When mechanized intergalactic scavengers target modern-day Earth for their latest conquest, the Farrun Republic sends a battleship and enough soldiers to mount a defense for a people they have never met. I-Brigade's N-Squad leader A, designation INA, is among those chosen for the journey not because she is a good soldier, or a veteran of other conflicts, or even a leader of men. She was selected because her empathic ability allows her to sense the living machines she was sent to fight.
Things go horribly wrong when her battleship is destroyed upon arrival, and her escape to the planet surface leaves her stranded, alone, with only her personal gear and a fierce desire to find a fellow soldier, the man she loves. But to have him back means she must wage a war the likes of which her enemy has never known.
Close your eyes.
INA nearly scoffed. As handsome as he was, the rogue in IOT couldn’t be trusted. Besides, he was hiding something. She felt it.
Go on, close them.
They stood in the cryopreservation ward, outside of a small prep room. The technician inside offered them only a semblance of privacy as he pretended to busy himself with a tray of sterile tools. He must have owed IOT a favor, or IOT had bribed him. All the other doors were shut, the soldiers within anxious, drowsy, grim.
How had IOT even managed to get in here? This was the time for her squadron, not his.
She stared doubtfully into his impish, hazel eyes. A brief, unguarded smile broke the rough edges framing his muscular jaw, dimples she recognized even though the rest of him was as foreign as she felt. Hairless, bald, skin scoured and primed with bonding powder that made them both appear ashen and sickly. He shouldn’t have been this attractive.
Come on. He’s only giving us a minute.
She sighed and closed her eyes, trying to capture the sight of him in her mind. She could have taken a picture to recall whenever she wanted, but then it would be on file, and someone might wonder why, ask questions IOT didn’t want anyone asking.
She almost jumped. His voice was a whisper, hovering beside her ear. The warmth of his skin radiated against her cheek, his odor, like her own, a mixture of cleansing soaps, antiseptics, and the syntex wrapping that covered most of his body.
When you wake, think of me. I’ll be thinking of you.
She leaned back and opened her eyes to find his were still closed. Behind his lids, his eyes flickered, uncertainty lighting the kindling of his fear, that part of him which usually made him retreat rather than express what was in his heart. He inhaled deeply and let out his breath in frustration. There was something else stirring up turmoil in the back of his mind.
I’ll be thinking of you.
He said it as though hammering the thought home. Not to her. She knew how he felt as well as she knew her own emotions, but this may have been the first time he had ever admitted it to himself.
Her hand caressed his cheek. They had yet to wrap them in syntex, or mold the caps for their heads. Her touch startled him and his eyes snapped open. She leaned in to kiss him. His lips tasted astringent from the residual bonding powder, the bitter flavor spoiling the moment. She let him go and stared into his eyes, the concern behind them giving her pause. He was afraid.
It worried her.
The technician coughed, reminding them their minute was up.
I’ll be thinking of you.
IOT stole one more kiss from her and was gone.
Even the darkness shuddered.
Loud whacks beat like fist-sized hail, each crack hounded by a high-pitched ringing in her ears. A wailing alarm rose and fell with clock-like precision, giving INA a sense of order and the presence of mind to know she was coming out of it.
Then came pain. Torturous fire pressed against her as though she were buried in hot coals. Electrical pulses gnawed through her flesh, flash-melting every cell in her body straight to the bone. Pins and needles pumped like razor blades through her veins. A seeping liquid streamed and wormed around beneath her ribs, burning in her lungs like lava.
The seizure that followed lasted for what felt like hours. Her teeth bore down on the bite guard, her arms, legs, and torso lashed against the rigid foam lining the interior of her cryopreservation unit. She wanted to scream, but INA didn’t even have air in her lungs. Just fire.
Her convulsions eased.
She shouldn’t have been conscious for this.
Recruits always talked about waking dry-iced because of some mix-up in programming or a green technician losing their place on the checklist. They spoke of it with the same fearful reverence as being put under the knife for augmentation without anesthesia. She shared in their worries. The thought hounded her every time they had cut her these past ten years. Would they forget?
Had they this time?
The damned technician. The one IOT bribed. Had he hurried through his checklist to make up for giving IOT time to be with her?
Damn it, IOT.
This wasn’t what he meant when he asked her to think of him. She should have—
Another seizure wracked her body. Her limbs straightened, pressing against the rigid interior as though it were ten centimeters too short in every direction, a coffin, her sarcophagus. Thrashing against the form-fitting interior did nothing. Her terror only doubled.
A green dot appeared in the black void. It exploded into an enormous rectangle that spanned the width and height of her vision and faded equally fast, leaving only its outer-most line. The boot sequence of her heads-up overlay. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen it.
A boom echoed from somewhere far away, the high-pitched ringing in her ears warbling in cadence with the rumbling vibrations.
Her eyes darted involuntarily in a desperate attempt to dodge the burn that felt like staring into the sun, yet except for the feeble glow of her heads up all was black.
“All personnel to escape pods,” a mechanical voice erupted, each word a shrill of ringing feedback.
The ship. The Timora. The carrier that was taking them to Earth.
Helplessness. Fear. Anger. A wash of emotions assailed her, a jumble too thick to untangle or sort.
INA’s chest seized painfully as the lava fled her innards, her lungs. It felt as though someone were wringing her dry from the inside-out.
The cryo-molding split and lifted several centimeters. The hose bib in her mouth decoupled and a hissing blast of air struck her in the face. INA gasped for her first real breath, filling her lungs to capacity. It felt like fire, but soothed the panic. Her seizure subsided, her legs and arms easing back into the molding, trembling and aching.
It left INA exhausted.
She breathed again, laying as still as the jostling and rumbling ship would allow, her teeth still gnashing the bite guard, a muffled clacking and rattling and thrum-thrum-thrum-thrum of combat all around her, the growl of the ship, the wail of alarms.
Someone watched her. Not close. Not far. A vague sensation that she was too weary to isolate amongst the noise of so many others crying in fear, pain, and confusion. Even that noise was drowned by the throbbing in her skull.
She took one more fiery breath. A smoldering second. The cryo-molding lid shook only centimeters above, the spray of oxygen over the tube in her mouth hissing and spattering.
IOT. Where was he? She didn’t have enough strength to burrow through the jumble of emotions assailing her. The rage, anguish, desperation, all fiery beacons in her mind’s eye. It pressed in on her like the molding of her cryopreservation unit, weighed down even more with her fatigue.
Booooom. The ship rattled.
The Timora. Escape pods. It didn’t make sense.
The lid shook side to side above her mouth guard, carving sharp sounds in it with the rush of air blasting her face.
IOT. Where was the warmth of his smile, the touch on her belly that seeded her spine with the kind of joy that blossomed into tingling fireworks? No other feeling was like that, not even when she sensed it in others. Most soldiers just screwed, driven by carnal lust. His fingers explored possibilities. His kisses meant to linger.
The air burned. Her joints ached. Dull pins and needles danced across every centimeter of her body. She eased her jaw. The throbbing beneath her molars ebbed.
The lid jostled with urgency, her limp body along with it. She imagined one of her sergeants standing over her, kicking her bunk to rouse her, the hissing air in her face his unintelligible ramblings about owning the day.
She pushed the lid, which swung away easily, taking the hissing air vent with it.
Her hands went straight to her face, twisting the tube cluster in her mouth, turning it to break the seal in her throat. She gagged painfully, fighting the urge to throw up. The tubes slithered in her throat as she drew them out.
Viscous syntex gel filled the rest of her mouth. Searing pain raked across her belly as she sat up, her muscles burning with their first use. She spat the gel out over the side of her unit. It was still in her teeth, a thin film even coating her swollen tongue. Scrunching her face to widen her nostrils, she twisted the nose plugs out one by one and inhaled a deep, dry breath.
Smoke. The air was thick with it.
INA spat again, took another deep, constricted breath, flexed her tingling fingers.
Peeling back the nose guard and eye socket shields dug a hard plate into her forehead. She winced, not at the pain, but a sharp memory. It forced her to stop and turn her head, unsure if she felt the familiarity of her mother, or just her ghost.
“Momma?” she rasped, remembering how hard it was to breathe through the dusty folds of her mother’s work dress. The thrum-thrum-thrum of her heart pounded a tormented cadence in INA’s ear. Sorrow. Agony. Grief. Thrum, thrum, thrum. Every beat gave life to a different torture. INA clutched handfuls of dress. Momma.
With surprising abruptness, she pushed INA away, pressing her hands against INA’s cheeks so they looked one another in the eyes.
I cannot be there for you anymore.
INA wanted desperately to protest, but tears obscured her vision and a lump of dread caught in her throat.
You must endure.
Leaning forward, her mother pressed her lips against INA’s forehead. A sob caught in her throat and she coughed, baring her teeth for a moment that gnashed them so hard against INA’s skin it clawed out rivulets of blood. Her mother stood abruptly, wrenching her hands free even as INA tried to hang on.
Don’t go. That was all INA remembered thinking. Please, don’t go without me.
But she did.
INA tore the plate from the tight syntex that wrapped her head and flung it away. It clattered to the ground and thumped into another nearby cryopreservation unit. Tears and rage welled behind the gelatinous syntex packed over her eyes. She dug at it, flicking globs off her fingers, and dug again.
“Momma,” she gasped, blinking at bleary red strobes that sparkled against her tears. Don’t leave me!
She was gone. Her mother was gone. A ghost.
Mashing her lids together, INA wiped at the gel once more, dragging her fingers over shaved lashes, scraping away goo, pressing back the tears.
“All personnel to escape pods,” the mechanical voice of the ship called again.
Red emergency lighting was all she had to see by. Rows of blinking cryopreservation units filled the enormous storage bay, but only hers appeared to be open. The ceiling was so close she could reach up and touch it, and she was small for a soldier.
And it was cold.
She hunched with her arms against her chest, shivering as she threw her feet over the side of her cryopreservation unit. A quick shake of her head didn’t help break the disorienting, listing feeling. She expected the normalcy of a consistent downward force of gravity that wasn’t there. Hopping down, she fell to the floor plates in slow motion. Were her implants malfunctioning?
The rumble and vibration of an explosion somewhere in the ship continued for several seconds. Still leaning, still shivering, she steadied herself with a hand on her cryopreservation unit hoping the swirling in her head would settle.
Her heads-up flashed as though a strobe had gone off. A set of orders throbbed before her eyes: Upon revival, collect your personal pack and engage the nearest escape pod.
An overwhelming urge to run shook her as violently as the rumbling of the ship. Orders were like that. Compelling.
Dropping to a knee was like moving in water. She drifted to the ground instead of falling. Low gravity. She felt stupid. This wasn’t home. She was aboard the Timora, in space. If not for the pervasive hum of the ship’s engines there wouldn’t be gravity at all. Their thrust fabricated a light, artificial fore-and-floor gravity as the ship slowed.
INA pressed a numb palm to the personal effects panel beneath her cryopreservation unit to push it open. Her duffle bag filled the narrow space inside. She tugged it free, ducking her head and shoulder under the strap, slinging the thing across her back. It hardly weighed anything in low gravity. She stood slowly on unsteady legs, afraid a quick move might propel her into the ceiling. The aisles of cryopreservation units were shrouded in smoke, making it hard to tell if there were any open lids. She cycled her vision to include thermal so she could see through the smoke. A black-and-white overlay appeared on the left side of her vision, covering the hazy red glow of her normal sight.
A thunderous boom lifted her off the ground and hurled her toward the near wall. For a split second, she imagined something big hitting the ship, throwing it off course, flinging it one direction while everything not nailed down, including her, stayed exactly where they were. The wall hit her hard. The weight of the blast pinned her there.
Another massive upheaval, this one the other direction. She fell from the wall, tumbling to the ground. The sheering impact slid her across the floor. Her upper body slammed into the nearest cryopreservation unit, whipping her legs, throwing her into a spin that wrapped her half-way around its base. She grabbed hold. Her body straightened, stretched by the gravitational effect of the ship’s torque.
Her hands ached. Painful snaps dug at her groggy perception of the world. Lights in the back of her mind wavered in and out of existence, cluing her to the fact that these weren’t her feelings. Like the boot sequence of her overlay and core, or the slow decay of the ringing in her ears, her inebriated empathic senses were waking. She could pinpoint them now, the other soldiers, still trapped in their cryopreservation units. And something else…familiar…above her…fore…someone was losing hope.
INA gnashed her teeth, fighting the urge to turn inward and swim in the richness of so many psyches. She tried to shout—a primal cry could usually help her gain control—but only a hoarse rasp that irritated her raw throat came out.
Her body eased to the ground, the ship righting itself. For a second, she didn’t move. She expected another explosion or upheaval, another pummeling. Dazed, short of breath, she pushed herself onto elbows and knees.
Alarms wailed with a new, more ominous tone. A calm voice cut in. “Hull breach. Hull breach. Abandon ship. All personnel to escape pods.”
New orders flashed before her eyes.
She scrambled to her feet, half-crawling, half-running toward the near wall, blind to everything around her. She reached the door and pressed the actuator. The door irissed open in front of her. Orders. Damn it. IOT! She looked back at the rows of cryopreservation units, scanning them and counting, trying to figure out which one was his, and if it was open. She found her own, opened unit—
The ship lurched, throwing her backwards through the door. She slammed into the opposite wall out in the hallway, crumpling over her pack as the force of her impact dented the wall panel. It hurt. A lot. She sank to the floor, the air gone from her lungs.
The door slid shut.
The ceaseless thum-thum-thum-thum-thum of a cyclone gun or flack cannon firing barrages echoed through the corridor. The ship’s defenses were still active.
INA gasped and coughed. Red strobes pulsed in the hazy air. Green LEDs lit a path along the floor. There was no other light. With a hoarse groan she rolled onto her knees and crawled for the door. She couldn’t leave without IOT. Her hand hovered above the actuator, but it slipped away as she tried to press it. Then she was drifting along the corridor. Tens of meters in the blink of an eye.
The ceiling surged at her. She tumbled and rolled over her duffle bag, arms and legs thrown haphazardly by her disorienting spin. She curled her body just before slamming into the ceiling once more, flattening against it the moment she hit, skidding to a halt.
Her orders flashed, impairing her vision for a moment.
INA blinked, concentrating on breathing, unsure if she had been injured or if her limbs still worked. When no pain registered, she licked her dry lips and struggled onto hands and knees under the weight of what felt like two Gs.
“Hull breach,” the monotone voice of the ship announced. “All personnel—”
Another loud boom echoed in the darkness. The corridor lights flickered out. The whole vessel shook violently.
She wanted to turn back.
Gravity eased a little, but she couldn’t move, torn between two allegiances. Her duty demanded she leave. Her heart begged her to stay, to find IOT.
Small dots of light pierced the darkness of the corridor along one side of the floor, not enough to see by, but enough to know distance and direction. The lights only ever illuminated the side of the ship closest to the hull. Follow the lights. That was all she had to do to get out.
She cycled her vision overlay, turning off her thermal imaging in exchange for sonar. The rumbling echo of battle helped paint a grainy, but detailed picture of everything within arm’s reach. Even twenty meters out the nuanced layers of the hall were clear, including the outline of another door into the cargo hold.
INA crawled forward along the ceiling panels, her fingers finding purchase in the long air vents hugging the ceiling’s edge. The air above the vents was still, the circulating system dead, or maybe never activated. How old was the air she breathed? Tinged in smoke as it was meant there were fires somewhere in the ship. Not enough to be toxic, but enough that she wished she had a rebreather.
Her head ached with the effort of foregoing orders. The actuator for the door didn’t respond when she pressed her hand against it. Its lightless bulb was green to indicate the air pressure on each side was relatively equal, but it had no power. That meant those inside were trapped. She sensed them, the other soldiers, their pained awakenings, their confusion. It mirrored the agony she had endured to get this far.
Leaning against the actuator, she tried to slide it up and out of the way to access the manual control panel. Her hands slipped off, cracking knuckles on the wall above it. She flinched and pulled away. The actuator hadn’t budged. Her syntex-wrapped hands were covered in oil of some kind. She couldn’t see what it was, but felt the smooth ease by which her fingers glided over her palms. Hydraulic fluid? It didn’t matter. This door was dead.
Go back. That was her first thought.
She looked ahead, hopeful that another cargo bay door stood closer than an exit. A wide strip of bright blue dots studded the floor along the trail of tiny bulbs only ten meters ahead. A gravity well. She turned her shoulder to it, closing her eyes, wishing she hadn’t seen it.
Her hands trembled at the mere thought of disobeying. Obedience to orders was guaranteed through the generation and forced release of hormones in the brain. Her embedded chipsets made it possible, one of a thousand augmentations that made her such an effective soldier.
INA punched the wall beside the actuator.
Her fellow soldiers were in there, trapped. IOT could be in there, and her orders demanded she leave him. She punched the wall again, slamming her fist into it so hard the panel buckled, the dent so deep it tore the panel from its rivets. She punched again, growling in frustration. Orders flared in the grainy overlay, each battering punch shimmering in the sonar feed, each strike a painful lance boring into her skull, a reprimand for disobedience. Let…me…in! She punched until the syntex strips over her knuckles frayed, and switched hands.
“Let me in!” She screamed the words and punched the wall one more time.
The ship lurched violently as though punching her back, throwing her across the corridor. INA slid down to the ceiling, her duffle bag pressing against her shoulders, exhaustion having its way with her weary body.
Let me in. A weak plea.
The rumbling of the ship beneath her intensified, shaking her so hard she felt it in her teeth. The ceiling panel she sat on chirped and grated, suddenly caving in under her weight. A floor plate broke loose behind her and rose to the ceiling in a clatter.
INA rolled toward the gravity well and onto hands and knees again, her eyes wide with the realization that she had no time left.
The Timora was coming apart.
With tears streaming from her eyes she loped forward, bounding with legs, landing on hands to reach the gravity well door. She loathed the thought. What would Sergeant Yris think seeing her like this? See, you’re nothing but a mangy dog. The cunt.
The gravity well actuator lit when she struck it with her hand. Part of her wished it hadn’t. If this door was broken, it would give her a reason to go back, to find another gravity well, and along the way, find IOT. But it wasn’t broken.
Fresh air spilled into the corridor as the hatch sheered open. Light flickered in the tube. She grabbed a rail inside and straightened her body, facing the direction of flow. Twisting the rail control released its brake mechanism, giving everything a chilling weightlessness. Light surged toward her as she was simultaneously propelled toward it with an induction wave. Her stomach lurched from the sudden acceleration and deceleration that happened in the blink of an eye.
An open hatch at the end of the tube welcomed her at an alarming rate of speed. Her momentum threw her unceremoniously into the small compartment beyond. She bounced off a conical wall and fell to the floor beside a command seat.
She had never been in an escape pod before. Not a real one. Simulation shells plenty of times. Replicated cutaways where an instructor hurled recruits into the zero-G chamber four at a time. Sort it out. Find a seat. Strap in. Back of the line. Faster next time.
INA ducked out of her duffle bag strap and flung herself over to the flight seat. It was different than the others, an orange fabric instead of blue. Clamps automatically actuated over her body, pinning her in place with a five-point harness as cushions rose to form around her. The console in the armrest blinked on, displaying several command options that appeared blurry from so much shuddering.
She let out her breath. She could still override, go back. Her head ached at the thought.
Gnashing her teeth, she pressed the LAUNCH command, hard, with two fingers just to make sure.
The door slammed shut. The lights inside the escape pod went out. Only the glow from the console screen remained. Nothing happened. The screen blinked and displayed a large window that read, “Downloading ships logs….”
Beneath the text, a progress bar showed a tiny sliver of completion.
“What?!” INA couldn’t believe her eyes. She smacked the console screen with her palm. “Cancel,” she said. She tapped at the message window, trying to close it. “Stop!” The progress bar crept along.
Another distant boom brought more rattling squeals.
“Come on, come on!”
The Timora wasn’t going to hold together much longer. She wasn’t sure what would happen if the download was interrupted, either. That was computer tech. Hardwiring. Controlled systems. The console may have been command-only, but someone coded it. It wasn’t AI, not even low-grade. What if someone hadn’t thought of this?
The escape pod shuddered, a low rumbling surrounding her that grew in volume as though the Timora engines were burning out of control.
The console chimed. “Logs complete.”
“Go!” INA cried wildly, slapping the console.
New orders hit her just as hard. Her head snapped back as the words flashed before her eyes.
Rendezvous with survivors.
The escape pod lurched, throwing her shoulders into the safety restraints. Her stomach and all its bile rose to her throat. Her duffle bag slammed into the ceiling. Her heads-up painted a yellow G-LOC warning in front of her eyes.
The console pulsed the word Offline in red.
The Timora had jettisoned her.
She was out.