A damaged cyborg soldier and an enemy alien fighter turn their backs on the war and try to escape. But the human and alien governments can't tolerate the two deserters working together, so they join forces to hunt them down.
"I'm slowly building up the complete collection of Kevin Anderson stories and this short story is a gem. But then again, who would expect less from a confirmed master story teller? I didn't expect such a switch in the plot. Left me smiling. Another example of Kevin's writing skills and innovative thinking."– Amazon Review
Palming the power stud on his laser rifle, Rader leaped into the alien trench and sighted on his enemy. Targeting vectors appeared on the inner surface of his helmet face shield, and the tactile sensors on his gloves linked to his artificial hands.
Ten Jaxxans skittered along the angled trenches they had dug as they made progress across the planetoid's contested landscape. Moving in ranks, they all reacted in unison to his arrival. The enemy did not like, did not understand, unpredictability.
As a Deathguard, Rader was unpredictable. He had been designed that way.
He found his balance on the loose pea-gravel, used his momentum to keep charging forward. In their open bug-tunnels, the Jaxxans had no room to scatter, nor did they have time.
The brain fire pounded through him, the Werewolf Trigger that insisted he kill, KILL! He was a well-armored bull-in-a-china-shop, brain still alive along with a patchwork of his original body, hooked up to spare parts that allowed him to be sent back onto the battlefield. The chaos he provoked was part of a tactical plan issued by officers far from the battlefield; Deathguards weren't expected to survive long, though.
Rader had been briefed about this as a new recruit, though he hadn't ever considered it a real possibility while he and his squadmates laughed about squashing roaches. But the officials had made him the offer, showing him the contract as he lay there hooked up to complex life-support mechanisms in the med-center bed. Rader had barely been able to read the type with his one remaining eye.
"You want this, soldier? Or would you rather just be disconnected?"
The answer had seemed obvious. At the time.
Now the first alien died before he even saw the Deathguard: a pinpoint of red laser light burned through his chitinous face. Cyborg components kicked in, and Rader swiveled, sweeping the area with the nose of his weapon. Energy gels and synthetic adrenaline kept him moving, kept him shooting.
There were ten Jaxxans, then seven, then four in the invisible wake of his beam.
Much of the surface of the planetoid Fixion was a no-man's land, slashed with enemy trenches and tunnels interspersed with watchtowers. The aliens liked geometric order, but used unsettling angles, tilted planes, rarely straight lines. They had already occupied twenty asteroids in the Fixion Belt, just as the human army had; now both sides fought over the rest of the territory, particularly this central planetoid.
No longer part of the Earth League forward lines, Rader had already served his term as a soldier, given it his all, and now had this "opportunity" to give some more, for as long as he might last. He was there as an independent berserker, armed and juiced, sent into the no-man's land without any obvious military objective—it drove the Jaxxans nuts.
Deathguards were expensive and effective, categorized as Vital Equipment rather than Personnel—and so far the PR victories had been worth every penny of the military's investment. Or so Rader had heard; he was not on the list for explanations.
In short order, he killed eight of the Jaxxans in the trench, but he found himself wound in the luminous green threads of an energy-web cast by the last two aliens. The mentally projected web closed around him in a glowing net that would short out his armor and destroy his components—both the artificial ones and his biological ones.
But the Werewolf Trigger screamed at him like a drill sergeant inside his head. KILL! KILL! And he obeyed. The last of the Jaxxans fell to the trench floor, angular limbs twitching, and the coalescing energy-web faded.
The mindless Werewolf Trigger died to a whisper as the threat diminished and he calmed himself. Now that Rader could see more than a red haze, he gazed upon the carnage. The filters in his helmet blocked out the stench of burned meat and boiled ichor.
Alone, Rader recorded high-res images of the dead enemy in the trenches, transmitted his kills to HQ, and received acknowledgment but no praise.
He didn't need to remind himself that these Jaxxans weren't human. He stared at their scattered bodies, trying to compare them to something from Earth; they evoked locusts, lizards, and skeletons all at once. The aliens were unnaturally thin, with tough skin that resembled chitin. Their eyes were striking, large black globes that reflected the goldenrod light of Fixion's sun.
The Jaxxans carried no weapons, nor did they encase themselves in armor. All their power, their energy-webs, and everything else about them (he wasn't sure how much was rumor and how much was truth) originated in the minds behind those eerie polished eyes. Many Jaxxans supposedly studied human culture and language, but he hadn't had a chance for conversation to confirm it.
The walls of the shallow trench rolled inward, sliding down to cover the bodies. The sandy, gravelly soil of Fixion was lousy for digging trenches in—not to mention lousy for growing things in, lousy for building things in, lousy for living in. As a matter of honor, the Earth League would never let the Jaxxans have it, and the alien command apparently felt the same way.
Time to move on, keep finding targets, keep causing trouble—Commissioner Sobel had told him he might have four weeks of operational capability before the brain/cyborg interface deteriorated. He followed the Jaxxan trench, taking the path of least resistance, but he encountered no other Jaxxans. The trench bent in one direction, then another, but ultimately went nowhere.
Off in the distance, near the asteroid's foreshortened horizon, human artillery brought down a tall Jaxxan watchtower, and soldiers clashed in a forward offensive as part of the official military plan. His comrades. Former comrades.
Rader didn't belong there, would not be going back to the main base on the far side of Fixion, would not be going home.
He climbed out of the trench and set off across the open landscape.