“Pinks” by David Afsharirad

We were racing for pinks.

Jordan used the magnazip to seal the seam in the back of my bio-synched undersuit.

“You sure about this, Danny?” he said. Jordan always was too timid, always second-guessing decisions that had been irrevocably made. Why he was a mechanic and not a driver.

“Why wouldn’t I be? You saying I’m going to lose?”

Jordan shrugged. “If you do, it won’t be my fault. Or the Orange Possum Special’s.” He gave the exosuit a tender pat on the gauntlet. “I’ve got her in top shape. No Defens-245 is gonna outrun her. Least not one that’s stock.”

“You know a lot of mercs keep their suit’s stock?” I asked. I was being an asshole and knew it but couldn’t help myself. Truth was, Jordan was the best mechanic I’d ever worked with, and we’d been together for ten years at this point—a lifetime for a driver and his mechanic. I guess I was just jumpy. Truth was, I was worried.

“No,” Jordan said. “I don’t know of many mercs who keep their suits stock. But it ain’t like the Possum here rolled off the assembly line on Cordella in this condition. Hell, Danny, there ain’t a suit in the quadrant who can take her.”

“Especially not with me driving,” I said, trying to psych myself up as much as anything.

“Especially not with you driving,” Jordan agreed. “And me as your mechanic.”

I turned and flashed him a smile. “Right, Jordan. Then there’s nothing to worry about.”

Nothing, I thought, except that if I lost, we were well and truly screwed.


The thing about it was that it had all started out so damn stupid. We were in Arabat, a small town in the Taranha sector of Leoto. We’d just spent three weeks of sheer hell clearing the jungle of guerilla Kitoas. The Kitoa were primitive. Even with the explosive-tipped arrows they had, they were no match for us. But the three-eyed bastards knew the terrain, and in dense jungle foliage, our bulky suits could almost be considered a drawback.


Long story, we’d cleared every tunnel and cave and hidey-hole. Had burned our share of enemy camps and had routed the last of the Kitoa warriors. Now it was time for some R&R before we headed out to another sector and more of the same.

We were paid by the Leotan colonial government, such as it was, and quite handsomely, else we wouldn’t have taken such a shit job on a jerkass backwater planet. I mean, talk about the ass-end of the known universe. But Arabat had a bar and though the local swill they served could only aspire to be called rotgut, it did the job.

Too well.

I was on my fourth drink when a handful of drivers and mechanics from the Guardian Corps wandered in.

“Look at these assholes,” I said, too loud. One shot me a glare. I stared past him, pretending I wasn’t the one who’d said it.

Merc teams, as you can imagine, are fiercely competitive. We’ll work together if the job requires and the pay is right, but we’ll never like each other. Maybe it’s silly. Tribalistic. But it’s the way it is. I particularly didn’t like any man jack who would work for the Guardians. I’d had run-ins with them before. They were scab labor. And always just so, so holier-than-thou. In a sense, they weren’t really even mercs, more a private army for lending out, as they were underwritten by the trillionaire mining magnate Roger Hartoni. He sent them out wherever he felt they could be “of service to the greater good of the First United Federation and its allies.” So they didn’t take money for killing directly from those who wanted the killing done. Somehow because they were on salary, with benefits and a retirement plan, that made their hands less bloody than mine. Or so they thought.

I took another sip of my drink, feeling it burn on the way down. Oof, the stuff was terrible.

The Guardians sidled up to the opposite end of the bar and started doing shots. It wasn’t hard to guess that they’d just come out of cryosleep on the way to Leoto and were trying to rid themselves of that bone-deep chill that seems to linger for days after you come out of a Nap, no matter that the experts say it’s all in your head.

“For the good of the First Fed!” one said, holding up his glass. They all echoed then downed their drinks.

I snorted. Yeah, sure. We were all regular humanitarians.

Look, I knew the Kitoa had to go. Most had. They’d been relocated to a reservation in Azuma sector, and they were, from all accounts, quite happy there. These last holdouts were blood-thirsty, no-account savages who wouldn’t listen to reason. They had to go. But let’s not make out like we were saints here. We were killing sentient beings for their land. No different than humans—and Kitoas—have been doing since time immemorial, but it rubs me the wrong way when people drape themselves in false glory. Do the job that needs to be done, but don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back for all the good you’re doing, that’s what I say.

Another round was poured, and the same asshat made another toast. “To the Guardians, keepers of the peace!”

I snorted again. Louder. The asshat shot me a look, and this time I didn’t avert my eyes but held his gaze.

I signaled the bartender for another drink. When he’d poured it and moved away, I raised my glass and my voice, locking eyes with the asshat.

“To the eradication of the Kitoa,” I said. “If only they had the sense not to evolve on a planet that has resources the First Fed needs.” I downed my drink in a single swallow and realized how much of a mistake I’d made, instantly. The alcohol had been creeping up on me for a while and now it hit me full force. My stomach cramped and I thought I might blow chunks.

Then I realized the other mistake I’d made. Every man jack in the Guardians was staring at me. The asshat moved down the bar in slow, measured strides.

“You got some sort of a problem with the First Fed?” he asked.

I shrugged. “Not particularly.”

“You some sort of pussy Kitoa lover?”

I shook my head. “No pussy. No alien lover. I’ve killed a mite more of them than you have. Maybe you’re the Kitoa lover.”

The man told me to do something anatomically challenging to myself. I told him I’d give it a shot. That got a chuckle from his buddies but didn’t do anything to cool his jets.

“Piece of shit merc,” he muttered, turning away.

“Like you’re better,” I called after him.

Why did I seem to want a fight so bad? Hadn’t I had enough violence lately? Enough to last a lifetime?

“I’m Sergeant Nils MacLeod of the Guardian Corps,” he said, as if that was supposed to mean anything to me. “We’re peacekeepers. Not hired thugs.”

“You been out in the jungle around here lately?” I said. “Pretty damn peaceful now that the last of the Kitoa have been cleared off. The clearing being done by me and my fellow mercs.”

“What’s your point?”

“I’m saying we’re peacekeepers, too, friend. So watch what you say about us. And how you say it.”

“That a threat?”

One of MacLeod’s buddies put a hand on his shoulder, whispered something in his ear. By the way MacLeod said, “The Hell I will,” I’m guessing it was something about laying off me.

We weren’t being all that loud, but a crowd had started to gather. Mercs from Alpha Company gathering in a loose semi-circle behind me, the Guardians behind MacLeod. This was going to turn ugly. You could feel it in the air. If we avoided an all-out brawl, it’d be something of a miracle. People would get hurt, injured. Some might wind up dead. It had happened before.

And it would be because of me. Because I couldn’t stand the smarmy look on their faces. I had enough blood on my hands. And I’d get a lot more in the years to come. I was a merc. It came with the territory. But killing for a job—and I made it a policy never to take a job that I didn’t think absolutely needed to be done—was different than a friend getting shivved in the back because I couldn’t hold my liquor.

I tried to diffuse the situation.

“Listen, friend—”

“I’m not your friend, merc.” The way he said the word, it was a curse. MacLeod held his fist clenched at his side. He looked ready to raise it. I knew where he’d try and land it if he did: the end of my nose.

I was too drunk and too pissed off to think clearly. And I was too angry to back down. But maybe if I changed my tack—started coming at him from a different angle—this situation wouldn’t go totally sideways.

I decided to steer clear of politics and attach on a baser level: exosuits.

“What kind of sled you driving?” I asked, referring to his exo. It was possible MacLeod wasn’t a driver at all. That he was a mechanic or just some private army brass, but I didn’t think so. We drivers have a look to us. And MacLeod had it.

The non sequitur threw MacLeod for a loop. For a moment. Only for a moment. He wasn’t as far gone as I was, despite the shots and the grogginess that came from defrosting after a Nap.

“Defens-245,” he said, an edge in his voice.

I laughed.

MacLeod didn’t.

“The D-245s is top of the line. Best money can buy,” MacLeod said.

“It’s not money makes for a good sled,” I said. “And a good sled’s worthless without a good driver.”

“Yeah? What’re you driving?”

“You ever hear of the Orange Possum Special?” I said.

MacLeod spat a short burst of laughter. “The hell is that?”

He put on a good front, but I could tell I had him.

“Nice try,” I said. “But I think you know. Which means I think you know who I am. So why don’t you just go back to your end of the bar with your peacekeeping buddies and keep the peace to yourself.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I think you do.”

MacLeod chewed his lip for a while.

“All right,” MacLeod said, finally. “So, you’re Danny Ricter.”

I raised my empty glass.

“So you’re a washed-up, has-been, disgraced soldier who drives a rust-bucket sled that no self-respecting merc would strap on.”

He was trying to get my goat.

“Sure, friend. Say what you want about me. But let’s not drag the Possum into it.”

MacLeod scoffed. “Any D-245 could leave that jalopy in the dust with one booster disabled.”

“I wouldn’t bet on it,” I said.

“I would,” MacLeod said. And it was then I realized I’d stepped in it. “I’d bet the pink slip it would.”

The whole bar seemed to get colder and quieter, like the entire structure and all of us in it were being put down for a Nap. I felt Jordan’s grip on my shoulder. I don’t know when he’d come up beside me, but there he was, and his hand was like a vise. All that time turning wrenches had made his hands strong. I winced, and MacLeod mistook the reason why.

“Too steep for you to risk it, eh? Of course, I thought you said there’d be no risk. Not for you. Not for a hotshot—”

“Okay,” I said.

It was like when we cycled the airlock in space and the air all rushed out in an instant.

“What?” MacLeod’s face fell. Just for the barest moment. I’ll give him credit there. He recovered fast.

“I said okay. We’ll race for pinks. You got a bet.”

And just like that, I’d made what turned out to be the stupidest mistake of my life.


I made my way from camp to the starting line, smack dab in the center of Arabat, next to the Founding Fountain, a grotesque Neo-Baroque monstrosity depicting Amos Leoto, the Alsatian noble who’d been granted the charter to settle the planet and for whom, of course, it had been named. Guys from Alpha Company had drawn up the course. MacLeod and the boys from the Guardians whined about it, but they didn’t have much choice. They’d been planetside less than one solar rotation and didn’t know the territory. They’d insisted on a few changes, which were granted, just to save face.

The race was going to be a slog. If I stayed at the top of my game, I might be able to run it in just under twelve hours. And I would have to stay at the top of my game. I’d have to be steady if I wanted to win, but I damn sure couldn’t be slow.

A crowd had gathered, as of course we knew it would. This sort of thing was completely illegal, but what was anyone going to do, call the cops? Both merc teams had turned out, but so had an obscene number of locals. It looked like a county fair. Women wearing very little clothing strutted around the perimeter, whispering sweet nothings into the ears of every merc who would listen—as well as what those sweet nothings would run, moneywise. Food vendors hawked various street food on sticks and in cones and plastifibre bowls.

And of course, there was betting. Just so much betting.

Ricky, one of the younger guys in our squad, ran up. He walked ten paces in front of me, backward, his neck craned up so he could see me through my lifted visor.

“I got five hundred on you, Danny!” he shouted. “I’d bet more but that’s all I had. You’ll take the bastard, Danny! Easy.”

Kasabian ambled up. “Don’t foul this up, Ricter. I got a thousand riding on it.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I said. Then told him where he could stick his winnings when, not if, he won.

Jordan, of course, hadn’t bet. He’d said it would be unethical. Truth was, he didn’t have the stomach for gambling.

“What are my odds?” I asked him through the comm. The message was relayed into his earpiece so that only he could hear.

“They’ve got MacLeod as the three-to-one favorite,” he said.

An ice cube slithered down my back and settled in my groin. I must have been too shocked to say anything for quite a while because Jordan was back in my comm-set, “Danny, you okay?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. “Three to one, eh? Well, that’ll just make winning all the sweeter.”

“Danny, I’m not—”

“Can it, Jordan.” There was more of an edge in my voice than I meant. “I don’t need you trying to talk me out of what’s already done.”

A silence, followed by, “Right, Danny.”

“Look,” I said. “I’m sorry. I’m just worked up.”

“No, you’re right. Well, there he is.”

MacLeod waited as we approached the starting line. His Defens-245 gleamed in the early morning light. It was tricked out with chrome all over the place and painted two-tone turquoise and white. Over the right breast was a three-dimensional insignia of the Guardian Corps. His helm was two-toned as well, with a snarling tiger logo on each side with the words “Jungle Cat” in an aggressive, to my eye slightly silly, font.

But all of that was just cosmetic. What counted were the mods he and his mechanic had made, and at a glance, there were many. Moon Dog thrusters, the big bore 455 models that had had been strictly military issue until just a year ago. Each set went for 500,000—and last I’d checked the wait list was three years long. How had he gotten them so fast after they’d been made available to the public, I wondered. Not that it mattered. What mattered was that he had them. The Possum was outfitted with 357 Kagoes and there were no flies on them, but they weren’t on the same level as the Moon Dogs.

And his thrusters were just the start of it. Beneath the fancy paint job and chrome, it was obvious his suit had been beefed up, with extra armor plating in all the major vital areas and points of failure. He looked like a walking tank. And with the nonstandard issue .60 cal. Reefers on his gauntlets and a new Matin-Elrod replacing the standard-issue rocket launcher on his shoulder, he basically was. Then I noticed the grenade launcher. MacLeod—or more likely, his benefactor Roger Hartoni —had spared no expense.

“Shit,” I thought when I’d sized him up. Or I thought that I’d thought it. I must have said it out loud because Jordan said, “Yeah, shit is right.”

“A fancy sled doesn’t mean anything,” I said. “It’s the driver that counts. Papa Hartoni probably bought all that stuff for him. Doubt he even knows how to use it.”

“Sure, Danny,” Jordan said.

“Plus, all that extra armor and weaponry, it’s only gonna slow him down.” The rules of the race were that you had to run with all of your arsenal intact. No fair stripping off heavy plating and ordnance in order to make yourself lighter.

“Good point, Danny,” Jordan said.

“Do I sound convincing?” I asked.

“Not really,” Jordan said.

“Damn. How am I gonna fool myself if I can’t even fool you?” I let out a short chuckle to let Jordan know I was joking. The same as I might have flashed a smile if we’d been face to face instead of me towering five feet above his head.

“How’s the rotator cuff on the left shoulder?” I asked. It had taken some damage in a skirmish with a Kitoa warrior a week earlier and Jordan had had to do some significant rebuilding. It was good as new, and I knew it. We’d been over it a dozen times already, but I had to have something to say to cover the tense silence, so that’s what I said.

“Good as new,” Jordan replied, as I knew he would.

And then we were at the starting line, standing face to face with MacLeod and his mechanic, a stocky man with the strange, mismatched appearance of a Shanoan—the red hair and dark complexion that you never saw paired together on Earth, but which had somehow become common on that colony world. I’d been told that it was somehow racist to say so, but Shanoans made stellar mechanics. Racist or not, it was true. And why shouldn’t it be? Out there on the knife’s edge, you had to know how to repair machinery or die. An exosuit was peanuts compared to an atmosphere generator.

MacLeod nodded at me. I nodded back. They were the only pleasantries we exchanged. One of the civilians approached us, a man in a tan business suit. The kind that had been popular on Earth in the twentieth century and had become popular again in the twenty-second. It was shabby but well-cut. He introduced himself as Silas Gage, the representative from the First Bank of Leoto who would be holding the pink slips to our sleds while we raced. It was a formality that MacLeod had insisted on. He didn’t say that he didn’t trust a greasy, no-count merc like me to welch on the deal, but he might as well have. I’d agreed because what else could I do without looking like a greasy, no-count merc who would welch on the deal?

Gage produced a tablet. Jordan passed his tablet over the top of it and the pink to the Orange Possum Special data transferred. The Shanoan mechanic did the same.

Pinks, of course, weren’t pink. They weren’t really any color. Just bits of data stored on a tablet. I’d looked the reference up once, on the holoweb. Pink, it turned out, was short for pink slip, which was slang for automobile registration way back in the day on Earth. Probably, the article had said, these registration papers were pink in color, though whether that was true had been lost to time.

After Gage had confirmed that the pinks had been transferred, he motioned for Jordan to disable my comms and GPS tracker. Jordan did so. Gage checked that there were no backups, then motioned for the Shanoan to verify. MacLeod’s mechanic nodded, then he, Gage, and Jordan moved to MacLeod to do the same.

This was the part of racing that always felt strangest to me: being cut off from Jordan, not having my mechanic in my ear, advising me at every turn. Truth was, in battle, mechanics were far more than grease monkeys making sure the sleds operated at top form. They monitored every aspect of the exosuit and advised when to slack off on the throttle, when to lean harder on back-thrusters. They also kept an eye on the GPS and the HUD, advising on maneuvering and tactical matters.

But racing wasn’t a skirmish, and custom said that a driver had to win or lose by his own skill. Comms and tracking were turned off at the hardware level—as simple as removing a single chip from the sled’s mainframe. During the twelve hours it would take to run the race, I’d be completely cut off—from Jordan, from the rest of Alpha Company, from the outside world in general. I felt at home in my sled. When we’d been out in the field for long periods of time, when I came back to civilization, I almost felt naked without it. But cocooned inside, the silence pervasive without comms during a race, I felt trapped. Like I was inside a casket.

I tried not to think about it, flipped up my visor so I could hear what was going on. During the race, I’d have to have it down.

His official duties executed, Gage said, “Thank you, gentlemen. It looks like everything is in order. Good luck to you both.” And then he melted back into the crowd.

“We sure this guy is on the up-and-up?” I asked Jordan. On these far-flung planets sometimes the officials were crookeder than the crooks.

“Best as I could tell,” Jordan said. “Anyway, I trust him more than handing the pink over to one of MacLeod’s buddies.”

“Okay, then, let’s do this.”

Jordan began running down the checklist. I confirmed each vital system was operational and fully powered. When we’d confirmed the last item, Jordan said, “All systems go,” and I said, “Let’s kick some ass.” It was the same thing we said every time we went into battle. It was like an incantation. A prayer. It had always served to calm my nerves. But not this time. My balls were cramped up in my stomach. Usually, when I took the Possum out, worst that could happen is I would die. I was unlikely to get killed this time—unless MacLeod really didn’t want to lose, and I didn’t think even a piece of shit Guardian would stoop that low—but if I lost, I’d lose the Orange Possum Special. I’d be a driver without a sled, worthless. Death is bad, but living a meaningless life would be, as the saying goes, a fate worse than death.

“Ready, gentlemen?” Monroe asked. He was a driver from Alpha Company who was there to lay out the course, officially. He went through it. I was barely listening, and I doubt MacLeod was, either. We’d both known the route since it had been hashed out and it was plugged into our sleds’ map system. Monroe’s spiel was for the bystanders.

Money was still changing hands, but as Monroe finished his speech and held up a checkered handkerchief—God, where had they found one of those?—the bookies motioned for all betting to stop.

“On your marks,” Monroe shouted. “Get set.” And then, of course: “GO!” He dropped the handkerchief and MacLeod and I were off.

He was fast off the starting line, as I knew he would be. Those Moon Dogs weren’t just for show. I was trailing him already, but his gap wasn’t widening, at least not yet. And from this vantage point I could evaluate what kind of driver he was.

The answer was that he was good. Damn good.

I was still holding steady at about ten yards behind him, but I was having to exert more power to do so. I laid on the gas and closed the gap by a couple of yards as Arabat receded in the rearview. The noise of the crowds was lost now to the surrounding jungle and to the roar of the boosters in my sled.

I looked up and saw a drone hovering above us. Moments later, it was shot out of the sky, nothing but a smoking mass of rubble on the ground. There were rules about filming races. Specifically, it wasn’t allowed. I don’t know why. Guess it would take away from the suspense.

Soon we were in the thick of the jungle, and it was here that MacLeod started to falter. I gained on him, and I could tell that he didn’t like it one bit. The jungle was alive with sound in the early morning light, which penetrated the dense canopy only in patches. Here, it was eternal twilight.

MacLeod startled a small flock of pickerlings, which flew from their ground nests in a flurry of wings and beaks, shrieking that awful noise they make, and which I’d become accustomed to. MacLeod hadn’t. He faltered, swatted at the birds with his gauntlets. The birds were too fast, even for his upgraded exo. They skimmed out of the way, spiraling up into the trees. But the distraction had rattled MacLeod. He took a bad step and stumbled, pinwheeling his arms to keep his balance. I used it to my advantage, darting around him just as he righted himself.

I swear I heard him let out an inhuman cry of shocked anger. I know, I know: Impossible through the helm of an exo. But I heard it, nonetheless.

I knew my lead wouldn’t last long if I didn’t keep my head in the game. I picked up the speed, darting around and between massive trunks and the braided vinelike bushes that grow like weeds on Leoto. I considered darting through a thick tangle of them; it would save time if I could keep up my speed, but I risked getting ensnared. It wasn’t cutting corners; the track that had been decided on was relatively wide, allowing that we’d have to navigate around dense foliage and over steep hills and deep ravines. So cutting through the underbrush was legal, but I had to decide if it was the smart move.

I’d found that in racing, as in life, sometimes it pays to take a stupid risk. Also, MacLeod was gaining on me. I darted into the brush. Leaves big as the palm of my exo’s hand slapped at me. I could barely see five feet in front of my face. I darted nimbly, my speed never slowing, avoiding the thickest vines and swatting away the thinner ones. When I burst through the underbrush, back into a relatively clear span of jungle, MacLeod was nowhere in sight.

The fact didn’t console me. I was pretty sure I was still in the lead, but without a comm connection to Jordan to tell me for sure, and with both MacLeod and my GPS trackers disabled, there was no way to know that he wasn’t far ahead of me. I thought it unlikely, but he was damn fast.

Nothing to do but keep running.

I’d raced before, of course. It was a pretty common pastime among drivers. Usually there was money riding on the outcome, sometimes significant money. Davenport, a driver who’d been with Alpha Company for close to eight years, had once lost an entire year’s pay betting on a race. It had delayed his retirement to Santinaa, a fact that he never stopped bitching about. But usually the stakes were penny-ante. Racing for pinks wasn’t unheard of, but most guys weren’t stupid enough to actually do it.

In my rearview display, I watched as MacLeod crested a rise. I had been ahead of him for some time, but that didn’t matter now. He was coming up on my six. Fast.

Despite my best efforts, I watched as he passed me. This was his terrain, the foliage not nearly as dense. There was nothing to do but to keep my head down and pour everything I had into the race.

Over the next hours we darted in and out of the jungle. MacLeod was faster on the straightaways, there was no doubt about that. But he wasn’t nearly as good at maneuvering. The advantage should have been mine, with all the jungle we were cutting through, but somehow every time I got a lead on him in some dense foliage, as soon as the jungle opened up, he’d pull ahead of me. I’d spent the better part of the race in second place, which was to say, I was losing as we neared the halfway mark, the farthest from Arabat that we would go.

I was as exhausted as I’d ever been during a race. People who’ve never driven a sled, never even been inside an exo, think that it’s like sitting inside a self-driving transport. That drivers just cozy up inside and let the machine do all the work. Nothing could be further from the truth. Driving a sled is as grueling a workout as has ever been invented. Drivers have to consume, on average, 4,000 calories a day just to keep from wasting away. I’ve seen guys, after particularly long engagements, shed their exos and step out into the world looking like POWs, just released after the war. The most well-muscled POWs in history, sure. But still thin as rails, their faces like skulls from loss of body fat. It was the reason why we all looked like bodybuilders between jobs. We had to keep that insane level of muscle to make it through the stints in the field.

Yes, of course, we didn’t actually haul the suits around like you would a backpack. The average sled weighed a little over a ton. The Orange Possum Special, with her upgrades, weighed in at 2,091 pounds, to be exact. But despite the servos that made the suits move, you still got in a serious workout. Every jump the suit made, you had to make. Everything you lifted still had weight to it. When the suit ran, you ran. Now imagine doing that for hours on end.

To say nothing of the mental strain. My brain felt like someone had reached inside my skull and swirled around in there with their fingers. Racing was hard work, though not nearly as hard as battle, but no matter how much I tried to push the fact that we were racing for pinks out of my mind, I couldn’t do it. I kept imagining scenarios in which I lost the Possum. Scenarios which were looking increasingly likely.

I was trailing MacLeod by close to two hundred yards now. For long periods, I’d lose sight of him only for him to reappear from behind a rock or around a tree, his lead ever-increasing. I hadn’t had eyes on him for close to half an hour when I saw him crest a rise and disappear on the other side of it.

I dug deep and put on a burst of speed. I’d closed maybe half of the distance to the hill when I saw MacLeod appear again, moving toward me at an incredible speed. Strange as this was, the way in which he was moving was even stranger: erratic, with none of the finesse he’d displayed up to this point.

“Shit!” The sound of the curse reverberated in the closeness of my helm. Something was wrong. Nebulous thoughts as to what flitted through my mind.

MacLeod was going to kill me . . .

There was a cliff which would prove impassable . . .

MacLeod had disturbed a den of Vermers, the ferocious, nocturnal bearlike animals that hunted in packs, and which really did not like to be woken during daylight hours . . .

The one thing that somehow didn’t cross my mind was what happened.

Behind MacLeod, travelling at a furious pace and slinging a fusillade of arrows, was an Kitoa war party. As I watched they boiled over the crest, a seemingly never-ending band of warriors. I couldn’t get a decent count, but there looked to be maybe two dozen. More than enough to be a credible threat to MacLeod and me.

I stood rooted to the spot, only for an instant, as my mind reeled. We’d cleared out the last of the Kitoa warriors. Those few that we hadn’t killed in battle had surrendered or had retreated deep into the Mexmia sector. We’d been sure of it.

But somehow we’d been wrong.

They rode burantus, the six-legged creatures they used the way humans on Earth had once used horses and cattle. They were beasts of burden, sources of food, and mounts. Unlike the livestock of Earth, they were predatory and carnivorous. Even if you killed a mounted Kitoan, you still had his mount to deal with, and the slavering jaws of the burantus, with triple rows of serrated teeth, could be deadlier than the Kitoan weapons.

I watched as one of the arrows impacted on MacLeod’s armor. The piezo crystals, so plentiful on Leoto, set off an electric spark due to the vibration of the impact, a spark strong enough to ignite the explosive tip of the arrow. A sound like a gunshot reverberated and a fireball bloomed on MacLeod’s shoulder. He stumbled, righted himself, and kept running. The Defens-245 armor could take a lot, especially with MacLeod’s upgrades, but a few more direct hits at that range would weaken it to the point of failure.

I crouched, fired off three incendiary rockets from my shoulder launcher. Two found their targets. Two Kitoa warriors fell. I squeezed off a rapid burst of .50-cal rounds from my gauntlet but stopped myself almost as soon as I’d begun. MacLeod was running in such an erratic pattern trying to avoid the arrows, that I didn’t trust him not to run right into my line of fire.

Another arrow made impact with MacLeod’s sled and exploded. When the fire and smoke cleared, his shoulder launcher hung limply down his back, held on by the barest of wire. Spark flew from the damaged area. He was lucky the arrow hadn’t ignited all of the rockets in the launcher. If it had, he’d be missing his head right now.

The Kitoa warriors were closing in on him. He spun and let off a burst of machine-gun fire but his aim was off, if he was aiming at all, and he hit nothing. The two burantus whose riders I’d killed were leading the pack now. Unburdened of their mounts, they were running at full gallop, their six legs scurrying in that insectoid way they had that always churned my stomach. Fast as they were moving, they would reach MacLeod any moment. I took aim and fired off two more rockets. Both found their marks, but the nearness of the explosion caused MacLeod to stumble again. I let out another blast of machine-gun fire, hitting nothing, and then decided it was past time for me to get out of Dodge.

I ran.

Behind me, I could hear MacLeod coming up fast and behind him the inhuman war cry of the Kitoa warriors. Up ahead was a wall of jungle. The Kitoans were masters at maneuvering through the thick brush, but I had no doubt that I’d be able to outrun them, or at least get into a defensible position and hold them off for a time. But from what I’d seen of MacLeod, he would be overtaken almost as soon as he set foot in the dense foliage.

I had not more than a few seconds to decide what to do. MacLeod was no friend of mine. More than that, he wasn’t even a part of my team. I had no loyalty to him beyond the loyalty that one feels for a member of one’s own species.

But that was enough. I couldn’t leave him to die at the hands of the Kitoans. I’d seen firsthand what they would do to him if they didn’t kill him outright in battle. We’d come across the remains of more than a few fallen mercs who’d been taken captive. The Kitoa had no concept of prisoner exchange. They killed every man and woman and, yes, child they took prisoner. Slowly. And with great ingenuity and, though it was impossible to read their alien emotions, it seemed, delight. MacLeod was a flag-waving, holier-than-thou asshole, but I couldn’t let him fall into their hands. Not if I could help it.

I turned and motioned for him to turn away from the direct path to the jungle. He understood and turned abruptly. I did the same. The warriors were close on our heels, but our exos’ maneuverability gave us enough of an edge to keep us from falling into their hands. Expert riders though they were, the burantus weren’t as nimble as a well-calibrated sled. The Kitoans pulled hard on the reins and the burantus’ six splay-toed legs kicked up dirt as they struggled to alter course at high speed. It was enough to buy us some breathing room. But only for a moment. Soon, the arrows started flying once more.

A particularly quick warrior ran up alongside of us. He was young, long-limbed and heavily muscled. His bow was strapped to his saddle, and he held in his left hand a lance, almost three yards long. The Kitoan lances were also equipped with piezo crystals, though they did not have explosive tips as the arrows did. Instead, they had some sort of simple amplifying circuitry in the blade that increased the voltage from the crystals. If you found yourself on the wrong end of one of those, you’d be stabbed and electrocuted all at once.

At first, those of us in sleds didn’t have to worry much. The armor plating was more than strong enough to keep the lance’s blade from penetrating, and it conducted the electricity away from the body. But it hadn’t been long before the Kitoa warriors had figured out just where to insert the tips of the blade, in the soft joints where armor plating met armor plating. This warrior seemed to know exactly where he was aiming. He struck out, but I brushed the lance aside with a quick wave of my arm. He wobbled in the saddle but kept his mount and regripped the lance, ready for another go at me. His three eyes burned with hatred as he tried to drive us back into the jungle—or kill us, whichever he could manage.

I shot him in his center eye just as he reared back for another attack. The lance fell limply from his hand, the electric charge crackling in the dirt as he slipped from the saddle and lay still. His mount was still coming for us, faster now. I dispatched him with another well-placed bullet. I hoped the bodies would serve as speed bumps to the warriors still in pursuit.

Still on relatively open ground, we began to pull ahead of the band of warriors, but MacLeod kept stumbling. He looked back too often, shot at the pursuing Kitoans too frequently and with little effect. As good a racer as he’d been, he was as bad a soldier.

If our comms hadn’t been disengaged at the hardware level, I would have read him the riot act and coached him what to do. But as it was, I had no way of communicating with him except broad hand and body gestures, which I couldn’t waste time or energy on making.

My HUD informed me we had been on the run a little more than ten minutes. Despite his poor aim, MacLeod had managed to take down a few of our pursuers, and I’d managed to do the same. But there were still more of them than us, and I knew if we didn’t find a defensible position soon, it was likely over.

We scrambled up over a rise. There, perhaps half a mile away, was a creek. It carved through a canyon of red rocks, which were dotted with caves and crevices. If we could get across the creek and find a place to hunker down, we might be able to hold them off. I pointed and MacLeod nodded. We put on the gas. I was drenched in sweat and my muscles ached from the exertion. Flooded with adrenaline, my whole body seemed to vibrate.

The warriors had all but stopped flinging arrows at us, concentrating instead on trying to keep up with our sleds and saving them for when they’d have a better chance at landing a kill shot.

We plunged down into the creek, which was only knee-high to our exos. The muddy water churned as we tromped across the wide creek bed and up the opposite side. Immediately, I began scanning the area for a place to make a stand. There was a cluster of red boulders that I thought would do the trick. It would have to. Our only other choice was running back into the jungle. I ran for it, MacLeod hot on my heels—and the warriors hot on his.

We were going to make it. That much was clear now. The rocks were no more than a dozen yards ahead. The Kitoans must have realized what we were going to do, for the barrage of arrows started again, furious now and in greater number than before—but with far less accuracy. The arrows went high, low and wide, impacting impotently on the ground.

And then one found its mark.

It was a lucky shot—lucky for the warrior who had let fly, not for me. I’d fought many a soldier, on this planet and others, and I’d never met a marksman who could have intentionally made that shot at that speed and distance. So it had to have been a lucky shot. But in battle, as in life, sometime luck is all you need.

The arrow entered the inch-wide gap in the exo’s armor where the thigh connected with the pelvis. Its razor-tipped head sliced through the thick rubber and embedded itself in the soft flesh just under my buttocks and exploded.

One second I was running for the safety of the boulders, the next I was flying through the air, turning ass over elbow as I came crashing to the ground.

My world went red as the HUD flashed warning signal after warning signal, strange jumbles of words that I couldn’t make sense of. The pain was mind-melting, but only for a moment. The undersuit sealed off my destroyed right leg and used electric current to completely deaden the pain receptors in that part of my body. But no matter how advanced the medtech in the suit was, it didn’t change the fact that my body had just undergone major trauma. My brain was foggy and, for a moment, I thought I was back at my grandmother’s house, where I’d been raised on Decarti. She was in the kitchen making breakfast and I’d overslept and would be late for school again, which was bad because I’d already had six tardies this quarter. I could smell bacon and hear a yellow-beaked wirely singing outside the window of my attic room and I thought that when I grew up, I’d like to be a birdwatcher maybe, though I didn’t think that was really a job so much as a hobby.

And then MacLeod’s face filled my world. He put his helm to mine and yelled something at the top of his lungs. It was an old trick we drivers used. If you yelled loud enough the vibrations would carry through the helms and you could be understood. But I didn’t really want to listen to whatever it was MacLeod had to say. I closed my eyes and tried to go back to sleep. If I was already late for school, then what was the rush?

The exo flooded my body with a cocktail of drugs and hormones. I snapped back to the present instantly.

MacLeod was screaming at me, asking if I could stand. A stupid question. I was, effectively, missing a leg. The armor still held, but the right leg of the exo was dead. And I suspected once I took the Possum off, my actual right leg would come off with it.

I shook my head.

MacLeod slid his arms underneath me, picking me up and running full-bore with me toward the cover of the boulders. He must have diverted energy from all non-vital systems because he ran. Faster than I’d seen him run before, and with the added weight of my sled.

We made it to cover. MacLeod positioned me on my belly, facing the oncoming warriors. He lay down beside me. Injured as I was, I was going to have to help him fight if we were going to live through the next few hours.

The sled was doing its job now. I felt as if my right leg didn’t exist. It was a strange feeling, but better than the searing pain that I would have felt had the medtech not been working its magic.

The war-party, emboldened by the injury they’d inflicted, was now reserved, not wanting to come too near our fortified position. They stopped their forward attack and held a line, lobbing a dizzying array of arrows at us.

We fired back. MacLeod’s rocket launcher hung uselessly down his back, but his gauntlet still worked just fine, as did the grenade launcher. I fired the remaining incendiary rockets in my shoulder launcher, taking down five warriors, then switched to the gauntlets.

The warriors fought fiercely, but soon they realized the position they’d gotten themselves in and fell back, out of the effective reach of our weapons. MacLeod lobbed a few grenades at them, but stopped when it was clear he was just wasting ammunition. So he was at least that smart.

I used my arms to slide back away from the outcropping we’d been shooting from. MacLeod followed. I popped the visor of my helm and motioned for MacLeod to do the same.

“I thought you said you and your merc buddies cleared this are.” The first words out of his mouth. Well, I guess he had a right to be pissed.

“Seems we missed a few,” I said.

“What’s the status of your leg?”

“Pretty well fucked,” I said. “I think that would be the official diagnosis but let me check.” I flipped my visor back down and ran a diagnostic. The suit was dead on the right side from the hip down. Totally useless. As such, the only data on the injury to my person was conveyed through the undersuit, but from that data it looked clear that the leg would be a total loss. If it hadn’t actually been blown clean off, it would have to be amputated.

Shit. And I’d always been so proud of the fact that I’d had all my original parts. Well, looked like me and the Possum would be due for a few upgrades when we made it back to civilization.

If we made it back.

I flipped open the faceplate. “Total loss,” I said.

“You or the exo?” MacLeod asked.


“So you’re a sitting duck out here.”

“Don’t be too broken up about it, MacLeod. I’ll be okay. Thanks for asking. It means a lot that a guy like you would care so much.”

MacLeod glared. “So,” he said finally, “what’s the plan? Wait here for reinforcements?”

I let out a short bark of a laugh. It didn’t sound too mirthful to my ears. “What reinforcements? Far as anyone knows, we’re running an idiotic race, not fighting for our lives. And sure, eventually they’ll come looking when we don’t show back up in Arabat. But we’re miles off the course.”

“Can’t we—” MacLeod caught himself.

I smiled. “‘Can’t we call someone?’ That what you were about to say?”

MacLeod glared at me. He’d saved my life and no doubt I’d saved his, but I still hated the sonofabitch and I’m pretty sure he felt the same about me.

“We can’t dig in here long enough to hope that they’ll come looking. Those Kitoans are already in the process of flanking us. Come nightfall, they’ll have us surrounded and they’ll attack. I don’t know if they’ve got friends they’ll bring along with them or not, but in the dark, injured as I am and with as little ammo as we’ve got left, I wouldn’t put the odds in our favor.”

“So what? We die?”

I nodded. “That’s sort of the probable outcome here, MacLeod. Hate to break it to you, but the good guys don’t always win.”

MacLeod sneered. “The way you were talking about the Kitoans the other night, I’m surprised to hear you call us the good guys.”

“Maybe there are no good guys,” I said. “Just people doing their best for what they think is right. I don’t know anymore. But I don’t particularly want to die today, so if it’s us or the Kitoans, I’d just as soon I be the one walks away from this fight.” I glanced down at my mangled leg. “Or crawls away.”

MacLeod chewed on this for a while. “There are good guys,” he said. “We’re the good guys.”

“All right. Then let’s make sure it’s us that rides off into the sunset.”


MacLeod said he didn’t like the idea of leaving me, but I suspected the truth was he didn’t like the idea of being alone.

The plan was that he would leave soon as he could, before the Kitoa warriors had us completely surrounded, and head back to Arabat. He’d tell everyone what had happened and then the cavalry would ride in and rescue me. Easy-peasy.

Except that meant he had to make it back without getting killed himself. And I had to hold off the band of warriors until he returned with help.

As I’d told him, the likely outcome was we both died. I almost had to physically kick him out of the safety of our hiding place. If I’d had two working legs, I would have. But eventually he went.

He was maybe a hundred yards away when the warriors spotted him. A band of about eight broke off and gave chase. I managed to pick off two of them with my shoulder rockets before they ran out of range.

I watched as he disappeared from view, the warriors close on his heels. It would be nothing short of a miracle if he made it. Despite his rank and his position in the vaunted Guardian Corps, he wasn’t cut out for soldiering.

Emboldened by the fact that I was now alone, two warriors broke off from the group that remained and made a charge at me. I waited until they were just in range, then cut them down with two single-fire bursts.

I counted the remaining warriors. Only three. In all the ruckus, I’d never gotten an exact count of how many had been in the war party and how many had been killed. But as best as I could estimate, that meant that it was likely that at least a half-dozen were in the process of flanking me. Seeing as how that pitiful frontal assault had just failed, they would fall back on their initial plan of waiting until nightfall to attack. It wasn’t impossible that help would have arrived by then, but I couldn’t count on it. The warriors had attacked at midday, and MacLeod and I had been running all-out for hours at that point. We were about as far away from Arabat as we were going to get at that point. Now MacLeod had to make it back all that distance, then muster up troops to cross it again to come and get me out of this mess. If everything went perfectly, it would be just past sunset by the time they returned. More likely they wouldn’t be back by midnight—if they came at all. MacLeod had a lot of ground to traverse.

There was nothing for me to do but wait. And keep an eye out. First, I checked where I stood in terms of ammunition. I had two rockets left and a little over 200 rounds. As a last ditch, I could set the Possum to self-destruct and take out as many of the Kitoans as I could, but I would go with them. With my leg destroyed, if I crawled out of the suit, I wouldn’t be able to get far enough away to be outside of the blast radius before it detonated.

I kept busy by running diagnostics on the Possum and toting up just how much money it was going to cost me to get her back in running order. Conservatively, I was looking at wiping out my life savings. And all that would have to come after I bought myself a new leg. I weighed the cost-to-benefit ratio of going lab-grown versus mechanical. The latter was cheaper, and as a driver the mechanical prosthetic would interface nicely with the Possum. But despite spending a lifetime in a mechanical suit, somehow having a piece of metal as an actual part of me didn’t sit well. Then there would be the rehab costs. And while all of this was happening, I’d be losing work as a mercenary.

I was just starting to come to the conclusion that my life as I’d known it might be over when a rustling off to my left caught my attention. I scanned the area. Three warriors on foot were slinking toward me. Another three waited in a copse of trees off to my right. If the first group didn’t kill me, they expected I’d run straight into the hands of the second.

Not going to happen. I cursed myself for not outfitting the Possum with a grenade launcher the way MacLeod had with the Jungle Cat. A well-placed grenade in that copse of trees would come in handy right about now.

Instead, I repositioned myself so I was facing the warriors approaching from the left. They wouldn’t expect me to be meeting them head on. I held steady until I could, as the old saying goes, see the whites of their eyes, though of course the “whites” of the Kitoans’ eyes were a bright orange, then I reared up and let out a barrage of bullets. Taken by surprise, all three fell. Immediately, I spun to face the other group. They were charging from the trees now, lances held high. I spent my two last rockets on them.

From the group of warriors still in front of me, I heard not a peep. If my numbers were correct, there were now only three of them left, total. But I only had 167 rounds left. No rockets. Not enough to risk a night skirmish. There was only one thing to do:

I had to get the hell out of there.


The leg came off when I climbed out of the Possum. I had a feeling it would. Still, it’s a strange thing to look down and see your right leg not attached to your body.

The undersuit was sealed tight around the wound, which would prevent me from bleeding out. However, outside the Possum, I wouldn’t have access to its medtech, which meant the potent cocktail of hormones and drugs was already starting to wear off. In a few hours’ time, despite the undersuit’s neural interface blocking some pain transmitters and receivers, I was going to be in agony. I’d have to move fast. Hard since I only had one leg.

From the storage compartment of the Possum, I removed a handgun and a dagger, as well as a backpack full of wilderness survival gear. All of this was standard sled equipment, but I’d never known of anyone actually using it. Usually in battle, leaving your suit meant you were already dead or soon would be. I strapped the dagger and the gun to my belt and donned the backpack. Then I took one last look at the Possum.

We’d been through a lot together. It occurred to me that the Possum was my oldest, most long-lasting relationship. In some ways, it was the only home I’d ever had. I realized, standing there on that alien world, that tired as I was of the mercenary life, the one reason I hadn’t left it all behind was because then I’d have no use of the Possum. I’d be homeless.

As I was now.

It seemed strange to say goodbye to a hunk of metal, even if that hunk of metal meant more to you than anything in the galaxy. Even stranger to salute or give it a last kiss or pat on the shoulder. So I simply turned away and started belly-crawling toward a flat spot between two boulders, from which I’d determined to make my escape.

I peered out and saw nothing. It was night now, and without the Possum’s infrared and star-vision, I was nearly blind. There are three moons that hang in the night sky over Leoto but all three are exceedingly small and dim.

I hefted a rock and threw it as far as I could. The aliens didn’t fire on it. Of course, the Kitoans’ night vision was considerably better than a human’s, more in line with the extinct big felines of Earth, or so I’ve been told. It was very possible they were watching me, laughing at my stupid trick, and I simply couldn’t see them. It was a chance I’d have to take.

I crawled out into the open, sure I would feel the impact of an arrow—and then nothing at all. But it seemed I’d made good my escape.

Ahead was the creek bed. If I could make it there, I’d have a chance. The night hummed around me, the strange alien animal sounds of the jungle that I’d become accustomed to. Of the warriors, I heard nothing.

I was almost to the creek bed, could hear the water babbling over the rocks, could smell the wet earth, when they attacked. They were silent as the wind and on me before I knew what was happening. Three of them on foot. They must have left their bows and lances with their mounts, for they carried only daggers and tomahawks.

I heard them too late to get into anything resembling a defensive position. I rolled over just as a tomahawk thwunked into the ground right where my head had been a moment earlier. The piezo crystal produced a charge, and I could hear the crackle of current and smell ozone. The back of my head tingled from lying on the ground, charged as it was with electricity. I reached for the dagger on my belt and stabbed at the warrior just as one of his comrades jumped atop me. I landed a kick with my remaining leg. That took the wind out of him. The first warrior regained his feet. He and the third drew their daggers. They stood in a spread-legged fighting stance. I was a little jealous. I no longer had legs to spread.

I sat up and drew the gun from the holster. At the sight of it, all three sprang back, but one was too slow, and I shot him twice in the chest. I hit another in the back of the head as he ran for cover. I wasn’t proud of the fact, but if I hadn’t, he would simply have returned to kill me later.

That left only one. I drew a bead on him as he fled but he was already too far away. I’d spent three bullets. Only seven left. I couldn’t risk it.

I got back down on my belly and crawled to the creek fast as I could. I slid down the embankment and would have fallen into the water had I not grabbed hold of a trailing vine at the last moment. I eased myself into the water. It was tepid, almost hot, and slightly less than chest deep. The current was slow but persistent. I inflated the undersuit’s life vest—another feature I’d never heard of anyone using—and let the current take me.

For a driver, someone use to commanding a ton of steel, simply floating down the creek felt strange. Much too passive. I felt I should be doing something. But there was nothing but to let the creek take me. Soon, I passed into the thick of the jungle. Night was absolute here. I could see nothing in the stygian darkness. Around me, the animal sounds of Leoto echoed. Unprotected as I was, they sounded sinister now. I tried not to think of the predators that lurked in the jungle. The vermers. The magdolans, so like the long-extinct panthers of Earth. Most of all, I tried to put from my mind the aquatic pantagons, giant amphibians that hunted in the rivers of Leoto. The creek was deeper now, my foot no longer scraping the bottom as the current carried me along. Was it deep enough for the pantagons to use as a hunting ground?

And of course, the most dangerous predator of them all. There was at least one Kitoa warrior still alive in this sector.

The gentle burble of the creek rose to a moderate, then a loud, roar. The life vest kept my head above water, but it was a struggle to keep my good leg facing downstream as I was spun around in the eddies and whirlpools. Twice I was buffeted against rocks that I had not seen in the blackness. I thought back to the map of the racecourse, to the maps we’d used when waging our campaign of annihilation against the Kitoa. I remembered no rapids, no waterfalls. But then I hadn’t been looking for them. I did remember that this creek didn’t lead to Arabat but cut across the jungle some twenty miles to the east. If I floated too far downstream, I’d miss civilization—such as it was—entirely. Without the Possum, I had no good way to judge the distance I’d covered. I’d have to make my best guess.

I floated on.


At first, I thought the lights were a hallucination. That I’d been so long in the sensory-depriving darkness that I was imagining things, my mind, overcome as it was with pain and adrenaline, pushed to the point of hallucination. Tiny pinpricks of light that shimmered and winked and sparkled in the darkness.

But no, the lights were real. And as I floated farther downstream, I recognized them for what they were. Campfires.

I paddled to the bank and pulled myself ashore. The fires didn’t look far. I gathered my strength and crawled toward them. It was hard to be quiet, dragging myself through the underbrush. But soon I realized that stealth wasn’t necessary.

It was a Kitoa encampment, and not a small one. I counted as many as two dozen warriors, in addition to the women and children. How was it possible they’d evaded us, I wondered.

Though it was the middle of the night, no one was asleep. They sat around the campfires, chanting and singing, bodies swaying rhythmically to the beat of drums.

MacLeod was in the center of the encampment. He was tied to a stake, which had been driven into the ground, his arms bound behind him. He was stripped naked, and his body had been badly mutilated, but he was still alive. If I knew the Kitoa, he would be for hours yet, perhaps as long as a day. There was no sign of his exo.

I watched as a female Kitoan broke from the group and approached one of the fires. From it, she removed an iron poker. She approached MacLeod. She held the poker up so that he could see it, then pressed it into his right cheek. He howled.

I turned away.

I was crippled. I had only seven bullets left in my sidearm. There was nothing I could do. I slunk back from the perimeter of the camp, trying to keep quiet, trying to ignore the sound of MacLeod’s screams. The ground was uneven here and overgrown. The undersuit kept my arms from getting too scratched up, but my face was a tender mass of cuts, nicks, and—perhaps worst of all—insect bites. The pain cocktail had completely worn off, and each time the stump of my right leg bumped against a rock or a tree root, hot lightning shot through my nervous system and I would have to stifle a scream.

I was perhaps a hundred yards from the camp when I came across MacLeod’s sled. Dawn was breaking, and in the faint light, I could just make out its mechanical bulk in a tangle of branches. I crawled over to it, propped myself up. It lay on its side, the hatch open like a gaping mouth. It had taken its fair share of impacts but didn’t seem to be disabled, at least not at a glance. I maneuvered myself inside. It felt strange being in another man’s exo. Like wearing someone else’s boots. The fit was all wrong, the smell foreign. I flipped the power switch.

The Cat came to life. I ran a diagnostic. Systems were damaged but still operational. There were three grenades left in the launcher and over a thousand rounds of ammunition in the gauntlets. There were even three rockets left in the shoulder launcher, though these were useless, damaged as the launcher was. The Kitoans must have ambushed MacLeod, taken him down before he had much of a chance to fight back. He was no doubt rushing, hadn’t been aware of his surroundings. He’d probably run right into their hands. The fact that he hadn’t used the suit’s self-destruct meant that he’d either been overtaken so quickly he didn’t have a chance—or that he was too naïve to realize that the instant death that would have given him was far preferable to falling into the hands of the Kitoa. Perhaps it had been a little of both.

I closed the hatch and stood in the suit. It would be tricky driving it without my right leg. I would have to pilot it manually, using the hand controls, but it was manageable. I walked in circles until I felt I had the hang of it, always aware that with each passing moment, MacLeod was being tortured.

Finally, I was as ready as I was going to be. I turned to face the encampment and ran.


The first grenade caught the Kitoans completely off-guard. I lobbed it at the fire nearest to the edge of the camp, around which a group of perhaps five of the aliens were dancing. The explosion sent their bodies flying off in all directions. I barreled out of the undergrowth, gauntlets blazing. For a moment it looked like I would be able to run in and grab MacLeod before any of them realized what was happening. Most of the women were scattering, snatching up their young as they retreated to the relative safety of their tents. I didn’t launch an attack on them, but I knew better than to think they weren’t a threat. Soon as they got the children stowed away, they would emerge, every bit as bloodthirsty as the warrior men.

I sent a second grenade into the middle of another group as I ran toward MacLeod. I was halfway to him when I felt the barrage of arrows. I turned and let out a sustained burst of machine-gun fire, mowing down a half dozen warriors. I swept my gauntlets across the entire camp as I backed toward MacLeod. It was no easy task, controlling the exo’s legs with the hand controls as I sprayed bullets.

I screamed as a lance pierced through the underarm of the Cat. The tip didn’t reach the undersuit layer, but the electric shock did. I backhanded the warrior who held the lance, crushing his skull with the gauntlet, his body flying six feet into the air. Then I pulled the lance out.

The initial shock of my attack was wearing off and the warriors fought with purpose. A few of the females had emerged from the tents, piezo-tipped daggers in their hands. Soon I would be swarmed.

I reached MacLeod and severed the ties that held him to the stake. His body was a ruined, bloody mass that collapsed as soon as the cords were cut. I scooped him up and ran.

I lobbed the remaining grenade as I did so. I didn’t look back to see how many I’d killed. No matter the number, it wouldn’t be enough. There were too many of them and only one of me.

MacLeod and I had started the day racing. Now, we would be in a race against the Kitoa warriors, and the stakes would be higher than the pinks we’d originally bet.

I tore through the jungle at as fast a clip as I dared. I couldn’t risk tripping. If I did, the warriors would catch up with me for sure. And it was likely I’d land on MacLeod, crushing him to death, and then my one-man rescue mission would be for nothing.

Arrows flew past me, landing uselessly in the jungle. I risked a look back. We were pulling away from the horde.

I ran for what seemed like hours, though the Cat’s HUD indicated otherwise.

At some point, I realized MacLeod had regained consciousness. He looked up at me, confusion in his eyes. It must have been strange, being rescued by your own exo. I wondered if he thought this was all a dream. Or that he was dying.

I flipped the visor. It took a moment for recognition to dawn on his face.

“We’re going to make it,” I said.

MacLeod nodded, then slipped back into unconsciousness.


Ahead, a faint outline of the town hove into view as the sun hung high in the sky. I was too exhausted to run, though nowhere in the galaxy had ever looked more appealing.

It was just after midday when we entered the town square. Of course no one was waiting for us. No doubt the search parties were out looking for us along the racecourse. But a mech suit attracts attention, even more so when the driver is carrying a nude, bloody soldier in his arms. As we walked toward what was supposed to be the finish line in the center of town, locals and mercs poured from buildings. They shouted questions I couldn’t hear through the visor. They made gestures of triumph and confusion.

The crowd surged around us as we crossed the finish line, together.


MacLeod survived, though I never saw him again after that day. Soon as he was stable enough to be transported, he was whisked away to one of Roger Hartoni’s private hospitals where, I’m sure, he received the best of care.

I wasn’t as lucky. Since my injury had been incurred during a race and not officially sanctioned combat, my insurance wouldn’t cover my medical bills nor repairs to the Possum. Well, that was the life of a merc. You take the money, and you take your chances.

A couple of the guys were able to salvage the Possum. They towed her back into town where Jordan did his level best to get her operational, but the right leg was just too far gone. The smart move would have been to sell her for parts to fund my own recovery, but I just couldn’t make myself do it.

I was in the hospital, trying to come to grips with the fact that I might never walk again—and worse, that I very likely would never drive a sled again—when Jordan burst in waving his tablet wildly.

“You’ve got to check your messages,” he said.

“It’s just bills. Bills I don’t have the money to pay.”

Jordan pulled a chair over to the side of the bed. “That’s where you’re wrong.” He swiped his tablet and handed it to me. “Take a look.”

It was a message from someone named General George Sydney of the Guardian Corps.

I tossed the tablet onto the coverlet. “I don’t want to hear from those assholes,” I said. “‘Thank you for your service in saving the life of . . . ’ blah blah blah.”

Jordan picked up the tablet. “Just read it.”

Reluctantly, I agreed. I scanned the message, then swiped back to the top and read it again, slower this time, sure that I’d read wrong.

“So?” Jordan said.

“So the Guardian Corps wants to thank me by buying me a new leg . . . ”

“And fixing up the Possum,” Jordan said. “I’ve already starting pricing it out. With the blank check they’re giving us, we can finally—” He cut himself off. He must have seen a look on my face. “What? What? Oh hell, Danny. Don’t tell me you’re going to get all high and mighty about taking their money.”

I thought for a moment. Was I?

Then a smile spread across Jordan’s face. He’d realized something. A moment later, I realized it myself. I smiled, too.

“Nah,” I said. “I’ll take the money. I’m still a merc at heart.”

Copyright © 2024 by David Afsharirad

David Afsharirad is an author and an editor at Baen Books. For five years, he edited Baen’s The Year’s Best Military and Adventure SF series. In addition, he edited the anthology The Chronicles of Davids. With Hank Davis, he is the coeditor of the upcoming Tomorrow’s Troopers, an anthology of power armor short stories, which inspired “Pinks.” Of the story, he said, “You can only read so many power armor stories before you want to try your hand at it. Thanks to Toni Weisskopf for giving me an outlet for this story and for giving me her expert guidance to make it stronger.”