Chapter One

They could have told him about the presence of the alien fauna. Then again, High Command had always the best intentions in mind when they sent out their troops on paid leave. It was somewhat funny to know that the difference between working and being on paid leave was the amount of orders barked in your helmet. Not that High Command paid something worthy of calling a stipend, but the in-platoon joke was always about how if they had a bullet for every time an order came through, they'd never have to change their clips again.

The rattling noise of a heavy alien hostile or 'Hah' as the guys called it told him the thing was closing in on him. His squad was probably enjoying the jungle tour with some of the scantily clad girls that belonged to the civilian local population, while he was there alone and unarmored.

The helmet was still tightly screwed on his head however —you can't be a good soldier if you remove your helmet— and the noise in the background told him he was also without signal from High Command or Low Command.

It wasn't that difficult to follow the line of ranks in the army. If someone could bark at you, then he was clearly a superior officer. If he could just nod or reply with an affirmative, then he was beneath you. It simplified things.

The first thing he saw about the Hah was that he was tall and brown-colored, when he emerged from the thick purple foliage of a strange twisted-trunk tree which was hollow in the middle. It resembled an elephant, if not for two enormous pink fins that seemed to sprout from its flanks. If the thing could fly with those, he'd eat his shoes.

The alien was too big and thick scaled, at a glance, for his sidearm to work more than an annoyance on the beast, and the fact its five beady eyes were looking around with curiosity told him there was some sapience behind that horrendous aspect.

Native sapient life was the bane of all fun.

You just had to exterminate it, since it was the sort of right thing to do.

Well, in the beginning they had tried to talk to the first sapient species they had met. Then half the diplomatic party had fallen ill on both sides and they had to fight their way out of the planet. Their own people remained in isolation on the spaceship for a month, when they succumbed to the disease.

The alien species ended up wiped out because of a common cold one of the ambassadors had developed during his time on the spaceship.

The problem with sapience was that it developed its immune system and the sicknesses tied to it naturally. Bacteria reached the Stone Age like nothing more than a slight fever, went through the middle ages like the Plagues, passed by the industrial revolution as some terrible disease and always came by in the end, by the time you had the beginning of vaccines and whatnot, as extremely lethal concoctions for other species. He shuddered —their very bodies shook every time the word 'vaccine' was in a sentence or a thought— as he slowly lowered himself beneath the overgrowth purple colored plants that composed the local flora.

He hadn't even strayed that far from the city itself, just enough to consider it the outskirts. Back on Earth, this would be no different than encountering a bear going through the trash in one of the few remaining green areas of their motherworld.

"Private," a voice barked in his helmet —as they said in the military academy, if the officer didn't bark then he wasn't even an officer to begin with. "Sitrep."

He really wanted to comply with the order, but the thing had claws that could easily squash him if he as much as betrayed his position, and talking was definitively among them. He wasn't in one of the sleek looking black armors of the frontal assault squads, which had private channels and soundproof helmets. He was using one of the Bubble-Helms, the simple and comfortable ones that were like one-way mirrors.

"Private, unless you are drunk which is, by the way, a conduct unbefitting to any soldier, I recommend answering me within the next three seconds." The voice was stern and the tone dry. It looked as if whoever was on the other side had a bad case of sore throat.

The creature seemed to have found something of his liking in the vegetation not too far from his hiding spot —that was of course his luck— and thus began to messily eat with its rear.

Of course, he had to find the only species of alien that did not have to concentrate with its eyes on the food to eat. It would be uncharacteristic for such a species to be deaf, especially judging by how the pink fins were apparently twitching.

He still decided to try his luck and take a single step backwards. His foot cracked a twig.


Whoever was the commanding officer on the other side of his helmet would probably have his head on a silver platter, but he knew better than to think about the future when the present seemed to be quite lethal.

His scream had probably alerted half of the city before he even managed to retreat to the safety of the giant steel walls and force fields. The beast didn't charge, actually as he ran away he distinctively saw it run in the opposite direction emitting squawks similar to those of a chicken.

The moment his body flung itself beyond the first military checkpoint, his skin flushed in sweat and his breathing ragged, he was met with the look of skepticism of the two guards who were standing there at attention.

"I think he met a Frilly," the one on the right remarked. "Either that, or he met a Squil."

"Ah shaddup," the other one said. "It's not like I care," there was a shrug. "The thing didn't beep: he's clean."

"Course he is," the right-one said. "He's got the bubble and all."

"You never know," the left one shrugged. "Last year we lost a block to this darn thing not working."

He made a subtle nod to the two guards, before walking down the immaculate steel road that now replaced the dirt ground he had been running on to escape the beast. He felt somewhat silly for calling Command just because the alien creature scared him, but that was the right thing to do by the books, and he always went by the books.

"A-hem," the dry voice coughed to get his attention back. He mentally cursed himself. He had been in an open communication with a superior officer after all.

"I'm sorry sir," he said. If anyone looked at him now, they'd see him move his arms around wildly as he tried to excuse himself for his behavior through the Net. The office in charge was a good sport and understood, thankfully, what the situation had been. The superior dismissed him within seconds without a reprimand, and that was that.

His thoughts back on the present, he realized he had reached his leased apartment without even thinking. The doors slid open and admitted him inside, just before the first pair closed and the decontamination procedure began. Small amounts of disinfectant were sprayed in the atmosphere, as laser points precisely retraced his entire figure in search of fragments of flora or fauna that didn't belong to him.

A small compartment opened up in front of him, filled with a clear caustic liquid designed to tear down to a molecular level everything organic that could have remained on the sole of his boots.

It was a tedious process, long and time consuming. This was the prime reason few actually went planet-side down on the ground of alien places. Except for combat training, there wasn't really a need for manned personnel to land on a planet after all. Mineral resources could be easily stripped with drones commanded from space, and orbital stations were easier to build in zero-gravity than anywhere else.

The reason combat training was important? Mainly, it related to suit breaches. No matter how strong or agile one could make a robot, there simply was no way to make them as combat worthy as humans. Sure, the eggheads had developed some types of mechanized infantry…that was good as shock troops, since they only had to go forward and fire, but not much else.

He stepped inside the clean area then, where small groups of soldiers that shared an apartment in the same building watched him enter, keeping their gazes on his chest for a split-second. When they saw the lack of stripes, they went back to their normal chatting completely ignoring him from that moment hence.

He walked calmly to a corner of the room, where the lift was.

"Hey," one of the soldiers nearby waved at him. The helmet wearing man —or maybe woman, for all he knew— had been standing with his back against the wall near the elevator, already suited up as if ready to deploy. "Want to chat?"

"Sure," he tapped the side of his helmet, keeping his gaze fixed on the amicable soldier. The moment he received a confirmation beep that a link formed, he proceeded up on the lift without stopping.

"So, how's the jungle?" appeared in the corner of his visor, as he pushed the button to reach for his floor.


"Things went bad?"

"If by 'bad' you mean remaining unarmored in front of a Hah while you only have a sidearm, then yeah, it went bad."

"That's why nobody actually leaves unless ordered to."

"You don't say," he grumbled as he got out at his floor, passing by two fellow soldiers in silent chat with one another. "I'm suiting up after this."

"Oh, I knew you weren't walking like a civilian! And this is a military barrack after all. Who loaned you the suit?"

"A friend. He had a spare and told me how comfortable they were. I'd rather be uncomfortable and alive than comfortable and dead now."

"You don't feel like a frontline hot-shot with those words."

He rolled his eyes as he swept his right hand over the Id recognizer, letting the door beep as it slid aside to let him in.

"I am not a frontline hot-shot," he angrily retorted to the empty room. What was is it with girls and frontline soldiers? Was there something in their pheromones that made them irresistible?

"I'm an engineer," he replied. The words blinked on his visor for a moment more, before they disappeared, replaced by the quick reply.

"My firesquad is here, it's been nice chatting with you. Bye."

Faster than he could blink, the link was cut.

Of course, nobody liked the engineers.

He sighed as he changed suits, glad that the apartment's pressurized atmosphere confirmed to him once more that no, there were no alien viruses inside the room.

So yes, he had been born an engineer. "Does that make me undesirable? Is there some sort of plot against me?" he dryly remarked to his reflection in the mirror. Dark hair, white skin, dark eyes and the lean physique that belonged to a good chunk of the rest of the male population looked back at him. It wasn't really a realistic reason: everyone was practically identical, meaning words and thoughts and all the 'inside' hogwash mattered more than everything else.

Of course, this didn't stop whatever female gland that stimulated their likes for hot-shots to have them salivate behind the frontline troopers or the shock assault squads. Maybe it was the five or six centimeters of height of difference, but they were shorter of that amount. Sure, they also were fitter but in the end…they were all the same!

He ignored his reflection, turning his gaze back to the matter at hand. First, he wore the boots, soon followed by the metallic clamps and the trousers. Only then did the first layer of interwoven Kevlar come as a shirt, soon followed by the first four detachable plaques of ceramic composite, which housed hibernating nanites ready to delve in their designed task at a moment's notice.

Two more layers of an adaptive plastic polymer, which served to pressurize further the suit in case of breach, as it would immediately expand if subjected to stress, soon followed that.

The final layer was the overcoat, a single one piece that covered from halfway up his neck all the way to the bottom of the spine. He steadily began to open and close his hands, as the gloves slowly molded themselves to his fingers.

He grabbed his rifle from the locker box in the room —he had hidden his own beneath the bed— and then he finally marched back down.

He was on paid leave after all —which meant that, instead of being obliged to go and kill things, alien things, for money, he would have to offer himself volunteer to do the same thing for considerably less.

The reason he needed the money was the same reason that everyone else had. It was the same reason there for which hunting parties formed naturally in the lounge of the hotel. It was the same reason people linked with other people and soldiers always looked to one another during their vacations.

They needed money; all of them needed money…

To buy themselves a name.