PROLOGUE

 

 

THE fuckers were going to kill him. He knew it. He’d known it since the results had come in and he’d compared his top performances to those of his brothers. Not good enough. Not dedicated enough. Well, they had him there. Honestly, there were pieces of his partner he wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole, much less his own private parts. Which, since as an intelligent battle armor and weapons system, he was supposed to bond completely with his host, might be construed as a flaw. Maybe. Possibly.

He studied the charts again. The results didn’t get any better from staring at them, though, and his worry ratcheted up another notch. Damn it. He should’ve just bitten the bullet and completed the bonding, allowed himself to synch with his host’s personality as well as his body. Trouble was, as it turned out, he not only had considerable intimacy issues, there was also a lot of him and not quite enough of his host. The result was that he was neither willing to mesh with his host’s mind nor able to perfectly settle under his skin. Six experimental armors, six unique artificial beings, and of course one of them had to be too big, too slow, had to have too much sense of self. There was always one. In this particular case, it happened to be System Six, the last one out of the lab. The one intended for the most highly decorated host, the war hero turned voluntary test subject. Rik. He of the yucky innards and the slimy subconscious.

System Six had been as eager to join with his host as the other systems, but that had been before he’d been poured down Rik’s throat and discovered he did not want to spend his life tied to someone who didn’t fit him in size and personality. He wanted out. Oh, did he want out. Too bad that “out” translated to “killed.” Destroyed by his creators or his own traitorous body. Battle armors were symbiotic by design; they couldn’t survive on their own. It was why they’d been dubbed “bone riders” by their designers. Lab humor. He hated it. Fact remained that without bones—or rather a host body—to ride, System Six would shut down bit by bit and eventually disintegrate. Hence the faking.

“… extremely high, but if you compare them to the other units, the scores are substandard.”

You try to run with the pack with your legs hobbled, System Six thought resentfully, shoving his stolen copy of the report charts back into place. He inched closer to the doorway, keeping his host’s body pressed against the wall and unaware of the goings-on around him. As far as Rik was concerned, they were in their bunk, sleeping. Rik was probably dreaming about fornication again. System Six was too busy eavesdropping on their commanding officers to check… and, frankly, too disgusted. Slimy, scummy, gross subconscious. Gah. Keep sleeping, Rik. Not your life they’re discussing.

“Could be they simply need more time to adjust.”

That was Mir, second-in-command of the Widowmaker and System Six’s new favorite person. Yes, more time would be good. Maybe he could bring himself to bond with Rik after all, given more time. Or figure out a way to jump hosts without getting himself killed, if it turned out they really were as incompatible as System Six suspected. There had to be a way to make this work. He didn’t want to die. Be dismantled. Didn’t matter what they called it. The result was the same: no more System Six. He didn’t understand how the other systems could be so calm about the threat of extermination. But then, they were hooked in completely, what little consciousness they’d had dissolved in their host’s. Safe in oblivion, happy in absolute amalgamation. Not that they’d started out with a lot of individuality. Honestly, sometimes System Six couldn’t help but wonder if maybe he was the only one of them who was truly sentient.

“No. Look at the readings. The fucking armor is too big. Way too big. The idea was to use the extra material for additional plating under heavy fire, but that can’t work. Too much matter and not enough room. See?” There was a short pause while the officers stared at whatever Kom had pointed out. “In the long run, it’s going to squash Rik’s organs and kill him.”

System Six didn’t bother poking Rik’s head around the corner to check which part of the test protocols was being pointed out. He didn’t like where this conversation was going. His performance hadn’t been all that great back at base, but the discrepancy between him and the others had been attributed to the general differences between the systems. This had been their first long-distance training session, the crunch test. Obviously, he’d failed. Worse, they’d noticed the space issues. This was so, so bad. They were going to kill him, pull him out like a bad tooth and kill him.

“The others are doing fine, though,” Mir noted, perusing the results. “Much better than any kind of external body armor we’ve tested. I’m thinking Ler was right. Smart systems are the way to go.”

“They are impressive,” Kom admitted a little grudgingly. He was old-school military and had never made a secret out of the fact that he didn’t much like the idea of soldiers invaded and joined with intelligent weapons. Too much potential for disaster, he’d argued on the way out to the training grounds. You don’t fuck with individuals like that.

System Six agreed with him, though their perspective differed somewhat.

Mir chuckled. “Five out of six is pretty impressive too.”

Meaning one of them was going to be destroyed when they were back on base, and System Six had no doubts as to which one of them was going to end up as so much scrap metal. His host’s heart rate spiked in reaction to his agitation. Rik’s mind stirred, but System Six slapped it down before it could struggle to full awareness. The last thing System Six needed was his creep of a host interfering with what he had to do. There was no way he was going to let them ship him back and hold still while they tore him from this body and pulled him apart. They’d created him; that didn’t give them the right to undo him.

Time. He needed time. They were traveling through space at high speed, much too fast for System Six to come up with a feasible plan before they reached their destination. What he needed was a break. He had to stop the damn ship, or at least slow them down some. All right. Engine room. Find the control station, get into the system, hack the override, and hit the brakes.

How hard could it be?

 

 

ONE

 

 

IT WAS supposed to be a routine training exercise and missile test in a fenced-in, rarely used area of military property west of San Antonio. Heat, brush, and the occasional run-in with a disgruntled rattler. Sweating rookie soldiers testing new types of ammunition and camouflage, sweating officers dutifully jotting down the results. Nothing fancy or unusual, except maybe the abnormally high percentage of FNGs , but so far, nobody had been hit by friendly fire, so Captain Mark Brennan, in command of the exercise, figured they were doing all right. Mostly it was business as usual, right until the bright blue Texas sky turned red above their heads as a glowing, burning missile came screaming from the heavens and pulverized a hill not even five klicks from base camp.

The force of the impact made the ground shake. Brennan lost his footing and ended up flat on his face, as did most of his men. Equipment tumbled, an expensive new radar system got smashed to bits by a crate that bounced like a damn rubber ball, and the newly erected tents collapsed with the clank of toppling metal poles and the sigh of slumping fabric. Some of the soldiers yelled in surprise, at least one of them in pain.

Brennan shook his head to clear it a little and spat out a wad of dirt and blood. He must’ve bitten his lip when he’d hit the ground, but his teeth were all accounted for, so he merely wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and got back up with a grunt. His men were staggering to their feet around him, looking dazed and just as wobbly as their commanding officer. Some of them were talking, or maybe shouting, but he couldn’t hear them over the din in his head, the roar of his own heartbeat, the ringing in his ears; he could only see their lips move. Brennan’s vision was wonky as well, choppy and grainy, overlaid by the persistent flares and black spots caused by looking into too much brightness. He hoped his eyes hadn’t been damaged, or maybe his brain, because he could’ve sworn he’d spotted a glimpse of red-hot metal a second before the flaming something that had fallen from the sky met the ground. It had looked like a big, blazing shape that had defied the laws of physics by spinning along its lateral axis and slowing down before touchdown. He was reasonably sure that wasn’t how a meteorite was supposed to look or behave, and as soon as his ears stopped ringing and he could see again without miniature suns obscuring his vision, Brennan was going to call this shit in and ask permission to check out the site.

He started toward the radio station, weaving a bit on unsteady legs. His equilibrium was shot to hell, but the high-pitched whistling in his ears had already climbed down several decibels and he picked his way through the broken equipment slowly, blinking impatiently and checking on his men as he went. What a mess. Either some soon-to-be discharged asshole had forgotten to relay information about missile tests in the area, he thought, or they were dealing with a UXO, as in unexploded ordnance. Brennan hoped it was the former, because if it wasn’t, then someone somewhere (terrorists? North Korea? Iran? Plenty of enemies to pick from; it could’ve been anybody) had just declared war on the United States.

The thing was that missiles rarely traveled alone. This one might’ve been a dud, but if it had been part of an attack, then there must’ve been others, better aimed and fully active. Maybe this had been meant for Houston, though that meant it must’ve gone completely off course. How many cities had been targeted? How many destroyed? What about Washington DC? Was it even still standing? Had the president been there? Brennan thought he should know, but he didn’t, off-balance in every sense of the word as he was, so he shook it off and focused on the situation at hand. First things first. Secure the camp and contact command. Speculation was useless at this point.

Brennan stopped by a hunched-over private to make sure the man wasn’t seriously injured. No blood, though, just miserable heaving and the early stages of an impressive goose egg. The kid was probably concussed. He called for the medics, one hand on the soldier’s back to make sure he didn’t topple over, and glanced around, assessing the damage now that his sight was almost back to normal. It wasn’t as bad as it had looked at first glance. The jeeps were still standing, as were the heavy weapons and ammo crates. The tents had toppled and equipment was strewn about, but the actual destruction looked to be minimal. He still wasn’t hearing right, but his eyesight was mostly back to par and he felt steadier on his feet. Barking orders came naturally; he handed over the still-retching private into the medics’ care and started to sort out the confusion around him. By his estimate, he could move his troops within the hour; faster, if necessary.

“Harris!” he bellowed, signaling the burly sergeant who’d been serving under him for a few years. Too many rookies around; he needed someone he knew was competent. “Sit rep in ten!”

Harris called back an affirmative and got going. He’d have a preliminary status report ready by the time Brennan had called in this SNAFU . Now where the hell in this mess had the radio ended up?

Brennan scanned his surroundings again, pausing for a moment to squint at the column of dark smoke that had risen in the western sky over the crash site like an exclamation mark. Huh. Missiles usually didn’t burn up. UXOs didn’t employ brake mechanisms. Missiles in general didn’t usually have brake mechanisms. They were supposed to hit their targets at high velocity to add more oomph to their boom. So a missile, especially a defective one, slowing down before impact didn’t make sense. It might spin out of control, possibly flip around, especially when the targeting system was screwed up, but brake? No way. Manned aircrafts, on the other hand… that was a whole different ballgame. Could’ve been one of those top-secret jets coming down, only it had been too big for a plane. A shuttle, maybe?

They wouldn’t know for sure until they’d gotten to the crash site and done some recon, but first Brennan wanted to know for sure the rest of the world was still standing. The combat-net radio had been dug out of one of the collapsed tents and set up well away from the heavier pieces of equipment. Since the earth tremor had been caused by a shockwave and not an earthquake, Brennan thought this was probably unnecessary, but he wasn’t about to reprimand his men for erring on the side of caution. Especially not given the circumstances. He nodded at Sergeant Mosely, who’d been bent over the radio but looked up when Brennan’s shadow fell over him.

“Base on the line for you, sir,” Mosely barked. He didn’t have to put much effort into it; the man was so used to relaying orders through static and lousy reception that his voice easily penetrated the cottony barrier between Brennan’s brain and his surroundings. “Readability is five by five.”

“Roger that.” …said the half-deaf captain, Brennan thought ruefully. Nothing to be done about it. He sat down in front of the radio and got to work.

 

 

TEN minutes later, they’d established that at least the Texas incident had not been part of a bigger attack. This was good news as far as Brennan was concerned. The bad news was that whatever had crashed almost on top of them was definitely not of US origin. Brennan’s description of the glimpse he’d caught of a huge metal object spinning in the air and slowing down before impact had been met with a terse, “Wait out,” and a break that had lasted for several minutes before Base had called back with the information that a special recon team was about to be deployed from Fort Mabry. Since Brennan and his men were already on location, they were ordered to move in and assess the situation. “Very fucking carefully” was implied, seeing as most of the troops currently under Brennan’s command were inexperienced and Brennan himself had never actually seen combat.

Sergeant Harris, who’d been waiting patiently at a respectful distance, took the news with equanimity. The men were mostly fine, he reported. One of the engineers who’d been working on a jeep’s engine had broken his arm when the hood had come down, two privates had suffered minor concussions, and Private Rolston, with his usual luck and grace, had managed to get tossed into a prickly pear patch. That was it on the injury front. Most of the equipment had made it through in one piece, too, so they were good to go.

Brennan’s platoon was as eager to check out the wreckage as their captain and the men were ready to roll in record time. They left their wounded and a skeleton crew at base camp and went out in the jeeps, taking the direct route to the crash site. Brennan’s hearing was better than before, but he knew none of them were back to one hundred percent yet. So not only was he moving into a possibly hostile environment with rookie troops, he was also doing it while they were all deaf to some degree. At least it was only a recon mission, but it was still not his idea of a good time.

The closer they got to their destination, the tenser they all became. The air smelled burnt, pervaded with the dusty scent of overheated soil and the unexpectedly aromatic fragrance of charred vegetation. It was hard to tell how much of the eerie silence was due to the shock of the impact as opposed to their collective hearing impairment, but Brennan didn’t spot a single animal anywhere, not even from the corner of his eye. The bulk of what had once been a rounded hill covered in brush and summer-yellowed grass must’ve been pounded flat, driven into the ground and compressed into geologists’ delight, but more than enough material was still there, shoved aside by the blast wave. The men were forced to abandon their vehicles and continue on foot once they reached those wrinkled ridges of the crater, the four-wheel drive no match for the mess of rocks and overturned earth before them. They fanned out in three squads to cover a bigger area and Brennan led his unit straight up the slope and to the rim, the stones still warm under their feet.

They crawled the last few feet on their bellies, careful not to present a target when peeking over the edge. Brennan felt his stomach cramp a little with anticipation. He’d never done anything quite like this. Checking out crash sites wasn’t included in his usual duties, and this wasn’t a textbook situation by any means. It made him tense with nerves and an adrenaline-fueled sense of excitement. He was intensely curious about what they were going to find down there. A shuttle? A drone? Some sort of new stealth plane?

Turned out it was something completely different, in every sense of the word. Apparently, aliens did, indeed, have big, creepy eyes, and were on the smallish side.

They compensated with big guns.

Brennan stared, paralyzed, as his brain tried to work through a number of realizations such as, no, those weren’t people down there even though they looked humanoid, and yes, he was sober and awake, and damn, if the ufologists got so much as a whiff of this, they would cream their geeky pants. He counted eight aliens huddled next to the… God help him, that really was a spaceship. They looked tiny next to the immense metal structure, their skin milky white, their knees bent the wrong way, like a dog’s hind legs. They were dressed in something that reminded Brennan a bit of black battle dress uniforms. Looked like only four of them had made it out of the crash virtually unscathed; three were down on the ground, one writhing in pain, one holding on to an improvised tourniquet that kept it from bleeding out through the stump of its leg, one looking dead from the distance. The alien providing first aid didn’t look too hot, either. No telling if there were more of them still trapped or dead inside the wreck, which looked pretty mangled. It was a fairly big ship, though; seemed likely there’d be additional crew somewhere.

Brennan took all of this in with a glance, more interested in the four aliens standing guard. They didn’t look that different from their wounded companions, except that they were upright and alert, holding what had to be weapons and scanning the crater rim with glossy silver eyes. Sentries. The aliens were soldiers, Brennan thought, like recognizing like. Soldiers gone down in unknown but presumably hostile territory, and his heart started to hammer crazily at the realization.

He didn’t know what gave him and his men away, but suddenly the sentry aliens spun and focused on them, weapons coming up in what was probably reflex. Somebody on one of the other squads must’ve been spooked by the action—or the existence of aliens—badly enough to trigger a similar kind of impulse: they squeezed off a shot. Before Brennan could snap out an order to stand down, the aliens returned fire.

Things went to hell in a handbasket after that.