Copyright © 2011. All rights reserved.
“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”
I snapped the barrel of the pulse rifle out of my face, felt heat smack my cheeks like radiation. Leveled my best unaffected stare at the sergeant watching me from across the rattling transport. “I know what I'm doing.”
The lieutenant next to her coughed up something vaguely kin to a laugh. “Preacher's your NCO now, Deadeye. She's also the best of the best. You'd do well to listen.”
Reprimanded by both my sergeant and my commanding officer. Bonus: I hadn't even started my first mission yet and I'd already acquired a stupid nickname. “Beg your pardon, sir, but I know how to clear my barrel.”
The corner of his mouth curled up, stretched the burn on the left side of his face into a parody of a smile. “I suppose you knew your cartridge was plugged and hot, too.”
My eyes darted to my weapon, drew another rough chuckle. “She's a live one, Preach. Keep her close.”
He flung himself to his feet, navigated down the turbulence-jumping center aisle like he had magnets in his boots. “Alright, Wings. Standard high-altitude low-opening insertion. You have schematics for the target. High Command expects resistance to be non-existent, which of course means we'll be up to our eyeballs in Mazzies.”
“No evil!” shouted some of the Wings.
The lieutenant grinned, his burnt face crinkling like brittle paper. “Some of you are old hands. Some of you are so wet, High Command had to enlist your nanny. If you don't know your ass from a light grenade, lay eyes on someone with a scar and stick to them. The insertion corridor is lit up, so no napping. Get out the door triple time, shoot anything that isn't one of ours, and do whatever Preacher or I tell you.”
“One minute,” came the pilot's voice over the speakers.
My stomach dropped. I swallowed hard, glanced at the sergeant. Under the brim of the face-shielded helmet, those shards of ice she used for eyes never wavered.
Red glare flooded the shielded front window, spiked the temperature about a hundred degrees. Live rounds thundered against the hull; the ship shuddered, pitched, and dropped. I sucked in a breath, begged the Above for the wits to remember my training and the strength to accomplish my mission.
“Decompress in five,” buzzed the pilot.
The sergeant stood so I stood too, glanced at the suit seal indicator projected against the inside of my faceplate. It glowed reassuring green.
A mechanical roar. Straps and webbing fluttered as pumps sucked the air out of the bay. The hatch opened, a hole into blackness.
Just like in training , I reassured myself, shuffling heel to toe with the Wing in front of me. Except this time the barking of the officer over the helmet comm sounded tinny and far away, the deck beneath my feet bucked like a drunken ox, and the flashes of light against the bulkhead weren't red strobe lights but the glare from actual high-energy beams.
It felt like Armageddon.
My feet stopped. Blinded by a flash, perhaps, or knocked back by the bucking of the ship. I suddenly found myself standing in the jump hatch, staring out over a black velvet canvas of war, Preacher pressed up against my back.
“ I am a Win g,” the sergeant intoned over the comm. “ I will fear no evil . ”
I tumbled ass over acorns before my training kicked in. I tucked my arms back against my sides, clamped my feet together. The mad tumble slowed in the microgravity of low orbit, stabilized into a face-first dive toward the flashes of light below: massive planetary weapons lobbing glowing streams of plasma toward the fleet; our ships returning fire, hammering the surface of the planet Sheol with explosive ordinance.
To my eye, it looked as if the pounding had cracked the scorched planet open, the fractures forming a glowing spider web of fire and magma. The planet looked dead, or dying; another victory for High Command. But what pride I felt wilted, looking at that shattered, ruined world.
“Stay on beacon, Private Deadeye.”
I checked the heads-up display in the face shield. The beacon we were headed for lay beyond the heart of the crossfire. “You're kidding me, right? That's suicide.”
“That's Wings.” She pulled ahead of me, never sparing a glance. “Stay on my four. Do as I do.”
We plunged into hell.
I can't remember if the spots in my vision were from holding my breath or hyperventilating. I do remember praying, although I couldn't tell you exactly what I prayed for. Safe passage? Or a direct hit and instant vaporization to spare me the slow horrific death of suit decompression and burning up on reentry.
I glimpsed other Wings in the edges of my vision, their black armor silhouetted against the flashes of plasma and explosions below. In spite of our increasing speed, the seconds dragged into minutes. Gradually I realized how far above the killing field we were, how large the beams and explosions were below us. How much larger the gaps in the crossfire.
Preacher twisted and veered toward one of those gaps. I followed, just beginning to feel the resistance of the atmosphere against my suit. By the time we threaded our way though that opening, the atmosphere was roaring in our audio feeds, our bulky ceramic reentry suits red hot from the friction. We became shooting stars, heralds of destruction.
I flexed my shoulders just so, triggered the wings. They jerked me back; the heart-in-my-throat plummet became a mere pulse-pounding glide.
“Beacon dead ahead. See you there, Deadeye.”
Preacher banked a hard left, sped away.
“What? Sergeant!” I pivoted and followed.
She didn't look back, set on some unseen target. “Go back, kid. Stay with the unit.”
“But I'm your wingman!” I shouted over the scream of descent. “We're supposed to stay together.”
“I said go back.”
“No, SOP says I come with you.”
“And I'm giving you a direct order—”
A flash so bright I could feel the heat of it through the suit threw me from my glide into a gut-wrenching tumble. I splayed my arms and legs, tried to bring it under control. Kept flipping over.
“Your right wing is fried,” Preacher crackled over the comm. “Retract and stabilize.”
I crossed my arms, curled my spine against the emergency override button under the backplate. The wings withdrew, mostly, left mangled bits of ailerons clawing at the thickening atmosphere, making it difficult to hold a constant attitude.
Wingless, I picked up speed.
“Emergency chute,” barked Preacher.
Both hands reached behind my neck, triggered the chute. Felt it deploy, but never felt the yank. Glanced over my shoulder. Could see it tangled in the shreds of steel wings.
I shuddered. “Emergency chute failed.” It didn't sound like my voice, flat and forced.
“Maintain maximum spread. I'm coming.”
I closed my eyes, a million thoughts running through me. What a first mission. You've done more in these few minutes than most people do in a lifetime. And, survival rates for tandem landings are less than forty percent.
I wanted to be the hero, tell her to go on with the mission. Better to lose only one of us than lose both.
The words stuck in my throat.
Opened my eyes to the black-and-orange fractured ground rising fast. At this distance I could make out the planet's craggy surface, pillars of rock pointing toward the sky like sharpened spears. Deep canyons between them, lava flows glowing with light and heat brighter than my atmosphere-heated suit.
“Brace yourself. Contact in two, one—”
I barely had time to clasp my hands behind my head before Preacher slammed into me, wrapped her arms and legs around me. I twisted around, clutched at her as we plummeted past the tops of razor pillars.
“Deploy my chute.”
I held onto her tightly, squeezed the button behind her neck. A rough jolt. We half-drifted, half-glided over a lava-filled crack in the planet's crust. We were falling too fast, too heavy to reach the far rim.
“Hold on to me.” She let go, activated the thrusters in her boots and elbows. They weren't much, just enough to allow a Wing to fly above a surface, not carry someone else. But at full power, they slowed our descent enough to make it to the other side before we tumbled across the ground.
I drew a deep ragged breath, flexed my fingers and toes. “Nothing broken, sergeant.”
She clambered off of me, retracted her chute and wings. “I meant your suit, Deadeye.”
“Oh.” I glanced at the indicator. “Pressure's good.”
She nodded sharply, removed the rifle from the mount between her wings. “Let's go.”
I shook my head again, still in shock. We made it. We lived. But she was already a dozen meters ahead. I unholstered my rifle, fell into formation behind her.
It didn't take long for me to figure out the sergeant's double-time across the plasma-seared landscape was in the wrong direction. Assuming, of course, the right direction was the beacon and our mission objective, several clicks behind us and growing.
I bit my tongue. I was the one who countermanded her orders. I was the one who lost a wing and forced us to crash-land. I was the reason we were traveling on foot and not overhead. But I kept checking the mission profile on my heads-up display, looking for some update to the objectives that explained this new vector.
Neither it nor the sergeant was forthcoming.
# # #
“Sergeant? Can we take five?”
Preacher kept running.
“Sergeant? Can you hear me?”
The helmet in front of me swiveled. She shifted course ever so slightly. “In a minute.”
She led the way up the base of one of the jagged towers we ran between, found a spot several hundred meters up where she had a good view ahead of us.
“This will do. Five, then we move again.”
I nodded, slowed to a walk, wrestling with my breathing. I didn't dare sit. In spite of being somewhat self-powered, the two hundred pound armored suit was getting heavy. I wasn't sure I would manage to stand again. I settled for leaning my back against the stone pillar, tilting my helmet back to stare at the sky.
The space battle raged overhead. I could glimpse it through the thin sooty clouds, flashes of light like the twinkling of a Christmas tree, sparkling and harmless.
I knew better. Reached behind me, felt through gloves the casualty of those pretty lights, the ragged edges of a damaged wing.
“Let me see.” Preacher turned me around, twisted and yanked on it. Grunted. “Not much I can do.”
“Can you get the wing pack off? I've got some tech training. Maybe I could maybe get it functional enough to get us airborne.”
Removing the suit's wings was no simple task; the designers didn't want them tearing off during flight. But with some tools and elbow grease, Preacher detached the pack, handed it over.
I disentangled the ruined chute, deployed the wings. They came out relatively easily. Not a surprise, I suppose, considering they couldn't fully retract anymore. I inspected the scorched frame, the melted remains of the metallic feathers.
“Well?” I couldn't miss the impatience in her voice.
I bit my lip. “Full flight is out. But there are redundant gliding feathers. If I mend the frame and rearrange…”
I was glad for some task I understood, something which didn't involve space-diving, running, or shooting.
Heard a hiss on the external audio sensors, half-spun, hand on my rifle.
Found Preacher removing her helmet.
Preacher warded me off with a hand, pulled the helmet all the way off. A thick black braid fell to her shoulders, slightly frayed from exertion. She sucked in a deep breath. Made a small face before letting out. Offered a wan smile. “Breathable.”
“Are you crazy? You could have died!”
She sighed, held up an elbow. The hard armor sported a sizeable crack. “Been breathing it since that hard landing. If I'm not dead by now, why suffocate under this helmet?”
I called up the report on the atmosphere. Oxygen, yes, and nitrogen and carbon oxides, too. Also sulfur oxides, helium, hydrogen, krypton, ammonia, methane, and a dozen other gases that were toxic in the wrong concentrations. But if the sergeant's suit was compromised, there was nothing to do for it but get back to the carrier as soon as possible.
I made a face. “I wish you'd keep the helmet on. These canyons could be crawling with Mazzies, and they won't hesitate to burn you to cinder.”
She chuckled, coughed against the acrid air.
An interesting response, coming from the lieutenant's so-called best of the best. I filed it away, focused on the wing pack.
“Where'd you learn how to do that?”
I debated how much to say, settled on: “Flight school.” Glanced up to catch Preacher staring at me. “We had to learn a lot of basic tech for the ships. Fixing is fixing. Big or little machines, doesn't matter.”
“What's a pilot doing in the Wings?”
“Not a pilot,” I corrected. “Couldn't make the grade. High Command needed more people on the frontline. It was this or Engineering.” I shrugged. “This sounded more fun.”
Felt her incredulous stare. “So you're crazy.”
I glanced up at the lightshow overhead. “Maybe. No more crazy than you. Why did you sign up with the Wings?”
“I transferred from infantry. They told me my talents were wasted there. Apparently I have a knack for killing things and staying alive.”
“So…no sad story about family killed by Mazziki raiders?”
The sergeant studied me. “Is that why you're here?”
My stomach clenched. “You mean was my family murdered by Mazzies? Sure. Whose wasn't? But that's not why I'm here. I'm here for the cause. Our survival is at stake. Us against them, right? That's the way it's always been.”
Preacher looked away. “I don't think anyone remembers what it was like before this. They kill us. We kill them. We hate them. They hate us. Maybe it's just habit now.”
A prickle in my stomach. “Habit or not, we are stuck in this war. The Mazzie are monsters. They are evil itself, and they have made it clear they will fight to the death. I want to make sure it's their deaths, not ours.”
“Theirs. Ours. Not much difference.”
I couldn't help but sneak a look at the sergeant. Saw exhaustion in the lines of her face, the hollows under her eyes. More than exhaustion, in that pale stare. Maybe a loss of heart.
Great. I'm traipsing across enemy territory into my first firefight with a suicide case.
“This is taking too long,” she said, levering herself off the ground. “I'm gonna keep going.”
“What? Wait. No.” I scrambled to my feet. “We can do without the pack. You need backup.”
“What I need is a wingman who can fly. What I need is one fewer life to worry about. Fix your pack and get to the extraction site.” She cut my interruption off with a glare. “Unless you want to disobey another direct order.”
I shut my mouth. Nodded, though every ounce of my body resisted the effort.
She said nothing more. No words of encouragement, no advice on how to make it back safely. Just put her helmet back on, turned, and with two running steps leapt off the slope. Deploying thrusters and wings, nearly five meters wide and stealth-tech black, she swooped away over the canyons. I watched for a long helpless moment, as long as I could before she disappeared out of sight between the jagged pillars of stone.
Beyond, a column of superheated gases shot into the sky, lobbed by one of the planetary defense cannons.
It had to be her destination. Feverishly I set to work again, determined to get airborne and follow. Direct order or not, I had a mission to fulfill.
# # #
I dropped to a graceless landing less than a click from the defense battery. It seemed to grow like a smoky crystal tower from the edge of a great crack, the tapered peak of it illuminated by the crimson lava flow below, obscured by the billowing pockets of smoke and heat above. Every six seconds it belched another blast of plasma into the ongoing battle above. Stilling that cannon would save many lives.
But that was not my mission. Preacher was there somewhere.
I analyzed the surface of the tower, could find no points of entry nor any sign of guards or defenses. It looked absolutely impenetrable.
Which was ridiculous. The Mazzies had to get in and out somehow. I edged toward the massive crack, angling for a better view, spied a dark speck on a narrow ledge near the bottom of the shear cliff face. Magnified, the figure resolved into a Mazzie splayed upon the ground, its chest carved open by a High Command light razor.
Unless there was some other special forces unit tasked with assaulting this unremarkable defense battery, I think I found my NCO.
What next? Should I go in after her, guard her back and help her destroy the cannon? That was what a proper Wing would do. If only I had proper wings; landing on that narrow ledge with my mangled wing pack would require a lot of skill and experience, more than I possessed. And with a partially-functioning wing pack, getting enough lift to get out of that canyon would be next to impossible.
Or should I stay up top, provide cover fire for her egress? Seemed a coward's choice while she was in there, single-handedly taking out a defense battery full of Mazzies.
A Mazzie ran out the entrance and flung itself over the lava, spread leathery wings and flew away. As did another. And two more. Then a flock of them, enough to appear as a shadowy cloud against the fire below, climbing out of the canyon and shrinking in the distance.
A flash from the top of the tower, white and blue and out of place against the orange fireglow. The cannon skipped a heartbeat. Flared bright. Shattered. The blast knocked me to the ground, peppered my armor with shards of obsidian.
Holy Above, she did it. I blinked the spots away from my vision. The Mazziki fled the outpost now in droves, from the entrance below and the top of the ruined tower. They thinned away to nothing. No sign of the sergeant.
I leapt into flight, wrestled my mangled flight surfaces all the way to the top of the smoking hole. Descended into darkness.
The repeated whine of rifle fire led me downwards, through the wrecked machinery, past the blasted bodies of Mazziki, down an open central shaft into a series of rough-hewn tunnels and chambers several levels below the surface. Here the signs of Preacher's passage was even clearer: charred wounds and gaping holes of a pulse rifle set to maximum power, severed limbs and torsos cleanly cauterized by the swipe of a light razor when the plasma cartridge overheated.
I followed the clamor, grunts, and hisses of a struggle to a narrow chamber. Found Preacher at the far end, pale-faced and winded, her light razor dangerously low on energy, cornered by nearly half a dozen angry Mazziki.
I shot the one closest to me point blank in the back. Shot another between the shoulder blades before it turned. Aimed between the amber eyes of another but it moved too fast, flung itself at me as I squeezed the trigger; it dropped to the ground writhing, shot through the throat instead.
Slammed against the far wall of the tunnel, another Mazziki screeching—all horns and teeth—in my face. It lifted me up by the throat, armored suit and all, threw me headfirst against the floor.
When I came to my senses, the Mazziki had me pinned with one cloven foot against my armored throat, clawing at the seams of my armor like a kid tearing into a present. Lights in my suit flashed warning; seal breach.
I fumbled for my pulse rifle; must have lost it in the bodyslam. Desperately I clenched and cocked my right fist; the light razor sizzled to life, slashed at the leg pinning me. The Mazziki caught it—holy Above, was it really that fast?—wrestled for control of the arm wielding it.
I swung my elbow at its face, activated the thruster. It squealed, recoiled from the superheated jetwash enough for me to break free, jab the light razor into a soft spot in its hide.
It dropped. I gasped for breath, climbed to my feet. Scooped up my rifle several meters away, headed back into the room.
Preacher wrestled arms with the last Mazziki, pinning it against a table, fumbling for something just out of reach.
“I've got it, sergeant,” I called out, the Mazzie in my sights. But the sergeant didn't seem to hear me, engrossed as she was in the struggle, blocking my line of fire. “Sergeant, give me the shot.”
“I've got this.” She leaned hard on the elbow against the Mazziki's throat, tried to pin the rest of the squirming thing down with her body armor while one hand reached for something on the chair. The Mazzie snarled, scratched at the face shield, dug claws into the damaged chest armor. Preacher sputtered and growled, ignored it and stretched further.
No response. Exasperated, I circled the desk. Found not her rifle but a medical injection gun.
The Mazzie twisted its claws in her ribs. Preacher howled. Outraged, I put my pulse rifle's barrel to its horned head.
“No!” Preacher knocked it aside, thrust her helmeted head in the way.
She wanted it alive? Disgusted, I snatched up the injection gun, jammed it in the thing's neck.
A hiss and gurgle as the contents discharged. The Mazzie thrashed, its yellow eyes dilating to black, sliding shut as whatever was in that gun spread through its system.
Silence in the chamber. Or near enough, not counting Preacher's heavy breathing and the adrenaline pumping in my ears.
“What the happy horse shit is going on here?” I yelled.
Preacher eased up, every move slow and deliberate. “She's the leader of this outpost.”
“And what's the plan now?”
“We bring her back with us. You got a problem with that?” Her pain-bright glare broached no argument.
“No, sergeant, no problem.”
“Why are you here, anyway?”
I shook my head. “Been asking that question myself, sergeant.”
“Here. Help me put this on her.”
Preacher had me wrap the Mazzie's arms around its chest; she wrapped a restraining strap around its torso and clamped force field clasps on its wrists, effectively pinning arms and wings at once. She sighed and leaned back, tilted a little before she caught herself.
“You alright, sergeant?”
She nodded, anger etched into her face. “Fine. Let's go.”
“Maybe I should have a look at you before we go.”
“Are you now a doctor, too? Didn't think so. Let's get out of here before reinforcements arrive.”
I didn't believe her or her excuses for a second. But there seemed little point in arguing. We each grabbed a handle on the restraining strap, hauled the unconscious Mazzie down the hall, back up the tower and out over the blasted plain.
# # #
By my readings, we were still nine clicks from the beacon and the extraction site when Preacher finally crashed.
We were flying over a wide gash in the planet's surface when the heat and fumes finally overwhelmed her; were her arm not looped through the Mazzie's restraint handles, she would have plunged four hundred meters into the lava. As it was, my damaged wings couldn't support one extra rider, let alone two.
By luck or some last instinct of survival, she passed out close to a narrow butte near the edge of the lava flow; I managed to maneuver the Mazzie and the sergeant dangling from it to an unceremonious emergency landing on that narrow strip of safety.
I tumbled, slid to a stop with my legs hanging off the edge, gloved fingers digging furrows in the gravel. Hitched one leg over the edge, hefted myself up and rolled onto my back, heart doing triple-time under my armor.
My head hurt. My vision swam. The fumes, the stench of sulfur, the whole cursed atmosphere of Sheol did nothing for my ability to think clearly. How had Preacher managed to keep her head?
Or had she? I pushed unsteadily to my feet, glared at the Mazzie. What was the point in bringing back one low-level outpost commander? What intelligence could it possibly have that higher-profile targets didn't? Or was Preacher already well out of her mind, as compromised as her suit?
Stuck on this butte for one useless little Mazziki. An urge came upon me to kick it over the edge. I could say it fell into the lava when Preacher passed out; she would never know.
I didn't, as much as I wanted to. High Command might have some use for it after all.
I sank down beside the sergeant, removed her broken chest plate—one whole corner of it was snapped off by Mazziki hands—and back plate and peeled back what layers of underarmor I could. Made a face at the mess the Mazzie had made of her midsection. The underarmor did its job holding her vital organs in place, but there was blood everywhere. The sergeant was in trouble if she didn't make it to a regen tank soon.
In the storage compartment in Preacher's backplate I found a miniature medical pack. I found other things, too.
A tiny holoprojector, probably of a partner or family member. I didn't activate it.
More vials of drugs for the injection gun. So she was on a mission to bring one of them back; there was enough sedative here to put someone down for a week.
And a chip, possibly her orders for this mission and other details essential to its successful completion.
None of that mattered right now. I sprayed the deep gashes in her belly generously with antiseptic coagulant. Put a clean dressing over the wound and wrapped a bandage snugly around her middle, then snapped the remains of her armor back into place. Gave her an oxyshot in the hope it would help her come around.
Gave myself one too for good measure. The oxygen flooded my system, cast a rainbow sheen over the edges of my vision. At least it took the edge off the pounding in my head.
What next? My chronometer indicated evac was in less than an hour. And half an hour after evac…a harsh and fiery sunrise. The kind that turned to ash anything above ground.
I hated this planet.
Truth was, we were neck-deep in shit. I could activate the emergency beacon, announce to friend and foe alike our location and hope one cared and the other didn't. And then what? Explain to the evac pilot why we wanted to bring a Mazzie prisoner along?
Or I could figure out how to sprout wings and get us off this little lava island, then carry my unconscious NCO and a thrice-damned Mazzie nine kilometers to the beacon before we got fried by the blue supergiant creeping toward the horizon.
I wished my head didn't hurt so bad.
I rubbed my burning eyes, stared overhead. The volcanic smoke and gas was thick here, but it seemed the flashes of battle overhead had died down. Which meant we were winning. Which meant they could spare a transport for an unscheduled evac.
Either that, or they were kicking our asses and there wouldn't be any evac either way.
I planted and activated the beacon.
# # #
I paced the small butte, gaze darting to the sky. Went back to the beacon, checked it a fourth time to make sure it was broadcasting. Where were they?
“Sun is coming.”
My attention snapped to Preacher, hopeful. But if anything she looked grayer than before, face slack and drawn, eyes closed.
Another pair of half-lidded orbs stared at me, the color of sulfur. I looked away, unnerved by those unnatural eyes. Tried to ignore the disturbing fact that it spoke. Monsters shouldn't be able to make conversation.
“Sun is coming,” it hummed, that harsh voice too deep for its size.
“They'll be here.” Checked my chronometer again. Troops at the beacon would have been evacuated eleven minutes ago. Willed to myself, “They'll be here.”
“Look at you. Don't know what to do. Even when your life depends on it. What good is training if it only teaches you how to die?” It looked me over, head to toe. “Maybe it's not the training that's defective.”
I struggled to loosen the knot in my throat. “Strange. I thought I heard the beast grunting.”
“Who is the beast? The one with claws, or the one who brings death to our people?”
In a heartbeat I planted a boot in its stomach. Hissed, “You brought death to my people. We are here because of you.”
It offered no response. Perhaps because it could not draw breath to speak.
I growled at it, at myself. Forced myself to walk away, check the beacon. Check the sergeant. Pray she would wake.
“The sun is coming.”
The Mazzie stared at the horizon. Its edges glowed icy violet.
I glared at it—at her , Preacher had said. Mazziki didn't bother with clothes, and under the horns and thick ruddy hide, her anthropomorphic curves and reproductive organs were unmistakably feminine.
Would have been easier to keep calling her an it. I ground my teeth. “Sucks to be you, doesn't it? We die, you die.”
Her gaze never wavered. “Free me.”
“Not a chance. I'd sooner push you into that.” I gestured with my chin to the lava below.
“Would sooner be pushed than die the way you will die.”
“Oh, yeah?” I grabbed her restraints and hauled her to her feet, dragged her to the edge. “You wanna die so badly? Take a step.”
I looked for fear in her eyes, for some recognition of the power I still held over her fate.
She didn't seem to notice, stared instead at the canyon's cliff face.
“I said do it, if you want to die so badly. Dammit, look at me!”
She did, for only a moment. “Cave.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“Shelter. From the sun. A cave. Down there.”
I followed her gaze to a crack part way down the cliff face, at least a thousand meters away. No problem for the Mazzie if she were free to fly, but that was out of the question. And there was no way my patched-up wings could cover that distance carrying either one of them.
But given a hope, a chance, my brain chewed on the possibilities.
I rolled Preacher over, attacked her wing pack with trembling hands.
I ignored her, wrestled with the stubborn pack.
“Free me, and I will carry you there.”
“Ha! More likely drop me in the lava!”
She couldn't help but chuckle. “Wouldn't you do the same?”
“Listen, Mazzie, I just carried you thirty clicks, passed up plenty of opportunities to do you in.”
“How noble of you, saving my life so I can be tortured.”
“We don't torture, we talk—dammit!” The pack wouldn't come free. I glanced up; the horizon was a solid band of indigo now, stretching from pole to pole. My head pounded so hard I could hardly think. “Fuck this.” I stripped the entire backplate from her armor, swapped it for mine. Couldn't get one of the latches to snap onto the underarmor but it was good enough. I slapped my back plate on Preacher, scooped her up.
“Wait! Free me!” the Mazzie howled.
I launched off the edge of the butte. Limp, the sergeant weighed a ton in my arms. It was all I could do to keep a hold of her and steer with the elbow thrusters at the same time. Blessedly the cave was much bigger than it appeared. At the last moment I retracted the wings, lighted in the arm-span-wide gap. I had feared the vertical crack to be impossible to stand in, but the bottom of the crack was full of loose rock and sand, enough that I could haul the sergeant to a level spot fifty meters in.
I scrabbled back to the mouth. In those few seconds, the sky had grown frighteningly bright, like the blue in the center of a flame. And at the very edges of the horizon, an orange that was not sunlight but a wall of fire.
I could leave the Mazzie. She'd been more trouble than she was worth. Only it was the Mazzie who saw the cave. The Mazzie who lived on this planet, knew how to survive the daily conflagration, scratch out a living on a planet with no known resources. She could still be useful.
I leapt out of the mouth of the cave. Climbing back up to the level of the butte took more time, required circling and finding thermals to ride. I became aware of a rolling thunder, like a storm just beyond the edges of my vision. Knew it was not cleansing rain the noise heralded, but cleansing flame.
I landed on the butte behind the Mazzie.
“You came back.” She looked in turns surprised, relieved, and troubled.
“Argue later.” I grabbed her, launched off the butte.
Retracted at the last moment, slipping into the crack. The moment her cloven feet touched the ground she ran.
“Hey, wait!” I tackled her.
She hissed. “Not deep enough! Not deep enough!”
I let her go, let her struggle to her feet again, quickly scooped up Preacher and followed her deeper into the cave.
The fire filled the deep dark hole with shimmering orange light. The air around us stirred, sucked from the hole like an indrawn breath. Exhaled like a jet engine, hot and dry and searing. I felt it in my joints, in the cracked back of my skull, in the gaping hole in Preacher's chestplate. Threw myself over the sergeant, some protection against the furnace. Even the Mazzie squeezed herself into a hollow in the wall, her face pressed into the stone.
Holy Above. Thirty seconds of this and I was ready to spontaneously combust. How would I survive a day?
But after a few minutes, the roar died down, left us sweltering in a syrupy heat.
I licked my lips, found them dry as powder. “Water,” I murmured, welcomed the straw that came to my lips, though the water it fed me was hot as tea. The face shield displayed water reserves. More than half depleted. Wings weren't meant for long-term deployment.
I dismissed the straw. It was never too soon to start rationing.
Even in the insulated suit, my brow beaded with sweat. It was the holes, I knew. Too many gaps in the thermal defenses. I checked the temperature gauge. External sensors settled somewhere just under waterboil. Internals read much lower but were steadily climbing.
“How deep do you think this crack goes?” I asked the Mazzie.
“Don't know. Deeper is better.”
I crouched down, worked the sergeant over my shoulder. Scowled at the Mazzie. “You go first.”
# # #
I woke to darkness. Fought a moment of disorientation before I felt the heavy suit digging into my shoulders and joints. The cave. “Light.”
The helmet lamp illuminated the smallest patch of a massive cavern—a volcanic dome drained, now cold and black and smooth—which swallowed up the four thousand lumen beam. How big a cavern I couldn't say. Big enough even echoes seemed to get lost in it. None of that mattered when we found it at the end of the crack; all I cared about was it was relatively cool and flat and quiet. The rest could wait.
I stood, partly to stretch my legs, partly to angle the lamp around our makeshift camp. The Mazzie slept, least of my concerns for a while. And Preacher…
I crouched down beside the sergeant, already divested of her helmet and armor, lifted the corner of the dressings. The wounds still oozed, though they choked with coagulant. It was a curse of Mazziki wounds, some secretion that kept the blood flowing. There was nothing to do for it but spray more powder over them, pile more dressings over the soaked ones, bind the bandage as tight as I dared around her middle, and hope she could still breathe.
I replaced the spray in the medkit, stowed it in the inner lining of the back plate.
The tiny holoprojector cube caught my eye. I picked it up, turned it in my hand. Immediately put it back down. It was wrong, picking through her personal things. She was my NCO, my Wing leader. None of my business. And yet…
I picked it up again. Fidgeted with it, unsure. Activated it.
A face flickered into three-dimensionality, pixels of light framed with pale hair. A woman's face. Smooth, almost soft, with an easy smile that crinkled her nose. I watched the rendering spin slowly, mesmerized.
“You drugged me.” The Mazziki's slurred words were thick with accusation.
I checked my chronometer, surprised she was awake at all. The amount of sedative I gave her would have knocked me flat for a full solar cycle. “I needed to sleep. Couldn't have you running off.”
She watched me groggily. “Who's that?”
“Don't know.” I held the tiny cube up close to my eye, peered at the ID. “Jethri, A R. Sergeant.” I shrugged. “A relative?” The hologram looked nothing like Preacher. “Or maybe my predecessor.”
She peered at the face, blinked slowly. “Aeondi Rigel.”
I stared. “What did you say? Do you know her?”
But the Mazziki's heavy eyelids slipped closed again.
I moved to shake her, pry an answer out of her. Froze as my helmet lamp caught her face just so. Held up the holoprojector.
Was it a trick of the light or did they share some likeness? Something about the nose, or the jawline. That is, assuming the Mazziki lacked horns or spots or hide or leathery wings or all the other feature that made them Mazziki.
Privacy be damned. I rooted around Preacher's storage compartment, fished out the chip I'd seen earlier. Pressed it into a port under the edge of my helmet, called up the files on my face shield.
It was not a mission profile chip as I had thought. Just a collection of documents, notably the military service record of “Jethri, Aeondi Rigel.” Though marked classified, it opened easily, already decrypted. I skimmed her long service record. Communications specialty. Citations for numerous battles and actions. Wounded more than once in the line of duty. A laundry list of medals. And in red at the bottom: KIA.
The rest of the files were images and videos, letters, and digitized mementos. Some of them were official files from High Command, images of the blonde woman posed in front of the flag or standing at attention at an award-pinning ceremony. Most were candids taken at civilian celebrations or on leave, where she glowed with happiness.
Two pictures stood out. In one, she wore Wing armor and sat in a transport jumpseat, her face smudged with soot, grime, and blood. She stared off camera, looking tired, dazed, lost. The scene jarred, so unlike the rest of the pictures.
The other image was of her and Preacher, leaning against the railing on the observation deck of a carrier in front of a colorful emission nebula. Jethri beamed at the camera; Preacher's usually frozen face cracked a smile at Jethri.
A wheeze drew me out of my snooping. Guiltily I closed the files, put the chip back where I found it. Knelt next to Preacher. An oxyshot to her neck eased her labored breathing, allowed the rise and fall of her ribcage to settle into a more natural rhythm.
She opened her eyes. They contracted in the brightness of the lamp—a good sign. Rolled around, tried to focus past the glare. “Aeondi?”
I bit my cheek. “No, Sergeant, it's Private Spica.” At her lack or recognition, “You said I'd shoot my eye out.”
“Deadeye?” Her disorientation eased; she dragged an arm across her eyes. “Get that thing out of my face.”
I released the neck seal, set the helmet on the ground beside us. Didn't realize until it was off how much my sweat-soaked head welcomed the dry air.
“Where are we? What's our status?”
I almost laughed. “Good and fucked, sergeant. We didn't make it back to the evac in time. We're more than a click underground, hiding from the sun.”
Her eyes darted around the darkness. “The Mazziki. Where is she?”
I pointed the helmet lamp that direction. “Sedated.”
Preacher exhaled at the sight of her.
Bile stirred in my gut; we were trapped here because of the imaginings of this mad woman. The frustration built behind my eyes, pressed against my throat until I blurted, “It's not her, you know.”
Her eyes cut to me, sharp as light razors.
“You called for her when you woke. Aeondi. But it's not her, sergeant. You know that. Aeondi's dead.”
Something flickered behind those icy eyes. Disappeared just as quickly. “She's just another Mazzie, kid. Where's the beacon?”
“Topside. I used it to signal for evac.” Sighed. “It's slag by now.”
She moved to sit up, fell back with a long shaky exhale. Peered down at the bandages. “Could use a shot of anesthetic to get me on my feet.”
“And go where?” I demanded. “We're hours from sundown. Never mind the minor inconvenience that the fleet is gone . Mission profile called for the fleet to move on, jump to the next Mazzie system to overtake their retreating forces.”
“You mean slaughter,” she murmured.
I rocked back on my heels. Thought and discarded a dozen hot retorts. Took a deep, controlled breath. “This war is not over, sergeant. The system may be our control, but this planet is not. We are still surrounded by the enemy. They're the ones who have shown a propensity for slaughter.”
Preacher looked into my face, caught off guard by my speech. Gave a short nod. “You're right.” Rolled over to reach the medkit herself.
“Wait. Right about what?”
She jabbed the single-dose anesthetic into her gut, eased back while the lines of pain left her face. “About being surrounded. The Mazzie on this planet are probably nocturnal. Best if we travel the tunnels now.”
“Now? When they've all been driven underground?”
But Preacher ignored me, strapped on her armor and eased herself to her feet. How she didn't turn six shades of white I couldn't guess. But on one point she did concede: “I think you'll have to carry the slumbering wonder.”
“No. This is crazy. Not just crazy, but stupid.”
Preacher got in my face. “Stupid? I'll tell you what's stupid. Disobeying the direct order of your NCO in a combat situation, especially when that NCO has ages-worth of experience and you have zero. So tell me, Deadeye. Who's being stupid here?”
I chewed on a response. Something along the lines of, Sergeant, you are not of sound mind and are relieved of duty . But that was a line even I wouldn't quite cross. Set my jaw instead, slammed my helmet on my head and shouldered the unconscious Mazzie. “Ready when you are, sergeant.”
# # #
Within an hour, the Mazziki was recovered enough to walk. It was a blessing mostly; I was beginning to wonder how much longer my legs would support her. On the other hand, awake meant talking.
“You have no idea where you're going,” she drawled at Preacher. “Just following these caves and hoping one leads to, what? The surface? The only thing you'll find down here is more Mazziki.”
Preacher said nothing. But the Mazzie's words mirrored my thoughts, and on one of our many rest breaks—Preacher tired quickly—as I stood guard and made sure the prisoner didn't make a run for it, she fixed me with those sulfur-yellow eyes. “I was wrong. At least your decisions kept you from getting killed.”
I glared shut up at her.
She arched an eyebrow, chuckled. “So. You see it, too. It's the air. It's poison to you sky vermin. Makes you less than rational.”
Preacher stepped up behind her, discharged another dose of sedative into her neck. She hissed, enraged, before her eyes rolled back and she slumped to the ground.
“Hey, why'd you do that for?”
“Got no interest in her head games.”
“So tape her mouth shut,” I growled. “You aren't the one who has to carry her.”
She winced, leaned against the tunnel wall for support. “You'll manage.”
I resisted the urge to punch her in the face. Opted instead to kneel in front of her, peel back the soaked bandages. “The bleeding has stopped, mostly. How are you feeling? Any headache? Dizziness? Nausea? Any trouble forming coherent thoughts?”
She fixed me with a look. “You asking if I'm ‘less than rational?' What do you think?”
I chewed the inside of my cheek. “You can still hold a conversation. That's something.”
Dry couch of a laugh. “Not a strong vote of support, but it'll do.”
I packed a few more clean dressings under the bandage for good measure. Said quietly, “What is the plan, if I may ask?”
I thought she might ignore me, her usual response to questions. But after a moment: “Two clicks beyond the evac point is a small shipyard. It was listed as a low priority during the bombardment. If we can make it there, we might find a low-orbit boat and some fuel.”
A flutter of hope in my gut. “But low-orbit boats aren't jump-capable. The fleet's gone.”
Preacher shook her head. “In big planetary offensives like this, there are usually a few ships too damaged to jump with the fleet right away. If we hurry, we might make it Above before the last one finishes repairs and jumps.”
“If.” There were too many ifs in this plan to count, much less count on. Some of my momentary hope withered.
She fixed me with that icy gaze. “Beats staying here, evading capture for days or weeks with no food or water, waiting for the infantry to show up to finish the job.”
I shook my head, amazed that such a crappy plan could suddenly sound so good.
# # #
We'd just entered another low pocket of a cave, and the difficult climb down balancing the limp Mazzie on my shoulder left my tired legs on the verge of buckling. I hardly waited for Preacher to agree before putting her down, sinking to the ground.
“Water,” I croaked. My internal reservoir was long dry; I sucked on the straw anyway, desperate for the tiniest drops of liquid. Closed my dry eyes, let my moist eyelids ease the burn.
Opened them minutes later to see Preacher resting against the cave wall, eyes closed. Asleep, it would seem. A long break then, at least fifteen minutes.
The Mazzie stirred. Senses dulled, she looked at me. “Water.”
I shook my head. “Tough luck. We're all out.”
She stared at me. Let her eyes slide shut. “Then we will die.”
We . “Unless you help us,” I countered. “You know this world. You can help us find water.”
She licked her lips. “There is no water here. Only in the nest. No food, except in the nest. No exits, except in the nest.”
Her eyes slid to Preacher, watched her. Longer than would seem casual.
“Do you know her?”
“No.” But she continued to study the sergeant's face, the gentle rise and fall of her chest.
A long silence. “No.”
“No, you don't recognize her, or no, you're not sure?”
Her eyes cut to me, bore some spark of her old self. “ You remind me of someone. Older, but too similar to be coincidence. I didn't kill one of your relatives, did I?”
All the oxygen fled the cavern. I stared at her, head throbbing. Called, “Bullshit,” turned away.
“No, no, I distinctly remember. On—what did your people call it?—New Canaan. That's it. She was beautiful. Skin like milk, hair like gold, eyes dark as night. She wore a lovely necklace, a symbol carved out of alabaster, your patron saint of protection. Didn't stop her from screaming as I lay her open—”
I lunged at her, lay into her face with my fist. Remembered the rifle in my other hand, raised it to bash her skull in.
Preacher jerked it from my grasp, shoved me off of her. “Get a hold of yourself!”
I could hardly form a coherent thought. “I…she…my mother…”
“She's tweaking you.”
“No! She knew things, said—”
“I heard what she said. An alabaster saint charm. Almost everyone has one. She's fucking with you.”
I struggled to regain control, blinked the hot tears out of my eyes. The hurt was as fresh as the day I heard the news, raw and ugly. Glared at the Mazzie. “Why?”
She stared at the floor. Looked almost…guilty.
A pregnant pause. Finally Preacher prodded her with her rifle. “Get moving. Unless you want to be sedated again.”
# # #
We'd only been moving for about half an hour, short even for Preacher. I focused past the Mazzie's head. “What is it?”
Preacher reached back, dragged the Mazzie forward. The narrow tunnel we traveled emptied into a larger one; on the far wall, several smears of yellow stood out of place against the red and black lava rock. “What does it mean?”
The Mazzie hadn't spoken since the incident. I glimpsed shadowy bruises under the ruddy complexion of her face, secretly fancied it pained her too much to open her mouth.
She glanced at the mark. Back again at the floor.
“Your people made this mark, didn't they? Which way to the surface?”
She said nothing. Jerked her chin toward the mark and the left passage.
“Okay. Let's go.”
I sighed. “Sergeant, she's leading us to their nest.”
“Of course she is,” Preacher snapped. “But where there are Mazziki, there will be tunnels to the surface. We'll just have to sneak past them.”
We traveled a long way without seeing any of them, but our suspicions were confirmed when we encountered our first crude methane lamp affixed to the wall.
“Lamps off,” Preacher whispered.
Helmet and rifle lights doused, we cautiously pressed on.
The Mazzie, increasingly listless over the last hour, cocked her head. Did she hear something we couldn't detect? Her nostrils quivered, sniffed at the air like an excited animal. “Here,” she said, a tremor in her voice. “This way.”
She bolted for a side tunnel but Preacher caught her, jerked her back. “You make a sound, I'll sedate you for a week, got it? Follow me.” We crept down the short tunnel, toward the blue glow of multiple methane lamps.
The tunnel opened abruptly into a smooth round chamber thirty meters across, not carved by any natural process. It stretched upward beyond the illumination of the methane lamps; down, only a meter or two to the liquid surface of a pool of…
Water. I didn't need a chem test to know. It looked right. The color, the way it rippled. I took off my helmet and inhaled. Smelled it. Felt it coat my lungs with heavenly moisture.
An archaic pulley system of buckets fixed to chains cycled through the water, carried it up the chamber and out of sight.
I eyed the mechanism. “It's some kind of well.”
The Mazzie scrambled down, skidded to her knees at the edge of the deep pool, bent down for a drink.
Preacher jerked her back, dragged her kicking and howling away the water.
“No! I need it! Damn you! Hellfire burn you, you bile-laden sack of entrails!”
I winced as the echoes of her shouts careened back down the tunnel. “Ah, sergeant?”
Preacher wrestled her to the ground but couldn't silence her. “I should have carved your heart out when I found you, never listened to your lying tongue! Soulless stump-winged sky vermin! Full of lies, all of you, you treacherous motherless daughters of whores!”
A sound down the tunnel, the distant rustling of leather wings. “Sergeant!” I hissed. “They can hear us.”
Preacher lay a forearm into her throat, leaned with all her weight. The Mazzie bucked, half threw her off. Spat, “I hate you, Zara Midir! I curse the day we ever met!”
I blinked. The Mazzie knew Preacher's name? Which turned out to be half as disturbing as what happened next: Preacher kissed her. Hard and desperate, swallowing the muffled protests. Gentling as the Mazzie returned the kiss, hesitantly at first, with growing enthusiasm as it deepened.
Preacher broke it off, her ice blues never leaving sulfur. “Remember now?” They lay there, frozen. Time held its breath.
“What was that?” My shrill voice bounced off the cave walls, startled them into looking at me. “You kissed her? Are you completely out of your mind? We're about to be cornered by a bunch of Mazzies and you decide to suck face with one? You are certifiable.” I straightened up, stood at attention. “Sergeant Midir, I declare you not of sound—”
“Later, Deadeye. You can mutiny after I've saved your ass again.” Preacher pushed herself up with a wince, pulled the Mazzie to her feet.
“'Scuse me, sergeant, but the only way out of here is fighting our way though who-knows-how-many guards.”
Preacher ignored me again, dragged the Mazzie into the pool. “Don't drink the water,” she warned the beast, got an unusually compliant nod.
“Where are you going?” I barked, suddenly nervous about meeting the welcoming squad alone.
“Up.” She locked eyes with our prisoner. “Right?”
Again that obedient nod. Preacher reached for the release on the restraint strap.
But it was done. I raised my rifle, expecting the Mazzie to bolt. Couldn't believe my eyes when she didn't.
They pushed for the middle of the pool. Grabbed hold of the chain, feet in the buckets, and rode it out of the water.
I certainly didn't want to. At least I had a pretty good idea what was coming down that tunnel. I had no idea what would be waiting for us at the top of that long dark shaft. Devil you know and such.
This was, by far, my worst mission ever.
I swore, flung myself down the slope and into the water.
# # #
It took every ounce of effort not to turn on my head lamp. The two above me had been swallowed by darkness several minutes before; I could only sense their presence by the steady drip-drip of water on my helmet. Then even that stopped. It was just me and the darkness, kept company by the strained rattle of the rusty chain.
I began to hear things, too soft to be sure I wasn't imagining them. Whispers. Hisses. Gunfire. Spots flickered in my vision, formed shapes that might be eyes, or muzzle flashes, or daylight.
Strangled a noise of surprise as something bumped my glove.
“Shh. This way.”
The Mazzie pulled on my hand. I resisted on principle; we had to be at least a hundred meters above the pool. She took my free hand instead. “Here. Feel.” Put my hand on some sort of ledge.
Still I hesitated. If ever the Mazzie had a good opportunity to kill me, this was it.
“For the Above's sake, Deadeye. Get off now or ride it all the way to the Mazziki mess hall.”
I swallowed, reached out uncertainly. Hands grabbed me, pulled me off the chain and onto a flat spot to the side.
“Sergeant? Where are we?”
“Like I can see any better than you.”
“Boiler room,” purred the Mazzie. “We won't be bothered here.”
Says the enemy , I wanted to add. Held my tongue, my very breath. The edge was just a short distance away. I didn't want to give her a reason to give me a push. Took a deep breath to steady my nerves. “Won't be bothered, right? So I can turn on my helmet lamp.”
“No,” they said in tandem.
I was starting to feel like the only sane person on the crazy shuttle.
“Here.” There was some scuffling, a scrape of metal on metal. A small door opened in the furnace, bathed us in a hot blue glow.
Some tension drained from my shoulders. I stood, looked around. Though sizeable, the room was dominated by a boiler, leaving only a tight strip of foot space where Preacher leaned against a wall. Other than the chain in the shaft, the only visible exit was a single narrow crack at the end of the chamber.
I turned to report, found the Mazzie tucked up against a shivering Preacher, her wings draped around her like leather blankets.
“Hey, you, back off.” I nudged her with the barrel of my rifle to make my point, got a hostile glare in return. “Watch it, beastie. You're still our prisoner, restrained or not.”
Preacher waved me off with a limp hand. “Leave it, Deadeye. 'S okay.”
“Okay? This,” gesturing to them, the room, the cable, the very ceiling and walls, “is many things, but it is not okay. There is nothing okay about any of this. As I was trying to say, you are not of sound mind—”
“It's the water.”
I peered at her, not comprehending.
“There is a retrovirus in the water. It is what gives the Mazziki their distinctive features.”
“What do you mean, distinctive?”
“I mean different than ours.”
“A retrovirus?” I wasn't so far out of medical training to not remember what a retrovirus was: a virus that replicated itself by rewriting the host's DNA.
Shook my head, amazed. “You really think she's Sergeant Jethri.”
“I know she is.” Preacher smiled faintly, brushed a few stray strands of hair out of the Mazzie's eyes.
I wanted to scream at the sheer wrongness of it. Searched for a more tactful response. “Sergeant Jethri was killed in action. I read the report.”
“I wrote the report.” She looked up at me. “I watched her die. It was an ambush. They were waiting for us on the ground, had overwhelming numbers. I watched her fall, dragged down by a pack of them. Her and four other Wings. I looked into her lifeless eyes. I tried to get to her but they drove us back. It was weeks before we retook the area. We never recovered her body. And then, two months ago, on Jahannam—” Her voice cracked. “I tagged her with a tracking isotope, and when the carrier sensors registered a match on the scan of Sheol…”
I took a deep breath. “I understand you want this thing to be her.”
“I am Aeondi Jethri,” the Mazzie said simply. “I remember.”
I glared at her interruption. “This is a trick. She's some kind of clone, created to lead you astray—”
Preacher's eyes narrowed. “What's this about, Deadeye? This isn't part of your secret mission, is it?”
“My…what do you mean?”
“Wearing your armor, remember? Found your mission profile chip. ‘Sergeant Midir exhibits signs of mental imbalance, a crisis of faith manifesting as subversive speech and behavior, and possible conspiracy against the military and the people. Follow and, if necessary, detain her.' You're not a Wing. You're a Guardian. An inquisitor and a spy.”
My heart hammered in my chest. She'd read the files. I wracked my memory for what information those files contained, what tack to take. Decided on honesty. “I am a Guardian, yes. But that does not mean I'm a spy. I am here to help you, sergeant. To keep you from doing something that might get you and a lot more people killed.”
“Help me? Then help this. Help me bring her back.”
“Can't do that. She's the enemy. No matter what she looks like, she cannot be Sergeant Jethri. They are playing on your emotions, using your affections for your friend—or partner, or whatever she was to you—to insert a spy into our ranks.”
“No. She is Aeondi. She knows things, remembers things.”
“Things they told her. She's following a script, playing a role.”
“She knows things I've never told anyone but her.”
“Maybe she told them.”
Preacher's face stilled and her voice dropped. “You calling my partner a traitor?”
“No. I mean, we don't know. How could we know?”
“My Aeondi was a soft-heart and a mediator, but she was never a traitor. Neither am I.”
“But you admit this is not your Aeondi.”
“I don't know. But if she isn't, she is too close to the real thing to tell the difference, and that's good enough for me.”
“Good enough to risk a security breach to the fleet? Good enough to sacrifice your friends, your family, everyone and everything you care about?”
“I don't believe that will happen.”
“But it could.”
Preacher's jaw took a particular set. “It would seem an awful lot of work, a lot of effort and skill and risk, to make a perfect copy of the partner of a lowly soldier like me in the hopes we would cross paths. My gut says that's too improbable. Just like my gut says she's the real deal. What does your gut say?”
She held up a hand. “I know what your orders are. What does your heart say? Would I jeopardize the fleet, all the People of the Heavens, if I believed she was truly a danger to us?”
I couldn't answer. I wanted to shout an emphatic Yes! But even my own training, to see danger in every bush, betrayal around every corner, seemed a little paranoid.
I grasped at another angle. “Even if you do get her back to the fleet, retrovirus damage is permanent.”
Her eyes glittered in the blue. “Unless you have a copy of the foreign code and a copy of the native code and create a gene resequencer to rebuild the DNA.”
My eyebrow arched dubiously. “Which you have—?”
She waggled the injection gun at me. “I know a very talented geneticist.”
Realization dawned. “It's in the sedative.” I looked at the Mazzie. Really looked at her. Did her cheeks look fuller? Her hide softer? Her eyes not so sulfur yellow?
I shook my head. It was an illusion, a trick of the light. Had to be.
Preacher pressed on, as excited as I'd ever seen her. “Haven't you ever wondered where they all come from? We wipe out one nest, we find two more. It's like they grow up overnight. But that's impossible…unless they aren't born but acquired. Taken from the battlefields. Taken from the settlements—”
“Stop.” I said it too late to stop the image forming in my mind: my mother, my family, perverted into murderous Mazzies. I struggled for equilibrium, struggled to talk sense into her. Into myself. “But you said she was dead. You watched her die.”
“Yes. They tore her armor off, lay her open with claws and teeth. It was the slash across her throat that finished her.”
“So this could not be her.”
Preacher coughed a little, looked slightly amused. “How many times have I been brought back from the brink of death and beyond? With our regen tanks and stored DNA and digital memory scans, we are practically immortal. Maybe this retrovirus brings its own method of undoing death.”
I pushed away. “No. I've heard enough.”
The Mazzie-who-looked-like-Aeondi stood too. “But have you seen enough?” She stepped over Preacher, close enough I activated my light razor. Made no other move but to look up and away from the faint blue light.
I stared at her, unsure. Did she think baring her throat in some unfamiliar Mazzie display of submission would convince me?
Then I saw them. Four pale ridges across her neck. I'd dismissed them as wrinkles in the thick hide, but from this angle, I could see they were distinctly assymetrical scars. At least, they might be scars.
I shook my head. “No. I refuse to get sucked into this delusion of yours.”
“Fine. But will you stop me from bringing her with us?”
My thoughts churned over different ways to accomplish my mission, to bring Preacher back alive without endangering the fleet. Few of them included the Mazzie. None of them benefited from telling the sergeant as much.
“No,” I said, heaved a sigh for effect. Looked around the cramped space. “So now what?”
Preacher checked her chronometer. “Now we wait.”
She sank back, settled against the wall. Lifted an arm for the Mazzie to curl up beside her. “For nightfall. Then we make a break for it.”
# # #
If Preacher ever had a plan beyond make a break for it , she didn't share it with me.
I had to admit, the Mazzie didn't led us astray. Every turn, she chose a tunnel that climbed noticeably upward. Every noise, she heard first and hid us away. Every encounter, she passed up opportunities to betray us to the rest of her kind.
Not that there was much I could do if she had. I more or less resigned myself to laying my life in the hands of the Above and waiting for the hammer to fall.
It didn't. But encounters with Mazziki in the nest grew more frequent. Eventually not-Aeondi told us to stay put, scouted ahead. She was gone a very long time, long enough for exhaustion to creep into my overstressed body, press against my heavy eyes.
It was worse for Preacher. She couldn't seem to shake the shiver she'd picked up from our swim. In fact, she looked distinctly unlike herself, simultaneously waxy and flushed. I glanced at her midsection, wondered if the bleeding had started again.
A nauseating thought struck me. “That water. What happens when it gets into a wound?”
Preacher didn't spare a glance. “What do you think?”
A stone dropped into the pit of my stomach. I tried to shake it off. If there was no retrovirus, then Preacher would be fine
We waited in silence.
“We are close to the entrance.”
I jerked, blinked the blurriness out of my eyes, focused on the Mazzie. “How close?”
“Close. But the nest is on alert and the entrance is heavily guarded. It will be impossible to get any closer with stealth.”
I hefted my pulse rifle. “Fine by me.”
She held out her hand. “Give me your light razor.”
“To fight. Why else?”
“You've got claws and teeth. I think I'll keep my razor.”
Not-Aeondi's mouth tightened. She put a claw in her mouth, chewed for a moment. Pulled until her hand jerked free. Spat out the sharp nail, showed me the bloody fingertip she'd pulled it from.
My stomach turned.
“The resequencer is already starting to work. My claws and teeth are worthless.”
“Here, take mine,” said Preacher, removing the bracer of her armor and handing it over. “Don't stray too far ahead. I won't lose you again.”
Not-Aeondi activated the razor, nodded. Stretched up on the tips of her toes to plant a kiss on Preacher's lips.
I had to look away.
The Mazzie ducked into the hall.
We waited fifteen seconds. Heard a body hit the floor. Another. Heard a shriek cut short.
Preacher launched into the hallway after her, shooting anything still moving.
I whispered a silent prayer and lurched after them both, covering our asses.
Turned one corner, stepping over mangled bodies. Sprinted to the next, another scene of carnage. Around that corner, a long straight tunnel full of Mazziki.
Plasma shots and energy blades cut them down one by one. A pack of them rounded the corner behind us; I bathed the corridor in plasma, scorched them before they could close. Another wave, but the tunnel kept them tightly packed, made them easy targets.
“Deadeye, let's go!”
I turned and ran after Preacher, dodging the bodies and limbs littering the corridor. The end of the tunnel loomed, black and orange, out of place against the blue gas torches.
I burst out of the tunnel and leapt off the ledge over a river of lava.
We were out. I glanced up. The sight of stars, even through the smoky atmosphere, brought a lump of joy to my throat.
“Deadeye. Need you.”
Preacher's damaged wing pack. I stowed my rifle on my back and swooped low, grabbed her around the waist. Slowly the two of us climbed out of the canyon, non-Aeondi close by.
“Head for the evac site.”
The signal registered on my face shield. Measured less than a click away, closer than I could have hoped. We were going to make it.
I glanced over my shoulder. Saw not one or two but dozens of Mazziki in flight. “They're gaining on us.”
“The shipyard is sixteen degrees to the right and two clicks beyond the evac site.”
“I see it.” It didn't look much like a shipyard. The shipyards I knew were giant spaceports, spidery frames for assembling the most massive of space-faring vessels. This looked more like a hanger deck, a dozen or so small craft scattered around a fuel port. At least, that's what it would have looked like had it not been bombed. Ordinance craters pockmarked the landing zone. Shattered hulks littered the tarmac. My heart sank.
But in the middle stood the refueling station, relatively untouched by the devastation around it.
“It's a miracle,” I breathed.
“Only if we find a shuttle intact. Set me down by the fueler.”
I swooped in, shoved my elbow thrusters forward and arched back hard at the last second, killing our forward momentum and stalling to drop the last few feet to the ground. For once, a textbook-perfect landing.
Didn't stop Preacher stumbling. I held on to her, kept her on her feet. “You okay?”
Clearly not. She curled around a pain in her midsection that left sweat trickling down her ashen face. She swallowed, regained some measure of her unaffected self. “I'll prime the fueler. You find us a boat.”
“And who's gonna deal with them?” I jerked my chin at the swarm of Mazziki bearing down on us.
“She will.” Preacher handed her rifle to not-Aeondi, took back the light razor. A flutter of alarm in my gut, but there was no time for it now. Either she would turn on us or she wouldn't. The only way to survive this was to fly out of here.
I took off, ignored the pulse fire and shrieks overhead, ran from shuttle to shuttle looking for a working ship. Spied a row of small fighters. Like the scorched ground, they still radiated the heat of the daily inferno, their skins burnt to ash gray. But these were low-orbit vessels, accustomed to the fiery abuse of reentry. The first three I came across were no good: a shattered wing, a cracked cockpit window, a punctured fuel tank. But the fourth looked whole to my eye, opened with a satisfying hiss.
A two-seater, room for a pilot and rear gunner.
Preacher would not find it acceptable.
I sighed. I could keep looking, pray some larger ship survived the bombardment. Searching would take time. Or I could say this was the biggest thing I could find, deal with the fallout. Would sedate the sergeant, if the opportunity arose. Would shoot the Mazzie dead if that's what it took to get Preacher out of here.
I climbed in, wedged my bulky armor into the pilot's seat, closed the hatch. A light came on. Good so far. For once, I was glad most Mazzie technology was either salvaged or stolen from the fleet. Made it easy to find the pressurization valve. I gave it a twist, scanned the dials and gauges and readouts until I found one moving. As it climbed past a black mark on the gauge, the light next to it came on, bright and steady. Cockpit successfully pressurized.
Only one more thing to try. Somewhere on the cockpit panel would be a button or switch, probably a different color from all the rest…ah.
The engines roared to life.
Another readout caught my eye: a radio frequency. I tuned it to the frequency used for general distress calls. “Mayday, mayday. This is Fleet Asset 1458629 calling any fleet vessels within range of this commset. Does anyone read me?” I unkeyed the radio, waited for a response. Tried again. “This is Fleet Asset 1458629 trying to reach any fleet ships within hailing distance of Sheol. Do you copy?”
The radio sizzled to life. “This is HCV Aeternity . Identify yourself.”
My heart leapt. “This is Lieutenant Rom Spica, and I am very glad to hear a friendly voice. Request immediate evac for three from the planet Sheol. Coordinates are latitude 31.543, longitude 242.706.”
The radio spat static for several long moments. “Copy that, 1458629. Be advised, lieutenant; our light craft are fully engaged in repairs and cannot be spared for evac.”
“But we're right here,” I countered, some strain creeping into my voice. “It would take less an hour round trip.”
“Sorry, lieutenant. We will be jump ready in less than that.”
I stared at the control panel, at a loss. Keyed the radio. “How much less?”
More static. “Fifty minutes.”
“Roger that. Send me your position and trajectory. We'll be there in half an hour.”
# # #
By the time I taxied up to the fueling station, the situation there had gone from bad to terrible. Preacher and her Mazzie were surrounded, tucked in among the pipes and hoses, firing at the dozens of Mazziki divebombers, slicing open those that ventured within reach.
A few bursts of the fighter's plasma cannons thinned out the ranks and scattered the beasts into the sky.
I opened the hatch, worked my way out of the pilot's seat as not-Aeondi half-carried a drooping Preacher toward the fighter. Well, that made dealing with Preacher a little easier. Made what I was about to do to the Mazzie a little harder.
I unslung my rifle, took a few shots at the circling bat-winged beasts. Didn't care if I hit anything, so long as it looked like I was helping. Found a target behind the pair and opened fire. Would just follow it to the ground, catch her in the crossfire. Simple. An unfortunate victim of friendly fire. Heart hammering in my chest, I aimed high and squeezed, arced my shots down toward those sulfurous eyes. Here we go —
Released the trigger as Preacher stumbled to one knee, bent low. The Mazzie crouched down beside her, held her pony tail while she retched.
A stupidly simple kindness, done with such thoughtless care.
Aeondi—I could no longer believe she was anything but—waved agitatedly to me. I crossed the distance in a daze.
“Help me carry her.”
I nodded numbly, draped one of her arms across my shoulders and half-dragged her the last fifty meters to the fighter.
Aeondi kept the dark circling specks at bay with her rifle while I examined Preacher. “Sergeant? Can you hear me, sergeant?” I gave her an oxyshot for the rapid respiration; it had no effect. Shined my helmet lamp in her eyes. They contracted slowly.
“She's changing,” Aeondi told me plainly.
I couldn't deny the flush in her face, redder than any skin should be. Her tough skin. The twin lumps growing on her forehead.
I could inject her with the sedative. Except Preacher said the resequencing DNA was specific to Aeondi. Who knew if it would help her? It might even hurt her.
I turned a helpless face up at Aeondi. “The carrier. We have to get her there.”
She nodded, kept firing as I crammed the sergeant into the gunner's seat.
Scrambled into the pilot's seat myself. Moved to shut the cockpit hatch.
Aeondi caught it. “No room for three?” She glanced around the cockpit, leveled a hard look at me. “As you always intended.”
I swallowed, at a loss to justify myself. Said, “She's turning into one of you. Is that what you want?”
She stared into my soul. Let go of the hatch. “Thank you for not shooting me.”
I felt about ten centimeters tall. Nodded feebly. “Thank you. For protecting her.” I shut the hatch, but opened it again. “Take this.” Handed over the medical injector.
She looked it over. Handed it back with a sad smile. “If she comes back for me, she'll convince me of who I was again. If she doesn't…I don't want to remember.”
She backed away, rifle in hand. Lit up the Mazziki circling the landing zone with plasma fire.
I sealed the cockpit, cycled up the engines. Rose into the sky. Watched Aeondi shrink and fade into the darkness until all I could see were her rifle bursts, the black silhouettes looming over her.
Chalk up another successful rescue to the Guardians, even if I was leaving the rescued's soul behind.
Set my jaw. Nosed down, lighting up the blackness with plasma cannons that sliced through the Mazziki swarm. Settled hard on the tarmac next to Aeondi, cut the engines.
“What's wrong?” she shouted.
“Guard Preacher.” I checked my chronometer. “I've got ten minutes to do some looking around.”
“What I should have looked for the first time.” At her lack of comprehension, I shrugged. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”