Consciousness returned with the violence of a bomb. Wobbling away from the sleeving vat, Knowles steadied himself against a wall and blinked against the harsh white lights.
This resleeve was rough. He felt…off. He was heavy and slow and foggy, and it took him a few moments to stuff himself into his uniform. As the greens compressed itself against his skin, he noted that his arms looked wrong. They seemed diminished somehow, and smaller…
No, that wasn’t it. This was the body he was born with.
Before he could process that thought, a medic ushered him to the door. Outside, the night air was warm and dry. Long, orderly lines of tents covered a trimmed grassy field. Legionaries hustled around him in near-perfect silence, speaking only if they had to. For the first time in he didn’t know how long, a near-complete silence hung in the air. Tall walls surrounded the camp, and it took him a moment to realize he was in a stadium. Rockwell Stadium, the only stadium on the planet.
“Sam!” MacYoung called.
Knowles looked over his platoon commander. The man was… old. Flaccid jowls flopped down his face, his eyes were sunken in their sockets, and there was a slight bulge over his belly.
“Are we back in our baselines?” Knowles asked.
MacYoung nodded solemnly. “Shortage of vats and QuikGro all around. There’s only enough sleeves to replace fifty percent of our casualties.”
Which meant the Regulars, followed by the enlisted Reservists, got priority. Non-coms and officers had to fend for themselves.
“We’ll make do,” Knowles said.
“Of course. No heroics this time, ya hear? If you die again, I don’t know if we can bring you back.”
“Understood. What did I miss this time?”
“You were caught in the Horde’s main axis of advance. You held the line long enough for us to mass and push them back. The Horde is retreating and reconsolidating in Greensborough. The Regulars are moving to cut off the stragglers. Our mission is to bottle up and flush out the remaining Horde forces at Greensborough. But…”
“Sam, the Horde took hostages with them. And we can’t contact your family.”
Knowles grunted. “Let’s hope so.”
“Don’t push yourself too hard, old man,” Wayne said.
“Wayne…you’re three years older than me.”
“This sleeve ain’t.”
The other seven legionaries in the SUV chuckled politely. The Legion—more precisely, the Reservists—were fresh out of mil-spec vehicles, and they had to ‘borrow’ civilian ones for this mission. At least there were enough legionary sleeves for the men.
“All call signs, Hunter Six. Enemy warship will cross the horizon in T minus one minute. We will have a window of nine-zero minutes for maneuvers. Stand by to move.”
There was nothing but open country between the city and the town. Nowhere to hide if an enemy ship orbited over the legionaries in motion.
No big deal. He’d survived tougher training exercises with shorter timelines. On the other hand, those exercises posed no risk of death. But such was war.
“All call signs, Hunter Six. Skies are clear. Move out.”
The SUV emerged from the underground parking garage, joining a convoy of dozens of other civilian vehicles. Exactly seven minutes later, the legionaries hit the highway. Spreading out across both lanes, the vehicles powered through the night at top speed. The streetlamps had gone dark, and the drivers navigated entirely by night vision. The legionaries kept watch at the windows, keeping an eye out for ambushes and Horde scouts.
Dark forests sprouted around the highway. Knowles tensed, weapon held close, scanning the trees with his suit’s thermal imager. His current eyes weren’t as good as Legion-issued ones, but at such close range they were adequate.
The highway stretched on for miles. The mission clock ran down. No one said a word.
At T minutes fifteen Fox got on the radio.
“All call signs, halt and dismount.”
Foster eased the SUV to a halt. The second the vehicle was stationary, the legionaries jumped out and threw a metamaterial cloak over the truck. The cloak bent light around itself, turning the SUV nearly invisible. After a quick double-check, the troops hustled into the woods.
“T minus five minutes. Get down now.”
Knowles curled up near the base of a giant tree, imitating an overgrown root, and activated stealth mode. The suit’s altered its coloration, blending into the background. The power cell shut down, eliminating thermal emissions. Sweat and heat quickly built up inside the suit.
His armpits itched. Sweat trickled down his brow. His back complained.
He stayed still.
“We are clear,” Fox called. “Next pass is in forty minutes. Move out.”
The legionaries sprang into action. Camouflage netting went into the trunks. Troops boarded the vehicles. Within five minutes, they were on the move again.
Twice more a Horde warship passed overhead, and twice more the legionaries sought cover. Ten kilometers out from Greensborough, the legionaries abandoned their vehicles and infiltrated the forest. Breaking down into squads and fire teams, they spread out and circled the town.
Six hours after the legionaries had set out, Knowles and his team found themselves on the military crest of a nameless ridge. Its only virtue was it offered an excellent view of the southeast of Greensborough.
For a long, long hour, Knowles examined the dirt for mines, booby traps, sensors, foxholes. A pair of engineers attached to his squad swept the area with their detector gear, and pronounced it clean. Breaking out their shovels, the legionaries dug in.
Knowles studied the town through his optics. Sentries on the main roads, recon drones flitting through the air, a mortar team in a backyard. Spotting them with the naked eye was nearly impossible—the Horde’s camouflage was almost impeccable—but he had given much thought to how he would defend Greensborough in his off time, and at the defensive positions he had identified he saw fox holes, anomalous movement, and uncamouflaged weapons. He tagged every possible hostile he saw, marking them on his map.
But he saw no civilians.
He couldn’t see his house from here. Maybe that was a good thing. He had a job to do; he couldn’t afford any distractions. He waited, again, as blue dots crawled into position on his display.
It felt like he’d spent half his military career waiting for something to happen. Didn’t matter. He was a legionary; he could wait until Doomsday if the mission called for it.
As the first rays of dawn broke, Fox got on the radio.
“All call signs, Hunter Six. We initiate in T minus ten minutes. Mark your targets.”
In his visor, a forest of translucent blue beams speared the night, showing him where his fellow legionaries were aiming their weapons. Blue crosshairs painted the ground, indicating targets for indirect fires. Knowles trained his coilgun at the mortar, selected his grenade launcher, and waited.
“Kick off in three. Two. One. Initiate!”
Knowles squeezed the trigger. The weapon’s report was lost in a ferocious bellow of gunfire. The enemy mortar vanished in fire and smoke. All around Greensborough, grenades and mortars and rockets exploded, kicking up thick choking clouds that roiled across the town.
Blue dots flooded the town. The Legion were sending in the last of their drones. Spybots spewed millimeter waves in every direction, penetrating cover and camouflage to reveal more Horde troopers, while warbots hunted down the Legion’s drones.
Knowles called his men’s targets, bringing their combined firepower to bear. A laser drone, a sentry running for cover, a head at a window, if it was hostile, either he or his men shot at it.
“Polaris callsigns, assault elements going in. Watch your targets.”
Two depleted companies of legionaries boiled out of the surrounding forest. To his aged eyes they were invisible; on the visor they were blue icons.
Knowles turned his attention to the roads leading out of the town, watching for signs of enemy reserves. Seeing nothing, he reloaded his weapon and waited.
“Polaris, this is Hunter Six. The enemy has altered their orbits and are deploying dropships. They might be preparing to evacuate their forces. You must intercept the dropships before they land. You have forty-five minutes to arrival.”
“Hunter Six, Polaris Six, copy. Polaris One and Three are engaging the enemy. Will deploy Polaris Two.”
Knowles cursed. The Legion normally showed mercy to retreating enemies—if only so they wouldn’t decide to die fighting. But whenever they could the Horde dragged along hostages with them whenever they quit the field. And he would die before he allowed the Horde to steal his family away forever.
The platoon had no dedicated surface-to-air weapons. Few HV missiles. A handful of squad support weapons. The wrong kind of equipment for a mission like this.
They were the Legion. They would go.
For more action-packed military science fiction with a blend of fantasy, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.