Boarding Action

Chris Van Deelen

I always thought that traveling in space would be easy - after all, there was no gravity and being weightless would certainly be easier to deal with than anything on the ground. Oh how wrong I was. I should have known better – here I thought that they overstated how you would feel, strapped to a seat while a drop-pod roared through the vacuum, their reaction drives causing the ship to shake and tremble like a virgin on her wedding night. Over my career I had been in many types of vehicles and had travelled over all manner of terrain from smooth roads to the ruined streets of many a combat zone, to open terrain. If anything, the simulators understated reality.

I sat with my armored body strapped in by what felt like a dozen constrictor snakes, all trying squeeze the life out of me. It was as uncomfortable as hell, and I had to wonder if it was not for my armor if I’d suffer serious bruising – or maybe even cracked ribs.

Despite the discomfort, I waited. My eyes were squeezed shut against the nearly intolerable pounding and rattling. My fists were clenched so tightly I swear to god my nails would have torn little half-moons in my palm, if I had not been wearing the heavy combat gauntlets.

“One minute until contact, boys and girls, look sharp!” Master Gunnery Master Gunnery Sergeant Twikks called out. Opening my eyes, I caught him walking down the center row, checking straps and searching for loose gear.

I really hated that guy with all my heart. He was a big, burly African-American who had seen more combat drops and engagements than pretty much the entire platoon combined. Maybe it would be best to include our Lieutenant as well. Don’t get me started on that prick - he is a total freak, a pampered Naval Space Academy Graduate from New Annapolis who was on his first mission.

Like the majority of my brother-in-arms. Thankfully I had more than a few combat missions under my belt so I was not going in unprepared. Then again, once the bullets started to fly, it was damn hard not to start screaming and curl up in a ball. Thankfully if you relied on your training, it would serve you well.

It took a great deal of willpower but I finally unscrewed my eyes and looked about the interior of the drop-pod. I was seated close to the exit, with Master Guns Twikks only a meter or so directly in front of me. Our eyes met for a brief second and he nodded imperceptibly, a silent bit of encouragement.

I thought my heart would stop. I glanced away and looked at the small Heads Up Display eyepiece and noted the time  - one minute until we hit the shit, or more appropriately, the shit hit us. I wanted to piss so badly I almost crossed my legs. Closing my eyes again, I inhaled through my nose and exhaled out through my mouth, trying to force my racing heart to turn it down a few notches. My mouth was dry and I was almost shaking with adrenaline.

The worst part of it was we had not even made contact with the enemy!

“Hey, Young, relax,” called out one of my fellow Marines. He was a beefy farm-boy from one of the Dakota’s. His name was Smith, or Jones or something like that – one of the most common names you could find. I always had trouble remembering it as I just did not like him. He always seemed to have it easy with the ladies, especially those we trained with. Stupid farm-boy got himself busted more than once playing ‘hide the salami’ with some of the other female recruits.

It just was not fair. He always got off light, typically extra duty or cleaning the latrines with a bucket and soap. I never had it that easy. First time I ever caught shit for mouthing off to Master Gunnery Sergeant Twikks, I had to pick up three of my teeth – which he so casually knocked out. Then to make it worse, he gave me a toothbrush and a thimble and told me to clean the floors in the latrines to the point he could eat off them.

Hey, I have a problem with people I consider assholes, okay?

“Fuck off farm-boy,” I grunted and nearly bit my tongue as we hit a particularly rough patch of turbulence. At least, that’s what I hoped it was. There was turbulence in space, right? I had to continue to convince myself of that fact. I did not want to think of the other reason we would be bouncing and jumping up and down like a drunken frat girl showing off her titties. It meant we were taking incoming fire.

“Thirty seconds people, get ready!” Master Gunnery Sergeant Twikks bellowed as he released his restraining harness and stood. He paused in front of me and looked down, his perpetual frown even deeper. He reached out and grabbed one of the magazine pouches attached to my armor and tugged. Much too both our surprise, it remained secured in place. He nodded in approval and then moved onto the next Marine.

I bit back the urge to tell him to go fuck himself just as the light inside the Guadalcanal drop-pod went from a harsh white to a deep red. Supposedly the red spectrum did not hamper our night vision. I just did not understand why in all the training sims I had been on we used this lighting. The sensory units built into our helmets covered low light, infrared, ultraviolet, and even used a form of radar or sonar to paint a picture in total darkness.

Smith or Jones or whatever the fuck his name was grinned at me, showing his perfect teeth. He had a little soul-patch under his lower lip and then jerked a thumb to the left. “Young, check it out man,” he had to shout to be heard over the racket of the lander. “There’s our target!”

Why was that horn-dog even speaking to me? Shit man, help a guy out once in basic and he’s attached himself to you like a tick on a nice, juicy vein. Still, I could not help but look where he was indicating. The door to the pilot’s compartment was wide open and I could see our target.

The station was nowhere near as big as I had expected. It was a Chinese Consortium research and manufacturing facility, held in a geosynchronous orbit over Mars. There were about a half-dozen merchant vessels surrounding the facility, which was shaped like a multi-spoked wheel.

I watched, my guts twisting and writhing in cold terror as a pair of Mosquito class fighters raced past our drop-ship. They were there to provide close-support just in case the CC managed to catch wind of our raid.

The fact I was still strapped into my seat and thinking these thoughts proved our intel had been right for once. We caught the double c’s with their pants down like a two-dollar whore and were about to reap the rewards.

There was a flash of light from the structure and three seconds later it sounded like hail was impacting across the metal skin of the drop-pod. I let out a very unmanly squeak of fright and closed my eyes, thinking my next breath would be my last.

Farm-boy laughed and I’d be fucked if I ever would admit to it, but it helped, the anger I felt boiling inside quickly shunted my fear back into a dark corner of my mind. “Relax; it’s just some debris, that’s all. We’re passing through the remains of some of the stations defenses. By now the fighters will have dropped a couple of hot foxes their way to take out any remaining weapons.”

“Christ on a Crutch, would you stop telling me to relax?” I grumbled.

Farm-boy just laughed.

Hot Foxes were dual purpose EMP missiles. They were smart-guided weapons designed in two stages. The first stage was an explosive warhead used to penetrate the armor of a ship or station. A microsecond later the second stage would detonate a powerful electromagnetic pulse, frying any electronic devices or computer systems within two hundred meters.

“I wonder how many of the Drop Pods were taken out?” I asked. All I knew for certain is that five were deployed with a heavy fighter cover. Whatever was on that station, the brass wanted it, and bad.

“We’re still here and breathing, so who gives a shit?”

“I do!” I shouted. “Fellow Marines, asshole!”

“We’ll drink in their honor when we get back to base,” he grinned.

“Ten seconds people!” Master Gunnery Sergeant Twikks bellowed. He was already standing next to the hatch, waiting for the signal to turn green.

“This is it!” Farm-boy called and slapped his thigh with one gauntleted hand. He held his M39 Assault Carbine in his other hand, just itching for a chance to use the weapon.

Before I knew it, the drop-pod whipped in a dizzying spin, the rear of the ship now facing the landing bay. Our boys and girls in the EW, or Electronic warfare section managed to run a hack and the bay doors were opening. I felt the strangest sensation as we passed through the opening doors, which immediately began to close behind us.

It felt like all the hairs on my body suddenly stood on end, combined with gooseflesh. I was told to expect this, as it was some sort of weird side-effect of the energy field the double c’s used to prevent atmosphere from escaping when the doors opened. I had heard about the shields, but never experienced them before. What a fucked-up sensation.

Where there had been no gravity, no sense of up or down, flying towards the station, I now knew exactly which was which. My stomach did a flip-flop and I resisted the desire to spew. I could hear I was not the only one who had that problem. The sound of retching and the acrid stench of stomach bile reached my nose a second later.

“Go, go, go!” Master Gunnery Sergeant Twikks screamed just as the landing struts made contact with the metal floor of the landing bay. 

The straps holding us in place let go automatically and I pulled my rifle to my armored chest. I stepped out in perfect sync as the Marine to my left stood and ran for the exit. My legs felt wobbly and both my stomach and my bladder were in stiff competition to see who would let go first.

“Remember your training,” Master Gunnery Sergeant Twikks roared. “Remember it and your training will keep you alive!”

Thanks a lot asshole, I thought as I prepared to exit the pod. This was not my first dance and I knew what I was doing, but then I realized that for once I was being a dickhead for no reason. There were plenty of fresh meat in with the squads, and the pep talk – if you could call it that, was for them.

There was a ramp jutting from the back of the Drop Pod. It stretched out nearly four meters before it connected to the metal deck-plates of the double c’s station. I had only a single heartbeat to take in the scenery. The docking bay was almost pitch-black. The only illumination came from emergency lights that were not connected to the power-grid. Clearly the Hot Foxes had done what they had been designed to do.

My helmet instantly switched to low-light and the entire scene came to life in an eerie greenish glow. All around I saw pallets of crates, stacks of metal shipping containers, barrels and all manner of equipment, including lifters and pallet jacks. I ran for cover. There was a stack of heavy boxes, about a dozen meters from where I was. They all marked in either Mandarin or Cantonese. My computer had a built-in translator, and it read off the text ‘this way up’ on the boxes. Kind of useless at this moment, I thought.  

Keeping low, I dodged left and right, making damned sure I was not presenting an easy target for any living double c soldiers or snipers. I was not all that concerned about drones or sentry guns, hell I was not even concerned about automated defenses. The EMP pulse should have taken them out.  

I should have been expecting it, but I was still startled when the bay was bathed in harsh, white light. The Drop Pods, a total of three which had made it into this bay, turned on their external lights. Thankfully my helmet’s visor automatically darkened so that the light did not blind me.

My squad channel burst to life and I could make out the voice of Lieutenant Guadiano. “Alright, first squad is in position,” he called out. He was tapped into the live-feeds of our shoulder and helmet mounted digital feeds, as well as a powerful sensor suite onboard the Drop-Pod. “Second squad, head directly to starboard and keep your eyes on the doors. We haven’t run into resistance yet, but it is only a matter of time.”

My tortured bladder nearly exploded when farm-boy sidled next to me. He was crouched and had his weapon trained to the rear, just in case the double c’s had any bright ideas. “How’s it looking, Young?”

“Seems clear,” I responded, peering around the metal crates. There was a hatch, maybe ten meters or so in front of me and to port. “I see a hatch, looks closed.”

“Private's Young and Smith, I want both of you to leap-frog your way to the hatch you just described. Wait there in a standard two man entry, split position until backup arrives. Do not attempt to open the hatch!”

“Affirmative, two-man split position, wait until backup arrives, do not open. Roger!” I called back, making sure I had the orders straight.

“I’ll take the first leg,” Smith said and before I could protest, he was up and zig-zagging from side to side, keeping low. I cursed and thought of unpleasant ways he could procreate with a sand-pig, but I kept my weapon at the ready.

When he stopped next to a heavy fork-lift, I took off like a bat out of hell. My heart was racing at what felt like a million kilometers an hour and my mouth was still as dry as the plains of Mars. Remembering the months of hard training helped push back the fear. We had done this exact drill hundreds of times until it was almost routine, muscle-memory if you prefer. Hell I had been on similar missions and you would have thought that by now I’d be at least somewhat used to it.

Not a fucking chance let me tell you. I figure that I could do a thousand such missions and I’d feel exactly the same every single time.

If I lived that long, that is.

The rest of our squad was close behind, taking up covering positions. The other three Drop Pods disgorged their complement of Marines and they were looking at entry through other access points. It was my luck I’d be put on point, but then again I had the most experience out of the squad, with the exception of Master Guns and farm-boy. Pushing aside the thought, Smith and I made it to the hatch. We crouched, our M39’s aimed at the center of the door.

“Stay in position Private Smith and Young, wait for backup.”

It was not like we had much of a choice. For what felt like the thousandth time I checked the digital readout on the side of my carbine. No rounds mysteriously disappeared and the counter showed I had a full magazine of 60 rounds. I resisted the urge to scan my surroundings, knowing that if I took my eyes off the door for even a split second, that would be it. The double c’s would come pouring out and turn my body into a mass of ground-chuck.

The other squads were splitting up and securing the landing bay. We had the choice mission of penetrating the main research laboratory in the facility. Other squads would head to engineering, security, and of course the command center. Lieutenant Guadiano would give us our orders as we proceeded deeper via the command net. If the worst case scenario played out and we lost contact with the lieutenant, then our onboard computer systems would kick in and relay the orders to us.

Top brass hated using those systems, as they were vulnerable to enemy hacking and other battlefield hazards, such as EMPs and the like. It was always better to have a live officer handy to make sure the orders were carried out. And if he was not available, then it fell into the capable hands of the Master Gunnery Sergeant.

Twikks… I shook my head. He was the bane of my existence, but he had taught me well. The sound of footsteps broke through my mental muses and the rest of the squad arrived. Emerson, our electronics specialist, sidled up next to the door. The first thing she tried was the pad on the wall. It was dark but most systems like this had a redundancy built into them to allow access. The door did not so much as wiggle at her.

“Sir, the door is dead, do you want me to try and run a bypass or should we cut it?” She called over the squad channel.

“Run the bypass, use your suit’s power system if you need to,” Lieutenant Guadiano replied a moment later.

“Don’t bunch up,” Master Gunnery Sergeant Twikks ordered as he approached the squad. The rest of the squad members were all still a little green, with me being the only lucky bastard who had ever seen combat. Ironically enough I have been in the Marines for nearly two years, twenty-two months to be exact, and I’ve seen action over a dozen times now.

Following orders, everyone except myself, Smith and Emerson backed away by several meters. It would not do if we opened the door only to have a double c toss a grenade into our midst. That would make life difficult, to say the least.

She opened one of the pouches on her armor and withdrew a hand-held device, reminiscent of the old personal data pads, which had been used for decades at the turn of the century. She attached a lead to the pad and then booted up the device. We watched, anxious and sweating despite the cool temperature inside the bay.

Silently, her fingers ran over the touchpad of the device, inputting and modifying commands with the ease of a pro. A second later, she cursed and then used a knife to pry another panel loose from the wall. Grabbing an alligator clip from her armor, she quickly located the wire she was looking for and attached it. The panel came to life and the door hissed open.

To our relief, the corridor beyond was empty. The lights were still out, except for the emergency strips on the walls near doors. About fifty meters from where we crouched, I could make out the very edge of the EMP blast. There was light.

“Deploy the RRD,” Guadiano ordered as soon as the door was open. The RRD or remote reconnaissance drone, otherwise known as red to us grunts, was a small, innocuous looking device about the size of a house-fly. It had limited programming, which allowed the drone to act independently, but most of the time it was directly controlled by an operator.

Which in this case happened to be Emerson. “Affirmative,” she said, putting the hacking pad back into her pocket. She sealed the pocket and then reached down to another cargo pocket on the left leg of her BDU’s. A second later she withdrew a small box, about the size of a pack of cigarettes and opened it. She withdrew a small fly-like drone and it hummed to life, floating up from her fingers to hover only a meter or so off the deck.

She used her finger on the touchscreen of the pad imbedded inside the box to control the device and sent it hurtling down the corridor. For such a tiny remote, the drone held a staggering variety of sensors on top of the usual thermal, radio, radioactive, magnetic and so forth. It zipped past the lit section and continued on, and then suddenly the screen went blank and then the words ‘connection lost’ appeared.

“So much for that,” Emerson growled and closed up the box before putting it away. “Bet they’re going to take it out of my pay,” she grumbled and brought her weapon to the ready.

“You get paid?” I joked, trying to lighten the mood, and all it earned me was a glare from the woman. I noticed she had really pretty eyes, especially when they were pissed off.

“Young, Smith, you have the point. Emerson, stay ten meters behind,” Guadiano ordered.

I put aside all thoughts of bedroom eyes and concentrated on the mission ahead. Smith instantly began to move forward, his weapon held up to his shoulders as he walked. I had to admit that I was impressed and a little jealous at the way farm-boy moved, smooth and steady, as if he had been doing this his entire life. Odds were pretty good he spent many a season hunting deer and antelope back dirtside, so it came naturally for him.

As we moved, there were doors along either side of the corridor, one approximately every ten meters. Each door was so conveniently marked with Cantonese or Mandarin, which my trusty HUD translated and labelled them as we advanced, and from what it could tell, they were all storage or machine-shops. I hated this, as I felt so damned exposed. The tension was building, as every door I passed I expected it to open and unleash a hoard of double c’s.

The expected assault never took place. As we passed each door, Emerson placed a small electronic device over the locking mechanism. It turned out that the EMP caused all the doors to automatically magnetically seal. Doing so would trap anyone already inside and prevent others from getting through, until the power was restored. As soon as the device detected power, it would instantly scramble the tiny computers on each lock, sealing the doors permanently.  The only way anyone inside the rooms could escape is if they had explosives or cutting torches in order to escape.

Nasty but effective.

Smith and I had just reached the lit section of the corridor when we encountered resistance. The double c’s had a nice little ambush waiting for us. As we passed the threshold where light met dark, a panel fell to the floor with an ear-splitting clamor. I hate to admit it, but I screamed like a girl and raised my assault carbine and squeezed of a burst. The ceramic rounds missed, impacting the ceiling and walls.

Through the panel a type 111 turret-mounted machine gun appeared and immediately began to spit in our direction. The rounds smashed into the floor only couple of meters ahead of my feet and began to walk. I was right in the weapons line of fire and had no time to react.

Farm-boy returned fire, using excellent trigger control. His assault carbine chattered in his hands, unleashing three-round bursts. The problem was the turret was a small target and as with all double c weapons, they were built to withstand a great deal of punishment. His rounds punched into the barrel and the side of the type 111. There were sparks and a horrible grinding noise as the weapon tried to turn. His fire had damaged the turret tracking and movement mechanism and it was incapable of following us.

Still, Emerson grabbed me by the back of my armor and hauled me out of the line of fire. She was not gentle about it, not even for a second. The next thing I knew I was lying flat on my back, staring up at the line separating light from dark.

“Turret’s down,” Smith announced and Emerson helped me to my feet.

I felt my face turn fifty shades of crimson as I checked my weapon, making sure that it had not suffered any damage or malfunctions when I hit the deck. It was a good way to avoid looking them in the eyes, as I was the veteran here, not them – I made a complete ass out of myself, and I know once the mission was complete I would not live this down.

Ever.

A few meters ahead of us Emerson pointed at a small black dot lying on the deck plates. It was the red, dead as a doornail and utterly useless. It seemed to be in perfect working order, but something had shut it down completely. Emerson strode up and grabbed it, depositing it back in the same pouch it had originally come from. She grinned. “Now they can’t dock my pay!”

“Young, Smith, push on, maintain preset distances,” Guadiano ordered. I glanced at the big farm-boy and he nodded, waving his hand forward. We spread out slightly, putting at least two meters between us as we continued our march. I took a quick look at the tactical display and could see the green dots, indicating our forces, spread out behind us and more moving through adjacent corridors and rooms.

Next thing I knew, the displays started to flicker and became filled with the black and white snow patterns that indicated a lost signal. The double c’s, as it turned out, had some nasty surprises waiting for us. Taking out our electronics and command net was only the beginning. Of course we had Emerson on our side, and she would make short work of the enemy electronic jamming and countermeasures.

The double c’s had no intention of allowing that to happen. Panels on the wall and floor suddenly burst open, shattering apart in mini-storms of shattered plastic and ceramic composites as the opposition finally appeared.

“Shit!” I cried and instantly dropped to a knee. The smaller a target I presented to the enemy, the more likely I would be to come out of this encounter with my balls intact. Well, them and my other important organs, after all, if I lose my heart or lungs or some other shit like that, I certainly can’t keep Mr. happy in the game now, can I?

I raised my assault rifle and let it rip. I had been in enough dust-ups by now to remember trigger control and I made sure that I fired no more than a single burst at a time, carefully picking my targets and squeezing the trigger instead of pulling it.

Aw who the fuck am I kidding here? I opened up on the double c’s full auto! There was no trigger control, which went out the window when the bastards surprised us. In fact, I will swear this until my dying day that it was going full auto that kept me, Emerson and farm-boy alive.

I emptied nearly a full magazine on the first target I saw. The enemy marine was dressed in deep-grey combat armor and he held the standard issue Chinese assault rifle in his hands. My wild fire ended up hitting everywhere, some impacting his torso, one smashed into his helmet, and a couple found arms and legs. I also will swear on my momma’s grave – although she’s still alive – that I nailed him right in the nads.

Most of the shots did miss, but those that hit caused enough damage to drop the marine. As he fell, he did let out a rather unmanly squeak before pitching face-down. That’s why I’m pretty sure one hit him in the mommy-daddy buttons.

The remainder of the magazine I emptied on the second figure that I saw emerging from a previously concealed panel on the floor. This time nearly all the rounds smashed into him, but since it connected with his armor, most of the kinetic energy was evenly dispersed, saving him from an ignominious death. Hey I threw enough ceramic at the bastard to cause him to grunt and drop back in the hole. It was almost like some sort of perverted game of whack-a-mole!

While I goofed around with my new playmates, Emerson and farm-boy were busy firing as well. The thing is, although the double c’s had the element of surprise on their side, and better trigger control, we had plain dumb luck on ours.

Somehow, against all odds and probability projections, the enemy marines that ambushed us missed! Of course we were not about to allow them the time to remedy that, and as I dropped the spent magazine, both Emerson and farm-boy continued to pound away at the enemy, their rounds having the advantage of finally being controlled, and farm-boy was especially adept at putting single shots through the darkened face-plates of the double c’s.

“Oh would you hurry the fuck up?” Emerson growled as I fought to seat the magazine. “You’re fucking embarrassing us!”

For some reason the magazine refused to seat and when I pulled it out, I noticed that the end was crimped in a very unsightly fashion. “How the hell did that happen?” I asked stupidly as I dropped the now-useless magazine and reached for a fresh one.

Of course once I had the magazine seated and the weapon charged and ready to rock, the rest of the squad had reached us. With their combined firepower and better training – yes that’s what I will continue to tell myself – we took out the ambushers.

The corridor was filled with spent propellant, making it somewhat difficult to see, and the smell – well, you have to have been in plenty of fire-fights to know the smell as intimately as I did. I can tell you this; it takes weeks to get the stink off your skin and out of your hair. There was the underlying bouquet of iron, piss and shit. Dying ain’t pretty! Lots of blood, limbs get blown off, and when you finally decide you’ve had enough of this life and leave your meat-suit behind, well, it tends to void itself.

Okay fine… you shit and piss in your last moments. Well, not always but it happens more often than not.

I realized that we were still out of contact with the rest of the assault force and even the relay that had been set up to keep Lt. Guadiano in contact with us was on the fritz. Almost as if the entire squad was of one mind, we all turned to stare at Emerson.

She looked around at the staring faces and shrugged. “What?”

Twikks, goddamn his black heart, was right there with us. “Can you break the jamming and interference?”

“Yes Master Gunnery Sergeant,” she said and turned away from the bigger man with the serious attitude and broke out her combat computer. “Gimme a few minutes here.”

“Spread out you morons!” Master Gunnery Sergeant Twikks commanded. “Keep bunched up like this and a single Kabuki actor with an attitude and a spitball launcher will kill your sorry asses!”

I was so tempted to correct him. So tempted that I had to bite the inside of my lip to keep from blurting out that Kabuki actors were Japanese, not Chinese, but odds are I’d end up looking for some more teeth to have re-implanted once the op was finished.

So wisely for once my brain kicked in and prevented me from saying something stupid. Then again, if Emerson found it funny, that would get me all that closer to seeing if she had carpet or was a slicker.

“Young!” Twikks bellowed. “Get your fucking mind out of Emerson’s panties and take the point!”

How the fuck did he know? “Right away Master Guns!”  I double-timed it down the corridor and took up position at a large set of double doors. When I stopped and took a moment to inspect the doors, I discovered they were blast-proof.

Curious.

Just as I was about to try the door, two panels in the ceiling burst downward, revealing a couple of ninja-wannabe’s. They were dressed like the rest of the double c’s we had encountered thus far, so they couldn’t be ninja’s. Besides as I stated earlier, they were Chinese. Ninja’s were supposed to be Japanese.

The first one was landed less than a meter from where I stood and he was raising a large-bored hand-gun. For once my training kicked in. Well – let’s be honest once again. Since I was three, my father had put me into martial arts. I trained Kung Fu right up until the point I made the biggest mistake of my life. I enlisted in the Marines. My old sensei used to drill into us the importance of defense, that if you could turn and run and avoid a fight, you would.

I’m a fucking Marine, goddammit. I don’t run from a fight.

As the handgun came up, I did three things at once. I struck with my right fist, knocking the gun to the side so that the shot would end up missing, while I punched straight out with my left, aiming for the man’s semi-exposed throat. The hand-cannon discharged harmlessly into the deck plating, the ceramic round shattering upon impact. The shards scattered, some smashing into my armor, but most flying off in random directions. His buddy caught the side-kick I aimed at him, turning his hips so he caught it on the side, instead of in the nads. Still, there was enough force behind the kick to stagger him.

My punch to the double c with the handgun’s throat had the desired effect. He dropped his handgun and reached up with both hands and began clawing instinctively at his throat, trying to clear the airway so he could breath. The fucker was done, so I turned my full attention to his companion.

As it turns out, his companion was a woman. Strange, I fought plenty of men, but this was the first time I ever went up against a woman – at least to my knowledge. It’s really hard to distinguish sex when you’re looking down the sight of a rifle – and the uniforms worn by the enemy marines did nothing to highlight the body underneath. Hey why not? After all, we have women in the Marines, so why shouldn’t the double c’s allow it as well?

Oh yeah – they’re the bad guy’s that’s why.

The kick had staggered her, but she was a trooper, I’ll give her that. She turned her hips, placing the hurting limb away from my attack. A pair of short combat-knives appeared in her hands, each about eighteen centimeters in length and wickedly serrated. That both scared me and relieved me. With the serration, they were deadly enough, but it also meant they were not the new mono-filament knives I had been hearing about. They could cut through your armor like it wasn’t there, cleave off your limb before you even knew what happened.

It’s not like I wasn’t worried, a slash from the blades in the right place where my armor didn’t protect would be more than enough to kill me. I had to be careful. We began to circle one another; both of us crouched low in an unarmed fighter’s stance. I couldn’t see her face through the helmet, but I knew her eyes were boring into mine, trying to find any weakness she could exploit.

There were no fancy moves, nothing flashy like you saw in the movies or drama’s that played on the entertainment consoles – no she knew what she was doing and came in a fighter’s stance, advancing with both blades held towards me, one a little more forward than the other. She then attacked, slashing the air and almost connecting with each strike, but thank my sensei, I was able to dodge the attacks as he had taught me. I knew about a half-dozen ways to disarm a foe holding a knife, but deep down I knew she wasn’t the average street-thug, she would know what to do to counter my actions.

Seeing a possible opening, I shot out my foot just as she slashed at my throat with both blades. If she would have connected, armor or not, I believe she would have separated my head from my neck. That would not have been a pretty sight. It was awkward as hell, but as I struck with my foot, I also bent backwards and began to fall to the decking. The strike actually connected with her knee, and if it was not for the armor she wore on her legs, particularly the knee pad, I probably would have inflicted a serious injury.

Still, her leg went rigid and she cried out in pain, but still managed to slash down. Thankfully my shin-guards caught the blow and there was a flash of sparks as the blade slid across it, scouring deep into the alloy, but inflicting no damage.

Once I hit the ground, I immediately turned it into a roll, managing to twist my body so my back was facing her. That’s a big no-no, but how else was I to get away? I rolled away from her, and managed to get to my feet and face her once again. She was advancing, and I could tell that she was limping. I had hurt her, and yet I don’t think it was enough.

I faked a lunge to the left and instead dropped, picked up the first marine’s hand-cannon, and almost died for the act. I was fast, but holy fuck, she was faster, despite the damage to her knee! The blades were whipping back and forth before her, never leaving an opening that I could possibly exploit with my fists. That did not matter; I had the first marine’s handgun. She advanced even faster, seeing that I had the weapon up and ready, and the blades were already coming down as I fired, catching her directly in the stomach. Her breath left her body in an explosion and the round staggered her back. That was what saved my life. I didn’t relent; instead I emptied the handgun, walking the rounds up her stomach, sternum, chest and finally throat and faceplate.

The kinetic energy from the ceramic rounds would have hurt like a motherfucker, but it was the throat shot that did her in. Some of you may wonder, did it bother me that I killed a woman? Would any of you believe it if I said that killing bothers me, no matter the sex? I may have chosen this life, but it doesn’t mean that I get my rocks off taking the lives of others.

You can decide if I’m lying or not.

Climbing to my feet, I discarded the handgun and grabbed my weapon. I almost blew farm-boy away when he crouched on the other side of me and gave me a shit-eating grin. Damn you got some moves!”

I almost grinned. “Been doing unarmed combat since before you were a gleam in your dad’s eye,” I retorted.

The big doofus grinned. “Thinking of Emerson again, weren’t ya?”

Jesus did I have a boner or something? What would make him say something like that? “Fuck off, she’s a squaddie.”

“Doesn’t matter,” farm-boy laughed and thrust out his hips. “Booty like that, I’d tap that in a dead second!”

Before I knew what was happening, farm-boy hit the door activation switch and it began to open with the ponderous speed of a lame mammoth caught in the middle of a blizzard. I barely had enough time to register what was happening before the double c’s on the other side of the door opened fire. “God-dammit!” I screamed half in anger, half in pain as two rounds punched into my combat armor, one at chest level, the other just above and to the right of my belly-button. It felt as if some giant, supremely pissed-off Clydesdale had just kicked me right where it hurt.

The next thing I knew I was flat on my ass, fighting with the strap of my rifle to bring it up to get some serious payback on the bastards who had just shot me. Farm-boy was standing just to the side of the door, using the built-in scope and camera combination to peer around into the room.

“Get out of the line of fire, fucktard!” he bellowed as he counted the number of hostiles on the other side. The enemy’s ECM was still fucking with everyone’s electronics and communication links. We were pretty much on our own, cut off from the rest of the squads on the mission.

The rest of my squad was coming up as fast as they dared, returning suppressive fire in order to give my sorry ass a chance to get up and at least move to the side, so I was out of the line of fire. I managed to get to my feet and then crouch-walked to the nearest wall, putting the lip of the door between me and more of the painful incoming rounds. “How many tangos?” I yelled over the din of the exchanged fire.

“Only three that I could see,” farm-boy replied. “Fire in the hole!” he yelled and pulled a fragmentation grenade from his webbing. The pin had been attached to the webbing, so when he pulled the small explosive device, the fuse was lit. He tossed it underhand through the open door and even I had to grin when I heard the double c marines cry out in alarm. The firing from the defenders ceased and two seconds later there was a loud crump noise, followed by what sounded like a brief hail-storm as the shrapnel peppered the walls, ceiling and floor.  

Farm-boy, as much as it irks me to admit to it, was right on the ball. He used the camera mounted on the end of his rifle and scanned the room. There were no bodies visible, but the double c’s that had been in sight and firing were nowhere to be seen.

Of course that meant exactly jack and shit. I knew that they had managed to find cover so with an effort of supreme will – well combined with some combat drugs my suit pumped into my body when it detected the trauma – I launched myself off the floor and ran into the room. I thanked the engineers who created the little auto-med that it was so damn tough to damage when it came to EMP and ECM. Otherwise I’d probably be lying on the ground crying like a little girl.

And of course that is exactly when the double c’s reinforcements arrived. From several side doors at least a dozen or so of the enemy Marines poured into the chamber, which I discovered was quite large and instantly regretted my foolhardy choice of tactics. They came in, the front ranks crouched low enough to keep moving quickly but not to block the aim of their compatriots, spreading out as they advanced and leapfrogging to always provide cover.

Bastards were good, I had to give them that. Of course I had more important tasks on my mind right then and there, such as keeping my glorious ass in one piece. I really had only one choice – just to my right there were a series of heavy crates stacked along one of the walls. If I could make it behind those crates, they should provide at least a little bit of protection. Far more than I was currently enjoying at the very least.

The incoming fire increased in volume and tempo, so I ran, trying to dodge from side to side, and then leapt, pretending I was the ancient comic-book hero Superman. I just managed to leap over the first crate – thank you lower gravity – and held my assault rifle out in front of me as I cleared the other side. I ducked and curled and rolled as I landed, managing to come up in a combat stance, the rifle ready but pointed more towards the floor than anyone that might have been waiting for me.

And lady luck was being a bitch. Maybe I should not have tried to screw her so many times… One of the double c marines was crouched only a couple of meters in front of me, a look of surprised consternation on his Asian features.

Don’t ask me what came over me; I haven’t got a fucking clue. I bowed and grinned and stated very clearly for anyone to hear; “You have to admit that was pretty impressive, right?” Why I do shit like that I will never know. All I know is that someday – hopefully in the far future – it’s going to get me killed.

The enemy Marine recovered instantly and squeezed the trigger of his own weapon. I had the foresight to dodge to the left and smashed into the crate, but it prevented him from stitching me from my balls to my throat.

I, on the other hand, brought my weapon up and fired almost at the same instant. Whereas my dodging saved my life, his determination to end it cost him his own. This time I used trigger control and hit him with three triple-round bursts. As I had been taught and usually used, I walked the shots up his torso, moving from the left to the right, and the last three rounds destroyed his neck and lower face. I gotta admit, I love walking fire like that…

That asshole was no longer a threat to me or my brothers and sisters. I realized I could hear the nerve-shattering chatter of assault-rifle fire, the whumps and crumps of grenades exploding, as well as the occasional sizzling that indicated someone was using an energy weapon.

Keeping low, I peered around the corner of the crates and could see the battle raging full tilt, everyone hell-bent on killing one another, those who could find cover – as I had – making full use of it

So hey, why be the odd man out, right?

For the time being at least, the enemy did not know I was so close. I could see several of the double c’s Marines crouched and taking pot-shots and attacks of opportunity as they arose only a few meters away. So I paid them a friendly visit and opened fire.

I checked the ammo counter on my weapon and realized how low I was. I ejected the spent magazine and after carefully inspecting the replacement, slapped it home and charged the weapon. Then, out of the blue, I heard Master Gunner Sergeant Twikk’s voice in my head. Hey asshole, you’re forgetting the difference between cover and concealment The crates give you only a few seconds of concealment, but usually jack-shit for cover. The rounds the double c’s are using will typically penetrate the thin skins of those crates. Get off your ass and keep moving, before one of their well-placed shots penetrate the crate and then your head, scrambling whatever brains you think you possess.

            Like the old saying goes – remember your training and it will keep you alive. It was time for me to move and I dodged out from the crates and scrambled to the next group, diving behind just as the meager cover almost disintegrated from enemy fire. I saw where my attackers were located and returned fire, eagerly and with interest.

I managed to bag and tag two more of the enemy marines before they caught onto what was happening and returned fire. The crate I was using for cover shuddered and rattled as rounds impacted and for a split second I was worried that they might knock it over onto me!

Wouldn’t that be an embarrassing death?

My attack provided to be the distraction that my fellow Marines needed. They pushed in and although they suffered casualties, they managed to take the defenders out fairly quickly. After less than five minutes, the battle came to an end. My belly and chest hurt something fierce, but that was the extent of the injuries I had sustained.

The air was hazy with spent propellant and there was an acrid stench that not even my helmet could filter out. The smell of blood, sweat, and worst of all, fear. We ended up suffering seven casualties in the fight, four killed outright and the others wounded, but at least one of them was still mobile and capable of fighting.

Thankfully Emerson was unwounded. Don’t look at me like that – we need her expertise when it came to hacking and slashing through the enemy electronics.  Much to my consternation, so was farm-boy. Don’t ever repeat this, but secretly I was glad to see the stupid lug still up and in fighting shape. And as the fates would have it, Master Gunnery Sergeant Twikks was still on this side of the dark veil, looking as fresh as if he was out for a stroll on a beautiful summer day.

Two things, did I ever tell you how much I miss a beautiful summer day, and how much I hate that guy? Yeah, probably a few times already.

He walked around and bellowed orders, making sure that the enemy marines were down and no longer a threat, although those who still drew air he had us disarm and use metal-threaded zip-ties to make sure they could not escape and sneak up on us as we advanced. Some of my fellow jar-heads wanted to finish the job, but this is one of those few times I agreed with something Master Guns wanted. They were not a threat to us, so we have no reason to kill them. Besides, if the rolls had been reversed, we certainly would appreciate it if they did not kill us.

Finally after what seemed like two eternities, Emerson and the other electronic warfare specialists managed to break through the jamming and countermeasures. Our communication net came back up in all its glorious miasma of chatter, and all our electronics were working again as they should.

I breathed a sigh of relief as my HUD came back online and could clearly see the station as well as the rest of our people. We had taken about thirty percent casualties so far, and it seemed my squad had the highest number of KIA and injured.

Whoo man, the LT is probably throwing a conniption fit right about now… I turned to speak to farm-boy when all of a sudden the lights went out and the next thing I knew my ass was floating away from the deck. Thankfully our armor had built in magnets on the boots – you never knew when you were going to be fighting in micro-gravity, or when the enemy decides to fuck with you.

Just like they were doing right now.

My boots clamped to the deck with a slight jolt and I looked to see everyone else was doing the same thing. Then I caught sight of Master Guns. He was standing on the deck, consulting his pad without even giving the lack of light or gravity a second thought. “Breathers on people,” he ordered.

I actually had thought of that and was already reaching to secure my helmet and hook up the oxygen line. It would provide enough breathable air for me for about two hours, and that should be ample time for us to secure the station. Even if it was not, we could always switch out tanks for replenishment.

“Hey Young, you ready to continue pushing forward?” Farm-boy asked as he clapped me on the shoulder.

“Yeah might as well,” I agreed and fought back the urge to break his wrist. I sighed internally. No matter what I did, he was always friendly towards me, and frankly the way he annoyed me was not good, but the big doofus did not mean any harm… still snapping his wrist would make me feel a lot better.

Side by side, with about a meter and a half separating us, we approached the only door that had not been used by the double c’s when they attacked. Even in the pitch darkness of the room, we were able to navigate by the maps our HUDs had provided. Why the hell hadn’t the double c’s done this when they hit us with the jamming and countermeasures was beyond me. Maybe some twit in their combat IT department never thought of it? Well, I sure as shit am glad they hadn’t.

“Hey genius,” I grunted when we reached the door. “How the hell are we supposed to open this without power?”

Smith grinned and ripped open the panel beneath a small keypad and reader. He withdrew a USB cable from his armor and fit it snugly into the slot. A second later the panel lit up and he depressed the open button.

The door slid smoothly to the side to reveal another corridor, inky black and sinister to our eyes. The HUD automatically sent out pulses of sound and other energy to map out what lay ahead of us.

“Smith, Young, sound off!” Twikks bellowed over the squad link.

“Heading port,” Smith said, taking the lead. “Figured we might as well do something useful, get some recon in.”

“Carry on, but stay within LOS. If you come to any doors or turns, contact us and await further instructions.”

“Affirmative,” smith said and then he began to move forward, slowly and cautiously. The double c’s already had surprised us a couple of times since we invaded, and it would not take much for them to keep it up.

Something was niggling at the back of my mind as we travelled the corridor. First there was a thin carpet on the deck, not thick enough that it impaired the magnets on the soles of my boots, but it added a spongy quality to each step. The second is I noticed the walls appeared different.

On a hunch, I turned on my suits external lights an could see that whereas the walls of the station and the corridors we had been down before were a harsh white, these were painted a muted white-blue and were dirty compared to the others we had seen.

The double c’s were clean-freaks, if anything. This seemed odd.

Smith and I were about halfway down the corridor, coming to a t-intersection, when the LT’s voice came over the squad comm. “Station has been secured, I repeat, station has been secured.”

A moment later the lights flickered and then came back on and gravity was restored. “Well that was fast,” I half laughed.

“No shit,” Smith - aka farm-boy - replied. We both had paused inadvertently when the announcement came over the frequency, but then continued on our merry way. Why bother stopping unless we were given orders to stop?  No one said anything about standing down, after all.

I allowed my eyes to pass over the strangely painted walls and noted smudges of what looked like dirt or maybe hand-prints about waist height. When I zoomed in with the magnification function built into my helmet I realized my guess had been right on the money. They were handprints, and it looks like they had been made by children.

“Hey farm-boy, what do you make of these?”

Smith crouched and touched the prints, his face a mask of consternation. “I have no idea,” he admitted as he looked at me. “Think the double c’s are using midgets?”

I opened my mouth to reply when the lights flickered. That got my attention and I brought my rifle to my shoulder, waiting for a target to present itself. From the direction of the T-intersection I could hear something that sort of sounded like an air-compressor, and my blood ran cold.

Combat robots were not all that common, being not as reliable as humans, and they tend to cost a shitload more, but they were found often enough. We had been trained to recognize the sound of the various robots the military forces of the world used, and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt we were about to come face to face with CR77 or Chinese Robotics model 77 combat robot. The robotic soldier was built like a tank, and it hovered about a meter off the ground. The robot had a 10MM cannon mounted on a swivel turret, and had a grenade launcher as well as a series flechette point defense pods. They made short work of incoming anti-armor missiles and proved to be devastating against infantry if anyone was too close.

The one weakness the robot had was the hovering jets, but they were protected by ballistic skirts and anyone who thought of using grenades quickly discovered that the flechette pd system would target even those.

“Fuck,” I squeaked and Smith nodded in total agreement. I patted my webbing and found that I had a couple of explosive grenades handy, but they would not be all that useful, and the CR77 was going to hit the intersection in a matter of seconds. “We need cover!”

Looking around in desperation, Smith slapped the panel to one of the doors we were next to. I don’t know about him, but I expected that the door would remain closed, but to my shock and admitted relief, the door slid open and we jumped through without even really looking.

It slid shut a second later and we were left in the dark, but that only lasted a fraction of a heart-beat. When I turned to inspect the room, I was doubly shocked when my HUD displayed what awaited us.

Kids.

There had to be fifty kids, all ages from toddler up to pre-teens. They were all standing as still and silent as statues. All were clearly Asian, although I could see a mixture of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and others. They were dressed the same in white coveralls and each wore white slippers. They all had blank looks on their cherub faces and seemed to be out of it.

“What the hell?” Smith and I spoke at the same time.

Not a single child moved. Not one reacted in any way whatsoever. If I had not seen their chests moving, I would have sworn they were all mannequins.

“Okay this isn’t creepy as hell,” I said turning away and looking back at the door we had just entered. “Not creepy at all.”

Even when Smith raised his assault rifle and pointed it at the group of kids, they did not react in the least. “I’m transmitting this to the LT,” he said calmly.

How the hell could he be so damn calm right now? I wondered and then I had to wonder why he would aim his weapon at a group of kids. I felt the urge to do so as well, but I couldn’t bring myself to follow his example. They were kids!

Even through the closed door we could hear the CR77 approaching, the sound of the repulsors working overtime to keep is massive weight afloat.  It paused just outside the door and then we heard the sounds of a battle taking place. I kept my eyes on the group of children, who’s only reaction to the fighting was to turn their attention from us to the doorway, as if they could see right through it.

You ever get that creeping sensation that you may have guessed what was actually going on? I certainly did at that very moment.

Machinegun fire could be heard, ripping through the air on the other side. There was the constant whump, whump, whump as the robot fired its grenades, and I had the sinking feeling that with each shot, more of my fellow Marines were buying it. Let me tell you, that’s a horrible feeling to have in the pit of your stomach, believe you me.

An idea suddenly hit me and I ran over to the door. I crouched low and removed a pair of HE or high-explosive grenades from my webbing. One at a time I pulled the pins but held the spoons in place. I did not want the grenades to detonate too soon, that would make a real mess of me, and probably kill more than a few of the strange kids. “Farm-boy, cover me!”

Smith nodded and I used my elbow to hit the panel. The door slid open, and I could see the rear-end of the CR77 as it hovered, slowly moving forward on its repulsors. I released the pins and peered around the corner long enough to position the robot. Thankfully it had all its weapons facing my fellow Marines and I tossed the grenades underhanded. You might be wondering how I could have accomplished this impressive task without the pressure of the lifts blowing the grenades right back at me.

They were magnetically charged, allowing them to attach to the underside of the robot. I ducked behind the door and slapped the panel, closing it once again. A second later there was a massive explosion that ripped the door right out of its frame, barely missing me. I turned my head in horror, expecting to see small bodies, bloody and broken, but what I saw nearly caused my heart to stop. I couldn’t believe what my eyes were telling me.

The metal door, still smoking and pitted from the explosion of the CR77, was held in mid-air by some unseen force. A second later it hit the deck plating with a resounding crash that my audio sensors had to mute out in case it damaged my hearing.

“What the fuck?” Smith and I blurted out at the exact same moment.

All the while the children continued to stare at us, their eyes rarely blinking, and their faces completely emotionless. I suddenly had the urge to lift my weapon and empty every single magazine I had on me.

Into the freakish kids.

Why? I haven’t got a fucking clue. Maybe it had something to do with the way they looked and their lack of reaction, maybe it had something to do with the way that blasted door had been held there by some unseen hand, caught in the middle of the room.

I just can’t say.

Although I thought that the fighting in the corridor was over, the next thing I knew I could hear voices shouting in Cantonese, speaking rapidly and with authority. I could have easily have hit the auto-translator in my HUD but I didn’t bother. It was clear that they were probably demanding our boys surrender.

There was no way in hell… well, maybe if it froze over, but that wasn’t likely to happen, that I was going to give up without a fight. Besides we had the space around the station secured, and we should have had more than enough Marines to maintain the hold we had on the station itself. With the shallow resistance we had encountered thus far, we probably have taken most of the critical locations by now.

“Watch my six,” I ordered to Smith as I consulted the HUD. We had a strong link to the squad net, and I brought up the overall battlefield plan. It showed the station and all the areas that were colored blue were the sections we had secured. There… weapons, engineering, command and control, all were in our hands. Plenty of sections of the station showed neutral grey or red, meaning that the enemy still had control or a presence, but the most important sections belonged to the good guys. I zoomed in on the map so that I could see our little slice of heaven. Twikks, Emerson and the remaining squad members were spread out along the corridor, as well as the reinforcements that had made it. There were at least twenty or more of the enemy marines advancing, using standard leap-frog tactics, coming down the corridor towards my brothers and sisters – the closest about maybe twenty meters from the blasted hulk of the CR77.

My thoughts raced, going through possible scenarios, but incapable of settling on just one. Sighing, I keyed the mike. “Master Gunnery Sergeant Twikks, this is Young, orders?”

“Stay put and try to come in on their six. We have you on squad net and see your position. We’re getting a lot of strange interference from the room, and have the civilians posed any threat?”

“Uh negative Master Gunnery Sergeant – Something really fucked up happened, but we will explain later,” I said and watched as the enemy icons continued to advance. Turning my head, I pointed at Smith. “See if you can find a closet or something we can hide behind,” I ordered.

He did not hesitate, and pointed towards the left, where I saw a series of tables. They were bolted to the floor, but might provide us a little bit of concealment if the double c’s were not paying too much attention.

Twikks came back online. “You and Smith are to remain where you are and once the main portion of the incoming tangos have passed, we want you to lay down fire. Check your targets, as you will have friendlies nearby.”

“Roger, will comply.”

All of a sudden the red icons indicating the enemy began to move faster, they were rapidly closing the distance between themselves and my fellow Marines. Both Smith and I dove for the non-existent cover provided by the tables and crouched, keeping our weapons held at the ready, the barrels pointed at the door. I watched as several double c’s raced past, dodging and weaving to present a smaller and far more difficult target for my people to hit. The red icon’s stopped just outside the door, where the wreckage of the robot was still smoldering. About six of the enemy marines entered the room and gave the kids a cursory glance before they set up, covering one another.

Was it luck, or was it something else? Why hadn’t they checked the room a little more carefully? Poor training? No – that couldn’t have been it. They were pretty damned good fighters, not as good as our people, but they were no belter privateers, that’s for damn sure. I had to guess it was because of the presence of the kids.

Smith and I exchanged glances and I nodded almost imperceptibly. Without moving, we carefully chose our targets and opened fire. In the space of only a single heartbeat we dropped all five of the enemy combatants.

The armor the double c’s used was actually pretty good, but it had the weakness of being thinner on the back. Their necks were more exposed than ours and there was no protection for the thighs or calves, only on the front. Our ceramic bullets tore into the exposed legs, ripping flesh and muscle before punching through. The pain alone from the impacts was enough to at the very least incapacitate the enemy.

I was pulling another grenade from my webbing when what happened next, I am still not all that certain of. Smith let out a gargled cry and grabbed his head with both hands, allowing his weapon to drop. I released the grenade and brought up my weapon, looking for the cause. As suddenly as it occurred, his eyes cleared and he released his head. “What happened?” I asked.

His only reply was to raise his weapon, so I assumed everything was fine.  I didn’t even have a chance to protest when he fired. The rounds smashed into my stomach and chest, and I felt like I had just been run over by a Mac truck, and that was it. Blackness overtook me.

 

***

 

I have no idea how long it was before I came to, but when I did I was staring up at the cold-white antiseptic ceiling of one of the medical bays on board the cruiser. I was covered by a thin blanket but I didn’t feel cold. Come to think of it, I didn’t feel anything at all.

Looking down, I raised my arm and lifted the blanket. Of course I was as naked as the day I was born – oh hell, I was naked as the last time I was on leave and got too drunk with my squaddies. The bruising on my stomach and chest was uglier than the hooker I had in Manila two years ago.

Even though I couldn’t feel any pain, at least all my parts were working properly. I must have been pretty doped up at that point, because I swear that my brain was swimming and my vision went more than a little wonky.

One of the med-techs arrived and frowned at me as I struggled to sit up. He was a big burly man who clearly had ancestors that had been Vikings. I swear to dog – yes I said dog – that it was Thor himself. He even had a neatly trimmed blond beard and hair cut to military regulations.

“Private Young, mind telling me what you’re trying to accomplish?” He asked as he crossed his arms under his barrel chest.

“Abandoogh,” I managed to say and then grimaced. My mouth wasn’t working!

“I’m going to assume you were about to say you were trying to get out of bed,” he came over and put strong-but-surprisingly gentle hands on either shoulder as he pushed me back down to a prone position. “You’re one lucky Marine,” he said once he had me lying flat. “Other than broken ribs and some torn muscle, you’ll make a full recovery.”

“Thax,” I grumbled. “Esaoom.”

“You’re welcome,” now close those beady bloodshot eyes and get some sleep. You’ll feel better in a few days.”

I did close my eyes and before I knew it, I was sound asleep. The next time I woke, I wish I hadn’t. Whereas the first time I didn’t feel anything, this time I felt everything! Holy hell I was hurting. I found that I was still lying in the same bed and had the same view, but this time I noticed the IV stuck in my hand and winced. You’d think after all this time they would have been able to figure out a way to stick you so it wouldn’t hurt so fucking much.

The major difference I noticed was the tray laden with food and a data pad, sitting next to my bed. Realizing then and there how hungry I felt, I grabbed the tray while the pad. It was hospital food, in other words it was dull and bland, kind of like farm-boy, but I ate with gusto. Being a Marine you never knew when you were going to get a chance to eat, so when the opportunity comes around, you take it.

I have to admit, the food wasn’t that bad. I’ve had better, and I’ve had a hell of a lot worse, but it filled the empty spot in my belly. Once I was satisfied, I pushed the empty plate aside and hefted the pad. It activated and I pressed my thumb into the small box that appeared. The pad read my biometric data and confirmed who I was. The next thing I knew I was looking at the after-action report form I needed to fill out regarding the boarding action.

Thankfully I didn’t need to type. I just highlighted the field and spoke aloud, and the pad did the rest, including correcting bad grammar and using better words than what my limited intellect could come up with.

Sometimes I hate tech…

It took about an hour to fill out the form, and when I was done, it added it to the mainframe and then downloaded a full after-action briefing for me to read. I just opened the document and began to read it when the door to my private room slid open and the LT and Master Gunnery Sergeant Twikks entered. I blinked and then sighed, knowing if they both came to see me, it was not going to be good. I was about to get out of bed in order to salute the Lieutenant when he waved a hand, motioning for me not to move. I blinked, confused.

“At ease, Private,” the LT said. “This is an informal meeting, so no need for salutes and the rest of that shit.”

I blinked again, kind of the double-take of blinks. I never heard the LT swear before. He was always so uppity I thought that even thinking the words might cause his head to explode. There he stood, cranium intact, but looking serious.

“Yes sir,” was the only thing I could think to say.

“What do you remember after finding the room filled with the children?” He began.

I went over the events, the weird kids, the robot we had escaped from, how the door had been blown out of its frame and then Smith turning on me and firing. They listened impassively, Twikks or the LT interrupting only occasionally to clarify a point or match it up with my report. When it was all said and done, they nodded and the LT left. Master Gunnery Sergeant Twikks was about to follow him when I cleared my throat. He turned and gazed at me impassively, waiting for me to speak.

“Master Guns, what the hell happened? Any idea what was up with those kids? And why did farm – I mean Smith fire upon me?”

He seemed to mull over his answer before he sighed, turned around, closed the door and came over to stand next to the bed. He looked tired and haggard, more so than I was used to seeing after action like we had been through. “Young,” he began. “You are to forget all about the kids, and that is directly from the higher ups. What you and Smith discovered is now classified and need to know, and you know the drill…”

We spoke at the same time “You don’t need to know,” we both grinned. It was not a forced grin this time, like I had seen so many times over the missions we had been on together. Without his typical rough demeanor, he actually looked human, not like an asshole.

He blew out his cheeks and rubbed at the back of his neck. “Smith is fine. He got banged up, but he’ll be rejoining the squad in a few weeks. Psi-tech is currently running some tests on him and they’re trying to figure out what happened.”

“Fucking farm-boy shot me!” I growled and pointed at my bruised ribs and stomach.

“And if it wasn’t for your armor, you’d be taking a nice dirt-nap on Mars or enjoying a leisurely walk in the vacc right now...” he sighed and closed his eyes and then opened them to look at me. “Look, Young… all I can say is this – Smith was not in control of himself,” when I opened my mouth to protest, he held up a hand, killing my words before they could be spoken. “Don’t ask. When you see him again, don’t ask him about it. You’re both under strict orders to keep your traps shut. Am I clear?”

“As crystal, Master Gunnery Sergeant Twikks!”

“Alright then - heal up, Young. Read over the after-action report. Your side of the story has already been included. We’re heading for Mars right now, so once we hit dirt-side you’ll have a week’s R&R.”

Now that was something I was looking forward to!  Martian beer, some genetically modified beef steaks, and some red girls, clean of disease and ripe for the picking. “Sounds good, Master Guns.”

Twikks nodded. “Young – as much as it pains me to say this, you did good. Really good. At least you didn’t freeze up like you did on Hade’s 4.”

I winced. That was one hell of a fight, and it was the first time I had seen action. I was so green, right out of boot-camp that I shit and pissed green. When we were facing down the double c’s, I lost it. Thank fuck that did not happen this time, but I can’t say it won’t happen again in the future.

Or can I? Sure, I threw out some of the basic training we underwent and did some really stupid things… and that got me wondering… why did I do some of those wet-behind-the-ears stunts? Was I trying to impress someone? Emerson maybe?

As if reading my thoughts, Twikks grinned. “You kind of forgot trigger control, but we were pleased that you finally remembered it later in the battle.”

“Thanks,” I said, half meaning it.

“You showed some excellent thinking while you were in the thick of it, although if you want to live to become an old marine, you better stop with the grandstanding.”

“Understood Master Gunnery Sergeant!” I practically shouted. This was something I never had expected to get from Twikks… praise. I was used to him insulting me, giving me looks that would make a corpse cringe and hair to curl, and no matter what I did I was always on his bad side. At least I never got the dreaded face palm.  Maybe he wasn’t so damn bad after all.

Several long seconds passed before he finally cleared his throat. “I’ve seen worse dust-ups, but the double c’s cost us a lot of good men and women.”

If I thought getting praise from the old man was shocking, this would have knocked me right on my ass if I had not already been lying down. “True that, Master Guns,” I rubbed my eyes and tried not to think of the faces I would never see again. Some of them were dicks, others were pretty good people. It’s always hard to deal with the loss and if you were a good person, you never did get used to it. The Marines we lost on Hades 4 still haunt my dreams, and sometimes my waking hours.

“How do you handle it, Master Guns?” I finally got him, he wasn’t able to hide the look of surprise on his face, but instead of getting angry and ripping me a new asshole, he sighed.

“You never get used to it, and you just have to move on and hope the next group of rookies you train take to heart what you try and teach them.”

“Understood Master Guns.”

“One last thing…”

I raised an eyebrow, “Master Guns?”

“You’re promotion came through – congratulations Corporal.”

“I am?” I blurted out stupidly.

“Yeah you are. You’ve been a little slow on the curve, but despite a few stupid moves on the station, you showed us you have what it takes,” he clasped his hands behind his back and slowly turned towards the exit. “Don’t make us regret our decision.”

“I won’t,” I promised. It was a promise I really hoped that I would be able to fulfill.

END