t on our tacnet. The Scalers had stopped dragging us and now five or six of them sat on my chest, cutting the net away from my helmet. I still couldn’t move my arms. They fumbled at my helmet, trying to get it off. They would find the links soon. The other Scalers crowded around, torches held high.

“Merlin! It’s Merlin! We’ve found him!” It was an absurd statement, considering the circumstances. I craned my neck to see him. There! Merlin, out of his A-suit, chained to a massive stone pillar, blood streaking down his chest.

My helmet popped open and the Scalers wrenched it off. They swarmed all over me, knees and elbows and hands. The screams and the fetid stink of the place hit me like a physical blow, cold and wet and dead. A bloody haze, by flaming torchlight. I still couldn’t move my arms. I could feel nothing, running on straight adrenalin. About ten of them sat on me. Knives at my throat, a knife sticking into an ear, another forced into my mouth. Hopeless! I was as good as dead. They were after the armor, now. They had gotten Merlin out, so they knew how to unlink the suit.

They got our A-suits and litesuits off, stripped us naked and trussed us up like newly caught mumpups, the cords biting into our skin. I may have been in shock. There were hundreds of them. Bleeding heavily from the mouth, I wondered how we would die and hoped we would make a good death.

A roar suddenly erupted from the mob. A Scaler warrior stood over us, brandishing what I assumed was Priestess’s E. Small and wiry, his eyes glittered red in the torchlight and his hair was matted with dirt. He held the E aloft, waving it around, screaming harshly to the crowd.

“Priestess, is your E still on safe?” They had tied my hands behind my back and I could not see her.

“Yes.” I could barely hear her through the noise of the crowd. But why should I worry? Now they could only crush our skulls with rocks, instead of zapping us with the E.

Priestess screamed and I wrenched myself around enough to see what was going on.

The leader had Priestess by the hair, forcing her to her feet, her hands tied behind her back. The leader continued exhorting the crowd, forcing her head back, waving the E around with his other hand. War trophies. The sub! Priestess was absolutely lovely, even with blood trickling down from her head wounds. Her body appeared phosphorescent in the dark against all those dirt-caked Scalers. The torchlight flickered and flared and her skin glowed red and golden in the dark. An unexpected hush fell over the gathering. The sputtering of the torches underscored the heavy breathing of the mob.

Priestess was slim and lovely, incredibly beautiful, a child-woman, a starflower in the night. To the Scalers, her beauty must have seemed almost supernatural. Even the leader became silent, holding Priestess at arm’s length by her hair, staring at her in awe.

Then the Scaler women reached out to touch Priestess. I wondered if they thought they could have some of her beauty by touching her. Some of the men reached out to touch her as well, their hooded, evil eyes burning with lust.

The first warrior who slid his hand between her legs was rewarded with a sharp, perfectly executed front snap kick to the crotch. His face turned white and he collapsed without a sound. The crowd roared. The Scaler leader bellowed and pulled at Priestess’s hair, brutally yanking her off her feet, wielding the E like a club, striking out at the other warriors. Was he angry with them for touching his trophy?

Priestess fell to the floor, face contorted with pain. The Scaler women shrieked at the men, some of them beating at the warriors with their fists. Their meaning was clear: Hands off the alien girl!

Sloshing through the water, the leader dragged Priestess by her hair over the flooded, slippery stone floor. Another great shout went up and my captors hauled me away by my feet. I caught a glimpse of Merlin, being undone from his chains. A whiff of smoke hit my nostrils.

“Thinker! Thinker! Do something, for God’s sake! Deadman, help me!” Priestess was desperate and terrified. I struggled, but to no avail. I could not even see her anymore. A moving forest of Scaler legs surrounded me. Then the forest fell away, and I saw.

A metal grate, blackened by the fires of many centuries, rested over a deep, dark stone pit, its depths already smoking from a newly lit fire. The Scalers pulled away the blistered, crisp-blackened remnants of a giant exoseg from the grate, and chanted an evil song. The exoskeleton collapsed as they pulled, stiff black legs snapping off from the thorax as if from dry rot, showering the Scalers with ash. The filthy grate was covered with charred rot from the exoseg.

They dragged Priestess onto the grate, and fastening her wrists to the bars with chains. Merlin and I were next. Here the Scalers roasted their enemies, and we were the newest addition to the list. This was our fate, a slow, agonizing death, a long slow burning over an open fire.

The Scaler leader and two other warriors brought a bucket of dirty, oily liquid over to Priestess and began rubbing it onto her body. They started on her face and worked their way down, taking their time, exploring her body thoroughly. Priestess shuddered and cried out, twisting her legs to get away from them. The Scaler girls started in again, screaming angrily and pelting the warriors with rocks. They moved away from Priestess reluctantly and she collapsed, glistening with oil.

Merlin and I were then tied to the grate as well, and the warriors threw the rest of the oil on us contemptuously. They retreated and the crowd hushed. They surrounded the grate, a huddled, torch-lit, silent mob, warriors and women and children and the living dead, a whole Scaler city, come to see the aliens die. The fire flared up below us and someone threw a bucket of oil into the pit and the flames burst to life, searing our backs. We lay in the filth of the last victim, the bars of the grate now heating up and burning into my naked flesh.

Priestess moaned beside me. Merlin moved restlessly, raising his bloody head to look around. My fate roared in my ears, the spectators laughed, the torchlight flared over the shadowy ceiling, the heat rose from the fire pit. I remembered Gravelight’s words: “They will roast you slowly over fires…you will die slowly.”

There was no avoiding our fate this time. We would die, immortal or not, burnt to black crisps. The Legion would find our bodies, and many Scalers would die in revenge. We would be buried under cold skies, side by side beneath the strange stars of this new world. Generations of schoolchildren would chant our names, the First of the First, Thinker, Merlin and Priestess who died for you in the first assault. We would not be forgotten, and I would lie beside my lovely Priestess for eternity. I began whispering the chant of the Legion, our death song.

“I am a soldier of the Legion.

I believe in evil,

The survival of the strong…”

The grate burnt into my flesh, now. Smoke rose all around us. I raised my voice.

“…and the death of the weak!”

We were weak, to have been trapped like this. I was weak, to have thought of the Scalers first and of my comrades second. Priestess had stopped whimpering. She joined her words to mine.

“I am the guardian

I am the sword of light…”

And now Merlin joined us, in a strong, clear voice.

“In the dark of the night.

I will deliver us from Evil!”

The Scalers surrounded the fire pit, silent phantoms in the torchlight. And now we would die, with the chant of the Legion on our lips, until the pain overwhelmed us.

“I accept life everlasting…”

Life! Life everlasting. It only meant death, in the end. The Legion promised life, and delivered death. A fair bargain. To us, death was the final frontier, the final mystery, the final, holy glory.

The Scaler leader leaped onto the grate, screaming at us, waving the E over his head. We defied him, raising our voices so that everyone could hear us clearly. We knew we were going to die.

“I will trust no Earther worm,

Nor any mortal man…”

He stood right above me and raised the E like a club, as if to bludgeon me to death. I thought briefly that it would be preferable to burning. Something snapped, and a neat little pinhole suddenly appeared on his forehead. He stiffened, and a thin stream of bright red blood squirted out of the hole. The Scaler leader shuddered and collapsed, falling face-first onto the grate.

The crowd stood motionless, shocked. I raised my head, trying to look around. Priestess clanked her chains, trying to see behind her. For an instant, it was quiet.

The crowd exploded, V bolts burst among them like the fist of a mighty God, earsplitting explosions shattered the silence, filled the great hall. Someone had a Manlink on V-min auto, working the mob over slowly, systematically, from one end to the other. The V bolts blasted the Scalers right off their feet, arms and legs flailing, explosions of filth and dirt, bodies tumbling wildly, multiple blasts hammering into the mob relentlessly. The Scalers screamed in a wild panic, clawing and trampling each other to get away. But there was no escape. V bolts, again and again and again, seeking out the Scalers, cracking white-hot in the dark as Scaler torches flew through the air, trailing hot sparks. The hall darkened as the torches went out. Now there were only the eerie lightning flashes of the V bolts and the glow of the fire pit.

The grate burnt painfully into my flesh. “Come on, guys, whoever you are! Cut us loose,” I shouted.

The Scalers were a frantic tangled mass of bodies in the shallow water covering the stone floor, now trying to rise, to crawl, to get away. But the V did not stop. Bolts of searing hot energy burst among the survivors, knocking them head-over-heels. No mercy! V swept the hall, chasing after fleeing groups of Scalers, tumbling them down as they ran. In a frac, an angry, determined mob had been turned into fleeing rabble.

Psycho suddenly appeared and knelt over Priestess, his Manlink glowing. “Hi, Honey. You still hanging around with these two losers?” He aimed again, and fired into the darkness.

Psycho! Psycho the Maniac, Psycho the Avenging Angel, covered with dirt, armored and armed and as cool as could be. Through his faceplate, I saw his happy grin. He sliced through Priestess’s bindings with his hot knife. A stone bounced off his armor. He ripped off another burst into the dark. “If they keep that up, they’re going to upset me, and I’ll switch to xmax,” he informed us.

“Cut us loose, Psycho!” Merlin demanded.

“What do you think, Priestess?” Psycho inquired calmly. “Why don’t we just leave them here. Who needs ‘em? They’ll just get you into trouble again.”

Priestess didn’t waste any time. “Give me your mini!”

Psycho fired again, a long burst. Priestess sliced my chains off with a laser burst from the handgun and then freed Merlin. Rocks ricocheted harshly off the metal grate. Regrouped, the Scalers had started to fight back.

Psycho fired on xmax and a tremendous blast lit up a far corner of the chamber. He peered into the dark, surveying his handiwork, shaking his head. “I leave you clowns alone for a couple of fracs and come back to find the Scalers having you for lunch. Can’t you do anything right without me?” He was in his element. He was magnificent under stress. When there was no stress, he generated it, just to annoy us.

“Where are the others, Psycho?” Merlin looked around wildly, an eternal optimist, completely detached from reality.

“Others?” he laughed madly. “Come on, we can handle this bunch. I just dug my way out of the cave-in. There aren’t any others!”

I snatched up Priestess’s E from where the Scaler had dropped it and let loose a long burst on v-min into the dark. It got darker fast. Scaler torches sputtered weakly here and there where they had fallen and piles of twitching Scaler bodies could be seen in the gloom. Only Psycho could see properly. The rest of us were all but blind in this underground world. The fire pit illuminated us nicely for the Scalers.

“You’ve got a beautiful ass, Priestess.” Psycho always said exactly what he thought.

“Thanks for rescuing us and keep your hands off!” she replied hotly.

“Can you please concentrate on the Scalers, Psycho?” I suggested. “Let’s get away from the fire.”

“On me,” Psycho said simply. He knew the way out. A rock exploded off Psycho’s plasmapak. He whipped around and fired again on xmax. A searing detonation illuminated shattered Scaler bodies flying through the air, and a sudden horde of fierce-looking dirtmen off to one side, whirling their slings in the air, coming right at us.

“Damn! Where did they come from?” A hail of rocks ricocheted all around us. A heavy metal trident flashed past my face.

“Lights! Psycho, give us lights!” Merlin had armed himself with an axe. He snatched the flash from Psycho’s waist and snapped it on, right at the dirtmen.

The sudden light was dazzling, silent nova, bursting to life, glaring and sizzling right at the dirtmen. It stopped them like a wall, just for a moment.

“V-min,” I said. “Auto.” We were really not supposed to be killing them.

“Always thinking,” Psycho retorted. “What a pain.”

He and Priestess and I stood shoulder to shoulder while Merlin held the light. We opened up with V bolts on straight auto. We cut down the dirtmen with thunder and lightning, with V bolts from another world, and the underground shook with the earsplitting din of the battle. The dirtmen just kept coming, right at us, chanting their death songs. Lord, they were good!

“The other side.” Rocks pelted us from behind. We formed a fighting circle, back to back, surrounded.

“Flares.” Merlin could only cover part of the chamber with his flash so we fired flares out into the darkness and they burst into brilliant light, glaring and spitting from the far corners of the great hall. Now we could see it all, many, many Scaler bodies, and women and children huddled in terrified clumps on the watery floor, playing dead. Warriors, leaping from behind those great columns, launching stones and evil spiked metal balls through the air to whistle past our ears. Shadows leaping from wall to wall, hundreds and hundreds of Scalers all around us, swarming in blind panic and terror and hatred and courage and bloody suicidal sacrifice. I felt for those Scalers, I really did.

“Deadman!” Psycho exclaimed. “I haven’t had this much fun since Planet Hell!”

“I love you, Thinker! I love you!” Priestess could not hold it in.

“What is this, confession time?” Psycho was outraged. “I save her ass, and she loves you? Wait’ll I tell Valkyrie!”

“Look out!” A spear flashed past my cheek and bounced off the stone floor. A rock hit me square in the chest, leaving me breathless.

A low wailing arose from the Scalers. Hysterical screaming, urgent shouting, someone barking out commands. The rain of stones slowed, and ceased. An evil silence fell on the great chamber. Scaler women and children ran frantically along one wall, illuminated by a flare. Grimfaced warriors with heavy metal tridents stood fast in the human flood, facing the direction from which the civilians were fleeing.

“It’s the Legion!” Merlin exclaimed.

Psycho glanced at his tacmod. “Negative. There’s nobody here.”

“Deadman,” I whispered. I could see something, in the inky black of a far corner of the chamber, behind the columns, hidden from the flares. I could see what the Scalers feared, what had drawn their attention from us.

“What is it?” Priestess demanded.

Something big, in the dark. Something dark and evil, writhing in the shadows. Something from Andrion 3, to break your bones and drink your blood.

“Death,” I said. “It’s death!” I was not too coherent, right then. I did not know if I could face another exoseg.

Two of them emerged from the shadows, illuminated harshly by the glittering light of our flares. Two grim, terrible, giant killing machines, heads snapping back and forth, antennas cracking out like whips, front legs probing ahead of them, awful empty black eyes reflecting only death. Another great exoseg appeared out of the shadows, behind them. And another. Their chittering filled the chamber, the only sound. It chilled my blood. I felt the hair rising on my scalp.

“To the death,” Merlin whispered reverently.

“My, my!” Psycho exclaimed. “Just look at that!”

“I can’t do this again, Thinker,” Priestess said quietly. “I don’t want this. Not again.”

“Lasers,” I said. We faced the exosegs. “Zap ‘em with the light, Merlin. Maybe it will help. All right, let’s do it.” I could not tear my eyes away from those giant, obscene beasts. Merlin flooded the creatures with light. My skin crawled at the sight of them. My heart raced, adrenalin shot through my veins.

We fired simultaneously at the first two exos, laser light ripping the air violently, dazzling our eyes, sizzling and burning, raw energy from the heart of a star. We sliced the creatures, from top to bottom, from front to rear. They disintegrated, quickly, screaming, a high-pitched squeal, grating to our ears. Their bodies, suddenly sliced into many pieces, simply fell apart, burning at the edges, smoking, the internal organs ripping out to fall among the rest of the wreckage. We ceased firing. A horrible stench suddenly hit us like a physical blow.

“Deadman!”

“It works!”

“I love it! I love it!” Psycho was ecstatic.

“Get the others!”

Three, four, more! More exosegs, picking their way in fast motion over and around the steaming carcasses of those we had killed, twitching and snapping, reaching out for us with their antennae. We had no real reason to fear them, despite their terrifying appearance. Our fighting lasers cut through them like paper.

Overcome with loathing, I fired again. Psycho and Priestess fired simultaneously. Merlin kept the light on them. It was a horrible orgy of death, a blind slaughter, a pitiless, deliberate massacre. I saw it through burning red eyes, and I loved every frac. I bounced the E up and down, and slashed from side to side and the creatures walked right into our firestorm and disintegrated, all those separate body parts falling down sizzling to steam and hiss in the water covering the stones of the chamber floor, yellow viscera suddenly free, spilling hot and steaming into nothingness.

A hulking, smoking pile of obscene exoseg parts lay scattered all around us. A head, lying on one eye, glared at us, mandibles still twitching. The lasers did it all, an elemental force, the power of the stars at our fingertips, as we stood fast against a tidal wave of nightmare, grotesque alien creatures from the edge of the universe.

I felt like a God. From the corners of my eyes I spotted Scaler warriors behind us, forming a human wall of tridents and spears, in front of their huddled women and children.

More of them, a new exoseg come to die, its antennae lashing out among the fallen corpses of the others.

“Take the Manlink, Merlin.” Psycho handed it to Merlin, who snatched it eagerly. Psycho stepped out to face the exoseg. He crouched, his black armor catching the reflections from the flares, his hot knife outstretched before him, already triggered, burning a blue-hot flame.

“Hold your fire!” Psycho demanded, “Let me take him.” The exoseg paused for an instant, focused on him.

“You maniac!” I gasped in horror, suddenly realizing his intent. “Fire! Fire! Fire!” I shrieked and pressed the trigger. The giant exoseg disintegrated in an irresistible, glittering stream of laser bursts, its burning remains showering down on Psycho.

“You subnorm earther reject! Get your ass back here, Psycho!” I could hardly believe he had actually done it. What a raving lunatic.

“Damn it, I had him! Why’d you fire?”

Two more exoseg soldiers jerkily picked their way over the great mound of stinking body parts, vacant compound eyes winking evil. We vaporized them, hitting them head-on with the lasers, slicing them up lengthwise. They exploded, green and yellow puss spraying outwards in an obscene halo of death.

We ceased fire. A great silence settled over the chamber. I heard my heartbeat, and the sputtering of Scaler torches, the whimpering of children, and the hissing of our flares. We slowly re-formed our fighting circle, without words. The great hall was littered with unconscious Scalers, the victims of our V bolts. Beyond the bodies, a strong, straight line of Scaler warriors faced us, stretching all the way across the chamber, shoulder to shoulder, behind a wall of long heavy tridents and spears. The women and kids were behind them, in the shadows, all talking at once, shouting at each other. They may have been debating whether they wanted us medium-rare, or well done.

“Don’t fire yet,” I said. “Let’s see what they do.”

“Can we fire after they kill us all?” Psycho was still unhappy because I had terminated his exo.

“Tenners, no more games. If they attack, we keep the E’s on laser.”

“I don’t think they’re going to attack us,” Merlin said. “Look!”

A Scaler warrior stepped forward. He was small but well built, with hard flat muscles and great scars on his chest. An ornament of gold glittered at his throat. He held aloft a heavy blackened metal trident, grasping it with both hands, keeping it parallel to the ground.

“Watch him…”

He walked towards us, fearless, and paused, almost arms-length away, the trident overhead. Three lasers pointed at his belly. He looked right into my eyes, and I knew he could see death, looking out at him. His eyes burned. He was not afraid. He had already decided what to do.

He knelt, and brought the trident down, slowly, holding it out, to us. Presenting it, to us.

“He’s surrendering,” Priestess whispered.

I reached out to take it, in a daze. It was heavy. A sun symbol engraved the metal shaft, a sun with a single rune on its face, radiating light. The long line of Scaler warriors carefully laid down their weapons on the flooded stones of the great hall. I could hardly believe it.

“Cease firing, Snow Leopard,” Psycho suddenly exclaimed. “The Scalers in the great hall have just surrendered to us.”

“What do you mean, Psycho?” For an instant, I did not understand.

“It’s Snow Leopard,” Psycho replied. “CAT 24 has broken through, they’re on the way. Engagement in the tunnel.”

Priestess’s arms snaked around my waist and she buried her face in my chest. I balanced the E on my hip and tried to comfort her. A great relief flooded over me. I was suddenly very conscious of her very naked body, pressing close to mine.

“Let’s see if we can find Priestess’s litesuit, guys, uh, and maybe mine and Merlin’s, too.”

Chapter 7: The Mark of the Beast

Seven weeks later:

I awoke warm and comfortable. Completely relaxed, I wanted to stay in dreamland forever. It slowly dawned on my fuzzy mind that I was on the floor of the squadmod lounge, lying in a confused tangle of motionless bodies. I had not the slightest idea why. This has to be a dream, I thought. It felt so damned good just to be lying there, warm and lazy and mindless, that I wanted to continue like that forever. And it had to be a dream. The Legion does not sleep.

The bodies around me gradually came into focus. Squad Beta, asleep. Sleep, a forbidden drug. Priestess lay beside me, a blanket up to her chin, breathing deeply. In the dark, her face seemed faintly luminous. An angel, asleep. There, that angular shape against the sofa-Coolhand, his face sunk into a cushion, out like a stone. The others were on the floor, under blankets or pillows, sleeping where they had fallen.

Memory crept in like a grey ghost. We had been busting the damned Cult of the Dead for weeks. It seemed more like a hundred years. Flying on mags and biotics, we had become spirits, biogens, walking tirelessly through a ghostly dreamland, our souls watching us from far away. Then the unbelievable had happened, another squad flew in. Beta had been ordered back to the squadmod and told to sleep.

We collapsed when we reached the lounge. We all had our own cubes, but we didn’t make it. We crashed to the deck of the lounge, fumbled at our boots and armor, somebody doused the lights, cushions came off sofa and chairs, blankets appeared. The cubes all had bunks, but they were seldom used. I had not slept in a bed in some time. I did not trust them in any case; we knew that Atom’s wisdom came to us in our sleep from the bunks. We had enough wisdom already.

Sleep. Unbelievable! Every muscle in my body ached, but I felt as if I had been reborn. All the exhaustion was gone. It had been there for weeks, a constant presence, a dull ache behind my eyeballs.

Bodies, in the dark. I could see them now, dimly. Warhound laid flat on his back on the floor, still in his litesuit, not even a blanket, his mouth open. Merlin and Psycho lay in a tangle of equipment between two chairs. I could see their faces clearly. I wondered what demons drove Merlin. Around us and when we were in action, he was just one of the guys. On his own time, I’d seen some of the esoteric things he read. I knew a bit about his background. He had walked away from a research lab to join us in the mud. There was no doubt in my mind that he could switch over to some cushy safe-zone, top-echelon tech job any time he wanted. Was he running away or was he looking for something, trying to prove something? I suspected his dreams would be an eerie freefall into an alternate universe.

Psycho’s face appeared troubled. His dreams would be violent, exploding with light and sound. I did not envy him. Up against the doorway to his cubicle, Ironman slept, shoulders hunched uncomfortably against the wall, a blanket tangled around him, both hands palm up on the deck. Ironman, our youngest male, had let his hair grow out and now it partially covered his face. Ironman was in excellent shape, better than any of us, better even than Dragon. He was everybody’s little brother, and I felt a special responsibility toward him. I really liked him.

Their breathing sounded like a far off sea, beating gently on a sandy beach. It was our first real rest since arriving at Andrion 2. A faint light glowed around the door to the tac room. I heard the faint peeping of our sensors. Not everyone slept.

I forced myself up. The lounge smelled like a gym. We had not washed in some time. I still wore my litesuit pants, but had torn off the tunic. I found my own cubicle in the dark, closed the door, hit the lights and blinked hard at the glare. A soundless explosion, burning into my eyes. Someone had ripped the bedding from my bunk. I peeled off my pants and jox and tossed them into the cleaner. I did not know where to look for my shirt. Hot and sticky, I stank like a corpse. My mouth tasted as if something small and evil had crawled into it and died.

I moved into the head and confronted my naked body in the mirror. Death, recently risen, stared back. I had not changed much since Hell. My skin was burnt brown and covered with scars. The Legion cross was etched onto my left arm, just below the shoulder, the result of a celebration following our induction. My brown hair still had streaks of blond from the searing sun of Hell.

I emerged after an icy shower; the Legion didn’t use warm water. We thought it immoral. In fresh camfax litepants and a shapeless, sleeveless gym shirt, I padded barefoot into the darkness, picking my way around the sleeping bodies to the tac room, the towel hanging around my neck. I felt like a brand new soul.

A warm, green glow from the sensors bathed the figures in the chairs. Snow Leopard gazed at the monitors, but I could read nothing in his pale face. He appeared fresh and relaxed. Weapons were stacked carelessly against the wall. Dragon sat beside Snow Leopard with a cup of hot dox. His shorts and a sleeveless bodyshirt revealed his taut, hard muscles. Dragon had a Master’s in Contact, and you didn’t want to make him angry. He was a dark, brooding presence, his brown skin covered with black tattoos, relics of some lost life. They were indecipherable, arcane symbols, sinister icons of an unknown race. A snakelike dragon crawled down one arm, armored beetles marched across his chest, and sightless faces stared up from the backs of his hands. Hash marks from obscure, forgotten wars marked his shoulders, and even his earlobes bore strange symbols. He was as young as the rest of us, and new to the Legion. He never talked about it, but I thought that he must have had a fascinating childhood. I liked Dragon. Smart and tough, he didn’t fight the program.

Dragon looked up. “The dead walk. Are the rest of them up yet?”

“Still out,” I responded. “Give them a day or so.”

“Welcome back,” Snow Leopard said. “Have some dox.” His eyes did not leave the monitors. From the tac room, we controlled the entire AR. Nothing could escape our invisible eyes and ears.

“Thanks, Snow Leopard,” I said. “I’ll get it.” I walked over to the kitchen console and hit the tab. A cup of hot dox appeared. It burned my lips, great. Life flowed into my system.

“I’m going out,” I announced. I needed some air. I picked up the nearest E and punched the door open. Cold air flowed over me, a bright, clear morning. I stepped down barefoot onto gritty soil. Andrion 2’s star was already high overhead in a cold, clear blue sky. We were high on a forested hill, a magnificent view. Trees covered the mountains and the vista below was all forests. A wild, virgin world, as far as I could see. A faint breeze touched my skin, and my breath hung visibly in the air. A chill ran over my flesh.

“Quite a view,” Dragon said. He had followed me outside, soundlessly, now standing beside me with his cup of dox steaming in the cold.

“Reminds me of Providence,” I said. I thought of our very early training on Veltros. After months of brutality, after the Legion had molded us into perfectly functioning, human machines of flesh and blood and bone, we had been sent out on yet another route march, with full weighted compaks and heavy-weighted, chargeless weapons. We marched toward the mountains, magnificent nameless snow-capped mountains, and the day had been still and clear and cold, just like today, and, looking toward those icy mountains and walking over that spongy turf, I had been overwhelmed by a sudden joy, and wonder, and gratitude, and I knew then that the Legion was all I wanted in life.

“This is great!” Psycho exclaimed, with his mouth full. Beta gathered around the table in the lounge, having a feast. I hadn’t had a decent meal in days. Music blasted, somebody had a sex show on a screen, and everybody talked at once.

“That’s disgusting! How can you eat that slop?” Ironman chided Psycho.

“It’s all I ever eat.” Psycho seemed genuinely surprised by the question. “It’s all you need. Read the label! Comrats have everything you need for a balanced diet.”

“You’re a barbarian,” Dragon cut in. “Nobody in his right mind would eat that stuff if he didn’t have to.”

Psycho just stared at him. “A barbarian? Me, a barbarian? Hey, I don’t eat animals!” A low blow. Dragon was a flesh-eater, and that bordered on cannibalism on some worlds.

“You’re gonna eat a fist if you don’t shut down!” When the black snakes on Dragon’s arm started to enlarge, it was time to end the conversation. Psycho went back to his comrats, grinning.

Psycho liked to harass Dragon from time to time, but always backed off after he had made his point.

Ironman remained silent, probably sorry he had raised the subject.

“Have some juice.” Coolhand slid a mug of freezing bitter over to me.

A burst of laughter. The music was hypnotic, insistent.

“Death!” I drank. Cold and clear and tart, it was perfect. Bitter, from the past. “This won’t last forever.” Somebody had to say it.

Sure, it wouldn’t last. We’d be back to work tomorrow, maybe today. I closed my eyes.

“The wind is with us, Slayer.” Deadeye crawled beside me through a field of wild saw grass under the stars, a few dark clouds scudding past close overhead, a cool breeze rustling lightly through the grass. What a night, still and clear, as if the Gods held their breaths.

Deadeye was Beta’s Scaler. Actually, he was mine. He had attached himself to me right after our disagreement with the exosegs in the underground. Deadeye had been a witness. He liked what he saw. He was deadly accurate with his slingshot, hence our nickname for him. He had named me Slayer. I’m not sure why, since it had been Psycho who had saved us all. Perhaps I’d seemed more real to him since Psycho had been in armor.

Deadeye crept past me, cautiously, clad in loose legion-issued camfax, long hair splattered with mud, and eyes alight. He spoke in Taka, the language of the People of the Clouds, the Scaler’s own name for one of the largest tribes. I was learning it in spite of myself. Atom whispered in my ear at every spare frac, and even Sweety harassed me in Taka.

Deadeye was a Cloud, as were most of the tribes in our AR. The Cloud People formed the Clan of the Sun, and claimed descent from the Far March of the Golden Sword, the ancient race of Sunrealm, as they called their world.

When that first Scaler…Taka, I corrected myself again…war chief bent his knee to me, it was for forever. Loyalties to the people of Sunrealm were clear-cut, leaving no room for compromise. Deadly enemies one instant, we became allies and protectors the next.

Our power over the exosegs generated the change. In a few moments, we had proven ourselves capable of annihilating the hated Beasts, the great terror that had struck the Sunrealm a generation in the past. Our power was awesome to the Taka, and it became immediately clear to them that we represented the Future, and the Hope, and the Light.

When the dust had cleared from that first skirmish with the exosegs, the Taka had come up from the underground, full of hope. Deadeye took a position right beside us, wide-eyed. We had auxiliaries now-plenty of help, enthusiastic help, from our Taka allies. We dressed them in camfax and set them loose.

They were good-we did not need to explain anything to them-the dead exos had done the trick. That’s all they had to see.

I eased up my E and pressed the sight against my faceplate. A roofless temple rose above the saw grass, a line of columns outlined against the night sky. Taka, moving around, clad in black cloaks, starlight glinting off spear points. The Soldiers of God, fighting for the doomed Cult of the Dead. The priests would be in there somewhere. We’d come for the priests. They’d never talk to us voluntarily. We threatened everything they stood for.

Our sudden appearance in this ancient world had upset the balance of power in the Takas’ uneven struggle to respond to the exoseg threat. We had learned that Taka society had disintegrated unknown ages ago, and the collapse of civilization in this world had nothing to do with the exosegs.

When the creatures suddenly appeared, their only opposition was a fragmented tribal society, completely unequipped to deal with such a formidable foe. The Takas had collapsed against the onslaught of the beasts and finally coalesced into two distinct groups, the Cult of the Dead, dedicated to appeasing the beasts through human sacrifice, and the Golden Sword, sworn to a seemingly hopeless struggle against the exos and the Cult of the Dead. The two groups expended most of their energy fighting each other in a pointless, bloody, protracted, worldwide struggle, tribe against tribe. And while the Takas fought amongst themselves, the exosegs continued reproducing, and soon they swarmed, an invincible horde.

“The moon rises, Slayer. The blood will flow soon. Too many have died already. The priests are insane! The sacrifices do not stop the Beasts. The Beasts take only the living.” Deadeye clutched a short stabbing spear. A blazing sun was etched onto the blade. Neither the Clouds nor the Cult expected to survive the war with the Beasts, and I knew that Deadeye would like nothing better than to kill a Cult priest. But we needed the priests alive. If anyone could explain the presence of the exos, it would be the priests.

“That’s a priest.” Snow Leopard’s voice, whispering in my ears. I triggered the zoom on the E’s sight and panned through the temple. Shadows, movement, then a faint red glow. They had lit a fire. Suddenly I had the priest, no doubt at all. A naked torso, a black cloak thrown back over his shoulders, arms going up, pale eyes rolling back, wild hair, a great metal staff in one hand, a long dark knife in the other. We could hear someone chanting and voices murmuring, whimpering. Andrion 2’s moon glowed, a far-off silver orb.

“Ready for assault,” Coolhand reported.

“Hold a frac,” Snow Leopard said. “We need confirmation on these sacrifices.” We’d been busting cult raiding parties for weeks, but this was our first chance to grab actual priests. So far, we’d only heard one version of the story. Orders were to get the other side of the story by nabbing a live priest for interrogation.

“Snow Leopard, do you want them to kill someone before we move?” Priestess asked. I had thought the same, but was not in the habit of questioning our orders.

“Move up slowly, gang,” Snow Leopard responded. “Keep an eye on the priest.” We moved, keeping low, the tall grass whispering all around us, Deadeye close beside me. I tried to keep the zoom on the priest, but it wasn’t easy. The sky darkened, black clouds blotting out the stars. I caught glimpses as we moved up, the priest glowing red in the reflection from the fire. He stood behind a high stone table that had to be an altar. The chanting became faster, a rhythmic human drum. Moans and cries carried on the breeze. Shadowy figures appeared around the altar. A naked baby squirmed on the stone. The priest had one hand on the baby, the other held the knife high. Deadeye broke into a charge, without a word.

“Deadeye’s attacking,” I reported.

“Fire,” Snow Leopard ordered. “V only. Get the priest.” The night erupted with the fury of our attack. The derelict temple flashed with brilliant white V-min hits. The Soldiers of God scattered immediately, blown off their feet like targets in a shooting range, spears flying, black cloaks flapping, V-min bolts bursting everywhere. I fired into a group of five warriors as I advanced and they went down in a tangle of limbs. In moments, we gained the temple and the engagement was over. The Cultists outnumbered us greatly, but they never had a chance.

Deadeye had one foot on the chest of an enemy warrior. He pulled his bloody spear from the thrashing man’s throat. No one moved to help the choking Cultist as he finally let out a death rattle and grew still. Someone sobbed. Several Taka women huddled miserably not far from the altar, too shocked to move. Cultists were sprawled everywhere, stunned and twitching. A burst of auto v-min erupted to my right. Ironman and Dragon were clearing up some resistance. I saw a few stragglers hightailing it through the saw grass, auto V-min trailing them, lighting up the dark.

The baby’s body lay split open on the altar, bathed in blood, tiny fists frozen in death, its little pink mouth locked open in a final scream, eyes tightly shut. Too late!

“We hit the priest. He’s right here,” Coolhand reported, standing over a prone, shadowy figure.

“Good. Keep him away from Deadeye,” Snow Leopard ordered.

I found the priest’s bloody knife where it had fallen on the stone floor. The blood-encrusted altar showed the baby was not the first to die here. The priest’s staff stood grounded in a slot on the floor. I lifted it out and examined it. It appeared to be iron. A massive, circular design, an exoseg-Exoseg Gigantic Soldier-decorated the top of the staff. This was the Mark of the Beast, chilling in its simplicity.

“Let me kill him, Slayer.” Deadeye whispered desperately to me.

“We have to question him, Deadeye,” I replied.

He bit off his words. “Then come with me, Slayer. The dead await us.”

“Site is secure,” Coolhand reported. A few drops of rain hit my faceplate. Black clouds streaked past the face of Andrion 2’s moon. I followed Deadeye.

An open pit located off to one side of the temple was half filled with corpses, naked children of all ages and both sexes, their throats slit, their chests carved open, their limbs frozen in death. A forlorn group of Taka females gathered around the pit, crying and wailing, covering mouths and noses from the stench of death. It started to rain, fat heavy drops falling onto the dead.

“We’ve got your confirmation, Snow Leopard,” Priestess said quietly.

He did not respond.

“They are all Taka,” Deadeye explained. “They are all children. Do you see why we fight the Cult of the Dead? They are worse than the Beasts-they kill their own kind. Let me kill the priest, Slayer-grant me only that!”

I could not grant Deadeye his wish, but later, I took a good look at the priest when he regained consciousness, his arms secured behind him, wild eyes, a pale, fanatic face. His chest was shredded with old wounds, hundreds of little flaps of skin fluttering in the breeze…what in Deadman’s name?

“Each cut is a death, Slayer. Each cut is a soul,” Deadeye explained. We had taken away his spear. We knew he could not control himself in the presence of his enemies.

“I’m sorry the baby died, Deadeye.”

“The Gods willed it, Slayer. The Gods brought you. You are the Golden Sword, come from the past to avenge us. The Beasts are doomed, and the priests will die, and our people will live. We bless you, Slayer.”

“We’re not from the past, Deadeye. We’re from the future.”

“No, Slayer. The Gods have sent you. You are from the Past.”

Ironman and Dragon appeared from the saw grass. Ironman had a Taka girl by an arm. The girl was pale and shaken, too tired to run further.

“Can I keep her?” Ironman asked. He was joking, but it was almost obscene. Ironman, an alien monster in black armor and red faceplate, bristling with antennas and weapons, while the girl, almost naked, gasped in shock. Even splattered with mud, she was dangerously attractive. The more I saw of these Taka girls, the more I liked them. They appeared fragile and beautiful, creatures from some gentler world. And they certainly did not belong in the mud.

“Why don’t you just get her number?” I suggested. “Rape is not included in the mission order, I checked.”

“Damn! Look at her-she is nice!”

“She is yours, Longhair.” Deadeye addressed Ironman. He had named us all, and Ironman was Longhair. We ignored his comment about the girl, but we learned later what he meant. The Taka did not kid.

“Command, Beta. Mission over. We’ve got your priest.” Snow Leopard reported back to our CAT leader.

“Good news, Beta. Bring him in.” The skies opened and the rain fell, washing away some of the blood.

“In the beginning was the sky, and the clouds. The People of the Clouds came from the sky. We fell from the sky onto the land, and could not get back.” Deadeye paused, for dramatic effect.

Several weeks had passed since we had captured the priest. We had just reached our position after a hard run from the ruins of the city. The Cultists would come soon, flushed from their hideouts by Delta. I was exhausted, and glad for the chance to take a little break. Half of Beta accompanied Delta, and it had been somewhat hectic.

“Beta, Element Two in position,” I reported back.

“Confirm,” Snow Leopard responded.

Deadeye continued with his story. “From the People of the Clouds, the Taka, came the Men of the Sword and the Men of the Book and the Men of the Mud. The Golden Sword took the Sunrealm from Chaos, and then the Ancients were no more, and the Men of the Book appeared. A thousand years of war, and a hundred years of peace, and then the Age of Chaos. Now the Men of the Book are gone, and the People of the Clouds are one with the Men of the Mud. We are now in the Ending Time for Sunrealm, and our race is doomed to die. The Beasts came from the sky, and they were written in the Book. They feed on our fears. The Cult of the Dead says our destiny is to die. But we Taka do not care for words. We live to kill the Beasts, and to kill the priests. I do not know any more.”

“Tell me more,” I urged Deadeye. “About the Ancients? Who were the Men of the Book? What did the Book say about the Beasts?”

“The Ancients were the Men of the Sword. They made the peace, with war, and the land turned green under the sign of the sun. The Men of the Book faced the Age of Chaos. I do not know what the Book says about the Beasts. I have never seen the Book, and I cannot read. You must ask a Loremaster.”

But there were no Loremasters any more, I already knew. The priests of the Cult of the Dead had inherited their world.

The priests used the wealth of their victims to enrich themselves and to buy the loyalty of the Soldiers of God, a professional standing army. It held sway over a vast domain, peopled by many tribes. The priests called it the Realm of God.

We had gone to work immediately to smash the Cult. We saw no need for any more sacrifices. We launched our CAT teams into the Realm of God, and the priests and soldiers quickly learned that there was no defense. The word spread about the return of the Golden Sword and the collapse of the Realm of God and the slaughter of the Beasts by the Men of the Past. The Taka offered unconditional loyalty and unconditional obedience. We would kill the Beasts, and free them from the priests and Soldiers of God. A fair bargain!

But from the Realm of God came resistance. Many Taka would not bend their knees to us. The People of the Lake and the Red Earth People and the People of the Dark and the Clan of the Heart, and many other tribes declared they would fight us to the death. No talk with Evil! They knew their fate-it was to die, in the mouth of the Beast. Their priests had told them so.

Our strategy was simple: kill exos, and win over all the Sunrealmers to our side. Our orders were to secure the planet, and that’s what we were going to do, Systies or not. Most of the 12th Regiment was on-planet now and that included all of the 2nd Company. Half of our forces went after the exosegs, and the other half dealt with the Taka. Beta got the Taka. I was happy about that, at first. Many of the Sunrealmers lived underground. They found the exos had difficulty cutting through solid stone and had fortified the underground after the exos had swarmed over the fortress walls above ground. The size of the exos limited what they could do in confined spaces, although they continued their efforts to break the Taka defenses. Apparently, the priests understood Exoseg tactics.

Our work was tiring and sometimes dangerous. CAT 24 had been lucky so far. Our closest call was Nomad. But he had been hauled back from the dead by the lifies.

And through it all, there was no sign of Systies. They just did not seem to be here.

“The enemy approaches, Thinker.” Sweety was whispering in my ears. My thoughts snapped back to the present.

“Soldiers of God,” Deadeye warned me. He loaded up his slingshot.

“Beta, Delta, we’re flushing your Cultists. You all set?”

“Delta, Beta. We’re on it.” I raised my E. They were on the scope, a whole gang of them. Why didn’t they just surrender? It was pointless.

“Priestess, Thinker. Where are you going?”

“Don’t bother me!” Delta had forced the Cultist fanatics out, and we’d mopped them up. It had been a nasty, violent operation. The underground Cult complex had been savagely defended at the cost of several of our Taka auxiliaries and even a few wounded of our own.

In the aftermath of the op, long lines of prisoners, just recovered from the gas, snaked out shakily from a dead city. The night was ablaze with searchlights and flares, aircars hovered overhead, and probes darted around.

Priestess was staggering blindly. I caught up with her as she was about to stumble into a tree. The limp form of a dead Taka girl was draped across her armored arms. Blood was everywhere, even smeared across Priestess’s faceplate.

“I’m so tired, Thinker. I’m so tired. I want to sleep. I want to die.”

“Don’t be foolish. Come here, over here, let’s get out of this mess.” I did not know where I was going. I stumbled over some equipment, and led Priestess past a flare and into a clearing. As gently as I could, I took the girl from Priestess’s arms and laid her body gently on the ground.

“It’s all wrong, we shouldn’t be fighting them. It’s wrong.” Priestess slurred her words.

“It’s right. We can’t postpone it. The longer the priests rule, the more Taka die. You know that.”

I sat her down on a bed of flowers. The night sky arched gently above us, full of stars. An aircar glided overhead, searchlight burning down into the forest. I could hear V bolts in the distance. Priestess slumped and turned away from the corpse until she lay flat on her back. We should have been working, I knew.

“Why can’t we leave them alone? Why are we here? There aren’t any Systies here!”

“We can’t leave them alone. We’ve been ordered to take this world. And we have to consolidate power as soon as possible. That’s Legion doctrine, and it’s also what our auxiliaries are telling us. We’ve got to wipe out these priests.”

“I don’t care. I’m going to sleep now.”

I was desperate and Priestess appeared to be going into shock. “Priestess, look. Look! The moon.”

It was floating just over the black tree line, a pale moon, rising in the night sky. I was so high on fatigue, it struck me then as the most magnificent sight I had ever seen.

“Yes, I see. I see.” Priestess propped herself up on an elbow. “Moon rising. What does it mean?”

“It means everything will be all right. Now get up!” And she did, with a little help from her Persist.

It was after that op that they pulled us back for a rest in the squadmod.

The next day, we were gathered around the tacsit console. “So this is the Hand of the Hand. I’m disappointed,” Snow Leopard said.

The Hand of the Hand was on screen, under interrogation back in Alpha Base. He was a very important priest of the Cult, second in rank to the supreme Hand of God, who was still on the run. CAT 23 had captured him by blind luck. The priest we had captured had been a nobody, but this fellow was number two for the whole Cult.

“He looks like a mildly retarded florist,” Merlin said.

“Except for the shredded chest,” I added.

“Plenty of kills,” Dragon said. “Wonder how many were babies.”

The priest did not look particularly formidable. He was a slight, shriveled old man with wet, expressionless eyes. His frizzy, thinning hair reached to his shoulders. He wore the Mark of the Beast on a medallion around his neck. He didn’t look like a mass murderer, but he certainly was just that. Somebody from CAT 23 was interrogating him, a young, brightly extroverted Legionnaire who spoke fluent Taka.

“But you must know the Book,” the Legionnaire was insisting, “the one Book of the Men of the Book, in which was written the coming of the Beasts.” I could understand most of it. Atom refused to give up on me.

“It is lies,” the Hand of the Hand replied, “all lies, written by the Unbelievers. We do not need the Book of Lies. Our book is the Road of Truth. God calls us through His Beasts. We need no book.”

“But have you read the one Book of the Men of the Book?”

“We do not read the Book of Lies.”

“I have not read it either,” the Legionnaire said. “I have heard it was full of falsehoods. And yet it is said that the Book speaks of the coming of God’s Beasts. Is it so?”

“I need not know what is written in the Book of Lies.”

“Your own book is the Road of Truth? Is it a book? Is God’s word written in a book?”

“God needs no book.”

“How do you know what God wants, if there is no scripture?”

“God speaks through the Beasts. It is the ending time for Sunrealm. All of our people must die. God wishes it so. It is our sacred duty to deliver all our people to God. This is clear. We need no book!”

“As a man of God, why do you not offer yourself to Him? Surely this would be a sacred act?”

“Of course. There is nothing that would please me more! But as a priest I am bound by my solemn vows. I must deliver my people up to God. If we priests were to offer ourselves, there would be no one to perform the ceremonies. It is a grave responsibility. We cannot be selfish!”

“You are an inspiration to your people. Tell me more about the Beasts. How does God speak through the Beasts?”

“What crap,” Snow Leopard declared, turning away from the screen. “That priest is the XO, and he doesn’t know anything. Nothing at all! He doesn’t know where the exos came from, or why they are here. All he knows is that it’s a great opportunity for him to slaughter all his enemies and live like a king.”

“Maybe he’s not telling all he knows,” Coolhand suggested.

“No, they’ve got him wired up. He thinks he’s telling the truth, but he doesn’t know anything!”

“Well, if he doesn’t know, who does?” Dragon asked.

“Probably nobody,” I said.

“There aren’t any Systies here,” Ironman said. “That’s becoming clear.”

“Then what are we doing here?” Priestess asked.

“We’re doing the Legion’s will,” Snow Leopard replied. “That’s what we do, gang.”

“Command doesn’t appear to know what it’s doing,” Warhound said. He appeared genuinely worried.

“Command knows,” Psycho laughed. “Command knows. It’s just not telling. But it will, when it’s ready. And I can tell you my safeties are off.”

“Beta, Deadeye!” The tacsite monitor spoke.

“Speak, Deadeye!” Deadeye called us from the nearby Taka camp in the forest. We had handed out comsets to some of our auxiliaries.

“The Lake People have come. They have left a gift for you.” He spoke in Taka.

Snow Leopard stood beside me at the console. “Ask him what kind of a gift.” He was suspicious by nature. All Ones were suspicious by nature. But I asked.

“It is a very nice gift, Slayer! I will bring it!”

“Meet him outside.” Snow Leopard turned back to the monitor, the green glow from the screens giving his pale face an unhealthy pallor. Even in Hell his skin had not tanned. The rest of us had been burnt brown, but Snow Leopard’s face had just turned purple and then the skin had peeled away. Now it was pale again. We had been very close, in Providence, but he had changed after they made him a One. He had more to worry about than the rest of us.

Coolhand joined me outside under a bright, clear sky. We were armed, but not armored. We wore whatever we pleased when on duty in the tacsite.

“A gift. Cookies with arsenic?” Coolhand speculated.

“We’ll have Psycho test it. He’ll eat anything.”

“I wonder if they know about explosives.” Coolhand smiled.

“We’ll find out soon.”

Psycho and Priestess drifted outside as well, curious. Psycho frequently hovered around Priestess, even though he knew she wasn’t interested.

Deadeye emerged from the forest, accompanied by a longhaired Laker girl dressed in a clean Taka tunic, young and quite beautiful. She carried a woven bag. Deadeye was grinning, his stabbing sword resting on his shoulder.

“She is for Longhair, Slayer! His girl. The Lake People send her.”

Then I remembered. This was the woman that Ironman had captured on our first Cult bust. We’d sent her back to her people. Her eyes rigidly fixed on some object on the ground, she stood silently. Obediently.

“Somebody get Ironman,” Coolhand suggested.

I went back into the squadmod and found Ironman on the weight machine, clad only in shorts, lifting.

“Ironman, I got something for you.”

He paused, let up on the weights, and brushed his hair back out of his eyes. “What’s that?”

“Outside. It’s a surprise.”

The girl went down on her knees when Ironman appeared, and bowed low. Ironman was speechless.

“She is yours, Longhair!” Deadeye said cheerfully. “You captured her. Now she is your slave.”

The word ‘slave’ caused a small commotion and Snow Leopard was quietly summoned. When he arrived, he pulled Deadeye aside and they talked for some time. It emerged that there was no easy solution. It seemed she could no longer go back to her people. She belonged to Ironman now, just as Deadeye said. Only it was not possible. The Legion had a thing about killing slavers.

Her name was Morning Light. Ironman took her hand and made her stand up. She would not look at him.

Snow Leopard made the decision. He looked at the girl, and at Ironman, and at Deadeye. “Well, she can’t stay in the squadmod. If she wants to orbit, fine. She can camp nearby. Deadeye, you make sure she’s set up right. Ironman…” he paused, looking into space. “You’re going to remain a member of this squad. When I call your number, you’d better be there.

“One more thing, Deadeye. She’s not a slave. If she wants to stick around as an auxiliary for Ironman, she can.” He paused, and made sure everyone was looking and listening before he continued. “But be perfectly clear about this. If her people feel she’s working off some sort of debt, that debt is over as soon as we move out of this area. When that happens, we expect her people to welcome her home.”

“Ten, sir!” Ironman seemed happy, although somewhat shocked. There were no guidelines for this situation. He was on his own. I did not envy him.

“So we’re into slavery now?” Priestess stood next to me. She did not look pleased by this development.

“Why, no…I think Snow Leopard is just trying to decide what to do.”

“This is very nice for you men, isn’t it? And what if I capture a Scaler man? Can I keep him?”

I could tell she was upset. “Priestess, the girl’s people won’t take her back. We have to do something with her.”

“The poor thing! I’m sure Ironman will make sure she’s nice and comfy.”

I decided to stop talking. It wasn’t going to accomplish anything. It troubled me. I expected more problems like this. Ironman’s girl was only the beginning.

Chapter 8: Island in the Sun

Sunlight. Lord! Andrion 2’s star blazed overhead, nuclear light, a soundless explosion lighting up our world. What a day! The sunlight glared off crystal white sands from a cobalt blue sky, and a shallow calm green sea lapped gently at the beach. I lay flat on my back in the sand, stripped to my shorts, soaking up the heat. With my eyes closed, I could see a red haze, with brilliant white spots burning in the center. A burst of laughter broke the silence. Beta was taking a break.

They’d switched us from hunting Cultists to exoseg duty. We had been hunting exosegs in our aircar over the badlands, and had spotted seven of them crossing a dry lakebed. All they could do was run over the salt flat. We left charred, dismembered corpses littering the landscape, and then continued our patrol across endless stretches of glaring white sands bordered by dark jumbled patches of tortured earth and dead brown hills. We reached the edge of an inland salt sea and parked our aircar on the beach near the languid green waves.

“Suck it up!” Psycho shouted.

“On deck, trooper! Yummies!” Coolhand kicked sand all over me, stinging my skin. I opened my eyes. A can of bitter tumbled end over end in the air, glittering, heading right for my head. I caught it, snapped it open, and drank. Ice, exploding. What a day!

Swimming, sunbathing and succumbing to the all-too-human joy of warm sand between our toes, we gathered around a dropbox covered with hot comrats and cold drinks. Brown soldier ants, I thought, all skin and muscle and desire and nerves. I could not be happier, here, at the end of the journey, with the sunlight of a lost star warming my flesh.

Priestess wore tight panties and a sleeveless top. It did not leave much to the imagination. She was all legs and arms, toasting in the sun, a vision of incredible beauty completely at ease, surrounded by a gang of death-weary, sex-starved professional killers. It was probably the safest spot on the planet. Every single one of us would have died to protect her, and we knew she would do the same for us. Anyone who even laid an uninvited finger on her would have to answer to the rest of the squad. Chances are, the squad would need a replacement soldier while the offender took on a new career as worm food.

The gentle green waves lapped at the shore with a faint hiss. Tiny creatures darted about in the foam. I got up and ambled over to the eats.

“You should take a look at Ironman, Priestess.” Dragon sounded concerned. “He’s having trouble sleeping when we’re on duty at the squadmod. Guy just can’t sleep anymore. Keeps going out for air at night. He must walk all night, he’s so pale and exhausted when he gets back. I think he’s sick.”

It got a laugh, and Dragon took a long drink of iced juice. Ironman’s relationship with the native girl made him a good target for jibes. He was so quiet and good-natured that it never seemed to bother him. He just sat there faintly smiling, brushing his long hair back with one hand. Come to think of it, he had been spending a lot of time with Morning Light.

“Have a drink, Ironman. Don’t listen to these guys.” Snow Leopard smiled. His skin was turning red. By late afternoon it would be purple.

Coolhand got up and waded into the water with Warhound. Coolhand was a good soul. He seemed happy with the Legion and with himself. I knew he had come from an unhappy world and perhaps that explained him.

Redhawk was taking a rare break away from his beloved aircar. He made a show of splashing out to join the others, clowning around and flapping his arms like some great bird. His long, shaggy hair and scraggly beard made him look like some primitive hominid attacking modern human perfection.

“Universal Biotics,” Psycho was saying. “They’re the ones! If you get a biogen from UB, you’re set for life.” He laughed and took another swig of bitter. We sat in the shade of the aircar. Psycho held forth on his favorite subject.

“They will do absolutely anything you want! And you can set them for whatever you want-pick a personality, pick a fetish, pick a vice-you got it!”

“Are we gonna hear this again?” Dragon was not impressed.

“May Deadman walk if I’m lying! I swear on the cross this is true! It was just before I joined the Legion. I was a…well, kind of a security guard for this extremely wealthy sub who owned most of what was worth owning in those parts. Well, one day he…”

“The last time you were an arms salesman,” Dragon objected.

“That was a different story,” Psycho explained. “Anyway, he went away. He did that a lot. And he left me in charge of the interior of the…well, I suppose you lowlifes would call it a palace.” Psycho paused to take a sip.

“So he had this biogen girl. She was something! They are fanatics at Universal Biotics. I swear, they must give free units to the techs, because those techs really put their hearts into their work.”

“Not only their hearts,” Merlin observed.

“Yeah, well, they have to test the units, right? Anyway, I did a little research in the owner’s manual. If you should ever be fortunate enough to own a biogen, don’t leave the manual lying around under maglocks. Anybody can get into those things.”

Psycho’s eyes got misty as he spoke. “He always turned her off when he left. You’re not supposed to, it’s very bad for the units. But I told you he was a sub. He didn’t care, he just didn’t want her wandering around. Anyway, I did the door and there she was on the bed, out like a stone. I did my adjustments-and believe me, it wasn’t easy-and then I turned her on.”

“So what happened?” Ironman had an innocent streak that surfaced from time to time.

“Well, I tell you,” Psycho reminisced, and the tired, familiar story took on epic, if crude, proportions.

###

“That’s really disgusting,” Priestess observed quietly when he was through.

Psycho ignored her. “Of course, it was one chance in a lifetime. Those babies are expensive. Not for the likes of the Legion! But I dream that one of these days we’ll be busting our way into some place and there she’ll be-my biogen!” He took a long drink and looked up to the sun, completely happy. Psycho was crazy. He probably did dream about biogens.

I wished I could relax, like the others, but I couldn’t. Nasty rumors circulated in the Second about intercepted fragments of Systie conversation. Mysterious voices, whispering to each other. Nobody would confirm it.

An island a short distance from shore beckoned, baking in the sun, pale weathered stone and glittering sands covered with twisted stunted dead trees, burnt white by the elements. Priestess and I went swimming. I strapped my E to my back, just in case, and Priestess had a hot knife at her waist. Some of the guys had gone to sleep in the shade of the aircar.

Warm silky water burnt at my lips and stung my eyes. Sunlight exploded off the surface, glittering like a sea of diamonds. We swam lazily through the warmth to the island. Psycho’s voice floated after us, hanging in the air. “Don’t stay out too late, kiddies, or I’ll tell Valkyrie!”

A white crystal beach, tingling our feet. Priestess was lovely, slim and bronze, tossing her dark, wet hair back. Her sleeveless top clung to her. Her long legs dazzled me. We explored the island slowly, taking our time. The heat was like a great oven. A forest of grotesque dead trees surrounded us, and soon we lost sight of the aircar.

Trees bleached like skulls, bone white, all twisted and torn, rising from the grainy sands.

We had never been alone, really alone, except in the body shop, and I had not even kissed her there. We were pledged to each other now, and we tried to keep it a secret but it wasn’t easy. Thou shalt not mate within thine own squad. This unwritten commandment was frequently broken, and often resulted in transfers. We did not want to be separated, so we were being very careful. The cubes in the squadmod were simply out of the question. The squadmod had no privacy.

I put a hand on Priestess’s shoulder and dropped the E to the sand. She stopped and turned around, her skin wet and glittery from the sand. She came to me gently, with a faint gasp. I was almost in a trance. I don’t think any biogen could have improved on what followed.

The ear-splitting shriek of our aircar’s perimeter defense alarm shattered our bliss. Naked, Priestess and I leapt off the sand and scrambled for our weapons. My E in hand, I found a berm where I could lie prone and cover the aircar. Priestess clung close to my side with her hot knife.

I zoomed in with my sight and saw that the rest of the squad had already sprung into action. Ironman stood on the roof of the aircar with his E, sweeping the southwest horizon with his sight. Dragon lay prone with his E behind a nearby dune. Redhawk had been caught in the water and frantically threshed for shore. The rest quickly took up defensive positions.

“TWO FOUR GAMMA, IDENTIFY YOURSELF AND STATE YOUR INTENTIONS! YOU HAVE TARGETED A FRIENDLY UNIT! YOU ARE ENTERING OUR DZ! AIRCAR TWO FOUR GAMMA ON FULL COMBAT PREP!”

Then it hit me. Gamma! I glanced at Priestess. Her eyes were clenched shut and her lips had become a thin white line.

“IGNITION! WE ARE UNDER ATTACK!” Our aircar boomed out the warning.

The squad starburst away from the aircar, Ironman diving off the roof, the others scattering. Warhound and Coolhand snatched up weapons and ran for cover. Redhawk exploded out of the water and dived onto the sand.

A white contrail came streaking out of the southwest and exploded ahead, it must have been right over the aircar, a tremendous crack, splitting the air. A harmless, bright pink phosphorous cloudburst erupted, turning the sky a hellish cast. The Legion aircar shot overhead at max speed, minimum altitude, a silver flash, the sand exploding into the air with the shock of its passing. The aircar wheeled on the horizon, came around for another pass.

I cursed aloud and saw that virtually the entire squad was standing, shouting and shaking their fists at Gamma.

Snow Leopard shouted a quick command and Psycho answered Gamma’s challenge with a smoke round from his Manlink. It streaked after the aircar and exploded right on target with a bright white flash and a tremendous yellow cloud.

The aircar rocked and shook and settled slowly, regaining control, coming right back, sliding over the sands toward Beta, closer and closer. Then it slowed and whined to a stop next to our own aircar. The car discharged a jeering, laughing Gamma Squad. I pulled back from the berm. Priestess was gone. I pounded the sand with the butt of my E and proceeded to recite every Legion curse I’d learned since Basic. I was still warming up when I found Priestess back at the beach, pulling her top on. She refused to look at me.

Feeling like a schoolboy, I found my jox, shook the sand out and pulled them on.

I returned to the berm and sighted in the scene at the aircars again.

Snow Leopard was visibly upset, his face already purple. He waved his arms about in front of a smirking, freckle-faced girl with flame red hair who I immediately recognized as Gamma One, Boudicca. She had a Legion cross burned right onto her forehead. I’d always thought she was dangerously unstable, though the Legion evidently didn’t agree. I knew that Snow Leopard didn’t think so either. They’d been close ever since Basic. Fire and Ice.

There were three girls in Gamma, I remembered. Then I saw Valkyrie. She stood at the edge of the beach, hands on hips, her sun-whitened blonde hair flowing in the wind. She looked right at the island. Right at me.

I slid back down the berm on my back and closed my eyes against the brilliant sun. It didn’t help. I got up and trudged back to the beach.

This time, Priestess did look at me, waiting for my report.

“She’s here.”

Priestess shut her eyes and nodded sharply.

I hesitated. “Do you think we should go back?”

Priestess didn’t answer. She sank to her knees in defeat.

I closed my eyes for an instant. Sin, and ye shall be punished.

The pink smoke had finally made it this far and drifted listlessly through the stark bony trees, settling slowly over the island. What a mess! I felt like a kid, caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

I don’t know how long I just stood there like an idiot. Helpless, while Priestess seemed to have collapsed into a hopeless trance.

A splash interrupted our reverie. Valkyrie rose from the water, resplendent in wet, streaming blonde-white hair, ruddy bronze skin, and a dripping t-top and panties. Her E was balanced on one hip and I truly didn’t know what she planned to do with it. She had never looked better.

Her voice was high and forced. “Hi, guys.”

I felt dead. Empty. Flat. I looked at Priestess for inspiration. She met my gaze then turned away, arms crossed. I suddenly remembered to breathe, then I drew my lips tight and turned to our visitor. “Hello, Valkyrie.”

She was right on the edge. The water was warm and the sun was hot but I swear she shivered. “Are you two having fun?”

“Well, we were just…”

She snapped, “Let’s skip the clinical details, if you don’t mind. Can I talk with you for a frac? Thinker? If you’re not too busy?”

I looked at Priestess again but she’d turned her back to me. “Yeah, sure. Uhh…it’s nice to see you.” I’m not too good in a personal crisis. Valkyrie should have just shot me, but she held off.

Back on Hell we had been stranded, alone, fighting for our lives, back to back. I never understood why, but Valkyrie had claimed me as hers when we were on the ragged edge of survival. After we’d finally emerged alive, I took it for granted that she would wipe me off like dust on her boots but she didn’t. She made it clear to everyone that I was hers until the stars froze. Was that it? Was I just a battle scar she wore proudly? It didn’t matter. No matter what happened, I knew that we would die for each other without a second thought. Even now…though it occurred to me that I might be the first to die.

“What’s that on your finger, Thinker?” she asked. I looked down at my hand and blinked. I wore her Legion ring.

“It’s my ring, isn’t it?” Valkyrie asked.

“Uhh…yes.”

“So what’s the little slut doing here?”

“Now look, Valkyrie…”

“Don’t tell me to look! I’ve seen enough! You told me you loved me, and now you’re with her. Is this purely a commercial transaction, or are you going to tell me you love her, too?”

Priestess’s anguish suddenly flashed into something darker. She whirled around and leaped between Valkyrie and me, facing her in a fighting stance. “I don’t have to listen to this!”

“Priestess, Valkyrie-calm down!” Nobody listened to me.

“Shut up, brat, or I’ll rearrange your ugly little face!” Valkyrie snarled at Priestess. “You’ll listen to everything I say!”

Priestess swung at her with a right, convulsed with rage. I jumped between them just as Valkyrie snapped a hard kick. I intercepted it with my chest. They ignored me and came together like two bloodcats fighting over a mate, spitting hatred, clawing and punching and kicking. I didn’t mind so much absorbing their punches-what really hurt was that I realized that I really did love them both.

“Priestess! Valkyrie! Stop it! Stop, all right? Deadman!” We rolled in the sand. I had caught a few really good hits from Valkyrie and my head spun, but I finally had Priestess in a headlock, and I had Valkyrie by her hair. What a mess!

“No more fighting! All right?”

“Yes,” Priestess gasped.

“Agreed,” Valkyrie hissed.

“Let’s get up now,” I said. “No more fighting!” I released them, and we all sank back onto the sand on our knees.

“Brat!”

“Bitch!”

“Stop it!” I shouted. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, this is my fault! Don’t blame Priestess. I’m to blame, not her!” Priestess had a bloody nose and the beginnings of a black eye. Valkyrie had a split lip and some nasty cuts and scratches. Blood was dribbling down her chin and then she did what I never, ever expected. She started to cry, and it hurt me worse than I could have ever believed.

“I loved you so much, Thinker,” she sobbed. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

“Oh, Deadman. Please don’t cry, Valkyrie.” I didn’t know what to do. I knew how to fight but never could handle tears.

Valkyrie sniffled and turned her bloodshot eyes to Priestess. “You all right?”

“I’m fine,” Priestess replied tensely. I think she was almost as confused as I was.

Valkyrie wiped her nose with the back of her hand and sniffled again, gathering her self-control. “Good. You’re lucky I didn’t lose my temper-or you’d be dead.” Valkyrie raised her chin proudly. “I’m leaving now.” She turned to me. “I just wanted you to know that you hurt me.” Then she rose and regarded Priestess. “You stole my man, Priestess. That was wrong. And I’m not going to forget it. Goodbye, Thinker. We’ll meet again.”

She found her E, slung it over her back, and started into the surf. Then she turned sharply. “Thinker, if I call you-anytime-you must come. We are pledged. Forever. Don’t you forget that!” Tough as a biogen, she wiped the blood from her lips and shot daggers from her eyes at Priestess. “You can have your brat. But I’m going to keep your ring. And you keep mine. We don’t break our vows in the Legion. When we meet again I want to see that ring on your finger.” Then she whirled and dove into the briny water and she was gone.

Chapter 9: Food of the Gods

We rose into a dark dawn in our aircars, speeding north, facing a blue-black sky full of rainy grey clouds. The horizon tilted below us and rain spattered against the canopy. All of Beta was crowded into the aircar, and Taka warriors were squeezed into the aisle between the seats, their narrow faces streaked with sacrificial death paint, their crude edged weapons cutting into the padded fabric of the cabin’s ceiling. We were in litesuits and comtops. We no longer used the A-suits for scraps with the Taka. The bulky and heavy armor was more trouble than it was worth. We saved it for the exos. It was good, for exos. If it had been twice as bulky and heavy, we would have still used it for exos.

It was a beautiful morning for an assault, cold and wet and grim. Lightning flashed to the east. We were flying over a great grey forest, laced in rain. I hugged my E closer to my body. Priestess was sitting beside me. The morning sun broke through the clouds suddenly and illuminated everything: a sky full of silver aircars, manbirds of pure, deadly beauty, slashing through sparkling showers of raindrops, glittering golden reflections from the sun.

Deadeye was sharpening his stabbing spear with a flat, dark stone.

Close your eyes and accept your fate. Valkyrie had come to me out of nowhere, an icy angel in the midst of Hell. I did nothing to deserve her. And then, in another world, I went down an evil tunnel to face my death and suddenly Priestess was there, out of nowhere. Both had come to me amidst pain and death. I loved them, but would it be the same if we were no longer fighting? Maybe we’re just desperate for life.

The op was all planned. We’d learned where to find the Hand of God, the high priest of the Cult of the Dead. CAT 24 had been given the honor. We figured seven squads would bust the last stronghold of the Cult, and hopefully capture the genocidal lunatic who thought racial suicide an appropriate response to a crisis.

The Cult operated out of a crumbling fortress called Stormport, located on the bleak, rocky coastline of the Northern Ocean. The Sunrealmers called the area the Cold Coast. It had once been the capital of a seafaring empire. Now it served as a refuge for cowards. Priests of ambition. Killers of children.

As we neared our objective, Redhawk dropped the aircar suddenly and the earth rushed up wildly to meet us, then wobbled dizzily and leveled off. Now we sped over a wild barren wilderness of shattered grey granite. Ahead a fierce grey ocean hurled itself at the sheer stone cliffs, bursting into white spray.

Suddenly we saw Stormport, a massive stone fortress built right into the cliff, a home for mighty Gods. It was a huge mound of rubble.

“Faceplates down. Tac mode.” The target would soon be reeking with gas from our probes. Deadeye and the auxiliaries had breathers. Breathers and death paint. The squad ZA was right in the heart of the fortress. The main courtyard was overgrown with wild grass and surrounded by great mounds of rubble. As we approached, waves exploded far below against a shoreline of giant boulders scattered like pebbles in the surf.

Probes streaked and buzzed around the ruins.

We reached the courtyard. “Beta-decar!” The assault doors snapped open. A wave of cold air and mist rushed in, and we leaped out.

Strewn about the wet, roofless stone rooms were dozens of unconscious Soldiers of God, but their companions were on the run. The tacnet hissed with commands and comments.

“Any sign of the High Priest?”

“Not so far. Beta, see that group that’s moving to the north?”

“Tenners, we’ll take ‘em.”

“Thinker, take one auxiliary and neutralize the group by the port,” Snow Leopard said.

“Tenners. I’ll take Deadeye.”

“V-min or gas. Let’s not be shy.”

Deadeye and I split off from the others and moved along a stone road at the bottom of another crumbling wall. I had gotten to know Deadeye very well. I had been on many long, exhausting patrols with him, and we had grown as close as possible for immortal and mortal to be. His tribal name was Standfast, and his every waking moment appeared to be devoted to the fight against the exosegs and the Soldiers of God; however, I’d been surprised when I discovered more in his head than the killing of his enemies.

“I am your shield, Slayer.” Deadeye spoke in Taka, which I had absorbed thoroughly by now. Atom spun it magically around my brain every night, level upon level. She gave us no rest. She wanted us to be smarter.

The stone road ran along the fortress side of the sea channel that led to the anchorage. I could see our targets up ahead on the tacmap. The ships had come in right here, I thought, through this narrow channel. The road was lined with deeply weathered statues, Taka soldiers, in full armor, facing the ship channel. Larger than life, their heads had all been lopped off by some nameless foe, leaving a long line of headless warriors standing against the winds of time. But when the statues were new, it must have been quite a sight for the sailors on those ships, strange ships from distant ports, full of exotic goods.

In my comset, I could hear Snow Leopard pressing the attack. Beta ran into a deadly hail of missiles: stones, spiked balls of metal, tridents and spears. But the engagement would be over shortly. It was an unequal contest. For us it was just a mopping up operation, but for them it was the end of their world. They couldn’t win, no way at all. They knew it, and yet they would not quit. I had no sympathy for the Cult, but I admired people who would not quit.

“Soldiers of God, Slayer!” Deadeye had his sling up and poised. The port lay ahead. We kept low, sprinting from statue to statue. The images of the Cultists appeared on my faceplate, seemingly unaware of our presence. Deadeye grinned at me, in his element. Waves crashed against the shore and covered us with frigid spray.

Several Cultists moved up ahead. Deadeye had his loaded sling draped back over his shoulder, his sling arm cocked and trembling. Another wave boomed up ahead.

“I see them, Slayer!” Deadeye spoke just as I saw them myself, two soldiers with spears, scrambling up the cliff from the water. Two more, according to my tacmap, still near the water.

“They do not see us, Slayer, not yet. But they know we come. Tread softly.” We approached carefully, shoulder to shoulder now, crawling over wet slimy rock, great slabs of cut granite hiding us from the Scalers.

“I’m going to fire gas,” I informed Deadeye. “Put on your breather.” Deadeye complied quickly. A Cultist suddenly appeared, climbing up out of the rubble by the shore, clambering up the hillside, followed closely by another.

I aimed just between the two, and gently squeezed the trigger. Deadeye let loose with his slingshot simultaneously. The Cultists vanished in the shattering blast of the explosion and the great green cloud of gas that quickly formed. Rock chips ricocheted all around us.

“Up above, Slayer! Shoot them!” A new group of Cultists had emerged from the rocks above us, throwing rocks and spears. A metal spike shattered the rock at my feet, striking sparks. I switched to v-min auto and sprayed the hillside above us. The rain of projectiles ceased.

“Get these two.” I rushed forward, into the gas cloud.

“Get!” Deadeye acknowledged, following close behind me. A painted form loomed in the green mist. I shot him in the face with a V bolt and his head snapped back, limbs flying. He rolled down the slope into the waves. His nose and mouth had been covered with cloth, to protect him from the gas. They were getting smarter.

I saw Deadeye slip and slide down to the rocky shoreline, setting off an avalanche of loose rocks. The ground suddenly crumbled beneath my feet and I slid down a steep wet slope. The gas cloud thinned, and a great wave of black water burst into foam before me, filling the air with mist. Deadeye grappled with a Cultist, but it was over before I could help, and Deadeye released the corpse to slide down into the swirling water. Large rocks began tumbling down the slope above us.

“Look, Slayer! Above!” The Cultists were positioning a broken length of column at the edge of the slope. If they succeeded, it would take out half the hillside. The gas swirled around in mad fitful circles, but it did not reach them. There were at least three of them up there. I switched to xmin auto. When the echoes ceased, the column was still balanced on the edge of the cliff, but there was no more movement from the Soldiers of God.

Deadeye tugged on my arm, pointing into the water. The gas cloud had cleared. Waves burst into foam, spray hissing through the air. We could see clearly now. Not far from shore, a slab of rock jutted up from the waves. A pale, longhaired naked girl was manacled to a massive rusty metal ring set in the stone.

She lay on her belly, unmoving and flat against the rock, one foot in the water. The waves burst against the rock, showering her, her hair, plastered to her skin.

“Death’s gate!” I exclaimed.

Deadeye spoke. “…a sacrifice, Slayer. She must be important. The Gods have her now.”

“To Hell with the Gods! Hold my E.” I handed it to Deadeye, a court-martial offense.

“Slayer, you cannot! The deep comes for her!” I dived into the frigid water. The shock almost stopped my heart. I surfaced, then struck out through the waves for the rock, just ahead. My left hand touched the rock-gritty, slime-covered stone. I pulled myself out of the water, freezing and numb. My hands tingled. She was breathing shallowly, eyes closed, her mouth open. A fragile, tender, lovely creature.

Deadeye’s voice came floating to me, as if in a dream. “Slayer! The gortron! Tell me how to shoot the E!” A black whip snapped around my neck with explosive force and yanked me off my feet, back into the water. Something sticky wrapped itself around my comtop and ripped it off with tremendous force. A torrent of freezing water rushed in on me, a red roaring in my ears, I could not breathe, something curled around my neck. Can’t see. Which way is up! I raised my hands to claw at the viselike cord around my neck. Tough leathery spikes, cutting into my hands. I could not remove it.

The strength seeped from my body. In moments I would die. Weapon, need a weapon! My hand went automatically to my hot knife, strapped to my thigh. I brought it up with numb hands and triggered it and slashed wildly around me. I could barely see the blue-white flame burning in the water. My knife met resistance, and I slashed into it with the last of my strength.

Release. Sudden release, something ripping past my neck, gone. Air! Need air! Exhausted, buffeted by waves and still underwater, I saw the knife firmly in my right hand, burning at the edge of my vision. My shoulders slowly settled on a rock. A faint glow was above me. The surface! I struggled upwards. Gortron, Deadeye had said. What in Deadman’s name is a gortron?

I surfaced in the foam of a wave breaking against the sacrificial rock, and flooded my lungs with pure, icy air. The girl was in the arms of the gortron. An obscene black tentacle slid over her body like a great water snake, a caress of death, leaving a faint trail of blood, then falling carelessly into the water. A spiky mass of wet black chitin broke the surface and a wave burst over the creature. Two horny whips snapped violently out of the water, trailing spray, cracking viciously on the girl’s naked back. Her body arched. She awoke. Another spiky tentacle snapped over her body, wrapping itself convulsively around her tiny waist. She looked into the eyes of the gortron and screamed.

I made it to the rock and seized her by an ankle with my left hand. I had my mini out now, although my frozen fingers could barely feel it. I could see the gortron, black wet eyes atop two stiff stalks of chitin, calmly gazing at us. A heavy wave broke over me; I lost my grip and grabbed her by the hair. She struggled in blind panic. If the gortron pulled further, her arms would be torn out of their sockets because of the chains. From the corner of my eye, I saw Deadeye leap into the water, his breather discarded, a knife in one hand. A knife! We had never taught the Taka how to fire the E. It had not seemed like such a good idea, until now. For our mistrust, Deadeye offered his life.

I released the girl’s hair and wrapped one arm around her neck. She screamed in panic, but I was not leaving her. A tentacle slapped onto my shoulder and snaked around my waist. The gortron rushed at us with the wave, streaming spray, its spiky beak opening to reveal a frightening maw lined with razor-sharp teeth. I aimed the mini directly into it, and fired.

The laser burst lanced through the gortron. I kept the trigger depressed, slashing the laser up and down like a whip, the beam shrieking raw white-hot pulsating energy. The gortron exploded like a punctured balloon, splattering awful green gore all over us, severed tentacles whipping wildly through the air.

Deadeye rode into the mess on a wave, shrieking, slashing his knife blindly. The gortron became a thrashing whirlpool of uncontrolled nerve endings, tentacles whipping down into the waves. I ceased fire. I still had the girl by the throat. She choked, convulsing. I loosened my grip.

The green and black remains of the beast floated around us like vomit from some distressed god. Deadeye struggled out of the water onto the rock. I helped him up.

Deadeye and the girl shivered as I burnt away the chains with my hot knife. Icy waves burst over us. The girl appeared to be in shock, glassy-eyed and helpless. “Deadeye, we have to swim back.”

“I cannot swim, Slayer.”

I pondered this for a moment, as Deadeye clung miserably to the rock close beside me, his skin slowly turning blue. He cannot swim, yet he jumps in to fight the gortron. I decided that I would teach Deadeye how to fire my E. I did not much care about regulations or consequences at that point.

I made two trips across the icy waters to the shore, first with Deadeye, then with the girl. By the time I carried her ashore, I was afraid that she might die of exposure.

I recovered my E and fired a flare into a shallow cave formed by a jumble of rubble. It burned brightly, a hot, brilliant, flaming yellow fire, spitting sparks. I picked her up again and we went inside and huddled around the flare on our knees, bathing in its warm glow. I held her close and rubbed her arms, trying to get her circulation going.

My comtop was at the bottom of the anchorage. I could not contact Beta, and there was no sign of anyone else in the vicinity. Firing another flare into the air could attract as many Cultists as Legion soldiers.

Deadeye and I held the girl close to the flare. Her eyes were open but glassy. Deadeye and I stared at her. I could hardly believe it. Freezing, in shock and soaking wet, her long hair plastered all over her shoulders, she was beautiful. I cursed the perverse logic of the Cult.

“Look away, Slayer,” Deadeye said, explaining it all.

Good advice, I thought. I did not, I could not, look away.

“Do not look at her, Slayer. She has returned from the dead, she has escaped from the Gods.” He sounded scared.

For the first time, I noticed she wore a dull black medallion on a cord around her neck. I could barely make out the emblem, a dark skull, under the crown of a king.

“Deadeye, tell me about her. Why do you look away? She is beautiful. Does she have a man? What is that symbol?”

A faint moan escaped Deadeye’s lips. “Do not think it, Slayer. You must turn your eyes away. I know this girl now. She is not of your world. She belongs to the past, and she carries the sign of the Book. This is Moontouch, of the Dark Clouds. The Cult took her to appease the Gods, and because they hate the Book. She is a princess of the House of the Past and her father is a king. She is a virgin and she can only take a loremaster for her man. She is a web-spinner and if you get too close she will take away your mind. And now she is dead. She will claim you, Slayer. I am afraid for you! You must be strong!”

I quipped, “Well, she’ll have to get in line behind Priestess and Valkyrie.”

Moontouch looked at me, as if from a long way off.

“Deadeye, does she speak Taka?”

“Yes, Slayer. She hears all, she knows all. We have both taken her from the Gods. We will die.” I had never seen Deadeye so depressed.

“What do you mean, she can only take a loremaster for her man? I thought the loremasters were all dead, that only women kept track of the past.” Atom had told us all about it. The cult of knowledge was now exclusively a female pursuit, in Sunrealm. Men knew only how to fight, and how to die.

“Yes, Slayer, it is true. She cannot marry. She sleeps only with knowledge and power. But she has died, Slayer. You took her-we took her-from the Gods.”

“You’re talking nonsense, Deadeye! We took her from the Soldiers of God, who wanted to kill her! Her father will thank us. The Dark Clouds will thank us!”

“No, Slayer. The Cult had offered her as a sacrifice to the gortron. It is a sacred ceremony. She is the Food of the Gods. You-we-took her back. She is dead, she is cursed. So are we. Cursed.”

“Is the gortron a god?”

“He is the mouth of the Sea, and the Sea is a god.”

“And I killed him. I killed a god! There is nothing to fear. Are you afraid of a girl? She is only a girl!”

“No, Slayer. She is death! You should put her back on the rock, and leave her there.”

“Deadeye! How can you say that, after what you did? You wanted to shoot the gortron with my E, didn’t you? Didn’t you?”

“Yes, Slayer. Yes. But I did not know how to shoot it.”

“Why? Why try to shoot the gortron? Why leap into the water, to fight it with your knife? You said it was a god. Would you kill a god?”

Deadeye sighed deeply, and looked into the cloudy sky. The flickering glow from the dying flare lit up his face. “It was for you, Slayer. I am your sword, and your shield. For you, I face the Gods. But not for her.”

Deadeye would not say any more. He just huddled miserably by the flare, still holding our captive by one arm. She looked at me closely, breathing shallowly. An icy flash shot through my veins as her dark misty eyes gazed into mine. My flesh crawled.

“She is afraid of you, Slayer,” Deadeye said at last. “But you should be afraid of her. She will kill you, Slayer.”

“I am immortal, Deadeye, remember?”

“Moontouch,” I said gently. “I am Slayer, and I bring death to all your foes.” It was the traditional Taka greeting, warrior to virgin. “I have come from out of the great dark to return you to your father, the King of the Dark Clouds. Can you hear me?”

Her lips trembled. “Hear.” Her eyes did not leave mine.

“Moontouch, you are cold. I give you something to fight the cold.” I punched a mag from my medkit, and showed it to her. “Put this on your tongue, and swallow it.”

Moontouch shuddered, and looked deep into my eyes. Then she closed her eyes, and opened her mouth. Her pink tongue trembled slightly. I placed the mag on her tongue and she swallowed it. Just like that. An alien monster from another world has just killed a god. Take this, says the monster. Swallow it. She closes her eyes, and opens her mouth, and swallows it. Something very wrong here, I thought.

“Deadeye, run up the hill and strip the soldiers. We need their clothing, all of it. For you and the girl.”

“Clothing!” He scrambled up into the rubble of that ancient city. Moontouch was looking into my eyes again, quiet.

“Speak to me, Moontouch. Are you cold?”

“I am dead.” She said it quietly, totally resigned to her fate.

“Moontouch, you are not dead. Your heart beats within you. You are a princess of the Dark Clouds. Your father awaits you!”

“I am the Food of the Gods. I am the slave of the dead. I cannot return, God-killer from the great dark. I cannot return. Your servant Deadeye is right. You should leave me here to die.”

“I will not leave you. Who is to know what happened here? The Soldiers of God are all dead or dying. The gortron is dead! I will say I took you from the soldiers. It is true! We don’t have to tell about the gortron. Who is to know?”

“The Gods will know. I am dead, Slayer of my foes. I am dead.”

“You are alive!” I almost shouted it. “You are alive, because of me, and I will not permit your death. I will bring you back to your father. I didn’t jump in that water, kill that creature and rescue you, just to let you die. I do not give you permission to die.”

“Your servant will know.”

“He is not my servant. He is my brother. He is my sword, and my shield. And he brings death to all your foes. We are one.”

“He is a Taka, and he fears the Gods, as I do. If he helps us in this, he is as dead as I am.” Moontouch shivered. “I was a princess of the House of the Past, guardian of the holy dead, a keeper of the truth. Now I am only a phantom, doubly cursed. My life will be a lie. I will walk the corridors of life like a ghost, a slave of Fate.”

“You are young, and should not die. We are all prisoners of the Gods. I have come from another world, to pull you from the very mouth of the gortron. It means you are not destined to die, but to live!” Predestination, and fate. The Sunrealmers believed in it just as much as I did.

Moontouch calmly gazed into the dying yellow glow of the flare. She turned her eyes to mine, and looked right into my soul. Her eyes were deep, dark pools, swirling galaxies full of stars, a sudden, secret gateway into another dimension.

“You are right,” she said. “I am yours, Slayer. I have lost my world. My life has ended.”

Deadeye returned with the skins, and we dressed Moontouch in the bloodstained clothing of her slain enemies.

Deadeye bowed to the Gods. “We are dead already,” he said. “Slayer and Moontouch and Standfast. We are only phantoms now, passing among the living, who do not know. It does not matter what we do now. We are all doomed. It is Fate. I stand by my brother, Slayer. Speak, and it will be done.”

Moontouch spoke. “Slayer, immortal Godkiller from out of the Great Dark, and Deadeye Standfast, Waterwalker, who defies the Gods, fearless enemies of my enemies, I do not mean to alter your fates. I am only a speck of dust in the wind. My Fate is already fixed. I am the Food of the Gods. I am doomed, and if you were wise you would tie me again to the rock and let me die. But I can see this is not to be. You have taken me back from the grasp of the Gods. My future is yours. I am nothing. I am your slave, Slayer. I am yours.” Her eyes filled with tears, and she bowed her head.

Deadeye moaned. He knew what it all meant, already.

A great sense of dread washed over me. Moontouch was stunningly beautiful, but something in her eyes made me hesitate. She would be an important prize to command for the Legion, I thought. I certainly couldn’t get personally involved-could I? I could almost see the wheels turning in her mind. She had plans for me. For a moment, I thought maybe she was right. Maybe I should throw her back to the sea! If I didn’t, Priestess certainly would. Or Valkyrie.

Chapter 10: The Eyes of the Dead

“You have killed it, Slayer!” Deadeye held an ancient trident. He was clad in loose camfax, his face smeared with dirt.

“It’s still alive, Deadeye.” We faced a huge exoseg deep inside the hive, just the two of us, running on adrenalin and terror. I had just zapped it with biobloc. “Snow Leopard, Thinker,” I said, as calmly as possible. “I’ve got one exo that’s trying to kill me. It’s kind of annoying.” We were assaulting a big exoseg hive deep underground, and we thought we had all the exits blocked. If so, many exosegs would surely die. And possibly some Legionnaires-starting with me.

The leviathan had stopped, stunned, filling the tunnel before us. It shuddered, briefly, then moved backwards and stopped, twitching. My flare crackled away, harshly illuminating the ugly creature.

“What are you using, Thinker?” Snow Leopard appeared, his E raised, ready to fire. His pink eyes glowed behind his faceplate.

“Nice of you to drop by,” I replied. “I’m using biobloc. It’s a driller. No sign of the soldiers yet.”

“Lasers?” Merlin moved up, prepped to fire.

“No, I think it’s dying,” Snow Leopard said. We watched. The beast shuddered again, twitched, and stilled. The flare hissed noisily. All of Beta had arrived by then, lining up against the tunnel walls.

“Command, this is Beta. We’ve got a dead driller blocking the tunnel. We are investigating.” Snow Leopard reported our situation to our CAT commander.

“Confirm.”

“Let me have the next one, Slayer,” Deadeye pleaded. He had wanted the creature himself. I decided he was a perfect Legion auxiliary. Completely insane, just like us.

“Command, Beta. We’re advancing. We need a probe here.”

“Tenners.”

“All right, let’s go. The sensors show there’s nothing there-let’s just squeeze past.”

Snow Leopard and Coolhand led, burning off legs to make room. The raw earth of the tunnel pressed against my back and the great dead body plates of the creature pressed flat against my chestplate. We clambered over burnt, smoking leg parts. My muscles began to shake, involuntarily. Slime, all over my A-suit.

“I hate this.”

“Deadman!”

“Deto!” I shot back. That was a fairly mild curse, considering my intense desire to resolve the problem with a suitable charge of high explosives.

“What’s that noise?” We emerged at the driller’s rear, into the tunnel. Snow Leopard and Coolhand crouched just ahead of me, green shadows in my darksight. We could almost stand, in the tunnel. My skin crawled. A metallic chirping filled the air.

“We’re close!”

“Ohh, listen to that!”

The rest of Beta emerged, and we lined the tunnel, backs to the wall, E’s pointed downtunnel. The chirping continued, like a million metallic birds swarming in some nightmare nest. We rechecked our equipment very, very carefully.

“The readings are off the scale!”

“Where’s that probe?”

“Can I have one of those flashes?”

“Psycho, I want you up front with that Manlink.”

“Can I be excused for the rest of the afternoon?”

“Don’t forget-xmax, lasers and flame. I don’t want any more biobloc. And be careful with the lasers!”

“Deadeye, keep your head down!”

“I will be beside you, Slayer.”

“Beta, Command, sitrep.” Our CAT leader wanted a progress report.

“Nothing to report.” Snow Leopard almost whispered it. Nothing to report! It was an old Legion tradition, still very much alive: nobody needed any help. It slowly began to dawn on me that Snow Leopard wanted all the exos for himself.

Snow Leopard fired a burst of flame down the tunnel. It illuminated filthy dirt walls. The walls teemed with worms and miniature insect life and slime. The floor was littered with debris.

“What is that stuff?”

“Body parts and dead flesh. Food-and scavengers.”

“Sorry I asked.”

“Advance.” The chittering became louder as we moved forward. My boots crunched and snapped, crushing nameless creatures of the dark underfoot. Snow Leopard and Coolhand sent short bursts of orange flame swooshing down the tunnel ahead from time to time. Smoke swirled all around us. I decided that I much preferred busting Cultists. But Central Command wanted a maximum effort to learn all we could about the exosegs, and Beta had been sucked in.

We came to more tunnels, intersecting our own. The chirping was driving me mad. Somewhere nearby, we would find a huge hive. We huddled where the tunnels crossed, and shot great rushes of flame down them, probing for life.

“Alert!”

“Life form!”

“Exoseg…”

I did not hear the rest. It charged down a side tunnel right at us. Astounding how fast it could move. It bounced from side to side off powerful black exoseg legs, a green hulk, flashing reflections in my faceplate in a dream-like, slow-motion sequence. I fired xmax at the same instant as Warhound. The double explosion brought down the tunnel on top of the creature. Snow Leopard, Coolhand, Merlin and Dragon blasted it with flame, and the tunnel filled with burning smoke and flying dirt. Sheets of flame reflected off my faceplate, and shadows darted wildly all around us. The tunnel shuddered with the blasts and I feared it would collapse on top of us.

“Whoo! What was it?”

“It was a breeder male, Thinker,” Sweety informed me.

“Breeders!” somebody exclaimed, “We must be close to the hive.”

“When did you first begin to suspect it?”

The tunnel echoed harshly with that metallic chirping. Breeders-they were supposedly harmless, they didn’t even have pincers, but without them, the exos could not reproduce so our orders were to terminate them all.

“Advance. On me.” Snow Leopard moved forward. The sensors showed the exos right up ahead! We would have to kill them all to stop that noise. We fired more flame downtunnel, a river of fire for our advance. The air around supercharged with heat.

“Put on your breather, Deadeye.” He slipped it on, his face already black with soot.

“Alert!”

“Life form!”

“Exoseg…”

We ignored the rest of the report. Snow Leopard, Coolhand, Psycho and I all triggered our E’s, firing on xmax as the exosegs appeared. We followed up with bursts of raw flame, splattering liquid fire everywhere. A burning shock wave hit us, a backblast of heat.

“…a whole bunch of them…”

“Exoseg Gigantic Neuter.”

“Are you guys all right?”

“Take it easy! Those are neuters, they’re not dangerous.”

“Keep firing! There’s more of them!”

We used the flame-it seemed to do the job. We advanced slowly through a tunnel of fire, flames now burning right into the dirt, running past our boots, flickering all around us. We passed the massive, shredded corpses of exoseg neuters, spitting flames.

“Beta, Command, sitrep.”

“Nothing to report!” Lunatics, we were all lunatics. I could have been a librarian, stacking cubes in a conditioned room, slowly turning pale and soft, eating well and sleeping all night. And knowing I’d be there, the next day, safe and sound.

“I think this is the nutrition chamber, Snow Leopard!” Coolhand sounded tense. Xmax blasts echoed all around us, drowning out the noise of the exosegs. Lasers flickered on my darksight. Coolhand and Warhound and I were so close we could have been grafted at the hips. Snow Leopard and the others remained slightly behind us, blasting neuters, firing down into another tunnel. We had just cut our way through several exosegs with lasers, and as the leading element, we had to force our way through the mess. My whole body shook. I took another mag but it did not help.

“Look at this! Deadman help us!” Warhound sounded horrified. He shone his flash up ahead. The hive burned, spitting blue-hot flames from our attack, the fire spreading, a fierce white glow reflecting off Warhound’s faceplate, illuminating his harsh features. The chamber, an underworld labyrinth constructed by the breeders from their own secretions, revealed many animal species from the world above, stacked carelessly for eventual consumption by the exos. I spotted one of those spidery, scaled treecats, frozen in death. What a sad end for a creature of the sunlight.

Eerie images danced on my faceplate. Coolhand peered cautiously into the nutrition chamber and raised his E to his shoulder. He triggered another burst of flame, liquid fire splattering everywhere. Snow Leopard crawled past me, the flames reflected on his faceplate. Behind it, his face could only be described as ecstatic.

“Command, Beta. We have reached the hive, cords as shown. No resistance.”

“Confirm Beta has located the hive. Stand by, Beta, we’re on the way.”

“Take your time, Command. We’re doing fine.” Sometimes I wondered about Snow Leopard, but being crazy was one of the job requirements. He was clearly over-qualified.

Deadeye pulled at my arm, his face blackened, breather firmly in place. “Slayer, remember my people!”

Remember his people-kill the exos. Yes, one at a time. There was a very good reason why we could not simply burn these vile nests out from above ground, why we risked our lives below ground.

“We have to check every one of these holes, guys-don’t forget!”

“Terrific.”

“Move! Let’s do it. And go easy on the flames.”

“Alert!”

“Soldiers!”

“Exoseg Gigantic Soldier…”

Someone let loose on xmax auto. I turned and found myself shoulder to shoulder with Warhound and Deadeye, just behind Snow Leopard, Coolhand and Psycho guarding the tunnel. The chirping rose in intensity. Closer! Closer!

“Xmax, gang!”

“Ten, sir!”

“Xmax auto!”

“Try and stop me!”

Smoke and flame, slowly clearing, and Exoseg Gigantic Soldier appeared, huge and black and horrible, twitching downtunnel, antennae cracking. Two, three…more! Pausing, for just a frac. Magnificent, perfect creatures, perfect killing machines.

“Die, you slime!” Snow Leopard, Coolhand and Psycho fired and a phosphorescent orange glow outlined them, crouching, molten statues of gold. They sent bursts of flame after the xmax blasts.

Sweety squeaked in my ears. I could not understand a word.

Dragon had me by the arm, and Deadeye danced hysterically around us, pointing into the nutrition chamber.

Priestess stood over one creature just past the treecat, her E pointed down, the light triggered. Deadeye raised his stabbing spear and shakily pointed it out to me. Priestess made a trembling gesture toward the creature with her free hand, and turned her face away, abruptly. I cautiously approached and I saw it. Eyes, open and staring. A Sunrealmer boy, covered in slime and filth, as still as death. The eyes were glazed, motionless, the eyes of the dead, the boy caked in congealed blood and covered with debris. Long dead, he had to be long dead.

Sweety spoke. “A Taka child,” she informed me. “The boy appears to be paralyzed. It is probably intended as food for the exosegs.” The boy could only stare blindly into our light, helpless and hopeless.

Deadeye lifted him off the floor. The boy was covered with filth and sores and rot, a lifeless corpse, surely, the arms flopping loosely, mouth gaping. Priestess cradled his head, pressing a biotic charger into one arm.

His eyes flickered. A spark, still alive, in the dark. A human heart, beating, alone, in the house of the dead.

No longer alone.

Ironman fired down the corridor, holding off more exoseg soldiers.

Snow Leopard reported our find. “…Beta. Repeat, one Taka recovered from the hive, alive. Exos are attacking. We could use some bodies to search the hive. Where’s that probe?”

“Beta, Command. Confirm you…”

Search the hive! We wouldn’t be leaving any time soon. But I didn’t mind, not any more. Perhaps there were more Taka to be found. No, there was no rush.

Numb, we watched as the smoke cleared ahead, Snow Leopard and Coolhand on my left, Psycho on my right with his Manlink, and the rest of Beta close behind us. We stood in a fighting circle, surrounding Deadeye and the Taka boy. The writhing heart of the hive burned brightly. The dismembered bodies of an army of exoseg soldiers surrounded us, burning at the edges. From time to time someone snapped off a burst of laser, or shot a fireball into the quivering dark, or blasted some movement with x. Exhausted, silent, and covered with filth, I could barely see out of my gore-smeared faceplate. There was no more emotion left.

We had fought our way into a large chamber, now veiled with smoke. We peered around cautiously. Past the dead and dying exoseg soldiers, the chamber was filled with Breeder males, motionless, all on their backs, legs upraised like tree branches. They appeared to be dead, lined up in orderly rows.

“What’s this?” Ironman asked shakily.

“This is the nursery,” Merlin replied. “And these are the breeder males-performing their last function.”

“What’s the last function?” I asked.

“Look out!” Psycho warned. Three strange-looking exosegs scuttled along one wall and disappeared into the dark, clacking their mandibles. With narrow waists, long legs and large heads, they appeared quite formidable.

“It’s all right,” Coolhand said. “Those are the females. They won’t hurt you.”

“The breeder males mate with the females here,” Merlin said. “It happens quickly. As soon as the egg is fertilized the breeder tries to separate and escape but he usually fails. The female uses a barb on her thorax to inject him with a powerful paralytic agent. Then she injects the fertilized egg into him. The breeder is dragged into the nursery with the other doomed males and is kept alive until the pupa develops and eats its way out, killing the host.”

“That’s the way these things have sex?” Psycho asked. “I think I prefer our own method!”

“I don’t know,” Priestess said thoughtfully. “Making the male carry the baby has a certain appeal.”

“The pupa develops into breeder, neuter or female-probably depending on what the hive needs. There’s not so many females.”

“What about the Soldiers and Dominants?” I asked.

“They’re a separate exoseg species. They all cooperate for…”

“Cut the chit-chat,” Snow Leopard demanded. “Those females are still in there, I can hear ‘em. Let’s burn it. Just burn it all.”

We all fired, a firestorm, a holocaust, and the last three females died almost instantly. We watched them burn without emotion. Maybe that damned noise would stop now.

In the long still hours of the dead of night, we gathered around the tacsit monitor in the squadmod, drinking dox. A faint green glow and the muted peeping of the monitors served as backdrop to hushed conversation. Priestess and I had the duty. Snow Leopard, Psycho and Dragon had bedded down in the lounge, but Coolhand, Merlin, Warhound and Ironman were still with us. I was hoping they would go to sleep so I could be alone with Priestess.

We had all cleaned up, but sleep was not easy with all those images from the hive darting around inside our heads. I had spent a long time in the shower trying to scour away the exo filth. Of course, I had been in armor while in the hive and nothing had touched my skin except my own sweat, but I still felt filthy. It had been that kind of place.

Coolhand had played a sad, lonely tune on his lektra but now he stopped. The quiet intensified the memory of the horror.

Priestess’s silky dark hair was still wet from the shower. She appeared fresh and innocent and her eyes could change a man’s life. She seemed completely unaware of her own powers.

“How’s the survivor? The boy?” Merlin asked. No one mentioned the fact that the boy had been the only survivor found. There had been enough bones and remains to fill a thousand nightmares.

“Back with his people,” Coolhand replied. “Deadeye says it was quite a scene. He escorted the kid back to the village unannounced, and the whole tribe went into shock. They’d already done the death ceremony.” Coolhand thought it all faintly amusing. As a matter of fact, Coolhand found just about everything faintly amusing. He took life very calmly.

“How is he mentally?” Merlin worried about the boy. Merlin always worried about something.

Priestess responded. “We identified the paralytic agent used by the exos, and countered it.” She paused to sip her dox. “Deadeye said he was in the hive about a week. It’s incredible how he survived. I can’t imagine what he ate, or drank, or how, as he was paralyzed. I don’t think I really want to know.”

“I think I would have freaked in a few hours,” Merlin said. “I almost lost it when those Scalers grabbed me, and they were humans.”

“It’s funny,” Coolhand said. “His people were so glad to get him back, yet they were planning to send him back to us. They said he belongs to us now.”

“He’s yours, Priestess,” I said. “You got your wish. Didn’t you want a Taka man?”

“I wanted a man, not a boy!”

“Deadeye followed orders and wouldn’t tell them who it was,” Coolhand said, “so we don’t have to worry about it.” He smiled again. His fingers toyed with the lektra, and a plaintive wail ran over my skin, a single, pure note.

“You know, it’s remarkable,” Coolhand added. “His people are hostiles, marginally allied with the Priests. And Deadeye said their council was going to meet on whether or not to surrender to us. The Taka don’t believe in words, they believe in deeds. We kill the exos, and return their boy. He confirms it. That’s all they need. All of them may surrender to us shortly. And all because of this boy.”

A silence settled over us again. The glow from the monitors added an eerie quality to our gathering. Another magic note arose from Coolhand’s lektra, like a bell sounding once in a still, cold night.

“How many more hives are there, do you think?” Warhound asked.

“Plenty,” Merlin replied. “Enough to keep us gainfully employed for quite awhile.”

Warhound sighed. “When I was in there,” he said, jaw muscles tightening, “I wanted to kill everything that moved. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t just stay upstairs, and fill all the tunnels with gas, and explode it. I didn’t really believe anyone could be alive down there. Not until I saw it with my own eyes.”

“The Takas think the same way you do,” Coolhand commented.

“Take a look,” Coolhand said. He set aside his lektra, and spread a fotomap over the tacsit console, a brightly colored tacmap of the Sunmarch, Andrion 2’s primary continent. “The red areas represent exoseg territory-that’s the death zone. The Taka don’t go in there.”

“It’s quite an empire,” Ironman said.

“Right. And growing all the time. This is just an estimate, of course-but we’ve got a pretty good idea from debriefing the Takas.”

“What’s the purple area?”

“That’s the Realm of God. It has also been expanding-until recently. They’re pushed out by the exos, you can see. But check out the chronology-you can see where the exosegs appear to have started from.”

Someone read the legend out loud, “The Forest of Bones?”

“That’s what they call it. That’s our next target. It’s going to be a big op.”

“Terrific. Can’t you get us put back on Taka duty?”

“Sorry, gang, I just work here. Besides, it’ll be fun.”

“Right. I’ll get my party hat.”

The others drifted off to the lounge to sleep, leaving me alone with Priestess. I sat close beside her at the console and put an arm around her shoulders. I felt as if I were floating, alone with an angel, my own angel.

“What are we going to do, Thinker?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“What are we going to do about Valkyrie?”

“How’s your eye?” I massaged the back of her neck.

“It’s better,” she said. “Do you think I was wrong-to love you?”

I didn’t answer. I didn’t even want to think about it.

“We’re only human,” Priestess said. “Is it wrong to fall in love?”

“We’re not human,” I responded. “We’re soldiers of the Legion. Nothing we do is sane. I don’t blame us for falling in love. I don’t blame Valkyrie for being upset. She’s perfectly right. And we’re perfectly right as well. We’re all insane-understand?”

“You say such strange things sometimes, Thinker. I’ve always believed in the Legion.” She paused, her eyes unfocused, staring into an unseen world. “Will you always be mine, Thinker?”

“We’re immortals. We’ll live together for a billion years.” We kissed, and I closed my eyes, and the world spun softly around us.

She let go, gently, and sank back into her chair. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears.

“Why are you crying?” A stupid question to ask a girl.

“I’m not crying.”

“All right, you’re not crying.”

I stood and picked up my E from the weapons rack and went outside, leaving the door open behind me. A faint breeze rushed lightly over my skin. The east glowed purple but the west remained cold and black and full of stars. I sat down on the steps, the E in my lap. Priestess joined me, hugging herself in the sudden cold, eyes sparkling.

“I was very lonely in Hell,” Priestess said. “I was just trying to keep up with everyone. I thought I wasn’t good enough-I had these nightmares where people would be crying out for the medic and I would be paralyzed with fear, or too exhausted to move. Terrible nightmares. I was always afraid that I would fail-and I thought everyone knew it. I thought they knew that I was too soft, too weak.”

“What nonsense. You graduated Planet Hell, along with everyone else.”

“Yes, and I was terrified the whole time.”

“You think everyone else wasn’t terrified? Remember the snake cliff? Remember the swamp suckers? I’ve still got the scars.”

“People were always helping me. I never could have done it by myself.”

“That was the whole idea-working as a team. Everyone helping everyone else. Now we don’t even think about it, we just do it.”

“I used to dream about you at night,” Priestess confessed. “Remember the Wilderness? When the whole world was on fire? Sometimes you’d sleep nearby, and I would dream that you would come to me in the night, and make love to me.”

“Yeah, that’s funny. I was too tired to move.” But I had been dreaming of Priestess as well. I looked up and could almost feel the starlight, hitting my skin. A billion stars, glittering cold and hard, an endless, milky stream of stars. I did not want to face the future without Priestess. She gave me something to live for. I wanted to live a million years just like this, with Priestess’s hypnotic eyes burning into mine. A meteor shot across the sky, trailing a sparkling wake through the dark.

“Oh, it’s lovely.” Priestess seemed totally relaxed.

An alert tone pinged once. Behind Priestess, the tacsit console suddenly glowed red. She got to her feet and went back into the tac room. I followed.

“What’s this, Thinker?” Priestess stood poised over the main screen, reading the data. I joined her.

Two targets glowed on the screen. Humans, obviously, moving slowly through the forest along the ridge that faced us across the valley. I read through the data.

“What’s that they’re carrying?” Priestess asked. She settled into the duty chair.

ANOMALY, the screen told us. UNIDENTIFIED DEVICES, AS MARKED. UNSTABLE READINGS, UNKNOWN MATTER. The visuals showed the targets as heat images, humans, each carrying something that registered as an irregular, shifting blob of light.

“The sensors can’t ID it,” I said.

“It just means we haven’t seen it before,” Priestess commented.

“Still, it’s odd.” We watched them, two glowing heat images, moving up the forested slope, heading up to the ridgeline. I picked up a comset.

“Deadeye, Thinker.” I spoke in Taka. “Come in, Deadeye.”

“Deadeye here! Speak, Slayer!” Deadeye loved the comset. He thought it a marvelous device. He slept with it.

“Deadeye, are any of your people on the ridge across the valley? We see two unknowns in the forest, climbing up to the top of the ridge.”

“Is it the ridge with the yellow stone?”

“Yes, that’s it.”

“No, Slayer, we have no warriors there.”

“Well, there’s two people there. Near the top.”

“The top! We will catch them, Slayer!”

“Let us know what you find.”

“Thinker, Deadeye out, tenners, tenners! Goodbye, Slayer.”

Deadeye’s auxiliaries camped not far from us. They would certainly track down these two intruders-probably Cultist stragglers, out to recon our squadmod. They just wouldn’t give up.

“Should I wake up Snow Leopard?” Priestess asked.

“I don’t think so. It’s just a couple of Taka.” I re-read the data. We watched the two unknowns, slowly approaching the top of the ridge. The trees masked the images much of the time. Deadeye’s auxiliaries were moving briskly down our ridge, heading for the valley. It would be quite a chase. The console continued to glow red. Suddenly it pinged again.

ANOMALY, the screen warned, POSSIBLE CAMFAX IMAGE SUPPRESSOR.

READINGS STILL INCONCLUSIVE. RECOMMEND IMMEDIATE REACTION.

My blood went cold.

“Thinker!” Priestess stood up in alarm.

“The aircar!” My fist went down on the alarm, and the red alert claxon shrieked to life. I charged out the door, snatching up my E. I reached the aircar in an instant, leaping in as the assault door snapped open, Redhawk thrashing to life from an airbunk in the aisle. He slept in the car.

“Scut!” Redhawk cursed, “What is it?!”

“Move!” I said, “We’ve got targets!” Redhawk scrambled into the pilot’s seat and started flipping switches, tangled red hair flying as the car came to life, a sharp whine building to a throaty roar. The squad charged through the door as the aircar left the ground in a rising cloud of red dust. Dragon, Coolhand, Psycho, then Ironman, then Snow Leopard, then Merlin and Warhound scrambling in last. Nobody was dressed for combat but we were all armed.

“Count!” Snow Leopard, looking around wildly, no shirt, slipping into a camfaxed coldcoat.

“All here except Priestess on the tacsite!” Coolhand replied.

“Go! Go! Across the valley,” I urged Redhawk. The assault door slammed shut.

“Brief me, Thinker,” Snow Leopard ordered, fully alert and clutching an E.

“Two guys on the ridge over there. Scanner says they may be carrying image suppressors.”

“Image suppressors!” The squadmod had slipped away beneath us and suddenly the valley was below. The thickly forested ridge came right at us.

“Have you got ‘em?” Snow Leopard asked.

“I’ve got ‘em,” Redhawk replied. I could see the two figures on the cockpit scope, nearing the ridgeline.

“Comtops!” Warhound started tossing the helmets out of the storage bins. We lost altitude quickly, approaching the treetops. I slipped a comtop over my head, and the darklight lit up the dimmed interior of the car, a ghostly green world, swirling with phantoms.

“They hear us! They’re running.”

“Splitting up!”

“Form two elements for foot pursuit,” Snow Leopard commanded.

“Deadeye, we’re after them,” I said. “Keep coming!”

“We are coming, Slayer! Thinker, Deadeye, out!”

The assault doors snapped open and the night wind whipped into the car. A wild-looking bunch, we had dressed for a quiet night in the squadmod, but we all had E’s and comtops, and our targets were in terminal trouble. Coolhand pulled on his liteboots. Psycho leaned out the door with his Manlink, grinning like a hungry cannibal. He hadn’t even put on his comtop. We saw nothing out there except a dark sea of writhing treetops.

“Hit ‘em with stunstars, then insert us,” Snow Leopard said.

“I’ve got this one,” Redhawk said. The forest flashed brightly beneath us and a thunderclap split the night.

“Get the other one.” The aircar banked steeply and we held on tight. I could see the second target on the scope, darting past the trees. Redhawk fired again, and the screen erupted in a sheet of light. A second thunderclap sounded.

“Get us down there, Redhawk!”

“I can’t get through the trees-I’ll put you down on those rocks.”

“They’re both still moving!”

“The stunstar’s weakened by all those trees!”

“Decar!” The aircar hovered dizzily as Snow Leopard leaped into the dark, clutching his E. I followed Coolhand and Dragon, dropping down onto solid rock. My darksight lit up the night, the aircar hovering in a storm of green dust, tall trees all around us, Psycho and Ironman suddenly beside me, then Warhound and Merlin-all there! The aircar shot skyward again. We had been dropped onto a great cliff of yellow stone, at the top of the ridge overlooking the valley. We hustled down into the forest.

“Priestess, Snow Leopard. We’re on the ground, going after the targets.”

“Snow Leopard, Priestess. Tenners.”

I ran crashing through thick shrubbery, between tall black trees, under a tangled canopy, along the ridgeline. Cold and dark and wet, a forest for winter wolves, a place for hunters and prey, a bad place to die. I saw one of the intruders, magnified on my faceplate, sprinting down the opposite slope. Dragon and Psycho charged along beside me, and now we hurtled downhill, a wild fall, bouncing off trees and branches, tearing through nasty spiked bushes.

“Eeyow!” Psycho was in shorts, his legs suddenly cut and bleeding.

“Stunstars and V,” Snow Leopard ordered, “nothing else!” Psycho raised his Manlink and fired a stunstar, splitting the night, a tremendous flash and bang, the concussion hitting me right in the chest. I slowed briefly, aimed at the fleeing target, and fired a burst of auto V, V-min. Dragon fired V as well. We ran forward, again. Suddenly I careened down a steep dirt cliff, grasping at roots and branches, falling heavily into a tangled mass of vegetation. I struggled to my feet and forced myself forward.

The target, still on scope, weaved and danced. Psycho fired his Manlink again, the stunstar ripping through the air, the forest erupting ahead of us, a tremendous crack.

“He’s down.” Another flash, off to the left, and the aircar whistled past overhead. The car fired at the other target, whirling around for a second pass, an evil bird, glinting starlight.

We approached the target carefully. He was down, not moving.

“Careful! Keep it on v-min.” Psycho and Dragon and I had him bracketed. Coolhand caught up with us.

The target was face down in the muck, limbs askew. We would not even have seen him without the darksight. He wore camfax, head to foot. A cylindrical package laid a few marks away, also camfaxed. I took hold of his shoulder and turned him over as Dragon and Psycho stood over him with their weapons. His head rolled back loosely, his face plastered with mud and leaves. I brushed them away. An Outworlder! His eyes were open, glazed.

“He’s not breathing!”

“I’ve got him!” Coolhand was with us, and pulled a medkit from his coldcoat. He slammed a biotic charger onto the man’s chest and triggered it. The shock coursed through the Outworlder’s body.

“No response!” Coolhand tried it again. The body twitched, without life signs.

“Deadman!” Coolhand tore off his comtop and tossed it away. His narrow face streamed with sweat, and his curly brown hair was plastered to his brow. He checked the life signs, then triggered the device again and again, until smoke began to rise from the body. The Outworlder’s eyes remained open, his mouth agape. His body twitched, but the life signs did not change.

“No response,” Psycho said. “He’s dead, Coolhand.” He was on one knee, kneeling by his Manlink. Coolhand finally pulled the device away.

“Deto!” Coolhand was furious. The biotic charge should have worked.

“That’s an Outworlder,” I said.

“That’s a Systie,” Dragon said. Full body camfax. Good stuff, but he couldn’t hide from the Legion.

“What killed him?”

“Must have been the stunstar.”

“Snow Leopard, Coolhand. We’ve got our target. Looks like a Systie-stone dead! We couldn’t save him.”

“What? Death’s gate!” The response came immediately. “Ours is dead, too! He won’t respond to the biotic charge.”

“What the hell, over?”

“Don’t know, Coolhand. Investigate thoroughly.”

“Tenners.”

“The star shouldn’t have killed him,” Psycho said.

“Well, the V shouldn’t have killed him either,” Coolhand said. “Look-a cold knife!” A big, nasty blade, strapped to his waist. “That’s not Systie issue.”

“He’s got to be a Systie!” I said.

“Certainly,” Coolhand replied. “Let’s examine him carefully.”

“No wounds.”

“No comtop.”

“What’s in the bag?” The lightweight nitex pack contained dried rations. A canteen was strapped to the pack.

“That’s civilian ConFree camping gear, gang. And the rats are also ConFree.”

“Wonderful. No other equipment! Except the knife.”

“That’s good camfax.”

“It’s not Systie made.”

“It’s not standard issue, we can say that.”

“He dropped something,” Dragon said. He stood over a cylindrical package wrapped in camfax.

“Careful with that!”

Dragon opened it gingerly. A soft, camfaxed weapons sleeve, covering an image suppressor case.

“Well, that’s something!”

“Any markings?”

“This looks like a standard civilian suppressor case, available in any good ConFree tech store.”

Dragon opened it slowly. It contained a V gun.

“Deadman!”

“A V gun!”

“Blackstar Industries, M-92 Guardian heavy-duty V gun,” Coolhand said, “freely available to any ConFree citizen. A very low-profile weapon. I believe we’ll find the ID strip has been scrambled.”

“The image suppressor is what did them in,” I said. “They needed the V guns, I guess, to deal with the Taka. And they had to hide the image from us.”

“No other equipment. Not even a chron!”

He had been a young man-a soldier, surely. But he was nothing now. His body was empty, as inanimate as a rock, the eyes vacant. The eyes of the dead. The person who lived there had gone. Death, for all his efforts. I wondered what had motivated him to risk his life for the System. I wondered why he had died. I could feel only admiration for him. Surely he recognized it as a perilous mission. He had gone anyway.

“The boots?”

“Ultra-light armorite,” Dragon said. “I don’t see any markings.”

“Looks like civilian hikers.”

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised.”

“Nice. You don’t get much more low-profile than this.”

“Coolhand, Snow Leopard.” The tacnet crackled. “How did your guy die?”

“We don’t know, Snow Leopard. There’s no wound.”

“Troubling,” Snow Leopard said. “This is not good.”

“Could be Systie commandos,” Psycho said, “using ConFree equipment.”

“Could be just about anybody else, too!”

“Two of them. Reconning the squadmod.”

“What killed them?”

“How could both of them die?”

“Where did they come from?”

“These are our Systies, guys!”

“Yeah. Yeah. So where’s the rest of them?”

A shiver ran over my skin. “Don’t know. Let’s call in the aircar.

It’s getting cold.”

Chapter 11: The Delegate from the Past

“We all here?” Snow Leopard looked us over critically.

We gathered around the table in the squadmod tac room.

“Beta here,” Coolhand confirmed. Merlin had been pondering a miniscreen full of data; he slipped it into a pocket. Psycho had a disassembled Manlink on the table; he continued to fool with it. Warhound and Ironman gave Snow Leopard their attention. Dragon brooded over a cup of dox at one end of the table. Priestess sat beside me, silent.

“If you’re through, Psycho, we’d like to begin.”

Psycho put down the parts and grinned. “Sorry, Snow Leopard. I try to keep occupied during these staff meetings so I don’t fall asleep.”

“Well, I appreciate that, Psycho, but nevertheless I would like your full attention, if you don’t mind.” Snow Leopard really had a way with words.

“Sure. Sure. You got it.”

“All right,” Snow Leopard began. “We don’t have these meetings as often as we should, but as you know we’ve been rather busy lately. The Second-Cubes-recently briefed all the CAT commanders, and our own Two Four-Lowdrop-briefed me and the other squad leaders. So I’d like to bring everyone up to date on the sit. Feel free to break in with questions. All right, I’m going to summarize this. These meetings go on for hours but generally contain about three to five marks worth of useful information. So I’m going to leave out all the nonsense.”

“We appreciate that, Snow Leopard.” Psycho gave him his best grin.

“And also we’re hoping that Psycho can stay awake throughout the meeting if we keep it short enough. All right, first subject-the mission to Andrion 3. There’s a lot of nonsense making the rounds about what was found and what wasn’t.

“The truth is as follows: The Fourth, that’d be Mobius, did the mission-CAT 44 downside and CAT 43 as backup topside. That’s a lot of people. Nobody called backup-in the best Legion tradition. The mission was bad, and so was the planet. It’s even more hostile down there than it looks. Even without the exos, it’s a struggle just to stay alive, and with the exos it’s quite a challenge. Mobius called it ‘interesting’ and if you know Mobius, you know that’s not the sort of place you want to visit.”

Snow Leopard had our undivided attention.

“Despite this, they had no serious casualties. Two main points. First, the environment was so bad-so noisy-it was not immediately possible to learn much more about the planet than we already know. Command has not yet reached any new conclusions. In other words, anything could be hiding there-even power systems.

“Second, 44 did capture some Dominants. They also picked up live samples of all the other non-indigenous species we have so far identified here on Andrion 2. Testing is still underway, but forget all that speculation about superior intelligence. Initial readout is the Dominants control the other exos through biochem. There doesn’t appear to be anything remarkable about the Dominants, except their ability to manipulate other exo species.”

“So there was no sign of the Systies?” Merlin asked.

“Nothing. But it’s an excellent place to hide. They could very well be there.”

“Then the mission failed?”

“I wouldn’t say so. The Fourth collected a lot of data and it’s undergoing analysis. Conditions did not permit the immediate resolution of the problem. Obviously, they could not physically search the whole planet. They went a lot further than they had to, spent a lot more time downside than planned, and did a lot more than was required. They gathered enough info to keep Command busy for a long, long time. It was above and beyond all the way, and I wouldn’t want anyone in Beta referring to that mission as a failure. Otherwise I’m going to have to volunteer us to do it better.”

“Good point!” My voice almost cracked.

“What it comes down to,” Snow Leopard said, “is that another, even more extensive expedition to Andrion 3 is planned. With luck, we may be on it.” Snow Leopard paused, and gave us a happy little smile.

“I’m thrilled,” Psycho remarked.

“Sounds like fun,” Coolhand added.

“Which brings us to the next subject, the sitrep for Andrion 2. First, the Taka. And by the way, let’s have no more talk of ‘Scalers’. It’s slang, and bad slang, and the Scalers don’t like it…” The tac room erupted in laughter. Snow Leopard flushed a deep red, then stifled a grin.

“I’m sorry. The… Taka…don’t like it, and neither does Firefall. He feels strongly about this, and Central is issuing a directive. Anyone using the term on the tacnet is going to have to explain why, and no explanations will be accepted. So let’s cut the use of this derogatory term. Remember, these people are our allies now.

“All right, the sitrep. We’ve about wrapped it up in the Sunmarch. The Hand of God is still on the loose, but it doesn’t matter. Almost all the Taka in Sunmarch have declared loyalty to us, and we have more auxiliary volunteers than we can use. The Cult is finished.”

Psycho held his hand up, waving anxiously.

“Yes, Psycho. Do you have to wee-wee?” Snow Leopard sounded like he was losing patience.

“No, I, uh…I know I’m going to get in trouble for asking this, but, uh…what’s Sunmarch?”

Snow Leopard looked at him, smiled patiently, and answered. “If you would sleep in your cube instead of on the lounge floor, you would know that Sunmarch is the Taka name for the primary continent here, on which we are operating.”

“Ah, I see. Actually, I knew that. Just checking on you. That was a good answer.”

“Psycho,” Dragon cut in, “will you shut down and let the rest of us listen to the briefing?” Dragon did not get along with Psycho at all.

“Does my existence disturb you?”

“Profoundly,” Dragon responded.

“All right, blackout,” Snow Leopard said. “Now, the lab report on our Systies is out. And they do appear to be Systies. The lifies went over the bodies with everything they had, but didn’t find much. Whoever sent them out took a great deal of trouble to make sure they were sterile. They chose Outworlders rather than some other race, which might have confirmed their status as Systies. All the equipment they carried was ConFree civilian gear.

“They’d both had c-cells, at one time, and both c-cells had been removed. DefCorps implants c-cells just as we do, for ID, health and tracking purposes. The former placement of the c-cells was similar to what we know about DefCorps commando units. The preservatives on the teeth were Systie make. The soil on the boots did not, unfortunately, lead us anywhere.”

“So how did they die?” Dragon asked.

“Heart failure,” Snow Leopard responded, “in both cases.”

“Maybe we scared ‘em to death.”

“Yeah, they got a look at Warhound’s face.”

“No, they spotted Psycho’s outfit and died laughing.”

“All right, blackout,” Snow Leopard cut in. “It’s not funny. It’s likely they were psyched to die in certain situations. And those conditions were met.” We greeted Snow Leopard’s remark in silence. The contempt that the System showed for its own assets scared us. I wondered if the Systie troopers had known about their programming. If they had, it must have been a truly terrifying pursuit.

“So what have we concluded?” Merlin asked.

“Command has concluded that the Systies are here, in this system,” Snow Leopard replied, “and that there’s got to be more than two of them.”

“Well, then, where are they?” Ironman asked.

“We don’t know,” Snow Leopard said. “Possibly Andrion 2, possibly Andrion 3. But Command believes at least some of them are on-planet, right here. And the most likely location is somewhere in the exoseg zone. The exo presence here is certainly tied in with the Systies.”

“Why haven’t we spotted power systems, if the Systies are here?”

“If they’re here, they’re not using power systems.”

“But you can’t run anything without power systems.”

“That’s correct. All right, here’s what we plan. We’re going right into the Forest of Bones.” Snow Leopard flashed a tacmap on the screen. “No Taka have lived there in a hundred years. It’s crawling with exos, and the hives honeycomb the earth. It’s such a massive complex it will probably take months of work to close it down. We’re going in to search for Systies, and to kill exos, and to rescue any living Taka we may find. They feed on living Taka, and we’re not going to give up on the search no matter how slim the chances. The Taka are willing to go down those holes with no armor, hauling tridents and spears. I don’t think we can refuse to help them. This is the area in which Taka history places the first appearance of the exos, which occurred, we have learned, shortly after Star Survey visited the system.”

“Makes you wonder,” Coolhand said.

“Certainly does,” Merlin added. “That means they’ve done a whole lot in a little more than…let’s see…eighty Veltran years, or just over a hundred stellar years.”

“Several generations,” Snow Leopard said. “Considering the short life span of Andrion 2 mortals, nobody living here can remember when there were no exosegs.”

“Snow Leopard, what does Command say about the history?” Priestess asked.

Snow Leopard referred to a miniscreen. “The legends are full of doubletalk. The creatures are associated with falling stars, just as our first captive told us. They came from the Forest of Bones, and they carry their captives away living. There are legends about fearless Taka warriors going down into the hives and rescuing fair maidens. Unfortunately, Taka civilization destroyed itself long before the exosegs showed up, so there was nobody to write a competent history. But Taka history is another story-let’s not get into that. The point is that we’re hoping we’ll find something in the Forest of Bones.”

“There should be something in the history,” I said, “some clue…something more than we’ve learned so far. How can a history leave out something so important?”

“Yes,” Snow Leopard said. “There should be something. We’re debriefing everyone who might know. But nothing so far.”

“What about Moontouch?” I foolishly asked. “Did Command get anything useful out of her? She’s a princess of the Dark Clouds and a priestess of the Book. If anyone in this worldwide lunatic asylum knows anything, wouldn’t it be her?”

Snow Leopard hesitated, as if choosing his words carefully. “Command was ecstatic when they found out about your princess.”

Priestess stiffened and I wondered if Deadeye had broken his word and told more than he should.

Snow Leopard continued, “Unfortunately, like so many other things on Andrion 2, it didn’t work out like we’d hoped. The lifies are convinced that she’s either completely insane, or she’s smarter than they are and is holding back. The general consensus was that it was probably a little of both.”

That brought several low chuckles.

With a completely straight face, he added, “Command also noted that she seemed quite…fixated on you, Thinker, and that if the right opportunity presented itself, you might be able to get more out of her.”

It took Snow Leopard several attempts to bring the meeting aback under control. Psycho and Dragon took every opportunity thereafter to ride me about my “princess.” Worse, Priestess seemed distinctly unhappy.

It took me two days to track Moontouch down. I found her in a tent of treesilk, attended by Taka warriors armed with spears. Cleaned up and obviously well tended-to, she was even lovelier than I remembered. She offered me tea, and lit some incense. I declined the tea and told her what I wanted. She agreed to take me to the Loremaster.

Moontouch led us to a swamp and at dawn on the third day, we glided over its still dark waters in a Sunrealmer canoe. Eight of us shared the boat: Moontouch, myself, Dragon, Deadeye, and four Taka warriors, Moontouch’s Dark Cloud bodyguards. They rowed the long, slim, graceful boat, which had been carefully crafted from fine woods.

Warm morning mists drifted past us. It was sultry and quiet. We could only hear the birds, crying out as they rose to meet the sun, and the faint liquid chunk of the paddles as we slid through the water. The eastern sky slowly lightened while the west remained a cold, dark blue. Tall watertrees filled the swamp, forming a tangled roof of dark foliage. It came to life, burning crimson and gold, flames of sunlight running from branch to branch.

I leaned forward to speak to Moontouch. “It would be faster by aircar.”

“It cannot be, Slayer,” she responded. “One must approach the Loremaster with respect. It must be in a boat, at dawn.”

“Is it much longer?”

“Soon, Slayer. Soon.” She had been saying that for hours. It had been a long night. I glanced at Dragon. He checked his tacmod. We knew our location exactly-in the heart of what the locals called the Swamp of Lost Souls. Fully armed, Dragon and I wore litesuits and A-vests. Our comtops hung from our U-belts. Sweat trickled down from my temples. It was going to be a scorcher. Deadeye wore camfax and the other Taka were in skins.

We softly glided up to an ancient, massive pier of stone, now covered with moss and vegetation. A solitary pier in the heart of the swamp, jutting out from a tangled jungle rising from the mists. Ghost ships dock here, I thought.

“We are here,” Moontouch informed me.

The Taka tied the boat up at the pier, and we carefully climbed out. The pier proved slippery, moss and wet grass on crumbling slick stone. The overhanging trees muffled our voices. Dawn burned in the branches above us.

We followed a footpath into the jungle. Eerie clacking noises monitored our progress, and strange jungle creatures hooted and whistled from the tangled canopy above. Dragon and I had our E’s slung over our chests, ready for instant use. The noises of the jungle seemed to meld together into a staccato harmony. I walked behind Moontouch. She wore a short tunic of fine white cloth, and carried a jeweled knife at her waist.

“Here was Southmark,” she said, “proud citadel of the Golden March, city of many tongues, Queen of the Island Roads, Fortress of Flags. This was a great center of learning and culture.”

She gestured off to one side. “The Imperial Library of Southmark rose there-four levels, with the knowledge of the ages. The history of my people from the dawn of time was stored here.”

I could see only jungle, great ancient trees rising up from a misty floor. “What happened to Southmark?”

“Southmark fell before the Horde,” she recited, “flying white flags. Golden walls and crimson streets, in the Year of the Storm. And Southmark was no more.”

“What about the library?”

“Burned to ashes,” she answered. “And the ashes scattered to the winds.”

“Who were the Horde?” I asked. “Beasts?”

“No. We are guilty. The Horde inherited all that Southmark had been. My own ancestors. They burned it all.”

A few shafts of golden sunlight flickered through the forest roof, illuminating a ruined temple covered with vegetation. Burning history-I could not imagine a more heinous crime.

“Do not grieve for Southmark,” she said. “Every nation writes its own end.”

The dead city was cloaked in trees, the roots crushing the stones, merciless, relentless constrictors of living wood, shattering the past. We climbed crumbling staircases, hidden under a tangle of vines, then into the forest, trees rising in rows to either side of us up to a flowery jungle canopy flaming golden with the dawn.

The Loremaster squatted on a shattered marble block before a small campfire, an old man attended by two young boys. Naked to the waist, clothed in rags, his leathery skin was burnt brown by the sun. He had a medallion at his neck, the same as Moontouch’s. He squinted at Dragon and me from a deeply wrinkled face, as if he had trouble with his vision.

He offered us bark tea, a medicinal potion we knew to be clear and light and faintly stimulating. The boys produced stone cups, brown with age, and poured the brew from a battered kettle. It tasted slightly bitter. Moontouch made the introductions, and explained that we wanted to know about the origin of the exosegs.

The Loremaster blinked at me with cold, black, animal eyes and slowly sipped his tea. He suffered from advanced age, a mortal’s disease-easily cured. To me, it was a horror from the Age of Chaos, and the worst possible way to die.

The Loremaster spoke in a brittle, cracked voice. “Slayer from afar, you seek forbidden fruit. The lore of the past is sacred, and easily lost. We guard it like a treasure. Only with knowledge can you understand the past, and you have no knowledge. You are violence, blowing in from the dark like a rainstorm in the night.”

I broke in before Moontouch could interrupt. I could deal with this tough old bird. “We come in the dawn, Loremaster, with respect. I want the knowledge to help your people-if we can understand the origin of the Beasts, we can kill them all and bring peace to this world. We have already stopped the Cult of the Dead. With your help, we can stop the Beasts as well. If you do not help, many more Taka may die.”

“Peace,” the Loremaster said. He cleared his throat, and spat off to one side. “You will kill them all, for peace. Our destiny is to die. The Taka are not afraid of death.” He took another sip of tea, defiant.

I decided to try the direct approach. “Where did the Beasts come from?” I asked quietly. The Loremaster held out his cup, and one of the boys poured in more tea. The boy was very pretty-smooth skin, clean hair-just like the other one. I wondered about that.

The Loremaster sipped tea, and spoke, his gaze far away. “In the Year of the Burning Trees came the first of the falling stars. They fell into the Forest of Bones, and the night sky was red. The Woodmen went to see, but the Woodmen did not return. Then came the Beasts, touched by Death’s black hand, to seal our doom. And the stars continued to fall, and more Beasts came, stealing our people away. Such is the fate of our race. Doomed to die, we kneel before the Beasts.”

I put down my tea, and glanced at Dragon. He did not seem overly impressed. I certainly would not want the Loremaster guarding my back during any disagreement with the exos. He sounded like a devotee of the Cult of the Dead-kneel before the Beasts! Kneel and die, better him than me.

“Has anyone ever returned from the Forest of Bones?” I wanted to keep him talking.

The Loremaster paused, and his eyes dimmed. “The warrior Longwalker, of the Grass People, returned from the dead with the virgin Starlight. He dared the Forest of Bones, and found his way with fire into the House of the Living Dead. He fought the Beasts and freed the virgin and raised the Phantoms of the March. They climbed to the sunlight, and left the dead behind, and visited the land of the living, and touched their mortal kin. And then, cursed by the Gods, Longwalker and Starlight journeyed together into the wilderness, into unknown worlds.”

The Loremaster returned to his tea, his face expressionless. Interesting. Falling stars, and more falling stars. The House of the Living Dead I knew, having visited it myself. And he used fire-smart! Also necessary. Starlight must have been quite a girl. Yet somehow I doubted that Longwalker went in alone-he must have had a little help. Like the Taka equivalent of a CAT force. But something about the story bothered me.

“What did Longwalker see in the hive?”

“He found his way with fire into the House of the Living Dead. He fought the Beasts and freed the virgin and raised the Phantoms of the March,” the Loremaster repeated.

“What does it mean, ‘the Phantoms of the March’?”

The Loremaster’s face clouded over, impatiently. “The March of the Sun, Slayer. The Golden March, when the Men of the Sword carried their flags to the Southern Sea. This is the March-there is no other March.”

“But what does it mean-Phantoms of the March?”

“You have heard the Past, Starman. ‘He fought the Beasts and freed the virgin and raised the Phantoms of the March.’ I am only a Loremaster. I tell you the Past, as it was written. I cannot tell what it means. The Gods have the meaning-ask the Gods.”

Moontouch appeared distressed that I was not satisfied with the Loremaster’s words. When we left him behind, she whispered to me, “Follow me, and trust me. I will take you into the past, and all your questions will be answered.”

She led us to what was clearly a secret place, a crumbling temple hidden behind whispering trees and a collapsed wall of green mossy stones near where the Library had been. Her Dark Cloud escorts waited outside the wall, but Moontouch motioned Dragon and me to follow her.

Deadeye waited with the others, but his face was dark. “Be careful, Slayer-guard your back!”

Moontouch ignored him. I knew the problem-it was sacred ground, the temple of the virgins, and no Taka man would dare set foot within these walls. But the rules didn’t apply to Dragon and me, creatures from another world.

A stone fountain stood, cold and dry, in a courtyard full of wild grass. It led up to a roofless building covered with wild flowers. Three silent Taka girls appeared from the shadows, blinking, wearing dark cloaks, golden slave necklaces at their throats. Moontouch turned, and spoke.

“My sisters,” she said. “Children of the Book. We live here, in the past. You two are travelers from the future. Be wary of the road-watch your footing.” Her eyes darted past mine, expressionless.

“And you,” I asked. “Are you also a child of the Book?”

“I am an interpreter,” she responded. “I am the delegate from the past-I am the voice of the dead.” A shaft of morning sunlight played with her face-skin of golden silk, high delicate cheekbones, her eyes flashing like black diamonds, her hair rippling over her shoulders.

The girls brought a black cloak for Moontouch. She slipped it on. Dragon warily watched the girls and the trees. One finger rested on the trigger of his E. I knew nothing would get past him.

They apparently lived here, in a cold damp chamber that still had a roof. The floor was covered with pillows and blankets of fine woven cloth and delicate jeweled scale-work, but the bare walls rotted with age and moisture.

The girls added some branches to a smouldering campfire in a corner, and wisps of blue smoke curled up to escape through a crack in the roof. An ancient slab of dark wood served as a table. The girls served a warm pink tea brewed from flowers, in tiny silvery cups. Moontouch raised her cup, and her eyes met mine.

“May you return.” She swallowed the tea in one gulp. I did the same. It was light and fragrant.

“You sure this is a good idea?” Dragon asked, hesitating.

“Try it,” I replied. “You want to live forever?” A private joke-Dragon had overused the phrase during our worst days in Hell. Dragon frowned, but downed his tea. The three slave girls gazed quietly at Dragon and me. Beautiful, tender children of the dark, blinking their eyes and wetting their lips with their tongues.

“Did the Loremaster tell us everything?” I asked Moontouch.

“Words,” she replied. “He is the fountain of words. He remembers all. He is the Book, and the History. He is the Master, and the Way. He looks into the past, and sees the future.”

She did not answer the question, I noted.

“What did you think of him, Dragon?” I asked.

“I think we can do just fine without his help.”

“Yeah, so do I,” I confessed.

“Let’s just forget him, all right?” Dragon urged me. “This was not one of your better ideas. I don’t believe a word the old creep says.”

But I could not forget the words. “Moontouch, tell me about the Woodmen.”

“Cutters of wood, Slayer. They dared the Forest of Bones, when the stars fell.”

“Can you tell me more about Longwalker, or Starlight?”

A cloud seemed to pass over her lovely features. “There is no more to tell. He was a mighty warrior, proud and fierce and strong. She was a virgin princess, and her beauty shamed the sun. Together they defied the Gods, and stopped the world in its tracks. Now they are dust.” Her eyes glimmered with unshed tears.

“The Loremaster said Longwalker ‘raised the Phantoms of the March’. What does it mean?”

“Words,” Moontouch replied. “Words have many meanings. Believe only what you can touch. Come with me, Slayer! Into the past, into the dust and the dark. I want to show you my world. I want to show you the Book. The Phantoms of the March are all around us. Come with me, and face the past. You can raise them yourself-now!” Proud, defiant, she got up and hugged her cloak around her tightly.

Such an invitation was not to be refused. I rose. Dragon started to get up, but the three slave girls put their slim arms around him invitingly-they wanted him to stay.

“Dragon should stay here, Slayer,” Moontouch commanded. “We are only shadows, but he is alive. He should not risk the wrath of the Gods.”

“It sounds shaky to me, Thinker,” Dragon said. “You should have some backup, and I’ll chance the wrath of the Gods.”

“It’s all right, Dragon,” I replied. “It sounds interesting, but she doesn’t want you along. You stay with the honeys. I’ll see what it is, and I’ll squawk if I need you.”

“She’s not all there, Thinker! You’d better be careful. Like Deadeye said, watch your back. You sure you don’t want me?”

“I’m sure. The girls should keep you amused. But stay alert!”

Dragon relaxed, and turned his attention to the girls. “Well, I’ll try to spread some goodwill. But keep in touch.”

“Tenners.”

A slick stone staircase descended into the cellars of the temple, covered with oozing green moss. Moontouch carried a torch of oil-soaked rags, just ahead of me. It smelled of ages long past, and things long dead.

“If you fall into the past,” Moontouch warned softly, “you may never come back.”

“I’ll be careful,” I replied. The staircase became circular, slowly coiling down into the black. I was conscious of the crackling of the torch, the grating of our feet on gritty wet stones and the drip of moisture from the ceiling. It was a lightless, dead world, cold and damp. Moontouch was my guide on this expedition into the past, a flickering shadow.

The staircase led to a gloomy hexagonal room of thick columns and stone walls, an empty doorway in each wall. The torch spat and hissed, and black shadows leaped wildly all around us.

“Which doorway?” I asked.

“Three of six,” Moontouch responded. “Three of six, where the stairwell ends.” She paused at one of the doorways. She turned to face me, and a fiery river of light from the torch flickered off her face. Her features glowed like a mirage, hovering in the dark. “The others lead to death. Follow me closely.”

A very narrow passageway led into the dark. I banged my head on the ceiling immediately, and had to crouch down to proceed. Moontouch proceeded ahead of me, with the torch.

Just when it was closing in on me, we came to another room, considerably smaller, roughly circular, with a roof close overhead. It filled with smoke from the torch. Moontouch laid a hand on my arm.

“Do not move, Slayer. Look at the floor.” She held the torch up, so I could see. Black pits, man-sized, set in the stones of the floor. Four of them.

“All right, now what?” Tons of stone surrounded us, and I hated it.

“Three of four, Slayer, in the room of pits. And the others lead to death.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” I hissed it, impatiently.

A phantom smile for an instant, flickering over her lips. “Follow me.” She chose one of the pits and jumped in, feet first.

Gone in a flash, taking the torch, the glow immediately faded from the pit, darkness rushed into the room.

“Oh, no!” I leaped for the pit and hurled myself in after her. She’s crazy! My back slammed against stone and I found myself sliding almost straight down, my boots scraping against slimy stone, something smashing against an elbow, a wild ride down the gullet of a great stone beast. I landed in a shallow pool of water with a splash, the orange glow of the torch flickering around me. Moontouch stood calmly before me, holding the torch high.

“Follow me, Slayer. The road to the past is long, and perilous.”

I got up, shaken. “Moontouch. Don’t do that again. Stay with me, can you?”

“We are together, Slayer, walking into worlds long gone. Slayer and Moontouch, phantoms in both worlds, shadows in the mist, walking with the living and the dead.”

Spooky!

Another long tunnel, cloaked in cold and rot, peeling walls and slimy floor, Moontouch’s torch flickering up ahead. We walked through endless rows of arches, built into the corridor. Between the arches, black rectangular openings lined the floor, all along both walls, hundreds of them. I did not want to know where they led.

Tired of all the mystery, I flicked on the light in my E, and the corridor lit up. Frozen in all its awful glory, every rotting little pebble glared white-hot in the light.

“No, Slayer! Turn it off! You will confuse me, and we will die!”

I killed the light, my eyes dazzled, slowly adjusting again to the smoky torchlight. She had sounded rather insistent about it. “I’m sorry, Moontouch. I wanted to help.”

“No help, please! This is my world, and you cannot help. I am counting, and if I count wrong, we die. Quietly now, follow me.”

“Thinker, Dragon. How about a sitrep?” My comset crackled suddenly. I had not contacted Dragon since my entry into the maze.

“Nothing to report, Dragon. How you?”

“I’m engaged in a little cross-planetary communication, Thinker. And I don’t want to hear ‘nothing to report.’”

“Don’t follow me in here, Dragon. No matter what happens.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. It’s just that I would recommend the guided tour. Solo trips are not encouraged.”

“You call me when you need me, Thinker.”

“Tenners. Thinker out.”

Moontouch paused, one hand against the left wall, poking the torch down to examine the floor. Wisps of smoke curled all around her, and for a moment, in the dim, flickering light, she seemed trapped in some in-between dimension, not quite here, not quite there.

“We are here, Slayer.” She raised her eyes to mine, glowing, excited, transformed.

“Good. Where’s here?” I could see nothing except another stone arch just ahead, and another dark opening in the floor.

“This is the Gate to the Past. Twenty and six on the left, through the avenue of arches.”

“What if we kept going?” I asked. “What’s up there?”

“Death.”

“What if we chose another hole?”

“Death, Slayer.”

“And if you counted wrong?”

“Death.”

“Why don’t we go back and count it again, just to be sure?”

“No, Slayer. I am sure. Now you follow me. We must be quiet, for this is the realm of the gods.”

The slot in the floor was just barely wide enough. We faced another wild slide down into the unknown. Moontouch went first, with the torch-a rush of sparks, then blackness. Pausing at the abyss, I made the sign of the Legion, and released my grip.

A screaming adrenalin rush into the dark, things flashing past beside me, my arms gripped tightly around my E, hugging it to my chest. I landed suddenly, hard, in a soft orange glow. Moontouch stood beside me, a princess of fire in the dark, flames licking along the torch. Her black hood was thrown back, her lovely face revealed. Red-gold skin, eyes of ice, glowing, ecstatic, raising the torch.

“Look, Slayer. Look!” A fierce whisper.

The torchlight flickered softly in a large chamber; smoke stung my eyes and inky shadows teased my vision. An odd element wafted on the smoke, but then I glimpsed something to the right-against a wall, the glint of beaten gold, a faint dark line of steel. A yellowed skull, in the helmet of a King. A skeletal arm, revealed through fragments of rotted cloth. A hand of bones, grasping the pommel of a dark jeweled sword. A skeleton King, still on his throne, reigning over the Kingdom of the Dead.

Moontouch moved the torch. Another one, beside him, a warrior King, clothed in black rusted iron, a massive axe over his bony shoulder, the vacant sockets of his fragile skull staring into the ages. Once an unholy terror, his word was law, and a movement of his hand brought life, or death. Now his bones were turning to dust.

It was all fading into the dark-I could barely see in the dim, smoky light. A long line of Kings, still on their thrones. There was a hollow roaring in my ears and the chamber appeared to be slowly spinning around me. I shook my head to clear it.

The torch moved, the shadows moved, torchlight glittered off a floor covered with glorious relics from ages long lost to history; the opposite wall now came into view. Another Emperor of the Dark, another immortal, a grinning skull, holding court in a pile of dirt littered with ancient tools of war. And beside him, a skeleton Queen, clothed in gold and jewels. Had empires risen and fallen, at her whim? Now even her name was lost. A garland of fresh flowers hung from her tiara. Both walls were lined with the dead. A thrill of horror shot through my veins. I could hardly breathe the hot and musty air, and the smoke from the torch was really starting to bother me.

“The Tomb of the Kings,” Moontouch whispered. “They are all here, all the Kings and Queens of Southmark. They live still, here, in the past. I keep them alive.” Her face flushed and unshed tears gleamed in her eyes. She, a servant of the dead, a slave of the past, was helpless before the terrible bony fingers of those ancient Kings. I understood, completely. For I was a slave of the future. How strange that we should meet like this, in this holy place, in this faraway world.

The walls revealed faded golden runes and mysterious figures, phantoms from a lost world, frozen forever all around us. A magnificent panorama of the Kingdom of Southmark, everything these Kings had ruled. The ceiling glowed faintly with strange gods. At one end of the cavernous room, a single skeleton slumped on a dark, austere throne.

“Who is he?” I whispered.

“He is the Golden Sword,” Moontouch replied softly, “who led the Far March and built Southmark with mortar made from blood. We can never forget him.” She raised one arm, and turned her face away. “Look upon his glory, and despair.” His bones were almost black, crumbling into the ages.

Crazy, I thought. I was sweating, but she wasn’t. I guessed she was used to it. Why is it so damned hot?

“I must show you the Book,” she said suddenly, raising her head.

The Book! The Book of the Men of the Book-her holy writ, never seen by non-believers. Surely this would hold the secret of the Beasts, and lead us to the Systies. She led me to a stone ledge, full of ancient books. Southmark’s history! My heart leaped. What a find!

“Here is the Book of Books,” Moontouch whispered. “There is only one. Here is everything we believe!”

It was truly a magnificent book, a massive volume, bound in a thick cover of leather and metal and precious stones, placed on a small platform. Golden runes spelt out the title. The sign of the crown and the skull, engraved in gold. Cautiously, I opened it. Dust seeped out, hanging in the air. Pages of dust, all dust, a book of dust. I turned to Moontouch.

She stood beside me, hypnotized before the Book. She leaned forward and blew slightly, a faint whistle, raising a little cloud of dust.

“History, Slayer,” she hissed. “Look! A thousand years has just vanished. A little more goes each day, even if you do nothing. Try it, Slayer. Blow away the past!” The light of madness showed in her eyes. I closed the book, slowly.

History. Yes, I had found history, hundreds of ancient books, but the pages had all turned to dust. Only the titles remained, intricately inlaid in gold on the leather-bound covers. Moontouch translated some of the titles for me: History of the World, Our Heritage, Glory of Southmark, Annals of the Kings, Tales of the Golden March, Voyage to the End of the World…all dust, all that Southmark had ever been, lost and vanished and gone, forever and ever and ever. My head was spinning. I leaned on the ledge for support.

Moontouch reached down to the darkened floor and picked up a skull. I slowly realized that bones littered the floor, hundreds of skeletons, all jumbled together, a ghastly harvest of vanished souls. My mind was working very slowly, I thought-everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. Moontouch held the skull before me, bringing the torch closer.

“They were a harsh people. When a King died his servants died, too. They were killed right here, in the tomb.” She spoke dreamily, the torchlight transforming the skull into an evil mask. “Look at this one. Who knows how many ages have passed since this one breathed and hoped and loved. I wanted to eat the past once. I wanted to swallow the past, and grieve in the dark for all those who went before, for all those who are lost forever, and never remembered. Now I feel they are more real than I am. I am only a servant in the House of the Dead.” Her words were hypnotic and I watched her in fascination. She touched the skull gently to her cheek and swayed dreamily, her eyes closed, mourning the dead. Tears streaked down her cheeks.

Stunned by the enormity of the place, I felt trapped in a stale bubble of the past that had somehow slipped through time, a secret, unsuspected black hole, where even a soldier of the Legion could tumble into ages long lost to history, and maybe not ever come back. A hot wave rushed through my blood-something was wrong, I knew, but I felt calm, almost sedated.

Moontouch was trapped. She would never come back. She clutched the skull to her throat, holding the torch up, swirling gently to her own music now, eyes closed, singing softly to herself, dancing with her long-dead lover, clad in the cloak of death. She was lovely, absolutely enchanting. I wanted to pull her out of that evil world, out of the past and into the future. Has she ever known love, or just despair? I gently took the torch from her hand, and reached over to the nearest King, and propped up the torch in his bony fingers. Moontouch ignored me, clutching the skull to her bosom, continuing her terrible dance. She was humming now, entranced. I pulled her to me, and took the skull from her grasp, and dropped it to the floor. Her eyes fluttered open in surprise. I loosened the cloak from her shoulders and it slid to the floor, revealing a sleeveless knee-length tunic.

She who had entranced me, eyes of mystery, her lovely mouth opening in surprise. I slipped a hand behind her neck, hair of sweet soft silk, smooth tender flesh, and she was swaying in my arms, so lovely I thought my heart would stop.

I kissed her gently, hot and sweet, and pressed my cheek against hers. I could taste her tears on my tongue. Taste the living, Moontouch, taste the living!

The torch flickered, and orange torchlight ran over her lovely skin as the skeleton King patiently lit the scene, and long black shadows darted all around us. I wanted to tear the tunic from her body but I did not seem to have the strength. My fingers clutched at the material. Moontouch was calm. She was so lovely it was almost supernatural-I grew dizzy and weak and I wanted to fall to my knees and worship her like a Goddess. Surrounded by death, she was a nova of life, glowing with beauty. I pulled again at the tunic, puzzled that it would not come off. What was wrong with me?

“No, Slayer,” she gasped weakly. “I am a Virgin of the Book-I belong only to the Past.”

“No, Moontouch. You belong to me. You said so. Don’t you remember?” I whispered. My mind was working very slowly. I could not understand why she did not remember. She had said clearly…

I tried to pull her to me, but now the entire chamber spun slowly around me, fading away. The tea, I thought-the tea! Moontouch gazed calmly into my eyes now, raising one slim arm towards me…and then I fell into the dark.

###

I drifted back to consciousness through a severe headache, blinking my eyes painfully as a soft light roused me. I sat up abruptly-I was resting on a bed of silken pillows on the floor of the Temple of the Virgins. One of the temple girls dabbed gently at my forehead with a wet cloth. Dragon stirred beside me, attended by another girl. It was dawn-the third girl appeared with a metal tray stacked high with teakettles and plates of fruit. Incense smoked in a corner.

“Dragon!” I exclaimed. “What happened?”

“I told you not to drink that tea,” he said, squinting and touching his head gingerly. “Damn! That’s potent stuff!”

The girls gathered around us and offered cups of steaming liquid. I pushed mine away rudely. I sure didn’t need any more of what they were pushing. The girls faintly smiled, treating us with great reverence.

“Perfume!” I exclaimed, touching my neck. “And my clothes-they’re moist-as if washed! But what happened, Dragon? What happened to you?”

“Well, all I can say is I hope you had as good a time with Moontouch as I did with these three. I mean, I don’t remember exactly-I was about to make my move when everything just kind of got all blurry and-well, I’m not sure. But it was terrific-I remember that much!” He reached out and touched one of the girls. She gave him a dazzling smile.

“Where is Moontouch?” I demanded of the temple girls. “Where is she?”

They bowed low and one of them whispered in Taka: “Your wife prays for you in the Tomb of the Kings. The dead will walk by your side, through this life and into the next. All of the power of those who have gone before will be yours to wield, oh mighty Slayer.”

I pondered this for a moment, stunned. “Dragon.” I finally said. “Can we try to keep this, um, kind of quiet? Can we?”

Dragon laughed. “You can count on me, Thinker. But we’ll have to tell Snow Leopard something.”

“We’ll tell him something, all right. Don’t worry.”

Chapter 12: Atom’s Fist

“Are you as sick of this as I am?” Dragon asked me. It was two months after our fruitless mission in the Tomb of the Kings and we were in armor, trudging knee-deep through grisly exoseg parts. We were deep in the heart of what appeared to be the oldest exoseg complex, far underneath the Forest of Bones. I hated exoseg duty, but somebody had to do it, and Squad Beta had been selected.

“Stop whining,” I replied. “You know you love it.”

“I’d rather be back in that laundry we discovered-you know, the one with the tea and the incense?”

“Shut down, will you?”

“Relax, we’re on private. Seriously, Thinker, I finally realized what you were trying to do back there. I thought you were nuts at the time, but I understand it now. You were looking for a shortcut. It was just too damned bad there was nothing there. If it had worked, we could have avoided all this exo nonsense.”

“Well, it didn’t work.”

“Yeah, but you were thinking! It could have worked! I never thought of it. No, it was a fine idea, Thinker. You’re always thinking-they’ll probably make you a One someday.”

“Are you laughing at me?”

“I’m serious, Thinker!”

“Alert! Alert!” Sweety suddenly interrupted. “Situation Violet! Probable advanced attack! Probable advanced presence! Probable imminent combat! Readings inconclusive, maximum alert!”

The alert galvanized us.

“Prep for combat, Thinker!” Sweety warned me. “Probe has identified a cenite hatch ahead-please see the zero. I will give you every warning.”

“All right, gang, this is it,” Snow Leopard informed us calmly. “Combat advance. Whatever it is, we attack. Coolhand, take the second element.”

“This has to be the Systies, right?” Warhound asked tensely.

“Silence in the ranks, guys,” Coolhand replied.

When in doubt, advance, an old Legion saying. Now this. I could taste death, and it had nothing to do with exosegs. This was what we’d been looking for since we first dropped!

We advanced.

We found it moments later under a tangled pile of exoseg dead, a circular cenite hatch on the tunnel floor, slimy with a deceptor cloaking field, leading, surely, to our doom. No identifying marks.

Snow Leopard finally broke the silence with a whisper. “If it happens quickly, I want anyone who survives to maxburst whatever you see. Just scream it out, you hear me? Once you know what it is, you let Command know. I don’t want Beta to go out without at least getting off a message. They got the same probe report we did, so they’ll be waiting to hear from us. You hear me?”

We heard him. But we weren’t going without a fight.

“Psycho, Snow Leopard. You get those nukes warmed up.”

“They’re dead, Snow Leopard. If I see something move, they’re going to be dead.”

Snow Leopard kept his voice down. “Merlin, how can we open this? Quietly.”

Merlin pondered the hatch. “Laser, all around the edges. We’ll have to use laser. But when it opens, things may happen.”

“Acceptable. Merlin, open it. As soon as we can confirm what the enemy is, we call it in maxburst. That’s the mission! That’s the only mission! You girls think you can handle that?” He had often used the phrase in Hell, but it was no longer funny.

“Tenners, let’s do it.”

The hatch came off, burning and hissing. Coolhand, Dragon and Priestess hauled it off. Snow Leopard, Merlin and Psycho paused for just a frac, at the brink. Metal steps led down to a metal deck, and that’s all we could see.

“See you in Hell.”

“Death!” A hoarse whisper, from us all. Death, our angel. Death, to watch over us all. And then Snow Leopard, Merlin and Psycho vanished down the stairs. Warhound, Ironman and I followed right behind them leaping down into the portal, ignoring the stairs, guns up.

“Maximum alert!” Sweety whispered icy futures in my ears immediately. “Combat alert! Advanced presence! Human presence! Silenced power systems ahead! Muffled commo systems ahead! Nuclear alert! Radiation alert! V alert! Enemy laser systems powering on! Enemy targeting systems powering on! You are being targeted for attack! Recommend immediate counterattack!”

We ran, flat out, weapons up, my heart pounding, along a pristine metal tunnel, straight to our deaths.

“Fire, Psycho! Fire!” Snow shouted. The tunnel flashed up ahead, a sudden white hot nuclear light glaring all around us, a tremendous concussion, the earth trembling, Warhound and Ironman frozen in mid-stride beside me. Sweety still whispered her magic in my ears, bless her!

“Major enemy power systems powering on, gravity systems powering on, antimat drive generators powering on, strategic space superiority systems powering on! Tactical acquisition combat systems now on and scanning! The enemy is targeting you now! Recommend immediate counterfire! Tac nukes powering on! Multiple coded enemy alerts broadcasting now! I have identified the enemy! United System Defense Alliance tactical systems in use! Ignition! Ignition! Ignition! Ignition! You are under multiple attack! Fire all weapons!”

We dove to the deck in agonizing slow motion, a controlled crash, firing even as we skidded along the metal grating on our armored bellies. I fired high on auto xmax and knew Sweety would handle the arc. The air cracked wildly as we all fired, and then the world exploded. A bolt of white lightning flashed ahead of us and a great shock wave exploded all around us and suddenly the tunnel walls turned liquid, glowing streaks and globs of red-hot metal splattering through the air like fireworks, dazzling my eyes.

A booming maxburst of full power commo filled my helmet, Snow Leopard reporting in. “Systies! It’s Systies! Command, Beta! We’re in combat with Systies! Positive ID! Major power systems coming on! They’re launching ships! Nova! Nova! Attack! Attack! Put it right on top of us!” Deadman’s death, we had done it! Systies, and we had passed the word! Now we could die in peace. Beta was history.

A nuclear sun seemed to burst right in my face, ripping the fabric of our reality, the shock wave lifting me up like a mote of dust and bouncing me off the melted ceiling, the noise shattering my ears, my faceplate solid black and the light still burning into my brain. My E bounced off my faceplate, ricocheting all around me at the end of the strap.

“Beta, attack! Fire all weapons!” I could hardly believe my ears. Snow Leopard was still alive! The world roared all around me. I lay in a river of fire. Sheets of flame, rivers of flame, rippled along the deck. The whole tunnel vibrated. I scrambled to my feet. I still had my E. Our own deceptors cracked wildly everywhere. Uncoordinated enemy fire went wild. My faceplate bloomed with a dazzling array of flashing red lights, frantic alarms sounding in my ears. Sweety relayed data non-stop, but it wasn’t getting through to my brain. A beautiful, glowing flower of biogas was splattered in eerie slow motion over what was left of the walls and ceiling and deck, ricocheting everywhere, lovely transparent fingers of doom. An icy thrill ran over my skin. Warhound rose up from in front of me, fire licking over his armor. Alive!

“Warhound! It’s Thinker, where’s Ironman!”

“Attack. We have to attack.” Another explosion blasted the tunnel ahead of us.

“Move up!” I shouted. Warhound and I moved forward shoulder to shoulder firing high on auto xmax and Sweety had the arc. The smoking tunnel ahead lit up with laser fire, then multiple flashes, grinding explosions, and another shock wave, knocking us flat.

“Deto!”

“Get up! Snow Leopard’s alive! Attack! Beta, attack!” I did not know who else survived, but I had heard Snow Leopard up ahead calling out the alert and knew we had to back him up. Warhound and I charged forward, firing blind.

“Sweety, give me a target! Beta sitrep!”

“Shielded enemy ahead, deceptor bursts, I cannot read them. Snow Leopard and Psycho ahead, I do not read Merlin, Ironman is behind you, Dragon and Priestess and Coolhand at the rear. Faint readings from Gamma, Delta, and Alpha, rapidly approaching on blackout. I estimate Central is responding with a full strategic strike, but all elements are on blackout. I read numerous tac nuke strikes and an initial anti burst in the air. I detect major enemy antimat launchings, currently underway. Multiple ignitions! You are under attack! Fire all weapons! I have the arc!”

We fired, a vicious burst of auto xmax tearing along just under the ceiling. More cracks, just over our heads.

“Keep firing, guys! Snow Leopard, report!”

An exquisite red starburst with a white-hot core, dazzling us, an eerie supersonic hissing. A tremendous crack, the earth shaking, blazing yellow streaks snapping past us, my armor ringing, my faceplate peppered with scars.

“Keep it up, Psycho! You’re a freaking genius! Don’t stop!” Snow Leopard, alive, and suddenly the smoke cleared for an instant and there they were, Snow Leopard and Psycho and Merlin, thank the dead, even Merlin! They huddled in a jagged hole torn out of the deck, severed power cables draped around them like writhing snakes, water and steam spraying wildly from a pipe, the tunnel peeled open ahead of them as if smashed by the fists of the Gods. Lights flickered on and off, fiery black smoke choking the air, a scary electric crackling.

Warhound and I hurled ourselves into the hole. I landed on a thick power cable. Ironman jumped in right after us. I was overjoyed to see him. Psycho had the Manlink on his shoulder and he fired even as we watched, crackling, dazzling tacstars flashing magically downtunnel. Snow Leopard and Merlin knelt beside Psycho, their E’s glowing, their armor pitted and smoking, and a tunnel of fire, molten metal, glowed all around them.

“Advance, Beta!” Insane or not, we’d follow our One all the way to Hell and fight our way through to the other side if he wanted. We advanced, stunned and silent, terrified, firing almost non-stop.

We found the first Systie almost immediately. He had been caught in one of Psycho’s tacstars. His heavy armor had been ripped apart like paper. His faceplate shattered, face swollen purple, the eyes bloody pulps, a black tongue showing between his lips. He had been a big man, but now he was nothing. Instinctively, I made the sign of the Legion.

Even through the damage, though, I recognized what he had once been. “Systie commando. Lord! Look at that insignia! 15th DefCorps! Deadman, what are they doing here?”

“They’re here! Never mind why! We attack! Quit gabbing! Move up, Beta!” Snow was all business.

“Ignition! Ignition! Ignition! You are under attack!”

“Fire! Fire!” Psycho let loose, we all let loose.

“Command Beta! We’ve ID’d a commando unit of the 15th DefCorps! Repeat, commandos, 15th DefCorps!”

“Confirm, Beta! Maintain your blackout!”

We finally reached the end of the long access tunnel and looked around at the twisted wreckage of a major base complex. Ceilings, decks, bulkheads all riddled, twisted, torn, shattered, shredded, and glowing, the metal running like white hot lava, hissing and spitting. Gaping holes peppered the deck and ceilings. We could see more levels down below, and A-suited soldiers, running. A confusing array of heavy equipment was scattered everywhere, tumbled in chaotic patterns, half buried in rubble. We sought shelter where we could. I ducked behind a heavy tracked vehicle, my heart racing.

A titanic blast hit ahead of us, ripping the air violently, spraying us with shrapnel, leaving me huddled in terror, deaf and frozen. I saw Psycho pop up like a toy soldier, the Manlink on his shoulder, fire another tacstar burst, and duck. A tremendous bang, freezing my blood.

Someone landed beside me. Hard. I turned and found myself staring into Boudicca’s faceplate. I got a quick glimpse of her glowing, ecstatic face, wild eyes, the Legion cross black on her forehead. She was biting her lip. Only an instant and then she leaped up, firing her E on full auto xmax, calling her troops.

“Death, Gamma! Death! Fire all weapons! Advance, Gamma, advance! Follow me, Gamma! Follow me!” And all of Gamma suddenly appeared, up and moving forward, and the world shook to their firing.

“Beta-advance! Fire controlled xmax!” We followed Snow Leopard, and my armor rang with hits as soon as I stepped forward. I aimed the E high and fired auto xmax, and Sweety did the rest. I didn’t bother looking at the tacsit.

Sweety was still talking. “Enemy troopers ahead! I see six, marked, fire xmax now! Ignition! Enemy tacstars! Fire all weapons! Fall now!” The deck hit me in the face. A ringing in my head, but nothing hurt any more. A great roaring. Get up.

“Get up! Attack! Biogas ignition! No effect! Recommend stunstar to take enemy prisoners! Ignition! Fire xmax! Major antimat launching sequences continuing! I detect a major launching completed! Numerous deceptor launches! Airburst antis! Major enemy troop concentrations directly ahead! Enemy V, laser, nuke, tacs now on you! Fire all weapons! Psycho fire tacstars, fire! Ignition! Multiple attacks, fire and fall!”

I fired and fell, just as we had practiced a thousand times in Hell. Again a white-hot sun licked at my armor.

“Get up! Attack! Psycho, give me some stunstars! I want prisoners!” Snow Leopard walked into the firestorm just ahead. Every muscle in my body screamed in agony. Engulfed in flames, I found something in my way. A massive chunk of metal, hanging from the overhead by a thin strip. I kicked it away. I thought I saw Valkyrie walking past me, calmly firing her E from the hip, wreathed in flames. I immediately thought of Priestess, somewhere behind me. I raised my E and fired. I could not afford such thoughts.

Sleepwalking, I stepped over the smoking armor of another Systie soldier, his A-suit torn open by unimaginable forces. Several of them sprawled, pitted and dead, frozen in grotesque positions, flames licking all around them. Someone screamed. I thought for a moment it was me. A sharp, eerie whistling, all around me. Suddenly pure white smoke enveloped me, and the air sparkled like diamonds. Biogas! I held my breath, instinctively.

I almost stumbled over another A-suit. This one moved, and I was about to shoot when I realized it was Legion armor. Ironman had fallen to his knees, his left arm missing below the elbow, armor burnt and smoking, raising his other arm to me. His eyes appeared strangely calm and vulnerable. Blood spurted from the wound.

“Medic! Priestess, Thinker, on me! Ironman’s hit!” I tore open my medkit, ripped out a pressure dressing and forced it up past the jagged edges of Ironman’s armor and into the wound. His blood squirted all over my armor.

Priestess arrived in a frac, working on Ironman immediately. He slumped into unconsciousness. I cradled his helmet in my arms. I thought of when I had first met Ironman, in Providence, and of everything that had happened since then. He was just an innocent kid, a schoolboy who had somewhere taken a wrong turn and found himself on Atom’s Road, still full of wonder at it all. Ironman-our last link with innocence. Deadman, don’t let him die!

“I’ve done the wound,” Priestess said calmly. “The biogas, we’ve got to seal the suit, now. Help me with the sealant.”

We stuffed sealant into the jagged remains of the A-suit’s left arm, while lasers snapped all around us, drilling ragged lines into a nearby wall. I aimed my E with one hand and fired blindly on auto xmax. Ironman’s armor was badly scarred and pitted, but appeared to be functional. Shrapnel suddenly rained on us, pinging off our armor.

“Beta! Attack! We need more firepower!” Snow Leopard called out.

“Go, Thinker,” Priestess insisted. “We’ve got to leave him, I’ll mark it.”

“Will he be all right?”

“Yes. Go!”

Whatever used to be here was now unrecognizable. It had been a major Systie base, full of heavy equipment and starline containers, buried far underground, hidden in the heart of the exoseg complex, worlds within worlds, so deep and silent we had never even suspected its existence. Now it was smoking junk, still burning brightly, torn and vaporized and shredded and melting. Command would be hitting the base from above, and I did not see how we could survive.

A blue flash with white streaks of streaming debris lit up just ahead, followed closely by a sharp concussion wave. More shrapnel. I could barely see out my faceplate, it was so scarred. I moved forward into thick clouds of black smoke.

Sweety continued talking. “Enemy stunstar! Beta and Gamma ahead, engaging the enemy. Fire xmax, Thinker, I’ll guide it!”

A blinding flash up ahead, a tacstar. The shockwave, rocking me. I aimed high and fired a burst of xmax. Lasers flashed past me.

Suddenly a great roaring vibration echoed from above and a massive section of ceiling came down in awesome slow motion, low grade metal beams melting like icicles in the flames, carrying down the world from up above. A great glowing mass of equipment, ripping and tearing and popping.

It all fell in on us. Sweety squeaked a warning and Psycho, on my left, fired a tacstar right up there, fighting to the end, alarms shrieking, nowhere to go but stand there, head up, and face my death.

I raised my E and fired, full auto xmax, screaming.

Light. Heat, rushing through my veins. Whispers.

“Get up, Thinker! Get up!”

“Thinker! Answer me, Thinker!” Dreaming. Sweety’s voice. Priestess’s voice. Valkyrie’s voice.

My eyes flickered open. Light, glimmering. A dull roaring. Shadows. A face. Dark eyes, through a red faceplate. Priestess. Priestess! Kneeling over me, her black armor streaked with white scars and covered with dust. A confusing tangle of wreckage surrounded us. Lights flashed.

“Thinker! Speak to me!”

“Priestess…love you!” I reached up a hand and she collapsed onto me gasping, her eyes closed. We enjoyed the moment, faceplate to faceplate. I looked right into her face and I saw a child looking back, cheeks streaming with tears. Deadman, what were we doing out here, on the bad side of outside, beyond the edge, locked in a lunatic struggle for the future with an enemy who should not be here. I held her tightly. We would get through this, somehow, and then it would be Thinker and Priestess, forever.

“I’m so happy, Thinker!”

“We’ll be all right, Priestess. What’s the sit?” My entire body throbbed in agony, but Sweety told me I had no injuries. It’s not easy to hurt yourself in an A-suit.

“It’s a mess,” Priestess replied. “This whole section has collapsed. I thought I’d never find you. Get up, we’ve got to go! Everybody is here now. The Second and the Third and the Fourth. Central did airburst antis right over the base. It’s a miracle we’re still alive! The Systies launched all their ships to get away. I don’t know what happened. Get up, we’re still fighting!”

We crawled through a tangled maze of collapsed walls and ceilings, festooned with spitting, hissing power cables and twisted structural beams and shattered consoles and huge metal poles. We struggled past bombed-out aircars, heavy construction equipment, and burning crates of rations and supplies, riddled with holes. Thick billowing smoke rose and emergency lights glared and flickered, revealing bodies, smashed and crushed, in armor and out, pale and fragile and still. Weapons littered the wreckage.

Lasers snapped somewhere up ahead. What a mess! We crawled over a pile of wreckage and the collapsed ceiling scraped my helmet.

“Elektra, Farside, Gamma have this area secured,” Sweety told me. “Mopping up activity underway. The enemy successfully launched seven starships. They had evidently prepped for our arrival. Although all power systems were off, they were set to initiate launches as soon as they powered on.”

“Thinker, Snow Leopard! You with us yet? On me!”

“Snow Leopard, Thinker. Tenners!” I replied. We slid down a great pile of smoking rubble. To our right we could see up several levels through gaping holes in the floors. A pair of massive blast doors rose up even higher, sealed tight, burned black. It was quiet except for the fire, consuming this secret world.

“Priestess, how’s Ironman? Did we lose anyone?”

“Ironman is with Beta now. He’s stable. We called an evac but they’re still trying to get through. The place is an absolute mess. As far as I know, we’re all here. We thought they got Psycho, but you can’t kill Psycho, he’s laserproof, you know that.” She sounded tired, but thrilled to be alive.

“I’ll kill you, you filthy Systie worm! I’ll kill you! You’re dead, you understand? I’ll cut off your worthless head! Talk, you subhuman pig!” Boudicca seized the fat, greasy Systie by the throat and slammed him up against the wall. Boudicca had her helmet off, but was otherwise totally armored. The Systie looked naked in comparison, clothed only in a litesuit. Boudicca was enraged, her face burning, her flaming red hair accenting it, her teeth like fangs. The Systie turned purple, strangling, his naked fingers clawing at Boudicca’s armored hand. The Legion Cross on her forehead seemed to throb.

“That’s enough, Boudicca!” Snow Leopard intervened, pulling her away from the Systie. Snow Leopard also had his helmet off, sweating and filthy, his blond-white hair plastered to his skull. The Systie slid down the wall and collapsed on the floor, gasping hoarsely, covered with blood and peppered with wounds. Another Systie slumped miserably in the corner, in litepants and no shirt. What looked like half of Beta and Gamma crowded around the prisoners, and they were in an ugly mood. I could not tell what function the room had served. Broken glass and rubble littered the floor.

“I’m going to kill him!” Boudicca surged past Snow Leopard and seized one of the Systie’s hands in her armored fist. She began to squeeze, slowly, a cenite vise. The Systie screamed in agony, groveling on the floor, with Boudicca slowly crushing his hand. I heard the bones snapping.

“Let go of him, Boudicca! He’s a Legion prisoner! I don’t care if we are pledged, you touch him again and I’ll see you lose your squad!” Snow Leopard wrestled her away from the prisoner. She pulled her hand away viciously and blood spattered on the deck. The Systie howled mournfully, his bloody hand still outstretched before him.

Boudicca again tore herself away from Snow Leopard’s grip, raising her E to the Systie’s head. “Talk, you scum! Your prisoners! Where are they! Talk, or you die!” She made a terrifying sight, a rabid wolf of a girl spitting venom. With that Legion cross burned into her forehead, she could have posed for a Systie hateprop show on the Legion.

The Systie continued to scream, his mouth locked open, his body twisted in agony. Boudicca had some support from the troops.

“Kill him! Do it!”

“Cut his arm off!”

“Set him on fire!”

“Put down your E! He can’t talk like this!” Snow Leopard tried to control her.

“He’s dead, I don’t care what he says, he’s dead!”

I watched this show in stupefied wonder, then I went on private to Priestess. “What’s all this about, Priestess?”

“I don’t know, Thinker. I just got here!”

“Talk, you maggot! You want to die slow? I’ll put you in a pit of acid! Talk, damn you!” Boudicca was going off the deep edge.

The Systie was a big man, but he was soft, clearly not a soldier. His face twitched, and his lips moved. “The ship,” he said. “We were supposed to be on the ship.” He had a very strange accent.

Boudicca seized him by his tunic, and pulled him up until his puffy, round face almost touched hers. “Prisoners! Speak, you fat slug! You took a prisoner! Where are your PWs! If you don’t tell me, I’m going to kill you, right now! Tell me and you live! Speak!” She screamed in his face, spittle flying wildly.

“They used stunstars…”

“Tell me something I don’t know, Systie!”

“They wanted some prisoners, to find out…”

“Where! Where did they take them!”

“We don’t know, they didn’t tell us! We’re not with the DefCorps!”

Boudicca slammed him to the floor in disgust, and raised her arms over her head, a gesture of supreme frustration. “I’m going to kill him!”

“I’ll talk to him, Boudicca. You’re too upset,” Snow Leopard said. “Take a drink, have some water. They’ll talk. Don’t worry, they’ll talk.”

Boudicca turned, and I had never seen her look so shattered. She appeared stricken and her eyes were moist. “All right, tenners, try, but if they don’t talk, I am personally going to strangle them both. You hear me, Systies!” She spun on her heel, hissing at them, and they recoiled from her fury.

A growing sense of dread washed over me. The fat man, on his knees, held his shattered hand before him, trembling and crying. Blood poured freely down his arm. “Can’t we stop the bleeding?” he sobbed. “We’re a civilian. We’re not a soldier. We didn’t shoot at the Legion. We don’t belong here.”

“Shoot him!”

“Shut down, Boudicca! Thinker-” A sharp blast outside interrupted Snow Leopard. We went to ground, and several troopers went charging out the doorway. Priestess made a move toward the wounded Systie. I stopped her.

“Get out of my way, Thinker!”

“Just wait a few moments-just a frac, all right? He’ll be all right.”

Snow Leopard interrupted us. “Thinker, you and I will interrogate the prisoner. Take off your helmet. Priestess, wait until the interrogation is complete.”

“The man is wounded,” Priestess said, pale and furious. “I formally request permission to treat his wounds. Now! He’s losing blood. I can bandage his hand while you’re interrogating him. And I am filing a report on how he got this wound!”

“Wonderful,” Snow Leopard said calmly. “All right, proceed, Priestess.”

I cracked open my helmet, and the stink of the place hit me immediately. It smelled of burning power cables and death. My eyes stung from the smoke in the air. Lasers snapped outside.

“Thinker, you may do the honors.” Snow Leopard wanted this done correctly, I could tell.

Priestess was already prepping the Systie’s hand.

“Thank you, Snow Leopard.” I turned my attention to the fat man, still on his knees. Snow Leopard and I squatted before him. Priestess pressed on a field dressing. “Systie, this is a combat tactical interrogation,” I told him. “You are a combatant, and you are being interrogated by field elements of the 22nd Legion of the Confederation of Free Worlds. We are now in a combat situation, and your cooperation is essential to our tactical success. If you refuse interrogation or attempt to deceive us, you will be shot dead immediately as a combatant. If you cease resistance and cooperate to our satisfaction, you will be granted official ConFree prisoner of war status and will come under the protection of the laws of the Confederation and of the Interstellar Code on prisoners of war. Do you understand the situation?”

“Yes. Yes, we do…we want to cooperate.”

“Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Will you cooperate?”

“Yes…” he seemed in agony.

“Good. Why is the System on this planet?”

His face paled, his eyes went wild, and he gasped for air. “Please…no…don’t ask us…”

“Thinker, forget that,” Snow Leopard interrupted impatiently. “Ask him if they took any prisoners.”

“Yeah, sure. Systie, did you take any prisoners? What the…” The Systie froze, his face trembling, his eyes glazed over. Blood burst suddenly from his nostrils, two bright red jets. His mouth popped open and his eyes rolled back in his sockets and he shuddered and toppled over backwards, stone dead.

Stunned, we just stared at the body. Priestess was astounded, her medkit still in her hands.

“Good!” Boudicca declared. “Now kill the other one!”

“Coolhand! Did you see that?” Snow Leopard asked.

“Yes,” Coolhand replied. “That’s got to be psych programming.”

“I agree. This is what happened to our two Systie recon guys.”

Snow Leopard pondered the possibilities. “This is really interesting. It was the first question…not the second.” His gaze turned to the other prisoner, still miserably huddled in the corner, shirtless. We gathered around him. He raised his face, bravely. He was young and muscular, and covered with old scars. He shivered, whether in cold or fear I did not know.

“Systie,” I began. “This is a combat tactical interrogation…”

“We understand,” he said. “We are a soldier, we understand. We will cooperate. We will tell it all we know.” He had the same accent as the other one.

“Prisoners!” Snow Leopard insisted. “Did you take prisoners? Speak!”

“Yes, at least one prisoner. We heard it on the net, but we did not participate. We think it was…yes, it was the Seventh, their security elements, the 3rd and 4th squads.”

“Details!” Snow Leopard was doing the interrogation now. I listened.

“They used a stunstar, and it worked. They only had a few marks to get back to the ship before launching, but they made it back with the prisoner. We remember they gave a cheer. That was their mission.”

“And the ship,” Snow Leopard asked. “What ship was it?”

“The Seventh was on the Preference. That’s where they took the prisoner-to the Preference.”

“Trooper,” Snow Leopard asked. “If we ask you about the purpose of this installation, are you going to die on us?”

The Systie took a deep breath. “We don’t think so. It knew it was coming, we could see that. It was a baser. But nobody ever told us anything important. We’re just a soldier. Fifteenth DefCorps, Stratcom, the Starfleet Commandos. It was a good outfit…” he paused, overcome by emotion. “We’re sorry about Legion comrade. System lost some good men, too.”

“So why is the System here? Why the base?”

“We’re just a soldier,” he repeated. “The base was highly classified. It was a horror show. They said the basers never left. They just stayed there, forever. Our outfit was here to provide external security and strategic defense. But it was a big operation. Lots of star carriers, coming and going. Lots of heavy equipment. It was a mining operation of some sort. Unitium, somebody said. We weren’t supposed to know. We never got near the mining area. They had their own internal security.”

“Unitium? What are you talking about? What’s unitium?” Snow Leopard sounded puzzled.

“We don’t know! And we don’t ask questions.”

Shocked expressions and a long pause followed.

“Unitium?” Merlin mused. “Let’s see-unitium is an extremely rare, natural mineral with some unique properties that looked theoretically useful for the acceleration of promat. At one time, it was of interest in connection with some containment problems associated with star drives. But we solved those problems, and we didn’t use unitium.”

“Why would the System be interested in this stuff?” Snow Leopard asked.

“I can’t imagine why they would,” Merlin replied. “They’ve already stolen all our stardrive technology. Nobody cares about unitium.”

Snow Leopard turned back to the Systie. “Where were you guys when we got here? This place was dead!”

The prisoner took a deep breath. “Legion really surprised us, when its starship hit the screens. We picked up that much. It was not expected! And it seems we were not supposed to be here, either, because we were all set. We went to dead systems immediately. The whole base was built for strategic deniability. It was a class camo job. But we never thought anyone would actually land here! So when Legion showed up, every major power system in the base and on the ships was cut. The whole time Legion’s been on planet, we’ve been sealed and dead, not a move, not a peep, just rotting underground, and the command so scared they wouldn’t even let us send out recon elements for the first few months. It’s been a stinking mess. We don’t know what they were planning. Surely, they didn’t think Legion was going to go away, not after we lost two of our recon units. Did Legion pick up on them? We figured it did.”

The prisoner wouldn’t stop talking, pouring out his frustrations. “After a while they knew Legion was homing in on us and the plan was to abandon the base, because we did not have the strength to fight. And we guess it worked, except Legion surprised us again, popping up in the middle of the base like that. We don’t think anyone knows how Legion did that, and we’d guess it interrupted the basers. Because otherwise we’d all be dead.” He wiped his face on his forearm.” The plan was to antimat the base.”

Antimat the base! It was one of those fascinating little bits of trivia that you’re really glad you didn’t know about beforehand. That would have ruined our whole day. I opened a canteen, took a swig, and offered it to the prisoner. He grasped it eagerly and drank deeply.

“Tell me about the exosegs, trooper,” Snow Leopard said.

The Systie stared vacantly at Snow Leopard. “Well, what does it want to know? All they told us was don’t ever leave the base. It seemed like good advice. The exos eat people. And worse. It’s an evil business. They have something to do with the levies. We didn’t ask.”

“Tell me about the levies.”

“We weren’t supposed to know about them, but it’s a small base. We’d see the natives-lots of them-men, women, kids-heading for the transports. It wasn’t voluntary, we can tell it that. They were in shock. Some couldn’t even move. Somebody once called it ‘the levies’. There was a connection with the exosegs. I don’t know what it was.”

“The exos are native to Andrion 3. Why are they here?” It was a dangerous question. I knew Snow Leopard very well, and he was about to decide whether or not this Systie was lying to us.

The Systie just looked at him. “Andrion 3? What’s that?” A tense little silence ensued, and then the Systie resumed, nervously. “Look, we don’t know any Andrion 3. In the System we do what we’re told, and we don’t ask questions. They told us we could call this world ‘Site X’. That’s all. We don’t have the slightest idea where we are. We never did. And we never heard of any Andrion 3. That’s the truth. Legion asked for the truth.”

Snow Leopard kept looking at him, silent. Finally he spoke. “What was your last port of call?”

“It was Coldmark, out in the Gassies. It’s a USICOM world. It’s the end of the line. We were on the Rule of Law, out of Port Promise. Very far out of Port Promise, we can tell it. We thought Coldmark was the armpit of the galaxy until we got to Site X. X was bad duty. It’s an evil place. We’re glad we’re done with it. Legion is welcome to it.” His head dropped again. He shivered. He was drained, and ready to crash. “Is it going to shoot us or not?”

Snow Leopard ignored his question. “What happened to you, trooper? Why didn’t you make it back to your ship?” Snow Leopard had decided the Systie was telling the truth, I could tell.

The Systie took a deep breath, and made another effort to control his emotions. “Some of our guys were trapped when the fifth level fell in. We knew the ship was launching, but they were still in there. We tried to get them out.” He hid his face from us. We did not ask him whether or not he had found his buddies. It would not have been polite.

Exhausted, I couldn’t even form a complete thought. I noticed Boudicca propped up against a wall, one armored fist on her brow, eyes closed, jaw clenched. Her other hand came up to her eyes and she sat there miserably, trembling. I could not see her face. If I had not known her so well, I’d have sworn she was crying.

That wave of dread returned and I suddenly knew. I took a deep breath. “So what’s all this about a prisoner?” I asked Snow Leopard quietly. “Who…who did they grab?”

He looked at me wearily, vaguely surprised. “You didn’t know? It’s Valkyrie. She’s missing. Looks like the Systies got her.”

The forest was burning in the night. That was the view when we reached the top. We had climbed all the way up through the shattered Systie base, threading our way through the twisted wreckage, avoiding the worst fires, crawling up like worms, alert for stragglers. But we found only the dead and what the living left behind. We also found mines and pockets of biogas. Lots of nasty surprises. Ironman had been evak’d by an amtac, slicing in from above.

We surfaced in a forest of flames, a charcoal forest glowing red in the night, burning brightly. Great torrents of sparks and incredible rushes of flames rose up to the heavens, sooty smoke hiding the stars. Fire lifted into the night, exploding wildly, a chilling, beautiful spectacle. We stood in the ruins, cracked our helmets open, and breathed in the hot night air, lush with smoke and full of the taste of ashes and death. The glowing bones of the base crawled with soldiers from the Third, dropped in from topside on the glowing aftermath of our antis, but we were the first to surface from below. We had crawled up through Perdition, and I never wanted to see it again.

The Systies had dug their base and unitium mining operation in from one side, leaving the forest above them for cover. Pits of flame glowed in the charcoal forest like volcanoes. Their ships had been well concealed under blast-proof launch silos. Now the silos opened to the stars, spitting rivers of flame as the base burned. The ships were splitting vac, far beyond our reach. Where the forest had collapsed, the skeleton of the base glowed cherry-red.

I looked up at the stars, blinking. Another river of fire glowed high above, a ghostly highway in the heavens, a glittering stream of golden sparks and silver comets, traced across the velvet sky. As I watched, some of the sparks lit up and exploded silently, mini flashes of nuclear light, flaring briefly, then fading, breaking up into a shower of angel dust, winking in the night. It was a vision of ice and fire.

We learned on the comnet that Atom had reacted to Snow Leopard’s first shouted warning in microfracs, crash-launching into stardrive immediately, but not before instantaneously launching the cruisers and the fighter force and a full strategic strike. Fleetcom doesn’t like risking its battlestars unnecessarily and in this case Atom’s presence was not necessary to deal with this minor disturbance. She would be safe in stardrive and could return at any time.

A lot of surprised pilots woke up quickly, some of them with faces scalded by cups of hot dox, but they all had alarms shrieking in their ears and the stars suddenly dancing in their screens and a red-hot weapons panel instantly alive with fully armed antis and nukes and chainlinks and targets coming on the screen, and Andrion 2 rushing at them, enemy deceptors lighting up their lives.

Most of the Systie ships had gotten through, hiding in the deceptors, but some of them had not, and these still tumbled through space, the wreckage skipping along the atmosphere, lighting up the night sky-glowing, burning, spitting flames, exploding. Exhausted and stunned, we watched the show. Aircars hovered over the base like a swarm of bloodsucking gnats, dazzling white searchlights stabbing mercilessly down into the dark, revealing the Systie’s secret world. Legion fighters orbited high above, specks of blue flame in the night, and two of them dipped low for a better view, suddenly flashing past close overhead, twin sonic booms shattering the night, rattling my teeth. I never could watch them without a hopeless thrill.

Even then, exhausted and drained, I could feel it. Raw power, and the will of the Legion, a mailed fist in the heavens for us all, and we knew it was ours, and ours alone. All we had to do was call it in, just like Snow Leopard did. Just one feeble squawk and they’d be there, Atom’s fist, dropping in from topside, ripping the atmosphere open like a rotten fruit, bringing all of Atom’s power and glory, bringing instant death to all our foes. They had torn the top right off this base and now it glowed in the night, the mark of the Legion, our mark, burnt into the face of this distant world for all to see.

A miracle, I thought. We had all survived. Ironman was safe in evac, and all the Legion’s skill and knowledge were with him.

The rest of Beta was right here, helmets off, breathing the hot night air and watching the flames as the base burnt and the Third fought the fire. We had kicked in the door and walked right into their best. Snow Leopard, staring into space, silent at last, pale and drained, hair plastered to his skull, hollow eyes now bloody red.

Coolhand, also silent, squatted in his armor, watching the show, hypnotized, content. Merlin stood, stunned, staring at the burning charcoal forest and the volcanoes spitting flame and the fleets of dancing aircars and the blinding searchlights flashing over us, and the lovely sparkling trail of destruction up by the stars, taking it all in as if he never wanted to forget it.

Psycho, spent at last after his orgy of destruction, his face all cut and swollen, both eyes blackened, still toting his Manlink on one hip-the Manlink that saved us all. Psycho called her the Mother of Destruction, and we called her the Tacstar Goddess.

Warhound sat in his armor, holding his head, eyes closed. Dragon stood off by himself, scowling, cradling his E in his arms. This was one of his unapproachable times. What did he think about, I wondered. Flashes from lost wars? Lost worlds, lost causes, vanished soldiers?

Priestess, precious Priestess, her head on my armored shoulder, her scent a hot musk in my nostrils, her hair soaked in sweat, Beta’s perfume of the day. I could easily lose myself in dreams of Priestess, with her lovely soft hair kissing my cheek. I would only have to close my eyes.

An aircar slowly passed over us, raising a swirl of smoke. And a vision came to me: the Phantoms of the March. Surely this was what Longwalker and Starlight had discovered, all those lost dead years ago. They had run into the Systies, and somehow escaped. The Phantoms of the March, an alien army. What else could Longwalker have believed? He thought they were ghosts.

I was too tired to sleep, too tired to close my eyes. I could only stare into the night. I saw Valkyrie, misty in the smoke, the breeze rustling her blonde hair. Valkyrie, a captive of the Systies. It was obscene. She worshipped freedom, and even the Legion could not hold her. She did as she pleased, always. How could they put her in a cage? What would happen to her?

Horrified, I looked up to the stars, the smoke of the burning forest stinging my eyes. Valkyrie was still alive. I was positive I could feel her, across the light years. Alive.

Priestess looked up at me calmly. “I don’t hate her. I’m jealous whenever she’s around and I’d fight her again over you, but I don’t hate her. The Legion will find her. We will find her! And when we do I’ll kick her butt. And then I’ll kick your butt-and you’ll still be mine.” She smiled and laid her head back on my shoulder.

Chapter 13: In the Eye of the Hole

Somewhere in the eye of the hole, I awoke. I knew immediately where we were. The chron confirmed it. That far in, we were probably already on our way out. Still too early to tell. I knew it from the silence and from the pressure on my skin, and from my own fear. Boring a magical hole into the vac, we ripped through the delicate fabric of reality, making our own fantastic highway, Atom’s Road, a sparkling antimat bullet right between the eyes of the Cosmos, holding the wormhole open with antimatter, quantum vacuum and negative pressure. In the eye of the hole. We still had a long, long way to go.

Awake, again. I pondered the bottom of the wall bunk above me. A tomb. A shiver rippled over my skin. I did not want to be alone but I could not move. Thoughts coiled around my mind like snakes.

Coldmark lay somewhere ahead of us, a pale fat frozen fruit glowing against a black sky. And in distant combat orbit around the planet, hurtling across the night sky like a tiny silver star, the System Ship Preference no doubt awaited us, its sensors all on max, its crew probably on yellow alert. We now knew exactly where the Systie ships had gone. Most of them were too fast for us, hiding in hundreds of deceptors. They had escaped death, but they did not escape Atom. A fleet of deep space probes had followed the tracks all the way, right into the out and out to the in. And it led to Coldmark.

There were plenty of other Systie ships, in orbit around Coldmark-a whole fleet! We had plans for them all, but I wanted the Preference. Preference had a Legion prisoner, and it was marked for destruction, whether or not we got our comrade back. We rode the Spawn, one of Atom’s cruisers, and Spawn carried its own fleet of fighters and assault craft. We had enough power to knock Coldmark right out of orbit, but lucky for the Systies it was not that kind of mission.

In Hell, Valkyrie and I had gone through the swamp together. We were only trainees at that point, not lovers. The luck of the Legion threw us together for the swamp. It was a simple test, the kind the Legion liked best. They armed us with cold knives and dropped us by twos into that nameless swamp. The mission: get to the hills on the other side. If we reached the hills, we passed. If we never appeared, we failed. Howling packs of swarmers opposed us, and swamp suckers, and hungry, aggressive lizards and flesh-eating fish and numberless varieties of poisonous snakes and clamstones and snappervines and even carnivorous trees. Invisible mudholes might suck us in to our deaths and poisonous vegetation could send us into fevers and death dreams and hallucinations. At night the vampire gliders awaited to kill us quietly as we slept, sucking us dry. Worst of all were the cannibals, human stone-age throwbacks, tracking us quietly through the swamp, hungry for Outworlder flesh. They had committed some awful outrage against the Legion, generations ago, and were still paying for it.

That was where I got to know Valkyrie. I could not have made it without her, and she could not have made it without me. I had never admitted it to her, but she frightened me. I had never before met anyone without a soul. The cannibals actually found us one night, and we killed about six of them with our cold knives in their first wild rush, and ran from the rest. We stayed together and cut sharp wooden stakes with our knives and left them in our tracks, punji stakes, under the water, and listened to their outraged screams. She bound my wounds, and I bound hers, and we fought our way out of that swamp.

We climbed through a cool forest of tall dark trees, wreathed with mist, and walked along a freezing stream. Eventually, we found a secret road of stone and climbed some more and dropped, exhausted, halfway up the hill to a grove of softly swaying trees. A light rain started and we huddled together for warmth. Her eyes were like a wild beast. She had blood on her hands and she left scratches all over my back and tooth marks on my neck. From then on I was her Thinker, and she was my Valkyrie, and it was Thinker and Valkyrie, forever.

Forever. I was pledged to another, and she was a prisoner of the System. But it changed nothing.

I triggered a minicard, and her image appeared before my eyes, glowing with life, floating in the air. How could I have ever been lucky enough to meet this girl? A miracle, a gift of the Gods. An angel, carved from sunshine and moonlight. Hair of molten gold and glittering emerald eyes, focused on some other world. I never understood her-never. But that did not matter. Not now.

I entered the lounge, cold and lonely. I knew I had been rather withdrawn lately; nobody wanted to bother me. Powerful, spooky music wailed in the background, Empire stuff. Beta was normally not so introspective; we preferred noise and feeling. Somebody else must have put it on. I spotted a few troopers from Gamma, and many others I did not know. Beta huddled in a corner on the floor around a low table covered with charts and readouts and minicards and d-screens.

“Thinker here,” I said.

“Welcome back,” Snow Leopard responded. “We were just talking about Coldmark. Have a seat.”

I found a place on the floor. Snow Leopard looked good, his long blond hair brushed carefully back revealing his prominent widow’s peak. He appeared rested and alert as his piercing pink eyes roamed over the readouts. He was a great planner, and in his element here. We faced a very tricky situation on Coldmark.

Priestess had curled up in a chair. She wore minishorts and her legs appeared to be distracting Psycho who sat on the floor nearby, ogling her. Coolhand and Merlin and Warhound and Dragon huddled around the table. Ironman would not be with us on this op; he was back in Atom’s body shop, growing a new arm.

“This is not going to be easy, girls.” Snow Leopard was always a realist. We knew his plan to accomplish the mission would also maximize our chances for survival. Some leaders focused on the mission exclusively and viewed their assets as expendable. Snow Leopard wasn’t like that. “You heard the man. Coldmark is in the Neutral Zone. Officially it’s an independent world, and the inhabitants do have their own government. Unofficially, the System has been more active in this sector than we have, and the locals have been cooperating, not having any choice.”

“So let’s give ‘em a choice,” Coolhand suggested. He gazed thoughtfully at an aerial shot of Port Coldmark.

“It’s not that easy,” Snow Leopard responded. “We’re here for some very specific reasons, and starting another war with the System is not one of them. You all heard the briefing. Mission One is to discover why the System has been extracting unitium from Andrion 2. Mission Two is to recover Valkyrie. Mission Three is to discover why the Systies are kidnapping Taka and where they are taking them. And Mission Four is to negotiate with the System on the future of the System’s unitium mine, or what’s left of it.”

“Our unitium mine, you mean,” Coolhand said.

“Well, the negotiation proposal came from the System direct to ConFree. Starcom ordered us to negotiate. I don’t know if we’re going to negotiate seriously or not. Maybe it’s only a tactic to allow us to accomplish the other tasks. Anyway, that’s not Beta’s worry. Beta’s part in all this is to assist Gamma in recovering Valkyrie. That’s all we have to do.”

Unitium. The System was mining unitium. That had been clearly established. We had busted a unitium mine, and according to Command, the exosegs had been imported to Andrion 2 from Andrion 3 by the System, most likely to protect the secret of the mines from the Sunrealmers. It had worked, for a hundred years.

According to Command. The part about the exos bothered me a great deal. The instant we spotted an exo on Andrion 2, we knew something was wrong. Why would the Systies do that? The exos were a minor question, however. The major question was unitium. I didn’t know much about it except it was rare. Merlin said unitium had once been of interest in connection with some vexing containment problems associated with early antimat star drives. That, however, was ancient history. The problems had long ago been solved, by other means, and unitium discarded as being of no practical value.

No practical value. The System had invested billions of credits in scarce resources, launched a major secret military mission, and constructed a hardsited base deep in ConFree vac, in blatant violation of treaty. They knew full well that its discovery might lead to another interstellar war. The Confederation and the System had coexisted uneasily for almost a generation, and now every star fleet in the galaxy was surely on the move, prepped for combat. The Systies must have thought long and hard before coming up with this one.

“Nonsense!” Merlin had declared. “The stuff is worthless, and it’s also very rare and expensive to extract. There’s nothing you can do with it that can’t be done better, or cheaper, using other methods and materials, all of which are available to the System.”

“Come on, Merlin,” Coolhand argued. “They were spending billions to mine and transport it out of the local system. What are they doing with it? Eating it? They’re using it for something!”

“I don’t deny all that. But I find the whole concept very puzzling. Look, it’s possible unitium may have applications we don’t know about yet. But it means going down an entirely new road of scientific development, and it means going in blind, for years of research, with no goal in sight. It means billions invested in pure science. That’s fine. I’d love to see it, but it’s not going to happen. ConFree puts a lot into pure science, but there are financial limits. And the System is a lot more selective than we are about what they do.”

“They put a lot of resources into the military, don’t they?”

“Sure. But all the military-related scientific and technical tasks that can be envisaged for unitium have already been accomplished. Acceleration of promat is done with iomags quite nicely, thank you. Unitium is not needed for that.”

“They’re making a major-and dangerous-effort to extract and transport the stuff,” Coolhand said. “Obviously they’ve discovered some use for it that we don’t know about.”

“Well, I’ll say it’s strange. It’s very strange. You know the System steals all their best technology from us. I can’t imagine why they’d want to wrestle with a brand new research effort on their own. And if I could answer this question, I’d drop in on Firefall and tell him. And I assure you, I’ll do that as soon as I figure it out.”

“Well what do you think it is?”

“Don’t know.” Merlin closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “But I’ll bet somebody does.”

And that was all we could get out of Merlin on the subject. Unitium wasn’t our concern, anyway. Our task was to recover Valkyrie.

I glanced over at Priestess. She blinked her big brown eyes and wet her lips with the tip of her tongue.

I forced my eyes away. A miniscreen showed a cutaway of the SS Preference

“Of course she might not even be on the Preference. She might have been transferred to another ship, or maybe even transported downside,” Snow Leopard said. He paused, and sighed. “She won’t still have her c-cell in. They’ll have taken that out. So finding her is not going to be easy. But we’re going to have a little help.”

A little help. I knew Gravelight was with us, locked away in her cube like an evil princess of power, avoiding us all, alone with Valkyrie’s possessions, clothes and equipment and personal effects, everything she’d left behind. There would be some things I had given her, and some things Boudicca had given her. When Gravelight was through, she would know Valkyrie better than either of us. And Valkyrie wasn’t even Gravelight’s primary task. Her primary task was unitium.

We all feared psychers. I pitied her. How could anyone have that much power? She must be twisted with hate and bitterness. A normal life was impossible. How was love possible? I never wanted to see Priestess’s mind, for fear of what I would find.

A little help. It was more than a little help. And Lowdrop had said there would be more help, on Coldmark. He did not say more than that, the people who had to know had already been briefed.

“We’ll be working closely with Gamma,” Snow Leopard said. “It’s our joint responsibility to recover Valkyrie. We’ll only be indirectly involved in the unitium question, and the negotiations. Now I want to go over these contingency plans again. There are numerous possibilities, and I want every Beta trooper to be prepared for every contingency.”

We went to work. At nearby tables, people listened to music and drank bitter. Beta never rested, but I didn’t mind. I didn’t mind at all. I cleared my mind of everything except the Mission. The Mission was Valkyrie. I didn’t care about the unitium. I didn’t even care if we started another interstellar war.

LEGION 22. OUTVAC STARCOM FLEETCOM ALL UNITS. ACCESS BLUE MAGSEC CRITSIT SECRET.

WARNING: This document contains classified information protected by ConFree espionage laws. Your access to this document has now been recorded. Unauthorized access subjects the user to serious penalties under the espionage and treason statutes.

SUBJECT: Coldmark-Background

SUMMARY: Coldmark is an inhabited Class A planet in the Gassy Sector of the Far Outers Neutral Zone. The star is Sista Alpha, a yellow prime. The planet is mineral poor. Coldmark’s inhabitants are relatively recent human migrants who settled Coldmark during the population shifts forced by the Race Wars. Although nominally independent and claiming to be neutral, the Government is a USICOM ward and has close relations with the United System Alliance. (See Starcord, Environment, History, Government and Interstellar Relations.)

Living conditions are extremely primitive for the bulk of the rapidly increasing population, although the ruling class, which maintains power through economic, military and religious control, has a high standard of living. Both ruling class and ruled are mortals. (See Society.)

Coldmark is a Neutral Zone free port, and seldom denies orbit rights. All Legion registered starships have orbit rights by USICOM treaty. The ruling mercantile class engages freely in all profitable commercial enterprises, including the smuggling of illegal drugs, weapons, protected and classified information, contraband and slaves. None of this activity is illegal on Coldmark…

I set the report aside. Cubes, Commander of the Second, had just entered the room, and I pretended to be invisible. I guess you could say he was a frightening guy. He was pale and wiry with a skull-like face and deep, dark eyes that burned with a hypnotic fanaticism. I hadn’t seen much of him before. Lowdrop was scary enough for me. I prefer to avoid contact with people at that level.

The Second sat casually on the edge of a table, and briefed everyone in the narrow wardroom of the Spawn. Everyone who was going downside was right there, in the wardroom, clad in litesuit blacks. They would not stop lasers or x, but just about anything else. We had new kit for our handguns and commo gear as well. We were supposed to be diplomats for this mission, not soldiers.

Anyone could tell just by looking at Cubes that he was dangerous. His hair was combed off to one side. There was a hint of Assidic in the eyes, but the overall facial structure was Outworlder. He appeared to be as young as anyone in Beta, but appearances lie. I heard he had joined the Legion during the Race Wars. It was the usual story: he had lost his family, his nation, his whole world. I did not want to know any more; his credentials sounded good to me. When he began to speak, the chatter stopped. He had a very quiet voice.

“Cubes here,” he began. “Thanks for coming. As you know, we will soon be orbiting Coldmark. You’ve all been briefed on your individual missions. The big picture is much less clear to you. I’d like to make a few comments on that. We’re going into a very hostile environment in order to accomplish several very sensitive objectives. The System is going to have psychers present. So will we. Everyone going downside is a potential psych target, and that’s why you’re not getting the big picture, just what you have to know.” He paused, and looked around the room. Nobody was asleep. Even Psycho was paying attention.

“It’s no secret that we want to discover to what use the System is putting the unitium, and we’d like to know why the Systies are kidnapping Taka from Andrion 2. They also know our own psychers will be present. And they certainly know we’ll be looking for our missing trooper. We’re taking what measures we can against hostile psych, but we don’t think it’s critical if they discover who’s doing what. Without a long-term psych interrogation, they’re not going to extract more than surface knowledge. Some of you are even performing missions that are designed solely to deceive the System as to our real intentions, although you all think your individual missions are real, and will be doing your best to perform them. Obviously, we don’t even mind if the System knows this. They’re still not going to know what’s real and what’s not. Just rest assured that we know what we’re doing and that all your activity is necessary and being coordinated here on Spawn. Those of us who do have the full story can’t go downside for obvious reasons. But I can tell you our hearts are with you.”

He paused, and looked around again. “The first one to get a positive ID on Valkyrie is to call it in immediately. We must coordinate everything we’re doing. I don’t want any Lost Squad heroics. It’s not necessary and it could endanger your comrades. The entire Second Company is at your disposal. And I assure you, we’re going to accomplish all of our classified missions.”

Cubes let his eyes roam over the wardroom and it was like a little flash of ice when his gaze rested on me for an instant. “I want you all to listen very carefully,” he said. “And remember this. Don’t even try to hide this from any Systie psycher you may run into down there. We’ve gotten some very nervous messages from Fleetcom, about discretion, and prudence, and the necessity of avoiding another interstellar war. I suspect that kind of vocabulary came directly from ConFree, word for word. But Legion doctrine always gives the Mission Commander the discretion to handle the mission according to his best judgment as the officer on the scene. That has not changed. I am the Mission Commander for this mission. I am the officer on the scene. I have three priorities for this mission. First, recover Valkyrie. Second, accomplish all our other classified missions. And Third, avoid another interstellar war. In that precise order. And if the Third interferes with the First or the Second, the Third will be discarded. And if the Systies have any doubts at all about that, they are going to be very…very…surprised.”

Then he rose and saluted us, the Commander’s traditional salute to the troops, just before combat. “Soldiers of the Legion, do your duty. To the death.”

We all snapped to attention and roared out the response: “Death!”

I swear, they heard us on Coldmark. I had a feeling that this was no ordinary diplomatic mission.

Chapter 14: Coldmark

The United System Alliance’s covert construction of a hard-sited base on Andrion 2 and the covert exploitation of the mineral resources of that planet, which is in ConFree vac, is clearly a violation of treaty as defined in Para 18 of the USICOM-ConFree Interstellar Agreement on Sectors and Trade, as well as a violation of all accepted norms of common interstellar law. The Confederation of Free Worlds regards this incursion into ConFree space by DefCom forces as unprovoked military and economic aggression by the System, and we warn USICOM and the System itself that the severest consequences will ensue. The people of the Confederation of Free Worlds will not permit aggressors to launch military adventures into ConFree space, to kidnap natives of ConFree worlds, or to introduce dangerous animal species from another world. The System’s reckless actions in this case reveal its cynical contempt for all civilized norms of interstellar conduct and for solemn interstellar treaties signed by its own representatives.” Commander Two Three One, Val, our downside chief exec, was reading a demarche from Starcom. Lowdrop, the downside mission commander, sat beside him. I suppose we were showing contempt by having our exec read the demarche instead of Lowdrop. The negotiations had begun, and we were stating our position. It was not diplomatic, but it was certainly clear.

“The System’s attempted seizure of ConFree territory endangers the current suspension of hostilities between the System and the Confederation. I am authorized to state for Outvac Sector Command that force will be met with force, and that further aggressive acts by DefCom forces will meet with immediate reaction. It is entirely up to the System whether or not its aggressive actions will escalate into another interstellar war. I only wish to assure the United System Alliance that the Confederation of Free Worlds will react immediately to all attacks on its sovereignty.”

I studied his face as he continued. It was a stony mask, no emotion showed. Val was a tall, rangy, handsome Outworlder with curly, reddish-brown hair. The Systies despised Outworlders; they hated having to deal with us. They would have preferred exterminating the Outworlder race, but they had tried that once and it hadn’t worked. Now we were strong and free, and hostile to them. It drove them right into the Sun.

We faced the Systies across a massive oblong table in a Coldmark conference room. Our side was lined with black uniforms. The various Systies races wore khakis and blues and whites and dark reds and greens, depending on their unit. We Outworlders had pale eyes and light skin burnt dark by the stars, and bronze Assidic skin, the mark of the Conqueror.

Across the table, greenish, pale-skinned Mocains dressed in DefCorps khaki regarded us through hooded eyes. Beside them, in USICOM blue, were Ormans from the Inners, a stunted race from a lost world, clinging to life and power like parasites, surviving by guile and deceit, riding to the stars with the Mocains. They controlled USICOM, and functioned as reliable political advisors to the Mocain.

Also present were a host of mortals from conquered worlds: Luytenians and Pherdans and Dardans and Elidians and many others, wearing DefCom khaki and USICOM blue and STRATCOM red and Starfleet white and Alliance gold.

Coldmarker USICOM officials refereed the encounter. The racial tension in that room was palpable.

“We demand a public apology from the System for this blatant act of aggression, and an immediate explanation for these unprecedented actions. We also demand reparations from the System for all damage done to Andrion 2 as a result of its aggression, and an immediate exchange of prisoners.” Val hated the Systies. He was from Angaroth, a world savagely brutalized by past Systie atrocities, and that was all the reason he needed.

We sat on steeply banked rows of seats opposite each side of the long conference table. The room was packed. Information flunkies from both sides snapped away with their solscans, and vidmons recorded the procedures. After today, we would all have files opened on us by DefCom Information. I did not care; I was only there for one reason.

I glanced over at Gravelight, a pale princess clad in black, with hair like golden sunlight. Some of the Legion girls had worked on her prior to the meeting. Gravelight normally did not worry much about her appearance, but the conference was a big psywar opportunity for us. Our delegation was projecting immortal youth and beauty and raw, confident Outworlder power. We were everything the System desperately wanted to crush, a direct threat to the corrupt, dead heart of their petrified interstellar empire. We wanted to make sure the message got out. Oblivious, Gravelight coldly glared at only one person, a sallow Orman girl with stringy black hair and a weary face. That would be one of the Systie psychers, and a silent battle would be raging between those two as the negotiations continued.

“Take a good look, Thinker,” Coolhand said softly. “We don’t often get to see these people so close while they’re still alive. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” He smiled cheerily.

“I really feel privileged, Coolhand. This is indeed an honor. Those Greenies make my skin crawl.” We called the Mocains Greenies because of the faint green tint of their pale flesh.

“Scope out the giant at the end of the table. That’s an Inner from Picos. If I was his size, I wouldn’t let any Greenie push me around.” Coolhand held a datascreen. There was so much information flashing around that room that I half expected our screens to start blowing out.

Psycho leaned toward us, interrupting. “Coolhand, can I shoot that slimy bald Greenie with the gold on his shoulders? Can I?”

“Now settle down, Psycho. We’ll tell you when to start shooting. Not yet!”

“Please? Just one guy, the green slime. Just one, tenners?”

“Keep your voice down.”

“Have you girls heard enough of this nonsense? If so, we’ve got work to do.” Snow Leopard seemed anxious to get moving. Gamma had already filed out. Every move we made had been planned in advance. If we accomplished nothing else, we would keep a lot of Systies very busy. The negotiations would continue for days, maybe weeks. Beta and Gamma would be busy elsewhere.

Outside, our aircars hovered right at the entrance to the Government Center, metal skins shining silver in the sunlight, armored plex all black.

It was a bright, clear day. Crowds of scruffy Coldmarkers lined the tall wire mesh fences surrounding the compound, and a ragged shout went up when we appeared. Coldmark militia stood around nervously, armed with local SG clones, while DefCorps troopers stood guard by the doors, whispering into their wristcoms.

We entered the first car and Gamma took the second one. As I got in, two more Legion aircars flashed across the sky, followed moments later by two Systie aircars. Our day had begun.

Redhawk grinned at us from the pilot’s seat. He was the only troopie I knew crazier than Psycho. The assault door sealed shut abruptly. “Strap in, kiddies, or you’ll be sorry!” Redhawk slammed the thrust forward and we shot away from the compound at blinding speed, powering up into the sky at a steep angle. Since nobody had strapped in yet, this caused us some distress. Warhound landed on my face, and all our loose equipment shifted position immediately to the rear.

“Will you kindly remove your knee from my throat?”

“Sorry!”

Redhawk laughed madly. He hit the sounds, and the cabin filled with wild lektra music, shattering our ears. “They’ll never catch us!” he screamed over the music. He arced the aircar into a steep dive.

“Strap in, girls!” Snow Leopard ordered. We knew Redhawk, and we didn’t mind his driving. We knew he was the best. I settled into a seat and strapped in. Psycho found a seat next to me. He always enjoyed these little rides.

Now we flashed at treetop height right over Coldmark City, only there were no trees and it wasn’t much of a city. As the aircar bounced and shuddered through rough air and sunlight exploded across the darkened plex, the entire panorama of Coldmark slid by below. We saw a seemingly endless slum, hundreds of thousands of squalid little shacks constructed from trash, wood and plastic and metal scraps, set in a smoky, cratered wilderness full of slow-moving people, looking up in surprise as we flashed overhead. A city of mud and burning garbage, inhabited by slaves. Down below, a bewildering variety of groundcars bounced over rutted roads, and in the middle, a tiny child ran gleefully away from a furious old lady shaking a broom.

We flashed over a polluted green canal. It looked like people were urinating and defecating on one side and washing clothes in the other. Off in the distance, Government installations rose from the sea of shacks like islands, surrounded by high wire-mesh fences.

Snow Leopard sat next to Redhawk, shouting into his ear. “Can you turn down the music!”

“What?”

“The music! Turn it down!”

“What?”

“Turn down the bloody music!” Snow Leopard’s face was bright red.

Redhawk pointed to his earphones, and leaned over close to Snow Leopard. “I can’t hear you! The music’s too loud!”

Grimacing, Snow Leopard turned it down himself. We were so low I thought we were going to collide with some of the shacks. We darted over a sea of mud, full of naked laughing children, chasing a ball through the filth. Priestess tapped my shoulder. She sat just behind me, and she was upset. “Thinker…how can they live like that? What kind of a world is this!”

“It’s a world of rich and poor, Priestess. You read the sitrep. This is just what it said.”

“But I…but…I didn’t think they would live like this! In filth! What is the matter with these people? Don’t they know about public sanitation? Or personal hygiene? Isn’t anyone watching over those children?”

“Doesn’t look like it.”

Priestess trembled, glaring out the plex. “This is criminal! What kind of a government is this! They don’t care! It’s treason! High crimes against humanity! Nobody should treat human beings like this, not even mortals!”

“Keep that Manlink away from her, Psycho.” I did not know what else to say.

“You want me to kill somebody for you, Priestess?” Psycho was no help at all. He loved to drive people over the edge.

“Filthy scum! We should put a strike in on every one of those Government compounds. Antimat the lot!” Priestess really meant it, I could tell. “Kill them all! Blow away all those wire fences and let the mob in to tear them apart! They’re subhumans, Thinker! Subhumans!”

“You got that right!” Her fingers dug into my shoulder. She stared fixedly out the plex, convulsed. She came from a Legion world, a very sheltered existence.

“Is anybody back there?” Snow Leopard asked the pilot.

“Oh, yeah. Big ten on that. We got one Systie aircar way, way back there, still on us. But not for long! Hang on!” Redhawk whipped the aircar around in a wicked tight turn. The gravs pulled at us as the car arced dizzily in a great circle.

“Hey, we were just here!” We ripped over the field full of children again. They waved wildly at us, frozen briefly in mid-stride. Redhawk put her even lower, right along the stagnant canal, booming past the line of Coldmarkers at their communal toilet. We passed so close to the surface that we sprayed water all over them.

“That guy fell into the canal!”

“What a way to go!”

“You’re heading right for the aircar!” The Systie aircar was rapidly approaching, a flashing red light on the console.

“That’s a ten! I’m locked on!” Redhawk had a wild look in his eyes. The sensors were shrieking. Redhawk eased the controls back and we arced upwards into the sky. I saw it coming, right at us, a speck, a dot, a dart, an aircar! It flashed past so fast and so close it was just a silver blur, and an ear-shattering sonic boom rattled our car. Redhawk shrieked with laughter as he slammed the controls forward and we dived for the deck once again.

“That should slow him down just a tad.” Redhawk gave us his craziest grin as he stood the car on its side again and the world came rushing at us from above. It would have slowed me down, I knew that. I would at least have wanted to change my pants before continuing the pursuit.

We found a river, dotted with ancient wooden fishing boats powered by ragged sails, and followed it upstream, almost on the surface. The water rippled in golden sunlight, a river of diamonds sailed by black phantom ships. A morning shower sparkled in the sunlight, raindrops vaporizing against the skin of our aircar. “They’ll be on us again shortly, but the first target is right ahead.” Redhawk had settled down. He liked to fool around, but he always got the job done.

We gained a little altitude, left the river, hurtled over a line of rocky hills, then straightened out, booming laser-straight over flat marshy lowlands.

“There it is.” The sensors lit up again. I could see it now, a sprawling complex, metallic fences glittering in the sun, a series of low, windowless buildings, bristling with antennas. Redhawk put it on max, and we shot right over them, trailing another sonic boom.

“Good morning, Systies!” The Government complex vanished behind us as Redhawk whipped the aircar around, heading for the next target.

“Did we get everything?” Snow Leopard asked.

“Looks like it,” Merlin replied. He sat up front, checking a data screen.

“You think we’ll learn anything?”

“We’ll learn a lot. I don’t know if we’ll learn whether or not Valkyrie is there, however. Without her c-cell she’s going to be hard to spot.”

“Well, we’ve got to try.”

“Tenners-we’ve got to try. And, who knows, maybe we will spot her. This is hot biotech.”

“Second target coming up!”

“There’s another aircar on our tail.”

“I predict he’s going to be more wary than that other guy.”

We pointed the aircar’s nose right at the second target. All over Coldmark scores of Legion aircars were doing the same, and sending the data straight to the Spawn, while the Coldmarkers and Systies were scrambling, trying to monitor our activities.

We did not know if Valkyrie was here or not, but we would certainly do our best to find her.

“All right, Gravelight’s next. Where’s her cube?” Commander Val moved around the assault craft contacting just about everybody, gathering info and issuing orders at the same time. I had been elected to carry his personal starlink. It was heavy. I knew we weren’t going to get any sleep that night, and I was glad I didn’t have his job.

“Right here,” I said. We paused at the open door to Gravelight’s cube. Gravelight sprawled across her bunk, a wet towel covering her face. Quarters were crowded in the assault craft, and only VIPs rated a cube. The cubes were molded around the bunk. A desk and commo gear formed one wall, with a mini kitchen unit. A tiny, body-sized closet served as a toilet and shower. You couldn’t move without bumping into one of the walls or the ceiling. The heavy gravity seemed odd. We were downside, docked in Coldmark Port, and nobody liked it.

Val hesitated in the open doorway, his features hidden in shadows, as I hovered behind him. Gravelight was motionless, lying on her back, her face concealed by the towel. Gravelight had stripped off her boots and litesuit pants and abandoned them on the deck. She wore only panties and a ripped litesuit blouse. She’d apparently torn open the blouse and then collapsed onto the bed. She wore a flesh-colored bra under the blouse.

Gravelight breathed shallowly, her throat faintly rising and falling. I guess we were both taking it all in. She was certainly lovely. Val was silent. Stunned, maybe. I could have told him it would never happen, not with a psycher. Some things are not meant to be.

“Eighty-Eight…” Val finally spoke. Eighty-eight was her number. We hated to wake her, but there was much work to do. Important work.

“I’m awake.” Gravelight pulled the towel away from her face. Her eyes remained closed. Little drops of moisture trickled down her cheeks to her neck. I wondered whether Gravelight had been reading our thoughts. Her eyes flickered and opened, focusing on the overhead. She did not look at us. Her face appeared splotchy and strained. She raised one hand to her forehead.

“Oh, no. It hurts. Oh, no.” She closed her eyes again, stiffening.

“Can I do anything?” Val asked.

“Water. Water, please.”

Val punched a frosty cup of ice water from the kitchen console and touched it gently to Gravelight’s lips. Her hands grasped the cup. She sipped it slowly, and the color gradually returned to her cheeks. Val slipped one hand behind her neck, tangled in golden hair, to steady her head. I stood in the doorway wondering how to gracefully disappear.

“Thank you,” she said.

“It’s nothing,” Val replied.

She struggled to a half-sitting position, then collapsed back onto the pillow. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I feel really bad.”

“It’s a ten. Can you answer a few questions?”

“Yes. Yes, sure. Fire away.”

“I know you’re tired, but we need a report. Did you pick up anything in the conference, anything good?” Val triggered his recorder.

“I picked up a nasty headache. That was the high point, I’m afraid.” She made another effort to ease her back up onto the pillow, and was partially successful. Her eyes focused on Val. I might as well not have been there, but I’ll admit to being curious how one went about debriefing a psycher.

“There must have been something else,” he said.

“Yes, sure. Sure, sure, sure. All right, let me see…” She found the soggy towel and wiped her face with it. “Well, that Orman slut was the psycher. Only one. She was good, but we very quickly got tired of fencing. I concentrated on the Systies, and she went after you people. I went into a lot of heads, but couldn’t find anything intelligible about Andrion 2. The whole delegation only knows the negotiating position. Surely you don’t want to know about that. They don’t seem to know anything substantial about the unitium mines.”

“You’re using words like ‘intelligible’ and ‘substantial’. We’ll take anything we can get. Did you get any hints?”

“No…no. I’m hedging because I need more time to get in deeper. But they’re not stupid. I think I’m wasting my time in there. You should take me for a stroll past Systie HQ here, wherever that is. I might pick up something there. They’re not going to send anyone to the negotiations who knows anything.”

“Did you get anything on Valkyrie?”

“If I had picked up anything on Valkyrie,” she said, “I would have leaned over and told you about it during the conference.”

“Sorry…I know you would have. I had to ask.”

Gravelight rolled her head back and forth. “It hurts. I need more rest. I’ll get more for you tomorrow. We still have time.”

“Yes,” Val said softly. “We still have time.”

“And we need to travel,” Gravelight said sleepily. “We need to move around…” Her voice faded. “I’ll find her…I’ll find unitium…we need more…more…”

Gravelight fell asleep. Val gently took the empty cup from her grasp. She did not wake. He took a blanket from the drawer under the bunk and covered her. Such beautiful legs, I thought, such a sweet, innocent girl. Awake, she was trapped in a never-ending nightmare. I wondered what psychers dreamed about. Strange dreams, from alternate worlds. We quietly left the room and Val palmed the door shut behind him. In the corridor, he leaned against the wall and sighed. He ran one hand through his curly, reddish hair. Light from the overhead lit up his features.

“A shame,” he said.

“That’s a ten,” I replied.

“She’s just a kid.”

“Yeah.” Gravelight was doomed, like all psychers. But she’d find Valkyrie for us, I was convinced. She had not even met Valkyrie, but it wouldn’t make any difference. If Gravelight could not find her, nobody could.

“You’ve got a starlink call,” I said. The link glowed red. There was to be no peace for Val or me. The nights here were too short. We had a lot to do before tomorrow.

“Val here,” he said wearily into the link.

“She’s not there. I’m sorry.” Merlin turned away from the datascreen, discouraged.

“You don’t know she’s not there! Spawn doesn’t know! Nobody knows!” Boudicca insisted, her face flushing.

“Right, we don’t know. But it’s ninety-nine percent that she’s not there. You can’t get better readings than this. And Spawn says the Preference is clean.” Merlin was calm and logical. He knew how to handle Boudicca. The Legion scout had flashed past the Preference so close there had almost been a collision, and it had set off an immediate spastic run of red alerts throughout the System fleet. The Preference had been dosed with enough biotech to identify every life form on board. And Spawn told us Valkyrie was not there.

“And what about that one percent?” I asked.

“The only way we’ll know is to board her,” Boudicca insisted.

“Right,” Merlin replied. “Tenners. You ask Cubes, I’ll suit up.” Boudicca could try the patience of an Inner. She knew an attack on the Preference was one of our final options. At any rate, it appeared very doubtful Valkyrie would still be there. We were in the lounge of the assault craft, downside, docked in Coldmark Port, sitting at a table overflowing with datascreens. It was very late. We all should have been asleep, renewing our strength for the next day. But we were munching on mags and I knew there would be no sleep for Beta, or Gamma, that night. We had too much to do.

“Take a look at these anomalies, gals.” Snow Leopard dumped a fresh load of datacards on the table. They spilled over onto the floor. Spawn had cranked it out. Her sensors and probes mapped all of Coldmark, and anything that did not compute was highlighted for human attention. There were a whole lot of things that did not compute.

“Thanks, Snow Leopard. I was wondering what to do this evening.”

“Anybody want any dox?”

I slipped another card into the screen and went back to work, mechanically, hardly thinking about it.

“Look at this.” Priestess slid her screen over to me. A view from above, a rocky field, a half-naked girl lying on her belly, stones scattered all around her. A ragged circle of Coldmarkers surrounded her. One of them had an arm back, ready to hurl another stone.

“It’s not her,” I replied. “The hair color is wrong, the…”

“I know it’s not her,” Priestess insisted. “But look at those people! Stoning! What kind of subhumans are they? How can people act like this?”

I did not answer her. I slid her screen back to her, and continued scanning my own. If they tried to do that to us, I thought, we’d burn them alive. Much more civilized than stoning.

“In my world,” Priestess said, “the strong protect the weak. In my world, you can walk in the night without fear. In my world, we worship life, and protect it. And if you’re a ConFree citizen, you need fear only the Gods. And if you’re with the Legion, you don’t even need to fear the Gods.” Priestess scanned her screen, talking as she worked. Nobody else said anything. The faint clicking of fingers on control tabs continued, and the flickering of light from the screens, and Priestess’s voice, almost hypnotic, wove a spell around us all.

I knew she came from a Legion world. People like that were different. I never set my standards that high.

“In my world, we enforce justice, not laws. In my world, people care for each other. And if you call for help, everyone comes. Everyone!” She punched another image onto her screen, her face pale, her eyes blazing.

“It all flows from the past,” Priestess said quietly. “I could shoot before I could read. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now. First things first, my father said. We had an arsenal full of weapons. Every family had an arsenal like that. We didn’t need it, but it was there. If the situation ever changed back again, to the way it used to be, somebody would have to deal with a lot of armed and angry citizens.”

“Was that a Legion world?” Warhound asked.

“Yes. It didn’t used to be. We had an elected government, once, that decided they didn’t want to step down from power. They had made our world a paradise for criminals and lawyers. Finally they tried to disarm the citizenry that had elected them. My father told me about it.”

“What happened?”

“The people stormed the capitol and the Government called out the troops. That’s what it came to in the end. The citizens against the army, on the steps of the capitol. But it was a people’s army. They refused to fire on the people, and the people stormed the capitol, and killed every last one of those treacherous political rats. Then they went after the lawyers and the judges. They killed them all. All of them. Now we’re a Legion world. Criminals and lawyers know better than to target us.” Priestess was definitely Legion. I began to realize why she had left her quiet, safe, perfect little Legion world. She would have looked up to the stars, breathing cold air, and made a vow.

“So why’d you leave?” Psycho had to ask.

Priestess hesitated. It was almost like asking why she had joined the Legion. Finally she replied. “I wanted to help. I just wanted to help.”

Psycho did not pursue it. Even he could tell that she was sincere. But Boudicca spoke up. “You are helping, Priestess. We all are. It won’t make much difference to this trash world, but it will make a difference to Valkyrie, when we find her. And we will!” She said it with such absolute, fierce conviction that she almost had me convinced.

We went back to our screens.

Chapter 15: Something Evil

“Anybody know where we are?” Nobody answered Warhound. The temperature was plummeting as night fell. Glacial winds whistled through the vast slums of Coldmark City and plastic and paper trash drifted lazily in the air. The natives shivered in threadbare cloaks and huddled around fires of burning garbage. It would snow soon, and the suffering of the people would increase.

We had no time to worry about them; we had our own problems. Four of us, bundled up in USICOM coldcoats, trotted through the back alleys of Old City, the nastiest part of Coldmark. Massive, crumbling prefabs towered all around us, peeling from age, caked in generations of accumulated dirt. The Old City was the original Coldmark. It had long ago disintegrated, and now served as the home of the most desperate elements of Coldmark’s increasingly desperate society.

“Here!” Coolhand led us. We darted into the next alley. I could barely see, and we did not dare use any lights or night vision gear. I followed Coolhand’s tall, unmistakable figure, with Warhound and Priestess just behind me. Before dropping us off, our aircar had darted through alleys so narrow, we left a trail of destruction in our wake. Overhead another Legion aircar lit up the Old Town with a sky full of deceptor bursts. We wanted to pass as USICOM types to the casual observer, so there were no comtops this time. It limited us. I felt naked.

Somewhere back there a Systie aircar had, hopefully, just lost us. In a few moments our own aircar would pop out of the other side of Old Town, and the only way for the Systies to find us would be to flood the area with troops. Somehow, I did not believe the natives would be overly cooperative with the Systies.

“Left! Here!” The street was slippery with slime and refuse. We passed another miserable group of Coldmarkers, gathered around a pitiful little fire. They all held out their hands, palms open. Three little street urchins exploded out of the group, running toward us, palms out.

“Credit-food! Credit-food! Credit-food!” An insane chant. Priestess stopped. She gaped at a shrunken, wrinkled old woman sitting by the fire, her face pinched with untreated advanced age and hunger and longing, her hand out to Priestess. Sensing weakness, the kids latched onto Priestess, seizing her legs, thrusting their open palms toward her face.

“Credit-food! Credit-food, pretty girl! Rich girl! We die from hunger, rich girl! Credit-food!”

“Move it, Priestess!” Warhound seized her by an arm, tearing her away from the kids, pulling her into the next alley. She came, running silently.

“This is it!” Coolhand paused by an open doorway in a tall, featureless building; it looked like a warehouse. The number 78 was scrawled crudely in white paint on the wall by the doorway, over a pile of fresh garbage.

Coolhand stepped into the doorway. I followed him, cautiously. I caught a movement to my right. I whipped the mini over to cover it and when my eyes adjusted to the dark I found the barrel of my handgun was hovering a few mils from the forehead of a very surprised Coldmarker. He sat on the floor against the wall, wrapped in a cloak, his empty hands exposed. He was young and had dark brown skin and glittering black eyes. He looked far too alert to suit me. Warhound and Priestess popped into the doorway.

“Apartment 2010?” I asked him, keeping the mini centered on his forehead.

“Second floor,” he gasped, pointing a trembling finger up a staircase. “To the left.”

“Thank you,” I answered. I stepped back, set the mini to V, and shot him in the chest. He jerked once and slumped, unconscious.

“That was really subtle, Thinker,” Coolhand said.

We moved up the stairs, minis up. Nothing stirred. We crept past doors, all closed, some with numbers, some without. We found 2010, and took up positions silently.

Most people knock, but not the Legion. We blow away the freaking door, even when we’re invited. It’s an old Legion tradition. We didn’t have our E’s and it looked like a substantial door, so Warhound used a V charge, squeezing it onto the center of the door. Then he triggered it and it flared briefly and the door exploded inwards with a shattering roar and a white flash, and we barreled in all together, guns up, Snow Leopard, Thinker, Warhound and Priestess, the Legion hello.

A young lady with a baby sat cross-legged on the floor by a hissing heating element, a young man rose up suddenly from a pile of blankets.

“Don’t move!” Coolhand shouted the warning. Coolhand and I covered the man, Warhound and Priestess had the lady and the baby. They froze. It was dark and cold, the floor littered with clothing and blankets, filthy walls, the heater spitting and glowing red. A single room, two closets for the kitchen and toilet. The baby stared at us, mouth open. The lady had been feeding it, and she had dropped the food. They were Outworlders, not Coldmarkers. I frisked the man and his immediate surroundings. No weapons. Priestess frisked the lady and the baby. No weapons. Warhound waited by the door and scanned the corridor. Priestess stayed by the lady. Coolhand and I squatted by the man. We had him sit on the floor.

“Are you Brandon Terrio, Defcom 80147-41?” Coolhand asked.

The man hung his head, sighed deeply, and answered wearily. “It knows perfectly well who we are.” The lady gasped, and tears suddenly began to trickle down her cheeks. The baby looked up at her curiously.

“I haven’t the slightest idea who you are,” Coolhand insisted. “Did you send us this note?” He dropped it before the man, a crumpled scrap of paper with a few lines of handwriting.

The man stared at it briefly, then his head rose and he looked at each of us in turn. The light of understanding slowly began to glow in his eyes.

“It’s not with USICOM!” he declared.

“No, we’re not,” Coolhand replied. “We’re with the Legion.”

“The Legion!” He gasped it. “The Legion! It got my message! My God, we never thought it would work, we thought it was with the System, we thought they had intercepted the message. The Legion! My God! Tinlan, our guests. Make some tea for our guests!” He trembled with emotion and excitement. He was a young man, but he appeared ill, stricken with some terrible, primitive disease.

“Thank you, but we don’t have time for tea,” Coolhand said. “We don’t have much time at all, you see, and if they trace us here, you will have plenty of questions to answer. Now, what does this list mean, who are you, and what did you want to tell us?” Coolhand held up the handwritten message. It read simply:

Brandon Terrio Defcom 80147-41

Aeria

Preference

Galleon

Consensus

Tranquility

Old Town, 78 Cargo D, Apt 2010. Nights.

The list had piqued our interest. The five ships listed had all hard-launched from Andrion 2 in the teeth of our attack.

“We wrote it,” the man explained. “Brandon Terrio was our friend, a Sector Starfleet records officer with Coldmark Port. Our name is Tharos Cyprio, but that’s not important. We just want to give Cit what Brandon gave us.”

Cit-a Systie term for citizen.

He paused briefly, short of breath. His wife had dried her eyes and was feeding the baby again. It was a beautiful, bright-eyed baby, smiling at everything it saw, opening a mouth full of mashed food and cooing. Priestess appeared fascinated by the baby, her gloved fingers still hesitating to touch it.

“Brandon discovered something it was not supposed to know. It was an accident. It was into some highly classified fleet programs, and there was a screw-up in the access, and its work got it into an area where it should not have gone. It should have backed out immediately, of course. But Brandon was always curious. It went into it further, and got itself in trouble. It copied the data.”

The man looked up, and examined Coolhand and me in turn. “We served together since Basic. From the same world. It was like family to me. They killed it when they came after it. It must have tried to resist. Brandon was a hothead. They killed its wife and kids too. Just blew them away, and tore the place apart looking for the data. Probably the SIS. But they didn’t find it, because it wasn’t there. That was two days ago. Brandon wanted to give it to the Legion. We stopped believing long ago.” The girl held the baby close to her, moaning sadly.

“Tinlan knew its wife, of course. We were very close. The only reason we’re not dead is the System doesn’t know where we are. But they’ll get us, we imagine, in a day or so. We deserted the same day they killed Brandon. Deserters don’t last long here, not even in Old Town.”

The baby gurgled, giving Priestess a big smile, waving his hands. His mother was quiet, her eyes closed. It was all over for them.

“We don’t have much time,” Coolhand repeated. “What is it you wanted to give us?”

Tharos Cyprio got up and rooted around in a pile of junk. He came back with a minicard, and handed it to Coolhand. “That’s done,” he said. “Done. It’s what Brandon wanted. It’s our death, and Tinlan is against it, but we have to do it. We have to. Does it understand?”

“I understand,” Coolhand said. “What’s in the card?”

“It’s a list of ships,” Tharos replied. “Over seventy of them, mostly star carriers. They all called at Coldmark, and they all left on classified missions. That’s what ‘CM’ means. Cit will see it on the readout. Over seventy of them, with full crews. And Cit will see the dates. The earliest are dated right after the Outvac Wars, long before we were born. The mission has been running for close to a hundred stellar years. Many of the ships never come back. But some of them do, from time to time. They leave with full crews, but they return with minimum hands, and stay in distant orbit, and nobody ever goes downside, and all commo is down. Then they take on new crew, and leave again. Ghost ships. A ghost fleet! That’s what Brandon wanted to tell the Legion. A ghost mission, for a hundred years. Generations of officers and men, disappearing into the vac. Countless ships and men, swallowed up by this endless, ghost mission. It’s something important, it said, and something evil. Those were Brandon’s words-’something evil’. We think it knew more than it told us. It wanted to tell the Legion itself, but it can’t. So that’s it, the list it gave us, and that’s all it is, a list of ship’s names, and we hope it helps Cit. Now Cit had better leave.”

He sat down wearily, drained. “We’re sorry, Tinlan,” he said to his wife. “We’re sorry.” She did not reply. She cried again, quietly, holding the baby to her bosom.

Coolhand slipped the card into a pocket. “Thank you,” he said. “The Legion thanks you.” He handed something to the man. Tharos Cyprio looked at the credmark in his hand. It was Legion gold, a flaming Legion cross on one side and the Goddess of Liberty on the other, and after the credits were exhausted, it could be sold for the gold. It would change their lives forever, in that rat world. It would buy them years of comfort and security.

Tharos Cyprio slapped the credmark back into Coolhand’s hand. “We don’t want its money! We did this for Brandon! We did this for ourself! We’re doomed, and Legion money isn’t going to change anything! Go! Go in peace. And use the information to bring down the System. Bring it down, does it hear us? Bring it down!” He was losing control.

“Movement,” Warhound said, guarding the door, looking down the corridor. His jaw muscles clenched. Warhound was as solid as a rock. I knew we didn’t have to worry about the corridor.

Coolhand passed the credmark surreptitiously to me and I slipped it to Priestess. We were pretty sure his wife would take it; women are always more practical than men. But Priestess did not pass it on to her. Priestess latched on to Coolhand’s arm.

“You’re not going to leave them here?” she hissed at him in astonishment.

“We don’t have any choice, Priestess,” Coolhand whispered back. “We can’t let the Systies know we have this info. We can’t touch him. The best thing we can do is get out fast, to protect them. Thinker, call in the aircar.”

I raised the comset. “Tango, Redstar. Your package is ready.”

The answer came immediately. “Redstar, Tango. Confirm.”

“You haven’t been listening, Coolhand!” Priestess snapped back. “They’re after him already! When they catch up, they’ll find out everything! All they have to do is follow the bodies and go in the door that’s got the Legion trademark on it. This hasn’t exactly been a covert mission! Wake up, Coolhand! They helped us! And they’re dead unless we help them! And the System finds out either way! At least if we take them with us, the System doesn’t know what he passed on to us. If we don’t, they do!”

Warhound fired, auto V, and the thunder echoed down the halls.

“Decision time,” I declared.

“They’re Outworlders,” Priestess added, her final argument.

Coolhand paused only for an instant. “We’ll take them. Let’s go!”

“Come with us!” Priestess shouted. Tharos Cyprio raised his head, mouth open. Tinlan whimpered, and scrambled to her feet with the baby. She made a move to get something from the floor.

“No time for that,” I said. “We leave now! Let’s go! Priestess, escort them!”

Warhound fired again. “It’s just locals,” he shouted. “Follow me!” He proceeded down the hall, past bodies sprawled by the stairs, Coldmarker civilians, out cold. They looked like tough customers.

We scrambled down the stairs and the Coldmarker I had shot was still unconscious, slumped against the wall. We burst out into the street, guns up, and the cold hit me like a hammer. I could see my breath frosty in the air.

“Faster!” We ran down a dark alley, heading for the rendezvous with the aircar. Coolhand and me first, then Warhound and Priestess and Cyprio and Tinlan and the baby. The night sky suddenly lit up, lightning crackling everywhere. Deceptors! The Legion was with us! We charged around a corner and past the familiar group of beggars still huddled around their little fire.

“Priestess! What are you doing?” She had skidded to a halt by the beggars, and pressed something into the hand of the old lady. Then she broke away and rejoined us, into the shadows. An aircar flashed overhead, right over the tops of the buildings.

“Got you in sight, Tango!”

“Where the devil are you?”

“Land, Tango! We’re on the way!” We exited an alley into another narrow street. A gleaming Legion aircar hovered there, sleek and beautiful, the plex shining like black diamonds, a blizzard of trash and dust whirling all around it.

The assault doors popped open and Snow Leopard leaned out with an E, his blonde hair rippling in the breeze, with Psycho right beside him, his Manlink at his shoulder, scoping out the streets. Merlin and Dragon grabbed on to us as we piled in, and Tharos Cyprio, his wife and baby were lifted bodily into the car.

“Go!”

Redhawk shook his shaggy head and gave us a twisted grin and rocketed the aircar up into the flashing night. They would never get us now!

Priestess fell into my arms, her face shining with emotion. “We did it! We did it! They’re free! We did it, Thinker!”

I laughed. “No, Priestess, you did it! It’s you they should thank. What did you give that old lady?”

“I gave her the credmark, Thinker. Legion gold, for the poor of the System! We did it, Thinker! I feel wonderful!” She trembled with emotion. I held her tightly.

“You’re amazing, Priestess. You’re really amazing! You want to personally save the entire galaxy, don’t you?”

“I just want to help,” she replied. “I just want to help!”

Chapter 16:

Dead and Gone

“Go right in, Citizen. The Captain will see it now.” The exec of the Personal Ship Maiden was a slim, attractive female with wispy blonde hair, clad in the ship’s phospho violet uniform and carrying a shockrod. The door slid shut behind me as I stepped into the cabin, leaving the exec outside.

It was a mystery to me why Snow Leopard had ordered me to visit this slave ship-he gave no explanation other than a cryptic order that under no circumstances was I to be surprised by anything I saw. That, and an official invitation from the ship’s captain for a representative of the Spawn to visit the ship. I knew it meant trouble. The Maiden was orbiting Coldmark and the natives evidently wanted the cargo badly. Coldmarkers filled the corridors, bidding for slaves and sampling the merchandise. It made me nervous-the Legion’s role was to kill slavers, not sample their obscene hospitality. I wore civvies at the Legion’s insistence and was glad of it.

Her face a rigid mask, the captain sat on the edge of her desk dressed in dark violet, waves of auburn hair gleaming in low light, exotic Assidic eyes blinking like a caged beast. High cheekbones, a narrow, delicate nose, a wide mouth, and pale brown velvet skin. She was a vision from another world, all the secret memories of the vanished past. I stopped, stunned. Tara! She came to me in my dreams, sometimes, but I had tried hard to forget her. Priestess had made the process easier.

“It is…Beta Three? Of the ConFree Legion?” She spoke in the Systie dialect with a flawless accent, yet it was still her voice. A hard voice, as cold as the vac. Her eyes glinted with a resolve as unbreakable as Atom’s keel. She knew perfectly well who I was! And why the accent? Then it hit me, and it nearly knocked me off my feet. I could see it all right there in her eyes, everything that had happened to her since she’d vanished from my life. A psycher! The legion had trained her and flung her into the deep. Of course! Deadman! Tara is a Legion asset! How long must it have taken her to rise through the ranks of these degenerate slavers and gain their trust? How long for her to make her way to the top-how many throats cut and how many risks taken? How many hopeless slaves delivered to their doom?

Get a grip, Thinker! Watch your words-the Systies have probably got this room wired!

I swallowed hard, “That’s right,” I replied warily. “And you?” I could hardly believe it! The cabin gleamed with rare woods and stones, but I did not take it in. I could only stare, transfixed by this vision from the past. I had thought I’d love her forever. What in Deadman’s name is she doing here? How has she changed? What must it be like for her? How can she survive, alone?

I had Beta and the Legion to back me up. What did Tara have?

She smiled softly. “We command the PS Maiden. Cintana Tamaling, at its service. Please call us Cinta.”

“Ah.” I stalled for time, trying desperately to figure out how to keep us both alive in this perilous situation. “You’re the commander of the Maiden? You’re the captain? Sorry, I’m not familiar with your uniforms.”

She laughed, a little-girl laugh of pure delight, though her eyes did not soften. “That’s right, Beta Three!”

“You’re a slaver?” I asked stupidly. What am I supposed to do here, Tara?

“That’s what the Maiden does, soldier-exotic flesh, from distant ports-evil cargo for evil stars-children and virgins, fresh flesh for decaying mortals. Youth, for wealth-new hope for the dead! Eternal pleasure, love and hope and happiness for sale-yes, we’re in the happiness business! But Cintana Tamaling is not just a slaver-we’re the best slaver in the galaxy! There’s a price on our head that would buy a small world. Would it cut off our head, and present it to the Legion? Think twice first-we can double their price, easily!”

I know you’re a psycher, Tara, I know you can read my thoughts. I’m sorry. I’m sorry you got in so deep. Did you ever dream you would live this long? Did you ever expect to rise this high? I understand-the longer you are in, the more valuable you become-to both sides.

I knew we were in very deep waters. She must be risking her life, just talking with me. “What do you want from me, Cintana Tamaling?” I almost whispered it. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I joined the Legion and I was certain that Tara never expected to last this long without being discovered. I sensed a great weariness behind those cold, hard eyes. And suddenly I wanted to seize her, to tear her away from her nightmare and spirit her off to some Legion world where she could live a quiet life. I resisted the impulse. What would I know of a quiet life? Tara was in it a lot deeper than I, and there was nothing at all I could do to help her. She held up a minicard, looking right into my eyes, and slid it wordlessly over the surface of the desk to me. I picked it up.

“A memento,” she said, “of the PS Maiden. Please understand-we view this as a rare opportunity to show the Legion that we’re not monsters. Here in the System, Voluntary Servitude is encouraged and appreciated-it’s a civic duty. We hope the visit was enjoyable. Perhaps it had best leave now-before our other visitors discover we have a Legion guest! Give our best wishes to the Legion. Tell them all are welcome.”

Tara, I know you are trapped here and you will stay as long as you can. You know how I feel about you. I want you to remember one thing. The Legion doesn’t forget its own. When the time comes, the Legion will find you, we will kill these subhuman slavers and you can go home!

Another sad smile-almost like a saint. Those smoky eyes met mine and she nodded, ever so slightly. I saw a lot in those eyes-grief, pain, anger, and icy self-control. It was clear she could say nothing-and neither could I. It only remained to bid farewell.

“Goodbye…Cinta.” I made the sign of the Legion, tracing it in the air. Her lovely face shone with love, and fate, and tragedy. I would never forget it.

Chapter 17: The Space Between the Stars

A starport, they say? On Andrion 3! How could we have missed it? Let me see the location!” I could tell Lowdrop was unhappy. Cubes had just sent the data from the Spawn, and I had received it on Val’s starlink and passed it to him. Now we were in Lowdrop’s cube. I popped it into the link again and called up the data. The screen revealed a great volcano, a jagged glittering cone spewing forth a wide river of bubbling lava pooling into a slow-moving lake of molten rock.

“What the devil is that?” Lowdrop asked quietly.

Val answered. “Lava, Sir. A lava lake. That’s the starport! The Indigo Frost data from the Galleon zeroed this site. That’s the data that agent Indigo Frost passed to Thinker. It contained the navlog for the SS Galleon, one of the ships that had hardlaunched from the Systie Base on Andrion 2. A starport, sir. Under the lava. Hidden!”

Nobody told me anything, but I realized that Indigo Frost was their asset, Tara. I swallowed hard. So this is what Tara had risked her cover to give me.

Val continued, “It’s a shield volcano, sir. The lava is low viscosity, free flowing. It flows over the crater edge and into this basin to form the lake, then continues down the slope here. And the port is in the lake! This is a major, covert, strategic installation! Larger than the unitium port on Andrion 2. And the earlier 24 Beta info from the Coldmark Port officer-the ships list-means that they’ve been doing this for a hundred years!” Val was excited; his eyes gleamed.

Lowdrop studied the images for some time, then spoke. “Fine! You’re saying there’s a starport under the lava. How could they do that? What does Command say?”

“They don’t know how the Systies did it.”

“This is lunacy! How could they do it? Could the Legion even do this?”

“It’s very doubtful. The text of the report says it’s crazy. It would be very difficult. Maybe impossible. It would be prohibitively expensive, even if the Legion could. The Systies’re gambling that the lava will continue to flow as it’s been doing. If it slows, and solidifies, they’ll be in big trouble.”

“Deadman’s Death! Two starports! Why would they need two starports? What is on Andrion 3? Has Cubes sent this to Starcom? To ConFree? To Fleetcom?”

“Yes, Sir. They sent all the data. Indigo Frost’s, and the ship’s list from the Systie.”

“Damn!” Neither officer was happy. They knew a huge, critical piece of the puzzle was still missing. They probably knew more than I did, but I sure didn’t understand about the base on Andrion 3. I knew from experience that things that were not understandable could be extremely dangerous. And I believed that the Legion would attack the base as soon as possible, no matter what. It was terrifying that the System appeared capable of doing something that the Legion could not. This type of situation could start another interstellar war. I hoped that Fleetcom or Starcom would have an explanation for the base. Otherwise we would have to risk the entire expeditionary force, taking on the unknown.

I hated the unknown. I viewed it as the worst of all enemies.

“The unprovoked, naked aggression of bandit Legion forces against a peaceful civilian USICOM settlement in the Neutral Zone is a cause of grave concern to the inhabitants of all peace-loving worlds in the galaxy. By planning and carrying out this cowardly and brutal atrocity against unarmed civilians…” The large, formidable Systie female trembled with righteous indignation. A squat little Orman male whispered into her ear and shifted papers around nervously. Two young and upright USICOM diplomats, Outworlders, clothed in USICOM’s powder blue, gazed at her approvingly. They were a matched couple, male and female, both with completely shaven heads. The shaven heads expressed their opposition to Outworlder aggression, their solidarity with the Mocain, and their servitude to the System. As a professional diplomat and an Outworlder, the male would have been voluntarily neutered-castrated-upon entry into the service.

Nearby a muscular, bald Mocain officer gazed into space, evidently bored by the proceedings. A Mocain female with short, military-cut hair sat next to him, ignoring another Orman eagerly proffering some advice. The giant from Picos had reappeared, as had the Orman psycher. She appeared excruciatingly bored this time, tracing invisible patterns on the table with her lightpen. I watched the show from a Legion monitor that covered our side. They wouldn’t let me sit in this time because of my mission to see Tara. The speaker droned on. My eyes were starting to glaze over already.

“What’s this static about the Neutral Zone?” Scrapper leaned over to whisper to Boudicca. Scrapper was an attractive girl with a thick mop of tawny hair streaked with blonde. She had pale grey eyes, a face full of freckles, and heavy breasts.

“It’s a lie. The Andrion system is in ConFree vac,” Boudicca whispered back. “They’re doing this for their own audience.” No doubt Boudicca was a favorite of the Systie propagandists. By now her image was terrifying Systie children every night: Be good, children, or the Legion will get you! Beware, or Gammagirl will eat you alive!

Rumor was, the Legion did not care. The Terrorism amp; Public Relations boys had decided Boudicca was good for the image.

“The System is determined to fulfill its treaty obligations to enforce the peace in the Neutral Zone, even in the face of Confederation intransigence and hostility,” the Systie female continued. “The USICOM settlement on Andrion 2…”

Scrapper leaned close to Boudicca again and whispered, “A USICOM settlement? On A ConFree world? Do they actually believe all this?”

“It’s all lies,” Boudicca responded coldly. “What did you expect? The entire System is one big lie.”

The Systie continued, her voice rising. “We have been authorized to state on behalf of USICOM and STRATCOM that Andrion 2 is considered vital to the economic well-being of this entire Sector, and that the Legion seizure of Andrion 2 amounts to an act of economic warfare against both USICOM and the United System Alliance. We demand…”

“If she doesn’t shut up, I’m going to puke,” Scrapper whispered to Boudicca. Nobody on the Legion side appeared to be paying much attention to the speaker. I wondered when all the nonsense would end. I hadn’t joined the Legion to watch negotiations with a gang of ugly Systies. I hated this. I liked things simple.

Gravelight set down her mug of ice water carefully, her eyes closed. The Systie female droned on. Gravelight reached one hand over and clutched Val’s s arm. Her eyes were still closed, but her face shone. Even from the monitor, I could tell Gravelight had something important. A faint, angelic smile touched her lips. “Yesss…,” she said. We used sound suppressors so not even the most sophisticated listening devices could pick up her words. Unfortunately, they might be able to read lips.

She trembled visibly. “We must leave. Now!”

“What is it?” Val asked.

Gravelight opened her eyes, dreamily. She stood and shakily started for the door.

We regrouped in the assault craft. Gravelight sipped a cup of ice water and told us what she had. “It’s been with me for a day, just on the edge. I knew it was there, but I wasn’t quite able to focus on it. But I have it now. It was one of the Systie visitors, yesterday morning. You remember there was a little group of VIP’s that slithered in for a few marks, spoke with the chief rep, and then slithered out.”

“Yes, I remember. Mocains, Ormans and a few Coldmarkers.”

“It was one of the Ormans, sloppy security, I suppose. I’d bet he was not supposed to be here. But probably so high-ranking that nobody dared challenge him.”

“What did you get?”

No one breathed.

Gravelight closed her eyes again, to recapture it. “A ship…an assault craft, landing on Coldmark. A cold, grim female…a fighter, a Mocain, contemptuous of Ormans. Fear and hate from the Orman. High security, Systie commandos with SGs. And a captive angel…a golden angel. Fear from the Orman. Deadman’s holy death, it’s Valkyrie. There is only a flash, just a flash. But it’s her! It’s our angel, Val. Our angel! She doesn’t belong on Coldmark, in the mud. She belongs with us, in the space between the stars.”

It occurred to me that we were lucky Boudicca wasn’t with us right now. We’d never have been able to restrain her long enough to let Gravelight finish.

Val almost gushed, “Bless you, Gravelight-you’ve done it! What else? What else?”

“Yes…there’s more. Her name…the Mocain girl’s name…Millina, that’s it, Millina, she’s evil. And she knows!”

“Knows what?”

“Everything! She knows about the operation on Andrion 2. That’s what the Orman thought. We’ve got to find her!”

“Where is she?”

“Good question.” Gravelight put down her cup. “Somewhere on Coldmark, I guess. I have no idea. Try looking into an Orman sometime…it’s like a snake pit.”

Val took Gravelight’s hand and squeezed it. Gravelight returned the squeeze, and they sat there, hand in hand. It sure looked like there was something developing between Gravelight and Val, but I knew psychers didn’t mix with deadheads.

“Bless you, Eighty-eight. Bless you,” Val said.

“I’m glad I was able to help,” she replied.

Chapter 18: Worshipping Red Gods

“Alert! Beta to the aircar! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!” The shriek of the red alert caught me in the shower in the assault craft, downside in Coldmark Port. I almost knocked myself cold bouncing against a wall on the way to the assault craft’s door. I snatched up undies, litepants and boots on the run, danced into my pants, and seized someone’s coldcoat from the ready room.

As the door to the assault craft snapped open, we ran out and our aircar approached us, hovering in icy air under a starry sky. The horizon glowed a red dawn. The car’s door hissed open and we hurtled in heads over heels like a squad of acrobats. Redhawk laughed hysterically.

“Count!” Snow Leopard shouted, his hair wild, face flushed, pink eyes burning.

“…Warhound, Dragon, Priestess-all here! Go!” Coolhand responded, and the assault doors slammed shut and we blasted off into the sky, a power climb. A wild tangle of equipment and people slid down the aisle to the rear.

“Ah! Get off me.” I had fallen on top of someone.

“They told me this was a ‘come as you are’ affair,” Coolhand said. He wasn’t wearing a shirt.

“It’s pretty cold out there. You’d better find a shirt,” I said, struggled to pull on my coldcoat.

“What’s the sit?” Coolhand asked.

“All right, this is it,” Snow Leopard said. He unwrapped a crumpled print, then turned suddenly on the pilot. “Do you have the cords?”

“Big ten! We’re ahead of Gamma!”

“Good! All right. Wait!” His head snapped up again. “E’s and comtops! Now!”

Psycho tore open the storage bins and began tossing out E’s and comtops. We grabbed them eagerly. I was working on my boots.

“Take a look! It’s got to be Valkyrie!” Snow Leopard held up the printout and we crowded around to see it. It was a recon shot from directly overhead. It showed what appeared to be the tiled roof of a large temple or palace. The roof glistened in the first rays of the dawn. A blue tile roof, draped with long strips of red cloth fluttering in the morning breeze. The strips were arranged in a peculiar pattern-a Legion cross!

A blood red Legion cross, draped across those blue tiles on the top of the temple. Deadman’s doom! That was Valkyrie all right! No doubt about that at all! A rush of hope shot through my arteries. I had my boots on now. I zipped up the coldcoat and checked my E. We’re on the way, Valkyrie! We’re on the way!

“Flash-Beta, Gamma, in the drop.”

“Get those comtops on! Tac mode! Now!” We snapped them over our heads and everything started to come together. Snow Leopard was still talking.

“All right, there’s the map. It’s a monastery complex. She’s in there someplace. Probably not in the building with the cross, it seems to be open, probably a temple. We’re in first, then Gamma…”

“Beta, Gamma!” Gamma was calling us.

“Go!”

“You take the west, we’ll take the east. We got dibs on the one with the cross.”

“Tenners!” It was not much of an ops plan, but it would have to do.

“They’re right behind us!” I craned my neck, and Gamma’s aircar glittered in the dawn behind us, leaving a frosty contrail in its wake. We headed west, the sun rising behind us. I turned to face front. A cold range of mountains lined the horizon against a blue-black sky. I snapped down the faceplate and clutched my E close to my chest. I felt no need for a mag, none at all.

Snow Leopard summarized. “If it moves and it doesn’t have blonde hair, kill it.”

“Tenners.”

“I don’t want a single door standing when we’re through. She’s there, and we find her! And get out fast! That’s the mission!”

“I’ll do deceptors and red smoke.” Redhawk’s hand hovered over the launch triggers. He had the maps stuck to the plex.

“Do it!” Snow Leopard ordered. The monastery complex appeared ahead on the horizon among the peaks, grey clouds slowly dissolving, a line of shadowy buildings materializing like a kingdom in the sky, floating magically in morning mists, the light of the dawn touching tall spires and illuminating great towers of pink stone. With a sudden flash we launched our missiles and watched the contrails as they streaked ahead.

“Red smoke and deceptors, Gamma.”

“Tenners.”

The morning burst over the monastery, a searing white flash and a multiple crack, a mini-nova, shattering the sky. A huge cloud of phospho-pink airburst over the complex and blinding fingers of flame shot down like hot hail, ricocheting everywhere. The bright pink smoke rolled around wildly and enveloped the entire complex in its grip. Streaks of lightning cracked wildly throughout the cloud, red-hot lances.

“Deceptor, smoke. On target. Approaching target, prep for decar.”

“Gamma approaching.”

“Beta, Gamma, we’re in the at.” The extraction team approached, entering the atmosphere. It was a powerful force. If the System wanted to counter them there, it would mean big trouble.

“Beta, Gamma. Major enemy strike force approaching your target in aircars. We’re moving to intercept.” Adrenalin shot through my system, a freezing burst of fear. A full-scale war!

“Landing!”

“Beta, decar!”

The assault doors popped open. Red smoke rolled in. I leaped out and landed running in a tiled courtyard. Despite the smoke it was as clear as daylight through the darksight of my faceplate. I snapped my E to xmin.

The aircar shot over my head, gone. We ran, leaping over low stone walls and up stone steps. A figure appeared suddenly before us, chain-mail armor, a cloak flapping about him-holding a spear! I shot him with xmax and the explosion blew him apart, splattering me with blood.

“Beta down!” Snow Leopard reported our landing.

“Gamma down!”

“Beta, Gamma, Val, you do the mission, we’ll handle the visitors.”

“Tenners!”

“Ten!”

Psycho crouched beside me, Manlink at his shoulder, a massive door before us. Our first objective, a great building. Psycho fired and the door exploded into splinters. I switched to gas and fired a burst into the doorway. A cloud of searing yellow gas rolled lazily out into the courtyard.

“First element entering objective…” Into the gas, a corridor lined with doors. A door opened, a figure stepped out, male, Coldmarker, a Starguard in one hand, confused by the smoke, weaving, his other hand over his mouth. I cut him in half with a burst of xmin, an explosion of gore. Snow Leopard sliced him lengthwise with laser. The Systie’s SG spit a brief burst of laser, riddling the ceiling, and the bloody corpse collapsed to the floor, the SG smoking. Merlin, behind us, had not had a clear shot.

“Second element entering objective…” Coolhand, Warhound, Dragon and Priestess were into our second target. I stepped over the shredded, dismembered corpse of the Coldmarker, adrenalin pumping wildly. Well-armed for a priest! I slipped on his blood and went down on one knee. I struggled up and threw myself into the doorway from where he had appeared, firing auto v-min. Screams, a blur of movement, the sharp explosions magnified within the stone cell, lancing into my ears-a bull of a man scrambling under a blanket. Terrified, I switched to auto xmin and fired until he was only twitching meat, the walls spattered with blood and gore, the cell full of upturned furniture and a bloody bed. I was still alive. I kicked in another door. A toilet, empty!

“Thinker here!” I launched myself back into the corridor, shaken. We took individual rooms as fast as we could. Psycho backed out of a room and fired a burst of flame. It exploded inside immediately and lit up Psycho’s figure. Someone screamed. Psycho’s eyes glowed behind his faceplate.

“Disgusting perverts!”

“Opscon, Atcon. We are intercepting the enemy aircar fleet. Permission to fire!”

“Atcon, Opscon. Open fire when ready.”

“Beta, Gamma-Topcat-still in the drop-we’re on the way.”

Snow Leopard popped out of a room. “All out cold here! Move! We need a prisoner! No more gas! Keep those E’s on v-min auto!” A stone staircase led up to the next floor. A baldheaded Coldmarker priest came charging down the stairs, a cloth wrapped around his mouth, firing an SG on laser. He ran into a barrage of V, which tore him off his feet. He came tumbling down the stairs like a rag doll, his SG bouncing along by itself. Psycho shot him through the forehead with a laser and his head exploded like a rotten fruit.

“Deadman!”

“These religious people are well-armed.”

“It’s the word of God, Cit,” Psycho laughed.

“Atcon engaging enemy aircars. All units on autofire.”

“Topcat approaching target. Hang on, guys!”

“Beta, Air. I’m giving you air cover.”

“Gamma, Air. I’m on you, too.”

“Deto!” Snow Leopard cursed. “Psycho, get out there with your Manlink and shoot down any enemy aircars that get through!” Psycho whirled and went charging back out the entrance. I blew away another door on xmax and came in low, firing on auto v-min. Dust and debris, and something on the floor-a young, bald Coldmarker in a dark robe, gasping.

“Snow Leopard, Thinker, prisoner!” I dragged him out into the corridor by one leg. A boy with smooth brown skin, only half conscious, his eyelids fluttering. Snow Leopard appeared by my side, scanning the corridor, his E up. Merlin kicked in a door and fired V bolts. It was deafening.

“Wake him up!” Snow Leopard ordered. I drew my hot knife and plunged the glowing blade into the boy’s arm. His eyes popped open and he shrieked in agony. I pulled the knife out and held it hissing a few mils from his eyeballs. He froze in shock, blood streaming from his arm, cold sweat on his forehead.

“Good morning,” I said. “I hope you speak Inter. We’re looking for the prisoner. The blonde Legion girl. If you don’t tell me where she is, I’m going to kill you.”

“No!” he croaked hoarsely. “Don’t kill us!” His Inter was just fine. “It’s in the Abbot’s Retreat. Over there!” He pointed it out shakily with his uninjured arm, gritting his teeth in pain. We could see it out the main door in dark morning light, right next door. A palace set up on high ground, red roofs, yellow banners floating out front, surrounded by low stone walls and terraces.

I backed off and shot the boy on v-min. He’d live.

“Beta, Gamma, Snow Leopard! She’s in the building with the red roof and the yellow banners. On me!” He and I charged out the door immediately with Merlin right behind us. The cold hit me right in the chest. Snow! Powdery white flakes drifted slowly down from a leaden grey sky. Our red smoke still drifted here and there, tinting the snow pink. Two figures ran along a terrace by the palace. Snow Leopard and I fired simultaneously on v-min, and they went down. An aircar flashed overhead with a boom and shot up into the grey skies.

“That’s Gamma!” A madman’s laugh. Psycho, rising up from behind a low wall, his Manlink pointed at the sky. “No Systies yet! Redhawk and Air Gamma are circling. Look at this snow! It’s freaking beautiful!”

We leaped over low walls, closing in on the building like a pack of swarmers. It was a great sprawling two-storied palace, with a massive double door of metal and wood, the building sparkling in a powdery layer of fine pink snow.

The air crackled viciously just over my head. A section of wall exploded, pitting me with stone fragments. I dropped to my belly in the snow. Snow Leopard lay beside me.

“Stay down, Beta! We’ve got ‘em spotted.” I recognized Boudicca’s steely voice.

Another shriek, a tremendous explosion, a brilliant green flash lighting up the sky. Someone came crashing down beside me.

“Hi, Big Guy!” Scrapper was armed with an E, comtop on, wearing a bulky Legion coldcoat. I could see her pale grey eyes through her faceplate. She always called me Big Guy. I wasn’t sure why.

“Ooh, that hurt! What should we do now, Chief? Give me the word. Stay put? We can stay put.”

“No, we’d better move! Now!” We scrambled to our feet and split up, firing on auto xmax. I could barely feel my fingers in the cold. The front of the building was smoking, disintegrating, phospho white and yellow starbursts flashing wildly, streaks of glowing shrapnel cutting through the skies and a sharp, violent crackling, all around us.

Psycho leapt over a small wall and landed next to me, firing full auto xmax. A mighty shock wave burst over us from above and an ear-shattering bang rolled through the mountains. Up in the snowy sky, a burning, flickering, disintegrating mass showered down from the heavens, a brilliant, flaming rain of death.

“Enemy aircars here. Where’s Atcon? Where’s Topcat?” Redhawk sounded busy.

“There’s two more, Beta!”

“I got ‘em! I got ‘em!”

“Topcat approaching your zero. We’ll clean your sky, guys.” The extraction team was with us!

Dragon appeared. He fired auto xmax right into the main doors of the palace and they blew apart, debris ricocheting everywhere.

The three of us cautiously approached the entrance. Coldmarker bodies sprawled over the terrace, several of them in a tangled pile before the doors, torn to bloody shreds. Systie SGs were scattered around, pitted and smoking. Not your typical religious sanctuary. Another aircar flashed overhead.

“…it’s ours!”

Two more darted past from the opposite direction, wheeling into the clouds for another pass. Psycho fired immediately, auto tacstar, flashing up into the snowy sky.

“Ha! They’re here!” He crouched, Manlink at his shoulder, furious, looking up into the sky, pink snow falling softly all around him.

A tooth-rattling howl as the air glittered with laser bursts flashing down in a beautiful, horrible arc from the sky, laser rain, slicing an irresistible path through the terrace, everything in its path disintegrating, exploding into dust. Psycho ducked. I couldn’t get any closer to the ground because of my clothing.

“Systies are strafing. Psycho, hold ‘em! Air cover! We need smoke! Beta, Gamma, on me!” Snow Leopard rounded the corner, joining us, and stepped into the flaming ruins of the open doorway. I followed, anxious to get out of the courtyard. A series of sonic booms shattered the sky. Four, five, six. All right! That had to be Topcat, the extraction force, with Legion fighters. About time! They’d give us the air!

Inside we faced a great hall lined with benches, the walls covered with heavy tapestries, with a raised platform at the far end and a nightmare red goblin carved into the wall behind the platform. He didn’t look too friendly. Perhaps that explained the SG’s.

Smoking incense, flickering candles, and a sudden silence. Doorways. Two stone staircases, either side of the platform, leading up to the second floor. Warhound kicked open one of the doors. A library, deserted. Dragon did another. Musty, empty cells, desks and paper.

“V-min, v-min, gang, she’s here. Upstairs! They live upstairs!” We picked our way carefully around the benches. Nothing stirred. Snow Leopard and Boudicca each took a staircase. Aircars shrieked past outside, and sonic booms rattled the building. We could hear tacstars howling on full auto. Could it be Psycho? I found myself behind Boudicca, hustling up the stairs. Scrapper and Sassin followed me. Sassin was the Cyrillian merc who carried Gamma’s Manlink. Of course, we called him Sassin the Assassin.

We gained the second floor behind a barrage of v-min auto. We found a body in the corridor, a Coldmarker male. I caught a glimpse of Snow Leopard, Dragon, Merlin and Priestess, coming up the other staircase, firing v-min auto into their corridor.

It was a long rectangular building and the corridor ran around the building, giving access to all the rooms. A great explosion shattered the sky outside. We did not have much time! The corridor was lined with closed wooden doors. I blew away the first one, and Sassin went for the opposite door. Boudicca joined me, stepping into the smoking dust, her E at her shoulder. A Coldmarker priest stood against the wall, clothed in a dark robe. “We’re unarmed,” he said shakily in Inter. “We’re a servant of God.”

Boudicca pointed her E right at his head. “Drop the robe, holy man.”

He carefully loosened the cloth belt and the robe slid to the floor. He was pale and fat and almost naked, trembling like jelly, clad only in a dirty loincloth. No weapons.

“We want the girl,” Boudicca said, “the Legion girl with the golden hair.” Her voice was a hoarse whisper. It raised the hairs on the back of my neck. She didn’t have to voice any threats. He understood.

“Next cell!” He responded immediately, gesturing up the corridor. He trembled violently.

“The Legion thanks you,” she said. Then she switched to xmin and shot him in the chest. The explosion blew him apart, spraying us with gore, splattering the entire room with blood. I was stunned for an instant, frozen in horror. She had been almost sane when I knew her in Hell.

Laser light flickered and cracked in the corridor, and V bolts banged away on auto. Gamma and Beta were kicking in doors and firing on v-min.

Boudicca stood before the door to the next room. Sassin raised his Manlink and fired and the door crashed right into the room. Boudicca and I stepped into the dark, E’s on v-min. A narrow slit in the cold stone wall high above admitted a sliver of daylight, revealing a fireplace with a few dying red embers. Valkyrie stood in the middle of the room facing us. She wore a Coldmarker cloak with the hood back and her golden hair shone in the dark. She appeared calm and detached. She stood over another girl, icy pale skin, black hair, heavy lids. A Mocain! The Mocain was on her knees, almost naked, shivering, facing us, her wrists and ankles tied behind her. Valkyrie stood over her, and she had the Mocain’s hair in one hand and a cold knife in the other.

“Millina, meet the Legion,” she said. “Legion, Millina. Hello, Thinker! Hello, Boudicca! Good to see you! Millina, I wanted you to see the Legion, before your death.”

The Mocain spoke. She tried to turn her head to face Valkyrie, but Valkyrie would not let go of her hair. “Legion…” the Mocain gasped, “We never killed you, Legion.”

Valkyrie leaned over and hissed in her ear. “Your mistake!” She brought the knife down and slashed the Mocain’s throat from ear to ear. The Mocain convulsed and a scream started but it was abruptly cut off as a cascade of bright red blood spurted freely out from her neck. Valkyrie kicked her in the back, and the Mocain fell face-first to the floor. I could only watch, stunned.

“Die, you sub!” Valkyrie appeared to be consumed by an ice-cold fury.

“Are you all right?” Boudicca asked.

“I’m fine! Give me an E!”

I handed her my mini in slow motion, still in shock from what she had just done. I reached out and touched her. It was wonderful to see her. I tried to say something, but I could only stare at the dying Mocain.

She snarled, “I want to kill every one of these filthy priests! Every one!” I’d never seen her like this, not even in her fighting fury when we almost died on Hell.

Boudicca turned and called it in, “Mission accomplished! Request extraction now!” The noise level rose outside, a continual banshee shriek of auto laser and the ripping, popping bursts of auto xmax and the horrible, unearthly supersonic blasts of the tacstars. As we hustled out into the corridor, I became suddenly conscious of the events that had been going on all around us. I had been too busy to absorb the transmissions, but I was getting them now.

“Systies on the ground! Moving in! Fully armored!”

“Get ‘em! Get ‘em! Get ‘em!”

“I’m hit! Oh, God!”

“Take out that bunch!”

“Topcat on the ZA!”

“We’re taking fire!”

“They’ve got the target!”

“There’s two of them over there. Get ‘em both!”

“I’m strafing them. Legion, get down!” There it was again, laser rain, ripping down all around us, burning holes in the stone walls of the monastery, ripping through the courtyards like the fingers of the gods. My skin crawled. It always crawled when I heard the lasers.

It was getting ugly. I led the way, “Down the stairs!”

We went charging down, and came sliding to a sudden stop halfway down the stairwell. Two fully armored Systie troopers, armed with SGs, stepped into the main doorway in a gust of red smoke swirling in from outside, like great robot genies in some wild drug-induced nightmare.

Sassin and I fired simultaneously. His was a tacstar. A brilliant, white-hot micronuke blew away the two Systie troopers and took out the doorway and most of the wall as well. Shrapnel peppered us, and I noticed my hands were bleeding.

Then the Systies counter-attacked. There was a sudden flash, and everything downstairs exploded. A hot pain lanced my left arm. I screamed in pain and anger. “Whoa! Back! Back up the stairs!”

We laid down a tremendous barrage of xmax and tacstars, retreating back up the stairs. The building wobbled. Coolhand let loose about four smokers, and somebody in Gamma lobbed down a deceptor and it crackled and spun away merrily. It would keep the Systies busy for a few marks anyway.

“Topcat, Snow Leopard. Beta and Gamma are trapped on the upper floor and we need extraction. Systies have the lower floor. We’ve got Valkyrie.”

“Good job, guys! Topcat is on you! Blow a hole in the roof! We’ll extract you!”

“Right here!” We gathered around a spot near the outside wall. Dragon and Doubledare guarded the stairwells. Sassin blew open a jagged hole in the ceiling. I shot a flare through the hole.

“We see you, guys! Tell us when you’re ready!” Another tacstar rocked the building downstairs. An aircar whistled overhead.

“They’re coming up!” Dragon announced, firing a long burst of auto xmax. Doubledare let loose as well. We charged back to the stairwells and split our forces, half to each stairway.

Snow Leopard took charge, “We have to stop them, or we’ll never get out. Down! Attack!” We fired deceptors and walked down the stairs right into them, firing, and it was the last thing they expected. The building shook with the frenzy of lasers and xmax. I expected it to collapse at any time. Green smoke whirled all around us, and even with the darksight, it was difficult to see. The Systies used deceptors too. Tacstar bursts flickered and cracked, white-hot nuclear light, glaring and fading. We fired flame on auto and filled the downstairs with rolling sheets of fire.

We paused halfway down the stairwell, again. A roaring inferno, full of burning splinters and shattered, blackened A-suits. One of them moved up from the floor, staggering sideways, flames running all over his armor. We fired lasers and white-hot tracks appeared on his armor and the metallic screeching set my teeth on edge, and he twitched and fell into the flames with a crash. At the end of the hall, the red God surveyed the scene silently, flames shooting up all around him.

“Is anyone hurt?” Snow Leopard asked.

“Dragon, Merlin, Sassin and Warhound, stay on the stairs and defend the main doorway. The rest of us, back upstairs and let’s call in the evac.” We could hear heavy firing outside again, and more sonic booms. Sweety was briefing me on the situation but I found it hard to concentrate when people were trying to kill me.

“Beta, Gamma, Topcat. We’re on the ground defending your building. You are under heavy assault.”

“Tell us something we don’t know! Keep them away from the main door, will you?”

“Your door is secure for now, but don’t exit that way. Use the roof and get out quick! More bad guys on the way!”

Valkyrie had pulled a table from a nearby room and moved it under the hole we had made in the roof. Another door opened suddenly and a Coldmarker ran out gesturing and screaming. Somebody shot him in the face, and the back of his head splattered against the wall.

Valkyrie spat at his corpse. “Idiot! What a stupid move!”

Warhound and Hotshot leaped up on the table and crawled up into the shattered wooden beams of the ceiling. Warhound shot off another flare. There was so much adrenalin in my system I could taste it on my tongue.

“Topcat Air, Beta, Gamma ready for evac! Yellow flare!”

“I’ve got ‘em, Topcat! Cover me!” Redhawk shouted as our aircar appeared above us, balanced effortlessly over the hole, assault doors snapping open. The backblast rushed down through the hole and washed over us. I boosted Valkyrie up to Boudicca, who was standing on the table. Valkyrie paused just for an instant between us, clutching my coldcoat, and she suddenly appeared very vulnerable, not at all like the terror I knew. Clear green eyes full of emotion, heavenly golden hair dancing in the breeze.

“Did you really come here just to get me back?” she shouted above the shriek from the aircar. She looked right into my eyes, and then looked up to Boudicca.

“I was in the neighborhood,” I replied. “Thought I’d look you up.”

“Don’t get mushy on me, Valkyrie,” Boudicca said. She hauled her up to Warhound’s outstretched arms. “Get your scrawny butt into that aircar!”

Snow Leopard would be the last one into the car, in true Legion tradition, waiting until our rear guard was safely aboard. We had a tremendous view from the aircar as we struggled to haul everyone in. The snowy sky burnt with glittering laser tracks and flashed with white-hot airbursts. Every few fracs the aircar rang with hits, shrapnel scarring the plex and xmax banging against the skin and rocking the car, and lasers burning into the armor mils from our flesh. Heavy Legion fighters boomed overhead, ripping holes in the sky. Legion and Systie aircars spiraled through the air in crazy patterns, looping and falling and diving and flashing past us and darting up into the leaden clouds chasing each other around and loosing long bursts of laser and tacstars.

The monastery complex rocked back and forth below us as Redhawk tried desperately to steady the car. Everywhere we looked, the buildings of the monastery glowed with swirling, multicolored clouds of smoke and flashed with brilliant explosions, as if the complex was lit up for some lunatic, barbaric festival, with flashing lights and fireworks. Legion soldiers in A-suits advanced into Systie fire, and glittering sheets of heavy laser from the skies, suddenly there. Broken, smoking A-suits littered the terraces of the monastery. Through the smoke I could see the Systies, too, A-suited DefCorps commandos, firing tacstars at the Legion! I raised my E just as Snow Leopard jumped in. We shot away from the roof instantly and the assault doors slammed shut.

“We’ve got to recover Psycho!” Snow Leopard said. Then the ceiling of the aircar exploded, an ear-shattering crack, a bright white flash, and the plex blowing away, icy air roaring in-streaks of phospho white bursting away from us. Tacstar! Laser tracks peppered the ceiling. We had two squads inside and it was an awful mess. The roar of the air rushing in and the shriek of the jets overwhelmed us all. I could barely hear Redhawk’s voice echoing in my comtop. We were dead!

“Beta Air hit! Nova! We’re coming in!”

The earth tilted up madly and another aircar flashed past us and the monastery slid away, and then moved back at us quickly. I watched the spires of one of the buildings coming right at us and I could see Valkyrie’s Legion cross, red cloth fluttering on a blue tile roof, still there!

Then there was a sickening blast and a white hot flash inside my head and I was gone.

Chapter 19: Blood of the Legion

“Cut it off! Use the laser! Oh, Lord! Give me a mag!” somebody screamed.

A terrifying blast split the sky open directly overhead. A throbbing wave of pain pulsed over my body. The sound of firing rose to a lunatic crescendo, drowning out everything else. The shriek of tacstars grated in my ears. Someone in an A-suit stood directly over me, tearing away at the twisted mass of metal that surrounded me like a coffin. We were still in the aircar, and the battle raged all around us. Another A-suited Legionnaire smashed at the wreckage with his armored fists, tearing it apart. I got a glimpse of Snow Leopard, carrying Coolhand out of the wreckage.

The A-suited Legionnaire got me by the shoulders and pulled me out of the wreckage. I had a hazy glimpse of his insignia: CAT 21, Topcat, the extraction team. The aircar was a twisted, crumpled wreck, but more or less in one piece. Two Legionnaires in armor knelt next to me, firing their E’s, auto laser, death’s bright light. The sky split with lasers and explosions and tacstars and aircars and fighters, booming overhead. Snow fell softly from heavy grey clouds.

“Kiss it! Op Star!”

“Get down! Down, down, down!”

“Oh, no!”

A brilliant phospho white flash, then a deafening blast. The mountains shook. A flaming crimson fireball rose into the sky, rivaling the morning sun.

“Dead-man!” The firing slowed momentarily. A Legion aircar shot overhead. Another settled in a cloud of red smoke next to the wreckage of Beta Air. Priestess was all right and working on Coolhand, she had his comtop off. I found I could move. Merlin was on his knees, fumbling with his E. I didn’t see Warhound, Dragon, or Valkyrie.

Systie xmax rounds spattered the wreckage around us! The op star had exploded right among the Systie commandos, but it had not taken them all out. We stayed low.

“Thinker, have you seen Psycho?” Snow Leopard paused briefly with his E at his shoulder, wreathed in snow.

I gestured, “He was over there when the strafing hit. I haven’t heard from him since.” I could not imagine anyone surviving that laser rain.

“Somebody! Help me out here!” Boudicca called out. I scrambled onto the wreckage, my body shooting jagged barbs of pain into my brain in protest. A squad of Legion troopers moved past us, CAT 21, ghostly A-suits advancing into the hovering nuclear cloud, snapping off random bursts on laser. I spotted Boudicca’s fluttering hands and hauled her up out of a twisted escape hatchway. Valkyrie emerged behind her, pale and shaken, a bruise on her forehead, her lower lip bleeding. But still alive! I grasped her hands and she rushed into my arms and held on with a death grip.

She still wore the priest’s robe and was deathly pale. Laser bursts flickered a few mikes over our heads. I caught a glimpse of Redhawk crawling out of a tangle of twisted metal with Scrapper.

“Down, down!” A red smoker burst brilliantly right in front of us. Sassin rose up out of the mists, a dark vision, still clutching his Manlink.

Another figure emerged from behind him. “Valkyrie! Welcome back! Are you all right?” Lowdrop himself greeted us in a litesuit and comtop, E in one hand. Someone else stood beside him, and then I got a sudden glimpse of her face through the faceplate-pale weary child, limp golden hair. Gravelight! Why in Deadman’s name would they expose her to this idiotic shoot-out?

Valkyrie pulled away from me and struggled to compose herself. “I’m all right,” Valkyrie replied bravely, rubbing blood from her mouth. Light snow settled on her hair. “I’ve lost my handgun. Has anyone got an E?”

“All units evac! Immediate evac, please.” A booming all-channels maxburst, from Downside Ops.

Lowdrop replied. “Tell Opscon we’re on the way! Recovering casualties, we’re on the way!”

“Valkyrie!” Gravelight exclaimed. She seized Valkyrie by the arm. “Your captors…was there a Mocain girl called Millina?”

Valkyrie’s face darkened, and her mouth tightened. “Yes, I killed that bitch sub! Why?”

Gravelight shrank back, stunned, then frantically grabbed Valkyrie’s arm, “No! You killed her? Where? When? Where is she?”

Valkyrie tore away from Gravelight’s grasp. “She’s in Hell! Where she belongs!”

“Where is she? NOW, trooper!” Lowdrop erupted, his eyes flashing. The fellow was certainly touchy.

I intervened before Valkyrie did something unforgivable to a superior officer. “Right over there, Sir.” I pointed out the burning, smoking building from which we had just escaped. Flames shot through the hole we had made in the roof, and licked out the windows. “Second floor. We came out through the roof.”

Lowdrop bared his teeth, “You didn’t bring her?”

I blinked. “No, sir, we didn’t bring her!” I tried to hold my temper in check. “I guess we were more worried about Valkyrie and our own troops than some Mocain sub.” How do people like him get promoted?

He whirled away and pounded his fist on an already dented aircar bulkhead. “Damn!”

Gravelight rushed toward Lowdrop, tripped over something, recovered slightly and seized his arm. “We’ve got to get her,” she pleaded. “She may still be alive!”

“What’s the problem, Sir?” Snow Leopard and Boudicca joined us. A fighter barreled right over us, firing chainlink tacstars. Red smoke swirled madly around us, and pink snow fell softly from the sky. Lasers snapped nearby, a flickering cold terror in my guts.

Lowdrop looked at Gravelight, nodded and turned to us. “Beta, Gamma, we will recover this Mocain woman…Millina…immediately.” He had made up his mind.

I think we all had the same reaction: stunned disbelief. Boudicca bristled and Snow Leopard grabbed her just in time, holding her back. She spoke up anyway, “Oh, great!” she exclaimed. “Yes, Sir! That’s a terrific idea! She’s in that hellhole over there with her throat cut. Are you coming?”

Veins popped out on his temples and for a moment I was certain Lowdrop was going to shoot her. He pursed his lips and barked, “Yes, Trooper, I’m coming! Into my aircar. Now!” He turned and ran toward his aircar with Gravelight in tow and shouted over his shoulder, “We need a medic!”

Snow Leopard took Boudicca by the elbow and held her in place. “Priestess, Thinker, Merlin, Sassin, you’re with me!” We dashed after Lowdrop and leapt aboard. One of the CAT 21 troopers hustled Valkyrie away. She struggled a bit but her heart wasn’t in it. The assault doors slammed shut and we lurched away from the crash site.

The skin of the aircar rang with hits, and I wondered briefly why we had to risk our necks for a Mocain.

We hovered over the building in a rush of flame and smoke shooting up from the hole in the roof. Xmax and lasers popped and screeched against the armor. The assault doors snapped open and the cabin filled with a great gust of black smoke and sparks, and the hole in the roof slid back and forth dizzily beneath us. A second Legion aircar darted up above us and began strafing the Systie troops with tacstars and lasers.

“Jump!” We jumped right into the inferno, our E’s strapped to our chests. Lowdrop went first, followed by Snow Leopard and Boudicca. I landed on a burning ceiling beam and it snapped and dropped me right down onto the burning table that Valkyrie had pulled out into the corridor. I rolled off to the floor and raised my E. For a moment, it felt like I’d broken several ribs, and maybe a leg or two as well, but I was still moving so I concluded I was all right. The corridor was ablaze, the ceiling burning brightly. I suddenly realized that I did not even have on a liteshirt. My Legion coldcoat smoked, and my naked hands were blistering.

Boudicca and I led the way down the corridor, with Lowdrop and Gravelight and Snow Leopard and Priestess and Merlin and Sassin right behind us.

The open doorway glowed, flames crackled up the walls, the room full of smoke. A figure crumpled on the floor, Millina, as still as death.

“Priestess!” Boudicca called out. Priestess appeared immediately, bending over the body. It lay on a pile of smoking, blood-soaked blankets, wrists and ankles still tied behind her. Gravelight was on her quickly, a psychic parasite, hovering mils from Millina’s face as Priestess frantically tried to repair the massive damage done to her throat. I caught a glimpse of the Mocain’s face, dead white, drained of life. Dead for sure. Priestess hit her with a biotic charger. Sassin and Merlin stood guard in the corridor. The firing outside increased.

“Opscon to Downside. Recall! Recall! All units evac Coldmark. Immediate recall, all units evac. All units off-planet. Repeat, recall, all units return topside now!”

“God, she’s still with us!” Gravelight spoke, her voice charged with wonder. “Bring her back, Priestess!”

“I’ve got a faint heartbeat. She’s alive. She used the blankets to stop the bleeding.” Priestess had done a quick flesh patch on the horrible slash along the Mocain’s throat. Now she slipped a biopack into the charger and it immediately began pumping life into Millina’s cold, still body. I knew how it worked. It was the blood of the Legion, our own blood, cooked up by our own unholy lifies.

I don’t think we even heard the recall order. To us, it was just background noise. We were busy.

Boudicca commented absently, “Your jacket’s on fire, Thinker.”

“Can you put it out, please?”

Merlin called out a warning, “Systies on the roof!” A deafening explosion rocked the building.

I charged out the door into the corridor with Boudicca, Snow Leopard and Lowdrop.

“Systies in armor!” Sassin, Gamma Seven, informed us, “coming in through the roof!” He backed towards us from our left, and fired a deceptor into the smoke.

“Defend the exit!” Lowdrop called out. “Priestess…” Merlin appeared on our right, also backing up, and even as we spotted him, he opened up with a laser burst.

“Systies! They’re here!” A wild tracery of laser bursts flickered all around us, screeching into the stone walls, raising dust. We dropped and fired back, xmax and lasers. Suddenly, I saw the Systie troopers in my darksight, huge armored beetles bristling with antennae and weapons, walking right at us, flames licking all around them. Sassin fired a tacstar.

“Back! Out of the corridor!” Lasers snapped all around us through heavy smoke. I crawled into a doorway, flames roaring up from the floor. Someone screamed. Sassin appeared beside me.

“It’s Merlin,” he shouted. “Your Four’s hit!”

Merlin sprawled in the doorway, still halfway in the corridor, clawing at my foot. Both his legs were shredded, raw meat, hissing and spitting flame. He screamed in agony.

“Cover me, Sassin!” I dragged Merlin into the room. Auto xmax tore through the corridor, spraying us with shrapnel. I yanked loose the medkit from the coldcoat and ripped it open. A ripple of movement behind us, inside the room.

“Don’t shoot us! Please! We’re…” Sassin whipped around and fired, laser, slicing them in half. It was just two boys, now burning body parts, blood splattered all over the walls. I did not even have time to react. A tacstar thundered in the corridor, phospho white contrails cracking right into our room. I stabbed a biotic charger into Merlin’s arm right through his coldcoat. His moans continued.

“Priestess, Gravelight, stay put! Don’t go into the corridor!” Lowdrop ordered. “Sassin, Thinker, Merlin, report!” We were alone in the room, just Sassin and Merlin and me and the two dead Coldmarker boys. We’d backed into the wrong room; Priestess and Gravelight were alone with the Mocain girl!

“Beta, Thinker! I’m with Sassin and Merlin. Merlin’s hit bad!” Xmax shattered my words. Sassin leaned out the door, firing down the corridor.

“Snow Leopard, Priestess!” She sounded tense. “The Systies are right outside our room!”

“Sassin!” I shouted, “I think this is the room next to them! Blow a hole in the wall with your Manlink!”

“Deadman, Thinker, it’s solid stone!” Sassin’s black face was grey with fatigue and steamed with sweat behind his faceplate.

“Can’t you do it? Use xmax!”

“I can do it, but we might kill them!”

“If we don’t do it, they die anyway! Do it! Priestess, Gravelight, heads down! We’re taking out your wall!” I wanted to scream. My blistered hands were roasting and the outside of my coldcoat was melting.

A tremendous concussion deafened us. Swirling dust, a dull buzzing in my ear. Sassin had fired. Merlin still had a death grip on one of my legs, begging me to kill him. Sassin turned to cover the door with his Manlink.

Movement in the dust. We had done it! Gravelight came scrambling through the hole headfirst. A deafening cacophony of auto xmax and the crackling of lasers followed her from the other room. I fell into the hole, poking my E through. Gravelight clawed at my arm.

“The Mocain!” she shrieked. “Priestess! Pass her through!” Priestess and the Mocain were right next to the hole. Priestess fired her E. I fired on laser into her open doorway. Then an A-suited Systie stepped in, firing an SG on laser. The burst missed Priestess by mils, but my laser caught the Systie right on the chest, screeching and popping, white-hot death. He shuddered and collapsed.

I released my E and reached through the hole in the wall and seized Priestess and dragged her through. She resisted all the way, kicking and screaming.

“The Mocain! My patient! She’s dying. Let me bring her!”

Gravelight frantically tried to push us aside and crawl back through the hole to the Mocain. A horrific blast shattered the Mocain’s room, ending the argument and pitting my faceplate with frags. The building shuddered.

“Xmax! No! She’s dead!”

“Sassin, will you hold this crazy psycher?” I was trying to stop a hysterical Gravelight from crawling back to her death. Priestess sobbed, writhing in my arms. Merlin moaned in agony. But Sassin did not take time to worry about Gravelight. He fired into the corridor nonstop. Deafening tacstars shook the rooftop above us.

“More Systies! Legion, we’re coming into the corridor! Thinker, let’s go! Bring Merlin! I’ll cover the corridor!” Sassin knelt by the door, Manlink to his shoulder. “Legion in the corridor! Legion in the corridor! We need an evac!” We burst out the door and backed down the corridor to where we thought the others were, Priestess and I dragging Merlin by his arms, Gravelight firing her E from the waist, screaming something incomprehensible. I fired my E with one hand, auto xmax into the smoke.

“This way, Legion!”

“We’ve got you, guys!”

“Heads down, Legion!” A glittering tapestry of golden laser bursts streamed and snapped just above our heads. Lowdrop and Boudicca were firing. Friendly lasers, only I knew there was no such thing as friendly lasers.

Suddenly Snow Leopard appeared, stepping out of the smoke like a phantom, firing one-handed down the corridor just like on the range, seizing me by one arm to guide us into another room. A tremendous crack from up above. “Legion on the roof. We’ve got the roof! Fight your way out, guys! More Systies on the way!”

“Where’s the Mocain?” Lowdrop looked around wildly. Merlin screamed. Priestess bent over him, frantically working on his legs.

“The Systies have her!” I replied, stepping up to confront him. “It was Gravelight and Priestess alive, or all three of them dead! Don’t you understand? We’ve lost her!”

He turned from me. “Gravelight, did you get anything?”

“I don’t know!” she moaned. “It was a bloody mess! I don’t know!”

“All right, evac! Unit evac! Lowdrop calling…”

Sassin blew a massive hole in the roof, showering us all with debris. He didn’t need any further invitation. Boudicca crouched in the doorway, firing auto xmax down the corridor. An aircar hovered right overhead, firing chainlink laser. More debris came raining down. An A-suited Legionnaire appeared in the hole in the ceiling, covering us all with his Manlink. Evac lines came shooting down, crashing onto the floor, steaming. The smoke was so thick I could hardly see, even with the darksight.

“Out! Out! Evac!” The A-suit boomed. “Snap on and pull!” We got Merlin tied on immediately. Priestess went up with him, shooting up through the rafters abruptly. The Legionnaire in the A-suit came crashing down to the floor and took up a position by the door, firing a Manlink. Boudicca abandoned the doorway and seized one of the evac lines. I pulled and went shooting up into the rafters, beams crashing into my comtop, flames whooshing past me.

I shot into the aircar’s open assault door like a rag doll, landing breathlessly on top of Sassin. Two A-suited troopers from CAT 21 worked the extractors, hauling us in like fish. The car had been stripped for evac duty. Lasers flicked past the outside, smoke filling the cabin, and I could hear xmax peppering the skin. Boudicca and Snow Leopard came hurtling in, slamming against each other. Then Lowdrop cartwheeled right into me.

“Two’s free!” the aircar’s pilot spit out as he shot away from the building, hauling the A-suited trooper along behind on the evac line, dangling in the air, a wild ride through bleeding skies. The snow had stopped.

“Opscon to Downside. Recall! Recall! All units evac Coldmark. Immediate recall, all units evac. Recall! Recall! Quit fooling around and get outta there!”

A flaming aircar went hurtling past us, disintegrating. The crew reeled in their Two and he crashed in and the assault door snapped shut immediately. We arced into a power climb.

Snow Leopard wrenched off his comtop and threw it angrily to the floor. Her hands scarlet, Priestess desperately worked on Merlin. His lower legs had been shredded. She was covered with blood.

“Save him!” Lowdrop and I tried to help her with Merlin, but my fingers did not work.

“Did Warhound get out of the aircar?” Snow Leopard demanded.

“I didn’t see Warhound or Dragon,” I answered.

“Coolhand made it,” Priestess responded. “How about Redhawk? How about Psycho?”

“Redhawk got out,” I replied. “Psycho was in the courtyard when the Systies strafed it with their lasers.”

“Deto!” Snow Leopard almost bit the curse in two. “How is Merlin?”

Gravelight furiously confronted me, face ashen, eyes wet and swollen. “We could have had the Mocain!”

“Shut down, you raving lunatic! You and Priestess would both be dead if it wasn’t for me! I don’t give a damn for your Mocain!” I was in no mood for this nonsense.

“You ignorant fool! You have no idea how important she is!” Gravelight trembled with rage and frustration.

“I know how important Priestess is! The Systies were in the doorway, psycher! I killed one just as he shot at Priestess! It’s a miracle he missed! There was no way we could have recovered that Mocain!”

“That’s enough!” Lowdrop cut in, pulling Gravelight away from me. “He’s right, Gravelight. You would have died, too. You all did your best! It’s over!”

Boudicca wrenched her comtop off, revealing a flushed, sweaty face, bright red hair and the Legion cross on her forehead. She collapsed against the aircar’s fuselage beside Snow Leopard. He wrapped one arm around her shoulders protectively and pulled her to him, hiding nothing.

“Hey, girl-how you doing?” His face was grim.

“Hot and wet, kiddo. Hot and wet. I could use an ice-cold shower.”

“Well, we’ll do one together.”

“You’re on, kiddo. You’re on.”

Priestess continued working on Merlin. There was nothing I could do to help. There was nothing for me to do at all. I closed my eyes, exhausted and overcome with anger and frustration. Deadman works in strange ways, I thought. He works through us, but he doesn’t make it easy. We had saved Valkyrie from the grasp of our foes, and saved Merlin from an awful death. Maybe it was up to us…to do what we could, for those we love.

“Does that hurt?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Come back in ten hours. You’ll be called. Next!” We looked around the body shop of the Spawn. I could hardly believe we had made it back, but the fighters had kept the Systie fleet very busy. Now we were on vac run red, and my hands were encased in biogloves, one arm was bandaged and my torso covered with burn pads. The body shop was very, very busy.

“Thinker! How are you?” I wandered in a daze. White-suited lifies and medics rushed around urgently with biopacks and wheeled the casualties into the operating rooms. I looked up. Boudicca sat on a table with one arm draped around Valkyrie. Boudicca still wore her litesuit, peppered with shrapnel hits and scorched from the fire and splattered with dried blood. Valkyrie was still in the dark monk’s robe, bleeding from the lip.

“Valkyrie! It’s good to see you.” I reached out and took her hands in mine. Her emerald eyes flickered, and once again it was just the two of us, against the world. She didn’t say anything at first. I noticed a lot of blood on her robe.

“Hello to you, too, Thinker!” Boudicca said sarcastically. “Appreciate your concern. I’m all right, thank you. She may have broken some ribs. We have to wait a bit to find out.” Boudicca seemed perfectly happy, with her Two at her side.

Valkyrie turned from me, with dull eyes, talking slowly, barely whispering. “She raped me, Thinker. She degraded me. She annihilated my soul. She turned me into a slave, a cipher. I wasn’t Gamma Two any more, Thinker, I was Gamma Zero. I did whatever she wanted. I was a good slave. Everything they told us about the Systies is true.”

I swallowed hard. I said nothing. What could I say?

“But I got my soul back, Thinker. And it felt so good. I’m going to kill Systies for the rest of my life.” Her gaze swept over the body shop. Over in the corner they were cutting someone out of a fused A-suit.

“So many casualties!” Valkyrie whispered. “So many…how many dead?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I responded quickly.

“What do you mean, it doesn’t matter? How can it not matter?”

“It doesn’t matter!” I insisted. “We got you back, that’s what’s important. We took you back! And the entire galaxy will know it!”

“But look at the cost! How many dead? It’s crazy! You should have left me! All these wounded troopers. They don’t even know me. They must hate me!”

“Don’t you understand anything, Valkyrie?” It bothered me that she could not see it. “That’s the whole point. It doesn’t matter who you are, or whether it was just you or a hundred others as well. The point is, you’re a soldier of the Legion. And the enemy had you. And the Legion was going to get you back. And nobody was going to count the cost.”

Boudicca embraced her tighter, and raised her head. “That’s right, so don’t ask how many dead. Like he says, it doesn’t matter. We’re all bound for death. We all die for the Legion. You’ve seen the Monument. Your number will be up there one day, and your squad name, and your image, and one more line-’Died in Service’. Those troopers didn’t die for you, they died for the Legion, for all of us.”

“You can’t count the cost,” I said wearily. “The day the Legion starts counting the cost, we’re all done for. That will be the end of the Legion.” The trooper in the corner screamed. They were having trouble cutting the A-suit open. A shudder ran through me.

“I suppose you’re right,” Valkyrie said. “Please forgive me. I love you both.” I squeezed her hands, and Boudicca hugged her tighter.

“It’s all right,” I said. “It’s all right.” Boudicca didn’t say anything. I think she was trying not to cry.

###

“Merlin! How is it?” Merlin floated in an air pillow in the tank. Priestess and I had just found him. The body shop was chaos. Merlin opened his eyes carefully and looked around, his face strained. We could not see his legs; they were covered.

“Hey, guys. It hurts. Feels like somebody cut off my legs.” He attempted a smile. It didn’t work. “The lifies say it’s going to take months. Guess I screwed up, huh?”

“You did fine, Merlin,” I said. “It was Priestess who saved you. She got you back here.”

“Don’t you listen to him, Merlin,” Priestess said. “It was Thinker who saved you. And he saved me, too!” She had washed the blood off her hands. I had helped her. She seemed different now. I wasn’t sure how different.

Merlin almost smiled. “I remember you dragged me out of the hall, Thinker. I’m sorry. I guess I’m a danger to everybody around me.”

“What are you talking about, Merlin?” I was genuinely puzzled.

“You know I don’t belong here, Thinker. I belong in a damned research lab. I don’t belong in a CAT squad. I can barely get out of an aircar without falling on my face, you know that.” He stared into the space between us, avoiding our eyes. “I’ve been selfish. I’ve been indulging my own private fantasies, at your expense. The next time, I’ll probably get somebody killed.”

It was all a plan to drive me over the edge. First Gravelight, then Priestess, now Merlin. I tried to keep my temper. “Merlin, do you want to go back to a research lab?”

His eyes flashed up to mine. “No.”

“Well then, don’t! What are you whining about? We all want you back! You’re our Four, the best Four we’ve ever had, and we won’t let you go! Now shut down and turn your brain off. The damned thing is on antimat drive again. Deadman! Let’s go, Priestess.” I could not take much more of this.

We found Dragon in the operating room, his body encased in massive slabs of life-support equipment. The lifies swarmed over his still form. Serious internal injuries, they said. It was going to be a challenge, they said. Dragon’s eyes opened. He spotted us, behind the plex. One arm snaked out from under the equipment and slowly rose, forming a clenched fist. The fist faintly trembled, but I knew it was not from weakness. The dragons on his arm writhed, furious. And I knew Dragon would be all right. I returned his salute.

###

“Thinker! Have you seen Psycho?” Snow Leopard asked me, pale and sweating, still stinking of the battle. And still looking for Psycho.

“I’m sorry, Snow Leopard. No news yet?”

“Nothing. Nothing. Deadman! It’s such a bloody mess. Nobody knows anything.” He turned, his pale pink eyes scanning the body shop for his missing squadies. He appeared distracted and lost, slightly off balance, running one hand back through wet hair, his other hand toying with a comset. This was not at all like the cold, efficient Snow Leopard we all knew and loved. Was the whole world coming apart?

A ragged voice cut us off. “Thinker! Snow Leopard! Priestess! Deadman, you’re all right! I thought the whole squad was gone!” Psycho stood before us in a shredded, bloody litesuit, his face all bruised and cut, his nose smashed and bloody, a crooked smile.

“Psycho!” I croaked. “We thought you were dead!” I seized him by the shoulders, transfixed with joy. “You look great!”

“Where the devil have you been, Trooper!” Snow Leopard snarled furiously, his face flushing red, his eyes almost shooting sparks. “I’ve been looking for you for hours!” He glared at Psycho for an instant, then abruptly reached out and embraced him, his eyes closed, his face expressionless. Psycho flashed me a goofy smile over Snow Leopard’s shoulder.

###

“Here’s to Merlin, and here’s to Ironman, and here’s to Dragon.” Warhound proposed the toast, holding up a frosty mug of ale. We had run into him in the corridor. He had been helping Coolhand hobble toward the lounge.

The lounge was jammed, wild ionic music blasting from the speakers. Warhound appeared untouched by our Coldmark adventure, aside from a few minor bruises on his face. His harsh facial structure and deep eyes always made him appear formidable.

“Death!” We stood, raised our mugs, drained them dry, slammed them back empty to the table, and everyone laughed. Priestess got her ale all over her blouse. Beta at rest, at rest at last. I refilled my mug.

“Death!” We rose again, toasting Coolhand, and drained our mugs, and fell back into our chairs, wildly happy. Coolhand had broken a leg in the aircar crash and he had it enclosed in a plastic brace. The bone would knit itself shortly, the lifies said, but he had to take it easy for a week or so. Coolhand’s easy smile was back. He looked like a rich, handsome young layabout without a care in the world. He had the gift of making everyone around him calm down. Psycho related his adventures downside; he had cheated death a score of times.

“Death! Death! Death!” We cheered, and drank, and shouted. The ale was strong, it made me dizzy, but I didn’t care. Priestess sat right beside me, one hand clutching mine like a vise. Beta had come through again. Alive! It was good to be alive. Over at another table a group of troopies sang the squad song. It was a drinking song, and they were drinking.

“One squad one road

Nine tales to tell

One squad tac mode

Nine souls to Hell

One squad one road

Eye of the hole

One squad tac mode

Death is the goal

One squad one road

Gateway to Hell

One squad tac mode

Sound the death bell

One squad one road

Lost world, lost war

One squad tac mode

Last call Death Corps.”

It was a depressing song, but it was pure Legion. Somebody started singing the chorus.

“Deadman, Deadman

Hold me tight

Deadman, Deadman

Might is right

Deadman, Deadman

Won’t you say

Deadman, Deadman

Who dies today?”

I took another drink of ale. I had a headache. What a crazy way to make a living, I thought.

“One squad one road

Nine tracks on screen

One squad tac mode

Eight tracks on screen

One squad one road

Eight tracks on screen

One squad tac mode

Seven tracks on screen…”

It went on like that. We were insane, I decided. Completely insane. Nobody in his right mind would join the Legion. Nobody in his right mind would stay in. So we were crazy. Crazy. It struck me as terribly funny. I started laughing, and could not stop.

What a day!

Chapter 20: Motes of Dust

As we filed into the wardroom of the Spawn, Cubes awaited us on the stage, a solitary figure, his hands clasped behind his back. He wore his blacks. He appeared to be gazing past us, somewhere out in space, somewhere out in time. The others sat behind him on the stage, talking quietly, all the Second’s CAT commanders.

I wondered what Cubes thought, as I found a seat. Cold waves from the far past, washing over dead sands. Lost worlds, lost races, lost wars. The Black March, opening up the Cosmos. The Omni’s, suddenly there. Black swarms, exiting star drive, alien ships filling evil skies.

Most civilizations never learned from the past. Doomed to repeat history, they don’t survive. The Legion doesn’t have that problem. We are immortals. We carry our history with us. We try not to make the same mistake twice. Everyone on that stage had lived through the Race Wars and some had seen the Yellow Wars. Even though I did not know what Cubes thought, I knew I would accept his orders, without question. I certainly wouldn’t have any better ideas. But whatever they announced would be bad news, I knew that much. More dead immortals, we could count on it. I felt powerless, powerless to object, powerless to even complain. We were in the grip of history, I knew, in the hands of the Gods.

“At ease, troopers.” The wardroom overflowed. The aisles were full of standees and the whole ship listened over the SA system. Cubes still stood, hands behind his back. He did not have to raise his voice. The mikes picked it up and magnified it, a steely whisper. We settled down. Beta sat together, but only six of us remained. Merlin and Dragon were still in the body shop, and Ironman was back in Atom. It did not seem right.

“Attention the ship,” Cubes began. “We have called this meeting to brief all hands on the current sit.” He paused and looked out past us, over our heads and into some unknown space. Then he took a breath, and resumed.

“We have just taken some casualties…too many. We’ve had wounded and dead. The full stats will be out shortly. Some of our closest comrades are gone. We grieve for them. They all died in the best traditions of the Legion, fighting for the future. They did not die in vain. Nobody here dies in vain! Nobody!”

Cubes paused for an instant, regained his composure, and continued, calmly. “We accomplished all our missions. Valkyrie of CAT 24 is back with us, and her captors are dead. My personal congratulations to everyone who participated in that op, the 24th and the 21st and everyone who supported them. That is exactly what the Legion means by ‘instant reaction’. The Legion thanks you. ConFree thanks you. Your descendants thank you.

“The System Ship Preference is now space junk. The monastery no longer exists. We dropped an antimat on it, once we were sure all our people were out. And the whole inhabited galaxy is going to learn about that.”

I wondered about the philosophy behind our actions. It sounded like a good incentive not to take any Legion prisoners. Perhaps it was just as well.

“That was the first mission. The second mission was unitium. Well, we’ve done that, too. With the help of some outside assistance…which we still can’t talk about…and with some brilliant and daring work from our own Gravelight, we now have the explanation for the unitium mine on Andrion 2. The mission which Gravelight led in conjunction with the recovery of Valkyrie was absolutely vital to our understanding of the purpose of the mine. The objective was to recover a Mocain officer who had knowledge of the mine. This mission was also conceived and executed on an instant reaction basis under the leadership of Lowdrop. Although we failed to recover the officer, Gravelight got close enough to the target to obtain the information we needed.

“The information we got from our secret source-and other data we got from a Systie informant-revealed a major covert starport hidden under a lava lake beside an active volcano on Andrion 3. It revealed that the Systies had been exploiting the unitium mines on Andrion 2 for close to a hundred stellar years, and carrying the product to the starport on Andrion 3. The starport in question proved to be far in advance of Legion technology. It was a major, long-term, covert installation, constructed in a star system in ConFree vac, in direct violation of treaty.

“At that point, we were very concerned about the apparent Systie technical superiority which enabled them to build the advanced starport on Andrion 3. And we did not understand why they needed two starports, one on Andrion 2 and one on Andrion 3. We also had no explanation for the use to which the unitium was being put. It took Gravelight to answer that. She became aware of the Systie officer-the Mocain-during the negotiations, and she was able to locate her when we raided the monastery to recover Valkyrie.”

Cubes had not moved. It seemed he was speaking to himself, lost to us all. “You may have wondered why we got such a hot reception at the monastery. The Spawn learned why, from Systie commo picked up during the engagement. Valkyrie and the Systie officer, Millina, were hiding out from us in the monastery. The Systie troopers had two missions, both equally important. Kill Valkyrie, and recover or kill the Mocain officer in whom Gravelight was interested. Recover or kill her. Either was acceptable to the System. It made us wonder what it was that made Valkyrie such a hot property. And we wondered what was in the Mocain’s mind that we were not supposed to find out. Well, it turns out that Valkyrie had overheard some conversations which didn’t make sense to us until Gravelight told us what was in the Mocain’s mind. Then it all came together.”

The Second slipped a datapak from a pocket and placed it on his lectern. “I’ve read Gravelight’s report. I’d like to give you a few quotes. Our psychers have a way of crystallizing issues in understandable, if somewhat emotional, terms. I quote: ‘It’s too late for us, too late for us all. I can tell you we’re all bound for perdition, we’re all falling together, psychers and deadheads, Legion and Systies, Outers and Inners. I’ve seen her mind, Deadhead! Say your prayers! We’re falling, like motes of dust, into a star. An endless line of starships, orbiting a world of fire. And a lake of lava, opening to draw them in…Death is all around them, an evil presence. Millina prays to God in the dark. She is afraid she will die of fear.

“ ‘They deal with Satan. A black ship, blotting out cold stars. Satan’s skin is black leather, an evil scratching and slithering in the dark. He radiates power and hate. His will cuts like a knife. You cannot resist. His power is total. He can stop your heart, He can stop your star. A generation of slaves, doomed, disappearing into the dark. Cowards, selling out humanity for little slices of life.

“ ‘Star carriers full of unitium for the ovens of Satan. Food for his metal mouth, tribute to stay his awful hand. Messages for Satan, from the System, delivered in the dark.’ Millina is giddy with relief, and later she is convulsed with guilt. She sees a galaxy of peaceful worlds, glowing in space. ‘Then something stirs, out in the space between the stars. A black cloak approaches, irresistible, falling silently over star after star. Blotting them out. Forever. A starry sky full of black ships, alien ships, hovering like ghouls. No…no. It’s not just one. It’s a migration, it’s a fleet, it’s the whole race…I don’t know.’ Millina doesn’t know. She only knows there are many, many of them, and it is impossible to resist, and the horde has paused, briefly, because the System is giving them something they want.

“We are fortunate,” Cubes continued quietly, “to be able to participate in events which will be remembered by our descendants. What Gravelight found was Omnis, on Andrion 3.”

Gasps and curses filled the air. Cubes paused and waited for the commotion to die down. “The starport on Andrion 3 was not constructed by the System, but by the O’s. The unitium was being mined by the System on Andrion 2, transported by Systie ships to the Omni starport on Andrion 3, and then transferred to the alien ships. Command believes the O’s use the unitium in the containment systems of their antimat drives. It appears to be vital to their efforts. And the exosegs were not placed on Andrion 2 by the System, but by the O’s. You see, the O’s are meat-eaters. They’ve acquired a taste for human flesh and use the captured Taka as food.”

He paused again, but this time absolute silence filled the room. “With their starport on Andrion 3, they needed a nearby source of food. They introduced the exosegs to Andrion 2 to harvest the Taka for them, and bring the victims to the Systies-programming the exosegs was no problem for powerful psychers like the O’s. The System then transported the Taka to Andrion 3 for consumption by their partners, the O’s. In addition, the exosegs ensured that the natives kept their distance from the unitium mines and never learned about the presence of the Systies. I’m sure it made perfect sense to the O’s. And it worked fine, until we showed up.”

The revelation stunned us all. I felt sick to my stomach. We all knew what it meant. The Omnis were an alien scourge, totally evil, totally merciless, responsible for the annihilation of billions of humans. We felt only hatred for them. War with the O’s was total war, war to the death, war without mercy, war without conscience, remorse or pity. Some ignorant Inner once said that if the Omnis did not exist the Legion would have had to invent them. But the Omnis did exist, and our fathers had fought them, and died by the billions, and for any Soldier of the Legion they were the ultimate mission.

“It tells us exactly what the System is,” Cubes said, quietly. “It’s been quiet in the Outers for many years, ever since the end of the Race Wars. And now we know why. The System has been providing the O’s, all these years, with something they want-unitium-in return for a temporary peace, a cessation of hostilities against System worlds. There aren’t really any words to describe this kind of treason. Species autogenocide…perhaps we could call it that. Or generational genocide…making your children die for your sins. Perhaps that’s what the System will be charged with, when accounts are settled. And I can assure you accounts will be settled, for this one. This is the most important secret the Legion has ever uncovered, and it is the System’s greatest crime against humanity. Against life itself.

“It appears, from what we’ve learned, that the O’s are now more powerful than they were before.” For the first time he turned, and glanced over at the other officers sitting on the stage. “They were bad enough before. Bad enough.”

He turned back to face us. “We are currently on our way to Andrion 3. We will be joined there by Atom’s entire strike force. The 12th Colonial Expeditionary Regiment is no longer an expeditionary force. We are now a recon element. The entire 22nd Legion is on vac run red at this moment. ConFree is resisting us on this, but we have no time to quibble with them. All of Fleetcom is on antimat drive, bound for the Andrion System. But it’s doubtful we’ll ever see them.”

He paused, and looked up. “Our mission is to recon Andrion 3, discover and identify all enemy units and their capabilities in the Andrion System, and report back. We are also going to penetrate their starport-if we can-and exploit it. In practical terms-since we’re dealing with the Omnis-this means we will be engaging in combat all enemy units we discover. Not to mention those that discover us first. This is the only way to learn about their capabilities. And you can bet your next watch that they’re not going to hide from us this time. Especially after we antimat their base.”

The Second appeared proud, head up, supremely confident. “For those of you who do not yet understand, I’ll make it clear. Our mission is to die, for the Legion. And we’re going to accomplish this mission, in the tradition of the Black 12th, in exemplary fashion. I am proud to be serving with every one of you. The CAT team leaders will now brief their units.”

With the briefings over, we filed out of the room, numb and dizzy. I found myself next to Warhound, in the corridor.

“You know,” Warhound reflected, “I just realized. Cubes didn’t say if we were at war with the System or not.”

“He probably didn’t think it was important.”

“He didn’t think a galactic war was important?”

“Right. What’s important is that we’re at war with the O’s, again. The rest is all nonsense. It’s just trivia.”

“Trivia. A galactic war.”

“Right. Trivia. What’s important is whether or not humanity survives. That’s what’s at stake with the O’s. If we survive the O’s, we can resume our silly little squabbles with the Systies.”

“Yeah? Well, Cubes didn’t sound too confident we were going to survive.”

“Maybe that’s why he wasn’t worried about a galactic war with the Systies. Let’s hit the lounge.”

###

I tapped at Priestess’s door. It slid open. She was lovely, innocent big brown eyes and a small, vulnerable mouth and fresh, gleaming silky black hair. She wore loose camfax fatigues, a souvenir from Planet Hell.

“Thinker here.”

“Hello, Thinker.” She smiled, faintly. “You’re always so formal. Take five, Trooper.”

“Tenners, Priestess. Actually, I was hoping for a little medical care.” I closed the door behind me and unfolded a chair from the bulkhead. She sat opposite me on the bunk. The cube was so small we almost touched.

“How are your hands? Can I do anything?”

“It’s not my hands. It’s my heart. I’m lovesick. It’s serious…maybe critical.”

“A common ailment, Trooper. I think we can fix you up.”

“What is that weird smell?”

Another faint smile. “I’m cooking some Korkush flanpies. For you and me.” She took my hands, and looked into my eyes. “We can pretend we’re back in Korkush.”

“But I’ve never been on Korkush.” Korkush was Priestess’s home planet, a Legion world.

“Yes…I know. But we can pretend. It’s a beautiful place. It’s so peaceful. If you get up early, you can see the mist rolling in from the forests. There’s no pollution at all. I used to get up before sunrise, and go out into the fields and look up at the stars, clear and cold and lovely…billions of stars, glittering in the silence. Sometimes there would be a meteor shower. My skin would crawl, it was so beautiful.”

Strange, I thought, how she always tries to make a home. Even in her little cube on the Spawn, she had put a miniature Legion cross on one wall, and a solid of her bioparents in the corner. Light, emotionless music played in the background.

“You still listening to that stuff, Priestess?”

“I listen to your music, too, Thinker. The stars. It’s kind of lonely, and scary. But it grows on you. I see why you like it.”

“I brought you something,” I said.

“Oh? What’s that?”

I handed her a small package, the size of a minicard, wrapped in bright plastic. She opened it slowly and found a miniature certificate, topped with the Legion cross. She read the text. “Where did you get this?” she asked.

“I reserved it-for us. For you.” The certificate guaranteed that our names would be together, on the Legion Monument to the Dead. Side by side, forever, upon our deaths.

“You did this for me?”

“Yes. Don’t you like it? It means…”

“I know what it means. You’re saying we’ll be together forever.” She was blinking back the tears.

“Yes.”

“Hold me.” We embraced, cheek to cheek. “Oh, no!” She pulled away from me.

“What?”

“The flanpie! I’m overcooking it!” She lunged for the cooker and popped it open. A rich odor filled the cube. “Oh, no! It’s burnt! I’m such an earther!” She pulled out two steaming cookpacks.

“It looks all right to me,” I ventured.

“No, no. It has to be just right. Oh, this is awful!” She dabbed at her eyes with one hand and peeled back the foil with the other. “I’m sorry, Thinker. I wanted this to be perfect.”

“It is perfect, Priestess.”

“No it isn’t…it’s overdone!”

“It’s perfect, Priestess. Perfect! It doesn’t matter if it’s overdone or not. Did you make this for me?”

“Yes. Yes, for you.”

“Then it’s perfect, Priestess. Now open the wine.”

We drank Veltros wine and ate Korkush flanpie on a little table that folded down from the wall. The flanpie was not so bad. I don’t really like Korkush food, but I knew Priestess liked it.

“Those are the last two flanpies I had. Is it good?”

“It’s wonderful, Priestess.”

“Not too burnt?”

“It’s fine.”

“I was saving them for a special occasion. I know I’ll never taste Korkush food again.”

“Well, you can never tell.”

“You know I never will. It’s a shame. It was a wonderful world.”

“Perhaps you shouldn’t have left.”

“Then I’d not have met you. No, I have no regrets. Thanks for the certificate, Thinker. Do you think we’re all going to die?”

I took another sip of wine. Veltros wine is vastly under-rated. I really thought it the best I’d ever tasted.

“Priestess, I think whatever happens is going to happen to both of us. We’ll be together, no matter what.”

“Do you believe in life after death?”

“I don’t know, Priestess…I don’t know.”

“Do you believe in God? Do you think Deadman is really watching over us?”

“I believe in love. Give me your hands.”

Hand in hand, I could feel her soul. I closed my eyes, and waves of love overwhelmed me. It felt as if we were one person. I opened my eyes.

“Do you feel it, Priestess?”

“Yes. It’s like…something magnetic.”

“It’s love. I didn’t used to believe in it.”

“Is it God?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t used to believe in Him, either.”

“Is He real? Will He protect the Legion?”

“I don’t know if His Area of Responsibility includes the Legion. But I think He’s real. Can’t you feel Him? He’s right here, right in this cube. He’s all around us. I think we make Him ourselves. I think He’s a God of Love. That’s what He is. A God of Love. And if we love each other, He’ll be with us, always.”

“I’ll never stop loving you, Thinker. It’s a shame we have to fight the Omnis. I wanted to live with you somewhere, like Korkush, and have your baby. Do you remember that baby on Coldmark?”

“You changed his life, Priestess.”

“I’d like to have a baby like that. Your baby.”

“I’m not sure the Legion would approve.”

“No, I suppose not…but I can dream.”

I pulled her to me. Sweet silky hair, her warm body close to mine.

“Dream on, Priestess. I promise I’ll be beside you, whatever happens. I’ll be there.”

“I love you, Thinker.”

“I love you, Priestess. Forever.”

Andrion 3, I thought. Every frac brought us closer to Andrion 3. I knew what a hellhole it was. And that’s where we were bound. The mission wasn’t complex. We were going to kill the O’s, or the O’s were going to kill us. But there was one big problem-nobody had ever killed an O before. Your mission is to die for the Legion, the Second had said. Well, that wasn’t my plan. My plan was survival. I wanted to get through this, with Priestess, and live with her forever. I squeezed her hand. She squeezed back.

I prayed to Deadman. What else could I do? I knew there was no turning back.

GLOSSARIES

Veltros Training Command – Basic – Intro – Science.

Date: 312 CGS – TRAINING USE ONLY – COPY 401

Unit 6 – Legion Science Definitions

You will familiarize yourself immediately with the following basic science definitions. Those of you with future need to know will be familiarized in detail with appropriate subjects.

Antimat drive -

1. The antimatter annihilation propulsion system that powers most current spacecraft.

2. The stargate technology that creates a traversable wormhole in spacetime, enlarging a quantum wormhole to bridge two distant points in spacetime, manipulating quantum effects and antimat power to hold the artificial wormhole open with negative pressure for the duration of the sub-lightspeed flight through hyperspace. Antimat propulsion is a proven, reliable method of starship propulsion and artificial wormholes have opened up the galaxy to the human species.

Artificial Wormhole – The artificial rotating wormhole, enlarged from a natural quantum wormhole and manipulated with quantum effects and antimat power to form a controlled dimensional vortex through hyperspace, held open with negative pressure, and connecting two distant points in spacetime. See Antimat Drive.

Biogen – An artificial human, generated from human genetics but normally grown on a metal or fiberite framework. Biogens are sentient beings but are carefully programmed to function as required. The latest fiberite models are not easily distinguishable from humans.

Cloaking – Visual and electromagnetic camouflage for small starships and other small craft that renders the cloaked ship invisible to enemy forces. This Legion technology is COSMIC SECRET.

EnviroSim Room, E-Sim Room, ES Room – An artificial but realistic holo-generated simulated training environment useful in familiarizing Legion troopers with new or unfamiliar targets. ES Rooms project the new environment visually around the trooper who moves within a changing holo sphere while responding to a series of challenging pre-programmed developments.

Eyemote – A subminiature recon probe the size of a dust mote that provides realtime audio and video images of a target environment. Eyemotes are virtually undetectable, although they can be destroyed by routine air filtration.

Holcard – A holo card that generates a holographic light projection of a still image when activated.

Holo -

1. A still holographic image, either a solid or a light image.

2. A moving holographic image of a subject or an environment transmitted from within an ES Room equipped with two-way imaging.

Hyperspace – The alternate dimension, which we use as a bridge to travel to distant points in our universe through artificial wormholes. Although we penetrate this dimension with our wormholes, we do not enter it. It still appears physically impossible for anything from our universe to actually enter this dimension.

Iomags – A powerful artificial magnetic field used to accelerate promat to generate an iomag shield, a fail-safe containment chamber for antimatter generation and storage. See promat.

Natural Dimensional Stargate, Natural Dimensional Vortex – Unstable areas of spacetime that are heavily influenced by the presence of nearby adjacent universes. Stardrive initiation is forbidden in these areas because of the danger of destruction of the ship or of exiting into the adjacent universe and the inability to return. Antimat drive starships are capable of penetrating adjacent universes by accident but no ship has ever returned from such a disaster.

Promat – An artificial elementary particle created by ConFree with properties useful in antimatter generation/containment systems.

Psycher – Mentally gifted persons, normally female, generally capable of telepathy, who are brought to their full potential to serve the state.

Solcard – A holo card that generates a solid holographic projection.

Solid – A solidified holographic projection generated by a solcard, generally permanent or decorative.

Universe, U – Our Universe, designation U1, is one of many universes. An ever-changing network of quantum wormholes in spacetime connects our universe with a multitude of other universes. Many other universes are not directly connected to ours. D-neg, a source of negative pressure that fills the adjacent universe Plane Prime, is not present in U1 but it is D-neg’s influence that has created the dark energy that expands our own universe.

Veltros Training Command – Basic – Intro – Weapons.

Date: 312 CGS TRAINING USE ONLY – COPY 401

Unit 9 – Fleetcom, Legion, DefCorps, amp; Omni Weapons

You will familiarize yourself immediately with the following descriptions of Fleetcom, Legion, DefCorps, and Omni weaponry. Assuming you pass the classroom phase, you will qualify with all the Legion and DefCorps infantry weapons listed below, and you will be familiarized with the Omni and Fleetcom weapons systems as well.

FLEETCOM WEAPON SYSTEMS

Fleetcom is a formidable galactic force that guarantees stellar superiority for ConFree and the Legion. Without Fleetcom the Legion could not survive. After certification you will be briefed in detail on the following major Fleetcom weapons systems. For now, memorize the following descriptions, and respect your Fleetcom colleagues. There is an endless list of “vacheads” on the Legion Monument to the Dead.

Antimat Weaponry – Fleetcom starships are equipped with ship/ship and ship/planet strategic antimat strike weapons. All capabilities and details are classified COSMIC SECRET.

Battlestar, Expeditionary (BE) – Fleetcom battlestars are sectoral superiority starships fully equipped to seize strategic control of an entire star sector. Each Battlestar provides pods for four Fleetcom attack cruisers with their own full complements of fighters and attack craft. In addition, the battlestar has its own organic squadrons of tacships, a fighter force, interceptors, assault carriers (aircar), assault shuttles, cargo shuttles, a captain’s yacht, and unlimited deceptors. Expeditionary battlestars are equipped to carry regimental-sized Legion units.

Chainlink Skysweep – This air superiority and battlefield superiority artillery weapon is normally mounted in Legion fighters and fires tacstars and opstars.

Cruiser, Star (CS) – A Fleetcom cruiser is a star system superiority starship designed to seize operational control of an entire star system and all planets. A Fleetcom cruiser is equipped with a squadron of Fleetcom fighters, assault carriers (aircar), assault shuttles and a specialized complement of Legion troopers.

Deathstar – Fleetcom starships are equipped with the Deathstar defensive weapon. All capabilities and details are classified COSMIC

SECRET.

Deceptors, Stellar – These drone targets mimic the characteristics of friendly spacecraft and are designed to draw fire away from legitimate targets. Used by ConFree and System forces.

Fighters (FF) – Fleetcom fighters are spacecraft designed to seize air and near vac superiority over a target world, or to assure near vac superiority in their starship’s zone of defense. Fighters assigned to a starship are expected to sacrifice themselves when necessary to save the ship.

Inboard 4S – Fleetcom starships are equipped with the inboard space superiority sector sensors system. All capabilities and details are classified COSMIC SECRET.

Interceptor, Star (IS) – Fleetcom long-range interceptor starships are designed to intercept and neutralize intruding enemy starcraft in far space.

Opstar – The opstar is a mini-nuke designed to clear a battlefield rapidly of enemy forces.

Plasma SS Autoscan M4 – Fleetcom starships are equipped with the strategic plasma autoscan M4 weapon. All capabilities and details are classified COSMIC SECRET.

Shields – Fleetcom starships are equipped with electromagnetic shielding designed to deflect enemy attacks. All capabilities and details are classified COSMIC SECRET.

Shuttle – A shuttle is any spacecraft designed to ferry personnel or cargo between orbit and downside.

StratLaser O/D Systems – Fleetcom starships are equipped with strategic laser offensive/defensive systems. All capabilities and details are classified COSMIC SECRET.

Stratstar – The stratstar is a strategic nuclear strike delivered by missile. Fleetcom starships are equipped with ship/ship and ship/planet stratstar missiles. All capabilities and details are classified COSMIC SECRET.

Tacship, Star (TS) – A tacship is a special-mission starship often used to deploy Legion recon units or other special mission units. It is fully capable of gaining vac superiority over a lightly-defended planet.

LEGION INFANTRY WEAPONS

The following weapons systems will keep you alive. Assuming you are certified, you will come to know them all intimately. Respect your weapons! Many Legion troopers died to perfect them for you.

A-suit – The Legion A-suit is a lightweight superdense cenite armor selfsealing hydro powered combat vac suit, and is the most effective personnel armor yet devised. The current AranArmor SciSystems Invincible Battlesuit Model 6 is a fully integrated weapons system with tacmods, tacmaps, and links to Fleetcom and Legion battlenets. It is equipped with renewable potable water supply, a limited internal comrats capability, access ports for med syringes and disposable tubes for liquid and solid waste. A-suit hydros provide Legion troopers with superhuman strength when required. The A-suit tacmod assures one-round hits for all ordnance. Warning: The A-suit remains vulnerable to direct non-angled hits by auto xmax and laser as well as tacstars, airsat and soilsat. Omni genetic probes/genetic snakes can also overcome cenite armor unless countered properly.

Aircar, assault – The armored aircar is the primary air assault weapon for a Legion squad. The current nuclear-powered QuasarModel 1 aircar is a highly maneuverable subsonic vertical launch/landing aircraft that can hover motionless through two primary air-effects rotors in its fuselage and can reach combat speeds to engage enemy aircraft when necessary. It is equipped to insert a fully armored amp; equipped nine-man squad downside and subsequently provide aircover with tacstars, laser and stunstars as a battlefield superiority weapon. Range is unlimited.

Biobloc – The biobloc BioScyth weapon system targets and destroys the genes of human and nonhuman species and subspecies by manipulating the natural biofreq of the organism to stimulate an immediate massive immune response to the target’s own genes, resulting in suffocation and rapid death. ConFree has a no-first-use policy with biobloc against human targets. We retain the capability because the System has equipped the DefCorps with it. The E Mark 1 has a biobloc capability but is unable to target Omnis.

E Mark 1 – The standard individual weapon of the Legion trooper, this compact shoulder-fired tube-fed general purpose battlefield superiority rifle is equipped with a zoom scope, laser sights, darksight and flash, multiple barrels and standard xmax, xmin, fighting laser, v-max, v-min and biobloc capabilities. Max effective range is 2,100mikes for x and 4,000 mikes for laser. It is equipped with a grenade launcher for contac, smoke, gas and biobloc grenades and ports for flame and flares. The miniature caseless armor-piercing explosive xtex rounds are fired electronically and full auto rate is 2,000 rounds per frac or 100,000 per mark. The weapon has no moving parts except for the rounds themselves and the xtex generator that creates and feeds the rounds into the firing tube. X, laser and v capabilities are integral to the weapon; the other rounds require replenishment of ampacks. It is fully integrated with the trooper’s tacmod and provides one-round hits on all targets. The E is a reliable, rugged weapon.

E-sled, E-car – The Airglide air effects sled, or E-car, is an unarmored, open-topped transport vehicle designed for rapid transport of heavy loads or for personnel transport of a nine-man Legion squad.

Grenades, Contac – The GC concussion and GF fragmentation grenades, both using contac explosive charges, are available in hand and autolauncher models. Effective casualty-producing radius is 25 mikes.

Grenade, Incendiary – The Vulcan GI incendiary plasma grenade is available in hand or autolauncher models. Effective casualty-producing radius is 20 mikes.

Grenade, Deceptor – The Veil GD deceptor grenade scrambles all tacmods by generating electromagnetic interference and thus shielding the movements of friendly units. Effective radius is 200 mikes.

Knife, Cold, Mark 1 – The standard Legion battle blade is made from a single slab of cenite and is virtually indestructible.

Knife, Cold, Boot, Mark 2- The Legion boot knife is an emergency cenite blade, also virtually indestructible but more compact than the Mark 1.

Knife, Hot, Mark 3 – The Gabriel standard Legion hot knife is clad with plasma arcjet strips and can burn its way through most noncenite metals.

Manlink – The Manlink is a specialized man-portable shoulder-fired lightweight full-auto tactical artillery weapon that fires tacstars and stunstars. One trooper per Legion squad is normally equipped with the Manlink. Max effective range is 4,000 mikes.

Mini – The Mini individual handgun is capable of xmin, v-min and laser fire. It is being phased out of the Legion inventory as a standard issued weapon.

Stunstar – The Stunstar is a Manlink-launched non-lethal nerve weapon designed to disable the enemy by inducing loss of voluntary muscular activity and loss of consciousness. Stunstars interfere with normal nerve impulses and have proven useful for taking prisoners.

Tacstar – The Tacstar is a Manlink-launched micro-nuke round designed for shock troops to rapidly impose tactical superiority over the enemy.

Torch – The Dragon torch is a man-portable plasmapak tool designed for cutting through battlefield obstacles with a plasma jet.

V, v-min, v-max, v-bolt – V bolts are precision non-lethal antipersonnel rounds designed to stun and incapacitate without permanent injury. The V weapons system is integrated into the E battle rifle.

X, xmin, xmax – The general-purpose xtex armor-piercing explosive rounds are highly effective and can penetrate cenite armor when fired on full auto xmax.

DEFCORPS INFANTRY WEAPONS

The DefCorps is a formidable, experienced fighting force with excellent weaponry, much of it copied from Legion technology. The DefCorps trooper is tenacious and skilled. He does not fight for the System, but for himself and for his comrades. In most cases, he will not stop until you kill him. Respect your enemy!

A-suit – Like the Legion A-suit, DefCorps armor is a lightweight superdense cenite armor self-sealing hydro-powered combat vac suit. The current Atlas model can be identified by the bronze-colored patina. Systie cenite armor is not up to current Legion standards, but it is effective personnel armor. The DefCorps A-suit is a fully integrated weapons system with tacmods, tacmaps, and links to Starfleet and DefCorps battlenets. It is equipped with a renewable potable water supply, a limited internal comrats capability, access ports for med syringes and disposable tubes for liquid waste. A-suit hydros provide DefCorps troopers with superhuman strength when required. The DefCorps A-suit tacmod assures one-round hits for all ordnance. The DefCorps A-suit is vulnerable to direct non-angled hits by auto xmax and laser as well as tacstars, airsat or soilsat. Omni genetic probes and genetic snakes can also overcome cenite armor unless countered properly.

Aircar, assault – The DefCorps Pterosaur model nuclear-powered armored aircar is the primary air assault weapon for a DefCorps squad and is equipped to insert a nine-man squad downside and subsequently provide aircover with tacstars, laser and stunstars as a battlefield superiority weapon. The DefCorps aircar is inferior to the Legion aircar in both speed and armor. Range is unlimited.

Biobloc – The DefCorps biobloc weapon system targets and destroys the genes of human and nonhuman species and subspecies by manipulating the natural biofreq of the organism to stimulate an immediate massive immune response to the target’s own genes, resulting in suffocation and rapid death. The System has refused ConFree proposals to outlaw this weaponry. The SG battle rifle includes a biobloc capability.

Grenades, contac – DefCorps M2 concussion and M4 fragmentation grenades, both using contac explosive charges, are available in hand and autolauncher models. Casualty producing radius for both is 25 mikes.

Grenades, deceptor – DefCorps M4 deceptor grenades scramble all tacmods by generating electromagnetic interference and thus shield movement of their units. Effective radius is 200 mikes.

Knife, Combat, M1 – The standard DefCorps battle blade, like the Legion Mark 1, is made from a single slab of cenite and is virtually indestructible

Manlink – The DefCorps Manlink Equalizer Model is modeled after the Legion Manlink. It is a specialized man-portable shoulder-fired tactical artillery weapon that fires tacstars and stunstars. One trooper per DefCorps squad is normally equipped with the Manlink. Max effective range is 4,000 mikes.

SG – The standard individual weapon of the DefCorps trooper, the StarGuard (SG) compact shoulder-fired tube-fed general-purpose battlefield superiority rifle is a virtual clone of the E Mark 1, equipped with a zoom scope, laser sights, darksight and flash, and standard xmax, xmin, laser, and vac capabilities. Max effective range is 1,800 mikes for x and 3,600 for laser. It is equipped with a grenade launcher for contac, smoke, and gas grenades and ports for flares. The miniature caseless armor-piercing explosive xtex rounds are fired electronically and full auto rate is1,750 rounds per frac or 87,500 per mark. The weapon has no moving parts except for the rounds themselves and the xtex generator that creates and feeds the rounds into the firing tube. X, laser and v capabilities are integral to the weapon; the other rounds require replenishment of ampacks. It is fully integrated with the trooper’s tacmod and provides one-round hits on all targets. The SG is rugged and dependable.

Stunstar- The DefCorps Stunstar is a Manlink-launched non-lethal nerve weapon designed to disable the enemy by inducing loss of voluntary muscular activity and loss of consciousness. Stunstars interfere with normal nerve impulses and have proven useful for taking prisoners.

Tacstar – The DefCorps tacstar is a Manlink-launched micro-nuke designed for shock troops to rapidly impose tactical superiority over the enemy.

OMNI WEAPONS

The Omnis are extremely dangerous alien warriors with immense psychic powers, which we cannot match. They have utter contempt for us. They consume human flesh and blood, and have exterminated over two billion humans. We do not have a clear understanding of their weapons systems. We are currently researching promising methods to counter their psyprobes and mag fields. Their weapons are formidable but they are not invincible. Our mission against the O’s is clear – victory or death. Failure means extinction for our species. Learn how to counter all the weapons systems listed below. Your life depends on it! We have not yet learned how to effectively kill an O. Until our priority research efforts bear fruit, our battlefield tactics consist of retreating under fire while laying down a heavy barrage of counterfire to delay the O advance and observe the effects of our weaponry on the O’s.

Airsat – Omnis use explosive charged air (airsat) extensively to passively guard against intrusion in areas under their control. Your tacmod will alert you to the presence of airsat. Detonation is fatal, even in armor. Deliberate detonation of an entire cloud of airsat is possible from a distance but is a lengthy process that will attract the enemy.

Counter airsat by avoiding it.

Biobloc – This Omni airlaunched weapon targets the human genetic biofreq through airbursts and can be fatal within a 50-mike radius kill zone. Experience has shown that tacstars can be used to disperse biobloc bursts, but this is a dangerous procedure.

Counter biobloc with tacstars.

Laser – The Omni is equipped with an individual weapon that incorporates an effective fighting laser. There is no defense other than killing the O. Research continues on the best method of killing an O.

Counter Omni lasers with counterfire while retreating.

Mag Field (Force Field) – The Omni individual defensive mag fields (force fields) are very effective defensive weapons, identified by an incandescent violet glow that emanates from the O when the field is functional. Once the field is down, we believe the O can be taken out with x or laser. Ongoing research centers on penetrating the field to take it down. The O’s mag field is impervious to tacstars, but tacstars do seem to hinder the O’s to some extent.

Counter mag fields with tacstars; use x or laser when appropriate.

Psyprobe – The Omni psychic mind probe (psyprobe) is their ultimate weapon and it has so far guaranteed their dominance over all human opponents. The psyprobe allows the O’s to take mental control of their human opponents. The probe only appears effective at relatively close ranges, about a 15-mike radius. Promising research is underway on psybloc methods to counter the Omni psyprobe. The Omni’s psychic powers are superhuman and without an effective psybloc we will come under their mental control.

There is no current defense against Omni psyprobe other than rapid retreat.

Soilsat- Omnis use this charged soil weapon (soilsat) extensively to passively guard against intrusion into areas under their control. Your tacmod will alert you to the presence of soilsat. There is no practical de-mining procedure.

Counter soilsat by avoiding it.

Spheres, genetic (energy spheres) – Omni self-guided genetic spheres (energy spheres) seek human genetic material with great accuracy and burn a microscopic pinhole through cenite armor to the human target within while countering the A-suit’s autoseal capability. Death is certain once the sphere contacts the A-suit. We have had limited success in targeting genetic spheres with auto xmax. Research is ongoing in countering this weapon.

Counter genetic probes with auto xmax.

Strands, genetic (Snakes) – Omni genetic strands (genetic snakes) are artificial lighter than air strands of cellular material grown from Omni leucocytes, programmed to seek out, wrap around and consume human genetic material. Like genetic spheres, genetic snakes are capable of rapidly burning a pinhole through cenite armor to target the human within. V-max has proven effective in destroying genetic strands in the air. We have also had reports that the strands are combustible; further research is underway.

Counter genetic snakes with v-max or flame.

Plasma (Starmass) – The Omni enhanced plasma weapon (starmass) approaches stellar temperatures and rapidly weakens cenite armor. This weapon is increasingly used by individual O’s in combat situations, presumably because of its effectiveness. Combat is not possible within a plasma blast. Immediate retreat is mandatory, followed by an attack on the O.

Counter plasma by outrunning it.

Tacstarv – The individual Omni combatant is equipped to repeatedly launch a nuclear microburst weapon similar to our tacstar.

Counter Omni tacstars with counterfire while retreating.

Xmax – The Omni’s individual weapon is capable of rapid-fire xmax rounds.

Counter Omni xmax with counterfire while retreating.

End Unit 9.