When fire and steel meet flesh and bone, a soldier learns a hard truth: you're not fighting for Glory and Honor, but for survival, for you and your comrades, and you will be damned if you're going to leave any of them behind.
Join us for twelve tales of military heroism and courage in the face of a hostile enemy.
With stories by Brenda Cooper, Bud Sparhawk, David Sherman, Robert E. Waters, Jeff Young, James Chambers, Lisanne Norman, Robert Greenberger, Aaron Rosenberg, Christopher M. Hiles, Eric V. Hardenbrook, and Danielle Ackley-McPhail
Send in the (space) marines! If lasers and space battles are your thing, this one's perfect for you. Twelve tales of military heroism and courage, a little pick-me-up for your evening commute after work (or to wake you up with your morning coffee!). – J. Scott Coatsworth
"This impressive anthology of 12 military sf stories pairs suspense with heart, showcasing oppressive regimes, deeds of heroism in the wake of alien invasions, and the depths of limitless, unknown space."– Publisher’s Weekly
"These tales are meticulously detailed and sometimes blur together in their thematic similarities, evoking a constant sense of urgency and desperation in high-stakes situations."– Publisher’s Weekly
"Readers of military science fiction will appreciate the authors' inventiveness as they make old tropes new again."– Publisher’s Weekly
A Beach on Nellus
Sarah Nuhr FitzRose spotted the missing planet cruiser, Mercury, submerged beneath clear water at the end of a trail gouged through the jungle to the narrow beach and into the bright, rippling surf. A tongue flick to the sheath of her helmet lit her augmented reality display. Among the illuminated strings of data blinked a red icon, confirming the proximity of the beacon sewn into the abducted girl's clothes.
Sarah scouted the shore for a place to land. The next nearest scrap of earth on Nellus lay 660 miles away across a world covered 98 percent by ocean. She banked the glider and eyed a sandy strip fringed by vine-draped trees and elephantine leaves. Cutting altitude until spray kicked up, she fired her braking thrusters then skimmed her glider's belly across the surface to slow her approach. The glider lurched eastward. Sarah wrestled with it on course, skipping from wave crest to wave crest. She nosed down, plunging the glider beneath the fluid's skin. The sharp drop in speed pitched her forward, knocking her helmet against the cockpit glass. Caught by the undertow, her glider jerked into shallow waters then spun and skidded up the beach, furrowing sand until it stopped hard against a thick wall of entwined tree trunks.
The glider's systems malfunctioned and winked out. The echo of the crash rang in Sarah's ears.
When the shock faded, she punched the cockpit release, lifted the glass, and spilled out onto the soft sand. Wrestling her feet under her, she stood, surveyed her landing, and found the glider's frame crumpled beyond repair.
She activated a sensor in her helmet to initiate a diagnostic app for her vital signs and then confirmed her weapon remained holstered at her waist. Her sleek, black body suit looked undamaged, and seconds later the diagnostic confirmed her stats as normal and verified the com-link to her orbiting ship, the Sif. She retrieved her gear bag from the wreck and slung it across one shoulder.
Ahead, an endless ocean confronted her. Behind, the abyssal dark of deep jungle awaited. To either side the pale sand narrowed until it vanished between the two realms. She could swim along the shore or trek through the lush growth to reach the Mercury. Either way, she belonged to Nellus now, to its barely charted oceans and its inscrutable jungle untouched since its discovery early in the Myriarchy War.
She referenced her frustratingly limited planetary knowledgebase. Nellus had claimed seven exploratory expeditions before then being ignored because it held no strategic value. The planet's most common fauna, nicknamed nellies, resembled, according to their database image, a monstrous mix of lobster and tuna with a long, translucent fin rising from its back. Each had two mouths set vertically parallel and ringed with razor-sharp teeth. They hunted in schools, which could devour their prey completely in seconds, but feeding frenzies often continued with the school consuming its own, reducing its numbers by as much as one third before satiating its hunger. Only Nellus' sea clouds, rare, enormous creatures larger even than Earth's blue whales, preyed on the nellies. The database listed no such predators on land, making the jungle path far more inviting.
She cycled through her full mission plan. Radiant ghosts of terrain maps slid across her view augmented by meager data—water content, soil composition, weather patterns—regarding Nellus' vast oceans dotted by a few scattered land masses. Even the largest of them sometimes vanished beneath its tides. The only thing Sarah knew less about was her objective: the abducted girl.
The Commission's need for secrecy rankled her. With all the resources at its disposal, it had sent her on what should've been a simple recovery run—but the Commission never called on Sarah for anything simple. Her direct lineage back to Earth qualified her as a Registered Agent, eligible for the service's highest ranks and the trust that necessitated. She only pulled missions that required exceptionally hard work or exceptionally difficult choices, the kind that could sway the future of the Commission. Even more unusual, Cultural Relations Commissioner Ariana Dey had issued her orders. The lone Commissioner from Darinthe, the only world to stay independent after choosing the wrong side in the Myriarchy War, Dey stood apart from her ruling colleagues despite talk of her secret romance with Pen Bouchard, the First among the Commissioners. The unspoken bonds and tenuous alliances beneath the Commission's surface seemed as daunting as Nellus' oceans, the rumors of fresh dissent as challenging as its jungles. The lost girl could be anyone and her abduction could mean anything.
Sarah locked the homing signal on her display and entered the jungle. The ground rose in shallow steppes, as if carved by giants, no doubt eroded by varying tides over the course of many centuries. A leafy canopy diminished all but the strongest rays of sunlight, forcing her to rely on the spotlight affixed to the side of her helmet. The homing signal pinned the wreck a mile from her position, maybe half an hour's walk through the tangled vegetation.
Clusters of soft, fleshy vines dangled from the trees. When Sarah pulled on them they snapped and exuded a milky green sap. She gazed above her seeking their origin, but the dusky heights revealed nothing. Dense vine curtains thickened or parted with the subtlety of wind currents tickling water until Sarah realized they moved with a purpose, directing her toward the jungle's core. Whenever she corrected course, the vines closed ranks and guided her in another direction. She walked a few feet, tried again to turn, eliciting the same response. Now the vines grew stronger and coarser. The pathway they shaped offered a tunnel defined by a loose mesh before it tapered into darkness.
Sarah's spotlight penetrated the shadows. At the light's farthest limit, a huge, indistinct mass recoiled from the artificial brightness.
She slid her knife from its sheath on her thigh and slashed at the forbidding vines. Her blade severed the thinnest ones, but only gouged chunks from the largest. Bits of plant matter dropped down and disgorged thick green ooze. Sarah lashed out and pushed onward, moving as swiftly as she could manage.
Behind her something stirred in lumbering pursuit.
The vines rustled, and the ground quivered—then in a moment the vines slithered rapidly together to form a swaying wall behind her, broken only where she had cut them. A menacing bulk trundled along the other side, afraid or unable to pursue Sarah farther. Eager to put distance between her and whatever the vines hid, Sarah resumed her ascent, gripping exposed tree roots and protruding stones until she reached the island's peak. From there she spied an unexpected and unwelcome sight.
Devastation scarred the hillside. A crater roughly thirty feet in diameter. Rocks and soil, spewed upward by the impact, coated the surrounding turf. Trees lay scattered at the edge of the blast area, letting full sunlight pour into the jungle. Sarah's sensors read the crater as cold, hours old. She saw no sign of the object that had created it. One edge had crumbled in on itself. Loose dirt had then been packed down, forming a crude ramp out of the concavity. Wide patches of trammeled soil led up and away like mammoth footprints. Sarah read the signs, and what they said chilled her so much she feared she might already be too late to save the girl.
Chasing the fairy flicker of the homing signal, she raced around the crater, her body suit protecting her against branches and thorns. Pushing faster, she soon reached the shore, sloshing into mud that gave way to shallow water that frothed as she stampeded into it. She struggled against the current as the surf rose to her knees, then to her waist, and she emerged into undiluted daylight. The homing icon flickered. Not far away the Mercury's dim bulk shimmered.
Her sensors showed no activity in the area. She primed her body suit for submersion, switching from filtered air to its internal supply, and then dove beneath the surf. The craft rested twenty-five feet below her. Only a little farther, the shoreline plummeted, the change in depth darkening the water. As Sarah neared the Mercury she saw a hole three feet round and scored black at the base of the ship's tail, above the engines, the most likely cause of its crash. She swam to the hatch. Her suit struggled to maintain equilibrium as she dove deeper.
Sarah found the external release along the underside of the rim and activated it. A torrent of air bubbled out from within as water flooded the opening. The hatch flipped back against the hull with a muted clang. On the fringe of her sensor range a mass of small objects appeared. Not waiting for a positive identification, she quickly slipped inside the Mercury, sealing the hatch closed behind her.
Automatic systems pumped out the water, allowing Sarah to open the inner door. Four space suits hung along the wall in the next chamber. A door led farther into the craft. The ship's atmosphere remained intact, allowing Sarah to switch back to filters and preserve her internal air supply.
Only auxiliary systems seemed active, leaving Sarah to explore the sleeping machine by the dim glow of emergency lights and harsh brightness of her spotlight. She followed the homing signal to a cabin with an unmade bunk, wall desk, and a chair. A girl's blouse lay draped across the bunk. Squeezing the thermal fabric, Sarah discovered the transmitter sewn within the collar. She tore it loose and swore. The flashing icon vanished from her display. She tucked the useless transmitter into her equipment pack, and then explored the remainder of the ship, except for the rearmost section, sealed tight against water taken on through the pierced hull.
In the cockpit she found the pilot, slumped dead in his seat.
A wound gaped in his side. Pooled blood had grown tacky around him. Maybe the crash had killed the pilot, or he had left the ship and retreated back inside to die, fatally wounded by nellies. Or maybe the abducted girl was tougher than Sarah expected and fought her captors.
Sarah summoned the flight record on the ship's computer. It listed a crew of two and one passenger, all unidentified, offering hope that the girl had survived and fled with the other crew member. Sarah removed her helmet. Despite the ship's clammy air, it felt good to shake loose her short, blonde hair and rub the base of her neck where the helmet clasp chafed her skin. From a small panel in the helmet she uncoiled a thin cable. She popped open the command-deck console with her knife, exposing the innards of the ship's computer, then snapped the plug of her helmet cable into a memory interface and downloaded the ship's records.
The transfer completed, Sarah donned her helmet, then retraced her steps, pausing outside the hatch as her sensors swept her surroundings, finding no signs of life. She swam for the island, making it halfway before the mysterious cluster of small objects reappeared, angling toward her. She kicked faster, pulled harder with each stroke, racing for the shallows. The school gained on her with terrifying speed.
When her sensors showed it within visual range, she glanced back and her stomach sank. Hundreds of nellies approached like a giant whip of teeth lashing the water. She sought a rock or reef for cover, but only barren sand lay between her and the island. A tangle of low jungle growth swayed in the water ahead. She wouldn't reach it in time. Her suit would offer some protection but not for long. She slipped her weapon from its holster and switched off the safety.
As she prepared to fire at her pursuers, her sensors detected a new object—mammoth and rising from below the sea cliff, so big her gear couldn't measure it. Then it appeared, a vast form pouring up from the depths, casting a shadow over her, the Mercury, and the nellies, turning the crystalline-bright sea to twilight. A sea cloud. Unexpected calm blossomed in Sarah's mind as though a force outside herself reached out to reassure her. Then the huge creature twisted—or perhaps merely turned a limb—and the school of nellies scattered. Half disappeared in the sea cloud's grip, or maw, or a fold of flesh. Sarah couldn't tell. The others thrashed, struggling to regroup. Exploiting the moment, Sarah pressed forward to the shallows, resisting the urge to look back at the sea cloud until she pulled herself from the water and into the notch of an ancient tree root.
Away from shore the sea boiled. The partial outline of a behemoth corralled the remaining nellies. Sarah tongue-flicked to snap on her helmet camera then watched the beast roil the ocean, dispersing the school of nellies, consuming those too slow to flee. With grace that contrasted its bulk, the sea cloud slipped back over the cliff, descending to the onyx deeps. After it left, Sarah shut her eyes and rested.