9.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The girl screams in alarm, but he hardly hears it, thick in the urge to turn around and give back, take down the approaching enemy old-school, blood and fire. But today is not that day, and he watches Wyatt break from the fight, always the first to go in and last to come out, leaping up last minute and riding the ascent, his boots slamming down hard on the ramp.

No one caught. No one hurt.

The mech suits all register in the hold. Blackheart is accounted for.

The pilot closes the hatch and flushes the air, the Light Bird banking hard to starboard. Voss grabs onto a metal handhold, the girl struggling against him in panic. Engines scream. The vessel punches its way out of Bangalore airspace, fuselage shuddering and nacelles swiveling to the downstops, gliding into a thick cover of oily clouds and rain.

The mission light glares green. The chute’s airlock automatically retracts, granting them access to the hold.

Wyatt laughs, “Is that all we get tonight?”

“Fucking underwhelming,” Gojo quips back, unlocking his visor and pulling the helmet off. His black hair is glossed with sweat and tied in a topknot, full samurai style. He squints at Wyatt then grins. “But you got a little. I saw it.”

“Not even.” Wyatt brushes it off, too seasoned a veteran to take such glancing combat seriously. He’s still high on the adrenaline, grinning like kid, cheeks shining, but he’s mentally out of the kill zone, already down to dismantling the suit, pieces of his kit. He rubs the contours of his shaved head, his arms covered in tattoos. “Hey Voss, I think your girl’s done.”

Voss had thought she’d just calmed, but sure enough, he looks down and she’s knocked out, her head rolling back on her narrow shoulders, a shining braid tucked between her body and his armor… a kid that had never even been out of the muck suddenly ripped into the clouds. Life gone. Parents gone.

He grimaces and moves past them, still fully suited up, his boots trailing mud as he heads for med rack. One turn, then another, and there’s a bed with first aid supplies and a diagnostic computer. He eases her down onto the thin cushion, its green plastic clean now—though it had been covered in blood more times than he could count—and he straps her in, the whole time willing those dark eyes to stay closed, those lashes to stay meshed together.

The last thing he wants is for her to wake up, to be faced with that heartbroken expression, her face added to all the others.
All I know is that this is the beginning for you, kid. You’re going to help make it better. This is the way it starts… if you’re gifted.

Forward Operating Base Ticonderoga is dark. Sunset burns on the horizon, a strip of orange fire under charcoal clouds. Guard towers, ringed with auto-gunners, loom over high walls of concrete and concertina, parked rows of RG554 Panthers with massive tires and slatted windows.

The Light Bird comes down soft, three wheels kissing the LZ before the whole thing sinks low on a double suspension, engines reducing from scream, to howl, to hiss, mechanics and load techs appearing from the darkness, their visors shining in the bird’s landing lights.

The president’s aide is there too. He’s tall because the spine doesn’t compress during growth in Mars G, so he’s also thin, frail and weak, like they all are… dressed in a snow white liquid-suspension suit to handle Earth G and waiting like a nervous mother. “She’s alive?” he asks, trudging up the ramp as Voss slings his gear over his shoulder. “We heard there was trouble.”

“No trouble,” Voss replies.

“Where is she?”

“On the med rack.”

“The med… ”

“She passed out.”

The aide looks aghast. “Passed out, or was knocked out?”

“Passed out.”

“No blood?”

Voss hesitates, because he’s been asked this before in regard to kids he’s brought back, and it always feels too…specific. “No.”

“You were directed that no harm should come to her.”

“She’s fine.”

“F-fine?” the aide stutters. “What qualifies you to make that highly technical diagnosis? Are you a doctor? I mean, in addition to being a skilled killer? She is unique, even among the gifted. We’re just lucky that we got her out before the Bounders destroyed her… unless, because of you, she’s suffered some kind of brain trauma, in which case, the loss can’t be calculated.”

Voss stops short, glaring through the man’s visor, seeing nothing but a smooth expression under its gloss, unscarred skin, wide blue eyes. “She just suffered the loss of her parents, her entire life. Can that be calculated?”

The aide holds up his gloved finger, wagging it as if chiding a dog. “No, that is not accurate. She had no parents, no life. Not here. She never belonged with these people. Since the War of Last Nations, they’ve only gotten worse on this planet. Don’t pretend you don’t know that. They don’t value people like her. They don’t value people at all. They clump into tribes and start wars. They torment the weak and fight tooth-and-nail for their barbaric feudalism. They understand nothing. They squander every resource. Do you disagree with any part of that?”

Voss does and doesn’t. It’s true of the ones he faces in combat. It’s not true of the many others who live a ghostlike existence in the background.

“I asked you a question, Colonel.”

“I lost interest.”

“Ach… you’re a useful man, but so difficult.”

“Skilled killers are like that.”

“Rhys Corp people… fanatics, all of you. Honor. Valor. Sacrifice. Yes, of course… but why is it, again,
, that you’re still running ground missions at your… distinguished age?”

“Not dead yet?”

“You’re a fanatic, like the rest of your team, tattooed and unshaven. It’s fitting that Rhys Corp is based Earthbound.”

“We’re Earthbound because we operate in this environment, because we can’t ship in from Mars, do our jobs huffing around in a gravity suspension suit, with barely enough strength to breathe.”

“Soldier drones don’t need to breathe. And they stay clean.”

“Soldier drones get hacked. And then they kill guys in white suits.”

The aide rolls his eyes. “Prepare your team. We leave in four hours. You’re accompanying us to Fort Liberty.”

Voss frowns. “Rhys Corp is Earthbound, remember? We don’t do long hauls. We don’t go to Mars with you.”

“You do now.”

“And you expect us to prepare for a trip like that in just four hours?”

“Well, how long does it take for you to pack your guns? Really?”

“It’s different duty… in

The aide jabs his finger toward the Light Bird, adamant. “That girl in there is part of a priority one level project. That means top level security, top level secrecy. She is desperately needed, and she must be delivered immediately.”


“So, given the nature of her importance, it has been decided that Team Blackheart—oh so special—will provide additional security during transport. Your men already have the appropriate clearances, and have already seen the girl, so we can avoid adding unnecessary witnesses at this point. This is a sensitive operation, not one to be entrusted to mere cruiser guards.”

“Or soldier drones, apparently.”

The aide ignores this. “Your superiors have already accepted the contract, which was offered by President Wexler himself. Your orders will be presented to you momentarily.”

Voss stifles a curse.

Three weeks in the cold can at accelerator speeds, just to take a few pointless spins around the Red Planet and come back, weaker and sicker for the ride. It means being out of combat rotation for at least six months, and no one on the team is going to be happy about that. A soldier counts his years carefully, and those he’s fit for action, for the intense fights he lives for, go by quick enough without the company using him for mindless transport.

“You’ll be paid triple for the time out, plus a small bonus for the year,” the aide adds, reading Voss’s reluctance as if it were as clear as a neon sign. Money, profits, the logic of payoffs and investments, that’s New Republic of Mars language, after all. If there’s one thing a NRM bureaucrat knows how to do, it’s negotiate, purchase a piece of someone’s life for the cost of fuel.

Still, the offer will sell the mission to the team, no problem. It’s a bonus they didn’t expect, and it’s as good as they’re going to get. The language in their contracts is clear. Only the guys who accept the missions they’re given are granted NRM citizenship. Only the guys who perform to the top of their ability, and never waver from their assigned duties, get to retire in the clouds with a full pension and all the med care they could ask for.

Ethos aside, no one fucks with that, especially not a man in Voss’s position, with decades of war behind him, hair turned silver before its time, and enough replacements to make him half-human—at best.

He nods, accepting that the next three weeks will be spent babysitting soft cargo in reduced G, working out in spinning cages and eating slop that makes bland Earth food taste like steak and caviar. “We’ll pack our guns.”

“Fucking Mars jump.” Logan’s bitching, disassembling his ground kit, sorting dormant skeetos, extra magazines and multi-sights, breachers, head-ups, kill cards, throwing knives, EMP grenades—this even before he gets to his favorite assault systems—an easy mil in equipment getting packed into plastic containers with nothing more than closure locks.

He’s the youngest, and the team’s medic, ginger-haired and clean shaven because he still can’t grow a proper beard. His trauma kit, the one he’s carefully assembled with his own pay—the one a combat surgeon with twice the amount of contract years might envy—remains intact at his side.

He shakes his head. “Big sky mission. Day one, watch stars. Day two, watch stars. Day three, watch stars. Day fifteen, snap own neck.”

“Grade A pussy on Mars,” Gojo says, a lit cigarette dangling from his lips, curling smoke between racks. “Good girls raised on filter, clean air, clean water, pure thoughts… accustomed to stringy man-bitches with silly hands, only ever seen a real man in war documentaries.”

Logan rolls his eyes. “Give me an honest whore any day.”

“Oh they got those too,” Gojo replies, grinning. “In the willow houses, with little gardens, little sticks of incense, silk robes and a wet little tongue up your ass.”

“Agh. You would like that.”

“Oh, I like more than that.”

“Save it, Go-poke, especially since I have to sleep in the lower rack and wake up to your cock swinging in my face every morning.”

“Thing of beauty.”

“In who’s mind?”

Gojo shakes his head, his eyes crinkling with amusement. “Don’t you worry, son. You’ll mature someday, grow some real hair on that chinny chin chin and lay pipe just like the grown-ups.”

“Fuck off.”

Wyatt chuckles from the floor, his gear neatly arranged in straight lines, as if preparing to march into the containers all on its own, Sorcerer’s Apprentice set to a bugle call with dancing glass and ballistic armor.

Assaulters are methodical and superstitious folk, heavy on the OCD when it comes to their own rituals. Weapons are always cleaned the same way, equipment checked the same way, organized and stowed the same way. It’s a mental process as well as a physical one, a way to soothe the natural state of agitation that drives the Type A. Comfort items find special places, the favorite pair of socks, the lucky shirt, the helmet that caught the round, or the vest with the hole burned through it, a career of triumphs and near misses chronicled in a spread of urban fatigues, lethal instruments and scarred armor.

Voss has his own cache of oddities, and he packs them in silence, a few drives of pictures, some old letters and a handful of antique print books, a box of medals he shoves under his folded dress uniform, its pressed jacket tailor made for an endless line of funeral processions.

“Don’t let him bullshit you,” Wyatt is telling Logan, weighing in as the team’s senior ranked sergeant on the complex issue of prostitutes. “Go-poke’s never seen the inside of a willow house. Those hookers got training. They make tea, and dance with fans and shit. Corporate skinnies don’t let beasts like us ruin their women for them. We’ll be lucky if we’re allowed to set one foot off the boat. Ain’t no tattoos, or swearing, allowed inside those filters.”

9.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Scrapbook by Carly Holmes
OwlsFair by Zenina Masters
Taboo by Leslie Dicken
Hannibal by Ernle Bradford
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
Crucible by Mercedes Lackey