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Legio Patria Nostra

(The Legion is Our Country)

A Legion of the Damned® story

by William C. Dietz

Chapter One

War makes thieves and peace hangs them.

George Herbert

Standard year circa 1620

The moon HE24-6743

If the moon had a name, it was a Hudathan name, since the satellite was orbiting a world that the Hudathans laid claim to. But, like everything else in the sector of space sandwiched between the Hudathan Empire and the Confederacy of Sentient Beings, the moon was open to attack.

Legion Captain Damien Chozick was strapped into a chair located aft of the control well in which the ship's captain, pilot, and navigator were seated. And, as the thirty-year-old destroyer escort Mohawk crept even closer to the moon, all eyes were on the wrap-around screen in front of them. One side of the Hudathan base was obscured by dark shadows, while the other was brightly lit. Craters pitted the surface of the moon and some were filled with what Chozick assumed to be junk. Crawler tracks ran between them.

The purpose of the mission was to pound the moon base into submission, land, and gather intelligence. Then Chozick and his legionnaires were supposed to destroy key components of the facility on their way out. A hit-and-run operation of the sort that they had carried out many times in the past. Except that something was wrong. The ridgeheads weren't shooting at the Mohawk, but they should have been. Why not? Were the Hudathans incompetent? Never. What did that leave then? A trap? That made sense. The aliens were waiting for the Mohawk to get closer, and, once she did, the bastards would open fire.

The DE was only a couple of hundred feet off the surface and creeping along. A docking tower loomed up ahead. It was at least three hundred feet tall and, in spite of its flimsy appearance, capable of servicing two ships at a time. That was because each vessel would weigh only a fraction of what it would on an Earth normal planet. One landing cradle was empty but a Hudathan transport was cradled in the other. It was surrounded by a complicated tracery of robotic machinery, some of which was connected to the ship.

That was strange. The freighter should be making a run for it. And the trap, if there was one, should have been sprung by then. As the DE coasted toward the base, the ship's sensors probed the surrounding area for any signs of life. The technician's voice was tight but calm. "Scanning... Scanning... Scanning... There are patches of heat but all of them are static so far. The only sign of electromechanical activity is an automated docking system that is broadcasting in Hudathan.”

Lieutenant Commander Angie Dickerson was the Mohawk's commanding officer. And like the ship herself, had been called out of retirement to fill a slot that should belong to someone twenty years younger. Her white hair was worn in a crew cut, her eyes were like chips of turquoise, and she had the no-nonsense manner of an officer who had seen most everything. "Alright Captain Chozick... This would be a good time to join your company. I suggest that you secure the Hudathan ship before going down to inspect the rest of the base. If the freighter blows, and takes the Mohawk with it, you'll have a long walk home.”

The odds that the ridgeheads would blow up a ship and toast a docking tower to destroy the Mohawk were pretty slim, but it paid to be cautious. Chozick said, "Roger that," as he freed himself from the six-point harness and stood. The DE's argrav generator was on, so it was a simple matter to make his way down the main corridor to a sealed hatch. Once it cycled open he entered a second passageway. It led to another hatch and the sign that read, "UNPRESSURIZED COMPARTMENT”. Racks of equipment were located on both sides of the entryway.

While at battle stations, all of the ship's crew members were required to wear skintight counter-pressure suits and keep their helmets close at hand. Chozick was no exception. So all he had to do to get ready was secure his brain bucket to the suit's neck ring and put on a combat rig with integral air supply. After running a series of tests to make sure that everything was operating properly, he entered the lock.

Once the air had been removed, hatch two opened into a cargo compartment that could be used for a wide variety of missions, including the transportation of ground troops. In this case, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion of the 4th Regiment. Bravo Company was an infantry outfit to which a platoon of cavalry had been attached to give it some extra heft. And that was potentially important when battling aliens who stood eight-feet-tall and weighed three to four hundred pounds.

Had Chozick been a different sort of officer, and had his company been comprised of the usual mix of ex-criminals, misfits and adventurers for which the Legion was known, someone might have shouted, "Atten-hut!” But Chozick had gone to considerable lengths to recruit only the most venal soldiers into his outfit. So his arrival was greeted with remarks like, "There he is", "Here we go", and "Listen up".

Most of the legionnaires were bio bods, but some ten-foot-tall cyborgs were present as well, and could be seen toward the back of the hold. "Okay, we're about to dock, so grab something solid," Chozick advised them. "And keep your eyes peeled once we're clear of the ship. The Hudathans should be shooting at us by now, but they aren't, so something strange is going on.

"The 1st platoon will remain here and guard the Mohawk. Once we get outside you'll see that a Hudathan ship is berthed side-by-side with this one. The 2nd platoon will enter and secure it. As that's taking place, the 3rd will make its way down to the surface and await further orders. Remember, there isn't much gravity out there, so if you jump up off the ground it will be a long time before you come down. If you come down. So follow the low grav protocols they taught you in basic."

Chozick's comments were interrupted as Dickerson's voice was heard in their helmets. "Standby for docking in five, four, three, two, one.” The last digit was followed by a heavy impact as the Mohawk settled onto the cradle formed by four skeletal arms. One bio bod landed on his ass. That provoked gales of laughter from the others along with lots of snide remarks.

"Last, but not least," Chozick said, "it is our patriotic duty to liberate any valuables that the ridgeheads left laying around. But remember, all for one, and one for all. Anyone who tries to short the team will wind up on the KIA list. Do you copy?"

There had been three such deaths during the last ten missions, and all of the legionnaires were aware of it. So there was no response other than silence. Chozick nodded. "Good... Put your helmets on, seal 'em, and standby.

A light flashed two minutes later and the legionnaires heard a warning tone as Chozick led them into a huge lock. Once the door closed behind them an antibacterial mist fogged the lock. The moment the decontamination sequence was complete, Chozick led them across a ramp to the walkway that paralleled the ship. He went first because that was his inclination and because the men, women, and cyborgs under his command expected him to take the same chances they did. That was part of the unwritten contract that bound them together. The planet Krang hung over them. Most of the visible surface was tan, but the poles were white, and patches of blue could be seen through holes in the cloud cover.

The ramp bounced slightly as Chozick slip-slid forward, weapon at the ready. Now, he thought to himself. Now they'll spring the trap. But nothing happened as he led the 1st platoon across a connecting causeway to the alien ship. It was small and capable of landing on a planetary surface. The hull was aerodynamically smooth, but somewhat bulky, not unlike the whales in Earth's oceans.

After arriving on the cradle that supported the freighter, Chozick turned left and made his way to the point where an open hatch gave access to a large Hudathan-sized lock. Chozick waved a demolitions team forward. Then he turned to discover that the company's new Field Intelligence Robot was standing a couple of feet away. The name "Orson" was stenciled across the android's chest, but everybody referred to it as "Shithead."

Was the robot what it purported to be? An intelligence gathering device conceived by some fat-assed staff officer? Or was it somebody's effort to spy on him? Chozick didn't know or care because Shithead's life expectancy was less than two hours long.

There was a verbal warning followed by a soundless explosion, a flash of light, and a sudden trash storm as air rushed out of the compartment just beyond the lock. That should piss the ridgeheads off, but there was no response as Chozick checked the heads-up display (HUD) projected on the inside surface of his visor.

A variety of information was available to him; including a line diagram of where he was in relation to the Mohawk, POV shots for every person in the company, and more. At the moment, he wanted to ensure that his helmet cam was functioning properly so he would have footage for the battalion's Intel officer to look at. Not because he cared, but because it was necessary to look like he cared, and Shithead wasn't going to make it back. Fortunately the helmet cam was in good working order so that, plus footage from the rest of the legionnaires, it would give the chair warriors something to do.

The lighting was dim inside the ship--but not so dim that Chozick couldn't recognize the dead body for what it was. Or had been. Because the sudden loss of pressure within the ship had done horrible things to what had been a Hudathan. "He died of natural causes," Shithead observed, as it knelt next to the pile of raw meat. The robot's hands were steady as they took a tissue sample.

"How do you know that?" Chozick demanded.

"He wasn't wearing a pressure suit," the robot replied. "And, based on that, I think it's safe to assume that the rest of the crew died of natural causes as well. A highly communicable disease would explain it."

That was a breathtaking leap in Chozick's opinion, but one that seemed to be born-out as the legionnaires pushed deeper into the ship, and came across more bodies. Plus the robot's theory explained why none of the aliens were clad in pressure suits and didn't try to defend their ship. As for the base, well, time would tell.

Form follows function, or so the saying goes, so, even though Hudathan minds had been responsible for designing the, ship it bore similarities to Human vessels. Two main corridors ran parallel to each other. Passageways connected the corridors together and provided access to various compartments. The legionnaires didn't have enough time to investigate each nook and cranny. But when they saw something that might have some value they were quick to grab it. So it wasn't long before Chozick spotted bio bods carrying enormous back swords, bulky sidearms, and all manner of alien knickknacks. Would the loot slow them down in an emergency? Of course it would--but that was one of the tradeoffs Chozick had to accept in order to have the type of company he wanted. The kind that was going to put some serious money in his pockets one day. Chozick's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Dickerson's voice in his helmet. "This the Captain... Give me a sitrep. Over."

Chozick told her about the bodies and passed Shithead's analysis off as his own. "Okay," Dickerson said. "An epidemic would explain it. But remember that some survivors could be holed up somewhere--and a Hudathan ship could arrive at any moment. Should that occur the Mohawk would be easy meat for them. So finish the job as quickly as you can. Over."

Chozick wanted to say, "Get over yourself, bitch," but didn't. He acknowledged the order by chinning his mike two times, instead.

The next transmission was from First Sergeant Kobo. An especially brutal noncom who liked to punctuate his orders with a swift kick in the ass. "Got something, boss. I think you should take a look."

A straight up company commander would have insisted that Kobo use proper radio protocol but that was the sort of thing that Chozick's people resented. The officer was in the control room at that point. Two Hudathans were present but both were dead. "Yeah? Where are you?"

"In the hold."

"On my way.” Chozick turned and saw that Shithead was seated in front of a terminal. Downloading data? That's the way it looked. Not that it mattered. "Take me to the hold," Chozick ordered.

Shithead had never been to the hold, but didn't hesitate. "Yes, sir." Chozick followed the android down a corridor and into a side passageway. It led to a lift. Once inside, Shithead chose one of five oversized buttons. That was when Chozick realized something he should have noticed before. The robot could read Hudathan! And, given its function, that made sense.

The elevator came to a stop, the door slid open, and Shithead stepped out. Chozick followed it down a corridor, past what might have been an engineering space, and through a lock. Kobo and a couple of bio bods were waiting in the compartment beyond. The noncom was big and looked bigger with the helmet on his head and the life support package on his back. Chozick nodded to him. "Whatcha got?"

"There's a bunch of boxes in the hold," Kobo answered, "but only one of them has a transparent lid. And it's located in the middle of the compartment, all special like."

Special treatment could be an indication of something valuable. Chozick nodded. "Show me."

Kobo led the officer back to the point where a large box sat resting on a couple of stands. Two lights were focused on the container which might be a further sign of its importance. Chozick stepped up to the container and looked down through the transparent duraplast. The first thing he saw was a skeleton, a Hudathan skeleton, with a long staff lying next to it. Chozick frowned. "You brought me down here to look at a dead Hudathan?"

Kobo was about to speak when Shithead answered for him. The robot had produced a thin cable which connected it to the jack panel at the head of the casket. "The body is that of Ho-La," it said solemnly. "He was a monk, a famous monk, who left Hudatha to live on a planet called Rain. His remains are one hundred and twenty-three years old and were on their way to Hudatha for safekeeping."

"Why?" Chozick demanded.

"Ho-La has a status similar to that of a Human saint," Shithead replied. "Though largely ignored, his teachings are greatly respected by all six Hudathan clans. It may be that the Hudathans were afraid that the Ramanthians would conqueror Rain, find the remains and desecrate them."

Chozick took the information in. A saint. A highly respected saint. How much would the ridgeheads pay to get the remains back? A million? Five million? It was a strange opportunity but one with considerable potential. "Sergeant Kobo, please accept my apologies. You are a fucking genius. Seal this container and move it to the Mohawk right away."

Kobo nodded. "Got it boss.” Then, having turned to the bio bods, he growled at them. "Well, don't just stand there... Find something to protect the coffin with. I'll call for some T-2s. They can carry it."

Chozick looked at Shithead just in time to see the wire disappear into the robot's olive-drab colored body. "Lead me down to the surface."

Shithead departed with Chozick and some bio bods following along behind. They left the ship, followed a causeway to the tower, and were on their way to the ground when Dickerson pinged him again. "The Captain here... Why can't we see your video feeds? Or hear any radio traffic? Over."

"It must be some sort of technical glitch," Chozick lied. "But I'll keep you informed. We cleared the ship and we're on our way to the base. Over."

"All right," Dickerson said irritably. "But pick up the pace. "We're sitting ducks. Over."

"Copy that," Chozick replied. Then, after breaking the connection, "Bitch."

A platoon of bio bods and some T-2s stood waiting as Chozick and his party arrived on the surface. The bipedal cyborgs stood ten-feet tall, could run at speeds up to fifty-miles per hour, and operate in a complete vacuum when necessary. For the purposes of the current mission each borg was equipped with grasper hands and carrying an energy cannon.

In terms of firepower each T-2 was the rough equivalent of eight fully armed bio bods. Two of them led the way as the legionnaires crossed a large expanse of open ground to reach the base. Tracks ran every-which-way across the surface of the moon, but most of them converged on a single spot. And that was the entrance to what Chozick imagined to be the headquarters building.

Unlike the hatch on the ship, the outer door was closed. "Blow it," Chozick ordered. "We'll split into teams once we get inside. I'll take the 1st squad, Lieutenant Ember will lead the 2nd, and Sergeant Howers will be in charge of the 3rd. Remember, we could run into survivors, so be careful."

Chozick's words were punctuated by a silent flash and a sudden dust storm. The interior had been pressurized, just as the ship had been, and any Hudathan not wearing a suit was dead meat. And ugly meat, at that.

They entered a huge lock. Tracked ground vehicles were parked next to a stack of cargo modules. Incoming supplies? Outgoing garbage? Intel would want to know. Chozick pointed to the pile. "Check those modules Sergeant Howes... and take Shithead with you. It can read Hudathan."

As Howes and his party split off Chozick and the rest of them passed through an open hatch and entered the building beyond. Chozick turned left at the first intersection while Lieutenant Ember and his legionnaires went right. The deck was littered with trash that had been sucked towards the lock when it blew. Some of it crunched under Chozick's boots as he passed the first of what would eventually be eleven dead bodies. Hudathans who, with only a few exceptions, were stretched out on bunks. A fact that suggested that they too had been terribly ill.

But how? Had the ship brought the disease to the station? Or had the personnel inside the base been sick when the freighter arrived? That was the sort of thing the spooks would try to figure out. Personally, so long as he and his people were safe, Chozick didn't care. And, by his reasoning, there was very little reason for concern. First, because it was very unlikely that a Human would be susceptible to a Hudathan disease. But, even if he was wrong, the entire company would have to pass through the antibiotic mist before they could reboard the ship.

After a quick tour of the hydroponics section Chozick and his team were headed back toward the lock when Howes spoke. "Hey, boss... Do you read me? Over."

"Roger that, over."

"We got something here. A container of what Shithead says is hafnium. Personally I ain't never heard of the stuff but Shithead says that the brass would want us to bring it back."

Chozick knew the android was correct because the officer made it his business to understand which substances were valuable and why. Hafnium was used to make high-temperature ceramics and the nickel based super alloys that were critical to manufacturing nozzles for plasma arc torches and nuclear control rods. That meant hafnium was always valuable. But now, in the middle of a war, the stuff would be priceless! If Howes was correct. "You're sure?”

"Hell no, I'm not sure," the noncom replied. "Shithead is sure. It wants us to load the container onto the ship."

"Shithead is correct," Chozick said, as his heart began to beat a little faster. "Round up as many cyborgs as you need and take that container up to the Mohawk. Over."

"I'm on it," Howes assured him. "Over."

Chozick could hardly believe his good fortune as he and his team exited the building. He could see Howes and four T-2s up ahead. They were carrying a cargo module between them, and puffs of moon dust shot up with each step. This was what Chozick had been hoping for. A BIG score. More than that, his personal freedom. If he had the balls to take the opportunity and make something of it. But did he?

* * *

Dickerson was feeling antsy and struggling to conceal it from the bridge crew. The Mohawk had been docked for one hour, twenty-six minutes, and seventeen seconds by that time. An eternity from her point of view, because the DE was stationary and, therefore, vulnerable to any vessel that happened along, which was bad enough.

But the fact that she didn't trust Captain Chozick made the situation even worse. The legionnaire hadn't done anything wrong. Not that she knew about anyway. But Dickerson was sixty-two years old, had dealt with a lot of people, and had learned to trust her instincts. And there was something about Chozick's coal chip eyes, his bladelike nose, and his thin lipped mouth that left her cold. So the incoming radio call came as a relief. "We're about to re-board," Chozick said. "I'll come forward and give you a report as soon as all of my people have cleared decontamination and are strapped in. Over."

"How long will that take? Over."

"Fifteen, max. We'll hurry. Over."

Thus reassured, Dickerson gave orders for all personnel to begin their preflight checks. That was more of a formality than anything else, since the crew had been ready to lift from the moment the ship put down. Still, it gave them something to do as Dickerson watched Chozick and his ruffians enter the lock. She wondered what was contained in the cargo module that the T-2s were hauling aboard. The fact that it was the second container the legionnaires had brought back might be an indicator of success. Dickerson turned away from the screen as the external hatch closed and antibacterial mist filled the lock.

There were plenty of things to think about as the Mohawk's crew prepared to get underway--so Dickerson didn't notice when Chozick entered the control room fifteen minutes later. She heard his voice and turned to see that he wasn't alone. Three heavily armed legionnaires stood flanking him. Dickerson frowned. "This is a restricted area, Captain... Please order your subordinates to return to the hold."

"I'll be making the rules from now on," Chozick said, and aimed a gun at her. Dickerson raised her hands to block the bullets. I was right, she thought to herself, and then it was over.

* * *

The gunshots were unnaturally loud in the close confines of the control room and Chozick saw Dickerson jerk as the slugs struck her chest. Her head flopped forward but a six-point harness held her upright.

Chozick lowered the pistol as he looked around. The pilot, navigator, and three techs all wore expressions of shocked disbelief. "We have the XO," he said calmly. "And the chief engineer. Both have agreed to cooperate. The plan is to take the Mohawk out to a planet on the rim. Those who wish to join us, and share in the take, can. The rest of the ship's personnel will be dropped at a point where they can find transportation. That means you have every reason to cooperate. Are there any questions? No? Fine. Let's get underway."

* * *

Shithead should have been dead. Would have been dead had it been Human. That's because the robot had been standing in line, waiting to enter the Mohawk's lock, when Chozick shot it in the face.

But unlike Human beings, Shithead's CPU was located in its torso rather than its head. So although the bullet destroyed a sub-processor responsible for speech the rest of the android's capabilities were unaffected. That meant Shithead was "alive" to the extent than any robot was alive, but had the good sense to fake its death, and was lying on its back as the Mohawk took off.

As repellors flared and the ship grew steadily smaller Shithead didn't feel any sense of anger or hopelessness. What was, was.

Finally, once the DE was lost among the unblinking stars, Shithead knew it was safe to stand up. Chozick was supposed to destroy key components of the base as he withdrew but hadn't. Why? The answer was obvious. The Human had experienced a malfunction of some sort. It made no difference. Shithead's duty was clear: Find a way off the moon, convey what it knew to the proper authorities, and request a new speech synthesizer. . In that order.

So Shithead followed the causeway to the tower and stepped onto the elevator. Once the robot reached the ground it began to walk. Each step produced a puff of bone dry dust which took a long time to fall.

As Shithead approached the crater it could see a tangle of what might have been old hydroponics tanks, the remains of a crawler, and a pile of scrap metal. None of which were of any interest. No, the android's attention was focused on the Human-made space ship it had seen from the top of the tower. It looked like a navy tug and lay in two pieces. Shithead didn't know how the tug had been acquired, or why the Hudathans cut it in two, nor did it care.

What Shithead wanted to know was whether the vessel was equipped with one of the new FTL comsets. If it was, and if the robot could get the piece of equipment up and running, it could call for help.

With that in mind, Shithead made a beeline for the bow section, entered through a large hole, and made its way to the control room. But, after scanning the interior with its headlamp, Shithead was forced to conclude that the lowly tug wasn't equipped with an FTL comset.

What about message torpedoes? Every ship carried them, and as it turned out, the tug was no exception. Unfortunately the nacelle from which the missiles were launched was located under the hull. And even with the moon's light gravity that section of the tug was too heavy for Shithead to lift.

So the robot was about to start for the headquarters building when it noticed something interesting. The tug was equipped with two lifeboats! One on each side of the hull. However, due to the way the ship was positioned, the boat on the port side was inaccessible. Still, that meant the boat on the starboard side was exposed. Or would be if Shithead found a way to open the bay where the boat was kept.

First, however, the robot needed to enter the escape craft and verify that it was still operable. An easy task, and one that went well. Thus encouraged, the machine went looking for an accumulator that still had some juice in it. After locating a power source, it was necessary to run a jumper cable from it to the servos that controlled the bay doors. They opened smoothly.

Having exposed the lifeboat to space, the next task was to charge the launching system which, under emergency conditions, would blow the emergency vehicle out into space. Unfortunately, part of the launch mechanism was damaged beyond repair. That meant the robot had to remove the broken parts and replace them with components salvaged from the port bay. A process that took three additional hours.

Finally, having restored the launching system to full functionality, it was time for Shithead to enter the tiny cockpit and strap itself in. Lifeboats were intentionally easy to launch, so all the android had to do was flip a red cover out of the way, and push a green button. The response was instantaneous. The control board lit up, a five-second count down began, and a signal was sent to the newly rejuvenated air compressor. It blew the lifeboat out and up. And, thanks to the moon's microgravity, there was plenty of time for the little in-system drive to fire. Shithead was jacked into the vessel's NAVCOMP by then, and ordered it get clear of Krang's gravity well as quickly as possible.

Then, once the lifeboat was well underway, it was time for the android to issue additional orders. The ship wasn't large enough to rate a hyperdrive, so Shithead couldn't jump to its destination. But it could head into Human space, find a nav beacon, and use its emergency com capability to send a message. Would the plan work? Shithead didn't know and didn't care. In the absence of something productive to do, it went to standby. There were no dreams, just a state of readiness, and that was all any robot could ask for.

Chapter Two

Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous.

Albert Einstein

The World As I See It

Standard year, 1949

The planet Algeron

Even though the planet Algeron had a breathable atmosphere and something close to Earth normal gravity, there was one way in which it was very different. And that was the fact that mountains divided the northern hemisphere from the southern. They were called The Towers of Algeron, and their highest peaks dwarfed Everest on Earth, and Olympic Mons on Mars. They were so massive that, if placed on Earth, the Towers would have sunk down through the planet's crust. But that wasn't going to happen because the mountains weighed half what they would on Earth due to the gravity differential between Algeron's relatively small poles and its equator.

All of which was fine with Legion Captain Dean "Deacon" Smith. It was the two-hour-and-forty-minute days that he disliked. But what was, was. And the short days, the bad weather, and hostile natives were a large part of why the first emperor had given the planet to the Legion more than a hundred years earlier. The unspoken reason being his heartfelt desire to keep most of the Legion off Earth where, if led by the wrong people, it could have been a threat to him and his family. Because the emperor knew what the Legion's motto meant: Legio patria nostra. "The legion is our country.” Meaning that the men, women, and cyborgs who served in the Legion were ultimately loyal to each other rather than whatever government happened to be in power.

Smith knew all of that, of course--but was focused on his job. Which was to find the bandits responsible for Private Coster's death and take them prisoner, or, failing that, to kill them. Because the Naa bandits viewed the Legion the same way they would look at a tribe. A strong tribe could take revenge. A weak tribe couldn't. So the last thing the Legion's brass wanted was to be perceived as weak.

Most of Smith's company was back at Fort Camerone. But he, along with Lieutenant Mary Josy, and her twenty-four-person platoon were following a mishmash of dooth tracks up a narrow trail. The legionnaires had been following the tracks for two local days by then and, as the sun began to set, Smith knew the temperature would fall. Once that happened it might start to snow. If so, the tracks would disappear within thirty minutes.

That would be bad, but far from disastrous, since one of the bandits had stolen Private Laraby's brain bucket, and it was "on.” As a result, Smith could "see" the helmet's location on his HUD. So, unless the Naa threw their prize away, or turned the power off, the platoon could track them down.

There was another possibility however... What if the bandits knew how the helmet worked--and were using it to suck the platoon into a carefully planned ambush? A lot of legionnaires had been killed by underestimating the Naa.

Lieutenant Josy and her cyborg were up in the point position. The T-2 could detect heat and electromechanical activity, but couldn't see over the ridge above. Knowing that Smith sent the platoon's drone up to take a look. The can-shaped robot could fly at altitudes up to three hundred feet, send pictures back, and even serve as an interpreter if necessary. The machine made a soft whirring sound as it vanished into the gloom.

The bio bods activated the night vision technology built into their helmets as another two-hour-and-forty-minute night got underway. It was helpful, but wouldn't provide a decisive advantage. The Naa could smell what some of them called "the stinks" from a hundred yards away. Their retinas were equipped with twice the number of rods that Humans had, and they were very attuned to the environment. So much so that the Naa had been known to sense the presence of alien troops even when there were no physical cues to go on. They were also excellent shots and increasingly armed with weapons stolen from legionnaires like Private Laraby.

By leaning back in the harness and bending his knees, Smith could absorb the up and down motion as Chang carried him uphill. Like all of the T-2s Chang had been a bio bod originally and now, having lost most of his body, was living life as a cyborg. It was, he said, "A lot better than the alternative."

Each cyborg had a story. Some had been legionnaires to begin with. Chang was an example of that. But others, those who had committed capital crimes, were often given a choice between life as a cyborg or a dive into the big abyss. Did that suck? Yes, it did. But most people thought that some life was better than none at all. Smith's thoughts were interrupted by an incoming transmission. "This is unit Zero-Two," the drone said flatly. "I am streaming video on channel three."

Smith brought channel three up on his HUD. It looked like Zero-Two was just over the ridge looking down on what the map overlay said was the village of Crooked Creek. And, judging from appearances the settlement, was under attack. It consisted of about twenty huts surrounded by a palisade.

The north side of the defensive wall was on fire, and Legion issue tracers were slicing the night into an assortment of geometric shapes. From what Smith could see, it appeared that the bandits were so intent on looting the village they were unaware of the Humans who were following them. The choice was his. According to the orders Smith had been given he could "...take any actions necessary to apprehend or kill the bandits responsible for Private Laraby's death."

So, if Smith wanted to, he could go down and kick some ass. He wasn't required to do so, however, since the Legion had a long tradition of allowing the indigs to kill each other. But in his mind, Smith reported to an authority higher than the Legion. Psalm 82:3 read: "Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.” And it didn't take a genius to see that the village of Crooked Creek was oppressed. Smith chinned his mike. "Alpha-Nine to Alpha-One. You saw the video. If we hurry, we can attack the bandits while they're focused on the village. Over."

* * *

Lieutenant Josy was anything but surprised. In addition to leading the 1st platoon, she was the Deacon's XO and accustomed to his ways. No one knew why he had given up civilian life for an organization staffed by adventurers, misfits, and criminals. A self imposed punishment perhaps? A fall from grace? That was her theory. As for the name, well, it seemed as though half the people in the Legion were named "Smith," and running from something. "Roger that, Nine.” Then, over the company push, "This is One. Put it in gear, people. The fur -alls are shooting at each other on the far side of the ridge and Nine wants to party. Over."

* * *

Smith heard a flurry of affirmative clicks as Josy and her T-2 began to pick up speed. Then it was time to hang on as Chang followed suit. It took ten minutes to reach the top of the ridge and start down the other side. Half of the log palisade was on fire by then. And that meant things weren't going well for the villagers. "Nine to Zero-Two... Enter the village, let the villagers know that we're going to attack the bandits from the west, and tell them not to fire on us. Over.” Having received an acknowledgement, Smith switched to the company push. "This is Nine. Do not, I repeat do not fire on the village without an order from me. One will take us in. Over."

The last order made it clear that Josy would lead the attack. That would not only signal his faith in her, but give him an opportunity to see how the officer handled herself.

There was a mad scramble to get down the hillside quickly, and Smith was forced to hang onto the grab bar in front of him as Chang took the slope in a series of gigantic leaps. Once they were on level ground, Josy ordered the 1st squad to circle around to the east where it could stop the bandits if they attempted to run. She led the rest of the platoon in with guns blazing.

There was a lot of confusion so it was difficult to tell how many bandits there were—but two dozen seemed like a pretty good estimate. They were mounted on the enormous six-legged animals the Naa called dooths and, as was their habit, the warriors were circling the beleaguered village while they fired into it. A strategy that made them hard to hit but opened them to friendly fire.

Every now and then one of the bandits would ride his dooth in through one of the fiery gaps. But, as far as Smith could tell, none of them ever came out. A sure indication that the villagers had been able to hold the inner compound.

Had the legionnaires been part of an infantry regiment, a different approach would have been in order. But, thanks to their mobility, the two person cavalry units could run their opponents down. Smith felt Chang surge forward firing both arm-mounted weapons at once. The energy cannon was lethal but lacked the punch that a .50 caliber machine gun round could deliver.

A dooth-mounted rider appeared up ahead and both went down in a welter of blood as Chang's fire converged on them. Then they were past the bodies and Smith heard himself utter a whoop of joy. That was followed by a surge of guilt; for to enjoy war, to enjoy killing, was a sin.

Thus chastened, Smith monitored the company push as Josy's platoon made short work of the bandits who were circling the village. Three of the brigands tried to escape, ran into the 1st squad, and were cut to pieces.

For their part, the legionnaires suffered only three casualties, none of which were serious enough to require a dust off. It had been a successful action and Smith told Josy that over the platoon push so everyone could hear.

Then he freed himself from the harness and dropped to the ground. It had begun to snow, and flakes whirled around the officer as he made his way over to a still-smoldering gap in the palisade. Most of the fires had been extinguished by then, and a cloud of steam billowed into the air as one of the villagers threw a bucket of water onto a glowing timber. Smith kept his weapon pointed at the sky as he stepped through the opening and into the open area beyond.

That was when the drone appeared. It was keeping company with a Naa warrior. Like all of his kind, the indig was humanoid, had a slender frame, and was covered by a coat of short fur. Though similar to a Human's the Naa's face had a slightly feline cast to it. Smith noticed that the local was armed with a Naa made rifle and wore a cross belt to which three sheaths were attached. Two were empty. "I am called Strongarm Knifethrow," the Naa said. A slight overlap could be heard as the drone made the necessary translation.

Smith reached up to remove his helmet which he tucked under his left arm. "My name is Captain Smith. Your people fought bravely."

What Smith saw in the Naa's eyes required no translation. The sadness was clear to see. "What you say is true--and I thank you for it. But we are a small village and many lives were lost."

"The gods have them," Smith said. "They shall feast tonight."

Knifethrow looked at the Human. "You know of the gods?"

"I read about them," Smith replied.

"And you believe?"

"I believe in one god but he has reason to deny me."

"The gods are fickle," Knifethrow observed. "Your god will change his mind."

"I hope so," Smith replied. There was a pause. Then, after a moment of silence, he spoke again. "Except for those items which belong to us, the rest of the bandits' belongings will be left with you. That includes the surviving animals."

The items in question wouldn't make up for lives lost. But the loot would help the village to rebuild. Knifethrow offered Smith the forearm-to-forearm grip that was reserved for adult warriors. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," Smith replied. And the conversation was over.

The newly fallen snow made a crunching sound as the legionnaire worked his way back to the point where Chang was waiting. Josy was present, as well. Her visor was open to reveal straight cut black bangs, even features, and a nose stud. "I have a present for you," she said, and gave Smith the helmet. The name LARABY was stenciled across the front of it. Smith felt for the power button and pushed. Then he turned to look at the village. The sun had broken company with the eastern horizon, and a cold gray light suffused the scene. A female was crying and a shot rang out as someone put a wounded dooth out of its misery. "Vengeance is mine saith the Lord," Smith said. "But where the hell was he?"

Josy looked up into Smith's tortured face. "If there is a god," she said, "maybe he was here. Maybe that's why most of the villagers are alive."

But Smith's eyes were on something far away, and she knew he wasn't listening. Her gaze shifted to Chang. He shook his enormous head. There was no way to reach the Deacon. Not when he was in one of his moods.

Once the legionnaires were ready, they turned west and began the long trip back to Fort Camerone. The snow was falling faster now, and it laid a white shroud over the land. Another two-hour-and-forty-minute day had begun.

* * *

It took eleven local days to complete the journey to Fort Camerone. It had been rebuilt after being destroyed years earlier. And now that it was home to the government in exile, work was underway to expand the complex. The area, formerly referred to as Naa Town, had been razed to make room for what was commonly called "the new fort” . To support the larger structure, a spaceport was being built off to the west, and a training complex was under construction, as well.

So, as Smith and his legionnaires neared the fort, they passed between multiple check points, were tracked by eyes in the sky, and repeatedly asked to identify themselves. A process that made Smith increasingly grumpy. Finally, having answered the same question a dozen times, he lost his temper. "Who the hell do you think we are? How many T-2s do the Naa have?”

That earned him some sharp words from a faceless major who took the opportunity to remind Smith that assumptions can get people killed. So Smith was already in a bad mood as the platoon entered the fort. A ramp led down into the subbasement where the cyborgs were quartered. The corridors were large enough to let two twenty-five ton quads pass each other. Side passageways led to the bays assigned to individual units.

The rest of the company was there, which meant that the 1st platoon had to endure a barrage of friendly insults as they entered the area. Then it was time to unload weapons, hose the cyborgs down, and run tech checks on each one. Once the work was done the bio bods were allowed to get some chow, take showers, and log some rack time. All except for Smith and Josy, who were slated to appear in front of Battalion Commander Colonel Leo Price at 1400 hours. And, since it was already 1330 when the message arrived, they had thirty minutes in which to make the hike. Not enough time to eat or take a shower.

"It was a mistake to get into that major's face," Josy said, as they got off a lift. "I'll bet he was on the horn to Price a minute later."

Smith scowled. "Fuck him."

Josy gave him sideways glance. "You told me that the use of profanity is a sin."

"The major is an asshole," Smith responded darkly. "God knows that. So he'll forgive me."

Josy laughed as a door slid open allowing them to enter battalion headquarters. A large desk blocked the way--and a no nonsense sergeant was seated behind it. "Good afternoon, Captain... What can I do for you?"

"My name's Smith, and this is Lieutenant Josy. We're here to see the Colonel."

The sergeant's eyes flicked to a screen and back again. "Yes, sir. Unfortunately, the Colonel is running late. Please take a seat. I'll let you know as soon as he's available."

So, in spite of the fact that they were tired, hungry, and dirty, the officers had no choice but to sit and wait. It was 1433 by the time a general left the colonel's office and the sergeant looked their way. "The Colonel is free now... You can go in."

Josy followed Smith as he circled the reception desk and made his way back to an open door. A knock block was mounted on the wall, and Smith was about to make use of it, when Price looked up from his terminal. The colonel's head was shaved, his skin was brown, and his eyes were a brilliant green. "No need for that, Captain... Come in and take a load off."

* * *

Once they were seated Price inquired about the mission. While Smith spoke Josy took a look around. There were pictures on the walls. Price on a T-2, Price in front of a quad, and Price with General Booly. And there were knickknacks too. Josy was taking inventory when she heard her name. "Congratulations Lieutenant Josy," Price said. "It sounds like you led a very successful patrol."

That was when Josy realized that Smith had given her credit for defeating the bandits. She was about to object when Price cut her off. "That's why I sent for the two of you... The Naa aren't the only ones who have to deal with bandits. We have some of our own. But, before I get into the specifics, some background information will be helpful.

"As you know, the bugs have control of Earth and we're getting our asses kicked on planets like Gamma-014. So we need help. First from the Clone Hegemony, which owns 014, and then from the Hudathans if we can get it. They believe that all races represent an existential threat to them. But, if we can convince them that the Ramanthians are the greatest threat, then we would have some very effective allies. With that in mind we have cut back on the number of missions into Hudathan held space--and some very high level government officials are trying to bring them around."

* * *

"That would be wonderful," Smith said sincerely.

"Yes, it would," Price agreed as he stood. "So keep that in mind during the meeting."

Smith was about to say, "What meeting," when the colonel turned to a side door. Having sensed his presence it opened onto a conference room. Price led the way. As Smith entered he was surprised to see that a robot was standing on one side of the room--and a Hudathan was perched on a corner of the table. The reason for that was obvious. The alien was so large that he couldn't sit in one of the chairs. "War Commander Tola-Sa, please allow me to introduce Captain Smith, and Lieutenant Josy. They're the officers I told you about."

Smith had seen pictures of Hudathans, and knew they were large, but didn't realize how large until coming face to face with one. Tola-Sa was about seven feet tall with broad shoulders and thick arms. A bony ridge ran front to back along the top of a hairless head, dark eyes stared out from under craggy brows, and his frog-like mouth looked hard and uncompromising. A translator was clipped to the cross belts that the Hudathan wore and, when he spoke, some overlap could be heard. "It's a pleasure to meet you Captain... And you as well Lieutenant. The colonel tells me that you specialize in killing criminals."

It was true that Smith's company had successfully tracked down a number of bandits. But he hadn't considered it to be a specialty. Nor had he set out to kill them. Far from it. According to James 2:13, "Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful."

But it was also true that, in spite of his best intentions, most of the bandits that Smith went after wound up dead. So he wasn't sure what to say. "We do our best, sir."

Price nodded indulgently. "By now you understand where this is going. The War Commander and I want you to find a criminal, a Human criminal who, until very recently, wore the same uniform that you do. A captain named Damien Chozick."

Smith frowned. "A captain? What did he do?"

"That's why Orson is here," Price replied. "It was attached to Chozick's command when the crimes were committed, and can provide you with a firsthand account of everything that took place."

Price turned to the robot. "Start your report just prior to landing on moon HE24-6743."

As Smith looked at the android, he noticed that a section of its face was bright with new metal. A repair, perhaps? Smith thought so as Price ordered the lights to dim and Orson launched into its report. Though tied together with some flat, unemotional comments, most of the narrative consisted of holographic POV video shots with accompanying audio. The images were suspended over the middle of the conference room table. And, as Smith watched, he saw the landing, the Hudathan skeleton, and Chozick ordering a subordinate to place the hafnium on the Mohawk. The final shot showed the renegade drawing his pistol and pointing it at the camera, which ,was to say, Orson. That was followed by a spark and sudden darkness.

"That's right," Price said. "Chozick assumed that a bullet in the head would destroy Orson's CPU. But he was wrong. Orson's CPU is located in its chest! So it played dead, waited for the ship to lift, and went looking for another way home. The journey took the better part of three months. And, if Orson were Human, we'd be hanging medals on him."

Smith looked from Price to Tola-Sa and back again. "So, given the War Commander's presence here, it's my guess that you want us to find the remains."

"Yes," Price said emphatically. "And the hafnium if you can. Both belong to our Hudathan friends. But recovering the reliquary is the most important of the two. The theft of Ho-La's remains by a human military unit would end any chance of an alliance. And once you catch up with the renegades I want you to kill them. All of them. They are currently missing in action. Let's keep it that way."

Smith frowned. "We'll do our best, sir. But I won't promise to kill Chozick and his legionnaires. Not if they surrender. It wouldn't be right."

* * *

Price opened his mouth as if to speak and closed it again. Judging from the expression on his face, he was angry. Very angry. Seconds passed as he stared at Smith. Josy figured that a lightning bolt was about to fall--never mind the fact that the order was illegal. But maybe Price considered that, because, when he spoke, the tone was surprisingly conciliatory. "Alright, Captain... If Chozick or any of his legionnaires surrender you can bring them here."

Smith nodded. "Yes, sir. So, where are they?"

Price looked at Tola-Sa and back again. "We have no idea."

Chapter Three

All warfare is based on deception.

Sun Tzu

The Art Of War

Standard year circa 500 B.C.

The space station Orb 1, in orbit around the planet Long Jump

As Chozick began to circle "B" deck, the holographic image of a woman appeared in front of him. "Hi, honey," the simulacrum said. "I'm horny, how about you?"

The image shattered as Chozick stepped through it. This was what? His twentieth visit to the hab? Something like that. But the almost overwhelming assault on his senses still came as a shock. Disembodied voices whispered marketing slogans into his ears, zip ads roamed the surrounding bulkheads, and a whiff of exotic perfume found his nostrils. "It's called Galaxy," a floating pitch ball told him. "And it will change your life."

All of that and more was part of the daily routine on Orb 1, the last stop before ships set out for the rim worlds beyond, and a hub for every sort of business deal imaginable. And every sort of pleasure as well. The latter being of major importance to Chozick's renegades who, if they became restive, might rebel. But things had gone well so far.

After departing moon HE24-6743 Chozick and his legionnaires forced the swabbies to enter hyperspace and set a course for Long Jump. And it was a long jump. The better part of three weeks had elapsed as a series of leaps carried them ever closer to their destination.

The ex-legionnaires gambled, got into fights, and had to be pacified from time to time. But Chozick knew he was riding the proverbial tiger--and was careful to rule with a light hand. Because he had plans, big plans, and would need some cannon fodder to make them work.

Eventually the jump came to an end. And when it did, Chozick ordered the ship's XO to land the DE in an unpopulated part of Long Jump's surface, which was easy to do, because there were only a few million sentients on the planet.

Once on the ground Chozick made good on his previous offer. Those members of the crew who wanted to leave were given ten days worth of rations and a map. Two officers and four enlisted people elected to stay.

Then, before the newly freed swabbies were allowed to leave, Chozick had them shot. The bodies went into unmarked graves--and Chozick ordered his "associates" to paint new numbers on the ship's hull and give her a new name. The Star Queen had a nice ring to it. Chozick figured that the Mohawk and everybody aboard her was listed as MIA by then, and, so long as the ship's name didn't pop up somewhere, it would stay that way.

Though overworked, the remaining sailors managed to get the ship off the ground and successfully docked with the space station above. That was when Chozick went about recruiting the kind of crew members he could rely on. Cutthroats, to be sure, but noncoms like Kobo would keep them in line.

Chozick sidestepped a robo vendor and took a left. Both sides of the busy corridor were lined with tiny hole-in-the-wall businesses. Chozick passed a travel agency and a nail salon before arriving in front of the nondescript hatch. The sign on the door read, NOOL HANDRA, SHIPPING BROKER.

Chozick knew the title was accurate, even if Handra made most of his living from activities other than shipping. He palmed the hatch and it hissed open. That allowed Chozick to enter a small reception area. There was a desk and there, seated behind it, was Handra's daughter.

Chozick knew Kella to be short, as all Thrakies were, which meant the chair was boosting her up. She had large light-gathering eyes, pointed ears, and horizontal slits where Human nostrils would have been. Kella was dressed in what passed for high fashion on Orb 1. That included spray-on face glitter and lots of internally-lit jewelry. "Good morning, citizen Vemy," she said brightly. "Go on back. My father is expecting you."

Chozick said, "Thanks," and made his way back to a featureless door. Then he heard a click and knew that a lock had been released. By Kella? Yes, that made sense. The barrier slid out of the way, then closed behind him. The inner office was very different from the sterile reception area. Fine art graced the walls. And, where the far wall met the deck, a row of pillows gave Handra something to lean on. He was of indeterminate age, affected a red pillbox hat, and was swathed in a matching robe. A generously proportioned robe that could conceal just about anything weapons included. "How nice to see you," Handra said in flawless standard. "Please have a seat."

There were no seats. Just the plush rug located opposite Handra. So Chozick sat on the floor. A low table separated them. The top was inscribed with alien hieroglyphics and home to a hand comp, air stylus, and Handra's "form”. Chozick knew that almost every Thrakie had a form, or miniature robot, all of which were handmade. Some were programmed to perform simple tasks--but most served as electromechanical pets. Judging from appearances, Handra's form fell into the latter category. Like its owner, the robot was bipedal and equipped with two arms. It did a handstand and proceeded to walk about the surface of the table as the conversation began.

"I received your message," Chozick said. "You have news for me?"

"I do," Handra said solemnly. "I received a response from a Hudathan official named Oro Bo-Ka. He wants you to know that your request was received--and the ruling triad is scheduled to consider the matter in two standard weeks."

"Two weeks? I sent the message, the video, and the finger bone a month ago."

Handra shrugged. "One must be patient. And remember... It took the message more than two weeks to get here. So chances are that the meeting Tola-Sa referred to has already taken place."

Chozick felt a sense of rising desperation. Because of the war, there was no way to contact the Hudathan government, other than through the Thrakies. A race of aliens which had been chased into Human space by a fleet of robotic warships years before and had eventually been granted asylum. They claimed to be neutral where the current conflict was concerned--but had a well-known tendency to play both sides against the middle.

But the Hudathans were the only ones who would pay for the reliquary--and the Thrakies were the only ones who had the means to contact them. Besides, were it possible to conduct face-to-face negotiations with the ridgeheads, only a crazy person would choose to do so. If there was a faster way to wind up dead, Chozick couldn't imagine what it would be. "Please send a confirmation," he said. "And let me know when the next message arrives."

"I will," the Thrakie promised.

"I guess that's it then," Chozick said, as he prepared to stand.

"There is one more issue," Handra said, as the form climbed up onto his shoulder. "And that's the matter of payment."

"You'll get paid when I do."

"That is not the way the contract reads," the Thrakie replied. "Line 2 of paragraph 157 specifies that an interim payment of twenty thousand credits is due upon receipt of the first message from the Hudathan government."

Chozick scowled. "How do I know the message is real? You could have made it up."

Handra sighed in much the same manner as a parent might while dealing with an especially difficult child. "Here," he said, as he flipped a disk into the air. Chozick caught it. "That," Handra said, "is the device the message arrived on. Drop it into a reader. Assuming you speak Hudathan, you'll be able to verify what I told you."

Chozick slipped the disk into a pocket as the form wrestled with Handra's ear. "I can't pay you yet. But I will soon."

Handra nodded. "I'm glad to hear it. But I'm afraid it will be necessary to withhold any future messages until I have the money in hand."

Chozick wanted to shoot the Thrakie, but figured the alien was armed. And how would he communicate with Hudathans if Handra was dead? The Human forced a smile as he stood. "No problem... I plan to pay you before then."

There was a click as the lock was released. "Excellent," Handra replied. "Have a nice day.” The form waved as Chozick left.

* * *

The town of Sunrise on the planet Long Jump

It was raining. Not a driving rain, but a persistent mist that settled over the mourners like a shroud and, eventually, found their skin. The procession started in front of Kim's funeral parlor, and followed main street to a hill made out of mine tailings, where row upon row of grave markers stood. Some of the graves belonged to people who died of old age, but not many, the town was too young for that. Most of the dead were miners killed in accidents. And there, at the front of the procession, walking arm in arm with Reverend Goolsby, was Boss Ryker.

The mine owner had always been big, but he was even larger now. He'd been a laborer once, and muscular, but years of good living had put thirty extra pounds on him. And that had something to do with a bad hip. Every step caused him pain.

It was important to lead the procession however. To show the mine workers and their families that he cared. Because running the mine, the town, and most of the surrounding countryside required more than the simple application of force. A certain level of support was necessary. And, in order to get it, Ryker had to convince the locals that he cared about them. That was why the families of the five dead miners would receive a month's pay and whatever amount of money they owed the company store would be forgiven.

But business was business, and if there was no one who could step forward to take the dead man or woman's place, the family would have to leave its company owned house to make way for a new employee. It was sad, but what could he do? He was only one man after all--and couldn't support a town full of moochers.

So Ryker limped up the spiral path as the mist fell around him. The prime real estate at the top of the hill had already been claimed, so the miners were going to be buried two thirds of the way up the slope. Their graves had already been dug and were starting to go soft after hours of rain.

Ryker didn't like to think about dying, so, rather than listen to Goolsby's drivel, he took the opportunity to look out over his kingdom. Copper Mountain was off to his left only half visible in the mist. And there, on the flat land below, was the town of Sunrise. It was a tidy community with arrow straight streets all of which were laid out grid style. The spaceport? He'd built that... As well as the school, medical clinic, and park.

"Mr. Ryker?" Goolsby inquired. "Would you like to say a few words?"

That was when Ryker realized Goolsby had finished and it was his turn to speak. It was something he'd done many times before and didn't have to prepare for. His eyes swept the downcast faces around him. "This is a sad day... Five of our friends and loved ones are gone but they remain here in our hearts. I can see their faces now, happy to start a shift, and to provide for their families. Let's hold those images in our minds so that these fine men and women will always be with us. Thank you."

It was bullshit of course... Every word of it. But the people around Ryker nodded and some even managed to smile. That was the part that amazed him. How some empty platitudes could make them feel better. He was grateful, though, because what would he do without them?

Once the bodies were in the ground, the townsfolk followed the trail down to the foot of main street and, from there, many went to spend the rest of the day in the town's saloon. It was always a profitable enterprise, but never more so than on the day of a funeral. Ryker wasn't going to spend any of his time drinking, however. He had a business to run.

Ryker's office was located in the Sunrise bank, his bank, on the second floor. It was surrounded by a wall, and built like a fort. Armed guards nodded respectfully as he passed through the gate and climbed the steps that led to the front door. A mercenary dressed in body armor was there to open it for him. "Good morning, boss."

"It's raining," Ryker pointed out, "and I just attended a funeral. But I appreciate the sentiment."

The bank was closed for the day, so the lobby was empty. Ryker took a hard right, opened a door, and climbed a flight of stairs to the second floor. That made his hip hurt, so he was cranky by the time he entered his office. And the sight of "Stick" Matthews sitting in his chair, smoking one of his cigars did nothing to improve his humor.

"Oops! Sorry, boss," Stick said as he jumped up out of the chair. "I was killing time, that's all."

"Yeah, sure," Ryker said as he rounded the cluttered desk to claim his seat. "And stealing my cigars."

Stick was seated on one of two guest chairs by then and completely unapologetic. He was tall, thin, and too well dressed for the town of Sunrise. "You'll forgive me," he predicted confidently. "I brought you a deal. A good deal."

That was the reason why Stick got away with so much. He spent most of his time on the space station where he was always on the lookout for business opportunities. Some legit and some less so. "Okay," Ryker said indulgently. "What have you got?”

"There's a new player on the space station," Stick answered. "A guy named George Vemy. He owns a DE that must be forty years old. I figure he bought it surplus and fixed it up. Anyway, he claims to have a ton of hafnium sitting in the ship's hold and he's looking for a buyer."

Ryker frowned. "Have you seen it?"

Stick shook his head. "No. Vemy won't let visitors on his ship. But the sample he gave me tested out. This is the good stuff, Boss--so I figured you would be interested."

And Ryker was interested. Trading valuable metals was a profitable sideline. "And you were correct, Stick... Well done.” Ryker pointed to a well stocked bar. "Pour yourself a drink. Let's talk this through."

* * *

Aboard the Star Queen

For the first time in a long time Chozick felt happy. His efforts to find a buyer for the hafnium had been successful--and he would soon have three million credits to tide him over until the Hudathans bought the skeleton. That would bring in fifty million. Enough to start the mercenary outfit he'd been thinking about. Not just any outfit, but one equipped with cyborgs. Just like the Legion. It would make his group so special that clients would be willing to pay premium prices.

Such were Chozick's thoughts as the Star Queen completed a full orbit of Long Jump and began to slow. His buyer, a man named Ryker, had agreed to pay cash on delivery. And in this case that meant a deposit at one of Orb 1's three banks. A deposit which Ember would verify before the hafnium was unloaded.

Would Ryker try to hijack the hafnium? He might. Chozick had done some research and, according to Handra, Mr. Ryker had a bad reputation. But Chozick figured that a destroyer escort plus a company of ex-legionnaires should provide more than enough protection.

So, as the ship circled the town of Sunrise, Chozick felt happy. And when he saw that the area around the small spaceport was nearly deserted, he felt even happier. There was a truck, and a small group of men, but that was to be expected. Chozick, who was seated at the rear of the control room said, "Put her down.”

The man who had been XO under Dickerson was the captain now--but everyone still referred to him as XO. A nom de guerre that was fine with him. He issued a series of orders that brought the DE to a hover. Then, with the dignity befitting a vessel of her age, the Star Queen lowered herself onto the large patch of heat fused soil that functioned as the town's spaceport. There was a solid thump followed by the usual creaks and groans as the DE's frame was forced to support all of the ship's weight.

Chozick was dressed in one of the new uniforms he had supplied his bio bods. They were similar to those issued by the Legion, but with what he considered to be improvements. Small things, mostly, but the first step towards creating his mercenary army. The Legion helmet had been repainted, but was otherwise the same. Chozick chinned his mike as he made his way back to the hold. "Remember everything I told you," he said, "and things will go smoothly. Drop the ramp."

A rectangle of light appeared as the ramp went down. Chozick thumbed his visor up and out of the way as he clumped down onto the ground. Kobo and a bio bod named Farley followed him. Both were heavily armed.

As Chozick stepped off the ramp, Stick Matthews came forward to shake hands. "We meet again," he said cheerfully.

Chozick nodded. "Where's Mr. Ryker?"

"He asked me to handle the transaction for him," Stick answered smoothly.

Chozick shrugged. "Okay... It makes no difference to me. Make the transfer. My man will verify the deposit and radio the ship. Once he does, we'll bring the hafnium out."

"Of course," Stick said, as he produced a hand com. "Three million, minus five hundred thousand for the landing tax, leaves two-point-five mil. I'll authorize the transfer now."

"Whoa," Chozick said. "What landing tax? That's bullshit.”

"You're welcome to your opinion," Stick said politely, "but the spaceport has a legal right to impose a landing tax as set by the port commissioner."

Chozick scowled. "And who is the port commissioner?"

Stick smiled. "That would be Mr. Ryker."

"Okay," Chozick said. "The deal is off. Tell Ryker to take his landing tax and shove it up his ass."

Stick murmured something into the com and Chozick heard a crackling sound from behind him. All three renegades whirled in time to see the front end of a monstrous machine break through the surface of the tarmac! Seconds later a huge claw reached out to secure a grip on one of the Queen's landing skids. How much did the subterranean beast weigh? Ten tons? Twenty? More than enough to prevent the ship from lifting off. But the DE was far from defenseless. Chozick chinned his mike. "Blast that thing. Do it now."

The Queen's belly turret swiveled toward the mining machine, but stopped as some sort of drill shot up out of the ground to skewer it. "Sorry," Stick said. "But once a ship lands on our spaceport the fee must be paid. So I suggest that you unload the hafnium. Two and a half mil is a lot of money. Take what you can get and be happy."

Chozick caught movement out of the corner of his eye and turned in time to see a couple of men pull a cover off the truck. The pedestal mounted energy cannon made a whining sound as it traversed around to point at the spaceship. Chozick chinned his mike. "Destroy the truck."

One of the ship's guns burped coherent energy and the truck vanished in a flash of light and a clap of thunder. Pieces of fiery debris were still falling as Chozick turned back to Stick. "You took it too far," the renegade said grimly, "and now you're going to pay. Kobo, we're switching to plan B."

Stick watched in horror as a column of T-2s marched down the ramp. Except for the first three, the rest of the cyborgs were carrying bio bods, and all of them were armed. The movement was so fast that the pistol seemed to materialize in Chozick's hand. "Ryker... Where is he?"

Stick was frightened but not enough to turn on Ryker. "I don't know. He ..."

Chozick pulled the trigger and a third eye appeared between the two Stick already had. The body fell with arms out-flung. The hand com skittered away. There was a crunching sound as Kobo stepped on it.

"Okay," Chozick said into his mike. "Don't kill anyone you don't have to -- but secure this town. I'm looking for a man named Ryker. Speak up if you find him."

There was some resistance as they entered the town, snipers mostly, but none of it made any difference. Chozick and his T-2 led the way, and it wasn't long before his renegades were in control of the town hall, the police station, and the power plant.

Then, acting on a tip from a citizen, Chozick went looking for the bank. It wasn't hard to find. And when he got there, Chozick could tell that Ryker was inside. Nothing else would explain why it was so well protected.

Having seen the nine-foot tall duracrete wall that surrounded the building, Chozick wanted to know what was waiting behind it before he and his company attacked. He was a businessman now, and his people were assets. Especially the cyborgs.

So Chozick told his troops to take cover in and next to the surrounding buildings while he sent a drone in to check things out. It wasn't long before the flying robot drew fire and had to pull out. But not before the device got a good look at some mortar pits, well placed machine guns, and mercs armed with rocket launchers. The latter being weapons that could have been used to bring them down. So, why hadn't they? Because they wanted him to see what he was up against. That suggested a leader, a good leader, who wanted to conserve his or her resources. After all, why fight if you didn't have to? This was about money rather than politics.

Chozick gave orders for his people to remain where they were and rode his T-2 forward. Once he was about three hundred feet away from the wall, the durasteel gate opened and a merc appeared. She was clad in black body armor and wore two pistols. As the woman came closer. Chozick saw that she had red hair, freckles on her face, and was a bit husky. Not fat, but sturdy, as if raised on a heavy gravity world. She stopped and looked them up and down. "That's a Trooper II... But it's wearing a non reg paint job--so that makes you deserters."

"Since you're familiar with cyborgs you know what they can do," Chozick countered. "If this comes to a fight we'll win."

"Not necessarily," the woman replied. "But even if you do, the causalities will be high."

"I have a DE," Chozick said. "You know that... You saw it circle the town. We can grease you from above."

The woman made a face. "There is that."

"Yes, there is. But it doesn't have to end that way. You could pull out. I'll let you go. Or, if you're interested in a merger, I'm looking to expand. What's your name?"

"They call me Red."

"Okay, Red. My name is Damien. You have three choices: Fight a losing battle, take a walk, or enter into a merger. Which is it going to be?"Red was silent for what might have been a minute. Finally, with obvious reluctance, she spoke. "I'll take option three."

"Good," Chozick replied. "Here's the deal ... Ryker agreed to buy a ton of hafnium from me for three mil. But, when I arrived, he tried to charge me a five-hundred thousand credit landing fee. That pissed me off so now I'm going to confiscate everything he has. I'll take ten-percent off the top, you'll get five, and equal shares will go to all the troops. Yours and mine. What do you say?"

"I like it," Red replied. "But my people have a say in what we do -- and they will insist on that if we merge."

"You can't run a military unit like a democracy," Chozick said. "Both of us know that. But my troops can cancel my ticket anytime they want to. I know it and they know it."

Red nodded. "That makes sense. I'll be back shortly."

A full twenty minutes passed. And Chozick was beginning to wonder if Red was up to something when the gate swung open and the merc reappeared. She wasn't alone. As Red came forward Chozick saw that she was holding a leash. It was attached to a portly man who was walking with his head down. When Red was twenty feet away she stopped. "Damien, this is Mr. Ryker. Mr. Ryker, this is Damien. I think he has a present for you."

Ryker looked up, and was just about to speak, when a bullet passed through his mouth and exited through his neck. It didn't kill him, but the next one did. The mine, the town, all of it belonged to Chozick now ... And it was just a matter of time before the Hudathans would pay for the skeleton. Life was very, very good.

Chapter Four

Military strategy is shaped by the availability of supplies.

Tral Heba

Ramanthian Book of Guidance

Standard year 1721

The planet Algeron

When Smith awoke, it was to the feeling that there was something he was supposed to do. But what? Then it came to him. He was supposed to find Chozick and bring him to justice. And that was God's work. "Blessed are they who maintain justice, who constantly do what is right." Psalm 106:3.

God's universe was a huge place, however, and full of places where evil could not only hide, but flourish. In spite of their best efforts, the Confederacy's intelligence operatives had been unable to find the renegade. And, try as he might, Smith couldn't imagine himself in Chozick's place. That made it practically impossible to guess where the son of Satan was.

Fortunately, he had a sinner close at hand. A person who made no secret of the fact that she was a blasphemer, an occasional drunkard, and a serial fornicator. And that was his executive officer Mary Josy. Perhaps she would be able to help.

So Smith showered, shaved, and went to breakfast. Or was it lunch? It was difficult to keep track of time on Algeron. Then he went looking for Josy. The company was enjoying a two-day stand down, so she was off duty. And on Algeron there was only one place where a mostly godless person could go for fun, and that was the officers' club.

The O club was about fifteen-minutes away from where Smith's company was quartered. The light was dim, the music was too loud for Smith's taste, and he could smell the alcohol. The sweet, sweet liquid that had given him so much peace before taking his life away. He steeled himself against the pull of it and went looking for Josy. He wasn't familiar with the layout, and the club was huge, so that involved a good deal of walking around.

It didn't take long to discover that the officers were self-segregating. Infantry sat with infantry, engineers sat with engineers, and cavalry sat with cavalry. And that was where he found Josy. She was seated at a table in cavalry country. Three equally junior officers were at the table all playing some sort of drinking game. That bothered him. Why? Because he was jealous? No, yes, maybe. "There you are," he said. "Mind if I join you?"

Josy didn't want Smith to join the table, nor did the others, especially the two cavalry officers. They knew Smith by reputation and didn't want to suffer though a lecture. But they couldn't say "no" to a company commander and didn't. "This is a surprise," Josy said truthfully. "Have you been here before?"

"Once," Smith answered. "During my orientation tour."

The cavalry officers exchanged looks and stood. The taller of the two spoke. "I hope you'll excuse us, sir ... We have a field exercise coming up -- so it's time to grab some shuteye."

"No problem," Smith said. As the officers left he turned to the other person at the table. A navy pilot who should have been with the zoomies on the far side of the room but had chosen to hang out with cavalry instead. Why? The answer was Josy. Smith smiled. He was old for a captain, at least thirty-five, and came across as even older. "So, son ... Shouldn't you be checking your parachute or something?"

Josy started to object but the flier shook his head. "That's okay ... The captain is right. Duty calls.” And with that he downed the rest of his drink and left.

Smith turned to find that Josy was staring at him. "What the hell was that?" she demanded.

"There's no need to swear."

"Bullshit. You swear."

"Only under great stress," Smith replied. "Besides, he was navy."

"I like the navy ... And I was going let him land on my pad."

Smith made a face. "You're disgusting."

"Right ... So, why are you here?"

"I, that is to say we, are supposed to find Chozick."


"And I wondered if you had given the matter any thought."

"Not really," Josy replied. "I've been busy."

"Okay ... Well, there's no time like the present. You heard Colonel Price. The brass doesn't know where Chozick is. Maybe we can come up with something."

Josy shook a stim stick out of a half empty pack and set fire to it. She sucked the smoke deep into her lungs before allowing it to dribble out through her nostrils. Smith caught a whiff of the smoke and felt the old hunger. It wasn't about stim sticks. It was the combination of stim sticks and alcohol that he craved. A stimulant and a depressant. Stupid, stupid, stupid. "Those are bad for you."

Josy took another deep drag. "So is getting shot at ... But you never object to that. So let's think about the Choz ... He went over the hill. Why?”

"Because he's a thief and the chance to steal both the skeleton and the hafnium was too good to pass up."

"Okay," Josy agreed. "But did he go his own way? Or did he keep the company together?"

Smith considered that. "Based on what we know so far it looks like Chozick went out of his way to bring scum bags into his company. People who shared his values and would follow illegal orders. So would he ditch them? I don't think so. And remember ... That sort of arrangement cuts both ways. It's quite possible that Chozick's people wouldn't let him split. Not without paying them first."

"Good point," Josy said. "So, where would they go?"

"The rim."

"Yeah, but where on the rim? He could be on any one of a thousand planets."

Smith knew that was true. Chozick and his borgs could be anywhere. Then it hit him. Cyborgs! Chozick's company included a detachment of twelve T-2s. And every one of them would require spare parts. Lots of them. Far more than any company would take on a mission.

So where would he get them? Not on the open market because war form parts were highly regulated and traditionally manufactured on Earth. But the Ramanthians were in control there. Yes, new factories were under construction elsewhere, but just starting to come on line. That was why Smith and his peers had to battle each other for parts. So there was only one place where Chozick could get what he needed and that was Algeron! But how? And from whom? "Come on," Smith said. "We're going to the personnel department. Then we'll go visiting."

"Visiting? What the hell for?"

Smith plucked the stim stick out of her hand and stubbed it out. "What's the old saying? You're known by the company you keep? Well, let's see who Chozick liked to hang out with. I'd be willing to bet that one of them works in supply."

Josy made a face. "You don't gamble."

Smith smiled. "No, not anymore. Come on. We have work to do."

* * *

The warehouse was large, dimly lit, and primarily staffed by robots. That meant Staff Sergeant Lester Orko had plenty of time in which to sit in his office, throw his boots up onto his desk, and watch porno. And that's what he was doing when a T-2 named Tanaka kicked the door in. Orko was taken by surprise and nearly fell over backwards as two officers entered the room. One of them was holding a laser equipped pistol. The red dot floated up off his chest as she came over to press cold metal against his forehead. "Hi," she said sweetly. "My name is Lieutenant Josy -- and this is Captain Smith. We're here to talk to you about a turd named Chozick."

"You can't do this," Orko objected. "I have rights!"

"Yes, you do," Josy agreed. "You have the right to tell me what I want to know or I will blow your balls off. Then I'll file a report stating that my pistol discharged accidentally. Captain Smith will back me up, then he'll have to go to church, and God will forgive him. Meanwhile you'll be living in the stockade and singing soprano. So what'll it be? The low down on Chozick? Or a ballectomy?"

Orko's eyes shifted to Smith. "She's kidding, right?"

Smith shrugged. "She's a sinner, son. And you never know with sinners. I can't say that I approve of her approach -- but God moves in mysterious ways. Who am I to intervene?"

Josy smiled evilly and tilted the weapon down so that the red dot was centered on the supply sergeant's crotch. "Okay!" Orko exclaimed. "I'll tell you ... Get the bitch off me."

"The bitch is an officer," Smith said primly. "As such, you will address her in the proper manner."

"Please, ma'am," Orko said contritely. "Please aim your pistol somewhere else."

"That's better," Josy allowed, as she pulled Orko and his rolling chair away from the desk. "Now you can have a nice chat with the captain while I take tour your terminal. Uh, oh, look at this ... Porno! You are a bad boy."

Smith dragged a stool over to where Orko was sitting and spent the next twenty minutes talking to the noncom while Josy reviewed his records. The people in personnel had been slow to cooperate at first -- but quickly changed their minds after a brief com call with Colonel Price.

Based on the data they gave him, Smith had been able to compile a list of people who had served with Chozick. With that information in hand he had conducted a series of interviews. Most of the people he spoke to had been interviewed by military intelligence. But Smith didn't stop there. He went to see their acquaintances, and their acquaintances, until someone tipped him off to a supply sergeant named Orko. A well-known "fixer" who could seemingly summon hard to find spare parts out of thin air.

Eventually, based on computer records, plus Orko's admissions, the full story came to light. About a month after Chozick and his people went on the MIA list Orko received a package from a civilian pilot. One of hundreds who came and went all the time.

Inside the wrapping, Orko found a box containing six gold wafers plus a request for certain T-2 parts. The document wasn't signed, but Orko had done business with Chozick in the past, and had a pretty good idea of who he was dealing with. There had been two packages since, both delivered by the same pilot, a woman named Peebo. "But how did you pull it off?" Smith wanted to know. "T-2 parts are very hard to find."

Orko was reluctant to say -- but agreed to do so when Smith threatened to let Josy interrogate him. "I took the parts of T-2s in the morgue," he confessed. "And why not? They were waiting to be recycled."

Smith knew that was partially true. Worn out war forms were stored in a facility commonly referred to as "the morgue”. But given the situation on Earth, all parts were valuable. Even those with sixty or seventy percent wear. "So you sent worn out parts to Chozick?"

"Not worn out ... Used. And I told him that. He knows the score. There's no way that I could send new parts."

That made sense and Smith had what he needed. Which was to say Orko, who was going to be incommunicado for the next month, and recordings of everything the supply sergeant had said. They didn't know where Chozick was -- but they would soon.

* * *

Angelica Peedo had just broken orbit, and was headed for the nearest jump point, when two aerospace fighters swooped in to take up positions to either side of her courier ship. The orders to turn back came as a surprise to both her and the vessel's only passenger -- a wealthy Human who had business interests on the rim.

But Peedo wasn't worried until she landed at Fort Cameron and a pair of military policemen came aboard the ship. Then, with cuffs on her wrists, she was led to an office located deep within the fort. A number of people were waiting there. "I'm Colonel Price," one of them said, "and this is War Commander Tora-Sa."

Peedo turned to see a Hudathan step out of the shadows and wondered what the hell was going on. A ridgehead? In Fort Camerone? That was unheard of. The introductions continued. "The young lady is Lieutenant Josy -- and the man standing next to her is Captain Smith. We want to speak with you.”

The ensuing conversation lasted an hour. By the time it was over a number of things were clear. Peedo knew Chozick as a man named George Vemy and he, like other clients she had, paid her to carry small shipments of freight for him. Did she know what she had been transporting for Orko? No, that was none of her business. And where had she and Vemy met? The answer was aboard a space station in orbit around a planet called Long Jump.

Smith felt a tremendous sense of satisfaction as the final piece fell into place. Now they knew where the treacherous bastard was. "So," Price said, "we're making progress. But speed is important. Chozick made use of an intermediary to communicate with the Hudathan government. He wants fifty-million for the reliquary and they're stalling him. But how long before he moves to another location? Or sells the remains to someone else at a deeply discounted price? You and the lieutenant did an exemplary job of figuring out where he is. Now is the time to go get him.”

"I'll need a week to get ready," Smith replied.

Price frowned. "A week? What for?”

"To train my people," Smith explained. "We know Chozick still has his cyborgs. That's why he's buying parts for them. So, if it comes to a fight, it will be a brawl in which T-2s will have to battle T-2's. And my people aren't trained for that."

Judging from the expression on Price's face, that hadn't occurred to him. And seeing the possibility of an advantage, Smith was quick to follow up. "Plus I need a freighter. A ship that won't attract attention but can duke it out with a DE if necessary."

War Commander Tola-Sa spoke for the first time. "Why not send a battle group? Then you could take control of the space station and the planet if you needed to."

Price made a face. "I wish we could ... The truth is that we don't have one to spare. Plus, even if we did, I fear that Chozick and his renegades might slip through our fingers. A stealthy approach is best, and Captain Smith is correct, it will take some time to find the right vessel."

He turned to Smith. "I can see that you have given this matter some thought."

"The lord takes care of those who take care of themselves, sir."

Price looked at Josy who smiled beatifically. "That's right, sir ... and the lord takes care of those who carry a big stick.”

"Now that's funny," Tola-Sa said, without cracking a smile. "The lieutenant could be a Hudathan.” The meeting was over.

* * *

In order to make the necessary preparations in a short amount of time, Smith and Josy had to split up. His responsibility was to get the company ready to fight -- and hers was to make sure they had all the materials required to do so. That included food, ammo, and yes -- spare parts. No small job, and one she tackled with her usual energy.

That left Smith free to make plans. Unlike Chozick, who was an infantry officer with T-2s attached to his unit, Smith was a cavalry officer. So it was tempting to show up off Long Jump with a full company of thirty six cyborgs and an equal number of bio bods. Tempting, but risky. That was because he couldn't predict what would happen next. T-2s were great on open ground. But what if he had to go after the renegades on Orb 1? Bio bods would be more useful in that kind of situation.

So, after giving the matter some thought, Smith decided to allot himself fourteen T-2s. That was two more than Chozick had. Plus he was going to take what he thought of as "the equalizer”, Meaning one of the Legion's quads. In addition to the fourteen bio bods who would team up with the T-2s, Smith was going to need some foot soldiers. About seventy of them if he was to achieve parity with what Chozick had. The obvious solution was to take two platoons of regular infantry.

But Smith had what he thought was a better idea. Rather than a detachment of legs, he'd take seventy of the bio bods presently serving in Colonel Price's cavalry battalion. They knew what T-2s could and couldn't do. Plus they could help with maintenance. Then, as an insurance policy, he would give every squad a rocket launcher. That would give them a chance if they had to confront a T-2.

Finally there was the matter of zappers. Meaning the pistol shaped devices issued to cavalry officers in case one of their borgs went bonkers. That didn't happen very often. But, when it did, a zapper could bring even the largest cyborg to its knees by disrupting its electrical systems.

Of course, anything that can be activated can be deactivated, given the right knowhow. Which raised an interesting question. Would Chozick want to keep the zapper option in place? Maybe, although, if he did, a single zapper armed bio bod could disable all of his cyborgs in a matter of seconds.

And what about the cyborgs themselves? Would they allow Chozick to retain that kind of power over them? No, Smith didn't think so. They were renegades after all -- and would want their freedom. So it was safe to assume that the deserters would be invulnerable to zappers.

Then there was the opposite possibility to think about. What if Chozick or one of his bio bods was to fire a zapper at Smith's T-2s? That would be disastrous. So Smith had no choice but to deactivate the submission systems in the borgs that were slated to accompany them. A risk? Yes, half of them were murderers, after all. It was a chance he'd have to take.

The possibility of T-2 versus T-2 combat wasn't covered in any of the training manuals so there was nothing to go on. All Smith could do was divide his newly reconfigured company into halves, provide all personnel with training weapons, and turn them over to lieutenants Tran and Noll. A satellite and a computer would be used to score the battle.

The setting was the euphemistically named "Happy Valley" located just east of the fort and west of the famed High Hump Hill. A spot often used for training exercises and littered with weather worn trenches, icy mortar pits, and crumbling earth-walls. And, as was often the case on Algeron, it was snowing. Each platoon had a flag and orders to: A. defend it, and B. capture the other teams' ensign. All while Smith watched them from a point halfway up High Hump Hill.

The differences between the two officers quickly became apparent in the way they dealt with the situation. Noll fortified an area at the south end of the "field" and assigned one T-2 and a third of his bio bods to protect it. Then he sent a T-2 and sixteen legionnaires up the left side of the battlefield as a feint. The idea was to draw some of Tran's forces away from his flag and open it to an attack from Noll and the rest of his platoon. A force that included the remaining cyborgs.

It was a reasonable plan in Smith's opinion, one that would probably be successful against most opponents, but not Tran. She was a free thinker and Smith watched admiringly as the junior officer sent a token force to deal with what she had correctly identified as a feint. Then she ran the rest of her platoon straight at Noll's base bringing her flag with her! An unusual strategy that took Noll's platoon by surprise. And, spread out as they were, left them unable to stop the invaders. Their flag fell soon thereafter.

Once the exercise was over Smith knew a lot more about two of his three platoon leaders. But what about the T-2s? While watching them Smith had been reminded of a football game in which Tran's cyborgs functioned as guards. That was instructive. And as night fell, they went at it again. And again. Until all of them were exhausted.

Then it was time to eat, sleep, shower and start again. And with each passing day the legionnaires got better. But after forty eight hours of additional training it was time to stop and prepare for the lift off. That involved repairing gear, performing maintenance on the cyborgs, and dealing with minor medical issues.

Finally the day of departure arrived, and Smith was looking forward to a hassle free lift. But when he arrived at the spaceport, it was to find that War Commander Tola-Sa and twelve Hudathan marines were waiting for him. All wore full kit, including armor and back swords. Packs were stacked; ready for loading. Price came forward at that point, and Smith turned to confront him. "What's going on here?"

There was no, "Good morning, sir," but if Price noticed, he chose to ignore it. "Sorry, Smith ... but War Commander Tola-Sa received a last minute directive from his superiors. They insist that Hudathan troops take part in the mission. It's a matter of honor."

Smith wanted to tell Price and Tola-Sa why the last minute decision was a bad idea ... Including the fact that the Humans and Hudathans would need translators in order to communicate, hadn't trained together, and had no reason to trust each other. But he could see the look in Price's eyes and knew what the officer would say if he objected: The Confederacy was losing the war -- and new allies could make an important difference. So he swallowed his concerns and gave Price the answer he wanted to hear. "Sir, yes, sir. And the chain of command?"

Price looked relieved. "You'll be in command."

Smith looked at Tola-Sa who nodded.

"There's one more thing," Price interjected. "I'm sending Orson along. It will document the mission and, who knows: Orson has a number of different capabilities and one or more of them might come in handy."

The truth was that Smith didn't care if Orson came along or not. He had other things on his mind. "Yes, sir."

"Good. Lieutenant Josy and the Chicago are waiting for you in orbit. The Chicago belongs to a commercial shipping line and looks the part. Nobody will connect her with the military. That's the good news."

Smith frowned. "And the bad news?"

"The Chicago is lightly armed. If you try to go toe to toe with the Mohawk , you'll lose."

Smith wanted to swear. "I see ... Is there anything else I should be aware of?"

"Nope," Price said comfortably. "Have a nice trip."

Chapter Five

The troops should be exercised frequently, cavalry as well as infantry, and the general should often be present to praise some, to criticize others, and to see with his own eyes that orders ... are observed exactly.

Frederick the Great

Instructions for His Generals

Standard year 1747

Aboard the freighter Chicago

The Chicago was a freighter, so the ship had very few cabins. Not that it mattered, because Smith insisted that everyone, officers included, live together in the hold. The purpose being to force integration between the legionnaires and the Hudathans. Translators helped solve the language problem -- but creating a sense of mutual respect was a more difficult task.

So once the Chicago entered hyperspace, Smith sought out Tola-Sa in order to explain his concerns. And the other officer was quite supportive. "I agree," Tola-Sa said. "A great deal is riding on this. A lack of cooperation could be disastrous."

Given how fiercely independent the Hudathans were Smith was both surprised and gratified by Tola-Sa's response. But, when he took a moment to think about it, Smith came to an important realization. Tola-Sa was in a difficult situation. Tola-Sa was in the position of reporting to someone two levels lower than he was. And, worse yet, he and his troops were on a ship packed with aliens. A situation almost certain to trigger the xenophobia that the Hudathans were famous for. Not to mention the fact that, if things went poorly, it was quite possible that Tola-Sa's superiors would hold him responsible for the mission's failure.

So Smith worked with Tola-Sa to devise a variety of exercises designed to create some unity within the short period of time available. The first step was to integrate the company to the extent possible by seeding Hudathans in at the squad level. Next, he designated two of them as noncoms, with authority over Humans.

Then Smith and Tola-Sa devised a series of exercises that put squad against squad. And it wasn't long before Humans discovered that it was impossible to beat the Hudathans at arm wrestling, unless you were a T-2, in which case the situation was reversed.

"You've got them working together," Josy commented, as she appeared at his side. "That's no small accomplishment.” Tug of war was a favorite among the troops and they were about to begin another contest.

Smith looked at her then back to the impending battle. The cable was taut, and it was interesting to note how both sides were using Hudathans and T-2s to anchor their ends of the rope. "All of us are God's creatures," he said. "So we have similar needs. And we're inherently good."

Josy looked up at him. "Even the Ramanthians?"

"Even them," Smith said soberly.

Josy thought about that for a moment. "I'm sorry, sir," she said. "But that's bullshit.” Then she walked away.

* * *

The space station Orb 1, in orbit around the planet Long Jump

Chozick hadn't visited the space station since landing in the town of Sunrise weeks earlier. There was too much to do. There was a town to take control of, a copper mine to learn about, and fifty-seven mercenaries to get acquainted with. All of which required a great deal of time and effort. That meant his plan to sell the skeleton back to the Hudathans had been relegated to a back burner. So the message from Handra came as a welcome surprise. After months of waiting the Hudathans were going to send an emissary to Orb 1.

The Mohawk had been repaired, but rather than employ the ship for such a short trip, Chozick made use of the DE's shuttle instead. And he made a point out of arriving on the space station a day early for some R and R. Ember was there to meet him. The ex-lieutenant was Chozick's business representative on the space station. An occupation he was well suited for, so long as he received a sufficient amount of direction.

The two men left the docking ring for B deck, where Chozick hoped to get a good meal. Ember was something of an expert on the station's eateries by then, and suggested a place called the Taj. Once the two men had been shown to a booth and ordered drinks, it was time to catch up. Chozick provided a summary of everything that had been accomplished on the ground, and Ember talked about his adventures on the station, most of which involved women.

There was a pause while the second round of drinks arrived. After the waiter left, the narrative continued. "And speaking of women ... Did you know Lieutenant Josy?"

Chozick shook his head. "Nope. I never met her."

"Well," Ember said, "I spent a night with her once -- and it was very enjoyable. Anyway, imagine my surprise when I passed her in the main corridor earlier today."

Chozick felt a mild sense of alarm. "The Legion has troops on Orb 1?"

Ember shook his head. "Not that I know of ... She was in civvies. On vacation, most likely -- or maybe she went over the hill. There was a man with her. A tall guy with black hair, a gaunt face, and stooped shoulders."

"Did she recognize you?"

"Nah, she was too busy schmoozing the tall guy."

Chozick's mind was racing by then. Ember was an idiot ... But no news there. Was Josy's presence on the station a coincidence? It was a big galaxy, after all. But the timing could only be described as strange. First, the message from the Hudathans, now this. It shouldn't matter though... The Confederacy was at war with the Hudathans. Yet there was something about the situation that didn't feel right. Chozick forced himself to remain calm. He sipped his drink. "Tell me something, Rex ... How are we doing where parts are concerned? When was the last time you received a shipment from Orko?"

"It's overdue," Ember admitted. "But don't worry -- I'm on it."

But Chozick was worried. The fact that Orko hadn't sent any parts could mean nothing or everything. What if the idiot had been caught somehow? And spilled his guts? Worse yet what if the brass knew about his attempts to ransom the skeleton? The meeting scheduled for the next day could be a trick. A way to get him alone where he'd be vulnerable.

Chozick stood, his leg struck the table, and a drink spilled. "Pay the bill. We're leaving."

* * *

Smith felt nervous as he, Josy, and Tola-Sa made their way through crowded corridors. And for good reason. A lot was riding on the upcoming meeting. If Chozick showed up, and if they could grab him, it might be possible to avoid a battle. Or, if they had to fight, it would be easier to win.

Smith was in civilian clothes as was Josy. Tola-Sa was dressed in a hood, voluminous cloak, and boots. His size caused him to stand out, but not as much as one might expect, since all manner of exotic beings walked the halls of Orb 1.

A short trip down a side corridor took them to a plain door and a sign that read, NOOL HANDRA, SHIPPING BROKER. Once inside they were greeted by a diminutive Thrakie who was wearing too much makeup. She sent them back to a door which slid out of the way. They entered a dimly lit room and Smith was about to speak, when six men attacked. They were dressed in black and had been waiting in the shadows.

It was a small space, so there was very little room in which to maneuver. Smith felt a burning sensation as an energy bolt slicked across his cheek, heard a thud as Tola-Sa punched a man in the face, and realized that Chozick wasn't going to show up.

But there was no time to pursue that line of thought as one of the hired thugs wrapped his fingers around Josy's throat and she head butted him. Blood was pouring out of his nose as the man reeled backwards and Smith kicked him in the groin. The spacer fell, clutching his privates and suffered even more when Tola-Sa accidentally stepped on his head.

The Hudathan was having a good time until a Human stabbed him in the right arm. Tola-Sa uttered a grunt of rage, took hold of the handle, and jerked the blade free. Then having secured a grip on his opponent's throat, Tola-Sa drove the knife down through the top of the Human's skull. The body joined others on the floor.

Meanwhile Smith had an arm around another man's throat. Josy kicked the thug in the knee and kicked it again as Smith let go. "That's enough," Smith said as the man began to whimper. "Mercy is a virtue."

"Mercy is stupid," Josy said, while allowing herself one last kick. She looked for another opponent but the battle was over. Bodies, most of which were dead, littered the floor. Smith was still in the process of learning to interpret Hudathan facial expressions but was pretty sure that Tola-Sa looked happy.

"The door is locked," Josy said, as she tried it for a second time.

"I have the key," Tola-Sa assured her, as a gigantic boot hit the door.

It crumpled and gave way when Smith pushed on it. He was ready to grab the Thraki who had been sitting at the front desk but she was gone. "Come on," he said. "Let's find citizen Handra. There's an excellent chance that he knows where Chozick is.”

Smith turned to Josy. "Contact the ship. Tell Lieutenant Noll to place the entire company on high alert -- and send two cyborgs out to join us. We might need some additional muscle. Once they show up on the security monitors the cops will freak out, so we might as well contact them now."

To their credit, the station's security beings responded quickly. They took one look at the room full of bodies and were about to arrest everyone in sight when the T-2s arrived. That, plus Smith's threat to declare martial law, left the police officers with no choice but to cooperate. And with their assistance, Smith found Handra and his daughter in a short period of time. There weren't that many places to hide so they had taken refuge in the suite of rooms which Handra maintained on C deck.

Having cornered the Thraki, Smith suggested that Tola-Sa handle the interrogation. That prospect was enough to scare the hell out of Handra who hurried to spill his guts. Chozick was on Long Jump in a town called Sunrise. Plan A had ended in failure. It was time to try Plan B.

* * *

Aboard the freighter Chicago

The Chicago shook violently as the ship continued its descent through Long Jump's atmosphere. Only eight hours had passed since the battle on the space station and Smith was worried. Based on information supplied by Citizen Handra they had been able to locate Lieutenant Ember. Like Handra, he broke after spending a few minutes with Tola-Sa and told them all about Sunrise, the mine, and the additional troops Chozick had.

Smith's thoughts were interrupted as the Captain's voice came over the intercom. "Okay, everybody ... Hang onto your panties. It looks like they spotted us. Evasive maneuvers will begin now.

The bottom of Smith's stomach seemed to disappear as the Chicago fell like a stone. Then the freighter was underway again and seemingly headed straight up. Gee forces pushed the legionnaire down into his seat and someone threw up as loose items hit the deck. That was followed by what felt like an extreme roller coaster ride.

But the evasive maneuvers didn't work. Something hit the Chicago and hit it hard. Alarms began to hoot and howl. Smith uttered a silent prayer. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me ..."

The prayer wasn't enough. "We're going in!" the Captain shouted over the intercom. "Hang on!"

Suddenly the ship rolled and Smith found himself hanging upside down in his harness. Then the freighter flipped right side up again and hit hard. Intermittent screeching sounds were heard as the Chicago hit the ground and skipped like a stone on a pond. It landed one more time and coasted to a stop.

Every second would count, and Smith knew it as he hit the harness release. "This is Nine," he said, chinning the mike. "They will attack from the air ... Every cyborg who can will exit the ship and form an AA network. Fire when ready.

"Able bodied bio bods will follow the borgs and seek cover. Leave the wounded on the ship. That's an order. Over."

It was cold and Smith knew there was a very real chance that people would die as a result of his order. But the Chicago was a sitting duck. And if it were destroyed everyone would die. The wounded and the medics alike. And if Smith lost the medics, then other causalities would die later on. He was playing God and hated it. Daylight flooded the hold as both the port and starboard hatches opened. Having positioned herself next to the starboard hatch, Josy yelled, "Go! Go! Go!"

In keeping with Smith's orders the cyborgs went first with those bio bods who could scuttling along behind. But there wasn't much they could do as the DE came in for the kill. The ship filled half the sky as it hung there supported by flaring repellors. As the DE started to pivot, an artificial dust storm made it hard to see. "They're going to fire a broadside at us!" someone yelled. Smith realized that was true. The turn would allow the renegades to bring more weapons to bear on the Chicago.

But the cyborgs had linked their onboard computers into a single network by then and half of them were armed with so-called "cans”. Meaning that each carried a pair of shoulder mounted rocket launchers. So each T-2 could deliver twelve independently targeted missiles. They fired in unison, and as rockets sleeted into the air, the cyborgs who weren't armed with cans let loose with their arm mounted energy cannons, and their fire converged on the enemy vessel as well.

The DE's shields were down so that it could fire its weapons, so the hull took the full force of the well-coordinated barrage. Smith saw the bright flash produced by a secondary explosion and heard a loud BOOM.

The Queen staggered, began to tilt, and righted herself. Then, with only two thirds of her repellors firing, she turned away and began to retreat. But one of the borgs hadn't fired yet. And that was the four-legged beast that Smith thought of as "the equalizer".

The quad stood twenty-five feet tall and weighed fifty tons, so he had taken longer to exit the ship. But having cleared the wreck, Corporal Ray "Pinky" Jackson was ready to fight. And when he fired his missiles they followed each other like bullets shot from a gun. Each struck within feet of the previous projectile and that created a flash point that seemed to pulse like a strobe. Together the missiles blew a hole in the DE's stern and one of them found the engine room. When it did, there was a massive explosion followed by a circular shock wave. The blast knocked Smith onto his ass and burning rubbish fell from the sky as he stood up. Smith chinned his mike. "Nice shooting Sergeant Jackson -- you're going to get a pay raise."

A reedy cheer went up as Josy appeared at Smith's side. "So, what do you think? Was Chozick aboard?"

"I doubt it," Smith answered. "But it doesn't make any difference. There are the rest of them to deal with as well."

"What if the reliquary was aboard the DE?"

"Then we're in big trouble," Smith answered. "Come on ... There are wounded to tend to."

* * *

It took the better part of four hours to provide the wounded with first aid, salvage what they could from the wreck, and dig shallow graves. One cyborg, one Hudathan, and nine bio bods had been killed. Eventually Smith planned to come back and give all of them proper burials. But that would have to wait. Chozick knew that an attack was coming and every passing hour gave him more time to prepare for it.

So as bio bods loaded supplies into Sergeant Jackson's cargo compartment, and the platoon leaders checked their troops, Smith met with Tora-Sa and Josy. "Here's how I figure it," Smith said. "Chozick will assume that we're after him, which is true, but we're after the reliquary as well. And that's the more important of the two objectives."

Tora-Sa nodded. "You are correct ... Although I look forward to taking Chozick's head. His skull will make a nice addition to my collection."

Smith made a face. "Yes, well, be that as it may ... I think we can take advantage of the situation. I will lead the 2nd and 3rd platoons against the town while the two of you take the 1st and circle around. It's my hope that you can find a way into the mine. And that, according to Ember, is where the reliquary is stored."

"Access can be gained via a vertical ventilation shaft," a fourth voice said. "I will lead you there."

All three turned to find that Orson was standing two feet away. Smith had paid scant attention to the robot during the trip out but here it was. "There are a number of satellites in orbit around Long Jump," the android said matter-of -factly. "I hacked one of them and made use of it to take aerial photos. The ventilation stack is clear to see."

"Well done," Smith said, as he turned to Josy. "Hand your borgs off to the other platoon leaders, enter the mine via the shaft, and secure the reliquary. No heroics. Once the remains are safe we will have accomplished the most important aspect of our mission. Then we can go after Chozick, starve him out, or wait for the navy to bomb the place. It hardly matters. Contact me right away once you have the reliquary."

"Okay, but I reserve the right to shoot Chozick if I run into him," Josy said.

"But not in the head," Tola-Sa countered. "That would ruin my trophy."

Smith shook his head sadly. "Both of you are going to hell. You have your orders. Execute them."

There was no reason to hurry. Not in Smith's opinion. Josy and Tola-Sa would need plenty of time to circle around and approach from the south. But the other platoons would have to advance or Chozick would become suspicious.

So Smith sent drones forward to act as scouts, followed by the bio bods, and T-2s. Sergeant Jackson brought up the rear.

The light had begun to fade by the time they reached the outskirts of town. The legionnaires could fight at night but so could their opponents. So Smith decided to harass the enemy during the hours of darkness and attack Sunrise shortly after dawn. The symbology of that appealed to him. "He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.” Psalm 37:6.

That was the plan, or would have been, except that Chozick wasn't about to sit around and wait for the enemy to attack on their terms. And, thanks to his drones, he knew where the enemy units were. The first indication of that was a distant thump followed by screech and a loud explosion as a mortar round landed within three feet of a cyborg and her bio bod. Both were killed instantly.

Then shells began to rain down all around, killing Smith's legionnaires, and forcing the survivors to seek cover. But the incoming mortar bombs could be tracked. And it took Jackson's onboard computer less than a minute to calculate all of the necessary firing solutions, load them into missiles, and fire. Bright explosions marked the enemy mortar pits. A tooth for a tooth, Smith thought grimly as his binoculars swept the area ahead, and a missile for a missile.

But no sooner had some sort of equilibrium been restored when something monstrous burst out of the ground next to Jackson. The construct was even larger than the quad was. Two skeletal arms slid under the war form's belly. Then, with the ease of a little boy turning a beetle over onto its back, the mining machine flipped the cyborg. The equalizer had been put out of action -- and a monster was on the loose.

* * *

Josy could hear the muted sound of explosions off in the distance as Orson led her platoon around Copper Mountain's southern flank. Her team had been stripped of cyborgs because it was unlikely that a T-2 would be able to climb a super steep slope or drop through what could be a tight ventilation shaft. So her team consisted of a drone, Orson, Tora-Sa, two of his Hudathan troopers, and forty legionnaires.

They weren't encumbered by heavy packs, so the soldiers were able to jog cross country as the android led the way. The ground was generally open but broken by occasional ravines and outcroppings of ancient rock. The landscape had a greenish tint -- but that was a small price to pay for the ability to see at night.

Even though the Deacon was pulling most of the enemy troops his way Josy expected to encounter some opposition. Surely the renegade wouldn't leave his southern flank unprotected. But after more than thirty minutes of running, that appeared to be the case. Josy knew how dangerous assumptions could be, however, and decided to give her troops a five minute break while her drone went forward.

Minutes passed, the drone gave the all clear, and the platoon took off. The mountain was to their left and the sides looked steep. That could be a big problem and might explain why they hadn't run into any bad guys. Maybe Chozick thought the mountain could take care of itself.

Another forty minutes passed and Josy was starting to get tired as Orson slowed and held a hand up. Then, as the column came to a stop, it pointed upwards. "The ventilation shaft is directly above us," the robot declared.

Josy looked up and didn't like the view. The slope was so steep that it would be necessary to use ropes. If someone could free climb the mountainside first.

But before they tackled that problem there was something else to consider. Were guards posted up above? If so, they would certainly take notice when a platoon of troops started up the mountain.

So Josy took control of the drone. She could fly it using a wireless remote and could see what it "saw" using the HUD projected on the inside of her visor. Unfortunately the drone had a heat signature that any sentry worth his or her salt could detect. So Josy kept the robot in against the mountain, flying only inches away from the largest rocks in hopes of escaping detection.

The drone was about two hundred and twenty feet up when Josy spotted what she'd been looking for. A Human-shaped blob of light could be seen standing next to a ghostly looking heat stack. It was holding something up to its eyes. Binoculars? Yes.

Carefully, lest she move the robot too much and draw attention to it, Josy delegated control of the machine's single weapon to herself. What happened next would be critical. If she missed the sentry, or merely winged him, an alarm would be given. And if that occurred, reinforcements would be sent. Worse yet, the renegades would retain control of the reliquary.

Josy held her breath as she eased the luminous crosshairs onto the target. There was an intermittent breeze from the west so tiny movements of the joystick were required to keep the glowing X on target.

Then, as her thumb came down on the firing button, the sentry turned out of the sight picture. Josy swore and made the necessary adjustment. Her thumb mashed the button and the energy bolt punched a hole through the lookout a fraction of a second later. There was no report. The sentry went limp and the weight of the weapon dangling across his or her chest was enough to pull the dead body forward. Josy was about to shout a warning when the corpse landed next to a startled legionnaire. There was a thump followed by an emphatic, "What the hell?"

"Sorry about that," Josy said as she put the remote away. "I'll holler next time. Bring some cord. Let's see if the drone can carry it up and around the ventilation stack. Maybe we can use it to hoist a rope up. That would save a lot of time. Let's get going."

* * *

Having accomplished its mission, the orange monster was trying to retreat underground when Smith went after it. "Come on!" he shouted. "Let's kill that thing!"

Two bio bods were close enough to respond as Smith ran straight for the hole the machine was backing into. He jumped, landed on the front end of the monster, and shouted into the mike. "Find the driver! Kill him."

The order made sense, but was easier said than done. Smith staggered as the soil strewn deck tilted and he was forced to grab a support to prevent himself from falling off. There were lights, all protected by wire mesh, but the dirt raining down from above made it hard to see.

Smith heard a scream and knew one of his legionnaires was dead. "God damn you!" the officer yelled as the engine roared and he battled his way toward a dimly seen light. The cab? Smith hoped so as the monster tried to buck him off and a fist-sized rock hit his shoulder. He saw a safety rail and grabbed onto it as the machine backed down the tunnel it had created earlier. That was the threat ... The damned thing could surface and attack again. But not if the operator was dead.

Smith was closer, by then, and could see the cab. But that meant the operator could see him as well -- and soon emerged long enough to fire a pistol at the legionnaire. Smith heard clanging sounds as bullets struck all around him but was unhurt. Thank you, Lord, he thought to himself.

But then the ceiling caved in and drove him to the deck. He struggled against the weight of the soil, fought his way free, and realized that his assault rifle was gone. It made no difference. Smith stooped to collect a rock before staggering toward the cab.

Then he was there, peering at the operator through an armored window, as he followed a grab rail to the left. The machine jerked to a halt as the operator came out to shoot the apparition that was clinging to his machine. He pulled the trigger and the weapon clicked empty. Smith laughed wildly. "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord!" the legionnaire shouted, as he brought the rock down with both hands.

The operator was wearing a helmet and a protective suit. He staggered under the force of the attack, tried to retreat into the cab, but couldn't escape. The second blow destroyed his visor and the third smashed into his face. He brought both hands up to protect the bloody mess and collapsed as Smith struck again. "He's dead, sir," the little private said. "You can stop now."

Smith let go of the rock and heard a clang as it landed next to the body. He swayed like a drunk as the private tried to support him. "You're sure?"

"Yes, sir," she said.

"Good. See if you can turn this thing off ... And lead me out of here."

"I'll try, sir," the private said. And she did.

* * *

It took what seemed like an eternity for Josy's platoon to climb the steep slope and enter the ventilation stack via an access door. It wasn't necessary to rappel down the shaft because it was equipped with rungs. The same rungs the lookouts relied on. There was a tunnel at the bottom of the stack which didn't seem to be in use at the moment. And that made sense, given the battle that was raging in town.

Finally, once all of Josy's people were in the tunnel, it was time to seek out Chozick's operations center and the reliquary that was stored there. Fortunately, there were signs to point the way -- along with occasional safety placards.

The tunnel was dimly lit, large enough for two ore carriers to pass each other, and ran consistently downhill. The platoon hadn't traveled far when Orson spoke to Josy over the platoon freq. "Look up and to the right."

Josy looked, saw the camera, and realized that it was pointed at her. So much for the element of surprise. She offered the lens a one-fingered salute and delivered a warning to the platoon. "They know we're here so it's just a matter of time before we make contact. Keep it tight, eyeball those side tunnels, and watch our six. Who knows? They might attack from behind. Over."

But when the attack came it was from the front. The first sign of trouble was a distant rumble and four white dots that quickly morphed into huge ore carriers traveling up-tunnel side-by-side. "This is One," Josy said. "Take cover. I want rockets on those trucks... Fire when ready. Over."

The tube jockeys went to one knee, took aim, and pulled their triggers. The heat seeking missiles couldn't miss. They hit massive grills and exploded. Both trucks ground to a halt and one of them erupted into flames. But as troops surged around the vehicles they'd been riding in, it was apparent that they'd been shielded from the force of the explosions. They opened fire and fountains of dirt jumped into the air as what sounded like a wasp buzzed past Josy's left ear. Two legionnaires fell. The rest returned fire.

The renegades had gone to ground by then and the firefight had the makings of a standoff until the burning truck exploded. The blast threw shrapnel up-tunnel and killed half a dozen of Chozick's troops. It was a real, as well as psychological blow -- and Josy hurried to take full advantage of it. "Follow me!" she shouted, and ran down tunnel. Those who could followed.

That was too much for the remaining renegades. They turned and ran. Or tried to. But a wall of flame blocked the way. That forced them to turn back in order to defend themselves. The move came too late. Tola-Sa and his Hudathans were there with swords swinging. Heads came off, blood flew, and bodies collapsed as the huge aliens did their work.

"Stop!" Josy shouted, as the remaining dropped their weapons. "They're surrendering."

Tola-Sa managed to take one more head before heeding the order. "Sorry," he said, wiping his sword on a body. "My blade was thirsty."

Josy placed the prisoners under guard and assigned a squad to stay with the wounded and protect them. Then she led the rest of the legionnaires toward the still smoldering trucks. They had lots of ground clearance. Enough to crawl under. And that was what she planned to do.

* * *

Even though he didn't want to send his troops into the town of Sunrise during the night, Smith was forced to do so, or risk losing what little bit of offensive momentum he had. So after emerging from the tunnel, he sent his T-2s into the town. The idea was to use the cyborgs as shock troops while squads of bio bods sought to hold whatever ground was taken.

What ensued was a bloody block-by-block battle fought against Chozick's troops and some of the townspeople who took pot shots at the invaders from doors and windows. It was a foolish thing to do, but understandable since most of them didn't know about the reliquary, or its importance. So Smith spared them to the extent that he could without putting his legionnaires at additional risk.

It was nasty work. But inch by inch, and foot by foot, Smith's legionnaires pushed Chozick's people back. And by the time the sun rose, Smith's company had control of the town. What they didn't have was the reliquary, and repeated attempts to make contact with Josy had been unsuccessful. Had her platoon been wiped out? Or were they inside the mine where radio signals couldn't reach?

There was no way to know, as Smith led two squads of bio bods into the no man's land of sheds, trucks, and piles of rusting equipment that lay between Sunrise and the copper mine. He was rounding the front end of an old crawler when the renegade made contact. "This is Chozick. Let's talk."

The transmission came in via the command freq. And why not? Chozick was using Legion standard com gear. "Okay," Smith said. "What would you like to talk about?"

"First, tell your people to stay where they are, and stop firing. I'll do the same."

Smith scanned the area in front him through a pair of binoculars. Everything looked normal enough. "Roger that. Hold one."

Then, cognizant of the fact that Chozick could hear, Smith spoke to his people. "This is Nine ... I'm in contact with the renegades. Maintain your present positions and hold your fire. Over."

Having kept his word Smith switched to command frequency again. "All right ... The cease fire is on. Place your weapons on the ground and come out with your hands over your heads. Over."

Chozick laughed. "Very funny, Nine ... I thought you were after me. After us. But then my scouts saw the Hudathans. They want the skeleton and you're here to help them get it. And that makes sense in a twisted kind of way. The Confederacy is about to go under and the ridgeheads can save it. Well, that's fine with me ... Give us a ship plus five million credits, and we'll leave the box of bones behind. Or keep coming and we'll destroy them. The choice is up to you."

Suddenly a third voice came over the command channel. And it belonged to Josy! "Not so fast asshole. It turns out that we have the reliquary ... And the hole you were going to hide in. So it's like Captain Smith said. Put your weapons down and your hands in the air."

There was a moment of silence. Smith figured Chozick was on the horn checking to see if Josy's claim was true. Then, having received no reply, he was forced to confront the truth. With Josy behind him barring any chance of retreat, he had nowhere left to go.

The silence was broken by a fourth voice. "This is Orson. I'm here with Lieutenant Josy. I suggest that you allow me to speak with Captain Chozick."

Smith was sick of all the killing and, if there was a way to take the surviving renegades alive, then he was for it. More than that, he had a duty to do so … "Thou shalt not kill.” It wasn't a suggestion. It was a commandment. Yet he had violated it over and over. Maybe, just maybe, he could meet God with a little less blood on his hands. "Okay," Smith said. "Go ahead. You heard it Chozick ... Orson is coming out to talk to you."

There was no reply. But, as with the drones, Smith could see what the robot saw on his HUD. And that gave him an Orson-eye-view of a rectangle of light with legionnaires crouched to either side of it. Then he was walking out into bright daylight with the sheds, trucks, and rusty gear piled beyond. He could see the renegades now, most of whom were kneeling, weapons at the ready. A man stood and turned. Smith could see the look of surprise on his face and hear his voice. "Shithead! Is that you? Well I'll be damned."

"Yes," a new voice said. A voice that Smith recognized as belonging to Colonel Price! "You should have aimed lower."

Chozick frowned. "Who are you? What's going on?"

Smith was wondering the same thing. Had Orson been programmed to channel Price? That's the way it appeared. But why? Then he remembered the order Price had given him. The one he refused to obey.

"Say goodbye," Price said.

Chozick frowned. "Goodbye? Wait a minute ... Let's talk, let's ..."

When Orson exploded, a horizontal blast wave erased Chozick and the rest of the renegades. Smith's visor went dark to protect his eyes and the helmet acted to dampen the sound. But he could feel the heat as the wind blew past him and was sucked back in. The second clap of thunder was weaker than the first, and left Smith feeling angry. The Legion had been planning to kill Chozick all along. And, being unable to count on him to do it, they sent Orson. Had the robot been programmed to knife the renegade if it got close enough? Or to shoot him? Probably. But he was carrying explosives just in case.

"Well," Josy said, as she strolled out into the sunshine. "That takes care of that. Mission accomplished. Let's round up our people, call for some transportation, and go home.”

About the Author

New York Times bestselling author William C. Dietz has published more than forty novels some of which have been translated into German, French, Russian, Korean and Japanese. Dietz also wrote the script for the Legion of the Damned game based on his book of the same name and co-wrote SONY's Resistance: Burning Skies game for the PS Vita. He grew up in the Seattle area, spent time with the Navy and Marine Corps as a medic, graduated from the University of Washington, lived in Africa for half a year, and has traveled to six continents. He has been employed as a surgical technician, college instructor, news writer, television producer and Director of Public Relations and Marketing for an international telephone company.

Dietz is a member of the Writer’s Guild and the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. He and his wife live near Gig Harbor in Washington State where they enjoy traveling, kayaking, and reading books.


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