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It pissed him off royally, but Commander Bronse Chapel couldn’t help stumbling once again as the sand shifted from under his fast- paced footing. He corrected himself with a hard, jolting body movement in order to keep his balance, and the jerking motion elicited a soft, barely discernable groan from the burden on his back.
“How goes it, Chief?” he asked, pausing in his stride to request the answer and to allow his fellow soldier a few beats to grit out the agony that had to be washing through him by then.
“Just waiting on my encore, sir,” Chief Trick Hwenk responded with the traditional gung- ho attitude of an ETF ofﬁcer, his young voice sounding suddenly much younger and far weaker than it had two miles back.
Chapel hesitated and then shifted the weight of his human burden up a little higher against his spine and shoulders, wishing that the grip Trick had on him was not getting so obviously lax. Bronse could smell the injured soldier’s blood just as easily as he could feel it soaking through his gear where the man was slumped over his back. The commander had a well- powered grip around the younger man’s thighs and knees as the soldier rode piggyback. But if the kid couldn’t hold on to his shoulders, they’d be in deep shit, and Bronse felt that fact clear to his straining bones.
“All right, Chief. Just hang by your grip for three more miles and we’ll be in the nest. Of course, that means you’ll have to listen to the medics bitch at you for a few days,” Bronse noted, using the jovial reminder as a cover for restarting their staggering progress across the ever-shifting sand. Bronse narrowed his eyes behind his goggles, peering at the west sandline. The wind was getting antsy, but he couldn’t yet see a cloud forming on the line. That was a blessing, at least. Provided it stayed that way. The last thing they needed to contend with was a sand hurricane.
Bronse went back to concentrating on where he was putting his feet, and how fast he could risk going without jostling his precious burden too dangerously. His every muscle burned from the exertion, but he welcomed it. He preferred being soaked in sweat, working himself to the limit of his endurance and pounding out what ever was necessary to see a certain goal achieved. He’d always felt the most in control when he had that kind of dedicated focus, and he supposed that was what had gotten him the command position on the First Active squad of the ETF in the ﬁrst place.
Then again, he had wanted to be an Interplanetary Militia soldier since ...
Well, his matra would swear it was since they cut the cord, and his patra would have proudly boasted that it was set down in his very genes, but Bronse remembered the ﬁrst time he had seen a BioVid of the history of the Interplanetary Militia’s ETF when he was six years old. The IM was an intra/interplanetary peacekeeping and defensive military outﬁt, and it had existed for well over a century. The IM had been created as a joint military effort among the three inhabited planets in the system: Tari, Ulrike, and Ebbany. It had more or less succeeded in its charter of keeping the treatises of coexistence among the three entities, as well as managing missions of peace and humanity on and among the individual planets.
The IM had several specialized branches, but nothing compared to the Special Operations sector known as the Extreme Tactics Force. To a six- year- old the ETF had sounded deadly, dangerous, and exciting as all hell. Watching the BioVid had only conﬁrmed what Bronse had already dreamed of. Being in the ETF was a good way to get an adrenaline rush and have an opportunity to do things with nothing but your balls and your skills to get you out of hellish situations. Not to mention that it was an excellent way to get important body parts blown off.
Unfazed, Bronse had known right then that he was destined to be one of those elite soldiers, and nothing would stop him. Learning that kind of goal setting and determination at that young an age had served him well. Now, here he was, commander of the crack team of the First Active ETF soldiers. First Active meant they were the lead team and were always called ﬁrst for an assignment, and it meant that his team was the best of the best. They were the ones who went to do the impossible in the worst situations, maintaining a no fear/no fail/no fatality motto that was rarely betrayed.
That motto was balanced on Bronse’s back at the moment, losing blood too fast for what remained of a three- mile hike. But Bronse was doing his damndest to make them the fastest miles ever to be hiked on sand. He’d never lost a team member in the ﬁeld, and he wasn’t about to start with a rookie communications ofﬁcer who had balls the size of jumbo adder crystals. The kid had more than proved his grit today. Trick might be their newest and youn gest member, but Bronse had known the minute he’d laid eyes on him that he was the perfect ﬁfth for his group. They’d been searching for a communications ofﬁcer for a whipsnout’s age, going through three washouts before Trick had sauntered onto the base, fresh out of the grueling ETF training program.
Trick had those blond boy- next- door good looks that you could see a block away, riveting blue eyes that penetrated at every glance, and the disarming manners and engaging charm to go with them. He’d been in the mess hall hardly ten minutes before he’d had a small harem of female ofﬁcers and noncoms all around him. They had been laughing and ﬂirting with him like they weren’t already surrounded by a cafe overﬂowing with virile, accessible men. Keeping in mind that militia women were not something one toyed with lightly, or at all for that matter, Trick’s magnetism was impressive.
Bronse had turned to Lasher and said that any boy who could communicate that well with IM women deserved their team position as communications ofﬁcer. Lasher had agreed, looking mighty impressed himself. Another recommendation in and of itself because very little impressed Bronse’s second in command. So Trick had joined Bronse, Lasher, Justice, and Ender’s First Active ETF team all of two months back, and this had been their third mission out since the team had been locked in. The ﬁrst two missions had been sterling. Chief Hwenk had proved himself capable of jacking into everything from TransTel satellites to the antennae of a Flibbean ground slug. The boy was a damn miracle worker.
The third mission, however, had run into a bit of a snafu.
Bronse had to stop again, this time so they both could toss back a few gulps of nutria- treated water. The sand and sun, not to mention Bronse’s labors, were sucking the hydration right out of his body. The Grinpar Desert on Ebbany was merciless in that respect. Actually, it was merciless in all respects. Only the Great Being knew why anyone would want to ﬁght over the right to live on such a forsaken piece of hell- acre. The sand hurricanes alone could rip solid stone out of the ground. A person caught aboveground was as good as dead, or at least scoured to a bloody stump.
To make matters worse, the sand was black.
That meant it soaked up the rays of the sun all day and could melt or burn the hell out of anything that touched it, stumbled in it, or outright fell down looking to bake their face. Only the special protection of the soldiers’ boots and clothes kept them from this type of fate. That and Bronse’s impressive sense of balance.
The faster they were out of that hostile environment, the better, Bronse thought as he began to trek off again.
For this mission, the team had split up to do reconnaissance at two separate locations. Bronse hadn’t recommended or approved of that plan. However, due to the sand hurricanes and an awkwardly timed insert by their command center, they hadn’t had the time to recon their target sites in succession. Their limited circumstances had meant hitting the recon objectives simultaneously, which meant either aborting to a later mission or splitting up a single team right then. Abortion meant doubling the danger of detection, doubling the risk to lives. Bronse had given in to his upper command and split his team. Justice, Lasher, and Ender had taken the north site, and Bronse and Trick had taken the northwest target. Bronse and Trick had been ﬁlling PhotoVids with recon information when they’d been made. Bronse still couldn’t ﬁgure out how it had happened. They’d been silent and— wearing black— all but invisible. The Nomaad patrol had jumped them from behind, six to two, and the indigenous life- form’s guards had been very skilled in hand- to- hand ﬁghting.
Still, nothing compared to ETF training. Especially when it came to hand- to- hand ﬁghting. Bronse and the kid had moved like lightning to eliminate their threat, working silently so as not to alert any other patrols.
Trick hadn’t even cried out when he’d been pig- stuck by a wicked Nomaadic knife with a dual edge and hooks in the hilt meant to either hold the knife in, or rip ﬂesh violently away if the wielder recalled the blade. Trick had done the smart thing, bracing a hand to hold the knife in place as he cut off the Nomaad’s hand at the wrist. No small feat that, Bronse knew.
Though he rarely made a sound to reﬂect it, Trick still had the six- inch blade stuck deep in his gut, the hilt of which Bronse could see if he glanced past his arm on the left- hand side. Removing the blade would guarantee Trick’s death. Moving Trick, every step and every slide in the sand, jiggled sharpened metal against the fragile pink tissue inside the young soldier’s belly. But Bronse had no choice. The area had been too hot for a pickup with the light transport ship they’d brought for the recon. Plus, covert reconnaissance produced little advantage if you announced you’d been there with the screaming engines of a ﬂight ship.
With luck, a sand hurricane would hit within a couple of hours and the patrol that had jumped them would be considered lost to it. There certainly wouldn’t be any traces of bodies or blood. Bronse had already seen to that. In and out like ghosts— that was how ETF preferred to do their work. It was such a habit for Bronse to cover his own tracks that he could cook a four- course meal in a stranger’s house and leave them none the wiser for it by the time he’d ﬁnished. His ex- wife, Liely, claimed he’d done the same thing to their marriage. She’d insisted that, for the two years they had been wed, she had hardly known he was there.
He’d never understood why she’d been so surprised by that. What had she expected it to be like? He’d been ETF born and bred— ate it, breathed it, practically made love to it— and she’d always told him that this was a major turn- on for her. She had sought him out, not the other way around. Having a relationship had been nowhere on Bronse’s radar. He’d learned years ago that the Extreme Tactics Force and long- term liaisons did not mix. But Liely had come on strong, oozing attractive enticement, hero worship, and a hell- acre of wild and adventurous sex. It wasn’t often that a soldier argued with that kind of easy fortune. She’d been smart, witty, and sizzling hot, seemingly with a good head on her about what it meant to hang around with a First Active soldier who shipped off in a heartbeat when called. With the volatile politics and disturbances of three planets to manage, that tended to be fairly often. Hell, she’d waved him off and hugged him hello every time without a single complaint, and after a while he believed that he’d found the rare fortune of a woman worth asking to marry. She’d said yes before he’d even ﬁnished popping the question.
And that was when everything changed. Or nothing changed, according to his discontented wife. Liely had bitched and moaned nonstop about his “inaccessibility” and how lonely she was all the time. Why wasn’t he home more often? He had a family now, so why didn’t he change— work a desk, get promoted so he’d make more money. Her logic was lost on him when she told him she’d expected it to be “different” once they were married. He’d been dumbfounded. He’d never once intimated that he saw himself changing for any reason. Still, Liely thought he should make concessions to coddle a whining wife— just because.
Grounds for a segregation? Yeah, inevitably it had been. Like every other ﬁght, he’d done it quickly and quietly, putting an end to his mistake as soon as he legally could.
Bronse wasn’t introspective at heart. He had a very basic makeup and that never required much self- discovery. However, he moved better when he kept his mind occupied with a lot of things at once. He kept his attention on the terrain, checked the sandline, and kept an ear out for any agony on Trick’s part, but the rest of him did whatever it took to make travel through the awful conditions ﬂy by faster.
The transport was waiting another mile and a half away now, the closest they could get and stay undercover. Justice and Lasher had wanted to trek out to meet him, but he didn’t want them in the sand so close to a hurricane event. Bronse’s equipment had read the storm forming an hour ago. By now it was fast approaching, and he’d soon see it on the sandline. He wouldn’t risk them as well as himself and Trick. He knew that his decision had burned them, knew they were furious with him, but they’d obeyed and would continue to obey unless he said otherwise.
It rubbed them the wrong way, though— this group who lived by the motto no fear/no fail/no fatality— to be coddled by their commanding ofﬁcer like a father protecting his children.
Bronse looked over to the distant sandline. The sky was becoming obscured with swirling black and violet clouds, and ground lightning was illuminating the funnels and downdrafts of the approaching hurricane.
“Hey, Boss,” Trick spoke up in a rasp of repressed pain, “not that I’m complaining, but I hope I won’t be washing sand out of every crack and crevice for the next few weeks.”
“Can you think of a better way to encourage you to take a bath once in a while?” Bronse retorted breathlessly as he tried to pick up his pace and keep jostling to a minimum. “Gonna need a sand hurricane to scour the stink off you, boy.”
“That’s just—” Trick broke off his riposte to grit a low sound of agony through his throat. “Arrrhh!”
“Hang on, kid. Last leg. And I’ll beat the storm with at least a minute to spare.”
Trick’s forehead fell limply against the back of Bronse’s
neck. The pain had to be horrible, Bronse knew, even though Trick had barely made a sound. The pain was communicated in the feel of the boy’s skin— both clammy and hot— and in the slackening of Trick’s strength and grip. He was losing consciousness, and Bronse wasn’t sure that it wouldn’t be the kinder thing, as long as the kid didn’t slip off his back. Bronse leaned into his trek, keeping Trick pitched forward against his spine and balancing him even more as he went limper, ﬁnally falling unconscious.
Trick was out, and Bronse could feel it in every ounce of the body on his back. He had always been fascinated by why that made a difference. It was a balance and weight distribution factor, he knew logically. The person wasn’t awake to best center himself on the person who carried him. Still, it was remarkable how consciousness, or lack thereof, made such a difference in the feel of their weight.
Bronse realized he was grasping for thoughts. Practically babbling in his own mind, really. But he had to do something to make himself move faster, maintaining burden and strength, beating out the storm, and not second- guessing himself about why he wouldn’t have the rest of the team come out to meet them.
“That was cutting it close!”
Justice made the declaration seconds before she yanked and banked the transport away from the approach of the storm. She pitched up toward the higher atmosphere of Ebbany, the gravity decks working hard to compensate so the team didn’t end up spilled across the ﬂooring. But it wasn’t Justice that Bronse was worried about. All of his concern was aft, in medbay, with Trick and the medic. But because he needed to hear his team’s report, he had to fulﬁll command ﬁrst and let the others get back to him as to Trick’s progress.
“I sure hope we don’t have to ﬁnd another nav/com ofﬁcer,” Justice quipped over her shoulder. “They come and go so fast around here; I’m getting tired of wiping the butt streaks off this chair.” She nodded to the empty chair behind her and to her right.
“That isn’t funny, Captain,” Bronse said sternly, looking up from his VidPad, where he was recording his portion of the report before transmission.
“You’re right, sir. I’m sorry, sir,” she agreed quickly.
Captain Justice Mulettere was looking straight ahead, pi loting them out of the atmosphere and into the starred darkness of space, but she was also glancing in her back-view disc. She kept the little shiny disc clipped to her console so she could see the activity behind her. Not having to turn around to see what her crewmates were up to made for better pi loting. The ship’s designers could have set the pi lot’s chair farther back, she supposed, but she preferred models like the transport which let her feel the nose of the craft around her rather than the pi lot’s chair being mufﬂed in its mid- section.
So she could clearly see Commander Chapel’s reﬂection in her shiny disc as he sat sprawled in the command chair behind her. He hadn’t even paused to breathe after dropping Trick on the medbay table and ordering her to get the transport out of there. The commander had come forward, sat down still drenched in sweat and blood and caked black sand, and gone right to his report. The trek had been brutal on him, and she could see the tremors in his overexerted muscles, even via the disc. She wasn’t one to second- guess her commanding ofﬁcer, but she hadn’t understood why he wouldn’t let them meet up with him so they could help bring Trick in. Was Bronse protecting them? They were ETF, for Great Being’s sake. They were supposed to stick their necks out. But she’d known her superior ofﬁcer for a while now, and she suspected that Bronse had been a little wrecked up about letting the new kid get tanked. The commander got very strict after one of them got hurt. His personal motto, they had learned, was no fear/no fail/no fatality, and no fuckups.
Justice sighed. The episode with Trick meant they’d be running rigorous drills and extreme training again during their next downtime. Not that she minded, because a girl had to do something to keep her ﬁgure, but she did wish that Bronse would parallel that way of thinking with other things sometimes. Like snapping a bootlace would mean a day of intensive shoe shopping. She chuckled noiselessly to herself, trying to picture the hulking men she was teamed with sitting in a shoe emporium, eating canapés and sipping Lathe wine, while salers slid the latest in fashionable shoes onto their feet, one after another. Actually, Lasher was a mighty ﬁne fashion plate when he was out of uniform, Justice mused. He would probably get a kick out of a day of shoe shopping.
But Commander Chapel was plainly not in a mood to appreciate her humorous ideas on these matters, so she kept them to herself. Perhaps she would share them later with Lasher. And Trick would get a kick out of them for sure.
Justice frowned, hoping that Trick would be all right. She had faith in their medic; he could hold the kid over until they returned to Ulrike. The best medical care in the tri- planet system was on their base planet. Once they got the kid there, he would be good as new.
Of the three worlds, Ulrike was the most advanced and civilized in many ways besides medical care. The ETF was based there, as was IM headquarters. Although the planet was half land and half water, most of the landmass was settled and there were few uninhabited areas.
Not like Ebbany, the planet they had just left. Ebbany was mostly landmass, with little in the way of water and oceans. That made for a high percentage of deserts covering the face of the planet. However, the Ebbanites had managed to eke out an impressive civilization along the edges of the waters. Yet the bane of the peace seekers were the barbarians of the wilderness areas and the Nomaad populations wandering the desert highlands and the lowlands of belowground caverns that stretched for hundreds of miles in all directions. The endless squabbles and arming for war, especially in the Grinpar Desert, had begun to make Justice feel like she would be wearing black camouﬂage for the rest of her life.
If Ulrike and Ebbany were polar opposites in civilization, however, Tari had to be the middle ground. Living there was rough, whether you chose jungle or desert, city or country, or life on the many colony platforms sharing the planetary orbits and sight line between Tari and its forested moon of Adia. The platforms were situated in a line from Tari to Adia like metallic stepping-stones, each one housing tens of thousands of citizens. They had the best advantages and technologies that life had to offer, their supplies often coming straight from Ulrike, where they got ﬁrst dibs on imports before they even ﬁltered down to the planet itself.
The trouble with Tari was that each colony was a faction unto itself, and they were always squabbling over trading rights or imagined slights from another colony. Feuding was frequent, and policing the colonies was difﬁcult because it was hard to blend in on a ﬂoating piece of metal where everyone lived in close quarters and was wary of strangers. Planetside wasn’t much better. Trading rights were a bone of contention there too. Traders ﬁgured, why spend time ﬂying all the way to the planet surface when they could simply go to the nearest platform colony. This meant that by the time goods ﬁltered down the line to the planet, the prices were exorbitant.
Only half the planet was settled; the other half was a wild frontier that drew adventurers, troublemakers, and a serious criminal element.
Tari was one of Justice’s favorite places. She had grown up on one of its platforms— a middle- class upbringing in a place that, to be frank, had been ﬂat, cold and gray. Still it had had more than its share of dangers for a young girl. A contrast to platform life, the wilderness on Tari held a wild, colorful appeal for her. It was a matter of honesty, she thought. At least when you went to the Tari plains and rises, you knew you were headed into blatant dangers, unlike space colony life, where you thought you were safe, yet good faces held hazards in camouﬂage. Justice had always preferred the honesty of knowing you were in constant jeopardy.
Rather like her career choice.
She had enlisted in the IM right out of school, letting them teach and train her, letting herself be the perfect lump of clay for them to mold into the perfect soldier. Now she was one of the top ﬁve pi lots in the Special Forces communities; she was one of only ten female ETF ofﬁcers, and she was on Commander Bronse Chapel’s First Active ETF team. Chapel was a legend in his own time, and there wasn’t an ETF soldier who wouldn’t give his right arm to be on his elite team. Justice had been in her exalted position for three years now, and she had thrilled in every minute of it.
“Out of atmosphere; out of orbit trafﬁc, Commander,” she reported automatically as they pulled away from Ebbany and headed fast toward Ulrike.
“Thirty- two hours, sir.”
“That long?” came the sharp demand.
“This is only an XJL transport, sir,” she reminded him with gentle respect. “I don’t have any zip. Just handling for best travel and evasion on the planetary surfaces. I can do only thirty- two hours at top mach.”
Bronse’s jaw clenched, and Justice could see a nerve tick angrily in his temple. The one thing none of them ever had to doubt was that their best interests and safety were at the heart of Commander Chapel’s every motivation. The entire team trusted their lives to him, and with good reason. They had seen Chapel do much more miraculous things to save the lives of his crew than humping out a kid with a six- inch blade in his belly, over black sand, in hostile territory, and a sand hurricane nipping at his heels.
Justice tired of watching her commander in the disc. Now that they were in the void of space, she ﬂipped on her autopi lot and swung out of her chair as if she were dismounting a horse. She strolled back to the supplies chest secured against the rear deck plates, and unlatched it with a hiss as it released its airtight seal. She ﬁshed out a ﬁrst- aid case and resealed the chest. Then she walked up to the commander, who had gone back to typing his report, the blunt tips of his ﬁngers dashing over the electronic keyboard of the handheld VidPad. She opened the kit and, without bothering to ask for permission, she began to tend the wounds he had sustained in his ﬁght.
He had a cut over his left eye that would need knitting, a great deal of generalized bruising that a heal patch would take care of over the next twenty- four hours, and a bitching case of sunburn that was already beginning to blister. He had apparently lost his protective headgear in the ﬁght, which had left him exposed to the sun. Justice would bet he had a hell- acre of a sun-induced headache as well. He had the misfortune of having coal black hair, and, like the black sand, it had absorbed every ray of brutal sun that had beaten down on him. Justice selected two heal patches from the kit and slapped one on Bronse’s left arm and the other under the hair on the back of his thick neck. When she pulled back, he was looking at her, a brow quirked up in curiosity. A light scar cut through the peak of his brow, accentuating the arch.
“Two?” he asked dryly.
“Yeah.” She grinned, pausing brieﬂy to nibble on the gum between her back teeth. “One for reabsorption and swelling reduction.”
“And the other?”
“To cut the pain of the headache and sunburn.”
She looked studiously into the ﬁrst- aid case as she spoke, so she could only feel the narrowing of his eyes on her at ﬁrst. Not one to give in to cowardice, not even in the face of Commander Chapel’s disapproval, she smiled sweetly at him as she looked up.
“You gave me a narcotic?” he growled dangerously, reaching for the patch on the back of his neck. He looked up in surprise when she caught his huge ﬁst in her palm, staying his actions. “Back off, Captain,” he barked shortly.
“Uh... with all due respect . . . bite me, Commander,” she retorted with lazy, unconcerned wit. “It’s only a low dose, meant to counter the dip when your adrenaline plummets. Which will be any minute now. When it drops, your pain will kick in. I’ve been around this block enough to know. If you want to stay lucid, you have to let me cut away at your nerves a little. Otherwise, you won’t be able to focus and stay alert with us.”
“I don’t like my reﬂexes being diminished or my perceptions screwed around with,” he argued predictably.
“That’s why it’s a low dose,” she reiterated. “And that’s why I used a patch and not a hyperspray. If we run into trouble, you just yank it off and you’ll be right in ten minutes, ﬁfteen tops.
“I know.” She held up a hand to forestall his coming argument. “A lot can happen in ten minutes. But you have to trust me. I’d rather you be half- narced without pain than blinded by the agony that we both know is coming. If I let the medic look at you, he’d lock you in medbay. At least this way I can tell him I gave you ﬁrst aid and he can focus solely on Trick. Don’t you think I know that’s why you ran out of medbay— before the medic could get a look at you?”
“Fine. I’ll leave it for now,” he acquiesced as if it were a heavy travail. “But next time, ask and present arguments before just doing it, okay? I’m not ignorant. I can listen to reason.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
“Jus, I want you to stay at the stick for a while. I know you’re tired and the autopi lot could get us there in its sleep, but I have . . . I have a strange feeling. Let’s just keep alert, okay?”
“Roger that, sir.”
Justice put away the case and slung herself back into her seat, keeping her eyes on her monitors.
Despite Bronse’s worries, they reached Ulrike without mishap or event. Justice swung into port on the IM space station that rotated in Ulrike’s orbit with smooth grace in spite of its enormity. Thousands of troops moved in and out of the station, known as Station Zero, every day, at all hours, and the time of their approach was no different. Since IM acted in the role of law enforcement as well as militia, personnel were constantly shifting. Station Zero was a major exchange port, situated equidistant from Tari and Ebbany and practically on top of Ulrike.
Shortly after the XJL landed on the tarmac, the doors of the cargo hold lowered to reveal the entire squad standing at the ready. Trick was supported on each side by two team members, their arms linked to form a human sedan chair of sorts to support their injured comrade.
Justice and Lasher stood on the right, Bronse and Ender on the left. Bronse was, of course, in front, his thick wrist and forearm linked beneath Trick’s thighs with Lasher’s equally powerful grasp. At a soft sound from their commander, the team strode forward in a perfectly timed march, cushioning Trick, yet precise and proud in step so no one could mistake them for anything but the mighty warriors they were. Wounded team members of the ETF had always been brought home in such a manner, their heads held high, keeping them from being the object of pity or dismay, something every soldier dreaded in moments like this.
Silence fell over the soldiers crowded around waiting for their departing ﬂights. A respectful silence. All braced their legs and linked their hands behind their backs in honorable attention as the ETF ofﬁcers carried their injured man past them, heading for the station medical facilities.