Sipping cold coffee and stretching the kinks out of her back, Gina tried to enjoy the break she’d imposed, for Bomber’s sake as well as her own. She felt the strain of a long session tugging at the base of her skull, which meant he felt twice as bad. Still he kept it all hidden and pushed down deep.
     He was driving himself too hard. Nobody could convince him of it, though, least of all the people who cared about him. Gina sighed and put her cup back down.
     Yep, she said to herself, he’s still looking at me.
     She tried a smile. “You remember what I said about relaxing, right?”
     “This is takin’ forever,” he said. “Can’t you fast-forward it or something?”
     “Baby, how can I put this delicately . . . Don’t be such a fucking tool. We’re not playing home videos in your living room. Think of me as a brain surgeon, and you as my very conscious patient.”
     That seemed to have the desired effect. He made a grumpy noise, but shut his mouth and his eyes, grudgingly hunting for balance.
     She didn’t expect any different. Bomber was a bit like a heat-seeking missile. Once you fired him, he’d keep going and going until he hit his target. All she could do was adjust his course a little.
     “Alright,” she said. “Here we go.”
     
     It wasn’t exactly claustrophobia he felt, wandering through the base’s long underground halls. All sorts of precautions kept him and the other troops from going stir-crazy. Sun-lamps and tanning booths against light deficiency, hologram rooms to create the illusion of space, and hours of mandatory exercise every day to offset the VR training. There were doctors, psychologists and nutritionists messing with the air, the water, the food, just to put everyone at ease. They wanted to create ultimate calm and relaxation outside of the training area. They wanted healthy, balanced soldiers who could handle combat with dispassionate efficiency.
     No, it wasn’t claustrophobia. But something. An uneasiness, a yearning, maybe. He wasn’t sure it had a name. It just made him very, very aware how long it had been since he last stood alone under the sky, or felt a real breeze on his face.
     For a simple Mississippi boy who used to spend most of his time outdoors, life sure took its twists and turns.
     These nightly walks had become a feature in his life since making sergeant. The nine o’clock curfew no longer applied to him, another privilege of rank, and he valued the alone time. Command was exciting, but sometimes he missed being a grunt. He used to be one of the team. He even had a few burgeoning friendships, but now he was expected to lead. Protocol demanded a certain emotional distance from your soldiers. Fraternisation wasn’t appropriate, and everyone in the unit knew they were being monitored, all the time.
     The only people he could still talk to were his corporals. There were the other sergeants too, but he didn’t see enough of them outside the simulator. For all intents and purposes, Mary Sweeney and Iwetel Fahlan were his only friends in the world.
     He decided he could live with it. He liked command. Ambition never used to be one of his traits, but now that he actually achieved something, he discovered he wanted more. Something Fahlan once said stuck in his memory. “Somebody’ll get upped to lieutenant soon.”
     On his way past MedLab, he stopped and did a double take. The control pad beside the lab door glowed with soft green letters. It said, ‘IN USE’. The security camera on the other side of the corridor sat motionless on its arm mount, deactivated.
     It didn’t take long to draw his conclusions. “Red alert,” he whispered to himself. His pistol slid smoothly out of its holster. He inched closer, then stopped again when he heard voices, leaning to peek into the room.
     “My hands are tied,” finished the deep, male voice, as Jacob took in the scene.
     Colonel Obrin stood next to the diagnosis table, silhouetted against the big screen that occupied one wall of the MedLab. It showed aimless white clouds drifting above a bright, tropical sea. Next to him was the white-coated shape of Chief Medical Officer Dr. Whittaker. She kept her hands clasped behind her back, staring at the floor with her handsome face locked in a deep frown.
     Obrin looked out over the endless ocean, and his shoulders slumped. He looked beaten. Broken. His voice was flat and dead. “They’ve cut the project, Sam. Hephaestus will never see the light of day. I’m lucky they left me in command.”
     “But, Sir . . . What about the men?”
     “They didn’t say, but they don’t have to. As far as they’re concerned we’re nothing but meat,” he said. Bitter anger filled every word that came out of his mouth. “A failed prototype, just far enough along that they can’t justify simply mothballing us. So they’ll use us up. Throw us at whatever’s bothering them until we’re all crippled or dead. Of no further tactical application.”
     It was a long time before Dr. Whittaker spoke again. At last she whispered, “What are you gonna do?”
     “I don’t know, Sam. Not yet. I . . . I’ll figure something out.”
     “I understand.” She reached out gingerly, touched him on the shoulder. “For what it’s worth, Sir, I think they’re dead wrong. You can count on my support. Whatever happens.”
     A soft beep announced a new message on the Colonel’s phone. He quickly absorbed the text, then thrust the phone back where it came from and turned to Whittaker. “Sorry, Doctor, I think I’ve wasted enough of your time. Thank you for the company. I’ll keep you posted.” He bent down to kiss the back of her hand, and strode towards the door.
     Jacob recognised his cue to leave. He turned in silence, then hurried off in the direction of the barracks, trying to make it look like he hadn’t been eavesdropping.
     Until the Colonel called out to him.
     “Sergeant Dusther!” he boomed, coming up behind. He caught Jacob by the shoulder and grinned as if he were putting a lot of effort into an appearance of cheerfulness. “Out on one of your walks again?”
     “Clears my head, Sir.” He made himself smile back and willed his racing pulse to slow down.
     “That’s good. You need habits like that when you’re in command. I’ll tell you what else will clear your head, though — a bottle of thirty year old Glenfiddich single malt. I was just on my way to open one, and I could use someone to help finish the old soldier.”
     For a moment Jacob didn’t know what to say. All sorts of wild thoughts ricocheted through his head, wondering if it could be some kind of trap. Maybe the Colonel realised he’d been listening in and wanted to dispose of him, away from prying eyes. It was certainly against protocol for the commanding officer of the base, a lieutenant colonel, to just invite an acting sergeant for a night of hard drinking.
     When he searched Obrin’s eyes, though, he didn’t find any kind of malice. Just a tortured man who needed a drink and a friend to share it with.
     “Sounds like my kind of evening, Sir,” he announced, and protocol be damned.

***

     The rest of the night with Colonel Obrin passed quickly to Jacob, full of casual talk that never went anywhere, and Gina instead went to work on the crumbling edges of the memory block.
     That was a long story of frustration. It kept impeding her, but she couldn’t just bash it down. She had to treat it with kid gloves to keep it from blowing itself up and taking Bomber’s psyche with it. She didn’t know exactly how sensitive it was to electrical activity inside its protected chunk of memory, or to changes in Bomber’s brain chemistry. The only thing she could do was quietly pull things out from under, to bleed his memories into her own mind and share them from there. It took a long time that way, but when she realised she’d found the next link in the story, she laughed and dove into it in a moment of sweet victory.
     
     Jacob wandered slowly along the outer line of defences, where Lieutenant Cornell’s blue helmets were spraying memcrete into the shape of little one-man bunkers. Those bunkers — glorified foxholes, really — would guard the main entrances to the reactor complex. Meanwhile, Jacob’s team were fortifying the storage vault any way they could. The reactors, while dangerous, were a secondary concern. The enemy wasn’t here to blow shit up. They wanted the fuel intact, so they’d have to breach the vault.
     “Give it another two hours, maybe less,” came Corporal Sweeney’s voice, buzzing through his helmet. “We’ll have this place sewed up as tight as we can get it. Which, as you know, isn’t very tight.”
     “I know, Mary. Just keep doin’ what you can.”
     “Wilco, Sarge. And after that we can pray to holy Hell it’ll be enough.”
     Giving an easy chuckle, Corporal Fahlan’s voice broke in, “God, you’re a cheerful soul, Corporal! You make it sound like we might as well climb into our caskets and stay there.”
     “When we die and I see you again in the hot place, I get to say I told you so, Corporal,” Sweeney retorted.
     The banter made Jacob smile. His suit computer beeped as it finished running one tactical simulation and started another. Based on sim results, they should do well against quite a lot of nastiness. If only they knew what to expect.
     He clacked his tongue to get their attention. “Enough chatter, boys and girls. Iwetel’s right. They wouldn’t have sent us if they didn’t think we could do the job. How are the blue hats holdin’ up?”
     “Morale’s high,” said Fahlan. “They’re willing enough. I think they’re excited at the prospect of some real action, but all the piss and vinegar in the world is no substitute for months of spec ops training.”
     “Nobody’s expecting ’em to be one-man armies. We’ll try to keep them alive if we can.”
     “That doesn’t sound like Marine talk, Sarge. Objective one is winning. Keeping people alive ranks two or three at best. Sweeney out.”
     That woman had a nihilistic streak a mile wide, Jacob thought with affection, shaking his head. How did she ever get promoted beyond grunt?
     Dismissing Fahlan, Jacob headed inward to check the second line of defence. Two of his people were ensconced in sniper nests at different ends of the complex, along with a handful of marksmen from the UN detachment, watching the horizon through scanners and scopes for any sign of the enemy.
     It was quiet work. Everybody tried not to let their tension show, but you could tell by the absence of easy banter, or the sharp intakes of breath before every radio transmission. They all wanted things to be over with, for better or worse. When Jacob shut his eyes he could imagine he heard the sound of teeth grinding together.
     Even Cornell looked impatient. The Lieutenant threw a silent wave as he walked by, on his way down to the vault. Jacob nodded in reply. It was all he could think to do. He went back to pacing around the complex, wondering if there was anything he’d missed.
     He never played the waiting game very well.
     A notification beeped on the command link. One of the snipers, Frost, transmitting an urgent message. Bomber patched into it right away, but decided not to announce himself. It never hurt to observe his junior officers in action.
     “Hey, Corp . . . Sorry to buzz you, but that maglev track is getting awful hot.”
     “It’s what?” said Sweeney.
     “It’s hot. Every time I look at the track on infrared it’s glowing warmer.”
     “Say again, Frost. You mean it’s powering up?”
     “No idea, Corp, I’m no engineer. I can’t see any magnetic readings, just . . . heat. Lots of it. I don’t think it’s designed to handle that kind of load.”
     “Scope down the track, make sure it’s all clear. Can you see anything?”
     “Nothing in range, Corp.”
     “Dietrich and Harper are supposed to be in control of the track, they should’ve called in any irregularity.” Sweeney flicked through her communications panel, rapidly cutting people in and out of the circuit. “Crowe, when was their last transmission?”
     “Four minutes twenty seconds ago, Corp. Calling them now, no response.”
     “Shit. Dietrich, Harper, this is Sweeney. Come in, Dietrich, Harper. SitRep. Damnit, sound off!”
     “Magnetic spike,” Frost shouted suddenly. “Major EM activity all along the track! There’s fuses blowing out of the pylons!”
     Turning to look, Jacob saw showers of electrical sparks bursting from the maglev pylons. Components exploded into blue and green flame, flinging chunks of hot concrete into the brush. His helmet’s magnification gave him a perfect view. Something or somebody was overloading the track a hundred times beyond what it could take, but why would anyone want to–
     He stopped to ask himself a schoolboy physics question. What did you get when you combined a high-speed train carriage and a mag track with all the safeties removed?
     Answer: A large-projectile railgun.
     Shock numbed his body. His heart seemed to pump ice-cold sludge through his veins instead of blood. His muscles moved in awful slow-motion as he let loose a shout, switching his radio to emergency broadcast, blasting out to everyone on all frequencies at once.
     “Everybody get down!” he roared, half a second before the world went mad.

***

     As he watched the hammer of God bearing down on him, Jacob had a split second to remember everything he knew about magnetic accelerator physics. Next to nothing. He had no talent for theory; he passed his classes by the skin of his teeth, and forgot it all the moment exams were over.
     He didn’t have the knowledge to make sense what his eyes were seeing.
     The maglev carriage travelled down from the horizon in the same time it took Jacob to drop to his knees. Everything moved so fast that even his boosted senses couldn’t process it all. The train station simply vanished before his eyes in a cloud of white-hot fire. Walls of reinforced concrete flashed away to rubble, to shrapnel, chunks of molten stone and metal catapulted in every direction at once like the world’s biggest shotgun.
     Jacob’s armour did its best, but it wasn’t enough.
     One piece took him in the shoulder. It hissed as it melted the joint to black slag, bones and all, spewing out a cloud of smoke that smelled like a barbecue grill. Another slammed through his abdomen, in one end and out the other. It left a clean-cauterised hole behind it.
     The third piece spalled off the front of his helmet and knocked him flat. Somehow there was no pain. He lay there, watching the sky in a daze, while tracer rounds and bright-flaring rockets flashed across his vision. Muzzle flashes sparked left and right. He even saw a suit of camouflaged battle armour sneak past his prone body, stopping only to loose a long burst of fire into one of the sniper nests.
     Vague shreds of speech danced across the top of his brain. “Sarge!” he heard, several times, with increasing desperation. He was just aware enough to wonder why that word should mean something to him.
     “Secure . . . vault . . . fall back . . . hold this ground! Whatever you do, you hold this Goddamn ground!”
     Funny. He didn’t think he’d ever heard Fahlan swear before. Something must have made him very upset. Mind and body were both numb, but some deep-buried part of Jacob knew this was wrong. A sense of urgent dread welled up inside him. He had to get up now, or he might never get up again.
     He rolled onto his left side and got his elbow under him. The world spun before his eyes, and it took all of his training to choke down the urge to be sick. His right arm hung rigid and immobile in its armoured sleeve. Useless, but protected. Checking his helmet display, he absorbed a full briefing on his useless limb, perforated bowels, and concussion. The computer rated his combat effectiveness at forty-two percent.
     
You gotta get up, he thought, stumbling, fighting for every inch of altitude. You gotta. They need you. Your squad needs you.
     And then he was up. Reeling, swaying in the smoke-filled breeze, but on his feet. Alive and able to hold a weapon.
     His rifle lay next to him, now a puddle of formless steel and plastic. Not the tool for the job. The bodies around him weren’t much help either. Almost all of them were UN peacekeepers, their weapons scaled for ordinary human hands, not armoured gauntlets. Several had been shot in the back while trying to run away.
     Jacob saw only two exceptions. Bitter cold twisted his insides as he stood over them.
     Private Frost still clutched his sniper rifle even with his helmet torn halfway off his shoulders. His arms and legs were twisted at odd angles, making him look like a broken wind-up toy. Flesh, bone and brain matter mixed together on the concrete floor, and Jacob turned away to investigate what might be Frost’s killer.
     Its camouflage functions had shut down after death, leaving only a blank grey suit, unmarked and totally devoid of identity. It could’ve been a robot if not for the big red hole through its chest. Underneath all the armour, these terrorists were as human as anyone. He — or she — had dropped an old-style grenade launcher with a big revolving drum for a magazine.
     Jacob spun the drum and counted the remaining shells. Eight shots. Eight could be enough.
     The cylinder snapped into place with a smooth, well-oiled click. The grenadier had taken good care of his weapon. Nice armour, too. High-tech materiel meant for front line use. Not the kind of thing any bunch of terrorist ought to have access to.
     Several short, sharp explosions rumbled through the ground. They echoed out of the big concrete mouth of the vault bunker. Jacob stared at it for a second, then started his body moving, one muscle at a time. He weaved and staggered across the concrete, single-minded and unstoppable.
     Time to see what forty-two percent of Jacob Dusther could do.

***

     The memory slipped and swam, like Jacob’s mental state. Gina couldn’t hold on to it. Exhaustion throbbed behind her eyeballs and tugged her back to the real world, where she slumped forward, just catching herself on the floor. Bomber reached forward to help her but ended up toppling over on his side. He blinked dizzily at the wall.
     “Jesus,” he said. “And I thought last time was bad.”
     Gina coughed through the dryness in her throat. It was like waking up from a deep sleep, hesitantly, so that your dreams bled through into reality. She willed her limbs to move, but they took a long time to respond. Sounds seemed to echo through her as if her skull was a hollow box.
     She sputtered, “Y-Your brain still thinks it’s got a c-concussion. It’ll wear off.”
     “Not just that. I . . . I can hear people. I can feel them all the way downstairs.” He raised his head, but his eyes were still glassy and unfocussed, staring at something very far away. Gina knew that look much too well. Then, suddenly, he snapped back like an elastic band and collapsed with his arms wrapped around his head. “Ohh, fuck. It’s the . . . It’s the damn Spice, isn’t it? Did you go through this?”
     “The come-down’s a real bitch,” she said, and ran through her mental checklist, the little routine that dragged her through a hundred rough patches. She tested every part of herself, exercised them individually until they all responded the way they ought to. Reacquainting herself with her own body. It helped more than anything else she ever tried. “Rough memories just make it worse.”
     Shoving some more cushions under Bomber, Gina tried to make him comfortable as best she could, and held his hand tight. He squeezed back, moaning in helpless agony. It was almost funny, seeing a guy who thought nothing of gunshots brought to his knees by a little white pill.
     But Gina understood. She’d been where he was now. A long time ago, Onounu had found a young redhead lying face-down in an alley, curled up like a newborn in the rain. All her money was gone. Uncontrollable spasms ran down her body, and she’d bit deep into her tongue, coughing out blood onto the wet pavement. She would’ve died there, alone. Only someone took pity on her and sat with her under the pouring grey sky.
     They were both laid up with pneumonia for weeks after that. It gave them time to talk. Though she didn’t appreciate it at the time, it was probably one of the happiest summers of her life.
     She bit her lip and blinked away the prickling moisture in her eyes. No time to think about that. The only way to keep from missing Onounu, to stop herself spiralling down the trail of past regrets, was to keep throwing herself into the present.
     The shakes in Bomber’s hand subsided. She squeezed it, and he rolled over onto his back, looking up at her.
     “Why would anyone do this to themselves?” he asked, baffled.
     She sent him a tiny smile. “Ask yourself, babe. Everybody thinks they’ve got a good enough reason. Some don’t need any reason at all.”
     Gina trailed off, biting her lip. The ironic comparisons were so many that she wouldn’t know where to start. After all, nothing could stop Bomber from getting what he wanted, even if it meant destroying himself in the process.
     And she’d be by his side every step of the way. Whatever it took to keep him safe.
     Suddenly the door swung open. Major Hawthorn showed his face, and he almost managed to get a word out before Gina cut him off. She snapped, “Didn’t I tell you not to barge in here?”
     “Look, I wouldn’t have bothered if it wasn’t important. Your friend Stoney sent word. Things are happening sooner than we thought, we need to be ready in an hour.”
     The news seemed to recharge Bomber like a bolt of lightning. He sat up too quickly, then dragged himself up the wall to a standing position. “I expected that,” he said. “We’re good to go.”
     Gina snapped her fingers to get his attention back. “No, we’re not,” she declared, her head tilted to the side, her lips curled in a half-smile. “You put me through this, the least you can do is make it worth my while for one hour.”
     A moment of confusion flashed across his face. Then her full meaning dawned on him, and his eagerness to go after Gabriel paused, like pushing the off button on a holoprojector. As single-minded as he was, Bomber still had a libido. At least when it came to Gina Hart.
     He took Hawthorn by the shoulder and escorted him back through the door, despite his protests. “You heard the lady. See you in an hour, Hawk.”
     The door shut after the Major, locked tight with a click, and didn’t open again for some time.

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