Authors: B. V. Larson
Books by B. V. Larson:
STAR FORCE SERIES
In chronological order)
An Army of One
(Novella published in
The Black Ship
ovella published in
Five by Five
OTHER SF BOOKS
for more information.
B. V. Larson
Copyright © 2013 by the author.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, without permission in writing from the author.
Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
I was with Legion Germanica today, one of the best legions in Earth’s history. We’d just dropped onto Cancri-9 for a routine escort mission. During the mission briefing I’d been chewing on a breakfast bar, but I’d gotten the gist of it. Some kind of scaly alien prince needed a color guard to take him through the streets of his planet’s largest city. The twist involved the locals, who were in a rebellious mood.
The mission sounded like a cakewalk, but someone must have been worried or they wouldn’t have paid for the best protection money could provide: human legionnaires.
“All right, soldiers,” my centurion said in my headset. “If we’re going to find trouble, it will probably hit in sector eleven. This is what we’re paid for. I want to double-up on the troops jogging with the air car. Keep the crowds back—especially those raptor-looking guys. I don’t like the way their fangs drip spittle all the time.”
The centurion’s instincts were legendary, so we followed his instructions without a qualm. I was 2
squad’s leader. I unloaded my team from a ground transport APC, and we hit the streets running.
It was my first outdoor look at Cancri-9. The buildings were randomly shaped like lumps of white clay. The vegetation was a mixture of lush, vibrant green and deep purple. The yellow and red suns in the sky formed two huge, glaring disks that were impossibly bright. Without my helmet and armor, I’d be burnt to a crisp. The local saurian population could take a shocking level of heat and radiation.
My squad moved into position right next to the lizard-prince’s car. We couldn’t help but question the wisdom of his little sightseeing tour through a hostile city, but such questions were above our pay-grade.
I knew there was no real need to wander around in these narrow, clogged streets. The prince’s air car could have flown safely above them, or better yet, avoided the city entirely. But the ruling family wanted to show they weren’t afraid of the rebels. They wanted to demonstrate to their people the prince could take a leisurely ride through the city without a care.
It seemed like a dumbass stunt to me, but no one was asking the rank and file—they never did. Besides, the prince had plenty of credits to waste, so here I was. The customer was always right.
When we came into a street that was even more crooked and narrow than usual, the column halted. Everyone swiveled their helmets and adjusted the zoom on their faceplates. They strained to see what was happening up ahead, what had delayed us.
I took a better grip on my rifle. I could feel the stock through my inch-thick gauntlets, due to pressure-relaying technology.
I didn’t look off into the distance. Instead, I kept my eyes on the doorways, windows and side-passages that led into this crooked street.
On the balcony over our heads an alien theropod stood with something in his stubby fore claws. What did he have? That was the trouble with this kind of mission: we had no way of knowing if this alien was a threat or just taking a picture for his grandkids.
“We’ve got a dino straight up,” I radioed on my squad channel. “Dino” was short for dinosaur, which was a common term legionnaires used for the locals.
Helmets craned up all around me. When the dino realized he’d been spotted, all hell broke loose.
The saurian unloaded. It was a suicidal move, but maybe he was in a bad mood today. He opened his mouth to show us about five hundred of his curved fangs and simultaneously fired down a ball of blue light right onto the roof of the air car we were supposed to be protecting. It was a plasma grenade. Even before the falling sphere of energy landed, we’d all shot the attacker, blowing him away.
But it wasn’t fast enough. The ball touched down and the air car shook and buzzed. The vehicle’s shielding and armor kept it from being taken out. We were pelleted with shrapnel, but we were a squad of heavies, and our armor kept us alive.
I checked the car for damage. There was a scorch mark on the roof, and the shield was glimmering visibly. The brighter the glow, the less stable the shield was. This shield looked like it needed several quiet minutes to recalibrate itself and become a perfect shell of force again.
The air car itself seemed to be having trouble lifting off. I could tell right away the objective of the strike hadn’t been to penetrate the shield, but to keep the car from escaping. Standard operating procedure in these situations was straightforward: the cargo, meaning the prince, was to flee the scene and leave us grunts behind to fight the attackers and clean up. But the car couldn’t take off. The plasma blast had taken out its flight capacity.
Like the rest of my squaddies, I crouched down, seeking cover—any kind of cover. Fortunately, the streets were crowded with carts and trashcans. Despite their advanced civilization, saurian streets looked like something from an Arabian Nights tale. They weren’t paved, and there was dusty junk everywhere. I put my back against a brick wall that was as hot as an oven. On my right was some kind of powered rickshaw, and on my left was a stack of cubic clay urns. I took a moment to fire an extra dozen blazing bolts into the theropod on the balcony, just to make sure he wasn’t getting back up.
Nothing happened for about ten seconds, and my squaddies had the gall to think we’d won. My squad weaponeer even laughed and said something about a “waste of time”.
Then a jugger charged him, coming out from one of the side alleys. Less than a second later he was snapped up like a mouthful of hamburger.
Juggernauts or “juggers” as we called them, were bigger, dumber theropods. They resembled a T. rex from Earth’s distant history. They were the workhorses of this civilization; unfortunates who’d been enslaved by their smaller, smarter cousins.
The jugger lifted up my weaponeer in its huge jaws. The legionnaire’s heavy armor buzzed as the shield was slowly penetrated by six-inch fangs.
The monster that had him was a green-scaled escaped slave, a big male, with a broken collar around his neck and a wild look in his eye. He stood about fifteen feet high, and I’d wager he weighed in at around four tons.
A force shield is only about an inch thick over a man’s armor, and it’s designed to stop energy attacks or, less effectively, bullets. Shields don’t do much against slow-moving attacks like a bite. If they repelled that kind of motion, we wouldn’t be able to pick up our own rifles.
I screamed for backup, and I got it. We poured fire into the jugger. But it wasn’t enough. The jaws crushed the weaponeer down, despite the fact that we were pumping bolts of energy into the massive body. The armor could only stop those teeth for a few seconds. The jugger’s fangs sank in at the joints and crushed down the chest plate. Blood ran from the weaponeer’s dangling boots.
The jugger finally slumped, with my dead weaponeer still in his mouth. I took a moment to look up and down the twisting lane. I swept the scene with my rifle, ready to fire. There were more theropods appearing everywhere, both big and small. They came lunging out of hiding on both flanks. They’d chosen this spot to ambush us, to make their big play.
Something tapped me on the shoulder at that moment, and I flinched at the unwanted contact. I rolled my shoulders and hunkered down, staying immersed.
We destroyed the first charge at range, but another wave of theropods came in before we could reorganize our lines. They found me this time. I was firing, unloading my weapon and shouting for help. Huge jaws opened, and the sky disappeared.
The world suddenly brightened again and shifted dramatically. Fingers dug into my goggles. My helmet was being disconnected. I couldn’t breathe, and two juggers had latched onto me, each attempting to remove a limb…
* * *
My mom had pulled my goggles off. A few hairs were plucked out by the rubber strap, making me wince. I blinked as bright,
light streamed into my eyes. She’d cracked the autoshades in my bedroom. Thin lines of white glare shone through the silver reflective grid, letting in actual sunshine. I complained with a loud groan.
I leaned back from my simulator and rolled my eyes. Cancri-9, the theropods, my screaming squaddies—they were all on screens inside my goggles. They weren’t real, but they were as real as anything was to me. The game was called “Steel World”, and in my opinion it was the best of its genre.
“You got me
“The time for gaming is over, James,” she said. She had her tablet in her hands and she offered it to me.
I didn’t even look at it.
“You understand I lead one of the top clans, right?” I demanded. “I know that doesn’t mean anything to you, but it’s not cool to waste all my friends’ time.”
She tried to show me the text on her tablet again, but I wasn’t interested.
I turned back to the simulator. It was a first-class rig. I had every component you could buy: the goggles, the pressure-sensitive gauntlets—I even had the full-feedback option on the finger-pads. The primary screen now showed I was down, as were most of my squad mates. The juggers were running wild, eating everyone. In the actual historical battle, Legion Germanica had won the day and saved the scaly prince in the air car. In our team reenactment of the scenario I’d blown it, and the car was already on fire.
I reached for the keyboard to talk to my team, who were universally pissed. My mom tapped my shoulder again, insisting on my attention.
I finally looked at her. Her hands were shaking. I sighed and read the words on the tablet she was shoving into my face.
At first, I didn’t understand them. I had to read them again, this time trying to focus and catch all the words—to give them full meaning.
The text was an email was from Hegemony Financial. Hegemony was the end-all of lenders. They held the lease on our apartment, my education—even the family tram.
As a citizen of North America Sector, I lived under Sector Government, Federal Government, and at the top, Hegemony Government. There was a layer above that, Galactic Government, but they had no direct relationship to any individual earther. We were beneath notice to the aliens who ran the stars in the sky—except when they needed one of our legions.
denied?” I read aloud. I shook my head in incomprehension. “Account delinquent? What’s this mean?”
“It means, James, that you’re done with gaming…and school, too.”
The emotion on her face struck me. This was big. This was real. Her eyes were squinched up, and I thought she might cry, but she didn’t.
“But why kick me out of college now? I’m almost finished.”
My heart began to pound in my chest. I sat back and looked at my gaming rig. It was a three-screener, with full contact controls, gesture-interpretation and eye-tracking. About a dozen people with handles like “Azzgawd” were sending me tells and chat-invites right now. I ignored them all. I’d spent years living on that machine—but now I could hardly see it.
“Was it my grades?” I asked. “Did I screw it up that bad?”
“You’re not getting any scholarships, that’s for sure. But that’s not the real reason. You’re passing. There’s something I didn’t tell you about.”