Prologue

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

— Confucius

20 Quadret, 5238 PD

Water rushed up to meet them—that’s what it looked like.  The pilot’s eyes widened as he realized he could see the bottom in those last seconds before they hit.

It’s too shallow.  It’s too shallow.  It’s too shallow…

“Hang on!”  It was his voice shouting, but he wasn’t aware of making the decision to yell at the troops locked into drop harnesses behind him.

Hanging on won’t help them.  We’re all going to die.

The impact was bone-jarring.  The dropship, contrary to design, started to come apart as it cartwheeled through the shallows off the coast of the larger of several continents on the colony world, perhaps twenty miles away from where they were supposed to set down.  To suppress resistance to Corp colonization of the far end of the continent.

Pain seared through his skull as he was jerked out of his seat.  The jacks were stuck.  Damnation, the jacks were stuck and he was going to be stuck in the crumbled ball of metal if he couldn’t get out and the thing was going to explode if he wasn’t careful and I don’t want to die I don’t want to die I don’t want to die…

He fumbled for his combat knife, jerked it from its sheath.  He hacked blindly, knowing instinctively that he had to disconnect himself from the ship that was coming apart.

The screaming behind him had stopped.  He wasn’t sure if it was because the troop compartment had detached or because they were all dead.

We’re all dead anyway.  We’ve failed.  If any of us survive, they’ll kill us.  We’re dead.  The Corp doesn’t accept failure.  We’re dead.

It’s E-557.  I don’t have to go back if they’ll take me.

But why would they take me?

He couldn’t see.  The pain was terrible.  Something ripped and he was flying through the air, tumbling head over feet.  He hit the water shoulders first, skipped like a stone, and landed face-down in the water, coughing and choking.  His whole body hurt.

As he pushed his head out of the water, throwing up water and struggling to remember how to breathe, he heard a familiar sound.

The whine of a gun powering up.

 •   •   •

Her chest heaved.  She pulled the trigger on one of the ones still moving, one of the ones dressed in light powered armor, as he struggled to win free of his drop seat.

Can’t let them live.  They’ll destroy us, if we let them live.  They were sent here to hurt people, to kill.  Can’t let that happen.  She pulled the trigger again, to make sure the soldier was dead.  Then she marched on.

She was catching her breath, but her blood was still pounding in her ears.  It hadn’t been a hard run out here, but a long one, one of a type she’d grown unused to.

I’m getting lazy and sloppy, living here.  I’ll have to fix that.  She’d seen a chunk of debris spin out in this direction.  Behind her, the rest of the shore patrollers were picking through the debris, trying to sort out what happened—trying to sort out what she already knew.

They were coming here to distract us.  She toggled her voice pickup.  “Nova Spexi, this is Chase.  Scramble some fighters to take a good look around and get the satellites pointing everywhere they’re not flying.  Chinasia Corp is trying something.  I’m not sure what, but they’re trying something.”

More than five thousand years and they still couldn’t get the voice transmissions to be as clear as voices were in person.  Distortion was one thing, this was entirely another, she thought with a hint of annoyance.  A wave of static passed over the line before she caught the reply from Nova Spexi, the coastal city that had become the nominal capital of E-557.  “Y’sure, Major?”

“I wouldn’t be making the call if I wasn’t sure, Nova Spexi.  Make the call.”

“Roger that, Major.”

She clicked the transmitter back off and moved forward, spotting a glint of twisted metal.  There it is.

She almost stumbled over the pilot of the craft, a small man, black-haired with the dark parchment colored skin that was a genetic hallmark of the Chinasia Corp conglom.  The back of his neck was a bloody mess and he was retching, shoulders shaking.

She stared at him for half a moment, then powered up the gun.

At her feet, the man—no, a boy dressed as a man—looked up with her, hazel eyes wide, though not just in fear.  He knew what was coming.  Moreover, he knew why it was coming.  She smiled a cold, grim smile.

At least he understands what’s about to happen to him.

Her finger tightened against the trigger.  The boy closed his eyes and prepared himself for an oblivion that never came.

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