Artwork by Robert Chew. Used with permission.
I opened my eyes for the first time.
Honestly, there wasn’t much to see.
I stood in a clear glass tube, naked and dripping with blood-red slime. Pinkish foam clung to the sides of the tank, popping and fizzing. A strong gag reflex hit me. It dropped me to my knees, and I puked what had to be over a liter of stringy red goo.
I took a few deep breaths, testing my new lungs. Phlegm rattled in the back of my throat. I hawked it up, spat the gob out, and climbed to my feet.
An attendant watched me from outside the tank. He wore a crisp white suit with the General Eugenics corporate emblem on his breast: a golden DNA helix twisted into an infinity sign.
“Finished yet?” the attendant asked.
I stuck a finger in my mouth and ran it around my gums. More red slime. I flicked it against the tank walls.
The attendant activated his bracelet. The outline of a man appeared over his wrist. I couldn’t make out much. The attendant had a censor filter up, so it was one big blur from my angle, but the hologram had a lot of green sections, so that was encouraging.
The attendant sighed. He ticked off two selections on the hologram.
A seam formed in front of me. The bioprinting tank split open.
I stepped out and gave the attendant a toothy grin. “So, when do I get to kill some pirates?”
Not bad for my first words. I croaked them out more than said them, but other than that, it went smoothly.
“I really wish they’d tone down your template’s eagerness.”
The attendant ticked off one last selection and closed the hologram.
“So, does that mean soon?” I asked.
“Take a look around,” he said.
I looked over the whole room, taking it in for the first time. My bioprinter was one of hundreds, all queued up on conveyors. The tank that printed me closed and retreated along a rail system into a solid wall of humming machinery. The closest tanks held completed men ready for retrieval, but tanks further back contained skinless bodies suspended in thick fluid. Beyond those, the tanks had nothing but red goo sloshing inside while spindly robotic arms wove the raw material into something useful.
Tanks to my right and left opened. Men stepped or staggered out. General Eugenics attendants evaluated each new soldier.
“Can you give me your name?” his attendant asked.
I thought for a moment. The designation burned in my mind, no doubt part of my template.
“Excellent. Put on a pair of shorts and join the others outside.”
* * *
“So what planet are we over?” Zeta-Nine asked. Like me, he was bald and pale from his recent printing. Agitated, pinkish skin covered his powerful musculature.
“Athens,” Zeta-Six said.
I walked up to the equipment conveyor. The long concourse bustled with activity and overlapping conversations. Pallets laden with weapons and armor moved on a slow conveyor across one long side. Empty pallets retreated through the wall, back to the warprinters deep within the frigate’s hull.
“Is it a nice planet?” Nine asked.
“What do you think?” Six asked. “They’re sending us in, aren’t they?”
“Not nice, then.”
“My attendant said we’ve been fighting the pirates for over a year down there,” I said, grabbing a 6mm-shard assault rifle. I popped the top and checked the acceleration rails.
“A year?” Nine asked. He grabbed a 10mm-shard sniper rifle and slung it over a shoulder. “How could anything take that long?”
“Apparently this has.”
“We’re as good as dead,” Six said. He grabbed an assault rifle and a pair of infector gloves.
I shrugged. “Maybe.”
The next pallet held suit packs. I grabbed one, slipped my arms through the shoulder straps, and engaged the neural interface. The pack deployed a layer of liquefied smart-matter over my body that hardened into matte gray armor.
“What kind of ammo are they giving us?” Nine asked, grabbing his suit pack.
I glanced at the next pallet. “Looks like AC plasma and lots of it.”
“Really? Maybe they do care if we live.”
“Not likely,” Six said. He fitted his infector gloves on and let his suit merge into the gloves. He deployed a set of hacking tendrils from the finger tips, then retracted them.
I had my suit generate some leg and torso pockets. The smart-matter split open, letting me fit in a small arsenal of AC ammo clips and grenades. The seams closed once I was done.
“Hey, check this out,” Nine said, waving an orange ammo clip around. By the size of it, the shards were meant for his sniper rifle.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“The label says they’re gravitic penetrator shards.”
“Okay. So what are they?”
“No idea. They must be new.”
“Come on,” I said. “It’s not like they just invented a new ammo type. You sure you don’t recognize them?”
“Very sure. Six, do you know what these are?”
“Not a clue. Maybe our templates aren’t up to date.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Nine said. “They just finished printing us. Why wouldn’t we have updated templates?”
Six crossed his arms and rolled his eyes. “Because they don’t care if we live.”
“Well, whatever they are, they sound useful. I’m taking two.” Nine stuffed the orange clips into his pockets.
I stepped away from the conveyor, letting the next group begin to load up. Nine and Six joined me. The other soldiers from Zeta platoon were lined up in formation by the far wall. I didn’t see Zeta-One, our command variant.
“Who is that?” Nine asked, pointing to a thin wisp of a woman waiting near our platoon. She looked like such a fragile thing standing next to freshly printed soldiers bulked up by armor and weapons.
The woman ran fingers through her short honey blonde hair and stood up on her toes to look past the first rank of soldiers.
“Is she supposed to be here?” Nine asked.
“Probably not,” Six grumbled.
The woman turned her head and spotted me. She smiled and ran over.
“Hey, Zu!” she said, coming to a halt in front of me. “I’m glad I spotted you before the drop.”
I stared at her blankly. What was I supposed to say?
“Zu? Are you all right?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” I said, blinking out of my daze. “You must have me mistaken for someone else.”
Her smile melted away. The woman took a step back and regarded me with caution. I had no idea what was going on.
“I’m Zeta-Two,” I said, trying to be helpful.
“How old are you?”
“They printed me an hour ago.”
“I see …” The woman nodded. “My name is Vance. I’m sorry, but you reminded me of someone else. It’s your eyes.”
“Nice to meet you, Vance,” I said, shaking her hand. I had to be careful not to squeeze too tightly and crush her bones. “Can I help you find who you’re looking for?”
“No, thanks. Now that I think about it, I’m certain he’s not here.”
“What did you call him? Zu, was it?”
“Zu … Zu …” The name tasted strange on my lips, but I felt a sense of familiarity as well. “You know, that’s not a bad name at all. Zu. It’s like taking Zeta and Two and squishing them together. I actually like that name quite a bit.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“You mind if I use it? I mean, would the real Zu be offended if I did?”
“Not at all,” Vance said. “I think he’d like that, actually.”
“All right then!” I said. “Hey guys, I picked a name! You can call me Zu from now on!”
“Whatever,” Six said.
“Good for you!” Nine said, giving me a thumbs-up.
I patted Vance on the shoulder. “She gave me the idea!”
I looked back to see her wipe a fist under her eyes. Was she crying?
“Is it something I said?”
Vance shook her head, but said nothing. I felt an aching need to fill the awkward silence with something. Anything had to be better than this.
“So, what do you do around here?”
“Drone control,” Vance said.
“Really? Wow. You mean you work on the bridge?”
“Yeah. I’ll try to keep you safe during the drop. It’s going to be tough, though. The pirates will throw hell at us once we start the descent.”
Vance stepped closer. I smelled someone subtle and flowery in her hair.
“I hate to say it,” she whispered. “But not all of you are going to make it to the surface.”
I shrugged. “That’s okay.”
“No, it’s not okay.”
“Sure it is. I mean, I don’t want to die. But if I do, it’s no big deal.”
“You really believe that, don’t you?”
“Why wouldn’t I? Our superiors created us. If they want to spend my life, it’s theirs to spend.”
Vance nodded, but I could tell her heart wasn’t in it.
“I suppose I should have expected this,” she said.
“I get the feeling you’ve been around for a while.”
“You could say that. I’m a little over two.”
“Huh. I thought you’d be older,” I said. Then I thought for a moment. “You do mean hours, right?”
Vance shook her head.
“No. Two years.”
Without another word, she leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. Her lips were warm, wet, and soft against my skin.
Vance leaned back. She rubbed her moist eyes.
“What was that for?”
“Missed opportunities,” Vance said. “Good luck. I’ll try to watch your back.”
Vance stepped back, looking into my face with sad eyes. She tore her gaze away and walked quickly towards the exit.
I reached up and gingerly touched my cheek. I tried to remember the feeling of her lips against my skin.
“What was that about?” Six asked, stepping up behind me.
“I wish I knew.”
“Do you think she’s really two years old?”
“Huh. Maybe the really old ones go a little funny in the head.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But I’ll tell you this. I’ve got a really good feeling about this drop.”
“No, really. I do. We have a guardian angel watching over us.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it.”
“Oh, you’ll see it. Trust me.”
“How do I know you don’t say crap like that every time we get printed?” Six asked.
* * *
The dropship screamed through Athens’ atmosphere amidst a flaming contrail.
Zeta platoon filled the cramped interior with almost forty bodies. I held on to a grip above my head, glad the dropship’s zero field dulled the gee forces of its violent maneuvers to a manageable shaking.
Zeta-One stepped up to the central holographic plot. He summoned an image of two sky towers on his suit’s bracelet and transferred the image to the central plot. The towers rose above a ruined, smoldering cityscape. The larger and thicker of the two looked like it had once been much, much taller.
“Listen up, men,” Zeta-One said. “Our orders just changed, so keep up. This is the remnant of the SolGov tower. You can see debris from the tower collapse around its base. We’re coming in low and landing on the far side here.”
A white nav indicator pulsed a few floors from the top.
“The Exemplar tower next door is our target.” Zeta-One pointed to the second, smaller tower. “The pirates are setting up it up as a forward drone hangar. We’re putting them out of business.”
“Why not just flatten it?” Six asked, leaning against a support strut.
“Several superiors from the Exemplar Estate are being held captive within the tower,” Zeta-One said. “We’re not sure where. The pirates are using them as human shields. SolFleet has not authorized orbital strikes, so it’s up to us. We need to clear the pirates out, but securing the hostages is our highest priority.”
“How do we get to the Exemplar tower?” I asked.
“We’re going to use the SolGov tower to build a bridge,” Zeta-One said. A yellow nav indicator flashed. “Zeta-Two, take your squad to the tower’s master controls located here, about halfway to the surface.”
“Zeta-Fourteen, your squad will go down to the basement AC reactor and turn it back on. Make sure Zeta-Two has all the power they need.”
“I’ll take the other two squads and secure this point here, where we’ll—”
The dropship lurched violently, almost banging my head into the ceiling. I grabbed my hood and pulled it over my face. The suit closed the neck seal, hardened the surface, and pressurized my helmet.
“Stand by for evasive maneuvers!” the pilot shouted over the intercom.
I linked with a visual feed from the dropship’s exterior and loaded it onto my visor. My dropship was one of a dozen breaking through a thin cloud layer in the stratosphere, descending fast.
The pirate drone, a hellion heavy interceptor, swooped down on our formation. It blazed away with a trio of nose cannons and shot through like a golden flash. Two dropships exploded into tumbling, burning fragments.
The hellion looped around and came at us from underneath.
My dropship rocked to the side, slamming me into the wall.
My suit absorbed most of the hit, but the impact still forced the air from my lungs.
The hellion ascended. Three missiles detached and accelerated towards the dropships.
A second drone cut through the clouds behind us and fired on the missiles. Two of the pirate missiles exploded, but the third struck another dropship and blossomed into a white-hot fireball.
The new drone corkscrewed through the air, descending towards the hellion. The two drones turned around each other, tighter and tighter, both trying to pull in behind the other.
For something as big as the hellion, it had exceptional maneuverability, but the new drone’s turn radius was just a little bit better. The hellion’s controller must have seen this, and tried to disengage by diving down.
The SolFleet drone followed, spraying shards from its cannons. The hellion’s gravitic shielding caused most of the shards to veer off course and splash into the ocean below, but a few hit, setting the interceptor’s hull on fire.
The hellion turned upward and accelerated, trying to get away, but the SolFleet drone pursued it relentlessly, hitting its hull again and again until its armor gave out. The hellion spun wildly and blew apart.
Six gave me a look.
“What?” I asked.
“Do you think we’re actually going to make it?”
Six shook his head.
The SolFleet drone pulled into formation and came alongside my dropship, giving the hull camera a clear view of its angular, matte black hull.
It was a stiletto, a SolFleet light interceptor that normally had no hope of taking on something as nasty as a pirate hellion. My template didn’t know much about drone combat, but I could still appreciate the basics.
A 50-ton hellion outclassed the 20-ton stiletto in almost every way. It has better armor, speed, and weapons. Despite its size, it was almost as maneuverable. In a fair fight, it should have crushed the stiletto.
“Not bad, Vance,” I said quietly. “Glad you’re watching over us.”
The stiletto banked hard and vanished into the clouds.
“Landing zone ahead!” Zeta-One shouted. “Look lively!”
“All right, men!” I said, grabbing the rifle off my back. “Let’s kill some pirates!”
* * *
SolGov tower’s superstructure was mostly intact. We descended through a central, flexible trunk that the modular rooms and halls would rearrange around back when the tower was active and capable of self-modification. The trunk was at least a hundred meters across at its thinnest point and branched off every few levels.
Nothing lit the interior. We kept our visors set for passive detection and proceeded slowly. Zeta-Three scouted ahead of our squad. Zeta-Thirteen watched our rear. We descended a gentle, spiraling ramp to a wide circular level. It looked like a pod nexus. Dozens of the egg-shaped machines lay toppled on their sides, each large enough to carry one person from place to place within the tower.
“This is about as close as we can get using the central trunk,” Six said. “We need to head outside along one of the superstructure branches.”
“Make us an exit.”
“Right,” Six walked up to a non-descript section of the wall. A small, spherical nodule about the size of his head protruded near the floor. Six cut it open with his infector gloves.
“Post up,” I said. The squad fanned out, found cover behind the inert pods, and kept watch.
Six dug his gloves into the nodule’s guts. Thin tendrils extruded from his fingertips and snaked in further.
An inhuman howl echoed through the superstructure trunk.
“What the hell was that?” Six asked, pausing.
“Not sure,” I said. “Keep at it.”
“Zeta-Three, you see anything?”
“Nothing. But whatever that was, it came from below us.”
A port formed beneath the nodule. Six took a capacitor out of a waist pouch and slotted it in. A seam formed in the wall and opened wide. Sticky strands of smart-matter sagged between the split.
“The wall doesn’t like the cold reboot,” Six said, ripping the strands free.
Zeta-Three stepped through first. I followed with the rest of my squad. This part of the tower was mostly empty space. Within the tower’s outer shell, the central trunk and branches filled the space much like a real tree, only expanded to gargantuan proportions. Pods, rooms, and several enormous mechanisms hung from its branches like overripe fruit. A few holes in the outer shell let in shafts of yellow light.
“There’s the master control nexus,” Six said, pointing to a wide spherical machine suspended below our position. It was a small building in its own right.
I motioned the squad forward until we were directly above the control nexus. My rangefinder put the drop at less than fifty meters.
“Looks like an easy enough jump,” I said. “Grapples, everyone. Half a dozen at a time. The other half provides cover.”
I queried the miniprinter in my suit’s backpack. It manufactured a small grappling hook and a spool of high tension cable from its smart-matter reserve. The hook ran up my arm like a tumorous growth until it pierced through the armor behind my wrist.
I jammed the barbed hook into the branch we were standing on, tested the hold, and jumped off the side. A secondary branch ran down to the control nexus like a stem holding a metallic apple in place. I rappelled down its side.
Half the squad reached the smoothly rounded top of the control nexus. I crouched and raised my rifle. Nothing followed us out of the main trunk, despite the earlier noise.
The other half joined us atop the control nexus. Six found a bare patch of the roof and hacked us an entrance. We jumped into a dimly lit corridor.
“Looks like there’s power here,” Nine whispered.
“Not enough for what we need,” Six said. “But it should help us get ready for the reactor power up.”
I led the squad through the dark corridor. It curved gently to the right, straightened, and led us to a four-way junction.
“Left,” Six said.
A faint growl echoed from beyond the next junction.
“Something’s out there,” Zeta-Three whispered. He crouched beside the next turn and peeked his head around the corner. “I can’t see it.”
“Find out what it is,” I whispered, training my rifle on the next junction.
Zeta-Three scrambled forward, almost without a sound. He slinked along the wall, rifle up and ready.
I could hear Six’s heavy breathing next to me.
“Six? You okay?” I whispered, looking back at him.
Six rubbed his chest. “I don’t know. Is your heart pounding like crazy?”
“Is that normal?”
“I think so.”
“Well, I wish it would stop. It’s damn distracting.”
I gave him a strong pat on the shoulder.
Zeta-Three reached the next junction. He cautiously eased his head into the open.
A metal set of teeth latched onto his head and threw him to the ground. The four-legged creature was almost as large as he was. Powerful muscles rippled under golden, reflective armor. It razor sharp teeth held Zeta-Three’s head in a vise grip. Our scout tried to fire, but the creature pinned his weapon to the ground.
With a muted whirring sound, its teeth cut through Zeta-Three’s helmet like a chainsaw. The scout’s head burst apart in a spray of gore.
The squad opened fire, trying to take down this horror the pirate bioprinters had spawned. I cut loose with my rifle on full automatic, but something turned the shards away before they hit their targets. The shards struck the corridor. Their Absolute Containment fields collapsed on impact, releasing the pre-heated plasma within. The corridor became a purple-tinged inferno.
The creature stepped forward, a pair of predatory lenses focused on us. None of its skin was visible underneath its armor. Two more identical creatures turned the corner.
“Demon pack!” I shouted, loading another clip.
A sniper rifle cracked the air. The shot veered off at the last moment.
“They have grav shields!” Nine shouted.
The three demons sprinted at us on all fours, closing the distance with startling speed.
“Grenades!” I shouted, querying my suit. Smart-matter guided a grenade in my leg pouch up to my wrist. I pointed just below the lead demon and fired.
The grenade’s rocket ignited. Purple flame bloomed from my wrist, catapulting the grenade forward. The lead demon’s grav shield caused it to slam into the floor, but that’s what I wanted. The explosion flung it into the air.
I opened fire. The demon’s shielding couldn’t protect it from every angle, and my shards stabbed deep into its exposed belly. Each AC shard breached on impact, expelling its packet of plasma. The demon’s armor melted away in molten globules. The flesh underneath sizzled.
The demon let out an inhuman yelp. Plasma roasted it alive. With temperatures as hot as the core of a sun, that didn’t take long. The scorched husk crashed to the ground. Two more demons leaped over it.
Grenades from the rest of the squad blew up around the lead demon, knocking it around. It struggled to steady itself. A concentrated shard volley pierced through its shielding and set it ablaze. The creature screamed and died.
Nine fired a shot at the last demon. The air in front of the creature distorted. The shard flew true, striking its head with explosive force. It toppled to the ground, blood pulsing from its ruined neck.
“Ah. So that’s what they’re for,” Nine said.
“Gravitic penetrators, huh?” I asked.
“I knew they’d be useful.”
The lights in the corridor brightened to daytime settings.
“And there’s our power,” I said. “Come on. We need to get that bridge deployed. Which way?”
“S-straight ahead,” Six said.
We followed Six’s directions through the control nexus, down several levels, and around massive tanks of reserve smart-matter, until we came to a small room near the middle. Six went to work on the controls while we posted up for a standard defense.
“Something’s coming,” Zeta-Thirteen said. “I have intermittent contacts a level above us, closing.”
“Scout them out.”
“But be more careful than Zeta-Three.”
Zeta-Thirteen slipped away. He came back five minutes later.
“Two pirates heading this way. I don’t think they spotted me.”
“What are we up against?”
“The pirates are in heavy armor. I think they’re carrying implosion drivers, but I didn’t recognize the exact type.”
“None that I saw.”
“At least there’s that,” Nine said.
“We need to fight them away from the controls,” I said. “Six?”
“I need more time.”
“We’ll make sure you get it.” I turned to Zeta-Thirteen. “Lead the way.”
“Right,” Zeta-Thirteen said. He guided the squad out of the room and to the right, looping around one of the larger smart-matter tanks. A guard rail to our left was all that stood between us and a fatal drop to the tower’s depths.
Suddenly, Zeta-Thirteen stopped.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I just lost their signals.”
I looked around. Dark emptiness surrounded us, enhanced to visible levels by my visor. Shafts of sunlight threw glowing ellipses across the spherical control nexus.
“I don’t like this,” I said. “Head back.”
The squad began to turn around.
Two pirates flew up from beneath the railing. No thruster flames or mechanical sounds gave them away. They ascended in sheer defiance of gravity. It happened fast, too. One moment, there was nothing wrong. The next, we were under attack.
The pirates were fully enclosed in form-fitting armor like polished brass, the same armor the demons used. One of them pointed a long-barrel driver at me and fired.
The implosion disc cut through the air and struck my chest, knocking me to the ground. My suit triggered an emergency purge. I could already feel the disc starting to alter local gravity. The skin of my suit squeezed in around my chest. Two of my ribs broke from the strain.
Smart-matter tendrils leaped out of my chest, wrapped the disc in a cocoon, and ejected it from my body. The black cocoon flew clear of the railing.
I vomited blood into my helmet. Scrubbers purged the interior so I could see again. Two smart-matter tendrils stabbed into my chest, setting and reinforcing my broken ribs.
The squad opened up with everything in their arsenal. The pirates floated in the eye of a fiery hurricane.
A disc hit Zeta-Ten. His suit tried to dislodge the projectile, but the disc spun up and burrowed into his chest. It triggered a localized implosion field. Zeta-Ten collapsed into a grotesque package no larger than my head. Blood spurted out under high pressure.
Zeta-Nine shot one of the pirates in the chest. His shard cut through the grav shield in a brief ripple of energy and erupted into a bloom of super-heated plasma. The pirate burst into flames and fell away, limbs flailing.
The second pirate dropped faster than free fall. He curved out of sight amongst the tower depths.
“Sorry,” Zeta-Thirteen said. “I thought I knew where they were.”
“It’s okay.” I widened the squad channel. “Six! Status?”
“I’ve almost got it,” Six radioed back. “Hold on. This may be a bit rocky.”
The whole control nexus lurched upward. It began to ascend along the tower’s superstructure.
“Once we’re closer to the top, I can begin laying out the bridge.”
The control nexus creaked along the outlying branches until it reached the main trunk. The support structure groaned under the shifting load.
“It’ll hold,” Six said. “Probably.”
“That sounded strangely optimistic,” I said.
“Don’t get used to it.”
* * *
The control nexus docked against the SolGov tower’s outer shell. Smart-matter drained out of the reserve tanks and flowed through elongating pipes that connected to the shell. A bulge formed along either side of the tower’s skin. The outer bulge arced towards the nearby Exemplar tower. The inner bulge stretched a ramp towards the waiting squads led by Zeta-One and Zeta-Fourteen. A smaller ramp formed atop the pipes, providing my squad with a path up to the growing bridge.
The bridge’s shape solidified, forming a long, armored cylinder that pierced into the side of Exemplar tower. The SolGov tower’s shell parted, revealing a naked, ribbed interior with flat, grated flooring.
“Not bad, Six,” I said.
“I try,” he said.
I led my squad across the smart-matter pipe and up our ramp. The rest of the platoon was already crossing the bridge.
An explosion on the outside rocked the center of the bridge. It galloped up and down. The soldiers inside hung on. Another hit, and the armor near the center breached. Two soldiers vaporized in a bluish flash.
I ran up to the bridge’s entrance. Smart-matter flowed out from the control nexus, closing the gap and reinforcing the structural beams. I tapped into one of the cameras Zeta-Six had printed for the bridge exterior and swung it around.
A hellion interceptor swooped towards the bridge, guns blazing. The bridge rocked violently from heavy, staccato impacts. The hellion shot past, climbing. The squads on the bridge ran for Exemplar tower. I held my squad on the SolGov side.
“What are we supposed to do against that?” Six shouted.
“I’ve got an idea.” I opened a channel to SolFleet. “Priority support request! We’ve got a hellion hitting us near Exemplar tower!”
“You’re wasting your time!” Six shouted. “There’s no way they’ll send help for us!”
“Wait and see. We’ve got a guardian angel.”
“It’s coming around!”
The hellion looped tightly and dove towards the bridge.
The channel crackled with static, then a soft, feminine voice spoke.
“Priority request acknowledged. Stand by.”
“Ha! Told you!”
The hellion cut loose with its nose cannons. The bridge shuddered from the sustained stream of hits.
A burst of shard fire flashed by the hellion and exploded against the ruins below. The hellion veered off sharply and accelerated. Two SolFleet stilettos buzzed the bridge and gave chase.
“Go get him, Vance!” I shouted, grinning. Vance was probably controlling both stilettos and much more from the frigate in orbit.
“The bridge has taken a lot of damage,” Six said. “I don’t know how much longer it’ll hold.”
“We cross now! Move it!”
We ran onto the still heaving bridge. The other squads were already across.
I checked the external camera. A glinted of brass detached itself from Exemplar tower, dropped low, and flew underneath the bridge.
“Pirate beneath us!” Thirteen said. “I think he’s laying an implosion charge!”
“Six! Give me an opening over the pirate!”
“On my signal!”
Six found a nodule along the bridge’s spine, tore the covering off it, and stabbed his infector glove inside.
I stopped over the pirate’s position.
The floor opened like an eye slit. Stringy bits of smart-matter sagged between each edge. The floating pirate looked up at me, a thick metal disc in his hands.
I forced my rifle into the pirate’s face, past his grav shield, and pulled the trigger.
* * *
“Are we heading after the hostages?” I asked, striding onto the roof with Zeta-One. Exemplar tower still could modify itself, so we were able to pod up to the roof landing platform without incident. Ahead of me, the last dropship took off. Its platoon filed into the waiting pods and took them down into the tower.
The fact that Exemplar tower still could self-modify cut both ways. The pirates and the hostages could be anywhere, and moving about. The other platoons were probably heading for this tower’s master controls in order to shut them down.
“We’re not heading out just yet,” Zeta-One said. “The next flight of dropships is en route. Zeta platoon holds the roof until they arrive.”
I looked around. The roof was a wide, circular space with a raised rim for pods or rooms to dock. Sunlight filtered through the cloud cover. Vance’s stiletto interceptors circled above in a holding pattern.
“The pirates can come from anywhere,” I said.
“Then why don’t we do something about that?” Six asked.
“Yeah. Six, can you set up a bunker in the center?”
“Easy enough.” Six ran out into the center of the roof and squatted at a seemingly random location.
“Nine, let’s secure the approaches,” I said. “Take the squad and trap the rim with grenades. If the pirates pod up, I want them to have a warm welcome.”
A thick blister rose out of the roof’s center. Zeta-Six guided the hardening smart-matter into a rounded, reinforced dome. He opened firing slits in the sides and shaped a single entrance wide enough for one person at a time.
“Looks nice, Six,” I said, walking over. “Could use some color, though. Black isn’t really my thing.”
A sonic boom echoed across the roof. I looked up to see the two stilettos accelerating away. Their engines flared with brilliant light.
“Where are they going?” Six asked.
I picked up a transmission on the SolFleet channel and let it through.
“Zeta platoon, take cover,” Vance said. “Incoming hostiles.”
“Confirmed.” I switched to the platoon channel. “Everyone inside!”
“We’re not done yet!” Nine said.
“Doesn’t matter! Move it!”
The rest of the platoon raced into the bunker. Six sealed the entrance once everyone was inside.
I moved to a firing slit and tried to spot the two stilettos. Something flashed in the distance: a reddish burst of light icing the clouds for an instant. A golden fleck circled a dark thunderhead, followed by a second one.
“At least two hellions,” Nine said, watching the aerial battle through his scope. “Doesn’t look good.”
The two stilettos disengaged from the battle and initiated a full burn. They sped back, but the pirates followed them in. Shards cut through the air, exploding around the stilettos. They twirled through the air in a frantic, deliberate dance.
“Oh, no,” Nine whispered.
A missile from one of the hellions struck the lead stiletto. It tumbled out of control and crashed into the SolGov tower. Oily smoke rose from the crater. Four hellions shot past, chasing the last stiletto.
“They mean business this time!” Six said.
“Demons podding in to the north!”
Several Zeta soldiers unloaded their rifles.
“The south too!”
Grenades exploded along the rim. More demons charged out of the opening pods. Some dropped to the ground, plasma eating through their armor, but most made it through. I picked one and squeezed the trigger.
“Converge on my target!” I shouted. Every Zeta soldier who had line-of-sight to my demon focused their fire. Its grav shield couldn’t keep up, and the monster withered under a sleet of plasma.
I selected another demon. “New target! Converge!”
Heavy shard fire raked a line across the roof in front of me. Several demons exploded into chunky bits. The stiletto flew past and arced down, putting the tower between it and the chasing hellions.
A pirate hovered into my view and landed on the roof. He fired two discs from his implosion driver. They struck the bunker near my firing slit.
I kicked away from the wall but the Zeta soldier next to me wasn’t fast enough. The implosion field kicked in and sucked him against the bunker wall. His suit compressed like a balloon drained of air. The implosion field crashed, and his flattened suit dropped to the ground. Red paste oozed out of cracks in his suit.
Fissures expanded from the firing slit. A demon jammed its head through, teeth buzzing wildly. It clawed at the opening. This close, I could feel the disorienting effects of its grav shield on my inner ear.
I backed away along the floor and queried my suit for another grenade. It retrieved one from a chest pouch and moved it to my wrist.
The demon forced its way in.
I launched the grenade. The bunker’s interior lit up with purple light.
The grenade struck the demon in the shoulder and blew its head off. Its melting, flaming body collapsed and slid to a halt.
I struggled to my feet.
A second demon clambered to the opening and leaped through with an buzzing mouth. I jammed my rifle in between its jaws and tried to hold it back, but the demon pinned me to the ground. My head cracked against the floor.
Its teeth rotated around its jawline, sawing through my rifle. I called up another grenade, but the demon’s claws tore into my shoulder and ripped my arm off.
I cried out, trying desperately to push the creature back with one hand. Sparks flew from the body of my rifle. With a deep growl, the demon chomped down. It shattered the rifle apart and severed my hand at the wrist. The beast opened its mouth once more and bit hard into my chest. Its teeth whirred through my flesh, blood spraying everywhere.
One of my grenades was still in a chest pouch. I queried my suit, armed the grenade, and set it to force eject.
My suit was a tattered, bloody mess in the front, but enough smart-matter remained to wrap the grenade and expel it forward with considerable force. The grenade flew into the demon’s open jaw and must have ended up down its throat. The creature burst apart into flaming pieces.
My vision swam. I shook my head and tried to get up. I put my severed wrist on the ground to prop myself up, but didn’t make it far before I slipped on my own blood. Every part of me hurt.
Maybe if I just lay back for a while. I didn’t feel like I had the energy for anything else.
My head lolled to one side. I could see out through the hole the pirate had blown in the bunker. Several pirates and demons retreated over the rim. The sound of constant gunfire died down to a few parting shots. I could sense someone’s eyes on me, but felt too tired to turn my head.
A SolFleet dropship landed in view. Its ramp opened, and the platoon inside charged out. One of the soldiers stopped and looked in my direction. I could see his face through his suit’s visor. His eyes met mine.
No, not his eyes. Not his face. My face. My eyes.
“Hey, handsome,” I said. Or rather, I would have said if my throat hadn’t been filled with blood.
My variant looked away. “All right, men!” he shouted to the newly arrived platoon. “Time to kill some pirates!”
I closed my eyes. Dying was hard work.
* * *
I opened my eyes for the first time.
The bioprinting tank split apart. I staggered out and coughed. Thick red phlegm broke off my throat and filled my mouth. I spat it on the floor.
“Lovely,” the attendant said in a neutral tone.
I ran a finger around my gum line and flicked more red slime onto the floor.
“Well, how do you feel?” the attendant asked.
I looked at him and smiled. “So, when do I get to kill some pirates?”
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