Authors: Kevin J. Anderson
Kevin J. Anderson
COMRADES IN ARMS
Kevin J. Anderson
A damaged cyborg soldier and an enemy alien fighter turn their backs on the war and try to escape. But the human and alien governments can't tolerate the two deserters working together, so they join forces to hunt them down.
Smashwords Edition – 2014
Copyright © 2012 WordFire, Inc.
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Book Design by RuneWright, LLC
Kevin J. Anderson & Rebecca Moesta, Publishers
WordFire Press, an imprint of
PO Box 1840
Monument, CO 80132
Electronic Version by Baen Books
— 1 —
Palming the power stud on his laser rifle, Rader leaped into the alien trench and sighted on his enemy. Targeting vectors appeared on the inner surface of his helmet face shield, and the tactile sensors on his gloves linked to his artificial hands.
Ten Jaxxans skittered along the angled trenches they had dug as they made progress across the planetoid’s contested landscape. Moving in ranks, they all reacted in unison to his arrival. The enemy did not like, did not
As a Deathguard, Rader was unpredictable. He had been designed that way.
He found his balance on the loose pea-gravel, used his momentum to keep charging forward. In their open bug-tunnels, the Jaxxans had no room to scatter, nor did they have time.
The brain fire pounded through him, the Werewolf Trigger that insisted he kill,
He was a well-armored bull-in-a-china-shop, brain still alive along with a patchwork of his original body, hooked up to spare parts that allowed him to be sent back onto the battlefield. The chaos he provoked was part of a tactical plan issued by officers far from the battlefield; Deathguards weren’t expected to survive long, though.
Rader had been briefed about this as a new recruit, though he hadn’t ever considered it a real possibility while he and his squadmates laughed about squashing roaches. But the officials had made him the offer, showing him the contract as he lay there hooked up to complex life-support mechanisms in the med-center bed. Rader had barely been able to read the type with his one remaining eye.
“You want this, soldier? Or would you rather just be disconnected?”
The answer had seemed obvious. At the time.
Now the first alien died before he even saw the Deathguard: a pinpoint of red laser light burned through his chitinous face. Cyborg components kicked in, and Rader swiveled, sweeping the area with the nose of his weapon. Energy gels and synthetic adrenaline kept him moving, kept him shooting.
There were ten Jaxxans, then seven, then four in the invisible wake of his beam.
Much of the surface of the planetoid Fixion was a no-man’s land, slashed with enemy trenches and tunnels interspersed with watchtowers. The aliens liked geometric order, but used unsettling angles, tilted planes, rarely straight lines. They had already occupied twenty asteroids in the Fixion Belt, just as the human army had; now both sides fought over the rest of the territory, particularly this central planetoid.
No longer part of the Earth League forward lines, Rader had already served his term as a soldier, given it his all, and now had this “opportunity” to give some more, for as long as he might last. He was there as an independent berserker, armed and juiced, sent into the no-man’s land without any obvious military objective—it drove the Jaxxans nuts.
Deathguards were expensive and effective, categorized as Vital Equipment rather than Personnel—and so far the PR victories had been worth every penny of the military’s investment. Or so Rader had heard; he was not on the list for explanations.
In short order, he killed eight of the Jaxxans in the trench, but he found himself wound in the luminous green threads of an energy-web cast by the last two aliens. The mentally projected web closed around him in a glowing net that would short out his armor and destroy his components—both the artificial ones and his biological ones.
But the Werewolf Trigger screamed at him like a drill sergeant inside his head. KILL! KILL! And he obeyed. The last of the Jaxxans fell to the trench floor, angular limbs twitching, and the coalescing energy-web faded.
The mindless Werewolf Trigger died to a whisper as the threat diminished and he calmed himself. Now that Rader could see more than a red haze, he gazed upon the carnage. The filters in his helmet blocked out the stench of burned meat and boiled ichor.
Alone, Rader recorded high-res images of the dead enemy in the trenches, transmitted his kills to HQ, and received acknowledgment but no praise.
He didn’t need to remind himself that these Jaxxans weren’t
. He stared at their scattered bodies, trying to compare them to something from Earth; they evoked locusts, lizards, and skeletons all at once. The aliens were unnaturally thin, with tough skin that resembled chitin. Their eyes were striking, large black globes that reflected the goldenrod light of Fixion’s sun.
The Jaxxans carried no weapons, nor did they encase themselves in armor. All their power, their energy-webs, and everything else about them (he wasn’t sure how much was rumor and how much was truth) originated in the minds behind those eerie polished eyes. Many Jaxxans supposedly studied human culture and language, but he hadn’t had a chance for conversation to confirm it.
The walls of the shallow trench rolled inward, sliding down to cover the bodies. The sandy, gravelly soil of Fixion was lousy for digging trenches in—not to mention lousy for growing things in, lousy for building things in, lousy for living in. As a matter of honor, the Earth League would never let the Jaxxans have it, and the alien command apparently felt the same way.
Time to move on, keep finding targets, keep causing trouble—Commissioner Sobel had told him he might have four weeks of operational capability before the brain/cyborg interface deteriorated. He followed the Jaxxan trench, taking the path of least resistance, but he encountered no other Jaxxans. The trench bent in one direction, then another, but ultimately went nowhere.
Off in the distance, near the asteroid’s foreshortened horizon, human artillery brought down a tall Jaxxan watchtower, and soldiers clashed in a forward offensive as part of the official military plan. His comrades.
Rader didn’t belong there, would not be going back to the main base on the far side of Fixion, would not be going home.
He climbed out of the trench and set off across the open landscape.
— 2 —
On the very last day that Rader (Rader, Robert: 0166218: Earth-Boston) lived as a grunt, he rode inside a spearhead-shaped assault fighter, enthusiastic about the impending engagement. He crowded next to his buddies on the hard metal benches, hunched over, counting down the seconds until they reached the Jaxxan nesting asteroid.
They were a team, comrades in arms. No time for second thoughts now.
The cold metal air had been recycled too many times but still carried the unmistakable odors of sweat and farts, obvious indicators of human tension. Rader was pumped up on metabolic supplements and foul-tasting power goo. At the Base, he had wolfed down a chewy high-protein breakfast cake, which was supposed to taste like bacon and eggs, before rushing to the assault ship, grabbing his weapon, securing his body armor, and getting mentally prepared.
His squad mates were ready to go squash some roaches. They had been cooped up far too long at the Earth League’s Fixion Base #1, participating in simulation after simulation, blowing up fearsome holographic Jaxxans during practice sessions.
So far, Rader had been on only one real assault mission, a raid on a Jaxxan supply ship. Hundreds of Earth League forces had captured the small alien craft, and they had slaughtered every enemy aboard without any difficulty; Rader barely got off a shot. In battle simulations, the holographic alien warriors had always fought much more fiercely. He suspected that the Jaxxans on the supply ship were just civilians hauling crates of packaged food.
Today’s assault was bound to be much more challenging.
The night before, while prepping for the mission, Squad Sergeant Blunt had given them the full briefing—and “blunt” he was indeed, although the word “gruff” seemed equally appropriate; some of Rader’s squad mates preferred the term “psycho-bastard.” Rader had sat joking with his buddies, nudging ribs with elbows. Since being thrown together into the same pressure cooker with the same goal and the same enemy, their squad had become very close—Renfrew, Chaney, Coleman, Rajid, Gonzalez, Huff.
In the briefing room, Sergeant Blunt projected a map of the asteroid belt, a smattering of space gravel strewn along an orbit that just happened to be in the star’s habitable zone, though no one would really want to live there. Nevertheless, the Earth League deemed the Fixion Belt worth fighting for, and Rader had signed up in a fit of patriotism that had lasted significantly less time than his term of service.
The Sarge pointed to illuminated asteroids on the diagram, indicating the ones held by humans and an equivalent number held by Jaxxans. (The score received boos and hisses from the squad members). The largest planetoid, Fixion itself, was the most hotly fought-over piece of real estate in the Galaxy.
Blunt pointed to another flyspeck amid the dots in the asteroid belt. “Intel has discovered a roach hatching base, or a nest, or whatever the hell they call it. We’re going to wipe it out. Squash the bugs before they can hatch a thousand more disgusting soldiers.”
The Sarge paused for a moment, looking at every member of the squad. “Payback. The Roaches did the same thing to us on Cephei Outpost. They saw that little colony and assumed it was our breeding station, killed all those poor colonists, those children. I don’t think they understand how humans breed.” Sergeant Blunt’s voice became grim and angry. “We’ve got embassies set up on the Détente Asteroid, and the Jaxxan higher-ups speak better English than you do, but neither side talks.”
The mood in the briefing room grew resentful; many of the grunts sneered at the very idea of peace talks. Huff let out a rude snort. “How can you talk with the
that slagged Cephei?”
Sergeant Blunt got them to concentrate on the priority. “It’s not your job to think about the big picture. We don’t pay you enough to consider the complicated things. Commissioner Sobel decides when it’s time to talk to them. For you guys, we keep it simple: Enter the roach hatching station, destroy everything, and go home.”
Rader raised his hand. “Any intel on Jaxxan defenses there, Sergeant?”
“Doesn’t matter.” The Sarge gave the closest thing to a smile that Rader had ever seen. “We’ll have a Deathguard with us. A fresh one, all systems still fully functional.”
A quick hesitation of surprise, then a round of cheers …
Later, as the assault fighter closed in on the targeted Jaxxan hatching base, Rader checked his weapon, his suit, his med kit, his backup power pack. He pretended to relax. Waiting … gearing up … waiting … joking … waiting. Typical Earth League operation: hurry up and wait.
Voices grew louder in the spacecraft as the conversation became edgier, more rushed. He and his buddies talked about what they would do on their next R&R, reminisced about their homes, their families, their sweethearts. Although his squadmates were not a particularly handsome lot, each man claimed to have a gorgeous girlfriend who put porn holostars to shame and yet was entirely loyal and head-over-heels in love.
After the massacre on Cephei Outpost, he’d been too young by a month when the first call went out. But his best friend, Cody, was two months older and just barely squeaked into the Earth League military, ready to go after the Jaxxans. Before he left for basic training, Cody said goodbye to Rader with a quick embrace and then a studiously practiced League handshake. “There’ll be plenty of roaches for both of us to kill, don’t worry! Get your ass in the League as soon as you can sign up, and I’ll meet you out there.” He gestured vaguely toward the sky. Rader promised, waving … but wishing his friend had waited, just a couple of months.
His parents and his sister worried about Rader going off to war, but it was the patriotic thing to do. All healthy young men were pressured to join up, and he was anxious to follow in Cody’s footsteps. A month later, on his birthday, he filled out the forms.
One week into basic training at the lunar military base, Rader received word that Cody and his entire squad had been wiped out by an equipment malfunction. An airlock hatch blew open when the troop transport was approaching a space station. Explosive decompression killed all personnel, sucked them out into space. Simple mechanical failure, bad luck—nothing that could be blamed on the enemy.
Rader had joined wanting to fight alongside Cody. They had always been a team, and he had hoped they could support each other, stand together against the Jaxxans. But the Earth League had him now, and he couldn’t change his mind. His squadmates were his comrades now, his new best friends.…
As soon as the assault shuttle landed on the Jaxxan nesting asteroid, explosive bolts would blast the hatch open so that the soldiers could storm out in a howling rush. His companions whooped, winding themselves up during the final approach, and Rader joined in. But as he looked warily at the hatch, suited up and holding his laser rifle, he thought of Cody’s last moments … willing to die in a blaze of glory out on the battlefield, not from a stupid malfunction.
Sitting wordless on an empty bench, the Deathguard in their team was an ominous, armored form, like a knight in shining armor. Rader respected the powerful cyborgs—resuscitated, revamped, and restructured to become perfect fighting machines—though he wondered what thoughts kept them going. Did they focus on the mission, even knowing what had happened to them, and what
happen to them? He supposed it was better than being declared dead. All Deathguards got an honorable funeral, and their families received full pensions; no one knew the former identity of any individual Deathguard. Rader hadn’t thought twice about it when he enlisted in the League. He’d signed up body and soul.
Huff leaned over and whispered to him, “I can’t wait to see that Deathguard go bonkers on the roach nest.”
“So long as he doesn’t go all Werewolf on us before it’s time,” Rajid said.
Rader found himself staring at the silent cyborg. “Not going to happen. They’re too sophisticated for that.” The Deathguard made no comment, one way or another.
Through the small windowport on his side of the craft, Rader could see the potato-shaped asteroid as they closed in. The large craters were covered over with domes like large blisters, as if the space rock had reacted with an outbreak of boils to the alien presence.
Sergeant Blunt walked in heavy boots from the front bulkhead and stood before them in full uniform armor. “Listen up. Based on the small number of roach military ships stationed at the asteroid, looks like the enemy has no major defenses here. We have no intel on the interior of the base, so you’ll have to find your way. Get to the main hatching chamber and destroy it. Clear enough? Your job is simple—point and shoot.”
On the way in, the assault ship’s pulsed lasers disabled the four Jaxxan ships stationed at the nest asteroid. Even though the nest asteroid sent emergency calls for Jaxxan reinforcements, Sergeant Blunt had expected it. The plan was to strike fast and finish the operation before alien backup vessels could fly in.
“All right, children,” the Sarge said. “Saddle up, take your toys, and let’s go scramble some eggs. Just don’t let them scramble you. We’re coming in hot, going to blow through one of their entrance domes. Do I need to remind you that this is
a prisoner capturing mission?”
“No, Sarge!” they all chimed in.
“Good, I was hoping you weren’t all as dense as you looked. Now let’s move it.” The Sergeant fitted a breathing mask over his face; Rader and his companions did the same. The Deathguard sat waiting, like a missile prepped for launch.
Once the assault shuttle careened up against the largest blister dome and a shaped-charge explosion blasted open the hatch to let them loose, Rader’s squadmates boiled out, swinging their laser rifles and yelling; they exercised just enough restraint to keep from shooting one another.
The alarms inside the hatching base sounded like staccato clacking beetles. Rader bolted forward and used his laser rifle to cut down any aliens he encountered. It wasn’t his place to decide whether the roaches were civilians, politicians, medical personnel, or soldiers.
In the back of his mind, he wondered if the Jaxxan assault squad on Cephei Outpost had operated under similar orders.
As they rounded a corner into the main base, a Jaxxan in front of them raised his thin forearms and wove a deadly psychic energy-web. Gonzalez let out a cry more of surprise than pain, then the incandescent green lines disintegrated him.
Astonished, Rader used the sudden jolt of shock and fired. He blasted the Jaxxan before he could move his angular arms again.
Behind the main squad, the Deathguard lurched into the fray, mowing down targets, yet never coming close to hitting one of his human comrades. The cyborg blew open door hatches, thrust his armored body into well-lit research chambers, annihilated any aliens he found working in their labs. Then the Deathguard pushed forward, leading the way along skewed corridors and through angled intersections, deeper into the hatching base.
Still off-balance and angry from the loss of Gonzalez, Rader ran headlong with four of his comrades into a chamber of horrors—a nursery. Five Jaxxan attendants had lined up to protect more than a dozen fat, squirming grubs, white segmented things like maggots the size of alligators.
Coleman said, “That’s just
!” He opened fire, and the grubs spilled open like fleshy sacs filled with entrails and ichor.
Frantic, one of the Jaxxan caretakers cried out in English, “No! Not the offspring.” The alien’s comprehensible words were so startling that Rader hesitated. But it was just a ruse: other aliens nearby worked together to weave a sparkling energy-web, filling the air with a mesh of green that they cast toward the human soldiers.
Rader focused and shot one of the roaches, then the next, working his way down the line, just like in the simulation. Huff knocked out the other two, and their incomplete energy-web dispersed. The rest of the Earth League soldiers made swift work of the remaining grubs in the nursery, chopping them into chunks of meat.
The Deathguard, who wasn’t part of the formal operation, had already moved ahead on his own, continuing his rampage. Apparently, the cyborg soldier wanted to make the most of his second chance.
Over the implanted radio, Rader heard Sergeant Blunt yelling from a different sector of the asteroid, “Just woke up a hundred roach warriors in the deep tunnels! And they look angry. Called Base for reinforcements. Another ship should be here in an hour or two, so hold the roaches off till then.”
“Roger that, Sarge,” came a chorus of responses.
The Sarge added, “We know they sent off a distress signal too. It’ll be a race to see who gets here first.”
Rader said with genuine bravado, “Won’t leave anything for them to rescue, Sarge.”
As the squad pushed into the asteroid’s most secure chambers, desperate Jaxxans fought harder and harder. Energy-webs rippled down the angled corridors, ricocheting off stone walls and frying several more human soldiers. Rader kept a rough score in the back of his mind, tried not to name his friends who lay dead.
Concentrate on the operation, on the objective
So far, he thought the humans were taking a greater toll.
Explosions rippled through the nesting base, and overpressure waves made his ears pop. Sergeant Blunt shouted over the implanted radio, “Heavy resistance—fresh warriors from below.” He paused, as if to listen to a report. “Ah, crap—there’s a roach ship coming in! Don’t know if we can hold ‘em off long enough.” Rader heard another explosion, a sizzling sound, then a cry of pain from the Sarge—a high-pitched yelp that did not at all sound like the gruff, hardboiled man—then only static on the comline.
Rader shoved aside his alarm and dismay, not sure how the survivors of his squad were going to get out of here, but they would keep pushing toward the objective.
He, Coleman, and Huff fought their way into a large guarded chamber where the roaches made their last stand. The entrance hatch was sealed, so the three soldiers used their laser rifles to melt an entrance through the putty-like polymer metal wall.
“This must be the place,” Coleman said.