Chapter 1

OUR SHUTTLE IS TWISTING through a series of tunnels when I see my first zant. It’s huge, twice as large as I’m used to. It has a broad body, a head ending in blades. A million tiny black eyes that glisten in the light, begging to be shot. I follow it with my hyper-rifle. It’s crawling through the twisted metal skeleton, ancient scaffolding  Now that marvel of engineering has fallen, it’s just once more place for zants to hide. I raise my hyper-rifle. If my combat body had a heart it would be jumping with joy. Instead, its metal pumps beat as they always have.

“Contact,” I say. “Zant.”

No one in our patrol craft responds. It’s a light craft, unarmored, cramped. More suited to delivering shopping than surviving the endless caverns within this world. The cabin isn’t even big enough for our six bulky combat bodies. I can’t even fit inside; I’m strapped into a seat Hef welded to the roof. Sniper bait.

But at least I have the best view.

I’m in a Lemure combat body. They are bulky, humanoid forms. Bright red skins. I hate it. I’m used to hunting unseen. Lurking. Stalking. Not flying around like the dot at the center of a target. Not clinging to the top of a civilian transport, begging to be shot.

The alien city cites inside a spherical cavern carved from the very bones of the world. The war passed through here a while ago, but what’s left of the city is still beautiful. The X architects must hate straight lines. Their buildings are curves and archway, tall, impossibly thin, like elegant serpents rising up to dance together. Each building was sheathed in bright metal. There’s enough of that left to see that the result must have been majestic, more art than city. Now most of the buildings have been stripped of their skin, their skeletons exposed to the air. They lean, sag, crumble. The maze they once formed is now a deathtrap for the unwary. The perfect hiding spot for our enemy.

“Contact, zant,” I repeat.

No reply. Perhaps our squadlink is broken. The patrol craft has an open hatch in the roof. I bend down and stick my head through it. Phobos is at the controls. She’s driving slowy, picking a path through the wreckage for the convoy to follow us. The rest of the squad are staring out of the open windows. Sergeant X is in the seat next to her. He’s staring out the window.

“I said ‘contact’,” I tell them. “A zant, in the rubble.”

“So what, corporal?” Deimos snaps.

He’s sitting the back seats beside Hef, sulking because Phobos won’t let him drive. He glares up at me. I glare back. Our gazes lock. I refuse to look away. His eyes are reflective silver. His combat body is red, angular. Covered in bulky pouches, straps, and belts. I’d been saved by Deimos’s collection of unauthorized equipment before, but this was different. Those had been tools. These are decoration. Like his showy silver eyes, or the spikes on his shoulder blades. Pretty. Pricey. Pointless.

Deimos holds my gaze for a few seconds, then looks away.

“So… should we stop and kill it?” I ask.

“That’s not what we’re getting paid for,” Sergeant Dolos says from the front seat beside Phobos.

“But it doesn’t seem right,” I say. “Surely we should be-”

“It’s not what we’re being paid for, corporal,” Deimos repeats.

“Yeah, corporal. Do what the sergeant says,” Phobos says.

Erratos hasn’t even got his hyper-rifles ready. He’s gazing out the window, away from the zant. I can’t believe this. We’re armed and deadly. We were trained to shoot zants. Born to shoot zants.

“There’s a refugee settlement near here, sergeant,” I say. “The zant is heading that way. Its armed for combat, too.”

Sergeant Dolos shrugs.

“If the refugees want our protection, they’ll have to pay for it like everyone else. White Star isn’t a charity. Besides, they aren’t a registered settlement.”

I shake my head. Where there is one zant there are thousands. Always. I can imagine them, an army of metal insects crawling towards the refugee camp. The refuges will have no chance. I know its not in our mission parameters to intervene. We’re escorting precious supplies to a larger, formal settlement far north of here. They need what we are protecting.

But I feel guilty. Delos doesn’t know this, but the res to the squad have been to Ares X before. It hadn’t ended well. The city had been thriving, then. Beautiful, or so I’m told. All we’d seen of it was its sewer system. That, at least, has suggested a city full of life. I remember wishing I could have seen the city from above. Life is full of irony. Now I have a bird’s eye view, but nothing worth looking at.

Just another city warzone.

I can see the impact sites from the orbital bombardment we’d called down. We’d died, in the sewers, but we’d been Rebooted. The civilians in the city above us had just died. So I owe them. The survivors, their families. Members of the same race. It’s a generalized, irrational debt, but one I intent to pay. I pull my head out of the patrol craft. I can still see the zant below. Its not alone.

“It’s an easy shot,” I say.

“It’s a waste of time,” Delos says.

Hef looks up from the mess of wiring he’s been playing with him. He shakes his head slightly. I know what that means. He’s warning me against pushing my luck. To not be stupid. It’s something he’s done a hundred times during our five years of working together. I’ve learnt to listen. Mostly.

I sit back in my position on the roof.

I place my hyper-rifle against my shoulder. The twins, before they became obedient little foot soldiers, taught me a everything I need to know about working around squad leaders.

“We don’t even have to stop. I can get this one from here. Permission to fire?”

“No way,” Delos says.

But I decide to hear ‘okay’. I line my shot up. It’s a sweet line. The zant explodes beautifully. A second emerges. It dies, too.

“Stop that!” Delos yells.

But I don’t. I keep firing. Not until five more zants are dead, and the rubble is free.

After all, what harm could it do?

“Contact,” Phobos says. “The idiot corporal has stirred up a zees nest.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *