Esta Gulbahar sat next to me custom loading drum magazines for her 12-gauge Beowulf. She liked to alternate tungsten slugs with Frag-12 rounds to get what she termed ‘maximum tactical versatility’.

“It’s the new black,” she had explained. “Goes with anything.” The steady click – rack, click- rack, click – rack was the loudest thing in the troop compartment.

The Night Raven hissed through pale, early morning Mèng Tiān sky, a straight up predatory species of gunship made by just for us by Gordon-Granstrom Aerodynamics. It was carbon fiber composites, sharp insectile angles, and weapon pods wrapped in bleeding edge tech. Stealth and lethality done right.

“Talk security to me,” Esta said when she’d finished.



I called up the target building’s floor plan on the squad tac-net. “Standard civilian alarm and CCTV set-up. KCA estimates there will be body guards with light automatics, maybe someone will bring a micro sentry gun to show off. Remember, the TIMs are trying to keep this low-key – not only from us but from the hardliners.”

“How many of these moderates can we expect?” Rucker asked.

My cyber-link blinked though the KCA and Fleet Intelligence intercepts. “Five. With bodyguards. So an estimated ten to fifteen trigger pullers.”

“Awful crowded. How about more nerve gas? Boom vests?”

I shook my head. “They’re coming to talk to each other.”

“Civilians?” Marco Sandoval asked. “You want me to bring extra Trauma Packs in case these assholes light the place up?”

“It gets to that, we’re already in the shit,” I said.  “The building is a legit civilian operation. Administration, labor, machinists. Unarmed bystanders will be considered just that. Sympathizers but not hostile.”

“Unless they have a weapon,” Rucker pointed out.

“Unless they have a weapon that they’re waving in your direction,” I clarified.

“But our Gnats will have their sniffers on, right?” Esta pressed. “These guys already proved they aren’t worried about overspray. Or blowing shit up – if push comes to shove.”

“Of course,” I said.

Our recon micro- drones had been upgraded beyond audio-visual to include airborne particulate detection sensors that could pick up trace elements of explosives, chemical or biological agents. They weren’t as sensitive as specialized EOD equipment, but were reliable enough to provide a warning under normal conditions – which could prove handy indeed.

“But no serious tech-threat to speak of?” Chandra asked. Our drone and robotics specialist, he was calibrating the gun sights on the heavy armored Pitbull that would accompany us.

“None.” I enlarged the diagram until the seventh floor filled the display. Offices, closets, halls were all neatly marked and visible – except for a large blank rectangle in the center.

“The TIMs paranoia about KCA surveillance made them pull a total NOOB move,” I explained. “They completely masked off this conference room with thermal tiles and soundproofing. Serious over-compensation. Like most home-grown uprisings, they can only imagine their immediate level of competence.”

Chandra shook his head. “With the KCA that’s pretty low, but the Timmies have been watching too many action-vids. They think they’re hidden, but nothing screams out ‘LOOK HERE’ like a huge deliberate white-out.”

“Hey,” Rucker said. “I’m fine with them being stupid. Makes our job easier.”

Using his cyber-link, he made the block of dead space pulse with light. “So let’s go snatch ’em up. The sooner our Fleet pals get an Intel-windfall, the sooner we’re fold-spacing our way off the frozen ass-crack of the Kepler system to go kill people somewhere tropical.”

A murmur of approval rustled around the troop compartment.

The pilot’s voice cut in our headsets. “Five minutes to drop.”

Rucker hefted his AR-60. “Wooo hooo. Another glorious day in the Corps,” Rucker shouted. “Get on the ready line.”

Marco Sandoval sighed. “Someone’s been watching old movies again.”



From the air, Wen Chang looked like a city half-buried.

Turns out it was more than half.

Chang 2 had been significantly built up in the years following the mines’ closing, but Sahito said 68.7 percent of the buildings were still below the permafrost. There were buildings growing out of holes, peeking through the snow-dusted surface. Concentric patterns of ridges and mounds revealed underground transit lines and habitation domes. Underground access points dotted the landscape like ant holes. The typical colony pre-fabs didn’t appear until the outer edge of the city, blocks of stacked mono-color Con-hex pods covered in solar panels. Each section or district was connected by an enclosed, above ground railway.

According to KCA files, Mèng Tiān’s wealthy and influential preferred to remain underground at the city center where it was safer and warmer. New arrivals and lower class workers who were forced to live on the wintery surface in the suburbs. Rucker joked that the citizens took their social stratification literally. “Must be a translation issue,” he said.

What was designated the Gōngyè lìrùn District was actually a collection of eight square blocks of identical, squat 10-story colony pods at the southern edge of the city.  Another kilometer past them, the fifteen-meter high durasteel blast wall marked the beginning of the gray, desolate tundra, and it was a toss-up as to which was more bleak and depressing.

Helluva thing to see after you’ve travelled five hundred light years on the promise of a fresh start.

Zombie Six’s part in this operation was simple: land on the roof, then move down to the seventh floor and introduce ourselves.

Katja, the Pitbull drone, and I would take the building’s stairs, the point of access where we expected the most resistance. The Pitbull’s dorsal-mounted AP15 would be slaved to our tactical network for fire support.

The rest of Zombie Six Two was divided into two, two-person elements that would rappel down the outside of the building, one on the north, the other on the east. This was blunt instrument ops – about as ‘direct action’ as we got. The three teams would meet on the target floor at the same time sudden and noisy. No cyber-ops. No covert infiltration.  No stand-off engagement. This was up close and personal this morning.

The Night Raven dipped. “Descending to target,” the pilot warned. “Twenty seconds.”

I hit the com-link tab on the roof of my mouth. Switch to secure squad tac-net.

Zombie 6 answered. Acknowledged.

There was a shudder and blink as our tactical network came online. Suddenly, ambient temperature, wind speed and direction, squad member vitals and relative location, the positions and status of additional assets were all marked in our augmented vision by colored icons and alpha-numeric readings. ‘Knowledge is Power’ the saying went, and Chandra called this ‘ tactical omniscience’. Nano-tech, smart weapons, mimetic camo, composite armor… if there was one thing that gave us the advantage in combat, this was it.


Zombie Six was beside me, locked, cocked and ready to rock. One hundred and thirty-eight meters on the street below, the Fleet Marines had secured the perimeter and were preparing to roll up to the front doors.

The Night Raven slid to a sudden halt in mid-air. “Hovering over target,” the pilot called.

The side doors opened. There was a blast of bright pale light and a chill wind, swirling with snow crystals. The sky around us was crowded with torn woolen clouds. Directly below was a gray patch of rubberized asphalt roof, rimmed with banks of black solar panels. Our tactical overlay highlighted the rooftop door in yellow.

Bungee lines secured, Zombie Six jumped without a word.


Chandra opened the rooftop door and let the cloud of micro-drones swarm inside. Gnats out, he sent. Good hunting.

See you downstairs in four and a half minutes, I linked back. Let’s wrap this up in time for lunch.

Aye, aye, boss.

The Pitbull went in next. Katja stroked its sleek side as it passed. It’s more feline that canine.  I’m filing for a unit re-designation. ‘Bagheera’ is sexier.

Sexier name for gun drone, right. I’ll make a note, I sent back.

The drone stopped, crouched in the half-light of the stairwell. The front sensor pod between its shoulders started blinking steadily as it linked with our tactical network. It recognized and acknowledged each Zombie Six’s IFF-RFID tags, processed the building’s layout, and synced its imaging with our HUDs. Katja and I could now see whatever it saw through its gun camera, and override its fire control if necessary.

All this calibration took less than three seconds. When it finished, the dorsal gun raised with a twitch and it started noiselessly down the stairs. Katja was right: the dark armor, four digitigrade legs, the slinking posture made it look like a stalking panther – one cased in carbon fiber armor with an assault rifle attached to its spine.

‘Bagheera’ works, I admitted.

I could feel Katja smile as she slipped in behind it. I followed.

At the first landing, the Fleet Marine comms squelched briefly: the Marines were on the move. Bootnecks rolling up in two-hundred seconds, I sent to the squad. Once they arrive, give it another ten seconds for the news to reach the seventh floor.

Rappel lines in place for elements two and three, Rucker signaled. We’re ready.

The Pitbull and the Gnats were on the seventh floor landing, pinging ‘All Clear’.  

Acknowledged, I replied.

There were no cameras, motion detectors, no alarms blaring, no sudden chatter, no sign anyone downstairs was aware of our presence.

I love surprises, Katja said, and she hopped her butt up onto the railing and slid down the stairwell.

Damn kids.

The Gnats had dispersed through the air vents, spreading to every section of the seventh floor. Individually, their tiny sensors were extremely limited, but when used in a swarm, their combined input created a complete, real time picture of an area.

We paused on the landing and within a fraction of a second, our tactical displays bloomed with new data. The floor plan became a 3D ghost map in green wire frame that showed every hall, room, closet and window. There were eleven identified civilian workers on the floor, along with nine additional unidentified individuals. All of them were military age males who, according to thermal scans, were sporting civilian grade body armor and stolen KCA weapons under their coveralls and mining jackets. The weapons were AK9s – Alley Kat Nine submachine guns. .40 caliber bullet hoses.

We could ‘see’ exactly where they were and what they were doing. Which was just standing around.

The conference room in the center of the floor remained a huge block of dead space.

They even sealed the air vents, Katja noted.

Something scratched in my bones but according to the scan, other than the gun-toting temps, there was no obvious threat or commotion. The Fleet channel squawked right then: the Marines were at the entrance.

Show time, I sent. Drop on my mark.

I tapped Katja’s shoulder and she opened the door for the Pitbull.

Pitbull off the leash, I sent on the squad channel. Execute.



Katja threw open the door and she and I went down the hall, me left and high, her low on the right. The Pitbull bounded down the middle. In my mind’s eye, I could sense the rest of Zombie Six sliding down the exterior of the building. I could feel their tension and ferocity.

We’d just entered the first office area when Rucker and Esta, Marco and Chandra came crashing through the north and west-facing windows. All of us had pre-recorded voice boxes on our tact-vests shouting in Putonghua and Uyghur for people to ‘Get Down’ and ‘Police – Do Not Resist’.

Four of the unidentified males were dead before they hit the floor. Another two, less than two seconds later. Katja, the Pitbull, and I accounted for the remaining three.

They were trying to leave without saying goodbye, Katja sent.

The civilians were unharmed but in shock. The wind was rushing through the broken windows and I could hear frantic babbling and moans.

The Gnats had swarmed around the center conference room. Still nothing. Our brief spasm of violence hadn’t stirred up an response.

That’s odd, I sent.

What’s odd? Katja sent back.

Rucker and Chandra were in the hall right outside the door. Rucker switched off the secure cyber-link. “Let’s go introduce ourselves,” he said, and reached for the door.

In the air vent, five of the Gnat’s chemical monitors abruptly jumped from green to yellow to red: traces of Ammonium Nitrate.

“Don’t!” I shouted to Rucker.

There was a bright sound like the sky roaring and a feeling of giant fists, then everything went black.



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