Author:B. V. Larson
    -Chapter 1-

    The campaign against the Worms was over. My surviving marines were orbiting the dusty world we’d named Helios inside a vast, cylindrical invasion ship. Macro Command had left us floating in orbit for days, waiting for something. We didn’t know what.
    A giant, reddish-orange star burned nearby. Its swollen glare filled much more of space than Sol did back home, being over forty times the diameter of our sun. Somehow, that huge red sun made me feel even more insignificant than usual. Combined with the heartless treatment of the Macros, I understood how a sentient amoeba might feel when faced with the microscopic nature of its existence.
    We hung in space near the same ring we’d used to invade the system. Escorting the invasion ship was the single surviving Macro cruiser. Its thick-snouted belly-turret prowled ceaselessly, despite the fact there was nothing to aim at.
    My command brick was amongst the various pieces of my unit that had survived the war against the Worms. It was no longer neatly stacked with the others, however. We’d clamped the bricks down with magnetic footings to the curving metal interior of the hold in a nearly random pattern of dispersal. I hadn’t gotten around to reorganizing them into neat rows—and I probably never would.
    Inside the command brick, I worked with my surviving officers to reestablish effective command and control over the unit. Mostly, we licked our wounds. We’d lost two-thirds of our troops, and roughly half our equipment. We’d left thousands of dead back on Helios. Hundreds more aboard the invasion ship were injured or dead. The lost men I couldn’t replace, but injuries healed fast with the help of our little nanite friends in our bloodstreams.
    Not even the nanites knew what to do with the worst of the injured however, those that lay in-between life and death in comas. They could be kept alive indefinitely by the efforts of the countless tiny robots working inside them. But as their brains no longer flickered with even the slightest activity, I wasn’t sure who was benefiting.
    I also wasn’t sure what the Macros were doing while we waited. Perhaps they needed permission from a distant source before they took us home, or maybe they were just thinking about it. In either case, I didn’t pester them because I was glad for the break. We stayed quietly on hold at the ring, drifting for days.
    At first, we watched the surface of Helios and the space surrounding the two Macro ships nervously, expecting a Worm missile attack to follow us up from the planet. None came. After a time we relaxed, but we were also saddened. I had no idea how hard a blow we had delivered to the Worm civilization. Possibly, we’d crippled them. It was a fine way to introduce ourselves to a newly-discovered sentient species.
    The only positive thing about this expedition was that it was nearly over. Everyone aboard talked about what they would do when they got home, where they would go first. Some planned to hit Miami, while others confessed they would probably sleep for a week. Marines grinned as they asked their comrades if they would sign on for another tour next year for double the pay—almost universally, the answer was: hell no.
    Helios had been a grim trial. I’d expected a tough time of it, since the Macros had brought us in only after their own big machines had failed. In retrospect, I could see why the Macros had not been able to conquer the enemy fortresses. The mountainous, termite-mound cities of the Worms were full of small tunnels that would have been difficult to traverse for the Macros. Worse, the enemy’s tactic of tunneling underneath your base and setting off a nuke had probably taken out their domes. Macro tactics depended on those domes to produce countless new robot replacements to overwhelm an enemy. Their first assault on Helios had probably ended in disaster, resulting in Macro Command’s decision to send my troops in. What did they have to lose? We were cannon fodder to them anyway.
    Humanity’s position within their empire had become painfully clear. We were far from allies—we were more akin to slave-troops. We were to be used callously as suicide forces to storm resistant biotic strongholds. I’d come to conclude after reviewing recent events that our status within the Macro empire was intolerable in the long term. How could I even hope to recruit men for these missions when they amounted to horrific slaughters of aliens that should rightfully be our allies? Even harder to sell were our own grim losses.
    I regretted what we’d done to the Worms. In retrospect, I wished we’d tried to communicate with them. Although they hadn’t shown any signs of interest in anything other than our destruction, I suppose I could have tried harder. My girlfriend Sandra scolded me over this point.
    “So, you didn’t even give the Worms a chance?” she asked again the third day after lift-off. She couldn’t seem to get over it.
    I shrugged. “We sent radio signals. Obviously they could receive them, but had no idea what we were saying.”
    I looked at her, thankful she’d lived through the hell that was Helios. She was still shapely, young and attractive, and she was still mine. She looked a lot like she had the day I’d met her, except her hair no longer hung half-way down to her butt. It was way over regulation length, but Star Force had yet to write a book of regulations. At the moment, I wasn’t complaining. It touched the shoulders and was very feminine. When I got done admiring her and brought my eyes back up to her face, her almond-shaped brown eyes flashed at me dangerously.
    “We didn’t give them any real opportunity,” she said. “We just slaughtered them.”
    “Now hold on,” I said, trying not to yell at her. I’d learned long ago that yelling at your mate rarely made one’s day go better, no matter how tempting it was. “They didn’t exactly give us a chance. They attacked the moment we landed. We weren’t equipped with a thousand linguists, we came down with thousands of Star Force marines.”
    “You could have tried to figure out their language. They seem to communicate at some level, the way we do. They aren’t telepathic or anything.”
    “There just wasn’t time, Sandra. Learning an alien language might be possible given enough time, and if they had come out peacefully and given us a chance to talk. They didn’t. They attacked, and we defended ourselves. Once a battle is engaged, survival is all either side has time for.”
    “You’re blaming the Worms for their own destruction?”
    I shook my head. “Not really. I’m blaming the Macros. We had no chance. The Worms had no choice, either. Imagine if we were on Earth, beaten down to our final strongholds after many assaults. The Macros then show up with new invasion forces, aliens we’ve never seen before. What if they had landed with Worm troops on, say, Texas? Would we have greeted them with open arms after fighting a long war of extinction against their masters? Would we have put flowers in our hair and smiles on our faces? No, we would have hit them with whatever we could, and fought to the death, assuming the new enemy troops were not interested in talking. That’s exactly what happened. Once they attacked us, we had to go for them. The battle was on.”
    “There was no way out?”
    I shook my head. “Probably not. The moment we came down in a Macro ship, events were locked. We were destined to fight it out. We didn’t have any time or room for negotiations with people we had no idea how to communicate with.”
    Sandra fell silent. I noticed the sour look on her face. I figured I’d won the argument, but had made no points with her.
    “But you could have tried,” she said stubbornly, crossing her arms under her breasts. Her eyes were half-closed and annoyed.
    We were both inside our modular living quarters, and we’d just awakened. I applied steady pressure upon a point on the nearest wall, causing a radial menu to bead up under my fingertips. The walls of all our bricks teemed with nanites and were programmed to be touch-sensitive. The interface quickly became second-nature to everyone who worked with it. To make the menu hot spots easier to find through a thick glove, I had scripted them to shiver slightly when active. They felt like hard, quivering pebbles under my fingertips. I caused my locker to spring open and pulled out a combat suit.
    I dressed and turned to look at her. “Yeah,” I said. “I could have tried. Next time—and I hope there isn’t a next time—I’ll give it a shot.”
    That uncrossed her arms, but she still had that funny look on her face. I figured it was time to get out of here and let her cool off. “I’m going to tour the bricks,” I said. “We’ve got most of them operating again.”
    I almost made it out of the bulkhead door. She stopped me with a single hand on my bicep. I turned back, and she surprised me with a hard kiss.
    “All right,” she said. “I forgive you for heartlessly wiping out a race of sentient beings.”
    “Let’s just hope they forgive me someday, too,” I said. The airlock closed behind me with a scraping sound and a hiss. Every door in the complex scratched when it moved now. The blowing grit from Helios had gotten into everything. It would probably be with us forever.
    I spent the next hour talking to lifter-arm operators and men with caulk-guns full of nanites. They were all working to interconnect our ramshackle stack of bricks into a complex. Some of the bricks were damaged and many still had no power, but things were improving rapidly.
    A few of the troops grumbled about the double-shift work-details. Couldn’t they take a little R&R? After all, they had completed the mission and made it alive back into space. Now that the unit was on the return trip to Earth, why not party?
    I gave questioners my grimmest expression. “We aren’t home yet, marines,” I told each man who asked some variation of that question, and then gave him five or six specific things to do on the spot. Every marine went back to work, groaning.
    A buzzing in my helmet interrupted my second hour as I spent it harassing the marines.
    “Sir?” asked Captain Jasmine Sarin.
    “Go ahead, Captain.”
    “We’re moving again.”
    “On my way,” I said.
    It took me less than a minute to make it to the command brick, which had been undergoing heavy repairs. I turned off my magnetic boots, aimed in the general direction of the command brick and took a wild leap. Essentially, I flew there. The gravity level in the hold was quite low, and a normal man without nanite enhancements could have done almost as well. My aim wasn’t too bad. When I flipped the boots back on and was tugged down to stick to the nearest metal skin of a brick, I only had to clank my way about ten yards to the airlock.
    Once inside the command brick, I took stock of the situation. Major Robinson was gone, of course, having been killed by the granddaddy Worm back on Helios. I had yet to choose a new exec. The rest of the staff looked up apprehensively as I rushed in.
    “What’s happening?” I asked.
    “We’re not sure, sir. The two ships are changing formations. The cruiser is now moving behind the invasion ship and they are both underway.”
    “How long until we pass through the ring?”
    “Unknown,” she said.
    I stared at her for a second. “But the ring is right next to us in orbit.”
    Sarin shook her head. “We aren’t headed toward the ring that goes toward Earth, Colonel. We’re heading elsewhere in the system. Perhaps toward another ring we haven’t detected yet.”
    Alarmed, I struggled to get my helmet off and my headset into place. I tapped at the big central screen. The screen was a little bigger than a pool table and mounted at about the same height. We were standing around the table, leaning against it and gazing down into the screen like a pack of fans at an eight-ball championship.
    The screen was still broken and dark in one corner. The funny thing about the nanites was their difficulty with big electronic systems. They could rebuild something small and delicate faster than something big. I supposed it might have something to do with their organizational control. Probably, it was harder to get a million of them cooperating on a complex set of tasks than it was to get a thousand or so of them working together on a single detail. Like a massively-parallel processor trying to run a single task efficiently, breaking a given big program down into many small pieces was harder than it seemed.
    I could see the two big ships moving with what seemed like gentle speed. Appearances were deceptive, however. Their velocity relative to one another was small, but in actuality they were accelerating powerfully. I could feel the acceleration now, as I thought about it. The effect manifested itself as a light pull toward the interior wall of the hold. I knew that without the dampeners, the effects would be much more dramatic. Men and bricks would have been thrown everywhere.
    “Don’t you think you should contact Macro Command?” Captain Sarin asked me.
    I glanced up. They were all staring at me. I knew what they really wanted. They wanted to know what the hell was happening. Not knowing your destiny—that was the worst part of this whole expedition. When we’d headed out to the Worm world to conquer it, we’d had no idea for much of the journey where we were heading or what would be there when we arrived. That made everything worse, somehow. I believe that in order to handle stress and tension, human beings feel better doing something to prepare for what’s coming. Even if what they are doing is ineffective, it makes the approaching doom easier to tolerate. We have a sense of security when we are active, while inaction and the unknown slowly fill us with terror.
    I cleared my throat and nodded. I adjusted my headset and flicked it on. “Open a channel to Macro Command.”
    With apparent relief, Captain Sarin brought up a radial menu and tapped at it. Her fingers slid and danced with practiced movements. “You’ve got it, sir,” she said after a few moments.
    I took a moment or two to collect my thoughts. When dealing the Macros, it never helped to ask questions or make requests. They only understood and responded well to direct commands. “Macro Command, this is biotic troop commander Kyle Riggs. Provide a mission briefing for our current activity.”
    “New invasion destination selected. New mission parameters set.”
    Everyone in the command module gasped. They all started talking at once. I made a desperate slashing motion at the air, urging them to be silent. They fell quiet, but every eye was wide and every one of them stared at me.
    “We are not heading back to Earth?” I asked, flustered. Right away, I knew the Macros were not going to answer.
    “Cargo is not permitted interrogatives.”
    I closed my eyes and rubbed my jaw muscles, which had grown very tense. I wanted to scream at them, but I knew it would do less than nothing to improve matters.
    “We need replacements in order to operate effectively.” I said, staying calm. “Take us back to Earth first.”
    “When we forged the details of our agreement, we specified the terms of service. This unit is no longer at full strength. We require reinforcements to proceed to a new target.”
    “Request denied. Biotic Rigs has assured Macro Command the ground forces are functional.”
    I frowned. Just when the hell had I said that? “My ground forces are not at full strength.”
    “Lift off from prior target world was predicated upon ground force effectiveness.”
    I thought hard. What had I said…? Just as the giant Worm was hitting us and we had seconds left to stay breathing. Ah yes, I thought I had it. I’d told them we didn’t need to stay and pick up every piece of equipment. I’d assured them we would still be an effective fighting force without the extra bricks and weaponry….
    I keyed off the connection with Macro Command. I stared at the nearest wall. My staff bubbled around me, asking reasonable, logical questions. I ignored them all.
    We were going to have to invade another world. I felt cold and slightly sick inside. To get them to lift off Helios and leave behind much of our equipment, I had assured Macro Command we could still fight. They were going to hold me to that statement. I’d learned by now that the Macros did not let you change your mind once you’d made a commitment.
    We only had a few hovertanks left. More than half my marines were dead. Most were probably inside some Worm’s belly by now back on Helios. I thought about how things would have gone if we had to do the Helios campaign over again today, with my current forces. As closely as I could figure, we would have been overwhelmed and wiped out in the first counter-assault the Worms launched. My troops could never have completed the mission now, not in our current state. But here we were with fresh, suicidal orders.
    In short…we were screwed.

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