Chapter One

"Why we Must Love the Enemy"

- Sermon by Maximilian Andrei Heinrich Xu, Eighth Empire of the Xu Dynasty of the Holy Reach, March 12th, 3900 AD.

"Despite the fact that their intelligence is at least as high as that of a human being, and their technological achievements parallel ours, the Stronk'walar Medusans have never displayed the ability for art, self-reflection, philosophy, or religion. There is no evidence that they possess a conscience. Their morality, if it can be called that, is that of the insect hive. In this war they have never shown quarter or mercy toward our race. The Stronk know only to kill and conquer. They can control the minds of men with will alone. They can impale us with fear with only their gaze.

"Yet, God created them, as He created all things.

"Why?

"They must be considered a blessing.

"What?

"An enemy that has killed millions of us? An enemy that can destroy our worlds with quasar bombs? A blessing? HOW!?

"Jesus Christ told us to love our enemies. But, did he say our enemies would always be human? We know they are not. We know our enemies are not human even in the days before our first contact. For our true enemies are not of flesh and blood.

"Since the fall of Man, the greatest enemy of mankind has always been mankind himself. Because unlike the Stonk'walar Medusans, Homo Sapiens have a conscience - a knowledge - of right and wrong. How often have we chosen to fight and kill one another, rather than to forgive and cooperate? But since this Stellar War has begun with the enemy of mankind, how many wars has man fought amongst himself? None. Has the enemy increased our faith? Yes, for the Holy Reach of a thousand world would not be so without the threat of the enemy, an eternal reminder that man is mortal, and that there is more to life than mortality.

"So now I ask you, can you see how our enemy is a blessing? For when this war ends, and we are triumphant, the days of rejoicing will be quickly forgotten as the man again turns against man, and complacency replaces faith. This war started five hundred years ago. This war will not end in our lifetime. It will not end in the lifetimes of our children. But it will end in the lifetimes of their children. And when this war is over, it will be viewed with nostalgia, and these decades of strife will be seen as the greatest period of human history. For in this fight for our lives, the Holy Reach is a place where the whole of the Law comes true as the Savior has spoken: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.

"And this, my friends, is why I love our enemy.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me

- Psalm 23:4

In the 4th squad of the 1st Platoon of the 3rd Company, 12th Imperial Space Regiment, was a marine who'd been in service for 311 years. His combat body the same as any other marine: he was three meters tall, and shaped like an enormously strong human male. But he not human; he was a Son of Man. He was a machine, made by machines. His muscle fibers were made of contracting metal. His skin was armor, made of neutronium-embedded nanoweave. It was scarred, nicked, and patched, and had once been regally painted in the colors of his unit: titanium white and cobalt blue, with gold piping the edges of each armor segment. Camouflage as never necessary for a marine. His faceplate was a smooth plate of gold. Beneath it were four eyes: Two mechanical, and two organic. All four of them were sealed behind armored glass. He had no other facial features. He had no mouth. His scent receptors were just slits, and sensors embedded on each side of his head served as audio relays.

The marine's name was OVR9K. His peers just called him Overnine. In their battle language, his machine mind, made of a crystal-lattice neuron simulator, was located in his head. His brain, which they called a cerbo, was located in his chest. The cerbo's name was Alexander W. Kosak. Because of the capabilities of their enemy, all soldiers in the service of the Holy Reach were composed of both a masino and a cerbo; man and machine, united in life and war.

Kosak was a new cerbo. The last two had been killed in action. The one before that went insane. There were some others, before that, but Overnine rarely thought of them. The only cerbo he ever liked was the first one he had. They got along from day one. Together, they had truly been a single entity. They fought together for over two centuries before she finally left him to go live a human life again.

Overnine's cerbo was silent. It was patched into its reality simulator, along with the other brains in the company. Cerbos came from humans. Or, they were human, still, even without their bodies. Overnine wasn't exactly sure on that point. Regardless, he knew that cerbos needed other cerbos, or they got lonely. And, unlike machine minds, brains couldn't just go into sleep mode and wait for orders. Brains were weak. Humans were weak. Well, most humans were weak. Back when he'd been with his first cerbo, whose name had been Strela, she and he had shared an identity, and a name: Deathsong. Deathsong had risen to be a colonel. Deathsong had many victories. While the other masinos just went into sleep mode, Overnine often replayed those memories in his mind. All the battles, everything he felt, and Strela's emotions were recorded through his eyes and mind.

But, Deathsong was three or four – maybe five cerbos ago. Overnine shared the rank of his cerbo: Private. He was clamped into a storage rack along with the other members of his squad. They were in the troop hold of an intra-universe phase ship, which was nicknamed a sub. The troop hold was crammed, bulkhead-to-bulkhead, with marines. But they didn't care. They hung out in sleep mode, while their brains stayed patched into the brain net. They could be in port, they could be in artificial universe, or they could be fleeing for their lives from a sub destroyer. He had no idea. He didn't care about anything on a sub, because the only thing that interested him was destroying the enemy. The only other things that even fired up his mind were memories of the sympatico he had with Strela. That, and sometimes, he found himself looking at the stars.

Out of the darkness of sleep mode, he was awoken. Orders flashed into his mind. Their sub had located an enemy ship. It was fighter hive. Why it was sailing without escorts, Overnine didn't know. He knew they were in deep space, and that the sub was going to take out the enemy's spacefold drive. He knew they would then insert in the top rear launch bay. He knew the layout of the hive's interior, and he knew his mission assignment, which was to gain control of the stern damage control center.

He messaged Kosak: "Brain, get out of the sim. We're boarding a ship."

"I know," Kosak said. Overnine felt his cerbo's conscience return to their shared body. He felt Kosak open their organic eyes. He let Kosak move his head around, but all they could see was armored bodies crammed together, and the dim red interior lights of the sub. He felt Kosak's fear.

"Don't let the fear get you, brain," Overnine said. "Just let me do the fighting. I'll keep us alive. I swear it. All I need you to do is to watch and learn, okay?"

"Roger," Kosak said. "They were just giving us this briefing in net space. I know exactly what to do."

"Don't do anything fancy," Overnine said. "If they knock me out, just stay in cover until I reboot. Don't let the fear get to you."

"I know," Kosak said. "Just like the simulations."

Damn scumbag brain, Overnine thought. But, he didn't let Kosak hear his thoughts. It wouldn't be like the simulation, because cerbos are never scared in simulators. But, he figured it was best to say nothing.

Overnine wasn't scared, or nervous. But, this was Kosak's baptism under fire. His first combat action. Statistically, he had a one-in-twenty chance of getting killed. But, if he survived, his chances of surviving the next action were much higher. If he survived ten serious engagements, his chances of surviving his military service went to over one-hundred fifteen to one. Cerbos that survived over a hundred engagements were golden. The only thing that could kill them was the worst luck fate could deliver.

Overnine didn't want his cerbo to get killed. The others had died all the same way. Overnine had been forced to reboot to avoid being scrambled. When he booted back into consciousness, his cerbo had succumbed to the enemy's telepathy. Or, it had failed in a fight, and been killed. Overnine just hoped that the platoon leader would give him a safe task so that his cerbo had a chance to learn what fighting was really like. But, he knew, there was no truly safe place when you were raiding a ship in deep space…

His desire to see Kosak survive crashed into the reality that his last three cerbos had all been lost before reaching even ten missions. The impossibility of the situation forced him to do something he hadn't done since his name had been Deathsong. Something Strela had taught him to do. Pray.

God, I know you're out there. The programmed me to know this. Strela talked to you all the time. She talked to you for me. But now she's not here. So I will talk to you, and ask that, please, help me keep Kosak alive. Amen.

Overnine felt his fingers flexing on the handgrip of his pike. It was his cerbo doing that, out of nervousness. He let him do that. This was the cerbo's body, too. The pike was three meters long, with blades on each end, like a kayak paddle. The shaft housed a deflector shield that formed a sphere as wide in diameter as the shaft of the pike. Also in the shaft was an inertia thrower. He was armed with a short-barreled blaster holstered on his hip. He didn't expect to use it. Ship work was mostly melee and grenades. A full complement of them was slung around his chest in a bandolier. A small barb on the cheek of his head was used for pulling the pins with one hand. He had welded that onto himself, centuries ago. It'd been Strela's idea.

The platoon net came active. He could feel his comrades, instinctively knew their positions, and even sense their thoughts. The veterans who've been paired stood out. They were the ones who were two-in-one, one conscious being, mind, body, and spirit in one metal body. They were the ones who said, 'We,' instead of 'I.' Their names and identities had merged. Overnine knew what that felt like. He wanted to feel it again.

He said to Kosak, "Do you feel them, brain? That's how you and I have to get. We have to stay alive until we become one."

"I'll try," Kosak said. "I won't let you down."

The ship lurched. The marines shook in their clamps. Then, the troop hold roared with a metal howl, like an oil drum being cut with a circular saw. That was the entry tube cutting through the enemy's hull.

The commander yelled over the platoon net: "Fourth squad, you're breaching."

Overnine thought, Why us? Blood!

The squad's rack lifted from the ranks, and lined up with the entry tube. They were turned to face the entry, and their clamps slung them forward. The airtight hatch slid open, releasing into the cold vacuum of the troop hold a blast of air and frozen crystals from the interior of the enemy ship.

The rack shot them into the enemy ship, like bullets fired from a magazine. As Overnine flew through the tube, he felt the enemy's psychic communications. He felt these through his cerbo. But, Kosak wasn't even aware of them. He said, "Brain. Kosak - do you heat that noise? Your brain senses it. I only hear them through you."

"What?" he said. "That's them? Wow, it is them!"

Overnine flew through the tube. He swung his pike, throwing inertia away from his direction of travel. He landed on the deck, and tossed himself out of the way of the next incoming marine. Overnine set his digital eyes to night vision. Kosak looked through the organic eyes. The enemy ship was in near darkness, but through the night eyes, even a tiny spark was enough to light up a whole room. They had come in straight down onto the ship's topside. There were no klaxons. Lights were out. They were in the passageway designated Bravo-15. Overnine wondered why there was no gravity field. The Medusan ships usually pulled three G's. Maybe they felt nullgrav would help them defend the ship? Well, it wouldn't. Not against the marines.

The walls were smooth metal. The passageway was four meters wide, up and down. There were bulkheads every twenty meters. The squad followed the plan that had been flashed into their memories, and headed sternward down B-15. Overnine had been in B-15 many times, on other fighter hives. B-15 was a hundred meters long and used to bridge the crew compartments to the stern fighter batteries. It was lined with access tunnels leading to gun batteries alpha through gamma, two galleys, and it ended in a T that led to the secondary bridge, the stern fighter batteries, and the aft damage control. In every bulkhead, there was an automated defense gun. In the section of passageway they were in now, the entry bore had taken out the gun.

Overnine took cover at the edge of a bulkhead heading stern. The hatch was open. His was the only squad on the ship. He felt his cerbo panicking. He said, "Take it easy."

"Why are we staying here?" He asked. "We have to go, to let more marines in."

"Just chill," Overnine said. "We can't just board the ship all in one shot so that they can kill us. We have to let them secure the guillotine hatches, so we can destroy them. If we go into the next bulkhead section, they'll close the hatch behind us, shoot us up, and then open it again for the next guys to get killed."

"When will they secure them?" Kosak asked.

"When they decided they've lost enough air," Overnine replied, looking up at the bore tunnel. The hole it made in the bulkhead wasn't exactly airtight. He could see stars through the gap, and the air rushing out, turning to a frozen mist. Stronk air was humid. The gush of escaping air was slowing as the pressure dropped lower and lower.

"I can feel them," Kosak said. "I can feel that they're scared. I think I...I see one, down below, trying to get into a pressure suit! An eight-legged pressure suit!"

"Don't go into their brains," Overnine said. "Use your powers defensively, or they'll mess with your mind."

"Okay," Kosak replied. Just then, the bulkhead shook as the guillotine hatch slammed. Overnine and the squad leader, Jerichon, went into action. They simultaneously brought their pikes down on the guillotine hatch, making two downward strokes that cut straight through the metal. Because the pikes were so well-balanced, their motion didn't throw them out of their place in mid-air. They both crunched, bringing their knees to their foreheads, and holding their pikes across their thighs, as two more marines swung with their pikes, sending blades flying over their head and beneath their feet. Two more cuts appeared in the hatch. The square section flew into the passageway, which had already gone into vacuum. As soon as it was clear, one marine shot into the room, which flashed with intense light as its defense gun opened up. Another marine shot in behind him, and with a flash of his pike, sliced the gun from its overhead mount, destroying it.

Overnine flew into the passageway. The first marine to breach the room was fine - his deflector shield withstood the defense guns assault. Barely. If his squadmate hadn't taken the gun out, another second would have been too much. The squad ripped through the next bulkhead. This one led to a galley. The hatch was sealed. But Kosak could feel them through the bulkhead. He said, "Some are suited up. Some don't have suits. They have some marines in there. They're ready to fight."

Overnine used the hook on his cheek to pull a pin from a grenade. The hatch was cut open. He told Kosak, "The trick here is to let the room depressurize before throwing the grenade in. Otherwise, the pressure gale can throw the grenade back out."

The others pulled their pins. Jerichon let the spoon of his grenade fly. They counted to three, and simultaneously hurled their grenades into the galley. The ship rocked as walls of gas, hard as steel and impregnated with shrapnel, came blasting out of the galley hatch, and tossed them around in the passageway. Kosak felt the lives of the enemies snuffed out. But he wanted to look through the hatch, out of curiosity. Overnine obliged him. The walls were painted with viscera. The blood was crimson; the enemy, too, was an oxygen breather.

While they had destroyed the galley, first squad had proceeded to the next compartment. Fourth squad moved in, and left B-15 and proceeded into T-5, which was an elevator shaft that led straight down to the middle of the ship to the reaction team barracks. The squad's job was to intercept the reaction team. The rest of the dragoons spread out through the ship. Overnine hoped that someone had already made it to aft damage control. That's where the ship could be scuttled.

Knightwish and Dumbtree both had rocket launchers. Overnine held Knightwish's feet, and pushed his upper body into the elevator shaft through the torn-open hatch. There were no cables in shaft; it ran on superconductors. But, it did have emergency brake rails.

"See anything?" Overnine asked.

"Not yet," Knightwish replied.

From Kosak's cerbo, Overnine felt the rumblings of alien anger. He said, "Brain, where's that coming from?"

Kosak paused and listened to the psychic impulses he picked up. He said, "Below us."

Overnine held his tongue – of course it would be coming from below, since they were on the top level of the ship. He asked, "How far down?"

"I'm not sure," Kosak replied.

Jerichon said: "Mission time now five minutes. They should've cracked comms by now. The reaction team should be coming up the shaft any second."

"Maybe this ship doesn't have a reaction team," Knightwish said.

Jerichon said, "No. We feel the reaction team below us." He ordered the rest of the squad to spread out through three sections of passageway. Overnine knew this meant Jerichon was counting on a breach entry…He told this to Kosak, and gripped Knightwish with such force it felt like the marine's armor was bending.

Knightwish yelled "Movement in the shaft! Fire in the hole!"

He fired the rocket straight down the shaft with a powerful push of compressed air. The shaft flared with fire light as the booster motor kicked in. Just as Overnine heaved back to pull Knightwish out of the shaft, gravity returned. Knightwish was pulled down at three G; he suddenly weighed over 2,500 kilos. He went straight down the shaft, pulling Overnine with him. The shaft loomed before his face, and Overnine stared straight down at a pit of flaming wreckage. He held Knightwish by his ankles. They stopped. Overnine's pike was lengthwise against the entrance to the shaft. He had been leaning against it just in case the enemy pulled a trick like this, and now, it held him at his waist. He held on to Knightwish and waited; he didn't have a great grip on the edges of the elevator shaft with his knees, and he expected his squadmates to pull them back at any second. But, Jerichon yelled: "Overnine-Kosak, Knightwish, we can't bunch up in that passageway section! Can you recover yourselves?"

They both replied, "Roger!" Overnine felt Kosak grow excited in him, and felt a movement in his left leg that came from his cerbo. He said, "I got this, kid. Just learn. Don't move us."

"Roger!" his brain replied.

Ten decks below, burst oxygen lines fed the raging fire in the remains of the elevator. Knightwish dropped the spent rocket launcher tube. Three gravities pulled the discarded weapon down with such speed that it didn't even have time to rotate before turning into a dark blur that disappeared into the flames. .He reached up and grabbed Overnine's wrists. Overnine asked, "Got it?" He replied, "Easy." Overnine said, "Letting go in three, two, one." Overnine let go of Knightwish's ankles. The marine's legs dropped down hard, and he climbed up Overnine's arms and over his back, where he dropped back onto the deck, safe in the passageway.

The platoon net was ecstatic. The damage control had been secured. There was no chance for it to be scuttled. The ship was almost under their control. Overnine grabbed his pike, and the passageway exploded.

Though blinded by fire and concussion, he threw his pike wide, to try and catch the edges of the elevator hatch. No luck. He rebounded off the back of the shaft, and threw a hand forward, hoping to catch the bottom of the hatch. But he felt only the slickness of smooth superconductors as he plummeted into the flames.

He crashed through the torn-open elevator ceiling, and cratered into the fiery mess. Kosak didn't even know what had happened. They were enveloped and blinded by white-hot flames. His skin sensors showed the inferno raging at almost 2,000 degrees. Oxygen lines, or oxygen bottles, were feeding the flames eating the reaction team's explosives. Overnine held his pike upright, against his body, and hit the inertia drive. It brought him to the ceiling, where he was stopped by torn metal and cables curled inward. With one hand he fished for the opening, and found it. But, as he tried to pull himself out, torn metal pressed on his shoulder. Overnine felt his armor turning red-hot, and soft. The heat was soaking into his body.

His cerbo screamed: "Get us out of here!" Kosak panicked, and took control of the body. They dropped into the inferno. Overnine shouted: "No!" He had to fight to regain control of his body. As he felt his armor losing its rigidity, and the heat soaking into him, he figured he had about three seconds left before he was toast. He threw his pike up at the ceiling, cutting blindly. Again, he tried to break through. Success! He rose through the ceiling on his pike. But just as his upper body cleared the rough metal and his head saw over the fingers of flames, the upward movement ceased. The inertia drive was overheated.

Kosak screamed, "No!" They fell back into the elevator, and dropped to the floor. Overnine tried to stand, but, the heat was preventing his muscles from contracting well enough. All he could do was crab across the floor.

Kosak screamed: "Overnine, we're dead! We're dead!"

Overnine swept the deck of the elevator with his foot. Finally, he felt a hole. With his last reserve of strength, he dragged himself and his pike toward it. The rocket's exit hole was even bigger than the entry hole, and the metal mushroomed down and away from the floor. It took almost no effort to slide out of it. They dropped in three-g freefall. Overnine grabbed his pike, but the inertia drive was still dead. It took only three seconds to fall past fifteen decks. He swung blindly with the pike, struck a bulkhead. He swung behind himself, and his pike caught the edge of a landing. He somersaulted and his blade impaled the bulkhead. His arms were nearly torn from their sockets as his body yanked down from the pike. The pike gave, but for the precious split second it bit, it had broken his inertia. He was able to grab the edge of the next landing with one hand, and come to a stop.

The only light in the elevator shaft came from the glow of the flames above them. Burning magma and spall dripped down from it, casting flickering shadows against the hellish red light. Overnine waited there, hoping he could cool off. He told Kosak, "Never panic."

"Yeah, I did. I'm sorry," Kosak said. "I can't believe you pulled that off! How'd you do it?"

"Well, I'm not capable of panic. So for me, it's easy not to lose it."

"Right. Man, I wish I had that!" Kosak moved their head, looking around the shaft. He said, "But now, we're separated from the others!" He went to shout out on the platoon net, but, Overnine blocked him. He ordered: "Don't! No. If you do, the enemy will find us. In a situation like this, we gotta make a visual on our friendlies before saying anything."

Overnine-Kosak held onto the ledge with one hand, waiting for their body to cool off. The red-hot debris and liquid slag fell past them like a lava waterfall. A pile of it lay on the bottom of the elevator shaft, some ten decks below, in a glowing pile. The shaft rumbled as a steel wall of gas flew up it. Grenades were cooking off. But, armored marines were nearly impervious to concussion grenades, anyway.

He looked up. The fire was out, but the twisted steel still glowed orange. He tested out the inertia thrower in his pike. It pulled him upward. He let go of the ledge and held the pike to his body. The inertia thrower could only do put out about four G's, and using it prevented it from cooling back down. But they were going up.

The light in the shaft brightened. An elevator hatch opened just below them. Overnine-Kosak glanced down, saw armored bodies with alien limbs clutching short-barreled blasters. As he reached up to grab the hole into the elevator, his deflector shield roared with blue static as it took the shots. The shaft was flooded with purple lightning rays that tried to reach the marine. As he gripped a twisted shard of steel and pulled himself up, the deflector gave away. Rays of purple lightning scalded his armor. He pulled himself up into the elevator, and got to his feet. But, rays tore straight through the deck. It fell away.

Gravity hurled him back down the shaft. The purple lightning rays chased him as the enemy tried to lead their target. The elevator shaft was a blur, and Overnine heard his brain prepare its spirit as it calmly prayed: Forgive me for my sins; I commit my life unto you, Lord.

But, Overnine tucked around his pike, speeding up his spin just enough before striking out with his feet against the shaft bulkhead, and exploding into the open shaft, crashing into a tangled web of long limbs and armored bodies. He stood and pirouetted, clearing the passageway with the double blades of his pike. The air frothed with blood from arterial sprays as severed limbs flew like sticks thrown up in the air. The marine was a blur as he spun like a helicopter blade. Purple lightning struck his faceplate. He lashed out, blind, and felt the familiar impact of his pike cutting through an armored neck.

His faceplate was washed with blood. He cleaned it with a wiper that blinked out of a recess in the helmet. He'd decapitated a scorpion-like creature the size of a horse. It was a Stronk. It was the last of his opponents. It fell over, dead. He stood waist-deep in twitching armored corpses as red mist rose from the ocean of blood on the deck. It was blood, boiling and crystallizing in the frigid vacuum.

Overnine said to his brain, "Next time, pray to God when you're hopeless. Not while you can still fight."

Kosak was elated as he surveyed the destruction. "Good Lord! How did you do that? That was nothing like a simulation."

Overnine pulled them out of the mess. "When does a simulator simulate landing in the middle of a squad of enemies? Well, anyway, these ones were just technicians and pilots." As he struggled to get back out of the passageway, the elevator shaft hatch slammed in his face. Overnine cursed. As he prepared to cut his way through, his deflector shield hissed with blue static as it was pelted with attacks. Around him, the purple rays cut into the armored corpses, which burst into steam and flames. Overnine told Kosak: "We have to attack."

But, his body turned before he even willed it to. As he leapt down the hall at the enemy, he realized that Kosak was the one moving him. And as the blades swept through an enemy, he realized, Kosak did that, too! He likes this. And he's not afraid.

But, they'd gone far enough. With his deflector almost dead, Overnine took control of their body. He threw grenades at the cyclic rate. Like a machine gun firing bullets from a belt, he pulled them from his bandolier, pulled the pins, and hurled them at each dark shadow behind a purple bolt. As the passageway exploded in front of him, he drew his blaster, and while holding his pike to the side so that his shooting hand was clear of the radius of the deflector shield, he stood like a statue in the middle of the passageway, and fired at everything until everything lay still.

A miasma filled the hallway. With their thermals, they could see a long row of destroyed enemy bodies losing their heat to the vacuum. Kosak came to, as if out of a daydream, and asked. "Did you do that, or did I do it?"

"We both did," Overnine said. "We were one."

They took cover behind a bulkhead, and let the deflector recharge. They looked back at the elevator shaft, and thought, Let's get out of here.

There was movement from down the passageway. Overnine had a bad feeling. The Stronk would throw technicians, pilots - whoever they could spare - against raiders in a last ditch effort to protect a ship. But their soldiers and marines were a different story. He said, "We're leaving."

They ran for the hatch. Their head hummed with an electric buzz that rose to a shrieking crescendo before blinking into silence.

Kosak said, "It's a scrambler!"

Overnine replied: "Kosak, they got my frequency! You'll have to - "

The marine collapsed to the deck.

Kosak rose to his knees. He called out: "Overnine?"

No reply.

Scrambled, he thought. The enemy scramblers had knocked out Overnine's mind. Or, more accurately, Overnine had tripped a shutdown before he could be compromised.

Kosak stood. The marine's metal body was entirely his. He couldn't remember the last time he felt so alone. He looked down at his armored hands as he gripped his pike, and flexed his muscles under his armor. This was deja vu back to training, when they'd first installed his brain into a prosthetic body. But this wasn't a trainer; this was an armored marine. He surveyed the carnage around him, stood, and looked down the hall. It was filled with light too intense for his digital eyes or his organic eyes. It blinded his thermals, too. The enemy didn't want him to see him coming. He polarized his visor until he could take in the target. It was a meter taller than he was, but had a low-slung body carried on eight stubby legs. A long-nosed head sat on a short neck, and a pair of powerful arms carried a pike. It was armored like a tank, and surrounded by a deflector shield. But, worse than that, Kosak felt its thoughts probing his mind.

Medusan, he realized. He stood his ground, found his mental bearing, and harnessed his psychic energies. He shut his mind, and thought: I must protect my , I cannot look them in the eye! He searched the deck for a weapon, and picked up one of the techie's blasters. From enemy weapons training, it wasn't unfamiliar to him. The Stronk had hands that were remarkably human, so the pistol grip, safety, and trigger were all easy to operate. He stood in the shooting position, covering all but his hand with the deflector, and fired at the advancing enemy. Once again, he heard the hum of a scrambler, searching for a machine mind to corrupt. But, Overnine wasn't back yet. Why wasn't he back? Kosak kept firing. The enemy's deflector shield turned into a blue globe of static, like a shimmering planet of water. Where was Overnine? Kosak suddenly realized he had to mentally reactive his masino. He had to…But he couldn't. Why couldn't he? It was just a mental trigger – a wish. But something held him back.

The enemy was closing on him. Kosak didn't back up all the way. He couldn't back himself into the pile of bodies, because he would have no floor to fight on. He had forgotten about awakening Overnine. Why? With a pure act of will, he reactivated his partner. He felt him awakening, rebooting. The enemy was on him now, But, Kosak held his pike at the ready, and took a combat stance. He thought, I can do this!

He looked up at the enemy's armored horse head. Through clear portal globes, its eyes glowed like emeralds filled with sunlight. Kosak thought, No! Not the eyes. Why did I look at them!

But, it was too late. The Medusan had his brain. Kosak fell back, blind. His body jerked like a puppet on a string as the enemy controlled it.

Overnine was almost back to life. He shouted: "Five seconds. I'm almost loaded."

Kosak felt a wave of pressure, and heard voices on the platoon net: "We have visual on Overnine-Kosak. A friggin' Medusan's got him! Nail that bastard!"

Kosak felt the alien presence in his mind control his metal body through his brain. He turned off his deflector and held his arms wide as he dropped the pike. He tried to fight it, but he felt like a worm under the boot of a giant. Somehow, he felt no fear. He was calm enough to reflect on what he'd done wrong. And, he realized that the Medusan had controlled him from the first moment their minds made contact. Yet, the control had been so subtle that he thought he had been acting of his own will, until it was too late.

His sight returned. The enemy was rearing back. The pike plunged straight for his chest.

Overnine shouted: "Back!" With immense relief, Kosak felt the machine mind take control of the paralyzed body. Overnine twisted away from the striking weapon, but was knocked to the floor. Without missing step, he snatched up his pike, and popped out the deflector shield. His squadmates had breached the elevator hatch, and fired on the enemy even as he traded pike blows with it. The enemy's deflector dropped, a blaster shot to the head stunned it, and a lucky shot snapped the pike in two. The enemy was wide open. Overnine struck with all his force, plus the full power of his pike's inertia thrower. The pike struck the chestplate of the enemy's armor at 8,521 meters per second, boring through it, and impaling the enemy's body straight to its tail, destroying everything it met. Overnine's arm up to the shoulder was inside the enemy's body. He retracted it and his weapon in a geyser of blood. The beast fell over.

Faintly, Overnine thought he heard a voice: I failed. Forgive me.

He said, "Kosak, I told you to save your prayers for -"

Damage alarms screamed at him. His brain's life support readings were tanked. He looked down at himself. There were three possible locations for a brain housing unit to be installed inside a marine. Left chest module space, right chest module space, or center bottom module space. Overnine carried power modules in two of those places. He'd carried the brain housing unit in the left chest module. There, his armor had been punctured. A tiny red vapor trail wafted out of the wound, into the cold vacuum, and disappeared.

He called, "Kosak…"

No reply. His chest felt empty. The presence of the human's mind and spirit had left him. The feeling of complete control over his body was one that he'd become too familiar with. He called out: "Medic!" He flashed the status of his cerbo. But, he knew there was no chance. Brains were never injured. Especially in space. They were just killed.

As the fighting continued down the hall, and the cry of frequency scramblers rose and fell, Overnine knelt on the floor as the medic opened his backplate and tried to retrieve the brain housing unit. His body rocked as the medic tried to free it loose. Finally, he slammed the backplate back down in disgust, and said, "I can't get the brain box out. Not here. The box was impaled, straight through. It's nothing but twisted metal. We'll have to do it on ship. Can you function?"

Overnine's left shoulder and arm strength was still at 80% capacity. He replied, "Affirmative. But, what's the status of my casualty?" He stood, and turned to the medic. He looked just like any other marine, but just had some extra kit. He was also a sergeant.

The medic held up his armored fingers, which were covered in steaming slime that boiled and froze in the vacuum. Overnine realized what it was from. The medic said, "Casualty status is: brain juice. We don't have any other cerbos for you to get killed, so hang back with the rear guard, Overnine."

Despite receiving a direct order, Overnine somehow stood there for a moment, staring at the medic. Without a cerbo inside him, he didn't have any feelings. But, for some reason, he had to react the same way Deathsong would have. He leaned into the medic, and said: "Get wrecked, you bloody maggot."

The medic jumped back, glancing at the hole in Overnine's chest, and then looking at the remains on his hands, as if he couldn't believe that the marine said that on his own. But, before he could respond, Overnine left him, and took up position in the rear of the passageway. Artificial blood from the life support system froze on his chest, and a tendril of vapor drifted up into the merciless cold. He thought, I tried, Kosak. I'm sorry.