HEROES weren’t sealed in space caskets and launched into the void—not while they were still breathing. Kin shuddered. Memories came at night; they came with regrets, fears, and nightmares only a man buried alive could understand. Heroes destroyed the enemy. Heroes saved the day and died before they could wear medals or explain what it was like to shed the blood of millions.
This room is too dark.
Kin needed to go outside and look at the sky, but the wormhole song, the distant groaning of a universe unraveling, reminded him of Hellsbreach—gunfire, plasma bolts, and nuclear explosions on the horizon. Better to dream of Becca, though she was the reason he volunteered for the campaign.
“Stop thinking of her,” Laura said.
Kin sat up in bed, dropped his feet to the floor, and watched her drift back to sleep. Her chest rose and fell, a silk sheet accentuating her curves. Her eyes began to move under her eyelids.
“You don’t even know who she is.” He ran a finger behind Laura’s ear and down her neck until she giggled in her sleep. He smiled. “I can share anything with you in moments like these.” He slowly pulled the sheet lower and she didn’t stir.
Laura would like the game—exposing her skin to the night air and staring until she sensed his attention and awoke, but he stopped, reaching to cup the side of her face instead. Lust didn’t mix well with the darkness still in his mind.
“I’d fail again, given the same choice. Could you commit genocide, Laura?” he asked.
“Hmm?” She struggled to open her eyes, it seemed, but pushed him clumsily away with one hand as she rolled onto her stomach, twisting the sheets as she moved.
“I still love her. You know that, right?” Kin said.
Motionless on the bed, Laura seemed not to breathe. The wormhole that dipped into the atmosphere quieted. Silence spread across the planet. Sea birds called to each other and waves gently touched the beach.
Kin pulled on his pants and gun belt, then picked up his boots and go-bag as he crossed the room. Outside, he pressed an ampoule of caffeine against his neck and injected it. Sleep wasn’t a friend. The intramuscular dose was meant to be injected in the gluteus maximus, otherwise known as the place Laura hung on for dear life when they were together, but Kin didn’t want to ruin the feel of her hands by sticking his ass cheek with a needle.
He watched the sky as he did upon awakening morning, noon, or night, hating the way the wormhole that dumped them on the uncharted planet seemed alive and sentient. Lightning flashed through the undulating red, orange, and purple tube of light as it climbed lazily toward the ring of moons around the planet. The moons, by contrast, soothed his spirit when he could stop thinking about the gaping mouth of the wormhole. They climbed vertically from the horizon like the underside of an arch, brilliant at night and hazy during the day.
Kin steadied his breathing, forcing his shoulders to relax as he studied the anomaly.
The Goliath came through that hole. The enormous exploration vessel had been designed to orbit a planet and send down shuttles, not descend to the surface. No one planned for the uncharted wormhole to catch the ship and drop it inside the atmosphere. Much of the ship broke apart and scattered along the coast. The survivors existed between the sea and the impact site of the main fuselage.
Each year, sand covered the available salvage, making building materials scarce. The thought of leading another scavenger mission bored Kin, though he knew the children looked forward to crawling into holes the adults couldn’t reach. He rubbed his neck and decided he was done with caffeine injections for a while.
Kin had grown more sensitive to his surroundings since the deadly campaign on Hellsbreach. He heard Laura roll out of bed, though the heavy curtains were drawn over the doorway and she was trying to be stealthy. The floor creaked and Kin guessed she paused to scoop her pants and shirt off the floor. He didn’t hear her tug zippers or take the time to fasten buttons. Their relationship wasn’t that formal.
The ocean breeze and crashing waves soothed his mind, but didn’t mask the sounds Laura made. To Kin, there were simply more sounds, distinct and easily identifiable. She would have been smarter to move when the surf broke, but he still would have heard her. Auditory discrimination was why he hadn’t been slaughtered by Reapers on Hellsbreach. They could sound like men, or wolves, or stalking tigers, but beneath the obvious sounds there was always a clicking in their throats.
Laura moved closer to the doorway but stopped, probably listening for him. He measured the pause and assumed she was peeking through the curtain. She wasn’t incompetent at stealth, but he knew her game.
She moved behind him, wrapping her arms around his trim waist and pressing her body against his. She gripped him hard with no pretense of romance. Perhaps she heard what he said about being in love with Becca. She pretended she wasn’t jealous, but she was. She bit his ear. He continued to lean on the rail, ocean breeze blowing on his face, solid wood under his feet. She bit his neck. He smiled. The bite hurt, but he pretended it didn’t.
“You put your pants on,” she said. “Did I tell you to get dressed and sneak out of my bed?”
“I would hate for the Fleet to send a rescue mission and find me out of uniform.”
“If the Fleet comes to Crashdown, I’ll tell them about you,” she said. Her lips brushed his ear as she spoke and she lingered with a kiss even as one hand went into the front of his pants. Kin smiled and shook his head minutely.
“Crashdown is a good name for this place.” He thought the planet was huge and extremely dense, because the gravity was heavy and the ocean horizon to the west was flat as a blade.
“Do you think I’m joking?” she asked.
Kin didn’t answer. He wished she wouldn’t try to provoke him. He had killed for less. She enjoyed rough sex, danger, and power. Kin was bored with two of the three. She released him, patting his ass before she walked away. He knew she kept them all alive. She was a force of nature. He needed to meet a nice girl, someone like Becca.
The wormhole convulsed. Kin let go of the rail and stood straight. His hand went to the pistol hanging on his leg. Objects burst from the hazy opening high in the atmosphere. Most ships that crashed on this huge planet came alone—pioneers, explorers, or pilgrims fleeing persecution. Meteors were more common, but during the last three days, a variety of space junk and wreckage had splashed into the ocean and smashed against the mountains east of Crater Town. Somewhere in the universe, an epic battle raged and the debris drifted through the wormhole.
Pacing, Kin watched the sky until the wormhole began to puke earnestly. Small pops sounded in the distance, but he suspected they were explosive thunderclaps.
Objects burst into the air close together, sounding like the chatter of machine gun fire. Pop-pop-pop. Pop-pop. Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.
That’s a planetary assault force.
Each cluster of fast-moving smoke trails were troopers in Fleet Single Person Assault Armor units. He had worn an FSPAA unit during his enlistment and recognized the formation. Several larger objects followed, flanked by more troopers in airborne assault mode.
Laura emerged from the doorway, paused to stare at the sky, and hastily buttoned up her shirt. “I’m going to the meeting hall.”
“Go to a bunker,” Kin said, but she was already running.
“Damn!” Kin estimated a division of Fleet troopers were plummeting toward Crater Town. He jumped off the side of the deck and ran to the lighthouse, sprinting up the spiral staircase. When he reached the top, he doused the light and picked up a horn.
A large ship emerged from the mouth of the wormhole, bow elevated twenty degrees too high and drifting sideways. The ship was still under power, laboriously righting itself as the atmosphere burned it. Kin watched pieces break off. He didn’t recognize the ship’s class or if it were built for entry into the atmosphere, but it was shaped like a Fleet vessel.
An armada of broken ships, huge things never meant to enter the atmosphere even if in one piece, were the last through. Kin sounded the alarm. Horns answered from every corner of Crater Town. Men, women, and children rushed from their homes with survival kits. He saw many running to the well to form a bucket line and parents rushing their children to crude fallout bunkers.
Two companies of assault troopers splashed into the water off shore. Two additional companies veered right while another two veered left of Crater Town as flanking elements. Four came straight at him. The command ship and heavy vehicles—Tanks, Strykers, and reconnaissance vehicles—fought for altitude. They soared over the town, landing near the Goliath half buried in the sand between the coast and mountains.
Kin picked up binoculars from the railing and tracked the progress of each assault force and the efforts of Crater Town’s people. About the time young men surrendered to Fleet troopers in seven-foot-tall armor, the space debris hit. The noise of the plummeting ship parts had been minimal from a distance, but as they neared, they ripped through the air, vibrating the tower where Kin stood. Troopers and townspeople ran for shelters, threw themselves on the ground, or gaped at the destruction. Earth exploded. Water erupted into steaming clouds of death. Fires rampaged like demons.
Kin risked a final glance toward the wormhole before descending the tower.
That’s not a Fleet ship.
He jerked the binoculars up.
No military emblems. No weapons. And it’s shaped like a blockade runner.
He watched the small craft drift away from the others, seeming to sneak free of the chaos. Kin didn’t like the feeling in his gut. Dread hollowed him out. He thought of Reapers and stolen technology.
The faster Fleet vessels and plummeting debris posed the immediate threat. Kin knew it. He needed to ignore the small civilian ship, but understood Reapers hijacked anything that would take them from their home world. The creatures didn’t build ships and were notoriously bad pilots, but when they left Hellsbreach, they were on a mission of murder.
Kin forced his gaze toward the ships and troops already on the ground.
Don’t think of Reapers. Don’t think of Hellsbreach. Captivity. Death. I should have died. Kin steadied his breathing, unsure if it calmed him or merely suffocated his panic. Should have killed them all.
Sweat beaded on his forehead. He waited for Fleet ships to spot the stranger and destroy it, but nothing happened. The craft disappeared beyond the mountain pass. He wanted to go after it, but Crater Town took priority.
He left the tower and ran down the unpaved street twisting around ramshackle huts near the bay. Laura hurried from a building up the street, wearing a firefighting coat. She paused to tie up her hair, then pulled on heavy gloves. People carrying tools rushed from their shelters to follow her. She accosted a group of men held at gunpoint by Fleet troopers and ordered them to follow her.
The squad leader pointed at Laura and gave an order. Get back. This is Fleet business.
Laura elevated her chin and put both hands on her hips. She said something. I’m sleeping with Kin Roland, a murdering deserter and traitor to the Fleet. He’ll cut your balls off if I even nod your direction. Fleet business my ass. This is my business. These are my people. Kindly mind your manners, you faceless killer.
The Fleet trooper spread his hands in frustration and surprise. He yelled and thrust his gauntleted finger near her face. Listen you stupid bitch. You’re lucky I don’t blow your head off.
Kin couldn’t hear the conversation, but he could imagine it. He wasn’t surprised when the troopers released the people of Crater Town to Laura. The guards followed, seeming a bit dazed.
What the fuck just happen?
Don’t ask me. You’re the squad leader. Take charge.
I’ll take charge of your face with my boot. Stay sharp. Watch the work crew. I’ll watch the councilwoman.
Kin ran up the steep hill, knowing planetary assault forces demanded immediate compliance when they made planetfall. They were paid to shoot people. He feared Laura would push too hard. Inflexible and harsh standard operating procedures placed the interests of the Fleet before the welfare of local populations. He needed to warn her about what happened when people resisted. She won this scrimmage and freed her work crew, but needed to consider a softer touch when dealing with officers.
Then he realized she had a trump card. He believed he knew Laura. He believed she had been toying with him when she said she would expose him to the Fleet. Being wrong would cost him his life.
“You there, halt and identify,” a Fleet trooper shouted. His amplified voice echoed from the helmet speaker. He held a rifle and a plasma thrower, each connected to the armor by woven metal tubes. Kin ignored the trooper, who moved forward, weapons ready.
He slipped around the corner and ducked through a cloud of smoke, then circled the area until he was behind the trooper who continued in the wrong direction.
“Identify yourself,” Kin said, under his breath.
FLEET troopers occupied the area. Dozens of squads moved along the next street as Kin cut between several makeshift homes to avoid detention. He could no longer see Laura but thought she was moving away from him toward the most devastated section of Crater Town. She was doing her job. He surveyed the town and started doing his.
The first three houses Kin checked were damaged, but had already been evacuated. The next three were family dwellings, and by Town Protocol, the parents should have moved their children to fallout bunkers at the first sign of a meteor storm. He ducked inside each and looked around. Finding them empty, he hurried to the home of Brian Muldoch.
Kin didn’t admire the man, because Muldoch had found religion halfway through his mandatory ten-year enlistment as an Earth Fleet trooper and decided he was a conscientious objector. After two years in a labor camp, Muldoch escaped and stowed away on the Goliath. When Fleet troopers found him, he was a dead man. The only thing that remained was how quickly they would identify him and carry out the sentence for deserters.
Kin told himself to focus on his job, find critically wounded survivors, make sure everyone in Crater Town did their part, and create a list of structures rendered unsafe by meteor strikes. He had no business interfering with the Fleet, especially since his status would earn him death, preceded by torture, yet he hurried toward Muldoch’s home.
Though the man was a deserter, much of his Fleet training remained. He performed every task efficiently and kept his quarters squared away. He had helped Kin fight raiders who came down from the mountains. He had scoured the foothills to find a missing child. Kin often wondered why Muldoch refused to fight for the Fleet. He had shown bravery many times on Crashdown.
Several Fleet troopers surrounded Muldoch in the street near his small house. One shouted, “On your knees. Don’t move.”
“I must report to the well to help with the bucket line. Can’t you see the fires?” Muldoch asked, desperation in his voice. His eyes darted from one man to the next as color left his face.
The trooper nearest Muldoch had a new helmet, though the rest of his armor was scarred and scorched. “Don’t move and don’t talk.” He pointed his rifle at Muldoch’s neck where a Fleet labor camp tattoo marked him. “This is doing the talking for you, traitor.”
Two troopers, a corporal and a lance corporal, stood facing each other, heads bent as they listened inside their helmets to an electronic message Kin couldn’t hear. When they looked up, they nodded. FSPAA helmets didn’t reveal emotion, but Kin could sense the smiles behind the visors by the rhythm of their nods. They returned to the group.
“I have confirmation. This man is Brian Muldoch, a deserter and coward,” the corporal said.
Kin watched New Helmet elevate his weapon a few inches and fire one round before Muldoch could beg for mercy. Blood splattered the street and armor of the men standing in a circle. Muldoch’s body fell forward. Nothing above his teeth remained.
“Do you have a problem?” The corporal’s tone implied having a problem would be a problem for Kin.
“What did he do?” Kin asked.
“No need.” He stepped close to Kin and looked at his neck and hands.
Kin focused on the body of Muldoch and exhaled slowly, steadying his anger and fear. His tattoos had been removed. The painful procedure cost a fortune. Muldoch should’ve done the same thing. Kin clenched his fists and hoped the troopers didn’t notice the tension coursing through his arms, shoulders, and neck. Before Hellsbreach, Kin always maintained control over his unit and forbade frontier justice, but he wasn’t their sergeant and they wanted blood.
New Helmet moved closer. “Does he have a marker?”
The corporal looming over Kin hesitated. “No. I thought he would. He walks like he was Fleet.”
Kin stared at Muldoch’s body and said nothing. These troopers were as unprofessional and violent as any Kin had encountered, but he didn’t confuse their sloppy gear and mob mentality for incompetence. Killers who enjoyed killing barely needed a reason to pull the trigger.
“I asked you a question.”
“No you didn’t,” Kin said. Shouldn’t have said that. Shouldn’t have come here at all.
The trooper stared at him, shifting the weight of his armor from foot to foot several times. Without the armor, he might be Kin’s size, but in full FSPAA gear, he was a giant. “Get out of here.”
The lance corporal, the smallest in the group, slid his hand back and forth on the barrel of his rifle with increasing intensity, as though stoking his courage. “Shoot him like you did that Reaper on Hellsbreach.”
New Helmet pushed the lance corporal aside. “He never shot a Reaper. A Reaper wouldn’t hold still like this corpse and if it did, one bullet would only make it angry.”
“Don’t fucking touch me, Raif.” The lance corporal started to point his rifle at New Helmet, but lowered the weapon and backed away. Raif didn’t even look at him. He watched Kin like a hungry wolf.
The corporal stared at his men until Raif stopped advancing and the lance corporal walked back toward the rest of the platoon. A moment passed before the corporal seemed satisfied. He faced Kin, pointing his rifle at the sky with one hand. His elbow rested on his hip to support the weight of the weapon. “Start walking, dead man.”
Kin walked away, stopping once he neared the crest of the hill where the street twisted toward the center of town. He looked back. The Fleet troopers watched him. He directed his gaze toward Muldoch’s house. Like many homes in this part of town, it was built into the side of the hill, jutting out ten feet. Rough-hewn beams of wood supported the metal siding scavenged from the wreckage of the Goliath. He remembered the day Muldoch had scrubbed the metal clean and painted it, despite Kin’s warning that the paint would never adhere properly. Weather had taken a toll on the surface and the green color was uneven. Mixing touch-up paint from limited resources wasn’t an exact science, yet Kin recognized the effort put into maintaining the home.
The troopers continued to face him. How many were trying to decide if they knew him, wondering if they recognized him from past campaigns or security bulletins? The Fleet had probably buried his scandal deep, erasing every record of their failure—of his failure. That was what Kin hoped for. With his luck, the Fleet had his picture on every security threat alert for the last ten years. What could he do? Flee into the wilderness of Crashdown?
A gust of wind from the sea blew sand, dust, and ash between them. Kin studied the red dragon insignia on each of these troopers and committed it to memory. He rested his hand on his pistol in the leg holster and realized the trooper was waiting for him to draw it. Holding his gun was a habit, unintentional, but now that the familiar grip was in his hand, he wanted to use it.
He never liked Muldoch and told himself they were nothing alike. Their situations were different. Muldoch, despite the fortitude he had displayed since the Goliath crash landed, would’ve died within seconds of landing on Hellsbreach. Muldoch hadn’t been forced to choose between duty and his soul.
“Pull that pistol or go away,” the trooper said. The sound of his amplified voice came just as the wind vanished, and Kin heard it clearly. He released his grip and walked away. There were others like Muldoch, none of them deserters, but men and women likely to run afoul of Fleet justice.
Kin couldn’t protect them.
Making his way toward the town meeting hall, Kin kept an eye on Fleet checkpoints. The people of Crater Town fought fires and moved wounded to the simple hospital. He slowed as he approached the town hall, realizing he was too late.
Fleet troopers escorted the council members, though Laura seemed to treat the troopers as her personal escort rather than her jailers.
Please, Laura, be careful.
Love wasn’t the perfect word to describe his feelings for Laura, but something burned hot and miserable in his chest as he stared after her. The Fleet was a juggernaut of violence—not an organization to be manipulated, not even by a savant of intrigue like Laura.
Strykers blocked the next street. The engines of the eight-wheeled, light armor vehicles chugged. Exhaust fumes, from diesel rather than jet fuel, mingled with the cool evening air. The archaic technology remained a favorite among ground forces because fuel could be foraged or fabricated when resupply wasn’t an option. Diesel, jet fuel, moonshine—it didn’t matter. They ran on anything.
Kin crept forward until he saw two troopers arguing. Wind blew dust, obscured vision, and concealed him as he lurked in an alley near the conversation.
“We don’t have time for this,” the larger of the two said.
Surplus armor stamped with the standard Earth Fleet icon caught Kin’s attention, because the external armaments were expertly placed and easy to access in a fight, not the setup of inexperienced recruits. Elite commandos couldn’t have done better.
Strange. Why are two badasses like you slumming in that junk?
Something exploded. The ground rumbled under Kin’s feet. Flames thrust skyward from a building nearby. Townspeople screamed for help, their voices ethereal and broken in the silence following the boom. Kin wanted to know why these troopers were in disguise. Were they saboteurs intent on destroying Earth Fleet, or were they merely high ranking officers spying on their troops?
“If Imperials came through the wormhole after the battle, we’ll find them. We have time. You’re such a pussy,” the smaller trooper said. The voice was familiar and possibly a woman’s, but Kin immediately doubted himself. FSPAA vocal filters were nearly gender neutral by default, though most troopers disabled them.
“You had to go there,” the larger trooper said. “Watch and learn.”
Imperials. Whoever they were, Kin had never heard of them. His first impression was of a human, or at least humanoid, adversary. Until now, all enemy races of the Fleet had been monstrous—Reapers, Soul Catchers, Shape Shifters, and Cyborgs. War between human nations was ancient history.
Kin followed the troopers sprinting toward the burning buildings. They quickly outdistanced him. He’d forgotten how fast a trooper could move in armor. By the time he caught up, both troopers emerged from a building holding armloads of terrified children.
Cassie Davis fell at their feet, wailing for her babies.
Kin wanted to comfort her. He took a few steps forward, but stopped when the smaller trooper looked at him sharply.
Kin broke eye contact, though he couldn’t actually see the trooper’s eyes, and yelled. “Cassie! Are you okay?”
The trooper watched him a moment longer before pushing free of the Davis family reunion. “Get a support team here on the double! We have collateral damage.”
Fleet medics and firemen arrived, helping the townspeople extinguish the flames and triage the wounded. The two mystery troopers took charge of the chaotic scene.
Kin took the opportunity to leave.
Something changed after the invaders rescued Cassie’s children. The routine protocols of occupying strategic and tactical positions, detaining key people, and requisitioning resources seemed more benevolent. Kin witnessed Fleet troopers using war-fighting technology to rescue people. An FSPAA unit had to burn for a long time before the person inside became uncomfortable. Muldoch’s execution remained vivid in his mind and he wasn’t swept away by the heroics of the Fleet.
Kin scoured the town for people who needed help or direction. Laura was in the hands of the Fleet. She would either betray him or not betray him, regardless of what he did now. He faced a dangerous choice: flee the city while he had the chance or help the innocent victims of the invasion.
It wasn’t a difficult decision. Who was he? What did his life matter? He had fought for it—lied, killed, robbed people to pay for a new identity—but was his existence worth more than Crater Town?
When the sun came up he was exhausted, but felt good. Crater Town had been a better home to him than he had known before or after the Fleet. He began a final circuit of the town, drinking water from a skin and nodding at people who seemed glad to be alive.
TIRED men and women wandered the town square, wiping sweat and soot from their faces with rags. Rows of Fleet troopers stood guard, seeming like statues come to life, if only briefly. The younger Crater Town folk played fiddles and pipes near the fountain. Celebration filled the air. Children played as though they would never grow up while the adults laughed and encouraged them.
Kin walked past guards flanking each intersection—avoiding looking at them when they turned their helmets to follow his progress. He doubted any of these men or women could have been on Hellsbreach, but they might have attended his court-martial. That farce had been held in the bay of a Titan Class Battlecruiser with thousands of soldiers standing at attention. Nine generals and three admirals had presided over the hearing and passed judgment.
One friendly face at his execution cried without wiping tears or moving from her position of attention. She hadn’t dared to look directly at Kin, because discipline demanded all eyes be directed straight ahead. He didn’t like to think of Becca that way. He walked toward the town meeting hall under the stare of soldiers—trained killers with the most advanced weapons known to mankind, men he understood, men who were just like he had been.
The last time Kin had seen Becca before Hellsbreach, she had been running through a wheat field with her hair down. He still saw the girl behind her intelligent eyes, especially when she was off duty and in a playful mood. He remembered her bright-blue dress dancing below her knees, the neck line modest but open, nothing like the high collar of her cadet’s uniform. Her shoulders and arms had been bare. The fabric of her dress fit her hips and body snuggly. He thought he could wrap his hands around her waist and touch his fingertips, but never worked up the courage to try. He smiled, remembering her looking over her shoulder and laughing. He wished he could chase her again and be in love.
They had hiked all day and sprawled in a meadow overlooking a green valley of Earth VI. Farmers worked terraced fields in small, open-topped tractors. The crops were distributed locally, not to distant colonies or industrial planets with barely enough plant life to photosynthesize oxygen, much less provide their own food. Countless agriculture colonies filled that need. Earth VI was a liberty planet, a place of rest and revitalization for travelers. A day on an Earth Class Planet healed humans with almost magical power.
In his mind, Kin sat next to her. She leaned back on her elbows, wriggling her toes in the grass. He smiled, gazing at her, speaking infrequently, attending her every word as though it were music.
“I’ve been thinking of my father and brothers all day, my real brothers, not you, Kin,” Becca said. “I’m trying not to be sad. Trying so hard.”
“No one should be sad on a day like this,” Kin said. “So, I’m like a brother?”
She leaned toward him, freeing her left arm to swat his leg. “You know you’re beautiful, Kin. I’m going to have a long talk with the girl who thinks she can marry you.”
Kin tied a piece of grass in a knot, staring at each twist he made. “I miss your brothers.”
He could have avoided mandatory enlistment, but it seemed wrong to enjoy the safety the Fleet provided without doing his part. He wasn’t from a military family like Becca was. His father had been a smuggler and had taught him two things when he wasn’t in boarding school; how to fight dirty and how to survive. Good lessons for boarding school. Good lessons for storming a hostile planet. Perhaps Becca’s father and brothers wouldn’t have been killed by Reapers if they’d learned the same lessons.
“I miss them so much I can barely breathe,” she said. Tears welled in her eyes. She turned them to the horizon, fixing them on something in the distance. “The Reapers tore them apart, Kin. I have nightmares.”
Kin held her and she leaned into him. They were silent for a long time.
“I’m going to volunteer for the Hellsbreach Campaign.” He spoke softly into her hair, but his heart raced.
“I don’t want you to go, because no one returns from Betaoin. But I want vengeance. You’re the only man in the Fleet who can deliver it,” Becca said.
“I’m just one man, but only the best are allowed to volunteer for this mission. If the Reapers can be wiped out, we’ll do it,” Kin said.
He didn’t want to go. He wasn’t afraid. The reality of the battle to come was too far in the future. The danger seemed abstract. He didn’t hold the same hate as Becca did. All men die. Some die badly. He didn’t need vengeance, but Becca did, so he would deliver it. If he survived, she’d be thirty by the time the Hellsbreach Campaign ended and ships traveled back to Earth Fleet controlled space. She’d be married and barely remember her childhood friend.
Memory was a cruel sorcerer. He held the vision of Becca in his mind, but the spell was destroyed by the fires of Hellsbreach and the sounds of gunfire and plasma bolts. He saw splashes of red, explosions of orange and gold. He smelled smoke from the past and present.
He fled the images in his mind and focused on what needed to be done. Fleet troopers watched as he walked. They towered above him in their assault armor.
Kin examined the squad’s sergeant from a distance. There was something about the way he moved—arrogant and cruel. He towered over the other troopers, swaggering aggressively. They jumped when he said jump.
Kin shortened his stride when he saw the etching on the ceramic exoskeleton of the suit. The design differed from what he remembered, but the style was familiar. Sergeant Orlan decorated his armor with etchings despite regulations forbidding it. Many troopers on Hellsbreach had done the same thing, putting notches on armor for every kill, carving pictures of loved ones or enemies or religious symbols to match the tattoos on their skin, or merely decorating the ceramic shell with art. Sergeant Orlan’s talent for ornamentation was impressive, despite his large, thick hands.
Kin knew he should go around the man, yet he moved closer and saw a lion’s head skillfully engraved on the breastplate. On Hellsbreach it had been a wolf, but Kin recognized Orlan’s handiwork. It was unfair such a brute could create something so magnificent.
Kin abruptly turned down an alley. A guard noticed him and followed.
“You there, where are you going? Why are you armed? Do you have a permit?”
Kin faced the guard, taking another careful step into the shadow of the building. He glanced down the street, noting Orlan still faced the other direction. The worst danger was over, or so he thought. But then he realized this was the same trooper who saved little Kylee and Samantha Davis from the fire before recognizing him.
This guy is stalking me.
“I have a permit.”
The guard accepted the paper, pretending to not recognize Kin. The mechanized gauntlets looked too large to hold such a delicate object, but Kin knew the assault armor was capable of both fine motor skills and feats of incredible strength. He also understood the suits required charging, despite the solar power they gathered to extend battery life. In time, the fierce machines would be men and women, mere mortals without shells of technology. Kin doubted this soldier would follow him into an alley alone without the armor, even if he hoped to collect a reward for capturing the Enemy of Man.
“Who wrote this permit?” the trooper asked. The depersonalized voice sounded neutered by the amplifier projecting it. The sound and deception it represented bothered Kin.
“All permits for firearms are approved or denied by the Crater Town Council. Councilwoman Laura Keen signed that particular paper,” Kin said. Prior to the arrival of the Fleet, Kin had been in charge of enforcing the permit laws, but never bothered. Crater Town was a frontier settlement on an uncharted planet. Life was dangerous. People carried weapons when they could find or make them.
“You are Kin Roland? Security officer for Crater Town?” the trooper asked.
“I am. Is there a problem?”
“Most people with that unfortunate name changed it after Hellsbreach,” the trooper said, studying his reaction.
“Commander Westwood wishes to know who doused the lighthouse as we approached.”
Kin nodded. “I’ll ask around.” He turned away from the trooper.
Kin faced the trooper again, who seemed to be listening to a command sequence inside the helmet.
“You are to appear before Commander Westwood and the Crater Town Council in the meeting hall.”
Kin hesitated, but knew he couldn’t delay for long. “I need to check one more person, then I’ll head that way.”
The trooper shook his head and stepped closer to Kin, towering over him. “My orders are to bring you without delay.” Another pause. “Who are you looking for?”
“Sibil Clavender,” Kin said.
“Who is Sibil Clavender?” the trooper asked.
Kin pointed at the wormhole, discolored and turbulent from the disturbance of the planetary assault. “She’s the person who soothes the spirit of the wormhole.” Kin couldn’t hear if the soldier snorted without activating the helmet speaker, but he probably did. Kin held the trooper’s gaze until the helmet slowly turned toward the pulsating wormhole.
The trooper faced Kin and waited for what had to be an order from Fleet Command. “You may look for her. I will escort you.”
Kin turned, stepping through the alley to emerge on a street not much wider than the path between buildings. He trudged up the steep dune, navigating twists and turns, avoiding the direct route in order to disorient his guard.
“This is the wrong way,” the trooper said. “Our drones have already mapped this area. What are you doing?”
“Making a fool of myself, apparently.”
Kin studied the reflective visor and searched for clues in how the trooper stood and how he chose to arrange the accessories on his armor. There were no engravings or unit markings beyond the Earth Fleet emblem. “Do I know you?”
Silence. They stared at each other.
Kin waited a few moments and turned away. He walked slowly, sensing it would annoy the trooper. This type of guard duty was a waste of time. A good soldier would resent it.
“I thought you’d be looking for Imperials,” Kin said.
“Why would you think that?”
“I heard some troopers talking about them.” Kin waited. He assumed Imperials blasted this Fleet Armada through the wormhole, but had never heard of them. Whoever they were, their presence in Earth Fleet controlled space occurred after Hellsbreach.
The trooper didn’t respond.
Kin led the unhelpful guard to a cottage set into the side of a dune. Little more than the door betrayed the location of Sibil Clavender’s home. A gaggle of hopper birds loitered near the threshold. Fur grew around the faces and forelegs of the strange creatures. The hopper birds also possessed strong hind legs for running and multicolored wings in perpetual motion.
Kin squatted, waiting until each hopper bird scrambled to him and pecked his hands. “I am Kin Roland. I mean no harm,” he said several times, making sure they recognized his scent and the sound of his voice.
“Why do you do that?” the trooper asked.
“They’re my friends.” Kin stood.
“They’re messenger birds.”
The trooper stood motionless while receiving an order Kin couldn’t hear, but could remember from a hundred missions.
Secure all forms of communication. You’re the tip of the spear, Trooper. Report success to Command and Control. Do you copy?
The trooper looked at Kin. “They will be confiscated.”
“Good luck.” Kin ducked inside the dwelling, leaving the Fleet trooper to chase birds around the yard.
Dimly glowing stones illuminated the surprisingly large room. As his eyes adjusted to muted light, he noted simple items—a pitcher on the low table, a bowl of local fruit, and silver beads in a pattern representing the ring of moons around the planet. Glow stones were set in the walls, like oval windows or portals to unknown worlds.
Kin moved to the table. He studied a book Clavender never allowed him to open. Something like an angel graced the cover, with multicolored wings, noble beard, and the face of a warrior king. The eyes reminded him of Clavender.
His fingers grazed the book.
“Are you well, Kin Roland?” Sibil Clavender emerged from the shadows in all her alien glory. She wore a silk tunic narrowly covering her small breasts and gathered at the waist by a decorative chain. The fine metal made Kin think he could hook one finger under it and rip it off. Her back, naked all the way down, gave room for white wings tipped in blue and dusted with diamonds. The hem of the tunic reached her ankles—slit up the sides to her hips. Her unruly hair was tied high enough to expose her slender neck. Her eyes, blue-green like a tropical lagoon, welcomed him.
Kin stepped away from the table and cleared his throat. “As well as might be expected.”
She smiled, moved closer, sent his heart racing. The exotic way she walked fascinated him. Her wings dazzled his vision. The silver beads in her hair seemed magical.
“Have you been outside?”
She nodded, pressing against him. Kin felt the warmth of her body.
Don’t move. She’ll disappear from this dream. He held his breath. Not everything on Crashdown is dangerous. A battle scared veteran like me could be healed in this room.
“I have seen the strangers. They wear armor. Are we so dangerous?”
“I doubt they came here on purpose. Uncharted planets are always assaulted,” Kin said.
He forced himself to think. Few people could withstand Clavender’s presence for long without being enthralled. Crater Town people thought of her as some kind of spirit or goddess in communion with the weather and the wormhole. She appeared young. For all he knew she was immortal.
She touched him, gripping him with both hands. His pulse raced with something more powerful than lust or love. Clavender’s touch was like morphine, caffeine, and a childhood memory of spring pressed into a shiver.
“I am not so young,” she said.
Kin blushed, which should have been impossible for a genocidal maniac. “I worry about you. Crater Town needs you,” Kin said, shifting uncomfortably.
She smiled dreamily and took his hand. Sensation diffused throughout his body, filling him with peace.
“I wish to see the sky. Walk with me,” she said.
“There’s a Fleet trooper in your yard chasing the hopper birds.”
She turned her face up to him, still smiling like a satisfied lover but also with slyness in her eyes. She led him through a narrow tunnel that forced him to stoop as he walked. Moments later they emerged on the opposite side of the dune, then climbed a goat trail to a place where they watched the frustrated guard below.
Servomotors whirred as the trooper jumped left and right, grabbing at the local birds. Beyond that spectacle, the town spread out to the sea. Cleanup had begun with military precision. Crater Town thrived with activity.
Clavender looked at the sky. “She wants to come home.”
Kin looked at the wormhole and thought the space anomaly seemed masculine rather than feminine, as though it wanted to devour Crashdown. “You understand what that is?”
“I understand,” Clavender said. “You do not. Perhaps it is correct to call it a wormhole, but it did not come to this planet. It came from this planet. There is only one.”
Kin shook his head. “There are more than a thousand charted wormholes. I’ve been through a hundred of them.”
“There is only one,” she said, still gripping his hand firmly and nestling her small body close to his.
Kin shivered, not because her warm skin electrified his imagination, but because the thought of a single wormhole intruding into every corner of the universe terrified him. He pointed to it. “Look at the colors—red and orange and purple after the lightning flashes. Other wormholes are blue and silver, or green like your eyes.”
“Or like the reflection of the sea,” she said.
Kin suddenly imagined every wormhole looking down at Crashdown and soaking up color from the ocean. The thought unnerved him, because it felt right. Was he standing in the center of the universe? If he were, who was this young woman next to him who changed the color of the waves and the thrashing of the sea with her moods?
KIN took a knee—a soldier’s pose that came naturally. Clavender stood with one hand on his shoulder. They watched the trooper and the town as a sea breeze spoke softly.
“I am glad these soldiers are from your Fleet,” Clavender said.
“You might not be if you were in my position,” Kin said.
She bent and looked into his eyes.
He waited until she smiled. Knowing she wouldn’t ask the question, he answered. “Fleet Command gave me a mission to kill every last Reaper on Hellsbreach.”
She touched his face. “But you could not do it.”
Kin looked away, surprised at his shame. She didn’t seem to judge him. She squatted, wrapping her arms and her wings around him.
“We are not different. I hide from my people so that I do not lead them to war and ruin,” Clavender said.
“I thought you were the last of your people. I mean, everyone assumed,” Kin said.
Clavender laughed. “Have you not seen the migrations toward the wormhole?”
“I thought those were birds. There must be thousands,” Kin said. He recalled the swarms of flying creatures passing far above Crater Town. The mysterious migrations were considered good luck by everyone on Crashdown.
“Not birds, but foolish young men trying to prove themselves. They will never reach it. It is too high and does not open as easily as a door,” Clavender said.
“You should go inside. The Fleet has a bad record with aliens,” Kin said.
“An odd thing, coming from aliens,” Clavender said.
“I will stay outside. Do not worry. I have hidden from my people for a long time. I can hide from yours,” she said.
Kin nodded. They stood, holding hands for what seemed like a pleasant lifetime.
The breeze shifted, bringing the smell of burned buildings mixed with the salty air. It stung Kin’s eyes. Wind wouldn’t disperse the odors until the smoldering huts cooled. Clavender probably didn’t appreciate the odors of destroyed machines, but they painted a picture for Kin, bringing back memories. He looked down on the Fleet trooper who gave up on the idea of capturing the hopper birds and stood like a statue. Kin listened for the quiet sound of gears in the assault armor.
He descended the front of the dune. The trooper turned to face him. Kin was glad the trooper was alert, even though they were destined to be adversaries. Fears of interrogation and torture seemed distant, because Clavender touched him. He laughed inwardly. He hadn’t been checking on her, he’d been seeking comfort. The Fleet would learn his identity and he would run, fight, or die. It was simple and unavoidable.
Kin Roland was a common name and he had taken many steps to hide who he was—a new identification number and plate in his arm, the meticulous and expensive removal of tattoos, and an assignment on a terra-forming mission that should’ve taken him to the very rim of Earth Fleet controlled space. But he couldn’t avoid scrutiny forever.
The false identity plate in his arm would not withstand a close, forensic examination. Someone would remember him. Orlan certainly knew him and this trooper that was so interested in him probably did as well. The question was why the trooper didn’t sound the alarm.
Kin still didn’t understand how he was able to board the Goliath in the first place. They had checked his finger prints and photograph—a moment he had dreaded but found unavoidable. Nothing. The security screener ran his picture and prints without finding a thing. Either the captain of the Goliath had known who he was and didn’t care, or the system was too big for its own good. Fleet intelligence officers, however, wouldn’t be fooled.
The trooper was shamming ignorance for reasons unfathomable to Kin. He hadn’t imagined the moment this person recognized him, but couldn’t figure why the trooper suddenly pretended ignorance.
“Let’s go to the meeting hall,” Kin said.
The trooper nodded, walking next to him.
Kin looked for Orlan, but couldn’t find him. The sergeant was uncommonly large, and since assault armor added a foot to a man or woman’s height, Orlan was seven and a half feet tall when wearing his full kit. Without armor, Orlan was thick chested, hairy, and had a face that looked as though it had once been handsome, but had been stepped on too many times. His eyes were watery and sickly, almost clear. Kin never trusted Orlan’s eyes, even before the man betrayed him. If Orlan recognized him—and he would—he wouldn’t hesitate to kill Kin.
“This isn’t the most direct path to the meeting hall,” the trooper said.
“Did your computer tell you that?” Kin asked.
“The computer is correct. Don’t you know your town?”
Kin shrugged. “I know this place like the back of my hand. I also know that if I walk down Main Street, people will see me and want to talk. It’ll take three days to get to the meeting hall.” Kin was impressed with his own bullshit. He picked his course to avoid Orlan, who would be shaking down Crater Town citizens like the thug he was.
Hellsbreach memories, ever present, rose to the surface. He took a deep breath, held it, then exhaled slowly. The urge to close his eyes was strong, almost as strong as the desire to return to his bed and sleep the day away. He never yielded to the post-traumatic stress and the melancholy that came with it.
Anxiety could give way to manic euphoria, much as it had when he realized he survived the first Reaper attack, but he didn’t know whether other veterans felt the same. He embraced the supercharged good feelings as often as he could, aware that he had probably lost his mind more than once. He scanned his environment and remained ready for anything, though the cinematic big screen in his head played continually.
Kin heard his younger voice screaming at his platoon as Reapers charged across sand and rocks. Sergeant Kin Roland, Class IV Weapons Master and unit commander, gathered his men and retreated behind a smoking row of Colossal Class Battle Tanks. The Fleet’s war machines leveled two cities before the Reaper ambush annihilated them.
Kin glanced at the unit motto stenciled on the side of an armor panel. Unstoppable HOE.
Unstoppable Hell on Earth. Tanker humor.
“First and Third squads, choose your targets. Fire at will.”
How do animals without heavy weapons destroy a CCBT column?
Burns tattooed broken hatches. Metal rods jutted from multiple barrels of each tank. Segmented wheel treads stretched across the ground—dead metallic snakes—sad, lost, and betrayed.
“Second and Fourth squads, hold right and left flanks.”
Hundreds of deadly humanoids charged Kin’s unit, armed with fists of lightning that they could throw a hundred meters and swords wreathed in fire. He had never seen Reapers like this. They reminded him of shock troops, aggressive and well-armed. Their leader carried a whip that cut burning arcs in the air, splashing acid in all directions. Weapons were a new development for Reapers but their fearsome ingenuity unnerved Kin.
The Reapers roared, voices full of clicks and scraping sounds.
“Double perimeter,” he ordered.
His best troopers moved to fire large caliber rifles and plasma guns, using the damaged tanks as cover. Some climbed on the twisted metal turrets for better advantage. They opened fire. Scores of enemies went down. Few stayed down.
“Fall back,” Kin ordered.
The outer line of soldiers ran for cover while the second team opened fire to protect them as they hustled toward new positions. Kin’s unit was being pushed back as far as they could go without fleeing into the desert. No cover or concealment existed beyond the Tanks. The Reapers would drive them beyond any source of water or refuge. One step into the sandy waste was a death sentence.
His unit fired weapons, but started edging back. They were good soldiers, but every one of them had seen how the Reapers fought. They didn’t kill in battle. That came afterward, when there was time for torture. The beasts liked to eat living meat.
“Stand fast! Hold your ground!” he yelled, when his men looked like they were about to break. “Hand to hand. Weapons up.”
Kin led the way with a sharp bayonet. He fired, charging into the wave of Reapers, never pausing to reload. The fight was close, bloody work, and he received more injuries through his armor than he could count. The rifle was torn from his hands. Without hesitation, he drew his sword—a weapon his superiors didn’t approve of—and thrust it through the mouth of a Reaper.
One of the psychotic beasts fell away from his attack after losing its hands. Another lost its head. The third refused to die even though the sword ran through its body. When he couldn’t free the blade, he abandoned it, hacking with the axe he pulled from the back of his armor. He didn’t see his unit through the enemies surrounding him, but had little time to search for them with Reapers slashing with claws and flaming weapons.
Just keep killing. Take care of business. Regroup later. But Kin knew there would be no time to regroup. Too many. I’m sorry, Becca, there are too many.
Mental images tormented him. He couldn’t understand the visions he saw, but felt each thought as a physical pressure in his brain. When he could no longer lift the axe or remain standing, he fell to his knees. Reapers pounced on him. He suddenly understood why he couldn’t see his unit. They had fled—every one of them.
Changed by captivity and torture, hunted by the Reapers of Hellsbreach and wanted by Earth Fleet, Kin Roland hides on a lost planet near an unstable wormhole.
When a distant space battle propels a ravaged Earth Fleet Armada through the same wormhole, a Reaper follows, hunting for the man who burned his home world. Kin fights to save a mysterious native of Crashdown from the Reaper and learns there are worse things in the galaxy than the nightmare hunting him. The end is coming and he is about to pay for a sin that will change the galaxy forever.
When a distant space battle propels a ravaged Earth Fleet Armada through the same wormhole, a Reaper follows, hunting for the man who burned his home world. Kin fights to save a mysterious native of Crashdown from the Reaper and learns there are worse things in the galaxy than the nightmare hunting him. The end is coming and he is about to pay for a sin that will change the galaxy forever.
Enemy of Man: Book One in the Chronicles of Kin Roland was written for fans of military science fiction and science fiction adventure. Readers who enjoyed Starship Troopers or Space Marines will appreciate this genre variation. Powered armor only gets a soldier so far. Battlefield experience, guts, and loyal friends make Armageddon fun.
If you love movies like Aliens, Predator, The Chronicles of Riddick, or Serenity, then you might find the heroes and creatures in Enemy of Man dangerous, determined, and ready to risk it all. It’s all about action and suspense, with a dash of romance—or perhaps flash romance.
From the Author
Thanks for your interest in my novel, Enemy of Man. I hope you chose to read the book and enjoy every page.
If you have already read Enemy of Man, how was it? Reviews are appreciated!
Have a great day and be safe.
If you have already read Enemy of Man, how was it? Reviews are appreciated!
Have a great day and be safe.
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Genre – Science Fiction
Rating – R
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