Excerpt for Alien Conquest: Five Stories of Alien Conflict by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

ALIEN CONQUEST

A Five-Story Anthology

from the


Stellar Conquest Series

by


David VanDyke





Steel's First Conquest (Novelette)

A Hotter Forge (Novelette)

Starship Conquest (Novel)

Desolator: Conquest (Novel)

What Price Humanity (Novelette)



All five stories collected in this volume have been previously published in various collections, novels and anthologies, including Forge and Steel, Planetary Assault, First Conquest, Desolator, and Jerry Pournelle's There Will Be War X.



Reaper Press








Published at Smashwords by David VanDyke and Reaper Press, LLC

ISBN: 978-1-62626-220-1

Starship Conquest copyright © 2013 (as First Conquest).

Desolator: Conquest copyright © 2013 (as Desolator).

What Price Humanity? copyright © 2015.

Steel’s First Temper and A Hotter Forge copyright © 2016.



All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form, or by any means whatsoever (electronic, mechanical or otherwise) without prior written permission and consent from the author. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, businesses and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.



Table of Contents

Author’s Note

Steel’s First Temper

A Hotter Forge

Starship Conquest

Desolator: Conquest

What Price Humanity?

Excerpt from Tactics of Conquest



Books by David VanDyke


Plague Wars: Decade One

The Eden Plague

Reaper’s Run

Skull’s Shadows

Eden’s Exodus

Apocalypse Austin

Nearest Night


Plague Wars: Alien Invasion

The Demon Plagues

The Reaper Plague

The Orion Plague

Cyborg Strike

Comes The Destroyer

Forge and Steel

(Forge and Steel stories included in Alien Conquest anthology)


Plague Wars: Stellar Conquest

Starship Conquest

(included in Alien Conquest anthology)

Desolator: Conquest

(included in Alien Conquest anthology)

Tactics of Conquest

Conquest of Earth

Conquest and Empire


Books by D.D. VanDyke

D. D. VanDyke is the Mysteries pen name for fiction author David VanDyke.


California Corwin P.I. Mystery Series

Loose Ends - Book 1

(Includes Off The Leash short story)

In a Bind - Book 2

Slipknot - Book 3

The Girl In The Morgue - Book 4


For more information visit http://www.davidvandykeauthor.com/

Cover by Jun Ares

Author’s Note


This box set consists of two full novels of more than 200 pages each, and three novelettes of roughly thirty pages and four or five chapters each, for a total of approximately 500 pages. These stories provide a logical, sequential introduction to the Stellar Conquest series, which is continued in three more books after this one (Tactics of Conquest, Conquest of Earth, Conquest and Empire).

If you want to read the entire epic science fiction saga of apocalypse, alien invasion and counterattack from start to finish, the Plague Wars Series precedes Stellar Conquest with eleven books, beginning with The Eden Plague and Reaper’s Run (you can start with either one). They are available on all ebook vendors, and in print from the usual sources.

Or, if sign up for my newsletter, I'll give you the first trilogy in the Plague Wars Series for free! This includes The Eden Plague, Reaper’s Run and Skull’s Shadows.

All books are also available in audiobook form from the major audiobook distributors. “Starship Conquest” can be found under its old title, “First Conquest.” “Desolator: Conquest” can be found under “Desolator,” and the three novelettes are collected into an audiobook titled “Forge and Steel.”


Cheers, and happy reading!

David VanDyke



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Steel’s First Temper

A Stellar Conquest Novelette

By

David VanDyke



Find all information about David VanDyke books, including audiobooks, at his website:

davidvandykeauthor.com



Chapter 1



Newly minted Marine Second Lieutenant Joseph “Bull” ben Tauros turned to look as an unfamiliar woman entered his platoon locker room aboard the EarthFleet assault transport Melita. He exchanged glances with Gunnery Sergeant Kang, his platoon sergeant, who shrugged.

“Can I help you?” Bull asked, walking toward the newcomer in nothing but his athletic shorts.

Brown hair, a slim figure, a severe Anglo-Hispanic visage and dark, intense eyes greeted him. Those orbs never strayed from Bull’s face, despite his big bald head, naked torso and massive musculature. He easily topped out above one hundred fifty kilos. They didn’t call him Bull for nothing.

Even women who batted for the other team usually took a clinically interested look at his development. After all, the hard-won slabs of flesh were things of rarity in this age of laminated bones and combat cybernetics.

The ten-centimeter ferrocrystal Star of David medallion on a chain around his neck usually merited a glance as well.

“You Lieutenant Joseph Tauros?” the woman said, not flinching as he encroached deliberately on her personal space to tower above her.

“Joseph ben Tauros,” he said. “It means ‘son of the bull.’”

“That fits.” She stuck out her hand. “Jill Repeth. It means the clerks at Ellis Island couldn’t understand a Scotsman’s accent when he said ‘Repath.’ At least that’s the story I always heard. Personally, I wonder if some scoundrel ancestor of mine was running from the law and made it all up.”

Bull eyed her up and down, noting easy confidence wrapped in sharply pressed civvies adorned with an abundance of pockets. It was practical, rugged bush-style clothing, reminding him of former military who took security contractor jobs.

He didn’t take her hand. “You don’t look Scottish.”

“My mother was Hispanic. You don’t look Jewish.”

“Nobody looks Jewish. It’s a religion, not an ethnicity. I’m Israeli.”

“Nobody’s nothing but Earthers anymore.”

“That’s not what a lot of people think.”

“Then they need to think harder.” With a flat stare, Repeth closed her fingers and lifted her hand to point at Bull’s nose. “Might want to check that attitude, Eltee. We’re going to be working together and you do not want to get on my bad side.”

Bull repressed his desire to flatten the twink. No way that would end well. Either he’d put her in the infirmary, pissing off someone higher up—who’d obviously saddled him with some kind of advisor, maybe a reporter—or he’d fail to do so, which would make him look a complete fool in front of the dozen Fleet Marines around the room watching their brand-new, fresh-out-of-training platoon leader with interest.

Besides, he was old-fashioned enough to think manhandling a woman was unchivalrous.

Chuckles from behind him threatened to up the stakes, so he decided to cut his losses and avoid the game until he found out the rules. Forcing a wintry smile, he opened one meaty paw after all. “Call me Bull.”

“Reaper,” she said with a twitch of her eye, slapping her petite palm into his fist to clasp.

He applied just enough pressure to hurt, but the woman didn’t flinch. Didn’t even seem to notice, actually.

“I see you’re enhanced,” he said, letting go. “Who do you work for?”

The woman ignored the question. “You got an office? We need to talk.”

“I have a desk in the orderly room. Out the door to the left. Give me a minute to dress.” He pointed, watching her as she exited.

Laughter bubbled from the throats around him. “Chingawa, Eltee,” said Sergeant Acosta. “I think I’m in love. Leave some for the rest of us, okay sir?”

“I heard you’re in love with your right hand,” Bull replied as he donned a t-shirt, trousers, and then his tunic.

That brought more laughter, but at least it wasn’t directed at him. Bull pulled on his boots. “And I get a feeling this one would rip your prick off and feed it to you.”

Ooh, went the noises around the room, along with more vulgarities aimed at Acosta, and Bull used them to cover his own exit.

In the orderly room, he saw a lone Personnel troop tapping at a keyboard, but no Repeth. “Ma’am?” Bull called into the air, looking around.

Repeth—Reaper, he reminded himself—leaned out of the open door of the company CO’s office. “In here, Bull.”

When he entered the cramped space, he saw she was alone. She waved him to a drop seat and, once he’d eased his bulk into it, sat down on the edge of the tiny desk, which put her head on the same level as his. “Here.” She handed him a battered secure tablet.

Before he looked at the device’s screen, he said, “So I gotta babysit you? Make sure you don’t get your head blown off or eaten by a Pureling while you get some nice 4D video footage?”

“No babysitting. This ain’t my first rodeo. I’ll pull my weight and more.”

“Would be nice to know who you really are.”

Reaper rapped her knuckles on the desk. “I’m sure you can find some references to me in the Fleet databases. But, time for that later. Read the rest of the orders first. This is a rescue. Intel thinks at least six of our people are being held at a Meme outpost. I won’t get in your way. You make the tactical decisions. Your job is to get us in, recover our people and get out.”

“Then what’s your job?”

“Read the mission brief.”

Lifting the device, he looked over the orders. A short-notice raid on a Meme facility, one of thousands of living bases that had been seeded within the asteroid belt and now waited, stealthy, watching. The Marines could expect heavy resistance by Purelings, programmed warriors cloned from subject races.

The seldom-seen aliens themselves looked like giant amoebas. Teeming with free-floating memory molecules, they spread their Empire by conquest and by blending with other life forms, subsuming them and their abilities. They could build mechanical structures and devices, but they favored living ships and bases, which grew and spread on their own.

With millions of asteroids to search across quadrillions of cubic kilometers, EarthFleet stayed busy playing whack-a-Meme while they waited for the inevitable next invasion.

“So you’re not a reporter. This says you’re in charge,” Bull said, containing his irritation with difficulty.

“Overall command.”

“What are you? Some kind of spook?”

“That’s classified.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“That’s irony, coming from you, Bull. Don’t make me regret this.”

“I’m already regretting it.”

Reaper sighed and glanced upward as if pleading with a watching god. “Let’s get this over with, shall we? You’re the big bad alpha male and I’m the liability of a split-tail who’s gonna get a Marine killed trying to protect her high-value ass.” She hopped over to take the seat behind the CO’s desk and quickly slipped papers and mementos into the drawers, leaving it clear. Then she set her right elbow in the center and held up her open hand, staring at him. “Let’s do it.”

“You’re shitting me.”

Buk-buk-bukawww.” She sniffed, wiggling her fingers.

Bull stared at this crazy bitch who wanted to arm-wrestle him. She oozed confidence, and in his experience, that meant either she was batshit nuts, or she knew she could beat a fully boosted Marine. “Turn off our enhancements?”

Reaper laughed. “Fair fights are for fools. Come on, Bull. Live a little.”

“I’ll pass. You must be cheating.”

Her hands came down, rubbed together. “You’re not quite as dumb as you look.”

“You must have some really high-grade shit.”

“Beyond.” She grinned, held up one hand. Short blades perhaps two centimeters long sprouted from her fingertips, bright ferrocrystal coated in her own blood as they sliced through her skin from beneath, and then disappeared, healing quickly due to Eden Plague and, for sure, the latest combat nano in her blood.

Ben zonah. You’re black ops.” Mods like finger-knives were forbidden to Marines. They’d just get in the way of fighting from within battlesuits.

“Direct Action, you mean? I have been. I’ve also been a Marine, and a Steward. And a few other things.” She shrugged.

Bull rubbed his jaw and flexed his hands in unconscious sympathy. Stewards were the white side of Fleet special operations, tasked with VIP protection, internal investigations and, it was rumored, sensitive anti-Blend missions. They got the best of everything.

By contrast, Direct Action operatives, General Spooky Nguyen’s special corps of door-kickers and enforcers, were…well, who knew what they were, beyond wild rumors? That’s why they called them black.

“How the hell old are you, anyway?” he asked. The rejuvenating Eden Plague made everyone appear young, so except for mannerisms and similar tiny cues, the woman in front of him could be ninety for all he knew.

“Old enough to be your mother twice over,” she said with the first genuine smile he’d seen. “Now, have we measured dicks enough, or do you want to go a couple rounds in the ring?”

“No thanks. I get a feeling I’d lose there too.”

“You might. But as you said, it’s only because I’m cheating, right?” She stared at him.

“Is that a trick question?”

“Yep. And here’s the answer. The enemy doesn’t fight fair, and neither do I. Neither should you. People don’t follow you because you can beat them in a ring or bench-press a bigger barbell. They follow you when they believe you’ll lead them to victory and, more to the point, you’ll get them home. Are you here to lead Marines and kill aliens, young butterbar, or to waste my time trying to act like the biggest, baddest bastard around?”

Bull continued to massage his hands as if he wanted to arm-wrestle after all. Eventually he grated, “I signed up to kill Meme.”

“Well, guess what? Like those orders say, you’re gonna get your very first chance. Today. And if you’re lucky, and your people do their jobs, and I watch your back, your grass-green ass won’t come home in a box.”



Chapter 2


Two hours of mission briefings later, Bull watched Reaper inspect her gear in the armory, running through the standard checklist faster than anyone he’d ever seen.

“Hey, what did you do right there?” he asked, holding out a hand.

“What, with my pulse rifle?” She flipped it over, sights down and magazine ports up. “Pre-charged its internal capacitor with a full power pack, and then swapped out with another one to recharge. Just like putting a round in the chamber and then reloading a mag. Gives me a two percent bump in available juice.”

Bull grunted. “Got any more tricks like that?”

“Got a million of ’em.”

He stared, hard. “You’re different.”

“From what?”

“Other females. Most of them, anyway.”

“What the hell does that mean? You have bad experiences with women?” She said it without rancor.

“No. Women compose forty percent of the Fleet, ten percent of Marines, and they’re all highly competent.” He said this as if reciting a text. “But most of them don’t seem so…”

“So into it?” Reaper laughed and slapped a magazine of caseless, electrically fired ammo into the weapon. “Yeah, I’ve been called every name in the book. Uber-bitch. Ballbuster. Clamp tramp. Bull dyke. And those are the nice ones. Some people still can’t accept that a straight woman can excel in this business. I gave up on letting it bother me long ago. I am different. I’m that one in a million women born, bred and built for this life. I’m a warrior. I’m your own personal Joan of Arc. If it helps, think of me as male.”

Bull shook his head. “Not likely,” he said, pointedly eyeing the understated curves beneath her t-shirt.

“Married, too.” She winked and rubbed at a ring tattooed around the third finger of her left hand. “To a man, even.”

“All the good ones are taken, they say.”

“You wouldn’t want me for the long haul anyway. I gave up dating warriors decades ago. Not enough room for my ego and theirs. Then I met my husband. Cyber-geek. Best in the fleet. He does his thing, I do mine. It works. Here,” she said, putting aside her weapon and picking up electric depilators, handing them to him. “This should help.”

“What…a haircut?”

“Yeah. One less thing to worry about.” She turned around, lifting her already short hair with both hands. “Start from the bottom and it’ll come off easy.”

“Skin?”

“Yeah.”

He shrugged. “Okay.”

When her short brown locks lay on the floor, he had to admit she’d become a lot less feminine. Now she looked like a wiry boy.

The two dozen men and women nearby said nothing, but continued inspecting and readying their gear. No doubt they had been listening closely, but he’d warned them the civvie was in charge, that she was former military, and that she didn’t need babysitting.

And that she had some juice behind her. Bull was smart enough to know that anyone who’d been a Steward—hell, who might be one now—no doubt had flag officers’ personal numbers in her comlink.

He glanced at the wall screen, which displayed the countdown and prep checklist. “Loading in fifty mikes, people. Final inspection in forty.” He looked around. “Where are Acosta and Suarez?”

“Where do you think, Eltee?” Gunny Kang said with a smirk and a raised eyebrow.

“You gonna make me do your job for you?”

The senior NCO’s face blanked. “No, sir.” He turned to stalk out, in search of the two Marines who liked a quickie before every mission, whether training or real.

Not that there’d been a real one for Bull, until now. He caught Reaper looking at him. “What?”

She shrugged.

“You want to tell me how to run my outfit?”

“Did I say something?”

“Not with your mouth.”

“Fine. Since you asked…micromanaging your senior NCOs makes you look even more like a snot-green loot than you already are.”

Bull bit down on his reply, realizing she was right.

“Don’t sweat it,” Reaper went on, watching him closely. “You’ll do fine. First dance with the elephant, right?”

Bull fought not to drop his eyes. After all, everyone had a first time. “How did you know?”

“Duh. I read your file.”

Bull looked away, thinking. With a whole battalion aboard the assault carrier and many experienced officers, what were the odds of him drawing the short straw? “Why me, then?” he said quietly. “Why not someone more senior?”

“Don’t flatter yourself. Your platoon is the best aboard, according to their record before you took over when Morehead made Captain. Your NCOs are outstanding. Your troops are outstanding. This will be a hairy one. I want the best people to cover my sorry, high-value ass.”

“You mean you want the best chance of completing the mission, don’t you?”

Reaper snorted, but said nothing.

Bull wasn’t sure if that was derision at his parroting the party line, or something else entirely. He simply didn’t know what to make of someone like her. Someone who, after his four years of officer training, didn’t fit into any of the neat slots in his military world.

Instead of trying to figure her out, he returned to putting on his battle armor, composed of integrated layers of protection from the skin out, culminating in polycarbon and ferrocrystal plates that made Marines look like orbital drop troopers from some old video game.

Somewhere along the line, Kang came back with the two lovers, Acosta sheepish and Suarez smug as she rubber-banded her short hair into a ponytail.

Donning backracks full of gear—additional air supply, ammo, charge packs, grenades and more—signaled the final step in the unit’s preparation. Line Marines snapped their pulse rifles to retractors and clipped them in carry position at their chests, while designated troops picked up rocket launchers, portable railguns and heavy lasers.

The platoon’s two scouts played with their gnats, controlling the tiny drones with chips implanted in their heads, the signals run through their HUDs. They spun and danced around each other like fat, angry birds.

“Fall in, you diggers!” Gunny Kang roared, trotting out of the armory onto the flight deck where two extended-model stealthed assault sleds waited. He set himself and waited for the formation to assemble before ordering them to open ranks.

Bull walked down the lines and looked his Marines over one by one, Kang following. Unbidden, Reaper strolled behind, but said nothing. Now that she wore full battle rig, helmet dangling from her left hand, she seemed to fit in better.

As he turned toward the front of the formation, he caught sight of her chest and back plates, which displayed insignia: three up, three down and a star inside. He recognized it as an outdated Sergeant Major’s rank from the old U.S. Marine Corps.

Drawing her to one side, he leaned down to speak to her privately. “You can’t wear that insignia.”

“Why not?”

“It’s not regulation.”

“I’m a civilian. I can put whatever I want on my armor.”

“Bullshit you’re a civilian. You either earned the right to wear that or you didn’t. If you didn’t, you’re a fraud. If you did, you’re going to confuse the line doggies, because like you said, you’re a civilian and not acting in that capacity. Besides, by regs, a sergeant major can’t be in charge of an officer.”

Reaper smiled, half-nodding as if she approved of Bull’s words and he’d passed some kind of test. “Fair enough.” Her eyes unfocused for a moment—she must have accessed her internal chipset and comlink to talk to the suit—and the symbol disappeared from the programmable paint. A moment later it was replaced by the shield and crossed staves of the Fleet Stewards, and the armor had turned a blinding white. “Better?”

“Fine. Now you want to tell me why you’re busting my balls?”

The woman looked up into his eyes. “Because you might be one in a million too, Bull, even if you don’t realize it yet. I’ve met enough warriors to know potential when I see it. But more than one young eltee never made it because there wasn’t a crusty old sergeant-major to put a boot up his ass when he needed it.”

“So this is a test.”

“Everything’s a test, Bull. Life is a test. You of all people should know that.”

He didn’t know what to say to that.

Two flight warrants waved at Bull from across the deck, and he nodded to Kang, who told the platoon to fall out. The pilots saluted him casually as he approached, a male and female in the Aerospace branch, with nametags reading Butler and Lockerbie. Their flight sergeants continued to prep the birds behind them.

The blue-suiters glanced over at Reaper with a flick of their eyebrows—did they recognize her?—and then returned their attention to Bull. “Mission flight brief, sir, ladies and gentlemen,” the female pilot said crisply. “You will load in order, strap down all gear and take your seats. You will follow all orders from flight crew while in transit to and from the objective. You will point your weapons toward the deck at all times and you will not activate them or chamber rounds until the assault begins. You will maintain suit integrity at all times…” She recited the rest of the checklist from memory, or maybe she was reading it off her ocular implant.

“Buckets on,” Bull said when the boilerplate was finished, seating his helmet and making sure it sealed. “Link check.”

Thirty seconds of data and voice test later, he led First and Second squads aboard one assault sled, Reaper joining him. Boxy and resting on skids, the simple, rugged space vehicles provided room for troops and their accouterments of war, much as armored personnel carriers did for ground forces.

Gunny Kang took Third and Fourth squads into the other sled.

When the ramps had shut and twenty armored troopers had strapped into the jumpseats, Bull turned to Reaper and keyed a private channel. “Shouldn’t you be in the other vehicle?”

“Why?”

“What if we lose a sled? Only you and I have all the details of this mission.”

“And Gunny Kang.”

Bull’s voice hardened. “This mission is ‘need to know.’ According to the orders, that means you and me.”

“He needed to know, so I told him. He’s your top noncom. Orders or no orders, you should have told him yourself. Don’t blame me for doing your job for you.”

“I thought you said you wouldn’t be dicking around with my authority.”

Reaper snorted. “Eltee, Gunny Kang has been fighting the Meme since your mama was changing your diapers. You’d better get used to the senior NCO network coloring outside the lines or you’re gonna be running into all sorts of brick walls. You may be an officer, but as a butterbar, you’re mostly a figurehead. You’re here to set the mission parameters, go through the motions and soak up knowledge in hopes that by the time your gold turns silver, you’ll actually be worth something. Dump the notion that you can control everything and everybody. Trust your people, stay out of the way, and they’ll take care of you.”

Once again, Bull suppressed the urge to slap her down. Her smug, casual attitude toward proper procedure during a dangerous mission scraped his nerves. Yet, the voice of wisdom reminded him yet again that fighting with someone with the ear of senior leaders would be a lose-lose proposition.

Instead, he cut the channel and recited to himself one of the many Hebrew prayers he’d learned as a child, based on a Psalm that cautioned against foolish pride. He wasn’t certain whether that prayer was aimed at her, or at himself.

Reaper didn’t sit, but remained standing and clamped herself onto the now-vertical rear ramp, leaving the cockpit’s third seat, the traditional place for the Marine commander, to Bull. Set back and between the pilot and sergeant-copilot, it allowed him to see out the foot-thick crystal viewports, as well as the more important screens that showed space around them.

“Sled One, ready,” Lockerbie said.

“Sled Two, ready,” Bull heard Butler reply.

Gravity vanished as mechanical arms lifted the two vehicles from the deck and slotted them into the breeches of launch chutes. A moment later, Bull’s sled began falling toward the skin of the spinning, wheel-shaped assault carrier.

“We’re exo,” Lockerbie said over the platoon net as they emerged. “Sit back and enjoy the ride, jarheads. As we’re remaining in stealth mode the whole way, our ETA is five hours forty-five minutes, give or take a smidge.”

Good-natured grumbling broke out, mostly centered around the necessity of using the suits’ waste disposal systems, which never worked as well as the designers claimed. Ideally, Marines suited up no more than two hours before deployment, but this time, that wasn’t in the cards. The stealth approach mandated this extended insertion from the distant carrier.

“Everybody shut up,” Bull growled, and awkward silence fell.

A moment later he saw a private channel icon on his HUD and Reaper cleared her throat in his ear.

“What?” he said. “More advice for the green loot?”

“Yes. The one with the chip on his shoulder. You ever hear the saying, ‘the troops ain’t happy unless they’re bitching?’”

“No.”

“Well, now you have. What do you think it means?”

“Why should I care if the troops are happy? It’s not their job to be happy.”

“Oh, shit on a stick. Haven’t you learned anything since OCS?”

“I know they don’t respect you if you try to be their friend.”

“They won’t respect you if you’re a total jackass, either. We’re hours out with nothing to do but sleep and shoot the shit—which, if you check your HUD, they’re doing anyway. The only difference is, they’ve set up private channels. Now, instead of listening in and assessing the morale of your troops, maybe throwing in a jab every now and then to show you’re listening and not an uptight jerk, you’re well on your way to convincing them that’s exactly what you are.”

“So I’ll listen in on them anyway.”

“But then you’re an insecure, eavesdropping outsider instead of a casual but confident part of the team.”

“I can’t win with you, can I?”

Reaper sighed. “There’s only one way.”

Bull waited for Reaper to go on and tell him how, but she didn’t. Well, he sure wasn’t going to look stupid by asking until he’d thought about it for a while.

He cast his mind back to OCS, where the tac officers were, of course, unbeatable. By design, the entire training edifice was constructed to hammer square pegs through round holes so hard they either broke, or came out cylindrical at the other end. In other words, if you wanted to make it, you conformed to the model of Fleet Marine officership or you washed out.

Maybe this was like that. Maybe he’d been reacting all wrong, based on her cockiness, her non-Marine status, maybe even her gender, treating her like an outsider or a threat.

But what if instead he thought of her like an OCS instructor: posing as an opponent, but in reality a demanding mentor? Someone older, wiser, and a hell of a lot more experienced. Someone he could learn from. Someone with the admiral’s ear.

Someone who could make or break him with one mission report.

Better a bite of crow now than a whole plateful later.

“Okay,” he said eventually, forcing a reasonable tone. “I’m listening.”

“You sure? Because hey, I wouldn’t want to screw up your opinion of me by making sense.”

“I’m sure. How should I recover the situation?”

“Progress! If you don’t have an instinct for handling your troops, at least treat them as problems to be solved.”

Bull waited, teeth grinding. “Still listening.”

Another sigh. “Override and reset everyone’s private channels to the platoon push. Don’t explain, don’t apologize. When you do, tell them matter-of-factly that they can talk now, as if you had something important to think about and that’s why you told them to shut up.”

“Then what?”

“Then nothing. We got five hours. It may take five minutes or fifty, but pretty soon everyone will be bullshitting again and will have forgotten about it.”

Bull grunted and did as Reaper said.

Fifteen minutes later, as the chatter slowly ramped back up, she put a wink-eye emoticon onto his HUD and said, “I’m going to sleep. Wake me up if anything interesting happens.”


Chapter 3



“Ten minutes,” Bull said loudly at the mark. “Prep, check and sound off.” Acknowledgements rippled up the lines, accompanied by emphatic hand signals. One digger gave the double thumbs-down of a glitch, and Bull began to unbuckle.

“Sit down, Bull,” Reaper said privately. “Let Sergeant Brooks do her job. You’re the platoon leader. Do officer shit and stay out of your NCOs’ way.”

“Yes, mother.” He said it lightly.

“There you go.”

Brooks fixed whatever had gone wrong with the private’s integrated armor system and sat down again with a thumbs-up.

Bull’s mouth dried as the chrono digits crawled lower and lower. He chinned a squirt of water and swished it around, pulse pounding. First combat insertion, and it was all getting real. Thoughts raced with the adrenaline. He fought the overload by reciting assault checklists and telling himself to treat it as just another exercise.

“One minute, sir,” Flight Warrant Lockerbie murmured in Bull’s ear.

“One minute!” Bull barked reflexively. How had the time gotten away from him? He should have been paying attention, but somehow he’d lost track. One minute from go. Would he become a statistic? The old saw about the short life expectancy of second lieutenants ran through his mind.

Better that than failure. Should he shoot a battle cocktail? The stims would fire him up, and pretty soon he’d be raging to slaughter Purelings. He’d been deliberately juiced once before, a training exercise to show Marines what it was like. They’d had to shut down his cybernetics and let him burn out. That was why the heavy drugs were only for extreme situations.

If he did that, he might as well hand in his bars, though. His job wasn’t to fight, no matter how much he wanted to. His job was to direct the battle, complete the mission and get his people home. Not for the first time he wondered if he wouldn’t have been better off enlisting as a line doggie, but his father had wanted him to go to OCS. What Colonel Gideon ben Tauros told you to do, you did, no questions asked.

“Pinged,” Lockerbie said abruptly. “Stealth is blown.”

“Won’t matter,” Bull growled, cinching down already wire-tight straps. “Ten seconds!”

“Breaching missiles away.” The sled shivered with the launch.

Bull was tempted to switch his HUD to the pilots’ godlike view, but he didn’t need the distraction. The heavy short-range rockets would be slamming home, their double shaped charges cutting and widening holes in the enemy base’s armored skin. The sleds would follow…

Now.

Marines bucked against their restraints, minimal gravplating absorbing the majority of the impact as the sleds corked into the gaps, brutally arrested. For a moment, all was still.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close the wall up with our English dead!” some wag quoted, and then Bull popped his harness.

“GO, GO, GO!” he roared as the quad clamshell nose of the sled opened, pilots still strapped into their seats swinging up and out of the way to create a clear channel into the interior of the base. He should have stood aside and let the diggers go first, but instead he stepped off the ramp and nailed the first thing that moved.

The target turned out to be a squid, a repair creature, not a fighter, and little threat to an armored Marine. Troops rushed to deploy ahead of him, their pulse guns spitting high-velocity rounds at other biologicals.

Reaper’s clapped him on the shoulder. “Good shot, Bull. Calamari on the barbie tonight. Now let’s get our people.”

“Laser team,” Bull called. “Start cutting!”

Two Marines manhandled their crew-served beamer onto its tripod, more awkward than heavy in the low gravity. Without delay, an intense orange line crackled through the smoke of the thinning atmosphere to lick at the living interior wall of the enemy base. The material flashed with steam and drew back like the flesh it was, opening a hole into the next chamber.

The digger nearest the entrance immediately disappeared in a deluge of puke-yellow goo, and a moment later emitted a horrified scream. The shriek died with him as acid found its way into the joints in his armor, burned through and ate him alive from the inside.

In response, a blizzard of pulse gun fire battered the opening. “Grenades!” Sergeant Brooks called, and four launchers chuffed, throwing the short-range bombs past whatever lurked behind the opening.

Another stream of gooey acid poured out, but the troops nearest had already moved to their flanks, away from the direct line of sight. As the grenades detonated, flashes of incendiary lit the enemy from behind, spreading oxygenated napalm.

“Bugs!” Sergeant Acosta called as their opponents came into view. Of the several known varieties of Purelings, the big, tough insectoids were the most common.

Three-meter-tall mantis-like creatures poured forward, forced out by the spreading flames. Hard-driven pulse gun projectiles hammered the leading two to their knees. Pieces exploded off their exoskeletons along with sprays of greenish ichor. The next two made it a short distance closer before being cut down by the heavy beamer.

Unfortunately, the explosive heat generated by the laser created obscuring steam, allowing the bugs to spread out and attack the Marines hand to hand. Although Purelings could use firearms, in this soft, close-combat environment they stuck to melee weapons, in this case meter-long molecular-edged blades held in each forelimb.

Bull saw three Marines hacked down before crossfire from the two squads obliterated the attackers. He brought up HUD sonar—he’d been briefed that IR was mostly useless within the hot guts of Meme bases—and made sure all the bugs were dead, putting rounds into the heads of any still thrashing.

Should have had everyone go in with sonar up, he told himself, and felt his face flush with shame. Then he checked several Marines and realized they were already using theirs. I really am a green loot. Damn.

“Head in the game, Bull,” Reaper said as she pulled out a hand laser, more tool than weapon. She began cutting a hole in the wall.

“That’s the wrong direction,” he replied. “Laser team’s already setting up for the next burn.”

“Well aware. This is a diversion. The base will feel it and divide its forces.”

Bull grunted, filing that one away for the future. “Grenadiers, you were slow last time and a man died,” he heard Sergeant Brooks say with a snarl. “I want four through the breach as soon as it opens or I’ll chuck you in myself.”

The laser lashed out, cutting another hole. This time, grenades flew into the next chamber and exploded before the enemy had a chance to respond.

Reaper left off cutting and joined Bull at his elbow. “How’s Kang doing?”

In the whirl of confusion, Bull had forgotten to check. Cursing himself once more—how did she stay so calm with this shitstorm around her?—he tried to contact his platoon sergeant, who should be leading third and fourth squads to attack along a parallel axis. No dice.

“Can’t reach him,” he replied.

“I know.”

Bull almost asked her why the hell she’d queried him, but then realized her question had pointed out his lapse without being a bitch about it. He took a deep breath and spoke to Acosta and Brooks. “Good work. Keep pressing, but watch the flanks.”

“Aye aye, sir,” they replied in unison, and for the next three chambers, the attack went like clockwork, with no casualties. Bull began to feel as if he was settling into his role, able to see the bigger picture, his mind no longer over-focusing and flitting from thing to thing like a stim addict.

“Action left!” Reaper barked as they prepared for the next breach. Line Marines just had time to turn and set themselves before three irises appeared in the long wall.

Bull drew an instinctive bead on the closest enemy and froze…which almost killed him. The Purelings bursting through weren’t bugs. They looked like human Marines, wearing fatigues and carrying pulse rifles. He barely had time for the weapon aimed straight at his faceplate to register in his consciousness, with the gut-punch certainty of impending death, before the man’s chest exploded.

Not a man, Bull told himself. A programmed clone, no more human than a vat-grown replacement organ.

Five more enemy nearest Bull met the same fate, center-mass bursts coming so quickly he assumed a fireteam had taken them down, but when he looked behind him, all he saw was Reaper, swapping magazines on her smoking pulse gun.

“Eyes up,” the woman snapped, and Bull lifted his weapon to his shoulder and flipped the selector lever to rock and roll. The spell broken, he sprayed and prayed, emptying his first hundred-rounder in one long burst at the mass of humanoids.

One shocking moment later it was over, but six more Marines were down hard, two of them dead, along with at least twenty of the false-flag enemies. Sergeant Brooks nodded bleakly to him as she organized a quick medevac in accordance with the OPLAN. Despite the action so far, they’d only progressed a hundred meters, so it made sense to run the wounded and KIAs back to the sleds.

“Hold in place,” Bull called. “Security out!”

Recon gnats buzzed back along the extraction route, and the remaining dozen Marines reorganized. In the lull, Bull toed one of the human Purelings over. The thing’s face stared upward, looking for all the world like a fresh-faced recruit. He felt a creeping sense of unreality and dissociation, as if he stood outside himself and watched.

Reaper appeared at his elbow. “Don’t beat yourself up. Most of you’ve never fought human troops before. It was natural to hesitate.”

“They’re not human,” he said distractedly, reaching down to pick up a pulse rifle.

“Your guts don’t know that.”

“You’ve killed before. People, I mean,” he said, searching her eyes through her faceplate.

“Yeah. A lot.”

“Is this what it feels like?”

“Worse. Much worse. But like you said, these aren’t people.”

“Okay.” Even in his own ears, he didn’t sound sure. “You didn’t hesitate.”

“Lots of practice.”

Bull thought he detected a bitterness hiding within her even tone. “You gave warning,” he said.

“Meme walls give a little ripple before they iris open. Hard to spot unless you’re used to it.”

“And you killed them fast, like a machine,” he said. “Saved my life.”

Reaper tapped her head. “I cheat, remember? I have Steward-quality wetware. Alters my time sense so everything’s in slow motion. Like shooting fish in a barrel.”

“Why don’t Marines have good shit like that?”

“Priority to other units. Expense. Training costs. Eventually you will, but you know how stretched everything is with the war on. Can’t even find a decent black-market beer anymore.”

“You should be in charge, then.”

“I am.”

Bull turned away. “No, I mean, in tactical command.”

“I wouldn’t have done anything different. We’re in a tough, ugly war here, Bull. You’re going to lose Marines, probably every mission.”

“I know.”

“Then snap out of it.”

Bull had read a hundred books about combat and prepared himself for this mission all his adult life. He’d been sure it’d be different for him. Now he felt like a fool. He reached for something within himself to clear the fog of unreality, the first handy emotion.

Anger. Not rage, not stim-fuelled fury, but a colder, more useful thing that crept up from the base of his spine and spread along his nerves, leaving his head clear and his mind sharp.

“Fucking bastards,” he muttered. “Stealing our flesh and making fake people to kill us.”

“Yup.” Reaper turned to look pointedly at Sergeant Brooks as she and her troops returned from dropping off the wounded and dead. “But remember, you’re not a line dog. You have a mission to lead, Eltee. Your people need you. Man up and get going.”

Bull shook himself and felt renewed confidence flow into his veins. Snapping orders with textbook clarity, he led and directed his platoon to drive a wedge into the heart of the small base, where Intel had said the prisoners should be housed.

“Do you think they’ll be alive?” Bull asked Reaper as they cleared the final chamber, a room that looked less organic and more conventional, with hard, vertical walls and floor.

“Depends.” She said no more.

“That’s insightful.”

“Too many variables.”

“If I were the Meme, I’d have killed them by now,” he said heavily. “I mean, why let us get them back?”

“Why indeed?”

Dammit, the woman was acting mysterious again. Trying to make him think for himself? No time for pondering now. He checked his HUD and saw that Kang had Third and Fourth squads deployed in positions behind the central command center in order to block any escape.

Assuming they hadn’t already gotten the prisoners out. Who knew what tunnels led from the base down into the asteroid?

Brooks and Acosta prepped the troops that remained to execute the final drill, but this time it wouldn’t be as easy. If prisoners waited behind the final wall, they couldn’t simply lob grenades in. “Single shots only,” Bull reminded them. “No full auto, no napalm unless everything goes to shit. Now let’s go get our people.”

Two explosive templates had been laid on the hard wall, to the far left and far right. In the center, the laser team made ready to cut, a diversion. Reaper moved up into a position close to the far left breaching charge, the first time she’d taken point.

Bull had to admit she’d stayed out of the way and covered his ass like the pro she was. He considered trying to order her back, but decided it would be pointless. She was obviously the best qualified to enter a rescue situation, where split-second decisions and precision were more important than raw firepower.

Reaper gave the laser team the signal. Its hot beam sliced into the wall, this time spitting sparks as it chewed through ferrocrystal-reinforced excreted resin rather than rubbery flesh. A three-count coordinated the two breaches, door frames made of shaped explosives cutting man-sized holes through to the other side in flashes of smoke.



Chapter 4



“Go-go-go!” Bull heard his squad leaders yell, but Reaper had already moved in. On impulse, he charged forward to follow the assault team on the far right.

Instead of the expected firefight, he saw a large, well-lit room that could have occupied space in any office building back on Earth. No casualties, enemy or friendly, were visible. Six humans dressed in skinsuits stood, hands raised, covered by multiple Marine weapons.

“Okay, let’s go. Take them and extract!” Bull snapped.

“Wait,” Reaper replied, holding up a hand.

“The Meme could be organizing a counterattack. We need to move!”

“What does Recon say?”

Bull took a breath and consulted his HUD. Recon Marines with several gnats each formed a perimeter, and the feeds showed no enemy activity. “Nothing right now,” he said, grudging.

“Pretty sure we’re good, then, for a minute,” Reaper replied. She lowered her weapon to dangle from its retractable sling beneath her arm and walked forward to face one of the men they’d recovered, popping her faceplate open. “Hello, Dasko,” she said.

“Top!” the man cried and grabbed Reaper by the shoulders. “God, it’s good to see you!”

Bull told his people to hold in place, and then strode over to the tableau. “So this is personal? That’s why you’re along? An old boyfriend?” he said, disgust in his voice.

Reaper’s eyes narrowed as her head swiveled toward Bull and she brushed Dasko’s hands off. “Staff Sergeant Dasko and I fought together at Callisto, Lieutenant. Is that a problem?”

“Bit of a coincidence, don’t you think?”

“So what if I know one of them? I’ve served all over.” Reaper looked pointedly at the other five. “But I don’t know these. Dasko, you vouch for them?”

“Yeah, Top. They’re all mine. I can tell you their names, their personal histories, when they reported to my unit…everything.”

“What the hell do you mean, vouch for them?” Bull asked. “They’re our people.”

“Unless they’re not,” Reaper replied. “Meme can blend with humans. Or given enough time, they can grow clones and upload extracted molecular memories so good even they don’t know they’re copies.”

The Marines stirred, raising weapons that had been lowered. “I never heard about that,” Sergeant Brooks said through clenched teeth.

“It’s not common knowledge.”

“It will be now,” Bull said.

Reaper shrugged. “Not officially. And who believes scuttlebutt?”

“Hey, what the hell is this?” Dasko said. “You know me, Sergeant Major, and I know my people.”

Bull’s comlink beeped for his attention. “Got hostile movement in quadrant four,” one of the Recon Marines reported. “Forty, maybe fifty signatures.”

“We have to extract, Reaper,” Bull said. “We’ll sort it out in the rear. I’m sure there’s some kind of test to see if they’re real.”

“Real? What the hell does that mean, real?” Dasko’s voice rose and began to crack.

“There is, but it takes days. Sometimes weeks. I got a better test,” Reaper said, grabbing Dasko’s skinsuit at the neck with her left hand. With blurring speed, her right lifted an ancient PW5 pistol from its holster and put the muzzle to the man’s head.

“Woah, Reaper, this is wrong!” Bull said, reaching reflexively for the woman, who swiveled, putting Dasko between them. “We can trank him and the others if you want, but we’re taking them with us. You said yourself the tests take days.”

The prisoners stood frozen within the scene, hands raised and surrounded by Marines with weapons pointing everywhere—some at them, some at Reaper and Dasko. One woman said, “Please, sir, get us out of here. The things they did to us…”

“Reaper! Stand down! That’s an order!”

“You can’t give me orders, Bull. Unless you’re willing to violate your own instructions and threaten me.” Through her faceplate, Bull could see Reaper’s teeth bared in a snarl, eyes hot and skin tight across her cheeks. “Fleet put me in charge and I’m doing this my way.”

“And what is your way?” Bull asked with quiet menace.

“Lieutenant, our perimeter is engaging and falling back,” Kang said in Bull’s earbud. “We have to un-ass this AO, post-haste.”

“One minute,” Reaper said. “One. Minute.”

“Right. One minute, and all this is on vid for your court martial, or whatever they call it when people like you are prosecuted.”

“You think I’ve lost it?”

“Maybe. Fifty seconds.” Bull waved at his troops. “Check your HUDs. Take defensive positions and be ready to support Third and Fourth squads as they fall back.”

Reaper turned to Dasko and let go of him, using the free hand to remove her own helmet. “You know who I am, Jorgen?”

“Of course I do, Top!”

“Then don’t move a muscle.” Reaper’s nostrils flared as she shifted the barrel of the pistol to point at Dasko’s right eye. “What if I told you I had to blow your head off? Right now. For the good of humanity. Because even though you don’t know it, you’re a Pureling.” She deliberately thumbed off the safety and tightened her finger on the trigger.

Dasko bolted for one of the open doors faster than Bull would have thought possible. Before he brought his own weapon into line, Reaper put two rounds into the fleeing man’s back. He jerked and fell, but continued to writhe on the ground.

Three of the other former prisoners ran, almost making it to cover, but Reaper knocked them down like carnival targets.

“Eyes back on the perimeter!” Bull roared as Marines stared at the action. He turned toward the last two of those they’d freed, one male and one female, who hadn’t budged.

“Sir,” the man said to Bull, “I’m Corporal Hahn and this is PFC Sortillon, Fleet Marines. Take us back and test us if you can.” He swallowed and lowered his head, hunching his shoulders. “But if that endangers the mission, kill us now and burn our bodies. Just don’t leave us to the Meme. Sir.”

Staring hard, jaw set and eyes filled, the woman next to him nodded.

Reaper nodded back and holstered her weapon. “That’s the answer I was looking for. Fleet Marines don’t run, and Dasko was one of the best. He’d never have run from me. He’d have stood fast and eaten a bullet if I told him to.” She took four steps over to the fallen Dasko-Pureling, slid her hand onto the grip of the pulse rifle, blew the thing’s head clean off, and then finished the other three.

Bull said, appalled, “We could have brought them back in irons, or sedated.”

Reaper stared flatly into his eyes. “Did you know the Meme can load a Pureling with trinary biochemical explosives? Undetectable without a lab. You feel like bringing a suicide bomber back with us?”

“Glad you’re so sure.”

“I am. You can steal memories, maybe even replicate a mind. You can’t counterfeit Semper Fidelis.”

“Always…loyal?”

“Faithful. To the end. I wish Admiral Absen had made that the Fleet Marines’ motto when he formed the corps, but he didn’t want it to seem too American, so we ended up with By Land, By Sea, By Space.” Reaper looked around, and then back at Hahn and Sortillon. “Do you think the real ones are still alive?”

Slowly, they shook their heads. “No.”

“Me neither. Okay, Bull; time to extract,” Reaper said.

“Extract! Third and Fourth, fall back to ORP-1, now!” he snapped. “First and Second, prep to receive passage of your lines under fire. Reaper, secure these two and go to the sleds.”

“Bull –”

The steel in Bull’s voice carried across the comlink. “Now, ma’am. Tactical decision. We paid in blood for those two, and you’re going to take them home, because I don’t want anything to do with this shit anymore.” He watched Reaper put her helmet back on and escort the rescued pair rearward.

Then he reached for his Final Option device, detached it from where it rested beneath his belly armor, set the timer for fifteen minutes, hid it under a heap of debris, and joined the fighting withdrawal.

After the sleds launched, Bull tapped into the rear cameras and watched as the fusion bomb cracked the asteroid and obliterated the Meme base. He told himself once more that even if the originals had survived, they were better off dead than in some Meme laboratory.

He felt a piece of his soul die with them.


In the surreal quiet of the ride home, Bull stared across the assault sled at Reaper when she opened her eyes and spoke. “They’re your Marines now, Bull. They followed you to hell and back.”

“The ones that made it,” he said bitterly.

“Ultimate liability clause. Every Marine signs it, not just you.”

“I could have saved more.”

“Wasn’t your job to save them. Like you told me, your job is to complete the mission.”

“With minimum loss of resources.”

“Survivor’s guilt is a bucket-load of shit you don’t need.”

“What, you my shrink now?” he snarled.

“Better me than a Fleet doc. We’ll get good and drunk tonight. Kill some brain cells. Best therapy there is.”

Bull turned to look toward the bodies strapped to the deck, his eyes unfocused. “I didn’t think it would be like this.”

It is well that war is so terrible, else we would grow fond of it.”

“More of your American quotes?”

“From one of our best. A guy called Robert E. Lee.”

“I’ve heard of him. He lost.”

Reaper shrugged. “Losses teach you more than wins.”

“Guess I have a lot to learn.” Bull turned back to look her in the eyes. “I’m willing to listen if you’re willing to teach.”

Reaper took a deep breath and smiled coldly. “Since you asked nicely…class starts tomorrow.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” Her chest plate changed to display a proper Fleet Marine insignia. “I’m your new company first sergeant. That means you’d better have your shit strac, Eltee, or I’ll crawl up your ass and set up a permanent campsite.”

“Fair enough.”

She tilted her head back and narrowed her eyes. “So how’re you going to do it?”

“Keep my platoon squared away?”

“Yes. You have a plan?”

Bull pursed his lips and flared his nostrils, glancing away. This was a trick question, but belatedly, he remembered the answer from his training. “Yes, a detailed one.”

Reaper’s brow furrowed.

Bull continued, “When we get back, I’m going to tell Gunny Kang to get my platoon squared away and report when he’s done. I’ll tell him I’ll be around if he needs me. Then I’ll go do officer shit. I’ll visit the wounded, check the quality of food in the enlisted mess, find out what equipment needs replacing to fill out our table of equipment, type up my after-action report, start working on letters for the families of the KIAs…”

Reaper smiled and lifted both hands, palms out. “Hallelujah! The baby walks!” Then she crossed her arms, closed her eyes and leaned her head back to catch between two jump seat support straps. “Wake me up when we get there, will you, sir?”

Sir. First time she’s called me sir.

Bull only let himself smile when a faint snore wafted from Reaper’s nostrils.



The End of Steel’s First Temper


A Hotter Forge

A Stellar Conquest Novelette

by

David VanDyke



Find all information about David VanDyke books, including audiobooks, at his website:

davidvandykeauthor.com



Chapter 1



Lieutenant Joseph “Bull” ben Tauros knew something was up from the look in Reaper’s eyes as she strode briskly into the battalion gym aboard the assault transport Melita.

He set down the dumbbells he’d been pumping and met her halfway. “What’s happening, Top?”

She spoke quietly. “Please grab your gear and meet me in your platoon locker room, sir. You can shower there before the warning brief.”

“Why –”

Reaper held up hand. “Not here.” She turned and hurried off.

Seemed an odd way to do business. She could have simply paged him to a comm. He shrugged. Reaper was old-school for sure. Preferred the personal touch. Well, to a point.

Retrieving his gym bag, he did as instructed. His knee-jerk internal irritation at having a noncom tell him what to do, even if couched as a request, reared its ugly head and he fought it down. The training models never told you how to handle a nominal subordinate that in reality had ten times—maybe a hundred times—the experience and influence, whatever her putative rank.

But he was learning to handle it, and in his fairer, more reflective moments, he knew it was doing him good. She’d told him leadership was the art of getting people to want to do things for you. Apparently it was working, for he found himself wanting to measure up to her high standards.

And I’m also learning to lead, he mused. Leadership begins with respect, and respect begins with composure, confidence and concern for people, the three Cs. That’s what Reaper had told him, anyway.

When he entered the locker room he saw the rest of his platoon gearing up. His key noncoms—Gunny Kang, Sergeants Acosta, Suarez, Brooks and Chohan—were ready, already inspecting and assisting the troops. He felt as if he were behind the power curve, but shook it off. Composure, confidence and concern.

“All good?” he asked Kang as he stripped and grabbed a towel.

“On track, sir.”

“Gonna shower. Be right back.”

Bull was just pulling on his skinsuit when Reaper walked through the door right behind Captain Vaughn, the company CO. The room snapped to attention automatically.

Bull noticed Reaper shut the door and lock it.

Vaughn said, “At ease. Continue your prep, but listen up. We’re on vidlink with the rest of the company. Alfa Company's been tasked with a short-notice, time-sensitive, critical mission. Reaper?”

Reaper stepped forward, a tablet in her hand. “A Meme survey ship has been spotted ten hours from us among a dense cluster of asteroids. We believe it’s visiting a base. We’re going to go get it.”

“That’s a long trip for an assault. And why Marines? Why not have the flyboys go blast the shit out of it from long range?” asked Gunny Kang.

“Because we’ve never had a chance like this to capture real, non-blended Meme. Those of the Pure Race, as they call themselves.”

The room fell silent with shock. Though they’d been fighting the Meme Empire for decades, the only real glimpse of the amoebic enemy overlords had been from the video record of the defector, Raphael, before it blended with a human woman and became Raphaela.

Reaper continued the brief. “A survey ship is the smallest enemy craft that routinely carries a trium of actual Meme. This type of craft is often heavily stealthed, and survey crews seldom take any risks. They gather intelligence and data, but they don’t normally perform forward military scouting. And, like all Meme ships, they can run like a bat out of hell if they want to.”


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