Dust on my Boots

I got a vague message from one of my old Guristas contacts, from before I became a capsuleer; a twitchy Khanid dropship pilot named Ivar with the Royal Uhlans who didn’t mind “losing things” in the paperwork or doing a bit of night-flying for profit, saying that he wanted to meet me with something hot. Boy he wasn’t kidding.

He requested that we meet at a med-station out in Mordu’s space, which was unusual. Not the region, Mordu space was a natural meeting point for mercenaries and those who have their own reasons for being away from the Empires. No, the med-station was what bothered me. Normally it would have been a bar, and we both knew more than one in the area.

As was usual, he sat in the food court, sitting by himself, staring off into space, eyes glazed with a faint smirk played across his lips. I almost didn’t recognize him. He looked bulkier than I remembered him, and paler too. More prominent veins that stood out brightly blue against his chalky complexion. I thought maybe it was the march of years, since Ivar wasn’t a capsuleer, but that idea vanished as soon as he stood up.

It was the same jerky, awkward movement he always made. The same clumsy bumping of the table, making it screech across the floor. The same sheepish look on his face. What jarred me was the fact that the table weighed what looked like the better part of a ton, instead of the flimsy aluminum ones we used to play cards on.

Giving him a harder look, I shook his hand muttering, “Omir’s bloody hell…what have they done to you Ivar?” Whoever had done it had rebuilt him completely; genetic enhancement, nano-engineering in the musculature, nanites in his bloodstream by his increased temperature and that baby-soft feeling of cloned skin.

“Made me like you Vee, unkillable. Only I don’t have to deal with that slimy pod gunk your people swim in,” he beamed as we sat down and waved for drinks. “Some sort of ancient tech that Mordu and his boys got a hold of. Got an implant in my skull and a transmitter in my spine. They’ve been running test on us for a while now, I guess all four empires are involved with it as well,” he explained quickly.
“And the pirates…” I motioned for him to continue, knowing Mordu didn’t let security status get in the way of business, and that the pirate factions would be drooling over this tech, if it lived up to claims.
“Who do you think the early prototypes were?”

– – –

“You’re a cappie Vee, you should be used to cloning,” Ivar smirked as I hesitated before putting my signature and vial of blood to the dotted line, “You can go back to your slime-bubble home whenever you want, but I know you didn’t learn your skills in orbit. Don’t you miss the pull of real gravity? Wind on your face, dust on your boots and that?”
“Sometimes. I take time off planetside to unwind once in a while…” I admitted, “but it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a firefight.”
“Then you’re about due, Vee. Don’t worry, the clone comes pre-programmed with the basics. You won’t drop your pistol trying to unholster it, trust me,” he said with a irreverent smirk.

Trust me. Those two words stopped my hesitation. Too many times had this man said that to me, usually in response to my questioning his piloting abilities or sanity. Too many times had I seen him drag a smoking wreck that had no business being airborne back down to the landing pads with no more than a gentle thump. And that was before they turned him into a nanomechanical monster.
The next day, after the paper and blood work was processed, a young man in white led me into a familiar room, but the body on the table was far from familiar. It was paler than I am normally, with nearly translucent skin and bright veins. Bulkier too, my capsuleer-cloned body would weigh only two-thirds of the mass laying on one of the transfer tables. I settled myself onto the other table, laying back and closing my eyes as the neural probe slid home into the socket in my skull. There was a strange warmth and sense of dislocation even before I heard the attendant say, “You can get up now Mr. Williams. Please stand and look at this chart for me…”

– – –

The wind screamed by the open doors of the dropship as I crouched, waiting for my jump orders. Ivar was pulling his usual stunt, flying as low and fast as he could.
“Avoiding swarm-launcher fire,” he had said with a lopsided grin. I knew he was lying, that he simply liked to test his piloting skill, but the way that his gunners nervously scanned the terrain with their turrets I wondered if there wasn’t some truth to the assertion.
Suddenly one of the gunners started screaming, “Portside launch! Portside launch! Jump jump jump!”
My body reacted before my mind could process a thought, flinging me out of the craft in time to see a pack of warheads streaking towards the doomed craft. The others were bailing out as the missiles connected, blossoming into cherry fire. Like a lame bird, the dropship plummeted to the ground, smashing itself to bits on the rocky terrain.
Engaging my inertial dampeners as I was shown before the flight, I landed heavily with a crackle of blue static surrounding me. The others were already down and on their feet, weapons up, scanning the crash site for hostiles.
“Where’s Ivar?” I asked the squad leader through our helmet comms. He glanced back at the wreckage and shrugged, “He’ll meet us at Bravo, now move soldier!”

– – –

War is an ugly business when its only humans killing humans. These soldiers are bioengineered and nanoenhanced, more built than born. They can take more damage and handle more firepower. It’s a natural progression that war becomes even uglier than it already was when they take to the field. I saw mercs running around with fist sized holes in their dropsuits as if it were the most normal thing in the ‘verse. Plasma burns, lacerations, shrapnel holes, and contusions covered the armor most of the mercs wore. Every now and then one would finally succumb and fall to the dirt, only to be revived for another fight with a quick nanite injection from the medic. More than once I felt the searing flash of plasma fire, but it wasn’t until a sniper drew a bead on me that I learned just how effective the cloning technology really was. One moment I was running between barricades, the next I heard a crunch and found myself laying face down on the rocky soil, unable to rise, or even attempt to rise. The blackness encroaching my vision seemed so seductive, so warm and friendly that I didn’t try to fight it. I was floating on a sea of nothing, blissfully buoyant. I sat there suspended for what seemed an eternity, until finally a beeping noise intruded and mechanical arms snapped me forward out of the CRU, eyes stinging and Ivar grinning at me with that maniacal look of his.
“Told ya we were unkillable, Vee…”

– – –

Now these super-soldiers have been released to fight the battles of the empires, to trade the spilling of blood both friendly and hostile for the cold, hard currency of the stars. How long before we capsuleers begin to use their services, I don’t know. Most of my brethren think of these mercenaries as lower life forms simply because of the size of the starships we control. I’m not so sure. Take us away from our capsules and we are merely augmented humans, just as easily destroyed. These mercenaries have broken free from the confines of the wet grave, free to walk the innumerable planets of the cluster. And just as immortal.

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